“Even now, declares the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. 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.” – Joel 2: 12-13
The cost of Wesleyan discipleship calls each one of us to the language of lament, fasting, weeping, and sorrow regardless of age, economics, or social situation. The Wesleyan way of living invites us to ponder three criteria in our lives: Do not harm. Do good. And stay in love with God. God’s great love for us compels us to die to self-love and enter into a profound relationship with the Almighty. To be sure God invites us into a child-like faith that is devoid of putting on heirs, and without pomp or circumstance.
At the core of Wesleyan discipleship is the baptism of the Spirit. To rend our heart is an essential concept in authentic and transparent discipleship. Here in Joel’s text to rend means to tear usually clothing as a sign of anger, grief or despair. It means to be divided mentally or emotionally. To rend our hearts means that we are being intentional about allowing our hearts to be broken for the things that break God’s heart. It is written in Jeremiah that all nations should become circumcised in their hearts, especially the house of Israel (Jeremiah 9:26). This rending that Jeremiah is speaking about is the casting out of the sins and passions. In the New Testament Caiaphas is our example of rending garments. To be sure the garments of the priests were not to be rent on any occasion (Leviticus 10:6; Leviticus 21:10). The act of the High Priest Caiaphas was the grave sin against God (Matthew 26:65; Mark 14:63). Rending garments was understood solely as an external token of sorrow.
The Lent invitation is to return to God whole-heartedly. Repentance in what is inward, rather than in what is outward. The inward must precede any outwards signs of loving kindness toward God and neighbor. The outward signs of repentance can be accomplished hypocritically. In response to our opening our hearts is God’s deep introspection of our selves. He bestows upon us incredible expressions of his abiding love. Where we have experienced misery, he offers his tender mercy.
Deep change in attitude toward God, and toward your neighbor. God’s repentance is a change of his will toward the people and is the result of a change of will and conduct on their part. Their repentance would cause God to pour out a blessing instead of judgment.
When we bow our hearts, our knees will follow. It used to be common to tear clothing as a sign of grief, anger or despair. We may not see this so much these days, but this still applies. It’s second nature, or maybe first for some, to put on a face that goes along with what we say… such as when you apologize for bumping into someone, your face usually matches your words… until you look away and then many times that’s when the grumbling and finger-pointing starts. You may speak harshly under your breath. This is exactly what the Word is talking about here in Joel’s text.
To rend the clothing is to put on an act. It is an outward expression and doesn’t always ring true to what the heart is doing. The Word is calling for us to cry out and open our hearts with true repentance so God can remove the sin which is holding us. He wants our TRUE repentance and wants us to turn from our ways and back to Him. You may think that weeping and fasting is an outward expression, and it is, to some degree. When we fast, we are making a sacrifice, and when done for the right reasons, there is a change made in our hearts and spirits.
Are you rending your heart? Or have you simply done the actions? The LORD simply wants us to turn to Him with all of our hearts. Just as He commanded us to love him with all our hearts, all our minds and all our strength. Many of us fail at discipline. We are an instant gratification society. Life gets worse before it gets better. Often we long to return to an unordered and undisciplined life. Spiritual disciplines are the key to Lent. We are all spiritual beings, but we often fail to nurture our spiritual self.
During Lent it is time to turn our hearts toward spiritual renewal and rebirth. But how do you measure spiritual growth, and is it different than how the church understands spiritual growth? Has your image and your understanding of God grown through the years? Do you find that God is mysterious, or easy to determine his step? Have you the same understanding of prayer and worship as you did when you were younger? Are you reading the Scripture with a fresh perspective – or does it have the same meaning as when you were younger? Has your attitude toward others changed since you were younger? Do you love those who are unlike you? Are you more loving?
It takes disciplining our will to grow up into the Image of God! When the prophet Joel calls upon the emergency response system of Zion to “blow the trumpet,” he is essentially setting off an alarm. This alarm is not a test, however. It is a signal that we are in a state of emergency. What’s the emergency? The day of the Lord is coming near. And the response of the people is prescribed. They are to begin preparations for this imminent visitation by assembling the people and calling them to return their hearts to the Lord. There is no time to waste. They must gather the people, sanctify a fast, and throw themselves on the mercy of the Lord before it is too late.
Ash Wednesday serves for us as an annual test of our emergency response systems as disciples of Jesus Christ. The annual call to observe a holy Lent by self–examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self–denial; by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word, and by marking a right beginning of repentance by receiving a mark of our mortal nature is a reminder that we need to live as people who are prepared to stand before our Lord at any time, even as early as this very day, to receive the judgment that the Lord renders upon our lives.
It is a stark reminder that life is brief. Every moment is precious. We never know when our time on earth will come to an end. And so we must do all that we can with our lives: with each second and minute and hour and day that our Lord grants us, to live in the way that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has taught us to live.
As Christians we are not called to seek to please the people around us, but the God who made us. Matthew tells us that the way to do this is to “not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
As we begin this holy season together, let us not ignore the warning that is blared by the prophet Joel. Let us instead take it as a clarion call to action. Let us hear the invitation to observe a holy Lent as our marching orders, in which we get up and do what we need to do to prepare our hearts for whatever may come, this day and every day. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, may we march courageously and faithfully through this season side by side, shoulder to shoulder, as disciples trusting completely in the promises of our God, made known to us in Jesus Christ.