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Streams of Living Water: The Incarnational Stream

March 23, 2008

John 20:1-18

Today, we come to the end of our series entitled Streams of Living Water, a journey we have had together throughout the season of Lent.

I want to backtrack enough to remind you of where we have traveled. Perhaps you remember that six weeks ago, we started at a well in Samaria with a woman who was dying of thirst, not physical thirst but spiritual thirst. It was on that occasion that Jesus told her about the possibility of living water gushing up like an artisan well to eternal life.

Jesus is the fountainhead of these streams of living water. This stream begins as the life of prayer. In “The Contemplative Stream,” we learned to take time to be with our Lord on a daily basis, to spend time in prayer and meditation, time in quietness with our Savior. Once we start to do that, we find that we cultivate virtues. Our life comes to be holy, a word we like to avoid but a word that is good, nonetheless. As we cultivate these virtues into our lives, we understand that Christ is at work and that we can do nothing without him. We are like a branch that is grafted into a vine. When we are grafted into Christ, we can bear much fruit. It is this spirit-empowered life that enables us to be fruit-bearing. We also find that our actions change, as do our concerns. We become involved in justice and mercy and have a kind of internal imperative to share the good news of Christ with others.

We come to a confluence today, a confluence of all of these streams in what is called the stream of incarnational living. Think of the mighty Mississippi River. In the northern part of this country, you can actually step across the river. It is just a trickle emerging from the ground. Somewhere far in the Rocky Mountains, another stream originates and later becomes the Missouri River. Far to the east, the Ohio River begins. These and many other streams come together. It is that confluence that then leads to the powerful Mississippi River. Just as the Mississippi is located right at the center of our country, this stream of incarnational living is at the center of the Christian life. It is the confluence of all the other streams that we have discussed in this series.

We have no better time than Easter Sunday to consider this mighty stream. On Good Friday, Jesus defeated sin by his death on the cross. On Easter Sunday, he conquered the enemy of death. Easter Sunday reminds us of Christ’s victory over death.

We come to this day and remember the two great miracles in the life of Jesus. I will not address his miracle of turning water into wine, his feeding the 5000, or his walking on water. I will not discuss his miracle of opening blind eyes or helping the deaf to hear. Nor will I concentrate on the miracle of raising the daughter of Jairus, the son of the Syrophonecian woman, or Lazarus from the dead.

What are the two great miracles? One occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ life. When we go to Bethlehem and see the babe in the manger, we see in that child the spitting image of his Father, our heavenly Father, God. The miracle of incarnation is that this child is not only the Son of Mary. He is also the Son of God. Jesus is completely human and fully divine. Jesus is the God-man or as the Gospel of John puts it, “In him, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). This God-man, fully human and fully divine, lived on this earth thirty-three years, giving to us the supreme example of how we are to live. Mary witnessed his crucifixion, his death on a Roman cross, as did the centurion who gave an affirmation of faith, “Surely, this was the Son of God.” Jesus’ death looked like utter defeat when he was sealed in a tomb, closed up in the rock, and covered with a stone.

The second miracle, the miracle of resurrection, occurred when God brought Jesus back from the dead. He was not just asleep. He was as “dead as a doornail.” The man of Nazareth is the Son of God, and he is our Risen Lord and Savior. We come on Easter and celebrate this.

I ask you, “What difference does the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection really make, anyway?” We get dressed up and come to church, maybe because it is Easter Sunday. We hear beautiful music and halfway listen to the sermon. We know that the “opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” and the Easter service isn’t over till the fat preacher preaches. We look forward to the end of the service, knowing we will leave and have a delicious meal with family and friends. Maybe we will watch a little basketball and golf or spend some time outside on a beautiful spring day. The following Monday morning, we will resume our daily life as usual.

Consider Mary Magdalene, a woman from Magdala. Archeologists are digging in that area rather intensely now. They have discovered that Magdala was quite the cosmopolitan city located along an important trade route. Mary was apparently a woman of some means. She might have even been considered wealthy. We know through an encounter with Jesus that Mary had seven demons though we do not know what they were. Jesus frees her from that possession. Though possibly well-to-do, she is indebted to Jesus because he has healed her. She follows him as a disciple and possibly even supports his ministry financially.

Early before daylight on the morning after the Sabbath ended, Mary goes out to the tomb. Though some preparations of the body were yet to be completed, she goes because she is grieving. When she reaches the tomb and realizes the stone has been rolled away, she becomes frightened. The whole scene becomes frenetic. Mary runs back to find Peter and John. You can almost hear her panting as she calls out to them, “Somebody has taken him away!” Peter and John run as quickly as they can to the tomb. Peter enters first, and John follows. Peter notices some burial cloths, while John pays a little closer attention to the details. Then the two of them, also seeing that the tomb is empty, turn and return to Jerusalem while Mary remains at the site.

Mary now enters the tomb to look inside. She see angels that Peter and John missed and asks, “What have you done with him?” Then spotting a stranger, who she thinks is a gardener, Mary asks the same question: “If you will tell me where he is, I will go and find him.” When the stranger speaks her name, she recognizes that he is her Lord. “Rabonni,” she replies, a word that means teacher. The Scripture says that she wanted to hold on to him, to cling to him; but Jesus would not allow it. She then returns to the disciples. The Scripture does not say that she ran back to see them. My guess is that she walks slowly, pondering all she has seen. When she reaches the others, she makes the remarkable comment: “I have seen the Lord.”

A question came to me this week, and I passed it along to others by e-mail: Why did Jesus appear to Mary Magdalene first? I abbreviated Mary Magdalene as MM. Some wrote back, asking if MM was Marilyn Monroe. Some joked about the question, “Surely she was a fashionable woman, ‘a hot chick’” or “Surely she was very attractive.” Some tried to reason it out, taking it very seriously. One woman remembered reading from an extracanonical gospel an ancient writing not included in the Scriptures. In a book called the Gospel of Mary are the words of Mary, “Those who seek him find him.” Maybe the reason Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene first is just as simple as that: she does not merely look inside the empty tomb and immediately return to Jerusalem. Instead, she continues seeking Jesus, all the while grieving and weeping. She does not really know where to look, but she continues to search until Jesus reveals himself to her.

Think back to the Samaritan woman at the well who encounters Jesus. She receives living water because she is open to receive him. It is that way, I believe, with those of us who are searchers. The woman at the well runs back and tells others, “I have seen the Lord.” They, too, come out to see Jesus. Jesus taught, “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door shall be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). The Risen Christ is available to all of us who truly seek a relationship with him. We, of course, will experience the Living Christ in our own way, in our own context. We sometimes say that we long for a personal relationship with Christ, one that is certainly going to be individualized. No one has a standardized relationship to Christ.

I recently received an e-mail that illustrates this personal relationship. That e-mail sparked an idea.

To the artist, he is the essence of beauty.
To the architect, he is the cornerstone.
To the baker, he is the bread of life.
To the banker, he is the hidden treasure.
To the biologist, he is the tree of life.
To the builder, he is the carpenter of Nazareth.
To the doctor, he is the great physician.
To the educator, he is the master teacher.
To the gardener, he is the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley.
To the astronomer, he is the bright and morning star.
To the geologist, he is the rock of ages.
To the horticulturalist, he is the true vine.
To the justice, he is the eternal judge.
To the jeweler, he is the pearl of great price.
To the lawyer, he is an advocate.
To the newspaper reporter, he is the one who brings good tidings of great joy.
To the philanthropist, he is the unspeakable gift.
To the philosopher, he is the wisdom of God.
To the sculptor, he is the living stone.
To the servant, he is the good master.
To the statesman, he is the desire of all nations.
To the student, he is the way of truth and life.
To the theologian, he is the author and finisher of faith.

Jesus comes to us uniquely. We all experience him differently. Does this make a difference in our lives? Yes, it does. When we begin to follow Jesus, we become his disciple and want to spend time with him every day. Doing so allows us to begin to grow, to learn, and to develop qualities of virtue. We realize we need the strength of his Spirit in order to accomplish anything and understand that we must act in ways that are different from the world. We must act with goodness, justice, and mercy and develop an internal imperative to share this good news with others.

As we continue to grow, we become more and more like Jesus. Thomas a Kempis called it “the imitation of Christ.” The apostle Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who lives, but it is the Son of God who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). In his letter to the Philippians, Paul said, “For me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21).

A missionary journeyed to the interior of Africa after learning the native language.

When he started telling people in the village about Jesus, the chief came forward and said, “We already know him. He has been here.”

“Jesus came to your village?”

“Yes. He came here.” The chief indicated in his own way that Jesus had been there just a few years before.

The missionary continued to inquire, asking, “How do you know it was Jesus?”

“He came and taught us what you are saying. He healed people. To those who were dying, he was very compassionate. He was kind to children. He did all of the things you have said about Jesus. Jesus has been here.”

The missionary later found out that David Livingston had come to that village and spent time among those people. What they saw in him was Christ. Let others see Jesus in you.

In the same way that the ancient tabernacle was thought to house God, we are to house the very presence of Christ. The stream of incarnation says that we become the abiding place of Christ. We are flawed, to be sure; but if Christ is living within us, we become changed. If Christ is living within us, our marriages change. Our homes change and become like seminaries in a way, where every family member understands that they have a ministry, that they have a relationship with Christ, that they are called to minister in his name. Certainly, our work, whatever it is, becomes our mission field where all that we do is to the glory of Christ. All ground is holy ground, and all of life is sacred.

The Gospels end with the resurrection of Jesus. Ladies and gentlemen, though the sermon series ends today, this is the beginning of the life we live in Christ Jesus. He has called us to be his people and to carry on the work he asks us to do. He has given us the Great Commission, and he expects us, as his people, to live more and more like him. Listen to these words of an Easter hymn:

I serve a risen Savior, He’s in the world today;
I know that He is living, whatever men may say;
I see His hand of mercy. I hear His voice of cheer,
And just the time I need Him, He’s always near.
He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart.
You ask me how I know he lives: He lives within my heart.

Does the Risen Christ live within your heart? Are you a disciple, following him, growing as he wants you to grow so that you can become as Christ to other people? That is the desire of our Lord. That is the desire of our hearts.

© 2008 Kirk H. Neely

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