A Living, Busy, Mighty Thing

Luther, Preface to The Epistle to the Romans:

Faith is not that human notion and dream that some hold for faith. Because they see that no betterment of life and no good works follow it, and yet they can hear and say much about faith, they fall into error and say, “Faith is not enough; one must do works in order to be righteous and be saved.” This is one reason that when they hear the gospel they fall-to and make for themselves, by their own powers, an idea in their hearts which says, “I believe.” This they hold for true faith. But it is a human imagination and idea that never reaches the depths of the heart, and so nothing comes of it and no betterment follows it.

Faith, however, is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God; it kills the old Adam and makes altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and brings with it the Holy Ghost. Oh, it is a living, busy, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are any good works to do, but before the question rises; it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not these works is a faithless man. He gropes and looks about after faith and good works, and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring confidence on God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His creatures; and this is the work of the Holy Ghost in faith. Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace; and thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers, who would be wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools. Pray God to work faith in you; else you will remain forever without faith, whatever you think or do.


God is Greater than Our Hearts

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, Edinburgh

Palm Sunday 2013 (March 24th)
1 John 3:18-24

Lord, we thank you for the blessing of your Word.  We thank you, as we enter into Holy Week, that through the death and resurrection of your Son we have confidence to enter into your presence, and receive from you anything we ask.  We pray that we would receive from you hearts open to your word, hearts free from condemnation and ready to hear your comfort, minds attuned to what John is trying to tell us here.  I pray that your Spirit would speak through me today, that I might speak truly about you, and that I would be able speak to the hearts of all those present.  In the name of Christ and the power of the Spirit we pray.  Amen.

When we were very young—around age 10, I think—my sister and I went through a period of spiritual doubt.  Being a no-nonsense sort of guy, even at that age, it didn’t last too long or strike too frequently for me, but I recall that for my sister, it was something of a regular ritual.  We had picked up from somewhere—not from my parents, certainly, or even our church, but perhaps just from breathing the air in the Bible Belt—that we were supposed to “get saved” by “asking Jesus into our hearts” in a moment of prayer and penitence.  The mechanics were frustratingly vague, but the idea was that, if you prayed really hard and really meant it, that you would experience a sudden wave of peace, and confidence that Jesus was in you, and had saved you, and you now had a free pass that you would you get you to eternity, and needn’t worry again.  But of course, worry we did.  After awhile, we would wonder, “Yeah, but did I really mean it?  Did I say the words in the right order?  Did I really feel Jesus in my heart, or did I just think I did?  Maybe I should try again, to make sure.”  And so it would go, time after time.  I think my sister, being blessed with earnestness but cursed with a short attention span, must have gotten saved at least two dozen times.

By now this seems a bit silly.  But we were, in our own little way, struggling with the problem that has tormented millions of souls through the centuries—the problem of assurance.  How do we know that we belong to the truth?  How do we set our hearts at rest before him?  In hindsight, it seems clear why we had so much difficulty gaining genuine assurance this way.  “Let us love in actions and in turth, and not with words or speech.”  This prayer was just talk, and so it seemed much too easy.  The momentary peace would pass, and we would ask, “Really?  That’s it?  Nah, that can’t have done the trick; I have to try harder.  There must be more to it than that.”  And in a way, we were right.  There is more to it.  To know that we belong to the truth, we have to live it.  To know that God’s love abides in us, we must abide in love.  When God loves us, and we receive that love, he makes us into channels of his love, pouring it out on our brothers and sisters.  By living out that love, John says, “we know that we belong to the truth.”  

But this leads to the opposite problem.  If we must love in actions and in truth, how can we ever be sure that we’ve loved enough?  Have we really loved as we should?  The best of us fail over and over again.  How then can we assure our hearts before him?  One man’s struggle with this question may be said to have changed the course of history.  Many of you probably know the story of Martin Luther, and how he spent years as a devout monk, fasting, praying, ministering, doing everything he could to “love with actions and in truth” in order to set his heart at rest, and finding instead that because of it he loved God less and less.  He later wrote, “But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God.”  For him, the moment of liberation came when he realized the meaning of the verse, “The just shall live by faith.”  “All at once,” he said,” I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light.”  Actually, this experience helped Luther see this passage in 1 John in a different light, as we shall see in a bit.

So John, like any pastor really, finds himself having to address both types of people.  Some people think that following Jesus is easy, a matter of saying the right words or thinking the right thoughts.  To them, John has stern words in this chapter: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.”  But he knows also that for others, these stern words will be a source of anxiety.  Some people are following Christ seriously, are abiding in God’s love, and yet worry that they’re never doing enough.  For these, he wants to offer comfort.  There are some of us here who probably need to hear each message—perhaps each of us, at different points in our lives, need to hear both.  How is John to fit both messages together?  John loves to speak in paradox and in poetry, and in this passage we find him at his richest, most elusive, and most paradoxical, as he seeks to show us that abiding in love, and having faith, are not two different things, but two sides of the same coin.  For even when he speaks of our “knowing” that we are of the truth based upon our acts of love—and John uses this sort of language repeatedly in the epistle—this kind of “knowing” turns out to be not an evidential knowledge, but an experiential knowledge, a knowledge of faith.

This theme of knowing is an obsession of John’s in this epistle.  This tiny letter contains 1/10 of all of the New Testament’s occurrences of the word for “know”—ginosko.  Another 1/4 of the New Testament occurrences occur in the Gospel of John.  Why this obsession?    Well, you may remember that the context of John’s writings, especially 1 John, is the appearance of “Gnostic” groups within the church.  The word “Gnostic” comes from ginosko, because the Gnostics claimed a special inner knowledge.  They had received true enlightenment, they had received certainty.  Because they had the right ideas, they knew that they were of the truth.  How could the other Christians know?  “By loving one another?” they sneered.  How could that ever give “knowledge”?  John wants to reassure his readers that by abiding in the love of God, they can know, but their knowledge is one that comes through the experience of loving and believing, not from mystical illumination or philosophical insight. 

John is also here intentionally recalling a passage from the Gospel of John—Jesus’s Last Supper Discourse in chapters 14-17—the words and themes from that passage appear over and over in these verses.  As we begin Holy Week, we should imagine what it was like for Christ’s disciples that night, when Jesus suddenly tells them that he is about to leave them.  Jesus begins his discourse there by saying “Let not your hearts be troubled” (14:1), even though, from now on, they will have to walk by faith and not by sight.  But how will they know that Jesus is with them?  How will they know they are still following in his footsteps?  They ask this question, the same question with which we struggle, several times, and Jesus never gives a direct answer.  He never gives them a scientific or philosophical proof.  “Believe” he says.  “Love” he says.  “Abide in me,” he says.  “Listen to the Spirit.”  John gives the same answers in this passage. 

He begins by saying that we can know that we are walking with Jesus if we love in actions and in truth.  (Even though in the NIV that some of you have there, it looks like verse 19 is beginning a new thought, John is more likely starting off by referring back to verse 18.)  Now John doesn’t mean that we earn God’s love by our love for one another, but that this is how we show it and experience the reality of it.  God’s love in us can’t help but overflow into our love of one another, and our love toward one another can’t help but overflow into love God.   We love, because he loved.  This is why John says that “by this we shall know that we belong to the truth.”  


But still, we worry, with Luther, that this answer doesn’t help us.  Because we often don’t experience ourselves as loving one another in actions and in truth.  Given that we are all sinners, how can we even begin to know we are of the truth based on our actions?  Here we get to see John’s witty word-play.  In verse 20, he says, “For whenever our heart condemns us”—the word for “condemn” there is kata-ginosko—literally, “to know something against.”  This is our problem after all, isn’t it?  Our consciences know us too well.  They know about that time that we did close our heart against a brother in need, that time when we hated our sister, that time when we refused to forgive our parents, that time when we envied our coworkers or spoke evil of our boss.  If we stop to ask ourselves, “Do we love in actions and in truth?” our hearts will rush forward like a crowd of tattling children, ready to accuse us before God, to remind us just how unloving we are.  We want to know that we are in the truth, that we abide in God, but instead, our hearts know too much against us.  No, we can’t be.  Maybe we’re just not cut out to be Christians after all.  

But what looks like humility here turns out to be pride.  In our pride, we refuse to listen to what God says about us, we refuse to hear the word of forgiveness.  Soren Kierkegaard speaks of “a pride too cowardly to submit to being helped, anguish for sin which shuns holy cleansing as disease shuns medicine.”  And in one of his books he has a great discussion of what he calls “the sin of despairing over one’s sin.”  When we do this, we may feel like we are hating sin more than anything, by recognizing how serious it is, but actually, we are giving ourselves over to sin.  We are listening to sin and to Satan (who is called “the Accuser” throughout Scripture) instead of to God.  When we do this, says Kierkegaard, sin “insists on listening only to itself, on having dealings only with itself; it closes itself up within itself, indeed, locks itself inside one more inclosure, and protects itself against every attack or pursuit by the good by despairing over sin.”  When we do this, we often say, “I can never forgive myself.”  This is technically true, because indeed we have no power to forgive ourselves; only God can forgive sins.  But then we go further and say, “God can never forgive me.”  What is this but to set ourselves against God?  To tell him that he can’t do what he’s promised?  This is us pretending to be greater than God.  But no, says John.  You are not greater than God, whenever your heart condemns you.  “God is greater than our hearts, for he knows all things.”  Your heart may think it’s so clever and sophisticated and serious about sin, because it knows something against you, but guess what?  God knows all that and more.  God is greater.

John’s image here is like a courtroom, in which we are arguing with our conscience, trying to convince our heart of our innocence, despite everything it knows against us.   We are losing the battle.  Witness after witness is called in on the other side.  But then in steps God, and he has the trump card.  “I know everything,” he says, “and you need not fear.”  

But why should this be a comfort?  If God knows everything about us, shouldn’t we be more terrified?  If our heart knows something against us, and God is greater than our hearts, how much more must he know against us!  He knows every evil thought, and secret desire, every bad motive, from when we were conceived until now.  Actually, this is how most scholars had been reading this verse all through the Middle Ages.  You had better love in actions and in truth, because if you don’t, and your heart condemns you, God is greater, and knows more, and will condemn you all the more.  But Luther came along and said no, that is not what this verse means; that is not what John is trying to tell his readers.  “If you lack works, yet you should not lack faith.  Even if persuasion is lacking, yet faith and hope are greater.  Although we should consider ourselves unworthy, yet we should accept the grace that is offered and the Gospel.  Even if our conscience makes us fainthearted and presents God as angry, still ‘God is greater than our heart.’  Conscience is one drop; the reconciled God is a sea of comfort.”  God knows all things, he knows everything we ever did, and yet he says that he loves us.  Our conscience rushes forward, ready to condemn, “But what about the time I did this terrible sin?”  But God does not need to listen.  God already knows about that.  

We see this over and over in the Gospels.  Early in his Gospel, John tells us, “Jesus did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.”  This sounds ominous.  But then, how does it play out?  He comes to the woman at the well in chapter four, and “tells her everything she ever did,” as she puts it.  He knows that she has had five husbands, and is currently having an affair with a sixth man.  And yet what is his word to her?  “I will give you water springing up unto eternal life” (4:14).  In chapter 8, the Pharisees bring before him an adulterous woman.  He knows all about her sin.  And what is his word to her?  “Neither do I condemn you.  Go and sin no more” (8:11).  And in Luke chapter 7, there is “the woman who was a sinner,” as she is described, who comes in to a dinner party and anoints Jesus’s feet with oil.  The host, Simon, is appalled, and mutters, “If Jesus were really a prophet, he would know how wicked this woman was and wouldn’t let her touch him” (7:39).  But Jesus does know, he knows all about it, and what does he say to her?  “Your sins are forgiven you.  Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (7:50).  

See, God knows all things, which means he knows one thing certainly that we, in our sin, can never seem to get a handle on—who he is, what he is like.  He knows that he is a forgiving God.  More than that, he knows what Jesus has done, what he has done in Jesus.  This sacrifice, this forgiveness, is always before his mind, whereas we are prone to forget and doubt it.  There is a beautiful hymn that declares, “Between our sins and their reward, we set the passion of Thy Son our Lord.”  And that pretty much sums it up.  We are in a courtroom, our conscience condemning us, and we, powerless to defend ourselves, and in comes God, God who is greater than our hearts, and he holds up before the court a lamb, the lamb that was slain for us, and says, “Your sins are forgiven you.  Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

But we will still object.  How do we know this forgiveness is for us?  After all, it’s not for everyone, is it?  But John is speaking to us, us who have heard the word of life, who have heard Christ’s proclamation of forgiveness and his new commandment that we love one another, and who have tried to keep it.  This is why our heart condemns us, is it not?   If we didn’t even care about loving in actions and in truth, if we never bothered with the whole business at all, why would we find ourselves there, in an argument with our conscience?  Some people shut their hearts against their brother and against the love of God, and go their merry way.  But that’s not what John is talking about.  He is talking those who hear this command to love, and say, “Yes, I want to do that.  I want the love of God to abide in me.  But I’m just not doing good enough.”  “Aha!” says John, “Just what I needed to hear.  Come to Christ and hear his comfort. Jesus says, ‘Your faith has saved you.’”

I love the story in the Gospels about a man who begs Jesus to come and heal his demon-possessed son.  “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” he cries.  Jesus replies, “If you can?  All things are possible to him who believes.”  The man answers “Lord, I believe.  Help thou mine unbelief!” (Mk. 9:22-24).  Isn’t this all of us?  How often do we find ourselves crying out this way to God?  “Yes God, yes, I believe, or want to believe, your promise.  Please help my unbelief.  I want to love you, please help my unlove.”   And who is it who helps us in our weakness?  It is the Spirit, the Comforter, whom Jesus promises to send in his Last Supper discourse.  And so we have the same promise here at the end.  How do we know that we abide in God and he in us?  How do we know that we are in Christ, that his love flows through us?  By the visible evidence of our love for others, yes, but that will not always be enough to convince our fickle hearts.  “By this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”

By this we come to the point where our heart does not condemn us, where we have confidence before him, confidence that we are in the truth, confidence that the love of God will make itself visible in our lives, confidence that we can come into the presence of God in prayer, and ask him whatever we want.  John says here “we receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.”  This sounds odd, doesn’t it?  Whatever we ask?  So, if I obey God perfectly (which I won’t do in any case), I could ask him anything, and he’d just do it?  He’d make my son sleep through the night?  No, this isn’t the idea.  John returns to this in chapter 5—”This is the confidence which we have before him, that if we ask anything according to His will, he hears us.”  But isn’t that just circular?  What’s the point of asking if it’s already according to his will?  God’s already decided what he’s going to do.  But this isn’t John’s point.  The point is that when we are believing in Christ and obeying his commandment to love, we are becoming like him—our own wills are becoming conformed to his.  We abide in Him and He in us.  For this reason, we learn to want the same things he wants, and to ask him for the things he wants to give.  As we grow closer and closer to him, we have greater and greater confidence that we are walking in his will, and hence, when we come before him in prayer, we will receive that which we are asking for.  And again, our guarantee in this is the Spirit within us, who, as Paul says, comes to help us in our weakness when we try and pray: “for we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).

As we come to the beginning of Holy Week, we too should be turning, with John here, back to the words of Jesus in the Last Supper discourse.  “Let not your hearts be troubled,” he said.  Why?  Because although he was going away, it was for our sake that he went away, to make a way for us to come before the Father with confidence, fearing no condemnation.  And he promises that we will not be left alone, in doubt and worry.  For after Good Friday and Easter come Pentecost.  “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”

Therefore, let us love in actions and in truth, let us love God whom we have not seen with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and let us love our brothers and sisters whom we have seen as ourselves.  And whenever our heart condemns us, let us listen not to the accusing voice of sin, but to the testimony of the Spirit, for God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.

May God give us the grace to listen to Him today.


Beloved, Let Us Love One Another

A prayer for St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, on St. Patrick’s Day, 2013.
Text for the Day: 1 John 4:7-12, 17-21

God of love, we thank you for these words of challenge and encouragement from 1 John today, and for all that you have been teaching us through this epistle over the past few weeks.  We thank you for the fortuitous timing of these messages as we prepare to celebrate the death and resurrection of your Son.  We have been exhorted over and over to “love one another” and, if we might be tempted to let familiarity breed contempt, to let the exhortation flatten into a platitude, we come, at the end of this series to Good Friday and Easter, when the true nature of love is on display: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  Lord, give us love such as this!  Or perhaps, Lord, some of us may have been tempted to be overwhelmed by John’s uncompromising exhortations to love our brothers and sisters, realizing how poorly we love.  As we look toward Good Friday and Easter, then, give us the peace and confidence that we are able to love, because he has loved us first.

Father, for the love you show to us in the beautiful gifts of creation, we give you thanks.  For the love you show us in the material blessings that sustain and enrich our lives, we give you thanks.  For the love you show us in the gifts of friends and family, a church to call home, we give you thanks.  But above all, for the love you showed us in the gift of your Son, for the love that is stronger than death and sin, we thank you with overflowing hearts.  Lord, send your Spirit and your Word throughout this world that people of every tribe and nation may hear and experience this love.

Lord, help us to love, as you have loved us first.  Strengthen our ministers with the self-giving love to teach and lead and pray and work on behalf of the community here at Ps and Gs, and give to each of those who serves here on the staff, or in volunteer leadership, the love to serve faithfully and patiently in their calling, not out of mere duty but care for one another.  Give those leading the Alpha Courses love for those they are teaching, a passionate desire to bring new hearts to Christ, and as the church considers new ways to minister to the homeless here in Edinburgh, give us prudence, but let it always be formed and directed by love.  Give to our missionaries, who have in love followed the call to serve you to the ends of the earth, fresh strength of love to sustain them in their demanding tasks; enable them to show the love of Christ to the lost, that your kingdom may be filled to overflowing.

Give parents among us love for their children, a love that expresses itself in dedicated concern and discipline, and patience amidst every provocation.  Give children among us love for their parents, a willingness to serve and obey, to honour and respect.  Give to husbands the faithfulness to love their wives as Christ loved the church, giving themselves sacrificially, caring for their every need, and to wives the faithfulness to love their husbands in turn, supporting, encouraging, enriching.   Help us to love all of the saints within our congregation at Ps and Gs; may our fellowship be constituted by sacrificial self-giving rather than the selfishness and competition that lies at the root of so many social relationships.  To the sick, the elderly, and the lonely in our congregation, help us to particularly show love, and may you pour out your own love upon them in their hour of need and despair.  Help us to love our neighbors, whom we may rarely meet or speak to, finding ways of shedding Christ’s light in our communities.  Help us to love our co-workers and employers, putting them before our own pride and our own interests, displaying the heart of Christ in settings where few may have seen what that looks like.  Help us to love the poor and needy whom we see and whom we do not see; do not let us deceive ourselves into thinking that love is something we need show only within our narrow circle of relationships, only to those with whom we feel comfortable, but even as you, O God, so loved the world, and Christ gave himself for all, give us the strength, in our own poor way, to love all whose needs you put before our path.

Knit your church together, so divided now in every place, in love for one another, and love for your truth.

Lord, we are oppressed on every side with fears—fears of violence, of material want, of insecurity and loneliness, of rejection and betrayal, of pain and loss, fears of inadequacy, and of being unloved.  Give us, O Lord, the perfect love which drives out all fear: fill us with the confidence of your love towards us, and in experiencing your love, may that love overflow within us so we have no room anymore to be preoccupied with ourselves.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is Love Incarnate, we pray.  Amen.

 


Rivers in the Desert—A Homily

Given at the New College Communion Service, Thursday, March 14th

Reading
Isaiah 43:16-21

Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

Psalm 126

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

Reflection

As Lent drags on into its fifth week, many of us may feel a bit like we have wandered off into a desert, and are straining our eyes toward Easter, shimmering in the distance like a mirage.  We went out here into this desert trying to be like Jesus, determined to use these forty days of Lent to fast and grow closer to God, to fight against the temptations of our flesh and hopefully grow just a bit more holy or at least self-disciplined, to take more time for God, for prayer and reading his Word.  But here we find ourselves instead, wandering aimlessly, wondering what became of the last four weeks, of our lofty aims.  If we’re still keeping our fast, perhaps it feels more out of drudgery than devotion, and how many of us can say we’ve carved out the extra time for God that we meant to; how many of us can say we feel much further at all on the path toward holiness?  Perhaps this is the reason why Lent is forty days long: it gives us plenty of time to fail.  I’ve heard people object to Lent on account of its length—fasting is all well and good, but forty days of it?  Is that really necessary?  Forty days, though, gives us long enough to realize how bad we are at fasting, how bad we are at devotion and self-denial.  By the end of it, or perhaps well before the end of it, we’re out there in the desert, gasping for living water, yearning for the new life of Easter to be poured out on us, to give us the spiritual strength we so clearly lack.

You don’t have to observe Lent to be familiar with this feeling.  How often in our lives do we find ourselves in that place—we’ve set out with our heads held high, ready to do Christian discipleship right this time, ready to follow Jesus on the hard wilderness path, but suddenly we find that we’re there on our knees, crawling instead of walking, seemingly alone, and parched with spiritual thirst, waiting on God to send rain so we can resume the journey.

 

Perhaps you’ve seen some of these amazing BBC nature documentaries, where they show these dry riverbeds of southern Africa, choked, parched ground beside which both plants and animals wait and wither; suddenly, water that fell as rain on mountains hundreds of miles away arrives in a torrent, turning the dust first into mud, then into a rich marsh in which all kinds of life thrive.  Perhaps it is something like this that the Psalmist and the Prophet have in mind—”rivers in the desert,” “the watercourses of the Negev.”  Parts of the Negev, after all, had seasonal rainfalls that would suddenly fill the watercourses and make the desert a place of life.  The Christian, too, on pilgrimage through the wilderness, can rely on such seasonal outpourings of God’s grace and faithfulness, particularly when we are parched by drought and feel we can go no further.  The song “Great is Thy Faithfulness” which we have just sung expresses the Christian hope that we will never lack God’s presence for long; he will always pour out a fresh effusion of grace to give us “strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow.”

In the liturgical year, Easter can play the role of these seasonal rains for us, bringing us rivers in the desert through which we have wandered during the weeks of Lent.  We trade our mourning for joy, our fasting for feasting, we worry less about crucifying the sin within us than rejoicing in the new life we have in Christ.  And yet Easter too will pass, after its six weeks, and after the warm summer months, another autumn and winter will come, and no doubt, somewhere in there, another spiritual dry season.  Is the repeating annual cycle of Easters, then, the only “water in the wilderness” for which we hope?

As you journey further south into the Negev, you quickly come to desert that almost never sees rain—just 3 cm a year.  The Israelites were well-acquainted with this permanent desert, this dead land, since they had wandered through it on their way out of Egypt.  It was thus no mere seasonal rainfall that the Prophet and Psalmist looked forward to, for Behold! God was going to do a new thing.  Much as they relied on God for the sustenance of mercies new every morning, they looked beyond this for the hope of the day when the deserts would be transformed, flooded with springs of living water, when the cycle of drought and rain, of need and grace, of death and life, would end, and life would triumph through all the world.

That shimmering in the distance, then, is not a mirage, nor a brief flow of water to give us just “strength for today,” but the “river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb,” and alongside it, “the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.