Return to the Lord
A sermon based on Joel 2:12-19
Sunday, March 5, 2017 – Lent 1
So, we're already four days into Lent. (By the way, the 40 days of Lent don't include Sundays. That's why we call them "Sundays in Lent" and not "Sundays of Lent" and why there are 46 days between Ash Wednesdays and Easter. Sundays in Lent are considered mini-Easters and don't count. So, if you've given up something for Lent, Sunday's aren't "cheat days," they're days off.) So, have you given up something for Lent?
Giving up something for Lent can be a devotional tool if done for the rightreason—not to lose weight or kick a habit, not to show others how religious you are, and certainly not to earn any favor with God. So more than one pastor has suggested that instead of giving something up, we all ought to take something up. Perhaps for the remaining 36 days of Lent we all ought to take up a devotion booklet and commit to reading it every Monday through Saturday until Easter (Sundays are off for worship).
In a similar way, many people think that Lent is a time of turning away from something. Turning away from your sin in repentance, trying to form new habits, almost as if it were another shot at your New Year's resolutions. And while it's true that there is a certain focus on repentance and turning away from sin, the real purpose of Lent is not to turn away from certain things, but to turn to the Lord, to turn to Jesus, and see again his great love and his great work for you and me. Remember repentance has two parts: 1) Sorrow over your sin, but also 2) Turning to Jesus in trust.
So, over the next 6 weeks, we'll embark on our annual review of our Savior's suffering and death by which he accomplished our Salvation. We'll see how our Savior was wounded to save his wounded people under the theme, "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded." But first, today, we get the general encouragement, not to just turn from something, but to turn to—or return to—the Lord. The message for this morning is based on Joel 2:12-19…
12 "Even now," declares the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning." 13 Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. 14 Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing—grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God.
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. 16 Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. 17 Let the priests, who minister before the Lord, weep between the temple porch and the altar. Let them say, "Spare your people, O Lord. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, 'Where is their God?' "
18 Then the Lord will be jealous for his land and take pity on his people. 19 The Lord will reply to them: "I am sending you grain, new wine and oil, enough to satisfy you fully; never again will I make you an object of scorn to the nations.
The nation of Israel was in ruins. They economy and the crops were already so bad that the people had nothing to bring to God, no animals to offer on the altar outside his tabernacle. It would be like us hitting such an economic downturn that not only would you not be able to bring any more offerings to church, but we wouldn't be able to afford to even buy the bread and wine for use in the sacrament. Their worship was being effected by how bad things were.
But that wasn't the end of it because things were about to get worse; waaaaay worse. Joel prophesied that the nation was about to be hit hard by a hoard of locusts. Now the commentaries go back and forth debating whether these were locust were literal or figurative. But either way it was bad news. If they were literal locusts, that meant economic ruin, famine, and starvation as all of their crops would be devoured. If were figurative (most likely representing the Assyrian army), it meant war where many would be slaughtered and those who survived would have a life of slavery to look forward to.
Doesn't sound like fun either way, does it? But you know the worst part? God didn't just allow these problems, he was sending them. And he was sending them as a consequence for the people's rebellion against him. They brought this on themselves when they turned away from him. They stopped worshiping him, they stopped bringing their offerings to him, they stopped trusting in him. And because they turned away from God, God would turn away from them… for a time.
But there was hope. And Joel came to bring that message of hope to the people. There was a way to turn things around, even now at this 11th hour, as the locusts were on their way.
"Even now," declares the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments."
The solution Joel offered was a call to repent—to have a change of mind, to turn around, to turn from their rebellion and sin and turn back to the Lord. Of course, Joel reminded them that God didn't just want empty motions. God, who knew their hearts, knew if they were just mouthing the words without meaning them. When an Israelite was grieved or outraged, their cultural way of showing it would be to rip their clothes. But God didn't want just an outward show, he wanted sincere repentance, "[Rip] your heart and not your garments."
And Joel gave them a good reason to do it: "Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing—grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God."
Who knows if God would still carry out the consequences of their sin if they would repent of it? He may have pity. He may restore their economy. He may give them enough to bring their offerings of thanks to him again. But, of course, even if he let the consequence remain, there was still forgiveness to be had, if they would repent before it was too late.
So Joel called for a special service. "Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, consecrate the assembly…" This trumpet, by the way, wasn't a battle horn, but the shofar, that trumpet that signaled the start of worship. We might say, "Sound the church bells!" Get everyone together for a public service of confession and prayer.
And did you notice who Joel called to repent? No one was excluded. "Bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. 17 Let the priests, who minister before the Lord, weep between the temple porch and the altar."
The elders and the children (and implied is everyone in between) should repent of their sins. Even babies—infants still nursing at mom's breast were called to repent! This was the most important thing to be doing right now, even if you just got married. So skip the honeymoon and get to church!
And finally, notice the plea Joel told the priests to use as they appealed to God: Let them say, "Spare your people, O Lord. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, 'Where is their God?'" As the priests stood between God and his people as mediators between the two parties, they were to appeal to God not on the basis of their behavior or their promise to amend their sinful ways, but on the basis of who he was and what he had promised for his people.
And of course, you know the results: God would hear. God would relent. He would change his mind about the punishment he threatened to inflict on his stubborn and rebellious people. He would forgive their sin. "Then the Lord will be jealous for his land and take pity on his people." Like a spouse, God was jealous for his people. He wanted their love. And when they turned back to him, he would turn back to them and welcome them back into his arms.
And he not only forgave them their sin, but took away the consequence: He drove that northern army—whether of locusts or Assyrians—far away. He drowned them in the sea so the stench of their carcasses rose into the sky. And he even restored their economy: "The Lord will reply to them: "I am sending you grain, new wine and oil, enough to satisfy you fully; never again will I make you an object of scorn to the nations."
And here's the key point: God delivered his people in his grace, when they cried out to him in true repentance.
The lesson for us is obvious, isn't it? Don't cover up your sin. Don't try to hide it. Don't ignore it. It won't work! But instead confess it. Confess it to God and turn to him. And you know we have plenty to confess. We have turned away from God just like those Israelites. We have forgotten him as we pursued other interests—work at the expense of worship, hobbies at the expense of offerings, being entertained by the TV at the expense of being edified by the Word. And if we're going through some economic stress, some physical ailment, some relational pain right now, maybe God is trying to use these troubles to call us back to him.
We may not be threatened with starvation or imminent death right now, but… then again, who but God knows on what day each of us might die? So now is the time to get right with God, not tomorrow! "Even now," declares the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning."
Turn from your sin. Turn from it with true repentance, not just going through the motions. Not just mouthing those memorized words of the liturgy, but meaning it sincerely when you say, "I confess that I am by nature sinful, and that I have disobeyed you in my thoughts, words, and actions. I have done what is evil and failed to do what is good. For this I deserve your punishment both now and in eternity. But I am truly sorry for my sins…" Spend some time reflecting on your sin and confessing it to God. That's how we, "Rend [our] heart[s] and not [just] [our] garments."
Yes, turn from your sin. But don't stop there. Turn to the Lord. Return to him in trust. You know who God is: "The Lord your God… is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity." And you know that you have no need to appeal to your behavior or your promises of an amended life. Instead you can appeal to God's reputation and his promises to you. He is jealous for you—head over heals, crazy in love with you! And he still takes pity on his people.
The proof? At the cross. We don't need to base our appeal on our behavior or our promises of an amended life because we have a mediator that did a much better job than any Old Testament priest. Our Savior, Jesus, saw his wouned people and not only grieved over our sin and wept at the consequences they incurred, but he did something about it. He put himself between God and his wrath and us. And he was wounded in the worst of ways to rescue us from the eternal death sentence we all earned for ourselves. "But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed." (Isaiah 53:5)
"Who knows [if]… he may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing[?]" We do. Because we have his promises. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9) He has had pity on us and has left behind his blessings of forgiveness, of peace with God, of the certain expectation of eternal bliss with him in heaven.
So even if the consequences of our sin linger in this life, we know that they will not follow us in the life to come. Even if we have to face our own locusts—our economic struggles, our health issues, our broken relationships—as consequences of our sin, nevertheless, we are free from the eternal consequence of hell. And so often, God even removes the temporal consequences, giving us grace upon grace!
So don't just mouth the memorized words of the liturgy, but believe these words too: "Trusting in my Savior Jesus Christ, I pray: Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner." And trust the words of the absolution: That all your sins are forgiven "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
So this Lent, feel free to give something up if you want to. Just make sure it's sincere and for the right reason, as a devotional tool, not just a hollow custom. Better still, instead of giving something up, take something up. Take up a devotion book. Take up your Bible. Take up a commitment to be here in worship every week. Definitely turn away from your sin. And confess it to God in sincere repentance. But, please, don't stop there. Don't just turn away from something. Turn to someone. Return to the Lord! And find the comfort he longs to give you. "For he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity…"
And then, as you bask in his forgiveness, bring your abundant offerings of thanks to him from the many blessings he's left to you. Go and live for him who lived and died for you. In Jesus' name, dear friends, return to the Lord! Amen.