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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Revelation 22
“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 themselves.

         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 Revelation.

         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 ground.

         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 Christ.

         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
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated March 31, 2013