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

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Revelation 22:1-7
“The Same River”
February 23, 2014 - Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

         “You can’t step in the same river twice.” It’s an old saying about the fact that things in our world are constantly changing. It’s obvious with a river. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said it first, “You cannot step twice into the same river, for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.” In scientific terms, whatever molecules of H2O were present when you first stepped in have certainly flowed away and been replaced by others whenever you step in again. It’s not the same water.

         Heraclitus meant us to understand that what is true of a river is true of everything in this world. It is his serious reflection on how transitory life is. Though he didn’t actually say it, others summed up his philosophy in these words: panta rei (panta rei), “everything flows,” everything changes. What he actually said was that “everything is in motion,” meaning it’s all in flux. Nothing is stable, nothing lasts forever.

         As we come, we might say, to the end of the River I’ve been talking about for six weeks, the River of God, we see here in verse 1 of the last chapter of the Bible “the river of the water of life.” You might very wisely ask if it is, in fact, the same river. Hasn’t an awful lot of time gone by? Hasn’t lots of water flowed under the bridge?” Don’t we read in the previous chapter, Revelation 21 verse 1, that there will be a new heaven and a new earth? Don’t we hear God saying in verse 5 of that chapter, “See, I am making all things new.”?

         So how can this possibly be the same river? How can this be the same world? Isn’t God’s plan to just wipe out everything, melt it with fire, and start over? Won’t it be, as we also read in Revelation 21, that all the old things will pass away, flowing away like the waters of a river, to bring us something new?

         What Heraclitus said seems to match the message of the Bible, panta rei. The old things pass away; the new comes. Even Jesus in our Gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount, seems to saying something new in contradiction to the old Law, the old sayings from the time before Him. It’s all changing and someday we’ll all gather here at this new, new river which flows from the throne of God.

         Some of the change in our world, in our lives, is good. Twenty years ago when I last preached this sermon, there were people sitting here who could remember growing up in homes without electricity or running water. My guess is that none of us here today remember those times. And that’s good. Now most people at least in our country have light and warmth and clean water.

         What we nee to remember though, is that those older people from twenty years ago are gone. Doris and Don and others, who might have remembered those times before public utilities came to them, have passed away, flowed away from us like the water in a river. The hymn, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” sings, “Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all of us along.”

         As another Greek philosopher, Aristotle, taught, time is nothing but a measure of change. Unless things changed, there would be no time. We know time has passed because something moved, something is different. Water flowed by. Numbers on a screen take the place of others. Take a look at the old picture of our family hanging in the Gathering Place and you will see me with dark brown hair and beard, now replaced with what you see here. panta rei, everything flows, and so time passes.

         And Heraclitus is right, no river is ever the same. I’m sorry if you’re tired of hearing me talk about our family place by Oak Creek in Arizona, but that little stream of my childhood is not the same. As a boy I knew every foot of that creek along the quarter mile below our cabin, every rock, every fallen tree, every hole where fish would hide. Now it’s different. There’s less water, fewer fish, and even some of the rocks have moved, including a huge block of red sandstone we used to call “The Big Red Rock.” It just came apart and washed away in a flood one year. panta rei. I’ll never be eight years old along that creek again with no worries except to get home by dinner time.

         Parents, you know some of your greatest joys in life are flowing by. You hold and feed a tiny baby knowing that soon he won’t be so little or need that anymore. You watch her learn to read and throw a ball and ride a two-wheel bike. But before long those first adventures in life have passed by. Then he’s going to college, finding a job, moving out of your home, getting married. panta rei. It’s all flowed by and over before you know it.

         God made the world, He made us like this. He made time and dropped us into it like the twigs and slips of bark I used to throw into the creek, just to watch them drift away downstream. God made us and gave us to understand, through the kind of wisdom Heraclitus had, that nothing here, nothing around us, nothing in us is permanent. This world as it stands is not our home. This is not the city we will live in forever.

         Yet in verse 2 of our text we see that River, which flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb, “running through the middle of the street of the city.” In chapter 21 we’re told that this is the new Jerusalem, the holy city which comes down out of heaven from God. That city is to be our home. It’s where God is bringing us to live permanently. God makes all the homes and cities of this world impermanent so that we won’t forget to look for the city which the writer of Hebrews said Abraham looked for as he moved around, a “city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”

         panta rei, everything flows so that you and I will look for that which does not flow, does not change, but lasts forever. The vision here is of a home, of a city which can be eternally inhabited and enjoyed. The river of the water of life flows down the middle of it. The tree of life grows along the river constantly bearing fruit, every month. In other words, there is always enough to eat and drink in that city. “And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” That city has a health plan that truly works. In verse 5, they “need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light…” No ice and wind are going to put the lights out in that city. That’s where we are headed. And the end of verse 5 says that there, “they will reign forever and ever.” A permanent home.

         Still, we try awful hard to hold onto this world. We try to bend down and catch hold of some of those waters flowing by us and keep them for as long as we can. It’s frightens us and saddens us to see it all running by so fast. Couldn’t she just stay a baby a little longer? Can’t we always enjoy the romance of young love? Shouldn’t we exercise and eat right and make these bodies trim and fit as long as we can? Isn’t it good to save and plan so we can maintain our standard of living into old age? Sure.

         It is not bad to love and miss the things of this world as they pass away from us. That line about “Time like an ever-rolling stream,” brings tears to my eyes, as does looking at my little girls all grown up, or walking along that creek in Arizona, or thinking about the family and friends I’ve seen grow old and die. And some them like our friend Mark a couple weeks ago died without growing old.

         But we cannot make Heraclitus a liar. No matter how hard we try, we’re not going to be able to step into the same water again. I won’t be eight years old, nor 35, nor 55 ever again. You won’t always be a child, or a young parent, or a middle-aged person at the height of your career. panta rei. And that makes us afraid.

         The man in a mid-life crisis is a joke for us. The red convertible, the trophy wife, the hair-coloring or toupee, the fitness classes are all a cliché. But they point to that fear we have of losing the things we cherish in the stream of time. I stand in a river fishing and try to tie a new fly on my line, only to drop that tiny hook and feathers and watch it float away from me out of reach. That’s what scares us about almost anything we love in this world. It’s going to drop and flow away from us.

         We fear that some joys are gone forever, fear our best days are over, fear that someone or something will come along and smash everything we worked to build. Our baby will grow up and walk out the door and take our happiness with him. Our health will give way to illness. The music we love will fade as we lose our hearing. The colors on those paintings we enjoy will dull as we get cataracts. panta rei. panta rei. panta rei. It’s all flowing away. Heraclitus was right, blast him.

         Yet panta rei was not all that Heraclitus taught. Even philosophers often forget this, but Heraclitus also talked about something permanent in this world, something that remains and does stay the same in the midst of change. Some interpreters think that is what he was actually trying to say when talking about stepping into a river. The waters change, but it is still the same river.

         Heraclitus called the permanent aspect of reality Logos, the Greek word for “Word.” Sometimes he called it “God.” He didn’t have any idea of the personal God of the Bible, but he understood there is something behind and beneath and above all the changes that flow through the world. Like Abraham looking to that city with foundations, Heraclitus looked to the Logos. And the Bible tells us that the Logos came to us.

         John 1 tells us that “in the beginning was the Word,” the Logos, and then he unfolds for us the glorious truth that the Word, the Logos, is Jesus Christ, who came to give us a way into that city which has foundations, a route to that permanent place to live where nothing flows away, nothing is lost anymore. Jesus did that by giving up His life on the Cross, like, Isaiah said, “a lamb that is led to the slaughter.”

         So what is at the center of this city here at the end of the Bible? It’s a river that flows from “the throne of God and of the Lamb.” Verse 3 repeats that fact, “the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it.” Heraclitus’ Logos, that mysterious lasting reality behind reality, has a face, a name. He is the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. And He is at the center of the city which will be our home forever.

         And because God is at the center of that city, I believe something is true which I learned a long time ago from a philosopher named Charles Hartshorne. He was old then. We drove from Lincoln to Omaha to hear a ninety-year-old man tell us what he thought about God. There was a lot we disagreed with, but this I think he got right: God never forgets anything that happens. Nothing is lost with God. Nothing just disappears down the river of time for Him. It’s all still there, held fast in the mind and heart of God.

         So we heard this gentle white-haired man say that each of the birds he loved to watch and write about were there with God. He reflected on over sixty years of marriage and said that he and Dorothy’s experience of young love was still there in God’s heart. He said we don’t need to drive ourselves crazy trying to hold onto those things or get them back, because God remembers, God holds them, God keeps them in Himself.

         I think that’s one reason that after repeating that God and the Lamb who is Jesus are there in the midst of the city, John tells us in verse 3 and on in verse 4, “and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” We will worship our Lord, we will look on His face, because there, in Him, we will see and find everything we were looking for in this world, in this life. All the joys, all the good things, all those we loved and cherished, will be there with Him, as we look into His eyes.

         That’s why I want to say this morning that we’ve got Heraclitus wrong, and that we’ve got the Bible wrong, if we believe that we can’t come again to the same river. You can step into the same River twice. You can step in the River that flowed in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2. You can sit beside the River which made Jerusalem glad in Psalm 46 when she was surrounded by enemies. You can go wading with the prophet in Ezekiel 47 in that River he saw flowing out of the Temple. And most of all, as we heard last week, you can find that same River flowing into you with living water coming from the heart of Jesus Christ, who died on the Cross and rose again so that you could live by that River forever.

         It’s always the same River, the River of Heaven, the River of God. Because God is always the same and in His hand He holds all that you and I hold dear. Nothing good gets lost in that River. It flows from the throne of the Lamb of God who came to save the lost. Every joy and every moment of peace runs there. Every wonder of childhood and every satisfaction of old age lies in its pools. Every baby smile and first word and first step. Every first kiss, every sunset, every walk you took hold­ing hands, every gorgeous piece of music you once heard for the first time.

         All the blessings you’ve ever received flow there, and all the still unfulfilled desires of your heart are there deep in the currents of God’s River. Nothing is lost. When Jesus saves you, He saves all of you, including everything you love.

         That River of the water of life flows with eternal life and joy and peace. It began in Eden, so Paradise is not lost in the end. Sin is not the last word. Death is not the last word. As we will talk about in Lent, the curse that came upon us in the Garden of Eden is washed away by the flow of the River that comes from the throne of God. So as we read here, we will see the tree of life again, and this time eat from it and live forever, and its leaves will heal all the sorrows of the world, even the sorrow of loss.

         Can we believe this? In verse 6 the angel who is showing John all this tells him, “These words are trustworthy and true…” because the same Lord who inspired the prophets with His Spirit has sent a messenger to tell John about this city, about this river, about this promise of a hope that lasts forever. These words are trustworthy because the Word, the Logos is trustworthy. We can believe it, because we can trust Jesus.

         So in verse 7 we hear Jesus Himself talking to us, “See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” Blessed are we when we believe that in Jesus Christ we are saved forever and that nothing good is lost in Him.

         Living in that faith and hope is not easy. There will be many losses, many times when it seems like the river has simply washed everything away from us. Horatio Spafford was a lawyer, specializing in medi­cal jurisprudence. He invested in real estate, something that seems permanent enough, and he made a fortune. It all burned up in the Chicago fire.

         Two years later, he sent his family ahead of him for a holiday in England. On November 22, 1873, the steamship carrying his wife and four daughters sank and 226 people lost their lives, including all four girls. When his wife Anna finally got to England she sent a telegram to him that said simply, “Saved alone.”

         Spafford boarded another ship to England which passed over that same spot where his children were drowned. On that journey he wrote these words:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
“It is well, it is well with my soul.”

He knew what he was writing about. Sorrows like sea billows had rolled over him, but he also knew that River of peace which is always flowing from God’s throne. No loss is permanent, no pain will last forever. So he expressed his own hope in what we read here in verse 7, that Jesus will come soon, and that all will be well by the River of God.

And Lord, haste the day, when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll,
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so—it is well with my soul.

         Spafford trusted in the Lord to keep what he had lost until that day when his faith in Jesus would come in sight. In the meantime he and his wife finally moved to Jerusalem and began to serve people there who had been devastated by the upheavals of World War I. They ran a soup kitchen, did medical work, and administered an orphanage for children who lost parents in the war. The particular religious group they founded, a messianic community, is gone, but the Spafford Children’s Center still provides medical care for mostly Arab children in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank, though they will serve people of any background.

         panta rei. Everything flows, but when it is God’s River that is flowing, it brings and works for peace wherever it runs. God wants to take our losses and turn them into opportunities to receive His love in Jesus and share it with others.

         panta rei. Everything flows, but nothing good is lost. Jesus is the Lamb of God and He gave Himself to save us completely. He saves even what we think is lost. It all flows from Him and it all returns to Him. And so do we.

         Trust these trustworthy words, as the angel told John. Trust them because you can trust the Word, the Logos, trust Jesus to bring you home to that place by the river, the same River that has always been flowing from God. That is all there is to it. That’s all there ever was and all there ever will be. Trust Him. The River of God is full of water.


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

Last updated February 23, 2014