(You have no idea how many pearly gates jokes I read until I
found one I could share from the pulpit)
This is one of my favorite Sundays of the year. It isn’t
because it’s an occasion to honor those who have given military
service and even their lives for our country -- although I know
that’s an important occasion; it isn’t because it’s
a three-day weekend -- less exciting when Monday is usually my day
off, although it will be nice to spend the day with Tim; it isn’t
because of the Indianapolis 500 race, although that is big deal
to some McFadden family members; it isn’t even because Karen
Lewallen was leading worship on a Sunday that I am here. Nope, none
of those. It’s because of this text from Revelation 22. It
may be a text you’re familiar with, but even if you haven’t
been tracking Revelation along with us the past few weeks, if you’ve
spent any time at Creekside, there is an image in this text which
you might have seen around. Any ideas? Yes, it’s the Tree
The tree of life is just one of several images which we get at
the beginning of Revelation chapter 22: and all of those images
are in the service of describing the larger concept of the City
of God. That description begins back in chapter 21, and continues
into chapter 22. It’s a pretty amazing architecturally: building
materials of jewels and crystals, kind of an interesting layout
from a city planning perspective, too. Although John of Patmos doesn’t
call this city “heaven,” it is the city which has come
down from heaven and it is the place where God dwells. Revelation
21 is where we get the idea of a city with gates made of pearl and
streets paved with gold. This is the crescendo, the final imaginative
flourish of what the fulfillment of God’s kingdom will look
like -- not just the materials and structure of the buildings, but
especially who will be there and what they will do: the folks who
are written into the Lamb’s book of Life who worship the crucified
and resurrected Christ.
It might not be the best layout from a zoning point of view, because
there’s a river right down the middle of the street, and a
tree on either side of the river, which sounds a bit tricky. This
tree produces 12 kinds of fruit: a different kind each month. If
you read the description of the holy city in Revelation 21, the
number 12 is everywhere: walls with twelve gates with twelve angels
each, inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, and
outside the walls three gates on the east, south, north and west
for a total of 12. I could go on -- John the Revelator does. The
importance of the number 12 is that it represents fullness, or wholeness.
3 groups of four or four groups of three, it is a round number.
12 kinds of fruit is not accidental: it signals completeness, abundance
If we remember where else we have seen something like a tree of
life in the biblical record, we have to go back a ways: back to
Psalm 1, where the psalmist compares the righteous to trees planted
by streams of water or even further back to the beginning, to Genesis
and the Garden of Eden -- the last time that there was anything
like heaven on earth. In the middle of that garden, where a stream
flowed out of the center to water the earth, there grew two trees:
the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Only one tree in the garden had fruit that Adam and Eve were forbidden
to eat: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. You know that
story -- Eve and Adam ate that fruit and were banished from paradise.
65 books later at the very end of the biblical collection and at
the end of time, humanity has finally made it back to the tree of
life from which they were banished in the beginning. Here again
is the crystal pure life-giving water, and this time, there is one
tree on either side of the river and it produces twelve kinds of
fruit. One tree! This isn’t just a return to the original
Garden of Eden, this is a garden which has been upgraded and multiplied
and transformed to be the dwelling place of God.
I want to show you some images of the tree of life -- because it’s
fun, and hopefully instructive -- and talk about why it is so meaningful
to me that Creekside has adopted this image as part of our vision
as a congregation.
[Slide 1] Other cultures besides Judeo-Christian have a tree of
life as part of their story. This Celtic tree of life emphasizes
that the earth and heaven, material and spirit, human and divine
are interwoven. Trees were sacred because they were a bridge between
earth and heaven: rooted in the ground with leaves in the sky, and
roots and branches echoed each other in shape.
[Slide 2] This is an actual three-dimensional sculpted object,
but it isn’t a real tree. Do any of you recognize it? It’s
the tree of life from Disneyworld, patterned after the baobab tree
which grows on the African savannah. It’s beautifully constructed,
but it isn’t a living tree.
[Slide 3] This is a photograph of a real tree: I’m pretty
sure there’s been a lot of photoshopping and color enhancement
going on here, because it’s almost too beautiful to be real.
There’s even water in the background.
[Slide 4] This is a panel from a stained glass window installed
at Browne Street Community Church in Flushing, New York; the subject
of these windows is actually Revelation 21 and 22. Louis Comfort
Tiffany gets credit for this, but it was actually designed by Tiffany
landscape designer Agnes Northrop in 1903, who dedicated this set
of windows to her father. If you look very carefully, you might
see something like this elsewhere in the church today.
[Slide 5] This is clearly an illustration of our Revelation text,
with the water. There are twelve trees instead of one tree with
twelve kinds of fruit, but it captures the dreamlike quality of
the saints gathered by the river of the water of life. About 15
years ago when a group from Creekside -- Pastor David Bibbee, Sabrina
Fritz, Judy De Pue, Betty Kelsey and me, I believe -- started working
on a vision statement and came up with Rooted in God, Growing in
Jesus, Bearing Fruit in the Spirit. This Revelation text as well
as the trees from Genesis and Psalms were ones which influenced
[Slide 6] Our vision is not only a tree, but a tree planted beside
the water (the creek side) of God’s love, the water of life.
When I designed the two-dimensional tree with leaves and fruit,
I chose to make that fruit purple and orange. Why? Because no natural
tree has fruit like that. I didn’t want it represent an apple
tree or a plum tree or an orange tree; I wanted to represent the
tree of life. Anybody can grow an apple tree or a plum tree or an
orange tree: it takes a community of people committed to the vision
of Jesus Christ and the living water of God’s love to be a
tree of life.
I think a congregation needs to have a vision for things which
are impossible for us to do without God’s help: a vision beyond
caring for ourselves and our facility, beyond paying our bills and
balancing the budget. Of course those are important and necessary
things, but they aren’t visionary in the sense of embodying
the city of God in the world, of bringing heaven to earth. This
vision of Revelation is a great big, expansive, flourishing image,
full of things that no group of human beings can make happen on
their own. Listen to some of this stuff: “On either side of
the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit producing
its fruit each month; and the leaves are for the healing o the nations
. . . the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it and his servants
will worship him . . . they need no light of lamp or sun, for the
Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”
That is great stuff. That is a great vision. That is not going to
happen without God’s help.
Remember the two central questions of Revelation: Who is worthy
of my loyalty? And Who is going to win? Do you know the answer to
those questions? Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. The finale of Revelation
is not the angel, the river of life, the tree of life, or even heaven,
or the City of God. The finale is the worship of Christ, around
the throne of God and of the Lamb. Christ is worthy of our loyalty
and Christ is going to win, and in the end we won’t need the
light of temporal things like lamps or suns -- those are going to
pass away, because Jesus Christ will be our light forever and ever.
The vision of Revelation is ultimately a vision of worship, because
worship is where eternity is headed, and one of the most important
things we can do along the way. Worship is the answer to the questions
Who is worthy of my loyalty? and Who is going to win? Worship is
the light of Jesus that shines in our lives, to the nations, and
will ultimately live in the city of God forever. All and all God’s
people said Amen.