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).

Friday, 8 August 2014

Voices in the Wilderness

"A voice of one calling: In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God." (Isaiah 40:3)

Wind. Gusts of it. Gales of it. Night-long restless tugging and blowing. Pushing banks of clouds over the morning sun, briefly glowing behind the curtains. I can often sense the mood of a day, long before the drapes are drawn back. On misty days, there is a hush. Birds are silenced and the world seems far. Soft rain brings a gentle nostalgia to a morning, a freshness that steps out from the layers of dust. Icy frost locks the cold into a fierce grip, lending a sharp biting edge to the day. All creation rejoices over a jubilant sun breaking through the dark of night into the brightness of a new day. One can close your eyes and see the birds spread out their wings to soak it up, chirping and singing at the joy of it. Lizards scurry out of hiding to find a warmed rock or stone. The roof creaks and stretches as the rays reach down and with gentle hands lift everything from its sleep. But wind is chaos - all nature in a struggle to hold onto what the wind wants. I have to remind myself of its purpose, its origin, what it is trying to bring near. And as the world waits and thirsts, the winds of August persist - bringing in a new season, new life. Blowing away abandoned cobwebs, giving flight to pollen and small seeds, all in a seemingly crazy dance to usher in a new season. On days like these, I too have to let it blow, lean into to its jarring rhythms, be willing to hear the Voice, whom all nature and its elements obey.

We tend to resist change. Even when we know that it is inevitable and necessary. It can be painful and uncomfortable. We hold onto the now, the familiar, even if it has become so stale, so tasteless. Like a child hearing it's mother's call to come home, but just wanting to play or linger a bit longer. He is tired, hungry and part of him longs for the warmth of his home, but still he resists.

This analogy took me back to a verse that speaks of change, a beckoning. In many different places in the bible we read of a "voice calling in the wilderness". The first is in Isaiah 40:3:  The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.(King James Bible). The beginning of the "Turn toward Hope". At the beginning of Isaiah 40, the people of Judah are in captivity in Babylon (scholars date this part of the book around 550-540 BC). One question loomed large for the exiles. Since they had clearly failed to be God's people, did they have a future? Would God again work in their midst, or would He simply abandon them? Could God act? In this crisis of faith, God again speaks to the community through the messages of Isaiah 40-55.

The imagery is that of the heavenly council with the voice unidentified. The intent is that God's decree (ruling) of comfort and pardon to the people of Israel was already in process. The preparations were to be made in the wilderness, a desert highway made for our Lord God to return to His people. The highway refers to a large processional avenue for the triumphal entry of the King, as was common practise in the ancient world.

Then follows two beautiful poetic verses: v4 - Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. Emphasis that no obstacle would come in the way of God's forgiveness and deliverance of His people. v5 - And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken." The glory of the Lord was a symbolic way of describing God as present and active in the affairs of human history (Exodus 16:6-10; Isaiah 6:3). God is again acting in human history for the deliverance of His people. All mankind will understand that God is at work.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke use the same words as Isaiah the prophet, to begin the story of the "good news" (the gospel) of Jesus. How John the Baptist prepares the way for the Son of God, the Redeemer. In John 1:23, we read that John the Baptist replied in the same words of Isaiah, when asked who he was, and he said: "I am the voice calling in the desert..." (Remember that the book of John was an eye-witness account of the disciple (John) whom Jesus loved).

When I thought of this verse this morning, it felt like Christ was calling me (us), to once again, be voices in the wilderness. Actually, reminding me of what we should be doing all along. At first I thought - that is a bit arrogant to think that I could begin to compare myself to one as great as John the Baptist. But then I was reminded that John preached in the spirit of Elijah, and we have been given the authority to "preach" in the spirit of John. We do not compare ourselves in any spirit of arrogance, but with the awe-inspiring understanding that Jesus gives us when he says, "Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen one greater than John the Baptiser, yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he" (Matthew 11:11).

In fact I found that the story of John the Baptist is of great encouragement to us. He was a voice quite literally crying in the wilderness, since he preached in the wilderness of Judea under trying circumstances. But there was in his time a religious or spiritual wilderness too. I found it interesting that the Hebrew word for wilderness is "tohu", which means formlessness, confusion, unreality, emptiness. The people were in confusion and under a spirit of deceit as much as people are today.

Aren't all who tell people about Jesus voices crying in the wilderness? The wilderness that we have been brought out of, but so many are still trapped in. Spreading the word "in season and out of season" (2 Tim 4:2). John preached with great spirit and power despite all that was against him. He lost his head (Matthew 13:1-12), but he never lost heart.

At times I feel a deepening pressure on my heart, an ache, a hunger for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, but also an urgency to cry out to those who do not, or will not, know, love and acknowledge Him.

John the Baptist’s preaching turned many sinners to righteousness and made "a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:16-17). He prepared the people for Christ's first coming, yet he remained deeply humble and reminded people that he was not even worthy of tying the shoelaces of the One who was to come after him. 

The realisation that it is my (our) "job" to prepare the world for Christ's second coming (Matthew 28:18-20), makes me exited and a bit apprehensive at the same time. Am I worthy of this calling, will I know the right time, place, have the right words?

John the Baptist preached not only in the spirit, but also in the power of Elijah. We can and should preach in the spirit and power of John. For it was from God that both Elijah and John received their power, and it is from God that we will receive ours.

We don't have to worry about whether God has given us that power or not, for it is in the very gospel we speak (Romans 1:16). All we have to do is to be obedient and steadfast in sharing the good news, and the power will be in our preaching, for it is in the word of Christ that we will speak. Don't be put off by the word "preaching". It may evoke images for you of a starched collared priest or dominee, who hardly ever found a way into your heart as you struggled to stay awake (yes, that was me). The Hebrew meaning of preacher is "a collector (of sentences)," a son of David. Adopted sons and daughters of David, heirs of the Kingdom of God through Christ, let's collect the words of Jesus and offer them to a hungry world.

Trust that as you are faithful, He will be faithful. Our voices will not ring out in a dull echo through a barren wasteland. Your words will find fertile soil, and the heavens will reward it with streams of living water to give them life. No act of obedience to God is futile. It cannot be. For He cannot be unfaithful to Himself. 

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!" (Isaiah 52:7)