Sunday, July 27, 2014

Broken Cisterns and Living Waters

Sermon on Jeremiah 2:10-13 and John 4:7-14.  Delivered 27 July 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  (The first line or two did not get recorded.)

Like most of the Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah had to warn God's people about things they really should have known already. For instance, the people of ancient Judah should have known that God is “the fountain of living waters”. They should have known that there's no one else worth turning to, nothing else worth turning to. But instead, in Jeremiah's day, the people of Judah had chosen a trade. They took the glory of God, a glory he offered freely among their presence, and they considered it worth bartering away at the local flea market. They traded glory for shame. They traded truth for lies. They traded the uncreated for the created. They traded the divine for the mundane.

Paul picks up these same themes centuries later in Romans 1, where he talks about how Gentile humanity traded uncreated truth for man-made deception; and naturally they went on to trade God's design of human love for rebellious reversals of God's intention. They traded nature's clear witness to God's plan in exchange for voluntary blindness. They traded faithful struggle against our human brokenness in exchange for a defiant celebration of human sin. Paul focuses there on a fruit that most perfectly illustrates the absurdity of the root, and even today, the church has to constantly point back to God's design, reminding an unwilling people not to trade the godly struggle for the sinful surrender.

Hundreds of years earlier, Jeremiah focused in on that same root: the stubborn quest to barter God away for something of our own making. Jeremiah calls God the “fountain of living waters”: he continually flows, he never runs out, he is pure, he is the source for life. But the people of Judah traded him for “empty cisterns”, things that do not flow, things that do run out, things that are easily polluted, things that are no source at all. Judah didn't just find these; they made them themselves. They “hewed them out” personally. That is, the people of ancient Judah turned away from the uncreated God, and instead they created God-substitutes and focused on those to sustain them, to satisfy them, and to refresh them.

Now, it's easy to point the finger at ancient Judah. Prophets like Jeremiah see things so clearly. Prophets like Jeremiah – and apostles like Paul – tell it like it is, with no mincing of words, with no fuzziness to cloud what's at stake. They see exactly what is going on here. But Judah is not alone, and the Gentiles of Romans 1 are not alone. They may be extreme, but they're not alone. Idolatry in its various forms is a longstanding human problem, and as crazy as it is, it's an easy trap.

See, we often take things in our lives – some bad things, some decent things, even some wonderful things – and we turn them into God-substitutes. Even when we give lipservice to God, as I'm sure the people of Judah did, we look elsewhere when it comes to quenching our thirst and keeping us going. We may look to the work we do, the accomplishments of our minds and our hands. We may trust in our financial savings for security, thinking that if we just had a bit more in the bank, we'd have some breathing room to find peace. Or, maybe we rely on our social status in our community. We may look to our family and friends to satisfy us, or to other relationships in our lives. We may turn to our own passions and desires. We may turn to our 'tribe', our patriotic heritage as Americans. We may turn to our local, state, or federal government to sustain us, to satisfy us, and to refresh us.

Most of those things aren't bad in themselves – when we hold them loosely. But when we build an idol and cling tightly to its feet, we're in trouble. Because we are made in the image of the glorious true God, yet we sell ourselves into slavery to the images of non-gods. And we reflect what we worship. We reflect what we trust in. When we turn to the God who's a fountain of living waters, who bubbles forever with life, we become lively, we're restored to his image, we become what we were meant to be. When we turn to even the second-best thing, which reflects God imperfectly at best, then we pattern ourselves after a funhouse mirror that catches God at an angle. And instead of growing healthy, God-centered, more human, we become distorted, twisted, dehumanized.

All those other things we might trust – when we idolize them, we make them into broken cisterns. They aren't the fountain of living waters. Not all the wishful thinking in heaven and earth can make them that. Broken cisterns hold no water – at least, not for long. What puddles do form are brackish, teeming with parasites. Sipping from them poisons us from the inside-out. They're stagnant. And they will run dry.

Maybe we see them run dry tomorrow. Maybe it takes a week, maybe it takes months, maybe it takes years or even decades of running from cistern to cistern, trying desperately to satisfy ourselves. But one thing we can know for sure: in the Day of the Lord, when all this story gets wrapped up and becomes the prologue to the new creation, those cisterns will be dry as dust – every last one. They will not sustain life. God, the fountain of living waters, will clearly stand alone. The all-too-familiar “double evil” of turning from him and trusting other things will leave many people high and dry. Charles Wesley was struck by this passage from Jeremiah, so he turned it into a prayer (Poetical Works 10:3):

Ah! Lord, with late regret I own,
I have the double evil done,
Forsook the Spring of life and peace,
And toil'd for earthly happiness:
But what in them I sought with pain,
I could not from the creatures gain,
The cisterns which my folly hew'd
They would not hold one drop of good.

Now for my double sin I grieve,
Again the broken cisterns leave;
Again I after Thee would go,
And gasp Thy only love to know:
Fountain of true felicity,
Eternal God, spring up in me,
And fill'd with life, and love, and power,
My heart shall never wander more.

In the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, we see Jesus meet a woman next to a cistern. In her life, she's hewn many broken cisterns, and now she's trapped in her defeat and in her brokenness. She's gone from husband to husband, and now to a man who's not her husband. She tries to deflect, but Jesus gently probes to the heart of her situation and brings it out of the darkness into the light. He points out that, no matter which cistern she tries, she'll always be thirsty. She'll always need to grasp after something new – unless she accepts living water from him. Jesus, God in the flesh, presents himself to this Samaritan woman as the fountain of living waters. He promises that if she takes the refreshment, the sustenance, and the satisfaction that he offers, she'll need nothing more.

Jesus offers the same to us. He offers the same to our friends and our neighbors. He offers the same to our state and our nation, if we'll listen. He offers the same living waters to Ukrainians and Russians, to Israelis and Palestinians, to dreamers of peace and to dealers of death – come to Jesus and find life, true life, healing life. Only he can offer living water to soothe every hurt, to quench every thirst. No other prophet or philosopher brings it, unless they point to Jesus. We can't wrestle it into our lives with the force of guns and tanks. We can't vote ourselves into it through democracy. We can't charge it to our credit cards. It takes humble faith: just go back to the one fountain, the only fountain.

Only Jesus offers these living waters: the presence of the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit, bubbling up forever fresh in human life. In the coming Day of the Lord, all cisterns will be dry as dust, but this fountain will not fail. This fountain will flow and flow eternally, suppling the river that runs from the throne of God and waters the tree of life with leaves for the healing of the nations. This fountain will sustain life eternally in the world to come. And Jesus offers it right now, today, to me and to you. The people of Judah turned away in a “double sin”, the pagan Gentiles traded their Creator for man-made idols, but we can cling to the fountain of living waters. We don't have to be anxious about trusting in that fountain. We don't have to keep up our exhausted sprint from cistern to cistern, lapping up a puddle here and a puddle there.

Come to the fountain! Drink deep! Jesus is the Fountain of God's Spirit, and if we cling to Jesus in faith, hope, and love, he promises that his Spirit will irrigate our lives, satisfy our deepest longings, refresh us when we wear out, and sustain us to live in the kingdom of God eternally. Praise God for a fountain like that! Praise God for such a Savior!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Ambassadors of Another Kingdom

Homily on Luke 8:1; 13:29; Colossians 1:12-14; and 2 Corinthians 5:17-20.  Delivered 13 July 2014.  My first homily delivered as the assistant pastor of Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church. 

Good morning, brothers and sisters. It's a delight to be here today to celebrate a new beginning.  And I can't think of a better place to start a first sermon than with the story of 'in the beginning': In the beginning, God was king.  God created and ruled everything in its pristine goodness.   God created humans in his image, for priestly service and kingly rule over the earth, to spread the worshipful order of the Temple of Eden over the whole land.  But we see in the story of King Adam and Queen Eve how they lost their way and settled for smaller lives.  They fell into rebellion against the God of Gods and King of Kings.  And through that familiar human demand to govern life on our terms instead of his, the whole creation fell short of the glory God had in store for it.

As their heirs, we became broken rebels.  We need to be reconciled to God, our rightful king.  And so, at the climax of God's long mission through Abraham's family, through Israel, through a remnant, God sent his very own Son.  He sent Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, to reconcile us back to him.  Reconciliation is no cheap or easy thing. Jesus, anointed with God's Spirit and preaching about God's kingship, was often despised and rejected as he preached the "good news of the kingdom of God".  His message led King Jesus to be crowned – with thorns. It led King Jesus to be enthroned – on a cross.

But now, praise God, King Jesus is a risen king!  Amen?   Earthly kingdoms rise and fall, worldly kings live and die, but King Jesus is an eternal king, and his kingship has no end!  King Jesus rules over his kingdom from God's own heavenly throne, where he's installed as prophet, priest, and king. And he invites us in Revelation 3:21: "To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne".

Those who follow only this King, and who seek first this Kingdom and God's righteousness, are the church: the people redeemed through their King's blood; the people called out of every tribe and tongue to be a holy people and a royal priesthood; the people built together as the one living temple of God's own Spirit; the people under God's kingship who live to show their living faith in their living King.   Through union with King Jesus, the church shares his inheritance and is a living glimpse of the new creation that God has promised.

No matter what nation claims their mortal birth or their residence, faithful Christians' highest allegiance is to this King, who calls us to serve our local and global neighbors in his name.   As our own Discipline declares, "under the New Covenant the 'nation whose God is the Lord' is the Church of Jesus Christ, with its member-citizens scattered throughout the nations of the world".  So wherever the people of King Jesus live, we have dual-citizenship, earthly and heavenly; and we're sent to our neighbors as ambassadors.

And so the local church is an embassy of God's kingly domain.  As an embassy of the kingdom, King Jesus calls us at Pequea EC Church to reach out to our communities with spiritual words and self-sacrificing love – the same way that Jesus himself exercises his own kingship.  We invite our neighbors in all our cities, our towns, our villages, and our countryside: "Be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ!"  In this way, and through our public life of Christian faith, hope, and love, King Jesus wants to transform the many local communities through which we here are spread – and so are we made a sign pointing forward to God's new work of creation, which even now is bursting into the world.

And now here we are, gathered as God's people, to worship God in song and to witness to one another what God has done.  When we leave this place, we're sent out to worship God in loving our neighbors and to witness to them about what God has done in Jesus Christ – and is still doing today!   And then we come back together to repeat the rhythm, drawing strength from our spiritual communion with God and with one another.   This Sunday, that communion is represented physically in the bread and the cup.  Our King Jesus invites us into his presence, to his table, to eat with him the food that only he provides, because only he could pay the price.  He invites us here to worship God in thanksgiving, and to bear witness of Christ's death until he comes.  Our communion points back to the Last Supper and the cross, but it points forward to the wedding supper of the Lamb, when all who accept the invitation will sit down together as one reconciled family in the kingdom of God.

Until that glorious day, we pray, "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven".   Until then, we pray, "Maranatha: Come, Lord Jesus".  Until then, we point to Jesus, pleading with family and neighbors, friends and strangers, loved ones and enemies, and even the very institutions of our culture itself: "Lay down your arms!  You have sinned, but Christ has died!  What's more, Christ is risen, and Christ is coming again!   So in him, be reconciled to God, and become disciples of the one true King".  That's our message and our mission.  Here at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church, I've already seen your love and faithfulness to our King and to his message and mission, and I'm thankful that he sent me here to join the Pequea embassy staff.  Together, as we partner together and with other believers, we will bring this message to our communities in word and in deed, and we will see the mighty work of God's Spirit as he reconciles Lancaster and Chester Counties to himself, one life at a time.