The finish-line–Revelation 22

“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17—read Revelation 22:1-21).

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, he made a garden as the home of the first man and the first woman. In that garden grew the tree of life. But when the man and the woman ate the fruit of another tree, fruit that had been forbidden to them, God removed them from the garden. He did not want them to eat the fruit of the tree of life and live forever in their sin and rebellion and separation from him. Instead, he wanted them to pass through death to everlasting life, to be restored to fellowship with him.

God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, promising them a garden-like home in the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. To reach that land, they had to travel through the wilderness. God made a covenant with his people in the wilderness, saying, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” But the Israelites doubted God’s promise; they feared the Canaanites living in the Promised Land and failed to trust God. Therefore, they remained in the wilderness forty years, and their children crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land.

Like a shepherd searching for lost sheep, Jesus came into this wilderness of sin to rescue us. He battled the devil’s temptations in the wilderness, and Jesus won. When the time came to fulfill his promise of redemption, Jesus went into a garden to pray. He was seized in that garden and taken to trials and to the cross. But, after his death on the cross, he was buried in a garden, and in that garden his victory was proclaimed as Jesus rose from the dead.

Now the new creation is described as a garden. As rivers flowed from Eden to water the earth, so a river flows from the throne of God through the main street of the New Jerusalem. That river carries the water of life, the redeeming water that gives life to all God’s people. The tree of life grows on either side of that river, with twelve kinds of fruit to nourish all the people of God. Its leaves are for the healing of the nations. Because our sins have been removed, we are no longer barred from eating the fruit of the tree of life. We can live forever, because our rebellion against God has ended and all sin and evil has been removed from our lives.

One of the historic prayers of the Church mentions the devil, saying, “that he who by a tree once overcame might likewise by a tree be overcome.” The cross is that tree where the serpent’s head was crushed. It is a tree of life, even though nothing could be deader than a bare, wooden, fruitless cross, an instrument of death rather than life. We are all trees in the Lord’s orchard, meant to bear fruit for him. Yet apart from him we can do nothing. We might have green leaves, suggesting life, but we offer him no fruit. We are dead trees, fit only for the fire. Only Jesus of Nazareth bears fruit fit for the kingdom of heaven. But by going to the dead tree of the cross, Jesus gives us life. He makes us fruitful trees, worthy of his kingdom. His cross truly is the tree of life that makes us alive, watered by the river of the water of life, yielding fruit in due season (Psalm 1:3).

The last chapter of Revelation seems almost a scatter-shot of promises, echoing the previous chapters of the book as well as those of the other books of the Bible. Jesus speaks, and his messengers speak on his behalf. Even John becomes confused, worshiping an angel who speaks Christ’s promises, and being scolded by the angel for his confusion. The angel calls himself a fellow-servant of the apostle and of his brothers, the prophets; he tells John, “Worship God!” We also, as fruit-bearing trees in God’s orchard, can be fellow-servants with the apostles and prophets and angels; we also have the joyful privilege and obligation to share God’s life-giving Word, to bring forgiveness to sinners and hope to the victims of sin through the tree of life, the cross of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is coming soon. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. He is also everything in between. He is both the root and the descendant of David—David’s son and David’s Lord. He is the bright morning star, first-risen from the dead to promise all of us a resurrection like his on the Day he appears in the clouds.

Revelation 22 includes a warning not to add anything to the book of Revelation, nor to take away anything from the book. This warning applies to the entire Bible. “Until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Torah until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). But Jesus has fulfilled the promises of Moses and the prophets: he has done everything required to rescue God’s people, to defeat evil in all its forms, and to make everything new. Soon he will be seen in the clouds in glory, giving the command to raise all the dead, to announce his verdict on every life, and to welcome his people home into the new creation. Meanwhile, we live in his grace, redeemed from all our sins, reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrifice, and ready for eternal life in a new and perfect creation. As John writes, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”

Christ in Genesis: A Tale of Two Trees

The Garden of Eden included an orchard of fruit-bearing trees. Perhaps there were apples, oranges, cherries, or mangoes–the Bible doesn’t say. The only trees it names are the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Evidently the fruit of the Tree of Life provided its eater with unending life. I am not a biochemist and cannot explain how it did that; but, after their sin, Adam and Eve were barred from the Garden so they would not eat from the Tree of Life and live forever. Although this ban seems like a punishment, it actually was a blessing. Living forever as sinners in a sin-polluted world would not have been heavenly; it would have been the opposite of heaven. By making death available to Adam and Eve and to their descendants, the Lord is able to lead his people through the valley of death and beyond it to the house of the Lord–a new creation unstained by sin and evil.

The notorious Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was named in retrospect. It had no magical ability to impart knowledge; the Bible does not say what purpose God had for this tree. Whatever its purpose was, it was not yet ready, so God told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of that tree. To suggest that God was testing Adam and Eve, wanting to know if they would obey him, is ludicrous. God knows all things; being timeless, he has already seen the future. Moreover, God does not tempt people to sin. The tree was created for a good reason, but we have not been told what that reason is.

Other writers have compared the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to a large pot of soup being heated on the stove. Mother tells her three-year-old son, “Don’t touch the pot, or you’ll be burned.” Against her warning, he touches the pot, spilling its contents upon himself, and he is burned. In fact, he is so badly burned that she must rush him to the hospital for treatment. She did not heat the pot to test his obedience; she was making lunch for the family. At the hospital, though, she does not explain that to him. Treatment for his burns is more important than explanations. In the same way, when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, we all got burned. God has provided a way to be healed, but he has not told us why the tree was in the Garden.

Trees, like gardens, are frequently mentioned in the Bible. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 proclaims a curse on anyone who dies hanging from a tree. The first Psalm compares a righteous man to a fruitful tree. A rebellious son of David was killed while hanging from a tree. Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see Jesus, but Jesus called him out of the tree. Jesus was going to hang on the tree of the cross, receiving the curse deserved by sinners, dying to grant eternal life to his people. He called Zacchaeus out of the tree because he–the ultimate Son of David–would go to a tree for Zacchaeus.

Jesus wants his people to bear good fruit. His orchard is filled with trees, but by ourselves we bear no good fruit. We have sinned, doing what we should not do, and failing to perform the good works we were created to do. Of all the trees in the orchard, only one tree bears good fruit. That tree is Jesus Christ. This one fruitful tree accepted the curse of the barren trees to reverse the condition of the orchard. Now all the trees in the orchard bear good fruit except for one dead tree in the middle of the orchard–Christ’s cross.

His cross is our tree of life. Through the cross where Christ suffered and died, we receive eternal life. Because he has given us life, we are now able to bear fruit; we are able to become the people God intended when he created us.

Jesus once told a parable about a fruitless tree. The landowner was prepared to remove the tree and change it into firewood. The gardener asked for one more year; he offered to prepare the ground around the tree with the hope that it would bear fruit (Luke 13:6-9). Each of us is that tree, and Jesus is the Gardener who pleads for us. He does all the work necessary to make us able to bear fruit so we will not be thrown into the fire. Instead, our future home is the garden of the new creation. According to Revelation 22:2, the Tree of Life will be available to us there, ensuring that we will live forever.

A heavenly conversation

I wish I could take credit for writing this conversation. I must be honest, though, and confess that I found it at work this morning. The author is unknown; what I found was an email sent and printed in 2002. Aside from depicting the Creator as less than all-knowing, I think it is a very clever way of saying what I have been saying all along. J.

GOD: Francis, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistle, and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect, no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought, and multiply with abandon. The nectar from their long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees, and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colours by now. But all I see are these green rectangles.

ST. FRANCIS: It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord—the Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers “weeds” and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD: Grass? But it’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds, and bees—only grubs and sod worms. It’s temperamental with temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it—sometimes twice a week.

GOD: They cut it? Do they bale it like hay?

ST. FRANCIS: Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

ST. FRANCIS: No, Sir, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

GOD: Now let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And when it does grow, they cut if off and pay to throw it away?

ST. PRANCIS: Yes, Sir.

GOD: These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

ST. FRANCIS: You aren’t going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD: What nonsense! At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so Myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn the leaves fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. Plus, as they rot, the leaves form compost to enhance the soil. It’s a natural circle of life.

ST. FRANCIS: You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No! What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?

ST. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call “mulch.” They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD: And where do they get this “mulch”?

ST. FRANCIS: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

GOD: Enough! I don’t want to think about this anymore. Catherine, you’re in charge of the arts. What movie have they scheduled for us tonight?

ST CATHERINE: “Dumb and Dumber.” Lord, it’s a really stupid movie about…

GOD: Never mind. I think I just heard the whole story from Francis.


Dim and Dimmer

Mrs. Dim hates autumn leaves almost as much as I hate the sound of leaf-blowers. She wages a steady campaign upon the leaves, determined to keep their time on her lawn and flowerbeds as short as humanly possible. Sometimes she uses a system that I have seen other people use on their property: She gets the blower out first and blows the leaves off her deck and driveway and out of her flowerbeds (and even off the street in front of her house), and then she uses the mower to gather, shred, and bag the leaves. Her system is efficient, if noisy. And then she has those lovely black bags sitting on the street by her green lawn for several days instead of those ugly leaves that she so hates.

Last Saturday morning I was working at the computer—part preparation for another week of teaching, part free-lance writing—when I heard the sound of her blower. Looking out the window, I saw the mower was out too, ready to go. My concentration was shot, and I had to pick up a few things from the store before the weekend was over, so I figured the time was ideal for me to get out of the house for about an hour. My daughter was doing homework, so I let her know where I was going and jumped into the car and escaped.

An hour later I returned home with my purchases. The neighborhood was quiet. I put my purchases away and sat down again at the computer. Then I heard the sound of Mrs. Dim’s lawnmower. She was at it again! I asked my daughter if Mrs. Dim had taken a break while I was gone. She said, “Well, she didn’t stop the instant you left, but she did take a pretty long break.”

It is hard not to be bitter about this. I’m sure she had her reasons, and they probably had more to do with conserving her energy than with annoying her neighbor. All the same, my brilliant plan to escape her noise was foiled. And the war on leaves continues.

A family bought a house down the street this summer. As they were moving in, they cut down two trees to make room for a storage shed. Since then, they have been removing trees at the rate of about one a month. Along with my abhorrence of the torturous chain-saw noise, my resentment at the murder of healthy trees is intense. When this subdivision was built, the designers preserved as many of the hardwood trees as they could. Every yard has several trees that are obviously older than the houses. These are healthy trees that shade the neighborhood (saving electricity that runs air conditioners in the summer), provide refuge for urban wildlife, and generally make life pleasant. In the autumn they coat the ground with beautiful brown leaves, fun for children to build leaf piles and bury themselves, fun even for adults like me to wade through, enjoying the crisp, crunchy sound and the memories of childhood that it stirs.

I understand that not everyone wants to live near trees. Some people just hate leaves, while others live in fear of a storm toppling a tree onto their house. People like that should buy houses that are not surrounded by trees. Not far away there are subdivisions where the builders cleared all the plants and topsoil off the land, built houses and streets, put down an inch or two of topsoil, and covered it with sod. A family that hates trees should buy a house in one of those subdivisions. It makes me very bitter to have them move into my neighborhood and start removing the trees with noisy chain saws.

Besides, they might give Mrs. Dim some bad ideas.


Panic in the classroom

I respect every student who struggles with anxiety and/or agoraphobia and still attends classes to work toward an education. When going to school is a frightening experience, the temptation to drop out and stay at home must be strong. To all those reading who match that description, my hat is off to you.

For me, the classroom and the library have always been safe places and happy places. Even though I was bullied from the fifth grade through the ninth grade, I didn’t blame the school for that; being bullied during slow times probably only made me more focused on my studies. I loved going to college and to graduate school, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to return later to the classroom, this time as a teacher.

Not only am I introverted; I am also shy. It may seem strange that I enjoy teaching. When I teach, though, I know why I am there. I have a clearly designed role and task. I believe that three qualities make a teacher good: deep knowledge and understanding of the subject area, deep interest in the subject area with a desire to share knowledge and understanding, and genuine interest in the students. Those qualities make me happy to stand in front of a group of people and talk, even though I might not have the courage to approach any one of them or speak with them in a store or other public area.

One evening last week was different. I left work in the middle of the afternoon to prepare to teach, as is my habit, and as I approached my house I saw that the neighbor two doors down was having a tree removed. That made me sad and also a little angry, as I see no reason to destroy a healthy living tree. Of course I had to listen to the saws while I read through the chapter and ate my early supper. Still, I drove to the school and spoke with the office staff without feeling any different than usual.

The first sign something was not quite right was when I started writing notes on the classroom
whiteboard. I wrote “INDIA” in big letters at the top of the board, and it looked as if I was aiming for italics rather than bold letters. Then, when I tried to write “Harappan” underneath, it took three tries to achieve a legible “H.” A couple deep breaths and I was able to finish putting words on the board, but having my hands shake that badly before class even started was not a good sign.

As the students arrived one by one, I was able to enter the small talk before class—not my strongest suit, but something I generally can fake. Then I began the lecture and discussion. Fifteen minutes later I had completed half an hour of material without leaving out anything important. The thirty minutes on China were polished off in another fifteen minutes. I stammered more than usual and had to repeat some words—I can’t say whether that was due to talking faster or another symptom of the same panic. We moved on to the quiz, and the students who usually do well did about as well as usual, while the students who generally don’t do as well did even more poorly than usual.

I cannot guess why I felt so panicked in the classroom that evening. Was it lingering anger over the neighbor and his tree? Was staying up past midnight the night before to visit with family a mistake? Is the counseling that is working on identifying feelings and working backward to their causes making me worse instead of better? I have too many questions and not enough answers.

Lately I have been learning about mindfulness. (I will write more about mindfulness in another post.) I tried to be mindful in the classroom—I was able to talk to the class and cover all the material even if I did so in double speed. What happens this week is yet to be seen. Think good thoughts for me.