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Missing out on the Spiritual Trolley Dash

The other night we were watching a film about someone trekking across a barren desert in the searing heat of the midday sun. Improbably, at first, he was wearing an overcoat, but he soon got rid of that. After a short time his face was covered with blisters and he could barely walk any longer. He was just like the psalmist, who said, 'My flesh faints ... as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.'[1] But, at long last, he got the chance to drink some water. And it was then that someone said to him, 'Don't drink too much. It's not good for you!'

This reminded me that years ago, when I was about eleven, I read the novel 'King Solomon's Mines' by H Rider Haggard and one of the characters in the novel says something similar. Rider Haggard describes a man who had been so long without water that 'his lips were cracked, and his tongue, which protruded between them, was swollen and blackish.' His rescuer gives him quite a lot of water actually, more than I had remembered, which the poor man drinks in great gulps. But then the narrator says, 'I would not let him have any more.' That made a deep impression on me at the time, because it implied that too much water could be dangerous, even if you were so dehydrated that you were on the point of dying from thirst.

And maybe it is dangerous to drink too much. Many newspapers printed a ghoulish story a week or two ago about a young woman who entered a contest to win a Nintendo W-i-i, (which is pronounced 'we'). The Wii is a sort of video game console and for some reason this woman was desperate to own one. A radio station in America had organised the competition, in which listeners had to drink as much water as they could without going to the toilet. The person with the strongest bladder would win a Wii. The competition was called, 'Hold your wee for a Wii.' How funny! Or so it seemed until this young woman, having drunk loads of water, started to feel unwell, dropped out of the contest and went home, where she collapsed and died.

Real water was in short supply when the Bible was written. Unlike the competitor in the 'Hold your wee for a Wii' contest, and unlike the person who has been trekking across the desert, the people of Israel could never get enough of it. Sometimes they lived near a well or a stream, but sometimes they had to collect rainwater in big tanks called cisterns and then guard it carefully through the dry season to stop it getting contaminated with dirt or infected with disease. No doubt they had to ration it too – just a few cups each per day so that there would be enough left to water their crops. How wonderful, then, to be offered not just 'water' but 'waters', and not just waters, but free wine and milk too.[2]

And when the Bible was being written, people had a different attitude to food as well. Unlike us, they couldn't get enough of that, either. Now we're talking about having a traffic light system on our food labels, to warn us when we've had too much of a good thing. Now young women talk about trying to eat nothing but lettuce, because being super slim is still too fat to get them a job as a model. And, of course, lots of people go to the opposite extreme now, and eat far too much processed food while taking far too little exercise. Now even celebrity cooks like Jamie Oliver are urging us to eat more fruit and vegetables rather than whipped cream and chocolate sauce.

The Bible's promise that we can all take delight in lashings of rich food, and without even having to pay for any of it, no longer sounds quite as enticing as I guess it once did. When the Bible was being written, most people went to bed feeling a little bit hungry and perhaps thirsty too, and they got all the exercise they could possibly use. The promise of rich food would have seemed unquestionably yummy to them. How things have changed!

But, of course, Isaiah isn't talking about real food and drink. He's talking about spiritual food and drink. He's talking about finding out the will of God, and learning that God's will is for good things to happen – for justice, mercy and love to flow like unquenchable rivers in a parched land. More than that, he's talking about discovering God's presence, alongside us and within us, to nourish us and encourage us all of the time.

Some things never change, though. Despite this wonderful free sale of spiritual gifts, the prophet laments that most people never lift their minds above their daily preoccupation with material things – with ordinary food and drink, and worldly success.

Five hundred years later, St Paul talks about precisely the same problem.[3] He thinks his way back to the very dawn of the Jewish religion, when the people of Israel were escaping from Egypt. Every day they had clear signs that God was with him, guarding them and guiding the, The cloud of his presence went before them. The seas parted so that they could walk across them on dry land. Flakes of food descended from the skies like frost. Fresh running water gushed from the rocks for them to drink even though they were living in the desert. What further proof could they have wished for that spiritual things are really important?

And yet, depressingly, they were far more interested in material things. No sooner had they finished eating the wonderful food that God had given them, than they 'rose up to play', indulging in sexual immorality and complaining bitterly about how unlucky they were.

Of course, St Paul draws attention to this because he fears his readers might do the same. It's human nature, after all, to take good things for granted and to get distracted by our most basic instincts and desires. Even when God is with us, and alongside us, in Jesus it's easy to ignore him. For, says St Paul, isn't it already the case that Jesus was with the people of Israel when they were wandering through the desert. Wasn't it he who gave them food and water to drink, just as he gives us the imperishable food of holy communion? For Jesus has been with God from the beginning of time and so he must have been present in the desert with the Israelites too.

Jesus was once asked the question, 'Are some people worse than others? Is that why they get killed in accidents, or attacked by criminals, or persecuted by evil dictators? Have they done something especially wicked to deserve their fate?'[4]

'Of course not!' said Jesus. 'There's basically no difference between one person and another. Any of us could perish at any time. And frankly, all of us take so little notice of God, and are so full of base ingratitude – despite the many good things lavished upon us every day – that we don't deserve any special favours. If some of us happen to lead a charmed life, that's simply because we got lucky. And if some of us have a bad time, that's simply bad luck. It's nothing to do with getting our just desserts. It's not God's will that some people meet a bad end.'

And then Jesus told this story. There was a gardener who planted a sapling – it doesn't really matter what sort, except that fig trees and vines are always symbols, in the Bible, for God's chosen people, and Jesus says the gardener planted a fig tree.

When a gardener plants something, he or she always hopes it will do well and grow big and strong and bear a good crop of fruit or flowers. But, of course, some plants don't thrive, do they? They struggle and they may not flower and fruit at all. It could be because the weather just wasn't right for them and they got a poor start, or because the place where the gardener planted them didn't particularly suit them. Or it could be because they weren't very strong specimens.

When a fruit tree doesn't fruit, what should the gardener do with it? It's wasting precious space, isn't it? So some gardeners would dig the unproductive plant straight up and throw it in the fire, and go and look for a new and healthier one to take its place. But not every one. Some experienced gardeners have realised that a plant can take a long time to get established.

The owner of the garden was just this kind of person. He was very patient. He waited for three years to see if the fig tree was going to bear fruit, despite the fact that fig trees usually fruit in their first year. But, eventually, even he lost patience. 'Cut it down!' he said to the gardener.

And yet the little tree got one last chance. 'Let me lavish some tender loving care on it,' the gardener pleaded. 'I'll dig round it, and put some extra manure on it, and see if it does any better.'

We are like the fig tree. Despite all the good things we receive, we constantly disappoint our master by delivering less than we promise. But, fortunately for us, God is like the gardener. God never gives up on us, but keeps on lavishing tender care on us – rich food and all the water we can possibly drink – in the hope that one day we will come good.

And perhaps the same goes for our church. No matter how much we may struggle sometimes, God is still lavishing care upon us and willing us to grow. And certainly, the same goes for the people of our towns and villages. People may have different ideas about food and water nowadays, but in other respects nothing has changed much since the time when the Bible was written. Most people would still stay focused on material things even if they were given the chance to do a trolley dash through a spiritual supermarket. But our job is to be like the gardener – never giving up on them and always looking for fresh ways to help them bear fruit.

[1] Psalm 63.1-8
Isaiah 55:1-13
1 Corinthians 10:1-17
[4] Luke 13.1-9


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