Sunday, November 17, 2019

A Walk in the Park: Sermon on Revelation 22:1-3

A month after Easter, the days of April rain had at last left off, so a barrel-chested man in his early sixties went for a solitary morning stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue. The birds had started singing their brightest happy songs. (Listen: Can you hear them?) The grass was luxuriant. And at either side of the massively broad avenue, the trees were beginning to bud. He paused to admire one, a sycamore – he knew it well. After all, he'd planted it, along with many of the rest. Jemmy Maher, out for a stroll in the spring of 1856, had by that point been serving for 22 and a half years as Washington DC's public gardener. He mused as he caressed the fresh buds of the sycamore.

Jemmy – “loud, vehement, emphatic, and intensely Irish,” one paper put it, as Irish Catholic as they come – had been born and bred on the Emerald Isle. He was about six years old when the Irish Rebellion of 1798 tried to rise up and cast off the English yoke from his land. His father had been a captain in that rebellion, and when things failed, the elder man had fled to America for self-preservation, leaving his family behind - including six-year-old Jemmy. Jemmy, who'd taken up gardening as a hobby when he was twelve, waited another twelve years to follow his father's tracks. In 1816, Jemmy'd sailed to Boston, promptly taken an oath of allegiance to his new land of refuge, moved to Philadelphia, and within five years got his naturalization papers. He and his wife Bridget moved to Washington in 1833, thrilled to get nearer their hero, President Andrew Jackson, who that autumn appointed Jemmy as public gardener for DC.

Though Jemmy had no easy time of it – partisan politics, power plays, prejudice, and admittedly a predilection for whisky – nonetheless he proved a rousing success in the position. He beautified the grounds of the White House and Capitol with honeysuckle and rose, and all the stretch of road in between and around with a selection of magnificent trees, some of them from his thousands-strong private nursery. Nobody knew plants like “Jemmy Maher, born widout a shirt!” And he loved them as his children. As each winter approached, Jemmy wept hot tears over the thief Jack Frost's abduction of his blossoms. An ambitious man, nevertheless the years rolling by never quite fulfilled his dream of a city flowing with fountains; but he did have many of the broad avenues thoroughly shaded by his sycamores, his maples, his ashes and elms. And as he'd stroll past on mornings like this one, he said, “they speak to me and bow and nod their heads to me as I go along the streets, and bless and thank me for planting and caring for them.” It was a beautiful morning for just such a stroll. And to Jemmy's eyes, the trees were full of joy and gratitude – the birds were giving voice to their spring hymns of thanksgiving. Even in the midst of the city, Jemmy had toiled his life to preserve the beauties of nature, with all his heart and soul.

Not quite three years from that day, Jemmy would pass from this world, six months after Bridget. And during the Civil War, soldiers would harvest many of his beloved tree-children for lumber. But his work would continue, and in the 1870s, the newly-formed Parking Commission would line the streets of DC with tens of thousands of more trees. (Alas, fifty years on, officials would begin chopping down those roadside tree parks to make more room for the automobiles that had begun to pull in between them to stop by the side of the road – hence why we still say we 'park' our cars.) Off and on through the years, in the nation's capital and elsewhere, we've had varying levels of awareness of the importance of what's known as 'urban forestry,' the planting of tree life and other park and garden spaces within city environments. Without maintaining a vibrant urban forest, cities – and even small towns – can too easily become sterile, artificial, and (dare I say) ugly, cutting us off from the nature in which and with which we really do belong, in some measure. Men like Jemmy Maher knew that. Men like Jemmy Maher were determined not to let us get so far from our roots. In May 1845, one DC observer remarked that the lands under Jemmy's care became “a perfect Garden of Eden in appearance.” Three years later, another praised the “Eden-like beauty of the blooming gardens” Jemmy tended. Eden – Jemmy knew, and we know, where we're from.

The Bible's recounting of our roots plants them in a garden – God's garden. We're told that “God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed; and out of the ground, Yahweh God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers” (Genesis 2:8-10). That's the Bible's basic picture of the original paradise: a garden filled with good trees, crowned by the tree of life, and “well-watered everywhere” by its very own river (Genesis 13:10). That's the park where Adam and Eve, the Bible's representation of original manhood and womanhood, were appointed by God as public gardeners, much like their descendant Jemmy. For God took humanity “and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15) – to serve God and guard the garden. It was a high and lofty positionthose are the same Hebrew verbs used in Leviticus for the mission of priests. As a later book says outright, “the Garden of Eden was the Holy of Holies and the dwelling of the Lord” (Jubilees 8.19). The garden was the original inner-sanctuary of the universe, God's own place of beauty. Adam and Eve were royal priests, tasked with maintaining the garden and expanding the garden until the garden filled the entire world. Their joy was have been to worship God face-to-face there as he would walk in the garden in the cool of the day; their joy would have been to celebrate the beauties of Eden, and to be fruitful and multiply in the garden, and disciple more and more generations of human gardeners, and give rise to a deathless civilization of Eden that would gradually extend the garden to fill the whole earth, lovingly ordering all things to the glory of the one and only God!  That's what Adam and Eve, what we, were put there for.

That's what was supposed to happen. But it didn't go so smoothly. For allowing an unclean serpent to infest the garden, and then for listening to its incitements to mistrust and overthrow God's authority in his own sanctuary, Adam and Eve – having refused to guard the garden lost the Garden of Eden. They were exiled from the garden-temple, and their responsibility to guard it was handed over to cherubim stationed at the east entryway (Genesis 3:24). They exited into a world where the very dirt itself was cursed on their account, cursed to yield with difficulty and diminution, and cursed to one day receive their dusty bones in death (Genesis 3:17-19). Out we went to farm and forage, living off the land, multiplying in a fruitless desert place, until the first city (Genesis 4:17). Down through the centuries goes human civilization until Israel, under Solomon, builds a temple, a new permanent sanctuary. This temple was supposed to be a recreation of the garden – there's a reason King Solomon decorated it with “gourds and open flowers” (1 Kings 6:18), and why “around all the walls of the house he carved engraved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms” (1 Kings 6:29), with each of the supporting columns being topped with lilies and pomegranates (1 Kings 7:18-19). The temple was decorated like the garden, a simulated Eden in lumber and gold, a stand-in for the realities of paradise lost.

And the prophets predicted one day it'd grow again. Isaiah heard God promise to “open rivers on the bare heights” and to “put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive..., the cypress, the plane, and the pine together” (Isaiah 41:17-19). Joel imagined that “the mountains shall drip sweet wine and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the streambeds of Judah shall flow with water, and a fountain shall come forth from the House of Yahweh and water the valley” (Joel 3:18). Building on Joel's hope, Ezekiel – a prophet living in exile after the temple, their simulated Eden, was burned down – dreamed dreams of a new temple, bigger and bolder, whose walls and doors would again be decorated with cherubim and palm trees (Ezekiel 41:18-26) and from which would surge an ever-deepening river flowing into the Dead Sea (Ezekiel 47:8). Its purity would be so great that in it would live “very many fish” of “very many kinds” (Ezekiel 47:9-10), and on either bank of the river would grow “very many trees” (Ezekiel 47:7). There'd be “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). In other words, it would be an Eden restored, flowing and growing in their own land after all exile was ended. Decades later, a prophet named Zechariah was still hoping for the day when Yahweh would stand on the Mount of Olives and bring “a unique day..., neither day nor night, but at evening time there shall be light. On that day, living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea: it shall conitnue in summer as in winter, and Yahweh will be king over all the earth” (Zechariah 14:7-9), “for there shall never again be a curse” (Zechariah 14:11 LXX).

Through the centuries after Ezekiel, Jews kept hoping for those living waters and that new garden. One had visions of the whole earth being “cleansed from all pollution” (1 Enoch 10.22) and the entire earth then being planted with “pleasant trees” (1 Enoch 10.18-19), particularly the tree of life growing in the holy place, with leaves that never wither and beautiful fruit and an incomparable fragrance (1 Enoch 24.4; 25.5). Another later hoped for the Messiah to “open the gates of paradise; he shall remove the sword that has threatened since Adam, and he will grant to the holy ones to eat of the tree of life” (Testament of Levi 18.10-11). Their dream was that “the saints shall refresh themselves in Eden; the righteous shall rejoice in the New Jerusalem, which shall be eternally for the glorification of God” (Testament of Dan 5.12). Still later, another writer longed for “twelve trees loaded with various fruits, and the same number of springs flowing with milk and honey, and seven mighty mountains on which roses and lilies grow” (4 Ezra 2.18-19).

And humbly, John – filled with the same age-old longings as a son of Adam and Eve – steps onto the stage. We already heard much about the New Jerusalem he sees, a city that signifies a whole civilization, the future hoped for every city and every town and every space on the earth to be 'New Jerusalem-ized.' But if what we'd heard thus far were all he said, then we might fear it would be a concrete jungle, a sterile thing of metal and stone, discarding nature in the interests of shelter and security. John does not want us to fear that. Which is why it's important that John adds the verses we've read this morning. John wants to be clear that New Jerusalem is not that kind of city. No, the New Jerusalem he can see is a New Jerusalem with an urban forest that'd put Jemmy Maher to shame. Because the New Jerusalem that John sees is also a New Garden of Eden – both Holy City and Holy Garden, construction and natural growth, in one. All Jemmy's works of love pointed forward to an eternity that's a true garden-city – neither a return to a primitive wilderness state nor an urbanism that alienates from nature.

This is the kind of place we were always meant to live. In a way, you could say that everything from Genesis 3 onward has been a detour, an 'off-the-beaten-path' roundabout way of getting to where God meant us to go quite simply. We were meant to expand the garden, to build up a civilization of Eden across the world, developing holy settlements around the globe, which would have always been in perfect harmony with nature, always have gone with nature's grain, always have seamlessly blended with the flora and fauna we tended. But in our detour east of Eden, led astray in the exile of our sins, we haven't built our world that way. Even since the ancient Sumerians, we've felt a tension between nature and civilization (consider the Epic of Gilgamesh!). Still, even along our detour, God has unfolded his plans in majestic and marvelous ways, albeit in a less fruitful and less beautiful world afflicted by a curse. Yet the destination remains the same as it always has been and always would have been. What John sees, what prophets before him yearned for, is for the curse to be lifted – for a day when it can be said, “no longer will there be any curse” (Revelation 22:3a; cf. Zechariah 14:11).

For because there was a curse, Adam and Eve were once cast out. But history will have its symmetry. The curse will be withdrawn, its purposes fulfilled. The edict of exile will expire. And those who follow the Last Adam will be welcomed back home – we will go home to the garden, go home to the life we should've been living all along, go home to Eden. But it will not be back to Eden as Adam and Eve first knew it. For they were given a small and limited garden, governed by sun and moon overhead, and tasked to build it up into something, to take it in hand and work it and keep it. They were given an Eden in formation, an Eden with a long mission ahead. But we will go back to an Eden with a long mission accomplished, an Eden already extended, an Eden tended by the gentle hands of the Last Adam, Jesus Christ, the best Urban Forester, the perfect Public Gardener. We will go home to an Eden already built up into a Divine Garden-City, verdant and fragrant and radiant. The new creation will be naturally beautiful, liberated into our glorious liberty as God's children; it will be a landscape saturated with God's own glory and populated by flora and fauna all fulfilled in their perfections!

And in this world made new, in this global garden-city, we'll find all the joys Adam and Eve had set aside – yet we'll come to them in mature responsibility, on the other side of innocence. Once, they walked with their God in the garden's cooling breeze. And so will we. For God will be there, walking among us, talking with us. Zechariah declared that in that day beyond the familiar rhythms and seasons of this world, “Yahweh will be king over all the earth” (Zechariah 14:9). And he will reign from the garden-city, for “the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him” (Revelation 22:3b). God will be enthroned in the garden, ruling over every redwood and every rutabaga, every bear and every bobcat, in his New Eden. And he will rule this garden world through us, for John tells us that we “will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). Nor will the Father rule without his Son by his side, sharing the same throne of authority. Jesus will still be King of Kings and Lord of Lords – and he will still be the Lamb, still be the one we recognize as having been sacrificed for us. He will still be the One who was once crucified, the One who gave up his blood to wash our robes clean, the One whose transfigured scars stream light and beauty into all the world. Jesus will still be our all in all. Our eyes will “behold the King in his beauty” (Isaiah 33:17), the beauty that makes Eden itself beautiful. And we will, for all our eternal days in his garden-city, worship Jesus just as we worship his Father (Revelation 22:3).

When John sees this glorious global garden-city, his guiding angel shows to him “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” (Revelation 22:1-2a). This is the river Ezekiel saw flowing from the temple foundation – turns out that God and the Lamb are that temple, so from them comes the gush of living water. This is the river Zechariah saw spilling from Jerusalem, flowing to the eastern and western seas.

What John sees here is a great mystery, but to start out, it shows us what will someday be true of every river. It shows us that everywhere on earth will be well-watered like the Garden of Eden was. It shows us what that water will be like – this river is “bright as crystal,” clear and transparent. There's no pollution in it. There's no muck or murky disturbance to it. Go stop by the Conestoga River, and tell me how well you can see the bottom. The water's too muddy. Go join Jemmy on the banks of the Potomac, and the water may be a more beautiful blue, but it isn't as bright as crystal. The water John sees is translucent, and with all things filled with life, you could see right to the bottom of it. Magnificent. So, too, the water John sees is flowing water, living water, life-giving water. The prophets had seen how this water, holy water flowing from the sanctuary, would cause life to sprout in the desert, would sustain a bustling ecosystem all its own, would purify even the most sterile waters with its contagious purity, its exuberant purity of life, and make everything live wherever it goes. We can hope for every river to have a share in that – for every river, every stream, every brook and creek and littlest trickle, to sustain life, to set in motion a cascade of ecology, to be the nourishment of nature in every clod of soil.

But, of course, John speaks in deeper symbols. And when he sees a river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of the Father and the Son, he's seeing, among other things, the Holy Spirit, flowing out from them, connecting us all with a divine goodness that gushes in torrents of life. God's goodness, God's life, will flow into us, supply us, refresh us and all creation. This “living water flowing / in soul-refreshing streams,” the Holy Spirit's flood, is the “living water” that Jesus longs to give us when we ask (John 4:10), the rivers that well up within and flow from a heart of faith (John 7:38). The Holy Spirit will one day flood us, flow through our society with the refreshing goodness of God at all times. And John sees his river as flowing down the middle of the city's street, at the heart of the thoroughfare like a Venetian canal, because the Holy Spirit will be central to all our comings and all our goings. There will be no pathway in any of the world's villages where the Holy Spirit isn't torrential, isn't obviously rushing in power, for all eternity bringing refreshment to the highways and byways, watering the earth with the effervescent life of the Father and the Son.

And because the River flows with life, the Tree of Life will grow there – “on either side of the river, the tree of life” (Revelation 22:2b). And we can understand this, first, on a more mundane level. The whole earth will be a well-watered garden, and every garden has to have growth. If Ezekiel saw the river producing many kinds of trees, well, John focuses on the tree of life, the tree at the heart of Adam's longing and Eve's missed chance. As John reviews Ezekiel's visions, John sees that all our trees will be trees of life – every tree will be productive, every tree will be fruitful, every tree will be a source of delight and plenty, every tree will be the fulfillment of our deep longings. (And so, I would suggest, for each shrub, each bush, each vine, each flower, each blade of grass, to partake of something of the character of the 'tree of life.')

John sees that the tree planted by the river will have healing leaves – “the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2d). Ezekiel saw that, how the leaves of all the trees he witnessed would be “for healing” (Ezekiel 47:12). That doesn't mean people will keep getting sick for all eternity, will keep needing medical attention for all eternity. It's to show us, again and again, under all kind of images, just how lavishly committed God is to doing away with everything wrong. He wants us to know just how many benefits there will be. And so he gives images of abundant healing. Some ancient Jewish readers of Ezekiel interpreted the healing leaves as being either a digestive aid or a fertility treatment (Midrash Rabbah Canticles 4.12.4). John doesn't get into that. The main point he wants to get across is that the 'healing' from Ezekiel is for the nations.” God intends to gather the world around the tree – Americans and Russians, Israelis and Palestinians, Syrians and Turks, the discipled from every people and party – and bring us all together in the garden, heal us all together in the garden, help us all grow into a new world together in the garden.

John's one other observation about the tree of life is that it bears “twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month” (Revelation 22:2c). Ezekiel had already seen the trees as “bear[ing] fresh fruit every month..., their fruit for food” (Ezekiel 47:12). Both want us to have the image that God's provision never gets stale, never gets tired, never pales, never becomes insufficient. Never will we have to depend on last month's leftover grace! There will always be a new flavor of grace, a new species of grace, waiting for our fingertips to stretch forth and effortlessly take what he offers. The world we know can't measure up to the fruitfulness of what God has in store! Each tree is pictured as bearing its fruit for us all the time, a rotating crop supplying us with a diverse range of freshness, ripe for the picking. God's gifts are not only sufficient, they will be super-abundant. All this world is stuck in dreary winter in comparison to the bloom that's ahead of us. Jemmy's gardens and our gardens are only the barest pointers to what lies in store. The world will really be as beautiful as John tells it. We really will find all around us that “everlasting spring abides, and never-withering flowers.”

But as we ponder this tree of life John sees, we should see it with the eyes of the church. And for a very long time, the church has understood that the cross of Jesus Christ is our tree of life – for from the crucifixion of the Lord, there grow all the blessings our spirits can savor. Over sixteen hundred years ago, Christian poets were already saying things like, “Greatly saddened was the Tree of Life when it beheld Adam stolen away from it; it sank down into the virgin ground and was hidden, to burst forth and reappear on Golgotha; humanity, like birds that are chased, took refuge in it so that it might return them to their proper home; the chaser was chased away, while the doves that had been chased now hop with joy in paradise.” The church long ago started singing lines like, “The church has been revealed as a second paradise, having within it, like the first paradise of old, a tree of life, your cross, O Lord: By touching it, we share in immortality.” Now, as an old Christian poet said, “the very Planter of the Garden has become the food for our souls.”

Jesus' cross is a tree of life, whose every leaf is a healing balm for hurting souls and who perpetually yields fruit for our food, never becoming barren. Jesus is always fruitful, and Jesus will always be fruitful – John sees that! John sees that it is exactly as the crucified-and-risen Jesus, exactly as the slain-and-standing Lamb, that Christ will be enthroned with his Father as our everything in our paradise regained. Jesus alone wins our paradise!

And we begin to taste this paradise now as we come to Jesus for the healing of his leaves, as we pluck the fruits of his atoning sacrifice and eat them, letting him make his life a part of us, and one day the whole of us. (And only at the cross of Christ, the tree of life, will all the nations find healing for what ails them.) For it's not for nothing that “in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb..., [and] they laid Jesus there” (John 19:41-42). And it's not for nothing that he rose victorious over death in a garden, and not for nothing that the first eyewitness to encounter the risen Lord Jesus “supposed him to be the gardener” (John 20:15). Gardens have everything to do with it. If you thought Jemmy Maher was good, wait 'til you see what this Gardening God can do with the New Jerusalem's New Eden, where the Tree of Life grows and the River of Life flows from God's own throne!

The cross shows us that the long history of sin has not been allowed to finally sidetrack humanity from the great and glorious destiny God has always had planned for us; nor does the long history of death's curse finally keep creation back from its destined blessing! Eden lies, not just behind us, but ahead of us. The world will be the garden-city it was always meant to be. Every place – be it New York or New Holland, be it Detroit or desert – will be filled with the lush verdure of Eden's spring, not erasing what we've built but reforming and conforming it to the design of Christ. The world will then one day be perfectly beautified; we will then one day live in perfect harmony with all creatures great and small; we will then one day sit under the shade of our own trees and our own vines, amidst our own flowers and our own fields; we will then one day savor all Eden's choicest fruits and fragrances; and best, we will at last one day walk with God himself, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as our sole supply and closest companion, face-to-face in the New-Eden Garden-City of God. For “Yahweh comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song” (Isaiah 51:3). Forever, through the grace of Christ our Gardener. Hallelujah!

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