Return To The Lord - Ash Wednesday
February 28, 2017 Pastor: Rev. George Fyler
“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
~In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN
Dear beloved of the LORD:
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.
Joel tells us, the locusts tore through the fields like an invading army leaving a desert wasteland in their wake. They chewed through the land that once flowed with milk and honey, leaving nothing but stubble where grain once stood. Joel calls them instruments of God’s wrath — a warning of God’s impending judgment.“For the day of the LORD is coming; surely it is near.”(Joel 2:1) God threatened 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?” [Joel 2:11]
“RETURN,” the prophet says to God’s people. They had turned away from the LORD to other gods, to themselves, and to their phony religions. Their turning away is a slow, almost imperceptible turning at first, something like the longing look of Adam and Eve at forbidden fruit. “Did God really say you can’t eat it?” Another beer 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 anyway) … a prayer begun that ended in distraction … an offering withheld … an opportunity for worship skipped —you call them “little things.” Who would know? Who would care? Surely God know that we are sinners … we’re born this way … He said as much … we can’t help it. How’s the old saw say it? To err is human … to forgive divine!
These are just a sampling of little turnings away from the LORD, one leading subtly to the next. You feel guilty at first, perhaps even vowing to “resist the next time.” But opened doors to temptations are not easily shut again. “You can be as gods,” the Liar whispers. We believe him, at least in our sinful natures. We want what he seems to promise. To be gods in place of God. Nice. But, our every turning away is a dethroning of God, a rebellion, an insurrection against the King. His anger burns. You think a plague of locusts is bad? You think earthquakes and floods 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 our idolatry. We even have a religion to celebrate it: we call it“self-esteem”—that’s narcissism made into a virtue. In our being turned inward, we are turned away from others. Others now exist to serve us, to fill our needs, to “make us happy.” And the result is — we are turned away from God.
Yes, it happens to baptized believers too. Don’t think it can’t happen to you. “Let he who stands take heed, lest he fall.”[1 Cor. 10:12] 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 like righteous Job sitting in a heap of ashes … when you experience the forsakenness of God’s wrath, “Judgment begins with the household of God,”[1 Pet. 4:17] Peter warns us. Don’t be surprised when the judgment wagon pulls up to the church’s front door.
What then is there to do? “RETURN to the LORD,” comes the reply. “RETURN to the LORD your God.” Amazingly, 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.”[Lk. 15:21] “RETURN to the LORD,” as the penitent prostitute who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and anointed them with her perfume. [Lk.7:38]“RETURN to the LORD,” as the penitent publican who could not even lift his eyes to heaven, yet he prayed, “LORD, be merciful to me a sinner.”[Lk. 18:13]
“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,”at His core He is compassionate. His heart is open to you, sinner that 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,”that’s “Hebrew chesed,” covenant love—love that is based on His word of promise, not yours. 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. Jesus was made your sin, though He knew no sin. That is God’s grace and His mercy. He exchanged your sin for Christ’srighteousness. 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 and Word that made you a child of God and heir of life. RETURN to the absolving Word that cleanses you anew. Think on this sacred washing as you clean the ashes off your brow tonight. RETURN to the LORD’S Table, the Eucharistic Feast 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.”
God has reconciled the world to Himself. You, then, be reconciled to Him. Hear and trust His Word. Rely upon His gifts.
It is by Christ’s prayer, by His faith and His fasting, by His agony and bloody sweat, by His Cross and Passion, by His divine charity toward you, that you are presented to the Father in righteousness for peace and rest and life everlasting.
And behold, Jesus has left behind a grain offering and a drink offering for you: bread and wine, which are His Body and His Blood — the acceptable sacrifice that He has offered to the Father on your behalf — with which He now feeds you for the forgiveness of all your sins, for the nourishment of your faith and life.
Eat, therefore; and drink. Here is your treasure. Here is the heart of Christ for you. Here is your foretaste of heaven.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
~S. D. G.~