Monday, September 4, 2017

The River of Life

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal,
flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb
through the middle of the street of the city.

On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit,
producing its fruit each month;
and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Nothing accursed will be found there any more.
But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him;
they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.
And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun,
for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.

 And he said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord,
the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants
what must soon take place.’

‘See, I am coming soon!
Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.’   

- Revelation 22:1-7

There’s scary stuff in
John’s Book of Revelation: earthquakes, eclipses; dragons, four horsemen; several groups of seven: angels, seals, trumpets, stars, churches; pillars of fire, a lake of fire, Satan, and a slaughtered Lamb.  Vivid imagery.  We hardly ever read from Revelation in a church service.

But the book is a vision from Christ.  John wrote, ‘I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write in a book what you see.’

He was writing in exile from the island of Patmos at the end of the first century to seven churches in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey.  He offers words of encouragement to each church in turn but the persecutions he talks about were probably random outbursts rather than official Roman policy.  The book is a prophecy of warning and hope concerning the events of the last days, which John was convinced would soon take place.

We get the English word apocalypse from the Greek title of the book.  An apocalypse is a genre or narrative that relates a vision, or revelation, about the future either here on earth or in heaven, or both.  The Book of Daniel is also an apocalypse

While the book overall is not for the squeamish, it offers some interesting twists and turns.

The four horseman are Conquest, or Pestilence (White), War (Red), Famine (Black), and Death (Pale Green).  My then-young daughter once asked why and how a horse could be pale green.  As it happens, and to make a long story short, the Greek reads Hippos chlorosHippos is horse, as in hippopotamus, the water horse.  Chloros means green, as in chlorophyll.  It can also mean pale, which was probably John's intention, as this was the horse that Death rode into town.  But the translators for the King's James version, not wanting to be wrong, split the difference and made it pale green.  Just about every translation since keeps it that way.
Gustave Doré, Death on the Pale Horse, 1865

Here's another: Remember that it is Satan who gets thrown in the lake of fire, not us, for 1000 years, which is, in the Bible, basically forever.

We began this series of evening services with a reading from the very beginning of the Bible, chapter one in Genesis, so it’s appropriate that we end here at the end of Revelation.  There’s nothing after this in the Bible except John’s epilogue and benediction.

So we’ve come full circle to tonight’s reading about a river and a garden.

Rivers play key roles in the Bible: the Tigris and Euphrates, two of the four rivers mentioned in Genesis 2; the Nile, from which Pharaoh’s daughter plucked the baby Moses in Exodus 2; and the River Jordan, which the Israelites crossed when they entered the Promised Land and in which John baptized Jesus (Matthew 3.)

The Bible also includes many references to metaphorical rivers and streams, from the waters of Creation (Genesis 1), the waters of justice (Amos 5), waters of shalom (Ezekiel 47), to streams of living water (Deuteronomy 1), and more.  The people living in the area understood these metaphors because having a river nearby meant life, a more abundant life than you might have otherwise.  In the wilderness, there were plenty of seasonal streams called wadis, which only flowed in the rainy season.  They were very unreliable.  Therefore, God was very specific in declaring through prophets like Amos to ‘let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ – justice ought to be reliably present always.  If we love God, we should seek to do justice and righteousness too.

So what we have here in tonight’s reading is the ultimate: the river of the water of life flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, Jesus Christ.  This river flows down the middle of the street in an abundant urban garden.  There is no bad side of town in this city – the fruitful tree of life stands on both sides of the street.  Everything is good in this garden.  Here the nations can be healed by the leaves on the tree.  Here we will see God’s face.  This is how God intended it to be from the beginning.  The angel said to John, ‘These words are trustworthy and true.’  Though maybe things don’t work that way now, they will then.

We have plenty of rivers around here: The Fore and Back Rivers are local to us; in Marshfield, we have the North and South Rivers; in Boston, the once-lovably-dirty water of the Charles River; further west, the mighty Mississippi; and, beyond that, the Colorado River, which provides power and water to five states yet doesn’t quite make it to the ocean any more.  They flow but they are all vulnerable to human interference.

In our world, protecting water sources – or simply having access to it – is an ongoing challenge for millions of people.  Here, we are blessed with lots of wells and aquifers, and we’ve gotten pretty good at protecting them from pollutants and contaminants.  Globally, though, not everyone has access to fresh, clean water.  For too many people, a wadi will have to do.

And every now and then, we get a Hurricane Harvey.  With all the destruction and misery down in Houston, do we dare speak about the river of the water of life?  As we saw there and in New Orleans after Katrina, our flood-prevention systems sometimes do not perform the way we think they will.  It doesn’t help when we build cities and towns and malls on the flood plain.

Ours is a watery planet, but it’s a closed system – we have the same amount of water available to us today, more or less, that Adam and Eve had way back when.  When things like Harvey happen, people respond.  The Coast Guard unit based on Cape Cod sent thirty people, boats, and helicopters down to Houston as soon as they could.  We’ve seen video clips of people driving to Houston, boats in tow, to help rescue the stranded, the helpless.  We tend to open our hearts and wallets too.  It’s instinctive for us to offer help, to want to send some form of healing as best we are able.  It never fails.  In an emergency, our compassion is an ever-flowing stream.

In Genesis, the river flows out of Eden to water the world.  In Revelation, the source of the always-flowing water of life is God, and it is meant to heal and sustain us all, equally.  Notice that the river flows – and the water at any point along the bank today is not the water from yesterday nor will it be the same water tomorrow.  God does not wait for the end times to renew us.  God renews today.  The water of life flows from God now, today.  As our thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by Hurricane Harvey, let us be strengthened and challenged to hasten the day when John’s vision of the river of life, of fruit-bearing trees, and of healing becomes more than a metaphor to our communities and to the nation.


(Preached at New North Church on 30 August 2017.)