Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 9, 2010

2010.05.09 “River of Life” – Revelation 21: 9 – 10, 22 – 27; 22: 1 – 5

Central United Methodist Church

“River of Life”

Revelation 21: 9 – 10, 22 – 27; 22: 1 – 5

Pastor David L. Haley

May 9th, 2010

“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 forever and ever.”  (Revelation 22: 1 – 5, New Revised Standard Version)

     In August 2006, heavy construction began on the National September 11th Memorial & Museum, scheduled to open on September 11th, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the attacks. The Memorial, which will remember and honor the nearly 3,000 victims of that day, will be located on the former location of the Twin Towers.  

      The design for the Memorial, “Reflecting Absence,” by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, was selected in 2004 from a design competition that included more than 5,200 entrants from 63 nations.

In the setting of a Memorial Plaza with nearly 400 trees, the Memorial will consist of two massive pools, each nearly an acre in size, with the largest manmade waterfalls in the country cascading down their sides. 
Inscribed around the edges of the pools will be a ribbon of names, within groupings that will allow for family members, friends, and co-workers who shared life’s journey and perished together, to have their names listed side by side.

      According to the designers, the enormity of the space and the multitude of names will underscore the scope of the destruction. Standing there at the water’s edge, looking at a pool of water flowing away into an abyss, visitors will sense that what’s beyond this curtain of water and ribbon of names is inaccessible.

      Back in 2004, when I first learned what was being proposed, I was working on this series from Revelation, and specifically the reading from chapters 21 and 22 that we read today: John’s description of the River of Life, flowing through the midst of the City of God. I was struck between the similarities of the two visions, old and new.  Like the architect’s design for the National September 11 Memorial, the vision described for us today in the Book of Revelation is an attempt to use things we know to describe that which is finally indescribable and inexpressible.  As I said last week, it’s my favorite chapter in the book of Revelation.

      As we read last week, starting in chapter 21, John envisions, at the end of all things, not Christians ascending from earth to heaven, but the New Jerusalem descending from heaven to earth, bringing with it a “new” (read not another, but a different) heaven and earth.

      Then, in our reading today, with an angelic tour guide – John – and we along with him – are given a tour of the Holy City, which first of all would likely give jewelry lovers among us the shivers:

      “The wall was made of jasper, and the city pure gold, as clear as glass. The wall of the city was built on foundation stones inlaid with twelve gems:  jasper. . . sapphire . . . agate. . . emerald . . . onyx . . . carnelian . . . chrysolite . . . beryl . . . topaz . . . chrysoprase . . . jacinth . . . and amethyst. The twelve gates were made of pearls, and the main street was pure gold, as clear as glass.” 

      For gemologists, this sounds like paradise indeed.  And, even for those unmoved by jewelry, it gets even better. Children, teenagers, pastors:  No Church!

      “No temple could be seen in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. The nations of the earth will walk in its light, and the rulers of the world will come and bring their glory to it.  Its gates never close at the end of day because there is no night.  And all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city.”

      Finally, for me, the best part of all:

      “And the angel showed me a pure river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, coursing down the center of the main street.”

      As I read these words, they brought back memories, including some I’d forgotten. My sixth grade teacher was a woman named Ruth York, a member of Olive United Methodist Church in Olive, KY.  In her class in a public school in the 1950’s – believe it or not – we read daily from the Bible.  And the book we read from most often – or at least the one I most remember – was the Book of Revelation.

      As I read these words, I remembered the hymn we sang earlier, written by early American hymn writer Robert Lowry in 1864, “Shall We Gather at the River”, which I learned in church.  The images that hymn brought me then (and now) growing up in a small-town, are more like something out of “O Brother, Where Art Thou” than a river flowing through a large city, which, at that time, I’d never seen. I didn’t know until I preached this chapter in Revelation that this is where it came from.  Did you?

      Now that I am older and more traveled, these words bring to mind some my favorite cities, and, as it occurs to me, almost all of them have rivers running through them: London. Dublin. Paris. And, of course, Chicago. Unfortunately, as we were harshly reminded this week, a river running through a city can also have its down side, as we learned from the Cumberland, the river that flows through Nashville.

      So, perhaps the older you are, the more evocative these images are, capturing something deeply comforting and hopeful in the human spirit, images still drawn upon by architects today. 

      As Barbara K. Rossing puts it in the book I recommended last week, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation:

      “In the center of the city a paradise of green space and water opens up.  A river of life flows through the city’s midst, giving life to everything it touches. Think of your favorite river, the clearest and most beautiful stream that you have ever seen – that is a vision of Revelation’s river of life, freely given for all who are thirsty and weary. You are invited to come to this wonderful riverside.”  (p. 152)     

      What else do you see by the riverside? Note the trees that flourish there: 

      “On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.”

      This tree of life is not only one of the most powerful images in the book of Revelation, but indeed, frames the entire Bible.  Isn’t it interesting that though the Bible is a book written over 1,600 years, over 60 generations, by 40+ authors, it begins in Genesis with a garden and a tree of life, and ends up with Revelation with a garden, in a city, with a tree of life, only this time not with forbidden fruit, but leaves for the healing of the nations.  

      Oh how we need the leaves of the tree for the healing of the nations! From 9/11 to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the most recent attempts to blow up bombs on airliners and in Times Square.  No wonder NY Times correspondent Dexter Filkins has labeled it “the forever war.”

      Given this vision in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, I think every Christian has to decide, if this is the direction in which the creation is moving, am I going to promote the cycles of despair and violence in the world, or am I going to do all I can to promote John’s vision – God’s vision – of bringing healing and hope to the world.

      I appreciated President’s Obama’s advice in his Commencement Speech to the 2010 graduates of the University of Michigan: In a world, and a country, where we have an increasing tendency only to associate with and listen to people who look and think like us, spend some time with those who are different.  Said the President:

      “If you grew up in a big city, spend some time with somebody who grew up in a rural town.  If you find yourself only hanging around with people of your own race or ethnicity or religion, include people in your circle who have different backgrounds and life experiences.  You’ll learn what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, and in the process, you will help to make this democracy work.” 

      Of John’s vision, Barbara Rossing says:

      “The new Jerusalem gives us a vision of a beloved community, a world of abundance for all.  This is God’s vision for our whole created world — a world where people of all nations find open gates of welcome, where poor people find water without price, where all find healing . . . a world that will not be left behind. This is the vision to which we are transported in worship.  And this story also transports us back home to see and live God’s vision in our world today.”  (p. 169)

      Through the vision and voice of John, I believe God gave us this evocative and inviting vision to remind us:

–          that the human race is not doomed to a timetable of apocalypse, but is given a destiny we can choose.  

–          that the ultimate end need not be a war of Armaggedon, but a global human community, God’s “Holy City,” to which all nations and peoples are invited.

–          That the place where this will occur is not far off in a distant heaven after we die, but here on earth, where the storyline in the Book of Revelation ends.

–          That, just as out of the destruction and death which occurred at the World Trade Center, comes a place of healing and hope; that, just as out of the tribulations in the Book of Revelation, comes the vision of a new heaven and earth; so out of the distress and destruction and death currently experienced among nations, might come a global community of healing and hope.

      Like you, I look forward to visiting the National September 11th Memorial, as soon as I can. Remembering the devastation and death that happened there, I want to walk amidst those trees, see and hear those waterfalls, and touch the names inscribed there.  When I do so, I’ll think of John’s vision of the River of Life flowing through the City of God, and the trees whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.  May my prayer be – may our prayer be:  “Dear God, let it begin with me.”  Amen.

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