Return To Me With All Your Heart. Ash Wednesday 2016
St. Peter Lutheran Church
February 10, 2016
“Return To Me With All Your Heart”
“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.” Joel 2:12
“Return to Me,” God says at the beginning of Lent.
And possibly, you are thinking, “Return? But I’ve never left you, Lord. I believe in Jesus. I’m not aware of any grave sins in my life, only the normal struggles with sin that none of us can avoid.”
When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden, they were too busy to stop and consider what had happened, what they had done. First they realized they were naked and set about to cover themselves up with fig leaves. Then they heard the sound of the Lord God and they were busy with trying to hide among the trees of the garden. They were busy trying to deal with their sin themselves, and that occupied their minds so that they did not have time to stop and think about what they had done.
Until God called, “Adam, where are you?”
Then they started to realize where they were. They were separated from the God who made them. They were far away from Him—not physically, but spiritually. They had taken leave of Him in their hearts.
Then He called, and they had to come out and face Him, look into His eyes and see their guilt reflected back at them, face the punishment they had brought upon themselves.
When God says “Return to Me,” He is calling to us just like He did to Adam and Eve. He calls us to stop and consider where we are, something we often don’t do because we are busy—busy, in the end, running from God. You may not have committed any conscious, willful sins against God. You may not be living in any sin you consider great. Or you may be.
Regardless, God calls you to return to Him. All our sins of thought, word, and deed alienate us from the Triune God, the giver of life. And we are always turning from God. Turning from Him to make an idol of our work or our pleasure, drawn away from loving God above all other things. Even when it is as common a thing as neglecting to pray, we are withdrawing from the living God.
God calls us, even commands us in His Law, to be wholly and completely His people. We are not supposed to be partially God’s, but wholly His own—heart, soul, and body. “Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ…gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession…” (Titus 2:13-14) “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.” We were created to love God and to be wholly His. And after we fell, we were re-created in Baptism in order to be God’s own.
And yet no matter who you are, how holy you are, you have not been wholly the Lord’s. You have not been faithful to your God.
“Return to Me with all your heart.” During the season of Lent we are invited to take to heart just how serious a thing it is to depart from God.
The ashes we put on our heads are not decorations. They remind us of the consequences of departing from God. “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” God told Adam (Genesis 3:17). “The wages of sin is death,” says Paul in the 6th chapter of Romans. By the sin in which we were conceived, the sins we have committed unintentionally and those we have committed willfully, we have brought death on ourselves. Each one of us must one day experience the pain and agony of death because of our sins, and along with it (unless God grants us grace), we will also experience the fear and sorrow of knowing that it is the just punishment for our sin. The things we love and enjoy in this world—friends, children, loved ones, along with food and drink and every other lawful pleasure—we will have to leave to come before God. We will return to Him to be judged when we die, whether or not we willingly return to Him in this life.
The ashes also symbolize something worse than death. They symbolize the wrath of God. Just as Sodom and Gomorrah was burnt to ashes by fire that fell from heaven because of God’s wrath and indignation, so we deserve to be burnt in the eternal fire of hell for departing from the Lord.
Even more, during Lent we see our sins reflected in the suffering of Jesus. See how Jesus sweat blood in Gethsemane for fear of God’s wrath. How he was condemned and suffered the physical agony and shame of the flogging, the mockery, and the crucifixion. See above all how He cried out on the cross that He was forsaken by God.
Jesus never departed from the Lord. He always obeyed, always loved God, never turned away from God to give the love, faith, and worship of His heart to something or someone else. And if this innocent Son of God suffered so bitterly for sins that were not His own, what kind of torment will come to people who do not return to the Lord in repentance?
So what does it mean to return to the Lord with all your heart? How is it done?
It is not something we can do by our own free will. When we return to the Lord, it is because the Spirit of God turns us. Through His Word He makes us see where we are, how we have left behind the God of life and tried to find life elsewhere. And through His Word He reveals what restores us to Him—the suffering of Jesus.
To return to the Lord is first of all to listen to the Word of God, His voice calling to us “Where are you?” Like Adam, we hear God’s voice while we are hiding. To return to the Lord means to listen to that voice as it exposes our sins. We stop running and examine ourselves in the light of the ten commandments. By that light we see how we have departed from God. We learn to know ourselves; we recognize that we are not able to return to God by keeping His Law, because our sinful nature prevents us from fulfilling it.
Second, to return to the Lord means to confess our helplessness to God and seek His grace.
Third, and most importantly, we believe the Gospel that God proclaims to us. In the face of our sins, we cling to the good news that God does not count our sins to us. He has given them to His Son, who made atonement for them with His blood. By Jesus’ suffering and death God receives us as if we had never departed from Him. He has made peace with God for us so that our sins are not counted to us. Believing in Him, we return to God.
Finally, having returned to God through faith in Christ live in Christ. We devote ourselves to His Word and draw near to Him daily in prayer, asking for His help to put away our old nature and to put on the image of Christ. We devote ourselves to good works, not merely turning away from sin but practicing the good works God would have us do. We give ourselves to neighbors by serving them in the positions to which God has called us; we forgive those who sin against us; we show mercy to the poor and to those who have not heard the Gospel. We pray for and mourn over our neighbors, seeking their salvation.
But you will notice that the reading from Joel does mentions other things besides repentance and faith. “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.” (Joel 2:12-13) “With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” What does fasting, weeping, and mourning have to do with returning to the Lord?
“Fasting, weeping, and mourning” are outward signs of the sorrow we should feel because of sin. But fasting also has another purpose. It helps to discipline the flesh, to put it to death so that we are able to give our attention to the Word of God and prayer. It is also a way of humbling the flesh. Fasting helps us to hear and to pray by disciplining our bodies so that we can give our attention to His Word and prayer.
Fasting need not be difficult. It is simply a matter of limiting or abstaining from food for a certain period of time, and then using that time to engage in self-examination, confession, meditation on the Word and prayer. A simple way to fast would be to skip one meal on Wednesdays during Lent, and then to attend Matins or Vespers to hear the Word and pray. A more difficult fast would be to abstain from food until after sundown one or two days a week
Finally, in the reading from Joel God gives promises and encouragements to those who would return to Him with all their hearts.
“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. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?” (Joel 2:13-14)
Again, God says through Joel: “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.” (Joel 2:18-19)
Today it is largely forgotten that God not only punishes sin eternally in hell for those who do not return to Him; He also sends earthly chastisements and punishments for sins to bring us to repentance.
Most of us have many crosses and difficulties in our personal lives. Besides this our congregation experiences many difficulties with declining attendance and an increasing budget deficit. On top of this there are the troubles we see afflicting our synod, our nation, and the Church throughout the world.
We don’t always know the reason that God allows these difficulties to come to us. But we know that He does send “temporal punishments” and chastisements for sin, and we know that we have plenty of sins for which He could rightly punish us. But in this reading from Joel God says that He is gracious and merciful and often “relents from disaster,” turning away the temporal punishments we have brought on ourselves when we return to Him with all our heart. How many of the difficulties experienced in our homes, our church, and our nation might be averted if we returned to the Lord with “fasting, mourning, and weeping”?
God encourages us about this, but does not promise that He will turn away all suffering. But though we are not promised that all our earthly suffering will be averted by returning to Him with all our hearts, we are promised that He will receive all who repent and turn to Him in grace. He will graciously forgive them their sins, turn His face toward them, and give them eternal life.
When Adam heard God call, “Where are you?” and Adam returned to God, He must have been full of grief and terror. He must have feared the punishment He deserved and grieved over the way He had squandered the honor God had given Him.
But when He returned to the Lord He did not find destruction or shame. Instead the Lord promised that He would send a man who would destroy the power of the serpent who had deceived him. Adam was promised that in the future a man would destroy the power of death. And though Adam deserved shame and had to live under a curse, God promised him that he would be relieved of his disgrace. An offspring of the woman would bear Adam’s shame, suffering death and condemnation for his sin. He would silence the devil’s accusations against Adam and his offspring by bearing their offenses.
In the same way when we return to the Lord, facing the bitterness of our sins, He shows us grace instead of punishing us. We return to the Lord in sorrow for our sins and hold fast to His promise that Christ bore them. And in Christ’s wounds God’s wrath passes over us. He receives as though we had never departed from Him. He replaces our shame with honor.
May the Lord aid us this Lent to return to Him with our whole hearts, that we may learn to know His grace, mercy, patience, and steadfast love.
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Soli Deo Gloria