Tonight I get the privilege of speaking at a "Seven Last Words" service at Grace Nazarene Church in downtown L.A. The service should be passionate, multi-cultural, and deeply meaningful. I have been asked to preach on the fourth of the seven words "I Thirst." I don't usually manuscript out messages but I thought I would write this one out so I could save it for later if I needed it. I thought I would post it below in case it my be edifying for someone during this Holy Week. It is a little long, but I hope it is meaningful to you. Blessings... Scott
“I Thirst” – John 19:28
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.
Our home is in Monrovia at the base of the mountains. So although we live in the city we have our share of wildlife visiting us regularly from the mountains above. We often see deer, coyotes, raccoons, bobcats, and recently a bear has been visiting us nearly every night to snack out of our trash can. But our most consistent wildlife visitation comes from neighborhood skunks. I have become quite notorious at our house for trying to be kind to the skunks. When we first moved into the house it was summertime and one afternoon while we were in the backyard a young skunk crawled out from underneath the back porch of the house. The poor little creature was clearly dying of dehydration and even though nocturnal by nature, he decided he could no longer bear the heat under the house and had to risk being seen in daylight and move on. Our family watched this poor little skunk stumbling around the yard looking for help. To the chagrin of my family I ran inside, filled an empty butter tub with water, and in peril of life and odor gave the skunk water. You could almost literally watch the life come rushing back into his withered little white-striped body as he ignored whatever threat we might pose to him and drank the water he needed for life. Once he was better I put a five-gallon bucket over him and transported him a hundred yards or so away from our house to a nearby avocado orchard and asked him nicely to find a new home. I’m not sure he has obliged. My family was not happy with my kindness to the skunk, but I believe it is probably what Jesus would have done J. At the very least it is what St. Francis would have done.
The desperate thirst of Christ upon the cross has often posed a serious theological problem for the Church. The question has to do with the incarnation and the nature of divine suffering. In the fourth century Christianity had made its way from the Latin culture of the West into the Greek culture of the East. Most of the Church’s leaders, especially its intellectual leaders, were Greek speakers and thought about the world in Greek philosophical terms. Particularly influential in Christian thinking was the philosophy of Socrates and Plato. In the early fifth century Augustine would make the comment that if one could just change a few words that Socrates and Plato would have been Christians.
Greek philosophers – and Plato in particular – had struggled with the issue of change. If everything is changing – as Heraclitus remarked one could never step in the same river twice – then how can we truly know anything with certainty? For example, if every moment a human is changing, aging, learning, and forgetting, they are in a sense a slightly different person each and every passing moment. If that is the case, then can anyone truly know anyone else? Can I even know myself? To overcome this problem Plato posited that there is an invisible realm of forms that never changes. Everything in our ever-changing universe reflects unchanging forms existing in the unseen realm of forms. Plato called this unchanging place the realm of being. (Christians call it heaven).
The highest of the unchanging forms Plato called the idea of the Good. The form of the Good is above all of the other forms and gives life to them. It did not take much work for Greek Christians to replace the idea of the Good with the all-powerful creator, God. Fourth century Christians began to think of God as the unchanging (immutable) being from which all things draw their existence. In a world of continual change and chaos we have this one certainty, God never changes.
Thus the incarnation posed a sticky philosophical problem. How did the immutable, unchanging God take on ever-changing, ever-mutating flesh? How can an unchanging God (in Christ) grow, learn, sleep, suffer, and in this particular passage thirst? One possible answer is to divide the two natures that came together in the incarnation between the human and the divine. Some fourth century theologians offered this as an option. In Jesus Christ, they proposed, the human nature experienced suffering and change but the divine nature remained unaffected.
This was put forward but soundly rejected by the great Councils of the Church. The divine nature had to assume all that is human or humankind is not redeemed. Jesus was not 50% divine and 50% human. The mystery of the incarnation is that Jesus is 100% divine and 100% human. No division between the natures is possible or salvation isn’t possible. So the great mystery of John 19:28 is that when Jesus the Son of God thirsts, God the immutable Father thirsts.
We should not be surprised by a thirsty God. In the Old Testament the Jewish people thought of God as experiencing many emotions we think of as exclusively human. God is often angry or jealous. He delights in his children or longs to gather them and protect them. Perhaps most importantly Genesis chapter six describes God as grieved and broken-hearted that he had made humankind. The picture of God that we have from our Israelite ancestors is not of a God who is a detached, static, and distant being watching passively over his creation. Rather we get a picture of God as a passionate lover who is intimately involved, deeply moved, and continually adapting to his creation in order to woo it back to him through his suffering love. God is not Plato’s eternal form of the Good high above all things unaffected by all the material things far below him. God is like Hosea who gives everything he has for the redemption of his wayward lover only to have her break his heart through her disobedience and faithlessness. But the brokenhearted divine – whose unchanging nature is steadfast love and mercy - will not give up on the object of his love – his people.
It is the very passion of the faithful God to not rest until all things are set right. Perhaps this is why in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus can combine thirstiness with divine blessedness. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” proclaims Jesus, “for they will be filled.” Those who learn to thirst for the renewed creation – what he called the kingdom of God – have learned to share in the blessed character of the Father who also thirsts for all things to be made new.
This is part of the reason Christians have historically participated (especially during Lent) in the spiritual discipline of fasting. When we hunger and thirst for food we are reminded of the deep grief and passion that God has for the redemption of all things. In fasting we learn to share in the suffering love of the Father and of his Son that will not be satisfied until all things are made new.
It should not surprise us that the one who offered the Samaritan woman living water so that she might never thirst again is himself still thirsty; for although Jesus is the source of living water, he will not be fully satisfied until all have come to taste for themselves the water of life.
But John also says that Jesus proclaimed his thirst in order to fulfill the Scripture. It is not immediately obvious which passage of scripture John might be referring to, but most scholars assume he is alluding to Psalm 69:21 where David writes, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” So the poignancy of this word from the lips of the suffering Messiah is not just that he suffers with thirst but that what we give him to drink is not refreshing but bitter. He cries out for water and we give him instead sour wine.
And so we are left with these troubling thoughts as we journey beneath the shadow of the cross during this holy week. Do we share in the thirst of God for the redemption of all things or have we learned to live with the brokenness of the creation? And how are we sating God’s thirst for all things to be set right? Are we offering back to him a cup of cold water or are we adding to his suffering by giving to him sour wine instead?
We do not serve a passive distant God but an active, loving, passionate, and transforming Father who hungers and thirsts for his creation to be restored to himself and to his purposes. To borrow from Christ, if any want to become his disciples let them deny themselves, take up his thirst, and come and follow him