River of Life

River of Life

Revelation 22:1-17

by Daniel Harrell

Advent, meaning coming or arrival first appeared in church liturgies not as a Christmas ramp-up, but as a Judgment Day wake-up. By setting its sights on Jesus’ second coming instead of his first, Advent affirms that line in the Creed where Jesus “will come to judge the living and the dead.” Christ will come to right the wrongs of injustice and exalt the humble. Christ will come and make all things new. Advent counters the rampant despair and cynicism common to life in an unjust world, while at the same time fighting against any backsliding and backbiting common among Christians who’ve decided that Jesus isn’t really paying attention. “Keep awake,” he warned in the gospels, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. If the owner of a house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Not that Jesus is coming back as a burglar—just unexpectedly like one. And he’s coming back soon, he said—three times in this chapter of Revelation alone. But given the delay, some 2000 years and counting, some prefer to translate Jesus as saying, “I am coming back quickly,” to emphasize the suddenness over the soonness. Any talk of Jesus coming back at all inevitably leads to Revelation, a book everyone says they want to read until they actually start reading it. You’re attracted to its vivid imagery, symbolism and predictions: Those crazy creatures that look like nothing found in nature—multi-faced animals with wings and eyes in places you’d never want them to be. There’s the numbers that don’t quite add up and funny looking angels with scrolls and lamps and bowls and horns that do battle against evil mythical enemies with bizarre names like Gog and Magog who end up cooked up into a final grim supper of burning flesh, the carrion of evil eaten by the victors. It can get pretty gruesome.

Nevertheless, Revelation has inspired countless sermons, works of art and musical compositions from the mighty Hallelujah Chorus to the tender strains of It Is Well With My Soul. It has also fueled social upheaval and sectarian religious movements which were founded and then foundered on what were thought to be surefire decipherments of Revelation’s secrets. Frenzied Biblical prophecy bloodhounds with rapture-ready sun roofs, eager not to be left behind, scrutinize every geopolitical development, technological advancement and social crisis for clues as to the exact time of Jesus’ arrival (this despite Jesus’ own insistence that nobody but God knows the date). Others, mocking these misguided efforts, display snarky bumper stickers such as: “In the event of rapture, can I have your car?” Confusion over Revelation’s meaning proves so exasperating that in the end, most people are all too happy to put it back on the shelf. Martin Luther thought that it shouldn’t even be in the Bible.

Of course taking Revelation out of the Bible doesn’t really remove it. Just about everything Revelation foretells first appears some place else. Turn to Isaiah or Ezekiel or Daniel in the Old Testament, or the gospels or Peter and Paul in the New, and there you’ll find practically all of Revelation’s themes. For instance, Jesus’ own glorious return finally fulfills Daniel 7, which is stocked full of bizarre animals and complex numbers and judgment thrones and plenty of fire. Daniel sees a son of man riding in on clouds who’s crowned King of kings and Lord of lords—as Jesus himself reiterates in the gospels. Revelation adds the “soon” part—which for those checking their watches is a problem. Given the delay, concerned timekeepers suggest “soon” to mean Jesus coming back in the crises of life or at the point of each individual’s death. But applying this to Revelation just complicates everything more. I think a better solution comes from St. Peter who insists how “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” I like that God waits as long as it takes in order that all might believe.

However waiting for all to believe doesn’t mean that everyone will. Patience has its limits. Even at the end there remain those outside the Pearly Gates: “dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and lives lies;” that is, everyone who refused to take a bath in the blood of the Lamb. Jesus promises to “repay according to everyone’s work,” the evil and filthy as well as the holy and righteous. This is why Luther wanted to hit the delete button. Where’s the justification by faith alone? Do you show up at the Pearly Gates only to have Peter pull a fast one and ask for your resume? While you can do nothing to earn God’s grace, you still must do something to show you’ve received it. Jesus was clear that you can’t just call him Lord and then refuse to do what he says. You can tell a tree by its fruit, Jesus said. Your treatment of the poor and sick and hungry and imprisoned will show what you think of him. Right in line with the holidays, turns out that Jesus is making a list and checking it twice too.

Revelation labels his list “the Lamb’s Book of Life,” and its contents are those whose lives bear good fruit, by grace. The new covenant God promised in Jeremiah promised to write the law on your heart so you’d know what is right to do by heart. But since that might not be enough, God promised through Ezekiel to provide you with a new heart. What salvation demands, God provides. “Let everyone who is thirsty take the water of life as a gift,” says the Spirit, who is the Spirit of Jesus. As he said to the woman at the well, “Whoever drinks the water I give him never thirst. The water I give will become a spring of water within welling up to eternal life.” Water and spirit go together—what flows in must flow out. Eternal life is not just about getting your name in the book. Eternal life has to be lived. Jesus said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart, out of your gut, shall flow rivers of living water.’”

We’ve talked a lot about water this fall, and here in Revelation all the streams converge. The sea—that satanic abode of chaos, disorder and darkness that appeared at creation—has swallowed up Satan and dried up itself. In its place there’s the river of life flowing from “the throne and the Lamb,” meaning from Jesus himself. Abundant fruit-bearing trees of life line the banks, reminiscent of Ezekiel’s miracle river flowing from the Temple of God modeled after heaven itself. It’s a Temple that never got built, you’ll recall, because in heaven there’s no need for a building to house God’s presence. There’s no need to shield his glory from sinners. God’s creatures no longer hide their faces in shame and seek refuge in the shadows. Instead, washed clean, we freely step into the light and look on God’s face. The Old Testament warned that nobody could see God’s face and live, a danger that mandated the high priest to identify himself with God’s name stamped on his forehead each year as he annually stepped into the Holy of Holies to make atonement. However in heaven there is no more atonement and no more fear. Everyone wears the name of God on their foreheads here.

The Lord makes everything new, so much so that we probably should call the end times the new times, or even better, the good times, given what finally transpires. There’s no more death or mourning or crying or pain. No more terminal illnesses, no more incurable diseases, no more fatal accidents or funeral services. No more dysfunctional families or broken relationships. There’s no more problem of evil because there’s no more evil. God allows no more suffering because there is no more suffering to allow. There’s no need for sun and moon anymore because the glory of God provides all the light—a light that so shines in the darkness that darkness becomes as day.

It’s literally heaven on earth. Unlike popular depictions, we don’t die and go to heaven. A huge slice of heaven comes down to us. John writes how he “saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” The new Jerusalem is both a place and a people, or more specifically, the redeemed of Christ are the place where God now dwells. So sure is this future that Revelation speaks of it as having already happened. John writes, “I saw the Holy City (past tense), coming down out of heaven from God.” Christ has already come by his spirit to live in us. Eternity has already started. You might say we’re in the final descent. All that awaits is a safe landing and that joyous, never-ending reunion.

I don’t know how many of you travel for the holidays. Living away from North Carolina as long as I have, I’ve flown home for Christmas countless times. I always love how folks gather at the security entrance to welcome their loved ones, arms outstretched with ear to ear smiles. Unfortunately, with security being what it is these days, it can take a while to get from the plane to those welcoming arms. Many of us will remember how they used to let people through security gates without a boarding pass. Family and friends could be there to greet you as soon as you appeared out of the tunnel. I loved the way you used to pop right out then right into those open arms. I loved it so much that it made me sad for people who had nobody waiting for them at the gate. So sad, in fact, that as a teenager (living as I did in a rather boring town), a bunch of us kids, for fun, would go out to the airport to greet lonely people as they came off their flights. We’d stand there with wide grins on our faces, waving and looking until we spotted someone who had nobody there to welcome them home. We’d walk up to these perfect strangers, our arms outstretched, and give them a big hello and a hug, telling them how happy we were that they had arrived safely, and how was their trip, and have a great day in our boring little town or wherever your final destination may be. They’d look at us all confused—“do I know you?”—and no doubt thought us crazy, and yet nobody refused the hug, overcome as they were by our spirited welcome. After their initial confusion, they’d usually hug back, say thank you and then leave the terminal with a shake of the head and smile on their faces—smiles I’d like to think they passed on to others.

OK, it was a weird thing for a bunch of kids to do (we’d probably get arrested for it these days), but it’s really no weirder than anything you read in Revelation. And it’s no weirder that anything you read about Christmas either. Sure, Mary and Joseph don’t have to deal with multi-headed animals and other crazy creatures, bowls and blazes and beasts and bad math, but there are plenty of angels and heavenly trumpets and shining stars. There’s Mary getting pregnant by the Holy Spirit—like anybody was going to believe that. And then there’s God showing up as a baby in a feed trough amidst poverty and scandal and threats from a homicidal, anti-Christ monarch. There’s dreams and forced holiday travel and side trips to Egypt, just so that prophecies can get fulfilled. And this is all without mentioning how the rest of the story turns out, what with a man walking on water and raising the dead before rising from the dead himself. Oh, and then promising he’ll fly back down someday soon to wipe out all the evil and death and despair and dysfunction and greed and sin that presses so hard against any peace on earth and goodwill among people. The only way to keep the weird stuff out of Christmas is to keep your Bible shut.

I was reading this past week about the ever-popular Charlie Brown Christmas Special that’s on TV every yuletide season. CBS commissioned the special in 1965, to be written by Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schultz, who included a scene where Linus reads from the gospel of Luke. Schultz was told that “You can’t have the Bible on television,” but he did it anyway, absolutely appalling the CBS executives. The special opened with Charlie Brown moaning about how Christmas was coming, “but I don’t feel happy.” What kid says that? It got worse. There was jazz music. And no laugh track. Wobbly kid’s voices. Charlie Brown constantly criticizing the crass commercialism of the Christmas season. And worst of all, Linus reading the Bible on an empty stage and proclaiming that’s what Christmas is all about? What would the sponsors think? The CBS execs declared it a flop and said they would air the film once (since they’d been promoting it for weeks sight unseen). But then they would consign it to then can, never to see the light of day again. Of course it was a huge hit. Almost half of the nation’s television viewers watched in 1965. It won an Emmy. And we’ve been watching every year for  the past 46 years. Of course if you watched this year you’ll notice they shortened the special again—to make room for more commercials.

In the end, if you read the Bible, the final answer to reining in the greed that drives Christmas commercialization, or to redeeming the dysfunction that drives relationships apart this time of year, or to righting the wrongs of injustice and ending the evil that takes no break for the holidays—the final answer to life’s troubles and sin does not lie in better television or in our ability to make a better world, but in God’s power to make a new one. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Jesus says. “And I am coming soon, soon, soon.” To which the Spirit and the bride say, “Come on then.” And for all who weary and thirsty, including ourselves, we say it too: “Amen. Come Lord Jesus.”

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