A recently published report has claimed that there is enough space around the world to enable the planting of trees equal to the area of the United States. On that kind of scale, the trees would help to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere by up to 25%. It is, say the researchers, the most effective weapon against climate change currently available.
On the flip side of this coin is another recent news story, which reported that trees covering an area the size of a football pitch are lost from the Amazon rain forest every minute. The impact on the local environment is devastating, and effect on the global climate is reckoned to be considerable and negative.
These recent stories on the important therapeutic properties of trees have put me in mind of part of John’s vision of the New Jerusalem as his angel guide shows him inside the city that has come down from heaven:
“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.” (Revelation 22.1-2, NIV)
Here, John seems to be bringing the narrative of Genesis 2 and 3 full circle. In the original creation, the tree of life was denied to the disobedient man and woman, with the terrible curse of expulsion and death. Now in the new creation there is a new tree of life that is for healing, specifically “the healing of the nations.”
“The nations” in the Jewish sense of the term refers, of course, to the Gentile nations, the goyim, or ethnoi. These nations often represent rebellious and disobedient humanity, seeking to follow their own way, in contradiction to God’s rightful place as the world’s true sovereign:
“Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed…”(Psalm 2.1-2, NIV)
It is from this rebellion, which started in Eden and has continued throughout human history that the nations need the healing given through the leaves of the tree.
Perhaps the most pressing theological question here is whether Christians should look beyond the whole concept of ‘nations’ altogether. The nations frequently pit themselves against one another, with the strong oppressing the weak, the rich exploiting the poor, the powerful subjugating the powerless. These unbalanced dynamics lead to conflict and violence, either as the oppressed rise up, or as the powerful vie among one another for domination, or indeed a combination of both. To compound it all, the international institutions that are designed to deal with all this, such as the United Nations and the European Union, have failed to end the that blight so much of the human race. Is it time simply to withdraw and become a separate, transnational people of God, letting the rebellious and godless ‘nations’ go their own way?
But what about the promised healing? At least part of the answer to this comes in the next three verses of Revelation 22:
“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 for ever and ever.” (Revelation 22.3-5, NIV)
The human vocation described here is twofold: to serve God in his presence, and to “reign” over the renewed creation. As Tom Wright puts it,
‘The royal and priestly vocation of all human beings, it seems, consists in this: to stand at the interface between God and his creation, bringing God’s wise and generous order to the world and giving articulate voice to creation’s glad and grateful praise to its maker … in the book of Revelation, as elsewhere in the New Testament, this ultimate destiny is anticipated in the present time.’[i]
It therefore simply won’t do to abscond, and leave the wicked world to go its own way. If the vocation of humans is to bring God’s saving and, yes, healing rule to earth now, then our default theological position must be that we affirm “the nations” as being under that rule, whether or not they and their leaders acknowledge it. But it cannot stop there. It must be the place of the church to anticipate “the healing of the nations”, calling them back from their conspiracies, their plots, their risings and their banding together in the face of God’s good purposes.
“The world is a mess. The world is as angry as it gets.” Donald Trump’s words, spoken in an interview with NBC in 2017, provide an accurate enough diagnosis of our age, but they offer no treatment, let alone a cure. Thinking of our own nation’s little local difficulty, as a new Prime Minister will soon assume office and attempt to mend divisions over Brexit that seem beyond repair, we must assume our divinely appointed role as priests and rulers: we must intercede for healing, but we ourselves must also bring that healing into the nation. In the end, until we see the tree of life in the New Jerusalem, it is in fact we who are the leaves “for the healing of the nations.”
[i] Tom Wright, Virtue Reborn, London: SPCK, 2010, 70-72