Visions and Dreams

Joel 2: 12-13, 28-29

Advent 2/ December 4, 2016  |  The Rev. Lynne M. Dolan, Senior Minister


Technology is a wonderful thing.  Last year I decided it was time to get a new car.  I did not however, put a lot of thought into what kind of bells and whistles I wanted in the car.  Since I was leasing the vehicle I decided to get a model without many frills.  For example, the car I chose did not have a navigation system built into it.  No problem.  I have a GPS from the olden days and it still serves me well.  I don’t think I could live without it.  I can’t believe they even print maps anymore.  I imagine there are many people who still get out the map when you want to travel to some new and unfamiliar place, but as someone who drives alone most of the time, they have become useless to me.  Give me a GPS any day!

In May when I went to Florida to help my mother move back North we made a stop at the AAA.  I admit I had never been to the AAA. I know, hard to imagine.  I do however remember my parents making the yearly trek to AAA to get their Triptik.  How many of you know what that is?  I remember my mother sitting in the passenger seat on long trips to Florida flipping from page to page as we made our way south toward my grandparent’s house.  I always wanted to know how many pages were left before we could find a place to stay for the night.  Each year’s triptik was marked with detours and warnings where the highway was under construction.  Today there are probably a half dozen apps you can download on your phone to do precisely the same thing. Waze, for example, will tell you where the traffic is likely to impede your travel and when it is prudent to take another route to avoid such disasters.

When we need to travel today, so many of us prefer to use a GPS rather than some antiquated system like the Triptik.  The GPS however is not perfect.  I remember hearing about a young woman who followed her GPS to ultimate disaster.  She had put in an address on a trip in Maine and the GPS sent her on a foggy road right down a boat dock and into a lake. These kinds of stories are what make many us return to using maps!

One preacher reminds us that on the journey of life and faith God gave the Israelites a map to follow.  The map was called The Law.  The Law was given to the people to direct them onto roads that would bless them as a people, leading them into a deeper relationship with God and one another.  We have heard so often in the stories we have shared this season how hard it was for the Israelites to follow that map.  Sometimes they misread it and sometimes they just ignored it.  They got lost by worshiping false gods, abusing the poor and the powerless and living self-focused lives. God therefore, sent prophets, people who knew the way back to God and would call them to follow this new way.  God did not promise that the way back would be easy, but that God would reveal a way for them to return when they took a wrong turn or were heading in the wrong direction.  Essentially, through the ages, the prophets message has been, “Hey, you’re going the wrong way.  You’re running away from God.  There is danger in that direction. Turn around.  Go the other way.”  In many ways, I imagine the prophets acting like the robot in the television program of my youth  Lost in Space,  waving their arms and yelling “Danger Will Robinson.  Danger Will Robinson”  Or in the Biblical context, “Danger Israelites! Danger Israelites!”

Today we hear from the prophet Joel.  He was one of the many prophets God sent to call the Israelites to repent.  The book that bears Joel’s name is only three chapters long.  You will find it tucked between two other prophets that may be more familiar, Hosea and Amos.  It may be helpful to hear the context into which Joel delivers his prophetic message.  A massive plague of locusts had struck Israel.  Their crops were gone.  Their livestock were dying. The people were starving.  Joel spoke into this disaster, telling the people that the locusts were God’s judgement on their sins.  In other words, God was trying to get their attention!  In the first part of the passage we hear Joel call the people to repent, to turn around, to return to the Lord.

This passage is often read on Ash Wednesday.  We think of Lent as a season of repentance.  A time to take stock of one’s life and make a spiritual commitment to examine oneself and recommit oneself to God.  It may feel a bit out of place this second Sunday in Advent.  However, Advent is a season of preparation. A season when we prepare our hearts and our homes and our spirits for the holy One to dwell.  What better way to prepare to receive the Christ child than to repent, to turn, to open oneself up to a new and uncluttered, unencumbered relationship with God?

Joel, after all, is not calling the people to change slightly from what they are doing.  He does not call them to make a slight detour, but rather a whole-hearted, full life U- turn.  Such an invitation may sound out of place during this season and completely counter cultural. Simplify and take time to examine oneself are not the rally cries of the pre-Christmas world.  The people to whom Joel is sent were headed in a dangerous direction.  They were literally headed for disaster and probably did not even know what lay ahead for them. That is how it is sometimes.  We can’t see the big picture or understand the full ramifications of our actions. My misdeed or misstep or thoughtless word or action can’t make a huge difference but when we are collectively headed in the wrong direction, God finds someone to help us understand. God knows. God anticipates. God sends someone to save us from ourselves, to jolt us from our oblivion so that we do not head in this disasterous direction. Perhaps they did not even know they were lost until Joel calls them back to God.

We can all be like the Israelites.  We get lost.  We move in directions that endanger us, directions that move us away from God.  Sometimes we are aware we are moving in the wrong direction, but we feel powerless to act differently.  Sometimes we are like the walking dead, falling into a herd or lemming mentality, moving in the direction of the masses even when this is not in our best interest, even when following the crowd is likely to lead us into a terrible place. It is hard to break away, to hear the voice of reason, to follow the prophetic call.  It is sometimes hard to be the one that speaks against the majority, to offer the unexpected word that might bring new direction and purpose.

Into our oblivion God sends the prophet. Today that prophet is Joel. He speaks a word a truth to a people teetering on the edge. He calls them to return to God, with “all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts,” he says, “and not your clothing.” Joel calls us to be vulnerable and open to God. I have learned more profoundly as I have made my own journeys through grief that one cannot truly mourn without allowing one’s heart to be open, perhaps even broken. That is what it means to rend one’s heart. Broken-heartedness is not fatal. In fact, the heart is resilient.  Broken-heartedness, feeling grief deep within one’s being, may be the only way to wholeness.  One can have one’s heart broken many times and survive. That is the miracle of God’s healing love. In order to fast or weep or mourn one needs to be willing to feel, to acknowledge deep sadness and perhaps a period of alienation or separation from God.   I have also discovered that we need not be afraid of these feelings, they do not last forever.  Even in the midst of it, God is always there.

Joel calls the people to come together to worship.  In this way, he differs from many of the other prophets who do not place the same emphasis on worship. Many other prophets call us to repentance in order to go into the world and act. Joel believes we will go into the world as changed people only when we open ourselves to the Spirit together in worship.  It is here that we name our frailties and our sins and seek God’s forgiveness and reconciliation. It is in worship that we are invited to bring our whole selves, our joys and our sorrows, our achievements and our failures. It is here that we are called to be honest with ourselves and with God.  Personal confession may be more comfortable, but there is something powerful in a regular practice of communal confession. Speaking aloud, together, the ways in which we fall short is freeing and cleansing and empowering. We are in this together, we all fall short, we all miss the mark, none of us is better in the eyes of God and none of us is worse. That is the amazing thing.  Despite any shortcomings or failures God longs for us to make a U-Turn back to God. We don’t have to beat ourselves up or make ourselves feel bad. We willingly participate in the spiritual practice of confession because the regular practice of examining oneself is a way to free ourselves from that which binds us to sin. As we are free, the Spirit then can do its work of healing and strengthening and joining us together. We have nothing to fear because as the prophet reminds us God is merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  God longs for us to return to God.

Repentance therefore, is the first step. Returning is the second step.  Only then will we be able to fulfill the promises that God makes to pour out the spirit on all flesh, on God’s sons and daughters and slaves, so that we may dream dreams and see visions. No one is excluded from this visionary work.  All flesh, all people will receive the Spirit and be empowered to do God’s will.  Joel speaks a radically inclusive word. Through the power of the Holy Spirit we are able to do this work.  In community, with the support of loving, longing, like-minded people we are able to do this.  We are the vessels through which the Spirit does its work.  If that vessel is clogged with needless or harmful stuff, the Spirit cannot do its work.  Just as we make a space in this season of Advent for the Christ to dwell, we must make a home in which the Spirit might dwell. Our work is to listen and to validate the word that comes to us from unexpected places. No one is too old to speak God’s word.  No gender is excluded. No circumstance can exclude you. If we do the hard work of repenting, we will be ready to do the even harder work of prophetic witness.

Friends, the world still needs dreamers and visionaries. It would be so much easier to close the blinds, turn off the television and hunker down behind closed doors waiting for the apocalypse.   Some days it seems more imminent than others.  This is not what the Spirit calls us to do. The Spirit calls us to be more open, to be more loving, to share compassion where it is needed and to speak a word of truth where this will bring justice. The Spirit will prepare us to stand in the fire and persevere against that which does not serve God. The Spirit calls us to be unafraid because God calls us to this work and God will not leave us powerless.

The work of dreaming and visioning is not left to those whom we think are holier than thou. This is the work of all people.

So church, what is your vision? Who among us will be the ones to articulate the vision God has placed before us? Will it be our old men or our women or will it be the one from the margins, the slave among us that will move us into the future God envisions for us? The prophet understands that out of disaster will rise something enduring.  The locusts may have rendered the people weak and worried about what the future holds, but God has the final word. Repent, turn around, let go of the past and move into that not yet revealed future. Soon enough, the one who will lead us will come, will be born, to dwell among us. Prepare your hearts, rend them open and allow that Spirit to dwell deeply within.  When this happens we will be able to stand before anything that threatens to undo us and be strong. May it be so. Amen

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