“Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” That’s how the prophet Joel began this chapter.
Joel writes because a disaster was engulfing the land. A locust plague was descending upon them. At the beginning of the book he had written, “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.” The prophet described the insects as a foreign invader: “For a nation has come up against my land, powerful and beyond number; its teeth are lions' teeth, and it has the fangs of a lioness. It has laid waste my vine and splintered my fig tree; it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down; their branches are made white.”
Joel described this event as “the day of the Lord.” He wrote, “Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.” The prophet describes it in this way because the locust plague was not just a case of “bad luck.” It wasn’t one of those random and uncontrollable things we can’t explain. Instead it had a very specific source and a very specific cause.
Yahweh had sent the locust plague. And he had done it as an act of judgment against the sin of the nation. This becomes crystal clear at the beginning of our text as Joel writes, “‘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.”
Unlike other Old Testament books written by prophets, we don’t really learn anything about how the nation had sinned. That’s one of things that makes Joel difficult to date. The only thing that is absolutely clear is that they had.
This lack of specificity makes Joel a perfect text for Ash Wednesday. Today begins the penitential season of Lent. During Lent we prepare again to observe the remembrance of our Lord Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday. We prepare to remember that Jesus Christ offered himself as the sacrifice for our sin. The season of Christmas was fun and Epiphany was nice. But now things get real. Now the church year rivets our attention on the reason the Son of God entered into our world and revealed his glory in our midst. He did it because of sin. He did it because of your sin.
The book of Joel doesn’t provide any details about how the nation had sinned. It simply calls the people to repentance because of their sin. We just know that it had happened. And that general character is very helpful for us tonight. Because the Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent confront our sin in all the ways it is present in our life.
It leads us back to the Ten Commandments for they are the diagnostic tool God has provided for identifying sin. Do your actions show that you are putting other things before God? Do you call upon God’s name to praise him, or only when you need help? Are you faithfully receiving the Means of Grace – God’s word – in all of its forms? Do you obey those in authority over you? Do you help your neighbor? Do you look at pornography in order to lust? Do you take what is not yours? Do you gossip and hurt the reputation of others? Do you covet the blessings and life that others possess?
There it is. There is the sin that brings the day of the Lord for you. And in the Old Testament we learn that the day of the Lord is not just about locust plagues. Instead, every act of judgment – every “day of the Lord” – points forward to the Day of the Lord. They all point to the Last Day and the day of judgment. They point to the judgment and damnation that all sinners will receive from the holy God.
However, that is not what God wants to happen. God takes no delight in the death of a sinner. Instead, what God wants is to save. This is grounded in his very character and being. We hear God say in our text, “‘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 he relents over disaster.”
God confronts us in our sin. He calls us to repentance – to return to him. And he doesn’t want just words. He doesn’t want people just to go through the motions. He wants us confess our sin; to regret our sin; and to return to him. Joel tells us that the reason we can do so is because “he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”
This statement, that Yahweh is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” repeats over and over again in the Old Testament. It is a refrain that runs all through God’s revelation before Christ. It says that God gives us what we don’t deserve. He doesn’t wish to be angry at sinners. He never runs out of faithful love. Why can you return to God in repentance? Because this is the God who meets you. This is the God who wants you to return so that he can forgive you.
God is very serious when it comes to forgiveness. The holy God wants to be gracious, merciful and loving toward you a sinner. He is gracious, merciful and loving. But he is also the holy God. For you the sinner, this holiness is like the radioactive heart of a nuclear power plant. To come into this presence can only result in horrible death.
Because this is so, God did something to make it possible for you to be with him. He the holy God sent his holy Son to become flesh – to become man. Through the incarnation, Jesus Christ – true God and true man – lived in our world. As we will see on Sunday he was tempted in all ways as we are, yet without sinning. He remained sinless in obedience to the Father. He went as the sinless sacrifice – the Lamb without any blemish – to the cross for you. God laid upon him your sin – he made him who knew no sin to be sin – in order to take away your sin. Now through faith and baptism you receive the forgiveness that he won. You have been clothed with Christ and when God looks at you he does not see your sin. Instead, he sees Jesus Christ’s holiness and righteousness.
God says, “‘Yet even now 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 he relents over disaster.” We repent and confess. We return to God in the confidence that God’s gracious, merciful and loving character has caused him to act in Jesus Christ so that we can be reconciled to the holy God; so that we can come to him without fear because in Christ he has taken our sin away.
We come to him knowing that he the living God does not give us judgment. Instead, in Christ he gives us life. Jesus died on Good Friday’s cross. He was buried in a tomb. But then on the third day, God raised him from the dead. Through the work of the Holy Spirit he transformed that body so that it cannot die again.
The risen Lord has now ascended into heaven. And it is as the ascended Lord that he poured forth the Holy Spirit. He did this on Pentecost in fulfillment of Joel’s words at the end of this chapter. On the day of Pentecost Peter said, “But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.’”
You now live in those last days. The Spirit of Christ who transformed Jesus’ body in the resurrection is going to work that same transformation for you. He will do it on the Last Day – the final Day of the Lord – when Jesus Christ returns in glory.
Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us, the Day of the Lord is no longer something to be feared. It is instead something for which we long. We pray, “Come Lord Jesus!” We can pray this because in Christ we have seen that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
And while we wait, we repent. We confess our sin. We repent and turn to God. We listen to his invitation: “Yet even now return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Because of Jesus Christ we return to the LORD our God in confidence, for he has demonstrated beyond all doubt that he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.