February 19, 2012
“In Every Generation”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
It was seven weeks after Passover, fifty days. Almost two months since Jesus had been tried, and beaten, and crucified. It was a month and half or so since his resurrection appearances at the tomb, along the road, at the lakeshore. The bible records that they were all together in one place, the followers of Jesus. Then came a rush of a violent wind from above. Divided tongues, like a fire (whatever that means!) came among them, rested on each one. All were filled with the Holy Spirit. All began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability. The New Testament writer Luke describes the scene: a gathering crowd of all nations bewildered because they all heard this cacophony of language; like every tongue on the earth was represented. Amid the apparent chaos everyone could hear in their own language that they were talking about God’s deeds of power. All were amazed and perplexed, trying to figure out what it all meant. Some others just sneered assuming those babbling followers of Jesus were drunk.
Right about then the Apostle Peter, who was standing with the other disciples amid the crowd, he shouted for the peoples’ attention; asking them to listen, pointing out that these people weren’t drunk. Afterall, it’s only 9 in the morning, he yelled. 9:00am. No, Peter said, and he began to preach, starting his sermon with a quote from one of the prophets. In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days will I pour out my Spirit.”
Peter raised his voice to preach and ever since the words from the prophet Joel, words about “your sons and your daughters, your old men, your young men”, ever since then, when the church thinks of that prophet, we think Pentecost. Pentecost and the Holy Spirit and celebration and the birth of the church and songs of joy and wearing red and the Great Days of Eastertide and spring time and God’s Spirit poured out not just on a few but on all! “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us!” “Breath on Me Breathe of God” Yes. Pentecost. Peter. Joel. And the Spirit.
But have you ever have read Joel? The Old Testament Book of Joel; it’s quite a ways from a post-Easter, spring time, Holy Ghost shout! The unbelievable happening described in Joel is not a mighty wind from heaven or tongues of fire. It is not some great gathering of multi-lingual praise that motives the prophet to rise and speak. The presenting issue in Joel is a catastrophic swarm of locusts; so mighty, so devastating, so unrelenting that the prophet refers to the swarm as “the northern army” (2:20). Locusts “like warriors they charge, like soldiers they scale the wall” (2:7). The prophet Joel attempts to make sense of the pending doom of the ongoing infestation by writing of the judgment of God and the need for the repentance of God’s people. “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (2:12-13).” That’s the prophet Joel. I know it sounds like Lent, return to the Lord, rend your hearts and not your clothing, God is gracious and merciful. It sounds like Lent. But before it was a prophet’s sound bite for Lent, it was the prophet’s take on getting rid of all the locusts.
Indeed in the three short chapters of the Book of Joel, the prophet cites God’s promised relief, indicating that the Lord became jealous for the land. God had pity on God’s people. Like the God of the Exodus hearing the plea of God’s people, the Lord responds with relief from the destruction. The prophet tells of how grain, and wine, and oil will again begin to flow. Amid the swarm, God responds through the prophet Joel with the promise of the full restoration of the land and of the people.
This isn’t the Apostle Peter standing with the eleven disciples in a divinely diverse multi-ethnic crowd praising the mighty deeds of God. Peter pointing to the promise of God’s Holy Spirit pouring upon male and female, and young and old, and slave and free. No here, the prophet Joel stands knee deep in the remains of locusts, and harvests gone to rot. Joel standing before a land and a people on the brink of rot, saying then, even then, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and 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 will I pour out my Spirit.”
When the church hears that promise of God through Peter quoting the prophet on Pentecost, that promise of the Spirit’s anointing of all flesh, the Spirit falling on every generation, the Spirit crossing all boundaries, we can’t help but think of Paul’s incredible kingdom affirmation in Galatians: there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all are on in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28). A divinely instituted promise of inclusiveness, a Spirit anointed threat to the powers-that-be, a kingdom vision of unity. The Pentecost promise of the prophet Joel. But that’s Joel 2.0!
Because there’s a prior prophet’s promise here; a prior meaning, a former context, an even more foundational affirmation, a prophet’s first take. A promise not for the spring time celebration but for the winter time trudge. Not for the Pentecost shout, but for the weary groan. When you’re being swarmed by locusts and trying to make some sense of it all as it relates to God and life and surviving, when you find yourself just one side or the other of devastation trying to simply convince yourself of the presence of God, when you’re standing knee deep in the realities of the unrelenting press of life and the power of death and evil seems ever on the rise, when you find yourself wondering if the world, or your life, or someone in your family, or the church, or job prospects, or the college admissions process, or your health, or your sobriety, when any of it feels just like a mess, one really lousy day you just find yourself on the brink of rot, there is a prior, more primordial promise to the Spirit’s work. “Then, then, and then, and then, even then, and then I will pour out my Spirit.” Right then, says the Lord. The Spirit’s work in every generation. Joel 1.0. The Spirit of God in every generation. When the locusts are swarming, when the mighty wind is blowing, and all of life that is in between, the promise to us is of the Spirit of God in every generation. The Spirit of God, yes, in the young, and the old, in the male and in the female, in the slave and in the free….but also, the Spirit of God in each successive generation…then, just then, right then.
Way back in the Old Testament Book of First Samuel, just before the narrative that tells of the call of Samuel, as Samuel was serving the Lord under the old man Eli, after Samuel’s mother Hannah had “left him there for the Lord”, the bible tells that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days, visions were not widespread.” Rare, not widespread, like the tap on the Spirit was opened only to a drip. Joel’s promise about the Spirit is quite the opposite; a Spirit poured out, on all flesh, in every generation. Not on this prophet or that, not on this leader or that, not on this preacher or that, a Spirit poured out on a people who together seek to discern the will of God, yearning to make some sense of life amid the press of the presenting issues that abound, knowing themselves to be called as servants of the ever coming kingdom of God. A people thirsting for the Spirit, not just then, but now.
Part of the uniqueness of serving as the pastor of Nassau Church is the many conversations that come with people who have some knowledge or who have had some experience of this congregation in years past. Those conversations often have similarities. Like the retired pastor who worshipped here when he was in seminary who said to me, “They used to have such good preaching from that pulpit.” Or the music director from a church far away from here who studied at Westminster; “I remember that the choir was always stunning. It used to be so good.” Or the pastor friend of mine who also went to Princeton seminary, after I told her we were actively exploring a major capital campaign, and that much of my time in the next months would be devoted to that task, she said, “That’s too bad, I bet there used to be lots of wealthy people at Nassau.” Or the conversation I just had Thursday night in Louisville. I was attending a meeting of the Presbyterian Foundation where I serve on the board. We shared dinner with a few other groups that were meeting in town and I talked briefly with a man who seemed to have a keen interest in Presbyterian history as it relates to the national church and its leaders. He offered several names of folks from this congregation in years way past, folks who served at the highest levels of the church. He then remembered Freda Gardiner, an elder from Nassau who served as moderator of the General Assembly a bit more than ten years ago. “How’s Freda” he asked. I told him she had moved to upstate New York. He sort of frowned, paused, and said, “Nassau Church used to be such a great church.”
To be fair, he certainly didn’t mean it the way it sounded. It was a fine conversation. But you get my point? The prophet’s promise to us could not be more clear. God pours out God’s Spirit on every generation. Therefore, you and I, we have everything we need to faithfully and abundantly carry out the mission of God in this place right now, and to ensure that a living witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ will thrive here for generations yet to come. Discerning the will of God, yearning to make some sense of life amid the press of the presenting issues that abound, knowing ourselves to be called as servants of the ever coming kingdom of God.
God’s Spirit is pouring out.
© 2012, Property of Nassau Presbyterian Church
Contact the church to obtain reprint permission.