Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
This is the “happy” section of Joel but probably needs to be seen in context. More on that at the end of this sermon commentary.
For now we can see a connection to last week’s Old Testament Common Lectionary text from Jeremiah 31, which pointed to the promise of God’s giving his people a whole new heart, with his law and his ways inscribed right onto the core of each human being. Now this week we come to Joel 2 and to a similar promise of God’s doing a new thing. But this time the promise centers on a powerful outpouring of God’s own Spirit. As prophetic promises go, Joel brooks few rivals for sheer exuberance and prodigious promises of a hyper-abundance of good things.
Because in the history of God’s people, there were any number of instances of God’s having poured out his Spirit but it was a pretty special and unusual thing to see this happen. That is, if someone were a “messiah” figure on account of having been “anointed” with a special portion of God’s Spirit, most everyone knew about it. The truly messiah-types in Israel were few and far between. There was the king. There were the priests. There were now and then prophets recognized for having quite likely received a special anointing (Elijah, Elisha, and folks like that). But that was about it. Anointings to royal, priestly, or prophetic offices were on the rare side. Israel was not a divine democracy but a theocracy in which God did the choosing in terms of who would be important enough to receive an anointing and who would not.
But then comes Joel 2 and a stunning message that points to what you could almost call the democratizing of God’s Spirit: it was one day going to come to just about everybody without distinction. Last week in Jeremiah 31 we heard the prophet say that God’s internalizing of his ways would render it unnecessary for people to say to their neighbors “Know the Lord” because everyone was going to know God already from the inside out. Now in Joel 2 it could be said that the day would come when it would become unnecessary for anyone to identify which few folks had received a messiah-like anointing of God’s Spirit because the fact of the matter would be that everybody among God’s people was going to be so anointed!
Young and old, boys and girls, men and women, the likely and the unlikely: everybody was going to have a Spirit descend on them that would open up visions and dreams and ways of understanding God and God’s kingdom that had simply not been available on the popular level at any prior time. Everyone would see the great wonders God would work on the earth and in the heavens and they would understand what was what and who was who in the grander scheme of things.
Joel points to Pentecost. Joel points to a day when the Holy Spirit of God would infuse every member of the church in ways that would change everything. And indeed, we now can say that for Christians, the Holy Spirit is a little like oxygen–it is the very air we breathe. The Spirit is the atmosphere in which we exist. “I will pour out my Spirit in those days,” Joel declared. Some centuries later the Apostle Peter on Pentecost said that “those days” were “these days” and those days have never ceased ever since. Across nearly two millennia of church history and within the hearts of untold millions if not billions of believers, that Spirit, so dramatically poured forth on that first day of Pentecost, has been present and active even when there was no obvious drama going on. We live, and we are so very, very blessed to live, “in those days,” in the very days that so many people had for so long yearned to see and experience.
But if the Spirit of God poured out on us believers is, as just noted, a little like oxygen, then it may also be true that like our ongoing act of respiration, we Christians may not be very conscious of the Spirit’s presence in our lives. You have to stop what you’re doing most days if you want to pay attention to your own breathing—and about the only time we actually do this is if we are in a situation where we are afraid of not getting enough air (getting stuck in an elevator, for instance, or waking up at 3:30am with sinuses so stuffed up that you feel a little panicky in terms of getting enough air into your system).
We Christians now live immersed in God’s outpoured Spirit but since our days are not typically filled with the dreams and visions of which the prophet Joel speaks in this second chapter, it’s easy to miss how much we benefit from the indwelling Spirit of God. But a passage like this one may provide a good opportunity for us preachers to remind our congregations what a profound gift it is to be in touch with God on such a personal level. We cannot know—and thankfully neither do we have to experience—what life would be like without God’s Spirit. We mostly are unaware of the gifts, the insights, the abilities we have to do our jobs in the kingdom that are provided by the Spirit alone. But that lack of awareness is no excuse not to make ourselves aware now and again and to do so with profound gratitude for the truth of Joel 2 as it permeates Christ’s church both this day and even forevermore!
But as noted at the outset, perhaps this sermon commentary should point out one other curious fact. This is the only passage from the prophet Joel in the entire three-year Revised Common Lectionary cycle. And this is the happiest part of Joel, too. But not to put too fine a point on it, everything in Joel that led up to this lection was pretty grim, clotted with clouds of locust, filled with doomsday scenarios of destruction, and punctuated by urgent cries of repentance (or else!). Why did so much bad stuff have to precede this good stuff? Why can’t we cut to the chase of the happy prophecy (which in its own way the Lectionary has effectively done by ignoring the rest of Joel)?
Probably for the same reason that you actually cannot get to Peter’s Pentecost sermon without passing through Good Friday. The situation of sin and evil that God in Christ had to deal with is serious business. It is shot through with destruction, violence, and scary things. There is a need for serious repentance, for a rending of hearts (as Joel called for earlier in Joel 2), for a wholesale turning away from all that wrecks God’s good shalom.
You cannot get to the outpouring of God’s Spirit and the new day it brings without this engagement with all that is sad and unhappy. There is a lesson in this for the church today, too, especially in all those places on the contemporary ecclesiastical landscape where there is a push to drive away all negatives so as to focus only on sunny promises and happy thoughts.
As Frederick Buechner notes, the word “spirit” gets drained of meaning through over-use. We hear about “school spirit,” the “spirit of ’76,” “team spirit,” “the Christmas spirit.” A sign by a local high school in my area regularly posts the hours of operation for something called “The Spirit Shop.” But it can be difficult to define just what “spirit” means for any of those things. The adjective “spiritual” has not fared much better. This word has been plastered all over the place in the last twenty years to the point where it can define everything from genuinely pious Christian faith all the way over to those who talk about the “zen of economics.” Ostensibly “spiritual people” may be those who attend church every week or those who never go to church but who use their Jeep Grand Cherokee to zip up to the edge of a cliff on weekends so they can meditate on the unity of sky, rock, and soul.
At the same time, again as Buechner observes, we cannot deny that for all its vapory, insubstantial features, the “spirit” of something can be strong and contagious. It is remarkably easy for even a very calm and quiet person to get whipped up into enthusiasm by the “spirit” of a political rally, a football game, or (more grimly) of a lynch mob.
Some years back I saw a movie which had a scene which was at once somber and yet funny. In the scene two good friends are seated in the stands at a New York Giants NFL football game. But they are not really watching the game because one of the two men is deeply sad since his wife had left him the day before. With a crestfallen expression on his face, he tells his friend all about the events that had led up to this tragedy in his life. It is a very serious, unhappy conversation.
The funny part is that while these two men are talking, “the wave” is sweeping through the stadium–this is the phenomenon whereby all the people in a stadium sequentially stand up, raise their arms, give a yell, and then quickly sit back down so that as you look across the stadium, it looks like a human wave is rippling through the stands. So in this scene, although the conversation between these two friends is so dark that they really are paying no attention to the people around them, nevertheless each time the wave reached their part of the stadium, both men stood up, raised their arms, and then sat back down, never missing a beat in their conversation about the one man’s sorrows!
Being in a crowd can make you do funny things–stuff you would not do or say otherwise. Have you ever been to an exciting basketball game only to find yourself screaming like a banshee? There seems to be a certain spirit or power in many situations in life–an influence in which you can get “caught up” and so motivated to do things which are not called for in other situations. On a darker note, some of the same dynamics that can make us jump up and down like everyone else at an exciting basketball game can also lead people to get carried away at post-game parties which turn into out-of-control riots.
There are influences on all of us which are not visible but which are very powerful nonetheless. Parents have strong reasons for warning their children to stay away from “the wrong crowd.” Most of us at one time or another have experienced what can happen when we get caught up in peer pressure. On the other hand, there are good community spirits which can mold people in positive ways. Just think of how the spirit of neighborliness draws the Amish together. There are few spectacles as startling or as moving as an Amish “barn raising” when neighbors from a region come together to build a barn in just one day.
There are many different ways, both good and bad, to get carried away by something. Thankfully, for baptized believers in Christ Jesus the Lord, God has poured out the ultimate Spirit on us all, helping young and old, boys and girls, men and women “get carried away” but in good ways that open us up to all the glory of God!
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 23, 2016
Joel 2:23-32 Commentary