One of the realities of living in a consumer-driven culture such as ours is that inevitably at some point, we end up purchasing something and then realizing, for whatever reason, that we need to return it. From unwanted or duplicate gifts to things that don’t fit to products that are defective, life leads us to the customer service area and the return line. And, as long as you’re not in too much of a hurry, it’s a pretty good system. One of the keys to a successful trip, and to not holding up the line, is to know something about the store’s return policy. Receipts can be a saving grace, but if you’ve lost that little strip of paper, stores can now look up your purchase if you used a credit card. Without some record, you might be stuck with the lowest retail price from the past 90 days, the opportunity for an exchange, or simply store credit. Reading the fine print, a store’s return policy gets quickly complicated. If you’ve made your purchase online, you add another layer of complexity, even if they have retail stores nearby. Sometimes the long lines and hassle can make you wonder if it’s even worth it to make the return, or if you should just cut your losses and keep what you have.
Our experience with returns might help us as we begin the season of Lent. This is a time when we’re called to closely examine our lives and seek to be more faithful followers of Christ. In doing so, we are likely to find aspects of our lives that need to be changed or eliminated entirely – exchanged or return, if you will. Consider it standing in line for God’s customer service – a 40 day line (not including Sundays) where you think more about what it is that you are carrying, and prepare to lighten the load at the counter. To make this analogy work, we have to understand God’s return policy. To do so, we turn to Scripture.
The prophets have a lot to say about returns. In fact, it’s one of their most popular words of instruction to the Israelites. “In Hebrew, this verb means ‘to arrive again at the initial point of departure.’ Here it suggests that one had been originally with God, had moved away from God, and was not returning to God[i].” Return is an about face, a change in direction, and a reorientation to the world. It is a word of hope and a word of covenant, trusting that returning to God will bring about restoration for God’s people. Joel follows this understanding of return, calling God’s people to it in the text we read tonight. Throughout this short book, he suggests that Jerusalem has forgotten who God is, and calls upon God’s people to rediscover the identity of the one true God. Verse 13 reminds God’s people of the true divine nature. This description is ancient – going all the way back to promise of God to Moses in Exodus 34 after the people had created a golden calf. It is the perfect, concise example of God’s return policy: that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” All of our questions about returning to God rest on this truth.
Joel speaks of return in the context of imminent disaster, perhaps a natural one with a plague of locusts. The beginning of our reading tonight indicates something looming on the horizon, which Joel attributes to calamity brought about by “the day of the Lord.” Something big is going to happen. One commentary refers to this text as “an alarm bell in the darkness of the night[ii].” Joel’s language would immediately register with the Israelites in Judah; it is a call to attention and to action. Given this policy, we are called to get our items, and ourselves, in order quickly. Don’t just leave your returns on the kitchen counter or lost in your trunk, a procrastinated item from the errands list. Pay attention to them and get it done. This is the work of return. This is the work of Lent. Lent is about letting go of those things that get in the way of our relationship with God and with others. It is about sorting through all the “stuff” that we have in our lives and make decisions about what should stay and what should go. This is why some people “give up” things for the season, and others take on new practices or focus on things in a new way.
But more than just “giving something up” for a season, I think our passage tonight asks what do you have to return to God? Those things in your life that you would like to change, but need help to make it happen. Those things that just aren’t working for you to grow in the ways you know God is calling you to. Those things you wish you hadn’t bought into and would like to give up. Those things that you simply have too much of and don’t really need. Take inventory over these next 40 days, and don’t be afraid to bring them to God for return. There’s no limit on what God will take back. In fact, God invites us to bring it all – even the things we are too embarrassed to talk about. God is always ready and waiting, open 24 hours a day if you will, to hear us.
Sometimes, the return process includes naming why we are returning or exchanging a particular item. Some of the options include: didn’t fit (too big or too small), wasn’t what was expected, changed my mind, the product was defective, and so on. This naming is important for us to do in Lent. It helps us do more than just identify our sins – it calls us to understand where they came from in order to make the changes needed to hopefully avoid repeating them in the future. It enables God to work with us and make us into new creations. It’s God’s exchange process at work, a process that utimately isn’t dependent on anything we have done or can do, but reminds us that we are solely reliant on God’s love and grace. In the midst of what is very difficult and sobering work, this is good news. God not only takes back our returns, no matter what – God works in us to make us right with God once again. Returning to God, as Joel outlines in verse 13, is more than just a transactional return; this is a process of transformation.
Lent calls us to read the fine print God’s return policy. It allows us to test it out, carefully and thoughtfully. We do so confident in who God is. And if the words of prophets like Joel aren’t strong enough to convince us, there is one more guarantee in place. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s grace was revealed to the whole world. In Christ, the promises of God from the very beginning were sealed forever. In life and in death, we belong to God. This is what we gather to remind ourselves of tonight, receiving crosses on our foreheads to indicate whose we are, symbolized in ashes to remind us of our own mortality and our utter dependence on God for all things. We get in line, not only to confess our sins and humble ourselves, as covering in ashes symbolized in the days of the prophets, but also to return ourselves to the one who created us from nothing, and loves us through anything.
The return line begins here, tonight. Bring what you have, who you are this evening, and know that you can continue to return what you need to over this season of Lent and beyond. There is no return too big or too small. There is no return that God will not accept. For God already knows everything we could possibly bring, and has chosen to love us anyway. So come, Return to the Lord. Trust that God is gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and always ready for your return. Amen.
~Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018
[i] Dianne Bergant, “Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
[ii] Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary based on the NRSV, Year C. Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, J. Clinton McCann, Jr., James D. Newsome, editors. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)