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Poor in Spirit or Pour the Spirit?
April 6, 1975

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

JOEL 27:28-29

Perhaps the word “pour” to most Americans suggests the pouring of a cup of coffee, the keynote of fellowship. “Pour a cup of coffee and sit down.” But, when Joel the prophet used the word in connection with with the Spirit, “l will pour out my spirit”, Joel was thinking of an act of much more magnitude and majesty. A few verses earlier he used the word pour in connection with an abundant rain. As a rain is welcome after a drought, the non-discriminating, free pouring rain, falling on everyone and everything without thought of waste or conserving, so the Spirit is poured. We who are blessed with Yosemite in our backyard can picture water pouring over the falls in the spring—overwhelming, roaring, pouring. 

Last Sunday l emphasized in the Easter message the present reality of God’s presence, of his power, but that is not the entire story. There is a futuristic element. Yes, the resurrection of Christ, his presence in your life right now, enables you to find meaning, fulfillment in all you do and wherever you may be; but there is more. There is a yearning, a longing in all of us for something more. The yearning feeds our hope, gives us the impetus to proceed into tomorrow, into the next task, the next challenge, the next friendship. We look forward, we press on. We yearn, “O, that I might taste and see.” 

Joel phrased this hope, this promise, “And it shall come to pass that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” Joel prophesied during the exile in its latter days. After Babylon conquered Judah and led its leaders into captivity, the people yearned, longed to go home. Joel expressed this hope in terms of the spirit. The chief function of God’s spirit as understood in that day was to prophesy. Joel’s prophesy sometimes meant to give an ecstatic utterance, an intense emotion.  But prophesy as understood by the great men we have been looking at recently is the ability and courage to proclaim God’s message to the people—God’s message of instruction, warning and prediction of what might happen if the people do not repent. Joel’s contribution to the prophetic movement was his belief that there would come a day when the Spirit of God would come and give to all Israelites the ability to prophesy. “All flesh” means everyone. This was a new idea, a sign of hope, that not just a select few would be prophets and receive God’s spirit, but that everyone would. There would be no distinction, no sexism. The Bible is not so male-oriented as our culture in the past has led us to believe. There were women prophets. Joel prophesied that God’s spirit would come on both sexes. “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” 

Joel foresaw no distinctions based on age. “Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” Joel foresaw no distinctions based on social class or vocation. “Even upon the men­servants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my spirit.” 

The prophesy of Joel, the New Testament believed, was fulfilled in the early church. Part of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, which we shall celebrate May 18, quoted Joel’s prophesy which was read in the New Testament lesson this morning. Peter believed that the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles was a fulfillment of Joel’s prophesy. The book of Acts in which we read about the early church and the acts of the Spirit of God in the church shows that Joel’s understanding of the work of the Spirit was continued into the New Testament. As Joel and the Old Testament associated the Spirit of God with prophesy, so the early church in the book of Acts associated the Holy Spirit with the ministry and mission of the church. 

The Holy Spirit moved, was poured out upon the apostles and early believers to provide the dynamic required for them to carry on the mission of Jesus in the world. The Holy Spirit provided the motivation and power so that young group called the church could go forth in mission. They spoke in tongues, they had power to prophesy, they worked miracles, they healed in order that the church’s mission on the behalf of Jesus Christ could succeed. The Holy Spirit sent them, instructed them, directed, gave them courage, so they could do Christ’s work. They experienced their lives being changed. They felt power in their lives. They received courage to witness, to preach, to stand up for Jesus. And, all so they could fulfill the church’s mission. 

Albert Outler said, in characterizing the modern church, “They are a dwindling band of nominal Christians who bear his name but do not share his joy and victory!” We who yearn, long for joy, victory, for the presence of his Spirit, need to realize that the pouring out of his spirit in the Bible was not done so that the recipients would feel good or get healed, find their pain relieved, or give them goose-bumps. The pouring out of God’s Spirit has to do with the task of doing his work. God gives his spirit not for our personal, selfish desires, not for what we think we need in our lives; God pours his Spirit like the Yosemite waterfalls so that we may be enabled, empowered to be his church, to be his body, to do his work and mission in the world at this time.

Our Methodist forefathers discovered the outpouring of God’s Spirit. The Wesleyan revival swept over England and then fron­tier America in the century that followed because of the Holy Spirit. Wesley explained the gospel in terms that we have sometimes forgotten. Wesley said the work of the Holy Spirit was to redeem and to sanctify when God moves in us, forgiving us, accepting us, claiming us as his children. In this relationship, we experience the risen Christ giving us meaning and purpose in our lives. 

The Holy Spirit also seeks to give us a second blessing, as the old-time Methodists called it. Wesley called it “perfection”. The Holy Spirit seeks to sanctify believers to come upon us with power, so that we may know his joy, his peace, his concern for other people, and experience a whole new dimension to life deeper than we have ever known. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the early Methodists, was related to the mission of the church. Those early Methodists were empowered to evangelize, to gather people into their movement, introducing them to Christ, setting them afire to bring others in. Those early Methodists did something about the miserable conditions of that day: child labor, lack of schools (they started Sunday Schools to teach reading, writing and arithmetic). Those early Methodists received the Holy Spirit not for their own personal, selfish needs, but that they would be empowered to be Christ’s church. 

Where are we today? I feel we are living in times similar to Joel’s. We look to the future for God’s outpouring. We are anticipating. The pouring of the Spirit does not seem to be constant. There are times of drought. There are periods when God is silent, when he doesn’t speak, when he doesn’t pour. God is always present to redeem. Christ is always at work to forgive, accept us and claim us as his witnesses. 

But the second blessing, the outpouring of the Spirit, when the church is enabled to do his work in power, courage, and joy seems to be periodic. We don’t dictate to the Holy Spirit. He does not respond to our program. God is free. There is nothing automatic about the pouring of the Spirit; not when we do such and such, God will bless us. God blesses, God pours in his own good time. God decides the program. We anticipate. And I feel that there are signs around us of revival; signs of God’s spirit coming. There are signs of hope and rejuvenation. These are exciting, good days in which to be alive. Something is stirring. I feel it across the church and I feel it in St. Paul’s.

So what is the stance of a Christian today? We wait. While we wait, we work, we serve, we believe, we pray, we do what God has asked us to do. The stance is to be “poor in spirit”. When Jesus said that the poor in spirit will be blessed, he was referring to those who are in poverty, yes, but more so he was referring to those who look to God who are not just miserable in body, but afflicted in spirit. They feel their spiritual need. They long, yearn, hunger, thirst for God. In the Old Testament the word “poor” is often a synonym for those who wait on God. Much of the Bible was spent in waiting. Much of the Christian life is spent waiting, praying, being open, being ready, longing for his presence, so that his work may be done. Not for the meeting of our needs do we pray for the pouring of the Spirit, but that we may be enabled, empowered to be his church and do the work of Christ.

Joel anticipated the day when God would pour out his spirit on all flesh. We have seen that event many times in history. Perhaps we can experience it in oμr own lives, in our church. Blessed are the poor in spirit for they shall receive the pouring of the Spirit.

© 1975 Douglas I. Norris