Return to the Lord your God

Return to ‘normal’ cry the headlines, we deserve it. Although 10% of the population say they never want to. Return, say the government to school, return to university, return to the office, if you have a negative lateral flow. Return to the High Street to save town centres. Return to restaurants - if you can find a table. Return to the cinema. Return to live theatre. Return to concerts. Return to sports stadiums for the Euros - if you can get a ticket. Return to foreign climes – if there’s a green light. Return to hugging – if you’re careful. On what basis can we return? Well conditionally and on the back of a vaccine roll out, a vaccine which will require boosting against future variants.

But what does the Lord God say? Return to me (Joel 2.12). Return to me with all your heart. To the people of Jerusalem at the time of Joel, a time of national disaster because of their sinful rebellion, the Lord says through Joel, Acts 2.12, return to me with all your heart, on the basis of his grace, (Acts 2.13), and an appeal to his honour (Acts 2.17). And what’s he primarily saying today through the pandemic, through this international disaster, and indeed not only during the pandemic? Return to normal?

No! Rather like in Joel 2, he says: Yet even now (do you see that Acts 2.12)? Yet even now...Return to me! Wake up and return to me for judgment is coming. As we saw the other week from Romans 6.23:

The wages of sin is death [eternal death in hell], but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So wake up and return to the Lord God with all your heart. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful and receive his free gift. How? The Lord God says, Joel 2.12:

Yet even now, return to me with all your heart…and rend your hearts and not your garments.

So not half-heartedly but genuinely repentant. On what basis can we genuinely return to the Lord? On the basis of his unchanging grace. We can’t earn it and don’t deserve it. Joel 2.13:

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.

Return not primarily for our own sake but for the Lord’s name’s sake, that we might be his witnesses to the nations in response to his grace, Joel 2.17:

…why should they say among the peoples ‘Where is their God?

Or to put it all in New Testament terms, Jesus says, through the parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15.27) “come home, come home and know God’s unconditional love” (a father’s love I’d never experienced until I came home to the Lord, as my own father struggled to show such love), or as Jesus puts it in Mark 1.15: Repent and believe in the gospel. And you will be my witnesses to the end of the earth in the power of the Spirit (Acts 1.8).

Who today needs to come home to God, to turn back to him, to repent and believe in the good news of Jesus and know his grace and love, meaning and purpose? Paul writes in Ephesians 2.8-10 that we’re not saved or rescued by good works, rather by grace, by God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense, through faith in Christ, but we are saved for good works which God has prepared for us to walk in. And 1 Peter 1.9, those who come home, those who repent and believe:

are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation; a people for his [the Lord’s] own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.

Do you see? So let’s now look more closely at Joel 2.12-17. As we’ve seen Joel 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. Joel 1.4, 9 & 13 - total devastation. The wine’s been cut off, food’s been cut off, provisions for livestock have been lost - even the offerings for the temple have been cut off. 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.

And the locust plague in Judah signals the day of the Lord drawing near (Joel 1.15) - a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness (Joel 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’s controlling it, commanding it. Joel 2.11:

‘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 does your sin condemn you? Again Romans 6.23:

The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

People today are caught in the same situation as the people of God in Jerusalem - God’s judgment awaits; the enemy is at the gates; the death that we deserve because of our sinful rebellion lies ready to pounce. Even as that question hangs in the air - who can endure it - the Lord himself speaks, making his appeal and invitation through Joel. Again notice those words at the start of Joel 2.12. Yet even now. So what does it mean to turn back to the Lord, to repent and believe, what is repentance? Well here it’s Rending (your heart) and Returning (to the Lord), and is Required of all.

One of the better known lines from Joel comes at the start of Joel 2.13: ‘rend your hearts and not your garments’, implying that Israel was characterised by half-heartedness and a superficial response to God with outward ‘garment-tearing’ about as deep as it got. But you say what does it mean to rend your hearts? It’s helpful to look at the contrast between rending heart and rending garments. To rend your garment was to tear it in two - it was an outward sign of mourning, a ceremonial act of grief. But 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 showing off your ripped jeans (your garment tearing), to kneel and pray ‘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, the very essence of our being. All too often we’re comfortable with our sin, rather than 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 in God’s power, 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 sitting in the pigpen, he knew he’d done wrong, but if he’d stayed there, he would never have found forgiveness and acceptance. Yet even now (even in the face of judgement) return to me with all your heart, comes the invitation from the Lord, Joel 2.12. You see, heartfelt repentance will lead to true fasting, weeping and mourning - whereas outwards gestures won’t lead to inner change. We’ve 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 Joel 2.13:

…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.

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 is the Lord. 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 Joel 2.14:

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? Well, we see that repentance is required of all. Joel 2.16:

Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.

From the oldest to the youngest - from elders to nursing infants, everyone must repent. Each of us have this sin problem – putting ourselves first and not God, living without reference to him, the wrong things we’ve done, thought and said; the good things we haven’t done. Each of us needs to repent, to be heartbroken over our sin and return to the covenant God who is merciful and gracious. We may not be facing a plague of locusts waiting at the edge of Newcastle to devastate our crops; but we continue to face the near judgement of our sin –the threat is just as real. On this side of the cross, we can see very clearly the grace and mercy of God, as Jesus takes those wrong things we’ve 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 in Joel 2.14:

Who knows whether he will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind him?

You see 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 (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’s been avoided, and we’re free to live and love and serve God. We see too 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 Joel 2.25:

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? (Joel 2.17) 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 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 doesn’t 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 Christ. That offer still stands today - to rend your heart, to return to the Lord; to repent - which is required of everyone. Will you repent and believe today? Remember the open arms of the prodigal son’s father - that welcome is for you. Come home. Repent, and believe the good news. Perhaps you’ve drifted away from the Lord or you’re new to this news. Come home. And in response go and tell others of the need to do the same. Pray and tell the nations to return to the Lord, in his power and so be involved in turning the world upside down. Now I know it’s hard to believe – you’re thinking I look too young, but my first grandchild was born this week to Chris and Rosy  (Lydia Grace Olivia Redfearn, 8ibs 3oz) so it’s been difficult concentrate, but it wakes you up to how important turning the world upside down humbly under God really is – for her immediate future and yours.

I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten...

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