Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
The book of Revelation is probably the most misinterpreted book in all of Scripture. A book that was meant to bring hope to a population of early Christians who were undergoing severe persecution has been turned into a book of death and of destruction, a book that people have taken literally when it was never meant to be taken literally, and a book that has been turned into a series of popular novels that has scared people when it was never meant to be that way. When I was up in Livingston, Montana, at the end of March, I wandered into a bookstore where I saw a used set of LaHaye and Jenkins’ Left Behind novels based on the literal interpretation of Revelation under the category “horror”. And I laughed, because usually you find these books in the religion section, and finally, one bookstore owner placed them where they belong. Yes, there is a lot of death and destruction in the book of Revelation. But interspersed among these horrific visions are the beautiful visions of what will one day happen, after all of that death and destruction. If you’ve been paying attention to the readings in worship the last several weeks, then you will have noticed that we have been reading some of these beautiful visions that Revelation describes.
Today the book of Revelation brings us a beautiful vision of the tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. If you remember your creation stories from Genesis, after Adam and Eve ate from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they were forbidden to eat from the tree of life so that they would not live forever with this knowledge. But now, in this creation that God has made new, the tree of life has reappeared. This is what happens because of Jesus’ resurrection: we can look forward to a new creation, where the leaves of the tree of life will heal us from all of our sinful desires: there will be no more war or pain or disease or death, but we will all be made new. And this tree will produce a variety of different kinds of fruit, of which we will be able to eat and to live forever. This was the original intention of God when he created us, that there would be no death, and with the resurrection of Jesus, we now have this hope that it will one day be true.
But there is more than the tree of life pictured in this passage from Revelation. We also have the picture of a city with its gates open constantly, and the people will bring into the city the glory of the nations. Revelation also tells us that nothing unclean will enter the city, which means that, as part of this new creation, God has made everything and everyone clean through the death and the resurrection of his Son. If you were here last week, we heard a story from Acts where the wall between Jewish believers and Gentile believers began to be torn down. This week, we see the picture of what that finally will look like: gates always open, nothing unclean but everything made sacred, and no walls between people. No more rich or poor, no more black or white or Native American or Hispanic, but all people coming into the new Jerusalem. This is a picture of what Jesus’ resurrection will one day bring about, and this is what Jesus’ resurrection enables us to hope for.
Notice, though, that this is not a picture of heaven that John sees. If we go back to the beginning of Revelation 21, where this particular vision begins, we see John write, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 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. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them. . . .’” This is not a picture of us floating from cloud to cloud in white robes playing harps. This is a concrete, bodily, new creation. This is a resurrection from the dead, where we will have physical bodies. This is the promise that Jesus brings: a new creation, a new earth, with a beautiful city and a tree of life that we can touch and of whose fruit we can eat. This is the hope that we have.
So, what does all of this mean for us today? Well, just as Revelation was meant to give hope to the people of 1st century Asia Minor, Revelation is meant to give us that hope today. When we despair over the state of politics and public dialogue in our country today, we think of that vision of a new creation and remember that life will not always be the way it is today, but that Jesus promises us something new. When we mourn the loss of a loved one to cancer, to suicide, or to an accidental death, we can be comforted with the hope that we will see our loved one again one day when Jesus makes all things new. On those days when we ourselves suffer from aches, pains, depression, and diseases, we can be comforted by the promise that one day, all of this hardship will be no more.
Even though this hope comforts us, however, that does not mean that we as Christians sit around and do nothing while we wait for Jesus to come again and create the earth anew. Since we, too, are part of that hope, we want everyone else to know that hope we have in Jesus Christ. And so, while we are not responsible for bringing in the new creation—only God can do that, after all—the Holy Spirit can use our faith in that new creation to help the world see what glimpses of that new kingdom will look like.
When we literally plant trees, we are planting hope. Trees take a long time to grow, and trees require lots of water. My family and I moved quite frequently growing up, and somehow we always seemed to move right after my mother planted a tree. She would always be disappointed that she wouldn’t be around to see how that tree grew, to enjoy its shade, to watch the birds and the squirrels that would nest in its branches. When we, too, plant a tree, we know that we might not be around to see how it grows up and how it might provide food and shelter, but we hope that it will grow and thrive and contribute to the life of this world which God has given us.
So, how do we symbolically plant trees in the hope that what we plant will take root, grow, and thrive? We make quilts to give warmth and shelter to people who might not otherwise have them. We give food to people who might otherwise go without. We teach our children about the hope that we have in Jesus during Sunday school, confirmation class, and in worship, so that they might continue having this hope after we are gone. We bless animals that give people companionship, showing the world that God loves and values all of creation, not just human beings. We visit people who are sick and who are lonely, showing them that God remembers them and loves them. We advocate for just treatment for all people, regardless of income level or race, because we know that when the new creation comes, we will see all people there—even people that we never expected to be there. We tear down walls and open gates instead of building up walls and shutting gates. And we plant real trees and care for the world which God has given us, knowing that something of this old world will carry over into the new, even when it will be refreshed and made new in a way that we don’t understand.
Martin Luther is supposed to have said, “If I knew the world were going to end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” Whether or not Luther truly said this, this statement is a statement of hope. It’s a crazy and beautiful kind of hope, a hope that even though the world as we know it might end tomorrow, that tree, that beautiful, essential part of God’s good creation that God loves, will still be there. It’s a hope that something of the creation as we know it will continue, and that tree will be essential to the survival of the creation. In that spirit of hope, the Lutheran World Federation decided that, instead of yet another bronze plaque or stone monument in honor of next year’s 500th anniversary of the Reformation, they would plant 500 trees in a garden in Wittenberg, Germany, and they would invite Lutheran communities from all around the world to sponsor a tree there. When I was in Wittenberg in February and March, I had the honor of ceremonially planting a tree on behalf of the Montana Synod. The trees planted in this garden give us hope and remind us that, one day, the tree of life will be available to us once again, that the home of God will be with us, and there will be no more mourning and crying and pain, for God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes. So let us continue planting trees, tearing down walls, and opening gates, because we know the vision and the hope that is in front of us, and we want to let the whole world in on that hope, too. Amen.