If it got any better, would we even notice? - thrive UMC Official Blog

If it got any better, would we even notice?

Acts 2:14-24

            We’re continuing on with our Pentecost reading.  Please turn with me to Acts, chapter 2.  A great wind is rushing through the city of Jerusalem, while the disciples are gathered to celebrate the Festival of Weeks.  Tongues of fire alight on each of them, and they start speaking new languages, empowered by the Holy Spirit. 

            Now, let’s hear the Apostle Peter preach.

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
18     Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.
19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
20 The sun will be changed into darkness,
    and the moon will be changed into blood,
        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.[a]

22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to these words! Jesus the Nazarene was a man whose credentials God proved to you through miracles, wonders, and signs, which God performed through him among you. You yourselves know this. 23 In accordance with God’s established plan and foreknowledge, he was betrayed. You, with the help of wicked men, had Jesus killed by nailing him to a cross. 24 God raised him up! God freed him from death’s dreadful grip, since it was impossible for death to hang on to him.

            This book we’re reading, The Acts of the Apostles, is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke. And if you’ll recall, the last time we heard Peter speak in that gospel narrative, he was sitting outside the house of the high priest after Jesus was arrested, denying that he even knew Jesus.  Three times. And now here he is again, standing before a large crowd and preaching loudly and boldly.  And for a first sermon, this one is a doozy! 

            Much like Jesus preaching for the first time in his home synagogue at Nazareth, Peter also quotes from the prophets and then announces that the prophesy is being fulfilled in their midst.  But instead of quoting one of the more popular prophets, like Isaiah, Peter lifts up the prophesy of Joel.

            Of course, most of us are more familiar with Billy Joel than we are with the prophet Joel, but let me fill you in on a few things. The announcement of Joel was coming out of a moment of deep need and desperation in Jewish history.  The land had been ravaged and devastated, the people of Judah had been sold off as slaves to the Greeks, and there was no food anywhere in the land.  In the first chapter, the prophet declares:
            “Tell it to your children, and have your children tell their children, and their children tell their children.  What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten.  What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten.  And what the hopping locust left, the devouring locust has eaten.  Wake up, you who drink too much, and weep.  Scream over the sweet wine, all you wine drinkers, because it is snatched from your mouth; because a nation, powerful and beyond number, has invaded my land.” (Joel 1:3-6)

            Here we’re presented with the imagery of a succession of ‘swarms’ consuming the land.  First the biting swarm, then the licking swarm, then the devouring swarm –there is a kind of cadence here to illustrate the sense that the land is being successively chewed up, and then rolled on the tongue, and then utterly swallowed up so that there is nothing left. And the people living in the midst of it are in agony!

            But wait! The day of the Lord is coming, proclaims the prophet Joel, when an even greater threat will visit the land! And at the head of this army will be the Lord’s voice!  “The sun and the moon are darkened” it says, “the stars have stopped shining, because the LORD utters his voice at the head of his army.  How numerous are his troops!  Mighty are those who obey his word.  The day of the LORD is great; it stirs up great fear –who can endure it?”

            The message of all the prophets is judgment! The successive invasions the Israelites and Judeans had experienced at the hands of their neighbors –from the Philistines to the Greeks it was all God’s judgment! God’s chosen people were charged with the holy task of being a blessing to the nations!  God, through the gift of the Torah, had shown them what they needed to do, and how they needed to live!  But they failed and fell into idolatry. And that’s why all of these terrible things had happened to them: they were unfaithful and God left them reap the recompense of the covenant they broke. 

            But Joel –along with Amos and Hosea- has something to add to the prophets that came before them: if you think what’s happened so far is bad, with the Babylonians and Persians and Greeks, then buddy you ain’t seen nothing yet!  Because if we all don’t get our collective acts together right now and return to the LORD, then next time it won’t be just some mere human army that heralds the tidings of judgment: next time around it will be God’s own voice that sweeps over the land and levels everything in its path.  It even says, on the day of the LORD, that the land in front of this swarm will be like the Garden of Eden; but behind it will be a totally desolate wilderness, where nothing can escape.  That’s what’s next: total oblivion from the mouth of God!

            But the good news of the prophet Joel is that there’s a way to invite this angry judgment to relent: “tear your hearts and not your clothing,” says Joel. “Return to the LORD your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.” (Joel 2:12b, 13)

            And if the people can do that –if they can fast and grieve and turn their hearts, then God promises, through Joel, to turn away from anger and resort the people and their land, and there shall be lush harvests and fertile times once again.  God will pay them back for everything they’ve lost and restore their favorable conditions, and even dwell among them, so that they’ll never be put to shame again.

            This is the prophesy Peter quotes to the city of Jerusalem on the day of the Festival of Weeks: the day of judgment has come …and gone!  Look, we’re celebrating the grain harvest!  Open your eyes: how could you even think to accuse us of being drunk –if it weren’t for the fact that the vineyards have been restored and grown fertile!  But it’s just 9 a.m. folks, and we’ve still got a whole day of celebrating ahead of us!  Can’t you see that the land is fertile again?  We are no longer living in the aftermath of a plague or a curse!  But instead we have been restored!

So don’t you know what that means?  Remember the prophet Joel?  Remember what he spoke about, concerning devastation and judgment?  Look around and see for yourself: we are living in the times of forgiveness!  And the signs are all around us: the breath of God has rushed through our midst and we are not destroyed –but instead the Spirit of the Lord has been poured out upon us!  And that happens after the Lord’s day of Judgment! And we have been given power!  Power to proclaim God’s glorious works into new territory, with new tongues! Power to forgive!  Power to restore!  The promise has been fulfilled, judgment has passed, and the Pentecost audience can all witness that God has restored us! 

The evidence is all around us: look how the scattered have returned!  Look at the abundance of our harvest!  Look at the life and joy we share together! See how we’ve returned to worship and give thanks at the temple that was rebuilt!  If suffering and desolation and so much death were signs of judgment and divine punishment, then doesn’t the opposite also have to be true: that life and parties, and full bellies must be signs of God’s forgiveness. 

And Peter goes on: and let’s face it, people it’s not because our actions were faithful! We didn’t escape judgment because of our actions or that we deserved it!  You all saw the signs that Jesus the Nazarene performed in your midst!  You saw the miracles, the wisdom, and the wonders he shared.  Even you could see that God’s spirit was upon him!  But then you murdered him!  You all, right there, you teamed up with wicked men to have him slaughtered by nailing him to a cross!  Can you all imagine a worse crime than murdering God’s chosen?  And don’t you think that’s a little worse than missing the Synagogue every now and then, or taking the Lord’s name in vain?

But here’s the miracle: God didn’t wipe us all out!  Instead, here we are, having a party! And get this, instead of burning all of us up in a hot molten pot of judgment, God instead raised Jesus from death! Instead of meting out the just punishment we all deserved, God just restored what we screwed up! Jesus is risen! He has been delivered from the death of your judgment! Open your eyes and see: it’s all there! Life! Abundance! Forgiveness! The time of punishment passed –God took pity on you!  And now we have been invited to embrace the moment of restoration! 

This is the Pentecost good news: through Christ, we have been released from God’s judgment, and invited to be restored.  That’s what forgiveness is and how it works.  It is to be set free from what we deserve, and offered restoration.  And what’s more, the disciples of Jesus –the followers of ‘the Way’ have been empowered now to carry the good news of that divine forgiveness to the ends of the earth!

One last thing about the Prophet Joel –it’s a short book and if you want to be a Pentecost people, you should all read it as you study Acts chapter 2.  The sermon Peter delivers that day takes us up through the end of the second chapter of Joel. The third and last chapter is all about the judgment of the other nations: God is going to gather up all of Judah’s neighbors who have made them suffer and give them their come-uppins! And it talks about holy war, and pounding your plowshares into swords and pruning hooks into spears! It talks about turning the tables and making the weak strong.  ‘Proclaim judgment to the nations! –Desolation to those who have hurt us!’  That’s chapter 3 of the prophet Joel: God will pay you back, and your recompense will come in the form of revenge!  The day will come when you will get to watch your neighbors suffer as you have, promises the Lord.

But that is decidedly not what the disciples and apostles do after they’re inspired by the Holy Spirit. They do not declare a holy war.  They do not go around preaching judgment and punishment and God’s wrath. They do not issue a call to arms. They do not use fear or intimidation to try and control people.

Instead they become living vessels of restoration. They become heralds for the message: now is the time for release and restoration!  Now is forgiveness time!  We have been set free from judgment, and we must love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s not enough to be restored as an individual, or as a tribe, or as a nation.  The whole world –all of humanity- has to be called to release and restoration! Drop the penal chains of judgment, and embrace the renewal that God is breathing into our very midst.  Because forgiveness isn’t just something we receive, forgiveness is something we have to participate in.  We have to work for it.  We have to carry it.  We have to let it rule the ledgers of our hearts, and our moral score cards, and our literal accounting books.  Leave what we deserve behind and enter into the era of God’s grace. 

This is the revelation of Pentecost: we don’t get what we deserve, but instead we get so, so much more!  Open your eyes!  Look around you!  This is the grand invitation: bear witness to the extravagant grace of God that saturates every fiber of our reality!  Is there food? Is there life? Is there love? Is there beauty anywhere? Is there anything at all to celebrate?  Then that’s way more than you deserve, because what you deserve is absolutely nothing.  Not a thing.  Not your life.  Not your body.  Not the love you’ve received that’s built you up.  Not even a slice of cheese.  What you deserve is non-life, for life is not a thing that could ever be earned or achieved. Life can only be a thing of wonderful and prodigal grace. 

            And brothers and sisters in Christ, this is how the world is transformed: it all starts with a revelation.  It starts with how we see the world.  It is a ministry that first and foremost begins with our eyes. With our seeing.  And this revelation will transform us, once we let it transform what we’re looking for.  And what most of us are looking for is enough, right? We walk around with an incessant status-check stuck on a loop.  For most of us, it’s so constant that we stopped noticing it long ago –like the white noise of our spirit: do I have enough food, enough joy, enough pleasure, enough blessings, enough air?  Am I good enough?  Have I done enough? Been seen enough? Is my family or my job or my health enough?  Am I enough?

            And it is our seeing –our silent criteria of discernment- that will predetermine whether we can say ‘yes’ or say ‘no’ to the nagging question of enough.

            But the Holy Spirit invites us into a totally new way of seeing: instead of looking for enough, we are free to just simply look and witness the beauty and goodness of what is!  Our personal demand for ‘enough’ is like a canvas bag over our heads –one we are free to remove at any time!  Erase the word ‘enough’ from our looping status check, and we’re free to see and accept what’s truly open to us!  Do we have food?  Do we have love?  Do we have life?  Am I good?  Have I done?  Have I been?  Have I been seen? Am I? 

            This is our new invitation in this new season: to have eyes to accept the new revelation. This is the era of grace, and we have been freely given the gift to be.  Let us make the most of it!

            Let’s pray.