Returning Home: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

preached by Rev. Jeri Katherine Sipes on Ash Wednesday 2012 at Wesley Memorial UMC

I don’t know if you listen to or even heard of or like Michael Buble, but I am quite enamored of Michael Buble’s music—his serenading voice and his big-band style that makes you think of Frank Sinatra; it’s all so beautiful and romantic. One of my favorite songs of his is one that he wrote for military soldiers coming back home to their families after months of deployment overseas. Every time I hear this song my eyes tear up and I usually cry. One time I was driving back from one of my many trips to Nashville. It had been a long week, a long road trip and it was raining and traffic was moving slowly. In the middle of all that Michael Buble’s song, Home, came on, and I cried almost the whole way home because I just wanted to be home—back with my husband and my dogs and in my own bed. As Dorothy says in the Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home.” I can empathize with the military families Buble wrote the song for. My dad was deployed and returned home over and over again throughout my childhood, and when I was older my dad said that the thing that kept him going during all those months away in worn-torn and poverty-stricken countries was thoughts of home. But when I listen to Michael Buble’s song, I’ll admit that I don’t always think of those military families he wrote the song for or my childhood. There is just something about home, something about returning home—whether it is returning from a business trip, or deployment or an extended stay at the hospital or a vacation. There is no place like home.

And yet as I was thinking about Buble’s song, I thought that so many of us live away from home, or we live with that constant longing of home. Our scripture lesson tonight wasn’t the story of the prodigal son, but for just a moment let’s remember Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son—of how a son left his father, his family and his home with his entire inheritance which he spent on various temporary pleasures. When the son’s money ran out, all he could think about was home, returning home, but he felt too far away, not worthy, what would he say, how could his father forgive him? The story of the prodigal son is very similar to the story of the Israelites in the book of Joel. It is seems that so often throughout the bible God’s people turn from God and they, like the prodigal son, do what they want; they don’t listen to God; they break their covenant with God; they are reluctant to make their home with God. I don’t think much has changed since biblical times. I think we often find ourselves very much like the prodigal son or the Israelites in the book of Joel. We stray, we disobey, we do things we know God would not want us to do, we say things we know God would not want us to say, we live according to our will and not God’s, we want to control, we don’t listen for God, instead we turn from God and do things our own way and we rob ourselves from feeling at home with God no matter circumstances or where we are in life.

But thank goodness for the church calendar that brings us to Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent every year. If you have already abandoned your New Year’s resolutions to be a better person, to get your life right—lucky for you that this season of Lent is kind of like the Christian season of New Year’s resolutions. Only it is a bit more intentional and intense and should be taken a little more seriously because this is the season of “getting right with God.” I don’t really like to tell people to get their lives right with God. I like what Joel tells us to do; he says, “Rend your hearts to God…return to the Lord with all your heart.” The Lenten season is a homecoming season; it is a returning, a journey, a process of growth. My mom used to have a plaque hanging in our house that said, “Home is where the heart is.” The Lenten season is a season of returning home to God. It is a journey from where we are living away from God in our lives to once again giving our whole hearts to God so that God can make his home in us.

It is more than giving up chocolate, sweets or meat or this or that. Joel tells us to rend, give, or surrender our whole hearts and not just our clothing. What you give up or take on during this season of Lent is not just a show for the congregation, but our outward rituals, those things we give up, those new things we take on to challenge us to grow spiritually—those sacrifices or changes are supposed to ignite or spark or awaken inward change, so that we are transformed from the inside out; we are made new, made whole, our hearts are at home with God. Giving up that which we covet, or our those bad habits, attitudes, addictions or lifestyles that rob us of life without wholly returning our hearts to God will only leave us tied again to the gods and worldly ways and demands and chaos that already rule our lives. Lent is more than a period of momentary abstinence, momentary repentance and momentary renewal; today on Ash Wednesday begins a whole new way of life.

Joel is clear that returning home to God begins with repentance. Before we decide to give up or make changes in our lives during this forty-day journey, we must take a good hard look at our own lives and those dark places that keep us from a relationship with God. Where do we need grow or change? Where is God calling me to give up something? Where is God challenging me to do something new? It is hard to look at those areas where we are weak or fall short. It is much easier just to ignore those places we need change in our lives. After all we do hear week after week that God loves us where we are, so if God loves us in all the good, the bad and the ugly then why do we even need to change? It is true that God loves us where we are, but our God loves us so much that he isn’t content to leave us where we are. He wants us to grow in him every day, and part of growth is shedding those bad habits, attitudes and things that keep us from truly growing.

I just bought one of those fancy mirrors that has bright fluorescent lights and it magnifies everything about 25 times. I thought I would try to save money by plucking my own eyebrows in this up-close and personal mirror. But after the first time I used the mirror to pluck my eyebrows, I decided I hate that mirror. In a regular mirror with regular light I don’t see all my blemishes, pimples, red splotches and the thousands of tiny little eyebrow hairs that need to be plucked. It isn’t easy to look at ourselves—especially our inner, true selves—up-close and personal. Because when you start to look at yourself really, really closely as if you are holding a magnifying glass to yourself, you begin seeing those spots and blemishes and places in your life that you need to clean up. Repentance starts there, starts with an up-close and personal look at what parts of our hearts and lives have not been given entirely to God.

I read an article this week on these verses from Joel and the author wrote that Ash Wednesday and the journey through Lent is stripping down naked before God. Lent is a time for us to be honest not only with ourselves and where we need growth and improvement, but it is honestly coming before God as we are—truly as we are, not hiding anything, but bearing everything coming with all our burdens, all those broken places in our lives, all our weaknesses, with all our sin and admitting that we need forgiveness and repentance from those things in our lives that have kept us from fully loving God and loving others.

And part of coming before God this way means coming with an open heart and a willingness to be changed. It is one thing to see and admit our faults, but it is quite a different thing to agree to partner with God and with our brothers and sisters here at church in completely turning from and giving up those sins that have robbed us of abundant life.

Joel tells us that God is gracious and merciful and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. As we take a good hard look at ourselves and see those areas in our lives that we try to ignore most, those areas that are too difficult to face, those places or relationships or attitudes or feelings that we don’t want to see up-close and personal—as we face those dark places in our lives during this time of Lent, Joel reminds us that we are not alone. That God walks with us during this sometimes painful journey to the cross where we lay all our burdens and all our sins at the feet of Jesus. We are not alone; God walks with us, and God has given us one another to walk this journey of Lent, to begin our return home to our Father who is the Father of life and not death. Yes, on this Ash Wednesday we begin this solemn journey with repentance and ashes, but forty days from now our journey will finish at an empty cross and an open tomb where we will sing alleluias.

God is calling you home. Only you can decide if you are ready to make that journey. Amen.

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