Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 2:4–13 | Psalm 81:1, 10–16 | Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16 | Luke 14:1, 7–14
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11).
When I was growing up, we got our water from a hand dug well. If my memory is correct, the well was only about 9 feet deep, and I can remember several hot and dry summers when our well would run dry. Thankfully, our neighbours across the road had an artesian well, and so thanks to their neighbourly kindness, we could still get the water we needed until we got enough rain for our well to fill up again.
Then one day my parents decided it was time to find a more long-term solution to our water troubles, and so we had a new well drilled… over 70 feet deep into tough Northernwestern Ontario clay and rock, but in the end we had tapped into the same steady water source as our neighbours… and to my knowledge, that well has never once run dry. We now had a source of water we could truly count on.
But how foolish would it have been if we had abandoned that deep-drilled well that never ran dry, and turned back to using that hand-dug well that could not reliably sustain life? That choice would be absurd… but how often are we tempted to act just as foolishly? To turn our backs on the Source of all life, and pursue instead what only leaves us empty and dried up?
This is the powerful image that we heard from the prophet Jeremiah this morning: Jeremiah 2:12-13 says “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” Having tasted the goodness and grace of the Living God, His people had preferred to pursue things that could never actually sustain or satisfy. Foolish. Absurd. And yet it’s a choice that God’s people have made again and again.
Jeremiah had shared this message from the Lord at a troubling time in the life of God’s people. Centuries earlier, the Lord had rescued Israel from Egypt, and led them through the wilderness… where He graciously and faithfully provided both food and water for them for forty years. God brought Israel into the land He had promised to give to Abraham and to his descendants… not because of how great or deserving they were… or how much they’d earned honour or respect… but as a sign of God’s own faithfulness and generous love, especially given to those the world tends to overlook as unimportant and lowly. From the start, and all the way through the story of Scripture we hear that God cares deeply for the people of Israel, and invites them into an honoured and sacred place nearest to His heart: calling them to be a people raised up from nothing to share in His own glorious life.
But in Jeremiah’s day, things had gone horribly, horribly wrong. The kingdom had turned their back on God, time and time again, and rather than honouring the LORD and walking in His ways, they longed to be like the powerful nations all around them: proud kingdoms and empires, like Egypt to the South, or Assyria and Babylon further to the East. Chasing after their own desires their Kingdom in the Promised Land was torn apart by civil war, and the northern tribes of Israel were overrun by Assyria.
The Southern Kingdom of Judah was still being ruled by the family of King David, whom God had sworn to uphold, promising David that: “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me… Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” (2 Sam. 7:12-14, 16).
But even granted such a hopeful promise, Judah had also forsaken their commitments to the LORD, like their kin to the North… their kings and rulers, their priests and peoples had all turned away from the LORD… so now, the prophet Jeremiah had been sent to bring to light their foolishness and unfaithfulness, announcing that walking away from God placed His people in jeopardy of not only losing their kingdom, but everything. And within Jeremiah’s own lifetime the Kingdom of Judah would be lost and its people exiled in Babylon.
Let’s hear again the prophets words in this light: as solemn warning which went unheeded. Jeremiah 2:7-8, 11-13.
“I brought you into a plentiful land
to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?”
Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
the prophets prophesied by Baal,
and went after things that do not profit.
Therefore once more I accuse you,
says the Lord, and I accuse your children’s children…
Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”
The prophet’s words point us today to the challenge each generation of God’s people has had to face: will we trust God, and turning to Him receive the gift of life He longs for us to share? Or will we turn from Him, and look for what we need elsewhere?
With this question before us, let us turn now to our Gospel reading today, which is about much more than proper party etiquette in the ancient Near East, or today for that matter… rather, it’s another word of warning to God’s people, exposing our own ‘cracked cisterns’, and pointing us to where we can find God’s true life giving ‘water’.
St. Luke tells us that Jesus was invited to dine at the house of a Pharisee: a member of the devout Jewish religious movement, focused on obedience to the Law of God so that nothing like the Exile would ever happen to God’s people again. They looked back on their sacred story, the Scriptures, and to the promises of God, like the ones made to King David, and they became convinced that if they were faithful enough to the Law, if they were diligent, and obedient, and righteous enough, then God would take notice and rescue them and finally bring about His good Kingdom at last.
But as the Gospels point out, the Pharisees, as devout as they tried to be, also had their own serious blind-spots. Yes, they had stopped chasing after the obvious false gods, and outright wicked ways of their ancestors before the Exile, but they had found new dry and cracked ‘cisterns’ of their own… commitments and practices which seemed to offer them everything they needed, but were actually keeping them from sharing in God’s new life that Christ Jesus was bringing about. And one of these pitfalls, it turns out, was the problem of self-righteousness and pride: seeking their own glory and honour, often at the expense of those around them.
N.T. Wright makes this point about pride: “Pride, notoriously, is the great cloud which blots out the sun of God’s generosity: if I reckon that I deserve to be favoured by God, not only do I declare that I don’t need his grace, mercy and love, but I imply that those who don’t deserve it shouldn’t have it.”
It’s like we imagine: if we just do everything God asks of us, then we will be someone special… then we can look down on and disregard those who are clearly not as close to God as we are. We’ll be the most important… the most honoured guests at God’s table.
How much damage has been done in and by the Christian Church due to this attitude? How many of our neighbours think that this is what we Christians believe about ourselves… and that proving that ‘we are the best’ is the motive behind all that we do?
But Christ came to show us… to lead us into another way… to open up for us, and for all, the floodgates of God’s new life.
And so St. Luke tells us two things that Jesus says in response to the pride He sees at work in the lives of those gathered at the Pharisees’ house that day: First, instead of chasing after the places of prestige and honour, practice humility… that is, seek to honour and lift up other people, don’t seek after your own glory.
And second, instead of only being generous to those who are able to pay you back, open yourself up to the lowly, the poor, the outcast, those easiest to ignore, and those who can never pay you back… that is, care for others and have compassion without expecting anything in return.
Humility and generosity, as the antidotes of pride. Both of which seek to bless and bring life to others. Essential components of self-giving love, which Christ shows us is the heart of God’s own divine life… the fountain of living water that alone can sustain and satisfy.
Again, Wright contrasts the empty path of pride with the way of God’s self-giving love: “The small-mindedness which pushes itself forward and leaves others behind is confronted with the large-hearted love of God. All Christians are called to the same healthy dependence on God’s love” [that is, humility], “and the same generosity in sharing it with those in need.”
This was God’s intentions for His people, for all people from the start! To be shaped by His self-giving, humble, and generous love, so that we can share it with everyone too. And when we had all chased after our own desires… our own faulty visions of what life’s really about… turning to our own dried up and cracked cisterns that can’t give us what we need… that’s when Christ came to call us back to God, to help us walk in His ways, not so that we can boost our egos, and look down on others, and prove how good or important we are… but so we can all come to know what it means to truly be loved… to truly love others… to love the Lord our God wholeheartedly… and for this love to flow out from us into God’s world.
This overflowing life of love is what the author of Hebrews is calling us to in our reading this morning: practice mutual love… hospitality especially to strangers… solidarity with those in prison or suffering… marital faithfulness… contentment instead of greed… a willingness to learn from and to be led by others, instead of insisting on our own way. Humility. Generosity. A whole way of life nourished and nurtured by God’s gift of life and love to us in Jesus Christ.
Who at the cross did not suffer for His own glory and honour, but rather in humility… poured out His blood and died to bring life unending to us, who least deserved it. Who offered His own body to be broken to save and sustain us, who can never hope to repay His generosity.
At the cross, Jesus reveals the heart of God, and invites us to draw near to Him in faith, to let His love raise us up from nothing to share in His own glorious life… and help those around us do the same.
Like my childhood neighbours who shared with us the water we needed when our old well ran dry, God wants us His people to be the means of sharing His living spiritual water today… sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ and God’s great love, in words and deeds, with our neighbours, in the hopes that they too will drill down deep in faith, and find Him to be the source of life that can truly satisfy and sustain us all.
But to share all this with others, we need to drill down deep in faith ourselves… to keep drawing near to the One who is the true source of our life… leaving behind our own cracked cisterns, and clinging instead to the cross of Christ, that with our Saviour, who humbly gave Himself for us and for all, we might be raised with Him to graciously share in the love of the Living God forever. Amen.
 Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 175–176.
 Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 176.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School