Thursday, February 11, 2010

Turning Toward God Sermon

Joel 2:12-14
Luke 15:17-24

There is nothing in the world better than the feeling of coming home. You come home at the end of a long week at church camp and you can’t wait to take a hot shower, eat a meal your mom cooked, and sleep in your own bed. You come home from college for the weekend and a wave of comfort hits you when you walk in the door- you’ll get to do your laundry without putting quarters in the machine and most likely Dad will make pancakes in the morning (at least my dad did anytime I came three and a half hours home for the weekend).

Now that David and I invested our Christmas money in a memory foam mattress topper I can hardly stand to be away from my own bed. Coming home and falling into that comfort is a wonderful feeling. If you live away from home, there is always a piece of your original home with you in your heart. This week I walked into my friend Audrey’s office and noticed a tiny quilted wall hanging in the shape of Ohio. Even though Audrey and I have lived in Tennessee for almost nine years- there is nothing like going home to Ohio or Missouri or wherever home is.

I can’t even begin to imagine what it felt like for my friend Mark to come home from Haiti a few weeks ago. He’ll be here on Wednesday to tell us about that journey. I’m sure when he was sleeping out under the stars in the midst of the chaos of the earthquake he was thinking about how nice it would be to be home with his wife and his dog and cat. When I hit the Overton County line after I’ve been away, something in my body relaxes because I am home. There is no feeling in the world like coming home. In the immortal words of a famous girl from Kansas, “there’s no place like home.”

Beginning February 17th, we are being invited to come home. The season of Lent begins with our Ash Wednesday service on the 17th and continues for forty days plus Sundays as we journey to Easter Sunday. For Christians, the resurrection of Christ is our heart’s true home. The resurrection that we joyfully experience and participate in reminds us that darkness, death and sadness never have the final say over light, life and the power of God.

Before we reach the joy of the resurrection, there is a season of preparation during which we focus our hearts and minds on the life of Jesus. During this season we call Lent, we remember the life and teachings of Jesus as well as his death and resurrection. Lent is a time when we are reminded of our own morality, where we take intentional time to examine our lives through the lens of the life of Jesus. During this season we focus on prayer, particularly asking forgiveness for the things that distance us from God. This season extends to us an invitation to come home, to the comforts of a life lived in God’s loving presence.

If the resurrection is our true home and we know our celebration of Easter is coming up in less than two months, how do we get there? How do we get to our heart’s true home? One of the ways we get there is through repentance. Repentance, there’s a churchy word for you- what in the world does that mean? For our answer let’s turn to the words of the prophet Joel. The Hebrew prophet Joel speaks to his people about a coming day of the Lord- a high holy day when God’s presence will be especially close. In his prophecy he is helping them understand how to prepare themselves for God’s immanent presence, even in the midst of tough times. Joel talks about the trials his people have faced as a plague of locusts- and scholars tend to wonder if that was a literal plague of locusts or some code language for the Persian Army whose rule the Israelites were under. Within Joel’s prophecy we hear words of repentance. “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

What is repentance according to Joel? How do we prepare for God? We return to God with all our heart. The word “heart” here is a Hebrew idiom that symbolized what the brain symbolizes in language today. The heart was understood as the center of will and intellect. In other words, God is saying, “return to me with all that you are.” Come home. Turn toward me in this season of repentance.

To repent we have to turn away from something to turn toward God. Lent is the season when we focus on turning away from things that distract us from God. Many people fast as the words of Joel talk about. While they may not literally skip a meal, they may fast from certain foods they enjoy. Some people fast from other distractions like computers or television. For others there are behaviors, thoughts or attitudes that we literally need to turn away from so that we can turn our hearts toward God. God is beckoning us to come home, to the full joy of the resurrection. What behaviors do we need to ask forgiveness for and change? What do we need to fast from so that we can fully turn toward God? What will it take for us to find our true home in God this Lenten season? To repent literally means to turn around and go in the opposite direction. We need to turn around from whatever is distracting us and head toward God as we prepare for Easter.

One of the greatest homecoming stories of all time is the story of the prodigal son. You know this story, it’s the one Jesus tells about a father that has two sons. The younger one asks him for his inheritance early. Understand that inheritance is given to male children at the time of death so in essence the son says, “Dad, you’re as good as dead to me- I’m ready for my inheritance.” His father gives it to him and he ventures out into the world. We don’t really know what he did with the money, but sooner rather than later, he runs out, ends up destitute and realizes what bad shape he is in.

When he has hit bottom the scripture says that the son finally returns to his senses. He realizes that he is hungry and he decides to return to his father in hopes of working as a slave for him. The son is truly repentant as he turns toward home. He has his speech all planned out, “Father I have sinned against heaven and before you, I
am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired hands.” I think the son truly believes this words of repentance that he speaks and expects to be treated like a hired hand.

It’s not always easy to go home. The prodigal son had to swallow his pride, bury his shame about what he had done with his father’s money and prepare to face the worst. I’m sure some of us have had to go home under the same circumstances: humiliated, embarrassed, at the end of our rope. Turning from the situation we’ve gotten ourselves into takes courage and a willingness to admit that we were wrong. “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and before you, I am no longer worthy to be called your child.” Repentance isn’t the easiest part of our job as Christians. Returning to our home in God takes a bit of pride swallowing sometimes. In fact, we may wonder sometimes why we should repent. Why should we turn around and go back toward God?

The good news is that we have a God who waits patiently for our return. The father ran down the road to meet the prodigal son. He threw his arms around him and kissed him. The father killed the fatted calf and threw a party to welcome home is returning son. In the same way our God celebrates with exceeding joy when we turn back home.

Joel’s prophecy tells us about the nature of a God who calls us to come home. He reminds us that God is gracious. We talked about grace last week as undeserved favor. Our God loves us as a favorite child, even when our actions and behavior don’t warrant that love. Joel reminds us that God is merciful, that God has the kind of love for us that a mother has for her child. God is slow to anger says Joel. Many of us were taught growing up that the reason to repent is fear; fear of God’s wrath if one doesn’t repent. Joel reminds us that God is slow to anger- God waits patiently for our repentance and our turning toward our heart’s true home. Finally, Joel reminds us that God’s love is steadfast. This means God is always waiting for us as the father waits for the prodigal son. The love of God isn’t fleeting- it will be there today, tomorrow and always.

I hope for us that in the upcoming season of Lent that we will take an opportunity to turn toward God. I pray that we wouldn’t wait until we have hit rock bottom before we turn away from those things that distance us from God. Instead, I envision that with each other’s help we can turn toward our heart’s true home inside the love of God. If we are able to do this during this Lenten season we will be able to participate fully in the unparalleled joy of the resurrection on Easter morning. Amen and amen.

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