Thursday, 21 August 2014

Living Water

"My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water"...
(Jeremiah 2:13)

And then it rained. After weeks of driving through choking clouds of dust, watching the wind chasing it ever higher, further. Vegetation turned dull and desperate. No drama of rolling thunder or wailing winds warned of its coming. Just a soft patter on a tin roof, sweet music to call in the new day. The earth soaked it up thirstily, a hush of relief covering the land, as each blade and leaf was washed clean. I watched the clouds part towards the coming of dusk, and there the mountains lay, glowing in the last rays of sun, forests of green at their feet. This morning everything seemed to sing and shimmer. As I write, the pull from outside the window is strong. I see two small golden heads bopping through the "garden", their voices high and lilting. The smell of fresh bread hangs in the air (my first attempt) and I breathe deep to take in the goodness of it all.

I must be honest. I have no idea where this week's message will take us. I would so much like to write an uplifting, inspiring message. What I do know without a shadow of a doubt is that whatever the outcome, at the heart of it is the irrevocable love of Christ, which longs for His children to move nearer, into a ever closer walk with Him. If it hurts a bit along the way, it will be worth it.

I love the way the book of Jeremiah begins. God calls to Jeremiah saying: "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born, I set you apart..." (v5). And how does Jeremiah respond? Alas, Sovereign Lord,” he said, “I do not know how to speak, I am too young.” Another version says: "I am but a child"... He was about 20 at the time, and it was no doubt a daunting task for such a young man to give God's warnings and harsh words of judgement to the people of  Israel. But God told him not to be afraid of them, for He was with him and He would rescue him. He even touches Jeremiah's mouth and says: "I have put my words in your mouth".

When I realised what the scripture for this week was, I felt a bit like Jeremiah. How can I, with all my issues and warts and shortcomings write a message based on a rebuke? I started paging around for something more positive, but those were the words that stuck.

So I had to trust that God would also touch my mouth and help me to speak the truth, even if it meant searching my own heart to see if it was not first of all for myself. As it so often is with writing. And I was stopped short on a few occasions. As I read "My people have committed two sins" I thought - only two? But note that He starts by saying "My people". His chosen, beloved. His own. And then: "They have forsaken me". Can you feel the hurt in that? To forsake, is to give up something formerly held dear, to renounce.

Anyone who has been through a divorce has had a taste of what it feels like to be forsaken by someone "formerly held dear". When our Lord was hanging on the cross, he cried out in the deepest despair to his Father: "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" In those awful moments, Jesus was expressing His feelings of abandonment as God placed the sins of the world on Him – and because of that had to “turn away” from his Son. As Jesus was feeling that weight of sin, He was experiencing separation from God for the only time in all of eternity.

Throughout Jeremiah, God is calling out to his beloved who had become wayward, adulterous, running after other lovers, other gods. In this verse, He uses the image of a people rejecting the "spring of living water". A people who had dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that could not hold water.

The scarcity of fountains or springs in Palestine made it necessary for people to collect rainwater in reservoirs and cisterns. The porous limestone out of which the cisterns were dug, allowed much of the water put into the cistern to escape. Impurities and debris found their way into the water despite the crude filters that some people started implementing. Broken, empty cisterns were sometimes used to keep people captive (think of Joseph, and Jeremiah himself was imprisoned in the cistern of Malchijah, King Zedekiah's son)The pagan gods were symbolised as broken cisterns that could not hold water. Cisterns also served as convenient dumping places for corpses...

We are offered a spring of living water. Jesus. A "well-spring" or a fountain is the purest water that can be found. Who in his right mind would give that up to dig a pit which cannot capture, cannot sustain. Yet, even his own people still do. Jesus offers the spring of water welling up to eternal life, and at times, we turn away to dig our own pits, trust our own strength, preferring our own resources to His. Turning to earthly comforts, sources of joy, ways of evading the narrow road where the living waters flow. Being half awake on a wide, smooth road that leads to away from Him.

In Isaiah 44: 3-4 we read this promise: "For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. They shall spring up like grass amid waters, like willows by flowing streams."

So, despite His people forsaking their First Love, our Father does not forsake us. When Jesus was abandoned on the cross, He became sin for us, payment for all those times that we have forsaken or disobeyed the One and only God. He felt all the loneliness and abandonment that sin always produces, except that it was not His sin – it was ours.

By any human measure of success, the prophet Jeremiah was a colossal failure. For most of his life he was poor, unpopular, isolated and persecuted. The main message of his prophesies is simple: It's too late to avoid God's discipline, so accept it and turn from your sins. Sadly to say, Jeremiah's messages were not well received. His audience discounted his warnings, locked him up in stocks and even threatened his life. He lived to see the invasion of the Babylonian armies, the deportation of his people, the slaughter of Jerusalem's inhabitants, and the destruction of the Temple. He is often referred to as the "weeping prophet".

I've often wondered what kept him going. He had not seen the fulfilment of scripture, witnessed the coming of the Messiah, or had the full living bible (as we have today) by his bedside. But God set Him apart, this he knew. The Lord also placed a burden on his heart to see his people repent and return to the God that he served. He was given "the bigger picture", his reality was a spiritual one. He knew his reward would be an eternity with the One who may have "failed" to save Israel from their enemies at the time, but reached down from the cross to save a whole world of lost sinners in need of grace.

Jesus calls to a (nearly) spiritually dead world to abandon their broken cisterns, to leave behind the murky water of false securities and dark wells of sin, shame and insecurity to repent and drink from the Spring that cannot contain anything but Life.

The nail-pierced hands of Jesus are still extended to those who know just how in need of a Saviour they truly are. He still offers the living waters to those who wish to thirst no more. He still promises that what He gives, the world cannot take away. But he cannot forsake Himself, so before Him there can be no other god, no other love or idol to stand between Him and You and Me.

Will we continue to run to compete with the standards of the world, longing for the glamour rather than the glory? This is God's promise to each of us, as we turn from wherever we have strayed, to take up our burden and run the good race and fight the good fight for his Kingdom. Regardless of the cost.  "I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart."(Jer 24:7).

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