What do you believe God sees when God looks at you?
Does God see a terrible sinner…a miserable failure…an abomination?
Or something else?
Our answer to that question has a powerful impact on our relationship with God. And as we begin our Lenten journey, it's a question that we all need to ask ourselves.
In our first reading from the prophet Joel, we hear two strikingly different messages coming from one God.
And we'll hear this same inconsistency in all of the prophetic books of the Old Testament...
The lesson begins with a prophecy of darkness and gloom. The first two verses of the reading are absolutely terrifying. God is bitterly angry and prepared to pour out judgment and wrath on his own people as punishment for their sins.
But read on, and we hear of a God who "is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, who relents from punishing..."
So what is God's disposition towards us? Are we living under an angry God? Is God preparing to destroy us, as so many Christian voices are saying?
Make no mistake-- God was angry at the people of Israel for their sins. And God is announcing judgment on the people. But God's judgment is not about destroying and abandoning.
Through all the prophetic books, we hear the words of a God who is grieved beyond words for a people who have turned their backs upon him and his laws. God's anger is grief at the destruction that sin wreaks upon the human community and upon God’s creation.
God's mercy triumphs over God's judgment. If there is one single message we can glean from all the prophetic books is that God absolutely will not abandon his beloved people. God’s judgment always serves the greater purpose of turning the hearts of his people back to himself.
This is the character of our God-- and this has been God's way of dealing with a sinful humanity since the Garden of Eden.
God will do whatever it takes to redeem us from the powers of sin and death that enslave us and hold us prisoner-- and God did. God became a human being in Jesus Christ and laid down his life at the cross for our redemption.
God would not do this for someone he hates. God does this for a people who are loved more than they can ever know. When God looks at you, God is not angry or disgusted. God is merciful. God is forgiving. God sees a person who is loved so much that the cross was not too high a price to pay for your redemption.
With such great love shown to us in Jesus Christ, Lent is a time for all of us to heed God's pleas to return to him. It's a time to receive and celebrate his forgiveness. It's a call to commitment; a call to submit ourselves to God's rule over our lives.
And it's very appropriate that Lent is associated with giving something up-- because the season is all about repentance. To repent is to renounce those things that take the place of God in our lives; it's renouncing all of the things we're too afraid to "miss out on" if we put God first. Yet God is not looking for us to give up those things for just forty days. Obedience means abandoning these things for good.
Now is the time for all of us to hear God’s Word of judgment on the sin that enslaves us—but not while trembling with fear. God’s Word of judgment is God’s urgent plea to be cleansed and purified, so that we can live each day feasting on the love and forgiveness given to us in Jesus Christ.
Your God is gracious and merciful—so return to the Lord your God and receive the gift of salvation.