Can you handle this blessing?

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?

Faith AND Works

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, " Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. -James 2:14-17 (New American Standard Bible)

Friends, I there are an awful lot of times when I just have no desire to “do good works”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very concerned about my sanctification. I’m always trying to advance my walk with Christ through prayer, devotion, bible study, fellowship in the Church, and just a generally uplifting and positive demeanor. But very rarely do I do anything for the lost, the least and the left out. Honestly, there are times when I don't even think about them.

So I have to ask myself, if God was screaming to us through the prophets, that we are really only in right relationship with Him when we are loving our neighbors as ourselves by exercising works of mercy, justice and righteousness, what use is my faith without these works?

We get a very clear picture in the Gospel of Matthew that it is about what we do, not just what we have claimed to believe. To those who are to be called the blessed of God, Jesus will say “I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)

I can’t remember the last time I feed the homeless. I give money now and then or buy a meal occasionally for a homeless person, but it’s really almost by accident; if I’m walking down the street and a homeless person cries out to me and my heart is pricked and I have the time to spare. I’ve hardly ever invited in a stranger in the whole of my life, and from the few times that I did I have horror stories and battle scars.

I’ve given clothes away to Goodwill, but that was more about getting rid of clothes I didn’t fit anymore and getting the tax write-off. If I visit the sick, and it’s not a friend or family member of mine, it is more often than not only because I happened to be with someone else who was already going. And prison visitation gives me the shudders. I do my best to try not to even think about it.

So then, when in the end Jesus sits on that throne and reveals to us the content of our characters, lives, hearts and souls, what will he say to me? Even knowing that whatever I do or don’t do to the least of these I do or don’t do to Him; even feeling I have Jesus joy in my heart; even believing I am a new creature in Christ and am being transformed by the renewing of my mind; i sometimes still don’t do these things. I at times hardly ever even consider them.

How can I truly be Christ-filled and reconciled with God if I am so oblivious to the Godly demands of good works as manifestations of love for my neighbor in my daily living? If, as the Book of James says, faith and works must go hand in hand for salvation to be truly and effectively worked in the individual, what is going on in this individual?

First Faith, Then Works What is the source of these good works that God wants us to perform? James tells us in our text that true generator of good works is faith. So it is that without the guidance, power and motivation of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all of our human and earthly endeavors are just a crapshoot. But, this line of thinking – which is deeply inspiring and true – can be used in a very damaging way. Confidence in God’s ability to move through me can in practice easily become complacency in my activity. If I believe God will always generate the motivation and strength within me to do as I ought, it can become all too easy not to examine my motives or myself.

If it were something I should be doing, surely God would motivate and empower me to do it, right? But good works clearly are something I should be doing, and yet I’m not doing them at times. How do I address this disconnect?

A Baptism of Good Works While it is certainly true and a cause for rejoicing that God is the one source that can guide us and empower us, it is just as real that He in no wise overpowers us. Only those parts of ourselves – body, mind and soul – that we submit to God, loving him with the totality of our being, can He transform and make new. Attitudes and behaviors, fears and blind spots that we refuse to sacrifice to God, or which function as hidden sins we are unaware of will not be involuntarily redeemed when we confess Christ.

God tries in His grace to make us aware of and convict us of the ungodliness of those unsurrendered parts of ourselves in different ways. Only when we are ready to repent of them, can they be baptized; renewed and sealed by the Holy Spirit.

Friends I know that I need to receive a baptism of good works. I have never let God transform my imagination of what God’s justice and good works on earth could look like because I have assumed the way it is is the way it will be until the end times.

I didn’t even know it was wrong to think this way. The Psalmist says, “Against you and you only Lord have I sinned.” (Psalm 51:4) While this is true, I still beat my breast to think on the damage and consequence that sin has had on the people I failed to even see, much less aid and stand in solidarity with, because of this blindness.

We may all need to repent of such a lack of imagination for what Godly justice is and how it can break forth on earth through the power of our good works. Once I get my baptism of good works, God can at last begin to reconfigure the way my mind works. When I begin to see the lack of good works in the world, things the old me used to just see as “business as usual,” I will find my imagination of what could be by the power of God will catch fire, inspiring me to work for that reality. The Holy Spirit will rejoice to at last be able to expand into those parts of me that I had been withholding.

Man’s Works Versus God’s Works Another issue is that I have effectively removed myself from the equation of how the Kingdom of God will break forth on earth to destroy injustice. When I think about Amos’ words, which I love, I so often remove any sense of personal agency from them. “Let justice roll down like waters” sounds, when taken out of context, like a magnificent instance of God’s divine intervention in the world, not something that “little old me” could do. I combine that with my understanding that the world will not be fully redeemed until the end times, and the end result is I just lean back in my recliner and wait for God to do the work.

The obvious reality is that, as we all know, the Church is the body of Christ until His return, so we must commit ourselves to acting in that capacity. We are his physical presence on earth, so we can’t be armchair quarterbacks in any way when it comes to engaging the oppressions at work in the world. After all, almost all of God’s miracles and blessings are worked through human beings. So me saying that I’m too insignificant and human to make a big difference in God’s establishment of a just and good society on earth ultimately rings hollow.

An Empty Pitcher Before a Full Fountain I’ll let you in on a little secret. I've made an amazing discovery; it is exhilarating to be used by God.

I have so often heard in prayers is, “Lord, I come to you an empty pitcher before a full fountain,” and it simply means that we are in need of the Living Waters that are the overflowing abundance of God. That well of salvation is satisfying, joyous, invigorating, empowering; it fills us with God’s sweet presence.

So when Amos as the mouthpiece of God says, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a never ending stream,” the motivation is not out of an unyielding and unfeeling discipline, but out of love. God is actually doing us a favor and extending to us the most fantastic advice we could ever receive! Doing justice and being wholeheartedly on the side of righteousness through our commitment to good works will unleash a torrent of Living Waters in our lives and the world the likes of which are exceeding abundantly above all we could ask or think.

Amos is imploring us to do as God would have us to do as a way to enter into our Master’s rest, where there is peace that surpasses understanding and fullness of joy. Doing good works fills, nay overflows, our empty pitchers.

Living Faith “Doing good works” means being about our father’s business. All the hallelujahs we may shout faithfully day in and day out are meaningless unless we engage the world around us. Christ never preached to someone in need of help. He helped first and then preached. That is in part what it means to say that in Christ, God reconciled the world to himself, which is to say that in Christ Godly belief and Godly action could finally be unified.

I am abiding in a dead faith until I can give these words some traction in my daily actions. If I can’t get myself out of the self-centered mindset that my Christianity is about primarily about me and my church, the dry bones of my faith will never have the breath of life reinvigorate them.

I want every part of me to be alive in Christ. For me to have a living faith, I must have living works. And when I have living faith, things get better, because the waters of justice and streams of righteousness flowing through me bring God’s presence nearer, not to only me, but also to all those I come into contact with; particularly the lost, least, and left out neighbors I am charged to love as myself.

The Journey of a Thousand Steps So how do we start on this amazing path? There are some practical steps that, once we have received our baptism of good works by the Holy Spirit, we can take to begin this transformative process.

    Only Believe

We first must put energy behind the new imagination God has given us. When God allows us to see that things could be different than they are, that perspective could simply become an errant thought if we don’t develop it further. We must invest these God-given possibilities with a passionate belief and desire for them to become reality.

Throughout the Gospels Jesus rebukes his disciples for having “little faith.” In all of these situations, there are material threats or obstacles pressing in on them, and they fear those challenges will overwhelm them. To that fear Christ says, only believe. We need to have the same boldness to have faith that the injustices, oppressions and daily atrocities of life can be changed for the better.

    Start Small

Jesus called on us to have faith, proclaiming that even the faith of a tiny mustard seed could effect great change. We should similarly keep in mind that big things can come from small beginnings. Let us not overwhelm ourselves by trying to eliminate world hunger in a day, for example. We should place ourselves in an environment where God can reveal our particular talents and callings in doing justice.

You needn’t quit your job today and join the Peace Corps tomorrow. Volunteer two days a month at a soup kitchen. Open your eyes and actively look for ways to be a force for equality in your day-to-day activities. God will reward those seeds your sow by continuing to pour Himself into you, and into others through you.

    The Buddy System

Christ sent out his followers into the highways and byways two-by-two, never alone. So we too, when doing good works, should be mindful that challenges are often best engaged when we have the support of someone else. When trials come, and there will be a great many trials when we seek to do Godly works in the world, having another person to encourage us can make all the difference. Partnering with one or more people can also serve as a covenant relationship where others serve as accountability partners to help each other stay faithful to their commitments to justice.

    God Alone

It can be all too easy to fall into thinking that good works are a purely earthly endeavor, not an effort inspired and empowered by God according to His purposes. We run and not grow weary in our efforts only if we stay mindful of the fact that when we engage in good works with our whole selves, we stand in solidarity with Christ and are living up to God’s call that we bind ourselves to justice and righteousness through faith and action. We must ever remember that we rely on God for direction and strength and that it is not we ourselves but the Christ within us that effects real change in the world.

If we keep that in mind, we will be better able to stay humble and deal with the painfully slow pace it can take for true change to come, the seemingly insignifigant fruit that our hard fought good works may bare. We are called to work, however the Holy Spirit directs us, towards the Kingdom of God.

Conclusion We Baptists put a lot of stock in the moment of our salvation, as well we should. But let us never forget that salvation is both an event and a process. We should all be continually examining the roles that engaging in good works has in our lives and how closely it is knit to and flows out of our faith in and relationship with God. Let us secure our salvation by committing to maturing it continually with the grace of Christ, the clove of God our Father, and the sweet communion of the Holy Spirit!

Preaching Outside of Your Comfort Zone

There I was, ordained, with a ministerial position, and with a preaching style I felt was finally starting to gel together and define itself. I was quite comfortable with myself and my preaching style; personal, persuasive, practical. It was one of those, perhaps rare, moments when ministry and your place in it makes sense...Then God gave me my latest sermon topic. I watched in baffled amazement as a sermon began to form on the page before me that was nothing like "me" - all fire and brimstone, talking of consequences and wrong-mindedness. Horrifying. I had gotten quite comfortable being the "love preacher," who brought up challenging but liberating truths gently and personally.

I have learned that when I get comfortable, God loves to stretch me and grow me to the next level. I had gotten comfortable with a style of ministry that involved very little confrontation. (How very un-prophetic of me.) So, of course, God appears to tear down the reassuring fences and limitations I had built around me.

This Sunday I'm preaching a sermon on Amos 5:20-24 entitled, "Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself," and I'm more than a little bit terrified. I often get that way when I sense God is going to do something beyond what I can anticipate. There is always something exhilarating and unpredictable about serving a Living God, as opposed to a figment of my imagination.

I am reminded of a pastor's comment to me, "We want good for ourselves, but God wants best for us." - Thank you Reverend Kouadio!

So I will leap forward, heart racing, into the path God has placed before me, dying (daily, as Paul said) to see how God continues to transform and enliven me.

The Bonds of Christian Unity

It can seem like the most unreasonable and scary commandment in the world to love one another, but that is what Christ commands us to do. We are told to dwell together in peace, faith and love; as one body in Christ. For how can we love a God we can not see if we can’t love the brothers and sisters that we can see?... God’s commandments are not thoughtless orders enforced on us for reasons we can’t understand. And that is true in this case. God tells us to love each other, dwelling together in peace and unity, because He knows what some folk may never figure out; that we need each other.