Sunday, March 06, 2011

Sermon: Joel 2: 12-17 What Is Repentance?

Australia has been in the news recently with flooding. Now, there’s another problem hitting the country - the locust: One plantation owner says that while the floods were devastating, locusts are now proving a major concern. "Every day they get a bit bigger and every day they need more food. They're just eating their way through the whole area. Any green leaf that bends down and touches the ground, within hours you can see grasshoppers on it eating their way up."

A farming spokesman says "They're attacking all the new growth, the new mango shoots, citrus plants, the new pawpaws being planted, any bananas coming close to the ground are being shredded After the summer we've had, to watch what produce you have got left being annihilated by these vicious locusts is pretty devastating."

In our Bible reading this morning, we find ourselves in the book of the prophet Joel. It’s probably not one of the better known books, so it might be helpful to see the background and context of our reading. We’re not told when Joel lived, all we’re told is that he was the son of Pethuel (1:1). He was a prophet in Jerusalem, at a time of national disaster. A plague of locusts was attacking the land of Judah, and coming dangerously close to Jerusalem. Look back at 1:4 - total devastation. The wine has been cut off, food has been cut off, provisions for livestock have been lost - and even the offerings for the temple have been cut off (1:9,13).

Let’s put Joel in the big picture of the Bible, to see what a great disaster this is: God called Abraham, promising him descendants, and a land, and blessing. So the people here are the children of Abraham, the children of Jacob/Israel; and they’re in the land promised to them. But the promised blessings have been taken away, because of the people’s sin and rebellion.

The locust plague in Judah signals the day of the Lord drawing near (1:15) - a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! (2:2). As you read through Joel 1 and 2, the tension builds, the panic rises, the sense of doom grows - and Joel says that this locust army is God’s army - he is controlling it, commanding it. Look at v 11: ‘The LORD utters his voice before his army, for his camp is exceedingly great; he who executes his word is powerful. For the day of the LORD is great and very awesome; who can endure it?’

That’s the question facing the people of Jerusalem as Joel speaks to them - who can endure the day of the LORD? When judgement comes, which of them could stand, as destruction looks them in the face? It’s the very same question we must answer too. In the face of a holy God, can you endure the day of the LORD? Can you be confident on that day, or do your sins condemn you?

We find that we’re caught in the same situation as the people of God in Jerusalem - God’s judgement awaits us; the enemy is at the gates; the death that we deserve lies ready to pounce. Darkness and gloom.

Even as that question hangs in the air - who can endure it - the LORD himself speaks, making his appeal and invitation through Joel. Do you see those words at the start of verse 12? “Yet even now.” This morning we’re looking at what repentance is, and in our remaining time, we’ll see that Repentance is Rending (your heart) and Returning (to the LORD), and Required of all.

Perhaps one of the better known lines from Joel is the one found at the start of verse 13: ‘rend your hearts and not your garments.’ But what does that mean? What does it mean to say that repentance is rending your heart? It might be helpful to look at the contrast there, between rending heart and rending garments. You see, to rend your garment was to tear it in two - it was an outward sign of mourning, a ceremonial act of grief. Last Sunday night we were looking at Elijah being taken up to heaven, and Elisha, his companion immediately ‘took hold of his own clothes, and tore them in two pieces.’ (2 Kings 2:13).

God isn’t interested in outward ceremonial expressions of repentance if they’re only on the surface. It can be easy to go through the motions, to look good coming along to church, to kneel properly and appear to repent of sins, but it’s not even skin deep. It’s just an outward act with no real impact on our lives. So easy, that any of us can do it. Believe me, I know it all too well, sometimes.

Rather, God looks on the heart, and it’s there that we need to be rending. To rend your heart is to have your heart breaking over your sin and rebellion. We’re not talking about the blood-pumping organ when we speak of the heart, we’re talking about the centre of our being, the very essence of your being. All too often we’re comfortable with our sin, not convicted; we’re delighted rather than distressed. Joel calls us to see our sin for what it is, to be heartbroken over our sin. Only then will we want to repent, to escape from our sin, to resolve to stop, and seek to please the Lord.

Repentance is rending your heart, but it’s also returning to the LORD. It’s not enough just to be sorry for your sin, or to beat yourself up about it, if that’s all you do about it. There are many who have a guilty conscience, who are troubled over their sin, but who never return to the Lord. Just think of the prodigal son - when he came to himself sitting in the pigpen, he knew he had done wrong, but if he had stayed there, he never would have found forgiveness and acceptance.

As we’ve seen, the LORD issues this invitation - Yet even now (even in the face of judgement), yet even now, return to me with all your heart. You see, heartfelt repentance will lead to fasting, weeping and mourning - whereas outwards gestures won’t lead to inner change.

We have gone astray, but Joel reminds the people who it is they are returning to - look at the character of God as it shines out in the passage: ‘Return to the LORD your God (the covenant God), for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.’ (2:13) It’s the same reminder of God’s character Moses was shown at Sinai when the people had rebelled and made the golden calf. God is merciful - in not giving us what we do deserve; and God is gracious - in giving us what we don’t deserve. As the people look back at their history, they see this time and again - gracious and merciful.

But you can never be presumptuous - you can’t presume that God’s just going to do it anyway. You can’t pursue sin thinking, well, sure, it’s God’s job to forgive. That’s why Joel says in verse 14 ‘Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him?’ We don’t approach God telling him what to do - we come humbly, returning to him, but as we do, we find that he relents.

So far we’ve seen that repentance is rending your heart, and returning to the LORD (saying sorry, coming back to him, taking refuge in his character). The rest of our passage asks the question, then, who needs to repent? And as we briefly look at it, we see that repentance is required of all. ‘Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber’(16) From the oldest to the youngest - from elders to nursing infants, everyone must repent. Each of us have this sin problem - the wrong things we have done, thought and said; the good things we haven’t done. Each of us needs to repent, to be heartbroken over our sin and returning to the covenant God who is merciful and gracious.

We may not be facing a plague of locusts waiting at the edge of Dundonald to devastate our crops; but we continue to face the near judgement of our sins - the threat is just as real. On this side of the cross, we can see clearly the grace and mercy of God, as Jesus takes those wrong things we have done, takes our place, to die the death we deserve; to give us the heaven we don’t deserve. As we look back through history to the cross of Jesus, we can answer that question: ‘Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him?’

Jesus was judged and cursed because of our sin, your sin and mine, so that God relents in his attitude towards us - no longer condemnation, but grace and mercy. That’s why Jesus could appear on the scene at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel and declare: ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel (good news).’ (Mark 1:15). As we turn from sin and believe the promises of God about the character of God, we find that our sins are forgiven, the judgement has been avoided, and we are free to live and love and serve God.

We see that, as judgement has been averted, and God’s mercy and grace flow towards the people of God that God does indeed bless them - look on ahead to verse 25: ‘I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten...’ - blessing rather than curse; and all for the glory of God, so that the nations can’t ask ‘Where is their God?’ but so that all know that the LORD, he is God; the one who will pour out his Spirit on all his people.

Perhaps today you know that you face judgement; that you can’t stand in that day by yourself; that you answer that question of ‘who can endure it?’ by saying, not me. Our God does not change - he who was gracious and merciful in Joel’s day continues to be so, as we see revealed more fully in the person and work of the Lord Jesus. That offer still stands today - to rend your heart, to return to the Lord; to repent - which is required of everyone. Will you repent today? Remember the open arms of the prodigal son - that welcome is for you. Repent, and believe the good news.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 6th March 2011.

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