I live in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town that was created in 1942 for the sole purpose of producing the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan, the result of which effectively drew a close to the second World War. Nowadays ,Oak Ridge is home to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which continues its cutting-edge work in nuclear research and computer science and is home to the world’s largest supercomputer.
Living in Oak Ridge is interesting. It is a small town with an unusually heavy federal law enforcement presence. Not only do we have local police, but we have undercover federal agents patrolling our quiet neighborhood streets. On the first Wednesday of each month, just as in many towns across America, Oak Ridge tests its emergency alert system by blowing a sustained horn for one minute. Even though I have lived in Oak Ridge long enough now to know what the sound is, it still catches me by surprise when I hear it. Oak Ridge is also subject to frequent loud explosions of unknown (at least to the citizens) origin, or “booms” as the locals call it, which shake the very foundations of the mountains upon which our homes are built. These sounds cause more than passing curiosity among residents. In the back of our minds, we always have a little fear that the boom we just heard is of a sort that could cause catastrophic damage in a matter of seconds. There is probably little basis to this fear, but nevertheless, I imagine most Oak Ridgers feel it anyway.
When the prophet Joel calls upon the emergency response system of Zion to “blow the trumpet,” he is essentially setting off an alarm like the one we hear every first Wednesday at noon in Oak Ridge. This alarm is not a test, however. It is a signal that they are in a state of emergency. What’s the emergency? The day of the Lord is coming near. And the response of the people is prescribed. They are to begin preparations for this imminent visitation by assembling the people and calling them to return their hearts to the Lord. There is no time to waste. They must gather the people, sanctify a fast, and throw themselves on the mercy of the Lord before it is too late.
While Ash Wednesday may not signal an imminent return of the Lord (for no one knows the day or the hour of his return, not the angels in heaven or even the Son, but only the Father), it does serve as an annual test of our emergency response systems as disciples of Jesus Christ. The annual call to observe a holy Lent by self–examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self–denial; by reading and meditating on God's Holy Word, and by marking a right beginning of repentance by receiving a mark of our mortal nature is a reminder that we need to live as people who are prepared to stand before our Lord at any time, even as early as this very day, to receive the judgment that the Lord renders upon our lives.
It is a stark reminder that life is brief. Every moment is precious. We never know when our time on earth will come to an end. And so we must do all that we can with our lives, with each second and minute and hour and day that our Lord grants us, to live in the way that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has taught us to live.
As Christians, our call is to seek to please not the people around us, but the God who made us. Matthew tells us that the way to do this is to “not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
As we begin this holy season together, let us not ignore the warning that is blared by the emergency response system testing that is built into our tradition. Let us instead take it as a clarion call to action. Let us hear the invitation to observe a holy Lent as our marching orders, in which we get up and do what we need to do to be prepared for whatever may come, this day and every day. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, may we march courageously and faithfully through this season side by side, shoulder to shoulder, as disciples trusting completely in the promises of our God, made known to us in Jesus Christ.