In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Will God repent? That’s the question, and Joel is a little ambivalent. Perhaps, he says. Who knows? Maybe God will turn and repent, and leave a blessing after Him, a grain offering and a drink offering to Yahweh your God. The question comes in the midst of Joel’s warning that the Day of Yahweh is coming: a day of darkness, gloom, clouds, and blazing fire. God will come to Jerusalem, but it will be in the form of invading armies. The reason there are no grain and drink offerings in the house of God (1:13) is that the locusts and drought and famine have come on the people in judgment. And whatever nations are going to invade Israel will be like the locusts, leaving nothing behind. “The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but behind them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them” (2:3). The question is whether God will let His last word be wrath and destruction.
Perhaps before we jump to pious conclusions and platitudes, we ought to ask ourselves the same question. Are these the locust years of the Church of Jesus Christ in the United States? What will be left behind when the idolatry of individualism has finished its leveling, cutting, devouring work? What will be left of the altar of God when everything is subject to personal preference and subjective experience? When the pure confession of the word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ matter far less than what makes me feel good, comfortable, and personally fulfilled? When everyone thinks that as long as God is mentioned, it must be okay? When both people and pastors care only about filling up seats with warm bodies, rather than preaching and hearing, giving and receiving, nothing but Jesus, crucified and resurrected, according to His own chosen means? When the world and the church are indistinguishable, not because the world has changed, but because the church has surrendered the offense of the cross and preaches a false gospel which the unbelieving world gladly applauds? When the church gives away more and more and more ground to the culture of death that surrounds her? Looking around, I’m a little ambivalent, too. Who knows whether God will repent of the disaster that seems to loom over the American church? Will it be mercy, or will it be at the beginning of this Lent as it was at the time of Jonah: “Yet forty days, and Ninevah will be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4)
Even now, declares Yahweh, return to Me with an entire heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments. Ashes on your forehead are well and good, but those ashes cannot touch your mind or your heart. They might be a symbol of repentance and death; but they might, just as well, be a outward mark that hides unrepentance, because no one here would know one way or the other. But God knows, and His judgment is irrefutable. Do we think we can change His mind or turn Him away from what He has decided to do? We cannot, and if His final word were judgment and destruction because of our sin and apathy and divided hearts, there is nothing we could do about it. The judgment has been passed down long before you and I were even born.
But in spite of our fickle hearts, Yahweh has never changed. Though He will repent of destruction and calamity, He never repents of His mercy. Yahweh your God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. That is His Name, and He never changes His Name. Just as He told Moses, while hiding Him in the cleft rock, “Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, guarding steadfast love for thousands, lifting up iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:6-7). Moses worshiped and pleaded that the Lord go in the midst of them so that their iniquity and sin would be pardoned. So it was at the time of Joel: every single member of Israel, young and old, bride and bridegroom, no matter who they were—every single person was to gather before God, and the priests, behind empty altars, were to cry out and pray, “Spare your people, O Yahweh, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’ (2:15-17).
Where is our God? Does He find the guilty innocent and free of blame? No. It is not as if God goes around looking in hearts and some He finds innocent and turns His wrath from them; while others He finds guilty and visits His wrath on them and on their children. The turning of God from wrath and destruction to mercy and steadfast love does not happen in your heart or mine; it does not happen because you have ashes on your head, or because you are heartily sorry and sincerely repentant. The turning of God—His repentance—happens only at one intersection in all of human time and space: where time and eternity, heaven and earth, God and Man meet together: the cross of Jesus, the Christ. There God turns the destruction of sinners against His Son. There God repents of calamity against His rebellious people, but He will not repent of the cross, because it is His mercy, and Mercy is His Name. His Name is Yahweh, merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. He lifts up and bears Himself the weight of iniquity and transgression and sin. That is His Name, and His Name is what He does.
So return to Yahweh your God. You know He is merciful: not because everything you see around you tells you so; not because your heart is true and undivided; not because everything goes your way; not because the world is getting better and better; but because His Name was on the cross, and now His Name is on you. Water blessedly joined to the Word that declares to you what Jesus has done, that watery life takes the place of the ashy death on your forehead. You can see dust and ashes—that is, sin and death and the curse, but you believe the Word you hear in the water. And because Jesus’ death and resurrection are the turning point of all creation and history, you do not have to wonder about God’s goodness. Return to Yahweh your God! He has hid you in the cleft side of the Rock who is Christ, and when He has passed by, He leaves behind Him His sacrificed and living body and blood in the grain and drink offerings. Repent: confess it all and return to where His offering, His sacrifice, on your behalf is distributed.
Yahweh 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 longer make you a reproach among the nations. … Fear not, O land; be glad and rejoice, for Yahweh has done great things! … Be glad, O children of Zion, and rejoice in Yahweh 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. The threshing floor 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 … You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of Yahweh your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And My people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel[, as Moses prayed], and that I am Yahweh your God and there is none else. And My people shall never again be put to shame. … [And] everyone who calls on the name of Yahweh will be saved” (Joel 2:18-19, 21, 23-25a, 26-27, 32). Because the Name by which He has been revealed to us is Yah-shua, gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, guarding steadfast love for His thousands, leaving you in Holy Baptism a promise that is for you and for your children and for your children’s children forever (Acts 2:38-39).
And when these 40 days are over, the repentant will find what the people of Ninevah found: a gracious God, who raises up the dead.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/10/16