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"Imagine That!"

#89-39
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on May 29, 2022
By Dr. Dean Nadasdy, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries


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Text: Revelation 22:1-7

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Hear these words from John in Revelation 22:1-7. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His servants will worship Him. They will see His face, and His Name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. And he said to me, "These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent His angel to show His servants what must soon take place."

"And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book."

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

We pray: Lord, open our imagination to see what waits for us in the future You have prepared for us. Amen.

Our imagination is really something. I can invite you to think of a place you'd like to be right now, a beautiful place where you love to be, and your imagination can take you there. Where would you go if you could right now? Can you see the place in your mind's eye? Our imagination is an amazing gift of God, a God-given power source that can span space and time. Over millennia of history, the human imagination has produced great works of art, cherished literature, and huge leaps forward in technology.

This gift of shaping images in our minds is a crucial element in our Christian faith. Imagination and faith go hand in hand. Because faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen, because we believe even though we cannot see what we believe, faith requires imagination. This is true of our past as we imagine the teaching stories of Jesus or watch Him give His life for us on the cross and then rise again. It is true of our present as we imagine the risen Christ powerfully with us in times of hardship. And it is certainly there in our future as we look forward to the new heavens and the new earth when Christ will return in glory.

An etching by Rembrandt titled Christ Preaching depicts Jesus before an attentive crowd of listeners. They lean in to listen. One, with his hand on his chin, carefully considers what Jesus says. In the foreground, though, if you don't miss it, is a little child who has set his toys aside to draw with his finger into the dust what he hears Jesus say. He is imagining, seeing in his mind the images created by the words of Jesus. The words come first, and the images follow. Words do that. They create pictures. God's Word does that. Whether it's the creation account in Genesis or a beautiful psalm or the prophecy of Isaiah, the Word of God engages our imagination. We not only believe but we also see what we believe inside our heads and deep in our hearts. First, the Word, then the imagination: that's the process for Christians. Our imagination left to itself is too dangerous, too tilted toward sin and evil. Sinful people can imagine horrid things. So the Word drives our faith and imagination. Put Word and faith and imagination together and we have what is called hope.

And perhaps nowhere in the Scriptures do we better encounter words begging for imagination than in the words the Spirit gave the apostle John to write down in Revelation. In John's case, God gave John a personal viewing of the last chapter of human history in a series of visions of the new heavens and the new earth. These visions are meant to give us hope and, in effect, another tense besides past, present, and future. That tense is called the future perfect tense, when the future impacts our present, when where we are going shapes what we believe and how we live right now.

Just in these seven verses of Revelation 22, the words feed our imagination of what it will be like in the new heavens and the new earth. No less than five images appear in these verses, each with its own power to give us hope for our future with God and with one another. These five images are the river, the throne, the city, the tree of life, and the face of God.

We begin with the river that flows from the throne of God and the Lamb. Its source, in other words, is God, and it flows through the middle of the city. Wherever rivers flow life is enhanced, and people gather and are blessed. The Native American Lacota nation has an appropriate phrase to describe the power of a river. "Mní wičhóni," they said, "Water is life." No river will ever more deserve that description more than the water of life described here. This river is a one and only; this river brings eternal life born of the Spirit. No muck, no cloudy sediment, but pure, eternal, life-giving water! Just as the Garden of Eden had a life-giving river running through it, so do the new heavens and new earth.

In Norman Maclean's book, A River Runs Through It, Norman and his dad sit on the bank of a river near the end of a day of fishing. His dad muses over a passage he has just read from the "good book" as he calls it. He says, "In the part I was reading, it says the Word was in the beginning, and that's right. I used to think water was first, but if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water. The water runs over the words."

The words underneath the river in Revelation 22 are the words of Jesus in John 4: "Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." Underneath this river are the words of Jesus again in John 7: "Anyone who is thirsty may come to Me! Anyone who believes in Me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, 'Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.'" When you imagine this river, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb, you can't help but think of the work of the Holy Spirit flowing from both the Father and the Son. You can't help but think of the life-giving water of Baptism.

"Shall we gather at the river?" asks an old spiritual. "Yes, we'll gather at the river," the chorus answers, "The beautiful, the beautiful river, Gather with the saints at the river, That flows by the throne of God."

A second image to be imagined in these verses is the throne of God and the Lamb. That throne sources the crystal-clear, life-giving river. It assures us now in the present tense that no matter how bad it gets, no matter how much it seems that evil triumphs, in the end, just as now, God will be on the throne, and the Lamb, sacrificed and risen, will be at God's right hand. Having just celebrated the ascension of Christ, we have been assured once again that the Son has finished His redeeming work on earth and has ascended to be enthroned with His Father, just as He promised.

With one image after another in Revelation, we watch the victory of the Lamb take hold. Satan, the seven-headed dragon, the beast, the prostitute, the false prophet, and death itself, all that evil has been vanquished. Imagine it! All the enemies of God, including sickness, pain, and grief—all gone. God is on the throne, and the Lamb is at God's side! Say it with me: "God is on the throne, and the Lamb is at God's side!" Do you see how imagining helps. That's the future perfect tense—living now in the light of what is still to come!

From the throne of God and the Lamb, the river flows down Main Street in the city of God. That's the third picture we're asked to imagine in these verses—a brilliant city, lit by the sheer light of God's glory. At the end of the story in Revelation is a wondrously beautiful city, a new Jerusalem! To say that the new heavens and the new earth will find us living in an eternal city is to say that we will live in community forever. This will be a community such as we have never seen before: saints in light from every race, tribe, and nation. In Revelation 21, John is taken up to a mountain to get a glimpse of this city. We may be impressed with the skylines of our cities, but we have never seen anything like this city—the city John saw. He saw gates made of pearl and a street made of gold, a city shining and translucent.

Not long ago, I visited the neighborhood in Chicago where I had grown up. Time had not been kind to the city block I had called home. The houses had deteriorated. Vacant lots now replaced many of the homes of my childhood friends. These are tough times for our cities. So many of our cities are fragmented, violent, and dangerous. By faith we imagine living forever in a productive city, thriving in splendor and marked by worship and service. It will be community in Christ at its best.

Here are verses 1-3 of Revelation 22 again: "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."

Here is the fourth image John's visions place in our imagination: the tree of life. Remember it was there at the beginning in Eden, guaranteeing the first human beings eternal life. Then it was lost by disobedience. Now it is regained through the work of Jesus Christ. It lines both sides of the river, perhaps indicating it is actually more than just one tree. And it continuously, eternally produces fruit. Its fruit never goes out of season. Its leaves, John writes, "are for the healing of the nations." Nations once torn by political intrigue, corruption, and war now find wholeness and peace in the city of God. The tree of life frames the entire biblical story from Genesis to Revelation, giving the Bible a beautiful unity. What was lost in Eden is restored in the new heavens and new earth.

On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember all who have gone before us and especially those who sacrificed their lives in service to our nation. I knew a veteran years ago who came home from war, wounded and troubled. He was haunted in his imagination by the terrible things he had done in battle. It took decades, but through the Gospel, through the grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ, he was healed. John's vision adds to our imagination today the image of the world's nations completely and finally healed and at peace, an ending of the human story in which war will be no more!

A fifth and final image from John's vision in Revelation 22 is the face of God. John writes in verses 4 and 5: "They will see His face, and His Name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever."

The closest we can get in our imagination to seeing the face of God is to imagine Jesus Christ. How do you imagine Jesus? Is He the Jesus of The Chosen television series or the Jesus of films you've seen? Is He the rugged Jesus of Richard Hook's Sunday school illustrations? We all carry in our imagination our image of Jesus. For me, it is the image that stood before us when we worshiped in the church of my childhood. It was a life-sized replica of the sculpture by Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, The Consoling Christ, the risen Lord beckoning us to come to Him with all our needs. That's how I will always imagine Jesus, that is always until I see Him face to face.

We will behold Him face to face. That is the promise here. The face Moses dared not see, the face of God in all God's glory, you and I will see it, not imagine it, but see it. The way people live with the splendor of the mountains or the captivating beauty of a seascape, we will live in sight of the glory of God and the Lamb. Only we will never take it for granted or grow tired of it. For now, let your imagination live with your familiar image of Christ, but in your future is the real Christ in all His glory. You can be sure of it because, as John says, His Name is written on your forehead. In other words, you belong to Him. He has claimed you as His own.

When we began, I asked you to imagine a place you'd love to be rather than maybe where you are now. I invite you to join me in finding that place in the images of Revelation 22, where the river flows from the throne of God and the Lamb through a city of worshiping and serving saints, and the tree of life grows on either side of the river, and those in the city find their light and life in the face of God. These images are meant to be remembered and cherished as we wait for our risen Lord to return.

In his book, Imagination Redeemed, Gene Veith recalls a well-known poem by William Wordsworth titled, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud." In the poem Wordsworth is cheered by a stand of spring daffodils dancing in the wind. It takes his breath away in that moment, but he goes on to say that the wealth of that image would return often when he was "in vacant or in pensive mood" to flash upon "that inward eye" and save him from despair or confusion. And then he writes, "my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils."

You don't have to be a poet to see how this works. Our imagination retrieves images that inspire and encourage us. Wordsworth had his daffodils to be remembered again and again. Every Christian has these images from the last chapter of the Bible as an ongoing source of faith, encouragement, and hope. Underneath these images are the words of the Scriptures. It is no wonder then that Jesus says, "I am coming soon," and then "Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book." Underneath the river, the throne, and the city, underneath the tree of life and the face of God are the words of the book. Keep the book open, Jesus says, and you will be blessed. Imagine that! Amen.






Reflections for May 29, 2022

Title: Imagine That!

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. Now here's Lutheran Hour Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. I'm talking today with our guest speaker, Dr. Dean Nadasdy. Dean, thanks for preaching for us, and thanks for sticking around to talk to us.

Dean Nadasdy: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

Mike Zeigler: Dean, in your sermon today, you talk about imagination. You say that imagination is an amazing gift from God, and even that faith requires imagination. As I'm listening to this, on one level it makes sense, because I can't see God, so I have to imagine Him. And then His promises, when Jesus says that He's going to make all things new when He returns, He promises blessings that, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:9, "no eye has seen, no ear has heard."

So on one hand, I agree that God's presence and His promises calls for imagination. But on the other hand, as that verse continues in 1 Corinthians 2, Paul says that "the heart of man has not imagined," and presumably cannot imagine, "what God has prepared." Then, also, I think of Luke 1:51, where it says that God "has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts." I feel cautious, in some ways, about my own imagination, and even suspicious. So how would you counsel me to work through these mixed feelings I have over my imagination?

Dean Nadasdy: I think we have to recognize that imagination now, after the Fall, so to speak, east of Eden, so to speak, is really tainted by sin. And because of that, it becomes an aid to sin at times. Lust, for instance, happens in the imagination. So the actual sin happens in our imagination before we even act on what we imagine. So I think those two—the wonderful gift that imagination is for good and the evil it can bring to our lives—is the struggle within our imagination not just in what we do but what we think.

Mike Zeigler: Now, some people are just realists. They say they want to have their feet planted on the ground. They don't want their head in the clouds. But other people might say something like, "I'm just not good at imagining things" or maybe "I had an active imagination as a child, but now I'm grown up." What would you say to them?

Dean Nadasdy: I think we can imagine the future. We think about, if we're driving somewhere, we imagine that place. In our faith, we imagine Christ on the cross, again and again. Our imagination is limited in some way, obviously. God is too big for us to imagine fully, so God is greater than our imagination, so to speak. Nevertheless, we get glimpses into God through our faith, which uses our imagination along the way. I'd say I really doubt whether there are unimaginative people. If anything, their imagination has been laid dormant by its non-use, and they're probably even using it when they're not aware of it.

Mike Zeigler: Again, we've said that imagination is a good gift from God, albeit tainted, but as the baptized, as those who have come to faith in Jesus, our imagination can be rehabilitated—sanctified is another word we might use, along with our reason and our senses. How could we, in Christ, reclaim our imaginations?

Dean Nadasdy: Yeah, I think I'll go back to Paul in Philippians 4 where he talks about focusing in our minds on what is "true, honorable, just, whatever is pure, commendable." He says, "If there's any excellence, if there's anything worthy of praise, think about these things," to spend time in our minds visioning good things that feed our imagination's potential for goodness. Because there's always the pressing up against our imagination's potential for evil. Again, we go back to what you started us with this, this struggle within our imagination between good and evil that goes on between saint and sinner, and the need to provide good things for our thoughts. That's, I think, really good counsel for somebody who wants to rehabilitate their imagination.

That's a great passage. I love that passage, because it's more than positive thinking. It's more than just fill your mind with positive things, and your life will go great. It's really much deeper than that. It's focusing on good images, good things, thinking about, "How do I love someone? How do I express my love for them?" I'm imagining what that looks like. "What does truth look like? What's pure in my life that I can focus on?" As those pictures come to my mind, my life of faith is enriched.

Mike Zeigler: Another way I think that this can work, the rehabilitating or reactivating our imaginations, is with art. I know you have a passion for art, especially when Christian artists help us picture Jesus and the lives of the people of God. I've learned that you've helped lead and plan roughly 25 annual art festivals at two different churches.

Dean Nadasdy: I've always had a love for art, and I began incorporating art into my preaching even before we had screens, which allowed you not to just verbally describe a piece of art, could actually put it in front of people. But then the art festival thing developed out of that love for art. These festivals would run for three or four weeks, so I'd get three or four Sundays of extraordinary art pieces that were able to become an asset for my preaching and for our prayers together in worship.

We had trained docents who could take people through the art, and some worship and meditation resources were available as they stepped into the sanctuary if they wanted to just take a walk through the art themselves. Yeah, that was a way that people came into our church that would've never come in otherwise, but they came to see the art.

Mike Zeigler: That's something that's very close to the heart of what Lutheran Hour Ministries is wanting to help Christians and congregations do, is to find ways to partner with their neighbors in their neighborhoods to increase the well-being of their neighborhood. This sounds like just the kind of thing that could do that. We have this thing called The Hopeful Neighborhood Project. How did you see neighborhood well-being flourish through these multiple years of doing these art festivals?

Dean Nadasdy: Well, there were, of course, the contacts we'd make with people who were art lovers but not necessarily church people, so there were opportunities for evangelism. In a few cases, people actually came into our church as members. Both communities I think have a high value placed on art. These were two suburbs of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Both communities are kind of known to be art-seeking communities. That didn't hurt either.

Mike Zeigler: Thank you so much for joining us, for preaching for us, and sticking around to visit with us, Dean.

Dean Nadasdy: My privilege. Great to be with you.






Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"E'en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come" by Paul Manz. From Jesu, Come by the National Lutheran Choir (© assigned 1991 Morning Star Music Publishers)

"Christ Is the World's Redeemer" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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