“‘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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this evening comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the prophet Joel. Dear friends in Christ, it’s Ash Wednesday and I’m still not sure what I’m going to give up for Lent. I’ve thought about giving up watching sports, eating sweets, television, Facebook, or even the internet, but I haven’t been able to settle on any one thing. Surely, I have to give up something, right? It’s just what Christians do during Lent; giving up something has become a very popular way to commemorate this season, and so I have to deprive myself in some way. And it’s much better if I’m constantly reminding others about what I’m giving up and asking them what they’re doing, and so, what about you? Have you decided what you’re giving up for Lent?
Here’s an idea for you and for me: Give up sin for Lent! “‘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.” God tells us to quit messing around, to stop our pathetic show of outward piety. He doesn’t care if we quit eating chocolate for Lent, He cares about the condition of our heart. He is tired of His people pretending to be sorrowful over sin, He is disgusted with empty repentance. We can make a big show of repentance, we can even put ashes on our head, but He could care less how dirty our heads are tonight if we aren’t sorrowful over our sin. Jesus said in our Gospel lesson: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.” Christ doesn’t care about the outward show; He looks to the heart. This is the same teaching we find in Joel: “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” Give up your sin for Lent! Don’t waste your time abstaining from steak if you continue to live in unrepentant sin. Examine your life deeply this Lenten season, make that your discipline. Look into every nook and cranny of your life, and expose the sin that hides in secret. Use the mirror of God’s Holy Law to bring all of your sin to light, especially the sin that no one else knows about.
Then repent of it; turn away from that sin and toward God. “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.” Give up your sin for Lent! “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to your Creator, come back to Him in repentance, in sorrow and mourning over your great sin. Carry your secret sins to His altar and beg for forgiveness, confess them with the tears of repentance. Bring your sin into the light, confess them before God Himself and the servants God has given to you. Your pastor isn’t quite ready to institute the regular practice of private confession and absolution; he wants to teach a bible class first and write a few newsletters. Force his hand; demand that he hear your confession. Remind your pastor of his ordination vows, that he has been placed here by Jesus Christ Himself to hear your confession and intercede before God on your behalf. Make him do his job! Hold his feet to the fire, demand that he do what he has been called to do. Without private confession and absolution, you are being robbed of one of Christ’s greatest gifts; demand that your pastor provide it to you.
For he is commanded to do what the priests did in our text: “Between the vestibule and the altar let the priest, 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”?’” Your sins deserve death, each and every one of them, eternal death in hell; that is what God’s Law shows you when you examine yourself this Lenten season. God’s servants are charged to plead with Him to save you, to spare you from the punishment your sin has earned. Their task is to intercede on your behalf, they are to bring the petitions of those they serve before His throne of grace. They are to hear your confession, your secret sins and your public sins, and then plead to God for mercy, giving you assurance on the basis of His character. “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster.” Look to who your God is, take comfort there! “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?”
You cannot make God be merciful, but you can trust that He will be merciful, that He will spare, that He will relent, because that is who He is. Your God is love. “Then the Lord became jealous for His land and had pity on His people.” God is jealous for you; He will give you up into Satan’s grasp, He will not let you die in your sin. He relents over the disaster that was prepared for you, because He has provided a substitute for you. St. Paul writes in our Epistle lesson, “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” This sinless substitute is Jesus Christ; through His death and resurrection, God will show forth His character as the God of love. “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster.” Christ was made sin so that God could show grace and mercy to you. The Father’s anger was slow because He knew that one day He would offer up His Son. Even today His anger is slow; the return of Christ and the end of the world is delayed only for the sake of God’s beloved creation, that more people would be saved through the blood of Christ. The Lord relents over disaster because the disaster fell upon Christ. Jesus on the cross is the definitive display of God’s gracious character. Joel wrote, “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?” We know, because He sent us Jesus, to suffer, die, and rise again on our behalf.
We know because He has sent us His great gifts. “The Lord answered and said to His people, ‘Behold, I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.’” Christ has left behind Him the very gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Examine your life deeply this Lenten season, seeing your sin in light of God’s Law; then run in repentance to where Christ pours forth the forgiveness He won on the cross. Run to the font each and every day, washing yourself clean once again in repentance and faith, drowning the Old Adam and bringing forth the new man to live before God! Run to your pastor; hold him to his ordination vows, demand that he hear your confession and then hear the sweet words of the absolution forgive that sin. Bring your secret sins out into the light and confess them to a man who has been placed here by Christ to hear them and forgive them in His stead and by His command. Run tonight to this altar, where Christ gives Himself to you for the forgiveness of your sins. Here, in this place, on this very night, Christ declares to you, “Behold, I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.” Run to where Christ is present for you, for Jesus pours out His gifts in abundance upon His repentant people.
For the next five Wednesdays, we will run to God’s house to hear God’s Law and repent of our sin, then we will hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ and receive His forgiveness. Joel calls on all people to hear of this salvation together. “Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.” Together we will hear of our sin; together we will hear of Christ’s death and resurrection as the answer to that sin. This Lenten season, we run together to the cross, where “the Lord became jealous for His land and had pity on His people.” Amen.