First sermons

You love to speak in front of groups, right?

Though it’s been decades, I can still recall bits and pieces of the only preaching class I took in seminary. Most of us were in our twenties and had never been in a pulpit. Some had never even spoken in front of a group, and were incredibly uncomfortable.

It showed.

I don’t remember the content of my first sermon. I do, however, remember this: like everyone else, I was trying to be impressive, to be smarter, more confident, and more erudite than I actually felt. It was like we all had the first-date jitters.

As laughable as some of our rookie efforts were, our professor was unfailingly and authentically gracious. “Amen!” he’d exclaim in his rich baritone from the back of the room, as if he’d truly been blessed by things that made the rest of us cringe. It taught me an enduring lesson that’s still with me today: Preacher, it ain’t about you. Your part is to do your homework and show up. But the Holy Spirit is the one that moves hearts.

One thing is for sure: none of us first-timers would have chosen the prophet Joel as our text. But empowered by the Holy Spirit, that’s exactly what Peter did on Pentecost.

The book of Joel is a challenging read. The words are vivid; the book is dominated by the image of swarming locusts that devour everything in their path. These seem to represent the invading armies who brought widespread destruction as a punishment from God for his people’s sin. The prophet therefore calls the people to repent: “Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive. Who knows whether he will have a change of heart and leave a blessing behind him…?” (Joel 2:13-14, CEB).

As suggested in the previous post, the people who heard Peter’s sermon were probably familiar with at least the message of hope in the prophet’s words. After years of devastation would come the gift of abundance:

You will eat abundantly and be satisfied,
and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has done wonders for you;
and my people will never again be put to shame.
You will know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I am the Lord your God—no other exists;
never again will my people be put to shame. (Joel 2:26-27)

These words come just before the ones Peter quotes. What signs will point to that great day of the Lord? Most importantly, God said he would pour out his Spirit on everyone (Joel 2:28).

And that, Peter announced, was happening that very moment, right under their noses.

The vivid imagery of the prophecy Peter quotes lets the imagination roam free. “Blood and fire and a cloud of smoke” (Acts 2:19) — are these images of ruined cities?  “The moon will be changed into blood” (vs. 20) — will the day of the Lord be heralded by an eclipse? Who knows. Some things we will only know in hindsight.

But some parts of the prophecy are particularly relevant for the book of Acts itself. First, while hopeful Jews looked to the restoration of their people, Peter quotes Joel in saying that the Spirit would be poured out on “all people” (literally, “all flesh”): sons and daughters, young and old, even slaves, whether male or female (Acts 2:17-18). True, thus far the crowds have only seen the Spirit poured out on twelve Jewish men — but in a way that clearly pointed to the spread of the mission to everyone, regardless of national origin or social status. The people of God had always been blessed to bless the rest of the world.

Second, Peter ends the quote with these words: “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21). He’s referring, of course, to Jesus. Soon, of course, his sermon will end with an altar call (something else a newbie wouldn’t do), and a highly successful one at that.

But in Joel’s text, “Lord” stands in for the sacred name of God, which Jews consider too holy to say aloud. Our English translations typically and respectfully represent that name as “LORD” in all caps.

This was the astonishing claim of the early church: the man Jesus, the one who was unjustly and shamefully crucified, was not only Lord but LORD.

And that’s where Peter’s first sermon must go next.