Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Return to the LORD Your God!

Joel 2:12-19 If you have your bibles open please look at the first few verses of chapter 2 and if not please listen as they are read
Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain!  Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near; a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness. 
And then Joel goes on to describe just exactly what is about to befall God’s people: a plague of locusts so far-reaching that no plant of any kind will be left alive.  Crops will be devastated and millions of people will starve. 
Even today, plagues of locusts can cover hundreds of thousands of square miles and be so all-encompassing that they can block out the sun.
That was what was about to befall the people of God and it was a sign so terrifying that they thought it was ushering in the end of the world and the final judgment-- for this was not merely a sign of living in a broken world-- but the temporal judgement of the living God upon the sins of his people.
For years they had strayed away from the Lord.  For years they had turned a deaf ear to God’s prophets and chosen for themselves men who would tell them what they wanted to hear.
But now in this dark moment, God’s judgment was at hand.  It was right then, when all seemed lost, when they would experience the wrath of a holy God over his creature’s sins that our text begins—a plea from God for them to repent of this sins and return to him.
Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
            Yet, even now…Those have to be some of the sweetest words in the Bible!  Even now when all seems lost!  Even now when my sins have finally caught up with me!  Even now when the world around me is crashing down on my head and there is no one left to blame but myself!  Even now… it is not too late for me, declares the Lord.
So long as we are still living and breathing there is for us hope and a day of grace and an opportunity to return to the Lord.  That story is told again and again in the Bible. 
It is the story of God’s enduring love for a people who never seem to get it right—for a people that much too often get it really wrong.  It is the story of God seeking out Adam and Eve when they destroyed the world; the story of God sending Jonah to Nineveh; the story of the conversion of Saul and the restoration of Peter. 
It is the story of God’s love for us that will not leave us alone in our sin but calls us again and again to repent of our sins and return to him in faith.
“return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
What God is looking for in our lives is what he heard from David in the psalm: 
Against you, you only have I sinned and one evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. 
All of us know how easy it is to mouth the words of the confession in public worship while at the same time having no real desire to be done with sin and go in a new way—to make a show of our sorrow. 
But what God is wanting from us is a real recognition- of our real sin- that shows itself in real sorrow -that we have sinned against our Savior God who stands ready to receive us back into fellowship with himself even when it seems to be too late.
Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.  Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God? 
            When Adam and Eve sinned they fled from the presence of the Lord in shame, the guilt weighing so heavily upon them that they forgot that the Lord was a God of love.  That is what sin does—it makes us forget who God really is in his love and mercy.
When we take our first few steps on the path that leads away from the Lord we can still see his goodness—we can still know him as the God who forgives. 
But the further we go on that path and the farther we get away from God—the more difficult that is to see--until finally God’s love and mercy is lost to view altogether and we are left alone with the lies of the devil who tells us it is too late and we are too far away and we have done too much for the Lord to ever take us back.  But that is a lie! 
Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. 
This is the truth about God-- and this is the truth that allows us to return to him no matter how often we have failed, no matter how far we have wandered, no matter how grievously we have sinned and we can count on a Father’s welcome when we turn from our sins.
When Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son, this was the story he was telling.  The younger son did everything wrong.  He wanted nothing to do with the father, only what the father could give.  He wasted what his father gave him, he debased himself beyond imagination.  But when he repented of this, he knew he could return home because he knew his father’s love.
And while the boy was still a long way off, the father ran to him and welcomed him home and assured him he was his son.  Ever since he had left, his father’s eyes were always looking for his return and his father’s heart always yearned to pour out his love on him. 
That love that welcomes sinners even when it seems that God’s judgment cannot be escaped is what God wants every one of us to know tonight and it is why we are here.
Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.  Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants.  Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. 
            The failures and sins of the people of God were not limited to just the common folk or just the kings or just the religious leaders—everyone was guilty and the judgment of God was poised to fall on them all, without exception—and so they would gather together without exception and confess their sins. 
So it must be for us.  It does us no good whatsoever to bewail the failures of our culture or to point the finger at our political leaders.  We are the culture.  We elected our leaders.  And our lives much too often reflect the very evil we see so clearly in the lives of others.
There is selfishness and pride and a love for material things over God’s spiritual gifts.  There are lives that are not even close to the faith we profess.  There is a lack of concern for those who are poor and weak.  And the judgment of God is that all of us deserve his wrath.
The Bible says that there is no one who does good, not even one.  The Bible says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  The Bible says that even our good works are as filthy rags in God’s sight. 
And so the call to repentance excludes no one and instead calls every one of us to cast ourselves upon the mercy of God and beg him to spare us and then trust that he will.
Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations.  Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”
            Even in that late hour it was not too late because God remained the same loving, faithful, merciful, compassionate God he had always been.  These were his people.  He claimed them as his own.  He chose them for himself, delivered them from slavery in Egypt, and provided for them. 
And though they knew about themselves that they had failed to be who God called them to be—God had not failed them and would never fail to be the God he claimed to be:  the covenant-keeping Savior God who will always come to the aid of his repentant people.
And so they gathered together in God’s presence in the temple and they did just exactly what God’s people have always done:  confess their sins and trust in the unfailing mercy of the God who saved them.
Then and now there would never be a moment when God would fail his people.  His love can be counted on again and again. 
In their confession of sins and our  confession of sins there is no thought of deserving God’s love or earning God’s love, there is simply the glad confidence that we can return to the Lord because of who he is in mercy and forgiveness. 
Then the Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people.  The Lord answered and said to his people, “Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.
            The Lord heard them, had pity on them, claimed them as his own and answered them and judgment was averted.
So it is for us here tonight.  The Lord has heard our confession of sin.  The Lord has had mercy on us and answered our need for forgiveness so that we can once again belong to him by sending his Son Jesus Christ to be our Savior.
God poured out the judgment we deserve onto his Son.  Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath that belonged to us and in its place has poured out upon us all the blessings of life in his kingdom—a full measure, pressed down and overflowing. 
And so on this Ash Wednesday we hear and heed the call of our Savior God and return to him with all our hearts for he is merciful and compassionate and abounds in steadfast love.  Amen.

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