Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Return to Me with All Your Heart” (Joel 2:12-13)
Ash Wednesday: March 1, 2017
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

On Ash Wednesday some focus on what they are “giving up” for Lent.  It may be chocolate or caffeine or television or ice cream.  It may be alcoholic beverages—unless you are Irish (or claim to be Irish), as a friend once quipped to me, “I’m giving up drinking for Lent, and giving up Lent for St. Patrick’s Day.”  However, for some people, Lenten resolutions eventually begin to resemble New Year’s resolutions, so that as another friend of mine joked, “Perhaps we could celebrate the end of Lent by celebrating everything we pretended to give up for Lent.”

But while giving up something for Lent may be helpful—and if you are giving up something for Lent, more power to you—Lent is about much more than that.  Lent is a season of penitence, a season of deep repentance, a season of returning to God.  Scripture tells us, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way” (Isaiah 53:6).  All of us go astray from God, no exceptions.  And the scary thing is that you may be regular in your church attendance or your Bible reading or your prayer times or your small group meetings, but when it comes to where your heart actually is, you can be totally faking it—as Jesus warns us, “You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’” (Matthew 15:7-8).

Lent is about returning to God.  In today’s passage from the Old Testament prophet Joel we hear the “when,” “how” and “why” of returning to God:

“Yet even now,” says the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.  Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:12-13).

When it comes to returning to God, the “when” is now, the “how” is “with all your heart,” and the “why” is because God is “gracious and merciful.”

In advertising you often hear expressions like “Act now!” or “Hurry!” or “Don’t wait!”—and if you are anything like me, at times you have taken the bait, and rushed out to buy something and only later felt that sting of buyer’s remorse.  Scripture rarely tells us to “Act now!” or “Hurry!” or “Don’t wait!”…except when it comes to returning to God.  Again, as Joel writes, “Yet even now,” says the Lord, “return to me with all your heart”—or as the Apostle Paul put it, “now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2).  The “when” of returning to God is “now.”

The “how” of returning to God is “with all your heart”—again, as God spoke through Joel, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.”  Have you ever been in a relationship and you know something is wrong—either on your end or on the other person’s end—you can feel it, there is a disconnect, a heart synapse that is not firing—and you may be saying and doing the right things on the surface, but something is up, and you both know it.  When that happens, you need a reconnection on the heart level—as Canadian rocker Bryan Adams wrote in his 1983 hit:

Give it to me straight from the heart
Tell me we can make one more start
You know I’ll never go as long as I know
It’s coming straight from the heart
(From his album Cuts Like a Knife).

The “how” of returning to God is “with all your heart.”

The “why” of returning to God is because, as Joel wrote, God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”  God is the God of all grace and the God of all mercy.  There is nothing in your life—not a single thing—that is beyond the grace and mercy of God.  Even if that something is beyond the grace and mercy of other people—or even of yourself—it is not beyond the grace and mercy of God.

When it comes to the sin in your life, if you have any OCD issues, The Book of Common Prayer is the book for you.  Every week we pray, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone” (BCP 360)—and that covers sins of commission and sins of omission, sins we think, say, and do—all of it.  And yet on Ash Wednesday we pray the Litany of Penitence, which is much more specific, and much more uncomfortable.  How much of what follows applies to you?

We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives…our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people…our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves…our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work…our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us…our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty…all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us…our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us (The Book of Common Prayer 268).

If that makes you uncomfortable, that is a good thing, because it means you want that authentic, “straight from the heart” connection with God.

And when we repent, when we return to God with all our hearts, how does our “gracious and merciful” God respond?  As we prayed in the collect for this service, God responds with “perfect remission and forgiveness” (BCP 264).  In fact, our “gracious and merciful” God is waiting with infinite compassion for our repentance.  In his brilliant 2016 book The Name of God is Mercy Pope Francis writes:

I have often said that the place where my encounter with the mercy of Jesus takes place is my sin.  When you feel his merciful embrace, when you let yourself be embraced, when you are moved—that’s when life can change, because that’s when we try to respond to the immense and unexpected gift of grace, a gift that is so overabundant it may even seem “unfair” in our eyes.  We stand before a God who knows our sins, our betrayals, our denials, our wretchedness.  And yet he is there waiting for us, ready to give himself deep love that inspires deep repentance completely to us, to lift us up (34-35).

On Good Friday our “gracious and merciful” God gave himself “completely to us, to lift us up” by being lifted up himself on the cross, where with arms stretched wide he gave his life while embracing a sinful world with his infinite grace and mercy—straight from God’s heart to yours.  The blood of Jesus Christ is enough to give you “perfect forgiveness and remission” of your sins.  Pope Francis is exactly right—it is God’s “deep love that inspires deep repentance.”  The “why” of returning to God is because God is “gracious and merciful.”

You can return to God with all your heart because in spite of your sin, God has always loved you with all his heart—as the Apostle John wrote, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).  In fact, it is the grace and mercy of God that enables you to consider returning to God in the first place—as we pray in Psalm 51, it is only God who can create “a clean heart” and “renew a right spirit” within us.  The great early-seventeenth century Anglican priest and poet George Herbert (1593-1633) sums up all this in his poem entitled “Perseverance”:

My God, the poor expressions of my Love
Which warm these lines, and serve them up to Thee
Are so, as for the present I did move,
Or rather as Thou movedst me…

For who can tell, though Thou has died to win
And wed my soul in glorious paradise;
Whether my many crimes and use of sin
May yet forbid the banes and bliss.

Only my soul hangs on Thy promises
With face and hands clinging unto Thy breast,
Clinging and crying, crying without cease,
Thou art my rock, Thou art my rest.
(George Herbert: The Complete English Poems, 192-193).

Perhaps this Lent you may sense the deep love of God calling you to deep repentance, to return to God now with all your heart.