Saturday, August 3, 2013

Sermon: Shall We Gather at the River

Sermon Series
The Rev. Leah D. Schade
July 28 - Shall We Gather at the River
Revelation 22:1-6

[See the video for this sermon here:]

I love a surprise ending! Ever been to a movie by M. Night Shyamalan? Ever seen The Sixth SenseSigns? The Village? Every one of those movies ends with a twist. Suspense is built up throughout the movie, because there’s a struggle going on, and you’re never sure how it’s going to end. But then there is that moment when the truth is revealed, and you’re left breathless, realizing what was there all along, but you never noticed it until the end. I love a surprise ending.
The river has a surprise ending.

We’ve come to the last sermon in our series on rivers in the bible. From the Nile, to the river flowing into the Sea of Reeds, to the Jordan, we’ve learned a lot about what rivers symbolize throughout scripture. Last week, we didn’t see the river when we began. Remember we were in the time of the Exile with Ezekiel, wondering what happened to the river in the midst of our ecological crisis. But then we saw Ezekiel’s vision and the water flowed down from the balcony and down the aisle, like the river he saw flowing from the Temple. And we learned that God’s river can bring new life. Today we’re going to learn one final thing -- the river has a surprise ending.

Once again, we don’t see the river right away.  Today we’re in the last book of the bible - the book of Revelation. It was written by a man named John living on the island of Patmos in the Mediterranean Sea, sometime between the years 60 and 100 A.D. Much has been written about the bizarre symbolism in this apocalyptic book, particularly by Christians seeking hidden codes about the end times. 
But scholars agree that John of Patmos was writing in a particular time in history about a particular situation that the early Christians faced - the domination of the Roman Empire and the persecution of the church.  Just as the Israelites found their waters dried up when they were in exile in Babylon, so now the Christians find their waters scorched away by the Romans.

This book definitely has relevance for our modern world, not as some cryptic collection for seeing the future, but for critiquing current social structures and the domination system that oppresses and persecutes so many people today. Revelation portrays this as a life-and-death struggle between the forces of good and evil, between God and Satan. And for people like you and me, it can feel overwhelming.

Do you ever feel sometimes like we’re caught in this struggle? Like there are powerful forces at work in the world, and we’re powerless in the face of them. I think each of us has experienced that struggle in one form or another. Where do you feel caught between powerful forces
? Is it a global issue like world hunger or the war overseas? Is it a national struggle like the education or health care? Maybe your struggle hits closer to home. Maybe you are deciding what to do with your aging parents. Or how to survive in a workplace that seems to demand more and more and give less and less.

Or maybe you’re a young person in school, and the forces are all the expectations of your parents and your sports teams and your friends and how you’re going to balance it all. Or maybe you’re caught between two parents who are pulling at you in opposite directions, and you just don’t know what to do. 

You see, the struggles are everywhere - we all find ourselves caught in larger-than-life situations with so much at stake, and we’re not sure how we’re going to make it through. Quite frankly, we don’t know how it’s going to end. I want you to take a moment to think about a time when you were in the midst of a terrible struggle. Imagine you are in that place, and it looks like a war zone. The ground is scorched and smoking.  Everything is black and grey, charred by a terrible battle.  The smell of burning things makes you cover your nose.  Inside you feel as bleak as the landscape in front of you.  

Suddenly you hear water behind you. Someone calls your name. You turn around. You see an angel. The angel is pointing at a river flowing at your feet. Your eyes follow this river upstream. There you see the most spectacular sight you’ve ever beheld. It is the throne of God! It is made of gold and precious jewels of all colors of the rainbow, but it is transparent as glass. 

The water is flowing directly from the throne, cascading down in a magnificent waterfall. With your eyes, you follow its flow downstream. It wends its way around you and you turn, expecting to see the war zone you were just looking at. But things have changed. It is the same landscape, but somehow it is different. Green grass grows and spreads before you.  All the debris has been absorbed back into the earth and wildflowers grow.  Inside you feel as peaceful as the landscape in front of you. And this river flows through the middle of it all. 

Then you recognize the Tree of Life. In fact, you are standing right next to it. You notice that there is not just one kind of fruit but . . . twelve. Twelve different kinds of fruit. And you see the leaves. You reach up and touch one. Suddenly, you feel a surge of hope in your heart. You hear a voice, “The leaves of the Tree are for the healing of the nations.” Your mind thinks of all the problems in the world, the results of the struggle that you saw in the landscape earlier . . . 

And then you know that this tree and its leaves were meant for those problems, to heal all of those ills, to reconcile all those wrongs.

Then you see that there is another tree not far away, and another, and another - there is not just one Tree of LIfe, but hundreds, thousands of them lining the banks on both sides of the river, stretching on as far as the eye can see.

A light radiates from the throne of God and infuses everything you see. You hear a voice. It is the voice of God. The voice speaks, “See, I am coming soon! Come! Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. Surely I am coming soon.” 

You gaze upon the throne, from where the voice emanates. As you gaze on it, your eye focuses right in the very center of the throne, past the jewels, past the gold, through the transparent glass. You gasp at what you see.

Behold the throne of God! Behold the river of God! [The blue river cloth cascading down the cross.]

You see, the river has a surprise ending! Or rather, a surprise beginning! At the center of the Throne of God - in the very nucleus of God’s realm - is the cross. And the life-giving river flows from the cross.

This is not what we’d expect. John tells us that it is God and the Lamb that are at the center. The Lamb - meaning Jesus, the crucified one. Jesus was caught in that struggle, too. It was a life-and-death struggle between forces that seemed bigger than him. And that struggle pulled at him, pounded the nails through his flesh, pushed the air from his lungs, seemed to swallow him up in death’s grip.

The cross is the symbol for everything that is wrong with this world. All the sin, all the violence, all the corruption, all the war, all the hunger, all the inequality and racism and sexism and classism - it all concentrates here. But God takes this symbol of death and pulls it inside out, transforms it into the symbol for new life. You want to see the throne of God? Then you have to focus your eyes here - because the cross is the throne of God!

The writer of the Gospel of John recognized this life-giving symbolism in his account of the crucifixion where Jesus side was pierced. And do you remember what came out? Blood and water -- communion and baptism. The river of life flowing from the throne of God.

This is not meant to be some pie-in-the-sky portrait of a dreamland utopia far removed from our daily lives and current situation. This vision relates directly to the struggles in which we are engaged in order to bring about God’s new world. Because here is the other surprise --

It is you, and you, and me, and all of us who are the trees of life with the leaves that are meant for the healing of the nations.  We are planted beside the river of life. The water from that river is absorbed by us, by our churches, by other communities and organizations around the world that work for God’s purposes. We are the ones to bear that fruit and offer those leaves of healing. 

You see, when you are in the midst of that struggle, when you find yourself caught between forces bigger than you that threaten to overwhelm you and break you down, you need to remember that you are planted by the river. You are one of those trees, gathered at the river -- a living tree, planted by crystal clear water that will never fail you, will never grow stagnant, and will never run dry.

Because that river flows from the throne of God, flows from the cross of Jesus, and we know that the life-giving river of Jesus can sustain us in the midst of the struggle, nourish us when we’re feeling parched, strengthen us with we’re pulled by forces that threaten our very lives. 

When you’re feeling down, you need to get yourself to the river.  If you have a friend or a family member or a co-worker who you know is in the midst of a struggle, you need to invite them to the river.  When you’re feeling the need to draw from the source of true power, you need to get yourself to the river. And if your tree’s been broken by the struggle, you need to get yourself to the river. This is the divine paradox that is at the heart of what it means to be a Lutheran, what it means to be a follower of Jesus, what it means to be a child of God. Because you will meet God in the brokenness. You will feel God’s strength in the weakness. You will feel God’s new life in the powerful grip of death.

That’s what all these sermons in this series have been about – people gathering at the river, God’s river, to have their lives transformed, to watch the power of God shape the course of human history.  Shall we gather at the river? Yes, we’ll gather at the river. We’ll do this call and response: Shall we gather at the river? Yes, we’ll gather at the river.

[“Shall We Gather” hymn begins playing softly in background.]

Shall we gather at the river? Yes, we’ll gather at the river. We gather at the river with Pharoah’s daughter and the mother and sister of Moses to rescue a baby from death, confident that God’s love will bring out the best in people.

Shall we gather at the river? Yes, we’ll gather at the river. We gather with the people of Israel as they cross the waters parted by Moses, confident that God will provide for us in our times of deepest despair.

Shall we gather at the river? Yes, we’ll gather at the river. We gather at the Jordan River with the Israelites ready to cross over to the Promised Land, confident that the river can bring us back to God.

Shall we gather at the river? Yes, we’ll gather at the river. We gather at the river with Ezekiel in the midst of the Exile, seeing the river flowing with clean, clear water, healing our ravaged earth, confident that God’s river can bring new life.

Shall we gather at the river? Yes, we’ll gather at the river. We gather at the river with John of Patmos, drinking in that crystal, life-giving water that will cleanse us and give birth to a new world, surprised to find that the river begins at the cross and flows right through us, the trees for the healing of the nations.

Shall we gather at the river? Yes, we’ll gather at the river. The beautiful, the beautiful river. Gather with the saints at the river that flows from the throne of God. Come Lord Jesus. Amen. Amen! Let us stand and sing! [Congregation goes right into hymn, Shall We Gather at the River.]


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