Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
We don’t look forward to discipline, do we?
As a child: a spanking (in my day!), or time-out
As an employee: a poor work review
As a driver: a traffic ticket
As a society, we attempt to do this by removing the lines between right & wrong
Out text is a call to discipline/repentance in order to save the nation of Judah
But wait: all is not lost!
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your hearts, with fasting, with weeping, & with sorrow.
Tear your hearts & not your clothing. Clothes were torn in biblical times as a sign of sorrow or frustration. The high priest did so while questioning J.
Return to the Lord your God.
Our text reveals how long-suffering & patient our God is with the covenant people. But even today – in the situation in which you & I stand, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves – the offer of return to fellowship with our God is held out to us.
It is that “but” that makes all the difference – God’s refusal to be done with us; God’s constant, loving, suffering yearning to give us life instead of death; God’s great “nevertheless”; the Lord’s refusal to accept the situation as it is, & God’s determination to forgive us & to welcome us back, no matter what we have done. There lies all our hope.
This text is the call at the beginning of every Lenten season for the tearing of our hearts, for that deliberate exercise of will & thought that will turn our lives in opposite directions & point us toward, not away from, our God. Biblical faith involves taking ourselves in hand, making up our minds even now to be obedient to God, & then attempting to walk faithfully, determinedly every day in God’s way. None of us can do that apart from the help of God. But the Lord offers us here in our text & throughout the Scriptures aid in returning to relationship. God works in us & with us, but we must also summon our will & thought to repent & change. As Paul says in Philippians, we work out our own salvation, but it is God who is at work in us, enabling us to will & to work for God’s good pleasure.
Yet, as Joel & Paul also remind us, we work out our salvation with fear & trembling, for we cannot presume on God or guarantee the Lord’s acceptance of us. God is free, & God is Lord, & we are utterly dependent on God’s forgiving mercy. When we know that, we approach God in the humility that is appropriate.
That none of us is exempt from the need for repentance & transformation of our lives before God is the main thrust of this passage. That is why we pray a prayer of confession before we approach the Lord’s Table.
The Lord put conditions on our entrance into God’s presence, the conditions of reconciliation with our neighbors (Matthew 5), commitment to love God above all else (Mark 10), & willingness to accept grace when it is offered (Luke 14). Here, Judah has no hope of a future, unless that future is given by God. It is no different for us. Our lives depend on our response to this call for penitence & trust.
Yet, we must not believe that our repentance & turning are automatic guarantees of God’s saving grace. Repentance is not a meritorious work that compels God to accept us. When we have done all that is required of us, we are still unworthy servants, & the truly repentant know that they have no goodness of their own to claim, but depend solely on the mercy of God. The saying is true: The true saint is one who knows that he or she is a sinner.
In a moment, I will invite us to observe a Lenten discipline. It includes:
Self-examination & repentance
Prayer, fasting, & self-denial
Reading & meditating on the Scriptures
Finally, we repent & trust God in Christ, not to save our own skins, but because we know that God’s work in us will magnify the Lord’s glory throughout the earth. Judah’s salvation was a glorification of the power & of the love of the God who continually rescued the people; we know from the Scriptures that God is a great God because of what the Lord did in Israel’s life & in the life of the early Christian church. So, too, all people will know how great our Lord is by what God does in our lives. By the Lord’s work alone the church becomes the city set on a hill & the light shining in the darkness of this sinful world.