A River and a Tree

Revelation 22:1-6, 12-20 / Easter 7C / 12 May 2013 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

We’ve been focused on God’s city during these weeks of Easter. We have heard its liturgy, marveled at its gates of pearl, its streets of translucent gold, its beautiful multi-colored foundations refracting the light of Christ in all the colors of the rainbow. We have delighted in its perfect symmetry, its Israelite gates that are open to the four corners of the world, its endless day in the light of the Lamb.

Today there is one more vision, one more view of the glory to be revealed on the Last Day. A River and a Tree.

In the book of Genesis, an unnamed river flows out of Eden and divides into four rivers that flow to the four corners of the earth. And in the center of Eden there are two trees – the Tree of Life and the forbidden Tree of Knowing Good and Evil. You know how that story went. Adam and Eve chose the knowing tree over the tree of life, bit into the notion that they could be like gods, and brought Sin, Death, and condemnation on all of humanity right down to us. You will recall that this one act of rebellion barred them from the Tree of Life and expelled them from the garden.

The story of the Bible is the story of the urbanization of history. What begins in a garden called Eden ends in a city called Jerusalem, the city God builds that comes down from heaven. Like the garden of Eden, there is a river, the river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of God (that is, the Father) and of the Lamb. It is the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son, here depicted as a flowing river.

We are reminded of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, in which He promised her springs of living water welling up to eternal life. We are reminded of the stream of water and blood that flowed from Jesus’ side at the moment of His death. We are reminded of our baptismal birth “from above” by water and Spirit. Here all the images of streams of water flowing in the desert bringing life come together as one crystalline clear river flowing through the center of God’s city.

There in the center of the city, on either side of the Spirit’s banks, is the Tree of Life. No longer guarded by a flaming sword and an angel, now it is openly free to all. It’s been hidden for the entire history of the world, this tree that brings life, and now here at the end of the Scriptures it makes its reappearance. There is no sword, no angel, nothing to guard it. It is open to the public, free for the picking, life for all is available. It is in season twelve months out of the year with twelve kinds of life-giving fruit. As a foodie, I appreciate that touch. Even the tree of life is not a monotonous sameness. Not just its fruit, but also its leaves are a medicine to bring healing to the nations.

The image of the tree goes from the two trees in the center of Eden to the tree of the cross, the blood stained tree of death and life where the Son of God was lifted up like the bronze serpent in the wilderness. The tree meant death and curse to Him but life and forgiveness for the world. The cross of Jesus is our “tree of life” now in this present age as we eat of its fruits – the Body and the Blood of Jesus – and in eating and drinking have life in His name. By the tree, He overcame Sin and Death and the lie of the devil. By the tree, Jesus redeemed humanity. Christ died for all, and therefore all died. From the tree flowed the water of Baptism, the blood that is the cleansing of our Sin. He became our Sin; He died our Death. On the tree of the cross, Jesus took the place of damned humanity.

We get from that tree to this one by way of Jesus’ resurrection, the open tomb, the Easter appearances, and the ascension, His return to glory, His being hidden by a cloud, His session at the right hand of the Father. From there He pours out His Holy Spirit at Pentecost and renews all things by His watery Spirit-ed Word.

The curse is ended. Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree. Cursed is Jesus in our place. In God’s city there is no Sin, no Death, no condemnation. There is only the Lamb and the Throne and the River – the Son, the Father, and the Spirit.

“Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.” There is a reality here, the stark reality of our sinfulness. Our robes must be washed. There is no saint who has walked through this life whose robe is not soiled by Sin. Everything we do, even our most noble acts of charity and self-sacrifice, are still marred by Sin because they are done by sinful hands and spoken by unclean lips. The new man in Christ must work through the old man in Adam, and that means that Adam’s fingerprints are on everything we do. Our robes must be washed in the blood of the Lamb that alone cleanses from sin. There is no other detergent that can wash away our immoralities, our murders, our idolatries, and lies, and falsehoods.

Oh, but we try. Like criminals trying to cover their crime, we try to hide the bloody evidence under our pretenses of piety and bury them in the shallow graves of our religion. But it doesn’t work. God flushes us out of hiding. “Adam, where are you?” “What have you done?” As sinners, we belong outside the gates with the dogs and sorcerers and the immoral and murderous and idolators. Were it not for the blood of the Lamb, that would be our fate. The gates of God’s city would shut to us.

But God has justified us in Jesus. He has declared us righteous by His Word. He has washed our filthy robes and made them spotlessly white in the blood of the Lamb. Outside the city go your sins, like sewage directed away from the city. That’s where every sinful thought, word, desire, and deed goes when it is washed away. It is flushed to the depths of hell, to an eternal incendiary fire. But you, washed by the blood, enter the city pure and holy and righteous, clothed with a righteousness not your own, cleansed by a blood shed for you, redeemed by Jesus. The city is open to you. You have a right to eat of the tree of life, just as you’ve been eating of that tree in this life at the Lamb’s Supper.

“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’” That is the Church’s invitation to the world as she preaches the Word. “Come.” Like a middle eastern water boy hawking a cool drink on a hot street corner, the Church opens its doors and offers cool refreshment to all who thirst for righteousness. “Come, drink freely, without price.” It is free to you, costly to Christ who paid for it. Come and drink of that pure and living water that flows from the throne and the Lamb, be refreshed by the Spirit through Word and Baptism and Supper.

That’s the invitation the Church is supposed to be preaching. “Come.” Not “Stay away until you’ve cleaned up your act” or “Go away until you’ve become acceptably religious” but “Come.” Come, sinners, one and all, to the water that cleanses and refreshes. Come, you weary and burdened and broken and Christ will give you rest. Come, you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and you will be satisfied.

“Surely I am coming soon,” Jesus says. It’s His last word to the church and the world. To the world it’s a threat, to the church a promise. Forty days after His resurrection and appearing to His disciples, Jesus disappeared in a cloud to be seated at the right hand of the throne of God as the Lamb who was slain but lives. He didn’t go away to another place, because the right hand of God is not a “place” in our understanding of space. In ascending to the right hand of God, Jesus is not absent but present in a more profound way here and now than when He sat at table with His disciples in the upper room.

Not only does Jesus intercede for us at the right hand of the Father, not only does He mediate between God and Man, not only does He reign as Lord of all creation, lording His death and life over all things to make all things new, but He is present among us and with us to justify, sanctify, and glorify us in Him and to work through us to do His goodness and mercy toward those whom God has put in our path in life. In other words, the Jesus you can’t see is a “more present” Jesus than the One you could see.

But Jesus you will see on the Last Day, with a new set of resurrected eyes, is the Jesus who now reigns at the right hand of the Father, the Lamb who was slain but lives, who breathes out His Spirit on the earth through the Church to bring light and life to all and to welcome the world to the city of God where life is the order of the day.

There is a river and there is a tree that bring life. The Spirit and the Bride say to you, “Come.”

In the name of Jesus,