“Tree of Life”
March 31, 2013 - Easter
Our “course begins in
a garden, but ends in a city.” So said the great Scottish preacher Brian
Mclaren. He was talking about the fact that human life in the Bible begins in
the Garden of Eden, but ends in the New Jerusalem, the city pictured here in
the closing chapters of the book of Revelation.
For those of us who
love the beauty of creation, the flowers and trees of the garden, the creeks
and rivers that flow down the hills around us, that course seems a little
dismal. We don’t picture our final destiny as city life. We have images of
green fields, maybe filled with swaying daffodils like we’ve seen around us
this spring. We picture blue skies and, if you are a fisherman like me,
gurgling clear streams filled with hungry trout. Buildings and streets and
traffic lights are low on our list of the furniture of paradise.
Yet the vision which
ends the Bible, which is our text today as we end a ninety-day journey through
God’s Word, is of a final human home that is most definitely a city. In
the preceding chapter we read a description of unimaginably vast urban
boundaries, 1,400 hundred miles on a side. Its foundations and walls and gates
are crafted of gold and precious stones. It’s an incredibly costly and beautiful
city, but it is a city.
Like our own city, the
New Jerusalem of Revelation 22 has a river flowing through it. But unlike the Willamette which flows down out of the mountains in several branches before it unites and
turns north, the River which flows through the heavenly city comes as verse 1
says “from the throne of God and of the Lamb.” It’s the river of the water of
life, the river of God. I could preach a whole series of sermons on that river,
and I have, but today I’d like us to look at what the river waters.
The river runs along
the middle of the main street. Imagine a thoroughfare that fits the proportions
of a city that covers two million square miles. Then picture, flowing down it,
the grandest, clearest, finest river you’ve ever seen. Then, bring in all your
memories of lovely leafy streets lined with trees, and see what John saw: “On
each side of the river,” lining that great boulevard in other words, “stood the
tree of life.”
As the human story
winds up in a city, John takes us back to the beginning, to the Garden in which
there stood a Tree. There were actually two trees. You know the story. By
taking the fruit of the tree they weren’t supposed to eat, Adam and Eve lost
their right to the Tree from which God had always intended for them to eat, the
Tree of Life. When human beings sinned, they were thrown out of the Garden. Genesis 3:22 says that was so they could no longer reach the Tree of Life and take it for
We were forced from
that first Garden so that we could learn that the source of life is not taking,
but giving. We always fail, we always die, when we grab what we want for
ourselves. Sin is selfish pride, imagining that if we are going to have what we
need, if there is going to be any life, then we have to get it on our own.
Lots of our myths and
stories are about trying to get back to the Tree of Life, to obtain immorality
by our own power. There’s the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh in which the
hero searches for a plant that gives eternal life. There are Greek and Spanish
stories about seeking the “fountain of youth,” and many other tales.
It’s not just stories.
Science news keeps coming about advances in stem cell research or other medical
technologies that might extend our life spans. We’re not sailing oceans, climbing
mountains or crossing deserts to find it now, but we’re still looking for the
Tree of Life. Gilbert Meilander wonders what the consequences would be if
medicine found some way to add decades to our lives, but only a few wealthy
people could afford it.
And there is the
problem. In our search for longer life, for immortality, we keep wanting to
reach out and just take it. The story of the Bible, the reason we came here
this morning, is that living forever, the blessing of the Tree of Life, is a
gift. In our sin there isn’t anywhere we can go to find it; there is no
scientific miracle we can discover. We are selfish and we would take it if we
could, but we can’t.
Instead, Friday night
we came and remembered the death of Jesus. We read how they laid a heavy wooden
cross on His back and made Him carry it up a hill until he fell. Then Roman
soldiers forced a man from Africa to carry it for Him. We heard that they
crucified Him and pictured the large beams of the cross being laid down as
Jesus was nailed to it. Then they raised it up again to stand between the
crosses of two thieves dying for their crimes.
That word in Revelation 22:2 translated “tree,” “tree of life,” is actually the Greek word which usually
means “wood,” raw timber. But early on, in the first Christian sermons we find
in Acts, when Peter and Paul talked about the Cross, they said Jesus was
hanging on the “wood,” on a tree, using the same word we find here in
The Church, especially
in the East, saw the connection. The Cross upon which Jesus died was wood. It
was a tree. The wood of the Cross was the Tree of Life being given back to us,
after it seemed lost forever. Jesus Himself hanging on the Tree was the fruit
that gives life, the leaves which are “for the healing of the nations,” as it
says in our text.
In the 13th century, St. Bonaventure wrote a devotional book called “The Tree of Life.”
It’s a meditation on the life of Christ, taking the story of Jesus in a series
of “fruits,” The first fruit is His incarnation and birth, the second is the
humility of his early life and the third the power of His miracles. Other
“fruits” are meditations on how Jesus was confident and patient as He was tried
and tortured. The ninth “fruit” is the one we came to celebrate today, the
glory of His resurrection.
As a later diagram of
Bonaventure’s devotional pictures, it is all rooted in a connection between the
beginning and the end of God’s story. By dying on the Cross, Jesus gave back to
us the Tree of Life we had in the Garden, just as Revelation promises us here.
So the Cross was
transformed from an instrument of torture and execution into the vehicle by
which God gave life back to us and to His world. That’s why we’ve taken the
Cross and covered it with flowers this morning. It’s to remember that in His
dying and rising, Jesus is our Tree of Life, that His own body is the fruit
which brings us eternal life.
We plant trees in
hope, trusting that they will live beyond us. They don’t always. I remember
playing in my grandfather’s little orchard of plum and apricot trees in Arizona, pulling down fruit and eating it warm from the sun. It’s all gone now, under
somebody’s new driveway.
We planted trees in
the empty front yard of the first house we ever owned, in Nebraska, a pin oak,
a blue spruce, and a red bud tree. When we moved they had each grown several
feet and were on their way to being beautiful. When we came here we were happy
to sell our house to a family that had emigrated from another country. But we
were dismayed that when we turned over the keys, they said, “It’s O.K. if we
cut down those trees now, isn’t it?”
The red bud tree we
planted in Springfield grew tall and lovely and then died in a dry summer ten
years ago. In our church yard we cut down five dead oaks last fall and you can
see how our plum trees got broken by the snow in the middle of March last year.
And several years ago,
my girls and I camped for a couple days in Sequoia National Park. One night we
were awakened by a massive boom, like something had exploded. We realized that
somewhere, not far off, a giant tree, hundreds of years old, had crashed to the
If even trees get die
and fall or get cut down, we know that we ourselves can’t last forever. No
medical magic is going to stave off heart disease or cancer or stroke or some
tragic accident forever. Like our oaks lost their leaves and they didn’t grow
back, I see in the barber’s mirror that little circle on the back of my head
where my hair no longer grows back. We’re all going to wither and die.
Jesus Christ came to
change all that. When He rose, He turned the wood of death into the Tree of
Life. Like a maple tree growing back from an old stump, Jesus conquered the
Cross and let new life spring up from it for us all. Isaiah 53:2 said that the Messiah, who we know is Jesus, would grow up “like a tender
shoot…, like a root out dry ground.” That’s how He came and restored to us the
Tree of Life.
Walking through the
Asian festival many years ago my wife and I came on an artist’s display. I was
originally drawn to it by paintings of trout, lovely water colors of Oregon’s beautiful fish. But the artist was also a sculptor. We came round a table and saw
for the first time Dan Chen’s conception of the Tree of Life, a wooden cross,
aged and worn, over which was superimposed a perfectly formed vine and bunches
of grapes in painted bronze. That piece said without words all that I’d like
you to hear today.
By ourselves, we
cannot come to that city with the River of God flowing through it and the Tree
of Life growing around it. Like any earthly tree, we will grow only for awhile.
But then whether by disease or accident or violence we will die and crumble
back into the ground. It’s only Jesus Christ who rose to eternal life, only
Jesus who gives us back the Tree that grows and lives forever.
In one of the last of
the Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis wrote his prequel to it all,
telling the creation story of Narnia. Part of that story is the planting of a
beautiful tree with silver apples and a beautiful fragrance. It was Narnia’s
Tree of Life. Its apples gave life and even immorality. But Aslan tells the
children that the fruit would not work in a happy way for anyone who tried to
take them at the wrong time and in the wrong way. The fruit of the Tree had to
be a gift from Aslan Himself. Then Aslan gave the boy Digory a silver apple to
take home to heal his dying mother.
Living forever will
never be a fruit that we can pluck for ourselves from any tree on earth,
whether by horticulture or medicine or computer science. Eternal life is only
God’s to offer, and He only gives it when we come to Him by faith in Jesus
I’ve only touched the
beginning of this chapter from Revelation. From the Easter Gospel, I’ve hardly
talked about the fear and wonder of the women and the disciples when they found
the empty tomb and heard that Jesus had risen. I invite you to read more for
yourself. That’s why we’ve been taking this journey through the Bible, the one
journey on earth you can take which will truly lead you to the Tree of Life.
If you read on, you
will find words full of invitation. In verse 14 is a blessing on “those who
wash their robes, so that may have the right to the tree of life.” John is
talking about accepting God’s forgiveness for your sins by the grace of the
blood Jesus shed on the Cross. Our robes are washed, our sins are forgiven,
when we confess them and believe that Jesus conquered sin when He died, and
death when He rose again.
Down a little further
in verse 17 is an explicit invitation, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of
life without cost.” There is no price to pay. Real eternal life is not the
privilege of only those who can afford it. It is the gift of God in Jesus
Christ, through His Cross, through His Resurrection.
That invitation is for
anyone and everyone here. Many of you accepted it a long time ago. You believed
in Jesus Christ and accepted His forgiveness and His new life, your right to come
one day to the Tree of Life in the heavenly city. Others of you may be thinking
about it, wondering if it could be true, wondering if there really is a Tree of
Life, a city beyond all our earthly cities. I invite you to accept it today.
Jesus shed His blood to water the Tree that He planted for you. It is yours if
you accept His invitation to come.
And like the boy in
Lewis’s story, we also know that the fruit of the Tree of Life is not something
we just take for ourselves. The apple smelled so sweet, looked so delicious,
but Digory carefully put it in his pocket to carry home. He only took it out
again in his mother’s room to cut up it up and feed to her in little bites. He
watched with joy as she smiled and fell into a healing, restful sleep.
The fruit of the Tree
of Life, the gift of salvation in the Cross of Christ, was made to share. We receive
it for ourselves, but let us also carefully stow it in our hearts and minds and
take it out to feed to anyone else who needs a bite of hope, a bite of life.
May the Cross, the
Tree, the risen Lord Jesus Christ be rooted now in your heart. May you go from
here in the joy of His life, in the nourishment of His word, and in the hope of
walking that Street, drinking from that River, and eating from that Tree.
The Tree of Life is
waiting. Christ is Risen!
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj