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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Genesis 2:4-14
“Out of Eden”
January 19, 2014 - Second Sunday after Epiphany

         I went to college in the Garden of Eden. Ask Beth and she will tell you I am firmly convinced that the original paradise was located squarely in the vicinity of Santa Barbara, California. There are few places on earth with more natural beauty or a more perfect climate. So the Garden had to be there.

         I’m kidding of course, but some people imagine they can read our text here in Genesis, do a little geography and determine where Eden was located, in the area of the Persian Gulf or possibly in Armenia. The truth is that there is no way now to make literal geography out of the rivers mentioned in verses 10 to 14.

         What we do see here is the first appearance of the River of God in the Bible. As I said last week, there is a waterway which courses throughout God’s Word, springing up now and then as the emblem and vehicle of God’s gifts of life and His Spirit. It appears first here in Genesis, arising in the Garden of Eden, then, like a stream running mostly underground, it comes to the surface here and there throughout the Scriptures. You see it in Numbers, in the Psalms, in Isaiah, in Ezekiel, in John, and finally in the book of the Revelation.

         Over twenty years ago Beth and I saw the last film shown in Lincoln, Nebraska’s Cooper Theatre before it closed. That movie was “A River Runs Through It,” the beautiful film Robert Redford directed based on Norman Maclean’s autobiographical novel by the same title. It’s the story of two sons of a Presbyterian minister growing up together in a small town in rural Montana.

         Through Maclean’s story runs the Big Blackfoot River, where the two sons and their father practice the art of fly-fishing. In the movie script the aging Reverend Maclean says that before and beneath the rocks of their river “are the words of God.” In the book we learn that the old man meant the Word of God which John tells us was in the beginning, which created the world. So he tells his son Norman that “if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water.”

         Here in Genesis we can hear God’s Word running beneath the first River of the earth, the River that had its source in paradise as that stream sprang up by God’s command to water the ground with fresh water in verse 6. We see in that verse and in verse 10 that the River rose and flowed out to water the Garden of Eden. It is the source of nourishment for everything that grows there, for every tree, including in verse 9, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

         There is much more to say about those trees and their significance. But we’re focused for the moment on the River. At the beginning the River’s water, coming from God, was where life flowed, was how God nourished and gave life, even to the tree of life.

         Verse 10 tells that the River flowed out of Eden, but that word to “flow” has the special nuance of coming from the source, of a beginning. The River does not just flow through Eden. It arises there. It begins there in the paradise which God created as humanity’s first home.

         Usually waters converge. The forks or tributaries of rivers like our Willamette come from different directions, from different sources and run together until they are one large stream running down to the ocean. But the River of Eden branches. Verse 10 says it divides into four branches. Then we hear the names of those four great rivers.

         It was an image shared by more than one people in ancient times, a great river branching into four. China and India also had that picture in their writings, maybe because the Brahmaputra River flows across Tibet and India and China and historically has had various branches and has two main ones now. The Nile River also has two branches in the Nile Delta but an ancient historian says that it once had as many as seven branches.

         The branches of the River of Eden are named in verses 11 to 14, the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris and the Euphrates. You may recognize those last two as the great rivers of the Fertile Crescent, the waters which gave Mesopotamia its name, “the land between the rivers.” Today this is mostly Iraq, northeast Syria, and smalls bits of southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran and Kuwait. The Tigris and Euphrates made possible the rise of the great civilizations of Sumer and Assyria and Babylon and Persia. They are still hugely important water sources for modern nations.

         There is no way to identify and connect the Pishon and the Gihon with any modern or even historic rivers. “Pishon” is an onomatopoeia which means “Gusher.” The land of Havilah, “where there is gold” and bdellium and onyx, has a number of claimants including India, which would make the river the Ganges. Another possibility is the Indus River in Pakistan. There is no way to know.

         The land of Cush through which the Gihon, which might mean something like “Bubbler,” flows is usually identified as northern Africa, Ethiopia, so that would make its river the Nile. It’s interesting that modern genetics would place the origins of the human race in Africa.

         Of course there is no way all those rivers have a single source in modern geography. Which is one reason it is silly to try and actually locate the site of Eden. Genesis 3:24 makes it clear that the Garden is cut off from human access, and is not a place to which anyone may simply travel anymore. But I said last week that Genesis is not a science textbook and that includes the science of geography.

         What these verses mean to teach us is that God is the source of everything, of all that is good and life-giving in our world. He, and only He, is the Creator. That’s why verse 7 tells us that it is God who breathed life into the first human being and verses 6 and 10 tell us that God is the one who caused fresh water to spring up and flow across the earth.

         Science will tell you that the conditions for life on earth are an incredibly slim chance. If the force of gravity had been only a tiny bit more or less, if protons or neutrons had just a minutely different mass, the elements which sustain life, including water, could not have formed. The Christian faith is not that the science is wrong, but that there is a creative Power and Mind behind the chances, insuring that there would be breath in our lungs and water in our rivers. That Power and Intelligence is God.

         The Bible starts then with the presupposition that everything that is comes from God and begins good. Yet here now in Genesis 2 we also see that God makes room for and includes our own choices in His creation. We see those two trees in verse 9. They represent the basic branches of the river which is our own human will. Just below our text, in verses 16 and 17 God offered up every possibility except one to our own decision. “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden,” except one. It’s not a narrow, restrictive command. It’s full of choice and joy and delight.

         And so is the River which flows out of the Garden. It branches in four directions. Some ancient Bible readers thought it branched in the four directions of the compass, thus in every direction. God sent His water, His blessing into the whole earth. As He said in Genesis 1:28, He wanted us to multiply, to fill the earth, to explore and enjoy all its multitude of possibilities. So life-giving water goes out in all directions.

         Psalm 36:7-9 expresses the joy God wants for us in the waters of His River:

         How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
                  All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

(Remember the wings of the Spirit hovering over the waters last week?)

         They feast on the abundance of your house
                  and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
         For with you is the fountain of life;
                  in your light we see light.

         God called forth the waters and spoke the Word which made His light shine on them. And then He gave them to you and me and everyone to enjoy. But as Genesis 3 goes on to tell, we made a mess of it. We were free to go in every direction except one, the direction of rebellion against God. But that last, wrong direction is just where we went. We still go there. We are sinners. We are cast out of the Garden and Eden is lost.

         Yet the River flowed out of Eden and divided. Here we are, out of Eden, and yet the River still comes to us. Despite our rebellion and sin God’s River of life still flows into our world. We may leave God, but God does not leave us.

         Every time the earth wakes up in spring, life is flowing from God’s river into His creation. Every time a baby is born, life is flowing from God into us. Every foggy morning here when vapor rises from the earth and then settles again upon the ground, clearing away so the sun can shine, God is still blessing us with His presence.

         We can turn rivers now. We almost always could. From the very beginning human beings built dams and dug channels, trying to make water flow where they wanted it to go. In the process we’ve made a lot of messes, ruined the land, killed birds and fish and animals, whole ecosystems wrecked by our choices. And we do the same in our own lives when we try to force God’s good gifts into choices and channels which are wrong.

         God’s River, God’s love and blessing, is flowing to us, but we can cut ourselves off from it by the sins we commit. When we lived in Nebraska, we sometimes drove an hour or so from Lincoln to the airport in Omaha. Along that route we would see a strange sign by the road. We were driving from one location in Nebraska to another location in Nebraska, but a few miles before we got to the airport we would see a sign that read, “Welcome to Iowa.” For a long time I didn’t think much about it.

         Then one day I looked at a map of eastern Nebraska and realized that there was actually a little piece of Iowa on the west side of the border river, the Missouri. When I asked about it I learned that the Missouri used to make a bend up and around the town of Carter Lake, putting it on the Iowa side of the river. But then people came along and “fixed” the river, smoothed it out so the bend was eliminated and that little town was left across the river from the rest of Iowa. And the highway from Lincoln passes through it on the way to Eppley Field in Omaha.

         That’s how you and I can twist God’s River of love flowing to us. We think we’re making things smoother, better for ourselves by going around God’s will for us, choosing the ways we want to live instead of the ways He asks of us. But in the end we land on the far side of His River, cut off by our own will from the good He has for us.

         You and I make those sorts of choices to cut ourselves off from the River of God whenever we think it is better to get revenge rather than forgive, whenever we enjoy too much or in the wrong way the pleasures of drink or sex or food rather than accept the limits God places on those gifts, whenever we fill our lives with events and activities which feel important to us but which leave us no time for prayer or Scripture or worship. It might feel like ignoring what God wants makes life simpler, but in the end we are cut off from real life.

         When we find ourselves there, lost and alone, cut off from God by our own choices, that then is the time to remember that God’s River is still flowing in all directions. The River did not just stop there in Eden, so that when our sin forced us out of the Garden, all the blessings of the River were lost. No, it still flowed out of Eden. The grace and love and life of God still flows out to meet us in our sinful little cutoff places, wherever we are.

         The River of God now flows to us in Jesus Christ. In our Gospel lesson, we heard John the Baptist announce to his own disciples that the Lamb of God had come. He came to take away the sin of the world. He came to forgive us and end our separation from God so that once again we could drink from the River of God’s delights and enjoy all the abundance of His goodness.

         That branching River which flows out of Eden is a sign that God can find you, God can reach you, God can send you new life wherever you are. Even if you have sinned over and over, even if you cannot forgive yourself, even if your hurt and pain and sadness feel like the river you will drown in, the River of God is reaching toward you, flowing in your direction. That River flows through the Lamb of God, through Jesus who gave His life to take away your sins and send God’s life flowing into you again.

         Many of you know how much I enjoy being on a river to fish. It’s also good to just be on a river to renew and refresh life and spirit. My first choice for a picnic with my family would be along a river. Over the years we’ve sat and ate and played together by the Middle Fork of the Willamette at Jasper Park or up at Ben and Kay Doris on the McKenzie. With our daughters and their friends, we’ve stood above the huge falls on Salt Creek, and we’ve explored with old friends the various small waterfalls on the North Umpqua. Those have been times of refreshing, of new life, of peace and grace, away from all the worries and concerns of house and school and work.

         The message here in Genesis 2 this morning is that there is a River available to refresh and renew and bring us peace at any time. God’s love is flowing out to you in Jesus. All you need to do is welcome that River, come alongside it, listen to the words which flow beneath it, assuring you that God loves you, that Jesus gave His life for you, that you can be forgiven, can be redeemed, can be saved forever.

         And that River of God is flowing in every direction. If there is someone you are worried about, someone you love or know who seems cut off from God, even cut off from life, the River of God is flowing to him or to her through the Lamb of God. She may not know it yet. He may not feel it now. But it is reaching him. It is touching her.

         If you’ve received an e-mail from me, you’ve probably read the verse from Psalm 65 that I want to leave you with. Verse 9 of that Psalm is translated in various ways, but the reading which seems most accurate to me and which has spoken often to my soul has this little phrase in the middle, “the river of God is full of water.”

         You or I may be empty. We may be lost. But the water of Eden, the River of God, comes gushing and bubbling forth to find us, to fill us. As John told his disciples, Jesus came to bring the River to us, to bring a baptism of God’s Holy Spirit who fills us and refreshes us. May that River flow fresh and strong into your heart and life right now. The River of God is full of water.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated January 19, 2014