A sermon drawn from Joel 2:23-32
What exactly is happening in this vision of the prophet Joel’s?
Big things, obviously – the prophet paints a vivid picture of the restoration of material well-being: the early and the late rains, and then overflowing piles of grain and vats of wine and oil and full dinner tables … everyone will be doing well, obviously. The emptiness of the locust years will be a thing of the past.
God’s word through the prophet Joel, that “I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten,” – is literally “I will make whole” those years – will fill up or fill out what has been lacking. It uses the same root as the important Hebrew word “shalom,” that we all know means “peace,” a kind of peace that is not merely the absence of violence or war or disaster, but a full, all-encompassing state of well-being.
We may well have heard that before, because it’s an important idea in the Hebrew Bible, and because that idea, of God’s shalom, God’s peace that is the full flowering of God’s righteousness and justice and love, also helps Christians understand what we think Jesus meant when he taught about the “kingdom of heaven” or the “kingdom of God.”
And then, after this material “making whole” comes that dramatic outpouring of God’s spirit on “all flesh.” In fact, this spiritual rain that follows the physical one seems to go beyond restoration; it seems to bring people even closer to God than they were before.
Because it includes everyone, all kinds of people, in all conditions of life. [So, for one thing, we might notice that it isn’t restricted to special people, like priests.] And it has vivid effects: people prophesy and dream dreams and see visions – have special spiritual experiences that go beyond the material here and now, that connect them to the deeper, unseen reality of God’s world.
One good way to think of prophecy, for instance, is as communication from God, through people, about what God sees going on in the present, and what God is doing about it. So for instance … if people are worshipping idols, as they were in the days of the prophet Joel, and God is working to put a stop to that, prophecy sounds like warning. Whereas if people are suffering and seeking relief, as they were in the days of the plague of locusts, and God is bringing about an end to that suffering, prophecy can sound like encouragement. Prophecy reveals God’s perspective on what people are doing in the world, really, and where that’s taking us.
Dreams and visions, too, open people to the unseen in special ways. We might think of dreams as being about hopes and desires, but we can also think of them as vivid pictures of the hidden meanings in things – like Joseph’s dream visit from an angel, who explained the real meaning of Mary’s pregnancy. And we often think of visions as insights how things could be … so in dreams and visions reveal the meaning of the present and the possibilities for the future.
So, all in all, this gift of the spirit, with the spiritual wholeness and life it brings with it, contributes to the shalom that the prophet Joel is … prophesying and dreaming and envisioning here.
But … even that isn’t the end of the story, because this restoration of material well-being and this provision of new spiritual fullness prepares people for something even more dramatic: for signs and wonders that announce the great and fearful, the great and awe-inspiring, day of the Lord – or perhaps, it’s the Holy God who is great and awe-inspiring. The outpouring of well-being, and the outpouring of God’s spirit, appear here not only as wonderful gifts, that signal the presence of God with God’s people, but also prepare the people for an even more complete presence of God.
Almost as if … for people to be able to experience that great and awe-inspiring day of the Lord as something really positive, something really wonderful and beautiful, they need to have some prior preparation, need to have had some practice receiving blessings from God, need to have had some spiritual conditioning or some training …
So that one thing that seems to be going on in this vision of the prophet Joel’s is that God is progressively making God’s people entirely whole … and that wholeness goes well beyond just making sure everyone has enough to eat, and even has some familiarity with God’s spirit, but goes all the way to getting people ready to experience and to enjoy more of the presence of God, and God’s glory. It’s like the Westminister Catechism teaches, that the “chief end of humanity” is to “glorify God, and to enjoy God forever.” We think God’s desire and God’s vision is to make God’s people whole in that way, for that purpose, and God’s intention and God’s activity is to make that happen.
In fact, this is the text of scripture that the apostle Peter thinks of, and preaches on, in what is our first recorded Christian sermon, Peter’s sermon in the second chapter of Acts – we probably know the story – the disciples are all together in one place, they are following Jesus instructions to wait in Jerusalem for the arrival of the Holy Spirit, it’s the ancient Jewish holiday of Pentecost, in Hebrew Shavuot, a holiday that celebrates the revelation of the torah at Mt. Sinai, and suddenly there’s a loud noise, like the rush of a violent wind, and there’s fire, and the disciples start speaking all at once, and the bystanders all understand them in their own languages … it is loud and dramatic and attention-getting and spectacular. And then Peter says, hey, this is like what the prophet Joel was talking about !! He said this was going to happen. This is that – this is that outpouring of God’s spirit on everyone, this is preparing people for the final arrival of the kingdom of God, of God’s shalom.
This – the life of the church, life in Christ, life now – this is that, this is what the prophet Joel was talking about.
This is great news!
Except that: a lot of the time we don’t recognize “this” – what’s going on in our lives, and in our worship, and in our world – as part of “that.” Often, when we talk about that “outpouring of the Holy Spirit,” we think only that kind of Pentecostal drama qualifies. When we think of “prophesying,” and of “dreaming dreams” and of “seeing visions,” we think it can only mean something very dramatic, something very loud or very big or very public: like the prophet Jeremiah standing on the steps of the Temple in Jerusalem shouting at crowds of people, or Martin Luther King, Jr. saying “I have a dream” to 250,000 people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, or even some CEO outlining a vision for the next decades of their corporation, like in the commercial “1984” for the Apple Macintosh personal computer, which was seen by something like 43 million people in the 3rd quarter of the Super Bowl in 1984, and which is according to the Smithsonian Museum, the most famous television commercial of all time.
And this is unfortunate, because it means we’re liable to overlook the many other manifestations of the Holy Spirit … not to look for the many ways the Holy Spirit is ceaselessly working in our world and in our lives, which look less “dramatic” to us, and that may even feel like they “don’t count.”
Let’s not make that mistake. Because that quieter, less public work of the Holy Spirit’s counts every bit as much. It is every bit as much a part of the outpouring of the spirit on “all flesh,” and it’s every bit as indispensable … part of the vital, ongoing task of making God’s people completely whole.
We will want to remember that a lot of growth, and a lot of life that gives tremendous glory to God, doesn’t take place suddenly, all at once, but happens slowly, over a longer period of time.
For instance: I am confident that everyone will agree that we are having one spectacular fall season this year – I’ve really been able to notice this because I have been doing a lot of driving this fall … so week after week, I’ve been watching the leaves on the trees in the woods of Southern Indiana change color, starting with a few leaves here and there, then a few types of trees, then all the trees, the reds on the sumac getting brighter and brighter and brighter, this year they seem particularly vivid …
It’s a vivid example of why John Calvin called the whole created world “the theatre of God’s glory.” It’s like a drama of the natural world unfolding right before our eyes, far more spectacular than any man-made temple … and honestly, the psalmist might well have had the natural world in mind when he wrote those words, “how lovely is your dwelling place” and says “happy are those who live in your house” … because we do sometimes notice, clearly, that all heaven and earth really are full of God’s glory.
But here’s what I learned recently, from the internet: woods like these grow fairly slowly. Some trees are classified as “fast-growing” – that is, they grow two feet or more in year. Like red maples, which can grow three feet in a year, and which can grow to be around 65 feet tall, so, they might reach full height in 20 years or so. Or scarlet oak, which is fast growing for an oak tree, up to a couple of feet a year, so in 40 years or so can reach its full height. Hickories, on the other hand, are classified as slow growing, maybe up to a foot a year, and since in the wild they can even grow to 100 feet or more, those trees can take almost a century to reach their full height. Then, the way trees grow together to form woods is another long process … “old growth forests” like those preserved by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources are protected precisely because it can takes a couple of centuries or more for them to reach their full state of maturity and fullness … with various species, interactions, and so on … and even then, these natural phenomena are dynamic, not static; they continue to change and grow.
So, creating the conditions for us to experience the glory and the drama of these fall colors, takes a long time. And we’re not even talking about the glories of rock formations, such as we might find in caves … which take even longer, and are much more hidden. What Calvin called the theater of God’s glory has become what it is over a long period of time, slowly, sometimes very quietly and very much what humans would call “behind the scenes.”
It’s the same with us. The spiritual formation that enables us to look at those woods, decked out in their fall colors, and to think “how lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts,” and to “sing for joy to the living God” most often takes shape over many years, of seemingly un-dramatic things like going to Sunday school and coming to worship God with other people and singing hymns that over time get into our heads and our hearts and having conversations with people that give us ideas and that make us wonder about things and think about them, and reading scripture and maybe a month or a year or a decade later noticing something new in that scripture, and praying, having an insight that shifts how we think about something; or being invited to participate in some mission work we’re doing, and over time coming to new appreciation for what it means to serve others, and why we do that, and what it means for our lives to do that …
And this is, maybe most often, how the Holy Spirit works in our lives … ceaselessly, like drops of water on stone or quiet but persistent breeze, nurturing us; guiding us; nudging us; opening our hearts; calling our attention to something; shaping us into people who can more and more fully and joyfully experience the presence of God in our world and in our lives.
What’s going on in this prophetic vision from the prophet Joel is, when we really pay attention to it, what is going on all around us and in us all the time; and what we pray for specifically every time we celebrate communion: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on us, and on these gifts of material reality – a pouring out of the Spirit that allows us to recognize, and celebrate, God’s presence with us; that fills us with gratitude to God for all that God has done in creation, and especially in the life and work and person of Jesus Christ; that gathers us together in the community of the church, actively making whole the people of God; and that opens our eyes to the full promise of the kingdom of God.
This is that. A spiritual gift. A time to dream dreams and see visions: the dream of common ministry, and the accomplishment of the purposes of ministry; the vision of a world characterized by God’s shalom, wholeness and well-being. A time to gain deeper, clearer insight into what we are doing in our world and where that is taking us, from God’s perspective.
This is that: the same outpouring of the Holy Spirit described by Joel, the same outpouring of the Holy Spirit recognized by the apostle Peter. The making whole of God’s people, by equipping God’s people to love God with all our hearts and souls and selves, to receive the fullness of God’s presence with complete joy, to anticipate the great and awe-inspiring day of the Lord, the arrival of the kingdom of God in its fullness, with eager longing. Taking part in the theatre of God’s glory – for the glory of God alone.
Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “The Prophet Joel,” By James Tissot (1836-1902), French painter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons