Storm Warning!
Joel 2:1-2; 12-17
Ash Wednesday 2008

Residents in north-west Western Australia are being urged to remain prepared for a cyclone.
The weather bureau predicts cyclonic activity will increase in the next fortnight.
The bureau says there is a heightened chance a cyclone will threaten the north-west coast by mid-February.
Two cyclones have already formed off the West Australian coast this northern wet season.
North-west Western Australia weathered Cyclones Helen and Melanie without major damage to life or property.
The bureau predicts two further cyclones could threaten Western Australia before the wet season ends.
Sound familiar?  This was a news report on the ABC’s website on Friday last week.

During January Cyclone Helen blew through Darwin and surrounding areas.  There were plenty of warnings issued and from reports, most people listened to them.  Residents and tourists alike went out and stocked up on enough food and supplies for any eventuality.  There wasn’t that much damage from Helen, a few trees uprooted and some heavy rain, but nothing like the devastation of Cyclone Tracey back in ’74.

We tend to listen to these kinds of warnings from the authorities don’t we?  We listen and respond to extreme weather warnings, or fire danger and flood warnings.  Why then don’t we take heed of warnings like those that the prophet Joel was announcing?  I guess its just human nature but when we hear someone standing on a street corner or on the radio or in a newspaper declaring that the end of the world is nigh, we call them a crackpot and go about our daily routine, pretty much ignoring the warning that they gave. 

The prophet Joel was issuing a warning on behalf of God to his people.  What Joel was describing sounds a lot like a storm doesn’t it?  “A day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness”.  God wanted the alarm sounded, he wanted the warnings put out so that everyone could prepare for what’s coming.  It’s a warning of potential destruction if his people don’t take heed of the warning that Joel brings.

God was calling for his people to return with all their hearts, with fasting and weeping and mourning, rending their hearts and not just their clothing.  What he means here is to be truly sorry, to repent, not just saying sorry because it’s demanded, but willingly offering it, because it’s needed.  Not just a superficial thing but a deep and heartfelt repentance.

Today, Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of the Lenten season we hear those same words spoken to us, “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and with mourning:  rend your hearts and not your clothing”

There are perhaps four ways we can respond to God’s call.  Firstly we could simply ignore the call, as if it were from one of those street corner prophets announcing that the end of the world is nigh.  Secondly, we could make a big song and dance of our repentance, as Matthew warns against in the Gospel reading for this evening, by repenting so that others might see, rather than keeping it between God and ourselves. 

We could also act like a sulky child who has just been caught out doing something wrong to one of their siblings.  You know the scenario don’t you?  A child standing there with a scowl on their face, arms folded firmly in front of them and bottom lip stuck out.  There’s a parent standing nearby demanding that the child tells the victim of the crime that they are sorry.  Then there comes a gruff and abrupt, “Sorry!” or even a whiney sort of “Sooorryyy” with no real compassion behind it at all.  I’m sure you’ve all seen it played out before, or even been a part of it…

Sometimes the child sees the storm coming and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes the storm never comes and perhaps should.  That storm being the wrath of the parent or guardian who is trying to get some true repentance from the offender rather than just a spat out response on demand.  We’re no different.  We don’t see the storm coming either, we think that we’ll be alright, we do the right thing, we come to church when we can, we confess our sins during the service, and we certainly LOOK like we mean it, but God’s warning through Joel goes unheeded.  We resent having to say sorry for our sins, we do so grudgingly.

So what do we do, where do we go, how do we heed the call to return to the Lord?  What’s the fourth option? 

It’s important to note the words following the call to return, “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”

These are words of encouragement more than demand.  They urge us to come back to the Lord for he is good.  When you’re going about your life apart from him, following your own false gods you are missing out on his grace and mercy.  God wants to give them to you, so don’t reject them.  Human repentance doesn’t control God; he just wants us to turn to him to receive what he is offering, what he gives out of his divine goodness and mercy.  But we see repentance as God’s way of controlling us, of making us feel bad. We’re a lot like the naughty child, we think that if we say sorry then we lose, but it actually works the other way around, when we are sorry we actually win!
There’s a wonderful practice that works well in everything we do, which is modelled on the way God cares for us and forgives us.  Next time someone says to you, “I’m sorry”, don’t just say “Thanks”, or “That’s OK”, try saying these words, “You’re forgiven.”  It might be a bit strange at first, if you’re not used to it, but it works!  It’s like giving forgiveness that was first given to us through Jesus.

Over the next 40 or so days we will be revisiting the journey of Jesus to the cross.  The very purpose of the journey was so that you and I might be able to be forgiven for our sins.  Part of that process is looking hard enough at ourselves to realise that we are sinners in need of forgiveness.  When we understand and believe what Jesus did and wants for us, then our response comes from the heart.  We want to repent, to turn to God and ask for his grace and forgiveness, and to receive them.  Not just a superficial asking, but a deep and heartfelt longing to be made right with our Father in heaven. That’s the fourth option in responding to God’s call to repent and that’s the one he’s truly looking for.  It’s a quiet, heartfelt response to his love for us, a love so great that he gave his Son for us.

You may not feel ready to respond in that way, you might feel a bit angry at God for some reason at this time.  You might be resentful and only ready for an arms folded, scowling “Sorry”, I think even that is probably enough for our loving and gracious God.  But hopefully during the coming Lenten season as we revisit the story of Jesus Passion, you may be moved to say a heartfelt sorry and turn to God and receive his forgiveness, which is so freely given to all of us.  Amen.