“When it rains, it pours.” We don’t know where that phrase actually originated, but we do know that in 1726, an English doctor and writer named John Arbuthnot published an essay about a series of odd events that had occurred in Britain, each one stranger than the last. The title of the essay was “It Cannot Rain but It Pours.”
We’ve all heard and used that phrase ourselves, usually when one bad event starts a cascade of even more bad events. But that negative phrase got a more positive meaning in 1911. That’s when the Morton Salt Company was incorporated, and they began planning their first national advertising campaign. Morton had begun adding an anti-caking agent to its salt, so it wouldn’t clump up in damp weather. The advertising agency decided to feature that as a major selling point. They proposed a package design that perfectly captured the message: a picture of a little girl standing in the rain, holding an umbrella in one hand and a box of freely-flowing salt in the other. The caption was, “When it rains, it pours.” In other words, even when the weather is bad, something good can come pouring out.
That’s the message that God communicates through Joel. Where there has been suffering, there will be joy. Where there’s been hunger, there will be plenty. Where there has been separation, there will be restoration. All this will be poured out—freely and abundantly—on God’s people. And the greatest out-pouring of all will be the out-pouring of God’s own Spirit.
We know practically nothing about the prophet Joel. He’s one of what we call the twelve “minor prophets,” not because he’s unimportant but because Joel is one of the shorter books of prophecy—just three chapters. We don’t know when he lived; some say he lived and worked before the Babylonian exile, some say during it, but most likely it was later, between 500 and 350 B.C., after the exile was over and the walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt. It appears that he lived in Jerusalem, and it seems that Judah, at the time, was nothing more than a tiny sub-province of the Persian Empire, with nothing obvious threatening its existence.
At least, there weren’t any military threats. There had been an invasion of locusts, which had laid the land bare. Even the fig trees had been stripped of their bark. And after the locust infestation, there’d been a drought—a drought so bad that it wiped out the grain and grape harvests. There wasn’t even enough to perform the required sacrifices in the Temple. The harvest was such a failure, Joel says, that the ground itself mourned, and the joy which typically abounded during harvest time withered along with the crops. You can imagine the Jews looking out over their locust-eaten fields and drought-withered orchards and saying, “It never rains but pours,” in its most negative sense.
The Jewish people saw every catastrophe—natural or human-made—as an indication of God’s wrath. There simply was no other explanation for the disasters that occurred. And on-lookers would wonder about them: what they had done to provoke their God’s anger? Why would their God punish them so?
Unlike many of the other prophets, Joel includes no laundry list of sins in Joel—nothing specific like taking advantage of the weak and the poor, or cheating in business, or indulging in sexual immorality. There are no particular charges laid against the clergy or the ruling classes. But, Joel leaves clues about what’s at the heart of the problem. The problem is that the people have forgotten that the Lord is God, the Lord alone. Their faith has become as stripped and barren as their land. Once the people returned from exile, they’d gotten careless again. They had forgotten what they’d learned about the consequences of faithlessness. They had turned away from God, just as they had before the exile.
God speaks through Joel to this sorry state of affairs, and basically says, “You think this is bad? Just wait until the time of judgment comes. Then you’ll see what the consequences of forgetting look like.”
Joel goes on to paint a picture of what the day of the Lord will look like, and it’s not a pretty picture. But, true to God’s nature, God doesn’t stop with threats of punishment. God offers the people a way to avoid it. God gives them an exit ramp from the life they’ve been leading and the judgment they will suffer as a consequence.
The people can repent. They can return to God with all their hearts, with fasting and weeping and mourning over their faithless ways. Joel picks up where God leaves off. He reminds them of who their God—our God—is: gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Their God—our God—relents from punishing, not because God can be manipulated into it or agrees to swap repentance for salvation. God freely chooses to save because it serves God’s purposes to save.
Joel reports that God has pity on God’s people. The anticipated catastrophes of the day of the Lord are withheld, for the time being. The earlier devastation from the locust infestation will be rectified. Once again, the pastures are green, the animals are no longer in distress, and the orchards bear fruit. The rains come in their appointed times, spring and fall, and there will be an abundance of grain and wine and oil—the very products that are necessary for the offerings in worship.
More importantly, this material abundance will be matched, and more than matched, by spiritual abundance. Through God’s gracious dealings with the people, they will know that God is in the midst of them. Instead of disaster upon disaster, a repentant people will experience blessing upon blessing. With God, it never rains, but pours.
This doesn’t mean, though, that the day of judgment will never come. It will. There will be a day of decision. But this day will come after some other things occur. The first is that God’s people will repent. They will once again see that God is among them, in every aspect of their lives. They will know God and worship God alone. “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,” God says, “and that I, the Lord, am your God and no other.”
And then, it will really begin to pour. “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.”
God’s Spirit had made appearances in the Old Testament before this, but then the gift was made in order to accomplish a particular task: artistic ability for designing the sanctuary in the desert, leadership as Gideon sounded the trumpet outside Jericho, commitment to rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. Each time the Spirit was given, it was to specific people for specific tasks to be completed.
But where there had been sprinkles of the Spirit before, there will be a monsoon of the out-poured Spirit. God will pour out God’s Spirit on all people. Not just a lucky few. Not just the ones who are young and able, or old and wise, or the right gender, or the right economic class, or the right nationality. Everyone who has turned to God will be awash in the Spirit, regardless of age, regardless of gender, regardless of status. Even slaves will be bathed in the Spirit. I imagine that if God were speaking these words today, there would be some additions to that list. Even refugees and immigrants. Even the homeless. Even the mentally and emotionally ill. Even the people who are outside the mainstream, however you define the mainstream. “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh,” God promises.
This time, God’s promised out-pouring of the Holy Spirit will be different than in former times. Instead of being given power for a specific task—to design or lead or build—the presence of the Spirit will indicate a change in the relationship between people and God. Remember last week’s words from Jeremiah: “They shall all know me,” God said. When the Spirit comes, that will herald the day of the Lord, the time in which all things will be restored. This is the great promise that God made to the people through the prophet Joel—a wonderful promise for a future of abundance and absolute intimacy with God.
The day of the Lord will come, but it’s the out-poured Spirit, who guides and directs God’s people to God, who offers what is needed, not to avoid the judgment to come, but to stand before God at that time and call on God’s name. Calling on God’s name isn’t a cry for rescue; it’s a song of praise. It’s heartfelt worship of the one true God. And, God assures us that, in the day of the Lord, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
We may find ourselves feeling a little like the people Joel spoke to in his time, as they struggled with hardship. We’ve certainly had lots of “it never rains but pours” situations here in our congregation. Some of our friends and family members seem to go from one crisis to another. We no sooner regain our footing after losing a loved one or getting through an illness but another dear friend passes or another gloomy diagnosis is made. We face the increasingly dire effects of climate change, war and violence near and far, our never-ending wrestling with COVID, and threats against institutions we took for granted and which some risked their lives to preserve. It seems like it’s been, not just raining, but pouring for a while now in our personal lives and in the world.
The Hebrew people thought that the locust plague and drought were God’s punishment against them. Nowadays, of course, we know the physical causes behind much of the brokenness in the world. We know that cancers are caused by problems in our cells, and that COVID is one virus among many, and that even mental illness can be traced to physical causes. We know that the way we live has an impact on the climate and our society. But when bad things happen, we may still wonder, “Did I do something to cause this? Is God angry with me? Am I being punished for something?”
Many natural and personal disasters are outside our control. They are simply part of our broken world. I don’t believe that God sends disasters in order to punish or instruct. But they can give us an opportunity to reflect on our lives. They do invite us to a time of self-examination, a process that can help us deepen our relationship with God as we look for the places where we have not been faithful. Our actions may not have caused the latest natural or personal disaster, but all of us have cause for repentance and recommitment of our lives to God as Joel calls for. All of us have need to return to the Lord with all our hearts.
When we do, we can receive God’s promise of the out-poured Spirit for ourselves. Centuries after God spoke through Joel, God took the first step toward fulfilling that promise. In Jerusalem, on Pentecost, after Jesus’ death and resurrection and ascension, when the disciples were gathered together in one place, the Holy Spirit was poured out on them—a down-payment on what was to come. They were filled with the Holy Spirit, who came with the sound of a violent wind and appeared like tongues of fire. Peter stood up to preach, recalling the promise that God had made so long ago through Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.” The time had come. The fulfillment of the promise was underway. The Day of the Lord had begun in Jesus Christ and was signaled by the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit.
When the phrase “pour out” was translated from the Hebrew language into Greek, the translator used a word that means to emit something in great quantity. Do you remember the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge of some years ago? There were all those videos on the internet and the news, where people would lift big buckets of ice water, turn them over, and dump the ice water over their heads, kind of like the Gatorade showers that victorious teams give their coaches.
This is how God gives us the Holy Spirit—not just in little dribs and drabs but a gushing fountain of Holy Spirit power. God doesn’t give in a stingy, miserly way, just giving a little here and a little there, just enough to get by; God holds nothing back. God pours out the Spirit on us in an abundant gush of power and presence that saturates every inch of us.
The moment we accept Jesus as our Lord, the Holy Spirit pours into and onto us, and we are filled with the Spirit’s power. Our relationship with God changes. We know God—the God who has written the law upon our hearts. The Holy Spirit gives us the gift of faith, and by the power of the Spirit we know that God is among us in the person of Jesus Christ. We receive the power to resist the sinfulness that is in us, and to live more like Jesus every day.
In response to this grace-filled out-poured gift, we need to do some pouring out of our own. That Greek word for “poured out”? It also means complete dedication—a total surrender of oneself. Think of how we say, “I poured all I had into that project.” “My friend poured her heart out to me.” “There was an out-pouring of community support.” Pouring ourselves out suggests that we hold nothing back.
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” God says. But this doesn’t mean we simply throw ourselves at God’s feet and cry “Lord, Lord” in a last-ditch attempt to save our hides in the last days. It means pouring ourselves out to and for God now, with the same complete dedication that God has for us. It means worshipping God and acknowledging that we depend on God alone—surrendering every last bit of our self-will and self-reliance.
It also means pouring ourselves out for others, because we have been given the vision of the kingdom, which is here now and is coming in all its fullness. We have been given the power to dream dreams of a world of justice and peace. We pour out our own lives, as an offering to God in response to what God has poured out on us, and what Jesus poured out for us—his own blood.
What would that pouring out look like for you? Maybe it would be an out-pouring of forgiveness to that family member or neighbor or co-worker you’ve harbored a long-time beef against, even though you don’t think they deserve to be forgiven. Maybe it goes even further—to where you don’t even do the calculations about who deserves forgiveness and who doesn’t. Maybe it means an out-pouring of understanding and acceptance for someone very different from you, allowing the grace that has been poured into you to pour onto them. Maybe it means opening your circle of friends or your club or your pet project to new people, even though that may mean a change in how things are done. Maybe it means allowing your material resources to flow more freely—your time, your possessions, your abilities, and your money. We are to hold nothing back from God, because God has held nothing back from us. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
That little girl with her overflowing salt box is a good image for us to keep in mind as we think about what God has done and is doing for us. Even when we forget to put God first in our lives, God pours out God’s love for us. When we repent of our sin and return to God with all our hearts, God pours out forgiveness. Like the rain that comes in its appointed time, God pours out the Holy Spirit. In response, we pour out ourselves, to God, for others, and the world will see that, in the things of God, “when it rains, it pours.” Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young