BIBLE READINGS: 1 Corinthians 12: 3b-13 John 7: 37-39
Today is a great day in the life of the Church of Jesus Christ. It's been just a few decades shy of 2,000 years since God poured out his Spirit into his Church on that first Pentecost after the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Today is the birthday of the Church. Today we proclaim the same Gospel that Peter proclaimed on that first Pentecost. Today we offer to assist anyone who humbles themselves before God and desires baptism in the name of Jesus.
Yes, Pentecost was a day the Church will never forget. And we do well to remember that first Pentecost on this day. But in this sermon I actually want to talk to you about something Jesus said on a different Jewish holy day. It was during what was known as the Feast of Tabernacles, also called the Feast of Booths or the Feast of the Ingathering, that Jesus made the great promises that are recorded in John 7:37-39.
John tells us that these promises were not fulfilled until later. Actually, they came to pass on the day of Pentecost. But to understand these promises we must have a little history lesson on the Feast of Tabernacles. Then we will be able to better comprehend the Good News proclaimed by Jesus on this day.
The Feast of Tabernacles was one of the main Jewish festivals along with Passover. It was by far the most popular. It lasted 8 days and came to a crescendo on the 7th or "great day." The 7th day was actually the last day of the festival and the 8th day was actually more of a day of rest to recover from the festivities. These people knew how to worship God!
Tabernacles was a festival rich in symbolism and that symbolism forms the background to our Lord's saying. The people took leafy tree branches and made a temporary shelter to live in. That's why the festival is called the feast of booths or tabernacles. The people camped out in these booths for the length of the festival.
The purpose of this was stated by God in Leviticus 23:43. They were to do this each year "so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God." The feast was a reminder that God had given them their land, their homes, their very existence as a people and that he alone is worthy of their adoration and praise.
During the festival people gave God thanks for his great blessings. There were also a whole series of customs and practices that focused on the giving of thanks for the harvest and prayer for rain that the people might have another bountiful harvest.
This is the reason why the feast also came to be known as the Festival of the Ingathering. It was a harvest-thanksgiving festival. It fell each year right after the harvest in the Northern Hemisphere, somewhere between the end of September and mid-October.
The people participated in several unique worship activities in expressing their thanksgiving to God for the harvest and prayer for future rain. Each worshipper, as they marched in procession, would carry what was called a lulab in their right hand and a citron in their left.
The lulab consisted of branches and leaves from several different types of trees all tied together. It symbolised the stages of the wilderness journey which was marked by different kinds of vegetation. The citron, which is similar to a lemon, was fruit from the land that God had graciously given his people.
The festival was a time for great rejoicing. There was flute-playing, dancing, and the singing of the Hallel psalms, psalms 113-118 which include many Hallelujahs, many "Praise the Lords." As those psalms were sung the people would shake their lulabs and hold out their fruit before the Lord. What a scene that must have been!
Psalm 118:25 is representative of those psalms. The psalmist says, "Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!" During this festival, that was a prayer for rain and a fruitful season.
One of the most significant acts of worship during this festival occurred daily. On each of the seven days of the feast the people, carrying their lulabs and fruit and singing the Hallel psalms, were led in procession by a priest from the temple down the southeast side of the temple hill to the fountain of Gihon which supplied the waters to the pool of Siloam that we read about in John chapter 9.
There the priest filled a golden pitcher with water as the choir sang the words of Isaiah 12:3: "With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation." Then the procession returned to the temple and entered through the Water Gate to the joyful sounding of the trumpet. When they reached the altar in front of the temple, they marched around the altar waving the lulabs and singing "Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!"
Then the priest went up the ramp to the altar and poured out the water into a bowl that had a silver funnel that allowed the water to flow out into the ground at the base of the altar. This occurred each of the seven days. On the 7th, the great day, the same procession occurred but the people marched around the altar 7 times. And, again, with great ceremony and dignity, the priest poured out the water before the living God.
This was an act of thanksgiving for God's mercies in giving the people water in the past, water in the wilderness, water from the rock, and water in the land of Canaan right up to this day. It was also an acted prayer for rain in the coming year.
And, finally, as this practice continued from generation to generation it became associated with God's promises to pour out his Holy Spirit upon his people. The joy at the feast was attributed to the Holy Spirit. And the pouring out of the water anticipated the reception of the Spirit in the end time. One day, they believed, God will pour out his Spirit on his people in the same way that the priest pours out this water before God.
Many believe that it was on the 7th day, the great day, perhaps right after the procession had gone around the altar 7 times, the priest had ascended the ramp to the altar, and right after the water was poured out that Jesus stood up and proclaimed the words of our sermon text for this morning.
John tells us that on that great day, on that great occasion (v. 37), Jesus was standing there and then cried out. And he "cried out." It is a loud shout given forcefully so that all might hear.
Jesus proclaimed good news for the people. First, he gives an invitation: "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink." This is an invitation to have faith in Jesus. And there is an implication to the call itself.
Human beings are spiritually thirsty. We long in our soul for something that will satisfy our spiritual cravings. And we try all kinds of things to satisfy that thirst. The psalmist knew best: only God can satisfy. Everything else leaves us with parched lips. The psalmist wrote, "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God." As Augustine said sometime later, "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you, O God."
There's another implication in this invitation. All who believe in Jesus, all who come to him and drink, will have their thirst quenched. But there's even more Good News. Not only will believers have their thirst quenched but "Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water" (v. 38).
Jesus does not call us to be like the Dead Sea where the water flows in but never flows out. We are called to be people who have rivers of living water flowing out from us. The Church is not to be a stagnant, ingrown, sterile, exclusive country club for those who agree on a couple of things. The living water will quench our thirst. But we are not to be self-centred. When a person believes in Jesus they have been called to fulfil the promise to Abraham, namely, we are to be a blessing to the world. And we cannot be that blessing if we keep the life-giving water to ourselves.
Notice Jesus' use of the term "living water." Jesus told the woman at the well in John 4 that "the water that I will give will become in [believers] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." But that living water cannot be contained within a human being without becoming stagnant. To remain "living water" it must flow out of the believer's heart, out of his or her very life.
On this day Jesus proclaims that the people's prayer for the pouring out of the Holy Spirit like water is fulfilled. The age of salvation, the end-time, the day of which Joel prophesied has come in the person of Jesus Christ. He has rivers of living water to give to those who believe in him. He is the one in whom we find life and have our spiritual thirst quenched. The day has come to believe in Jesus.
John tells us in verse 39 that, although Jesus made this promise at the Feast of Tabernacles, that it was not fulfilled immediately. It would not be a reality until he was "glorified." He would not pour out the rivers of living water until he had died, was raised, and ascended to heaven. And that is exactly what he did on that first Pentecost after his resurrection. The high priest of God poured out the water of life into his Church.
John equates the "rivers of living water" with the Holy Spirit. It's the Holy Spirit who relieves the believer's thirst. It's the Holy Spirit who is "the rivers of living water" that will "flow out of the believer's heart" and bring a blessing to our world.
Let us as followers of Jesus continue to pray for the life, the power, that can only come from the Spirit of the living God. Let us pray for the Spirit not so that we might feel good but so that we might be Jesus' witnesses and bring the living water to the world.
It is not our programs, our ideas, our strategies, our plans, that are going to quench the thirst of the lips of a parched world. It is the Holy Spirit, the rivers of living water, that God has poured out into his Church. Once again this is an appeal by the Lord to trust in him and his work and not in ourselves.
Today I proclaim the Good News to you. You who would come to Jesus and believe in him will have your spiritual thirst quenched. Jesus will pour out into your life "rivers of living water." Yes, you'll have a spring of that water gushing up within you and quenching your thirst.
As a believer those rivers will flow out of you. You will be his witness in your family, in your community, yes, "to the ends of the earth."
Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. Turn to God with your whole heart. Worship and serve only him. Be baptised in the name of Jesus. Receive forgiveness for your sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
To you who have grown stagnant and sterile in your service of God, for whom thanksgiving and praise have become a chore, to you who haven't shaken your spiritual lulab for a long time, Jesus invites you to come to the living waters, too. The Father will again give you the good gift of his Holy Spirit and fill you with his joy and power. Humble yourself before God. Ask for his Spirit. And you shall receive.
The water of life has been poured out. Come, you who are thirsty. With joy draw water from the wells of salvation. Hallelujah! Amen.