Acts 2: 14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 17 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy. 19 I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke. 20 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.21 And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
We just passed the one year anniversary of when the world was to end and for Christ to return, according to Harold Kampen and the American Family Radio Network. When I first saw the billboards last year that said, “Save the date: May 21” and “You can know….” I was embarrassed. Even if we didn’t fall for this, won’t all the church look stupid on May 22? Then I was angry about the needless embarrassment that this kind of thing always brings. And about the needless, heedless distraction from the church’s real and sacred task. Then, finally, I was disappointed: I was hoping that Christ would return the day on which I first saw the billboard. I continue to hope that every day.
But the campaign at least had this right: that we are living in the Last Days. But not for the reasons that Harold Kampen had in mind. Not because of what I read in the newspaper headlines, but because of what I read in today’s Bible passage. In his Pentecost day sermon to fellow Pentecost pilgrims, Peter quotes the prophet Joel to explain why God’s Spirit has descended upon the disciples in such a striking way. Peter paraphrases Joel to say that this is what God promised to do “in the Last Days.” That’s another way of talking about what the Hebrew Prophets also called, “The Day of the Lord,” a time for a final reckoning, a time for decision-making, a time of judgment, a time of regime change for the planet. It would be no less dramatic and important than if the sun were to go dark and the moon to turn blood red.
So for Peter, The Last Days have begun already, with the gift of God’s Spirit to the church. Which means that The Last Days have continued for almost twenty-one centuries thus far. Let’s see: nearly 2,100 years times 365 Last Days, add a few for leap years, and you get more than three quarters of a million Last Days and counting.
Which brings up two questions: 1) So how long are these Last Days to go until we get to The Last Last Day? That’s where I part company with Harold Kampen and all the folks who keep trying to calculate an exact date to come, based on wars and rumors of war, famines, earthquakes and other such catastrophes. Those have always been happening, only more so. The only guide I know for sure is what Jesus said, as recorded in Matthew 24: 14: “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached as a testimony to all nations, and then the end shall come.” That task, of testifying to the gospel of God’s kingdom before all nations, got its dramatic kick-off on that Pentecost Sunday. That’s what all those different languages were about, to kick off the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s kingdom before all tribes, tongues and nations.
Since that first Pentecost miracle of new languages, the vast majority of missionaries have had to learn other languages the normal way whenever they went to another nation. But that’s okay: the Spirit can work in whatever way he likes. The point is, with the giving of God’s Spirit to the church, the people, to carry out God’s mission, we have entered The Last Days. And we will remain in the Last Days until the gospel of the kingdom has been preached as a testimony to every nation; “and then the end will come.” Only God will know when that task has been completed.
The second question is, If we have already had almost 800,000 Last Days and counting, what’s the value of the Last Days? What’s the big thing about them if they have been adding up like sand on the beach or ants at a picnic? How many Last Days can we handle before we stop caring? We can hold our breath and stand on one leg for only so long.
Three big things come to mind about the age of the Spirit and the mission of the church that make of every day in these Last Days an apocalyptic event: One is that God is preparing new rulers and new management for a new world that’s taking shape right under the nose of the current one.
That’s the import of all the big, scary apocalyptic language that Joel uses, when he talks about signs in heaven and signs on the earth, about blood, fire and smoke, about the sun going dark, and the moon turning blood red. Last I checked, the sun was still shining, and the moon was a beautiful soft, white, cream color. And I hope they remain that way. God’s redemptive plan is to heal creation, not destroy it. This apocalyptic language about nature going awry may be, I increasingly believe, symbolic of changes that are just as big as if the sun did indeed go dark and the moon turned red, changes especially in humans, in human society, government and culture. Increasingly I am convinced that the dramatic celestial and terrestrial signs that Prophets like Joel talk about happen in people, and among them, not necessarily in the solar system.
I say that because, for one thing, in the time of Joel and then Jesus and then John the Revelator, kings and kingdoms often presented themselves, in their royal propaganda, as though they were the sun, moon, stars and solar system. Even as recently as 1945, Japanese imperial troops went to war under the banner of….the rising sun. A few centuries earlier they called a French king, Louis XIV, “the sun king.” Whenever Joel and the other biblical prophets use this kind of language, about the sun, moon and stars fading or falling, I increasingly suspect that they are using coded but very subversive language to say, in effect, “Don’t give in to the dark side; don’t drink the imperial Kool-Aid; Don’t believe all the hooey you’re hearing about how the sun, moon and stars not only revolve around the king and his kingdom, they are the sun, moon and stars. Under the judgment of God upon everything oppressive and idolatrous, their sun is about to go dark, their star is fading, and like everything else on this planet, they are about to fall to earth,” and give way to the light of God that has always been there. I think that Joel, like the other prophets, is using celestial symbols to talk about spiritual and political realities here on earth.
And what will finally take their place? Who will replace Wall Street, Madison Avenue, Fleet Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC as lords of the earth? That leads me to the second very important thing about these Last Days, however many there are: We, the church, are the new management which God is preparing to restore to the earth, but not by the usual means of bullets or ballots.
I know that’s hard to believe. It could even be dangerous, too. This week we saw the terrible spectacle of a church bishop on trial for covering up child sex abuse among his clergy. However badly he got grilled, however criminal and stupid he ended up looking, I still feel worse for the victims. But that’s not the church that is being fitted and prepared to rule the world. Not the hierarchy nor the institution, whatever their denomination. I’m talking about the church of the heart, the church of the home, the humble church of sinners who know they are sinners, who, like Paul, know they are the worst of sinners, the church of the penitent thief on the cross whose only claim to mercy is his prayer, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
That is the church which God is preparing to take the place of all the imperial stars and suns that are falling like rocks all around us today. God is fitting and preparing us not to dominate nor devastate Creation and each other as we, under our current management are doing. If we are to be kings and queens, rulers and magistrates, it is as Jesus demonstrated royalty and rulership, with a towel around the waist and a washbasin in his hands, to wash feet like a slave. We are being prepared for a rulership of love, peace, unity and service by means of love, peace, unity and service. Inasmuch as we live that way, we are already royalty and dignitaries of a once and future kingdom.
Joel tells us just how ordinary, peaceful, loving and humble this new kingdom and kingship are to be when he says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” “Pouring out” God’s Spirit upon someone is already a sign of royalty. Hebrew kings were anointed, upon their enthronement, with oil as a sign of being anointed with God’s Spirit. We could say that Pentecost is the royal anointing of the church, in advance of the day when we sit with Christ upon his throne forever.
Its surprising enough that the royal anointing of kingship is to be given to everyday ordinary sons and daughters, men and women, young and old. But Joel goes on to say that this royal anointing of His Spirit will be given to all people, meaning, Jew and Gentile. The Pentecost miracle of many languages was the first installment, the foretaste and down-payment of this goal of God: a royal priesthood in a new Creation from every tribe, tongue and nation, Jew and Gentile. For on that Pentecost Day that we celebrate today, these were Gentile languages that people heard in the temple district of Jerusalem.
How is this happening, even now, when one Last Day blends into the next and the world doesn’t appear to be changing? That leads to the third big thing about each and every one of these many Last Days: the second infusion of God’s Spirit into human flesh. God is recreating creation by first creating a new people, by infusing them anew with his Spirit, his breath. The word for breath and spirit are one and the same in Hebrew. Remember how the first Adam was created in the first days of creation? How God formed humanity from clay? And then how God blew the breath, or “spirit” of life into his handiwork, so that Adam might share his Spirit and have relationship with Him?
Well, Pentecost is Creation point two, when God again blew his Spirit, or his breath, into humanity. A new humanity that will rise above the fears and divisions that currently paralyze and enslave us. And so the Last Days are much like the first days. In each of these Last Days and counting, God is again forming a new humanity from among all tribes, tongues and nations From Pentecost on, God is again breathing his breath, or His Spirit, into the church, the new humanity. If the Spirit does not exactly replicate in our lives the Pentecost miracle of tongues and prophecy, do not overlook nor despise the equally great miracles of repentance, rebirth and regeneration that he works in us, especially the Spirit’s gifts of faith, hope and love. Faith, hope and love are the thumbprints of God at work in us, the signs of the new life that God breathes into us with His Spirit.
That’s what I want us to understand this Pentecost Sunday morning: that ever since Pentecost at least, we are in the Last Days already, leading up to the return of Christ Jesus and the installation of new management on this divided and warring planet. Each of these Last Days carries great weight of responsibility and opportunity because 1) God is preparing us to be the new management of a new creation; 2) by “us” is meant all people, men and women, young and old, Jew and Gentile, of every race, color, tribe, tongue and nation; and 3) God is creating this new humanity by again breathing His Spirit into his people. And so the Last Days are as exciting and important as the First.
That’s what I want us to understand. So what do we do? Basically, do like Peter and the other disciples did. The Spirit did not descend upon them and fill them by surprise, while they were playing Halo or even while they were doing their grocery shopping. They put themselves in the two places where the Spirit typically works: 1) into the hands of God, through prayer and worship; and 2) into the world for loving service and witness.
As for the first thing, putting themselves into the hands of God, we read that the Pentecost miracle happened after the disciples had spent time with God and each other in prayer and worship, and as they gathered for the Jewish Pentecost festival. That’s the whole point of prayer, worship and the devotional life: to put ourselves back into the hands of God, to present ourselves to God like the clay we are for him to recreate us as he wills. That’s why we keep encouraging worship and prayer here at Emmanuel Mennonite Church, the kinds we do together, as well as what we do on our own, apart, so that we might remain works in progress on God’s work bench.
But that’s not enough. If all we do is sit alone in silence waiting for God to zap us with Pentecost power, cobwebs might connect us to our seats. Yes, things do happen in prayer and solitude, but rarely for our sakes alone. The second thing is to keep putting ourselves out there for loving witness, by work and by words, wherever our field of service is, whether the home or the streets, like the disciples did that Pentecost Day. For the Spirit does not give us any gift that is not to be shared. Like with any other kind of breathing, the life of God’s breath, or Spirit, is a rhythm of taking in and breathing out. The Spirit does not empower us with any ministry gift that starts and ends with ourselves just taking and taking and taking in some more. The Spirit works in relationship, through relationship, and for relationship. And so we are most often healed, empowered and recreated through relationship. We don’t carry around the spiritual gifts inside ourselves like coffee in a thermos. The life of God’s Spirit in us is more like water flowing through a pipe, connecting one length to another. We most often experience the gifts of God in their sharing. Like when we share the bread and the cup of communion.
So, look ahead, yes, to the Last Day of the Last Days. No, Harold, we cannot know when that is; we’re not supposed to. But don’t miss the exciting work of inspiration and transformation that is happening here and now, in these Last Days, as God recreates a fallen earth by breathing his Spirit anew into his new humanity, you and me, young and old, men and women, Jew and Gentile.