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.Joel 2:28-29 (NRSV)
The book of Joel is depressing, and it is placed in a depressing part of the bible: the books of the prophets. The gist of the story is, you didn’t follow the laws I laid out for you and you think you’re going to get some reward for being the “chosen ones,” but in actuality I’m going to punish you until there is only a remnant left of who you used to be. Its the kind of message that makes people not want to read the bible and perhaps not even like God.
And here in these verses is a glimmer of hope. It seems out of place, but if you read the entire book of Joel, its only three chapters so its not bad, it begins to make sense. Smooshed in-between God’s wrathful judgment on a disobedient people is a desperate plea and a hopeful promise.
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 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. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? Joel 2:12-14
Maybe I’m not the only one here who’s done wrong, who’s experience horrible and painful consequences of my stupid self-centered actions. And at times like that, its easy to feel hopeless. You made your bed now lie in it, as the saying goes. But God. Here God is, saying, in the middle of the heavens trembling in rage, or nations raging against you and in the midst of giving you exactly what you deserve, there I am. And if you just turn to me -and in case you forgot, God reminds you He’s gracious and merciful and faithful and loving- and not only may I relent, I may leave a blessing as well.
There’s a Japanese movie I love called “Akira Kurasawa’s Dreams.” Its a series of vignettes and one features a team of mountain climbers. They are fighting against a ferocious storm. They are near the base camp and if they can just get there, they’ll have shelter, food warmth, and end to the madness. But the longer they are in the storm the more they start thinking they’ll never make it to the base camp, or what if the base camp has been obliterated by the storm and they are struggling for nothing? Wouldn’t it be easier to just lay down in the snow and surrender to the cold? They hallucinate that the snow goddess is telling them, just lay down with them and I’ll give you rest. They stop walking, and in the storm the cold takes them. In the next scene we see the storm is over and the climbers are dead in the snow...about twenty feet from the base camp. They were facing the wrong direction.
What would it have meant to them, what would it mean to you, if, in the middle of whatever valley of the shadow of death we are walking through, God would say, “Hey, turn around. I’m right here and I can save you?” And here in Joel that is exactly what he is saying.
The second chapter of Joel goes on to say, if you turn to me your God I will fill you with good things. Most people would be content with that. Lord, just let this storm pass. I don’t want much, just a safe place and a good meal. But have you heard God wants more than for us to be ok? He came that our joy might be complete.
That brings us to our focal text:
“Then afterwards...” We have to experience a storm before we can experience deliverance. Like the T-Mobile commercial says, “No rain, no rainbow.”
“I will pour out my spirit” What is God’s spirit? He told us in verse 13: gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing
“on all flesh” This isn’t a blessing for someone else, it is for you. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or failed to do, this blessing is for you.
But notice it says on all flesh, not in all flesh. Rain falls from the sky but only those with the sense to get a bucket and collect it have drinking water the next day. Are you going to be aware and courageous enough to open yourself and let the spirit of God in?
Its easy to listen to whatever form the snow goddess will take in your life, that voice telling you its hopeless, that you should just give up. Turn away from that lying voice. Look up and realize God is raining blessings down on you.
But then, even if you’re aware the spirit is being poured out and is yours to take, it can be hard to open up to it. Life has been hard, and I’ve learned to survive it by being impenetrable, by closing myself off and keeping myself apart so that nothing can get in to harm me. And now you want me to give up what has become a way of life that has allowed me to survive and make myself vulnerable, God? And if I’m letting your spirit fill me, what is it about who I am now that is going to change or be replaced?
Your spirit relents from punishing, but there are some people I’m not ready to forgive yet. Your spirit is slow to anger, but there are some folk I will always be mad at. You are love, but he hurt me and I need to hate him as a reminder of the pain he caused. My pains, my hurts, my hangups, are what make me me, and you want me to give all that up God? I’m afraid. You want to make me a new creature in Christ but I’ve listened to the snow goddess so long that I think this bitter, scared, scarred person who is surviving but not thriving, is all I can be. But God, give me the courage to let you in, to give you the chance to make me than I ever thought I could be.
“your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” There’s a rap lyric that says “If you knew better you’d do better.” And that is what God is offering here. Prophecy means you are able to see what is coming and therefor live your life more intentionally, avoiding curses and embracing blessings. Teenagers act to recklessly because their frontal lobes aren’t fully developed yet. They can’t consider consequences. God is offering a spiritual frontal lobe. We can know what will bring us closer to God and what would turn us away from God.
“your old men shall dream dreams” You ever feel old and tired? Like you’re just going through the motions? It can be like we’re sleepwalking through life. I think we can all be old men at times. God is going to give even the most tired and unhopeful spirit a wakeup call. No matter how deep your sleepwalking is, God can penetrate that. Gave up? Gave out? Decided you couldn’t take it anymore and just plopped down in the snow and went to sleep? God is capable of overriding whatever lullaby the snow goddess is singing to you. To banish your nightmares and give you a dream. Dreams inspire and refresh, not tear down and tire. You may lay down an old man, but you can wake up young and full of hope.
“and your young men shall see visions” Prophecy is the capacity to see what will be. Vision is the ability to see what is. You don’t have to wander around blindly searching on the side of the mountain for base camp and missing it even though its right there. You will be able to see, to have discernment, to know that the snow goddess is lying and that God is truth.
“Even on the male and female slaves” This word “even” has special meaning. The Hebrew word gam means moreover, its telling us that what the writer is about to say is even greater than what has come before. But that doesn’t make sense; how can the slaves, male and female, receive a greater blessing than the sons and daughters? God has told us that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. And its amazing to think that God is telling people who’s entire existence has been one of giving that they are going to be given to.
“I will pour out my spirit” Well this is the same blessing as God promised to all flesh. But there is one important distinction and it lies in the characteristic of the recipient. A servant is obedient. They take whatever the master gives them. So when their Lord gives them something, they are going to accept it. Its a tossup with all flesh, will they receive the blessing or refuse it? But the servant, they are going to receive something for sure and it will be the greatest gift they’ll ever get.
You never know what you’re gonna get with me, sometimes I’m up sometimes I’m down. Catch us on the wrong day and we could miss the spirit being poured out upon us. But if we live our lives as servants to the Master, its a lock that when he gives, we will receive. So I’m going to take all of the liberty that I have in Christ and make the most sensible decision there is; become a servant of God. And I will take whatever my Master gives me.
Can you handle this blessing?