Hope reborn

We all have hopes.

At least, we once did.

Some of them, of course, were the products of our childish desires; we wanted something we saw on TV, and hoped our parents would buy it for our birthday or Christmas. Later, our hopes and desires changed as we grew older and learned what society expected of us. We wanted what normal and  successful people were supposed to have. Maybe a bit more.

Then, perhaps, we ran headlong into reality. There were obstacles to the dream. Or we achieved some or all of our goals, only to feel dissatisfied, even empty. Something — often a nameless something — was missing. We learned to scale back our expectations, to stop dreaming of what could be. We stopped hoping, and got busy with just getting through the day.

But hope can be rekindled.

Over the centuries, for example, countless people have wandered into churches seeking… who knows what. Something in the preacher’s words ignited in them a tiny but unmistakable spark.

That’s often what happens when preaching is empowered by the Spirit.

Hope is reborn.

In previous posts, we’ve seen how the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles at Pentecost, when the city of Jerusalem was filled with Jewish pilgrims from around the empire. The apostles stood in the midst of a diverse crowd, declaring the works of God in languages they had never learned but others recognized. This was a sign of the Spirit’s power.

The skeptics, unwilling to acknowledge the miracle, scoffed that the apostles were drunk. Peter merely laughed off the criticism. With a bit of rhetorical judo, he used it to launch into his first sermon. “Listen up, everybody!” he shouted above the commotion. “These guys aren’t drunk. Come on, it’s only 9 AM! No — this is the fulfillment of what the prophet Joel said a long time ago…

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young will see visions.
Your elders will dream dreams.
Even upon my servants, men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
The sun will be changed into darkness,
and the moon will be changed into blood,
before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
(Acts 2:17-21, CEB; Joel 2:28-32)

I’ll say more about the prophecy itself in the next post. But for the moment, we may need to use a little imagination to inhabit, as best we can, the minds of the Jews who heard Peter’s words that day.

Some of us, as modern day Christians, aren’t quite sure what to do with references to ancient prophecy. The language and imagery feel strange, even off-putting. We may have been taught, directly or indirectly, to devalue the Old Testament as yesterday’s news. Thus, without knowing it, we may read a passage like this as if Peter’s audience had been as confused or unimpressed as we feel reading it.

But the crowds were filled with faithful Jews who had made the pilgrimage for the festival. Surely many of them knew the prophecy, just as Peter the fisherman did. And for them, it was neither a mere curiosity nor a long forgotten Sunday school lesson. It was an embodiment of their hope.

Some Jews of the time understood the words of another prophet, Daniel, to mean that God might fulfill his promises to Israel in their generation. Those days of fulfillment would be “the last days,” and prophetic signs would point to the arrival of that long-anticipated time.

This, therefore, is where Peter begins: he reminds them of what God had said he would do in the last days. He wants them to understand that the apostles aren’t full of wine, but the Spirit, and that what they are seeing is the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.

He hasn’t yet made the connection to Jesus explicit.

But he has opened their ears by awakening their hope.