May 5, 2013
“Between The Trees”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.
22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.
23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.
24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.
25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.
26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.
27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
22 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city.
On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.
4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.
5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
I was procrastinating writing this sermon, trying to find the words to start it, so I scanned the news online.
The great theologian Karl Barth is said to have said that we should hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, and use the Bible to interpret the news. Well Barth didn’t have a yahoo news feed, but he probably would have said that would have worked too.
I’ve shared this before but I am not the sort of person who should read the news because I just get so burdened and heartbroken by the stories of pain and anguish and needless suffering, and I find that hope is a slippery thing – it slips quickly out of my hands and what is left?
I wonder about the goodness of creation when an angry person can hurt 200 innocent people. Sometimes I wonder if light can overcome the darkness when there is so much darkness. Can good overcome evil when there are more slaves, more victims of human trafficking today than there have ever been in history before?
So this where I was after reading about the possibility that chemical weapons had been used in the war in Syria where more than 70,000 people have died so far, after reading about North Korea moving towards nuclear capabilities, after reading a story about human trafficking in Northern Virginia, after reading about a five year old who shot and killed a two year old in Kentucky.
But my Bible was also open in front of me. All this was just a reminder of what the passage today makes clear – we have not arrived, the story isn’t complete. We are between the trees. We are in the middle.
Reach back all the way to creation, to Genesis, the first book of our Bible, in the garden of Eden we find these trees, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life – special trees.
Eden provides this brief glimpse of God’s intention for us and for creation. A place of peace, with no shame (can you imagine what that would be like?), where God is as near and as present as your dearest loved one. No walls, no hostility, no division, no clothes, no hiding, no pain. In Eden humanity partnered with God to care for the world. That was part of the plan.
Reach forward all the way to the end of things, to Revelation, the last book of our Bible. This is John’s vision, given to him in a time of tremendous persecution and fear and uncertainty. It is a vision of the fulfillment of God’s great plan. Evil is finally defeated, everyone and everything dances and sings in praise of God.
There is a new Jerusalem, the new heaven and new earth. Here we have the briefest glimpse again of how it is meant to be. Here is what John hears God say, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
The poet T.S. Eliot writes about how in life and in faith we arrive back at where we started and know the place for the first time. And so we have. We arrive back at a place where there is no need for a temple. No walls separate God from his people. God is everywhere and with everyone. And the gates of heaven never close, and all the nations bask in the light of God.
And in the middle of it all there is a tree – the tree of life. We arrive back at the start but now we see it with new eyes. Now, the leaves of this tree are for the healing of the nations. In the beginning there was peace, and now the world is in pain. Oh yes, we need this healing.
We are in the middle, between the trees, between creation and re-creation – so what does that mean for us?
Rob Bell, who was until last year the pastor of one of the fastest growing churches in America, and was named to Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2011, preaches a sermon about this.
He tells this story about how he had a rental car and he couldn’t figure out how to turn off the radio, so he was stuck listening to Christian radio preacher. And he says the man painted a beautiful picture of heaven, of the end of things, but the point of the sermon, as far as he could tell, was that we should just wait.
And Rob Bell asks, is that the point of faith in the end? That we live in this tiny moment of time, which stretches for eternity into the past and for eternity into the future, and we should just wait for the end when God makes everything better?
In the end he says no, we need a faith that tells us what to do now. Jesus tells us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, now. Jesus tells us to seek peace now, to seek justice now. To seek healing in the world, and in our own families, now. We were meant to be a part of the caring of creation and we will be part of God’s re-created world, and here, in the middle we are meant to keep doing this work.
One commentator writes this: “The advent of the heavenly city does not abolish all human efforts to build a decent earthly civilization but fulfills them. God does not make “all new things” but “all things new”. John envisioned transcendent salvation as a world in which all that is human is taken up and transformed, a world in which nothing human is lost. . . . Every ditch dug, every brick laid, every vote cast, every committee decision that has contributed to the decency of human life is preserved, and built into the eternal city.”
Nothing is wasted in God’s economy. I try to remember that every time I think to myself, “This is an enormous waste of my time.” Nothing is wasted in God’s economy.
As a church we have been sending teenagers and adults on mission trips every year for the past several years. Short term mission work can sometimes feel like a waste of time – fixing the roof on a house that the owners cannot hope to maintain on their own, and may fall down in a couple years, painting over a rotting exterior – does it really make a difference?
And this is what I tell our teams, we do this work because this is what faith teaches us, that no act of love or justice or kindness is wasted – that it matters in ways we will probably never see or know. Like a pebble thrown into a pond, an act of love ripples out into the world, and that’s how God’s kingdom is built.
And I share with them this quote from theologian N.T. Wright: “But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are . . . directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom. This brings us back to [the idea in 1 Corinthians] once more: what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are – strange though it may seem – accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or walk; every act of care and nurture, or comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow non-human creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God.”
Rob Bell shares this ancient Jewish saying that God uses the good deeds of the faithful as seeds for planting the very trees of paradise.
So what do we do now?
We seek forgiveness, we right what is wrong. We stand up for people who cannot stand up for themselves. We hug our children tighter for the 14 million AIDS orphans who don’t have parents to delight in them, but we also sponsor a child through Compassion International or World Vision.
We seek justice for those who are abused in our own community, and we support the work of organizations like the International Justice Mission who are freeing slaves everyday around the world. We pray for and make peace in the world and in our own families, and we ask our politicians to do the same.
In one of our prayers from our Book of Common Worship we pray to God to “break down the walls of hostility that divide us.” And so we work at doing that too.
When I was in seminary I went with a professor and a couple other students on a trip to Egypt for several weeks. While we were there we joined a group of Cairo seminary students. One of them, a young man, served a very small country church far from Cairo, and we traveled with him to visit it. He had told us about it, and about one particular great challenge that he faced. And when you walked in the building you saw it immediately. There was a wall, high enough not to see over, that went straight down the middle of the small sanctuary. It separated the men and women during worship.
In the original temple in Jerusalem there was a wall that separated men from women and Jews from Gentiles. Being so wise, we told him that he should just knock it down. But he knew better. First the walls of hostility that pervaded the culture about the status of women needed to come down, and then the real wall could come down. And that was his work while he was between the trees, because in the New Jerusalem, in the end of all things, there are no walls in the temple, because there is no temple at all, because everyone is with God.
So what is your work to be done with this life you have been given, between the trees? God is telling you how to live now, what to do now – what is God telling you to do?