Healing of the Nations

Revelation 21:22-22:5

In The Last Battle, the final volume of The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis picks up on an important theme in Revelation.  Like the author of Revelation, Lewis describes evil as a consuming power that lives off pain, suffering, and destruction.  In this story, an imposter poses as Aslan, and speaks to the people of Narnia who long to hear Aslan’s voice.  The imposter is controlled by the Calormenes, a rival nation that serves the evil god Tash.  The Calormenes want to control Narnia and so they exploit the Narnians’ longing for Aslan.  Jill and Eustace, two travelers from our world, help expose the imposter, but not before Narnia is destroyed.  There is great sadness in this book, but there is also good news.  That is because Narnia gives way to a new creation, the land of Aslan, into which those who are faithful to Aslan are invited to enter.   Like Revelation, The Last Battle describes what theologians call eschatology.

What is interesting about Lewis’ story is that he offers a rather inclusive vision of the future.   You see, it’s not just the Narnians who get to enter this new world of Aslan.  Both Ermeth, a Calormene warrior, and Puzzle the donkey, who in his innocence allowed himself to be used as the fake Aslan, are invited into this new world.  In Lewis’ mind, God has a much more inclusive understanding of reality than we do many of us.
Before we can get to the vision that the author of Revelation and Lewis offer us, we must first recognize that there are a multitude of voices calling out to us, not all of which are wholesome and life giving.  Sometimes, when we feel uncertain and afraid, we allow ourselves to listen to voices that claim to be godly, but are not.  We live in a world where evil resists the justice and mercy of God.  Nation rises against nation, people against people, family against family, neighbor against neighbor.  Out of fear, we seek safety and security in ever tighter groups, making us susceptible to a message of “us against them.”   Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Darfur, Israel/Palestine, Sudan, Somalia, Mexico, and the Congo are all torn apart by tribal, ethnic, or religious strife, but they’re not alone.  We see it here in our own communities, where nativism – just to name one example – is on the rise.
In our text this morning we hear a word that exposes the darkness that is present in our midst, and welcomes us into the light.  It is a message of healing – not just for individuals, but for the nations.  I know this doesn’t sound much like a Mother’s Day sermon, but I think there is a connection.   You’ll just have to wait and see!
The promise of Revelation is that no matter what happens God is present with us.  It’s in this promise of God’s resolve that we find  hope, and this morning we hear the promise that healing will be given to the nations who make their way into the New Jerusalem, where God and his Lamb serve as both Temple and Light.
In this passage, the symbol of evil is the darkness that seeks to extinguish the light, for if the light can be extinguished then the people will be lost.    But no matter how encompassing the darkness might be, we hear the promise that the light of God will continue to shine into the darkness.  Therefore, there is no need to fear.   In fact, In this vision of God’s new creation, there’s no need for walls or gates, for that which is evil has no place in this new creation.  That which is unclean and false – whether it be hatred or anger, self-centeredness or rebellion, shall be burned away in the refiner’s fire.
The vision moves from the light that shines into our darkness, to the healing waters of the river of life that winds its way through the city.  Along this river stands the Tree of Life.  The leaves of this Edenic Tree, which is sustained by the River of Life,  provides healing to the nations, even as the leaves of an aloevera plant brings healing to our bodies.  These leavers are a salve to the wounds brought on by human strife.
Now these nations aren’t just political entities, for the Greek word ta ethne, which  gives us the word ethnic, speaks of every group, tribe, and race that inhabits this world of ours.  Yes, everyone is invited to experience healing in the city of God.   As Paul suggests in Galatians, in Christ “there is now neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free” (Gal. 3:28).  Our physical distinctions may not be erased in the kingdom, but these distinctions will no longer decide our place or our relationships, for in Christ we have all been made one body.  Therefore, there are no second class citizens in the kingdom of God.
The words “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (22:2) can be found in Ezekiel (Ezk. 47:12) as well as here in Revelation, and as I consider these words I think about our cities and our neighborhoods, which often are ethnic powder kegs, ready to blow at any time.  We know about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but what about the walls that divide us here in Southeast Michigan?   I’ve been told many times about the invisible wall that divides Detroit from Oakland County.
When we read a text like this, it’s easy to assume that God will make everything right on the far side of eternity.  But, what if the new creation, the new Jerusalem has implications for life in the here and now?  If the kingdom of God is already present in our midst, initiated by Jesus in his life, his death, and his resurrection, how might we participate in God’s work of transformation?  How might we be part of the solution?
The text speaks of the waters of life and the Tree of Life, which offer healing to the nations.  If we can move beyond seeing nations as political entities and see this as describing tribes and families and groups, then perhaps we can better grasp what God is calling us to do.  We live decades after the Civil Rights era, but many of us still live in self-imposed ghettos and enclaves, where suspicion, jealousy, and even hatred are present: African, Korean, Arab, Persian, Latino, Native American, Chinese, Vietnamese, Hmong, Anglo, Indian, Jewish, Romanian, and on and on.  Color, language, and culture remain divisive.  Many of us fall prey to fear of the other.  And often, as illustrated in Lewis’s book, this fear breaks out into violence.
We may feel overwhelmed by the news, but there is a word of hope in this passage of Scripture.  The church has been called to serve as agents of healing and reconciliation.  God desires to use us to pour out the living water into the world, so that the dry lands might once again bear fruit.    In our discussions over the last year or so, using the Unbinding the Gospel materials, we talked about prayer and faith sharing.  As the living waters take hold in our lives, we are freed to speak and live God’s healing presence in a broken and hurting world.
Consider what Martin Luther King told moderate Southern whites many years ago.  He said that the greatest tragedy of the Civil Rights era wasn’t the “strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”   Indeed he wrote:

    No social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.  Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. [Martin Luther King quoted in And Don’t Call Me a Racist!  9th edition, (Argonaut Press, 1998), 141].

And so how does this call to join in the work of bringing healing to the nations fit into our Mother’s Day celebration?  Well, before Mother’s Day was a big consumer bash, Julia Ward Howe, the author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” made a proclamation that  called on women to honor mothers by becoming peacemakers.  Writing in the aftermath of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, she called for an end to the seemingly endless conflicts and wars that plagued the world.  She called on the women of the world to rise up and bring healing to the nations, declaring:

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask That a general congress of women without limit of nationality May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient And at the earliest period consistent with its objects, To promote the alliance of the different nationalities, The amicable settlement of international questions, The great and general interests of peace. 

There is a connection between Revelation and Mother’s Day, and it is found in this call to bring peace and healing to the nations.    May we all heed this call to be agents of healing in the world!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
May 9, 2010

Sixth Sunday of Easter