Assurance for returning sinners

Many moons ago, a student whom I’ll call John settled with us as a Fresher and after starting well at uni as a Christian, he suddenly disappeared of the radar. Two months later, I finally made contact again, and what had happened is that he’d got bad news from home, he’d got blind drunk in response, and ended up in bed with a girl whose name he couldn’t even remember. And he said, “I can’t tell you how bad I feel. I’ve not been able to face Christians since. And as for facing God, I don’t see any way back”. I wonder if you’ve ever felt like that, or do right now: that you’ve gone so badly wrong, as a Christian, that you don’t see how the Lord could possibly keep accepting and loving you as before. Only how you’ve gone wrong might not be a single thing like John, but a long, drawn-out time. Like a friend of mine who, after uni, walked away from the Lord for several years, and who, looking back, said it was so inexcusable he didn’t deserve another chance. Or like an ongoing struggle with anger or alcohol or something, where your failures leave you feeling that God should just give up on you for good.

Well, if and when we feel like that, tonight’s passage in our series in Joel is a vital part of God’s Word for us, because it’s all about Assurance for returning sinners and before we look at it, let’s pray:

Whether we come to you at our worst or best, we always come as sinners, and always face the question: how you can accept us and keep loving us. So through this part of your Word, please answer us and assure our hearts. In Jesus’ name, Amen

So we’re in the Old Testament book of the prophet Joel, who preached when God sent a devastating locust plague on his people Israel, to wake them up to the dire state of their relationship with him. And for the Lord to do something that serious shows that his peoples’ relationship with him was in serious trouble. Some had walked away from him completely, others were just going through the motions of serving him. And yet through the locusts and Joel, the Lord wasn’t saying, “I’ve given up on you” but, “I want you back!” which we saw last week in Joel 2.12:

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart…”

Last week we heard Joel explaining how to return, and this week, we’ll hear Joel assuring people of God’s acceptance when they do. Originally, Joel was speaking to those who professed to be God’s people, but who needed to turn back to him, having sinned. And that’s actually the story of our lives, if we’re Christians because we profess to be the Lord Jesus’ people, but continually need to turn back to him, having sinned. And because we already know Jesus, our sin is more offensive and inexcusable than that of someone who doesn’t yet know him. Which means that what Joel says here to assure God’s people that they can be forgiven and accepted also applies to someone who’s never yet turned to God at all. Which may be you, tonight. So to God’s people who were wondering if God would forgive and accept them, Joel said, “Yes he will” and he gave two big reasons. And reason number one is:

1. God’s jealousy for his own honour

Here’s Joel 2.12-13 again:

“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 then in Joel 2.17 Joel told them what to pray as they returned:

…say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage [the land of Israel] a reproach [ie a source of disgrace to you], a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”

So do you see what that prayer is doing? It’s appealing to God’s sense of honour. It’s saying, Lord, please spare us more of this locust-judgement, and restore us. And do that for your sake. Do that so that people around us don’t say, ‘Well, where is their God? He doesn’t seem to be blessing them – or even really there. After all, look at the state they’re in!” So Joel was saying, “Appeal to the Lord’s sense of honour – because his honour is bound up with you.” So now let’s read into this week’s passage Joel 2.18:

Then the Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people.

So between Joel 2.17- 18, Joel assumes that the people have returned and prayed as he said, and from Joel 2.18, he assures them of how the Lord will answer. And, as the prophets sometimes did, he put some of it in the past tense as if to say, “It’s as good as done, you can be that sure God will do this”. So Joel 2.18 again:

Then the Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people.

And if you don’t like the idea of the Lord being jealous, remember there’s right jealousy as well as wrong. So wrong jealousy is wanting to have something that’s not rightfully ours – like someone else’s looks or talents or girl/boyfriend. Whereas right jealousy is wanting to have what is rightfully ours, and to see it going nowhere else – like the love of a spouse. And the one, true, Creator God of the Bible, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus, is rightly jealous for his honour, in the sense that he should be honoured as God by everyone on the planet, because he made them and they owe him everything. And that honour shouldn’t go anywhere else, whether to the gods of other religions, or to humanity putting itself in God’s place in secular humanism. So here in Joel 2.18, the Lord became jealous for his land and his people because his honour was bound up with them. And in a sense, the Lord had ‘risked’ his honour in the eyes of the world by bringing this disciplinary judgement on them, because with their land half-eaten by locusts, it didn’t look like he was doing much of a job of being their God. But now they’d returned to him, and the discipline was no longer needed, he could bless them again, not only for their good but at the same time for his honour. Joel 2.18-20 again:

Then the Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people. The Lord answered and said to his people, “Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations. “I will remove the northerner far from you, [I think that’s talking about the locusts as an enemy from the north] and drive him into a parched and desolate land, his vanguard into the eastern sea, and his rearguard into the western sea; the stench and foul smell of him will rise, for he has done great things.

So the first reason Joel gives to assure God’s people that God will forgive and accept them is God’s jealousy for his own honour. So just think about that student I called John, who couldn’t see any way back after what he’d done, who thought God must now give up on him. And one thing I said to John is that God doesn’t give up on his people, because that would dishonour him. That would go back on the commitment he’s made to us. So following this truth through into the New Testament, the Lord Jesus said (John 6.37):

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.

In other words, “I will never give up on them. Their sin will not get rid of me. Instead, I will stay in their lives to get rid of their sin and change them, in a way that brings me honour.” and that’s what we’re asking for every time we say the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6.9):

Hallowed be your name

In other words, “May our lives bring honour to your name.” And if God were to give up on us in our failure, it wouldn’t bring him honour; it would look like he’d been defeated by our sin. Whereas to keep forgiving us and changing us does bring him honour, because it shows that he’s bigger than our sin and can deal with it. So that’s the first reason Joel gives to assure God’s people that God will forgive and accept them. It’s his jealousy for his own honour. And then the other reason he gives is:

2. God’s all-forgiving, committed love

And last week we saw how Joel told God’s people to appeal to that as well, as they turned back to God. Joel 2.13:

Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love

So gracious and merciful is the all-forgiving part, there’s nothing he can’t forgive if we turn to him, and steadfast is the committed part. And they go hand in hand: it’s because he is able to forgive all sin that he can commit to us and never give up loving us. So look on again to this week’s passage and Joel 2.21-22:

Fear not, O land; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! Fear not, you beasts of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit; the fig tree and vine give their full yield.

So Joel was saying, fear not to the land and the animals which had been hit by the locusts, but he’s really addressing God’s people, isn’t he? And their fear was that the locust plague wasn’t just a disciplinary judgement, but a final judgement. Their fear was that instead of it being God’s wake-up call to return to him, it was God saying, “I give up on you.” And through Joel, God assured them that those fears were false.

One fearful moment for me was when, age 7, I set fire to our fence. We were having a bonfire, and Dad gave me a huge cardboard box to burn, “But tear it into small pieces and burn them one by one,” he said. Whereas I thought it would be much more spectacular to put it on whole. Which it was.
Because it caught fire, the wind blew it across the garden and onto the new wooden fence, and the rest you can imagine. But that wasn’t the fearful bit. The fearful bit was seeing my parents more angry than ever before, and them sending me to my room indefinitely, which they’d never done before. And as I sat there, I wondered what they’d do with me, including whether maybe they’d get rid of me, give me away to an orphanage, or something. Because, like Israel in Joel’s day, my fear was that a disciplinary judgement was in fact a final judgement. And Israel had to learn that this locust-judgement wasn’t God going back on his love for them, it was God expressing his love for them in the form of discipline because, as parents know, the opposite of love isn’t discipline, but indifference. So actually, God had been loving Israel all through this locust judgement. And so through Joel he said “Fear not…Don’t fear that this locust judgement was my final judgement, my rejection. It was actually a loving, disciplinary judgement to call you back.”

And ultimately, it’s only the New Testament that answers the question ‘How can God spare us the final judgement we deserve, so that we can live instead in his love, including the discipline that’s part of it?’ And the answer is the cross, where Jesus his Son took the final judgement we deserve, the rejection we deserve, so that if we trust in him we will never face it. So like Israel in Joel’s day, we may experience God’s discipline in the form of serious consequences of some of our sins, and in the form of a sense of God’s hand being heavy upon us – as one Psalm puts it (Psalm 32.4) But in times like that, and looking back on times like that, we can remember the cross and be assured that God has never stopped loving us at any point. And we can know the truth of the old saying that ‘In his love, God is always working…to disturb those who are comfortable in their sin, and to comfort those who are disturbed by their sin.’ I wonder which of those he’s doing for you right now? And the comfort that flows from Jesus’ death for our sins is that whoever we are, Christian believers, or not yet, and whatever we’ve done, from walking away from Jesus, to never having come to Jesus in the first place, he can forgive us and accept us. And there’s a lovely glimpse of the joy that brings in Joel 2.23:

“Be glad, O children of Zion, and rejoice in the Lord your God, for he has given the early rain for your vindication; he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the latter rain, as before…”

So as well as locusts, there’d also been drought. And back in Deuteronomy 28.23-24, 38, the Lord had said he would use both locusts and drought as disciplinary judgements if Israel turned away from him. And he had. But now, as well as removing locusts, God was restoring rain. And the two words at the end of Joel 2.23 really bring home what God’s grace (his all-forgiving love) does:

…he has given the early rain for your vindication; he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the latter rain, as before.

So the restored rain was to show them that he was going to treat them as he had before they’d turned away from him, in fact, as if they’d never turned away at all. And that’s what grace does, it restores us to relationship with God as before, as if we’d never sinned. Read on, Joel 2.24-25:

The threshing floors shall be full of grain; the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you.

And then in Joel 2.26 you see one result the Lord intended from all this – which is, thankfulness:

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously [or amazingly] with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.

So God’s people in Joel’s day had grown up familiar with God and the Bible, and familiarity had bred contempt. So it wasn’t amazing to them that he forgave them and accepted them and blessed them with everything they had. That was taken for granted. That was his job wasn’t it, regardless of how they related to him? And so he let them taste life with his blessing withdrawn and the fear that there was no way back. And then he showed them his grace again. And maybe he’s taken you along that same path so that you don’t take him for granted, either, but can now sing:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch; like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

[John Newton, Amazing Grace]

And, for many of us, the hour the Lord brought us back to himself from some big fall or wander, as well. And then the other result the Lord intended from all this was wholeheartedness (Joel 2.27):

You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the Lord your God and there is none else.

So before all this, they didn’t really believe there was none else. They were still thinking, “maybe following other gods and goals is better”. And so he let them taste that it wasn’t, and then brought them back to make them not just thankful, but wholehearted.

I mentioned at the start my friend who, after uni, walked away from the Lord for several years. And since turning back, he’s been a very thankful, wholehearted Christian indeed, because, as he once said to me, “I was such a fool to walk away from the Lord, and he could have left me to it, but didn’t.
And I will never, never get over that”. And that’s where the Lord wanted to get people in Joel’s day. And that’s where he wants to get us, too. Let’s pray:

We pray that in your grace, as you’ve promised, you would never give up on us. And we pray that we would never get over your grace. In Jesus’ name. Amen

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