“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and mourning; rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:12-13).
Isn’t it hard to open one’s heart before God? Every day, it seems, I say something or do something that makes me look weak. Or, my words or actions in some way hurt someone else. If I open my heart before God fully, I have to be completely open about my shortcomings. It doesn’t feel good. Who wants to look at his own flaws? Not me.
The prophet doesn’t shy away from this. Joel urges us to turn to God “with fasting, with weeping and mourning.” If anything, Joel deepens the shame and despairing sense that sin produces. We are to grieve the condition in which our failures leave us. A traditional form of grief in ancient Israel was the ripping of garments and this was significant. Many people only had one or two garments of clothing. Sin was so grievous they did something costly. They rent their garment.
But no, says, God, that’s not enough. Rip open the heart! In turning from sin to God, we rip ourselves wide open. It sounds unbearable. What good can come of such raw, honest confession? Only this: New Life!
Besides saying what we are to do in confession, Joel describes the character of God. Joel tells us who God is. The Lord is the one who says to us “return to me with all your heart.” The Lord is gracious and merciful … and relents from punishing.” What the Lord has waiting for us when we come with hearts ripped open, tears shed, and body weakened is forgiveness and new life. God takes all our shame and makes us new.
This Sunday is Palm Sunday and next week is holy week. What if you and I rip our hearts open and come before God. We come in raw, exposed confession as we worship, as we sing, as we enter the church building, as we take communion, and as we bow our heads to pray. What if we open the closet in the interior of our hearts and empty it before God? What will God do with all our junk?
Look to the words of the prophet Joel, who tells us God is “abounding in steadfast love.” God will take the messes of our lives, will wash us, and will replace our baggage and burdens with blessings. Look to the cross where your sins are nailed to Jesus. And look to the horizon. That light that’s breaking through the black shadows of shame is the eternal life that springs in his resurrection. You and I are beckoned by our Lord to walk in that light.
Our first step is the step of confession-repentance; full repentance and complete confession. It isn’t easy. But it gets easier with each step. And before we know it we are walking quicker, running, flying, soaring on the wind of the Spirit of God. I pray this Easter you will know the glorious freedom of forgiveness.