Ash Wednesday: Return to the Lord

Lessons: Joel 2:12-19, 2 Peter 1:2-11, Matthew 6:16-21
Hymns: LSB 610, 607, 956, 628, 421, 632

Listen to the entire service here (the sermon alone is above).

      Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

      When the people of Israel were about to enter the Promised Land, God gave His people promises of many blessings that they will experience for living in a bountiful land—a land flowing with milk and honey.

      But God warned them that if they depart from faith in the true God, He will bring about various punishments. These punishments were intended to cause the people of Israel to return to the Lord. For when the people would go about their wayward ways, God would eventually raise up various challenges for His people, causing them to realize that God is God and that they must turn to Him in every time of need. After all, He alone could rescue them from their plight.

      A good way to remember the discipline God would use when the Israelites turned away from the Lord is this: First, God would bring upon His people various devastations. If they did not repent, then God would send greater deprivations. If that did not bring them to the Lord in repentance, then God’s people would face deportation. If that did not cause them to repent, then they would finally face destruction.

      This may seem cruel, but discipline and chastening are often necessary for God’s people to remain God’s people. It is written in Hebrews 12:5-11, “’My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

      With this in mind, let’s consider the events that take place in our Old Testament reading, in the book of Joel. Joel was a prophet whom God raised up. He likely lived in the southern kingdom during the time of the various kings after Solomon. In Joel 1:4, the prophet writes, “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.”

      Could you image the land left so bare by all those locusts? Perhaps you recall a time when the Great Plains suffered from the plagues caused by the Rocky Mountain locust—a locust which is now extinct. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about it. Those menacing creatures consumed everything in sight that was green.

      And plagues like this even happened in the Promised Land to God’s people!

      Why? They had turned away from the Lord. They began to follow other gods to their hurt. They lived lives of drunkenness and immorality.

      So God raised up for them what they needed. They needed both the Law and the Gospel. The Law came to them in two ways—through the prophet Joel and through the locust plagues. God chastened His people, showing them they are not in charge in the way they may think. He can give and He can take away. God also sent the prophet to warn His people of the impending destruction. Joel also called God’s people to repentance.

      And Joel invited the people to return to the Lord—to call upon the Lord—to turn to Him in repentance and faith, receiving from our Lord His many blessings.

      In our Old Testament lesson, Joel proclaims why we would want to return to the Lord—even the same Lord who sent the devastating locust plague—because the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Joel 2:13). He even relents from bringing disaster. He can cause the land that has suffered devastation to recover quickly.

      While God reveals the Law to us in many ways, the Gospel is revealed to us only through His Word. The Law is written in our hearts. This means we have a conscience. The Law can include punishments people face like the locust plague. But the Gospel is only revealed in the Word of God. We don’t learn the goodness of God in nature. And we certainly cannot learn about our Triune God or the saving work of Christ on the cross anywhere but through the Word of God. In the Gospel, we hear that Jesus loves us, bore our sins in His Body, died on the cross to take our sin away, rose from the grave, and grants eternal salvation by grace to all who believe in Him. Such blessings!

      Therefore, the prophet Joel instructs the people to call an assembly—have God’s people gather together to fast in repentance and faith. They would do so to grieve over their sins and acknowledge their sinful condition. And God will restore them.

      But when should they do this? Perhaps it would be tempting to wait until the land recovers. Perhaps many would think, “I can’t go to an assembly after I suffered from this great devastation! I’m an emotional wreck!”

      Others may say, “I’m getting married, let me go on my honeymoon first and then I will return to the Lord.”

      For all those who make excuses or desire to delay, Joel had a response. He said, “Assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber” (Joel 2:16).

      When is the time to return to the Lord? Not tomorrow or the next day, but now! Joel uses the example of a couple about to get married. He instructs them to stop what they’re doing and return to the Lord immediately. Gather together, engage in a repentant fast, participate in the corporate repentance of the congregation, receive the absolution offered by God, and then go on with the plans.

      God extols marriage. He established it before the Fall with the union of Adam and Eve in holy matrimony. He wants couples to join together in marriage. He wants married couples to have children. He does not teach us to delay with marriage until after college or after we land some high-paying job or after this or that. Instead God blesses the union of couples, whether they’re 18 or 81.

      And yet, in this case, Joel is saying that it is time to drop everything and return to the Lord—an instruction that even the couple about to get married must follow. Why? He wants to draw people to Himself and receive the blessings Christ Jesus earned for them on the cross.

      In a sense, Lent is like that. Couples are encouraged to consider getting married before Lent or afterward (though this not is not commanded or forbidden). There are different types of fasts we may participate in during Lent. We may give up things we love to remind us of Christ’s bleeding, dying love. We give up flowers in the sanctuary during Lent to await the beauty of the lilies on Easter Sunday. We have buried our Alleluias and we are giving up the Gloria in Excelsis in the Divine Service.

      And after our fast, we celebrate with great joy the Resurrection of our Lord. We will rejoice that Jesus is triumphant over death and the grave—that He paid for our sins fully and grants us eternal life.

      That’s why our gracious and merciful Lord invites us to return to Him. He is the giver of every good thing—especially He gives us life and salvation through His only begotten Son. Amen.

      The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting.  Amen