Revelation III: The tree of life | 18 October 2015

Texts: Genesis 2:4b-9, Revelation 21:22-22:7

It’s been observed that the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city.  A garden, as in the Garden of Eden of Genesis, where the human creature is formed from the dust of the earth and receives the Divine breath of life.  And so the story begins.  And then at the end, a city, the New Jerusalem of Revelation, where humanity is restored and reconciled.

Some of us have had a similar garden-to-city trajectory in our own life, growing up in a rural area and now living here.  Columbus is a lovely city, but I dare say we have a ways to go before we reach the New Jerusalem.

One of the key connections between the beginning and the end, is this mysterious tree of life.  It shows up in the garden of Genesis, the garden that the humans lose access to after eating the fruit from that other tree.  Then the tree of life goes missing, only to resurface in the final book of the Christian Bible, Revelation.  And not just the final book, but the final chapter of the final book.  In the New Jerusalem, which has a river running through it, like Columbus, and many other cities, John says: “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”  I’m not sure how the tree of life can be on either side of the river – mark that up to one more mystery of Revelation – but the water serves as no barrier to this tree.  It is perfectly accessible and continually fruitful.  The tree is there for healing.

The tree of life serves as bookends to the library of scripture, a literary meta-inclusio, or, to use another image, the tree of life provides both arms of a hug around the biblical narrative, a hug around the entire story of human goodness, human ambition, betrayal, and violent warring, and redemption.  The whole shebang is held within the embrace of this life-giving tree.

This sacred tree is not unique to Judaism and Christianity.  Art portraying a tree of life already shows up in Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium before Christ.  In the 2nd millennium, the one that spans from Abraham to King David biblically speaking, imagery of the tree of life is found everywhere throughout the Ancient Near East, from Greece to Egypt to India.

In the 19th century – relatively recently – the tree of life gained another incarnation.  When he wrote On the Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin found the tree of life to serve as a fitting metaphor for all life forms past and present.  His diagram of the tree of life was the only illustration in the entire book.  Darwin wrote:

The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during former years may represent the long succession of extinct species. At each period of growth all the growing twigs have tried to branch out on all sides…The limbs divided into great branches, and these into lesser and lesser branches…; and this connection of the former and present buds…may well represent the classification of all extinct and living species.  (Darwin, 1872, 6th edition, pp. 104-105).     

Darwin’s heirs have since nuanced this image, but the idea remains that, biologically speaking, the tree of life is not simply a tree, but is life itself.  The squirrel you saw this morning scurrying across the sidewalk, the deer that helped itself to your garden all summer, every plant in your garden the deer did and didn’t eat, the trilobite long captured in the rock below your yard, the bacteria in the soil and in your gut, all these are a part of the unfathomably massive and marvelous tree of life.  You are a bud on a twig on a branch of the tree of life, which keeps extending itself ever further toward God-knows-what new forms of life.

The tree of life shows up in the mythic past of Genesis and in the longed for consummation of Revelation.  In between, in the stream of history, life feeds off of life and thus death; death composts into life; plants, animals, and people play out the drama of living and dying, budding and branching.

It is one of the underlying notions of Jewish and Christian understanding that this living and dying is not merely an endlessly cyclical event, but that it is going somewhere.  Through this slow unfolding, we are not only being pushed by the past and all previous causes, but we are being pulled by a future, we are being drawn into a greater wholeness, a greater integration of ourselves.  We are being lured toward Love with a capital L.

And when we pay attention to it, we can feel this longing.  We can sense it, sometimes almost see it.  We reach for it.

The tree of life does show up one other place in the scriptures, in the book of Proverbs, which, fittingly, is about half way through our Bible.  It’s referenced four times there, although each time it mentions “a tree of life” rather than “the tree of life.”  Wisdom, righteousness, and a gentle tongue are all called “a tree of life.”

And Proverbs 13:12 says this: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”

Last week I referenced James Cone and Howard Thurman as two men who have interpreted the African American experience in light of scripture, and how the victims of history live in solidarity with the Lamb who overcomes the beast.  The  Proverb says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” and the poet Langston Hughes wrote a poem called “A Dream Deferred,” which emerges out of the tribulation of the black experience in America.

The poem says:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Perhaps one way of reading some of the turmoil and unrest depicted in Revelation is that it is the explosions of dreams deferred, unwilling to simply dry up in the sun, or fester and run.  Tired from sagging under a heavy load.  Exploding with longing, with cries out to God, exploding with praise to the Lamb who has overcome, the one who can lead us toward that tree of life.

“A dream deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”

“And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

OK, fine, but maybe for some folks, all this lovely poetry and biology and prophetic imagery is overshadowed by a simple pressing question looming over everything.

Because ultimately it all boils down to where you are going when you die, right?  Are you going to heaven, or are you going to hell?  That’s the ultimate question.  And isn’t that ultimately what Revelation is about?  The world fades away and all we have left is the lake of fire and the gates of heaven.

Granted, in parts of Revelation it does indeed seem like John’s primary purpose is to scare the hell out of people, both figuratively and literally.  But if those are the primary questions you bring to Revelation, or if you have somehow internalized any of the fear-based aspects of religion, then please allow yourself to be surprised by the end of Revelation.  Because Revelation does not end with anybody going to heaven.  The movement is in the exact opposite direction.  For Revelation, it’s not that people leave the earth and live in heaven, it’s that heaven comes down to earth, and lives with people, and maybe all the other living things.  “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, see, the home of God is among mortals, God will dwell with them…See, I am making all things new.”  That’s the direction things are headed in Revelation.  The picture of a renewed earth, rather than a disposable earth that gets replaced with something called heaven has tremendous implications for how we faithfully relate to the life and ecology of this place.

Revelation concludes in a rather open ended kind of way.  Not everyone is yet in this city, some are still outside, but the gates of the city are always open and even the kings of the earth, the ones who aligned themselves with the beast, will bring their glory into it.  “And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

It’s significant to me that half of our Worship Commission grew up fearing the rapture, this idea that Jesus would one day soon come back to earth, and take people with him back to heaven.  Worship commission members talked about doing an occasional rapture check at night, peering into their parents’ bedroom, making sure they were still there and that they themselves hadn’t been left behind.

Let me go here briefly because I want to relieve everyone, by the holy grace of God, from any rapture fear.  Along with Revelation, a primary passage for rapture theology comes from 1 Thessalonians 4, which may be the first writing of the New Testament.  In that letter, Paul writes, rather provocatively, “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.  Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

The reason these were words of encouragement and not words of fear is that what Paul has in mind here is something he would have observed many times with the way dignitaries would make their way into cities.  Their coming would be announced in a very public way, in advance, the sound of trumpets, and this gave opportunity for the leaders of the city to go out and meet the dignitary, and greet them with honor, and then escort them into the city where they would be further greeted by others.

Paul is not envisioning that an elite group of believers are going to get called away to meet Jesus and be escorted back to heaven, but that believers get to be the ones who are the greeting party for Jesus, who escort him back to the city, back home.  Paul and John share the same kind of vision, not of Christ greeting us to take us away to heaven, but of us greeting Christ, who is coming towards us.  Welcoming him into this space.

That’s what we are.  Forget the rapture.  We’re a welcome party for Christ.  And if you hear the trumpet and see the Christ before I do, you should go and greet him, and bring him here so we can meet him together.  We welcome Christ within our longings, within our dreams, even if they are deferred, within our relationships, our work for justice, within the silent space of meditation that allows for that opening to hear and to see Christ coming towards you.

I am not an overly visual person, but when I talked with Greg about creating this tree of life, the best word I had to offer him was looming.  Please, whatever you do, make it looming.  And he did.  If there’s one thing you internalize and keep with you the rest of your life from this series, that’s what I hope it can be.  If, for whatever reason, fear is what is looming over you, draping its chords over your life, then please, receive this good news.  Looming over us, from the very beginning, to the very end, enveloping us in its embrace, coming towards us, is the tree of life.  Utterly accessible, bearing fruit in all seasons.  That’s what’s looming.  It is welcoming us.  And it’s very patient.  And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Dave Denlinger’s response can be heard on the audio, beginning at the 21:25 mark.