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"Water Power"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on June 16, 2024
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2024 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Acts 16:5

When you hear the word, "medieval," what comes to your mind? Like me, do you picture pitchforks and pigsties and outbreaks of the plague? What do you see when you imagine the Dark Ages? Is it all bloodlettings and witch burnings and bad hygiene? If so, that may be the result of the movies you've seen and less of what it was actually like in the Middle Ages, those years in Europe, roughly between 900 and 1300 A.D.

I read a book recently that got me thinking that this might be the case, this misunderstanding about the Middle Ages. The book was by a French historian named Jean Gimpel. The book's titled The Medieval Machine. The subtitle is The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages. The author argues that while it may be difficult for modern people to imagine, medieval people were actually surrounded by machines—machines—and the most common one was ... no, not the Iron Maiden, silly, the mill, which is probably why Miller is such a common last name.

Patrick Miller was just Patrick, the guy who works at the mill, the Miller. The main idea behind the mill was harnessing the power of nature, wind power in the case of the windmill and water power in the case of the water mill. Now a water mill was a water-powered factory built on a river with a giant rotating water wheel that converted the force of the flowing river into work, work for grinding corn into flour, work for crushing olives into oil, work for conditioning cloth into clothing.

So who was it that designed these environmentally-friendly factories of the Middle Ages? Who maintained these medieval cottage industries that would transform the world? In many cases, monks. Monks, simple followers of Jesus who wanted to escape the corruption and self-absorption of the world and live their lives for the love of God instead.

Jean Gimpel, in that book I mentioned, he quotes a 900-year-old description of one of those water mills attached to a monastery in Clairvaux, France. This 12th-century report describes how "the river barrels down the countryside and hurls itself at the mill. In a welter of movement, the river gives its strength to turn the wheel and the belts and the gears to crush the wheat beneath the mighty millstones. And barely in a blink already the river has arrived there at the next building. There the water drives the bellows that lights the fires of the forge, and the kitchen, and the bakery. There the water surrenders itself to be boiled in vats of beer in the brew-house.

And after all that, still the water does not yet consider itself discharged. In the mill it had been giving itself, preparing food for the people. Now it turns to look after their clothing. One by one, the river lifts and drops, lifts and drops the heavy wooden hammers that condition the cloth and tan the leather. And never does the river grow weary. Never does it shrink back, never refusing to do all that is needed. How many horses would be worn out? How many men would grow weary if this graceful river did not labor for us? And when the water has spun the shaft as fast as any wheel can turn, when it has dissolved into droplets and reformed to stream again at last, it carries away the waste and leaves everything, everywhere spotless."

When I read this medieval description, it makes me wonder whoever authored it 900 years ago. It was most likely a monk, living in the Abbey. And there's something about his description that draws me in. Even though I live in a modern world that tends to mock everything medieval, preferring things microwavable, disposable, buy now, one-clickable.

Maybe I'm drawn to it because living plugged in and prepackaged with too much plastic takes its toll on the human soul. And sometimes I feel dried up, stagnant, non-potable. And so, the way this medieval monk describes the river speaks to me. The verbs he employs are evocative. The water hurls itself, gives itself, surrenders itself, never tires, never refuses, never shrinks back, but gives and carries effortlessly, gracefully.

The medieval author, whoever he was, writes from a worldview shaped by the Bible, from faith in the God and Father of Jesus, from whom flow rivers of living water. Recently I've been reading in the Bible's book of Acts. And reading Acts, you get this sense of God's Spirit and God's Word working like a mighty river, immeasurably deep. For centuries it was held in reserve with the Jewish people, but then the reservoir gates are opened, and from Jerusalem God's kingdom streams out in every direction. It barrels down the countryside toward Ethiopia, south, carrying an unsuspecting Jesus follower to the chariot of a government official of an African queen. And this official is a eunuch, not quite male, but not female, an emasculated person with the seeds of fatherhood literally cut out of him, cut off like a dried-up river.

But the eunuch hears from a passing Christian that the love and forgiveness and family of Jesus is also for people like him, and he is baptized in the water. Then the river barrels northward towards Caesarea, and it hurls another unsuspecting Jewish follower of Jesus forward. This time to the home of a non-potable Gentile. And this Jew, led by God's Spirit, breaks with a thousand-year tradition and sits down for a meal with a pagan and his family, so that they might be washed in the water, baptized, made spotless.

Barely in a blink, already the river has moved on, further out, further in to the wide world through bustling seaports and marketplaces, into hamlets and villages to announce God's grace and favor in the coming kingdom of Jesus, God's Son. And as the river flows, we hear this refrain, "The Word of God continued to grow" (Acts 6:7). "The Word of the Lord spread throughout that whole region" (Acts 13:49). "And the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers" (Acts 16:5).

Inspired by the book of Acts, author Michael Frost uses the same image in his book, titled Mission Is in the Shape of Water. Michael says that God's mission to rescue and restore and reconcile all things through His Son Jesus is like water. Because water doesn't get bent out of shape. Water can be diverted, piped, and channeled. It can run through a mill or bleed through a wall. It can be squeezed around a causeway, boiled in a brew, but it doesn't stop being water. Because water will take the shape of whatever container it's in. But the container doesn't change the nature.

So also, God's mission. Michael Frost, in that book, Mission Is in the Shape of Water, he samples twenty-some centuries of church history and shows how God's water has crossed boundaries and barriers, carried along in the boats of the Celtic missionaries, in the mills of the Cistercian monasteries, in printing presses and Bible translation societies, in the bilingual services of a small border town church. Unearthing treasures of God's border-crossing kingdom for a culture that has forgotten. God's mission has been flowing throughout church history, just as it was doing in the beginning with the first churches of the book of Acts. God's mission is like water. Without changing what it is, the good news of God's kingdom coming in Jesus takes the shape of its cultural container.

For example, notice how the early church decided to deal with the cultural practice of circumcision. Now, circumcision for a Jewish man, it wasn't just cultural, it was theological. It had everything to do with his faith in God. Because if you were a circumcised Jewish male, it meant that you were a son of this family that had received God's promise, the promise that one day the ultimate Son would come. The seed would be born among your people to be the King, not only for your people, but for all people. Circumcision was the God-given sign of that promise.

And it was given to the men, not because they were better or more important in God's eyes, but only because they were, biologically speaking, the container of the seed of the promise. God has given it to the male human to be fathers, to be the container that carries the human seed, and He's given it to the female human to be mothers, to receive and nurture the seed.

So it's fitting that God would give the sign of circumcision to the males of the Jewish family as a physical sign because the promise was physical, not just spiritual, not just an idea, but a real human baby, a Son. Born from the seed of the Jewish people to be the King who will save all people. That's God's promise. And the nature of the promise doesn't change, but the container that carries the promise, that can change. And must change because the promise isn't just for male Jews, it's for all people.

Case in point: Jesus was born of a virgin, right? No male seed involved. And maybe it's a part of God's strange sense of humor because it means that for some 1,800 years, the men of Abraham's family, the Jews, had been the carrying containers of God's promise, the physical seed in their bodies with the sign of circumcision to prove it. But then, when the promise finally comes to fruition, the water takes a turn and changes shape for a new container.

Mary, a single Jewish woman, now becomes the vessel of God's promise without the help of any man. Maybe it was God's way of reminding us that He doesn't need our help but He makes us His vessels anyhow. Not just some of us, not just males, but females and eunuchs and Jews and Gentiles. This may be why there's so much talk about circumcision in the book of Acts and throughout the New Testament.

Now, if you're new to reading the Bible, this might strike you as odd—all this talk and debate about circumcision. Or if you've been reading the Bible for a while, maybe you just pretend like it's not there, and you read past it. Which is usually what I do. But maybe God wants to say something to us through it because God is saying, "My promise will not change. But its shape, its vessel, its container will, because it's for everyone. One promise fits all, for all, you all."

So let's go back to the book of Acts. In chapter 15, the question of circumcision comes up. And the question is, do non-Jewish males who now trust in Jesus, do they have to be circumcised? The answer is no. Because the container has changed. The promise is for everyone. But then, later, when some Jewish men are going to a Jewish community to tell them about Jesus, and they're bringing along an uncircumcised half-Jew, half-Gentile young man named Timothy, they decide to have him circumcised so that they don't offend the Jews living there.

See, they can be culturally flexible and adaptable because the container can't change the power of the promise. It's like water, ever flowing, ever adapting, shape-shifting, gift of life that gladly takes the shape of the vessel it's in, neither compromising its nature nor surrendering its power. Water changes shape without changing what it is. It's still water. It still gives life. It'll make you clean. It'll find a way in. It'll sweep you up and wash your house away in the flood. That's what water does. You can't stop water from doing what it does and being what it is because it's God's water. God gave it as a physical sign of His promise. It's not by accident that God has since fulfilled the sign of circumcision and replaced it with Baptism, with water, Baptism into the death and new life of Jesus. See, water will fit whatever container it's in, but it won't leave you unchanged.

When God's Spirit led the Jewish disciples in Jerusalem to the decision that circumcision wasn't required, they didn't leave the new Christians formless. They gave them some simple instructions recorded in Acts 15. They said, "Stop worshiping idols and cut out all sexual immorality." They gave them simple instructions to help give a God-honoring shape to their lives. And those instructions are expanded and adapted and clarified in the letters of the New Testament. And they continue to be adapted in Christian teaching and conversation today, as God's promise fills new containers and different cultures, different contexts. And yes, sometimes it's complicated. It's not always clear-cut because the world, the devil, and our sinful nature get us all bent out of shape.

But God's Word won't stop being who He is and doing what He does. He barreled down out of heaven, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, hurled Himself toward us, gave Himself to us, surrendered Himself for us by His death on the cross. And He rose from the dead because He will never tire, never refuse, never shrink back, but gives all, carries all, does all, effortlessly, unceasingly, gracefully. Like a flood takes out everything in its path, His Spirit takes us. For God, like a river cuts through a canyon, He's shaping us to be like Him. Like a stream in the desert, He's quenching our thirst, seeping through our pores, bleeding through the cracks, passing through walls.

At the beginning, I asked you what you see when you hear the word medieval. Now, what comes to mind when you hear of a medieval monk—those guys who lived in the monasteries in the Dark Ages? Personally, I see a group of cloistered men in brown robes, marching through a stone church, chanting Latin, and smacking themselves in the head with Bibles. But that's probably because I've seen one too many a Monty Python movie. And even if I know that it's a poor caricature, I personally still have some reservations about monks. Maybe it's because I'm Lutheran, part of a tradition led by an ex-monk. And as I read the Bible, Jesus, while He wants us to be not of the world, He also wants us to be in the world, which means we can't cloister ourselves away. We can't give up on the world. And in a way, that's what many medieval monks were doing.

But to be fair, we also need to consider the exceptions. One notable exception were the monks who managed that watermill I described earlier. And the impressive thing about that description is that, according to the historian Jean Gimpel, it could have been written 742 times over, because that was the number of these watermill monasteries in the 12th century. And that report would've held true for practically every one of them, whether they were in France, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, Scotland, or Hungary; all 742 of them had the same design. So that it's been said that a blind monk moving to any one of these monasteries would've instantly known where he was. Which means that even though the corruption of the world they were trying to escape inevitably followed them into the monastery, even still, when Europe was going through some awful dark times with plagues and pitchforks and state-sponsored burnings of heretics and wars against infidels, these humble, well-organized, industrious followers of Jesus, out of devotion to God, were tending the fires of civilization, helping build a better world, bearing witness to God's promise, and brewing some tasty beer while they were at it. And because they were stationed on major rivers, they weren't typically separated from their neighbors, but shared life with the townspeople who'd come from miles around to have their grain ground. And to share a mug of the Abbey's home brew, which, before you get bent out of shape, was probably only about 1 percent alcohol by volume and arguably the best source of clean drinking water around.

And if beer can be a source of hydration, and medieval monks and Ethiopian eunuchs can be vessels of God's promise, I suppose there's hope for us, too. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Reflections for June 16, 2024
Title: Put right with God and with each other

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, and more, go to Now back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: We are visiting today with Dr. Jeff Gibbs, a beloved Bible teacher in our church body, speaker in various conferences and all-around good guy--and who likes to camp.

Jeff Gibbs: Yes. And I'm retired and I'm grateful to God for that, so yes.

Mike Zeigler: Amen. We're working our way through the book of Acts. Last time, Jeff and I talked about this drama of how difficult it was for Jewish Christians to welcome non-Jewish Christians into the family of God. Acts 11, Acts 15, for example. The difficulty is also addressed in the letters of Paul.

Jeff Gibbs: One of the things that Paul is intent on showing is that there's no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, see. And there may have been a tendency for some in the Roman church who were Jewish followers of Jesus to think again, "Well, we're kind of better than they are." And when Paul says there's no distinction, that's both bad news and good news, right? So, there's no distinction, chapter three, "For all have sinned," that's the bad news. "And all are freely put in the right," that's the good news. See, so there's no distinction. God deals with us all in exactly the same way.

Mike Zeigler: I could be on the thinking, "I'm good enough" side of the distinction and trying to earn favor with God and that would be one bad thing to do. Or I could be on the wrong side of the line and thinking that God could never love me because I'm so awful. And that's also the wrong side.

Jeff Gibbs: It is also the wrong side, yeah, that's right.

Mike Zeigler: And justification is about what God has done for us each, speaking to our hearts in Jesus. But you're saying there's also this horizontal, how do we make those distinctions among each other?

Jeff Gibbs: And it's because when God puts us in the right with Himself, He also invites us to see that at the same time He's put us in the right with each other. The very fact that Paul had to write these letters is evidence that our struggles today are not new. His church had the same kinds of things going on.

Mike Zeigler: As you said in an earlier conversation that the Gospel is that message that is turning the world upside down. And so these things that are natural for us, the Gospel is working through and eventually overturning, but in God's time, in God's way.

Jeff Gibbs: Yeah. That's right. At our church, we're in a city church, and the doors, when you come into the sanctuary, they swing open and they're ... it's like upholstered red leather. I don't know how long these doors have been there. Pastor Tim would say, "If you're here today, it's because Jesus brought you through the red doors." That's kind of a simple thing to say but it's pretty profound. So if Jesus brought you here, how am I to regard you? Oh, as someone that Jesus brought, see. There's the key, so when I see my neighbor who looks differently than I am or acts differently or something, that's the first quick step. This is someone that Jesus died for. This is someone that Jesus rose for. This is someone that Jesus brought through the red doors, and that helps. I'm kind of a shy person. I'm hard of hearing, so accents different than mine are very difficult for me. I can't understand what people are saying, but that doesn't mean I can't smile and greet them warmly, shake their hand, ask if I can help in some way.

Mike Zeigler: Because the Judge of all things has put them in the right and made them your brother or sister.

Jeff Gibbs: Yes, there is that. See, theology is very practical, Michael.

Mike Zeigler: Amen. Thanks for being with us, Jeff.

Jeff Gibbs: You're very welcome.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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