Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sermon for June 12th: John 7:37-39

Thirsty For God

In September of 1967, as a boy of almost nine, I crossed the Atlantic Ocean from England to Canada by boat. Nowadays it’s a trip of only a few hours by plane, but then it took five days from Liverpool to Montreal. When I think back on that, I realise again how vast that Atlantic Ocean is. That’s a huge amount of water!

Of course, centuries ago those sorts of trips took even longer. In the days of sail, ships were totally dependant on the prevailing winds. Sometimes, in calmer climates than the north Atlantic, ships would lie still for weeks on end because there was no wind. And sometimes, tragically, they ran out of drinking water during those times, and people began to die of thirst. It was this kind of situation that gave birth to the famous proverb ‘Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink’. Some people were so crazy with thirst that they did attempt to drink salt water to assuage it; of course, this only made their thirst worse, and they died even sooner because of it.

Psalm 42:1-3 says:

‘As a deer longs for flowing streams,

so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

When shall I come and behold the face of God?

My tears have been my food day and night,

while people say to me continually,

“Where is your God?”’.

In this passage of scripture, ‘thirst’ is used as a powerful metaphor of our deep human longing for God. This longing isn’t satisfied by ideas about God, talk about God, or membership in organisations that work for God. It’s a longing for God himself, and for personal contact with God. When we have this longing, we realise that all the God-substitutes we so desperately embrace amount to nothing but salt-water; they only increase our deep inner thirst for the true and living God.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus uses this metaphor of thirst. The seventh chapter of John’s Gospel is built around the annual Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. This was a very popular feast, a kind of harvest festival. Over the years it had also acquired overtones of longing for the end of this present evil age – the time when God will bring in the Kingdom and the new age of his righteousness will begin - the time when the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all people. During the Feast of Tabernacles, every day water was drawn from the Pool of Siloam and carried in procession to the Temple while the words of Isaiah 12:3 were sung: ‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation’. Also the prophecy of Zechariah 14:8 would be read: ‘On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter’. This verse is a summary of a longer prophecy in Ezekiel 47, in which the prophet sees a vision of a river springing up in the Temple and flowing out into the desert bringing new life and fruitfulness where before there was only dry and barren and thirsty ground.

In this context – surrounded by all this imagery of water – listen again to the words of our Gospel reading:

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let everyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’”. Now this he said about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

It’s as if Jesus is saying to his hearers, “All week long you’ve been enacting symbols about God’s salvation coming like water onto a thirsty ground. Well, I am the reality those symbols point to. Come to me and drink deeply from those wells of salvation”.

Jesus says, “Let everyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink”. Listen to these words from the prophet Jeremiah:

‘Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,

send to Kedar and examine with care;

see if there has ever been such a thing.

Has a nation changed its gods,

even though they are no gods?

But my people have changed their glory

for something that does not profit…

for my people have committed two evils:

they have forsaken me,

the fountain of living water,

and dug out cisterns for themselves,

cracked cisterns that can hold no water’ (Jeremiah 2:10-11, 13).

God’s people turned from the true and living God who was like a stream of fresh water, and instead they made idols for themselves that were like cracked cisterns, unable to hold water. This was their version of the becalmed sailors drinking salt water – it couldn’t satisfy. And today people still turn to idols, false gods, God-substitutes that claim to be able to fulfil God’s role but cannot.

One of the most common, of course, is materialism. We spend years trying to accumulate more and more stuff, even though the ‘more and more stuff’ we’ve already acquired hasn’t satisfied us. The one who dies with the most toys does not win – they just die!

A second very common idol is youth and sexual pleasure. The media hold these up as the great secret of happiness – stay as young-looking as you can, and enjoy the best sex life you can, and you’re bound to be happy forever. We might, however, have a little twinge of doubt when we read the dark truths about the unhappiness of some of the most beautiful and desirable people on the planet. Rock stars sing about everlasting love, but how few of them actually achieve lasting marriages? No, this idol can’t deliver what it promises either.

Another very seductive modern idol is the self. Some of you may remember the old folk trio ‘Peter, Paul, and Mary’. In one of their concerts many years ago, Noel Paul Stookey told a hilarious story about what our magazines say about us. He said “In the 60’s we started a magazine called People. Now that’s a pretty wide-ranging title – there are a lot of ‘people’ in the world! Then in the 70’s a new magazine was started called Us. Now we’re getting a bit narrower. ‘Us’ is still ‘People’ but it isn’t all people, only ‘us’, not ‘them’. Then came the 1980’s when another magazine was started called Self. This has gotten a lot narrower, hasn’t it? When are we going to see a new magazine called Me?’ I haven’t kept track of the magazine racks since that concert, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is such a magazine now, dedicated to the worship of the idol self.

Sad to say, the Church can also become an idol for some. The Church is meant to be a community of faith gathered around the living Lord Jesus Christ. However, some have never met the Risen Lord, and so they turn to the Church instead. It’s unfortunately possible to go through all the motions of Christianity – baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion – and stop there, without making a real commitment of one’s life to Christ. This may be the most insidious idol of all, and I’ll tell you why. People who worship it think they’ve tried Christianity and it hasn’t delivered what it promises, but in fact they’ve only tried ‘churchianity’. What they’ve had is the spiritual equivalent of a vaccination. You know how a vaccination works; you inject a tiny quantity of the disease into people’s bodies, and this awakens their immune system to protect them against the real thing when it comes their way. In the same way, people who worship the idol of ‘church’ have taken a tiny bit of Christianity to protect themselves against the real thing.

All these God-substitutes are nothing but salt water. In the end, they will only increase our spiritual thirst. Maybe you’re feeling that thirst today. Maybe you’re thinking “I know nothing can take God’s place – I’m really thirsty for him”. Good! Let’s think now about drinking!

Jesus says, ‘“Let everyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’”. Now this he said about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive’. So the way to quench our thirst for God is to come to Jesus and drink. When we believe in Jesus – that is, when we put our faith, our trust, in him – he gives us the Holy Spirit who becomes to us like a river of living water in our hearts.

You might ask “How does this happen? How do I come to Jesus and drink?” First, we need to know that all followers of Jesus have the Holy Spirit living in them. Paul says, ‘For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 12:13). If you aren’t sure whether this verse applies to you, you can be sure. Simply pray, committing yourself to Christ in faith, and asking him to live in you by his Holy Spirit. A good way to do this is in the words of the baptismal promises, which we will use in a few minutes. As the parents and godparents make the promises out loud, you might want to make them for yourself, silently, in your heart, turning to Jesus Christ, accepting him as your Saviour and Lord, putting your trust in his grace and love, committing yourself to living in obedience to him.

But there’s more to come. We’re also told in Scripture to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Nicky Gumbel gives a helpful illustration. A gas furnace has a little pilot light burning inside, and that’s vital. That’s like the gift of the Holy Spirit we were each given when we became followers of Jesus. But that won’t be enough to heat the whole house! We need to turn up the thermostat so that the pilot light fires the burners. And in the same way, we need the Holy Spirit to fill us to overflowing.

In the New Testament this is called being ‘filled’ with the Spirit, or having the Spirit ‘fall’ on you. Sometimes it seems to have happened spontaneously, as on the Day of Pentecost where people were praying together and the Spirit surprised them! At other times Christians gather together, lay hands on someone and pray for them, and that person is filled with the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the experience is very dramatic, with a powerful sense of God’s presence and love, perhaps accompanied by supernatural gifts such as speaking in tongues. At other times it seems to be a quieter experience, evidenced by the change in the person’s life as they become more Christlike and as they grow in the exercise of the spiritual gifts God has given them – this was the case when Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter nine, for instance.

This is not just something that happens in the pages of the Bible; down through the centuries Christians have continued to have experiences of the Holy Spirit filling them, some dramatic, some not so dramatic. Let me share with you a personal story I recounted in my book Starting at the Beginning, the story of my Dad’s experience of this. He says,

On Shrove Tuesday 1971, I was part of an ecumenical prayer group and all the members knew that I was waiting, in obedience to the Lord, to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Two of the group asked me if I would like them to pray with me. I agreed and they prayed but nothing happened. I was trying to will myself into the experience but that isn't how it happens. So, in my heart I prayed, "Well, Lord, I've waited twelve years, I can wait longer, if that's what you want". And that was what the Lord was waiting for… And so it happened. My heart was bursting with a joy and peace and love I had never known before.

The way I would describe it is that it's like standing under a great waterfall but the water not only cleanses the outside but pours through the whole body, soaking and enriching every cell. It's realizing that every drop of that water is the Spirit's power filling me to overflowing with the love of Jesus.

I haven’t had a single, overwhelming experience like my Dad. However, many times over the years I’ve prayed that the Holy Spirit would fill me, and sometimes others have prayed that for me too. Often I’ve had a real sense of God answering that prayer – a deep sense of quiet, of joy, of serenity and power, of the Holy Spirit assuring me that I am God’s child - as Paul says in Romans, it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (Romans 8:16).

Life in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is not meant to be unusual; it’s simply normal New Testament Christian experience. If we’re thirsty for God and for a deeper sense of connection with God, then this is what we need. So let’s come to Jesus in faith, ask for this gift, and keep on asking until we too experience this river of living water flowing out from us.

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