Tonight we begin the season of Lent with a word God’s people have heard for nearly 2,800 years: Return. Since the Prophet Joel wrote those words from the Lord, “Return to Me with all your heart,” God’s people have heard them and responded in various ways. Some, in faith, have done what God asked and repented of their sin and found forgiveness. Others, like Pharaoh, have hardened their hearts and ignored the call. Tonight God calls out to us all: Return.
This call, return, is at the same time Law and Gospel. It is, first, a harsh word of Law in God’s mouth. Return. You’ve gone too far. Your sin has carried you down evil paths. You have been left, like the man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho found by the Good Samaritan, beaten and bloodied and on the brink of death. Only this death isn’t the death of the body, it’s the death of the soul. We’re not all that bad off physically, so we think everything is going well. But God’s call, return, rings out tonight and throughout this season.
Return bids you examine your life and conduct. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Where have you carried God? Down what unsavory paths have you gone? A few clicks of the mouse or taps of the phone screen may not seem that bad, but the images that pop up and are now seared into your mind aren’t wholesome. A few whispers about that person you just don’t like don’t seem all that bad, but are those words building up or destroying the Body of Christ? How easily have you given up in the fight against the devil, the world, and your sinful nature? How often is the easier choice giving into sin instead of fleeing from it, as God tells us to do?
None of us get off the hook. God’s call, return, is spoken to all—male, female, rich, poor, young, old. God is indiscriminate in His call to return. And if you think you don’t have that much to repent for, that you haven’t turned that far away, don’t be fooled. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Remember also what the writer to the Hebrews said: “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, ‘Vengeance is Mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:29-31).
Thanks be to God His call to return is also a word of Gospel, a promise of grace. As that call rings out, return to Me, it comes with the promise of pardon and forgiveness. When God calls you to return to Him, He promises to receive you. “Though great our sins, yet greater still is God’s abundant favor.” He has not told you to return to Him so that He can punish you, but so He can forgive you, so He can heal you, so He can give you life.
His call to return, to repent is proof of His mercy. It is the validation of what was spoken by prophets and apostles and evangelists, that God does not desire the death of a sinner. The call to return is proof that God wants to treat you like the Prodigal Son. Yes, you squandered the gifts given to you, yes, you lived as if God did not matter and as if you mattered most, but He still wants to forgive you. He has given forgiveness and gifts lavishly and continues to do so. He has killed His Son to bring you back into His household.
And that is precisely the reason that after Joel calls us to return he can say that God relents over disaster. That’s because all the disaster, all the harm has been poured out on Jesus. As we journey through this Season of Lent we journey with Our Lord to His cross and death. You will stand here 44 days from now and hear about what Jesus received in your place. You will hear about beatings, mockery, and God-forsakenness, and know that it was for you, Jesus taking your place. Every adulterous act, every vile word, every curse, every covetous moment of your life was placed on Jesus and was put to death. The Father’s righteous wrath over your sin was visited on Jesus. And it was all placed on Him so that when you return to the Lord your God you receive grace, mercy, steadfast love, and pardon for every sin.
And just like the Prodigal Son received gifts upon His return, you receive a Gift as well. You receive the Holy Spirit, poured out upon you, to make His home in you. By His ministry, by His work through Word and Sacrament you are given an increased desire and ability to do the right thing when sin and temptation are breathing down your neck. When the devil threatens to gain the upper hand, the Holy Spirit fights for you, speaks to you the promises of God, and blesses you with the strength to walk away. It is the Holy Spirit who guides you through this Lenten journey as you do battle with the devil and your sinful flesh, as you mortify it and return to the Lord your God.
Even if your flesh wins out—and it will—there is pardon for you. The Holy Spirit will do His job of reminding you to return, to confess, to come in contrition. And God the Father will joyfully and gladly do His work of absolving you, of counting His Son’s righteousness as your own.
Tonight, do what God’s people have done for some 7,000 years. Return. Repent. You will not find wrath. You will find a God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast, forgiving, life-giving love.