In the Message by Eugene Peterson, a contemporary translation of scripture, Peterson’s introduction to the book of Joel says, “When disaster strikes, understanding of God is at risk.” We clearly see that in our day—people who immediately claim after a disaster that we are experiencing God’s punishment for the sins of people. Isn’t it amazing that the very people who make these statements always think it’s about someone else’s sins?
The book known as Joel is only 3 chapters long. It is the oracle of an ancient Hebrew prophet whose name was Joel. The oracle begins, “Attention, elder statesmen! Listen closely, everyone, whoever and wherever you are! Have you ever heard of anything like this? Has anything like this ever happened before—ever?” Today’s lesson follows this account of the disaster that left the Hebrew people wondering about God. Joel is about to restore their hope.
O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls
The reality is disasters are a part of life—illness or death, plague or epidemic, storms and tsunamis, national and international catastrophes, the violence that seems rampant in our world. Disaster seems to turn people, some of whom haven’t thought of God in years, into instant theologians. “God is angry. God is punishing. And it’s someone else’s fault—not mine.”
The ancient Hebrew prophets took a different approach—to call the people to accountability for their own actions. In a world that didn’t know about the weather channel or that illness was caused by germs and poor sanitation—they believed God was punishing them. One would think we would know better than to blame God, but we still call nature’s fury “acts of God.”
Joel tells the people to change their lives. And then he tells them not to despair—that God is still God and there is a new day coming. God will make up for all that has been lost and God’s people will never again be despised. And then Joel proclaims this promise: “God will pour out God’s spirit on every kind of people. Your sons will prophesy and also your daughters. Dreams and visions, wonders and signs. God will pour out God’s spirit even on male and female slaves. Included in the survivors are those whom God calls.”
Our society has a problem with Joel’s message. “Every kind of people” has gotten lost in translation. Why preacher you can’t mean that those people will receive God’s spirit? That was the question Peter faced 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection. God’s spirit poured out on every kind of people. The framers of our democracy said it like this: “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights—among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It took black slaves centuries to be included in every kind of people. It took women centuries to be included in every kind of people.
The prophets of many generations since have proclaimed Joel’s message that God’s spirit would be poured out on “every kind of people.” Many times the Church has been the other side saying, “hmm, hmm, hmm…not so fast.” We have standards. We have doctrines. We have rules about who can have access to God’s spirit.
Today is Reformation Sunday—the day when we remember the reformers who called out the abuses of the Church in another time and place. Abuses that kept the poor in their place—uneducated and thinking they needed a priest to give them absolution. About every 500 years there is a new reformation. We are in that reformation as the Church once again hears God’s prophets say that the Spirit will be poured out on every kind of people.
Who are the people that are still on the margins of acceptance?
• Those who do not take the Bible literally and insist that there is a new word to spring forth.
• Those who live on the streets and other margins of society—poor, in prison, addicted, transient.
• Those who we call alien and illegal, but whose dream of citizenship is often delayed by red tape and bureaucracy.
• Those who still walk in the shadows of racism in a nation where no one should be judged by the color of their skin or their ethnicity.
• Those who are created by God as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and who dare to love openly, hoping that society will validate their relationships, not even asking for the Church to open their doors, but asking for equality as citizens of the United States of America.
Belief in God is often the litmus test, the proof, for who’s in and who’s out. It seems anymore that isn’t even good enough—it has to be a certain belief expressed in a certain way, quoting inerrant scriptures and adhere to what is the “normal” view, like the normal family is Dad, Mom, two and one-half children, dog and cat. And heaven forbid if a Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist, or any other expression of spirituality want a place at the table. Really—in some minds heaven forbids it.
What if we reclaimed a sense that belief in God—or, for that matter, disbelief in God—is less a matter of proof than it is confession: a willingness to give good reasons and evidence for one's views but also to surrender a claim to final proof. Some things are ultimately beyond proof.
So here’s my confession surrendering my claim to proof: I am a follower of Jesus who in his life and ministry showed us a God of love and mercy, grace and forgiveness. I find in the Bible truths for the living of life, but know the Bible doesn’t answer the questions in black and white, but in the gray ambiguities of human experience. I can’t prove my theology is good except for this one thing: God is love and we are called to love one another. Period. Others will say that I am dead wrong but I trust God.
I promise you, to the best of my ability, that I will stand with you when others who (even though they may mean well) demean, degrade and tell you God cannot love you because of your “sin.”
Finally, I confess that today I am angry at the Church universal (not you) for doing just that—demeaning, degrading and telling people God cannot love them just as they are. A long time ago, a man who became St. Augustine said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage. Anger that things are the way they are. Courage to make them the way they ought to be.” I hope I have as much courage as I do anger. God help me find a way.
Joel said among the survivors there will be those whom God calls. We are survivors. Now that love has found us, let us walk day and night in the light of God. Let’s change lives. Let’s dream God’s dream.