“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have certainly flowed away and been replaced by others whenever you step in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
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
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
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.”
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.
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
Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj