a river runs through it

The season of creation continued on Sunday with River Sunday.  Our texts, from the beginning and the end of the Bible, described the river that flowed through the Garden of Eden and the river that will one day flow through the new creation.  These two passages provide gorgeous imagery to describe the world as it was created to be and the world as God intends it to be one day.  Audio from Sunday is below, and the text of the sermon is after the jump.

Our texts for this morning form something of bookends for the Bible.  These two tales, each with a river running through it, frame our most sacred stories.

They’re from completely different times and different cultures.  One deals with the beginning of it all, and the other tells how it will all end.  And yet these bookends are remarkably similar.

Both use vivid, imaginative language.  Both are rich with symbolism and metaphor.  Both use every tool available to point to truth that lies almost to deep for words.  Both are thick with meaning.

The stories of creation in Genesis and the visions of Revelation have been interpreted, misinterpreted, and reinterpreted for centuries.  They’ve been battlegrounds in fights over Biblical authority for the last hundred years.  They inspire everything from eye-rolling to fierce devotion.

Given all the hoopla, it could be tempting to set them aside in favor of less contested ground.  But then we’d lose the beauty, the elegance, the hope that each of these texts bears.

Let’s look at them each in turn.  First, the passage from Genesis.  It’s taken, like our passage two weeks ago, from the story of creation found in the second chapter of Genesis.  This story places creation in a garden, a garden planted and watered by God.

It’s thought that the earliest tellers of this story were desert nomads.  For them life, culture, community all take shape around oases in the desert.  Perhaps it was in one of those vibrant gardens watered by streams bubbling up from the floor of the desert, that they first met the Lord.

The trees tend to get all of the attention in this story—the tree of life and the tree that gives knowledge of good and evil.  Running beneath and through the story, though, is this mighty, mythical river.

The text tells us it branches into four smaller rivers, the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates.  Those latter two we’ve heard of.  They flow even now in modern day Iraq.  The other two, though, aren’t as easy to identify.  Some say the Gihon is the same as the spring by the same name that waters Jerusalem.  Others say it’s a river in Ethiopia, or the Karkeh which waters the middle east.  The Pishon is no easier to find.  Some say it is the mighty Ganges.  Others the Nile.  The truth is, we don’t know.

What we do know is this: in the beginning, when the earth was still young, God made mighty rivers.  They brought life to the garden where it all began and flowed out from there to water the known earth.

Or, put differently, God is the source and sustainer of all life.  The life that God gives flows like a mighty river, watering trees and creatures and people alike.

It’s a captivating image, isn’t it?  God’s good gift of life is like a flowing river.

No wonder, then, that centuries, maybe even millennia later, when a man had a vision of how it would all end, that vision included a river.

The stories of Genesis 1 and 2 are hotly contested, for sure, but the vision we encounter in the book of Revelation is even more so.  The images are often dark and violent, and always confusing.  It can be hard to know what to make of this book at the end of our Bible.

Like Genesis, it’s helpful if we release Revelation from a need to have a one-to-one correlation with reality.  Both are about so much more.  Like the creation stories in Genesis, the visions we encounter in Revelation seek to describe the underlying truth.  And they use imaginative, dream-like images to do that.

We know a tad bit more about the sources of Revelation than we do for Genesis.  The writer was part of a Christ-following community that was persecuted, perhaps violently, by Rome.  The writer tells of a vision from God that encourages his friends to be steadfast, to persevere in following Christ, come what may.  And the vision promises that though bad things will happen and though the empire of the day will seem to win for a time, in the end, the power of Christ will prevail.  That, in a nutshell, is the truth at which Revelation points.

We jump in at the end of that vision today.  The author is painting a picture of God’s ultimate will for the world.  There will be a new Jerusalem, and God’s home will be there—not infinitely removed from society, but right in the midst.  The tree of life, remembered from the very beginning, will be there, healing all the people of the world.  In this new city there will no longer be the need for any lamps or even the sun, for the light of God will light our way.  In this new city, creation will be fulfilled.  And again, a river runs through it.

This river, like the one at the beginning, runs with the waters of life.  It’s bright as crystal, sparkling from the light of God’s love.  I can almost hear it some days, that babbling, gurgling, rushing, flowing, mighty river.  Or maybe it’s that first river I hear, the one where it all began.

We live in between these two rivers.  That’s what it is to be a participant in this beautiful, broken world.  It is to live caught between the river that watered Eden and the river that will one day flow through God’s city.

Another way to say all this, in perhaps more prosaic language, is to say that we live caught between two worlds—the old world and the new.  There is the world God created and called good, a world that we know all too well.  We see the beauty and the goodness everywhere we turn.  But we also see the brokenness that has cracked this world.  We see the evil that clings close and we know, deep in our bones, that the wages of sin are death.  We live somewhere east of Eden, in exile from our source.

And there is the world which God began re-creating in Christ, the world as it should be, as it will be, the new creation.  We catch glimpses of it, now and then, often out of the corner of our eye.  In the kindness of strangers, or a meal shared, in moments of prayer and praise, and raucous laughter with friends, in the freedom of a debt forgiven and the joy of new life found.  We can feel when the world as it is, for a moment, aligns with the world as it shall be, and we feel that ache the rest of the time as things are not as they should be.

How then, shall we live?  In between these two rivers?  If the river that flows out of Eden and the river that makes glad the city of God are our source and our goal, how do we live now?  In the quotidian muck and mire of life?

In many ways all of scripture is an effort to answer that question.  And to some degree we already know the answer to this.  We wait with hope, with patience, with trust, witnessing with our very lives to the creation we know is coming.  We love the Lord, our God with all our heart and soul and strength.  We love our neighbor as ourselves.  This is the heart of it, and all the rest flows from there.

But on this Sunday when we’ve got rivers on our minds, let’s linger in images of water for a moment more as we search for God’s way in this land between the rivers.

As Christians, if we’re going to talk about rivers of living water, we start with baptism.  How do we live in this in-between land?  We can always start by remembering our baptism.  In the waters of baptism we come to know our true name—child of God.  We find that nothing else defines us so completely—not our job or lack of, not our wealth or poverty, not our marital status or family shape or size, not even our actions, the ones we’re proud of and the ones we regret—none of it can possibly claim us as completely as God does in Christ in baptism.  In baptism we are born again with Christ.  We ourselves are claimed as new creatures, citizens in that new creation.  We are marked as Christ’s own forever.  Even in this in-between land, nothing can take that away.

Speaking of baptism might remind us of that archetypal river, the Jordan River, where Jesus himself was baptized.  That’s not all that happened there.  Far from it.  The Jordan was the river the Israelites finally crossed, forty years after they were brought out of bondage in Egypt.  As we live in this in-between time, between the world as it is and the world as it should be, the Jordan reminds us that God wills freedom for us, freedom from all that would seek to enslave us, and freedom for everybody else as well.  And while God’s promise of freedom includes those things that symbolically enslave us—greed, pride, the desire for more—it also includes people who find themselves literally enslaved—from prisoners unjustly condemned to children enslaved by poverty.

This, of course, might bring to mind the word of the Lord as the prophet Amos recorded it: let justice roll down like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).  As we live uneasily in this world, longing for God’s good will to reign, it helps to keep these words in front of us.  How shall we live?  We shall seek this mighty river of justice which puts the poor first, which welcomes the immigrant, which counsels sharing so that all may be fed, which even today is deeply radical and, frankly, impossible without another source of aid—living water we come to know in Christ.

How shall we live in between these two rivers?  We’ll cling to the living water we’ve found in Christ.  That’s an awfully abstract thing to try to do.  What does it mean?  It means:

We come worship with other Christians.

We open our hearts in prayer—with others, or alone in our rooms at night, or walking in God’s good green land.

We spend time with scripture—lingering with the psalms, or struggling with the prophets, or re-reading those old, old stories in the gospels.

We seek and tend to Christ in the hungry, the poor, the imprisoned, the sick.

We share what wealth we have, and try to forgive, and come to love sinners and all manner of broken people.

We cling to the cross, trusting that the darkness and death we meet in our daily lives does not get the last word.

We try to follow, often haltingly, often stumbling, sometimes even getting turned around and going the wrong way.

And, most of all, it means that we do all of this knowing that we can’t save ourselves, and truth be told, we don’t need to.  We’re already washed in that living water, covered in it, floating on it, being carried by it.

We live in exile, yes.  In a world that is broken, that cries out in pain, that is marred by suffering.  But we do not live without hope.  Because we know the story.  We know where we come from, and we know where we’re headed.

We come from a garden, with a river that gives life.  And we’re headed, all of us, friends, all of us together, are headed for that new city, a city where God will dwell with us, in our midst, wiping every tear from our eyes, a city where death and weeping will be no more, a city where all the people of the world will find healing, and through the midst of that city runs a river.

So yes, we live in exile, but not without hope.  We greet the challenges of this land, the pain and the suffering and the grief and despair and alienation, with the strong hope that is borne of knowing our true name and home.

We are children of God, we are made whole by the grace of Christ, and we are sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit that flows through our days giving us the strength to trust that up ahead, just around the bend is God’s river of life-giving water, flowing clear as crystal, sparkling in the sun.  For that, thanks be to God.

by Sarah Wiles
September 25, 2011
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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One Response to a river runs through it

  1. Carolyn Joy says:

    Listening to your sermon somehow gave me vision of the rivers.

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