Minor Prophets II: Pentecost
Today we continue our study of the Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets. Last week we asked, “What is a Prophet?” And we said that a prophet is fundamentally a “friend of God.” The friends of God know God, speak to God, and God speaks to them. God wants to know what they think; He wants to hear from them. And because they know God as His friends, they can speak on His behalf, and they can speak to God on behalf of others.
But because of the nature of God, this friendship and its resulting demands are intense, fierce, and often quite overwhelming. Imagine one of your best friends going through a horrific event: the loss of a parent, a spouse, a child, chronic health problems or disease, the rebellion of a child, or a messy divorce, the loss of a job and economic collapse. Perhaps you have had that kind of experience. As a close friend, you experience the loss, the pain, the confusion, the unrest with them. Their pains are your pains. Their loss is your loss. You bear their burdens with them.
Now magnify that on a scale of infinity. What is that like when your Friend is the Creator of the Universe? What is this like when your Friend is the Lord of Heaven and Earth? What is it like when God’s children rebel? What is it like when His bride is unfaithful and sleeps around? What is like when His property is ravaged and pillaged and plundered? How does God grieve? How does God express His anger? What is like to be the Friend of God then?
We must be careful here. God is not a man who flies off the handle. And God is not a man who is surprised by the future, surprised by the rebellion of His people. But nevertheless God is not eternally aloof. He is not apathetic. He is not passionless. His passions are not exactly the same as ours. But the Bible describes God as jealous, as angry, as grieved, as love – and therefore it is right and proper for us to understand that there is something in God that answers to these feelings, these passions, these experiences. And, in case we are still in doubt, this Infinite God has permanently joined His divine nature to our human nature in the Man Jesus. Now God is a man who has felt what we have felt, who has experienced the temptations that we face, who sympathizes with us in our weakness. But this also means that when God expresses His fierce anger, His jealous love, His intense agony over His people, He speaks truly. He speaks accurately, knowing full well what He is saying.
I want to zero in on one particular expression of God’s reaction to human sin, one of God’s particular responses to human rebellion and unfaithfulness – a particular pattern and theme that we are going to meet again and again in the Minor Prophets. And this is a theme that goes hand in hand with Pentecost, what we are celebrating today, on the fiftieth day after Easter and the pouring out of the Spirit. This response is the proclamation of the end.
Prophets always show up at the end of things, at the end of the world as we know it. The Prophet Noah preached the justice of God and the coming flood. Moses preached judgment on the Egyptian world. Samuel ended the era of the judges and reluctantly inaugurated the new world of the Kings. Nathan confronted David for his sin and announced that baby Bathsheba would bear would die. Prophet’s announce doom. Prophet’s announce death. Prophets announce darkness. Prophets proclaim the end.
Amos says this: “The end has come upon My people Israel; I will not pass by them anymore. And the songs of the temple shall be wailing in that day,” says the Lord God – “many dead bodies everywhere, they shall be thrown out in silence” (Amos 8:2-3). Or Nahum declares against Nineveh: “But with an overflowing flood, He will make an utter end of its place, and darkness will pursue His enemies” (Nah. 1:8). Joel declares darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, the moon going dark, the sun turned to darkness (Joel 2:2, 10, 31). Zephaniah declares a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of devastation and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of thick clouds and darkness (Zeph. 1:15). Jonah declared to Nineveh, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jon. 3:4).
Prophet’s come to announce the end. They announce the coming doom, the coming judgment, the coming death, the coming desolation.
But one of the most striking things about the prophets is how in the very next breath, in the very next verse, after declaring the end, after pronouncing the doom, the darkness, the death from which no one can return – comes a message of hope, a promise of deliverance, a remnant will remain.
Hosea spends most of the first two chapters of his prophecy enacting and explaining how Israel has been an adulterous bride, seeking out many lovers. And God is bring charges against her, like an angry, bereaved husband, God announces that He will no longer be Israel’s God. He will no longer have mercy on her. And He says that when He does this Israel will try to find Him. She will feel sorry and come looking for Him again. And when she comes looking, she will not find Him. God will take back all the wedding gifts He gave her. He will take away the clothes, the silver and the gold, the grain and new wine. He will take away all her feasts and ravage her land.
And then in the very next verse, Yahweh says this: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, will bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfort to her. I will give her her vineyards from there, and in the Valley of Achor as a door of hope; she shall sing there as in the days of her youth, as in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt.” (Hos. 2:14-15)
What is this? How can God say this? How can God claim in one breath that He will make an end of His marriage to Israel and then in the next speak comfort to her? How can He say that she will look for Him and not find Him, and in then immediately say that He will woo her, like a Lover? How can God say that He will take away all her feasts, all her joy, and destroy all her vines, and then immediately turn and say that He will cause her to sing and He will giver her vineyards?
The answer is not that God changed His mind. Or at least the answer is not that God was wrong to call for the end, to announce judgment and darkness and doom. The answer is that for this God, for our God, the end of human history is never the end of the story. The end of kingdoms, the end of rulers, the end of eras, the end of worlds is never the absolute end for God. We serve the God who spoke worlds into existence out of nothing, and when He chooses to bring worlds back to nothing, it can hardly surprise us that from this nothing, a new world emerges. In fact, what we begin to suspect is that when God calls for the end. When God pours out His fierce wrath on sin and rebellion, when He sends the prophets to proclaim the end, He is in fact getting ready to start again. For God send the light back into darkness, to turn the moon and sun into thick darkness is to prepare to proclaim a new light, a new creation – new worlds are getting ready to be born. And in this way, proclaiming judgment and darkness, proclaiming the end is always for our God, His way of proclaiming deliverance, light, proclaiming the beginning because our God is the end and the beginning. And in Jesus, He is the Lord of the grave, the Lord of the dark. And He is the Lord of Life, the Lord who triumphs over the grave.
Jesus as the Greater Moses, the Great Prophet of God, God’s only Beloved Son stands in the great tradition of the prophets then, when He proclaims judgment. Jesus speaks parables and says that He is the fulfillment of Isaiah who preached in order to make the people deaf, dumb and blind. And then in the next moment, Jesus is so frequently healing the deaf, the dumb, the blind. Which is it, we ought to ask? Are you there to create blindness or to heal blindness?
Jesus says that He tells parables in order to confuse, in order to frustrate, in order to offend. And in the gospels we see that this is precisely what happens. His stories are strange, puzzling, mysterious, and often pointed. His stories make many people stop following Him, and others begin to plot how to destroy Him. And yet Jesus says that He came to tell the truth, to reveal the Father to Israel, to comfort the afflicted. Well, which is it, we want to ask? How can you do both? How can you be so sharp with your words, so offensive and then claim to be their as the Good Shepherd to protect the sheep from the wolves?
Or Jesus tells the disciples and those following Him that the only way to find their lives is to lose them. They must leave behind family and friends and jobs, and they must lose them all for His sake and for the sake of the gospel. And yet, He says that came to bring life and healing and the Kingdom of God. Well, which is it? How can you say both?
Jesus is doing and saying exactly what the prophets did and said. He comes to proclaim the end. He says that the temple will be destroyed. He says the end is coming. He says, “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt. 5:11-12)
Rejoice in hardship. Rejoice when it gets dark. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad when you lose good things. Rejoice when you are misunderstood, mistreated, when the world is growing darker and more chaotic. Rejoice because the end is always just before the beginning, because death comes before resurrection, because we serve the God who begins again.
Pentecost was established by God in the Old Covenant. When the disciples were praying in the upper room on that Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, there were Jews from every nation gathered in Jerusalem because it was one of the great Jewish feasts. In Leviticus 23, God instructed Israel to celebrate a number of annual feasts, and this feast was originally called the Feast of Weeks, celebrating the beginning of the wheat harvest (Lev. 23:15-16). The earlier crop was Barley, and there was a Feast of Firstfruits where the Israelites offered the first part of the Barley harvest (Ex. 9:31-32, Ruth 2:23, 2 Kgs. 4:42). God said that they were to bring the “first sheaf” or literally a “sheaf of the beginning” (“reysheet”) to the Lord. This is the same word that is used in Genesis 1, when God began to create the heavens and the earth: “in the beginning…” Then the people were count seven sabbaths and one day to the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, and fifty days later would be the beginning of the wheat harvest (Ex. 34:22). And here again, Israel is commanded to bring two loaves made from the first flour of the wheat harvest. These loaves must be leavened, and my translation once again says: They are the firstfruits to the Lord.
In other words, Pentecost is the Feast of Second Beginnings. Pentecost is the Feast of Beginning Again. The Feast of Weeks is God’s annual reminder that after the beginning, there will be another beginning. After the first harvest there will be another harvest, and year after year, God reminds Israel that He is the God of beginnings and the God of beginning again. He is the God of the first harvest, and He is the God of second harvests. He is the Who God begins and begins again.
What’s also striking though is that Moses tells Israel to bring the first part of the wheat harvest for Pentecost, it’s not the same word as was used for the Feast of Firstfruits – that was the word “beginning” for the “feast of the beginning.” This time, the word is “Firstborn.” On the fiftieth day, on the Day of Pentecost, Israel is to bring the firstborn of the wheat harvest, the firstborn of the wheat bread. On the fiftieth day, Israel is to bake out the first bread from the firstborn of the wheat harvest.
You see, embedded in these feasts for centuries was precisely what God intended to do for His people in Jesus. After Passover, Jesus became the firstfruits of the resurrection, and fifty days later, Jesus sent His Spirit down on His people to make them loaves of bread, festal joy for the world. In fact, if the disciples are the bread, they are also the wine. The people who hear them speaking in different languages accuse them of being drunk at ten o’clock in the morning, but Peter doesn’t entirely deny it. He says this isn’t the kind of wine you think it is. This is the wine of the Spirit, the joy of the Lord. It’s what Joel promised, a great gush of new wine, the Spirit poured out on all flesh, turning God’s sons and daughters into prophets.
And now we come full circle: Joel says that God’s children will be turned into prophets. They will be filled with the wine of the Spirit, and he says that at that time, God will show wonders in the heavens and earth: blood and fire and pillars of smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood. Joel says that when God pours out His spirit prophets will multiply and they will do what prophets always do, they will announce the end. They will proclaim judgment and destruction, fire and blood and smoke.
But then what does the next verse say? You ought to know by now.
“And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Joel 2:32) Why is this? Because our God is the God who proclaims the end in order to bring a new beginning. He is the God of the beginning, and the God of beginning again.
The real trouble is that people don’t like endings. We resent the end of eras. We are all hidebound conservatives really. We are traditionalists of the worst stripe. We are all old dogs and we hate God’s new tricks. But Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He is the God of the Beginning, and He is the Firstborn from the Dead. He is God’s beginning, and God’s beginning against. And it is our sin and our folly and the systems of cruelty and oppression in this world that must die and die again so that God may raise up new life, a new harvest, new bread for the world.
What is the legacy of the prophets? The prophets are hated, resented. A few prophets here and there tried to speak smooth words, good words, cheery words – and we will meet them in the pages of the minor prophets. But the faithful prophets always spoke of the end. But this wasn’t ultimately God’s great temper tantrum. This wasn’t God’s anger gone off the rails. This was ultimately rooted in God’s deep, unrelenting love. God would not let His people go. And so He came again and again announcing the end. That is quite enough, He would say. Now you will die. Now you will feel yours folly and rebellion. Now you will know just a small part of the pain you are pursuing. So you will be attacked by foreign invaders. There will be famines. There will be fire and screaming and pain. But I am the God who brings things to an utter and complete end, so that I may begin again. I proclaim hopelessness so that you might finally find hope.
There is something in every one us that resents this path. Nobody really wants to die. Nobody really wants to take up their cross and follow Jesus. We like to talk about. We put the verses on our refrigerators, on our calendars with pictures of cute bunnies and beautiful sunsets. But Jesus calls us to face the end, to walk with Him into the grave, into utter darkness in order to come out into the light.
And this is part of what it means to be the friends of God. It means that we must both believe that this is the way God is, but it also means that we are entrusted with this story, with this path, with this proclamation. If we are the friends of God, if the Spirit has been given to us, then we are the sons and daughters of God, prophets entrusted with a message. And the message in many ways is the same as it has always been. It’s the message of the end.
It’s the end of selfishness. It’s the end of greed. It’s the end of violence. The end of lies. The end of your world of addictions. The end of your world of abuse. The end of your way of family. The end of your way of pleasure seeking. The end of your kingdoms of security and power. The end of your life in Adam. You must stop serving yourself, protecting yourself. You must stop demanding your rights, your way, your security, your peace, your happiness. It’s all over. That way is death and darkness and gloom. This is the end of those worlds. The end of that way of life. The end of all things that stand against our Jesus and His Resurrection life.
And this sounds like bad news. If we are faithful, this will sound like we are cranks and naysayers. You will sound shrill and extreme and over the top. No one will want to invite you to their parties. But the truth is that we proclaim the end precisely because we know that after the end, God will begin again. But the hard part is that it really is the end. We do not pretend to die. We are not on a movie set and at the end of the cut, we can stand up again and brush ourselves off. No, the end really is a human end. It really is the end of our worlds as we know them. It hurts. It is scary. But you cannot find your life unless you lose it first. There is no other kind of life but resurrection life.
This is Pentecost, the Fiftieth Day, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Beginning Again, the Feast of the Firstborn Bread. If you are in Christ then you are His wheat. And by the power of the Spirit you are being baked, in order that you may be broken, in order that the life of Jesus in you may be shared with the world. This is what it means to be a prophet, a friend of God. God is a consuming fire. He is always fire. And at Pentecost, He came in fire to consume our dross, to transfigure our old worlds into new worlds, to transform the old creation into a new one.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.