ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JUNE 30, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Psalm 42: 1 – 5; Revelation 22: 1 – 5; John 4: 7 – 15
A father was shopping with a very fussy two-year-old in the grocery cart. The child was wiggling, whining, kicking the cart and reaching for the shelves. The father walked along, quietly whispering, “It’s okay, Billy. We’ll be done soon. Just a little longer, Billy.” A woman overheard him and said, “I am so impressed with how loving and patient you are with little Billy.” The man replied, “Oh, my son’s name is Luke. I’m Billy!”
Most of us want to be the best “me” possible. The person God wants us to be. We long to be fully alive, fully ourselves, people who make God smile and who fulfill our purpose in God’s plan. Most of us realize we’re not that person very often. We want to be, but the trouble is, we don’t know how. So, what we usually do is try and when that fails, we try harder. We tell our self, “Self, you can do this” and we set out to be better people. We go out of our way to serve others. We say ‘yes’ to every opportunity of self-sacrifice. We get some books on self-improvement. We set goals at work and home. We try to be humble. We attempt to be more pleasant. Maybe we get up at 4 in the morning to pray. But try as we might at 4 in the morning, we’re not pleasant people – we’re grumpy. Personally, at 4 a.m. no one wants to be around me – not even Jesus! Have you ever decided to be a more patient parent, and then find yourself yelling at your kids? To worry less and trust in God more, only to wake up anxious? To be more honest but find yourself telling half truths to get out of uncomfortable situations? To love people, yet continue to pass judgements, gossip about others and find forgiveness a struggle? To give more time to our Church community only to find ourselves over-committed and over-wrought? Do you stoke your desire to spend more time with God in worship, prayer and scripture reading, only to see it fizzle out like a campfire in a thunderstorm? The bottom line is we approach our spiritual growth like a New Year’s resolution. We say, “this time I’m going to do better – I’m going to be better”, we set targets and put our best foot forward only to discover it’s not as easy as we thought it would be. Before long, our progress halts, then it stalls, then it stops. We languish. In the face of defeat, we simply give up. Often, this becomes a cycle – we re-dedicate ourselves to walking with Christ, only to end up sitting alone. So, we settle for being the self we are, cling to God’s grace and hoping we can slink past the pearly gates.
The problem is: we can no more sanctify ourselves than we can save ourselves. Just as there is a gap between us and God that can’t be bridged by our efforts, so there’s a gap between our self and the person God desires us to be. Just as only Jesus can bridge that first gap, only the Holy Spirit can bridge the second gap. Salvation is the result of God’s grace in Jesus Christ; sanctification is the result of God’s grace through the Holy Spirit. Just as we’re saved by grace, God means for us to live by grace. Put another way, we need more power than we have on our own to become our true, best self. We need divine power. Have you ever tried to water ski behind a rowboat? It doesn’t work. There’s not enough thrust to pull us up on the skis. No matter how hard we row, we’ll never rise to the level we desire. We need a power boat to get us on our feet. In the same way, we can’t row our way to wholeness, we need the power of the Spirit to reach God’s goal for us.
One of the most pervasive images in the Bible is that of water. At the beginning, God’s perfect creation, the Garden of Eden is watered by a river flowing through it (Genesis 2:10). At the end, in the book of Revelation, John shares his vision of the New Jerusalem where the crystal bright, water-of-life river “flows from the throne of God” (Revelation 22:1). In Ontario water flows everywhere; sadly, we take rivers for granted. But in the deserts of Israel, water is a rare and precious commodity. In a desert, one quickly learns that water is life. When a river flows, life abounds. If a river dries up, life dies. Water is a gift from God. When Jesus met the woman at the well, he asked for a drink of water. When she questioned his propriety, Jesus responded, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water” (John 4: 10). He went on to explain, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.” (vs. 13 – 14). Notice Jesus didn’t tell her that she’d have to manufacture this water for herself. He didn’t suggest they form a bucket brigade to keep the pump primed and the water running. He simply said that coming to him, asking and receiving his Spirit, creates a spring of water deep within us that will never stop flowing. The only way to become the person God created you to be, is to live with the Spirit of God flooding through you like a river of living water. The flow of the Spirit is so strong and endless it fills us to overflowing.
In the passage we read from Revelation the Water-of-Life River flows from God’s throne, through the centre of the New Jerusalem. On each side of the river is the Tree of Life. Do you remember that tree? It’s the other important tree in the Garden of Eden, the one guarded by angels and a flaming sword. Now, it flourishes by the River producing a different fruit each month. The tree doesn’t force itself to bear fruit. All the tree does is live near the river and draw its nourishment from the water. The fruit is the by-product of that connection, of that abiding. And it’s not the tree that eats the fruit – the fruit is for others. There are twelve harvests per year, reminding us of the twelve tribes of Israel and the 12 disciples. In other words, through the tree God is giving life to his people. And then we’re told, “The leaves of the Tree are for healing the nations” (Revelation 22: 2). It’s not just for insiders, it’s for everyone – for the healing of the nations. For the Gaza strip and Israel; for Darfur and North Korea and Afghanistan; for those who suffer from AIDS; for orphaned, hungry children; for victims of terrorism and for terrorists; for the lonely person in a city of millions; for aboriginal peoples; for the woman in a shelter; for those whose homes are ripped apart by divorce; for the nation of Canada. The Spirit never just flows in us, she flows through us for the well-being and life of others.
What flows through you? When I was a kid, if I spilled a drink, I’d get yelled at and I’d have to clean up the mess. When I worked as a waitress, the first time a kid spilled a drink, my impulse was to yell at him; I realized I couldn’t do that so I smiled, told him it was okay, got a cloth, cleaned it up and brought him a new drink. What I learned that day was there were other ways to react to a spill. Another day, I’d spilled recycling on the road and was trying to pick it up. One driver flew by cursing me; the next stopped to ask if I wanted help. When someone bumps into me, what spills out of me reveals what’s inside me. When the Spirit flows in you, you overflow with life, your “cup runneth over” with goodness and mercy.
How do we know the Spirit is flowing through us? Like a watered tree, we bear fruit. Spiritual fruit, such as “affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion, and a desire for holiness. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to use and direct our energies wisely.” (Galatians 5: 22) When I’m joyful and loving, patient and kind, when I experience gratitude and satisfaction deep in my soul, the Spirit is flowing in me. When I bless others bringing wholeness and healing into their lives, the Spirit is flowing in me. Then I’m “like a tree replanted in Eden, putting down roots near the rivers— Never a worry through the hottest of summers, never dropping a leaf, Serene and calm through droughts, bearing fresh fruit every season” (Jeremiah 17: 8) . Then I’m my best and truest self, the person God created me to be.
In Psalm 42, the psalmist compares his desire for God to that of a parched, dying deer searching for water in a desert. If you want life, you want God. You want him the way a dying deer thirsts for water. Imagine being that deer and hearing another deer yell, “I found water, over here!” You’d pick up your wobbly, weak carcass and get there as fast as possible, you’d lap it up. In your joy, you might even jump in and roll in it. You’d stay there forever if possible. Jesus calls out to us, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me” (John 7: 37) If your desire is for life, you need to run to Jesus and jump into the river. You need to open yourself to the Holy Spirit and be swept away in her power. You need to go with the flow. Paul said, “Do not quench the Spirit” If you believe in Jesus, the Spirit is already within you, flowing like a river, gushing fountains of endless life. What Paul is suggesting is that our job, our only job, is to let the water flow – to not plug up the fountain. The more my habits are formed around resentment, anxiety, greed, superiority, lies or rage, the more often I will clog the fountain. Whenever I refuse to look at my behaviour, listen to the guidance of another, or follow Christ, I quench the Spirit. One of the greatest inventions of our time is the GPS. This little machine can get you where you want to go. It has a voice that says, “Turn left in 800 metres” and if you turn left, you’re on your way. The trouble arises when the voice says, “Turn left” and you say, “I think you’re wrong. I’m not turning left” so you turn right and get lost. What does that voice say to you then? It doesn’t say, “Ha, ha. I told you so, you idiot. I’m not helping you now. You rejected me. Find your own way home.” It says, “Recalculating. When safe to do so, make a U turn.” That is what grace is like. At the point we can turn around or we can unplug the GPS, toss it out the window and go our own way. That’s how the Spirit works also. The Spirit says to you, “Go this way, here is the route home… recalculating, make a U turn.” If we’re stubborn and self-willed, we quench the Spirit. If we listen and surrender, we turn around. We call that repentance. Do you want to come home to your true home in heaven? Do you want to open yourself to the grace of God in Jesus Christ and over-flow with life? Do you want to be your best and truest self, the “me” God desires you to be? Then let go. Be swept away in the current of the Holy Spirit, follow the river, draw from it’s water and you will bear fruit.