Summary: This is a 2-part sermon for Ash Wednesay based on Joel. This was used in a service with the imposition of ashes, a worship service which stressed repentance. The 2 parts are: The Sinner Repents, The Lord Relents.
Let’s suppose that after we left church this evening, we locked up the doors, and none of us came back until 5 years later. Not a single person set foot on this very property until Ash Wednesday, 2009. When we do come back, what would our church look like after 5 years of no upkeep? The grass would be waist-high. The hedges would be overgrown and uneven. Our church sign would be full of 5 years worth of bugs. And the nice white exterior of our building would have ugly mildew patches all over it. The mailbox would be so full of letters and bills that the mailman stopped trying to fill it ages ago. And because none of those bills had been paid, the electricity would be off and the entire property would be dark. In short, there would be a lot of cleaning up to do.
That gives you a good idea of the state of Temple in Jerusalem when the prophet Joel was young. Centuries of misuse and disuse had caused Solomon’s once magnificent structure to look more like a building in the slums than in the upscale section of Jerusalem. But then there was a turnaround. In Chronicles we read about how this dilapidated building was clean up and refurbished. And after this remodeling took place, the offerings and sacrifices were restored and Temple life returned to normal. Well, almost.
Joel wrote the words of our text because there was still a problem. The turnaround wasn’t complete. Everything looked good on the outside, but there really hadn’t been much of an internal change with these people. God wasn’t looking for an outer change as much as he was looking for an inner one.
It’s the same for us as we gather tonight on Ash Wednesday. God is looking for repentance from you, a change. He doesn’t just want you to say all the right words while you are here tonight, and he isn’t interested in giving you an assignment list of duties to work on when you get home. Outward actions are nice, but if there is no inward change, it’s really all for naught.
That neglected building that we talked about a minute ago, that church that no one took care of for the past 5 years, is you. If you were to take an honest look at your life, what do you see: more good, or more bad? Or think of it this way: can you say that during this past year, you have been more interested in the things of God vs the things of this world? In just this past week, can you honestly say that the Lord has always taken first place in your heart, or has he sort of slipped through the cracks as other priorities crowded God out? Perhaps it is your means of income, maybe it’s spending time with friends, maybe it’s the television or the computer, maybe it is simply “me” time. We sure are good at scheduling things that bring us happiness…and making sure that we keep those appointments. But have you been so busy taking care of the other matters of your life, to the neglect of the church inside of you? Is that building strong, well-kept, and beautiful? Or do you see instances where you have let the lawn become overgrown, when you saw that repairs to the structure needed to be made, but you put it off until later? Sometimes, we lock the doors of our hearts, and just expect that our faith will remain intact, and so we can take a little vacation from working hard on our Christian lives, and when we come back, everything will be fine.
Tonight, we go to God’s Word and he has something to say to people who haven’t been the most faithful followers of him. It’s Ash Wednesday, and it’s a perfect day to do some housecleaning in your heart. He has a one-word instruction for you: the sixth word of our text, “Return!” If you’ve been away from the Lord for a while, or if you haven’t followed him as vigorously as you know you should, God is holding out an invitation to you tonight: “Return! I want you back!”
As we dig deeper into our text, God tells us how he wants us to return to him. The Lord says to you, “Rend your heart and not your garments.” Back in Bible times, if you were really upset over something, you would tear your clothes as a sign of sadness. But many of the people played a little game with God. When they were confronted with their sin by God’s priests and prophets, they would tear their clothes, they would put ashes on their heads. They’d do everything that made them look sad, and then they would go back to those same sins. The problem was, they were trying to cure cancer with a band-aid. If I got a lump of cancer here on my arm, I could put a band-aid over it and then I wouldn’t have to look at it. But the underlying problem wouldn’t be solved. God tells you, “Rend your heart and not your garments.” These outward things that we are doing tonight, putting ashes on our forehead, kneeling before God, confesing our sins, singing sad songs, they are all nice things to do, but they mean absolutely nothing if we are playing the crying game with God, telling him tonight how sorry we are, and returning home to the same worldly life we have been leading.