Acts 16: 9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14: 23-29
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Music has always been a big part of my identity. The first album I ever owned was a Neil Diamond cassette tape I bought when I was eight years old – it was the one with his hit song “Coming to America” which made quite an impression on my third grade self. As years passed, my musical interests diversified and arguably worsened in junior high as I embraced the 1980s hair metal scene, with bands like Bon Jovi, Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue, Poison, Warrant, the list goes on and on. And, yes, a lot of those songs appear with some regularity on my music feed today. In the 1990s and college, I grew to love artists like Nirvana, Public Enemy, Dream Theater, Johnny Cash, John Coltraine, Tom Waits, Miles Davis, Willie Nelson, Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray Vaughan. You name it, I probably listened to it, and probably still do now.
Which is why the last six months, musically, has been really tough for me. We have lost so much talent in such a short time: Merle Haggard, Prince, David Bowie, Glenn Frey of The Eagles, Maurice White of Earth, Wind, and Fire, Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead. I think I have spent the past six months in a lull, a state of perpetual mourning at the talent we have lost.
There is one songwriter, who thankfully is still with us, Bruce Springsteen. Currently Bruce is touring behind an expanded rerelease of his 1980 album entitled “The River.” The title song from that album, “The River,” is one my favorites of Springsteen. It is a somber song, one that Bruce describes as written for his brother in law and sister. Speaking about “The River,” Springsteen said “My brother-in-law was in the construction industry, lost his job and had to struggle very hard back in the late 70s, like so many people are doing today. It was a record where I first started to tackle men and women and families and marriage.”
The image of a river is a timeless one indeed. There is something about the nature of a river, its slow meandering pace, or its quickly cascading rapids, that adequately sums up the nature of our lives. The author of the book of Revelation writes about a river – a river of the water of life – described as bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God right through the middle of the city of new Jerusalem. It is a poignant vision the author sees. As strange as this vision might seem to you and me, it was actually firmly grounded in the prophetic scripture of the Hebrew Bible.
The Biblical prophet Ezekiel writes in chapter 47 of Ezekiel of another mystical vision where he sees another river – this river flowing from the beneath the temple in Jerusalem out through the north gate, to the outer gate, and on. People reading Ezekiel would have understood that the flowing water of the river, flowing out from the temple, was God.
Another prophet from the Hebrew Bible, Joel, prophetically wrote about a time when “a fountain shall come forth from the house of the Lord.” I say all this to establish some context for how we understand this vision of a new Jerusalem in Revelation. It was not an original vision the author of Revelation had, but one that goes back to the Hebrew Bible.
What does it mean? The river is God’s timeless, ever flowing presence that is not limited to a church, temple, or building. The river flows out from the temple into the city. It is a reminder to us that the church is not in here. Church is how we live our lives as we, like a river, flow out of this temple, and into the city around us.
We are the river of this church, flowing out into the city, helping those who we can help, loving those whom God has called us to love, which is everyone.
It is interesting to me that Springsteen, John of Patmos, and the prophets of Israel, all wrote about a river during times of hardship. Springsteen wrote during the economic recession of the early 1980s. John of Patmos wrote Revelation during a time of Roman persecution of Christians and Jews in the first century after Jesus’ resurrection. The prophet Ezekiel wrote during the painful exile of Israel at the hands of the Babylonians in 587 BCE. The prophet Joel wrote at an undisclosed time, but nevertheless it was a time of foreign invasion. Amidst all this hardship over centuries, we return to an image yet again – a river of the water of life.
2016 is an uncertain year to say the least. We are in the midst of an election cycle that has been anything but predictable. We have seen tremendous economic volatility, and we have all seen as a community what thirty dollars for a barrel of oil does for those working in that industry. In the midst of all uncertainty, the fear of jobs lost, and the hope for new opportunities to come, we find ourselves here – back at the River.
It is in this church where we drink from the river of the water of life, where we find rest and assurance that in spite of what happens in the world, the river of God’s presence flowing from the temple out into the city will never dry.
How do we respond to the river of life that always flows no matter what happens? We join together and we sing. Our hymn might be “Purple Rain,” “Hotel California,” “Mama Tried,” “Home Sweet Home,” or “Texas Flood,” it doesn’t matter. The saints who showed us through music that God’s river is ever flowing, they now join their songs with others in heaven. Their songs join with all the others – flowing into the River, which flows out of heaven and is here now. AMEN.