THERE IS A RIVER
“There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God…” Psalm 46:3
I grew up in the town of Coleraine, situated along the banks of the River Bann, Co. Londonderry. The fast-flowing currents of the Bann divide the town with its banks connected by two bridges. The river is not just a feature of Coleraine’s geography but it has played a key role in the development and the economy of the area. Being the first proper place where the river could be bridged certainly made the area conducive to settlement. Coleraine was also a very suitable inland location, for receiving large vessels. When I was a boy ships laden with their cargoes of coal were a regular feature of life. Those boats had sailed in from the sea, along the Bann Estuary, before docking at the Port of Coleraine. While times have changed, the coal boats are no longer bringing their wares, and the once busy port is largely silent, the river teeming with life as the salmon, sea trout and thousands of eels make their annual pilgrimage in from the sea towards Lough Neagh and onward to the tributaries, continues to flow silently through the heart of the town. Coleraine is one of many towns in Ireland defined by the presence of a river and the bridges which span the watery currents.
In the 46th Psalm we read about a river which makes glad the city of God. Here our thoughts are lifted upward, away from earthly rivers and the dwellings of men. The city of God is descriptive of the church of Jesus Christ, the New Testament parallel to Old Testament Jerusalem. As the ancient pilgrims prayed for the peace of Jerusalem, we pray for the good of God’s people, the church of the living God. The river, therefore, is the Gospel, the only source of spiritual life. Ezekiel in one of his many visions, saw a river, growing in strength, bringing healing and life wherever it flowed (Ezekiel 47). Revelation, which mirrors Ezekiel in so many ways, likewise reveals a river flowing with the water of life, which issues from the throne of God and of the Lamb (Revelation 22). This is the river, which the church is situated alongside. We dare not stray from this river. It is our source of life.
As we return to God’s House after being shut out for so long, we must rejoice because there is a river.
The river is full of life. Fish swim beneath its surface, and vegetation rich with foliage and fruit thrive beside its banks. As Christians, we have spiritual life because of the Gospel river. The church would have no right to exist without the Gospel. Indeed, the survival and growth of Christianity throughout the centuries can only be explained by the miraculous power of this life-giving message, that Jesus saves.
The river provides a free drinking supply. Water is such a simple commodity, yet it is the very essence of human life. Yet man has polluted the waters by adding his effluents and filth, and thereby removing the life-giving power. Where rivers have become polluted, living along their banks have become a curse rather than a blessing. The Gospel river is a pure stream, “clear as crystal”, as John saw in his vision. The church must present this clear message in order that a dying world might drink therefrom. But sadly, in some cases, man has polluted the pure stream by adding in his own rationalistic thinking, denying the message its spiritual vigour. For those unfortunate enough to be under the ministry of unbelieving clerics, who preach a message of works and natural philosophy, the river has become a curse. If men and women are to have hope today, let us bring them to the pure river of God, in all of its simple and glorious beauty, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31) – “Ho everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters…without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1).
As Christians we must drink of these waters often. As we read the Scriptures and meditate thereon, as we sit under the ministry of God’s Word and as we receive the sacraments we drink spiritually, by faith, from this fountain. It was the Saviour Himself who said to the woman of Samaria – “But whosever drinketh of this water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14).
The river carries people away. In bygone days the rivers represented transport and communication. Indeed, the river was the ancient equivalent of a high speed super broadband connection. With the river came opportunities for trade and travel. Travelling offered the prospects of new life, a new beginning. Living in Ireland we are all too aware that many of our ancestors chose to take a dangerous voyage across the Atlantic in search of better prospects. Another form of travellers took their leave also, not to find new life for themselves but to bring new life to others. They were the missionaries who left home and family to travel along the pure stream of the Gospel, bringing hope to parts the world living in heathen darkness. It is true that colonisation, much maligned today, was not always to the advantage of indigenous peoples. That is not the whole story, however. Across the world, remnants of the British Empire, owe their rule of law and their democratic structures to the foreign invaders. With the empire, however, came the missionaries, who captured the hearts of the local populations with the purity and satisfaction of the Gospel river. Long after the colonisers left with their mixed legacy the Gospel remained, with the dramatic difference that it brought to many hearts.
The river rises in higher realms before emptying itself out through the valleys and onward to the seas and oceans of the world. The Gospel river, flows from the throne of God. It began in the eternal counsels of God’s will. This salvation, that accomplished redemption for a fallen and depraved race, through the sacrifice of the Son of God in human flesh, is so remarkable – that it could only have originated in the mind of infinity. Such grace is so unearthly, so utterly unselfish, that only a higher realm above human society could have created such – “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9).
The Gospel river, rises in the everlasting hills, flows through the valleys of human civilisation, brings life and transformation before emptying out in the vast ocean of eternity. There the human race in its entirety will be either rewarded or condemned according to what they did with this Gospel of grace. Some will hear the words “Come ye blessed of my Father”, while others will be sent away – “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire” (Matthew 25). This Gospel river carries us onward to the judgement day, to heaven or to hell, because it represents not only privilege and promise but responsibility.
In the Psalm 46 the river of God represented peace and security for a people passing through days of deep and dark trouble. Therefore, the Psalm commences with the timeless words:
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, therefore will not we fear…there is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God”.
We have travelled through uncertain and troublesome days. If we were told one year ago that tens of thousands would be dead in our own nation and hundreds of thousands worldwide, before another twelve months have passed – we would have been paralysed with incredulity and horror. These days have come and we are still faced with the possibility of a second wave but the people of God have experienced the peace of a God who never fails, because we have positioned ourselves by this Gospel river which has made glad our hearts.
Let us sit by the edge of this river today and gaze upon its beauty and vitality. Let us drink and be satisfied. Let us, carry the message to others who are dry and barren, bringing hope to the hopeless. Let us sail upon this river to others who have never received its vital supply. Let us as a Church never leave or pollute this pure stream of truth. Above all, let us make our calling and election sure by knowing that we have the spring within our souls, that the river has become part of our lives through faith in Christ alone.
There is a river…