Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 1, 2014

2014.09.28 “Season of Creation: Rivers” – Revelation 22: 1 – 5

Central United Methodist Church
Season of Creation: Rivers
Pastor David L. Haley
Revelation 22: 1 – 5
September 28th, 2014


          “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, the New Revised Standard Version

I would like to begin my sermon today by asking you to close your eyes . . . take a deep breath. . . imagine yourself on the banks of a river of your choice – a river you remember. It might be a mountain stream in the Appalachians or the Rockies: can you hear the roar of the water, feel the chilled air and the spray, feel it’s like ice water when you stick your foot in? Perhaps it’s a larger stream, like the Ohio or the Missouri, even the mighty Mississippi. As you stand there on the bank, can you see the currents rippling on the surface, indicating the mighty power of the flowing water below? Can you feel the wind blowing through your hair, see turtles basking in the sun, maybe even an occasional duck flying overhead?  Can you see the sun setting in the distance, turning the river into a mirror reflecting the sunset sky?  We turn and walk away to continue our lives, the sun sets and a new day begins, but the river flows on, day after day, to the sea.

What is it about rivers that draws us to them?  Is the sound of rushing water, indicative of life and vitality? Is it the grand vistas they open up in the landscape, whether wooded, prairie, or urban?  Is it the lushness and fertility rivers engender, of aquatic plants and animals? Is it our sense of adventure, that a river comes from somewhere and goes somewhere, crying out to be explored.  Is it the cleansing and invigoration they give us when we jump in, bathing ourselves in their water, as in bathing and swimming but also as in baptism?  Is it some deep primal instinct that as a source of water, rivers are to us a source of life?

When we think together about rivers, many different rivers come to mind. I grew up and played in Jonathan Creek, in western Kentucky (about a mile away). It flowed into the Tennessee River (7 miles away), which flowed into the Ohio River, in Paducah (30 miles away), which flowed into the mighty Mississippi (50 miles away.)

Wherever you are from, you have rivers of your own. Did you know Illinois is bordered by 880 miles of rivers and has 87,110 miles of rivers and streams within its borders, a count of around 100 rivers.  I once heard a folk song that incorporates the name of almost all Illinois’ rivers.  What are some of them? [the congregation called out names of rivers in Illinois].

When you travel the world, you discover the list of the world’s great rivers is considerable; there is hardly an important city in the world without a river running through it. Think of the Hudson, the Seine, the Thames, the Ganges, the Yangtze, or even closer to home, the Chicago River.

ChicagoRiverIn fact, the Chicago River is why we’re here. Though not especially long, the Chicago River is why Chicago became an important location, due to the Chicago Portage it afforded, linking the Great Lakes, the Mississippi Valley, and the Gulf of Mexico. When Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable built a cabin around 1790 near what is now the Michigan Avenue Bridge over the Chicago River, little did he know he built on what would become some of the world’s greatest real estate. A hundred years later, Mr. Wrigley was to think so too.

In fact, as we think about rivers we have known, you may find what I found, that I started remembering river experiences I’d almost forgotten. White water rafting in NC, a cruise on the Yangtze in China; floating down the Trier in Germany; punting on the Cam in Cambridge, England; a bateaux cruise down the Seine through the middle of Paris; even once helping pull a drunk out of the Liffey in Dublin.  (A drunk in Dublin; how’d that happen?)

As we remember our river experiences, it is also a good time to remember what this series on Creation is about: (1) to remind us that we are not God’s sole creation, but interconnected and interdependent with all of God’s creation. (2) To remind us how disconnected and alienated from nature we have become.  And (3) most importantly, to give us the desire to reconnect, and fulfill the intent for which God created us, to care for and to tend all of God’s creation.

As we have discovered on previous Sundays in regard to forests, and land, and wilderness, given how significant these things have been in our earthly lives, we should not be surprised to find that they have also played a role in our spiritual lives.

Even in that mythical garden of Eden we read about in Genesis, there was a river that ran through it.  After it left the garden, it flowed into rivers we recognize, such as the Tigris and Euphrates, which puts them in modern day Iraq. What does it say that what was once the Garden of Eden, is now so war-torn and full of violence. What have we done to God’s garden?

Later in the Bible, streams and rivers – especially in an arid land – came to stand for symbols of God’s overflowing grace and justice.  As the prophet Amos put it, in words we still quote hopefully today: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

By Jesus’ time, rivers and stream had become not only a metaphor for God’s grace and mercy, but a place with John the Baptist baptizing in the Jordan River, cleansing not only bodies, but souls. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced a river baptism. I’m personally thankful all my baptisms in 40 years of ministry have been in a sanctuary, and not a river, I’m concerned I might have lost a few. (Where’d they go; I had them right here just a moment ago!)

Considering that the River Jordan was the border of the Promised Land and the river Jesus was baptized in, over time it would become the most important and most symbolic river in the Bible. Less as a river that exists in the real world (anemic river that it is), than for what it came to stand for, in Christian imagery. This was never more true than in African-American spirituals, with their multiple layers of meaning. When they sang about the Jordan River, on one level they were singing not about the Jordan but about the Ohio River and the Mississippi, and the underground railroad that lay beyond the slaves states of the South. But on an deeper level, they were singing about what lies beyond this mortal life: if the Jordan was death, the Promised Land beyond was heaven.  And so they sang, “The Jordan River is chilly and cold; chills the body, but not the soul.”

Finally, if the Bible begins with a garden with a river running through it, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn it ends with a river running through it, running through the new heaven and earth, the River of Life running through the City of God, in the last chapter of the last book of the Bible, chapter 22 of the Revelation of St. John, which we read earlier.  If you read it carefully, you will note that this River and this City is not in heaven, but on earth. As Barbara K. Rossing, professor of New Testament at Lutheran School of Theology here in Chicago, puts it:

“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.” (Barbara K. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, p. 152)

So which is it then?  Do earthly things teach us heavenly things? Are the rivers we have known on earth a vision of the River of Life which flows through the City of God? Or do heavenly things teach us earthly things? Does the River of Life which flows through the City of God provide us with a vision for life here on earth, if we can learn to live in greater harmony not only with each other, but with all creation.

Chicago is a long way from the City of God, but like the City of God, Chicago has a river running through it.  And while many great metropolitan rivers around the world are so polluted they can barely be used, thanks to dedicated environmentalists, who have convinced government to cooperate, the Chicago River can serve as an illustration of the progress that can be made with our metropolitan rivers.

Most of us know the Chicago River for two things:  that it turns green every St. Patrick’s Day; and that it runs backward, away from Lake Michigan, rather than into the Lake, as most rivers do, and as the Chicago River used to.

That was because as Chicago grew, so did the industrial and commercial pollution of the river. As just one example, the south branch of the Chicago around 1900 became known as Bubbly Creek, because the stockyards threw offal and animal carcasses into the river, such that bubbles came up continually from the bottom. As late as 2004, when scientists studied the waterway, they found “fibrous material” up to three feet thick, remnants of cow and pig parts dumped decades earlier.

It took Chicagoans the better part of a century to realize that this – along with Chicago’s sewage and stormwater – was running into Lake Michigan, our source of drinking water.  So in 1900, they reversed the flow of the river by using a series of canal locks and increasing the flow from Lake Michigan. In 1999, this system was named a “Civil Engineering Monument of the Millenium” by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

You might also be interested to know that that part of the River nearest us, the North Shore Channel, is a drainage canal built between 1907 and 1910 to flush the sewage-filled North Branch of the Chicago River down the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Now the sewage discharging duty has been largely taken over by the Chicago Deep Tunnel, but there are still occasional discharges of a noxious mix sewage, stormwater, and industrial pollution into the River and Lake during heavy rains.

Thanks, however, to groups like Friends of the Chicago River (founded in 1979) [], the Chicago River has made significant progress, above and below the surface. Whereas the once pollluted and fenced off river could only support seven pollution tolerant fish species, it is now home to over 70 species of fish, 60 species of birds, and other wildlife such as beavers, muskrats, mink, snapping turtles, great blue heron and occasionally river otters.

Likewise, there is an increase in human activity. With the recent $100 million investment in the Chicago Riverwalk it is anticipated that by 2017 the river will become one of Chicago’s top tourist destinations, bringing people to the River. In addition, river-edge development is opening up the riverbank to the public; just in Chicago alone more than ten river-edge parks have been developed or improved that provide the public with opportunity to walk, hike, bike, paddle and enjoy nature.

The hope is that the Chicago River will become one of the world’s greatest metropolitan rivers, as the standard goes, both “fishable and swimmable.”  Who knows, eventually, it might even meet a goal set by the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, who mused about downtown workers being able to go down to the river during their lunch hour, catch a fish and cook it up along the bank.

As we conclude the Season of Creation, I hope you have enjoyed this series as much as I have. In preparation for these sermons I have learned a lot, and I hope you have learned a few things too, even if we have only made a beginning of all there is to know. Most of all, I hope it has given you a desire to re-connect with these parts of creation that have been lost from our lives, such as forests, land, wilderness, and rivers.  Personally, I can hardly wait to get back to some of these old friends. And, even better, to do something to help reverse the damage we have done, and to leave God’s creation better – not worse – for future generations.  Like the leaves of the tree by the River of Life in Revelation, may our lives count not only for the healing of the nations, but for all of God’s creation.  Amen.


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