June 25, 2017 Revelation 21: 10, 15-16; 21:22-22:5 Tandy Gilliland Taylor
Seeing God’s Beloved City
Deep in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there is a magnificent swimming hole: a 12-15’ deep pool in a sparkling mountain river that flows noisily around ancient rocks that are covered in moss. The water is so clear that you can see pebbles on the bottom. This pristine river is surrounded by a forest of majestic old trees, whose leaves shimmer in the sunlight. As you probably can guess, I have spent many happy afternoons at this swimming hole; every summer of my childhood, I played in that water that is absolutely frigid even on a summer day. My father actually learned how to swim in that river, as he went there every summer of his childhood as well. In wondrous ways that I cannot even begin to understand, that water, and those trees, have nourished me, body, mind, and spirit.
That river, and those trees, sound remarkably similar to the ones that John describes in the final chapter of Revelation. He tells us: “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. On either side of the river is the tree of life, with its 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
But wait a minute; this doesn’t sound like Revelation… we think of Revelation as destruction and chaos and weird symbolism. But when we persevere, and read the entire book of Revelation, we see that the final chapters are very different than the first part. And the final chapters give us clues about how to understand the earlier parts of the book. After we’ve read all the way to the end, with its vision of hope and healing and what God intends for the world, we can see that those early chapters are a warning about the consequences of wandering from God’s ways; they are a call to repentance and faithfulness, just like the weird visions of the Old Testament prophets Ezekiel and Daniel. Secondly, after we have read all the way to the end, we can see that the destruction in the first part of Revelation is, oddly enough, an image of hope, because it tells us that God will, in the end, defeat all the powers of evil and injustice. And not only that, but God will do this through the power of the Lamb, Jesus, who conquers the beast through nonviolent, self-giving love.
So, after the Lamb conquers all the evil and injustice in the world, what John sees is a breath-taking vision of what God intends for the world: he sees a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. Imagine the significance of this river to people who lived in the lands of the Bible: a river was a ribbon of life in an otherwise dry landscape; a river meant life in all its fullness. And on either side of this river John sees the tree of life, producing 12 kinds of fruit… 12, that biblical number of perfection, completion… fruit every month of the year, a tree always in season. And the leaves of this tree of life are for the healing of the nations…
Imagine for a moment a nurse whose work is wound care: ever so gently, she cleans the wound, then places healing salve onto it, and then wraps it carefully, so that it can heal from the inside out. And if this nurse lived several hundred years ago, she would have used leaves, for wounds and for other ailments: plantain leaves for insect stings, red raspberry leaves to cool a high fever, dandelion leaves as a liver tonic. Even in recent years, my mother would break off the leaf of an aloe plant which she kept on the kitchen windowsill, to spread the healing salve found inside onto a burn. Now imagine God caring for you like that nurse, or like that mother: tenderly spreading the healing salve of a leaf on your wounds, healing even your deepest brokenness, your fears and resentments, your regrets and despair, your broken heart and your broken dreams. Imagine God placing those healing leaves onto your wounded relationships, bringing reconciliation where there was estrangement, bringing love where there was hardness of heart. And now imagine God spreading that salve onto our whole community, our whole nation, and the whole world, healing the wounds of war and oppression, poverty and brutality. With these leaves from the tree of life, God heals all the damage that has been done by the power of evil and injustice in the world.
In John’s vision, this tree of life grows on the banks of a sparkling river, which, surprisingly, flows right in the middle of a city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. This vision is the opposite of the Left Behind series of books about the end times, which describe an individualistic escape from the struggles and pain of life, all based on fear. In Revelation, we see that it’s not a matter of God destroying this earthly world in order to whisk away only a few into an other-worldly place, but we see a vision of God redeeming and healing this earthly world that God created so long ago, and declared good. The city in John’s vision has remarkable characteristics:
- First of all, there is no temple. There is no need for a special dwelling place for God, because the entire city is the dwelling place of God. The dimensions given for this city are 1500 miles wide by 1500 miles long by 1500 miles high, so it’s a cube, which is also the shape that is prescribed for the Holy of Holies, that special place in the ancient temple of Jerusalem that only the priest could go into, because it was considered to be the dwelling place of God. So, this entire huge city of the New Jerusalem is depicted as the Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of the Lord God Almighty. This entire city is a place of holiness.
- Secondly, like other ancient cities, the New Jerusalem has a city wall, but unlike other ancient cities, the gates of this wall, the 12 gates, are always open: everyone is invited, everyone belongs. This city is home for the whole world, open to all nations and peoples. Yet some things are left outside the city walls: death and sorrow and pain will all be left outside the city walls, as well as everything that is violent or unjust.
- Third, in this city, “the servants of God will see God’s face.” Amazing… who has ever seen God’s face? But in this holy City, we will all see God face to face.
This magnificent vision John sees is not only a depiction of what will happen after we die, or after Jesus returns. Seeing this vision can transform the way we see our world here and now. Now that we have glimpsed God’s beloved City, we can see a different dimension to the world around us. Imagine for a moment that this tree stands in our own city of Greenville, right now, in Cleveland Park beside the waters of the Reedy River, bringing healing and hope to everyone in the city. Now, even in the midst of hardship, we can catch glimpses of God already dwelling right here in our midst. Now, even as we struggle with the reality of evil and injustice, we can see snatches of holy moments of God already at work in mighty and mysterious ways, healing wounds and bringing reconciliation. Now we see with the eyes of the heart that God is already engaged in the work ofredeeming all of creation for God’s intentions. After all, isn’t that what Jesus said so long ago? “The Kingdom of God is at hand; the kingdom of God is among you.”
Our mighty God gives us this vision as an amazing gift, and yet this gift is also our assignment: we are called to participate with God in God’s activity of binding up wounds, reconciling one to another, overthrowing injustice through non-violent means, freeing those who are oppressed, and caring for creation. We are called to follow the Lamb in the paths of nonviolent, self-giving love. As we seek to live out this holy and yet overwhelming assignment, God sustains us with the river of the water of life and God feeds us with the fruit of the tree of life. Thanks be to God! Amen.