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Return to Me | A Sermon on Joel 2:12-12, 28-29 | Advent 2

Narrative Lectionary Text: Joel 2:12-13, 28-29

What do you long for?

I have a hunch that if we were honest, that every one of us in this room has a deep longing for something right now. Granted, for some of you, it might be a longing that the Vikings would win the Super Bowl. Or you are longing for a big fat steak, or simply to take a nap. But, I think if that we dug a little deeper, there is a longing deep inside of each of us, and my guess is that your longing is somehow connected to love. Maybe you don’t have that special someone in your life and you are longing to find him or her. Maybe you thought you had that special someone and something happened and you are longing to get that person back. Or maybe it is a different kind of love. Maybe it is family stuff. You haven’t spoken to your parents, your siblings, or your children for a while–or the relationship has been cordial but strained–and you have a deep longing for it to be what it was. Or there is that one friend that has been distant lately, and you long to restore that relationship.

What do you long for? How does that make you feel?

This is the second week of Advent, and we call this week’s candle, the candle of Love. Last week we were reminded that Advent is about waiting. This week, when we combine waiting with love, we get this thing called longing. Advent is about longing for something.

Let’s look at our text for today from Joel chapter 2.

There are two passages–12-13 and 28-29. If we place these two passages side by side I think we see two sides of love and why longing is such a deep part of love.

Before we look at that, let’s set the stage for Joel.

This week marks the end of our journey through the Old Testament story for this year. We started way back in the beginning and saw how God created all of creation for love. But humanity has a hard time living in God’s love and we’ve disrupted things over and over again, to the point that brother kills brother in the second generation, and we’ve been abusing each other ever since. This whole story has been about God’s plan to redeem creation, to make things right. God made the promise to Abraham, that his children would be a great nation, that the nation would be blessed to be a blessing. The nation struggled with God through ups and downs, until last week we saw that the nation was taken into captivity for 70 years in the Babylonian Empire.

Since then, the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Tadah! See God fixed it. That is what had been promised, right? Everything is back to normal.

This is where Joel is. He is a prophet speaking to the people. Now, Joel never tells us exactly when he is writing, so scholars debate. Some say it took place really early, during the Assyrian invasion, others say it was written right here. The truth about Joel’s message, is that it has a timeless qualitly to it. His message could apply to Israel thoughout her story.

One thing we know for sure is that the first part of Joel, leading right up to our text, tells a grim tale. It’s like a scene out of a horror movie. He talks about a locust infestation. EEEWWWW! Can you imagine having a swarm of locusts take over your country and eat everything, leaving you with nothing? Joel talks about a literal swarm of locusts, and then he also uses the swarm as a metaphor to describe an invading army. Israel knew a lot about invading armies swooping in from the North. The Assyrians and the Babylonians had devastated them.

So here’s Joel, standing in Jerusalem. The temple has been rebuilt, the people have been restored, and yet, there is still something wrong. The world is still filled with war and famine and destruction.

Have you ever felt like Joel?

I know I do. Do you ever look around and think, what is going on? Why is the world such a violent place? Why are there hungry children, and why are people sold in human trafficking, and why do countries continually bomb each other and fight over boundaries and money and power? Why do corporations continually manipulate us into thinking that we will be incomplete without buying their products. Why do parents work too much and neglect their children? Why, why, why?

There’s a word for this kind of thinking.

It’s called longing. We ask these questions because, deep down inside, we know it shouldn’t be this way. We long for something more, something better.

That is what Joel is talking about. In these two passages he gives us two pictures of love. I want to label them with two key words. The first passage talks about REPENTANCE. The second passage talks about RECONCILIATION.

Look at verse 12 again. God says, “return to me.” Do you hear the longing in God’s voice. Come home. Down in verse 13, God says return because I am compassionate, slow to anger, relenting from punishment.

that word “relenting” means repent. We don’t usually think about God repenting, do we?

Here is an incredibly important truth to always keep in mind about the heart of God. God does not want to punish people. God does not find pleasure in people’s pain and suffering. God is not a violent judge who is waiting for people to mess up so he can zap them. God is a loving parent whose heart breaks when God’s children turn away and hurt each other. God cries out, “return to me.”

What does it take, then, to return to God? Look what it says. “Return to me with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments.” That is what repentence looks like. Simply being broken and admitting when we have done wrong, and being humbled.

What happens when we repent, then? How do we repent?

There are two ideas of what repentance looks like. The first idea looks like this. There is a big gap between me and God because of my sin. I must change my ways, clean up my act, and jump over the “repentance” hurdle before God welcomes me home.

I have some problems with this picture. As a Lutheran, this goes against our understanding of God’s grace and the fact that there is nothing I can do to jump that hurdle.

Yet, God says, “return to me.” God calls us to do something. So, what does that mean?

Look at this picture. What if it looked like this? God loves us. God wraps loving arms around us. There is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. And yet, if we turn away from God, we do not experience God’s love. Some of us turn away out of shame, thinking God can’t love me. Some of us turn away out of pride and defiance thinking, I don’t need God.

Repentance isn’t about cleaning up your act so that God can let you back. Repentance is about seeing yourself the way God sees you and allowing yourself to be dependent upon God’s love to make all things new.

That is what reconciliation means. We turn around and respond to God’s embrace.

Repentance and Reconciliation are two sides of the same coin.

Now at this point you may be thinking, “hey wait a minute. I’ve already done that. I was baptized and I am saved and I believe that God loves me. So why do I still have this longing in my heart? Why does it seem like things still aren’t working right?”

Here’s the thing about God’s love, repentance, and reconciliation. It isn’t a one-time transaction. It is a layered process.

Sometimes we can get into our mind that God’s story of redemption is all about saving my personal soul from sin and damnation. Once I have been baptized and am humbled in God’s Grace, then, cha-ching the transaction is over and my life will be eternal bliss.

But here’s the thing. God’s plan is so much bigger than just your personal salvation. Yes, God cares about that, and each of us need to start there, but look at the second passage. God says the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh. men, women, and slaves. In Joel’s day, that was scandalous. What Joel was saying is that God is going to break down the oppressive social and political systems and bring equality to all people. In other places of Joel it says that God wants to restore the earth and the proper human connection to it.

God’s plan is to reconcile all things.

Look at this image. These are some of the layers that I think God wants to reconcile. On each layer God calls out, “return to me. rend your heart. See these things the way I see them and come home.’

It begins with a personal process of repentance and reconciliation. When we first realize that we are forgiven, and that God loves us for who we are and that there is hope. That is a wonderful feeling. That is a homecoming. But then, we find ourselves standing in Joel’s position and looking around at the locusts and the war and the pain, and we wonder, if I’ve been restored, then why is everything still so messed up?

That is when we hear God’s longing for a deeper layer. “Return to me in your relationships.” God longs for the recociliation of all things. for reconciiation between family members, between warring nations, between oppressive powers and those who are oppressed, between humans and the delicate balance of the eco system.

On this second Sunday of Advent we stand in the middle. We look at all that God has done. Joel was a Jewish man. He looked back and saw how God had restored the temple, and that was good. But he saw how the locusts and the devastation still continued, and he longed for the day when the Messiah would come.

We stand here as Christians. The Messiah has come. Jesus reconciled us through his death and resurrection and that is good. And yet, we look around and see the locusts and the devastation. There is so much more reconciliation to be done. God longs for us. This Advent let’s take this time to rend our hearts and ask God to show us what the next layer of reconciliation needs to happen. Let’s let God longing love call us home.

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