Joni Mitchell wrote a sad but beautiful song in 1970 called “River.”In it she described a feeling that I would guess most of us have had at some point in our lives. It is that sensation you get when you are in a spot in your life which you don’t like, at all, and you want to drift away on the movement of a river somewhere, anywhere, as long as it’s not where you are right now. In Joni’s considerably brilliant imagination it is a frozen river that she would like to just skate away on. When I used to play that song on my (get this) “record player” back in the 70’s, I was transported down that river with her. Or at the very least, it gave me the opportunity to fully romanticize whatever issue it was that I was wanting to run away from, and there were a lot of those.
Rivers are amazing bodies of water. They aren’t static like some lakes nor are they salty and rip roaring like the powerful, untamed ocean. Rivers move and speak as they swoosh by the shoreline, beckoning us to come along for the journey. At a Bible-Study we did with residents at the Millbury Congregate Housing this week, one of the people said something quite wonderful. She stated, once you touch the water in a river, you will never touch that same water again. River waters are of the moment and gone, of the moment and gone. She felt it was an apt metaphor for living a life that is in the present moment, not expecting things to be the same or to repeat. I liked that. It’s a good way to think of our Church too and its history. On one year, not even one Sunday can ever be repeated, it is all new like the passage of the river or of time and for that we can rejoice or grieve. That is the choice we need to make.
Someone asked me what my favorite sermon was. I explained that the process of writing and delivering a sermon isn’t like that. Hours are spent on it but after it’s spoken on Sunday, it’s done and gone. Which reminds me. A noisy little kid was sitting with his mother in church, squirming and chatting during the Pastor’s sermon and the mother became frustrated about it. “If you don’t stop that right now, I am going to ask Pastor Carla to start her sermon all over from the beginning!”
Revelation 22:1-5 tells of a river of the water of life which the author encounters in a fantastic dream. The Book of Revelation is a kaleidoscope dream. Commentary describes the book as apocalyptic writing full of symbols and code, the use of which is characteristic during periods of great oppression when those oppressed needed to keep things secret. John of Patmos is the acclaimed author who wrote it around the year 95 from a vision he had. “John was a Christian leader of Jewish origin who was in exile on the Roman prison island of Patmos, which he may have been in for refusing to worship the Roman emperor Domitian, who had declared himself a god.” The Romans, as we have discussed, were big on trying to convince people that only they themselves were Gods and should be followed and obeyed without question because of their divine nature. Theologian John Dominic Crossan points out in his work on “The Historical Jesus” that coins from the Roman period featured the head of Caesar wearing his laurel wreath in a god-Apollo-like way on one side of the coin and with inscriptions of heaven and godliness on the back. With these coins the people conducted commerce and so were a daily reminder that the government had all the power and it was “divine” proclamation that made it so. Traditional thought says John the Apostle (Mark 3:14-19) was the author of both Revelation and the Gospel of John, but that is not certain because the author does not identify himself as an apostle.” Revelation was created to strengthen and encourage believers away from their suffering. It is a book of prophecy with “strong overtones of apocalypticism” which is “a doctrine concerning an imminent end of the world and an ensuing general resurrection and final judgment.” Which was supposed to happen yesterday!
Although John may be the one who wrote down the words, Christ is supposed to be the true author AND subject matter. It is as if Christ was telling his own story through this John, an interesting concept and certainly a subject of great debate for many centuries. Revelation is a text that concerns itself with the battle between good and evil and in the end, believers of Jesus as messiah win out! God’s victory over Satan results in a new creation in which Christ plays a central role. A New Jerusalem or heaven on earth descends and is at one and the same time God’s new dwelling place and the “Lamb’s bride,” indicative of the close relationship between God the parent and Jesus the anointed one. Christ the Lamb is the most central to God’s work of salvation and whom God’s servants worship even as they (or we) worship God. This idea no doubt would have provoked the ire of the Romans who wished to be worshipped as the only gods.
Not a river, but water in the form of a flood, is the theme in the Hebrew Scriptures from Genesis which was read today. It is the familiar text of Noah who built an Ark, while guided with precision by God. His call was to save God’s creatures from a flood, intending a reboot for the earth and the vagaries of humanity. Strangely, it sounds as if Noah had a barbecue on the ark, cooking up some of the creatures that were saved from the flood. God, never being one to turn down a fine cook-out, was so pleased by the scent of the roasting critters that a promise was made never to flood the earth again.
It’s terrible that we have encountered so many floods of late from Hurricane-forced storm surge and there have been so many victims. So, what about that promise of no more floods, God? The question asked by many is, did God create the hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and floods that seem to be happening week in and week out? I am not equipped to make that judgement. I can say that anyone who claims they do know absolutely that God creates these calamities to punish us for our sins is barking up the wrong tree of life. If I were to give anyone advice today it would be to look for God’s rainbow. It is far better to dive in to help people who are victims of floods and other disasters than to try and figure out who to judge for what they are or with whom they have an intimate relationship. Who are we to judge?
I don’t think any of us is in the position to pass judgement on God nor one another, or so it says in the very Bible we are reading today. In fact, it says not to judge more than 37 times in different ways by different Bible authors. For example, how about Matthew 7:1 “Do not judge or you too will be judged.” Or Luke 6:37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” How about James 4:12 “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?” There’s a whole bunch of these but here’s just one more for fun: Romans 2:1 “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” Jesus did not fool around when it came to people judging other people, yet it goes on all the time, doesn’t it? Our job is to love people. Our job is to be a help to others in times of need. Our job is to do God’s work in the world, not to try to be God.
We can and ought to open ourselves to God’s Spirit which is all around us and put ourselves in the position of being like a river cascading and cleansing as it passes by. A river of life-giving action can have a healing effect on us and others. Listen to the beautiful words of this song “Like a Healing Stream” by Bruce Harding
Like a healing stream in a barren desert;
Spirit water bringing life to dusty earth,
God is trickling through our lives as in a dream unfolding,
promising revival and rebirth … like a healing stream.
Like a river strong with a restless current,
Spirit water rushing on to distant shore,
God is carving out a channel in a new direction,
Calling for an end to hate and war… like a river strong.
Like a mighty sea reaching far horizons, Spirit water with a love both deep and wide, God is working in our hearts to shape a new tomorrow: God will always challenge and provide! Like a mighty sea, like a river strong, like a gentle rain, like a healing stream.