121007 Joel 2:12-17

Last Updated on Monday, 08 October 2012


The following sermon was written and preached by Seminarian Lucas Bitter.

Sermon Text: Joel 2:12-17
Sermon Theme: "Rend Your Hearts and Not Your Garments"

She was just getting ready for Christmas. Her husband had dug out the boxes of decorations from the basement and they were stringing up garlands around the house, hanging up Christmas lights, getting the house all cozy and happy for the family to come over. She was standing on this ladder at the foot of her staircase, hanging up a wreath on the wall, and suddenly she lost her balance and slipped. Eight feet down and crunch. Soon as she hit the ground she knew something was wrong. She had broken in a really bad way, just below the knee. I went and visited her in the hospital and she was in a ton of pain. But they set her leg back into place, and then right away they did an operation and put in a steel plate and some screws. Before you knew it she was able to leave the hospital and go home. She had to stay in bed for a while but pretty soon she could sit on the couch and even start hobbling around without too much pain. Her leg didn't hurt that much– but there was bad news. She still had to go to physical therapy. And physical therapy was painful. See, her leg had done some healing but there was all kinds of scar tissue built up around the knee joint. She had nowhere near to the range of motion that you're supposed to have in your knee; she couldn't straighten her leg at all. Now if she stayed at home in comfort on the couch she wouldn't have to deal with the pain; she could just relax. But she would never regain full movement of her leg, and she would be limping for the rest of her life. And so she went in to physical therapy and she had a young, helpful nurse sit her in a chair and crank and stretch on that leg until tears rolled down her cheeks it hurt so bad. A couple hours. Twice a week. It was very painful. But it was what she had to do. Sometimes short-term pain is necessary in order for long-term healing to occur.

And that's not just true for broken legs, is it? It's true for broken hearts as well. This is what we hear from the prophet Joel in our Old Testament lesson today. See, every day we do sins. And those sins are like a terrible sickness or injury, deep within our heart. We might want to hide that sickness. We might think that we can cover those sins up with good deeds, or ignore them and hope they scab over. But that's not how it works. That's not real repentance. No, Joel says, "Rend your hearts and not your garments." We've got to dig in there to the root of the actual problem, painful as that may be. And only then does Jesus heal us, bind up our hearts and bring us back to health again.

So, Joel. Joel is one of those prophets in the Old Testament that we actually don't know that much about. We don't know exactly what century he lived in. We're not sure whether it was before or after the exile into Babylon. But even though we don't know the exact specifics of his life, we do know the people he was writing to. Old Testament Israelites. These were the people that God called "stiff-necked and stubborn," like donkey who yanks against you whenever you tell him where to go. You read the Old Testament, it seems like the Israelites are always worshipping idols! They would lose their trust in God and start praying to some false god, or golden calf, or Baal, or something else. And then because he loved his people, God would send some type of disaster or plague or invasion and it would get so bad that they would cry out to him for help! They would rend their garments in a sign of mourning, and dump ashes on their heads, and pray to God "Help us! Save us! You are the only God in Israel!" And God was faithful to his people. He delivered them, every single time. But then once life was back to normal they'd get curious. And start to look around at other gods. And pretty soon they'd be worshipping idols again. Something was wrong with this cycle. The outward signs of repentance were there, the torn clothes and the ashes, but they hadn't found the root of the problem. The wounds in their hearts were being left untreated and they were headed for spiritual danger.

It's not just an Old-Testament-Israel thing. When God's Son Jesus came into the world, maybe a thousand years later, he saw the same hypocrisy. The spiritual leaders in Jesus' time would say their prayers, they'd go to the temple, they'd offer a sacrifice for every kind of sin there could possibly be. Look at me, everyone! I am repenting! But those outward acts couldn't cure the deadly wounds inside their hearts, and they couldn't remove all the same sins from showing up in their lives. They were trying to slap a Band-Aid onto something that needed surgery.

Now here we are, 2,000 years after Jesus—close to 3,000 years after Joel—and we've got the exact same problem, don't we. The wrong things still come first in our lives. You can name your idols, I can name mine. But we've all got 'em. That deadly wound is there in our hearts. And like Israel it's very tempting for us to just throw a Band-Aid on it. So even though we come near to God with our lips, our hearts are far from him. "I'm going to show up to church on time and frown on those who are late. I'm going to speak the words of confession as loudly and clearly as I can. I'm going to sing the hymns at the top of my lungs, joke with Pastor at the end of the service, and head home satisfied in plenty of time to watch the Packers." But once they start losing I'm going to spew out the kinds of curses my pastor would be shocked to hear. I'll have too much to drink and neglect my wife and family. At work I'll look at those dirty pictures that a colleague has in their locker. At school I'll gang up and bully that kid who looks and acts a little different. And at home my marriage, or my family, is going to continue to be the verbal battleground that it is every week with all of us stabbing, and manipulating, and sniping away at each other so that we can get what we want. And I haven't even touched on those "invisible sins" that nobody else in my life is able to see – the greed, the resentment, the lust, the pride that lurks within my heart.

It's so easy to be spiritually lazy like this but it's not just unhealthy in the long run; it's actually deadly. Brothers and sisters, don't take the easy way out. Don't content yourselves with the outward show and leave those wounds bleeding in your heart. God has a better idea. "Even now," declares the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. (But) rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity."

It's really just all about honesty, isn't it? You can't lie to God; he knows everything. So what's the use of lying to yourself? You know your own heart better than anyone else in this whole room. Only you know all the sins that are lurking in there, just like only I know all the sins that are lurking in mine. So rend your heart before your God, open it up and expose those painful wounds. And when we do it—when we inspect our lives in the light of God's holy law—we can only draw one conclusion. Like the tax collector in one of Jesus' parables said, "God have mercy on me, a sinner!"

And when we cry out to God for mercy, it's like asking Niagara Falls for a glass of water. God says, "You want mercy? Mercy is something I've got a lot of!" Joel plucks a quote straight out of Exodus, back in the days of Moses. Before God even gave Israel the Ten Commandments he reminded them of who he was. "The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin." You have come to the right place. Forgiveness is God's specialty!

So yes, it is painful to rend our hearts and lay our wounds open before God! But it is so worth it because God's not into covering things up. He goes straight in and tackles the root problem of sin and suddenly, our pain is washed away! And it's replaced with the sweet relief of forgiveness. Do you realize that this is God's favorite thing to do? He talks about it throughout the whole Bible! Old Testament, New Testament, prophecies, Gospels, God describes himself as a God of love and then he proves it to us over and over. God doesn't want his people to be punished. . . .and so he had his Son punished for us. God doesn't want us suffering from guilt and shame . . . . so he piled all that guilt and shame on Jesus instead. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. There can be no question; there can be no doubt. Your sins are gone and done and paid for because your Savior died on a tree for you. Jesus Christ is your physician, your Savior and your best friend in the whole entire world.
And because he's your best friend and because he loves you so much, Jesus doesn't stop. He gives you even more. Remember that story I told you at the beginning, about my friend who broke her leg and had to go through physical therapy? It was painful and it hurt but it was the right treatment. She did those exercises the doctor prescribed and guess what? She did regain full range of motion in her leg! And now she's walking around healthy and fine with just the slightest trace of a limp. The doctors took care of her and she is walking the way she should be. Brothers and sisters, that's what Jesus does for us. We have such a loving Savior. Because it's not enough for Jesus to just watch us fall and forgive us. No, he actually walks with us and he holds our hand and he helps us each step of the way.

"Repentance." You know what that word means? Literally, it means "turning." And that's exactly what Jesus helps us to do. He helps us to turn away from sin. That's what he was talking about in the Gospel lesson today. "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off! If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out!" Don't take this literally. If we cut off every body part that caused us to sin we'd soon have no body left. But with Jesus' help we can go through our life and remove the things that we know are our weak spots. Am I struggling with overdrinking? I'll stop going to the bar. Am I tempted by Internet pornography? Then I'll stay off the Internet. Am I so competitive that I can't play a friendly game of basketball without cursing and swearing at my friends? Then maybe I shouldn't play basketball. Do I have a weak will and I cave in to peer pressure? Then I'm going to stay away from people who are bad influences in my life. These are the type of decisions Jesus helps us to make as we turn away from sin in repentance. Instead of sin, Jesus has some better things for us to focus on. "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." Above all think about Jesus and what he did for you. "Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame." That message of love and forgiveness is what Jesus uses to help you say "no" to sin by the Holy Spirit working in you. Talk about a heart transplant!

In the words of the Apostle Paul, "What can we even say in response to all this?" Well, I'd say there's only one thing left to do. "Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly!" Or in modern terms. . . .crank up the organ. Ring out the bells. Invite people to your church. Gather in joy, right here, around God's Word and sacraments. And then with every inch of your fresh, healthy, forgiven heart proclaim the great things God has done for you. Amen.

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Compelled by the love of Christ, St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and School seek to reach out to our families, community and world, using Law and Gospel to make disciples, growing and nurturing them in their Christian faith and life.


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