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Hungry and Barren

A sermon by Dr. David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston Salem, NC

Psalm 63:1-8; Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that Christians can be so negative about this human body God designed.  God created us with a variety of desires and drives that are deep and undeniable.  And the church has often criticized our bodily desires—especially our sex drive—even though our desires and drives ultimately lead us back to the one who made us. 

Another point of fascination for me is that we can be oblivious to even our deepest needs.   For example, we can be dehydrated and not know it because one peculiar feature of human physiology is that our internal signals for lack of fluid are not immediate and strong.  Consequently, by the time we feel thirsty we are already in early stages of dehydration.  This is why those of us waiting to feel thirsty enough to drink our required eight glasses of water a day will probably never do it. 

Likewise, we can be hungry and not know it.  I know this seems far-fetched to most of us!  But if we struggle with certain physical or emotional illnesses, our bodies fail to alert us that we are hungry, and we lose weight without even trying. 

What is true of our physical selves is also true spiritually.  Our souls are thirsty and hungry, and we may have no idea that spiritually we are severely dehydrated and malnourished.  All we know is that we are driven to fill our lives with work and play, fame and fortune, television and the Internet, alcohol and drugs, and still never feel satisfied.            

I am so grateful for scripture, not only because it helps me understand our Lord.  It also helps me understand myself and what it means to be human.  And so when I read what my namesake David writes in Psalm 63 as he struggles with hunger and thirst during a difficult sojourn in the desert, I find myself resonating at a deep level.  Oddly enough, as David is foraging for food and water, it’s not his physical hunger and thirst he wants to write about. 

            O God, you are my God, I seek you,

                        my soul thirsts for you;

            my flesh faints for you,

                        as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. 

And I know David speaks for me.  I am so hungry for more of God than I now know, so thirsty for fulfillment that goes beyond the typical staleness of my life. 

That’s why the words of the prophet Isaiah give me hope:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;

                        and you that have no money,

come, buy wine and eat!

                        Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without price.

Now I know I don’t have to settle for a dry and wearied soul. 

Nor do I have to settle for being barren. 

The truth is we can also be barren and not know it.  Women who wait for years to get pregnant only to learn when they are ready to start a family they cannot conceive know this to be true.  Gardeners who plant trees expecting them to bear fruit sometimes learn that at least one or more of their trees is unexpectedly barren. 

This was the case with the vineyard owner who is the subject of the parable of the fig tree told by Jesus in Luke 13.  The owner’s gardener plants a fig tree expecting it to do what it was created to do—bear figs.  And when the tree proves barren, the vineyard’s owner is not amused.  “See here!  For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none.  Cut it down!  Why should it be wasting soil?” 

Since trees can’t talk we don’t know if the tree is shocked to hear its life is in danger.  Fortunately for that barren fig tree, the manager is a kind-hearted man who pleads for more time and fertilizer to give the fig tree another opportunity to produce.  Whether the owner agrees to this request we do not know. 

Our scriptures for today ought to make every alert Christian and Christian church squirm because they challenge our easy-going assumptions.  Spiritually we could be profoundly malnourished and dehydrated…and not even know it.  Because our souls are dry and weary we struggle to bear fruit in our lives.  The fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—is in short supply.  So are the fruits of ministry.  We can’t make Christ known because we don’t know Christ.  We don’t feed the hungry because we are spiritually hungry ourselves. 

Because we are hungry and barren so are our churches.  And beautiful facilities, well-organized programs, and well-oiled worship services don’t change the fact that hungry and barren churches produce little if any fruit for the kingdom of God in their communities.  Tragically many of these churches don’t know they are hungry and barren, nor do they know they are living on borrowed time.   

How do we move from hungry and barren to satisfied and fruitful?  The New Testament couldn’t be clearer.  “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says in John 6:35.  “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”  Later in John 15:5, that same Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

The answer to hunger and thirst and barrenness is one and the same—a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. 

And one of the ways we develop that kind of relationship with Christ is meditation upon the Word of God.  David says in Psalm 63, “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast…when I meditate on you in the watches in the night.”  In Psalm 1 the Psalmist says that those who meditate upon the law or the scriptures of the Lord are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither (vv.2-3). 

For well over two hundred years Baptist churches have provided for meditation upon scripture in Sunday School, or what today we call Sunday morning bible study.  And what we have come to learn over the last two plus centuries is that nothing…including corporate worship…substitutes for studying and discussing and memorizing and meditating upon scripture in a small group when it comes to nourishing our souls and bearing fruit. 

Of course, Baptists didn’t invent the study of scriptures in small groups.  Twenty centuries ago the earliest disciples who had immediate contact with Jesus and were supernaturally filled with the Holy Spirit still arranged their lives so they regularly met to meditate upon the word of God together. 

So let me put this as gently but plainly as I can…if you are trying to deepen your walk with Christ apart from rooting yourself in a small group where you meditate together on scripture, you are attempting the impossible. 

Now, it just so happens that in the month of March we at FBC are challenging ourselves to “Friend Someone” (that’s Facebook slang for adding someone to your network of friends). The idea is that over the course of this month we will invite somebody to join us on Sunday mornings for bible study.  Of course, we hope our friends will ultimately join us for worship too, but our immediate priority is to invite someone to a Sunday morning bible study. 

Of course, that someone could be yourself!  Maybe you are a guest of our church.  If you will let us know who you are by completing a guest card, we would love to help you find a class or group that will fit you and your spiritual needs.  Maybe you are a long-time member of our church, and for one reason or another you’ve just never found your way into a Sunday morning bible study.  I’m challenging you to be open to God leading you into a class before this month is over.  It’s not too late!

If you are already in a class or group, the someone you invite could be a class member or church member who you have not seen in a long-time.  For whatever reason, they are missing in action and they need to be loved back into our church. 

Or, the someone you invite could be a friend who is currently unchurched.   Maybe you’ve been looking for a chance to invite this friend to join you, and as we approach Easter Sunday (March 31st) this is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for. 

Now some of you are thinking, “I can’t invite others to church.  They might think I’m weird.  They might say no.  They might say yes and then stand me up.”  And that’s true.  I know because all those things have happened to me.

But here’s the thing – The number one reason people visit a church is because a friend asks them to, and in all likelihood your friend is spiritually dehydrated and starving, but doesn’t know it. You’d never stand by and watch your friend physically starve to death. So how in Christ’s name can you stand by and watch the most important part of your friend wither away?

In the month of March, friend someone, even if it’s yourself.  Regardless of the response, your heart will be full, and your soul will be glad.