The prophet Joel wrote, “Your young men shall see visions and your old men will dream dreams.” I am certain most of you have never read the Book of Joel. It is one of the books of the Bible we unceremoniously call the “minor prophets”. If something is important, why would we call it minor? Yet there it is, one of the last twelve books of the Bible, stuck between Hosea and Amos. It’s a wonder anyone ever reads it. We are all familiar with the great love Hosea had for Gomer. We all know Amos 5:24, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” When we finish Hosea, why not skip Joel, and go straight to the shepherd from Tekoa?
Truth is, we don’t know a lot about Joel. His name means, “The Lord is God”. He probably lived around 400 B.C. This was after the Babylonian Exile and the Temple of Jerusalem had been reconstructed. The book itself is a response to an agricultural crisis, an invasion of locust. Old Testament prophets never explain a political or economic crisis using the indicators we have come to trust such as, the consumer price index, the interest rate, or the gross domestic product. Their language tended to bit more theological. If there was a crisis the prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi, usually declared the people were taking God for granted. They came to the Temple only on High Holidays. They prayed only for their personal needs. They sang songs celebrating creation but seldom used words such as justice or righteousness. Of course this WAS a primitive people from a primitive society that pretty much worshipped a primitive God. This primitive man named Joel declared the locust and the lack of attention the people gave God to be in direct correlation. If they wanted the locust to leave they had better get on their knees and pray. So this primitive people, who had not yet discovered the wonders of DDT, got on their knees and the crisis was averted. As quick as the locust had come, they were gone. And all the people celebrated before resuming their otherwise unassuming lives.
But Joel was not finished. In fact he was just getting started. Reaching way back into his theological bag of tricks Joel promised the Day of the Lord, a threat that had been spoken of 5 centuries earlier but never experienced. Joel said, “God’s Spirit will be poured out on you. The day of the Lord is near. It will be both a terrible and glorious day. You will witness the power and justice of God. It will be beyond what you have ever imagined. Your youth will have visions and your elderly will dream dreams and the way of the Lord will be restored.”
The people of Jerusalem got real excited. They headed back to the Temple. They canceled all the youth soccer games scheduled on the Sabbath and even declared no Saturday tee times before 1:00. People who stayed home from the synagogue had enough sense to hide and not do yard work until late in the afternoon. Fishing licenses carried bold letters that declared no fishing on the Sabbath. This primitive, superstitious people went absolutely crazy because of the dead locust on their sidewalks. And a few youth and a few more elderly folks began to dream.
This domestication of God, a process that started shortly after the death of the locust, began to gather steam. By the birth of Jesus, the ritualization of Judaism was less interested in faith and more interested food laws and clean utensils. There was a scroll in each home titled, A Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior and it was followed religiously. Everything was done correctly. The religious elite prescribed what was kosher and what was not. A good rule of thumb was if you are not sure, it must be wrong. Fewer people dreamed, no one had visions, and God was really no longer needed.
I was listening to a song by Patty Griffin recently. It was about an old dog that had been the family pet. When the dog was young and obedient she was the family’s best friend. She fetched, rolled over, and played dead on demand. But the dog started to get a little old and slowed down quite a bit. Instead of chasing the ball, the dog preferred to lay around the house. So they took the dog out into the country and let her go. They loved the dog too much to watch it die.
Once she was on her own, an amazing transition took place. The dog regained her strength and willingness to live. The family would take rides out in the country and the children swore they saw their old dog running along side the car. They stopped but the dog would head back into the brush and disappear. She had little desire to be anyone’s pet. The first line of the chorus is, “God is a wild old dog.”
I had to listen to the song a couple of times before I realized what Patty was saying. At first I was shocked, and then delighted. If ever there was a song to be sung during the Pentecost season this should be the one.
Pentecost is a holy declaration that God’s domestication is over. No more fetching the ball or being a convenient side show when things get dull. On Pentecost, God took a walk on the wild side. God’s Spirit blew into the upper chamber of the disciples hearts and they became dreamers. Dashing out into the streets they began to tell a story Jesus had been telling for three years. You can’t regulate God to only the kitchen and the bedroom. God wants to be part of your entire house. You can’t regulate God to one day out of the week. The One who created the other six days wants to do more than just rest. Perhaps most importantly, God will not be regulated by the desires and wishes of a few. The word of God is there for anyone with ears to hear.
On Pentecost, folks from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia understood the Word of the Lord. Folks from Egypt, Libya, and Rome understood the Way of the Lord. Arabs and Jews understood the Wonders of the Lord. Men, women, of all racial make-ups heard the Word. Rich and poor devoured the Word. No one was excluded and everyone was invited to respond to this God who would no longer be domesticated.
And people began to dream. What seemed impossible became probable. Words like justice and righteousness reentered not only the vocabulary but the landscape of the human experiment. Suddenly, God became relevant.
Now I’m not suggesting that God is only relevant when we declare God relevant, but I do believe we are guilty of relegating God to particular moments and the occasional crisis. We call on God when we need God. We worship God when it fits within our schedules. We like having God around, particularly in the later days of our lives. The problem becomes relegating and dreaming are seldom found in the same sentence.
That’s why I love Pentecost. First, it is exclusively our day. If you go to Hallmark, you won’t find a single Pentecost Card. Second, it is our day to remember that once, in the midst of the ordinary, a wind blew into the lives of a people trapped by their lack of imagination. A flame ignited tongues and hearts swore allegiance to a timeless vision. Everyone who listened was captured by a wild old God’s liberating promise of grace.
And God, not shackled to any religion, ran free, inviting folks of all creeds and cultures to join in this glorious revolution.
Imagine being transformed by God’s undomesticated breath.
Imagine living God’s dream.