6 December 2020 Old Men Dreaming Martin Baker
New Revised Standard Version
12 Yet even now, says the LORD,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the LORD, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
28 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.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
Much earlier this year, about February, I had a conversation with my brother Michael, who is an epidemiologist.
I rang him because in about a week’s time after I rang, our son Max had a flight booked to Beijing. He had previously been living in Taiwan for some time and has developed some Mandarin language skills. He was very excited about starting his new job in immigration at the New Zealand embassy.
And I asked Michael if Max should get on that flight.
And Michael said ‘no’. No he shouldn’t be moving to China.
And I asked well how bad are things going to be with this virus? And he said it is going to be bad. And I said what do you mean - bad? Bad in China? And he said, no it’s going to be bad, everywhere.
He and his science team, had done the projections and he said that if we do not act now the death rate in New Zealand, and everywhere, will be terrible.
So, we look back now, and we know that the very fact that our government listened to the scientists and mathematicians, and acted in the way that it did, means that we are gathering here this morning, singing praises to God, celebrating 162 years of coming together. And it does mean that today we are not sitting at home in our bubbles grieving the loss of thousands of New Zealanders. And it does mean as we gather that we are aware that so many are facing such unimaginable loss.
That question, that prophetic question that sits at the heart of our gospel, - what do we listen to and who do we listen to, when we are facing loss or threat or upheaval?
Who or what we listen to makes a huge difference to our future. It can literally mean life or death.
Prophets like Joel, were not people with super natural powers and some kind of crystal ball. They were not foretellers but forth tellers. They were people driven by God’s spirit, filled with wisdom and discernment and they looked around and they saw what was happening, and they said, as God’s voice, if you carry on in this way then this will be the consequence. Prophets were never easy people to listen to.
The prophet Joel is speaking today into a place of loss and destruction.
And we can almost imagine saying something like this now, in the face of the virus.
Joel in Chapter 1 says:
Has such a thing happened in your days,
or in the days of your ancestors?
3 Tell your children of it,
and let your children tell their children,
and their children another generation.
4 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 destroying locust has eaten
A graphic description of a terrible plague. Some think it also described what it means to be overrun by a violent marauding army like the Assyrians.
Joel is using what we call apocalyptic language. Same style as the Book of Revelation. Despite how we use the word apocalypse, now, the word apocalypse comes from a Greek word which sounds pretty much the same. And it means to uncover, to reveal to lay bare, disclose.
In the midst of all the disruption, all the fear all the false news, how do we find a way forward? Joel has an answer for us.
His ‘three ‘r’s
And the first r when faced with these times is ‘return’
Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart,
Joel was asking people to return in the midst of a plague, a war, the destruction of the temple. Big distractions! Even now says the Lord, return to me.
Maybe this year for you and me has led us down paths in our words, our thinking, our attitude, our relationships, that have led us away from the most important things. Yet even now, the Lord says, return to me with all your heart.
And the second of Joel’s ‘r’ is ‘rend’.
Rend your hearts and not your clothing.
In our thinking, hearts are the place of romance and of feelings and emotions.
There is this one little boy who comes to our evening HATCH service and every time I ask the kids what we should be praying for he says ‘love hearts’. Love hearts.
And I agree.
However in Hebrew thinking, hearts were not the place of feeling but “determination, purpose, or courage”
Joel is not trying to make people feel happy. In fact he’s saying you do not need to feel happy or better to courageously rend your heart to God. Even in sorrow you can sincerely, courageously commit to follow God rather than anyone or anything else.
And the final r is about ‘reward’.
Then I, God, will pour my Spirit on all people.
Hear the Good News: the gift God wants from us is our whole heart.
Even if those hearts have been broken.
The spirit arrives, binds up our wounds, replaces our doom, not with some ‘there, there it’ll be all okay’ kind of response. The spirit replaces our despair and fear with these visions and dreams.
Visions of what could be and visons that helps us to hear one another, help us in building a future, building this Kingdom of God.
Sons and daughters, old men, slaves.
This wonderful shock of discovery. This work of God in which divisions are broken and where much to the amazement of all involved and the onlooker’s, people found this courage and unity in the power of God’s spirit.
I think we have all been in those conversations where we see the plague, surrounded by locusts, overwhelmed with the news, where we identify bad things and see things getting worse.
But Joel does the opposite. Joel looks at what is happening and is trying to convert us to predicting not further destruction, but further possibility.
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams,
This week I read an extract from a writer called Henry Bester. He wrote an essay about living for a full year in a very isolated part of the United States. It reminded me a little of life on Great Barrier.
When asked what he discovered during this time of isolation, he said something strange, he said that we should "learn to reverence night and to put away the vulgar fear of it." He wrote about how he loved to go out at night and stare at the cosmos, the planets and the stars.
‘Dark does come, but, is it really all that bad that night turns to day and day to night? What would happen if we were to become reenchanted with the world that God has made, rather than being habitually disenchanted with it and ourselves?’
Joel is teaching about the vulgar fear of the night. He is saying that too often we base so much on tragic interpretation when all around us beautiful stars exist in the dark.
We think especially today about the dreams and vision that established churches in this area.
Every one of us here can trace our origins to some other place.
Some island, some city, some village, some town. The reason we are here today is because of the dreams of old men and women, the vision of sons and daughters.
Today Joel is not asking us to be falsely optimistic or to have some shallow view of happiness.
But he is saying that there is a way through. Return. Re-centre our lives on the most important things. Render our hearts. Being purposeful focused. And finally hope in the reward. The holy spirt poured out on all flesh.
Joel is eyeballing us. We need to listen to the prophets. It makes all the difference.
You old men, you old women. You sons you daughters. You who find yourself entrapped and enslaved. You can still do it. Dreams, visions, prophesy for today and tomorrow.
That spirit that brings us together now, and transforms our vison of what God calls us to be now and for the future.
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