Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 1, 2016

2016.05.01 “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 1st, 2016


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


After learning about it and looking forward to visiting for a decade, in 2012 I finally visited the National September 11th Memorial. Even then the Museum – which is now open – wasn’t open, but the Memorial was, and it was as moving as I thought it would be.  How many have been there?

The design for the Memorial, “Reflecting Absence,” was designed by architects Michael Arad, Daniel Libeskind, and landscape architect Peter Walker. After working your way through security lines, you arrive into a Memorial Plaza with nearly 400 trees. The Memorial itself consists of two massive pools marking the footprint of each of the Twin Towers. Each is nearly an acre in size, with the largest manmade waterfalls in the country cascading down their sides.

Inscribed around the edges of the pools are a ribbon of names of those who died – within groupings of family members, friends, and co-workers – who shared life’s journey and died together, with their names listed side by side. As I found and touched the names of some of those I knew about – such as FDNY Chaplain Mychal Judge, the first to die that terrible day – I could only imagine how moving it must be for family members, co-workers, and friends to lovingly touch the names of those they loved who died there.

Standing at the edge of those pools, listening to those waterfalls flowing endlessly away into an abyss, you understand clearly what these curtains of water and ribbons of names symbolize. What is it about the sound of flowing water that touches something deep within us, inexpressible in words?

Back in 2004, when I first learned the design proposed for the 9/11 Memorial, I was working on a series of sermons 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 City of God. I was struck between the similarities of the two visions, old and new. Like the design for the National September 11 Memorial, the vision described in the Book of Revelation uses things we know – like cities and rivers and trees – to describe that which is finally indescribable and unknowable.  It has become one of my favorite texts in the Bible, and for that reason I could not pass it up today.

In chapter 21, John envisions, at the end of all things, not Christians ascending from earth to heaven in a supposed “rapture,” but the New Jerusalem descending from heaven to earth. In today’s reading, John – and us with him – are given a tour of God’s Holy City. The first thing we note is that it would 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. For those unmoved by jewelry, it gets even better. Children, teenagers, pastors:  There is no Church there! Not sun nor moon! Nor locks!

“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, 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.”

Whenever I hear these words, it brings to mind the hymn we sang earlier, “Shall We Gather at the River”, written by early American hymn writer Robert Lowry in 1864. As someone who grew up in a small town, the images this hymn brings me are more like something out of “O Brother, Where Art Thou” than a river flowing through a large city, which – when growing up – I had never seen. I didn’t know until I preached this chapter in Revelation that this is where Lowry’s hymn came from.

Now that I am older and more traveled, these words also bring back memories of some my favorite cities in the world, and many of them have rivers running through them: the Liffey flowing through Dublin, the Thames through London, the Seine through Paris, the mighty Ganges through Veranasi. And, of course, the Chicago River through Chicago (what a coincidence?) What would any of these cities be without these rivers running through them?

Not surprisingly, the Holy City described in the book of Revelation also has a river running through it. As Barbara Rossing, at Chicago’s Lutheran School of Theology describes it in her book countering the whole idea of the rapture, 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.” (Barbara K. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, 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, in the entire Bible. Even though the Bible is more of an anthology than a book, written over some 1,500 years by 40 plus authors, isn’t it interesting that 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. O how we need the leaves of the tree for the healing of the nations!

Given this vision in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, of where all things are headed, each of us has a choice to make. We have to ask ourselves, if this is the destiny God intends for all creation, am I promoting the cycles of despair and violence and environmental destruction in the world – working against God’s vision – or am I doing everything I can to promote John’s vision – which we interpret as God’s vision – of bringing life and healing and hope to the world, for all nations. It can be as difficult as working for peace, and as simple as living in an environmentally responsible way.

Again, Barbara Rossing says of John’s vision:

“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 . . . . 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 there on the Greek isle of Patmos, 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 of humanity need not be a war of Armaggedon, but a global human community – the City of God – 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 Book of Revelation – as well as human history, begins and ends.
  • That, just as out of the tribulations in the Book of Revelation comes a vision of a new heaven and earth, so out of the distress and destruction and death currently experienced among nations, might arise a global community of healing and hope.

I look forward to visiting again the National September 11th Memorial, and I hope you will eventually have the opportunity to visit there as well. Remembering the devastation and death that happened there, I want to walk amidst those trees, see and hear those waterfalls, and touch those names inscribed there. But also because – now when I do so – it reminds me of John’s vision of the River of Life flowing through the City of God, where the very leaves on the trees are for the healing of the nations.  Let it be, dear God, let it be.  Amen.


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