Assessing Our Sin

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This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.

Scripture: Joel 2:12-17
Text: Joel 2:12
Sermon Prepared by Rev. Richard J. deLange, Aylmer, Ontario

People of God,
I wonder how often we ignore God when He wants to get our attention. I wonder what it takes sometimes for us to finally stop what we’re doing and listen for His voice.  I wonder if we ever look for God’s footprints when our lives are disrupted… or do we just plod on?  

People are pretty thick-skulled—even God’s people.  Consider Israel in Joel’s day.  She paid God lip-service but was a people bent on doing things her own way.  And that’s why God sends grasshoppers or locusts to consume her crops.  God rings the wakeup bell.  It’s like He says, “I’ve been trying to get your attention in kinder, gentler ways for years but you just press on like I don’t exist.  You pursue your careers, your pleasures, your business and your family activities.  You even go to the temple faithfully but you’ve not been listening to me.”  

So the Lord sends a plague of grasshoppers to get everyone’s attention off of themselves and back on the Lord.  That’s what happens in chapter 1.  And the Lord tells them,

JOEL 1:11 Despair, you farmers,
    wail, you vine growers;
  grieve for the wheat and the barley,
    because the harvest of the field is destroyed.

We note as a commentator did, “Those who labour only for the meat that perishes will, sooner or later, be ashamed of their labour. The vine-dressers will then express their extreme grief by howling, when they see their vineyards stripped of leaves and fruit, and the vines withered, so that nothing is to be had or hoped for from them, wherewith they might pay their rent and maintain their families…. All the inhabitants of the land are in tears for what they have lost, are in fear of perishing…” in poverty.

The psalmist has told Israel and us this:
PS 104:14 He (the Lord) makes grass grow for the cattle,
    and plants for man to cultivate--
    bringing forth food from the earth:
  PS 104:15 wine that gladdens the heart of man,
    oil to make his face shine,
    and bread that sustains his heart.

But now listen to what the people say as they pour out their lament in Joel 1:
JOEL 1:10 The fields are ruined,
    the ground is dried up;
  the grain is destroyed,
    the new wine is dried up,
    the oil fails.

But what effect does this loss have on the people’s relationship to God?

It is not so strange that a farmer would grieve when he loses his crop.  But Joel is asking whether he still finds joy and hope in the Lord.  You see, if you place your happiness in the crop alone, then you’ll be in bigger trouble.  The Lord tells us that our circumstances should not control our life.  We must look up to Him who supplies all our needs.  Our joy and delight is found in God.  Habbakuk, facing similar devastation as in Joel’s day, put it like this:

HAB 3:17 Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
  though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
  though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
  HAB 3:18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.

That isn’t happening to Israel in Joel’s day.  The Lord is testing them with the loss of their crops.  And that test includes helping them assess their sin, to see if they have the Lord front and centre in their lives and hearts—if He is their joy or if they are seeking it in the things of this world that He has kept from them by sending grasshoppers to consume the crops.  

In that same vein this morning, I invite you to assess your sin.  You see, it’s easy for us to get sidetracked from our first love.  Sometimes God needs to get our attention back because we’ve become so immersed in ourselves and our way of doing things that we’ve actually lost contact with Him.  We didn’t intent to.  We never set out to turn away from the Lord.  And thankfully He’s not lost contact with us, but we get distracted from Him by our own interests.  

And it’s not that our interests are necessarily bad.  There’s nothing wrong with working hard to provide for your family.  There’s nothing wrong with going to school and doing your best.  There’s nothing wrong with pursuing your favourite sport or many other things we do.  But go a little deeper.  Why do you do what you do?  Why do you pursue what you do?

A university student talked about his Christian parents who encouraged him to do well in high school because that would give him the grades to get into a better university and to get better scholarships to the school of his choice.  In the parents’ thinking, the better school would provide the student with a better job and that better job would provide him with a better salary down the road.  And don’t we all talk that way at times?  That line of thinking shows that as Christians we are sometimes guilty of making money our bottom line, whether it comes to expression in our reason for working hard or for going to school or anything else.  

In so far as we’ve made money our first priority, we need to repent of that.  

Imagine a university-aged daughter introducing her dad to a friend.  The friend is an art major at her school. The Christian father finds himself thinking about the young man, “Could he make a living doing art?  We all know that most artists can’t live off of their art work.  Will he realistically be able to provide for my daughter if they get married and have a family?”  Then the Lord tugs at the father’s heart saying, “If he does it to honour me, isn’t that good?  Don’t you think I would take care of Him?”  Ashamed, the father replies, “Yes, Lord.  You’re right!  I’m sorry for thinking more about money than about your child using his gifts to glorify you.”

You may have similar thoughts that, when we stop and think about it, show that we have our minds on the wrong things, at least some of the time and in certain areas of our lives, whether it’s money, time, family, church, sports or anything else.  Sometimes we are so stuck in our usual way of living and thinking about things that we don’t listen to the Holy Spirit’s nudges on our heart.  We just press on with our life.  We just do what we always do.  We don’t stop to assess our life, particularly our sin and sinful desires.  Instead of looking for better ways to honour the Lord with our life, everything comes down to the wallet or my own desires and plans.  We even work and volunteer just to get recognition and praise from others instead of to praise the Lord.

That’s certainly where Israel was at as a nation when God spoke to them through Joel.  And therefore the Lord says, in the words of v.12,

JOEL 2:12 "Even now," declares the LORD,
    "return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning."

Listen again: “Return to me now!” says the Lord.  “Return to me!”

We all have times when we wander from the Lord.  We get so involved in living that we forget who we are living for.  That’s when it’s necessary for us to stop and assess our own sin to see where we each need to turn back to the Lord.  This is something that theologians might call our daily conversion.  Every day we need get back with God.  When the Lord says “Return to me” He’s telling us to get our life back on track with Him.  He’s saying that we need to look at our heart and see what direction our life is going… especially where it is going in the wrong direction because of our sin.  We’ve got to turn around.  We’ve got to hit the brakes, crank the wheel and get going in the right direction.  

This is not like going on a trip where you can take one or two or maybe even five or six different routes to the same destination.  This is God saying, “If your heart is not bent on doing my will, then you are going in the wrong direction.”  You see, young people, all paths do not lead to God.  The only way to live for the glory of God is to have your heart tuned to His—by trusting in Jesus, reading God’s Word and seeking to obey it in the strength of the Holy Spirit.  And that’s why God says, “Turn back.  Reorient your life entirely to seeking my will and to doing it.”  

The signs of repentance for sin in Joel’s day were tearing your clothes and fasting.  Boys and girls, you remember the story of Jonah preaching to the Ninevites?  He gave the shortest sermon in the Bible: “Thirty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed.”  But we read these words,

JONAH 3:6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.

And even more direct is the action of King Ahab when the Lord tells him that he will die because of the evil he has done.  1 Kings 21 says,

1KI 21:27 When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.

Israel in Joel’s day is quite good at doing the external things.  Joel seems to be speaking especially to the people in Jerusalem where they faithfully attend worship in the temple.  Nonetheless, their hearts are not right with God.  

It happens easily, dear friends.  We get so used to doing right things—like going to church—without really thinking about our wrong hearts.  We become callous to our sin.  Think about it.  When’s the last time you cried about your sin?  When’s the last time you realized, wow, I have really dishonoured my Father in heaven and undervalued myself as His child by what I’ve said or done?  Have you done as Joel pictures it in vv.15-17?

Look at v.15 in your Bible.  I won’t read it.  Just look at it and compare our lives?  Do we ever go to another person and say, “Let’s call a fast?  I need to show God my sorrow for sin and plead with Him for mercy and help?”  Do we call a prayer service of repentance for the whole church?  We notice in this chapter—look at v.16—that everyone is called to “rend their heart”—the elders of the town, the children and even the nursing infants.  Even the man and woman on their honeymoon must not wait to repent of sin.  It’s an urgent matter.  Repentance is both an individual and a communal enterprise; we are in this together as God’s people.  It’s not good enough to go through the motions, whether that’s going faithfully to church or praying in front of others where you act sorrowful.  God looks at the heart.  That’s why the Lord says,

JOEL 2:13 Rend your heart
    and not your garments.

When a torn shirt symbolizes sorrow for sin, that’s great!  Genuine sorrow is what the Lord wants when it comes to our sin.  King David, who we know committed adultery, wrote this in the words of confession he gave us in Psalm 51:
 

PS 51:17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart,
    O God, you will not despise.

And as the Lord speaks through Joel, He says the same thing to us today.  No sin is too great to be forgiven.  You can be going 200 km/h in the wrong direction but God allows U-turns at any and every point of our life.  

Sticking with the driving analogy and getting back to where we started, as we assess our sin, it’s important that we recognize that bumps in the road are gifts from God.  Many of us have probably had the experience of driving too long and getting a little drowsy.  But an unexpected bump shocks us back into a fully awake state.  On a spiritual level as well, bumps in our lives wake us up and we say to ourselves, “Where am I going?  I can’t keep on traveling down this road; it leads to destruction.”  Then we fall to our knees in repentance, pleading with God for mercy on the merits of Jesus.  

O beloved people of God, the Lord knows the sincerity of our desire to get clear of our sin and the things that lead us to it.  And He assures us that when we rend our hearts, He will rend the heavens and earth and come to us with mercy. He does that because of Jesus who became the complete sacrifice for our sin.  That is the basis for Joel’s call to repentance.  Look again at v.13, especially the second half:

JOEL 2:13 Rend your heart and not your garments.
  Return to the LORD your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
  slow to anger and abounding in love,
    and he relents from sending calamity.

There’s the good news we all need to embrace.

The God who calls us to turn from our sin is also gracious and loving.  But that grace and love come because He has sent His own Son to take upon Himself the guilt and the wrath of God against our sin.  Only by faith in Jesus can we be certain that we will be embraced with love by God.  God’s children need to know that there is safety and new life for those who turn—and return—to the Lord who is gracious and compassionate.  

That’s important for us on two levels.  First of all, we all face hardships and difficulties in life which serve as a wakeup call to draw near to God.  We wouldn’t do that on our own.  We’re just like the people Joel was preaching to.  We need God’s grace to awaken us and turn us wholeheartedly back to the Lord.  We are all prone to wander and God graciously uses the bumps on the road of our life to turn us around.  Every day each of us has to turn back to the Lord.  We have to assess our sin and assess our heart before God.  We need to repent of our sin and pray for the Lord to help us by His Holy Spirit to stay closer to Him and to keep from sin.  

But the second reason for us to be confident in the care of our gracious and compassionate Lord has to do with the return of our Lord.  Joel not only reflects on the devastation of the grasshoppers on the physical crops of Israel, he also calls the people to repentance before the future “Day of the Lord” arrives.  Likewise, we await the final return of the Lord.  And in waiting and preparing for His return, we need to marvel at Jesus Christ who ensures us that that Day of the Lord will be a huge blessing for us, rather than the sad surprise it will be for those who do not turn to the Lord in this life.  

Oh, dear people of God, let us live in the comfort of knowing that Jesus forgives us of our sins and secures us now and forever.  Because of Jesus, God is gracious and compassionate toward His children and nothing can separate us from His love.  Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit to help us as we await His return.  And while waiting, we cling to Him as our Lord and Saviour in our struggles and then in our good times again.  We seek to serve Him wholeheartedly more and more, so that less and less God needs to resort to wakeup calls to get our attention.  

Prayer:
Almighty God, we praise you for your grace and mercy.  Fill us with your Holy Spirit so that more and more we hear your gentle voice.  May we grow to know you better, love you as we should and live for your glory in everything.  For Jesus’ sake, Amen.  

 

 

Order of Worship
Note: **Asterisks indicate when you are requested to stand, if you are able.
Prelude
Welcome

THE BEGINNING
Silent Prayer
**    Call to Worship: Joel 2:15a-16
**    God’s Greeting
**    Our Gathering Praise: How Deep the Father’s Love for Us    
            choose from: I Will Call Upon the Lord
                I Will Enter His Gates
                Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty    #249

THE SERVICE OF RECONCILIATION
    Our Confession of Sin in Prayer
        Reflect on our neglect of God, pursuit of own desires at the expense of others.  
    God’s Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 51:7-9
    Song of Thanksgiving: All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name     #471:1,2
    God’s Will for our Lives: Psalm 51:12-13a, Summary of God’s Law
**    Song of Dedication: All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name    #471:3,4

THE WORD OF GOD
    Prayer for the Word
    Scripture Reading: Joel 2:12-17
    Sermon: Assessing Our Sin
    Text: Joel 2:12
**    Hymn of Response: Guide Me, O My Great Redeemer    #543

THE JOY OF PRAYER AND GIVING
    Intercessory Prayer
    Tithes & Offerings:
**    Hymn of Gratitude: Give Thanks to God, for Good is He    #182

THE DISMISSAL
**    Benediction
**    Doxology: Amazing Grace     #462:1,2,3
**    Postlude

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