Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water, shining like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb through 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. There will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and 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. Night 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.
Well, here we are. The final installment of our journey between the trees; the tree of life in Genesis and in Revelation. But we’re not out of the woods yet! (pun intended) We still need to connect these two trees. We’ve hear a reading of the second creation story in Genesis, but how does that fit with the tree in Revelation?
Well, first, we must admit that Revelation is one of the most difficult, even weird, books in the Bible. We don’t use it as often as we do other parts of the New Testament that’s for sure. And we usually don’t dabble in it for leisure and we certainly don’t read it to young children before bedtime! Most of this book is a ferocious mix of images, creatures, battles and symbols. We read about horsemen, dragons, beasts from the sea, beasts from the earth, lakes of burning sulfur, mouths with swords in them, and much, much more.
Yet despite its bizarre contents, the book of Revelation has had a profound impact on Western culture. It’s one of the most widely illustrated books of the Bible, depicted in architecture, tapestry, paintings, and altar pieces. And many works of literature reflect the pervasive power of this text, for example, the poetry of Dante and the works of John Milton, along with William Blake and T.S. Eliot. The Book of Revelation has also influenced a great deal of music, including Handel’s famous Messiah and Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic.[i]
But why? Why is this “weird book” so pervasive? Well, many assert that it tells of the unveiling of the end times, the apocalypse. And apocalyptic themes permeate popular culture today. Films and television programs regularly portray tales of the end of time, as does Christian fiction such as the Left Behind series and its precursor The Late Great Planet Earth. Really the first book to espouse all this “Rapture” nonsense. Consumers just can’t seem to get enough of apocalyptic literature.
Timothy Luke Johnson, however, a scholar of New Testament at Candler School of Theology, says that, “Few writings…have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation…Its history of interpretation is largely a story of tragic misinterpretation…its arcane symbols…have nurtured delusionary systems, both private and public, to the destruction of their fashioners and to the discredit of the writing.”[ii]
In other words, these misinterpretations, throughout the course of history and still today, have been used in harmful ways. And this, unfortunately, can happen with any sacred text, from any religions. People fashion and mold the holy words to suit their own agenda. Which of course leads to extremism. And extremists are not just religious; some have a warped sense of nationalism, some extremists are politically motivated, and some are driven simply by a deep and disturbing hate. Friends, bind hate or extremism of any kind, can end with nothing but a disastrous result.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. I know the world is a scary place right now, which can fuel plenty of anxiety and stoke apocalyptic imaginations. And sometimes when things seem out of control and there’s a lack of responsible leadership, we as citizens, as Christians, are challenged in our resolve. And apathy, or even extremism, might seem like an appropriate response. But they are not! As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are challenged to stand against extremism and to rise above apathy. Easy? No. But in these scary and difficult times we are called to be faithful, even when it’s not a popular position.
Now, Revelation, written in the late first century, was also a scary time for Christians. So, a man named John, a Christian Bishop in exile on the island of Patmos, offers this letter to his flock in seven churches in the country we now know as Turkey. It was at that time in history when this area of the world was still part of the Roman Empire. And many Romans saw Christians as disloyal or unpatriotic because they refused to worship the emperor. Some were imprisoned, tortured, or even executed. Many Christians, however, succumbed to the temptation simply to accommodate themselves to the prevailing religious and cultural rituals to avoid becoming social outcasts.
And it’s amid this social and political climate that the letter of Revelation was sent. Sent, not to foretell the end of time, but instead, to unveil the truth about the challenges the churches faced and about God’s presence with them. John wanted to give Christians hope, help them endure, and encourage them to resist complacency and accommodation with the religion and social practices of the empire around them.[iii]
And this is where we find ourselves as we encounter our text from Revelation today. The Bishop of Patmos says in this passage that “The trees leaves are for the healing of the nations” The symbolism here is obvious, isn’t it? The leaves are symbolic of God’s continuing act of creation; God act of continued healing. And we are a part of this action of healing. As co-creators with our Still-Speaking God, each of us is represented by one of the leaves. Do you see what I’m driving at here? This letter isn’t about the end, rather, it’s about a beginning. Like I’ve said many times before, Biblical prophecy isn’t about predicting the future, rather it’s about making changes in the present. When Jeremiah stood before his people and shook his fist, he wasn’t predicting something what was going to happen thousands of years in the future, he was telling them to straighten up right then and there, or exile would be the result. He was speaking within the parameters of his own lifetime.
So, if we are symbolically one of these leaves on the tree of life, then it stands to reason that we are called to be participants in the “healing of the nations.” And further, if we are to view Revelation, and especially our text for today, not as an end but rather as a beginning, then our understanding of prophecy would inform us that “the trees’ healing leaves” are also symbolic of God’s on-going healing to all nations. What do I mean by that?
Well, first, there’s the healing of God’s creation. The environment is something we all share. It doesn’t matter what nation one is from or what religion one practices; we all share this earth. And I know, the issues of our environment are huge. Global climate change, pollution, the over-use of limited resources to name but a few; these things seem like impossible mountains to scale. But apathy isn’t the answer. It’s not the time to throw up our hands and say, “there’s nothing I can do.” Instead, I would invite you to look at some of the grass roots movements taking place. Urban and organic farming are on the rise along with the use of solar and wind energy. Recycling, repurposing, reusing have moved beyond mere buzz words and have become a part of our everyday language. And there are so many more examples. But do we have a long way to go? Yes. But despite all the recent obstacles that have been placed in our way, we can get there! This is a calling from God. We are charged in Genesis to be co-creators with God, to be responsible for God’s wonderful creation by being good stewards of the land, plants and animals, and the air and the water.
But it goes even further than just the environment. If you’ve been watching the news or been paying attention to social media, then you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the outpouring of prayers and active support for the many, many people struggling in our nation today. All I need to do is mention the name of the places: Texas, Florida, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Miramar, Mexico City, The Sudan, Napa Valley, Las Vegas. In many of these places we hear story after story of neighbor helping neighbor; of volunteers loading up and heading into utterly devastated and sometimes dangerous places. My friends, that’s Revelation’s “healing of the nations” in action. Is the healing complete? Of course not, but these things, these actions, these instances of loving our neighbor, it’s a beginning. It’s a beginning.
It’s a beginning to counter-acting apathy and extremism. Hate can be overcome by love. The debilitating bleakness of “there’s nothing I can do” can be overcome by hope …and by faith. The Rev. David Moyer, one of our former Conference Ministers once said, “Here is one place that all of us can take-on a personal responsibility, both as individuals and as members of our own religious communities, we must do all we can to learn about other religions and cultural groups, to respect diversity and differences and to understand a bit of the history of people whose practices and traditions are different from our own.”[iv]
God’s call on us as Christians, my friends, is to co-exist with people of other faiths and differing cultures. It’s as simple as that. And when we begin, as the wider Church and as a society to realize that God has placed a great diversity of people on this planet and that we are to attempt to live in peace and harmony with all of them, then healing can begin in earnest. The leaves of the tree, us, we are charged with being a part of the healing of all nations, all faiths, all cultures, and especially, all of God’s beautiful, natural world.
May the continuing testament of a Still-Speaking God enrich our understanding of the Bible, the diversity of cultures, and of each other. May it be so. Amen.
[i] Dr. Jan Love. The Grace of the City of God Reflection on Rev. 21:10-22:5 (Day1.org, May 09, 2010)
[ii] Timothy Luke Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament.
[iii] Ibid: Jan Love.
[iv] Rev. Dr. David Moyer in a pastoral letter to the churches of the Wisconsin Conference (UCC) 2012.