“Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” (Joel 2:13)
As a pastor, I often hear people filled with fear, dread or struggling with a little voice inside of them that keeps saying, “God doesn’t love you. God doesn’t want you to be happy.” This voice tries to creep in whenever life encounters a struggle. The death of loved ones, loss of work, or stress in an important relationship can all put us in a place where we hear the whisper, “God has a grudge to settle with you.” Often, we aren’t sure what we have done or why God would feel this way about us. We just can’t seem to shake the thought.
Confronting this voice was part of the prophet Joel’s assignment. Bringing a message about God to Israel, which was struggling, Joel was given the task of reminding people who God really is. God is not primarily filled with anger, desires for your failure, or hoping to ruin your life. God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…” We sing these words before reading the gospel lesson in the worship services we have during Lent.
Of course, it isn’t Lent now. It is Advent. But Advent was often seen as a “little Lent.” Just as people were to prepare their hearts as the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus approached – they were also to prepare their hearts as the birth of Jesus approached as well. Advent is about be ready as we prepare to encounter the God who comes to us.
Naturally, the picture of God you have determines how and why you prepare yourself for that encounter. If God is full of wrath and wants to harm you, you want to get your act in order to avoid getting punished. But if God is loving and merciful, you prepare for the coming of the king by presenting your best and looking forward to his arrival out of expectation and gratitude.
Joel helps us to be ready to meet Jesus, not because Christ comes to destroy us, but because Christ comes to demonstrate the grace and mercy of God. Take time this Advent to reflect on your life and let go of the things that you think God wants you to be rid of. Then, as you celebrate the birth of Jesus, you can do so knowing that whatever you have done and wherever you have gone – Jesus’ comes, not to bring you punishment and death but mercy and life.