Archive for the ‘Joel 2:12-19’ Category

Return to Me!

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Ash Wednesday (Year C), February 13, 2013
Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA

Click here for audio of this message on Joel 2:12-19

What is Lent?  Well simply put, it is a time of repentance; a season of 40 days when we remember Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the wilderness.  This Lenten season, we will follow Jesus.  We will make some interesting stops along the way.  Towards the end of our 40 day journey, we will come together, in the upper room on Maundy Thursday, and share the Eucharist meal with each other.  Together we will be nourished by our Lord’s Supper.  Then on the next day, we will discover why the darkest day of our Lord’s life on earth is called Good Friday.  And finally, our Lenten journey will end with loud alleluias on Easter Sunday morning with a sunrise service that looks into and celebrates the empty tomb.  After our worship, we will gather in fellowship over a hearty breakfast.  And all of this journey starts tonight.

Tonight, through the prophet Joel, the Lord invites us with these Words: “Return to me.” This is the same invitation that He made when Adam and Eve fell into the original sin long ago.  He invited them to return to Him through the promise of a Savior, their Savior who would come to undo the evil that they set in motion.  It was an evil that would forever lay claim to their descendants.  He made the same promise to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all of their descendants. To prove to them that He would keep His promise to bring a Savior, He delivered the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and made his law-covenant with them at Sinai.  Through the Law, He separated them from all the other nations as a people for himself; by faith in the coming Savior, they were to be his holy people. But they broke their covenant with him, disobeyed his commandments, and worshiped other gods. Joel’s message, “Return to me”—that is, come all the way back to me—“with all your heart,” is a great way to sum up all of the preaching and teaching found in the Bible. It also answers this question: “How can we be delivered from judgment on the day of the Lord?”

Did you ever wonder why Joel called for “fasting and weeping and mourning” (verse 12)?  Well, these were considered proof of real heartfelt sorrow for sin. Did you know that throughout the Bible there is only one fast-day set aside by the law of Moses?  It was called the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29, 31).  On that day, the Israelites were to deny themselves, and confess to God their deep sorrow over their sins. So in our Old Testament lesson, Joel is calling his people to mourn because they have abandoned the Lord their God.

Don’t you find it true that sinners like to build defenses against the Lord and his call to repentance. Worldly people laugh at God’s invitation to return to Him, and they like to surround themselves with “life’s worries, riches and pleasures” (Luke 8:14). But I think that we religious people too  have a line of defense all our own. We can take something good like religious ceremonies and use them as a defense against God’s call to repent. People in Joel’s time might lament loudly and tear their garments as a sign of sorrow and then think that God is fooled, without ever letting his Word penetrate their hard hearts.

That is why Joel continues, “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God” ’ (verse 13). He does not want his “religious” people just going through the motions of repentance. In speaking to the people of God, their pastor, Joel, expected that they would let the Word sink into their hearts and consciences. He expected that the visible signs, fasting and weeping and mourning, would be outward marks of an inward sorrow about past sin. Such “godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:10).  Do you have this kind of sorrow over your sins?  If so, then return to the Lord your God.

Worldly people who laugh at God’s call to repentance will probably not gather tonight to receive the sign of an ashen cross, and hear a sermon like we are hearing. These kinds of gatherings are usually for people who are “religious.” Unfortunately, we Christians are often not all that different from the “religious” people in Joel’s time: we recite our confession of sins, sing our hymns, sit through a sermon, put our offering in the basket, and think that God must be satisfied with us. Our worship can become a mere “going-through-the-religious-motions,” a defense against the Lord’s call to repent, without faith in our hearts or the fruits of faith in our lives.

Tonight, God’s Word wants to tear down our “religious” defenses. Tonight, our Lord continues to call his wandering people home: “Return to me with all your heart.… Rend your heart and not your garments.” Let the law of your holy God humble your pride. Let him lead you to contrition, even though your broken heart may hurt. True repentance is appalled at sin, because sin separates us from the Lord, the source of life and love. And true repentance includes faith in the promised forgiveness of sins. The repentant sinner turns back to the Lord, confident of his grace and says along with David: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. (Psalm 51:1)

When Joel invites the Israelites to repent, he fittingly describes Israel’s God: “He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and he relents from sending calamity” (verse 13). These are the same terms the covenant Lord used to describe Himself when he passed before Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:6, 7). Then also the Lord was dealing with a disobedient people. The Israelites had forgotten him and his deliverance from Egypt in favor of the pleasures of worshiping a golden calf. Yet Israel’s Lord remained ready to welcome sinners home again.

He showed Moses what kind of God he is. He loves us when we do not deserve it (He is gracious). His heart is warm with mercy for sinners (He is compassionate). Even though often provoked, he does not let his wrath flame up and destroy us (He is slow to anger). He is totally faithful in keeping his covenant promise of abundant blessing (He is abounding in love). Even though his law threatens punishment, he gladly turns his judgment aside when he sees that his Word has had its intended effect (He relents from sending calamity).

And what is the intended effect?  That you would see Jesus!  See Jesus who willingly and gladly took upon Himself all of God’s anger and wrath over your sins.  See His cross, where God demonstrated that wrath and the punishment for your sins.  But then you must look even more deeply into God’s Word and see the empty tomb, where your promised Savior has defeated your deadly enemies, sin, death, and the devil.  All of this He gives to you in your baptism; a onetime washing away of sins and His eternal call for you to repent—to return to the God who saves you.

Like Joel, I cannot promise you that your life will be problem free once you repent and follow Jesus.  Sometimes we can make a real mess of our lives because of our sins.  Unfortunately, the sin may be taken away, but the repercussions of our sins can haunt us as long as we live.  But, perhaps the Lord “may turn and have pity” (verse 14). Like Joel, we must leave it to the Lord and let Him decide how he will answer our repentant prayers. But I can promise you this, anything that is good, which comes our way, will be undeserved. And in the end, any blessing outside of salvation is just icing on the cake.  You already have the greater gift… the Lord has saved you from your sins, simply because he is a gracious God.

While it’s true that the Lord may use tragedies, accidents, or illness to turn sinners back in his direction, there is always a better reason for turning away from sin and back to the Lord: “He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (verse 13). The motive for sincere repentance, like every other good effect in our hearts and lives, is the grace and mercy of a loving God, displayed in the sacrifice of his Son for the sins of the world. It is true that our sins deserve damnation, and in fact they did bring the pains of hellfire on Jesus. But once we have recognized that, God’s Word immediately draws our whole attention away from our sins to our Savior’s grace, compassion, patience, and love.

So, let’s travel down this Lenten road together friends as God’s people walking by faith together here at Trinity Lutheran Church.  Let’s return to the Lord our God, for He is patient and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!