“Leaning into tomorrow ”
Message preached on
May 20, 2018
I had considered titling this sermon, “An old man’s dreams,” based upon what the ancient prophet Joel said, words repeated by the apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost.
“I will pour out my spirit on all
Yes, “An old man’s dreams” would be an appropriate title. After all, at almost age 63, I am closer to that description, “old man,” than I once was. But I reconsidered, since many “an old man’s dreams” look backward, not forward. It’s so easy to get lost trying to reclaim the past, you know – that time when bodies were younger and the possible years ahead numbered more than the years gone by. Perhaps “grumpy” old men are born when this truth dawns upon them. And who wants to listen to a grumpy old man complain about how things aren’t what they were “back in the day” when he was a young man dreaming ahead, full of visions?
No, Joel’s prophecy (repeated by Peter on Pentecost) was not about nostalgically looking backward, as a grumpy old man might, trying to recreate the vigor of his youth. Mind you, looking back is not a bad thing. For the prophet Joel, there is a story in the past that needs to be shared with the next new generation. “We’ve a story to tell,” but that story is not about the past accomplishments of old men. The story to be told, instead, is of how – in the middle of a past crisis – God did something new and provided a way through bad times. The purpose of looking back is thus not to try returning to the past. Instead, for the prophet Joel, telling the story is about leaning into tomorrow with God’s help.
That is what the apostle Peter did on Pentecost, using the words of the prophet Joel. Now, I’ve always wondered how Peter had the wherewithal to step into the words of this minor prophet from the past to speak up in front of that crowd. I mean, while he had only recently stepped into a leadership role among the followers of Jesus, something we remembered last week from the first chapter of the book of Acts; this was Peter’s first recorded sermon. And it wasn’t the message of a grumpy old man trying to return to the past.
Here is Peter, a common fisherman from the hinterlands of Galilee, having the hutzpah to stand up in front of all these pilgrims who’d come to Jerusalem for the Jewish feast of Pentecost. I’m guessing he spoke Hebrew, for that would’ve been the common language which these Jews from all over the known world shared. Aramaic was the local dialect he probably grew up speaking; Aramaic: a distant cousin of Hebrew. Even though the book of Acts was written in Greek, that probably wasn’t what he spoke. But you never know, maybe he did. Koine Greek was the common language of the Mediterranean area, after all. But how did someone who fished for a living on an inland lake in Galilee come to speak Greek or Hebrew so well? Of course, maybe he was more learned than we might think. No doubt he grew up like most Jewish boys, studying the Bible scrolls with the local rabbi. The Joel scroll would have been among them, a minor prophet next to the major ones like Isaiah or Jeremiah.
By the way, one thing that makes the prophet Joel so interesting is that Joel seems to have knowledge of and quote the other prophets in various places. It makes sense, then, that Peter would do the same thing in quoting Joel. But he had to have had enough familiarity with this minor prophet to do so. He must have paid attention in Sabbath school. Joel’s concern for telling God’s redemption story to the next generation was not lost on this disciple of Jesus. For that’s what Peter proceeded to do on Pentecost – tell the story.
He had heard the larger God story, enough so that when the time came to stand up and speak, Peter was able to draw spiritual water from the well of Joel and share it. These folks may be drunk, he implied, it wasn’t wine they imbibed at this early hour. Instead, they’d been drinking the fresh water of the Word, provided by the Spirit… The Spirit!… Ah, there’s the other source of how Peter might have been able to be so bold and speak so well. Mind you, it’s not like the Holy Spirit pulled a rabbit out of Peter’s hat and imbued him with a knowledge that wasn’t already there. No, after graduating from Sabbath school as a boy, Peter had spent three years as a man in the Jesus school. It was all in there, somewhere. The Spirit just fired up the neurons, blew upon the flames, acted like an “Aha!” light upon his head, and provided the fire in his belly to be bold enough to speak up.
Having said that, I realize that there is always something beyond us about God. Yes, no doubt Peter had within him something upon which God expanded. But how do we explain the episode that necessitated Peter standing to speak in the first place? All these followers of Jesus, according to the second chapter of Acts, talked in languages they had never before heard, let alone speak. When the Spirit said “speak,” they did, in such a way that Jews from all over understood what they were saying. “That’s the language I speak back home! How do you know it? You’re just a bunch of Galileans. What’s going on?”
You know, it’s not the task of this old (relatively speaking) man standing before you just now to explain the “how” of this story. It just happened. Furthermore, if there’s any looking back to be done, it’s not for the sake of trying to return to some nostalgic past when everything was great. I, like Peter before me, simply pull from God’s story to help us lean into tomorrow, not yesterday. That’s what a dream is, at least the kind of dream the prophet Joel and the apostle Peter both said old men would be imagining. If you can’t see it first in your dream, how can you lean toward it? And if you’re not leaning toward this vision of tomorrow, you’re just slipping into the past.
Vision. Do you think young men’s visions are that much different from old men’s dreams? Perhaps a lifetime of successes and failures might add a bit more reality to the dreams of those with plenty of years under their belt, but seemingly impossible dreams are not the province of only the young. If anything, old men need to be challenged to dream impossible dreams, to trust the dream-giver with tomorrow, without trying to get in the way.
Enough with my “old men” talk. Joel and Peter in the Bible widened the picture to include sons and daughters prophesying. Is a prophecy that much different from a dream or a vision, especially when we seek to hear God speak in and through it?... Now, perhaps you’re wondering why Joel didn’t mention “old women” in this passage. Maybe he was smart enough not to use the word “old” alongside “women.” Besides, in my experience many women just begin to come into their own after children are raised and touches of silver grace their heads. I’ve known plenty of visionary dreamers among them, through whom I hear God speak. I wouldn’t call them “old women,” however. Like with “old men,” I would hope the word, “wise,” would be used, along with “who cares what others think!” Maybe you can come up with a good phrase to describe such folks, female or male.
Joel and Peter expanded even further to include those definitely not in the upper strata of society: slave, both men and women. Which makes sense for a Bible whose central story in the first part revolves around the descendants of Abraham who ended up slaves in Egypt. God has a habit of choosing to work through those at the bottom of the barrel, who find themselves at wits end, who struggle to see a way out of a predicament. Isn’t that what dreams, visions and prophesies are for?
When the sun does not seem to shed much light, and the moon colors our nightmares blood red (Joel 2:31, Acts 2:20), that is precisely when God is most at work, according to the faith we have received. The prophet Joel said it. The apostle Peter repeated it on Pentecost. He, along with all the followers of Jesus, would know. A little more than 50 days earlier was the nightmare of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Wisdom flew out the window for the disciples, replaced by fear. When things appeared worst, however, on the third day of his death, Jesus changed the equation. Only God saw that coming, though Jesus mentioned it enough they should have caught the vision, dreamed the dream, trusted the prophesy. Fifty (Pente) days later, they weren’t going to make that mistake again.
Peter stood and repeated what Joel had said for God: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” Not some. All. It’s not just available to the cream of the crop, the top of the class, the best and the brightest, those who have worked the hardest, or those with the right relatives or other connections. None of that. God’s Spirit is – instead – poured out upon everyone. Not dribbled, mind you – poured! On Pentecost, it overflowed onto everyone around them. That’s what the story says as we have received it in Acts. Language no longer was a barrier dividing people. Neither was gender, nor race, nor social or economic status. In the book of Joel, it was a plague of locusts that leveled the playing field to bring God’s people together, as they fasted and prayed. Here on Pentecost it was God’s wind and fire. And amid it all came Joel’s prophecy, made fresh and new by Peter: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”
Here then is the dream we lean into, not for the sake of returning to yesterday, but for stepping forward into tomorrow. I warn you, however, it is still as surprising now as it was then. In an age when we are encouraged to be afraid of those who are different from us, to build barriers to protect ourselves and those who are like us against those who are not, to try to return to the past instead of stepping boldly into the future where God awaits, here is the vision of Pentecost. Age, gender, race, social status, money, politics (you name it) – everything that might divide us is blown away by the Spirit, which is poured upon everyone to overflowing. As always, it takes a while to get used to these walls being down, especially if we have benefitted (consciously or unconsciously) from being above or separate from others. To all of us comes God’s prophecies, visions and dreams … even to “old men.” Thus, we are empowered to lean into God’s tomorrow.