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The River of Life

 
 

The River of Life, Pastor James Clarke’s sermon for Sunday, May 29, 2016, is the fifth and concluding sermon in his series on understanding the book of Revelation. The scripture is Revelation 22: 1-17.

Listen to the sermon here.

A favorite movie of mine is “A River Runs Through It” for a number of reasons. It’s historical. It includes a pastor. But most of all, because of the rivers. Norman McLean’s final words in the movie, when he’s old but still fishing on the Big Blackfoot stuck with me.

Like many fisherman in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening.  Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.  Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over the rocks from the basement of time.  On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.  I am haunted by waters.

I am haunted by these words. I want to make sense of them, but I know that McLean has slipped into another place of poetry and imagination.

This is true of Revelation as well. John offers us an image at the end of a river running from the throne of God and through New Jerusalem with the Tree of Life growing on either side. As with McLean’s words, this isn’t something to read literally or even try to figure out. Poetry is something we experience, sense, almost touch. Rather than figure out the meaning of the waters, to imagine them to the point of feeling them. Feeling our feet chill.

I am also haunted by waters. I think I have said before that if I get into an accident on the freeway, it will be because I was either looking up at a raptor or looking at a river as I cross a bridge.

Whenever I have moved to a place, I have searched out the watershed. When we lived in Renton, my wife Paula knew the Tukwila area well around Southcenter. I knew where the Cedar and Green Rivers coursed, even that the Cedar River was diverted into Lake Washington and formerly drained into the Duwamish River.

Here it’s more about creeks – the North Creek watershed including Penney Creek, Sliver, Tambark and Nichol creeks – that flow into the Sammamish River, then into Lake Washington.

I grew up around the Willamette, Mary’s, Santiam, and Alsea rivers; played in Oak Creek. And each of these has a character for me – a spirit. And like poetry, it isn’t something to explain but intuit/feel.

Rivers are sacred in many traditions. The River Jordan. In the National Geographic series about God featuring Morgan Freeman, he visits the River Ganges and tells the story of the Ganges being a god who came from the heavens and would have flooded the earth if not for Shiva who filtered her with his hair.

One of our favorite places to vacation in past years is in Yakima at the Oxford Inn – right off the freeway. But more importantly, right on the Yakima River. I can sit on the lanai and watch the river.

I cherish that John of Patmos ends his imaginative prophecy with an image of a river. Waters bookend the Bible: from Genesis where a wind of God swept over the waters to the water of life flowing from the Throne of God.

With all the images that have proceeded, one could think that John would end it with a bang; s volcano of fire and magma flowing from the Throne of God with fire breathing dragons like in Game of Thrones!

Revelation ends with this gentle image… As gentle as Norman McLean as an old man standing knee deep in the Big Blackfoot in the half-light of the canyon holding his thoughts… All existence fading into a being… And feeling the words under the rocks.

As much as Revelation seems violent and harsh, John’s purpose was not to frighten the Christians in Smyrna, Philadelphia and Laodicea into a state of catatonic helplessness – and depression. Rather, he wanted to offer hope.

It’s almost like shocking them into an assurance of God and that in the end they would be with God as they live in Jesus Christ. There, of course, is the rub and the reason he so vehemently warned them to choose the Empire of God.

Think of John of Patmos as a Tough Love Parent. He is providing boundaries within which to live so that in the end, they may walk knee deep in the River of Life waiting for a fish to rise.

One of my favorite books on eschatology – about the End Times is In the End God by John A.T. Robinson published way back in 1968, so some of it is dated. But the essential message is that we need to have a hope. A belief that in the end God will be with us.

But as with poetry, we don’t need to figure it out. The focus is still on the present. As with Revelation, while it is imagining the future, it is focused on turning to God in the present.

Robinson writes: What is ultimately real will be ultimately realized… For the Bible, the eternal is that which abides, which outstays everything else….. For the prophetic outlook, every event which genuinely reveals and embodies the will of God must thereby prefigure that ‘consummation’ which ‘the Lord of hosts, shall make in the midst of the whole earth.’ (Is. 10:23).

 In other words, it is vital to have an image of ourselves with God in the end, but to continue to look for God in the present to grow in grace in the present, to choose the Empire of God in the present. Believe in a New Heaven and New Earth, but don’t live there. That which is truly real will be realized. Alleluia. But the catch is to make sure we know what is truly real.

Many of you may remember that for our spring vacation we went to the Olympic Peninsula and my first desire was to see the Elwha River. I have paid attention to the Elwha for years. The presence of the dams pained me as it ruined one of the largest salmon runs in the Northwest.

I recognize the need for dams, but in the case of the Elwha, it seemed so unnecessary. Thinking again of the spirit of rivers, the dams took away the spirit of the Elwha. I wanted to go see the Elwha running free again.

My son Kenneth and I walked at least six miles to see the demolished dams. Right where the dam was, shallows were flying (nearly impossible to photograph). The beauty of the free river and the swallows moved me.

I like to think of a river as a metaphor for life. Life is always in process – the only actual things are changing things. Reality is not made up of space, but space-time. Sometimes life as a river moves slow and sometimes faster. There are rapids and eddies, wetlands and falls, and always bends and curves.

When I was young, occasionally we would drift on inner tubes down the Willamette River. The Willamette by Corvallis is fairly calm and slow. It was relaxing to drift like that. One could even close one’s eyes for a while. People have been known to fall asleep. If only life were like that…. Or at least the better part of one’s life. Unfortunately, there have been rapids.

Remember in the movie, “A River Runs Through It” the young men of Missoula “borrow” old man someone’s rickety wooden boat so they can “Shoot the Shoot” on the Big Blackfoot. (That is, go down some pretty severe rapids.) After they make it through the younger brother, Paul, is still all excited, while Norman sits on a knoll shaking his head. That would be me.

Life is tough – no one tells you that when you’re growing up. We want to focus on the positive, which is good. But even more imperative is to have an assurance that in the end we will be with God. That’s the delta.

After visiting the demolished dams on the Elwha, we went to the delta and we were greeted by eagles. Taking the metaphor to its conclusion would be to drift all the way to the delta. All rivers eventually find the sea. All of us return to the One.

When we go to the beach, I look for the small creeks that flow into the ocean. I love the patterns the water makes in the sand. How the water accentuates the colors in the rocks. How the water twists and turns as if laboring to find the sea. This is a better, more graceful and loving image of the End Times than war, rampage and rapture.

However, our lives have been with bends and rapids, doldrums and eddies, always changing, always in process. We all end up in the ocean. A picture of hope and assurance.

Revelation does not end with a bang – violence and destruction; rather a picture of the New Jerusalem. And a river runs through it. Amen.

 

Cedar Cross rainbow

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