Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Let It Pour!

Then afterward I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my Spirit. (Joel 4.28-29)

Witnesses to Prophecy

Many of us heard this passage in last Sunday’s Pentecost reading of Acts 2, where Peter quotes Joel’s prophecy to explain what’s happened. And an explanation definitely is in order. While Jerusalem overflows with Jews from far and wide coming to celebrate Pentecost—the “Festival of Weeks” that ends the 50-day grain harvest and commemorates the Giving of the Torah at Sinai—120 disciples of Jesus remain secluded in an attic. They’ve sat there for 10 days, praying and waiting for the Holy Spirit, Whom Christ promised before returning to Heaven. They don’t know what to expect. If It’s like everything else they’ve experienced since Jesus’s resurrection, it won’t be like anything they imagine. Evidently, the Holy Spirit’s supposed to help them. Having no idea what the Holy Spirit actually is, however, offers no clue how that will work.

It’s early morning on feast day. The street below rests for the moment—a welcome change from the raucous holiday traffic. Without warning, a violent windstorm shatters the silence. The disciples rush to the windows, but outside all is still. The howling gales come from their room. A fire breaks out and dances over their heads. Yelling to one another over the roar only adds to the chaos, as they’re all speaking languages they’ve never spoken or understood. Meanwhile, the explosion bolts neighbors and visiting foreigners out of bed. They’re flummoxed to hear provincial Galileans declaring God’s marvels in their native tongues. Some question what it means. Others laugh it off, accusing the disciples of jumpstarting their holiday. Peter’s Aramaic dialect is restored. He announces, “These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel.” (Acts 2.15-16) As he recites Joel 4.28-32, one envisions those with him nodding their heads and trading glances, as if to say, “Of course our heads are spinning. We’re witnesses to prophecy!”

After the Swarm

Some Old Testament scholars are swift to argue Peter gets Joel’s words right, but mangles their meaning. In the strictest sense, one supposes, they’re correct. Joel’s prophecy is remarkably self-contained, absent of any details by which to date its composition or situate its message in historical context. The prophecy comes in the wake of a locust plague that decimates the region’s crops. Speaking to Judah after the swarm, Joel views the catastrophe as proof of God’s anger and calls the nation to repentance. The total loss plunges them into famine and depletes the Temple’s grain reserves, forcing Judah to turn back to God. Word from the prophet demands more than lip service and ritualized penitence: “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.” (Joel 4.12)

That God requires a famished nation to fast indicates the severity of Judah’s disobedience, and Joel won’t guarantee that will suffice. “Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him,” he says. (v14) He’s of a mind that ridicule Judah endures when other countries observe the extent of its humility and contrition will move God to replenish its storehouses. God agrees, saying, “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, Who has dealt wondrously with you. And My people shall never again be put to shame.” (v26) Once its strength is restored and faith renewed, the prophecy Peter cites will come to pass: “Then afterward I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out My Spirit.” (v28-29) The prophecy’s specific nature and immediacy support opinion the promised spiritual outpouring starts and stops with Judah, long before the Holy Spirit is manifested at Pentecost. Yet limiting Peter to the narrows of Joel’s time-bound message silences the broader, timeless one he delivers by drawing on Joel for his very first sermon, which gains major significance as the Church’s inaugural address.

Expanding Horizons, Ignoring Boundaries

If legitimizing the Upper Room miracle with Scripture is Peter’s sole concern, he has any number of prophecies at his disposal. “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43.19) works, as does Ezekiel 37.14: “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live.” Indubitably inspired by the Holy Spirit, Peter does something radically new. Beyond interpreting Joel’s prophecy in light of the morning’s events (per rabbinical tradition), he uses it to declare a greater prophecy, expanding its horizons by ignoring its boundaries. Near the end of his sermon he proclaims, “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2.39) Joel’s one-time, one-nation prophecy is transformed into Pentecost’s eternal, universal vision statement. The Holy Spirit is poured out on everyone: sons and daughters, young and old, prophets and dreamers, masters and servants, those present and those to come.

The mighty wind of Pentecost blows religious exclusion away. Its flames make cinders of small-minded ideas about God’s grace and acceptance. Its cacophony of tongues verifies the Holy Spirit’s desire to speak to us in language we recognize and relate to. The Spirit not only comes as a promised answer to prayer. It gives birth to a radically new promise of inclusive diversity, boundless faith, and profoundly personal callings. Whether the Church, its denominations, or other believers abide by the vision statement issued 2000 years ago to 120 disciples crammed in an attic doesn’t impact our capability to accept it and build lives of faith on it. The promise is for us. Swarms that devoured all we held dear and left us starving are gone. Our broken and contrite hearts ensure God will replenish what we lost. It’s time to welcome Pentecost’s new day as witnesses to its prophecy: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” Here is the moment we’ve prayed and waited for. Let it pour!

The outpouring of the Spirit is for us—sons and daughters, young and old, prophets and dreamers, masters and servants, those present and those to come.

Postscript: Acts 2

In lieu of reading the text, our church’s associate pastor, Larissa Kwong Abazia, showed this striking treatment of Acts 2 prior to her sermon, “Upended.” The video does what many have tried without much success, rendering the story in a uniquely vivid, credible manner. Check it out.

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