“Rivers and Trees, Gates and Walls”

Updated: Sep 29

These are not the first time the faithful have heard this sort of words.

an artistic image of a tree with the branches as swirls.

Revelation 21:10, 22-27 and 22:1-5

May 22, 2022

Dr. Todd R. Wright These are not the first time the faithful have heard this sort of words.[1] Genesis tells of God causing a stream to rise and water the earth; of making trees to grow that are pleasant to the sight and good for food, including the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But when Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the latter, they are cast out of the garden and an angel with a flaming sword is placed to guard the way to the tree of life. Yikes! Proverbs gushes “Happy are those who find wisdom and those who get understanding … She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her!” Nice! And Ezekiel describes a vision in which he is brought to the Temple. Water flows from the entry and wherever the river goes there is life. Trees grow on both sides of the river. Their leaves do not wither, and their fruit does not fail. The fruit is for food and the leaves are for healing. Perfect!

 

So, when John writes to the seven churches, he is drawing on words that have a history. And unlike other places in Revelation, the images here are not difficult to decipher: Rivers of water that have the power to abundantly sustain life in a dry and dusty land. Trees that provide for those who hunger every day and need mending from a bruising world. And behind it all, a God who creates and sustains, who cares and saves. When the letter came, smuggled off the prison island of Patmos, John’s people felt like they were facing the end of the world. So, they must have drunk in his words – words that flashed with the authority of ancient scripture; words that nourished their souls and restored their spirits; words that gave them hope and helped them endure and encouraged them to resist![2] Words, after all, have power to fill a void where there had only been an empty page, to capture darting emotions, and to give weight and form to flimsy hopes and gnawing fears. Maybe the reason these words keep coming up – in genres as varied as creation tales and wisdom literature, prophetic visions and in our text for the day – is that the world is often frightening. Pastor Katherine Willis Pershey says she does not, as a general rule, read dystopian fiction, but her book club picked Station Eleven, the best-selling novel about a virus that wipes out most of humanity that was recently made into a 10-episode series on HBO. One chapter haunts her. In “An Incomplete List”, the author catalogs the casualties of the flu apocalypse: “No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities.” Pershey observes, “Surely the miserable deaths of so many people—the meticulously crafted characters as well as the anonymous masses — should have been what made me saddest. But I didn’t weep for the human loss in Station Eleven. Fictional characters die fictional deaths, and this rarely evokes more than fictional grief. It was the vision of a life without swimming pools and porch lights that undid me. It filled me with a potent nostalgia for a world that has not ended — not yet.”[3] If she is right, then behind these words, in Revelation and elsewhere, are people facing the end of the world as they know it, with both fear and nostalgia. Maybe you feel that too.

 

In response, John invites the people of the seven churches “to move out of Babylon and into the grace of the city of God.”[4] He invites them to trust the God who has walked with their ancestors. He invites them to look to rivers and trees, to walls and gates and see the hand of God. I saw a lot of rivers and trees on the Appalachian Trail. Hiking 15 miles a day on paths cut into the sides of mountains, littered with rocks and roots, is thirsty work. But I was never far from flowing water: great rivers that churned toward the sea, streambeds to be crossed on slippery stones, seeps that trickled water from deep within the mountain. I took the sound of flowing water to be the song of God’s provision. And perhaps you have heard the AT called the green tunnel. It is a name justly earned based on all the tree cover. And while I didn’t look to the trees for fruit or healing potions, I was dependent on them for the blazes that kept me from wondering off and getting lost. Still, that time – on the trail and with family, in worship or spent reading – was both nourishing and healing after years of hard and joyful service. A pastor’s life includes being trapped in lots of meeting rooms, crises that necessarily take precedent over family plans, the planning of worship (and anxiety over its execution) that drains strength and makes it difficult to be personally nurtured, as well as interruptions that necessitate skimming rather than reading that is deep and wide. So as part of my sabbatical, I addressed each of those areas. You’ll see displays about them in the fellowship hall. I hope you’ll wander through them before or after you grab a bite to eat. But Revelation also talks about walls and gates. Those are human-built efforts at security. Ezekiel knows such measures. He says God will return to the Babylon destroyed Temple, but the gates will be shut – so a sinful people will not enter. In contrast, John sees a day when the gates will never be shut and people from all nations will be welcome. The gates will be open because God has forgiven our sin. John is also saying this new world will be safe …. because God will make it so. People will ask whether I felt safe on the Trail. I did. I slept most nights under a shelter with no doors. I walked and ate my meals with people of all ages from all over the world. I never felt unsafe. It felt like a foretaste of what Revelation is promising. It felt God-blessed! In fact, my whole sabbatical was a blessing, and I’m grateful for everyone who made it possible! I realize that most of you will not be given the gift of three months to seek healing. But God promises that healing is the ongoing divine project for everyone! So, look for signs of what God is doing … in rivers and trees that supply life; in walls and gates that have been opened; and in the words of God that give people hope, and help them endure, and encourage them to resist! Amen

[1] See Genesis Chapters 2 and 3, Provers 3:13-18, and Ezekiel 47:1-12 [2] This last construction (give hope, help endure, and encourage to resist) is from “The Grace of the City of God” by Jan Love, 5/9/10 [3] From “Come Slowly, Lord Jesus” in the Christian Century, 5/1/15 [4] This line is from Gail O’Day’s entry on Revelation in Theological Bible Commentary, page 473
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