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Ash Wednesday Sermon — Joel 2:12-19 (LSB Ash Wednesday)

February 26, 2009

February 25, 2009 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran ChurchMechanicsburg, PA

“Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster.”

The prophet Joel’s words depict the nature of the Lord God. They aren’t words original to Joel, none that he came up with himself. In fact, this description of the Lord God being “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” is found in many places throughout the Old Testament.

It is how the Lord God describes Himself on Mount Sinai, when He gives Moses the two tablets of the Ten Commandments after Moses had broken them when seeing the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf idol. It is what the people of God confess about Him when they return with Nehemiah from exile in Babylon. King David in his psalms repeats this description about God’s character. And even the prophet Jonah admits that the Lord God is that way when the city of Nineveh is not destroyed. (Although Jonah is upset because God’s merciful nature kept Him from destroying the city.)

This depiction of the Lord God is essential for us as His children. We must have a gracious and merciful God who is slow to anger. We must have a God with steadfast love who relents over disaster. Or else, we are doomed. For what we do in our daily lives arouses the Lord God’s anger. It gives cause for our punishment and disaster. We should encounter nothing but divine wrath for our sinfulness.

If we recall what divine wrath looks like from the Scriptures, we truly understand why we need a gracious and merciful God. He is the One who saw the evil world and drowned it all. Sodom and Gomorrah took the full brunt of divine wrath because of their wanton sinfulness. The Lord God punishes the hard heart of Pharaoh by sending the ten plagues against the Egyptians. And when He witnesses pagan Assyria threatening to conquer His holy city Jerusalem and sends an angel to strike down an army of 185,000.

All these are episodes of divine disaster brought upon sinful humanity. And where the Lord God did not relent, there is no escape. So when He swears that He “visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love Me and keep My commandments,” we rightfully shudder and fear.

For to which camp do we belong? We do not keep the commandments. By our sinful actions, we demonstrate hatred for the Lord God and His will. Based upon our lives, we should prepare ourselves and our children and our children’s children to experience the Lord God’s wrath, to feel the blow of God’s Hammer upon us and them.

But yet, the testimony of the Lord God is that “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster.” The words come from His own mouth and are given to be spoken from the mouths of His prophets. That is the God that we need, and the same description of Him is given to us today.

The prophet Joel exhorts us: “Return to the Lord, your God.” He tells us: “Who knows whether He will turn and relent and leave a blessing behind Him?” We are called to do exactly as we have done this evening: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.” For the Lord is “jealous for His land and has pity on His people.” What we experience is not the wrath and anger of the Lord God, but His mercy.

That is what this night is all about. Once again this year, we deliberately examine ourselves and confess what we have done. In full and brutal honesty, we will admit the frailty of our mortal nature and the record of our sin. We will admit what our destiny is because of it: “We are dust and to dust we shall return.” But we will also state clearly: “O God, You desire not the death of sinners, but rather that they turn from their wickedness and live.” These are the words of humility, words that admit our error, words that show a desire to return to the Lord our God after rebelling against Him.

And such words do not go unheard. What St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians applies to us, just as were read this evening: “The Lord says: ‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” The Lord God has heard and provides His salvation to us; He relents over our deserved disaster.

And so we may have that truth confirmed for us, the Lord God gives to us His Body and Blood for our forgiveness. We must know and be assured that we have the God who is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” We cannot live otherwise. To that need, the Lord answers, just as we heard at the beginning of our service: “I became man, and all that I do and suffer is for your good. I have had mercy on you by taking into Myself all your iniquities.”

And that same merciful and gracious Lord calls us to return to Him, to come to Him on this very night. And as a pledge of His mercy and grace, Christ speaks to us: “As a pledge of this, I give you My Body to eat. I give Myself into death, shedding My Blood to obtain grace and forgiveness of sins. As a pledge of this, I give you My Blood to drink.” What Christ does in His suffering of God’s wrath for our sake shows that God does not despise anything He has made, but forgives our sins as we are penitent for them. That is the greatness of His mercy for us: that God Himself suffers disaster, dying crucified on cross for our sin and our salvation.

We truly have the Lord God who “turns and relents, and leaves a blessing behind Him.” What we must have to live has been given to us. Our impending disaster has been relented. For our God is “jealous for His land and had pity on us, His people.” So may you go out from this evening assured of your forgiveness by this merciful Lord and always return to Him when your sin and guilt confront you again.

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; and He will do it. For that is what your God is: “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Especially for each of you.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.


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