Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Amazing Grace - Lent 2, Weekday Service, Joel 2:13

Joel.2.13 – Amazing Grace

First Sunday in Lent, February 25, 2007

St. John’s, Howard, SD

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see.

It’s a well known hymn to all of us. And a greatly loved one, for many a favorite. You may know the story behind its beginning. John Newton composed it about himself sometime between 1760 and 1770. His tomb stone tells the story. “John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and Libertine, a servant of slavers in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had so long labored to destroy.” And preach it he did, until he was 82 years old with failing sight and memory. When someone suggested he retire he is reported to have said, “My memory is gone but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.” I think it is true that those who most feel the burden of sin can most appreciate the grace of God, found in His forgiveness.

When I read a passage like 13bReturn to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Joel 2:13b (ESV) I often find myself saying “Return? But I’ve never left. I’ve been a Christian all my life. Saved through the work of Jesus, given to me in baptism when I was so small I can’t even remember it.” In fact, as often as I’ve sung the words “a wretch like me,” I don’t think I’ve ever really taken it to heart. I don’t think I’ve ever really felt wretched. Not like John Newton, slave trader anyway. Or like the woman who came to the Pharisee’s house where Jesus had been invited to eat. She poured very expensive oil on Jesus feet and wiped it up with her hair. The other guests were appalled because she was a ‘sinner.’ Maybe she was a prostitute or something like that. “If this man were really a prophet he wouldn’t let a woman like that touch him.” Simon, the owner of the house, thought to himself. Jesus said, 41“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” (Luke 7:41-42 ESV) “Well, the one who had the large debt cancelled, I guess.” Was answered. “Yes you are right.” Jesus said. And then looking at the woman he said, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (44-47) And Jesus forgave her, not because she had washed his feet but because she had come to him in faith asking for forgiveness. “Your faith has saved you.” Jesus told her. She would have understood the hymn and the words “saved a wretch like me.”

So, have you been forgiven much? Do you really think of yourself as “a poor miserable sinner,” like we confess most Sundays here? When I say to you “Return to the Lord, your God,” do you say to yourself, “Return? from where? from what?”

Oh sure, it’s easy to point to John Newton, or the woman at Simon’s house and say they needed to return. But have you ever heard yourself saying something like this: “Return? Me? But, I’ve been church attender all my life. I’ve always believed.

I come every Sunday, weather I feel like it or not. I’m actually here on Wed night, too! And I’m pretty generous with the collection plate, too. Never mind that my heart isn’t always here with me, or that my mind has wandered off to this afternoon. (It’s not my fault if Pastor’s sermon is boring.) Never mind that lots of times I leave church feeling like I’ve wasted my time, because all I accomplished was ‘going through the motions.’ At least I’m here. I know other folks who need to “return” here. People who haven’t pressed a pew in months, or even years. Or how about those folks who use church attendance as a way to get what they want. I’m not the one who needs to return.”

Or if I said “Return to the Lord your God.” Would you be likely to say something like this: “God is first in my life… well mostly anyway. He knows how busy I am with school and sports and work and family. What’s a missed church meeting here and there. What are a few absences from worship or bible study? My family is my priority. God did give me all these blessings (or at least he knows how hard I worked to get them) I’m sure He’d want me to enjoy them. If God’s really my friend and my buddy He won’t mind being put on the back burner for a while.”

“Return to the Lord your God…” Jesus told this story. There were to men who went to church to pray. One said, “Lord, I’m glad I’m not like other folks. I attend church. I give my money. I put you mostly first. Thank you for making me a good believer.” The other wouldn’t enter the sanctuary. He knelt in the janitor’s closet. “Lord, I’m a sinful person… help me to Return to you.” It’s hard not to be the first guy. We’ve been so blessed to have been given the faith. We’ve been so blest to have a church where God’s Word has been preached clearly for so long. And yet our old sinful nature swells up with pride so easily. It doesn’t take much to compare ourselves to the likes of the woman at the party or the previous life of John Newton and think that we come out ahead. The truth is we’ll never come out on top of sin. It’s in our hearts to stay and leads us to places we don’t want to go.

You and I are always have the need to “return to the Lord our God.” And while it may seem like it’d be easy to remove them from our life, they aren’t. When God says “Return” He means “Return all the way. Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect!” Jesus says. And we can’t be perfect. 14O Jerusalem, wash your heart from evil, that you may be saved. How long shall your wicked thoughts lodge within you? (Jeremiah 4:14 ESV) The place that we need to return from is right here in our hearts. We’d like to compare ourselves with other people. We like to point out their sin and their short comings. We are good a pointing the finger of guilt at other people. But we hate it when it points at us. All the things we do, the gossip, the pride, the selfishness, are only symptoms of what sin really is. The real blackness is something that you can never get rid of. In the words of Martin Luther, “we daily sin much and deserve nothing but punishment.” (Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer) That’s what the Hymn means by a “wretch like me!” David had it right in Psalm 51. “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” He knew only a radical heart transplant free from sin. He knew unless his heart was changed with a new and clean one, all he could expect form God was eternal death and punishment. No matter which evil person we point to, we are just as sinful, just as guilty, just as deserving of God’s punishment. “Return to the Lord your God!”

You know there is another way to say that word “Return.” It’s a bigger word, and it even has a bigger meaning. And it’s a good word for Lent. The word is “Repentance.” Repentance means to turn away from evil and turn toward God. But there is more to it than that. It really has two parts. First, there is the acknowledgement of sin and sorrow over it (contrition). It’s knowing we are sinful, that we sin every day. It’s hearing God’s Word that cuts us to the quick; that accuses that sinful nature of it’s certain reward for sin. “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.” If you don’t see the need for your medicine you won’t take it. If you don’t see the sin that is in your heart you won’t see the need to get rid of it. And the second part of repentance is faith. That’s turning toward God because you believe that He has is the only one who can do anything about your sin. It’s looking for Jesus on the cross and standing where the blood shed for you can wash away this in that is in you. That’s the “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” There’s a hymn we sing that goes like this:

Where guilt is great and sin abounds,

There God’s great grace is poured,

And fervent prayer from saints resounds:

“I call upon the Lord.”

In fact, if we didn’t believe that God has done something about our sin, that sin that lives in our hearts, what would the point be of even being here? We do turn toward God, because we know that he promises to forgive. 8If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9, ESV) Those are repentance words, a lot like the words of Newton, “I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.” Those are “returning” words. We know we are sinful and we turn to God who we know is faithful.

You know that finger pointing that we like to do. Well there is a way that we should do it. In fact, there is a way that God allows. When we are convicted by our own sin, when we see the blackness in our hearts, and we know there is nothing we can do about it, we get to point to someone else. When we feel guilty for our sin, we get to point to someone else to take the punishment. It’s like we get to say, “He did it.” And Jesus takes the blame even thought He didn’t do it. “Not me, Him.” We say when we are in trouble for our sin. Jesus became guilty of sin, even though He never sinned in His whole life. He was punished for the sins of the whole world even though He lived perfectly from the first day He was born. 21For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV)

I don’t want you to get the impression that God is letting sin go easy. He doesn’t just sweep it under the rug. For God, sin is serious business. It is deadly serious. All through time God has shown over and over again how sin means death. It’s because sin is a matter of the heart, that only death can remove it. The shedding of blood is required to pay for sin. Jesus shed His blood in a brutal and violent death on the cross. Abounding in steadfast love? Yes. Jesus is God’s abounding love, that He endured even that kind of a death for you. Amazing Grace? Yes amazing. Not only because it comes to “wretches” like you and me, but because of what He did to show it.

That brings us back to “Return to the Lord your God.” It’s only our short sidedness, or our pride, or our selfishness that tells us that we don’t need to “return.” Sin is our constant companion. It always threatens us. And so we “Return” to God, we repent. The author of Hebrews says it this way: 22let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. (Hebrews 10:22-23, ESV) We “return” because He is faithful. We “return” because He forgives. We “return” for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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