Joel 2:1-2; 12-17
An 80-year-old woman was arrested for shoplifting.
When she went before the judge he asked her, 'What did you steal?' She replied, “A can of peaches.”
The judge asked her why she had stolen them. She said that she was hungry.
The judge then said, “Well, how many peaches were in the can anyway?”
“Six,” she said.
The judge said, “Well then, I'm going to give you six days in jail.”
Before the judge could actually pronounce the punishment, the poor woman's husband spoke up and asked the judge if he could say something.
The judge said, “What is it?”
The husband said, “She also stole a can of peas.”
All I can say is that man’s either an awfully honest person, or he’s in a really bad marriage and just wants some time alone.
Sometimes, I think we look at God as though He were a judge. An honest judge – a fair judge – but a judge none the less. And the picture we sometimes have is that he’s waiting – just waiting for us to mess up. Maybe even waiting for us to mess up big time. Like the woman who stole the peaches and the peas – breaking the 7th Commandment – the one that says, “You shall not steal.” You mess up like that, and God’s gonna get ya. That’s what I think we sometimes think.
That certainly was the understanding among God’s people, the Jews, before Jesus came on the scene. The reading tonight from the prophet Joel certainly would give us that impression. Apparently, locusts had invaded and eaten everything. Food became scarce. Disaster had struck. All of this was to suggest that somehow Israel must have sinned for God to have brought this disaster to them.
So Joel tells the people that there is a way to escape the Lord’s Day of judgment. He says, “Blow the trumpet…sound the alarm!” Joel was sounding a warning. But there was also good news. And the good news for the people Joel was speaking to – and the good news for us tonight is this. Listen!
“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.”
Fasting, weeping, mourning – and a practice that we don’t encourage – the tearing of one’s clothing – were all things that the people of Joel’s time would do to show their sorrow for their sins. Putting on sackcloth – what we call burlap – and putting on or sitting in ashes were also ways that the people showed sorrow for sin. It’s where we get our idea for wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday as a sign of repentance.
Now I know – these are all outward signs – but outward signs of an inner transformation. What we might call “a changed heart.” And I would add that these outward signs mean nothing unless there is real transformation on the inside. And that’s why Joel says, “Rend your hearts, and not your clothing.”
In other words – let your repentance be sincere. Let it be real. Let it come from the heart. AND let it lead to real change. Real transformation.
Now – the people of Joel’s day believed in a theology of retribution. Retribution. In other words – if you’ve sinned – if you’ve messed up real bad – if you’ve turned away from the Lord your God – God’s gonna stick it to you. However – if your life is going well – if you are healthy and prospering – it must mean that God is showing favor to you because you’re somehow following the rules. You’re being good and doing what is right!
As Christians – we do not believe in a theology of retribution. Our understanding is that we are all sinners. There’s not a one of us who isn’t. And because we are all sinners, we do NOT believe that when hard times come our way that that is God’s punishment for our sins. I believe God discipline – and that is something far different from punishment. SO let’s get this thought right out of our heads. “I must have done something wrong, so God is punishing me.” That thought has no room in our understanding of who God is – of God’s grace – and how He deals with us – His people.
But when we do sin – when we make mistakes – when we mess up real bad – what do we hear – what does God offer to us? Well again, listen to what Joel has to say. “Return to the Lord your God,” in other words repent, “for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
Man, do I like those words! I love hearing those words. God is gracious. God is merciful. God is slow to anger. God is abounding in steadfast love.
In other words – God’s NOT mad at you. It is God’s nature to forgive. And when God forgives, God forgets. It is God’s nature to welcome you back when you’ve gone away. That’s what God wants to do. And I want to tell you that one of the reasons we are here tonight – one of the reasons why Ash Wednesday can be so important – is its focus on repentance – and to hear the invitation to return to the Lord your God.
So tonight – maybe – just maybe – there is someone here who has wandered away – or who once wandered away – or who is thinking of wandering away from the Lord. If that’s the case, then I want you to listen to this story.
Ron Lee Davis in his book Courage to Begin Again tells about a man who needed a new start. His name was Robert Robinson. He notes that it was a bright Sunday morning in 18th century London. However, Robert Robinson’s mood was anything but sunny. While others were hurrying off to church, the sound of church bells only reminded Robinson of a time long ago when his faith was vibrant. He had once loved God, but he had wandered far, far away. His heart, which had once burned with so much passion for God and the things of God, now contained only cold embers.
Lost in his lonely thoughts, Robinson suddenly became aware of a carriage coming up behind him. It was a horse-drawn cab. He started to lift his hand to hail the driver, but he noticed the cab was already occupied by a young woman obviously dressed for church. He waved the driver on, but the young woman ordered the driver to stop. She offered to share the carriage with him.
“Are you going to church?” she asked.
After a long pause Robinson said, “Yes.” He stepped into the carriage and sat down beside the young woman.
As the carriage headed toward church, Robert Robinson and the young woman exchanged introductions. When he stated his name, she seemed to recognize it. She withdrew a small book of inspirational verse from her purse. “That’s a coincidence,” she said, “I was just reading a verse by a poet named Robert Robinson. Could it be . . . ?” When Robinson saw the poem she was referring to, he admitted he had written it long ago.
“Oh, how wonderful!” she exclaimed. “Imagine! I’m sharing a carriage with the author of these very lines!” But Robert Robinson barely heard her. He was absorbed in the words of the poem he had once written. Later they would be set to music and become a great hymn of the church. The words of Robert Robinson’s poem go like this:
“Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, Tune my heart to sing Thy grace; Streams of mercy, never ceasing, Call for songs of loudest praise. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.”
He could barely read those last few lines through the tears that filled his eyes. “I wrote these words,” he said, “and I’ve lived these words. ‘Prone to wander . . . prone to leave the God I love.’”
The young woman suddenly understood. “You also wrote, ‘Here’s my heart, O take and seal it. Seal it for Thy courts above.’ You can offer your heart again to God, Mr. Robinson,” she said. “It’s not too late.”
“And it wasn’t too late for Robert Robinson,” reports Ron Lee Davis. “In that moment he turned his heart back to God and walked with Him the rest of his days.”
Now I don’t know everyone’s reason for being here tonight. Maybe you’ve been walking with the Lord all along. Maybe you’re here because you’ve lived the words, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.” And now you are ready – ready to return to the Lord your God. Maybe you’re looking for a brand new start. As someone has said, “Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, we can start from now and make a brand new ending.” Maybe what you’re looking for – maybe what you want and you need is a brand new ending.
And maybe you’re here to receive ashes – or maybe not. Either way is okay. Ashes – no ashes. What is really important – the thing that really matters – is your heart right with God? Will the ashes be simply something that you do – or will it be an outer sign of the true repentance and change of heart that’s going on on the inside?
One of the wonderful passages from the book of Jeremiah – and one of my favorite Old Testament passages – says this: “I will forgive their sin, and remember their sin no more.” So remember this tonight. No matter what’s going on in your life right now – no matter what you’ve done – no matter where you’ve been – no matter how long you’ve been away – you can return to the Lord your God. Because He is gracious and merciful – slow to anger – and abounding in steadfast love. Amen