Every so often, it happens. Someone you desperately love or deeply respect manages to do something impossibly dumb— at least in your estimation.
Your son decides to drop out of college to become a professional poker player. Your teenage daughter dents the car not 10 minutes after you toss her the keys. Your elderly dad reveals that he’s spent most of your inheritance on products from the Home Shopping Network. You find out that your best friend is ditching his wife for a co-ed he found on Facebook.
If you’re like most people, when you’re sideswiped by someone else’s stupidity, usually the only sentences you can muster are those that express your unbelief. You know, thoughtful and compassionate phrases like: “Umm… Ahh… Ok.” Or, “What? Wait, what?” Then there’s my favorite, “Are you kidding me!?” And of course there’s the expression made famous by Saturday Night Live’s, Weekend Update hosts, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, the simple yet sufficient, “Really?!”
As in: “Really? You think Texas Hold ‘Em is better than a bachelor’s degree? Really!?” Or: “Really?! You think I’m going to be happy inheriting a Sham-Wow? Really?!”
And while we all have been dumbfounded by the impossibly dumb, human beings are not alone in our moments of dumbfounded disbelief. Truth be told, God has them, too.
A good chunk of the Old Testament— especially the writings we label as the Minor Prophets—reveals, God’s own exasperated explosions, uttered in response to the impossibly dumb decisions of God’s people. Read through the harsh words of Hosea, or the declaration of doom in Joel, and you can almost hear God saying, “Really? I bring you out of slavery and you insist on worshiping statues and sacrificing to fertility gods? Are you kidding me?! You’ve seen my power, you know of my might and yet you refuse to repent and run from your sin? Really?”
Put such a tone to God’s words and we can empathize—after all, we know how dumb people can be. That is, until we realize that we—the followers of God today— are part of the very problems prophesied against in God’s rants.
Sit with that truth for a moment.
You, me—we frustrate, we disappoint, we anger God. Not a pleasant thought, but it’s true. And that is why, there is the season of Lent—the season of the church year we entered into on Wednesday.
We have begun the season when we come clean, confessing that we are more than those who have been sinned against by the stupidity of others—that in fact, we are perpetrators of the impossibly dumb, that we grieve the heart of God, that we leave God saying “Really?!” So we use this season to get ourselves right, to renew ourselves with God—and we do it by “giving up” sweets or cigarettes or fast food, or Facebook, or whatever—believing that our self-sacrifice over a six week period will make God happy so that come Easter morning we can shout, “Alleluia! He is risen, risen indeed!” and all will be right between us and God.
But truth be told, year after year we enter this season; we reflect on our sin, we do the self-sacrificing, only to arrive at the Monday after Easter and step right back into a life where we pretend God doesn’t exist. We insist on worshiping— giving our heart and devotion to created things like: accolades at work, the security of a dollar saved, or schedules too full for opportunities of service— rather than our Creator.
We treat our faith in Christ as an accessory of life rather than the central piece of our identity.
We earn doctorate degrees in self-justification, avoiding obedience to Christ by telling ourselves that we deserve a little fun on the side or that God understands our need to look at this or dabble in that.
We hide addictions from our friends, our fears from our spouse, our indiscretion from our employer.
We refuse the grace of transparency and community and instead pray that God helps us stay in hiding rather than drag us to the light and expose our sin.
All the while God whispers, “Really?”
This is who we are. And truth be told, there’s just one thing such repeated and unrelenting rebellion deserves: death.
Now, I suppose, that’s not the happiest, nor the most uplifting Sunday morning sermon fodder to hear, is it? But perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that such a message is not new, as it was exactly what Joel prophesied in his scathing sermon to the southern kingdom of God’s people.
“Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain,” writes Joel on God’s behalf.
“Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations”
What this means is that a day is coming when God would be mocked no more, grieved no more, made to shake God’s head in frustration no more. It means there is coming a day when those who insist on doing the impossibly dumb will die.
And if you know your Bible history then you know that Joel’s “day of the LORD” did, in fact arrive. It came about when the southern kingdom was overtaken by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. Then it showed up again at the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.
Now, to not be a total downer, this is not what God wants for God’s people—which is why we have the season of Lent. During Lent we remind ourselves that we are those who deserve to have the dimness of judgment surround us.
We remind ourselves to be honest about our rebellious state and the fact that we grieve God. We remind ourselves to mourn, in ashes and dust, the truth, that because of our sin, we are a doomed, dying people.
But though that is what we remind ourselves of during Lent, that is not where Lent ends, because wouldn’t you know it, as always, God gets the last word.
Most people, when burned over and over by someone’s bad decisions, eventually put their guard up. We trust them less. We question them more. Eventually, if they insist on surprising us, disappointing us, or hurting us, we may just cut them out of our lives altogether. But that’s not how God works.
Though saddened and disappointed by our sin— God is never thrown off balance or out of character by it. Having told us what we rightly deserve, God nonetheless approaches with what God longs to give us: a second chance, a third chance—more chances than we deserve.
Listen to Joel: ‘Yet even now,’ says the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.’ Return to the LORD your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and relents from punishing.”
These words should make us shake our heads in disbelief. Only this time not from being deeply disappointed but rather the opposite. We shake our heads at how unbelievable the relentless love of someone we constantly disappoint is, and who then still says, “Return to me.”
If we were in God’s position, we would be right to cut the cord and save ourselves the future disappointment, but God extends a welcoming hand and invites us into a restored relationship—leaving us to say, “Really? But that doesn’t make any sense.” Which leads to the next obvious question: “Why?”
The answer to that question is just as surprising.
So often we only rehearse remorse; we pretend repentance. We think we should feel bad so we learn how to lower our head or say “I’m sorry” when in reality we’re just pacifying the people we’ve offended— our spouse, our friends, and even God. After all, we know how to tear our clothes really well and seem really sorry.
But on days when we feel the weight of our sin, when we acknowledge our deserved destruction, God sees something that God wants: a broken heart. A heart that’s broken because of sin is a heart ready for the remedy of sin, which is: the grace of our good and patient God.
And that is what we encounter in the season of Lent. That is why Lent is so important. When we come in repentance to God, it is not only an act of contrition but an act of hope.
During Lent we reveal our broken heart, due to our depravity, but we also find God’s ability to restore us, to forgive us, to continue walking with us on account of Jesus. It’s a way of humbly proclaiming that though we deserve death, we will have life through Christ, whom we trust as our forgiving Lord. That kind of broken— yet hopeful— heart is what God seeks from us, really.
So what are we to do, really, in this season of Lent?
We let our hearts be broken.
We grieve over the ways in which we grieve God.
We meditate on them and be honest about them.
Then… we come to God, confessing our sins and seeking renewal, which will permit us to leave knowing we are covered in grace. Sure, we leave scratching our heads, uttering over and over, “Really?” but not because of someone else’s stupidity— but rather because of the immense, the uncalled for, and unexpected love of God that comes to us through Jesus.
Every so often it happens. Someone you love and deeply respect does something impossibly dumb, leaving you nothing to say but “Really?” We’re not alone in our moments of dumbfounded disbelief. God has them too. But thankfully God never utters, “You’ve got to be kidding me?!”
Instead— as we hear from Joel and experience in the season of Lent—God’s constant refrain is simply this: “Return to me, because, no matter what, I really, really love you.” Amen.