Called to Grow: Rend Your Hearts
December 4, 2016; 2nd Sunday in Advent
Brian R. Keepers
Joel 2:12-13, 28-29
Called to Grow: Rend Your Hearts
I don’t know what compelled me to do it or where the idea even came from. Who can possibly understand the mysteries of a five-year-old’s brain? This is especially true when my five-year-old-brain met up with Brent Olson’s five-year-old brain, my best friend from childhood. The two of us together was usually a sure recipe for trouble.
Here’s how it happened. My mother was talking on the phone with someone about a neighborhood garage-sale. Brent and I snuck into the kitchen and went straight for the lower cupboard. I grabbed a can of unopened Crisco. A few minutes later we were downstairs in the basement, lathering my father’s brand new lazy boy recliner with Crisco to the tune of five-year-old giggles.
We covered the entire chair--fabric not leather--with Crisco. Every. Single. Inch. My mother heard the giggles from upstairs. Soon the sound of her footsteps thundering down the stairs cut our giggles short and sent Brent and I in a state a panic.
So what did we do? What we all do when we’re in trouble. It’s what Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. We ran and hid.
My mother saw the chair covered in Crisco, and, with all her motherly fury, hollered out, “Boys, Come here! Now!” We knew we were done for. This was it. We crawled out from behind the couch and came cowering into my mother’s presence, her face beat red and our heads slumped in shame.
Like I said, I don’t know what compelled us to do it. Our behavior is often not very rational, our impulses are strong. How did St. Paul say it in Romans? I do the things I don’t want to do and know I shouldn’t do; and I don’t do the things I know I should. Welcome to the human condition. This is true not just for 5-year-old boys; it’s true for all of us.
We’ve all Criscoed the lazy boy chair. We’re all guilty of acting in ways that impact others, that make a mess of things and ruin what is good. When the London Times asked a number of writers for essays on “What’s Wrong with the World?”, the great G.K. Chesterton sent in the reply shortest and most to the point:
There’s so much that’s wrong with the world—so much darkness and brokenness and pain. And our tendency is to point fingers and cast blame. As hard as it may be to admit, Chesterton is right: part of what’s wrong with the world is us—you and me. In the words of the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, “the line of good and evil runs through every human heart.”
Here’s the thing: before we can get to the bright lights of Christmas, we have to face the darkness—the darkness in our world and the darkness within our own hearts. Before the Gospel can be good news, it is first bad news.
The prophet Joel, then, begins with the bad news: like the Israelites, we have all strayed from God. God is truth, yet we live by deceit. God is light, yet we seem, in countless ways, to prefer darkness to the light. That’s what’s going on in the book of Joel. God’s people are in exile, and they are experiencing a time of wilderness—a famine in the land; but even more so, a spiritual famine in their hearts. They are all guilty of putting Crisco on the lazy boy chair. Because God is a holy and just God, they are deserving of punishment.
Through Joel, God calls the Israelites to come out of their hiding and return to him. This is a call to genuine repentance—to come home to God. We talked last Sunday about how Advent is a season of preparation and waiting; but it is not a passive kind of waiting. It is an active waiting, and we learned from Daniel that the primary way we actively wait for Christmas is getting down on our knees and assuming a posture of prayer.
Today, in this second Sunday of Advent, we hear the prophet Joel call us to a certain kind of prayer: confession. This is the first step of repentance, of returning to God. It begins with getting honest. Honest with ourselves, honest with God, honest with each other. We ask God to shine his light of truth into the darkest corners of our hearts, to show us what we can’t see, to help us face the truth about ourselves no matter how hard that may be.
As we face the truth about our own sin and brokenness, we allow God to stir up feelings of remorse and sorrow—feelings of lament for the ways we have turned away from God and hurt others. We get present to the way our sin has impacted God, others, ourselves. And we bring that remorse and sorrow into God’s presence: “Return to me with all your heart,” God says through Joel: “with fasting, with weeping, and with morning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.”
Rend your hearts. I’m struck by that line especially. Don’t just go through the religious motions of repentance, but it needs to happen in this deep place of the heart. And God invites us then to bring our rended hearts—our hearts that are torn in so many pieces—to bring all of our heart to him. The invitation here is not just for us to bring the dark, sinful parts of our hearts to God—but all the other parts too. The sad parts. The scared parts. The angry parts. The depressed parts. The lonely parts. “Bring it all to me,” says God. “Come into my presence. And offer your hearts, shattered in a million different pieces, to Me.”
And here is where Joel delivers the good news. When we dare to come out of hiding and come back to God, honestly confessing our sin and rending our hearts, what we encounter is not shame and punishment. Instead, we discover God’s grace and mercy. Listen to this: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
This is how we can return to God in the first place, it is what makes repentance possible. Because God is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, and he offers us forgiveness.
But there’s a second essential part to repentance. It goes further than feeling remorse for our sins and honestly confessing them before God. True repentance is a call to change, to be transformed from the inside out. We need a new heart! As my good friend Chuck DeGroat puts it, this requires nothing less than heart surgery. I’d push it further: we need a heart transplant!
And this, too, is the good news God speak through the prophet Joel. Not only is there a way back to God; not only are we invited to rend our hearts and bring them, all broken and tattered, into God’s presence. But God takes these rendered hearts and heals them; God gives us a new heart, a clean heart, a heart that is transformed and made whole. God transplants in us Christ’s very heart! And it’s this new heart that then makes it possible for us to change our ways, to live differently.
How is this possible? Because of the Holy Spirit poured out upon us. “Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, your sons and your daughters shall prophesy; your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions. Even on male and female slaves, in those days, will I pour out my spirit.”
With the coming of Christ, God has poured out his spirit on all flesh—and that Spirit enable us to turn back to God and, in Christ, gives us new hearts of flesh. This is exactly what another prophet, Ezekiel, prophesied: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ez. 36:26).
In Christ by the Spirit, God gives us new hearts of flesh that are set free from sin and able to follow after God and obey God’s will. The proof, then, of a new heart, of genuine repentance, is outward fruit. “Repentance is an inward matter,” said John Calvin, “which has it seat in the heart and soul, but afterwards yields its fruit in a changed life.”
This is why John the Baptist (and how can we have Advent without bumping into this wild, fiery desert preacher), when he came preaching and baptizing, called people to bear fruits worthy of repentance. In other words, to show by your outward actions that you have had a genuine change of mind and heart! Actions that lead to obedience to God and compassion, generosity and justice towards our neighbors.
Here’s something key: When we return to God, when we come home to God, God always turns us outward toward others. To rend our hearts before God is to have our hearts transformed and filled with compassion for others—especially those on the margins and in need. This is genuine repentance.
I’ll never forget the day I came in from playing outside, went downstairs, and saw what had happened to my dad’s lazy boy chair that Brent and I had ruined. I couldn’t believe my five-year-old eyes! It was just like new. The Crisco was gone—like it had never happened. My mother had tried to scrub the Crisco out, but to no avail. So she took it into the furniture store, and they removed the old fabric and restored the chair with brand new fabric.
And so it is with our sin. We can scrub all we want, try to clean it up and fix it by our own efforts. But only God can take what is ruined and make it new. We can’t fix our hearts, we can’t fix the world, it needs a restoration job—a Redeemer. This is the good news of Advent and Christmas: God in Christ by the Spirit can take our torn, sinful hearts, our broken and dark world, and make it new again. Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me.
It’s in this Table, this Feast of God’s Mercy and Grace, that we draw near to God with our whole hearts, and our hearts are transformed to love God and others in the power of Jesus name.
So as we come to this table, let us take a moment to get honest with God, to examine our hearts, to ask God to shed his light in us so that, with hearts healed and made whole, God might shine his light through us. Lord, come light our hearts; and through us, come light the world.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.