“Ash Wednesday – 2017”

March 1, 2017
Joel 2:12-19
 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
 Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

For our mid-week Lenten services this year, we will be looking at the sons of King David and how their characters compare with and contrast to our Savior Jesus.  But, tonight, as we begin our Lenten devotion, we are going to leap forward about 100 years after David’s death to a time when the once mighty Kingdom of Israel was shattered in two.  The fall of the kingdom came about through Israel’s rejection of the true God.  In His place, they devoted themselves to the false gods of the surrounding nations.  

The northern half of the divided kingdom, which retained the name Israel, had become completely pagan.  Only the southern kingdom, now called Judah, would be blessed to know an occasional faithful ruler for the remainder of their days.

It is into this situation that God sends the prophet Joel.  Joel is commanded to preach a message of repentance to Judah; and he has been presented with a very powerful backdrop for that message.

Judah, you see, had just experienced one of the most severe plagues of locusts that that part of the world had ever known.  It was an incident of historic proportions—but not in a good way.

Joel says, “Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers?  Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children to another generation.  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,” (Joel 1:2-4).

Wave after wave of the insects devoured everything in sight.  Joel describes how the wheat, the barley, the grapevines, the fig trees, the palm trees, apple trees, pomegranates—in essence, all of the trees of the field had been decimated.  And, as if to add insult to an already incomparable injury, that plague was followed by a wildfire which burned up any last shreds of life.

Needless to say, the people were devastated.  Everything had been wiped out.  But, it was not their lack of personal resources that the Lord considered their greatest loss; rather, He tells the people to put on sackcloth and commands the priests to lament, “Because grain offering and drink offering are withheld from the house of your God,” (Joel 1:13b).  In other words, the tragic thing was that there was no produce for them to use as offerings to present to God in their worship.

We would have to wonder if such a dilemma would be our own first concern under similar circumstances.  If, let’s say, all of your finances were completely wiped out, would your greatest grief be that you were unable to place a gift into the offering plate—or would you be most concerned about not being able to put food on your own table?  It comes back to the very first commandment, doesn’t it—to fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

Well, this is where our text picks up the story.  God speaks through the prophet Joel and says, “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”  Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.  Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?”

What we see here is that the Lord is eager to show His mercy.  It is really contrary to His gracious nature to inflict people because of their disobedience.  We know this because of how He so loved the sinful world that He gave His only begotten Son to save us.

Our God beckons us.  He implores us.  He invites us to return to Him for He is, indeed, gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  He joyfully proclaims to us that today is the day of salvation.  We have nothing to fear.

Though the season of Lent is about repentance, it is even more about the mercy and love of God, in giving His Son to suffer and die for our sins.  It is the promise that, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (1 John 1:9).  Where sin abounds, there grace abounds all the more.

This is the promise for those whose hearts are heavy with grief over the guilt of what they have done before God and against one another.  They implore God’s mercy and they never are disappointed.

If, however, there are those hearts that are unmoved by that divine pity, it is because they are heedlessly disregarding that very first Holy Commandment.  It is not God that they fear but rather any assault to their own pride.  They love to prove others wrong.  They trust in their judgment of those they encounter rather than heeding Lord’s warning to judge no one.  And yet, they will claim to be as Christian as the next person.

Jesus has a word for them in the Gospel reading.  He calls them hypocrites. Hypocrites, who want to be known for how much they give to the church.  Hypocrites, who want to be known for how loudly or long they pray.  Hypocrites, who desire the praise of others above the commendation of God Himself.

And lest we dare to say in our hearts, “I know someone that meets that description,” our Lord warns each of us, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.”   Yes, each one of us is as prone to that self-righteous spirit as anyone.  And God, Who sees in secret, will know whether our faith and our contrition is indeed heartfelt or only a pretense.

That plague of locusts in Joel’s time was not only a factual event but also a stark illustration of the final reckoning to come.  This time, it won’t be just the crops that are destroyed, but all civilization everywhere; the entire world will be consumed by fire.  And the Lord will return to judge the living and the dead.

How can we possibly escape such severe, divine judgment, knowing the condition of our hearts and minds—knowing that God knows us all too well?  The prophet answers that question with a question: “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?”

Which is precisely what your gracious and merciful God has done.  He has left us a blessing—a grain offering, a drink offering, of the highest proportion.  The grain that conveys the body of Christ.  The drink that delivers the blood of Christ.  For God has provided for Himself the Lamb for the offering, (Gen. 22:8).  And through this bounty, that neither plague nor the devil nor even sin or death can destroy, He gives us the gifts of life and salvation.

“Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants.  Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.  Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations.  Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”  Then the Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people.”

The Lord is jealous for you because you are His possession.  You have been purchased and won through the blood Christ.  He has redeemed you to be His own and to belong to Him forever.  For He has taken pity upon us; He has spared His people.  And should anyone among the peoples say, “Where is your God?” we gladly will point them to the cross. 

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3234 Mishicot Road  Two Rivers, WI 54241  920-793-1716
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