Sunday, July 16, 2017

New River, New Garden: Sermon on Ezekiel 47-48

When I was a young lad, I remember some pretty good days. I remember, for instance, that my parents used to take me down across the Mason-Dixon Line, down just south of the Havre de Grace Marina at the lower stretches of the Susquehanna River before it feeds into the Chesapeake Bay. Dad – Randy – had a motorboat, a fine, reliable motorboat he knew how to handle like it shared his soul. Once or twice each summer, there we'd be, speeding atop the water, maybe on a day-trip, maybe camping on the islands. I can picture it now: beneath the ever-clouded heavens of blue and gold artistry, how we'd glide across the wide, glossy river, which gently flowed and rippled between the banks, with their lush, forested hills; their craggy, tree-spotted cliffs; their eerie graffiti eye surveying the river's flow; their high, outstretched bridges; their thin outposts of civilization. With the foliage and the soothing flow of such broad rivers, well, between that and this very land where we live – hey, it's no mistake they called our region the “Garden Spot of America” – well, they make me think of an old, old story. A story about another river and another... garden spot.

I found this old, old story, you see, near the front of my Bible. There I read that “the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Genesis 2:8). 'Eden' – it's a word that means 'delight.' A place on the primeval earth, as Genesis bids us imagine it, where God set up his home, his Holy of Holies, his palace, and gave it a garden courtyard. And in that holy place, he introduced his image, to till and work the land, to protect and expand the garden (Genesis 2:15). And this garden, we read, was full of life and beauty: “Out of the ground, the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9). Think of that – every tree! All the vegetation you can imagine, all the trees and all the bushes and all the flowers, with chirping birds and cute critters and all the rest.

What's more, “the tree of life was in the midst of the garden” (Genesis 2:9). The hope of living forever in this beautiful garden, in total harmony with God and with nature, was assured by that tree, ready to sustain life. And how could this garden be so lush? Because there was a river flowing in from the heart of Eden proper, from the place where God himself, the Life-Giver, dwelled: “A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers,” the four mightiest rivers the ancient patriarchs could have dreamt of (Genesis 2:10-14). And with only one exception we weren't ready for, we had the free enjoyment of this whole green garden, to savor and taste and admire and simply be at peace (Genesis 2:16). It was idyllic. It was lively. It was spiritual – our home in the presence of God, in perfect balance with the world from which we were made. It was work without struggle, this steady and carefree tending to the garden. It was refreshing, it was relaxing; everything was so alive, so fresh, so healthful, so glory-soaked. In a word, it was paradise.

It could have lasted. But it didn't. We refused to be satisfied with life in the garden – refused to live there on God's terms. We listened to the whispers of temptation, the ones that suggested greener pastures beyond what we could see. But there were no greener pastures – this garden was greenest. All the trees' fruit was ours to eat and savor, save one – so we chose to transgress for the sheer sake of transgression, chose our wisdom over God's. We thought we, the tenant gardeners, knew the garden better than the God who gave the growth (Genesis 3:1-7). Refusing to be satisfied, we became dissatisfied – with the garden, with each other, with the gaze of our loving God on our suddenly shameful vulnerability (Genesis 3:8-11). Our harmony with each other crumbled away into a chain of recriminations (Genesis 3:12-13). And it's no surprise the harmony between us and creation would follow suit: that there should be such a thing now as cursed and painful soil, a substitution of pain for pleasure, and a confrontation with the harsher side of the plant kingdom, these thorns and thistles (Genesis 3:17). The garden was good, very good, beyond very good; but we no longer were fit to tend it. “Therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:23-24).

It's really no surprise, then, that even the best gardens and best rivers we see around us fall short. Sure, in their better moments, they give us glimpses – dim reflections – of what was, what could have been, what should have been. But the blue-gray of the Susquehanna isn't perfect. It holds so much discarded refuse at its bottom. The “garden spot” around us isn't perfect. It's divvied up by developments. It doesn't always reliably yield what it could. It needs to be replenished and enriched from time to time. For our crops, we have to scrape them from the earth, wrest the growth from the clutches of a sometimes-unwilling patch of dirt. And through the land there flow the dull mud-hues of the Cocalico and other creeks.

And those are the best-case scenarios. In Kenya, I saw the edges of the jungle – a reminder that this earth is not tame, but is filled with vibrant foliage and wrathful insects half the size of my fist. I danced from grass-tuft to grass-tuft on the wide open savannah in the eyes of a bemused herd of zebra. I wandered in and out from the presence of baboons, watched lions laze about in the moist heat and sticky blood and clouds of flies. But I also walked the streets, if they can be called that, of the Nairobi slums. And down the midst of the streets of the city, there flowed what I suppose you could call a river. Not of water, but of open sewage. Trash – bottlecaps, paper pulp, plastic bottles, discarded rubber tires – fills the 'river' and the 'land,' as goats and feral dogs roam sorrowfully between the rows of ramshackle shops and falling shingles. On the sides of the sewage ditch, some faint spots of green grow – certainly nothing “good for food” – and the rest of the ground is a firm and fruitless brown.

But even that may hold more life than where a certain prophet named Ezekiel found himself. Out in the desert under the Middle Eastern sun. The only 'river' within reach was a product of human craftsmanship – a canal for transporting water from the mighty Euphrates to the smaller irrigation ditches carved through the hot soil, but a canal wide enough to sail down, if just barely. And Ezekiel's job, now that priesthood was no option, was borderline slave labor in hauling loads of silt from the canal, stopping it and the irrigation ditches from being clogged up with silt and debris and all manner of other things that would cut off the life-supply from Babylonian farmlands and garden plots. Ezekiel would be no stranger to cleaning out our church's downspout! And without this constant intervention, the water might be polluted; might not reach its destination. And what lay beyond it was often bare rock and desert and fruitless wilderness where we were never made to live.

That, in fact, is the world we see around us – as much as the relative enjoyments of our “garden spot” and our forays to the wide rivers may obscure it from our sight. We live in a world of cursed ground. We live in a creation out of balance, and we out of balance with it. We live in a polluted place, often barren – and that was especially the experience of the ancient Israelites, who knew exactly what barren desert looked like. It's not enough for us to be the right people if we don't live in the right place, a life-giving and life-nurturing place, a place we can enjoy, a place for which we were made... a place we could have kept but abandoned through our pride and lust and greed. And so we keep fighting with creation, keep struggling to tend it, sometimes wage outright war against it... for our pride and lust and greed. And we spoil the earth. Cursed is the ground for our sake, and sometimes doubly cursed by our efforts, and far from home are we.

It's a sad story, any story that opens in the garden and veers deep into dry desert. But that story is not done. Onto the scene walked a man, a man named Jesus. On these rocky, sin-cursed slopes, he set his beautiful feet, calling out to Zion the good news that their God really does reign, is coming to reign through him, that the kingdom is drawing near (Isaiah 52:7). He urged the people that God didn't want to curse them; he wanted to bless them, wanted to parent them, wanted them to live like it was that first week all over again. But human pride and lust and greed had built ways to profit from life far from the garden. And so the tenant laborers of the vineyard slew the Son of the Owner. On a lifeless tree between a dark sky and a cursed earth, they hung him 'til life left. But... he was the Life. He was the Vine. He was the Tree. And he there was no way he wouldn't flourish again. No mortal axe could thwart his fruitful bounty from sprouting anew forever in resurrection.

Over the past couple months, we've been exploring – using the writings of the prophet Ezekiel as our lens – just what difference it makes that Jesus Christ is risen. Because Jesus Christ is risen, he lives as a New Shepherd over God's wayward, mistreated, rowdy flock; he judges between sheep and goats, weak and strong, and holds all accountable to keep peace while he feeds and leads us. Because Jesus Christ is risen, he transplants a new heart, soft and pliable to the will of God, in place of our stony and resistant heart of old. Because Jesus Christ is risen, he breathes a new Spirit down on our hopeless dry bones and bids us live again when all had been lost. Because Jesus Christ is risen, he binds two sticks in his hand, binds together nations, overcomes our fractured society with a new unity that only he can give. Because Jesus Christ is risen, he'll gain a new victory over all the collected forces of evil, even Gog and Magog, and share that new victory with us, to deliver us from evil forever. Because Jesus Christ is risen, he'll build a new temple in a new holy city – and as we saw last week, in some way, that temple Ezekiel saw is us – and it's an assurance that God will make his home in our midst and not leave; that God will set things right; that God has said he'd make us holy and will in fact do just that, for good.

And yet for all that... how great is it really to have a new heart and a new Spirit, to live with a new unity under a new Shepherd, to enjoy a new victory and a new temple, if it's all still on cursed, lifeless ground? If the streams are still dry and polluted, if the crops still don't grow, if we have to see sewage ditches and garbage heaps, if the world isn't beautiful and isn't full of life and isn't yet where we belong... can all the rest really be where it ends?

And so we come to the closing section of Ezekiel's vision, the last things he sees. A heavenly guide, you might remember, has been giving him a tour of this new temple, this rich representation of God's presence restored to the earth in our sanctified midst. In the heart of this temple, God has established his throne. And then Ezekiel sees his final sight of the temple: “He brought me back to the door of the temple, and behold, water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east, for the temple faced east. The water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me on the outside to the outer gate that faces east; and behold, the water was trickling out on the south side” (Ezekiel 47:1-2). Where's this water coming from? From the presence of God, somehow – and emerging from the temple as a thin stream. But not for long.

Going on eastward with a measuring line in his hand, the man measured a thousand cubits and then led me through the water, and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water, and it was knee-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water, and it was waist-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and it was a river that I could not pass through, for the water had risen. It was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed through. And he said to me: Son of man, have you seen this?” (Ezekiel 47:3-6). In other words: “Do you get it? Is it sinking in?” This thin trickle, in defiance of all physics, all geometry, all hydrodynamics, all the laws by which earthly things work, is, without any addition from precipitation, getting bigger and deeper and faster and stronger all at once: with no abatement of speed, the volume increases as it flows onward, multiplying like loaves and fishes in the Messiah's hand. This little trickle becomes a creek, becomes a brook, becomes a stream, becomes a mighty river, broadens like the Susquehanna. It's wider, faster, than the Cocalico Creek or the Chebar Canal. And no need to clean out the silt. But what will this river do?

Ezekiel's going to find out. His guide, he says, “led me back to the bank of the river. As I went back, I saw on the bank of the river very many trees on one side and on the other” (Ezekiel 47:6-7). Those weren't there before! He didn't see those the first time; they're not a coincidence, they're an effect, an effect of the river miraculously enriching the soil. They sprang up faster than anything can grow, sprang up like creation all over again. That's what Ezekiel sees. And he doesn't just see one here or there. He sees fertility, sees vitality, seeping out through the land on either side of this river, so that the whole earth all around is chock-full of leafy trees and bushes and grass and flowers and all manner of beautiful things.

And then his guide explains something: “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, and enters the sea; when the water flows into the sea, the water will be healed” (Ezekiel 47:8). Now, it sounds like just a geography lesson, but it's actually astonishing. The 'eastern region' means the mountainous eastern slopes beyond Jerusalem, which were notoriously devoid of precipitation. Dry as dry bones. And the 'Arabah' is the Jordan Rift Valley, which, along with the eastern slopes, were notorious for exceptional dryness, save for the Jordan River itself. So this river is going to flow over the dry mountains and water them, and into the Jordan Rift Valley and water it, and join forces or cross the Jordan River, and flow down... where? What sea? The Dead Sea. The most sterile place on earth, the lake where nothing can possibly live, where any fish, anything other than some exceptional bacteria, will inevitably die. This river that produces trees on its banks will flow through the driest places imaginable into the deadest places imaginable... and what happens? The water will be healed – healed of its saltiness, healed of its sterility, healed of its pollution, healed of its deadness.

And wherever the two rivers go, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may be healed; so everything will live wherever the river goes. … It will be fish of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea” (Ezekiel 47:9-10). The Chebar Canal was wide enough to travel, but I doubt much lived in it. The Dead Sea certainly had nothing living in it. And yet because of this river, the Dead Sea will be a Sea of Life – will have biodiversity you can't even fathom! Every kind of fish that lives in the whole Mediterranean, and much more besides – it's there! And every swarming thing, every sort of life will flourish and thrive; there'll be no need to artificially stock these waters, no need to plant or sow on the riverbanks – it will teem with flora and fauna beyond our wildest dreams!

If this is just a picture of the transformation of a valley in the Middle East, well, it may have made Ezekiel glad to hear it, but it wouldn't mean very much to us. But like we heard last week, the temple is a rich pointer to a reality beyond one spot on a map – and so is this river. As we keep listening to Ezekiel's guide, he tells us, “On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing” (Ezekiel 47:12). These are no ordinary trees – these are super-trees, bearing fruit every month – not the summer months, not the spring months, but year-round fruit, unfazed by weather or climate, untouched by blight or rot, ungnawed by insects – in other words, perfect health. And every fruit will be fresh, every fruit will be edible, every fruit will be delicious and refreshing and good for sustaining life; and even the leaves have medicinal properties for the benefit of all who come near. These trees and this river, with all the fish and flowers and everything else, sounds like everything you could ever need!

And if these lines sound familiar, there's a reason. How does the Bible's final chapter go? “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 any curse, 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” (Revelation 22:1-4). The trees Ezekiel sees – it's the tree of life. The beauty Ezekiel sees – it's growing out of uncursed ground. The river Ezekiel sees – it's “clear as crystal,” unpolluted, uncontaminated, never cloudy, never discolored. It brings life wherever it flows. Where this river flows from the throne of the Father and the Son, Eden sprouts all over again, and creation is made new – there's new life where once was dryness, and perfect blessing where once was a curse.

In short, it's home. It's the home we were made for. It's a garden city – Ezekiel portrays an organized society arrayed around the temple precinct in this well-watered land (Ezekiel 47:13—48:34). John likewise sees it as a city, sees the river – not of filth, but of purity – flowing down the central street, sees all this civilization and natural beauty tied together in perfect balance. All society dwelling in a perfect paradise, organized in harmony in a pure creation, back in the garden – New Eden and New Jerusalem all in one, watered by the new river. No more flaming sword standing between us and the tree of life; nothing standing between us and healing, nothing standing between us and sustenance, nothing shielding our eyes from beauty. No more curse, no strife, nothing but wholeness in the presence of God. We'll bear his name on our foreheads, it says – in the Old Testament, that was the exclusive privilege of Israel's high priest, who alone could dare to enter the Holy of Holies, the hotspot of God's presence on earth. We each – you each – will be everything the high priest ever was, and more. We'll see our God face-to-face, as the whole garden-city will be a holy of holies. And those will be so much better than “pretty good days.”

The river of his life-giving Spirit, which even now makes the water of life flow out of our hearts (John 7:38-39), will water all of creation and make it all the Garden Spot of God, resplendent with everything we lost and far more than we ever hoped to gain. And in this perfect world of satisfaction guaranteed, the name of it all will be: “The LORD is There” (Ezekiel 48:35). Does the resurrection of Jesus make a difference? Absolutely it does. It promises that here, where we live and where we die, home will yet be planted again – and in eternal health we'll gather at that ever-deeper, ever-broader river in his name, by his side... forever. “Let the one who thirsts come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17) – a free gift of grace for all whose robes are washed white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14; 22:14). Hallelujah! What a home! What a hope! Hallelujah!

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