“Through fasting, prayer and acts of service you bring us back to your generous heart.”
That line from the Lent Eucharistic prayer has become our catchphrase this Lent as we focus on generosity – God’s and ours. And we began our Lenten journey on the mountain with the Sermon on the Mount, considering how to be cheerful givers by storing up treasures in heaven. Then we moved to the desert with Jesus resisting the temptation to see the desert as an empty place by seeing God’s generosity even in times of apparent scarcity. Then we followed Abraham as he set out on a journey to unlimited blessing, but first having to leave his father’s house. He discovered that, if you journey with God, every sacrifice on the way turns out blessings beyond our wildest dreams.
Now we’re back in the desert, not Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, but the story he was re-enacting the journey of the Hebrews, from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. And that journey, known as the Exodus, has become, for Christians, symbolic of our whole life’s journey, from slavery to sin, to the Promised Land in the kingdom of heaven. Hymns like “Guide me O thou great Redeemer” retell the story in exactly that way, with the manna, the bread of heaven, becoming God’s word and the verge of Jordan – the entry into the promised land – becoming the moment of our death. This whole Christian life is a journey through the desert with God.
But the desert is a hard place for generosity. It appears to be barren and empty. In fact, the euphoria of the Israelites after crossing the Red Sea, when they realise that their enslavers have been washed away and that they are free, quickly turns to despair when they realise they’re in the desert. By nightfall, they’re already complaining there’s nothing to eat and wishing themselves back in Egypt.
One of the reasons I love this story of the Exodus so much, is because it’s so human. Whatever’s going on in the big picture, we always get grumpy when we’re tired or hungry. And however amazing God is to us, we’re always more tempted to focus on what we have to grumble about.
And in this story, they’ve just been set free from slavery by the most impressive miracle God ever performed (aside from the resurrection) and what do they do? They grumble that they’ve nothing to eat. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this desert?” they ask Moses. So God gives them food – manna, the bread of angels, given fresh every day.
So next, they grumble that the bread is a bit boring. “We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic…” All nonsense, of course, but nonetheless, God gives them quails to eat with their bread.
So next, they grumble that they haven’t any water: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us…with thirst?” So God provides water.
And then he takes them straight to Promised Land, but they won’t go in, for fear of Giants, so instead they spend 40 years wandering in the desert. And all the time, they’re wishing they could go back to Egypt, even though God is leading them to the Promised Land.
Isn’t that just us all over? “We’ve got no money. Our congregations are declining, we’re all getting older, no-one’s interested in us any more, no-one comes to help…why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this desert?” And the church does look like the desert, doesn’t it? It looks like there’s nothing to be generous with. But the desert is precisely where God’s generosity flows. We just need to stop harking back to Egypt and let his living water flow.
And there’s a crucial bit in that story of the water in the desert that’s for us – God does it by using Moses’ staff, pointing out that it’s the same staff he used to part the Red Sea. In other words, he saying, “I’m still here, you know! You’re all asking ‘is the Lord among us’ and I’m right here! The same God who parted the Red Sea is still here in your midst. Your mood has changed, but I haven’t.” And so, with the same staff, God provides a stream of living water gushing out of every rock in the desert. So ours is the same one that Israelites faced in the desert: “Is the Lord among us or not?” If he’s not, we might as well go home. There is no point to church unless the Lord is among us. But if he is among us, that changes everything.
It’s so easy to hark back to Egypt or to think the Red Sea was a one-off long ago. You can look around a building like this and marvel at what God did in the past – once upon a time, there were people so devoted to God that they built a place like this here! Hard to believe isn’t it? Once upon a time, all these pews would have been full – and a choir in the choir stalls – all people devoted to God and his word. God did all that here once, but no-one’s heard from him for a long time. But it isn’t true. For one thing, those memories of church past are a bit like the cucumbers and garlic in Egypt – it wasn’t really like that. Yes, church had a lot more people than now, but it was never full, not week by week. What we remember is nothing like as good as what God has in store, because, friends, we’re on our way to the Promised Land! But the other point is that the same God who did all that is still in our midst. But do we look to him to turn things around, or are we trying to do it ourselves?
When we try to run church as though it was a purely human enterprise, it is the equivalent of turning back to Egypt. When we deal only in the things of this world and not in the things of God – because the things of this world are precisely the things that were enslaving us in the first place, precisely the things that Jesus died to save us from. We are not dependent on the fading resources of this world, we are dependent on the resources of the eternal God. We are not tied to the decay of material possessions, we are possessed by the free spirit of God. We are not tied to history, we belong to the future. We’re not journeying back into Egypt, we’re journeying to the Promised Land. However good you imagine it was in the past, it wasn’t as good as you remember it. And doesn’t even begin to compare with the promises God has in store for us if we’d only journey on.
Is the Lord among us, or not? You know, the only way to find out is to trust him. Now the first stage of trusting him is getting to know him and that requires us to get to know his Word – as a priority. And that’s why our Lent course is so important. I know that most of us struggle with the Bible. You don’t need to be embarrassed about that. That’s where we all start and it’s why our Lent Course is not for those who know their Bibles, it’s for those who don’t. And none of us know it as well as we could. But when we come to know God’s word and listen to him, he plants his power in our lives and that changes everything. We will never turn this church around unless we first turn to him and feed on his word until he comes alive in us.
And secondly we can only learn to trust him if we can steal ourselves to be ludicrously generous. And here we can learn from that Samaritan woman at the well. She receives water from Jesus too, but her water is eternal life, the life of God within her, which Jesus describes as “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The same God, providing the water of life in the midst of a desert.
But first, the woman is asked to give Jesus a drink. Now, this is costly. It’s the heat of the day. She’s walked out to this remote place carrying a heavy clay jar, she’s lowered it into the well and drawn it out. I’m not sure I would have the strength for that. The relief when she finally got that jar to the top of the well must have been huge. That water is precious. And no soon as she has sat down to rest, than Jesus asks her for a cup of that precious water. She must have been thinking about what she needed that water for back at home – one jar to last the whole day. To give Jesus a drink meant either going without, or lowering the heavy jar back into the well and doing it all again. But she gives him the drink.
Jesus does call us to give sacrificially to him. Why? Well, for one thing, what we give to church resources the church. We place it at God’s disposal and we know he can do amazing things when we give him just a little – five loaves, two fish, one cup of water. Giving to God unlocks the power of God in our midst, so that we know that God is indeed among us.
But he also requires that of us because generosity is like a flow of water. If you turn the tap off, the water just backs up in the pipe and it can look as though there’s nothing more to come – perhaps the water was a thing of the past. But turn on the tap and you’ll find it just keeps gushing and gushing. This flies in the face of what we’re all taught about household management – saving for a rainy day and all that. But in church terms, the rain has been pouring for years and God is calling us to turn on the tap – to be generous, so that his living water can flow through us.
To find out just what it means to have the Lord among us we need to give sacrificially, to the point where our giving really costs us. And then we find out that the little cup of water we give him becomes a spring of living water gushing up to eternal life, so that we will never be thirsty again – and through us, all the thirsty, parched places in this world can receive that gush of living water, bubbling up to eternal life. Is the Lord among us, or not? We’ll only know if we turn on the tap and tuck in to his word.
Preached: Crosby Ravensworth 19 March 2017