God of Mercy, Pour Out Your Spirit!
Joel 2 Psalms 84 2Tim.4:6-8 Luke.18:9-14
I suppose that there may be some benefit to covering only small, bite-sized portions of certain scripture readings. It is the accepted way in which most sacramental churches employ scripture in their liturgy. That process sometimes allows for more in depth analysis and understanding. However, more often than not, I find the practice to be unhelpful because it almost always strips the passage of scripture out of its historical context, which can in turn result in an inappropriate application into our modern context.
This morning’s assigned reading from the prophet Joel is a good example of that. This promise of God’s empowerment is read every year during the season of Pentecost. It is used at many ordinations and other services where people are commissioned for ministry. That is not a bad thing in and of itself. However, those promises in their historical context were not only given along with a warning which is often ignored, but also in conjunction with certain covenantal expectations that God placed on the people he intended to bless in this fashion. So, unless we understand the whole picture, I think we are in danger of missing the point entirely. So, what I intend to do this morning is to have a look at the whole of chapter 2 of Joel, and then use the other readings from the Psalm, 2 Timothy and Luke 18 to lend support.
So, let’s begin with the first 11 verses. Joel 2:1 (NIV) Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. The first thing to note here is the present, and by that I mean present in its own time context of this prophesy. Joel was written somewhere between 830 and 796 BC during the reign in Judah of King Joash. He became king as a child and the beginning of his reign was marked by the destruction of the temples of Baal and a return to the worship of Yahweh. However, after many years, when the high priest who advised and pastored that return to the faith died, Joash allowed the pagan worship to begin once again.
And, just so you understand how bad this was, Baal worship required human sacrifice. It wasn’t just a graven image of wood or stone that the people bowed before. It was the practice out and out evil. Joel’s prophesy, like that of the other prophets, is a response to that wickedness. Zachariah, in fact, was martyred by Joash because of his stringent opposition to Ball worship.
(2) It is close at hand- a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was of old nor ever will be in ages to come.
(3) Before them fire devours, behind them a flame blazes. Before them the land is like the Garden of Eden, behind them, a desert waste— nothing escapes them.
These two verses and the seven that follow describe the absolute destruction that will come as a result of the Lord’s anger. Nothing will be spared, and in the end, nothing was. First the Israelite armies and then the Syrian ones descended upon Judah and sacked Jerusalem.
(11) The LORD thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty are those who obey his command. The day of the LORD is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it? The answer is no-one and the point of these whole 11 verses is that God will not for ever put up with evil and idolatry. They will absolutely result in retribution. Now, can we apply this in our own time? We have seen a lot of years of idolatry and evil…some of it equally as malevolent and blood-thirsty as Baal worship was reported to be. If God doesn’t change…and He doesn’t; and if His word is good and sure…and there is every indication that it is; then the terrible day of the Lord is indeed coming…for us. One has only to look back at Jesus’ statements in Luke 17 about the coming of the kingdom…or read the Book of Revelation to understand that God is not done yet…and there is more of what we see in this passage to be fulfilled in the future ….perhaps even tomorrow! That was the warning part…and you can’t read the last few verses of this whole passage, understand it as it was meant to be…or apply it without first attending to this.
The next section reveals the heart of God for His people, then & now…them and us. (Joel 2:12-14) (12) "Even now," declares the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning." The key to this whole passage is contained in those two words, “even now”. Even in the face of the total depravity of human sacrifice, even when almost the whole of society is worshiping anything except Yahweh, God stands ready to forgive and redeem. Therein lays the strength of God’s love for His people…for us. Regardless of where we are or the depth of the pit we have fallen into, God stands with His mighty arms outstretched ready to draw us to His breast…ready to love us and forgive our unrighteousness.
That invitation, however, comes with a caveat. If we seriously desire to accept God’s offer, then we are called to turn away from that which separates us from Him. God says, “Turn to me with all your heart, with weeping and fasting.” Turning to God is only possible when we turn away from sin. That takes a deliberate act of contrition. He calls for “all your heart” because anything short of “all” would be no turning at all. Fasting, weeping and mourning are visible signs… outward manifestations of true repentance. They are not necessary, but they do demonstrate the seriousness of our confession and desire to change.
Next God says, 13) 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. It was a common practice in those days to tear one’s robes put ashes on one’s head when faced with great anguish, in a period of mourning or repentance. It was a dramatic way to display the depth of the emotional trauma a person was suffering. However, it had a tendency to become just that, “drama.” In fact, it was in many cases empty drama that God could see right through.
Turn with me to this morning’s Gospel reading. Here we have a good example of empty drama in action.( Luke 18: 9-12), He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral “performance: and looked down their noses at the common people: "Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: 'Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.' ….The Pharisee posed. He was giving a performance. There was no real contrition here. The prayer wasn’t directed heavenward at all, but given only for the benefit of the audience that was gathered around the Pharisee. His offering, his prayer, his very presence in the temple was all about maintaining public opinion and position, and nothing to do with God.
This is the very thing that the Lord was addressing in the Joel passage. The fasting, weeping and mourning have to come from the heart, because anything else is actually a denial of God. It is ludicrous to believe that we could fool God with our drama. He is simply not interested. Here is what the Lord is really looking for…(Luke 18:13)"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' Psalms 51:17 tells us that God, contrary to the way He would behave towards the Pharisee, does not despise a broken and contrite heart. In fact, the Psalmist says, that the sacrifices of God…those sacrificial actions that God will pay attention to, stem from a broken spirit. What that means is, when we truly understand and are willing to offer up the totality of our brokenness before God…all of it, then He knows that our heart is ready to be given access to righteous things.
(14a) Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing… Part of the destruction narrative at the beginning of the Joel passage spoke of how the physical provision of God would be taken away, so that those who were fat and happy in their sin would be made to suffer. We could consider this verse in kind of tongue- in-cheek way. However, I believe that it has a much greater meaning. The Psalmist in this morning’s reading gives us a clue to that. (Psalms 84:11-12) For the Lord God is our sun and our shield. He provides the very essence of life to us, and then protects us. He gives us grace (that comes from forgiveness) and glory. We are brought into His family and declared His children. The Lord will withhold no good thing from those who do what is right. So, it’s not tongue-in-cheek. It is a very real promise. O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, what joy for those who trust in you. God provides for those who put their trust in Him, and we can rejoice in that provision.
So how do we bring this all about? We get on our faces before God, confess our sin, and demonstrate the strength of our conviction, humbly praying for God to forgive and redeem us. Joel 2:15-16 Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. Who is to come? Literally everyone, with no exceptions! I have had many people ask me over the years why it was necessary to come to church to worship God. The answer is, because He said so. God calls us to be here. The” holy fast” is be accompanied by prayer and is a preparation, it cleanses us for the sacred assembly. This is what the RC tradition of fasting on Fridays was intended to be…preparation for the sacred assembly. That is what the confession in our Communion liturgy is about…preparation for the sacred meal.
Joel 2:17, Let the priests, who minister before the LORD, weep between the temple porch and the altar. Let them say, "Spare your people, O LORD. Those of us who have been called to this holy ministry are given a special task of intercession on behalf of the people…and not just intercession, but confession also on your behalf. When I “Weep between the temple porch and the altar,” it is recognition that I carry at least part of the responsibility for this community’s sin on my own back. Why? As the Lord’s anointed I and the other pastors have been set apart to be a prophetic voice in the community. At least in some respects, God views the community’s sin as our failure. If the pastors accept the calling, then we are responsible.
When we behave in this manner towards God, coming humbly before Him, confessing our sin and seeking redemption; when we submit ourselves and our lives to Jesus Christ who he has set as our Redeemer, then God answers. Joel 2:18, “…then the LORD will be jealous for his land and take pity on his people.” (26) You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the LORD your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed. (27) Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the LORD your God, and that there is no other;” Let me suggest something to you. At least some of the mess that our lives are in is the direct result of the choices that we have made that have caused the Lord to remove His sustaining and protecting hand from us. Not all, for some are caused by other people and their choices…but some. I believe that it should be the desire of our hearts to have God’s hand firmly upon us, to have him, as the prophet Joel declares, “jealous” for us…so that we will know that He is the Lord our God, and there is no other.
Now, all of what I have said to this point is context that will allow us to properly read, understand and apply what we heard this morning in our Old Testament passage. Joel 2:28, And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. So when God says, “And afterward” He means after we have repented and returned to Him. Afterward means after He has redeemed us by the blood of Christ, and restored us to proper relationship with Him. Afterward means after we have begun once again to sing His praises and lift up our voices to Him. Afterward means after we have recognized that He is the Lord our God and there is no other.
This prophesy from Joel is used by Simon Peter in Acts chapter 2, to explain the phenomena that happened on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit showed up in an amazing way….and it has been employed in the same fashion every other time over the years since then, as the Holy Spirit began to move with power in the church. As the church draws nearer to God, as it humbles itself before Him, the Holy Spirit begins to move and work in this way. This has been authenticated historically and will happen from time to time as God’s people respond to His call.
However, I believe that “afterward” also directs our attention to end times, the final battle, the completeness of God’s plan…or whatever you want to call it. The miracle of the Holy Spirit working in this way through the believing church, keeps us focussed on the ultimate fulfillment of God’s intentions…which is the complete redemption of creation. So, when God pours out His Spirit on some people, rather than “all people” as the prophesy indicates, we are given a glimpse of what is to come. It is a kind of already, but not yet thing, where the kingdom of God is made manifest within us, but not yet completed.
If we read on in the Joel passage, it is obvious that we haven’t got there yet. Joel 2:30-31, I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. Now, you might be able to make the case that the massive volcanic eruptions we have seen recently throughout the world are described in this passage. It could be, there are many who believe that the end is near. However, the last verse speaks about the survivors and Jerusalem… (32) And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the LORD has said, among the survivors whom the LORD calls. We haven’t yet seen the final battle as described in Revelation, and the new Jerusalem certainly hasn’t been created. I don’t believe that we have even begun to see the destruction called for in the first 12 verses.
So we wait…declare the holy fast, call the sacred assembly, consecrate ourselves unto the Lord, declare his name among the nations and walk humbly before Him. Do we want him to pour out his Spirit upon us? Certainly! But more than that, I want to be my God and for me to be counted among His people.