It has not been a good time for the people of Israel when the prophet Joel enters the scene. Wave upon wave of locusts have descended upon the country, each causing more and more destruction, until finally nothing is left.
“The fields are devastated, the ground mourns,” Joel laments, “for the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil fails…How the animals groan! The herds of cattle wander about because there is no pasture for them; even the flock of sheep are dazed.”
Among the casualties of this horrible plague are the people’s hopes and dreams for the future.
“Surely joy withers around us,” is how the prophet poetically puts it.
The people of Israel look around them and see nothing but death and devastation. They close their eyes and try to imagine the future, but can see nothing that gives them hope. Their greatest aspiration is just to survive from one bleak day to the next.
Then in the midst of the despair and gloom, the prophet Joel appears with an unexpected message from God, a message of hope.
“Be glad and rejoice in the Lord,” Joel tells the people.
Better days are coming. The rain will be early and abundant; the land will be fruitful again; the threshing floors will be full of grain; the vats will overflow with wine and oil. The people shall eat in plenty and be satisfied.
That is good news, indeed. What better news can there be for people who are starving than to know that soon they, their families, and livestock will have plenty to eat and drink.
The struggle for daily survival will be over. That is reason to rejoice and give thanks to God.
But Joel’s good news does not end there. God has more to give the people than plentiful food and drink.
“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh,” God says. “Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves I will pour out my spirit.”
Once the people’s physical needs have been satisfied, God has an even greater gift — God’s own spirit poured out upon them.
This, too, is a gift of abundance.
God’s spirit is not doled out in meager portions to a scant few. It is lavishly poured out, splashing down on the people, drenching them in love and power and grace.
And this lavish gift is not just for the important people, the powerful and wealthy or wise. It is for everyone – young and old, male and female, slave and free – all will be soaked through with God’s holy and life-giving spirit.
What does it mean to be a recipient of God’s spirit? What difference does it make in one’s life? What does it enable one to do?
Joel offers part of the answer to these questions – prophecies, dreams, visions.
When God’s spirit is poured upon the people they will be able to see beyond the present to a future in which God’s kingdom is realized.
Having visions or dreams for the future is not necessarily a positive thing, of course.
After all, Hitler had a dream of a world where his chosen people would rule; a world where those who did not meet his definition of purity were wiped from the earth.
Some have dreams of accumulating vast power and wealth, even if it comes at the expense of others. Others dream of revenge or vengeance, of watching those who hurt them suffer.
These are not dreams inspired by God’s spirit.
When God’s holy spirit is poured out on us, we are empowered to dream of different sorts of things.
In the words of Porter Taylor, a former priest of this diocese, we are empowered to “dream as God dreams.”
“God does not invite us to dream of a white Christmas,” Taylors writes. “God invites us to dream of a world that never has been, but has always been promised.
“God invites us to open our arms and eyes and hearts to the blessings that God gives us, and as we give thanks, to realize that anything is possible.”
As we enter into another political season we will hear many different visions and dreams for our country, offered by many different candidates.
Some of those visions will resonate with us, some we will disagree with. But as people of faith we are called to hold those visions and dreams up to God’s dreams for the world God has created.
I imagine that God dreams of a nation where no one hungers or thirsts, where all people’s physical needs are met.
God dreams of a nation where all people – male and female, young and old, black and white, gay and straight, Christians and Jews, Muslims and atheists – are treated with dignity and respect as children of God.
God’s dream is for shalom, a Hebrew word that means peace. But as our former presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori says shalom “doesn’t just mean the sort of peace that comes when we’re no longer at war.
“It’s that rich and multihued vision of a world where no one goes hungry because everyone is invited to a seat at the groaning board,” she says.
“It’s a vision of a world where no one is sick or in prison because all sorts of disease have been healed, it’s a vision of a world where every human being has the capacity to use every good gift that God has given, it is a vision of a world where no one enjoys abundance at the expense of another, it’s a vision of a world where all enjoy Sabbath rest in the presence of God.
“Shalom means that all human beings live together as siblings, at peace with one another and with God, and in right relationship with all of the rest of creation. It is that vision of the lion lying down with the lamb and the small child playing over the den of the adder, where the specter of death no longer holds sway.”
That may sound like a bigger pipe dream than those offered by any political candidates.
But when we are filled with God’s spirit we cannot only dream of such a world, we can envision ways to make it a reality.
The spirit of God that was poured upon the people of Israel has also been poured on each of us in our baptism.
“Fill them with your holy and life-giving Spirit,” we pray for those who are about to be baptized.
We have been empowered to dream as God dreams, and to work to help make God’s dreams a reality.