Friday, October 29, 2010

Visions, Dreams, and Preaching Joel 2:23-32/Acts 2:14-21 October 24

It happened in the weeks just before Beth and I were to head out to the mission field. I was closing out my time as church planter/pastor of Westwood Baptist Church in Cary, North Carolina. It was a small but vibrant new church. The service had concluded and almost everyone had cleared the building. Aaron had made his way back into our makeshift sanctuary and had pulled out the small stool I used for children’s sermons and scooted it behind the pulpit. With a smile he stood on it, and began to act like he was preaching. One of remaining folks saw the scene and asked, “Wouldn’t it be great if your son followed you in to ministry.” While I smiled at Aaron playing preacher I could not help think about the infant daughter I held in my arms, and looked back at him and asked, “Do you think people would be as excited if the one who is called turns out to be my daughter rather than my son?” While I believed in the idea of women in ministry before that day, after that moment it became personal. It was important to me that no one put any limits on what God might do in the life of either one of my children – and by extension – anyone else’s either. But you need to know that my beliefs are not just founded in a father’s love for his children, they emerge for the Biblical account of the birth of the church. Take a look at Acts 2, verses 14-21 with me and I believe we will hear that God’s plan is to use all of us – men and women, young and old – lift our voices as witnesses to the world.

We join the Biblical narrative in the moments after the Holy Spirit has been poured out on the disciples gathered in the Upper Room. When we experience something that we have never seen before we struggle to describe with the words and images we know. If you had never seen a porcupine before how might you describe it to some else? If you had never seen a baseball game or played golf before how comical might it be to hear you try to explain these game to others? In the first few verse of Acts 2 we read the description of a violent wind coming from heaven, of tongues of fire floating above each of those gathered in the room. These strange and otherworldly images are Luke’s best attempt to explain what happens when the very presence of the Spirit of God fills the room and empowers God’s people. Should we be surprised that something dramatic happens when the Spirit of God moves? The disciples move from the Upper Room into the streets and begin to speak to the masses gathered from all over the world in Jerusalem for a religious festival. This band of fishermen, tax collectors, and other assorted followers were a part of something incredible. They had spoken Aramaic their whole lives. Now, empowered by the Holy Spirit, they listened as other languages tumbled from their lips. The crowd was bewildered – confused – even shocked – because they saw these simple Galileans speaking to them in their own language. How could these folks know all of these languages? What was happening? Scripture tells us that they were amazed and perplexed and they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some nickered from the sidelines and speculated these followers of Jesus must be drunk. Peter claimed center stage and tried to explain what is going on. He started with an obvious observation – but one that was directly to the point – folks, he argues, it is only 9 in the morning – it’s simply too early for them to be drunk. But then he takes a moment of mockery and turns it into a pronouncement on what God was up to in their midst. He cites the prophetic pronouncement of Joel.
"'In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, 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 glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'”

Those gathered in the streets would have heard this prophetic promise in synagogue schools when they gathered around the rabbi for instruction. This prophet Joel described a coming climatic moment in history when the very presence of the Spirit of God would be poured out in their midst. In the time of the prophets and even in the rabbinical teaching of that era they understood that God poured out his Spirit on a select few, prophets and priests who would speak to God for the people and speak for God to the people. The prophet promised a moment when God would no long speak to and through a select few – a mere handful – and would begin to speak through all of the people. The Baptist Old Testament scholar J. Hardee Kennedy describes it this way; “The intimacy with God which hitherto had been confined to exceptional individuals will be shared by all of his people. Not scantily, but in abundant measure, the Lord will pour out his illumination and power.” It was an incredible prophet pronouncement because it meant that the mission of God in the world would then be invested in all of God’s people. The Spirit of God is poured out - not sprinkled on - but more like a flash flood where everything and everyone is saturated - filled up - over flowing - so that the world could be changed. In essence of what Peter wanted the crowd to understand is that the incredible – remarkable – almost unexplainable scene that they are witnessing is the promise of the pour out of God’s Spirit upon the people fulfilled. The moment they have been waiting for was here!

It is interesting to me that this incredible pronounce of the fulfillment of one of God’s great promises seems to have been lost in the margins of development of the church. Richard Halverson, former Chaplain to the US Senate made an interesting observation about the development of the church. He states; In the beginning the Church was a fellowship of men and women who centred their lives on the living Christ. They had a personal and vital relationship to the Lord. It transformed them and the world around them. Then the Church moved to Greece, and it became a philosophy. Later it moved to Rome, and it became an institution. Next it moved to Europe and it became a culture. Finally it moved to America, and it became an enterprise. We've got far too many churches and so few fellowships. I believe he is right and with every step the church seemed to find new ways to create boundaries that once again seemed to teach that God poured out his Spirit in a select few, once again separating the people of God – people like you and me – from the fulfillment of the promise of an abundant outpouring of the Spirit on our lives. It once again invested the capacity for God to speak to and through to a handful, when it was intended for all. Hear me clearly that these boundaries are a man-made creation rather than the plan of God.

Our Western European cultural and faith heritage proclaims the male centered worldview. Even after over a century of efforts, in most places men still hold the keys to power and influence. This worldview has overflowed into the life of the church and our cultural norms shaped how we have read scripture and the roles we have assigned to men and women. Globally our view of scripture and the distinctive roles are sometimes consistent, but more often are dissident to the living expression of the growing Church. Across Africa and Asia we often see women serving as Senior Pastors of leading congregations; we hear women teach and women teach, and witness me and women alike bringing people to the feet of God in worship. Joel was clear, in this new era when the Spirit of God is poured out on all people both the sons and the daughters will prophesy. In old fashioned Southern, “your sons and your daughters, they are goin’ to preach!” I recognize that some across the conservative Christian landscape would argue with me and would try to leverage Paul’s instruction to young congregations to justify the boundaries. But Paul was speaking into specific situations where cultural abuses triggered a need for direction and situational correction. But Paul’s instructions cannot undermine the power and significant of this grand declaration that the Spirit of God has come and all the old boundaries are to fade away. When Peter invokes the these prophetic words from Joel he is clear that a new kind of Kingdom has been born and the Spirit of God has been set loose not on a select few, but in lives of all believers. The boundary of gender is shattered and the expectation is that God will use both men and women to proclaim God’s word.

But this breaking of boundaries is not just about gender, Joel sees that young and old will both be empowered by the Spirit for ministry. The young will see visions, and the old will dream dreams –both ways we see God speak with authority throughout the breadth of the Old Testament. Far too often we quietly devalue our young telling them that they must wait until they are grown to find their place in ministry. The great prophet Elisha was called to begin his work in his youth. King David was called when he was hardly more than a boy. Deborah and Ester were in their teens when God called them to action. There was no waiting until – the expectation was that God would speak to and through his people even in their youth. We need to be attentive to creating opportunities for our young to lift their voices and let us hear God speak to us through them. Likewise Joel does not envision a retirement age for faithfulness. Our culture sometimes devalues those who are in the December of their lives. It is our loss. Those who claim hair of grey have much to teach us. Without apology God speaks to and through those both in their youth and in their maturity. Let us destroy any boundary of age that devalues people and might limit how anyone of us might be used an instrument of God’s Spirit.

It is also important to be clear that Joel’s prophesy, and Peter’s sermon, were not design to serve as political rhetoric or social commentary on the nature of relationships and the desire for an equality for all. It was much more than that. The core pronouncement of this prophetic utterance was that in the last days God will empower everyone for to participate in God’s redemptive purpose. The redemptive mission of God that was born in creation and fulfilled in Jesus now becomes the mission of the Church God’s agenda is so big that there can be no boundaries that hold anyone back from offering their voice, the visions, and their dreams as instruments of God. The mission is young and old, male and female to join God in making it clear to everyone that there is a way to restoration, redemption, and a right relationship with God. Peter cries out, the day is here, the Spirit of God is poured out on everyone who is a child of God, regardless of their age, or their gender, or their social statues, so that the whole of the people of God will lift their voices in witness so that all who call on the name of the Lord might be saved. You have a place in the work of God. The Spirit of God is poured out for you. God stands ready to make us a part of his redemptive plan is we are willing – available – open for God to work in us and through us. The prophet promise of Joel is fulfilled in you! Let us claim our place in the mission of God. Amen.

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