Sermon: Bright as Crystal

September 24, 2017
Revelation 22:1-5
Season of Creation: River Sunday

We come to the close of our month-long Season of Creation today with River Sunday. I have to admit that I find this a strange Biblical text for River Sunday – at least it has a river in it. I think on Forest Sunday we were lucky to have a tree. But this isn’t a river that exists in our day or in John’s: It’s a river of vision, a river of the future. It’s part of a new heaven and a new earth which lie somewhere ahead in the mists of time.

That has contributed to Christian theologies that say, in effect, that what we do in this life doesn’t matter. Sometimes these are theologies of replacement: if God will destroy the Earth, the ultimate “repeal and replace,” does it matter how battered and broken the world is when God does it?

There are Christians who believe that.

As well as theologies of replacement, there are theologies of forgiveness. That doesn’t sound so bad, but stay with me for a minute. If God’s forgiveness is free for the asking, or if God’s forgiveness just goes to everybody, does it matter what horrible things you do in life as long as you get your forgiveness from God when you need it?

Although the Middle Ages in Europe, with their high rate of infant mortality, is the soil in which infant baptism took root, the nobility frequently delayed their baptism to their deathbeds. They wanted to live their lives without many of the constraints of Christian teaching – charity, restraint from violence, and so on – but they also wanted to receive God’s forgiveness and God’s welcome into the next life. So they’d live their lives as they pleased, and when they felt the approach of death, they’d call for the priest and their baptism.

They followed the example of an early and significant Christian political leader. A man we know as the Emperor Constantine.

Constantine and his co-emperor, Licinius, legalized Christianity throughout the Roman Empire in 313, just ten years after the Emperor Diocletian launched what came to be known as the Great Persecution. Modern historians believe 3,000 to 3,500 Christians died. Constantine began using Christian symbols about the same time that he legalized the faith. He provided the funds to build churches, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In 325 he summoned Christian leaders from around the empire to a council to resolve theological controversies that were actually causing riots in the cities – yes, people would riot over doctrine. The Council of Nicaea produced the first formal creed, the Nicene Creed, of the Church. By any standard, he was significantly involved in the life of the Church.

But he was not baptized. Not until he fell ill and realized that his time was short. He was baptized shortly after Easter, and died on Pentecost of 337, less than six weeks later.

I guess he thought that the life of an emperor, with its comfort and its privilege, with its power to judge and condemn, with its power to make make war, and with its struggles for supremacy against political and military rivals, wasn’t consistent with a Christian life.

I guess he understood that pretty well.

So: Does it matter what we do? Does it matter, since the world we live in will be replaced? Does it matter, since forgiveness is given freely?

I think the answer is right here in the 22nd chapter of Revelation (and, honestly, in the 21st chapter that precedes it). The answer is right here in the river, bright as crystal, that flows through the City of God.

This river exists in John’s vision of God’s promise. This river is part of John’s vision of perfection. This river flows in John’s vision of what God really wants.

And in that vision, the river flows bright as crystal. Bright as crystal.

That’s not how I grew up with rivers.

I grew up in a place called Rockville, Connecticut, where the Hockanum River cascades down a series of waterfalls. In the early 19th century, when machinery relied on human muscle or on falling water for power, those cascades attracted entrepreneurs and their factories to the growing town.

They built mills to spin wool into yarn, and wind yarn into thread, and weave thread into cloth. They built mills to clean wool and dye wool. And the mills grew, and the city grew.

Water power gave way to steam heated by coal. The Hockanum River, instead of turning the great wheels of the machines, carried away the factory waste instead. Soaps, dyes, oils: all that and more went down the river.

The factories began to close in the 1950s and 60s as the single company that had purchased nearly all them looked elsewhere for workers they could underpay. A pattern repeated in many places at many times.

But I still remember this waterfall and this factory. It made fabric dye when I was young. Before the Clean Water Act of 1972, that pool below the cascade bubbled in shades of green, and yellow, and pink, depending on what they’d been making in the factory above.

The Hockanum River did not flow bright as crystal.

It did not match the vision for how a river should be.

Why would we ever abandon the vision of a river bright as crystal? Why would we embrace the reality of a river from which no one can drink, in which no one can bathe, from which no one can fish? And yet we strange inhabitants of the Nutmeg State did just that for decades.

Here in the Aloha State, we were a little with our rivers, but not a lot. Hawai’i’s industry was agriculture, not manufacturing, so the demand was for clean water. It’s an abundant resource here. The trade winds, the ocean, and the mountains combine to bring us water in abundance.

But the water wasn’t always where people wanted to grow things. So people diverted rivers to get the water to different places around these islands. Sometimes the original rivers ceased to flow at all.

Is it worse for a river to flow polluted or not to flow at all?

We might ask those who live at the mouth of the Colorado River at the Gulf of California, where in most years barely a trickle of water reaches the sea. The rest has gone to the homes and fields of the southwestern United States and parts of Mexico.

Why abandon the vision of a river bright as crystal for the reality of a river that doesn’t flow?

John’s vision was broader than just a river. The City of God, he wrote in the previous chapter, has no gates – there’s no wall. The people have water to drink and food to eat. They can find healing. They do not oppress one another for the color of their skin. They fear no evil.

How distant that seems today, when people insist on building walls, on hoarding water and food, on selling healing, on threatening outrageous evil.

Why, I ask, why would we abandon John’s vision for what we have?

No, let’s seize John’s vision, and allow it to shape the world we live in today, so that it might become a better world tomorrow.

Let’s do it first by seeing that our neighbors are satisfied in their needs. Let us give time and comfort to those we love, meeting their thirst for companionship as well as nutrition. Let us be streams bright as crystal for them.

Let us help those who lack food and water and shelter and healing find it and keep it. Let us resist evil, but let us do so without constructing barriers. All those walls will do is keep us from knowing and caring for our fellow human beings.

God may, indeed, have a new heaven and a new earth planned for us sometime in the future, and it will be glorious. But why wait?

Let’s come as close as we can to the City of God, and its river bright as crystal, here and now.


Photo of mills on the Hockanum River in Rockville, Connecticut, by Jtvoyager – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on September 24, 2017

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