The Text: Joel 2:1-2; 12-17
Christmas is over. The holidays have passed. The recurring waves of heat of late summer and early autumn have well and truly set in. It’s back to the daily grind of work. And to top it off, Lent is here. That church season of the year where it’s all a bit gloomy. Lots of focus on Jesus’ passion. The readings speak more of trial and suffering than joy and fulfilment. And if we are not careful, we either sit around miserable because either we have convinced ourselves we should give up something we really like… or because we feel just a bit guilty that we are not as good as all those other Christians who have.
On Ash Wednesday we hear a reading from the prophet Joel. What do we make of it? It’s a sort of ‘angry God’ reading typical of the no nonsense Lenten season. It implores people to tremble, it speaks of a day of darkness and gloom, of clouds and blackness. It tells us to fast, weep and mourn. It’s not uplifting… indeed, many people in our world would say this sort of thing is the very thing that turns them off of God. And many Christians would say “It’s best if we don’t spend too much time on this sort of thing – too much fire and brimstone is not good for getting people into God”. “Besides”, they might go on to say, “it’s all a bit old fashioned. We know a bit better now”.
Do we? If we focus on that side, have we really heard the text? I don’t think so. So tonight we are going to explore this text, especially what it says about God’s work of repentance. Why? Because God’s work of repentance brings us back to life.
In the text the prophet Joel speaks on God’s behalf at a ‘knife edge’ moment in Judah’s history. The nation has just suffered an extensive locust plague. This evil seems to be a result of their sin. The plague is so extensive they don’t even have their grain and drink offerings to worship God. So they are cut off from what they think will bring them back. And worse is to come if they don’t repent. More trembling, darkness and gloom.
But to stop and hear just that from this text would be an example of how good we are at hearing the law. It would be to caricature God as angry and out to get humans. In the same way, to treat Lent as a season in which we focus on a punishing God is to fall into a similar mistake. But to treat Lent for what it is – a special season for self-examination, repentance and growth in faith and grace – is to find who God really is. He is God for us.
Our text from Joel draws us into this ‘God for us’. For after this plague God calls his people to repent. His call itself is super important. That’s because it is our first hint of his grace working through repentance – grace found in the fact that it is God calling… In this call he is reaching out to us and making the first move. Listen carefully to what the text says:
Even now declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart. (Joel 2:12)
And did you hear who the call is made to? The call goes up to ‘consecrate the assembly’; that is, make everyone holy. To make sure it lists everyone from the elders to the tiny child suckling from its mother (v16)… even the bride and groom in the very process of getting married. So encompassing and important is this call, everyone is to hear it and act.
And what are these acts?
The word used for repentance literally means ‘to turn’. Turn away from self and toward God. God is asking the nation – and through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, us – to turn onto his path. But it’s not just a quick 180 like we do in our car when we realise we are going the wrong way. It has a quality dimension to it as well. This is because God is speaking of an action required of the heart. He says “Return” – repent – “to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12b).
And this is the crucial point. The OT notion of the heart is so much more than just emotions and feelings. It is also mind, intentions and will. So let’s substitute those words into our text where the word heart appears. It then reads: ‘Return to me with all your mind, intention and will’. God doesn’t just want our sentimentality. He asks us to hear his call and turn all our intentions and our desires, to him. God and his ways are to call the shots. Not us.
Now it’s here that two things happen in this text. There is the call for an outer and inner response.
You’ll be familiar with the outer responses. The sackcloth and ashes of Nineveh in Jonah is the classic outward sign of repentance. Here in Joel, God calls the people to repent with fasting, and weeping and mourning. We are physical creatures. Doing things in practice helps reinforce what is needing to happen in our hearts. This is why Luther can say in relation to fasting and other outward signs that they are fine preparation for communion , but that, nevertheless, faith is the more important.
And it’s here we come back to the heart. God tells us in Joel to:
Rend your heart and not your garments (2:13)
Remember how the heart means ‘mind, intention, will’? So here the Lord is reinforcing that we are to tear up our own mind, intention and will. And he is contrasting it against tearing garments.
Rend your heart and not your garments (2:13)
In the Old Testament a sentence like that still means that it’s ok to rend the garments— it’s not excluded—but more important to tear up the old agenda and plans and turn to the Lord.
This is about going God’s way. It is about trusting him. This is about exercising our faith muscles… through his guidance and trusting in him.
God is more interested in whether our hearts have really inclined to him rather than whether we just look like it to outsiders. Our gospel account tonight of Jesus teaching from the sermon on the mount showed that. He said:… when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what it is doing (Matt6:3).
… when you fast… do not … disfigure [your faces] (Matt6:16)
But then, the question comes up… why tonight would we put Ashes on our head? Isn’t it just another outward show of repentance that God isn’t interested in?
Importantly, the imposition of the ashes signify something different to repentance, even though it is related. They are an admission that God is God and we are created by him. They are an admission that we know we will die, and that without him, we would be lost. They represent that we are mortal. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But they also represent that as his created beings we have put our trust in him. In our deaths, when we return to the earth, we will return to him in every sense. We will enter his steadfast love eternally. And how do we know this?
Well let’s come back to Joel. Despite the risk that we can make God out to be angry and stingy, based for example on a poor reading of texts like this one in Joel, in fact mostly this text is about God’s generosity. For it goes on to say:
Return to your God for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love… (v13)
These words are God’s very self-identification. They are spoken throughout the OT. For example, remember when God passes in front of Moses on Mount Sinai? This is exactly how he proclaims his name – his identity. And God’s identity is ‘what he does’.
We have already seen how in this text we have a loving and gracious God that initiates repentance and includes everyone. Here he is promising his steadfast love. You might know this steadfast love by its other titles: his ‘undeserved love’, or simply, ‘grace’. It is this generous God to whom we repent. Not the angry and foreboding God. For his actions show He is way more about mercy than anger. They show he is patient. Did he not give the Ninevites 40 days? Did he not give Judah 500 years between King David and the exile to Babylon? That’s hardy impetuous is it?
No. God is patient. He is abounding in compassion. As our text tells us, we have every reason to turn to him because God himself turns around… For our text says he relents from sending calamity.
In fact, as history has shown, he has indeed relented from sending calamity. Rather than sending calamity he sent his Son. And in his son he has demonstrated his love for us. St Paul declares in Romans:
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8)
So use this Lent as time to return to God. Ask what it is in your will and intention you need to turn from. Know that it is the Lord’s steadfast love and slow angering nature you are trusting in. Of course, if you want to follow the practice of giving something up – for Christ gave up his life for us – use what you go without as a reminder to turn your intention and will to God. Rend your heart and not your garments. And if want to take something up – for Christ tells us to pick up our cross and walk – ask how whatever you take up will build your faith in him who saves.
Whatever you do, bask in God’s grace as you “Rend your mind, your intentions, your will, and not your garments…” and hear clearly his promise through Christ that “he relents from sending calamity”.
And may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.