1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
“‘It will be in the last days,’ God says, ‘that I pour out my Spirit upon all people! Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams! 18Even upon my slaves, both male and female, I will pour out my Spirit, and they will prophesy!
I have a bad habit of staying up later than I should. With two kids under three in the house, you would think that I would take every opportunity I can to get sleep, but unfortunately I rarely find myself going to bed at a reasonable hour. One of the problems I have with staying up late is that I usually fill the time watching TV, and there is very little on TV that is worth watching after midnight. So when I get tired of watching sports highlights on a loop, I’ll sometimes flip over to that set of channels on our cable package that features Christian programming, and I’m sorry to say that I don’t often find what’s on that time of night on those channels compelling, either. I’ve frequently run into programs that talk about the fact that we are, as the prophet Joel above says, “in the ‘last days’”. What makes those programs so frustrating to watch is that this message about the last days is usually presented in the most frightening way possible. Current events are shoehorned into an end-times calendar that sounds like a horror show, with war and famine and pestilence and human sinfulness being presented as conclusive proof that the world as we know it is going to hell in a hand basket. Often, those determinations are made by comparing the events of today to the rosy picture painted of years gone by.
Lest you think this is an attitude that is prevalent only on late-night fundamentalist TV, I can assure you that this type of thinking is surprisingly mainstream. All of us have a tendency to look at the world around us and focus on all the ways it isn’t the way it used to be, usually with the implicit understanding that this is a terrible thing. I don’t say this to pick on anybody; I do the same thing when I’m talking to high school classmates or college friends, bemoaning the fact that those respective schools have gone downhill in just the last decade. I can only imagine how people can look at the massive changes over twenty, forty, sixty, or eighty years and long for the way things used to be.
As Christians, we pretty much universally believe that we are living in the last days, and many of our brothers and sisters marry that belief with resignation, convinced that we have nowhere to go but down. That resignation belies what the Bible says about the last days; namely that we are in them not because the world is more evil than it was during some imagined time of peace and harmony, but because the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus were the beginning of the end for the powers of sin, death, and the devil. The “last days” language is intended to be a source of strength for Christians, a reminder that the forces of evil are doing their worst because they know their days are numbered. So on this Day of Pentecost, as we reflect on these words from the prophet Joel and on the significance of the gift of the Holy Spirit, I’d like to invite us to think about these “last days” not with a spirit of fear and trembling, but with a different kind of Spirit. When Peter raised his voice on that first Pentecost and addressed the crowds, he invoked the prophetic image of the last days, not as a way of signaling decline or anxiety about the unknown, but as a way of describing the possibilities that lay before the Church as the Spirit of God descended upon the apostles and empowered them to boldly proclaim the mighty deeds of God. The “last days” were seen as a time of promise, in which visions and dreams would unfold as God’s Spirit caused the message about Jesus (and the presence of Jesus) to be spread abroad, capturing the imaginations and hearts of people from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. So often, we hear these stories and consign them to the past, imagining that only the apostles were heirs of such life-changing power. That just isn’t true! The gospel is exploding throughout the world. In South and Southeast Asia, throughout Africa, and in South and Central America, the Spirit’s power is being unleashed, and more and more people are being changed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In our own country, we have certainly seen dramatic decline in church participation, but it’s important to put the current trends in perspective. The “golden age of the church” to which so many of us look with longing was unprecedented in the history of the world or the church. We experienced levels of church attendance, participation, and commitment that have never been seen before anywhere! In fact, at present the percentage of people who attend church regularly in the United States is roughly the same as it was at the time of the American Revolution! What do we do with that kind of information? Do we see it as evidence of moral and spiritual decline in our society, or as an opportunity to renew and reinvigorate our proclamation of the gospel? Should we fall into the trap of hopelessly trying to recapture what once was, or should we look for evidence that the Spirit is leading us to dream big, to work together to cast a vision for the work of the church in our time and place?
As Lutheran Christians, claimed by Christ in the waters of Holy Baptism and filled with the same Holy Spirit that descended upon those first apostles, we have a great gift to give this world. In a culture that demands results and punishes failure with swift and unrelenting judgment, we have good news to share: that our worth is not dependent on our strength or skill or income or perceived value to society, but on the surpassing love of God who calls us holy, precious, honored, loved, and redeemed! In a society that thrives on fear, ignorance, and misunderstanding, we have good news to share: that our lives have been transformed by God’s amazing grace, and that this same grace is freely offered to all people, everywhere. In a world mired in despair and longing, we have good news to share: that the Spirit of God that hovered over the waters at creation is still moving in our world, transforming despair into hope, fear into friendship, and death into life. In a world where people hunger for lives of meaning and significance, we have good news to share: that God is calling us to pour ourselves out for the sake of our neighbors, friends, and families, bearing in our own bodies the love, peace, and joy of life with Christ.
This isn’t just hypothetical, either. There are so many stories that reveal how the Gospel is inspiring Christians and people of good will to partner with God in transforming the world around us that I can only begin to scratch the surface. Reminded of our communion with God’s people throughout the world, the ELCA and its partners are making real and tangible progress toward the goal of eradicating malaria in Africa. Renewed in our commitment to healing and wholeness, Lutherans continue to be at the forefront of efforts to provide medical care in places of desperate need, like the Augusta Victoria Hospital in the Palestinian Territories. Compelled by our calling to serve our neighbors, our own Nebraska Synod has built a network of agencies and ministries that serves more people throughout our state than any other group! In these ways and so many more, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is speaking powerfully into the lives of people all over the world and transforming that world each and every day.
All of this isn’t to say, of course, that we don’t have any more work to do. Like the first apostles, we have been given the Spirit of the Living God, and we have a choice: will we become depressed and cynical because we’re trying to recapture those days gone by and settle for decrying the state of the world around us, or will we endeavor to see visions and dream dreams of Christ’s body using the many and varied gifts that we have been given to proclaim the good news of Jesus to a world that needs to hear of God’s love and grace? I don’t know about you, but I have the sense that the Spirit is on the move here at St. Paul’s, and that we are on the verge of something new and exciting as a congregation. I’m not sure what it is yet, but on this Day of Pentecost, as we join together in affirming the gift of baptism that has been poured out upon us as individuals and as a community, let us pray that God will grant us the grace and strength to imagine what’s possible for us as God’s people in the Falls City area. Let us continue asking how the Spirit is calling us to be Christ for the world in these last days. Let us trust in the power of the Spirit to guide us into a future filled with promise and hope. Let us give thanks for the joyful and holy task of being the church. The Spirit is here! Thanks be to God! Amen.