Our text for today is from the apocalypse. The writer John is on the island of Patmus, southwest of Turkey, giving testimony of Jesus to the Church.
He’s doing this because difficulties ensue, and lie ahead, for him and his fellow believers, and he needs to assure the Church that in spite of everything they were hearing and seeing and enduring—the rumblings of war, persecution, chaos, uncertainty, and even death—they should remember, draw hope from, and be motivated to keep going by the victory that will be final—the victory of God.
And here within the Revelation depictions of the forthcoming apocalypse, we get a glimpse of a vision that is often forgotten when talking about the typically foreboding apocalypse. They are intentional visions meant to encourage, empower, and motivate the Church to keep going and living forth from its call; to be faithful, persistent, and resilient in its work and ministry despite the chaos and uncertainty happening all around them.
The visions are vivid, beautiful, and inspiring. And the most beautiful vision of all comes at the end of the book, our text for today—the river of peace and love, with the tree of life along its banks, with fruit that is constant and the leaves for the healing of the nations.
This image gives hope and courage, it’s an image that implores us to keep going and living forth from our call, to be faithful, persistent, and resilient in our work and ministry, all sustained by the crystal river that sustains the tree of life.
This is an image we would do well to remind ourselves of, often, especially today as we consider our pledges for the coming year, and especially today in the midst of the harsh realities that our world needs the tree of life now more than ever.
We would do well to be mindful of this imagine, and the truth it conveys, because we are a church that finds itself in a difficult place, much like the early Church.
We are in a time when today’s Church—ours and many others—are facing a downward trend that shows fewer and fewer people seeing the church as important, relevant, meaningful, or even trustworthy.
Yet we are in a time when the world that is losing hope needs us as a church, and needs the Church, to share and give and provide what God calls us to share, give, and provide—a vision for, and a way to find and achieve, new and renewed life that comes from the goodness and grace, hope, peace, joy, and love of God.
As a church, that is our job and it’s critical we do our job because the world cannot find such in many places anymore because, as we know, the world has been overrun by hate, bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia, growing socioeconomic gaps, and all manners of conduct that demeans, excludes, and perpetrates acts of aggression upon others.
Our world today needs God’s Tree of Life—the shade for a respite from the harsh realities all around, the fruit to sustain us in difficult times, and the leaves for the healing of the nations.
The images of Revelation are thrilling and chilling. But there is no line more chilling than the one that speaks about what John did not see. A few verse earlier in this chapter John says, “I saw no temple in the city.”
Now to really grasp the cold stab of that icicle, change the word “temple” to the word “church.” “I saw no church in the city.” Can you imagine a landscape more barren and forsaken than that? No church. And yet, we can, can’t we?
We can imagine such a landscape—pick up a newspaper, turn on the news, scroll through social media, look at the political races as we move toward election day, look at our own lives, our own paycheck or our own social security check, or our own health concerns or those of our loved ones—we can certainly imagine a landscape with no respite, no hope, no healing.
Or look at what happened at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last Saturday where a gunman slaughtered eleven people in an anti-Semitic shooting spree.
Yes, it is all too easy to imagine a world where there is no Tree of Life—a racist, bigoted, white nationalist literally shot it up last week.
Which is why the vision cast in Revelation is so important, because it is the work and ministry we as a church are called to live and share.
We need to find hope and encouragement and empowerment and be reminded so that we can show others that though the world seems determined to destroy itself, and us along with it, that God is still creating, God is still starting new beginnings, God has not given up. And neither should we.
That is what the Tree of Life reveals. That is the true role of the church. To do as God does. To be as God is. To be blessed and to be a blessing to others by offering respite from the harsh realities all around, fruit to sustain us in difficult times, leaves for the healing of the nations.
As a church that is our job. But today it’s a lot harder to do the job of church because the Church looks a lot different today than we might want to realize.
No longer does the Church bask in the comfort of being the fully functional mechanism of seasoned believers nurturing younger generations who will one day seamlessly flow into positions and places of endless functionality.
No longer does the Church live worry free of meeting its ministry hopes and financial demands. Instead the Church is left to find ways to do more with less.
Instead the Church is left to recapitulate Gospel truths after too many twist the Gospel for a personal agenda and render the Church corrupt and untrustworthy.
It’s a bleak picture from one, narrow perspective. But when we look at it with the vision cast in Revelation, then we reframe this bleak picture into a hope filled vision of the river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of God, with the tree of life by its banks, casting shade of respite, filled with life giving fruit, and leaves for the healing of the nations.
As a church reframing the bleak picture with words and actions of hope is our job, and the world needs us to do this job—whether they know it or not. But it takes all of us doing this job together.
Friend and colleague, Jim Bane, who is the pastor of New Horizon’s Christian Church in Akron, was on the regional staff when Camp Christian was doing its massive capital building years ago. He tells a story of when they were taking in the sights of the newly completed closing circle spot, complete with dedication bricks, and eternal flame torch.
Jim tells how the newly planted trees around the spot were small and rather inconsequential, commenting to the architect that he had envisioned bigger trees outlining the closing circle spot—bigger trees that would provide shade on hot Saturdays during closing circles of camp.
The architect’s response was simple yet profound… “Some day they will.”
That architect’s vision was a vision of not only the future, but of the right now. The work done today will bless others in the future. And we would do well to recall this vision as well, because right now we enjoy the shade of those who worked on our behalf long before us. And we too work, today, to provide shade for those who will come long after we are gone.
Our pledge to partner with God is not just about 2019. It’s about years and decades from now. It’s about nurturing this Tree of Life for generations today, and generations to come.
Our apocalyptic text for today wasn’t just speaking of End Times. It was speaking of Now Times too. To a church that was in the midst of difficulties, scarcity, war, persecution, chaos, uncertainty, and even death, John reminded the people of the hope Jesus assures. And he did it to encourage, empower, and motivate the Church to keep going and living forth from its call, to be faithful, persistent, and resilient in its work and ministry despite the chaos and uncertainty happening all around them.
He did this because he knew, just as God knows, the Tree of Life is what will bring a hopeless world what it needs: respite, sustenance, healing. As a church, this is our job. This is our calling. And we must do it together.
So may we aim to continue to be a place where any and all can find the Tree of Life, and be able to sit in its shade and find respite from the harsh realities all around; where any and all can eat of its fruit to sustain them in difficult times, and where any and all can begin to find healing in their broken world.
Let that be our pledge today. Amen.