“Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows wheth-er he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.” Joel 2:12-16 NRSV
Joel brings with it a message that was a matter of life or death for Judah, but Joel also deliberately directs that message to every age, and therefore this prophetic literature, his message, is never out of date. It is a book that calls us to repentance, unification, and restoration with God by God’s desire.
Joel’s words reverberate with me and perhaps they did with Jesus as well. They ring of a reminder to love God totally, being totally consumed by God, but with God looking for a change…a change in heart not just outward signs.
For the season of Lent a change of or in heart is what we are given a chance again to do. Lent reminds us of the terrible judgement that hangs over us when we get seduced by something other than God.
Lent opens our hearts, minds, and souls to that seduction. Perhaps we are seduced by drugs or alcohol, perhaps it is looking for short cuts to a better life, perhaps a consumption by money at any cost. We are reminded that God loves us so much that we are offered time and time again to return to God in repentance, because God is always taking the step to forgive, and we must respond…one way or another.
In the culture of the day repentance was likened to a scalpel that a doctor uses to cut away disease, in this case sin. That is exactly what Joel was saying God required of us. God calls on us to return to worship with all our hearts and to rend our hearts and not our garments. You remember from Sunday School that tearing of garments in lamentation was an expression of deep emotion in times of grief, terror, or horror at some), but the call here is an expression of repentance that is to be even more forceful. Rending of hearts was getting your mind right or back in the game.
To repent, or turn to God, carries the meaning of “turning around,” of going in the opposite direction, so that a person is leading a life differently from that before. But the change we are asked to make is based on the nature of God, who will accept us back into covenant relation, an idea implied by “your God” which implies part of the covenant formula, “They shall be my people, and I will be their God.”
The nature of God shows us, promised us, that God is “Gracious” and willing. “Merciful” like the love of a mother for her child. “Slow to anger” meaning that God does not immediately punish people for their sins but waits patiently for repentance and turning. “Steadfast love” showing God’s faithful, everlasting, loving observance of the covenant bond with humankind. It is because of the nature of God we are being called back by God, even though we may desert God.
Our repentance, however, does not strong-arm God. God is free, and God will be gracious to whomever God chooses to be gracious; God will show mercy to whomever God will show mercy. The decision about renewal is up to God and not human beings. God took the ultimate step in sending the Son, and that Son, Jesus, chose to suffer and die for all of us so we might be forgiven and live forever in a new and never changing relationship. Therein lies our very hope indeed. God refuses to be done with us, is persistent, constant, loving, suffering and yearning to give us life instead of death. God chooses to forgive us and welcome us back time and time again…no matter what.
Lent calls us and points us toward, not away from, our God. Faith involves waking ourselves up, making up our minds “even now” to be obedient to God, and then attempting to walk steadfastly, resolutely, every day in God’s way.
We cannot even do repentance apart from the help of God. But the Lord offers us here in Joel and throughout the Scriptures everlasting help in returning to intimacy. God works in us and with us, but we must also muster our will and thought to repent and change.
God is at work in us, enabling us to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. Yet we are reminded we work out our salvation with a humble heart and with fear and trembling, for we cannot presume on God or guarantee the Lord’s acceptance of us. God is free, and God is Lord, and we are utterly dependent on God’s forgiving mercy. When we know that, we approach our God in the humility that is appropriate.
When we know God’s good pleasure, we take our journey in Lent to a new level. A new level of giving and serving, of caring and loving, and of forgiving and repenting. Let’s journey together these next days praying with new hearts and serving with new hearts.