Return to Me
Return to Me
Joel 2:12-17 & St. Matthew 6:16-21
Why do we need Ash Wednesday? Why do we need Lent? Why does the Church call us to a whole season of penitence? Why do—good Christians—need to repent in dust and ashes? Some people might object and say, “I haven’t done anything wrong lately!” Other people will point to Jesus and point to the grace he offers at the cross and say, “I don’t need this. I trust in Jesus and he’s got me covered.” But I think it helps to look at the Gospels and in the Gospels we see something interesting. Think of the study of Luke that we finished in Advent.
Think about the fact that as much as Jesus went to the tax collectors and sinners and called them to repentance—the “bad” people—most of what we see in the Gospels is Jesus calling those who were good, upright, and religious people to repentance. He went to the people who thought they understood God and who thought they understood God’s plans. Those are the people the Gospels focus on when it comes to the need for repentance. As it turned out—as we’ve been seeing in Luke—they didn’t have things as right as they thought. And that ought to be a warning for us, because being good, upright, and religious people we may sometimes fall into the same trap: we think we’ve got God and his plans all figured out, but we really don’t. The Jews of Jesus day were praying for and anxiously expecting the Day of the Lord—the day when the Lord would come to vindicate his people for their faithfulness and judge and smite everyone else for their sin and for their unfaithfulness. But throughout the Gospels Jesus warns them: Be careful what you hope and pray for. You might be surprised to find yourself on the wrong side when the Day of the Lord comes.
This wasn’t a new problem for God’s people. For hundreds of years God rebuked the people through the prophets for this kind of thinking. Through Amos he said:
Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light,
as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it? (Amos 5:18-20)
Judah and Israel always seemed either to be facing some imminent danger or in the midst of some great tribulation. And the people longed for and prayed for the Day of the Lord: for the Lord to come and rescue them from their troubles. But the Lord warns, again: Be careful what you wish for. The Day of the Lord isn’t what you think. It’s darkness, not light. You wish for it as if you were fleeing a lion, but you might just find that the Lord will come on you like a bear instead. That’s a vivid illustration. How often do we think of the Day of the Lord, of the Lord’s deliverance of us in terms of him rescuing us from our enemies. Amos warns us to watch out. The Lord may answer our prayers, but in his answer we may just find ourselves, rather than our enemies, on the receiving end of his discipline.
The prophet Joel describes just this kind of situation in our Epistle. The Chapter begins this way:
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!
Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful people;
their like has never been before,
nor will be again after them
through the years of all generations. (Joel 2:1-2)
Joel spoke to the people some time after their return from exile in Babylon. We don’t know the specifics of the situation, but it was a time of national crisis. An army like they’d never seen before was marching on Judah. As was typical, the people responded by praying for the Day of the Lord—for God to smite the enemy and rescue them. But the Lord responds by telling them that he is coming—he’s coming in the great army that’s approaching, he’s coming in judgement, but not on Judah’s enemies, but on the people of Judah themselves. For all their talk of God, for all their love of the temple and the law, and for all their religious observance, the Lord warns them that they themselves are the enemy. They’re the ones in need of repentance.
And so the Lord calls to his people through the prophet. Just as Jesus will do in another 500 years, the Lord calls his people to repentance: to turn aside from their wrong ideas about him, their wrong ideas about his plans and about what he wants of them, to turn aside from their sin. He rebukes the people, but he also explains their problem and he gives a solution. Look at verses 12-14:
“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.”
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.”
Through Joel the Lord reminds us that God’s people, whether Jews living in the 5th Century B.C., or Jews living in the days of Jesus, or Christians living in the 21st Century, we have an awful tendency to forget about grace. We forget that we are sinners, we forget that by our very nature we are born enemies of God, and we forget that we are forgiven and that we stand before him in his presence only by his grace. And when that happens we start to think that we deserve his blessings. We become self-righteous. Our fasting and prayer, our good works, and even our worship become twisted in our minds. We start to think of these things as justifying us and as defining our righteousness rather than remembering that our righteousness is not our own. We start to look down on everyone else and when the world becomes hostile towards us, just like ancient Israel, we start hoping and praying for the day of the Lord—for God to come in judgement to smite all of our unrighteous enemies.
But, brothers and sisters, as we see in the Gospels, that’s not God’s plan. Instead of coming at the end of history to judge and to condemn the unrighteous, Jesus came in the middle of history to redeem—to die on the cross for our sins and to rise from the grave, conquering sin and death. Jesus came so that when the Day of the Lord does come, no one need fear the Lord’s judgement if they have repented and in faith turned to Jesus. But just like Amos and Joel and the other prophets, Jesus warns that as we pray for the Lord to come in judgement, we may just be praying for our own condemnation. We’ve been rending our garments as an outward show of piety. That won’t do. In fact, that’s the sort of thing the Lord will judge. Instead we need to rend our hearts; we need to repent and turn from our self-righteousness and instead grab hold of the righteousness of God displayed in Jesus. In our Gospel Jesus describes what repentance looks like:
When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.(Matthew 6:16-18)
As Lent begins again today we receive the sign of ashes on our foreheads as a reminder—a sort of sacramental sign—of our need of repentance. The ashes remind us that when the Day of the Lord comes, we will find grace not in anything we’ve done, but only in what Jesus has done for us. The ashes remind us to set aside our hypocrisy and our pride and instead to give ourselves over to King Jesus—to follow him and to be his disciples. And that means embracing the kingdom he announces in the gospels. It means praying for the redemption of our enemies instead of their destruction. It means living out the peace of Jesus in the world. It means showing the world the love that Jesus has shown us. Brothers and sisters, it means remembering that we stand before God only because of his grace and then looking at the world around us through the eyes of grace.