"It's Not Too Late"

  Joel 2:12-13, 28-29  

According to AAA over 100 million people are expected to travel over this holiday season. 52% of those will be traveling to visit friends or family. How many of you are anxiously anticipating the return of a loved one in the coming weeks? How many of you are the one whose return is being anxiously anticipated by someone else?  Advent is a season of anticipation. Certainly, we spend these four weeks anticipating the birth of Jesus. But we also spend our time anticipating homecomings and family celebrations.  A quick survey of some of our favorite Christmas songs expresses this anticipation of returning home:

·         I’ll be home for Christmas. . . 

·         There’s no place like home for the holidays. . .

·         Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go. . .

I think you get the idea. There is a certain nostalgia about this season as we anticipate going home. We place huge – and sometimes unrealistic expectations about what going home will be like. It is into this longing for home, this anticipation as to what a return home will be like, that the prophet Joel speaks.

While scholars can’t determine exactly when the prophet Joel was writing, it is possibly after the people of Israel have returned home from exile. Yet, after years of anticipating a homecoming, they discover that home is not as good as they remembered it, that all was not well back at home.  Joel begins by writing about a great disaster that has befallen the land, described as a plague of locusts that could be an actual plague, or a metaphor for an invading army – both are referred to in his writing. But either way, the devastation that has been wrought upon Israel is complete. As he describes this impending disaster as the enemy advances, he writes: Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, behind them, a desert waste—nothing escapes them (2:3).

There could not be a more stark contrast – the beauty of the garden, now turned into a desolate wilderness. And I wonder – is that a description of the landscape or the hearts of the people who have turned away from God and now stand in judgment?

For Joel, there is no question that God is the cause of the devastation that has befallen the people of Israel. It is a direct consequence of their disobedience to God. Just before verse 12, where we began our reading today, he asks the question: The day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it? (v. 11).

God’s judgment is upon them and no one can withstand it. But then he goes on: Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart.

Even now – in the midst of disaster.

Even now – in the midst of judgment.

Even now – as all around you looks hopeless and bleak . . . God is seeking your return, is in fact, pleading for it. God wants to forgive. God wants you to remember who you are and to Whom you belong.

And so, Joel quotes words that were first uttered by God after the people had defied God at the foot of Mt. Sinai and built a golden calf, an idol. After this most grievous sin, where God was so angry that He was willing to destroy the people, God relents from punishing and says in the 34th chapter of Exodus:

The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin (vss. 6-7).

These are words that the people of Israel will hear over and over again. We heard Jonah speak them in our text a few weeks ago, as he complained about God’s willingness to forgive. Out of the mouth of Jonah, these words are an accusation: I knew you that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:2).

Out of the mouth of Joel, they are words of hope and encouragement. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” (vs. 13).

The people may have returned home to Jerusalem, but they had not returned to God – this homecoming was incomplete. But, here it is God who is longing, anxiously anticipating the return of the people. But before that can happen, they must remember who they are, they must turn away from the sin that has separated them from God; they must rend their hearts – literally tear them open so that they can see their need for God.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, it is not until the younger son’s heart is broken and he remembers who he is that he is able to return home. Listen to the text: When he came to his senses (Luke 15:17) – when he remembered that he was not just the son who had left his father and squandered his inheritance, but that he had at one point been a beloved son – then he is able to return home.

And so, he sets out – and along the way he rehearses what he is going to say: I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants (vs. 19). He certainly is not anticipating a joyful homecoming but rather one that will be filled with remorse and guilt and probably accusations and anger by his father. Instead, we get this wonderful image of a father who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing.

The father sees the son while he is still far off and he is filled with compassion and he can’t wait for him to return, so he runs to him, embraces him, kisses him – all very undignified things for the patriarch of a family to do. In Jesus’ time, the actions of this father would be unheard of – a father simply did not act in such a reckless and undignified way.

But the father’s joy over seeing his son means that he simply can’t wait for his return – he must run out to meet him. This is a homecoming that has been anxiously anticipated since the day the son left. What an amazing picture of the graciousness and mercy of God – who has pleaded with his people throughout history to return to God’s loving embrace. A God who eventually couldn’t wait any longer for us to return and so decided to come to us in the most undignified and reckless of ways – as a poor baby, born to poor parents in a rented barn.

Advent, like Lent, is traditionally a time to take stock of our lives in preparation for the coming of the Lord – a time of repentance. Repentance allows us to cast away all those things that stand in the way of our relationship with God – with one another – and to place our hope in a better future.

Once the prodigal son had repented, turned around, headed for home, even though he expected to no longer to be called son, but servant, he nevertheless had hope for a better future. But, the father offered him so much more.

God always does. Because this is a God who wants to forgive, who wants to offer a future with hope.

This call to repent – to return to God – helps us to see our need for God. For the people that the prophet Joel was addressing, hopelessness was all around them. The enemy was descending, devastation left in its wake. Without a gracious and merciful God, all was lost. As we look at some of the seemingly intractable problems of the world and the individual trials that each we may face – things can indeed seem hopeless.

Yet even now, God promises a way forward.

“Even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

13 Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
    and he relents from sending calamity.

Words that the people of Israel needed to hear over and over again. Words that we need to hear over and over again.

In the midst of devastation – hope. In the midst of judgment – grace.

When we think about our own homecomings during this Advent season, it is usually about going back to our roots, our families. Returning implies that we go back to a place where we have already been. We can’t return to someplace new, someplace unknown to us.

 So, when God calls for us to return, it is a call to come back to a place where we have already been, a place that deep down inside of us we already know. God wants us to return to the beginning– to the garden, to the place of perfect relationship with the God who created us, a place where sin no longer has power to drive a wedge between us. God seeks nothing less than the complete restoration of relationship with us and all of creation. God wants to turn the wilderness of our broken hearts into a beautiful garden.

And so, during this season of Advent, we are reminded that because God’s longing for us was so great, God simply couldn’t wait for us to return – but instead came running to meet us – right here, where we are, as one of us --  Emmanuel, God with us.