Joel 2:12-13
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
February 14, 2018 – Ash Wednesday

There used to be a bumper sticker that you’d see on the cars of a certain kind of Christian. It read: “If God seems distant, guess who’s moved!”

Whatever thinking lay behind that bumper sticker, it spoke a truth. God does not pull away from us; but we, from Him. God does not push us to the sidelines of His concern; but we relegate Him to a neglected corner of our day-to-day existence. God does not destroy the possibility of a friendship with Him; but we may, by refusing to let Him be in our life who He is, the commanding Lord of righteousness and holiness.

Yet, when we make God distant, God still implores us to come back to Him in repentance, that He might welcome us back with a warm and forgiving embrace.

To reconcile with God, we have to do some things, some of them hard things, such as admit that it is our fault He is at a distance. But the impossibly hard thing we fear we might have to do, we are free from having to do. We don’t have to make up for our wrongdoing; we don’t have to earn the reconciliation we seek.

One afternoon Andrew, a Christian missionary, was talking over coffee with a Muslim sheikh in a Jerusalem café. The sheikh had recently ordered the killing of eight Israelis because the government had executed four Palestinians found guilty of terrorism. Andrew asked the sheikh, “Who appointed you judge and jury, and gave you the authority to do that?” The sheikh replied, “I am not the judge and jury. I am merely an instrument of God’s justice.” After a moment of silence, Andrew asked, “What place is there, then, for forgiveness?” The sheikh replied, “Forgiveness is only for those who deserve it.”

Andrew then realized that, while he and his friend began with a shared conviction about the reality and priority of God, they had radically different views of God. His friend believes in a God who only offers forgiveness to those who deserve it. By contrast, Andrew believes in a God who offers it independent of wrongdoers’ merit, loves to love people all out of proportion to their virtue or record of moral achievement, almost begs even the worst people to come back to Him, is eager to “relent” from the punishment they have coming, and reclaims the ethically and spiritually disabled just because He is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love”.

We dare to come back to the God we have hurt and dishonored, not because we think we can give Him a good reason to give us a second chance, but because we think He wants to be good to us for no good reason.

But to avail of the reconciliation God offers, we have to repent, and the fulfillment of our repentance is a hard work lasting a lifetime. We have to refuse to make peace with what is wrong in us, and hate it and fight it as long as we live.
It is a hard and painful thing to face the fact that I myself am the problem, that I continue to be a hypocrite and riddled with self-centeredness and foolish pride. It is ever a sorrow to my soul; and thus there is no way for me to return to God without “weeping”, “mourning”, and a rending of my heart.

I love an article written in the Los Angeles Review of Books last June by a Hollywood screenwriter named Dorothy Fortenberry. She said, “The single most annoying thing [I hear about faith]…is the kind, patronizing way that nonreligious people have of saying, ‘Sometimes I just wish I were religious. I wish I could have that certainty. It just seems so comforting…’

“Well,” Fortenberry wrote, “sometimes I wish I had the certainty of an atheist…and I do not find religion to be comforting in the way nonreligious people mean…It is not comforting to know quite as much as I do about how weaselly and weak-willed I am when it comes to being as generous as Jesus demands. Thanks to church, I have a much stronger sense of the sort of person I’d like to be, and I am forced to confront all the ways in which I fall short of that, daily. Nothing promotes self-awareness like turning down an opportunity to bring children to visit their incarcerated parents. Or avoiding shifts at the food bank. Or calculating just how much I will put in the collection plate. Thanks to church, I have looked deeply into my own heart and found it be of merely small-to-medium size. None of this is particularly comforting.”

Martin Luther articulated a biblical truth when he said, “Jesus’ will is that the whole life of a believer should be one of repentance.” Indeed the life of faith, this side of heaven, is not so much one of comfort development as of character and conduct development.
Yes we again and again screw up. But God be praised, that He again and again implores us to come back to Him anyway, and again and again opens His arms wide to us in a welcoming embrace. Our only contribution in this grace is to keep facing the appalling truth about ourselves and to keep believing that God is ever gracious and still aches for friendship with us.

Is it not a joy that God – despite how badly we sometimes behave, and despite how slowly we improve – never changes in His desire to lavish His love upon those who repent and to feed them at His table of grace!

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