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Revelation: 22: 1-7
October 4, 2020
Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church
A couple weeks ago, those of us who live on Vancouver’s North Shore, started noticing an unusual amount of moths flitting about in the evening. It turns out we were experiencing a once every ten to twenty year moth infestation. It wasn’t long before we were seeing moths not just in the evening congregating around our porch lights but also in broad daylight resting on our windows and in some cases covering entire storefronts. This prompted one of our church members to send us a meme of a woman peering fearfully out her window to see, according to the caption, “which chapter of the Book of Revelation we are doing today?”
Indeed, the Book of Revelation, from which our scripture reading comes today, does include a total of 7 different plagues ranging from the rivers and waters filling up with blood and killing every living thing within them, to total darkness falling over the earth blanketing it as if it were covered in smoke, to an outbreak of skin diseases and of course an infestation of not moths, but locusts – close enough.
But despite the fact that we seem to literally be living in apocalyptic times, the Book of Revelation is not meant to be taken literally. The genre of apocalyptic writing found in the bible which includes all kinds of strange and often frightening imagery is actually meant simply to prompt our imaginations about what is happening now and what could happen in the future. It doesn’t mean that these things actually are going to happen in the way they are described even if from time to time some of those things actually do transpire. The word apocalyptic, in its original context means to uncover or unveil and indicates to us that these writings are meant to reveal something to us about ourselves, about Christ and about God.
It’s interesting that these seemingly apocalyptic times in which we are living are unveiling and revealing many truths to us, a number of which are coming to us through the “plague” of Covid-19 but also through other plague-like experiences we are having right now. We are learning a lot about ourselves and our world and hopefully about the way God is present to us in times like these. Perhaps that’s what makes these times apocalyptic more than any cyclical infestation of moths ever will, what we are learning in these times.
But today’s reading doesn’t come to us from the section of the Book of Revelation that is about plagues or wars in heaven or dragons and beasts. It comes to us from the last chapter in which all the turmoil of the previous chapters is over and in the end, there is peace.
The final vision found in the Book of Revelation is of the holy city of Jerusalem, descending out of heaven shining with the radiance of a very rare jewel. And in the middle of the city there is a river, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb (the lamb referring to Christ, or Jesus.) And on either side of the river, in my own mind’s eye, growing as if the river itself is its foundation, there is the tree of life with its’ twelve kinds of fruit, producing it’s fruit each month with leaves for the healing of the nations.
Most of us have come to associate this beautiful end time vision of the holy city which in the verses before today’s reading has been described as a place paved with streets of gold and surrounded by pearly gates, as the place that those of us who consider ourselves to be good Christians will end up when we die: the heavenly realm where death will be no more and there will be no more tears and no more pain. It’s not a bad destination for us to aim for is it?
Yet it’s not really meant to be a destination we aim for at the end of our earthly life, it’s meant to be a vision of a destination big enough to sustain us in the here and now. The new Jerusalem, the city that comes down from heaven, rests on the same footprint where the old, troubled city once stood and God comes too, to join us right here where we are, to tend and nurture us like trees planted by a river overflowing with an abundance of life-giving water.
If you have read the beginning of the bible, you know that in the first chapters of the book of Genesis there is another tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor talks about the way that many of us spend our lives looking back at that tree. She says: “We use the story of the fall to explain why we are the way we are. We keep listening for the voice of God and longing for God’s company because somewhere in our being we remember a time when we walked together in the garden at the time of the evening breeze. We keep reaching for things we know aren’t good for us because we still have a seed of that forbidden fruit caught in our teeth, so delicious and ruinous all at once that we cannot get it’s taste out of our mouths.”*
I think she’s right, we love to look back at where we came from to help us understand where we are. Sometimes we look back with regret and sometimes we look back with longing. Today at the Annual General Meeting of our church we will look back at the year 2019. Remember 2019? I described it as the most stable year in my now 16 years of ministering in this church. Oh for the good ole days! I know that 2019 was not a good year for some of you but my hunch is that even with its’ challenges, few of us would trade the 2019 we had for the 2020 we are having.
We love looking back, but the Book of Revelation turns us towards the future, a future with hope on which to set our sights and with a purpose for which to strive. Because we are not going back to the tree in that garden. We are not headed back to a perfect paradise for two that never was that perfect anyway. What we are headed for, if we keep our eyes on the vision described for us in today’s reading and in the verses just before it, is a city, a city full of people from every corner of the earth, with gates that are never shut because everyone is welcome; a city where there are no temples, no churches, just a big fruit bearing tree, it’s leaves feeding the nations with healing surrounded by and immersed in a whole lot of life-giving water.
One of the things to notice about the tree is that it yields its’ fruit 12 months of the year. So there is no need for us to thirst and no need for us to go hungry and no need for us to yearn for the past because this tree meets our needs in the present. The waters that feed its’ roots never run dry. What if we were to imagine that this life-giving tree is not growing in some far away future place but rather that it is growing right here and right now, rooting itself right in the very midst of us.
One of the things that we say about Mount Seymour United Church is that it is a spirit nurturing place. I wonder, what is feeding and nurturing you right now?
When we plant seeds for a future with hope we have to attend to our hopes, nurturing them with living water in order to sustain their growth.
Where are you drawing your water from? The promise of our reading for today is that there is an abundance of life-giving water to nurture and nourish us, enough for today and enough for tomorrow. Where are you soaking up and drawing your water from?
For some of us it will be our intentional spiritual practices. For others it will be the company of those we love. For others it will be the physical activity we engage in and for others our experiences in the natural world. There is no end to the list of things that water our weary souls: music, visual art, good theatre even if we can’t watch it live. For those of us who have planted seeds of hope that relate to justice and peace surely what nourishes us is noticing the places those seeds are already poking their heads up through the soil no matter how small that growth may seem at times.
Those of you who know me well know that I would never call myself a gardener. I gave up growing houseplants years ago after far too many of them ended up with the same sad fate. In fact, after seeing how well my brother and sister-in-law were doing growing artificial plants in their home, we went out and bought a beautiful artificial tree for our living room. So far it’s maintained every one of its’ leaves.
But there’s something I’ve noticed about growing real plants since we started growing a real avocado plant here at the church. You have to actually get involved when you are growing a living thing. You have to remember to give it fresh water. You care about it more and you celebrate even the tiniest signs of growth it presents. It gives you a destination for which to aim.
We may look to the past to understand where we are but we look to the future for a purpose to guide us and a vision big enough to sustain us along the way. The vision of the tree of life surrounded by a city where all are welcome and no one hungers or thirsts, where God is always present, is a vision well worth tending and a revelation well worth believing in.
*The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor: “This Way Home” sermon preached on November 4, 2012