“Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Joel 2:13
Return. Return is the operative word for Lent. Another way of saying it is repent. Repent, turn to the Lord. He is gracious; He is merciful; He is full of covenant love. So return, children of God.
The locusts had torn through the fields like an army, leaving a desert wasteland in their wake. They had chewed through the land that once flowed with milk and honey, leaving nothing but stubble where grain once stood. They were instruments of God’s wrath, a warning of God’s judgment. God was treating His people as He once treated the Egyptians with a plague of locusts. “The day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?”
“Return,” the prophet says to God’s people. They had turned away from the Lord to other gods, to themselves. to their phony religions. That turning away is a slow, almost imperceptible turning at first. A longing look at forbidden fruit. “Did God really say you can’t eat it?” Another drink after one too many. A little side trip to the “gentlemen’s club” on the way home from work. A sidewise glance at a piece of internet porn. A little “white lie.” A deed half done. A sermon despised (it wasn’t that good any way). A prayer begun, but never ended. An offering withheld. An opportunity for worship skipped. Little things. Who would know? Who would care? Surely God know that we are sinners. We’re born that way. He said as much. We can’t help it.
The little turnings away from the Lord, one leading subtly to the next. You feel guilty at first, perhaps even vowing to “do better the next time.” But opened doors are not easily shut again. “You can be as gods,” the Lie whispers. We believe that, at least in our sinful natures. We want that. To be gods in place of God. Nice. Every turning away is a dethroning of God, rebellion, insurrection against the King. His anger burns. You think a plague of locusts is bad? You think earthquakes and brush fires and tornados are bad? You haven’t seen anything yet.
We follow our sin-filled hearts, but our hearts lead straight to hell. We are, by nature, turned inward. We see everything from the perspective of “self,” which is the core of all idolatry. We even have a religion to celebrate it: self-esteem – narcissism made into a virtue. In our turned inward, we are turned away from others. Others now exist to serve us, to fill our needs, to “make us happy.” And we are turned away from God.
It can happen to baptized believers too. Don’t think it can’t happen to you. Let he who stands take heed, lest he fall.” Repentance is daily. Daily we must die; daily we must arise. And sometimes, even the baptized believer, especially the baptized believer, will know and feel the heavy hand of God’s left hand when the locusts come tearing through your field, when you are left as Job sitting in a heap of ahses, when you experience the God-forsakenness of His wrath. Judgment begins with the household of God, Peter warns us. Don’t be surprised when the judgment car pulls up to the church’s door.
What then is there to do? “Return to the Lord,” comes the reply. Return to the Lord your God. He has not ceased to be your God, nor in His wrath has He turned away from you. Return to Him. Return as the wayward son coming home to his father from the Gentile’s pig pen with nothing more than a confession on his lips. “I have sinned against heaven and against you.” Return to the Lord, as the penitent prostitute who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and anointed them with her perfume. Return to the Lord, as the penitent publican who could not even lift his eyes to heaven but prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.”
The Lord is gracious. His grace is His undeserved kindness toward sinners, toward the enemy, 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 slowness – it is intended for your turning, to lead you to repentance. He is full of steadfast love, chesed, covenant love that is based on His word of promise. He promises to be loving, and loving He is.
Know this and believe it. The God to whom you return is the God who has turned to you in His Son Jesus. He was made your sin, though He knew no sin. That is God’s grace and His mercy. He exchanged your sin for His righteousness. 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 in Him.
Return to the Lord your God. Where do you go to return to Him? Return to your Baptism, the water that made you a child of God and heir of life. Return to the absolving Word that cleanses you anew. Return to the Lord’s table, the altar of His Body and His Blood. This is where He turns to you here and now, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.
In the name of Jesus,