Texts: Jeremiah 29:1-7; Revelation 21: 9-14, 22-25
It’s been observed that the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city.
If you want to get a little more technical, the Bible begins in the formless and void, and ends with a warning that if anyone changes any of the words in the book of Revelation that God will bring on them the plagues so vividly described within.
But if we’re willing to treat the first chapter of Genesis as something of an introduction, and if we’re willing to bracket the very end of Revelation as a bit of first century copyright language, theologically aggressive as it may be…and if we set aside that rather than being like a single book, the Bible is more like a library of books, representing a tradition that evolves over a period of several thousand years, now bound together under one cover that we might consider how we carry forward this evolving tradition in our time…If we can go with those parameters, then the Bible does indeed begin in a garden, and end in a city.
From garden to city does make for an intriguing narrative arc.
The garden, of course, is the Garden of Eden, which shows up in Genesis chapter two. Scholars have identified this as a second, and likely more ancient, creation story, told after the quite different seven day creation story that begins with the earth being formless and void. Genesis 1 is more cosmic in scale, with humanity not showing up until day six when they are created in the image of God. Genesis 2 focuses on the human being, formed from the dust of the ground, taking their place in a garden. The Garden of Eden. The human’s role is to till and to keep the garden. The first job description for the human endeavor is that of gardener. As a labor saving device, the Creator Yahweh Elohim, has included lots of perennials in this garden, fruit bearing trees, from which humanity may eat, including the Tree of Life.
There is one off limits, and of course the curious humans eventually have to have a taste of it. The tree of knowledge. And once you know, you can’t unknow what you know. There’s no going back. As the story goes, this leads to exile from the garden. Humanity will be fruitful and multiply as originally commanded, they will continue to till the ground, but it will take place outside this original gifted garden. Angelic guardians with flashing swords are placed at the entrance of the Garden of Eden, protecting the way to the Tree of Life. This dust creature called “human,” this god-image bearer, this knowledge laden creature, will need to find its way in this world beyond Eden.
So the biblical narrative begins.
And where it ends, in that final and fantastical book of the biblical library, Revelation – John’s vision, nightmare, heavenly dream, on the island of Patmos. Where it ends, is a city. As this vision draws to its climactic conclusion this is what John says:
“And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev 21:2) The worn out earth is renewed, not as a pristine garden, but as a city.
John goes into great detail, even about the dimensions of the city, as if he’s reading the city planning guidelines. The walls, the gates, the construction materials consisting of various rare and precious stones.
The city takes on a cosmopolitan flare when John says, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there.”
The city becomes the place where the Divine and the human finally live together in harmony.
Also in the city is the long lost tree of life, those angelic guards finally relieved of their duties. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
John envisions where the linear time of history flows into the ocean of eternity, where the heavens and the earth are renewed. And it looks like a city, gates wide open, all peoples and cultures welcome, with a tree offering itself as a primary care physician, a healer.
In the biblical imagination, we live in between Eden and the New Jerusalem. The garden the city.
This summer was actually the second Sabbatical I’ve had as a pastor. The first was while we were with the Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship. Much of that Sabbatical was spent back on the farm where I grew up, where my parents still live, an hour northwest of here in Bellefontaine. The plan was pretty simple. Have some unhurried time outside of the city, back to the farm, back to nature. I would help with gardening and farm related work in the morning, and in the afternoon I’d go to a coffee shop and read lots of Wendell Berry, and other such writers. Having free lodging was a strategic perk, paid in kind through free labor.
For a little over a month, this is what we did. It was like the Bible in reverse. A self-exile from the city, into the garden prepared for us by my earthly parents.
Not far into this time, it became apparent that the previous split, at least in my mind, between garden and city was a false one.
A garden, rather than a pure manifestation of nature, is a highly managed environment. To till and keep a garden is to excerpt consciousness alongside the mysterious power of life. To choose what grows and what gets pulled up. To select the best of what has grown and plant its seeds for the coming year. By careful and wise tilling and keeping, the gardener has the capacity to not only maintain a landscape, but to improve it, at least in our way of defining improvement – to increase diversity, and expand what is helpful, to hold back what is harmful. To offer something even more abundant to the next generation, fully aware that what we now have to tend is an inheritance from previous generations.
To garden is to partner with the wonder and miracle of life and be so bold as to choose what grows and what doesn’t. And sometimes, of course, despite best efforts, it just won’t grow.
A city is a highly managed environment. Every part of it an eclectic mixture of human forethought and unintended consequences; cooperative design and individual will; environmental opportunities and limitations; necessity and excess; a constant interplay between human consciousness and other forces. One generation’s creative impulse inherited by future generations to revise, remodel…or get trapped in cycles and structures as powerful and potentially destructive as a plague of locusts.
Perhaps the journey from garden to city is not such a long journey after all. There is a powerful human element in both, a burden, or gift of responsibility.
On this Sabbatical Abbie and I spent a week in California, half of it at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. We saw the largest tree in the world, the General Sherman. We stayed in John Muir Lodge.
As we soon learned, John Muir is the patron saint of these parks. He’s the Scottish immigrant to the US who explored and wrote eloquently about the natural beauty of the American West. He founded the Sierra Club and strongly advocated for the creation of National Parks.
In hallways of the lodge there were color enhanced photos of the California Sierra landscape. They looked like the kind of pictures that, in another setting, would have Bible verses under them. A sunset over a mountain range: “And God saw that it was good.” Towering sequoia trees: “For God so loved the world….” Or something like that. You know what I’m talking about. But instead of Bible verses, there were quotes from John Muir: “The mountains are calling, and I must go.” “Between every two pines is a doorway into a new world.” I have to say in this case I preferred the John Muir quotes.
But John Muir had a blind spot. This I discovered after some further reading about him and the California Sierras. When he saw the Sequoias and the great Yosemite Valley, he believed it to be nature in its pure form. A wilderness planted only by the hand of God. Like Eden before the humans got a hold of it. He advocated that it be protected from human encroachment, which was becoming a major problem as settlers poured in from the east. Thus the national parks.
What he failed to see was that this land was not untouched wilderness. It was more of a garden, even a city of some kind. Like other parts of the US, Native Americans had been managing these lands for millennia, especially through the strategic use of fire. Over the generations it had become a park/garden/village for people who had partnered with life and God.
But rather than bearing the names of these people who had created a civilization among the trees, the largest tree in the world is now named after a US General who fought along the Western Frontier for the extermination of these Indians, thus protecting and conserving the wilderness lands. I wish they had read Revelation which says the tree of life is for the healing of the nations.
Decades after the Indians were gone, the conservationists began complaining about the brush and wild growth overtaking their pristine parks. Only recently are we coming to understand the importance of careful human partnership with the wildlife and plant life to maintain an environment in which all can thrive.
Ever since eating from the proverbial tree of knowledge we as a species have been applying our vast and often short sited knowledge to shape the world around us. What gets to grow, what gets rooted out? Who gets rooted out? What do we build? What do we destroy? It’s a rather terrifying and remarkable responsibility. It’s the same kind of work we do every day on the soul level. What gets to grow, what gets rooted out? What do we build? What do we destroy? What gets our attention? Where do we direct our energy? How might we partner with life and God to tend the miracle of our lives?
In Jeremiah 29, the prophet writes a letter to the exiles in Babylon. They had been uprooted from Jerusalem, and were now in a foreign land, a great city. His wise counsel points them toward a new life in the city/garden in which they find themselves. They are to settle in. To send down roots. To plant urban gardens and tend them. To have children, and grandchildren. To seek the shalom, the welfare, the peace of the city. Because their wellbeing was now tied up to the wellbeing of that city. As they tend their lives, as they live as a community, they will partner with God and life in shaping something beautiful and sustaining for themselves and future generations.
Whether Columbus is your Babylon of exile or your familiar and beloved Jerusalem, it is the city/garden in which we now live. In which the Creator seeks to create with you a community of shalom. May we tend our lives well, so that we can tend to this place, these neighborhoods, our neighbors, these animals and trees around us.
First Sabbatical…from city to country. Same thing