“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place
where the Most High dwells.” Psalm 46:4
In April of this year (2016), John and I visited friends in Huntsville, Texas who are from the Norwood area. We stayed in a lodge on the campgrounds of the Carolina Creek Christian Camp program. One of our friends is a director at the camp. As you are exiting the main gathering area of the lodge, there is writing above the door, Psalm 4:64 in part. “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.” Our room was on the side of the lodge that faced the Carolina Creek, a large offshoot of the Trinity River. There was a small balcony where we could sit and enjoy watching the wildlife. In the early morning a grey heron would land on the bank to watch the surface of the water and feed when the opportunity presented itself. Peace and tranquility was present in that setting, the very thing we all seek when we can get away. There is renewal in change of scenery and pace.
In a spiritual sense, the river that flows into the city of God could be the believers who are gathered out from the world to enter the city. Ezekiel 20:40-41 KJV states:
40 For in mine holy mountain, in the mountain of the height of Israel, saith the Lord GOD, there shall all the house of Israel, all of them in the land, serve me: there will I accept them, and there will I require your offerings, and the firstfruits of your oblations, with all your holy things.
41 I will accept you with your sweet savor, when I bring you out from the people, and gather you out of the countries wherein ye have been scattered ; and I will be sanctified in you before the heathen. “
In this reference, we find that in the believers, God is sanctified. God is proven holy. The Scriptures tell us further that: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” John 7:38 NIV
“And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there
will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes.” Ezekiel 47:9 NIV
Sweetwater Journey has always only been about the power God has given to the believer who is the river through the Holy Spirit, to bless the world with God’s presence and the presence of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. God is sanctified through the believer, and wherever we go, every creature will live and the collective service we give will become like the sea refreshing the earth.
In Martha Kilpatrick’s book “Adoration” we find these words:
“God became a person. God indwelling his own creation! He who made us, walking around as one of us. . . Amazing! Since we could not unite with him – born dead by Adam’s fall – he constricted himself to our realm. . . .to be discovered.”
There is a story in the Old Testament that tells about the discovery of God the Israelites made and how it spiritually renewed their lives. Around 500 BCE, after 70 years in Babylonian captivity, Israel was allowed to return to their homeland. Most of them were born in Babylon and had never seen Jerusalem. In the Sweetwater Journey chapter “Even When” I focused on this key historical event and the Scripture reference in Jeremiah 29 that is so applicable in times of crisis. For the sake of recap, in 2015, following the tragic car crash death of Christos House Advocate, Amber Brignole, I dedicated “Even When” to her memory. It was focused around the events that come out of left field – the ones we least expect. Amber had an amazing future of victim’s advocacy ahead of her but her life was tragically cut short by a negligent, distracted driver who crossed the center line and maimed and nearly took the life of a motorcyclist in his path and ended Amber’s life in the car that was directly behind the motorcycle. The following is a quote from “Even When”:
“If we are going to blame God for an outcome that in our thinking has devastated us, then we must search and understand how God works. We need to read the contexts in which the Scriptures are written so that we know that not everyone was promised what they believed to be the perfect outcome. God’s outcome may not be what we wanted at the time or imagined.”
Being taken captive, was not a good outcome for Israel. The following is the often used Scriptural quote from Jeremiah 29 in its entire context:
A Letter to the Exiles:
“This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) 3 He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. It said:
4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
8 Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” Jeremiah 29:1-14
More from Even When: “The Israelites who were captive in Babylon had been duly warned about what would happen if they didn’t shape up and come back to the Living God instead of worshiping idols. Even when life isn’t fair, we are supposed to live in the moment with trust that God will reward change and devotion in his own time and his own way that is beyond our understanding. He told his special family the Israelites that they should bloom where they were planted; build houses, plant gardens and eat your own produce. Psalm 137 describes the condition of the Israelite’s hearts at this difficult time: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? “ Psalm 137:1-3 KJV They didn’t feel like building houses and planting gardens. Especially they didn’t feel like blooming where they were planted. Even when life isn’t fair, we are called to live with faith and integrity, even when we can’t see the big picture. God says “Just trust me, my plan is to bless you in this life and the next, beyond anything you can imagine”. In Job 23:10 we find this insight about God and his bigger plan for us: “He knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” Job 23:10 NIV (end of quote from “Even When”)
Our story picks up after the seventy years of exile in Babylon under several pagan kings – some good and some not so good. At last, God, who made the promise to rescue them from captivity, kept his word as he always does, but in his own time and in his own way, moves upon King Cyrus to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and release the captives to return home. The Israelites didn’t all leave Babylon at once. There were three main groups who traveled the 800 mile trip back to the homeland in Jerusalem. Ezra, a scribe who later becomes a priest leads the second group. He is a major player in this exodus, also called a second Moses. The people who were born in captivity were no longer herders or most of the other occupations their ancestors were engaged in prior to coming to Babylon on a forced march in restraints. They had become primarily merchants and knew very little about their religion. In the book of Ezra, it lists the names of families that are returning to Jerusalem and the number of each. In the sermon “Meet Me at the River” Pastor Jim Drake tells this story about the discovery of God the Israelites made. It starts with them leaving Babylon to traverse the 800 miles of uncertain and hidden calamity. They were carrying treasure for the temple that was being rebuilt by the first group who had left years earlier. They were uncertain but with an open heart to trust this God they were learning about and also Ezra:
21 There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.
22 I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.”
23 So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.
24 Then I set apart twelve of the leading priests, namely, Sherebiah, Hashabiah and ten of their brothers,
. (The book of Nehemiah runs parallel with this story.)
5 And the Levites—Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah and Pethahiah—said: “Stand up and praise the Lord your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting. ” “Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. 6 You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.”.
Pastor Jim Drake continues: “ The verses we just read are the beginning of a chapter-long song of praise and confession before the Lord. It came as the result of the experience of true revival in Israel. Ezra had led the people through a series of revival meetings. Those meetings were incredible. They were incredible because they were real. They weren’t artificially ginned up fits of emotional frenzy. There is no precedent for anything like that being from God in the Bible. Contrary to what most people think, that’s not revival. Revival is renewal. It only comes from the solid exposition of the Word of God and always results in repentance and renewal of relationship with God. It is God-started, God-centered and God-sustained. It comes from the preaching of God’s Word, continues with the study of God’s Word, and carries on with the proclamation of God’s Word to everyone we meet.
Pastor Drake continues:
Let me describe to you one of Ezra’s revival meetings: NEHEMIAH 8:1-8
‘1 all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.
2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand.
3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
4 Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.
5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up.’
Where was the music? Where were the quartets and the groups and the special guest singers? If they didn’t have any good singing, how did Ezra work up their emotions? He read to them. As a matter of fact, he read a lot to them. . . what was the people’s reaction? Look back at verse 6. 6Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read. 9Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. 10Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ 11The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.” 12Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.”
All that emotion just from reading the Book. But he didn’t just stop at reading the Book. Verse 8 says that they read it, interpreted it, explained it, and told them how it applied to their lives—they gave the sense of it. That was their revival meetings. Earlier we saw the result of those meetings. But what got them ready for it? Those people weren’t really that much different than we are. . . What got them to that place? That place where they were that eager to hear the Word of God? That place where they were that ready for revival? That place where they weren’t looking to be entertained, but were looking for the manifest presence of God in His holy Word? To find that out, we have to go back to Ezra 8:
1’ On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads.
2 Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors.
3 They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God.’
Remember where we are in history. Ezra was leading the second group of Jews who were returning to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile. Before heading out on the four-month long journey to Jerusalem, he gathered the exiles at the river of Ahava for a time of preparation for what God had in store for them. There, by that river, Ezra laid the foundation for the wonderful revival that was to come. I want you to picture what that revival looked like. Picture the meetings where everyone was so eager to hear God’s Word that they stood in anticipation. Picture the spontaneous and heart-felt responses to the teaching. Picture the true, God-honoring, Christ-centered revival that broke out. Now picture that for us, here. That’s what I want for us here. I want us to experience true revival. . .. Not some sort of emotional man-centered ecstatic event. But a true, God given, Holy Spirit-driven, sin-confessing, life-changing, world-altering revival. But in order for that to happen, we have to prepare ourselves the way Ezra prepared the people there on the banks of the Ahava river.” End of Quote. Taken from “Meet Me at the River” by Pastor Jim Drake.
The Israelites found God because of God’s promise to them in Jeremiah 29: “’12 then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back from captivity’.”
Pastor/revivalist Terry Sisney inspires us further with his words:
“The Holy Ghost is here with the purpose. He came to empower us to carry on the Jesus ministry.He came to anoint us the same as he anointed Jesus to destroy the works of the devil. He came to set us on fire:
Heb. 1:7 ‘Who maketh his angels ministering spirits and his ministers flames of fire.’
He came to set us free: where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.
He came to reveal Jesus to us.
This river had miracle transforming power, it had saving and healing power.
This river brought life, healing, restoration, wherever it went.
That same river was in Jesus
That same river is in you by the power of the Holy Ghost.
There may be some dead dry places in your life today it may be sickness, it may be your finances, it may be your marriage, or it may be your spiritual life.
You need the river of God to break loose not only to you but in you And through you.Paul said stir up the gift that is in you.” End of Quote by Pastor Sisney.
There is a river. . . and it is us! Imagine this river of believers, you and I, seeking daily spiritual renewal with all our hearts and living this out in service to others in our area.
God bless your sweetwater journey.