Summary: Through covenants, God establishes a relationship with man that cannot be broken even when fellowship is hindered, so that when man falls away, God offers a way back.
Today we start a sermon series “Falling in Love Again.” Lent is the prenuptial period leading up to the great wedding banquet that begins on Maundy Thursday, that is consummated on Good Friday, and is proven unbreakable on Easter Sunday.
As we begin “Falling in Love Again,” Joel tells us quite plainly that there has been a falling out. In the relationship of God and man, the fellowship was broken. And God isn’t the one who moved. “Return to me,” God says. “Return to the Lord your God” (Joel 2:12,13). The Lord hasn’t gone anywhere. He is “immutable,” He’s unchanged, unchanging, and unchangeable. God always is: He always is, always is Himself, and always remains Himself.
Israel drifted from God. How? The prophet’s warning, “Rend your heart and not your garments” (Joel 2:13). Israel was taking the easy way out of the relationship with God. They went through the motions; they tore their garments, fasted, sacrificed, and prayed. But their hearts were distant from Him. Israel wanted all the benefits of being God’s people. But relationships take time, they take effort, and they take sacrifice. Otherwise, they’re little more than a convenient joint venture. Their fellowship with Him was impaired, hindered. But they were still His people. And He is a jealous God, who wanted His people back.
In Baptism, for which Lent is the preparatory season—for those who are preparing to receive the Sacrament of Baptism, and also for the rest of us who will renew our Baptismal vows, and recommit to them—in Baptism we are marked as Christ’s own forever, and we become adopted into the household of God. In Baptism we are grafted into Christ, made a member of His Body, the Church.
We may run away from God, but He remains our Father. And while we can lose sweet fellowship with God through sin, the relational tie of being His son and His daughter is unbreakable. God’s heart aches all the more whenever any child refuses to return to Him and ends up in Hell. Even there, the mark of baptism isn’t eradicated, though the inheritance has been forfeited. I could change my name, shave my head, fly off to Timbuktu, and lead a dissolute life, but Richard Lipka would always be my father; and his heart would forever yearn to have me return to him, even if at the last I we remained apart. God yearns for us to be with Him.
The call to repentance is not about punishing us. Our God is a loving Father Who desires what is best for us. Punishment means we made poor choices. Repentance is not about making us obey. My father never demanded I do things solely for the sake of obeying him. Even if it was a small matter, it was about family unity (perhaps for not primarily for my benefit), and for order. Repentance is about bringing us back into perfect and unbroken fellowship with God.
The three main disciplines of Lent—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—are not about social justice. They are not primarily about helping my neighbor. They are about the inner healing of my soul, and its full fellowship with God. Our neighbor, by the grace of God, is part of that healing. Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are not about trying to buy God; we cannot secure His grace by doing them, or anything…there’s no magic prayer. They are not to impress others; our actions must be done in secret to have eternal reward. And they are not to test ourselves; we don’t get to see how good we are though them. They must be about loving God, reuniting with Him, and understanding His heart.
It is our prayer—Fr. Norm, and Dcn. Steven, your Bishop, and me—that this Lent we remove those things that break fellowship with God. And that as we repent and consider the gracious love of our Father, God, we would, each one of us, fall in love again.