Sunday, 29 January 2012

Obadiah and Joel - dream dreams, see vision ... and prophesy!

I’m not sure whether I was excited by the news or perturbed by it.

Scientists have made a break through in understanding why locusts swarm.  It has to do with levels of nitrogen in their food chain.

Plagues of locusts plague north Africa to this day.  And are among the most destructive forces of nature.  The havoc they wreak is nature red in tooth and claw.

The suggestion in the news report was that scientists think now that by adding nitrogen fertilisers they may be able to reduce or even eliminate swarms of locust.

In one sense that has to be a great cheer.

But in another breath, I wonder.  Are such events in nature part of the world?  Do we tinker with such events at our peril?  And yet who are we to pontificate if people are plagued so destructively by them.

Mention a plague of locusts and those who know their bible stories, not least the bible stories of Sunday school will think of the ten plagues that came upon the Egyptians as Moses pleaded with Pharaoh to ‘let my people go’.

It’s fascinating to see how the themes of the Exodus crop up again and again as the story of the Old Testament unfolds.  Often the prophets pick up on elements of the Exodus story as people again find themselves facing the destructive powers that be of what can all too often be a very cruel world.

Three of the minor prophets who make up the Book of the Twelve are difficult to date.  Jonah, Obadiah and Joel.    What is beyond doubt is that they date from a time when calamity has befallen the people or threatens to come upon the people of Israel.  But which calamitous events these words are set against is difficult to pin down.

Obadiah sees destruction coming upon the enemies of Israel, and is filled with hope at the final triumph of Israel.  In the face of calamitous destruction ‘on Mount Zion there shall be those that escape, and it shall be holy!’

These prophets, like all the rest of the prophetic writings have that rhythm of gathering gloom as the people are confronted with the consequences of their disobedience of God, followed by a glimpse of light as hope dawns with the promise of God’s saving grace to look to.

I guess it is that rhythm that captures my imagination as I read the Old Testament in today’s world.  Ours is a world that at every turn seems to be falling apart – it seems as if there is an unrelenting gloom as one follows the news.  I don’t envy this young generation as they face such an uncertain future, is a refrain I hear more and more frequently in my visiting of all sorts of people.  It is a troubling world.

That sense of gloom is one that is shared by Joel as he contemplates the destructive forces that are let loose in his world.  In a sense it doesn’t matter that it is not possible to pin-point the backdrop against which he is writing.  His words have a timeless feel to them as they speak to any age that has that sense of gathering gloom.

The image he uses is stark.

And it is an image that makes great sense even today in those parts of the world, not least in North Africa plagued by swarming locusts.

 Hear this, O elders,
   give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
   or in the days of your ancestors? 
Tell your children of it,
   and let your children tell their children,
   and their children another generation. 

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. 
Faced with such destructive forces the challenge of Joel is to wake up, come to your senses, keep watch.

Wake up, you drunkards, and weep;
   and wail, all you wine-drinkers,
over the sweet wine,
   for it is cut off from your mouth. 
For a nation has invaded my land,
   powerful and innumerable;
vines laid waste,

its teeth are lions’ teeth,
   and it has the fangs of a lioness. 
It has laid waste my vines,
   and splintered my fig trees;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;
   their branches have turned white. 

Powerful stuff.  Even if you haven’t read Joel recently, I wonder whether you recognize anything here.  Is there a hint of something familiar?  I wonder.

Do you remember on the Road to Emmaus those two followers of Jesus look downcast and sad.  The stranger who joins them ask why.  They stood still, looking sad.  Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?  He asked them, “What things?”  They replied, The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people …”

As far as those two were concerned Jesus was a prophet mighty in deed and word …”

They proceeded to describe everything that had happened to Jesus, culminating in his death and the rumours of his resurrection.

“then Jesus said to them, “Oh how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared.”  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

AS Jesus entered Jerusalem he wept over the city with lament – would that you had known the things that make for peace but you did not.

He gathered his disciples together on the Mount of Olives and he spoke to them of the days of destruction that are going to come upon them before they have died.

He cleanses the temple and speaks of its destruction.

He urges his followers to keep awake and watch.  He speaks woe to the religious leaders of the day.  He even curses a fig tree that is destroyed.

In all those actions there are echoes of Joel.

What Jesus does and in what Jesus says he is in the line of prophets of which Joel is one of the great ones.

The people have to face the consequences of all that they have done and of all that has happened to them.

That day in Emmaus those two recognized in that stranger the risen Jesus. 

For forty days Jesus appears to the disciples at different moments.

Jesus makes it absolutely plain that everything written about him in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.

His followers are to take that very message of repentance and forgiveness of sins and proclaim the name of Jesus to all nations beginning from Jerusalem.

“You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus said to them.  “And, see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised, so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Stay in Jerusalem they did for ten more days.

Behind closed doors

In prayer.

Until on the fiftieth day it happened.  Hard to put into words.  But they knew that power had come upon them, useen yet very real power, it was like a mighty rushing wind, they were tongues as of fire.

And they tumbled down the steps from that upper room on to the streets of Jersualem and everyone could understand their message no matter the language they spoke.

And then it was Peter who put his finger on it.

He knew that the promise so many of those prophets had spoken of was dawning.  Of all the propets it was the vision of Joel that came to his mind.

No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
   and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
   and your old men shall dream dreams. 
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
     and they shall prophesy. 
And I will show portents in the heaven above
   and signs on the earth below,
     blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 
The sun shall be turned to darkness
   and the moon to blood,
     before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

This is not just something wonderful for then.

This is what is at the heart of church for us today.

Yes, the world and its troubles is pretty overwhelming, but we have a strength from God to help us live through these days.  Not just to grin and bear it, not just to face the world with gritted teeth.

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh

Let’s claim the power of God’s spirit – we have a strength to give us back-bone.

Then we have a task

Your sons and daughters shall prophesy.

What do prophets do?  They speak truth to power.  They challenge the powers that be with the true way of God.  We are to do exactly what Jesus did – declare the truth of God to the powers that be in our world.  The whole law reduces to two things for Jesus – Love God, love your neighbour.  But interestingly it is in the middle of that last week when he is so doing what Joel had done and echoing Joel’s deeds and words that he puts his finger on what are the weightiest matters of the law – justice and mercy and faith.

Just as the prophets of old did, just as Jesus did, so too must we do – challenge the powers that be to shape what is done in our society according to those principles of love for God, love for neighbour, justice, mercy and faith.  And as we have seen time and time again throughout the prophets that involves good news for the poor, sight for the blind, setting free of those who are oppressed.

That’s why I for one wrote to our MP this week giving my support for the stand taken by the Bishops in the House of Lords, why I went to see Nigel Jones who is our local person in the House of Lords to put over some of the views I have picked up in conversation I have had with people working in the NHS expressing concern.  It is important for us to engage  this is to ‘prophesy’ in the strength of the Spirit of God.

We have to see visions and dream dreams.

It was subversive enough in Joel’s time whenever that was to say that this outpouring of the Spirit would come upon even slaves.  But in Jesus’ day that was dynamite.  Roman society was incredibly hierarchical – the powers that be in Jerusalem under the Herodians went along with that society.  And the Spirit comes upon slaves?  These are the bottom of the pile.  How does that translate into the world of today – who are those at the bottom of the pile in our society.  Who are those demonized in the popular press – that might be a good place to start – and God’s spirit is for them.

This is powerful stuff.  It’s no wonder Peter should find himself in prison within a short while of speaking these words.  No wonder on the anniversary of Christ’s execution he should be taken captive by Herod to be executed just as John the Baptist had been, just as Jesus had been.

Just in case you hadn’t got the point.  Peter repeats it.

Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
     and they shall prophesy. 

Someone at St Luke’s said to me last week – these are the signs of the times.  Yes, we can see them all around us.  But the pont of what Joel wrote is that they could be seen in his day.  They could be seen in Jesus’s day.  They could be seen now by Peter.  The portents are all there.

The destuctiveness of the Day of the Lord is all around us – and it can be seen in every generation.  It is not that every preceding generation got it wrong, but we are right.  It is that the signs of the time are to be seen in every generation.  And we are to take notice of them.  Change our ways and model what we do on what God wants of us – love God, love neighbour and the weightier matters of the law – justice, mercy, faithfulness.

Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

What an interesting word from Joel to finish with.  So easy to think of it simply as a spiritual salvation.  But this is the word used of Jesus when he healed people whose world had fallen apart in physical illness, in illness of the mind.  Saved – healed – made whole.  Put together again.

In a world that feels as if it is falling apart the great thing is that God in Christ by the power of this Holy Spirit keeps restores us and puts us together again when we have fallen apart.  And we have the task of bearing witness to this wonderful power and be in the business of restoring and putting together those who have fallen apart in the world around us as well.

The rest of his speech is dynamite for the powers that be in Jerusalem.

When they executed John the Baptist they thought they had put an end to this troublesome prophet.

Jesus took up the mantle and was a prophet mighty in deed and word.

When they executed Jesus they thought they had put an end to this troublesome prophet.

Now it is not just that Jesus has been raised from the dead – it is that that resurrection is a victory over the principalities and powers that shows that vindicates all that Jesus shared, and now by the power of the Spirit it is let loose in the world and nothing can prevail against it.

And we are part of that movement as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus and in the strength of the Spirit dream our dreams, see our visions and above all else speak truth to power as we by the power of the Spirit continue that prophetic work and prophesy.