You can come back to God NOW!
Come Back Now!
"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.
Who knows? He may turn and have pity
and leave behind a blessing—
grain offerings and drink offerings
for the Lord your God.
Most of us love to hear stories of return, accounts of how somebody came back again. Amando Munoz, a wiry migrant worker from Texas, was picking tomatoes on a farm near Lake Worth, Florida, when Immigration officials swooped down, demanding his papers; but he had lost his billfold. Even though he was a U. S. citizen living in Harlingen, Texas, he could not prove it. Along with twelve others, he was taken to the Miami airport and flown to the nearest point in Mexico, on the Yucatan Peninsula. He was dumped out of the plane, twelve hundred miles from his home and family, with only ten dollars in his pocket.
In an incredible odyssey, he worked and walked his way toward Mexico City. There he nearly froze at night while it took two whole days to walk across the city. Then it was another six hundred miles across the country. The only thing that kept him going was the thought of not seeing his mother again.
After two months he reached Matamoras, where he called his fifty-three-year-old mother, a cleaning woman with six children. His nineteen-year-old sister, a senior at Harlingen High School, brought his papers. He told his mother, "Don't cry, Mama. I'm back." His mother said, "Let me cry." ("Amando Comes Home," Time, 19 February 1973, p. 26)
Stories of a return like that move all but very cynical and hard hearts. There is something about coming back that speaks to the deepest feelings in all of us. We all long to get back home again. In no area of life is this more pressing that the desire to get back to God. When we are away from God, we do not feel comfortable. When we are alienated from God, we do not feel at home with ourselves or with others. Is there a way back?
Tucked away toward the end of the Old Testament is the book of Joel. Although it is referred to as "minor prophecy," there is nothing minor about the prophet Joel as he describes coming back to God. The theme of his prophecy is that you can come back to God, even though it seems too late. Joel gives hope, but avoids presumption, because he does not say you can always come back. The door is open now; it will shut later.
No book in the Bible has a more unified, simple theme. Joel said that judgment, in the form of a locust plague, was already moving toward God's people who had gone away from Him. The people had two choices. Even at the last moment they could return to God. If they chose not to return, they would face God Himself in the form of the locust plague.
It's hard to imagine the reality of a locust plague in the biblical world. I remember a plague of crickets that came and went in Texas when I was a boy. They made a mess, but they left. A biblical locust plague, on the other hand, created permanent devastation. There were such plagues in Palestine in 1845, 1865, 1892, 1899, 1904, and in 1915, the worst of all. That was the year a loud noise was heard before the locusts were seen. The sun was suddenly darkened. Showers of their excrement fell from the air. The government issued a proclamation in April of that year, requiring every man sixteen to sixty years old to gather eleven pounds of locust eggs daily and deliver them to the officials. Every leaf was gone from every plant and the bark was pealed from every tree. The fields were stripped. Arab babies left beneath a tree were devoured before their screams were heard. In Palestine, a locust plague means disaster.
The prophet Joel saw such a judgment coming immediately upon the people: "The day of the Lord is great and very terrible; and who can endure it?" (2:11). Yet even at the last moment he assured them that they could return to God before life was devoured. As the locusts descended, God cried, "Even now return to me. . . ."
Do you think you have been away from God so long that you could never come back? Do you have a vague sense of dread that something is about to happen to you unless you return to God? If so, you recognize that physically, psychologically, and spiritually you are about to hit the wall—unless you come back. Inwardly, a plague of unseen emotional locusts is eating up your inner life. The green leaf of hope is gone and the sunlight of God's presence is eclipsed.
But there is good news. You can come back now. You can return this very moment. You can come back to God—not because of your performance, but because of His character. He is the Father who always welcomes you back home.
Returning with Inward Intensity
The Bible abounds with invitations to return to God. If you think God does not desire you to return, you have never understood the Book. The prophet cries, "Even now return. . . ." The word "return" is one of the great words in all the Old Testament. It means a total reorientation of life back toward God. In his farewell address Moses foresaw that God's people Israel would later abandon God; but he also saw that they would return: "When you and your children return to the Lord . . . God will restore your fortunes" (Deut. 30:2). At the same time Moses foretold their leaving, he told them they could return!
When Solomon dedicated his temple, he too knew that God's people would someday leave the living God: "If they turn back to you with all their heart and soul . . . hear their prayer" (1 Kings 8:48). God acknowledged Solomon's prayer.
The stern prophet Amos reminded God's people of everything God had done to them to drive them back to Himself. Their stomachs were empty, rain did not fall, blight and insects devoured their crops, disease and war took their sons, cities fell—yet three times, God cries, "you have not returned to me." Amos pleaded that everything God had done to them was in order that they might return; but they did not do so (Amos 4:6-11).
If you are away from God, all of His activity in your life is in order that you return to Him. There is not a detail in the life of a person alienated from God that He does not wish to use to drive you back to Himself. Illness, accident, financial disaster, family loss, and a thousand other things are God's pleading push that you return to Him. That is the call of the prophet Joel: "even now . . . return" (2:12).
But that word cannot stand alone. Returning to God is not a casual matter. Joel adds: "with all your heart," indicating the entire force of your moral purpose. It is a phrase of intensity. For us, the heart is connected only with affection. In the Bible the heart is more connected with the mind of intellect and the resolve of will. It is a word of totality and intensity. You cannot come back unless you come back with all your heart.
It is always fascinating to read of wholehearted human endeavor—amazing stories of total dedication. For example, the U.S. Marines conduct a supersecret sniper program in Quantico, Virginia. The school admits twenty-five men for a eight-week course of sixteen-hour days. Very few pass. To graduate, each goes on a mock mission into a well-defined area where instructors search for the sniper. If they can find him, they can fail him.
To get in range of the target, a sniper may move forward at a rate of one inch per hour. He may sit for days absolutely still, despite cold, rain, insect bites, and fear. No one gets out without singleness of heart. ("School for Snipers," U.S. News and World Report, 21 April 1986, p. 62) We expect that kind of intensity from Olympic champions, concert pianists, doctoral candidates, and everyone else at the highest levels of human achievements. Likewise, God expects it when we come back to Him. God deserves singleness of heart because He is God! Most of us intend to come back to God—sometime. But we fail because our intention never becomes intense.
Returning to God requires inward reality, not just outward ceremony: "Rend your heart and not your garments" (2:13). That is the biblical way of saying, "the external is not enough." In the biblical world, to tear a garment was the ultimate, outward expression of returning to God. It expressed exceptional emotion on the occasion of overwhelming misfortune. In the Bible, one tore his garments before putting on the sackcloth of mourning. The sackcloth was a coarsely woven garment of black goat's hair that covered only a man's loins. It left the chest free for beating in repentance. This was the ultimate outward symbol of returning to God.
Jacob tore his garments when he thought his son Joseph was slain (Gen 37:34). Joshua and Caleb tore their clothes at the lost opportunity to enter the promised land (Num. 14:6). David and all his army tore their clothes when they heard of the death of Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:11). If I were to rip open my shirt in the pulpit, pop off the buttons, tear away my tie, and throw off my coat, the congregation would think, that is really intense! But such outwardness is not intense enough.
I suppose the most famous, outward repentance in history was performed by Henry IV in January 1077. Henry was the Holy Roman Emperor, the most powerful political figure in the world. He had been deposed and excommunicated by Pope Gregory. After two months of waiting, he appeared at Canossa, an impregnable fortress on the northern slope of the Apennines. The winter of 1077 was one of the coldest in all history. Begging the pope to restore him to the church, the emperor stood from the twenty-fifth to the twenty-eighth of January in the court between the inner walls as a penitent, with bare head and bare feet. He knocked at the door in vain for entrance. The stern old pope, as hard as rock and cold as snow, refused entrance for three days. When the inner gate was finally opened, the king entered. In the prime of his life, he was the heir of crowned monarchs, a man of tall and noble presence; but he threw himself at the feet of the pope, an old man of small and unimpressive stature. He burst into tears and cried, "Spare me, holy father, spare me." Even the onlookers were moved to tears to see the Holy Roman Emperor so humiliate himself externally. Yet in spite of that act, there is no evidence that Henry was changed or born again, or that his life was revolutionized in spite of all his outward penitence. (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, pp. 53-55)
To stand in the snow in freezing weather without shoes or hat is the maximum in external religious demonstration. God is not impressed with such a show. He wants inward intensity.
We modern American Christians have our equivalent outward acts. When we are away from God, we can decide to go back to church, to Bible study, or to prayer meeting; we can sing louder, give more, visit more, do more. But all of that can mean nothing inwardly. Joel cries to an outwardly religious generation, "Rend your heart." Tear your heart, crush your heart, crack your heart. Make it penetrable, pervious, soft, warm, moldable. And just as did the adulterous David, you will find that God returns to a broken and crushed heart (Ps. 51:17).
There is actually a hardness scale, on which talc is 1, fingernail is 2½, window glass is 5, and diamond is 10. (Guiness Book of World Records, 1988, pp. 171, 181) If there were a scale of the hardness or softness of the human heart, where would your heart fall? If you want to come back to God, you must change inwardly. You must have a heart than can be rent, torn, softened, and penetrated.
But there is also an outwardness in turning to God, to be expressed to the maximum degree that is compatible with your personality. A return to God may involve a fast, for instance—a voluntary abstention from a food or a physical relationship or activity in order to concentrate on God. In our day, a fast could include turning off the television, radio, stereo, or telephone, and shutting up ourselves with God.
Joel adds the words "weeping and mourning." These words should not be lightly treated. When you have been away from God, you must emote your feelings when you return. Christians must not only be right thinkers doctrinally, they must be deep feelers emotionally. Your emotions are the handles by which your faith grips you. To be a Christian, you must feel deeply the emotions of gratitude, holy fear, joy, and love. Holy fear is not terror, but it is respect, humility, and grief over one's sin.
An effervescent woman wandered into a liturgical service. As the pastor preached, she echoed his words with a loud, "Praise the Lord!" Another woman leaned over to say, "Excuse me, but we don't praise the Lord in this church." A man down the aisle corrected her, "Yes we do; it's on page 19." When you come back to God, you must feel more than what's printed on page 19 in a formal book of liturgy! Your feelings must be so intense, they are printed on your heart.
There is something about any return that moves the deepest emotions within us. The Atlantic salmon is more than a fish; it moves humankind—inspires, mystifies, and intrigues us. It can vault six feet into the air and swim up a waterfall. But most of all, we are intrigued by the salmon because it returns. After traveling the ocean, it surfaces as a sudden, subtle shimmering something seen in the sunlit stream where it was spawned.
In 1985 the Newton, Kansas High School had the grandest reunion in history. More than four thousand alumni representing seventy-five years of classes descended on the little town. It caught the heart of the nation. Why? Because so many had returned after years away. ("Yes, You Can Go Home Again to the Great High School Reunion," U.S. News and World Report, 8 July 1985, p. 53)
And who could forget February 1973, when the first Vietnam POWs walked off the airplane at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines? I still remember the tears in my eyes as those gaunt, pale, dignified, triumphant men walked off the plane. Why did it move us? Because they had returned.
There is a reason why we respond this way to returns of all kinds. That reason is the desire down deep in our own hearts to get back to God. Every other kind of return simply reminds us that we need to get back to God. If fish, high school students, and soldiers can go home, why can't you come home to God? You can. The door is opened from His side.
On January 7, 1980, Katheleen drove her daughter Wavie to Citrus High School in Inverness, Florida. It was the last time she would see Wavie for a long time. When the sixteen-year-old daughter did not return from school that day, Katheleen and her husband Jesse sought help from the police, the FBI, the governor, and even from national TV networks. Jesse and Katheleen, working people, were not about to give up. They printed thousands of fliers and delivered stacks of bulletins to truck stops across Florida and Georgia. Thousands of people responded. Some said they saw her. Exhausting many of their resources, they never gave up. On Tuesday, June 29, 1982 they received a call that located Wavie in Twin Cities, Georgia. By six o'clock the next morning, Wavie's parents were in the tiny Georgia town, overjoyed at finding their daughter.
Later, Wavie told her story. She really had not intended to run away from home. But on that January day, friendly strangers had offered her a ride to a nearby truck stop—and then on to Georgia. The farther she got away from home, the more frightened she was of being punished for leaving. Each hour away from home made it harder to return. She feared the reunion. Dozens of times she had dialed her parents' phone number, but hung up in panic before they answered. She had written hundreds of letters to her parents—but never mailed them. She was afraid of returning home at the very same time her parents were exhausting all of their resources to find her. (Gary Turbak, "Return of a Runaway Child," Reader's Digest, November 1982, pp. 97-102)
Isn't that the way we feel when we have been away from God? We recognize He wants us back; but we fear the encounter, even while God employs all His resources in Calvary's love seeking us. There is no need to fear the reunion. You can come back now.
Four aspects of God's character encourage you to return (Joel 2:13).
First, God is "gracious." This particularly refers to the goodwill of a superior to an inferior person. God condescends. He stoops all the way down from His throne to a cross. He wanted you back so much that He sent His own Son to bleed to death on a stick of wood—for you.
Second, God is "compassionate." This word comes right out of a home. In Hebrew the word suggests a father or mother concerned about a sick child. God is like that. How does He look at us when we are away from Him? He watches us like a parent who tenderly cares for a child threatened with a high fever. Jesus demonstrated the compassion of God, even to the point of death for His children.
Third, God is "slow to anger." One little boy was asked in Sunday school, "What does the wrath of God mean?" The youngster responded, "It means that God got mad and stayed mad." Not so, says the prophet. His word suggests someone who takes a deep breath in order to postpone and place at a distance any expression of anger. Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world but to rescue the world (John 3:17). From the Cross Jesus cries out, "I am not angry with you. I want you back."
Best of all, God is "abounding in love." Every kindness of God in your life is a reminder that He wants you back. He does not desire to drive you back to Himself with a whip. Instead, "God's kindness leads you towards repentance" (Romans 2:4). When you leave God, you must trample under foot mountains of His kindness, because everything good in your life comes from His hand—family, work, health, friendship, church, and a thousand other things. Each of these calls, "Come back, now."
Not many people remember what happened at Stark, New Hampshire from the spring of 1944 to the spring of 1946. Some 250 German prisoners of war were imprisoned there. Camp Stark was a hard place. Part of the punishment was cutting pulpwood in the nearby rocky hills. Most of the prisoners were boys, eighteen or nineteen years old. All but the hardiest were beaten down by the hard work. Although there was no vindictiveness, there were guards, barbed wire, and bad memories.
But Allen Koop, a college history professor, did an unusual thing a few years ago. He tracked down the long-ago prisoners and invited them back to the camp. In their sixties, the German former prisoners came back to the place where they had been prisoners forty years earlier. There the prisoners and their guards were reunited in an act of forgiveness and reunion. (John Skow, "In New Hampshire: An Unusual Reunion," Time, 3 November 1986, pp. 14-15)
Some of us fear prisons of the past and present. God seems far away. But He calls us back to the very place of our captivity and alienation, then forgives us on the spot. He welcomes us into His fellowship, calling, "Come back, now!"
Homesick for God.