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Major Truths of Minor Prophets: Joel – When the Spirit Moves

May 27, 2007

Joel 2:28-32

My granddaddy taught me how to fish. He also taught me not to fish on Sunday.

I heard a story about two men out in their boat, catching fish on a Sunday morning. One said to the other, “I feel kind of bad being out here on the lake today. We are catching a lot of fish, but I think I really ought to be in church.” His friend disagreed, “I don’t feel bad at all. Even if I were at home, I wouldn’t go to church.” “Why is that?” The friend answered, “My wife’s sick.”

I am going to tell you another fishing story at the end of the sermon. It is better than that one.

We begin a series today, Major Truths of Minor Prophets. I must tell you right up front that some of the prophets we are going to consider are not the Minor Prophets. We are also going to look at Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The twelve we will study have short books that are somewhat difficult to find for those who are new to the Bible.

Today, the prophet we will consider is Joel. God called Joel to deliver His oracles during what we call Second Temple Judaism, a time after the Babylonian Exile, after the walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt and the temple restored. This was a relatively peaceful time within Judea, peaceful at least from outside agitators. The Persian Empire was in control of the world. Joel was concerned about the spiritual condition of the people of Israel. His very name sets the theme for the book. Joel means, “Yahweh is God.” The book of Joel is a call to return to God, to remember that God is supreme, sovereign. This book is a reminder that Yahweh, the Lord as He had revealed himself to the people of Israel, is the one and only true God. It calls people to repent.

Joel wrote at a time of great distress. An agricultural crisis was occurring in the land, the kind of natural disaster that would cause our federal government to bring in FEMA, although a day late and a dollar short. Very few of us are familiar with the disaster the land was experiencing, but those living in the Middle East know this disaster well. A plague of locusts had attacked Judah. Intent on describing this plague, Joel referred to them as, “cutting” locusts, “swarming” locusts, “hopping” locusts, and “destroying” locusts. He may actually have been describing the lifecycle of this insect. Nevertheless, he emphasized that these insects, which came by the thousands if not by the millions, had destroyed everything green in the land of Judah. People often describe a swarm of locusts as a black cloud that engulfs everything. When locusts move on, they leave no vegetation, no leaf, no blade of grass, no weed in the field. They destroy everything green. Joel told of a blistering drought that followed this total destruction, parching the land and drying up rivers and streams. The lack of water caused further despair throughout the entire country. He described the situation by saying that even the sheep and the cattle were in mourning.

Joel called for a fast in Chapter 1, Verse 14: “Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord. Alas for that day! For the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty.” We are able to date Joel in the period about 375-350 B.C. because Joel used the ideas of prophets before him. For example, we find this concept of the “day of the Lord” in other prophets, like Obadiah 1:15 and Isaiah 13:6,9. Joel used this concept to say that the time of reckoning was at hand. In the midst of the “day of the Lord,” Joel made dire predictions, yet he included a note of hope. Chapter 2, Verses 12-14 reads,

“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind the blessing – grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God.

Some of you will recognize words here that appear in Handal’s Messiah: “Rend your heart and not your garments.” You may also recognize that this passage from Joel is often the Old Testament reading for Ash Wednesday, the day that begins the Season of Lent. Here is a call for fasting, a call to repentance, the theme for Ash Wednesday. The Christian church uses the words of Joel on that occasion. The “day of the Lord” is still to come, but God makes provision for those who are faithful to Him, even those who have been unfaithful but return to Him.

The Old Testament really makes two classifications of prophets. Prophets like Joel, who wrote down their oracles, spoke on God’s behalf. The first verse in the book of Joel says, “The word of the Lord came to Joel.” God spoke to the prophets through His word. “Then came the word of the Lord to Isaiah” (Isaiah 38:4). “The word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai” (Haggai 1:3). The other classification of prophets is what we might call the non-writing prophets, those we read about in I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, I and II Chronicles. These prophets did not write their own books, but they spoke on behalf of the Lord. The Scripture says, “The Spirit of the Lord came upon them…The Spirit of the Lord came upon Samuel.” The Spirit of the Lord comes upon Elijah, Elisha, and Nathan. The Spirit of the Lord and the word of the Lord are side-by-side, serving a parallel purpose of prompting this prophetic work.

In the text for today, Joel 2, beginning at Verse 28, God declared that He would pour out His Spirit. In the same way that God prompted those non-writing prophets, He will “pour out” His Spirit on all of His people, even the slaves and servants, men and women. It will be like a liquid blessing, liquid refreshment, for people living in a parched and dry land. This reference is a vivid way for the people to understand this spiritual depletion. People need God’s Spirit to refresh and renew them. You will notice that Joel states, “All who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Then he says in Verse 32, “And anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Here again, we have one of those great dichotomies in Scripture. We see a double call, a double search. God is calling these people, but they are calling out to God. It is similar to voices, calling each other in the dark until they find each other and renew their relationship.

Perhaps you recognize that Acts 2 quotes Joel 2:28-32, word-for-word. Simon Peter drew his inspiration from this text for perhaps the most magnificent sermon ever preached, his sermon on the Day of Pentecost. Pentecost, a word that means “fifty days,” occurred fifty days after Passover. The Jewish people celebrated this festival almost like we celebrate Thanksgiving Day. The end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest was a time of real thanksgiving to God. They remembered the historical event that marked this day: Moses’ receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, the giving of the law, the giving of the Torah. Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples in the Upper Room the day before he died on the cross. Now, fifty days later, this Jewish festival of Pentecost occurred. In the same way that Jesus reinterpreted Passover, the early church reinterpreted Pentecost. For the first forty days of this fifty-day time period, Jesus, as the Risen Christ, was present with his disciples. They experienced the reality of the resurrected Jesus. Then he ascended into heaven, giving them instructions to go to Jerusalem and wait. For ten days, they waited. They knew that Jesus had promised the gift of the Holy Spirit, but they had no clue that it would happen on the Day of Pentecost.

The book of Acts describes this coming of the Holy Spirit with great drama. Violent wind surrounded the apostles, and “tongues of fire,” whatever that means, came to rest on the apostles. It is as if something of the Holy Spirit rested on each apostle. They, like the non-writing prophets, received this gift of the Holy Spirit that empowered them to speak on God’s behalf. Imagine Simon Peter, a simple fisherman who most certainly had a Galilean accent. He never had a course in seminary or public speaking, yet he now stands before a great crowd of internationals from all over the known world. As he speaks in that Galilean accent, the great miracle is that people understood him as if he were speaking in their own language. What happened on Pentecost was not what we sometimes call glossolalia. It is not speaking in unknown tongues. These tongues were known. People recognized and understood Peter’s message so clearly that they wanted to know, “What must we do to be saved?” Using the text from Joel 2, Simon Peter answered their question with, “You must repent. You have to turn to the Lord. You have to believe.” This believing is not just that God, the God of the “day of the Lord,” is coming, but that God, God fully revealed in Jesus Christ, is coming. Peter says, “You will be saved.” The message of this fisherman was so clear that 3,000 people converted to Christianity that day. We celebrate this day as the birthday of the church, the time when the early church was birthed.

Robert Persky, a chaplain at the Menninger Complex in Topeka, Kansas, ministered mainly to mentally retarded adults there. One time when he was speaking to a group, someone in the crowd asked, “Dr. Persky, how do you teach mentally retarded people about the Holy Spirit?” He answered, “We teach them about God the Father. We teach them about Jesus the Son. We pretty much let the Holy Spirit fend for himself.” I thought, “That is the way the Baptist church handles it.” We do not talk much about the Holy Spirit.

I have tried to think about why people in the evangelical tradition, especially Baptists, avoid speaking about the Holy Spirit. Possibly, we are a little afraid. I know the term Holy Ghost may be a little frightening, yet we sing about it every Sunday in the doxology. We may be a little afraid that putting too much stock in the Holy Spirit might just upset the apple cart. Maybe we would all go charismatic and lose our decorum. The Father and the Son seem a little safer, a little more standardized, whereas the Holy Spirit is somewhat unpredictable. We need the Holy Spirit. The Day of Pentecost reminds us that we need to pay attention to God’s Spirit, which is a very real presence in this world.

I have taught classes on the Holy Spirit, but I cannot begin to teach you everything about the Holy Spirit, mainly because I do not know everything about the Holy Spirit. I have talked with you before about the attributes of the Holy Spirit and how the Holy Spirit works. Today, I want to share with you five simple characteristics I have learned about the Holy Spirit.

First, the Holy Spirit brings order out of chaos. Some people think that we only received the Holy Spirit after Jesus left the earth. That is not true. The Holy Spirit has been with us since the days of creation. You can see in the first chapter of Genesis that the Spirit of God was hovering over the abyss, hovering over the chaos. In the very act of creation, God started bringing order out of chaos. We must cooperate.

Bringing order out of chaos is one of the great contrasts in the Bible. Do you remember what happened at the Tower of Babel? With arrogance, pride, people were trying to build a tower so that they could reach heaven. God saw what they were doing and confused their languages so that they could no longer accomplish their common goal. He scattered them across the face of the earth. Just the reverse happened at Pentecost. People from throughout the known world, speaking many different languages, could clearly understand one message. They came together around a common theme, salvation through Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit works to disrupt us when we are not pursuing God’s will. The Holy Spirit works in harmony with us when we are pursuing God’s will. God’s Spirit brings order out of chaos, clarity out of confusion.

Second, God’s Holy Spirit empowers His people, empowers leadership. Just as God gave power to those Old Testament non-writing prophets, just as He enabled the judges like Gideon, God’s Spirit strengthens ordinary people to do extraordinary things for Him.

An elderly couple, farmers from California, traveled to Harvard University and asked if they might speak to the president there. Dressed modestly, they waited outside the president’s office quite awhile. The secretary kept putting them off, saying, “The president is a very busy man.” They continued to wait until the president, so exasperated with their determination, finally agreed to see them in his office. Upset that they were taking up his time, he told them before they could say very much, “You realize, of course, that I am a very busy man.” They answered, “Yes, we know. Our son died, and we really would like to make a gift to Harvard in his memory, a gift perhaps to construct a building.” The president laughed, “Aren’t you farmers? You don’t have enough money for that. This is a waste of time.” The woman turned to her husband and said, “Pop, maybe this man is right. Maybe we ought to find some other way to memorialize our son. Why don’t we just start our own college?” Mr. and Mrs. Stanford returned to California and did just that. They started Stanford University. God’s Spirit takes ordinary people and accomplishes extraordinary feats.

Third, the Spirit of God is creative. Musicians, artists, and writers sometimes talk about a creative muse assisting them in producing creative work. That muse is the Holy Spirit. To be inspired means to be “Spirit-breathed.” When God’s Spirit breathes into you a creative urge, you become inspired to work. You can inspire others with the work you do. About two weeks ago, I watched a man fix a lawn mower. He used his hands, a few tools, and the delicate skill of a surgeon to get that little engine purring again. I watched as this man used a gift, a real creative talent, that many of us would overlook.

One day as Michelangelo was walking down the street, pulling a cart loaded with a very large rock, someone asked, “Where are you going with that rock?” He responded, “An angel is in here, just waiting to get out.” He continued on to his studio where he released an angel from the rock with his creative talents. God is at work all the time, using our creativity to bring objects of beauty out of what seems to be nothing.

Fourth, God’s Spirit moves like the wind. You remember Elijah’s encounter with an earthquake, wind, and fire on Mount Sinai. The Scripture says that God was not in any of those things; yet something came to Elijah, something very difficult to translate into English – a still, small voice, a quiet whisper. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is very subtle, using just a tender nudge, a quiet voice, or a gentle breeze. Sometimes the Holy Spirit moves with tornadic strength, allowing Him to raise the roof as He did at Pentecost. He can come with unimaginable power and enable His people, His church, to accomplish what they alone could have never thought of doing.

Fifth, you must pay attention if you want to experience the Holy Spirit. As Yogi Beara says, “You can see a lot by looking.” You must pay attention.

On Friday, I went trout fishing with a young man who is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at Harvard. Right after Christmas, he asked if I would go fishing with him, as he had never gone before. I promised to go Friday. We drove to the Dark Corner of South Carolina to Elicott Rock. There, North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina all come together, near the beginning of the Chattooga River. It is an excellent place to trout fish, but Friday we did not hurt the trout population one bit. We did catch three little fish, none big enough to keep. We threw them all back. My grandfather would have been disappointed in my fishing record that day.

While driving up Highway 107, we stopped at a lookout near Lake Jocasee, probably the prettiest lake in South Carolina. It may be the best-kept secret, too. The water is so clear. It is the only lake where I have seen a large-mouth bass pick up a plastic worm in twenty feet of water. It is a beautiful lake fed by mountain streams. After taking that magnificent view in for a minute, we drove to another overlook and saw Whitewater Falls, located right across the line in North Carolina. What a magnificent display of God’s creative power! We fished and fished and fished there but still did not catch anything. I did see a little kingfisher swoop down and pluck a fish bigger than any I saw all day out of the water. That site was spectacular. I told my friend, “Let’s go up King’s Creek. Sometimes we can catch trout up there when we cannot catch them in the big river.” We walked up the side of a mountain, about a mile, round trip, following the creek and stopping at likely spots where we might catch a trout. We did not catch anything.

At one spot, I heard something nearby in the dry leaves three times. I was almost sure it was a rattlesnake, but I never saw it. I held still and looked hard, giving whatever it was a wide berth. We continued up the trail and came to King’s Creek Falls, a magnificent waterfall about sixty feet high. Very few people have seen it because of the uphill climb. We sat there awhile, watching the water spilling over from the top of the mountain down into the valley. My friend said, “Even if we don’t catch any fish, this makes the whole trip worth the effort.” I reminded him of that several times.

As we began making our way back down the creek, back to the river, we heard a big splash. My friend asked, “What was that, a squirrel?” I answered, “No, it was too big for a squirrel and too small for a bear. I don’t know what it was.” In a few minutes, a fuzzy head bobbed in the water. I thought it might be a muskrat. It disappeared quickly, but I knew it would come up again downstream. Sure enough, the head surfaced again, this time with a companion. These were not muskrats. They were two river otters, playing as river otters do. I have never before seen any on the Chattooga River. After we watched them play awhile, my companion said, “Even if we don’t catch any fish, this makes it worth the effort.” I reminded him of that.

While climbing a mountain back to the truck, I commented, “It’s a good thing we don’t have any heavy fish. This would be a harder walk.” A man who passed us was carrying an ice chest. I asked, “How was the fishing?” His reply, “Didn’t catch enough to keep,” was his euphemism for Didn’t catch anything.” Others coming down the trail asked us, “How’s the fishing?” I answered, “Didn’t catch enough to keep.” It was a good line, and I thought I had better use it.

Heading for home, we stopped just in Greenville County and watched hang gliders floating off Glassy Mountain. One man, half my age and bigger than I am, brought a hang glider in for a graceful landing, just like a mallard landing on a pond. My friend said, “We didn’t catch any fish, but boy! This makes it worth it all.”

The two of us had fried fish and hush puppies for supper that night…at a fish camp. I probably did more hiking and climbing Friday than I have done in a long time. We may have walked as many as five miles. My left knee and my back sure were sore yesterday. Reflecting on Friday’s trip, I realized that I had felt the presence of God’s Spirit. If you feel the wind in your face, watch the sun glistening on the water, see mountain laurel in bloom, spy on a couple of river otters playing in a stream, and gaze upon several waterfalls, but do not sense the presence of God’s Spirit, you are not paying attention. In order to experience the Holy Spirit, you must pay attention.

I would like our church to pray for a fresh dose of the Holy Spirit. I would like us to pray that God will pour out His Spirit upon us. If we pay attention, there is absolutely no telling what our God, through His Spirit, will accomplish with this group of ordinary people at Morningside Baptist Church. Could I invite you to join me in praying for a receptive attitude?

Have you accepted Christ? Do you know him as your Savior? If you have never accepted him, you do not know the gift of the Holy Spirit. It comes as a part of the package when you acknowledge Jesus Christ as your Savior. We want to invite you to make whatever decision God lays on your heart, perhaps a decision for church membership. You respond as we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “Breathe on Me, Breath of God.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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