The text for this morning’s sermon is from Ash Wednesday’s readings – Joel 2.13 “Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
You’ve left New York City and are driving north towards Albany, making good time on the interstate, when suddenly you notice a sign that tells you that you’re heading south, towards Philadelphia! Somehow you must have gotten on the wrong entrance ramp back in the city. What should you do? Well, of course, you do what any normal person would do – drive faster!
Most of us realize that’s not a very good way to get where you want to go. Oh, you might speed up, but only to get to the next exit so you can turn around and get back going in the right direction. If you’re going the wrong way, you’ll reach your destination only if you’re willing to turn around.
That is what the prophet Joel tells the people of Israel to do: “Return to the LORD, your God.” He’s not talking about travel along a physical road, but is using a Hebrew word commonly found in the Old Testament to speak about repentance. It’s a word that literally means to “turn around” or “come back.” You belong with God but you’ve been moving away from him, putting other things ahead of God. And the only way to get back to where you belong is to turn around.
We can hear that call at any season of the year and at any time during our lives. If you realize that you’ve been getting farther and farther away from God, you don’t have to wait for Lent before you start back. For the people Joel spoke to, it was a time of disaster when a plague of locusts was devastating their land, something they saw as an indication of their separation from God. For us there are all kinds of signs in the world and in our lives – wars and rumors of wars, threats to our natural environment, and whatever it is that troubles you as you lie awake in the dark hours of the night. We shouldn’t see each one of those problems as a direct consequence of something we’ve done worn or as divine punishment for sin, but many of the problems we face can be traced back to humanity’s separation from God.
We have wandered away from God. In some cases we haven’t just drifted away but have sped away from God as fast as possible. And the prophetic word to us is simple: “Turn around Return to the LORD, you God.”
Why? Because “he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” God does not drive us away. God “relents from punishing” and doesn’t demand payment for the damage we’ve done. God’s word to us is just “come back.” Like the father in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, God is out by the side of the road waiting and watching for our return.
As I said, the invitation to return can come to us at any time. In one sense it comes to us every day – the call to turn away from self-selected idols and return to the God who has loved us and claimed us in Jesus Christ. But we tend to forget about that so it’s helpful to have special times when we hear that call to return in more formal ways. Christian tradition has picked the season of Lent the weeks before the celebration of the cross and resurrection, as a time to give special emphasis to repentance and to take more seriously our Christian commitment. This is an appropriate time because Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, Good Friday, and Easter, is the model and guide for our own return to God. We are called to follow the way of the cross.
Jesus is the one human being who hasn’t wandered away from God. He is God’s beloved Son and did not sin, so in that sense he never would’ve needed to return to God. But like the Prodigal son, he went into the far country – not to escape from the Father, not to serve himself or look for new forms of pleasure, but to find his prodigal brothers and sisters. He came “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” sharing our human condition to the fullest, in order to turn us around and bring us back to God.
Our Lenten journey is to be patterned after his. We are called to remember who has saved us and to take with renewed seriousness that call to follow Christ and commit ourselves to him. But how can we do that? If you’re driving in the wrong direction along the highway it’s pretty simple: make a 180 degree turn. But how do we return to God? First, remember that it is God who is calling you to do this and who will also enable you to do it. God doesn’t leave us on our own in the far country and demand that we find our own way back home. Through various means, the Holy Spirit calls and guides us home.
One of those means is where you are right now, the church. Worship is not a virtuous act that we perform for God but an opportunity to receive what God wants to give us. It is where we hear again the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The gospel is more than information. When you’re discouraged, an expression of love and care from a friend may not tell you anything you didn’t already know, but it can renew and energize you. In the same way, hearing the biblical story may just be repeating things you’ve heard before, but it has the power to recharge your spiritual batteries. When Christ is proclaimed, when the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, Christ is present for you. God draws us to himself so that we can stay close and not wander away.
The Bible tells us other things that can help us stay on the right path back to God. Christian tradition has focused on three of these for the season of Lent, and the fact that they sound a little old-fashioned shows how traditional they are. But they are old in the sense of “tried and true” rather than “out-of-date.” These parts of the Lenten discipline are prayer, alms, and fasting.
Prayer is fundamentally talking with God. When we speak to God and tell him our needs we express our trust that God does care for us and will provide what we need. And we don’t pray just for ourselves. It’s significant that the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer are plural – “Give us our daily bread” and “Forgive us our trespasses.” As we pray for the needs of those close to us and those far away, we are in touch with God because the welfare of his world is close to his heart.
In many cases we can do more than simply pray. Alms isn’t a word we use a lot today but in some ways it’s better than the term “charity” which has a kind of condescending air to it. Giving alms means simply using the wealth God has given us to help those who are in need. Buying a meal for a poor person or contributing to some cause or mission doesn’t earn us credit with God, but as the Scriptures tell us, God cares for the poor, the weak, and those unable to help themselves. Uniting ourselves to that care is a way of staying close to God, In fact, we can be the instruments through which God’s care for those in need is carried out.
There is also fasting – giving up something for Lent. The point of that isn’t to punish ourselves or to show how tough we are. The Bible tells us that we don’t live by bread alone but it’s hard to live very long without it. And going without for a little while, long enough to get hungry can be a good reminder for us of the ultimate source of our food and lives, our Creator, making it a good way of staying close to God.
At that’s the real point of Lent and of the whole Christian life. Make that legal u-turn: “Return to the LORD, your God” and by his grace stay there. Amen.