HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
July 10, 2016
Revelation 21:22-22:5 (CEB)
I didn’t see a temple in the city, because its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb. 23The city doesn’t need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because God’s glory is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25Its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there. 26They will bring the glory and honor of the nations into it. 27Nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is vile and deceitful, but only those who are registered in the Lamb’s scroll of life.
Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water, shining like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb 2through the middle of the city’s main street. On each side of the river is the tree of life, which produces twelve crops of fruit, bearing its fruit each month. The tree’s leaves are for the healing of the nations. 3There will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5Night will be no more. They won’t need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will shine on them, and they will rule forever and always.
An elderly couple passed away and found themselves at the pearly gates. Peter was there to welcome them. First he showed them their mansion. The husband, overwhelmed by the sheer luxury of it all, asked, “How much does this place cost per night?” Peter replied, “Sir, this is heaven, it doesn’t cost anything.” Then Peter took them to the dining room where table upon table was piled high with the most delicious foods you could imagine. Again overwhelmed by the glory of it all the man asked, “How much for the meals?” Peter said, “You forget, this is heaven, it’s free.” Peter then took them out back where they saw a fantastically beautiful golf course. As the man stood there open-mouthed Peter said, “Now before you ask, there are no greens fees, this is heaven, everything is free.” The man looked at his wife and said, “You and your confounded bran muffins, I could have been here 10 years ago!”
We imagine heaven to be in another realm, a different dimension, somewhere above us in the sky. But what we have before us this morning is the vision of heaven that was given to John. This is the fulfillment of all of scripture and all of God’s promises. It is everything we have hoped for and could possibly imagine; beautiful, radiant with the light of God, filled with living water and luscious fruit, but most importantly, full of God’s very presence. But there are two very important things to note about this New Jerusalem. One, it is not another dimension, another realm; this is earth remade, renewed, restored. And two, this is not just the New Jerusalem; this is the new Garden of Eden, the new creation, which is why we are looking at this Scripture this morning.
We have spent the last three weeks exploring the messages behind the gardens and gardening metaphors in our Scriptures through the series, “Gardening with God.” We started with the first garden, the Garden of Eden, God’s ideal creation, which was marred by the sin of humanity. Today, we find ourselves in the final chapters of the Bible exploring the new creation, the New Jerusalem, which is in many ways a re-created Garden of Eden that cannot and will not succumb to human sinfulness, because God in Christ Jesus has established his reign of heaven and earth once and for all.
So, we might say that heaven is the fulfillment of all our greatest hopes and dreams. We most often think of heaven like that couple getting a tour with St. Peter—free lodging in a five-star hotel with a top tier golf course and no greens fees. But John’s revelation describes heaven very specifically, and it’s probably not exactly how we have imagined it. So in order to understand all the different things that John is describing, I want to look back at how God’s creation was or is, and how it will be when Christ’s ultimate reign is established.
Do you remember that old Ford Mustang commercial, “It was. It is.” As flashy pictures of classic Ford Mustangs would flash on the screen, the narrator would say, “It was.” Then, pictures of the newer, re-created Mustang would appear as the narrator would say, “It is.” After a decade or two of bad styling in the late-80s and 90s, the commercial recalled the glory days of the Mustang as it introduced the newly redesigned and very flashy Mustang that harkened back to its earlier days, but in a modern way. It was very effective re-branding and marketing for Ford. And the same kind of thing is happening here, so we’re going to use this, “It was…it is…” approach as we consider the New Jerusalem this morning.
After going into some detail about the dimensions of this New Jerusalem, the first thing John reveals to us is that there is no Temple in this city. So think about what the Temple was. The Temple was a sign of permanence for the Israelites in the Promised Land. It was part of God’s covenant with David, and it was built to God’s specifications in the prosperous reign of King Solomon. It was a central part of Jewish worship and life. It was God’s dwelling place, and God’s only dwelling place—in the Holy of Holies, the centermost part of the Temple. And now look at the New Jerusalem. There is no Temple. The whole city is the dwelling place of God. In fact, we are to get the idea that the whole world is God’s dwelling place. John’s exact words are actually even more specific than that. He says, “Its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the lamb.” Rather than dwelling in a single place, God has become the dwelling place—the permanent, central figure in this new city. Because that is so, the city is a place of life, healing, and hope. And this is confirmed as we read on.
Next, John tells us that the city has no sun or moon. Now, think all the way back to creation. Do you remember the first thing that was created out of the chaos? Everything was dark, and God created light. On the fourth day of creation, God made the greater light, the Sun, to rule the day, and the lesser light, the moon, to rule the night. In our present world, God has given us the sun and the moon to bring light to both day and night. But in God’s new creation, there is no need for sun and moon because God himself is the light of the world. It is as Jesus has taught us. This is the fulfillment of God’s great promises. In fact, this light is so magnificent that there will never be darkness, no night in the New Jerusalem, and its gates will never be shut because there is nothing to fear. Darkness is banished, our light reigns!
But it gets better still. For in the center of this city of light, there is a great river. John calls this “the river of life-giving water,” and he says it is “shining like a crystal” as it flows from the throne of the lamb down the city’s main street. In Genesis, there were four rivers flowing from the Garden of Eden. And though rivers bring much needed water, rivers are also portrayed in Scripture as obstacles, barriers to a greater connection with God. It was. But now there is only one river, and it flows from the throne of the lamb—not an obstacle but a direct connection to the life-giving water of God himself. And it’s not just that the river flows down the city’s main street, it also flows beyond the city gates into the world, irrigating the earth around, filling the whole world with God’s love, the source and goal of all things.
On the banks of this river at the city center is the tree of life. This is where things really begin to get interesting. At the center of the Garden of Eden, there were two trees, the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was the failure of the first humans to follow God’s instruction that led to death and destruction. Though these two trees stood at the center of the Garden, Adam and Eve were specifically told not to eat from the tree the knowledge of good and evil. When they did, it meant the presence of the tree of life was irrelevant, for death came upon humanity. But now, there is no other tree; gone is the source of temptation; gone is the forbidden place. It was a place of destruction, but now it is a place of life; for the tree of life at the center of this city nourishes humanity, producing 12 different crops, one each month to feed the people—to give them life.
For millennia, century upon century, generation to generation, God has sought to bring all nations under his rule. This was the idea behind God’s covenant with Abraham. Abraham would be the father of a nation whose people would be as numerous as the stars. And when the Israelite nation was establish, God instructed them to be “a light to all nations.” Part of the covenant agreement as God’s chosen people was that the Jews would shine God’s light to all nations, bringing them under the rule of the one true God. They never succeeded. So ultimately, God sent his very own Son, who talked about God’s Lordship in a new way, who flung open the doors of God’s kingdom to Jews and Gentiles alike. We are waiting for the fulfillment of God’s kingdom, the promised New Jerusalem, and what John is telling us right here is that it is coming! This tree of life, nurtured and nourished by the life-giving waters flowing nearby will be a source of healing for all nations. Not only is God bringing all nations under his reign, he is healing our evil ways. The Babylonians and Romans who caused so many problems for the Jewish people, they are included in God’s kingdom. The Third Reich, the Iraqis, the Taliban, even ISIS will be subject to the healing powers of this tree of life, caught up in the ultimate arrival of God’s kingdom here on earth. It is a hard thing to imagine I think, but this is the vision John has passed on to us. Gone are the limitations and exclusions. It was death and destruction, but now it is healing and life. The gates are flung open, and none are beyond the reach of God’s cleansing, life-renewing waters, and God’s nurturing, healing life-giving fruit.
God’s presence, eternal light, healing, life—these elements have been present all along, but in a sort of limited way. They were like a signpost pointing to something greater. And what is laid out here in Revelation is the ultimate realization of these various elements, the true fulfillment of all of God’s promises. The first creation, the Garden of Eden, Jerusalem—they were a foretaste of all that is to come. Now, we have the assurance that there will be a new beginning, that all we have hoped for will one day come to fruition.
Let me end with just one more thought. The earliest Christians heard this vision of the New Jerusalem and understood it to be a metaphor for the church. That is, they understood this revelation to be a calling to be the New Jerusalem of the world—the church was to be a community of light and life for the whole world. What if it we understood it in the same way? What if, instead of waiting around in this life to get our ticket punched for a ride to the great “castle in the sky,” we heard here an urging to bring God’s kingdom to bear here and now? What if instead of worrying about getting to heaven, we worked to make heaven real here? Do you see the difference?
This is where this whole idea of gardening becomes so important. So I leave you with this question. What kind of gardener will you be? Are you going to sit around, doing nothing but wishing for a fruitful harvest? Or are you going to get busy sowing the seeds of life, shining the light of the Son, and nurturing this world with the life-giving waters of God’s love? Indeed, the New Jerusalem is a future reality, but God’s creation can be renewed even now, piece by piece, by those who have been touched by Christ’s life-giving love.
Know this my brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow gardeners; heaven isn’t something we just wait on.