“I Thirst”: A Reflection on One of the Last Words of Christ

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This is a sermon I preached this morning to my congregation.  It is a sort of sequel to my homily on Ash Wednesday.  Then I spoke about true hunger and this morning I spoke about thirst.  It has occurred to me this Lenten season that the words “hunger” and “thirst” are forms of pain.  We are not called to want to want a better world.  We are called to actually experience discomfort and pain in making righteousness happen.  So this sermon, with Ash Wednesday, captures much of my own Lenten journey this year.

Introduction: A Very Human God

Two of the last words Jesus spoke from the cross were “I thirst.”  It is a rather short phrase but it is pregnant with meaning.

“I thirst.”

I remind you that this is Jesus saying this and it is John’s gospel which records it for us.  John also reminded us back in chapter 1 that Jesus is God.  He is the word made flesh.  He is the one through whom all things were created and without whom nothing was made that has been made.   This is the fully God who became fully human.

As such we are tempted to think of his thirst as the more human side of Jesus.  We might say that his thirst represents his humanity.  After all, this is a human body needing nourishment that only our physical earth can give.  We think back to that wonderful Latin word “humus” from which we get our English word, “humility.”  “Humus” does not describe the sauce made from chick peas but refers to anything that sticks close to the dirt of the earth.  Surely to be thirsty is to be “humus” or to be “humbled.”

There all kinds of humbling physical symptoms that come with thirst.  You get a pounding headache.  You have a dry mouth.  You get dizzy and your vision can become momentarily blurry.  The thirsty become lethargic.  They can’t seem to stay awake and wonder why it is always so hard to move their muscles.  These symptoms are debilitating and quite humiliating.  They make you pathetic as you desperately long for material nourishment for your physical body.

So when our Christ says, “I am thirsty” he is sharing in some of the ugliness of our humanity.  We might say he is becoming pathetic to save the pathetic.

In fact, around Christmas time we talk about the incarnation, that moment when God became flesh.  We sometimes give each other the impression that when Jesus was born the incarnation was completed.  Yet I do not believe God truly experience life as a flesh and blood human until that flesh was stripped and the blood was spilt.  In a way the cross completes the incarnation because on the cross Jesus didn’t just take the form of wealthy humanity or powerful humanity or even blue collar working class humanity.  On the cross he took the form of crucified, thirsty, criminal humanity.  A God who thirsts for material nourishment is a God truly experiencing a fleshly, humble existence.

Jesus, the crucified criminal says, “I thirst.”  “I need water.”  “I desire something very concrete, very material for my concrete, material body.”

All that to say, this is the God who created water now saying, “I need some water.”

 

God knows what it’s like to thirst.

The Concept of “Thirst” in the John

But when Jesus says, “I am thirsty” it refers to more than just a physical need.  After all, John’s gospel and the other gospels have spoken about thirst before.  They have taught us some things about being thirsty and those things hide behind the two words, “I thirst.”

John’s gospel tells of another time when Jesus was thirsty.  It is clear back in chapter 4.  Jesus is going through Samaria, a place where good little Jewish boys and girls avoided.  Jesus, not being a good Jewish boy, walked right through the heart of it.

In Samaria they stop at a town and he sends his disciples in to buy food.  While they are gone a woman comes to draw water from the well in the middle of the day.  Many have noted that in that time there really was only one reason to draw water in the middle of the day.  You wanted to be left the heck alone.  The middle of the day was when the horribly introverted drew their water.

Jesus crashes her “me time.”  He says, “Give me a drink,” which I think comes really close to meaning, “I’m thirsty.”

The poor woman is startled by this.  After all she wanted to be left alone and didn’t want to be around people.  That’s why she is at the well in the afternoon.  So she asks a deflection question.  She says, “Why are you, a Jewish man, asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink of water?”  You can paraphrase that as, “Leave me alone you outsider!  I don’t even like the insiders!”

Jesus’ reply is just as indignant.  He says, “If you would know who asked you for water, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water!”

She replies or rather argues, “Well how are you going to get it?  The well is deep and you don’t have bucket.”

Jesus says to her, “Whoever drinks this water will just get thirsty again but whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst.  The water I give will become a well inside them bursting forth to eternal life.”

Jesus had a physical body that needed material substance.  The woman had a spiritual soul that needed spiritual nourishment.  There is a water better than H2O.

During the crucifixion, when John tells us that Jesus was thirsty, he is doing that on purpose.  He wants his readers to remember this conversation towards the beginning of the story and recall that there is a type of water that once drunk becomes a seed planted inside you that grows and creates an abundant and eternal life.

Thirsting for Righteousness in the Synoptics

We have hints of this in the other gospels too.  In fact one of Jesus most popular sayings was, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

Don’t be scared of that word “righteousness.”  If you grew up in the households I grew up in righteousness often referred to that person who was legalistic.  They followed a list of archaic and weird rules and they were proud of it and very disappointed by those who did not do likewise.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that word “righteousness” doesn’t really refer to following a list of rules.  We are not righteous when we are legalistic and legalism rarely every produces the righteousness which God requires.

Instead righteousness is a synonym of harmony.  Righteousness defines any sort of state or action where people do right by one another.  If I am righteous that means I am doing right by you.  I am treating you fairly.  I am giving you that which you deserve.  Of course there are some rules involved in that.  I think of the 10 Commandments.  If I am doing right by you that does mean I am not lying about you.  I am not coveting your stuff and thus letting jealousy come in the way of our friendship.  I am not lusting after your wife or your husband or your house.  I treat you like a fellow human being. If you reciprocate that, if you treat me fairly and squarely, then we call that state, “righteousness.”  So a righteous world or a righteous community is one where everybody does their best to treat each other fairly and live in harmony with each other.

Logically then, to hunger and thirst for righteousness is to long for a world where people treat each other with fairness and love.  It is to want it so much your are willing to experience pain over it.  Hunger and thirst, by the way, are forms of pain.  Think of the symptoms I listed earlier.  To hunger and to thirst for righteousness means you want it so much you are willing to hurt for it.

A Very God Human

So Jesus at the cross says “I am thirsty.”  The deeper meaning is that he is thirsty for a righteous world where people are treated fairly and squarely.  He longs for a world where we don’t cheat, lie and steal, where we don’t gossip and lie and where we don’t covet each other’s stuff.  He longs for a world where we don’t nurse grudges against each other, grudges that lead to murder.  He longs for a world where there isn’t bullying and intimidation but we all treat each other as friends.

In this case his thirst is not from his human nature.  This is a God natured thirst.  He is thirsty because he is God.  After all, if you read your Old Testaments, you will find that on almost every page God longs for a harmonious world.  Again and again throughout the Hebrew scriptures God says that God wants the world put to rights.  God is thirsty for righteousness and God longs for that world.

When Jesus says, “I thirst” he is not just physically in need of a material want.  His human mouth isn’t just dry but he is saying, “I thirst for the living water.  I thirst for the righteousness that creates an eternal and abundant life.  I thirst for a better world.”

Jesus’ thirst is a God thirst.

But on the cross, he wasn’t just thirsting after a better world.  He was also creating it.

His thirst for a better world was so great that he took up a cross and he carried it up to Golgotha and there died to give us a living water that wells up inside of us to eternal life.  He wanted the world to be righteous so much that he died to make it so.  He suffered the agony, the rejection, the humiliation and even the symptoms of dehydration to make the world more righteous.

If you want to know what hungering and thirsting for righteousness looks like, look no further than the cross.

And this is grace, a God who suffers to give us the righteousness that wells up to eternal life.

Conclusion: What Hungering and Thirsting Looks Like

But this is grace which calls us to emulate it.  This is grace that enables us to respond by suffering ourselves for the better world we long for.

On that note, I get a little frustrated by those who claim they want a better world but don’t ever sacrifice anything for it.  These are the people who want the world to become righteous so badly that they spend a good 15 seconds tweeting about it, then put their phones back in their pockets and live their wealthy existence.

Other people I know are so hungry and thirsty for righteousness that they tell everybody else how wrong they are.  They live in middle class mansions.  They have ready access to clean water and safe food at the local grocer.  But they are so convinced that everything is wrong that they make lists of rules for other people to follow.  Then they go around telling everybody else how unrighteous they are.  But they themselves never change anything about their lifestyle to make righteousness come.  They never sacrifice anything in their own lives to make the world a better place.

For this reason I have tried hard in my life to not express an opinion for which I do not suffer.  I do have strong opinions and I think one or two of those opinions may even be accurate.  But if I am not willing to suffer for that opinion I try not to express it.  Or when I find myself inevitably doing so I try to preface it with, “This is my two cents but am not in a position to do anything about it or test it out.”

If you are not willing to physically suffer for your beliefs, then don’t let them come out of your mouth!

To hunger and thirst for righteousness is not to make others suffer or to point the finger and play a blame game.  To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to suffer yourself, to hurt inside of yourself, to fast, to give of your money or your time in hopes of creating a better world.

This is what Jesus did on the cross.  The cross itself was God’s thirst.  He wanted a righteous world so much he was willing to be crucified for it.

And because of his suffering, living water poured out upon us so that all of us who will drink it will have a well of righteousness springing up inside of us to eternal life.

And blessed are those who do likewise, who are willing to actually thirst and actually sacrifice for a better world.

 

Ash Wednesday Homily

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Hey everybody, sorry this is a couple days late but I wanted to share with you what I shared with my congregation on Wednesday.

One of the more valuable lessons I’ve learned in life came from my high school youth pastor.  I can’t remember the context or the setting but I remember that one day he explained to us that we had never and probably would never experience hunger.

Now I was a growing teenage boy who was skinnier than your average stick and who ran Cross Country and Track.  I lived my life under a constant state of hunger and so I immediately begged to disagree.

But then he explained to us the process of fasting.  When one fasts food entirely they go through various stages of discomfort but none of that discomfort is truly “hunger.”

The first stage starts around 10am the morning the fast began.  If you awaken and don’t eat breakfast at your usual time, your stomach eventually figures it out.  After waiting a couple hours it sends signals to your brain that get translated not as pain but as “indigestion” or a small discomfort sometimes signaled by stomach groans.  It does this for a couple reasons.  First, at this point your stomach only has acid in it because a well regulated body knows when to expect food and dumps a bit more digestive acid into your stomach to prepare.  If this acid has nothing to digest it makes you feel uncomfortable.  Second, your body is expecting sugar to dump into your blood stream.  If it doesn’t have the usual dose of it, it sends a very early warning signal to your brain.  People call that warning signal, “hunger” but it is not.

Shortly after this early warning sign, some people might start shaking.  The shakes occur because your blood stream does not have the sugars it expected and didn’t yet know it was supposed to break into your fat reserves to find it.  At this point many people will add an adjective to their hunger and say, “I am so hungry” and the more dramatic will say, “I am starving.”  Yet at this point they are neither hungry nor starving, just a bit shaky while your body breaks down the fat and dumps its sugar into your blood stream.

In fact, the third thing that happens is your body eventually figures out you are not going to feed it and it begins to break into your fat reserves to find the necessary sugars it needs to continue your daily activities.  At this point your stomach stops growling, the shaking stops and suddenly you completely forget that you are fasting.

Day two works much like day one.  Around breakfast, lunch and dinner you feel a little bit uncomfortable.  You get episodes of shakiness that soon resolve themselves and then your body finds the necessary sugars in your fat stores to keep going.

By day 7 of the fast, most bodies have recalibrated themselves and the person fasting reaches a new equilibrium where they do not feel hungry or shaky at all.  This equilibrium can last for quite some time, depending on how much fat you have stored in your body.  Most people can survive and feel just fine for 30-40 days.

When the fat stores are gone is when true hunger begins.  Like most of you I have never felt this sensation but from what I understand it is debilitating and painful.  True hunger begins when your body does not have the nutrients or the calories it needs to sustain your lifestyle.  It begins by shutting your body down for longer periods of time.  You sleep for 12 hours a day and take long naps.  It gets worse when your body begins to eat your muscles to find the fat stores.  As it digs into your muscles, you experience awful spasms accompanied by jolts of pain every time you move.  If you can manage to move, you become dizzy and disoriented.  At this time, your nails become brittle and begin to break off of your fingers.  The same goes for your toes.

After your body is done eating your muscles, it starts in on your organs and bones, causing massive and extreme internal pain.  Eventually one of those organs will fail resulting in death by starvation.

When you hear Jesus say, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” that is the type of pain, discomfort, fatigue and longing for calories that he describes.

Jesus is not saying, “Blessed are those who get a little bit uncomfortable with the sin in their lives and the evil in the world.”

Jesus is not saying, “Blessed are those who get a little bit sad because someone said something mean.”

And he is not saying, “Blessed are those who are saddened by the amount of unsaved people or who feel just a little bit guilty about the sinfulness in their own lives.”

He is saying, “Blessed those who long so much for righteousness, who long so much for the world to become a better place, who want the sin and the evil in the world to go away that they hurt and they ache and they get dizzy over it.”

I am not advocating anorexia today and I am not advocating a type of “spiritual anorexia” where Christians remain in a constant state of bawling, crying and feeling guilty all the time.

But I am trying to remind you that unrighteousness and evil is a big deal.  The things we do that hurt others, or hurt our planet or violate the ethos of a loving God are severe.  The things that go wrong are worth hurting over and crying over and groaning those groans too deep for words.

This is why we ask you to suffer with Christ during Lent.  This is why we ask you to give up something you like for 40 days.  I would hope that you picked that “something” well.  I would hope it is something you are going to dearly miss on a daily basis so that when you long for it, you can remind yourself that is what it means to hunger and thirst for righteousness.  I hope it hurts you just a little bit so you can be reminded of how much Christ hurt over the awfulness of our world.

But we also ask you to begin this journey knowing that Easter is coming where the other half of the beatitude will come true.  For those of us who ache, long and hurt for the kingdom of God, Easter is that morning where God says, “Let them be filled.”  For those of us who are willing to hurt over the kingdom of God, to cry the tears that need to be cried, to suffer under the agony of a fast, please know that a blessing is coming called Easter morning, where we are reminded that our suffering only last for a night but joy comes in the morning.

And in the Easter season you will get to feast for 50 days that which you only fasted for 40 so that we can remind ourselves that the awfulness of our world is passing away so that God’s righteousness may reign.

My First Foray Into Performing the Scriptures: The Sermon on the Mount

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There is a neat trend hitting modern day Christianity where clever interpreters and actors memorize and perform a large portion of Scripture in an engaging way.  You can watch some of these live performances on Youtube.  When done well, they are quite engaging.

A few weeks ago I decided to give this a try with the Sermon on the Mount.  I memorized it and performed a dramatic reenactment of it for my congregation, complete with Powerpoint slides and props for the kids.

I would love to take a week and write a whole book of posts about this experience but I am way too busy and all ready a day behind because yesterday I was in bed with the stomach flu.

However, here are a few things I learned/gained from memorizing and performing the Sermon on the Mount.

First, I learned way more memorizing it than I did studying it.  Last year I spent a few months preaching through the Sermon on the Mount.  I read a few books, looked up a lot of Greek words, realized some Old Testament connections and poured over the structure.  All that was really useful.  However, I learned more memorizing it out loud.  I saw things I would never read in a book.  These were things like subtle transitions, rhetorical devices, tonal changes and sarcasm.

Second, you make 1,000 more interpretive decisions reciting a text than you do preaching it.  When I preach I try to focus on explaining just one or two interpretative moves from the text.  However, when I spent 15 minutes reciting the Sermon on the Mount, I found I made and conveyed over 1,000 interpretive moves.  When does Jesus raise his voice and lower it?  When is Jesus standing or sitting?  What props did Jesus have handy?  Was there a snake in the distance he pointed to?  Did he have a loaf of bread in hand?  When did Jesus’ voice convey sarcasm?  When did it convey compassion?  When was Jesus being ironic?  When was he being solemn?  Then there is the wonderful ending to the sermon when Jesus says the house fell with a crash!  Do you yell “crash!” or whisper it?  What do you do after you say, “crash?”  Do you get up and leave?  Do you issue a call to follow Jesus?  Do you add an “amen” or a “so be it?”  This brings me to.  .  .

Third, I had to work my tail off not to add words.  I do believe the Sermon on the Mount has an internal structure that made sense to 1st century Jews.  I think that structure is something like:

Describing the World as God Has Made It (5:1-5:20)

Commandments for Living Well in God’s World (5:21-7:6)

Various Metaphors Imploring You To Live Well (7:7-8:1)

With that in mind, there are still some really awkward transitions.  I had no idea what to do with the transition from “do not worry” to “do not judge” or from “salt and light” to “I have not come to abolish the law.”  So I found myself adding “and’s” and “but’s” and “oh’s” to help the audience out a bit.  I felt really uncomfortable doing that, like I was adding to “God’s Infallible Word!”  Still, I didn’t know how not to do it.  After all, that is what I would do in any other sermon or even in blog posts.

Fourth, when Jesus says, “if your right hand is causing you to sin, chop it off” he is definitely talking about masturbation.  I read that in a book over a year ago and didn’t believe it.  But after memorizing it in the context of looking lustfully after a woman and after learning a little bit more about those addicted to pornography.  .  .yeah that is exactly what Jesus was talking about.  This brings me to,

Fifth, parts of this sermon are quite mean.  Everybody loves the poetry of the “do not worry” passage but when read out loud it comes off rather insulting.  “Don’t worry about food and clothes!  The pagans run after those things!”  “Who of you by worrying can add one single hour to your life?!”  In another part, Jesus says that anybody who makes promises is evil, taunting them with, “you can’t make one hair on your head white or black!”  Then there are the obvious ones like, “Be perfect!” or “Your righteousness must surpass the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law!” or “Any man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery!”  It is hard to say this stuff out loud and not sound like a jerk, especially when your congregation is full of guilty addicts, remarried divorcees and gray haired worriers!  Still I should add that my personal favorite is, “if you then, though are evil, know how to give good gifts.  .  .”  Wait, did he just call his entire audience evil?  Yes, yes Jesus did.

Sixth, there are softer parts too.  The aside about settling matters quickly before your adversary takes you to court is just Jesus giving us some good, loving advice.  Out loud, it almost sounds fatherly.  The question, “are you not much more valuable than sparrows?” is full of compassion.  The beatitudes are beautiful.  There are lovely assurances of God’s provision in statements like, “your father knows what you need before you ask” and “ask and you will receive.  Seek and you will find.”

It turns out these are not just descriptions of God but invitations to express our holiness in the way that God does.  The unseen God insists our “acts of righteousness” remain unseen.  The God who forgives sins insists we forgive sinners.  The God who shows mercy insists we be merciful and yes, the God who is perfect insists we be perfect as well.

In closing, this was a very worthwhile practice for me.  My congregation also seemed enjoy it, and not just because I offered a kid a loaf of bread, only to actually throw a rock at him.

Therefore I will definitely do it again, but maybe next time with one of the minor prophets.  That will fill up a sanctuary, only to empty it out just as quickly!

Blessings on your weeks!  May they be full of God’s provision and protection.

Beyond the Talking Points: Let’s Reclaim Persecution

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Yesterday Robin Williams died.  My Facebook exploded with condolences, links to websites and even a few buzzfeed lists about what Robin Williams actually taught us.  Then a very well meaning person said, “Yes, an actor has died but lets not forget Christians are still being beheaded in Iraq.”  A few hours later several had commented on her post trying to justify why they care more about Robin Williams then the Christians in Iraq.

Of course caring about Robin Williams and caring about Christian persecution are not mutually exclusive.  You can actually care about both at the same time.  In fact my Facebook has been filled for 2 weeks with condolences, links to websites and even a few buzzfeed lists about the persecution.  This morning, as if on cue, I saw a link to another blog titled, “Why Christians Need to Grow A Pair.”  As the title would suggest, the author spends a few hundred words ranting about why we aren’t doing enough about the persecution in Iraq.  She argues that we quickly ignore and scroll past the stories about it because it makes us uncomfortable.

And she is right.  It has made me very uncomfortable and I struggle with what to think and feel about it all.  Even during church on Sunday I fought with myself during the prayer time to put words to the tragedy.  I want to be fair.  I want to be balanced.  I want to avoid propaganda of any sort but I also want to acknowledge that these persecuted Christians are us.  They are our brothers and sisters and we should care about them.

This is a difficult dilemma for a pastor.  The source of my discomfort is the word “persecution” has been way over used recently.  The religious right overuse it to score cheap political points.  The older people in my community overuse it to argue the world is getting worse and worse because their narrow definition of Christianity isn’t broadly accepted.  And people from most faith traditions overuse it in their propaganda to get those who don’t agree with them to be sympathetic to their cause.  In fact ISIS even uses the word “persecution” to defend its action.

But in the spirit of “growing a pair” I think the Iraqi tragedy gives opportunity to reclaim persecution for what it really is.  And the pictures in that blog give us a pretty accurate definition.  Persecution is not being told you can’t pray in schools.  It is not giving rights and privileges to people who don’t agree with your religious beliefs.  It is certainly not the Supreme Court deciding against your particular brand of faith and it is not an elected leader disagreeing with you.

Instead persecution is being driven away from your home and threatened with starvation or execution because you believe in a God who doesn’t endorse violence.  Persecution is fleeing into the wilderness without food and water because you refuse to take a side between two warring factions.  Persecution is choosing not to renounce Christ when your children are at gunpoint.  Persecution is denouncing the violence of the world when that violence is targeted against you.

I had a wonderful professor in seminary who told us, “You all talk about the church being persecuted and the church in exile.  Exile is having a fish line run through your lip and being led in chains away from your home to be slaves in a foreign land.  That is not what is happening to the church in the USA right now.  Instead what is happening is what happens when the owner of your favorite restaurant sells the joint to someone who doesn’t like you.  You used to go to the restaurant and you were given the best seats and your food was prepared meticulously.  But now the new owner makes you sit by the kitchen door, when every time the door opens it bangs against your table.  Then they bring your food late and it is cold.  It is frustrating as can be, but it is not exile.”

In that spirit, can I recommend we reclaim the word “persecution” for what it really is?  Can I recommend we come face to face with the true horrors that are happening overseas?  Look at the pictures.  Study them to the point where you are defenseless against them.  After that reclaim your faith.  I would recommend you use the words of Jesus, “blessed are you when you are persecuted for in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.”

The Iraqi Christians are the blessed ones.  They are the privileged saints.  And that confession does not excuse the violence or the perpetrators.  In fact, it does just the opposite, it condemns them.  Because when ISIS curses them, the Christians are blessed.  When ISIS kills them, they live eternally.  When ISIS drives them out of home, they find eternal rest in God.  When ISIS imprisons, God liberates them.  This is how God’s wrath works itself out, by blessing those who are cursed.

Neither does their blessedness let us in America off the hook.  Again, it does the opposite by putting us in the driver seat.  We are called to join God in doing the work of blessing the persecuted.  The author of the “grow a pair” blog recommends we join God in three ways.  First we should pray for them.  Second we should give to them.  Third, we should use our social media.  Every prayer offered, every dollar given, every retweet or share online increases our unity with the persecuted.  As we pray, give and share we participate in God’s blessing to them and at the same time, denounce and condemn the deeds of hatred and violence.

So lets use our prayers, gifts and apps to honor the martyrs because they are the true saints, the ones who have stared evil in the face and chosen Christ.  I hope if persecution ever does find me, I can face it with half the courage they do.