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. ~ Joel 2:23-32
Did you ever make plans, and then have them fall through, spectacularly? I know what that’s like. As you may recall, I was not supposed to be here today. I was supposed to be on Cape Cod, enjoying the views, sipping coffee from Joe’s, and enjoying the bracing ocean breezes. It’s an annual thing. But this year, it’s been put off because of some medical issues for me and mine, mostly minor, and we are staying close to home for the time being.
God’s covenant people of ancient days certainly knew what it was to have their plans disrupted. As God’s people, they expected to be led to “a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey,” where they would live forever. They planned for a Temple in which to worship the God who led them there, and even a good king to lead them through their generations. And yet, when we meet them here, through the words of the prophet Joel, all that is gone. The Temple is no more, destroyed by the Babylonians. The kings are gone (and in the end, they weren’t very good kings after all). As for the good and broad land… well, first, they were exiled from it, for generations. Then, more recently, after their return, they have endured a plague of locusts—colorfully called “the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army.” That is, God’s great army. God is saying: Yes, you had your plans. I changed them.
This is a God we don’t much like encountering in scripture. It is a God who acts to punish sin in the here and now, not in the sweet by and by. (Although… a lot of those bad kings—and queens—seem to have gotten away with murder. Literally.) The sin of the people is not spelled out here, but God usually calls the people out for two things: worshiping false gods and ignoring the needs of the poor and vulnerable. Here, God is saying: I saw your sin, and I punished you.
But, you know, it’s interesting: God seems sorry about that punishment. God seems regretful. “I know I sent the swarms of locusts, I will repay you for what you lost. You will never again be put to shame,” God says, and then, says it again. “You will never again be put to shame.” God seems sorry. The punishment is over now.
Instead, God tells the people, you will know abundance like never before. The threshing floors will be full of grain, the vats will overflow with wine and oil. You will eat and be satisfied. You will praise the name of the Lord.
It can be really hard, when our plans get derailed, to focus back on the good things. It can challenge and stretch us, even when the abundance is right there in front of our eyes. And just so that we can appropriately empathize with God’s people, in their case, the abundance was not right in front of their eyes. Not yet. They looked all around them and they still saw: Destruction. Need. Want. In order to trust the Word of God, they had to take a leap of faith.
God is saying: Yes, you made your plans. Now, it is time to make new ones. Let me help you with that.
…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. ~Joel 2:28
When God makes a promise to pour out the Divine spirit, God is actually promising a number of things:
1. God promises life. God’s people have seen enough of death and destruction. They have seen what armies can do—human and locust armies alike. That's enough of that, God says. I promise you life.
2. God promises an inward experience of the Divine presence. You’ve heard the expression, “a broken spirit,” or a “strong spirit.” God promises to be present with us, in brokenness and in strength, in sorrow and in joy. God says, I promise you my presence.
3. God promises inspiration… a sense of creative energy and new vision, a sense of possibilities beyond what we can see right now. I promise you inspiration.
4. God promises a willingness to do. When God pours the spirit on people, it is often the beginning of their setting out to take on a task that others can’t or won’t do—to lead, to guide, to help. I promise the willingness to do what you need to do.
5. God promises a winning combination of wisdom and knowledge. Each time we either baptize or receive new members here at UPC, we pray a blessing upon the individuals that takes its words from Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. ~ Isaiah 11:2
God will give them life. God will give them the Divine presence. God will give them inspiration. God will give them the willingness to do what needs to be done. God will give them wisdom.
Your old plans are over. They are gone. Now what are you going to do? Let me help you with that. I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.
About 198 years ago a small group of people of the Dutch Reformed tradition were worshiping in a little log cabin not too far from here. They called themselves the First Presbyterian Society of the Village of Union. These log-cabin folk are our ancestors in faith. They are our founders. That church grew and built and moved and changed until, today, it calls itself Union Presbyterian Church, and worships here on Main Street, between Liberty and Loder Avenues.
I wonder how our Dutch Reformed ancestors feel about how their plans turned out? How would they respond to the church we are today? The ways in which their plans shifted and changed and moved beyond their control and, now, rest in the care of new generations, and new communities—people like us?
I’ve never much cared for that old proverb: “Humans plan, and God laughs.” It always felt a little cruel—as if God didn’t care about our plans one whit.
Through the eyes of a mother, I now see it very differently.
I heard a true story this week. A little boy was talking to his parents, and he said, “Well, when I'm an adult, I'm going to live here (gestures with both arms around the living room) with Mommy and Mama.”
And his moms replied, in unison: “no, when you are an adult you are going to have your own place to live.”
Little boy: “Well I'm going to live nearby and I'm going to have kids and this way you can take care of them.”
And his mom replied, “What?”
Little boy: “Just on weekends. I'm going to be a paleontologist and you'll watch my kids and I'll dig up dinosaur bones.”[i]
And I heard (and joined in with) the laughter of those parents, but it’s not cruel laughter. It’s delight. And a little wisdom, because we know how our own plans have changed as we ourselves grew and changed. And now I see that God isn’t laughing at us at all. God isn’t cruel. God is God. And as the scriptures elsewhere tell us, God is love.
God is saying: Yes, you made your plans. Now, it is time to make new ones. Let me help you with that.
It’s that time of year again, and in a week or so we will be embarking upon a “season of Visions and Dreams,” our stewardship campaign. And as we do that, God offers this:
…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.
And the promises of God’s spirit are true for us as well.
1. God promises life.
2. God promises an inner experience of the Divine presence.
3. God promises inspiration.
4. God promises a willingness to do what needs to be done.
5. God promises wisdom and understanding.
And what’s more, God singles out certain people in a special way: God chooses those who might not have been considered “leadership material” in days gone by. Not only sons, but daughters—God doesn’t limit inspiration to just one gender. Not only persons of maturity, but the young—God wants us to listen to the young voices around us. Not only those who are in the prime of life, but also the elderly…the dreams of our mothers and fathers, and grandmothers and grandfathers, aren’t just the reveries of old age: they are God-given.
In our season of visions and dreams, we want to hear from all of you, every last one. What is your vision for the future of our faith community? What is your dream for the investment of our collective energy, intelligence, imagination, and love? How do you want your generosity, your giving, to make a difference in the Union district of Endicott? This season isn’t just about us asking you to give money to make next year’s budget (though, of course, that is a part of it). It is about all of us sharing our God-given inspiration for where we go, and what we do next, to bring God’s faith, hope, and love to a world sorely in need of it.
We plan, and God says, “Let me help.” I invite all of us, in the days and weeks to come, to listen… in prayer, on walks, through music and conversations and chance encounters… listen for God’s whispering in our ears and our hearts. I invite all of us to watch… skies and the seasons, news and nature, accidents and providence…. watch for the next vision of UPC to begin to show itself to our eyes and imaginations. Let women and men, boys and girls, prophesy, tell their truth, about what they see. Let our young see visions and our old dream dreams, and let us all, together, welcome God’s future with open arms, minds, and hearts. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Shared on Facebook by the Rev. Ann Kansfield. Ann is the pastor of Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn, as well as the first woman Chaplain of the New York City Fire Department.