February 14, 2018
Who Knows? Perhaps He Will Relent…
What do we really know about the character and the nature of Almighty God? Does He fit into a little box of what we expect and want from a god? Is He what we demand Him to be? Or is He Whoever He is – I am Who I am – regardless of what we want or what we believe to be true?
The prophet Joel spoke the Lord’s sure Word to His people. Historically, less is known about the situation surrounding Joel than that of any other prophet of the Bible. We don’t know when Joel lived, who was king, what the specific sins of the Lord’s people were, or what external threats faced God’s people at that time. The text would seem to indicate the onslaught of a plague of locusts, among other things, with all the related natural consequences – loss of all vegetation and crops, drought, the devastation of all existing food stores – but even that could be just a metaphor for an invading army. The scope of the judgment even hints at the fact that this was not primarily something that occurred in Joel’s day, but is rather a prophecy that mainly looks far away, into the future, to the final judgment of all mankind. The text is just not specific and clear on these points.
What Joel is very clear on is that the Lord’s people have sinned, they have strayed, and they face an impending, terrible, catastrophic judgment, and that judgment will come not out there somewhere but right in the heart of Jerusalem, at the Temple, right in the place where the people of God could most easily fool themselves into thinking that they were safe.
One of the things that becomes obvious in the Old Testament is that the people of God had a tendency to repeatedly focus upon the sins of others, while ignoring their own sins. The Canaanites are so wicked, the Ninevites are so evil, curses on Egypt, a plague on the Assyrians, may Babylon disappear into a black hole forever. Sort of like how we today can occupy ourselves with never examining ourselves but being quick to point out the evils of the world around us. We can focus on the modern issues of same-sex marriage and transgenderism and failing to stand for the national anthem and even heresies within the visible church around us to the point of distracting ourselves from ever seeing the true evil that lies within.
To put it another way, every time we see evil out there, it should be first and foremost a reminder of the evil that runs through each and every heart in here, first and foremost within our own sinful and fallen natures. When someone goes on a shooting rampage in a high school in Florida, it should remind us that deep within us lies that same envy, bitterness, anger – deep within each of us lies that same sinful nature, blind, dead, and a natural enemy of God and all that is good and holy.
Joel reminded the people of God, don’t become caught up in worrying about what’s going on out there. Don’t even focus on what your neighbor sitting right next to you is doing. Judgment always begins in the house of God. Judgment always begins with the people of God. Judgment always begins right here. You’re the one who knows the Lord. You’re the one responsible for what you’ve done with that knowledge. Judge yourself rightly.
“Return to Me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning … Rend your heart, and not your garments … 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 …”
And then Joel gives the people of God pause, and introduces a meditation: He asks them to consider for a moment a God Who doesn’t fit into their little box of doing what they want Him to do, how they want Him to do it, when they want Him to do it. He reminds them that the Lord will do whatever He will do, and it is completely out of their control.
“Who knows whether He will turn and relent … Who knows? Perhaps He will change His mind and have mercy upon us …” It is a genuinely scary thought. If you know what is going on, if you understand what is at stake, it is the most frightening prospect that you can possibly imagine. “Who knows? Perhaps He will have mercy upon us … and perhaps He will not.” It is not a thought that we are accustomed to entertaining, and shame on us that that is true.
If there is a charge that can justly be laid against the culture of Lutheranism down throughout our history, it is that we often fall prey to the notion that a mere intellectual belief in the existence of God and a false complacency in leaning upon His mercy is more than enough for us. We have our ticket to heaven; it says so on our Baptismal certificates. And so we don’t take the Lord seriously in the here and now. We don’t seriously ask ourselves where the Holy Spirit is prodding us to clean things up in an area where we have backslidden into sin. We don’t study His Word and throw ourselves down on the ground at His feet and ask Him, “What do You require of me today, Lord? Take me by the hand and lead me, upon life’s way, or else I stray. I beg of You, take me and correct me and lead me, for close at Your heels, Jesus, is the only way of real life for me.”
The Evangelicals have it wrong, because they get the cart before the horse, but there is something to be said for deciding to give your entire heart to Jesus and deciding to seriously follow Christ wherever He leads. The Evangelicals get the cart before the horse – but do we have any kind of cart following Jesus at all?
I was reading something recently where the writer was discussing the balance between the Old Testament and the New Testament and he criticized some Christian pastors and teachers and believers for oversimplifying things into an Old Testament God of judgment and punishment and a New Testament God of mercy and love where everything turns out okay no matter what. And too many people gloss things over and just say that New Testament God trumps Old Testament God and so I’m okay and you’re okay and we all need to just relax a little bit. To put it in contemporary terms, we all get our participation trophies for having our names on a church membership list somewhere and even bringing some soup to the midweek supper at church and if things get a little uncomfortable here we’ll just take our ball and our participation trophy to the church down the street instead – it doesn’t matter what kind of nonsense they teach and preach – and everything will be okay.
But anyone who thinks that hasn’t had their noses in their Bibles very much – at least they’re not doing any Bible reading where the Holy Spirit is in charge. It turns out that the Old Testament God is gracious and merciful, and abounding in steadfast love. And it also turns out that the New Testament God of the Gospels and the Book of Revelation is to be taken very seriously, for He will spit out of His mouth many who have fooled themselves into thinking that they belong to Him, many who call out to Him “Lord, Lord,” but have let their love grow cold. New Testament God and Old Testament God are One and the same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as He has revealed Himself in our Lord Jesus the Christ, and His deepest intention and greatest joy is to have pity and mercy upon sinners and pour out His forgiveness of our sins upon us, but He is to be taken seriously and He demands and expects no less from His people. “You will be My people, and I will be Your God.” We should fear, love, and trust in the Lord our God above all other things.
Therefore, it is good, right, and salutary for us to sit for a moment in meditation upon His righteous anger over our sins and the judgment to come upon the world. Who knows? Perhaps He will relent. It is good, right, and salutary for us to sit for a moment with ashes upon our heads, to make solemn and serious confession of our sins, perhaps with even some tears upon our cheeks, to make a firm commitment to henceforth amend our sinful lives. To borrow a word from our great 500th anniversary celebration of last fall, it is good, right, and salutary for us to commit ourselves to the reformation that we will always be in need of, as long as we dwell in this sinful, mortal, corrupt and evil flesh.
And it good, right, and salutary that we do this with firm reliance upon the nature and the revelation of our God, leaning upon His promises, as we repent and turn and await from Him His sure Word of Absolution, reminding us of the promises of our Baptism, and as we await from Him His most Holy Treasure upon this earth, the Body and Blood of Christ broken and shed for you and given to you from this table, put here, right here and now, just for you.
Catastrophic judgment is soon coming, and it always comes first to the people of God. People heavy laden with sin must walk through the season of Lent in order to get to Easter. We have sinned. And so this past Sunday, in our closing hymn, we sang these words:
Alleluia cannot always be our song while here below;
Alleluia, our transgressions make us for awhile forgo;
For the solemn time is coming when our tears for sin must flow. (LSB #417, verse 3)
Let it sink into our hearts that Almighty God will do what He will, when He wills, as He wills, without consulting us or needing any word of approval from us. Return to the Lord your God with all your heart, with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning; cry over your sins, make confession of your sins, cast all your sins upon Him alone; rend your hearts, and not your garments.
And return to the Lord your God, for He is mighty and He is sovereign, but He is also slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; He has bound Himself to His promises. He has bound Himself to His commitment to seek and to save the lost when He suffered and died upon the cross for us. He Who pronounces that judgment always begins with the people of God became the Son of Man and called forth judgment to begin with Himself. He Who knew no sin became sin for us, so that judgment could begin and end with His suffering and death, and so that He could keep His promises to us in the Word of Absolution, in the Sacrament of Baptism, and in the Sacrament of the Altar.
Who knows … perhaps He will relent … yes, He will relent, He will not bring judgment upon us, for He has taken that judgment upon Himself, and now He calls us to come with Him and walk the road of life and restoration.
May the bountiful blessings of His steadfast love be upon all of us during this Lenten season, as we use this time to draw closer to Him, and, much more importantly, as He uses this time to draw us more closely to Himself, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.
Rev. Richard Bellas
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Lockport, Illinois