GATHERING AT THE RIVER
Revelation 21: 10; 21:22-22:5
“Although there is a film titled “The Great Escape,”its plot is not the subject I want to lift up to you today. It is a pervasivefeeling of wanting to escape, and the travel agencies jump on our desires toget away. Mothers want to get awayfrom the demands of managing a household, just for awhile. And with a lovingcard, or a picked up room, or a box of chocolates, or a much needed nap, amother might be rejuvenated for her week ahead. It doesn’t take a lot ofcooperation to make a mother feel appreciated. Sometimes moms, like many dads,work outside the home as well. I remember talking to a father years ago. Iasked him how he liked his job and he said instantly that he hated every darnminute of it, he just did it for the paycheck, and he was counting the daysuntil he retired. All I asked was how he liked his job, and like a dambreaking, I was flooded with an overwhelming answer. I have heard from manyschool children who really don’t want to be in school. For some they areterrified of tests; for others they want to run away from bullies, and forothers they haven’t been able to make good friends. Some even fake illnesses tostay home from work or school so they don’t have to face what they don’t wantto face. It’s fine to want a break or a vacation; it’s another to desperatelylong to be somewhere else.Some of the favorite spirituals of the Christian hymnal were born frommen and women in confining or painful conditions. Life on earth was, for manyof them, slavery, back-breaking work, being eaten up by bugs or rats, living inunsanitary conditions, and being separated from loved ones. It isunderstandable that people would want to escape that world and get to heaven: somepeople are always talking about going to Heaven. “There’s a land that is fairer than day, and by faith weshall see it afar; for the Father waits over the way, to prepare us a blessingplace there. In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore” wesang last week. Or how about the song “There is coming a day when no heartachesshall come, no more clouds in the sky, no more tears to dim the eye; all ispeace forevermore on that happy golden shore, what a day, glorious day, thatwill be!” An advertising agency could not write more enticing words! But todaywe heard from the passage from Revelation 22: We heard the words “Shall wegather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod, with its crystal tideforever flowing by the throne of God?”Today, as I suggested to the children, I think it is fine to gather atthe river. In Biblical language this was the image of crossing in to thePromised Land that was originally known as Canaan from Mt. Nebo in Moab. It wasgoing from a land that wasn’t God’s to a land that was. And if our lives are such tortuoushells on earth, then Heaven is indeed a relief. But our theology gives adifferent story; it is not our job to give up on this world so easily; it isnot to our benefit to run from every situation that overwhelms us, every personwith whom we have conflicts, or every human frailty as if we should pray thatour mortality should end.. When Jesuscame that we may have life and have it abundantly, he not only raised peopleup, he raised also their esteem and he opened their eyes. There are places inour world even now where broken people have created heavenly places, even hereon earth. Today I invite us not to buy into the great advertising campaign ofthe burden-fraught spirituals, but rather think about Christ on earth: as hewas here, God was here; as he departed, he left God here on earth for us.Slices of heaven are happening every day. A modern day true account is recordedby the Rev. Don Piper in his book 90 MINUTES IN HEAVEN. “On the way home from a conference, Don Piper’s car wascrushed by a semi that crossed into his lane. Medical personnel said he diedinstantly. While his body lay lifeless inside the ruins of his car, Piperexperienced the glories of heaven. … Ninety minutes after the wreck, while aminister prayed for him, He miraculously returned to life on earth… Itdramatically changed his life.”What he experienced in heaven was some things we might expect: he saw agreat light, he saw gates, and he heard choirs and the sound of angels’ wings.But the most amazing thing about his return to earth is how he saw God’s hand in all of those whoinfluenced his recovery; he then committed himself to a ministry on earthlifting up downtrodden people, not just with the hope of heaven, but also withthe blessedness of life on earth. When Dr. Olson Huff of Ashville, NorthCarolina was a medical director at a children’s hospital, he was a man of faithworking with life and death situations all the time. He didn’t always know howmuch his work meant to others aside from the grateful words of thanks as hereported cautious results from his surgeries. But one Christmas he found outbut one example of a man who lived his life differently on earth, living it bygratitude instead of by griping. Here is what he wrote: “Searching my pockets,I found a few pieces of loose change and hurriedly dropped them into theplastic bucket. The bell ringer, nose and cheeks alive from the chill in theair, breathed a frosty ‘God bless –Merry Christmas!’ as I pushed into the mall.People everywhere rushed like ants, slowing my progress, but I finally reachedmy objective: …the small card shop at the southern end of the mall…. I setabout trying to find what I thought Iwanted” when [a voice from behind said] “Scuse me, sir. Ain’t you the fellow thatdoctored my kid awhile back?’ The voice came from a tall, thin man with wateryeyes, and a scraggly beard of several days’ growth. His attempt to smilerevealed a slight tremor in his lips, and several of his teeth were on the wayout…. I tried to place him. ‘Oh yes,’ I said finally…. How—is everything?’ ‘I’dbe lying if I said things was just fine, but they could be a whole lot worse.Me and the kids is together, and they’re making it in school, and I’ve had workmost every day.’ The doctor sensed that the man had more to say, and,strangely, he was interested. The Christmas card could wait. And as he motionedfor them to move into a coffee shop and sit at the counter, Dr. Huff almostfelt like God had sent this messenger to him. He related how his wife hadkicked him out for drinkin’ and she sent her own kids packin’ too! He gotthrough to his son on a fishing trip that ended in a thunderstorm where heprotected his son. His son decided then and there that his father loved him. Hewas out that night buying his daughter a new teddy bear for Christmas becauseshe lost her old one. He was connecting with people who mattered to him. And byGod’s providence, he ran into the doctor he wanted to thank. The doctor saidhis good byes, and headed to the card shop, but this time he wasn’t going to berushed. It occurred to him how important family was. “When you care enough tosend the very best” the card shop slogan said. It occurred to him that he hadn’tbeen doing that; and he decided tochange, just because he ran into a toothless but hopeful man who reminded himof his blessings.
Today the Revelation to John was giving hope of abetter life to people who were be
ing tortured, killed, and imprisoned. If yourlife is that bad, then crossing the river to the other side will be a greatjoy, and some truly need release from their tortured lives. But today, for therest of us who think at times we can’t take it any more, perhaps having eyesopened to those around us who have Jesus’ hands and feet, and have his outlook andattitude, is all that we need to make the great here and now worth living,rather than wanting to quit life here by longing for the sweet by and by. TodayI am reminding you that there are places of heavenly action all around us! Some may change you; some may bring change to others throughyou. Blessings are rarely received bya person sitting hoping for them; blessings often come in the activities oflife when and where one least expectsthem.
With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy who is famous for hislist of “You might be a redneck if” I offer this list so you might choose tosee heavenly things on this sideof the river, instead of just longingly casting your gaze on the watery banksof the other side:
You might get a slice of heaven when you mentor a childor youth.
You might get a slice of heaven when someone becomesyour friend or you offer to become someone else’s friend.
You might get a slice of heaven when good hosts atchurch or in homes, offer food, fellowship, and friendship in a joyousenvironment.
You might get a slice of heaven serving a meal to ahungry man and hearing his gratitude for a plate of hot food, fresh vegetables,and cool water.
You might get a slice of heaven as you sit with saintsto worship and sing to God, the very activity that is central to heaven.
And you might get a slice of heaven, when you offercharity to another.
One time my son Chris had a man near the campus at Uof F ask him for money because he was hungry. Chris said he didn’t have moneybut he had a card for food; he invited the homeless man to come through theline with him, get food, pray with him and share a meal with him. Not only didhe never forget the encounter, at the end of the meal Chris had two collegegirls watch his kindness and walk up and hand him their phone numbers! We knowGod is watching our actions; we never know who else may be watching! Heaven happens here too! Look on thisside of the river, not just the otherside.
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 9,2010