Scripture can be found here....
Deep river—my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
Don't you want to go to that Gospel feast,
That promised land where all is peace.
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
~ African American Spiritual
From the beginning, people in anguish have called out to God for relief. At least 2500 years ago, the writer of Psalm 13 wrote,
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
And almost 20 years ago, Dan Haseltine, the front man for the Christian group Jars of Clay, wrote,
Rain, rain on my face.
Hasn’t stopped raining for days.
My world is a flood. Slowly I become one with the mud.
Who hasn’t felt like that? These songs, disparate as they are, are all part of the same genre, songs of lament, songs of supplication to God. Help me God. Rescue me God. Can’t you see me God?
“Deep River” is an African American spiritual, and like so many songs in that tradition, it grew out of the experience of slavery. On one level, we hear words that evoke images from scripture: the deep River Jordan, the place of baptism and renewal, beyond which is a place of safety and rest—heaven, maybe? And on the other hand, we have a song that is speaking in code of real opportunities for escape—cross the mighty river, and the hounds that are tracking you lose your scent, and you have a chance for freedom.
This morning we have reached the final Sunday of our September “Season of Creation.” I particularly love the text from last week. But instead of preaching Wilderness Sunday, I got to go to the wilderness—my own private little, short-lived wilderness of pain, fear, calling out to God for help, and restoration.
The Season of Creation lectionary is set up to take us through that story. It gives us the story of salvation in four weeks—a very abbreviated story, to be sure, and not the story the way we usually hear it. But it gives us the story of creation, fall, wilderness, and salvation/ restoration/ resurrection. The first week, we heard the story of the garden—God’s perfect creation, filled with all the things we need to thrive. The second week, we heard stories of sin and suffering—we watched as disobedience turned murderous, though—did you notice? God was faithful still. Last week, you heard the story of Jesus’ baptism—his immersion into all of humanity’s pain and beauty—turned to the story of wilderness wandering, complete with wild beasts—and angels.
Today, we come to the river, the river of salvation. The river of restoration and rescue. The river of resurrection. The river at which we gather—for baptism. For new life. For welcome into the household of God. For refreshment. For a life-sustaining drink. For healing. And our immersion into this river comes from the book of the Revelation to John. Hear these words from Holy Scripture:
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
The Book of the Revelation to John is just that—an uncovering, a dreamscape, maybe, of John, a devout Jew, a mystic, who lived out his life in exile on the Isle of Patmos.[i] It was written during a time of deep anxiety in the early church, a time when people were wondering when, or even if, Jesus would ever return to rescue the people from persecution under Rome. And the theory that it describes the way the world will end, is a relatively recent notion, not even 200 years old. And all this idea has done is: to scare some people to death; to cause some people to demonize people they disagree with politically; and to make other people massively, obscenely rich through their twisting and exploitation of the scriptures. This book was written for comfort. It was written for hope. Author Elaine Pagels says, Revelation is not about how the world will end. It’s about how John’s world ended. The destruction of the Temple. The long, agonizing wait for Jesus to come to save and comfort.[ii]
Near the end of Revelation, John shows us this river—or, more accurately, John tells us how an angel showed him the river. And the river is described like this:
It flows with the water of life.
It flows from the throne of God.
It flows through the middle of the streets of the city.
It waters the tree of life, which gives twelve kinds of fruit, and, whose leaves will be used for the healing of the nations.
The river flows with the water of life: in a sense, isn’t all water the water of life? In our service for baptism there’s always a prayer of thanksgiving over the water. This prayer is a little walk through scripture. We thank God for the watery chaos of creation, the cleansing and renewing waters of the flood. We thank God for leading Israel through the parted waters of the sea, and for Jesus being nurtured in the waters of Mary’s womb. We thank God for John baptizing Jesus in the waters of the Jordan, and for Jesus speaking and hearing the truth from the Samaritan woman at the well. It’s all there: Creating, cleansing, renewing, parting to make a way for freedom; birthing, baptizing, springing up: the river flows with the living water, the water of life.
The river flows from the throne of God. In the end, we go back to the beginning. The river flows from its source, the place and person of its origin: It is a creation of God. From God, it flows out to the whole world.
The river flows through the streets of the city. One of my seminary professors was famous for the simple but astute observation that the bible begins in a garden and ends in a city.[iii] It begins in the pristine perfection of creation and plenty—call it childhood, call it innocence—and it ends in a place where people are called out of childhood and into maturity; out of innocence and into wisdom; out of the protective cocoon of the individual family unit and into community. And still:
A river and its streams bring joy to the city,
which is the sacred home of God Most High.
God is in that city, and it won’t be shaken. God will help it at dawn.
God is with us. The river of the water of life flows through the streets of the city.
The river waters the tree of life. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. And really, the remainder of our passage describes this perfectly:
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… And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light… ~ Rev. 5:3, 5
The Season of Creation comes to its conclusion by reminding us that God is with us at the end, just as God was with us at the beginning, whether “the end” is “the end of the world as we know it,” or the end of a stage in life, or the end of this day. Last week I lay on a gurney in the Emergency Room and pondered the “end of life as I knew it.” Lying there in pain, I seriously contemplated the possibility that my fall at the ‘Y’ might be the beginning of decline, disability, a life of pain, and surgeries. Nothing many of you haven’t been through, or haven’t been present when someone you love has gone through it. The fact that I was wrong (Hallelujah! for now) doesn’t mean that I wasn’t in a real wilderness of fear and pain for those hours and days. And God was there, which I know because I cried out for help, and God helped. I’m not talking about the fact that my back wasn’t broken (though, that was definitely a good thing). I’m talking about the fact that God put a little sentence in my head, that went, “I am completely powerless here.” And that’s the God moment. The moment when we know we need God, is the moment in which there is a space for God to enter. Spirit, enter here.
It wasn’t, as it turns out, the end of life as I knew it two Wednesdays ago, though I am profoundly grateful these days for things like being able to walk unassisted, and being able to reach out my arms without doubling over in pain. But in all circumstances, God, our creator, is in our endings and our beginnings, our source and our goal. God our redeemer turns our endings into beginnings—new life, flowing through that river. God our sustainer teases out our gratitude, alerting us to the ways we can begin again, no matter what kind of ending we have just experienced.
Deep river—we are carried along on the river of John’s dreams, which are our dreams, too, as we live the cycle of creation over and over again. Dreams of new and vibrant life beginning. Dreams of failure and falling, literal or metaphorical. Dreams of wandering and wondering in the wilderness. Dreams of renewed life, the gospel feast, the promised land where all is peace. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] John Blake, “4 Big Myths of the Book of Revelation,” CNN Belief Blog, March 31, 2012, http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/31/four-big-myths-about-the-book-of-revelation/.
[iii] Larry Rasmussen, Reinhold Niebuhr Emeritus Professor of Social Ethics, Union Theological Seminary.