City of God

treeoflife

When I was small, one of my family’s favorite vacationing and visiting spots was the City of Toronto.  I remember prior to the first time I ever went there, while we were planning the trip, I asked my father what Toronto was like.  He tried to describe it to me in every way that I could understand.  He told me of the trolley cars, and the tall buildings, and unique architecture and the ocean going ships in the harbor.  He told me about subways, and the Planetarium and the CNE and how we would see all this for ourselves when we finally got there.  This all seemed very remarkable to a five year old who had never ventured outside of Tonawanda.  As the days came and went and the excitement built and as the hour arrived to leave, I remember sitting in our car both in awe and in a little fear what this adventure would be like.  It was for me, like some mystical place, where dreams might come true.  As we traveled closer to Toronto, my dad told me to keep an eye out for the city in the distance, because even as far as we were from it, we might be able to see its tall buildings from 40 or 50 miles away.  I remember I sat in my seat, mesmerized, looking at the horizon, waiting for some clue to this magical place.  And then suddenly, as the morning fog lifted in the distance, I was able to make out gleaming skyscrapers reflecting the morning sunrise, brilliant white and marble against a clear blue sky.  And in my own little five year old mind, all I could say about the whole experience was one word  . .  . OZ!

One of the beliefs that we humans hold in common, whether Christian or Buddhist, Hindu, Moslem or Jew is a story of a great place where we will one day live in eternity.  We might call it Nervana, or Paradise or Heaven, but in reality it is the place described in the epistle reading today as the City of God.  Countless prophets have tried to describe it to us as a place of abiding peace, of everlasting light and a place of healing for both the spiritual and physical soul. It is also described as a place for the healing of nations and peoples.  One of the main themes of all religions regarding heaven is that it is a place of living water.  In the vision of Revelation to John, a river of Living Water runs down the main street and in its midst stands the Tree of Life.  You might remember the Tree of Life appears in Genesis, the first book of the Bible and then, after the fall of Adam and Eve, it mysteriously disappears until the last book of our bible when it is found in today’s vision of heaven.  It is this tree that takes its own life from God the Father that gives eternal life and healing to all creation.  It is the fruit of this Tree of Life that we lost at the fall and it is this fruit that we will re-gain in the new life of the resurrection and eternal life.

But how is it that the tree of life and the importance of living water transcend the boundaries of belief?  Is it possible that all religions have a common source?   As you may know, I work in Niagara Falls.  Over the course of my many years working there, I have noticed one group in particular who sort of ‘hang out’ there.  During certain times of the year, the local restaurants overflow with Japanese people.  They seem to be everywhere.  I mentioned this to a local one day and his explanation took me by surprise.  It seems that a particular sect of the Japanese Shinto religion believe in the healing power of certain ‘living waters’.  I thought to myself at the time (thinking about the antiquated chemical factories I often work at in the Falls), “Where are they going to find living water around here?”  But, as it turns out, Living Water to them is unsalted (fresh) water that is flowing (or falling) and that, as it turns out, is the exact definition of Living Water in the Bible.  Water that is flowing or falling, just like Niagara Falls . . . the Greek word for it can be translated as ‘quick’ or ‘lively’.  And so the Shinto believers come to Niagara Falls ‘en mass’ to experience the power of living water falling down the Niagara rapids.

As you may be aware, one of the main draws of the Hindu Religion is the River Ganges, but its second and more mystical draw is, of all things, our own Lake Ontario, because of its fresh water qualities and the fact that it is fed by the Living Water of Niagara Falls.  Each spring, Hindu pilgrims travel to a particular spot near Olcott Beach to bath and be refreshed in the living waters of Lake Ontario.

So, does moving water promote healing?  Ask anyone who has undergone whirlpool therapy and you will get a resounding ‘yes’.  During the 1800’s people came from all over the world to just stand in the presence of the water of Niagara for the feel of its roaring thunder.  Obviously, they came here to see a natural wonder, but mostly, they came for its healing properties.  We who live here probably don’t give two thoughts about the fresh water that surrounds us, but most of the world, about 3/5, do not have access to clear drinking water.  In Western New York, we have 20% of the entire world’s supply less than 5 minutes from our church. Unfortunately, in the not too distant future this water will become as important to the world as oil is now.

But there are other types of healing that are not directly water related.  In today’s lesson Paul and Barnabas heal a man with a birth defect.  To the people of the time, and even to us today, this was truly a miracle.  Today, doctors can easily heal a broken arm or a leg, but how often do you hear of some one being cured of a genetic defect?  But to God though, all things are possible, and that is why as the story today continues the people start to pay homage to Paul and Barnabas as the incarnation of their gods Zeus and Hermes in human form.  In the expanded story, Paul explains to the Greeks that he is a man like any other but is simply preaching a new way to perceive the Divine though God’s only son Jesus Christ . . . that God has been working and continues to work to get his message across to all the peoples of the earth.  How? By sending life giving rain (living water if you will) and all kinds of fruit and all types of food in its season within an ordered universe making the heart glad and his people rejoice in living.

Paul tells us that God is all around us and comes to us in the natural wonder of creation if only we have the eyes to perceive him and the ears to ear him.  The rain which falls from heaven falls not only on the just and merciful but also sustains those who are cruel and evil and gives life to all creation.  The food we eat sustains us and all those around us.  The air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink are the gifts of the God of Life who lives within his creation as the sustainer of all.  These are the proofs that Paul gives that God exists.

But there are other less tangible proofs.  One the best is the one we celebrate on Mother’s Day and that is a Mother’s love for her children.  Many think of God solely as a father . . . loving but stern, forgiving but just, peaceful but forceful, but in a great many ways God can be compared to a mother . . . nurturing, loving, caring and sustaining.  To me it would seem that God can be described either way without ambiguity.  Perhaps that is why the new revised translations embrace the word ‘God’ over Father.  Jesus of course called God ‘Father’ and also used the Aramaic word ‘Abba’ which means ‘Daddy’.  But in the same breath it was Jesus who described God as mother when he said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing”.  And so we have mystery . . . but do we?

Child Trends, a center-left child welfare organization reported recently:

“Research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps the most is a family headed by two-biological parents in a low-conflict marriage. Children in single-parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in stepfamilies or cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes. . . There is thus value for children in promoting strong, stable marriages between biological parents.”

What does this mean?  It means that it was no accident in how God ordained and ordered marriage as making the most sense to bring children into the natural world.  The union of a man and a woman, a mother and a father brings to a relationship a balance of proportions that mirrors the essence of the Divine.  And it is only out of these two opposites that new life can be created.  But how life is brought forth through both the ecstasy of sexual expression and the pain of birth gives us an even clearer vision of the way God thinks.

Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.  Jesus goes on to explain just who this ‘we’ is.  The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, the Comforter and Guide, a God of three in one and one in three offering himself to be with us, to live in us, and to give us counsel, direction, spirituality and peace . . . but only if we ask him to . . . this belief in the Trinity being a basis of orthodox Christianity.

As you may be aware, today, orthodox Christianity is under attack from every side, more so than any other religion, simply because it is the only one that is based on the truth.  The enemies of Christ could care less about Islam or any other false religion.  Satan doesn’t need to destroy them because they ARE false and thereby help his cause by luring others away from a saving faith in Jesus Christ.  You have to consider the fact that if Christianity were a lark, no one would waste their time trying to tear it down.  Atheists would be just that – neutral, non-God believing people, shaking their heads at the simple-mindedness of others who believe in silly gods.  But instead many of them see themselves as anti-Christian crusaders (and rarely anti-RELIGION crusaders).  Why?  Because Christianity is true.  It is exactly as Jesus himself foretold in the Gospels: “Before all these things take place, however, you will be arrested and persecuted; you will be handed over to be tried in synagogues and be put in prison; you will be brought before kings and rulers for my sake… You will be handed over by your parents, your brothers, your relatives, and your friends; and some of you will be put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me.” (Luke 21:12, 16-17, GNB) Personally speaking, these single-minded attacks on my faith actually emphasize the fact that Christianity IS the one, true faith, and are a comfort to me in my belief and should be in yours as well.

We have heard much in the news lately about abortion and homosexual marriage.  The mainstream media has done a great job in trying to convince all of us that these subjects are about fairness and justice, but in fact they are neither just nor fair.  Abortion is about the death of a human soul, it is about Satan’s continuing attempt to legitimize the wholesale disposal of God’s people in these end times.   And, if you examine it closely, gay marriage is not really about marriage at all . . . since the great majority of Gay people do not want to marry . . . but it is a desire that society legitimize a lifestyle that is not intended for the purpose of family or pro creation.  It is about making the sacrament of marriage irrelevant to the masses and replacing it with a lie.  Both are about taking something that God ordered as a way of life and twisting it into something quite unintended by the Holy Spirit.  I am aware that we may each hold differing opinions on these two subjects.  Your opinion may be quite different than mine, but, in the end, it is left to the Church to safeguard the faith once delivered from the saints.  As we have witnessed for ourselves, when a church upholds what is heretical and evil, it risks much and will wither and die.  When it upholds the truth, it will flourish and grow.  These are biblical truths that cannot be denied and so this church will continue to stand for the truth for as long as we are able with Christ being our guide.

God has over the ages been present with us through the natural world.  He has made himself known to us through his creation and in the parameters and order of married family life.  He comes to us daily  . . . in living water . . . . as rain, as waterfalls and even in our personal daily shower.  He provides living water to refresh us, food to nourish us and love to sustain us.  He has done all this to make himself known and has revealed himself in all religions and in all beliefs throughout the whole world and across all of time.  But it was through the willing sacrifice of God’s only son, Jesus Christ that we have been given proof positive of God’s existence and his abiding love for us.  It is through Jesus Christ that we are truly made free and inheritors of the City of God that awaits those who truly call upon his name . . .

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.  In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.  And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him:   And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads.     Amen

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