“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 is how the prophet Joel described the situation in the prior chapter.
He declares that the Day of the Lord is coming – it is near. There was an army approaching. But this was not an army of soldiers and chariots. Instead, it was a plague of locusts.
In the first chapter Joel had said, “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.” Like an army, they were devastating the land. The prophet says, “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.”
Locust plagues were part of life in the Near Eastern world. They happened from time to time. But the prophet’s words make it clear that this was no random event. Instead, it was the “day of the Lord.” It was an act of judgment by Yahweh against Israel. We don’t learn any specific information about what Israel had done. But based on what we know from elsewhere in the Old Testament it seems all but certain that this was God’s punishment for idolatry – worshipping the false gods of the surrounding peoples.
Up until our text, Joel has spoken about the destruction being brought by the locusts and how it is the day of the Lord drawing near. But in our text, God offers a word of hope through the prophet. He says, “‘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.”
Yahweh calls Israel to repentance – to genuine confession of their sin. It is not enough just to go through the motions. He says, “rend your hearts and not your garments.” But in our text God does not simply tell Israel to repent. He tells them why there is hope in repentance. There is hope because of the very character of their God. We hear, “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.”
This is a kind of “creedal statement” in the Old Testament that is repeated again and again. Many people like to describe “the God of the Old Testament” as an angry and wrathful God. But instead, this is what God reveals about himself.
He is gracious and merciful – he wants to give his people what they don’t deserve, and he wants to help them. He is slow to anger. God is not One who is ready to “go off” at the first provocation. And he is abounding in steadfast love. As the apostle John tells us, God is love. This truth that God is defined by love is emphasized in Psalm 136 where the refrain in the second half of every verse is: “for his steadfast love endures forever.”
This is what God is like. And that is why he says in our text, “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.” He calls his people to repentance because he is the gracious, merciful, and loving God who forgives – who relents over disaster.
We learn in our text that the people responded to the Word of the Lord. There was another call for the trumpet to be blown. But this was not a sound of warning about impending doom. Instead, it was a call for all the people to gather in repentance. We hear, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.” The priests were called to weep at the temple and confess, “Spare your people, O LORD, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”
On this Ash Wednesday we are entering into the season of Lent. Although we are always called to repent, this is a time in the life of the Church when we place a special emphasis on repentance. We examine our lives and confess those things and ways by which God take second place. We confess the ways that we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. We confess the ways we have coveted, lusted, and hated. We confess the ways that we have harmed our neighbor’s reputation.
We do this during the season of Lent as a preparation for Holy Week. God has not changed. He is still the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. He expressed this in the Old Testament through the prophets as he shared his intention to act in a way that would provide forgiveness to all people.
In our Gospel lesson this past Sunday we heard Jesus say, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.”
We prepare during Lent to observe again the remembrance of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. At Christmas we celebrated the fact that God sent his Son into the world as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Jesus Christ, who is true God and true man, was Emmanuel – God with us – as he lived in this world as one of us without ceasing to be God.
During Epiphany we saw that Jesus the sinless One was baptized by John the Baptist as he received a baptism of repentance. The Spirit of God descended like a dove and came to rest on him, and God the Father said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” God identified Jesus as the Servant of the Lord – as the suffering Servant who would bear the sins of all.
Our Lord went to Jerusalem to be mocked, and scourged, and crucified. Yet while he endured this physical suffering and humiliation for us, it was but a sign of the true depths of his agony. In the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Jesus had come to drink the cup of God’s wrath against our sin. St. Paul put this in stark terms when he wrote, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Jesus Christ died on the cross as the sacrifice who received God’s judgment – his punishment, his damnation that we deserve because of our sins. By his death, he has redeemed us – he has freed us from sin. But God wasn’t done. Lent prepares us for Holy Week. At the end of the that week, Jesus’ dead body was buried in a tomb. But Holy Week leads to Easter, for just as Jesus Christ had told his disciples, on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead.
On Good Friday it looked like God had rejected Jesus. But as Paul told the Romans, he “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” God vindicated Jesus as the Christ who had fulfilled the Scriptures and won for us the forgiveness of sins. And in the resurrection of Jesus, God defeated death. In the resurrection of Jesus, he began the resurrection of the Last Day that will be ours as well when he returns in glory.
Lent is a time when we consider the sin in our life. We do not seek to excuse it, or minimize it, or ignore it. Instead, we confess it. We listen to God’s words through the prophet Joel, “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.”
Joel assured the people of Israel that they could repent and turn to God, “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” We are able to so for the same reason. It is still true, and now we have seen it revealed in the most amazing way.
We have seen God send his Son into the world in order to suffer and die for our sins to give us forgiveness. We have seen God raise Jesus Christ on Easter, as he defeated death and gave us the hope of eternal life with him. We repent and confess our sins confident that because of Jesus Christ, God forgives us, loves us, and gives us eternal life with him.