Today is the celebration of Pentecost. It is a day in which we recount the famous story of the outpouring of the Spirit of God on the disciples in Jerusalem. Most of us probably remember it quite well. The narrative is found in Acts, chapter 2, and tells how they were all gathered together in one place and the sound like a great rushing wind consumed them, when suddenly divided tongues of fire came to rest on them, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages. These disciples then go out and begin to preach to all the pilgrims who had gathered in Jerusalem, and everyone heard the Word of God in their own language. It is the moment when the modern reality of the church begins, when the fruits of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, and the promise of His return again explodes out into all the world. It is a day when we remember the fire and the dramatic proclamation of the Word of God.
While this is the text we are used to hearing on this Sunday and is the normal flow of things, especially for churches which follow the historic lectionary, today I thought we would look at something that happened before those fantastic events of Pentecost. It is something that also happens during a festival in Jerusalem, but it is not Pentecost. Our Gospel reading today from John 7 comes during the Feast of Booths or the Feast of Tabernacles. This is one of the other great festivals in the Jewish calendar and it was a time set aside to thank God for His provision and His care. It was, in part, a harvest festival and part of the remembrance of His guiding hand throughout their wilderness wanderings. It was an eight-day feast in which the Israelites would dwell in booths or tabernacles that were usually constructed from tree branches or similar material. There they would focus once again on how God had delivered them from Egypt, how He had cared from them in their nomadic shelters along the way.
There is another peculiar tradition associated with the Feast of Booths. Every day of the festival, during the morning sacrifice, the priests would process to the pool of Siloam and fill a pitcher with water. The water was carried through the streets of the city to the Temple, to the place of sacrifice. With great pomp and ritual, they would pour out the water as the trumpets sounded and the people sang the words of Isaiah the prophet, “Therefore, with joy shall you draw water from the wells of salvation.” It would have brought to mind the incredible story of God’s care for their fathers in the wilderness, especially the provision of water from the rock at Meribah. It was the place where they had quarreled with God, where they wondered why God would lead them out into the wilderness only to let them die of thirst. It is there that God instructs Moses to strike the rock and from the rock flows water, flows life, flows salvation.
So, it is in this context, in the midst of this ritual and festival where our Lord says, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink.” Come to me, He says. He is the rock of salvation. He is the well from which we are to draw living water. Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” A drink from this rock of salvation is a drink which will well up to rivers of living water that overflow from the heart and out into all the world. This is reminiscent of what He said just a few chapters earlier to the Samaritan woman at the well. He says to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again, the water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Jesus places Himself at the center of life and salvation, hope and promise.
Last Sunday was one of the few times throughout the year when I was able to just go to church. That is, it was one of those rare Sundays I was not working, and I got to experience life from the pew rather than the pulpit. Usually what we do is look up the nearest LCMS church and make our way there. Often, we will even stay for the Bible study as it is good to relax and receive the gifts as they come, although my wife would probably say going to church with me is not necessarily a relaxing experience. This time we were in a small town in upstate New York for my daughter’s graduation and the nearest church in our fellowship was quite a way away. So, we decided to check out the large and beautiful Presbyterian church right in the heart of downtown. What happened there has been running through my mind ever since we left. Both my wife and I were stunned. It had nothing to do with the liturgy, with the hymns we sang, or the beautiful pipe organ they played. No, it was the sermon. As I said to Cindy as we left, “It wasn’t just that it was heresy, its that it wasn’t even entertaining heresy.” Jesus was nowhere to be found, ceritnaly not as a savior, and certainly not as the source of living water we all desperately need for life.
This is not just some pet peeve of mine, this is an abomination to what the Church is, to what our faith is about. Jesus and His gifts for you, Jesus and the promise of forgiveness and life everlasting in His work, in His suffering, death, and resurrection, which must be the center, the heart of all we are. This is what He Himself is doing in our text. He is proclaiming that this ancient festival will now be focused on Him. No longer do we need to look back to the rock of Meribah and recall simply what God did back then. No, the living rock is now among us. The living source of water has come, so not only this festival but even that event of Meribah now point to Christ. Jesus is the center of it all. He is the one who stopped the work of the Temple and when they challenged Him said, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.” He was talking about His body. He was declaring that He Himself is the Temple. Jesus is the place of sacrifice, the place where you meet God. Everything now points to Christ your savior.
In this proclamation at the Feast of Booths we are told when Jesus spoke about rivers of living water flowing out of the hearts of those who believe in Him, He said this about the Spirit whom they were to receive. So, this text, with is its insistence of the centrality of Christ, with its promise of living water, carries us forward to the events of Pentecost. Now, just as the Feast of Booths reminded the people of the rock of Meribah, Pentecost helped them to remember the giving of the commandments on Mount Sinai; that momentous event where God descended on the mountain with lightening and fire. And what was brought down? His Word, His commands which set these people aside as His own. Again, there is fire, and the working of God as His Word goes forth, not just for one small group of people but for all people of all languages and nationalities. And what did the disciples proclaim? They proclaimed the mighty works of God, the mighty works culminating in our Lord Jesus Christ. They proclaimed Christ suffering, death, and resurrection, His ascension, and promise to come again.
Peter’s sermon on Pentecost reaches its crescendo when he says, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” And when the people heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said, “What shall we do?” And what does Peter say? “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself.” Here the fire from on high and the water of life come together. The rock of Meribah and the thunder of Mount Sinai collide in Christ. And Christ is proclaimed for you, for your salvation, for your forgiveness. He says, repent and be baptized.
And here all those works of Christ flow into you. Here the gifts of the Spirit take residence within you. Here faith springs forth and you yourself become a place where living water flows. You are baptized into Christ. You have received the forgiveness of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit. Therefore, you, yes you, can now go forth and love. You can be kind. You can have compassion. You can point others to Christ, and even more than that, you can forgive even as you are forgiven all your sins.