“Return to the Lord Your God”

Text: Joel 2:12-19

“‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to Me with all your heart’…Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”These words from the second chapter of Joel serve as our text as we begin again the Church’s yearly remembrance of our Lord’s journey to the cross. He went to the cross, to suffer and die, most willingly. He was crucified for our sins, and on the third day, rose again to restore to us eternal life. Sometimes, though, knowing that and believing it are two very different things. Sometimes, the ash on our forehead overwhelms us with with the pervasive knowledge of our own sinfulness. The ash reminds us that, for our sins, we must die. But, for our sins Christ did die. Tonight we confess that the Lord God is gracious and merciful, and He abundantly pardons our sins through Jesus Christ.

I.

You might remember that one of the major categories of writing in the Old Testament is prophecy. There are prophecies throughout it – prophecies concerning Christ, especially. But, there are also whole books of prophecy. From there we divide them into two categories: the Major and Minor Prophets. The majors are the ones whose books are really long; the minors, short. Joel is among the Minor Prophets. Compared to someone like Jeremiah, whose life story we almost completely know, we know not a lot about Joel. We don’t know for certain either exactly who he is or when he prophesied. You might remember St. Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, though. A crucial portion of that was quoted from Joel. Beyond these things, Joel’s prophecy stands as a message for all time.

What was Joel’s message? Repent, and the Lord will forgive your sins. The nearest context we find for Joel’s ministry was that it followed a plague of locusts. These plagues were an occasional thing, but something was different about this one. Perhaps it was even worse than usual. Joel writes, “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.” Whatever the case may be, Joel proclaimed what the response to such a disaster should be: repentance. The locust plague foreshadowed, Joel preached, the day when God will fully cut off and put away all that is unholy and profane, all that is sinful and thus deserves His wrath. As the locusts devoured the land and left nothing behind, so the Lord’s righteous judgment will leave no stone left unturned and not even the stubble of sin will remain.

II.

“‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to Me with all your heart.’” Even when this great disaster has happened, the locust plague foreshadowing the Day of Judgement, the Lord promises to forgive. One can imagine the response of the people to the plague. The locusts came and devoured everything, one’s entire livelihood. We know from Scripture that sometimes God allows such things to happen as the consequence of sin. Perhaps in such a situation it would be easy to despair. It would be easy to think it’s all over. It’s also easy for us to think that way.

We gather tonight as Christians, yet also having come to the realization that we are sinners. The ash on our foreheads reminds us of this, just in case we forget. However, often times we experience the very opposite of forgetting our sinfulness. We are very much aware of it. How many times must we sin and repent? How many times must we try harder and harder to resist temptation, and give in anyway? How many times will our sinful actions just “fly under the radar?” Given these realizations, the temptation is always there to despair. We are tempted, and sometimes do think, that we are beyond the reach of forgiveness – that we might as well keep going, since we’ve done so much already.

Return to the Lord Your God, for He is gracious and merciful,” Joel urges us. The Lord takes no pleasure in death and punishment, but He delights to forgive. He is slow to anger and His steadfast love knows no end. When it says, “He relents over disaster,” it means God also can easily change the bad in our lives to good. The Lord is patient and kind. He is always more ready to forgive, than we even are to ask for it. And, so that we may ask for forgiveness and be forgiven, the Lord has given us His Word. In His Word, He reveals our sinfulness through the Law. He sends pastors to preach the same. Through these things He leads us to repent of our sins. Then, even when we are tempted to despair, He forgives us through the Gospel of His Son.

III.

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.”One of the fun things about the prophets is that, sometimes, they talk about both the present and the future at the same time. That’s what is happening here. Just like the plague was compared by Joel to the coming day of the Lord’s judgment, His willingness to forgive us now is a reflection of the joy that awaits us.

Though we are often overcome by our own sinfulness, the Lord is more ready and willing to forgive than we could ever know. Though it may seem that sinning is all we do, the Lord abundantly forgives all who repent and look to Him. For our sin, He sent His only Son – Jesus Christ. Jesus kept the whole Law perfectly, without fail. Then, He suffered the punishment for our sin when God’s wrath was poured out on Him on Calvary. The wrath which was previously stored for us. And, behind this suffering in our place, God has left the blessing of the free and full forgiveness of sins for all who turn to Him in faith.

Soon will come the day when sin will be no more. Then the Lord will fully take away our reproach and His people will no longer be a byword among the nations. Until then, He remains gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Through Jesus Christ, God abundantly pardons all who repent and turn to Him in faith. God grant this to us all.

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