This is the concluding message from our series titled The 4 Trees of the Bible. Having considered the tree of life in Genesis, the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the same text, and the tree of salvation from the perspective of the Gospel According to Matthew we come full circle to the tree of life depicted in the Revelation – a book that is John’s perplexing vision of a different world than he knew and we know.
More and more I am convinced that the future is something that should not cause us to worry. My statement is supported by a growing understanding and belief that God has a vision and plan regarding the future. It is a vision and a plan that we should trust in; a vision that should orient us to participate in God’s work that is happening now and in the future. But how many of us make plans for this future?
All of us make plans. Some of us are preparing for this afternoon or the rest of the week. Our school aged kids are planning their summer break while those transitioning from high school to college are making different plans. Some of us are planning to start a new career, some for career change, and others to wind down our careers and retire. For those in retirement you may be planning for next stages. The mundane among us are simply planning for lunch. All of us spend time, each and every one of us planning for things yet to transpire. Some of these things will bring us joy, some of them peace of mind, and others of them worry. My wife and I have felt the tension of all three of these over the past several weeks. We are preparing for two weddings – one of them this Memorial Day weekend. We’ve talked about our aging parents. We’ve talked about our future.
But I would also say that we don’t simply plan for the future as a purely temporal, worldly exercise. Many of us think about and plan for the future from a spiritual perspective as well. And what you have been taught in your religious system will influence your planning for the future.
I was raised in the conservative evangelical tradition which promotes a very specific interpretation of the future. First we live in the time between the ascension of Jesus and his second coming or what current scholars call the “now, but not yet.” The (what seems to be) interminable in between. But somewhere in the future Jesus will return again as he stated to his disciples. The Greek word for this is the “parousia” meaning coming or presence; the label I was taught was the second coming or rapture because Paul reports that the dead in Christ will rise first to meet Jesus in the sky and then those who are alive in Christ will go next to meet him. Of course no one knows exactly when this will happen – it is a mystery to all of us, including Jesus. After the rapture is the seven years of tribulation where Satan and his proxy will usher in a literal hell on earth. At the end of seven years Jesus and his heavenly army come back to do battle with Satan and his followers. Jesus subdues them and cast them into the prison of hell and a thousand-year reign of peace on earth begins. Jesus sits upon the throne ruling all of the kingdoms but at the end of this millennia of peace, Satan and his minions get loose for one final cosmic battle. They are utterly destroyed by Jesus and God’s eternal kingdom of peace and justice is established here on earth where God rules as sovereign in harmony with humanity and creation.
This doctrine of eschatology (or the future) is based upon a literal interpretation of Jesus, the Apostle Paul and the Revelation. It is a view with a distinct vision of what will transpire but nobody knows when. It is a teaching made prominent in pop culture with the release of Tim Lehay and Jerry Jenkins “Left Behind” book series. They actually made a movie by the same title and I own a VHS copy of it (but I have nothing at home to play it on though…) And this view of the future still dominates much of conservative evangelical Christianity.
I realize that there are a number of people who believe this to be the literal truth regarding our human destiny. I also know that there are folks who are skeptical about parts of this interpretation and others who full on reject it. There is an alternative view of this material that is vastly different from the one I just outlined. The alternative is purely historical.
It interprets Jesus, Paul and the Revelation based upon current events happening at the time of the writings themselves. They are solely contextual documents that do not have any bearing on the world beyond their original audience, their original time of writing and events of the day. First if you read Jesus’ words about coming again, they are all (except for one quote in the Gospel of John) statements that he made while he was alive and walking with his disciples. They were verbalized prior to his arrest, execution, and death. The historical view says that Jesus was not speaking about some far off second coming. His second coming was the resurrection.
Paul’s words deal with communities of faith who lived under the shadow of an eminent theology. Their expectation was that Jesus’ was returning during their lifetime however people in their community began to die. The death of believers and the power of eminent theology created a tension that Paul dealt with by casting a vision toward the future and what God would accomplish. But it does not mean that Paul was also speaking to modern believers who have spanned an additional 1,900 years of history. Does Paul’s words still have veracity and promise considering the passage of time?
The Revelation could be viewed as a declaration against the empire. History reminds us that Rome put down a rebellion in Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D. They build a rampart around the city completely cutting it off from the outside world. When the citizens of Jerusalem had weakened they stormed the city killing everyone in sight and they destroyed Herod’s temple. Revelation was written a little over 20 years later and is viewed by some as a vision of what God would do to get back at the Romans for destroying the holy city and God’s temple.
But the historical view isn’t without its faults. The primary one is to relegate God’s work through Jesus Christ, the Apostle and the revealer to the pages of history could lead us to believe that God is no longer active in human history. If this is the assumption or interpretation we want to make then it makes humanity the responsible progenitors of change. In other words we become solely responsible for going out and creating:
– equal social structures
– equal share of the world’s food supply since we produce enough to feed everyone on the planet
– structures to settle our differences peacefully and structures to disarm everyone
– a society that helps us evolve past strife, power, possessions and oppression
However we don’t do any of these things – we can’t control our own human passion for power and material possessions. We continue to find creative ways to hurt each other, play power games, and allow weapons of mass destruction to be our bargaining tool. But something else should stir up tension within us and that is the fact that we cannot create harmony with nature. We cannot stop wildfires, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes or flash flooding. We are virtually powerless against life threatening diseases that attack even the youngest among us and we cannot weed out those who seek to inflict harm on others. In other words, utopia is out of our reach because we don’t want to do the things and we can’t control the things that will help us reach utopia.
So I choose to believe that God has still got skin in the game. And what God is inviting us to believe and live is a vision that represents the middle between these two diverse views.
I believe that God has a vision for the future that we can believe and trust in. We don’t pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” simply because they are nice words. It is a vision of something that God wants to create among us and that only God can create for us. Here is what I believe the kingdom of God that is emerging around us looks like:
– A place, a city, a community where God is the source of life – “the angel showed me a river with water of life…flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb.”
– A place, a city, a community where the tree of life is central once again – “On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit with a fresh crop each month.”
– A place, a city, a community healed by the leaves from God’s tree of life – “The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.”
– A place, a city, a community where harmony with God is absolute – “No longer will there be a curse upon anything. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him.”
If you believe that God has a vision for his kingdom to come now and in the future then the next part is crucial for you – it is a call to move from belief to purposeful mission.
M. Eugene Boring wrote the commentary on Revelation for the Interpretation series. In it he concludes his thoughts on Revelation 22 by saying “John lets his picture speak for itself. His language throughout this vision is indicative: ‘this is how it will be.’ And yet as always the indicatives of biblical theology contain an implicit imperative, the gift becomes an assignment. If this is where the world, under the sovereign grace of God, is finally going, then every thought, move, deed in some other direction is out of step with reality and is finally wasted. The picture does not attempt to answer speculative questions about the future; it is offered as an orientation for life in the present.” I would add that God’s vision for the future is an assignment for the present.
Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenze in her book titled Revelation: Vision for a Just World she writes: “Revelation will elicit a fitting…response…only in those sociopolitical situations that cry out for justice. When Christian groups are excluded from political power, Revelation’s language of divine kingship and royal reward, as well as its ethical dualism, stands against unjust authority and champions the oppressed and disenfranchised.”
So I believe that God is inviting us to think beyond our plans for the future. God desires for us to think upon and be moved by God’s vision and plan for the future. A future that calls us to:
– live daily in God’s grace and to daily share with others God’s grace
– live in and seek to create new communities that generate life in the presence of God
– take the leaves of the tree of life and apply their healing salve to the nations starting with our neighbors on Arno and 69th Terrace
– work for harmony with each other, our neighbors, and the world beyond.
Here is how we plan to be a part of God’s emerging vision for now and the future.
1) We are just now learning about the effects of human trafficking, especially in the Kansas City area. We will be partnering with Veronica’s Voice for education, hands on effort to combat this human travesty, and to build relationships with people being liberated from modern slavery. Our vision is to see God’s grace transform the desperate into scenes of hope.
2) We have a viable Baby Grace ministry supporting under-resourced families who are caring for infants. Our vision is to broaden our partnership with another advocacy group in Kansas City so that we can provide additional life supporting services to these deserving families. Our vision is to see families become self-sufficient and to reap the dignity of being able to provide for themselves.
When we focus on our own vision for our own future we can create unnecessary worry. But when we focus on God’s vision for the future we can live with faith, belief, and hope for a better world. It is a vision that we can trust because God is trustworthy. It is a vision that can orient us beyond ourselves and toward the world in need. It is a vision that can bring us the longed for meaning, purpose, and hope we all desire.
So what will you do to see God’s vision for the future come to pass in your neighborhood, your community, or your town?
Blessings for the journey.