Will we be Leaves on the Tree of Life?

Revelation 22:1-6

Week before last was one of the best weeks I’ve had since coming to Bay Presbyterian Church. On Tuesday, we had a luncheon with one of our missionaries. This young lady grew up in our church and now works in a primarily Muslim country. She told a group of us her story of growing up at BPC, being a part of our youth group, thinking she would have a lucrative and successful career, and then feeling called into the mission field. She has served in two of the most difficult countries in the world to be a missionary. It was so touching.

On Wednesday, we went to the Family Ministry Center for staff meeting. We heard presentations from the Bridge Avenue School, Garden Christian Academy, Scranton Road Ministries, and the Nehemiah Collaborative, all of which we support through our ministry here and at the FMC. Julie Jones filled us in on what is happening in other areas of the FMC. We had a wonderful lunch of food from the area  created by a local ministry/business. It happened to be my one -year anniversary at BPC.

Wednesday evening, I had the opportunity to be with one of the MOPS groups. It was held in a private home filled with young mothers, some of whom don’t go to our church. On Thursday morning Sally Gerycz and I had a wonderful meeting about the Evangelism Ministry of our church. 

We began our series on the theme of “Made for This” in the Garden of Eden, learning that we were created to be stewards of God’s creation. We then learned that foolishness, fear, and sin keep us from being the people and stewards we were created to be. We learned that Jesus wants us to trust him, live by faith and be cheerful, loving stewards of our gifts from God. We learned that we can’t be filled with God’s love without giving[1] We also learned that how we use our spiritual gifts matters to God—and in learning that we remembered that the least gifted person at BPC filled with God’s love is important for the world. [2] Last week we heard from several members on the importance of giving to spiritual growth and health. This week we are concluding with an encouragement to be all God calls us to be.

Text and Prayer

Our text is from Revelation, Chapter 22, verses 1-6. [3] Revelation  is  the subject of controversy in the church, much of which is directed towards understanding its meaning for the end of human history. Too often, people fail to recognize that Revelation had meaning for the first Christians who read it, and who may have read it differently than we do.

The book begins with John on Patmos receiving a vision of the Risen Christ with messages for the churches of Asia Minor in the midst of persecution. This is important! Revelation is primarily designed to be read as an encouragement to the church of Jesus Christ to be faithful. This message is as important to the Church today as when it was first written. We can be faithful because God is faithful. We can trust God because God is trustworthy. 

The majority of the Book begins with Chapter 4 and a series of visions which take place at the Throne of God surrounded by the people of God. This section ends with today’s verses. Let’s take a look at the Word of God as it comes to us through the voice of John:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever. The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”

Prayer: Living God. Source of Life. Come among us this morning. Send your Holy Spirit to upon us that these words might not be simply words spoken long ago in a distant place, but Your very Word to us this morning.

The River of the Spirit and the Tree of Life

At the end of the Revelation, John returns to a theme that runs throughout Scripture from beginning to end. In Genesis, a River flows from the Garden of Eden, functioning as the headwaters of natural rivers.  Within the Garden is the Tree of Life, a symbol of God’s life-giving and life-sustaining power (Gen. 2:9-10). In Ezekiel, the prophet records a vision of the river of the Spirit flowing from the Temple in Jerusalem—a river that produces abundant life and trees which have healing properties (Ezekiel 47:1-12).

In John, Jesus identifies himself as the source of Living Water. Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me,asthe Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'”[4] Jesus is the personal presence of the River of Life in history. He is also the personal presence of the Tree of Life in human history.

In Revelation, John records a vision of the people of God as a “Heavenly City,” a New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1-6). He also has a vision of a great river, “the river of the water of life” flowing from the throne of God and of Christ, the Lamb of God, down the middle of the Main Street of the Heavenly City. The Heavenly City is clearly the people of God, the Church of God, made up those who have been called out of the world to become God’s children, God’s people, those who have felt the grace of God (22:1-2). [5]

In the vision, the great River of the Holy Spirit flowing from the Throne of God passes through the city.  On each side of the river is the Tree of Life—that tree of Divine Life, the Divine Life from which Adam and Eve were separated by their sin in the Garden of Eden. The tree John sees, is the Tree of God’s Love in Christ. As the River of the Spirit travels through the City carrying the testimony of the Twelve Apostles, it bears fruit each month—twelve times each year. The leaves of Tree of are for the healing of the nations—for the healing of the ancient curse of the Fall and its terrible consequences in human history. [6]

One of the interesting things about this vision has to do with the Tree. Note that there is one great tree, the Tree of Life, that occupies the banks of the River on both sides. This tree is the fruit of the apostolic testimony to Christ. It is one tree because the people of God are one people. 

In Colorado they have Aspen trees. Aspen trees are all connected. In fact, an Aspen grove is actually on organism. If one part of the grove is short on water the trees on the other parts shift nutrients through the interconnected root system to the part in need. The body of Christ is just such an interconnected system.

The river of Revelation is nothing less that the Spirit of Christ, proceeding from the Father and the Son passing through the church into the world carrying the healing power of the Gospel of Christ. Earlier, in Revelation, John gives some idea of the kinds of healing we can expect when he says that, in the Heavenly City, “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (21:4). All those aspects of human history which result from our sinful human nature, war, greed, poverty, starvation, hunger, lack of water, and the like, all these things will pass away.

The Life Centered in Christ

In February , our congregation adopted a new vision statement establishing that we wish to be Centered on Christ, Shaped in Community, and Sent into the World. Jesus says that he is the vine and we are the branches, without him we can do nothing (John 15:5). Returning to the metaphor of leaves on a tree, a leaf on any tree that become separated from the life-giving power of the tree and its root system withers and dies. If we do not remain centered in Christ and connect to God by the power of the Holy Spirit, we too begin to wither and die.

Our Session has organized itself in a way focused on helping our congregation be Centered on Christ, Shaped in Community, and Sent into the World. Regular attendance in worship, a personal prayer life, daily Bible reading, and meditation on the word of God are essential for all of us to continue to be filled with the life-giving power of God. You can commit today to live a life Centered in Christ, in worship, discipleship, and prayer.

A Life Shaped in Community

We cannot remain centered in Christ unless we are being shaped in community with other Christians. One misconception of modern Christianity is the notion that we can be solitary Christians. Human beings were born for relationships, which means we were born to be part of a community. In point of fact, we are all members of multiple communities! We are born into a family. We go to school. We join clubs. We become citizens of a city, state, and nation. All these communities we belong to shape who we are.

If you don’t believe that, go to another country and notice the subtle differences between the way people live and think and the way we live and think. (Kathy and I lived in Scotland for summer. We almostspeak the same language as the Scots! Nevertheless, their history and culture are different and they live and think differently.)

If we want to live and think as Christians, we must remain connected to the Body of Christ. This means we must be connected to a church and a small group of people inside of the church who are growing in Christ together.

Since I’ve been with you, we have had two studies designed to help grow the small group network in our church. This Christmas, we are encouraging those who are not one group to get together with one or two other people to join as a group to discuss this year’s Advent Devotional. Why? Because people grow in community. Small groups are not only the best way for people to grow in Christ—in prayer, in Biblical understanding, and in service to others, they are also the very best way for a church to grow as people are drawn into the fellowship of believers. [7]

Last week, one of our members, Jack Dannemiller, came to see me. He gave me a book by Presbyterian minister Irving R. Stubbs, called Dialogue a Way to Live. [8] In the book, Dr. Stubbs, who is a retired Presbyterian pastor and friend of Jack’s, describes his own experience with the transformational power of a small group early in his ministry.

I can also testify that a small group of people made a great deal of difference in my early Christian growth—and since then, many small groups have made a difference in my life, including groups right here at BPC. There is nothing you can do that is more important to your spiritual growth than to be a part of a small group to help you be shaped in Christ in a loving, open, Christ-Centered community.

A Life Sent into the World

There is an old saying that “Christ has no eyes, but our eyes, no ears but our ears, no hands but our hands.” Our text reminds us that we—the members of the Body of Christ—are the vehicle through which God as chosen to impact the world. We are the leaves on the Tree of Life, created by God to heal the world of its addictions to power, to pleasure, to foolishness, violence and evil. God heals the world as we allow the Spirit to flow into us, to heal us, and through us into the world as his fully-committed disciples.

Although it’s hard to get people to commit their lives to Christ and trust Christ, it’s harder to encourage a commitment to be a part of a small group of believers and to share at a deep level. It’s hard to encourage people to join with others to overcome their bad habits, their self-centeredness, their selfishness, and other failings and shortcomings to become the people God has called them to be. However, it’s even harder to get people to get out of their comfort zone and move into the world to share the love of God with others. This requires a commitment of time, talents, and energy. It requires sacrifice and a love that is not natural but supernatural.

The Big Question

I love the end of Revelation. John sees that, despite persecution and troubles, God has acted in Christ, and Christ will be the victor. He sees that the Church is God’s chosen vehicle to share the Gospel in human history and renew God’s creation. He sees that we are the bearers of the life-giving power of the Tree of Life.  The  real question is simply this: “Will we allow the River of the Water of Life to run through our lives into the community around us?” “Will be carriers of the Gospel of Life into the very places where God takes us, whether to the ends of the earth or around the corner?” “Will we be leaves on the Tree of Life?”

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Amen

[1]John Murtha’s great comment, “You can give without loving, but you can’t love without giving.”

[2]My comment on November 21, “The least gifted person in our church using their gifts with love is greater than the most gifted person using their gifts without love.”

[3]The technical aspects of preaching on Revelationare daunting to say the least. I am grateful for the following commentators, William Barclay, “Revelation” in the Daily Study BibleVol. 2 rev. ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1976); William Hendriksen, More than Conquerors: An Interpretation of Revelation(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1940, 1967); Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, The Book of Revelation (London, ENG: Intervarsity Press, 1990); and Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation  (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993).

[4]See, John 4:13-14, Proverbs 18:4 and Isaiah 55:1 for examples of the way in which God’s blessing is associated with water.

[5]See, David E. Aune, “Revelation 17-22” in Word Biblical Commentaryvol. 52c (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 1177.: “The “trees of life” in Paradise are metaphors for the faithful.” The river is certainly the river of the Holy spirit flowing from the Triune God into the church of Christ.

[6]William C. Weinrich, ed. “Revelation” in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testamentvol. XII (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2005): 387-393. The tree of life is a wonderful image. It is one tree, but also many trees, the fruit of the testimony of the apostles. This is a beautiful relational image of how we as Christians are both one and unique individuals!

[7]It is extremely difficult in our secular, individualistic and fragmented society to remain united in Christ and with other Christians. Our culture is so individualistic that creating community is the hardest thing pastors and leaders do.

[8]See, Irving R. Stubbs, Dialogue: A Way to Live(Richmond, VA: The Living Dialogue Ministries, 2018). For a more academic view of dialogue, see, David Bohm, On Dialogue(New York, NY: Routledge, 1996).  Bohm, a well-known quantum physicist, spent the later years of his life working towards a dialogical way of thinking. For a powerful adaptation of dialogical thinking to business and leadership, see Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization(New York, NY: Doubleday, 2006).

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