I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.
How does it end? This is a story best told with reference to three trees.
Once upon a time, there was nothing. No light, no sound, no shapes or forms. The Spirit of God, as a wind, dove and crested over the face of the deep. It was then that God began to speak, and then that light was formed; God’s opening act was to give permission for light to enter the world.
So. The day, and then the night, tumbling cycles of light and shadow. Good.
Then the dome, separating the waters below from the waters above the sky. Good.
Then the rumbling up of dry land from within the seas, barren, then covered with plants and trees. Then the lights, each placed in the dome of the sky: sun, moon, and stars. The sea filled with fish, and even sea monsters, and the sky filled with every winged creature imaginable. Herds of cattle appeared, and salamanders, monkeys, bears, and raccoons. Good.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”
So, in the image of God we were created and given a garden to tend, and this was very good. This garden was filled with trees, watered by its very own river.
The trees were covered in fruit, all of it good for eating… except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Evil isn’t quite the right word here, to be honest. I don’t mind using strong language when it’s necessary and appropriate, but this is really more like the tree of knowing good and bad. It’s an idiomatic expression- it means the tree of knowing everything.
Have you ever met someone who was a know-it-all? Worse, have you ever been known as one?
Knowledge is security. Knowledge is power. Forbidden knowledge, in particular, has a lure that few humans can resist.
The real choice here, though, is between two pictures of God and two pictures of ourselves. Do we believe that God is good, that creation is good, and that our slated task of tending the garden is worthwhile work? Or do we believe that God is a sneak, that creation could be better if only we were in charge, and that we’d rather be the bosses than the servants?
Adam and Eve aren’t some kind of fluke. They made the same choice that we make most every morning.
I find it helpful to remember that these are not texts written out for a theology class. These are campfire stories. The story itself is kind of comic, actually.
See, this is where we come from: Adam and Eve had it all, but they wanted just a little bit more. Adam and Eve knew what they needed to do, but they wanted to know things that weren’t their business. And so they ate the fruit that let them know everything, and what they learned was that they were running around naked that whole time, and so they sewed themselves some underpants out of fig leaves.
Have you ever touched a fig leaf? Most of them feel like sandpaper. It’s one of the dumbest substances to make underpants out of. Adam and Eve ate the fruit that was supposed to make them into gods, but the only wisdom they gained was possibly the only wisdom that matters: a vision of their own frailty.
That’s how it ends, Friends. That’s how paradise ends. It ends in alienation, suspicion, and doubt. It ends in sweat, tears, pain, and death, because it turns out that we’re an amusing but unfortunately grabby species.
The second tree is the opposing bookend to the first.
The Tree of Life was present in the Garden of Eden, back in the beginning. It returns here at the end, in the heavenly city that Ian described.
In this tree, the story’s protagonist – none other than God – has gone to hell and back to redeem creation. The city of God comes down like a crown upon the weary world.
There is no sun or moon. Does this surprise you? In the beginning, light was created days before the sun and moon. In the end, the Light of the World, in person, provides all the illumination this city needs.
The gates of this city are never shut- so much for all those jokes about Saint Peter manning the gates of heaven. No one is shut out. The New Jerusalem is nothing but open doors.
A river flows through the city, bright as cut crystal. By it, nourished by it, stands the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
In a world in which everyone wants to win in the end, we proclaim the Gospel: that in the end, all will be healed. All will be made whole. The endgame isn’t a decisive victory on our part; it’s an ecumenical potluck. The gates never close, and the river never runs dry, and the fruit is free.
Light, light with no darkness. Bountiful fruit with no death in the aftertaste. World with no pain, no sorrow, all tears wiped away.
How does it end? That’s how the story ends, Friends. The story of all creation groaning out for redemption ends not with any of our petty victories, but with God’s glorious triumph over all that would keep us alienated and apart.
You know, as much as I think it all ends in the kingdom of God arriving on earth, I don’t think that a sermon can end there. It’s not exactly my job to tell you what to do, but leaving it at “good things come to those who wait” doesn’t sit well with me.
So, let me tell you about another tree. This one is growing in the wilderness.
And let me tell you about yourself, in this story. You’re a felon. You saw a cop beating one of your cousins, so you killed him, and then you left the country before you were caught.
You’re male, by the way. Running out in the no-mans-land, you find a ladyfriend. Romantic complications ensue, but you’re eventually married, and you start to settle into life in the refugee camp. You do good work. You raise a son. Life is good, or at least liveable- and given your options, liveable looks pretty good.
You’re out working, one day, when a glimmer in some rocks catches your eye. You pick up a stick and head over to investigate. Sand runs hot through the cracks in your sandals as you walk. You creep around the corner, wanting to see but not be seen by this mysterious new source of light.
The bush is burning, but it is not consumed.
You’re Moses, if you didn’t figure that out already. You don’t quite belong anywhere: born to a Hebrew family, laid in a basket as an infant and pushed down the river as a fine example of hope and desperation, raised half Hebrew and half Egyptian, now a refugee from even that never-whole home.
If you were applying for a job here in Wilmington, you’d have to check the box labeled ‘felon,’ and you probably wouldn’t be hired.
You’re not ready. You’re not a fan of public speaking. You’ve got a wife and child to think of. And, c’mon God, no one in Egypt wants to hear from you.
All your excuses, and the bush is still not consumed. All your counterarguments, and the fire blazes on.
What are you called to do, Moses? You’ve got a pretty sweet little miracle here, you know. Maybe you could invite the pious to stop by for a prayer or two? I mean, we wouldn’t want to be gauche about this, but don’t walk away from a good opportunity. People will make their pilgrimages here, if you publicize it right.
Look at the good work you’ll be doing, offering people a place to connect with all that is sacred! And, when they get here, they’ll be hungry, so you’ll want to put a little mutton stand over there in the corner. Nothing flashy, of course, just some simple kabobs with pitas and decent wine, a little mood lighting, couple of palms here and there.
We’ll need a few tour guides, and let’s see, we can offer to let people pitch their tents over there. If we have people staying, though, then we’ll need sanitation workers, and a small landscaping team. You’ll want to hire a photographer, of course, because everyone is going to want to upload a picture of themselves with the burning bush- not to brag, of course, our clientele would never do that, but to encourage others in faithfulness.
Hey, where are you going, Moses?
Moses is heading off to Egypt, because that’s where the work needs to be done.
We’re not called to return to the Garden of Eden, and we’re not yet called to mansions of jasper and gold in everlasting light. We’re called to now. Now, you might say, is our end– the purpose for which we were created. The burning bush is our now tree. It’s the tree that sends us out to serve.
We come from the tree of wanting to know and control, and we’re heading toward the tree of wanting healing for all. Right now, though, we’re called into the fray. We’re called to run hard after whatever it is that is setting our hearts aflame.
The victory has been won in Christ, so you don’t have to worry about that part. You’re simply called to faithfulness- simple, but not easy, don’t get me wrong. Between here and that heavenly city coming down to earth in righteousness and justice, there’s a lot of work to be done.
You are not called to go to Egypt and lead forth the Hebrew slaves. That was Moses’ job. You have your own bush to heed.
This is how Paradise begins, Friends. This is how the kingdom of God creeps in, when a gathered body of believers is willing to walk toward, not run away from, the burning bushes.
This beginning-of-Paradise is the end of life as we know it. You may not find yourself walking back toward your Most Wanted signs, but don’t be surprised if you do. It happened to Moses, after all.
Are you ready to listen to your burning bush? Are you ready for the end?