Sermon: Return to the Lord (Joel 2:1-2, 12-17)

Text: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Ash Wednesday
Listen to the sermon here.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

It’s Lent again. The time of self denial. The time to pray more, fast, and give to those in need. Do those things sound like drudgery to you? The little child in all of us cries out, “I don’t wanna! Do I have to?!”

That’s what Ash Wednesday is about. We’ve “blown the trumpet; consecrated a fast, and called a solemn assembly.” Ash Wednesday is a day where we acknowledge our sinfulness. Sin is a word that most of us bristle at, and many don’t really understand. 

Yet, we meet sin in our everyday lives. We know it as the very real brokenness that exists in so many ways – in our own brokenness in our hearts and bodies and actions and thoughts and anxieties, we have known sin, in the brokenness in our relationships and families, we know sin in the brokenness of oppressive systems and cycles of hate and violence and poverty in our world. We know sin. 

One way to then help us understand sin is a definition offered by Martin Luther. Luther said sin is being turned-in on ourselves. Sin is perpetual navel gazing! Focused on nothing but yourself. Our natural tendency is to be self-oriented, turned inward. Stuck in ourselves. Sin begins with a heart unbuckled from God. The heart that does not “fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Inward idolatry. Jesus said out of our hearts come murder, adultery, immorality, theft, lies. He knew the condition of our hearts, turned inward on themselves. Self-absorbed, self-indulged hearts. All we can see is ourselves, and we barely let our gaze be drawn out to see the infinite God of the universe among us. We are barely drawn out of ourselves to see the needs of others.

In our text, the prophet Joel proclaims God’s judgment against phony repentance. When faced with our own corruption, we may try to settle for cleaning up the outward symptoms of sin, without getting to the root of the problem. We listen to the Word’s admonition and outwardly appear to conform (at least on Sundays or when in the presence of other Christians). We might make appropriate external changes to our lifestyle. But our hearts will always be diseased with sin and infected with rebellion. Any attempt to disguise that will not last forever. We may try to look good in front of fellow church members, but eventually what is in the heart will creep back into our outward life. We may fool those who judge us by outward appearances, but what about the One who can see into our hearts? True repentance isn’t merely outward show.

Unfortunately, people, including ancient Israel, resist repentance with every ounce of their being. Why? Why are people so reluctant to repent even when they know that God’s mercy is waiting? Repentance requires a recognition and admission of guilt. It means admitting that you have done wrong. It requires you to actually be sorry for the hurt you’ve caused others. We are propped up by this false sense of self. We would rather live in denial than have a contrite heart and admit that we were mistaken, and say “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.”

Ash Wednesday, then, is our chance to freely acknowledge that we are sinful, broken, curved in on ourselves people. We hurt others, we hurt ourselves, we have fallen and failed, we feel broken, and we often feel overwhelmed by the brokenness in our world. Are you broken? Are you willing to admit that you have done wrong? Are you willing to admit that you have thought wrong? Are you going to confess your guilt? Are you sorry for ways you have hurt others? 

The prophet Joel invites to God’s people to return. This is just another way of saying “repent” Return to the LORD because the time is now. Dust you are, and to dust you shall return. You will die one day, and you do not know when that is. Death is your fault. If you sin, you die. That’s the law. And everyone here will die because we all have sinned. We are so consumed with our own sin, we are not even aware of how heinous it is. But, there are times when we catch a glimpse of what terrible things we’ve done. Sometimes, we begin to feel the deep pain our sin has caused. Regret, guilt, sorrow, remorse, contrition: those are the feelings that will well up when we begin to realise the depth of our own wickedness.  

So repent. Return to the Lord because there is still time left. Repent, because with God there is hope for you. “Repent and plead for God’s mercy.” Change the direction you are going. Stop walking away from God and start walking toward God. Turn to God with your whole heart. Change your mind, reconsider your actions, and orient yourself entirely toward God. Take some time to reflect upon what turning to God would mean for your life.

We can always find hope in God. Turn back to the Lord your God, because he is gracious and compassionate, long-suffering and always ready to relent when he threatens to punish. God does not have “pleasure in the death of the wicked,” but “rather that they should turn from their ways and live! (Eze 18:23). Any sinner who turns to the Lord, will be assured that they are welcomed with all the love and tender sympathy of an affectionate father! His grace is His undeserved mercy toward sinners, toward enemies, toward those who willingly turned away from Him. He is merciful, compassionate. His heart is open to you, sinner though you are. He is slow to anger; He will not lash out suddenly, but make no mistake about His patience – it is intended for your turning, to lead you to repentance. He is full of steadfast, covenant love that is based on His word of promise. He promises to be loving, and loving He is.

In this season of Lent, is Israel’s plea your plea too? Shouldn’t we also fast and cry out to God? The God to whom you return is the God who has turned to you in His Son Jesus. He was made into a sacrifice for sin, even though He knew no sin. That is God’s grace and His mercy. Jesus made amends with God on your behalf, for your sin. This is how He abounds in steadfast love. God loved the world, and you, in this way: He sent His Son to die for you so that you might live forever. 

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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