May 26, 2019: Between The Trees

May 26, 2019                                                                                        Rev. Rhonda Blevins, DMIN

 Between the Trees

Genesis 2:4b-10a; 15-17 & Revelation 21:10; 21:22-22:5

 In the day that the Lord  God made the earth and the heavens,  when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground;  but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.  And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flows out of Eden to water the garden . . . The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God . . . I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.  And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.  The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.  Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.  People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.  But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. 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. 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. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. 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. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

______

 Two old men, Abe and Sol, are sitting on a park bench feeding pigeons and talking about baseball. Abe turns to Sol and asks, “Do you think there’s baseball in Heaven?” Sol thinks about it for a minute and replies, “I dunno. But let’s make a deal—if I die first, I’ll come back and tell you if there’s baseball in Heaven, and if you die first, you do the same.” They shake on it and sadly, a few months later, poor Abe passes on. Soon afterward, Sol sits in the park feeding the pigeons by himself and hears a voice whisper, “Sol... Sol... .” Sol responds, “Abe! Is that you?” “Yes it is, Sol,” whispers Abe’s ghost. Sol, still amazed, asks, “So, is there baseball in Heaven?” “Well,” says Abe, “I’ve got good news and bad news.” “Gimme the good news first,” says Sol. Abe says, “Well, there is baseball in Heaven.” Sol says, “That’s great! What news could be bad enough to ruin that?” Abe sighs and whispers, “You’re pitching on Friday.”

 Country singer Kenny Chesney has a song with these lyrics: “Everybody want to go to heaven, but nobody want to go now.”

 But what if we didn’t have to go anywhere to get to heaven? What if we could bring heaven to earth?

 That’s exactly what the author of Revelation envisions in the last chapters of the book that takes its place as the last chapter of the Bible. This is our second week in this strange book. If you were here last week, you may remember that the writer of Revelation tells us that he heard God say, “I am making all things new. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” Today’s lectionary reading skips past some of the detail about the city of pure gold, with gates of pearl and walls adorned with all kinds of jewels like sapphire, emerald and amethyst. What we imagine, through this man’s vision, is a redeemed earth. Utopia restored. And in the middle of it all, there stands the tree of life.

 Rob Bell observes that we find the tree of life at the very beginning, and again at the very end.[1]

 Genesis, which means “origins,” tells us how we came to be. We read about God creating the heavens and the earth. We read about Adam and Eve, how they were placed in a beautiful, perfect garden with flowing rivers. We read how they were given meaningful, significant work to do in caring care for the world—how there was peace and harmony between Adam and Eve and God. We read about two trees, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We discover that God has such respect for us, that God allowed us to live however we want. We can choose God’s way, or we can choose our own path. Bell suggests that maybe the power in the story, is not so much that it happened, but that it happens.

 And then in the book Revelation, the last book of the Bible, we read about a vision of God making all things new, a new heaven and a new earth. We’re given glorious details about the new Jerusalem that comes down from above. A crystal river. The healing of the nations. Everyone at peace. We discover we will actively participate in this restoration. And in the middle of it all, there stands the tree of life.

 Bell asks the question: “If this is how it ends, and Genesis is how it begins, do we live between the trees?”

 If so, then we’re just a blip on the screen of eternity. God existed before time began. God will exist at the end of time and beyond.

 If this life is a blip, then what’s the purpose?

 There seems to be two primary views within Christianity—perhaps even here in this sanctuary—two primary ways to understand what the purpose is of our life between the trees.

 In the first view, it’s all about getting “beyond the tree”—that is, to get to heaven.

 I remember as a kid going to a crusade. I was about 14-years-old. A well-known evangelist was coming through town and “holding forth” at the local high school football stadium, and several people from my church were going. Being the church nerd I’ve been my whole life, I wanted to go. Now, keep in mind, in my Baptist tradition I had already been “saved.” I had received believer’s baptism. But when that fiery preacher started preaching, talking about how hot hell is, and how bad I was—and he asked in his fiery evangelist way, “Do you know that you know that you know that you’re going to heaven?” Well I knew . . . but I didn’t knew that I knew that I knew. So when he offered the invitation, the “all heads bowed and every eye closed” kind of invitation, I went down and I got “saved.” Again. And later on baptized, in the same church, by the same preacher. Again.

 For some of us, the first time just doesn’t take. J

 Within this view of Christianity, the main thing is making sure you get to heaven, having some sort of fire insurance—a guarantee you’re “up there” instead of “down there.” Life (between the trees), then, is mostly waiting around until you die or Jesus comes back, whichever comes first.

 A lot of the old hymns seem to have this view:

·        “In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.”

·        “Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away.”

·        “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.”

 Old hymns like these and others have had a tremendous impact on theology—instilling deep within many of us this idea that life is about getting to the other side and trying to take as many people with us as possible by convincing them to believe the same things we believe.

 I’ve got to confess, although this was the theology of my youth and my early training as a minister, these days it leaves me wanting so much more. What good is faith if doesn’t help me now? In this life? What good is faith if it doesn’t help others now? In this life?

 I believe Jesus had something to say about life, here and now. Listen to how he put it: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) Life abundant must be more than sitting around waiting for heaven. If it was all about heaven, then why did Jesus spend so much time feeding the hungry and healing the sick? Why did he risk his reputation eating with sinners and why would he stick his neck out to rescue the woman caught in adultery? Why would he waste time with the woman at the well or turn over tables at the temple?

 If it’s just about getting to heaven, couldn’t Jesus have done a huckuva lot less and still have died for us? Did Jesus’ life matter, or merely his death?

 I believe in eternal life, but . . . here’s confession number two . . . I don’t know a whole lot about it. I’m skeptical of those who tell you exactly what happens on the other side. We just don’t know from our vantage point (between the trees).

 In Revelation, the vision for us is not so much about what happens “when we all get to heaven,” rather, we see heaven coming down to earth. This vision shifts our focus from upward to forward. This vision invites us to reimagine a restored earth, how God originally created it, and even what our part might be in making that vision a reality. Instead of waiting around for death or a second coming, or trying to convince everyone around me that my way of thinking is the only way that will spare you an eternity burning in a pit of flames—instead of that messed up view—we’ve got serious work to do: stuff like feeding the hungry, healing the sick, eating with sinners, rescuing people off death row, befriending foreigners, protesting corruption—you know, doing the stuff Jesus did.

 This, to me, is a far more compelling vision of the faith!

 So . . . two prominent views within Christianity of what life between the trees is all about. The first, a focus on getting to heaven after life on earth. The second, bringing heaven down to earth from its lofty place somewhere out there.

 But are they competing views? Some would say “yes.” In fact, one large protestant group is currently promoting a seminar they’re putting on this summer on the “dangers” of the latter view.

 I don’t think that having a hopeful view of what happens beyond the trees is incompatible with a robust theology of justice that carries forth the works of Jesus in the here and now—working toward the vision set forth in the last chapter of the last book of the Bible—the vision of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven. And in this glorious new city, there’s no temple. Why? There’s no need for one because God’s creation . . . God’s people are the very temple of God. The gates of this city are always open—all peoples and all nations may freely enter. The tree of life provides continuous source of food; its leaves are the food of peace.

 Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? What does that have to do with you and me?

 There’s an ancient Jewish saying, “a person’s good deeds are used by God to plant the very seeds of Eden.” A restored earth. What a hopeful view! Hope is not limited to the afterlife but the now-life too!

 Hope is what got Mother Theresa to bathe the putrid flesh of lepers in Calcutta. Hope is what made Martin Luther King, Jr., and the others walk across that bridge in Selma. Hope is what let Nelson Mandela get out of bed every morning across long years of unjust imprisonment. [2]

Hope is what gets Dave DeVisser over to the free clinic to volunteer in the pharmacy. Hope is what motivates Teddi McCune and friends to serve the homeless at Peace Café. Hope is what got Lurane Worth swinging her hammer with Habitat for Humanity, after her own home was ravaged by a hurricane. Hope is what has taken the Whites and Lenharts to Guatemala to provide medical care to people who have no access to medical care. Hope is what spurs so many of you to dig deep into your financial wells to give to support this church and so many other causes in our community and beyond.

It is the hopeFUL who do all that precisely because they even now serve a risen Savior who also right now has all the power to accomplish what will fully come when the vision of Revelation 21-22 becomes each creature’s everyday reality.[3]

 Will you join me in being the living hope of God’s “kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven?” Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” What hope-filled thing might we do as we work together towards that day?

 It ends where it all began. There will be a time when we make it through the darkest valleys
of cooking appliance bombs, bubble-bursting economies, bone-chilling diagnoses,
our own personal failures, dead-ends, loneliness and fears.
We will make our way through the shadows towards the shimmering river of life,
leading to the primordial garden, where we will be healed by the leaves

and the sweet grainy fruit of the tree of life.
We will no longer turn our faces towards the wall in order to hide our shame.
Rather the Lamb will lead us to the New Jerusalem.
The gates will be open wide. In thanksgiving we will enter. No more hatred, envy, or fear.
God will be present among all the wandering people of the nations.
We will find ourselves streaming into this strange city
along with the peoples of different cultures, peoples of times past and future.
We walk by a faint glimmer of light now,
yet it grows more defined as the glory of God halos the city skyline, welcoming us home.
[4]

 

 


[1] Check out Rob Bell’s creative talk, the inspiration for much of this sermon, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPcXy4aoKP4

 

[2] Scott Hoezee,Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5,” https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-6c/?type=lectionary_epistle (accessed 25 May 2019).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rick Fry, “It Ends Where It All Began,” https://rickfry130.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/it-ends-where-it-all-began/ (accessed 25 May 2019).

Shari Maxwell