Monday, May 9, 2016

A Tale of Two Cities

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

It has been said that the story of the Bible begins in a garden but it ends in a city. What is a garden? It is a small patch of ground where there is order and harmony in the larger wildness of the world. In the beginning God brought forth beauty and coherence from chaos; he made a garden, he took the man and woman and placed them there and said, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.”

A garden is a place set aside to produce life and encourage healthy and intelligent growth. It is a place where small sprouts can be tended and nurtured, cultivated so that they can become large sprouts. The educator Friedrich Fröbel is famous for developing the concept of Kindergarten or a “child garden” where children can learn and develop in a natural way through play, singing, dancing, and interaction with other children. It is a place of gentle transition from the home to schooling and eventually to the responsibilities of adulthood.

God placed us in a garden, but he never intended for us to stay there any more than we intend our children to stay in kindergarten forever. In the final chapters of the final book of the bible we get a glimpse of what God intends as the ultimate destiny of human beings, the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, a harmonious society of perfect justice.

So is the history of the world just one uninterrupted and unimpeded march towards that glorious future?  No, not quite, although sometimes we act as if it is. One of the most powerful and largely unconscious beliefs to shape the modern world, especially since the time referred to as the Enlightenment, is the Myth of Progress, or the idea that through science and human reason the clouds of ignorance are being dispersed and the world moving forward towards an ever brighter future. We talk about “being on the right side of history.” When we encounter some particularly egregious ignorance we say, “I can’t believe that in the 21st Century we still have to deal with this nonsense!” The unspoken assumption is that the mere passing of time should resolve all problems and that each generation should be more moral and enlightened than the next. Parents and grandparents, what do you think of this idea?

You also run into the other idea of course. The more cynical act as if the world just gets worse with each passing generation. The belief in a perfect lost Golden Age is also a very powerful idea. In causal conversation the Golden Age is usually whenever the speaker was young and in their prime, when children respected their elders, and people believed in hard work.

The power of both perspectives is that there is at least partial truth in each of them. Who could deny that progress in science and civil rights does happen? Likewise it will always be necessary to recover forgotten wisdom from past generations.

The Bible challenges our cherished belief in the Myth of progress, but it most certainly isn’t pessimistic. The Bible teaches us to be optimistic about the ultimate future and not to despair but to have hope. That hope, however, rests not in human ingenuity or inevitable moral progress, but in God who is reconciling all things to himself in Christ.

In his monumental work, “The City of God,” Saint Augustine depicts the history of the world as a struggle between two cities, the City of God and the City of Man, or as they are described in Revelation, Jerusalem and Babylon.
Both names refer to actual cities in the ancient world. Jerusalem was the capital city of God’s people, the city of Zion, and the home of God’s Temple, his dwelling place on Earth. Babylon was her ancient enemy; the pagan nation that sacked God’s Temple and carried his people away into captivity.

In the Book of Revelation both of these cities function as symbols for the City of God and the City of Man. Babylon represents the world in rebellion against God and his just rule, the reign of sin, and the persecution of God’s people. The New Jerusalem represents the Kingdom of Heaven, the kingdom where Christ is King, the one that Jesus told Pilate was not of this world.

The struggle between these two cities started in the Garden. Human beings got expelled from Kindergarten and they have been on the wrong track ever since. According to Genesis the first city was built east of Eden in the Land of Nod by Cain, who was also the first murderer. How did the son of Adam and Eve round up enough people to start a city you ask? Just as with Revelation, it is best not to take these early stories in Genesis too literally!

The sons of Cain grow in cultural sophistication but also in wickedness. The quintessential example of the city of man in Genesis is the city of Babel with its infamous tower. The people say, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Gen.11:4).
 Their goal is to demonstrate their own ingenuity and independence from God, “to make a name for themselves.” God topples their tower of hubris and scatters them over the earth, confusing their speech.

In a similar way, Revelation foretells God’s judgment on the City of Man, the fall of Babylon, and the ultimate victory of the City of God, the New Jerusalem. In the City, as in the Garden, human beings enjoy direct and unmediated fellowship with God. There is no need for a Temple because God’s glory fills all things. The inhabitants of that city dwell in God and he dwells in them. They have no need of the sun because Christ himself, the lamb, is their light. The water of life, the spirit of God himself, flows freely through its streets as a river. The tree of life, access to which human beings lost when they rebelled in Eden, grows freely along its banks.

When human beings were cast out of the Garden, its gates were closed and an angel with a fiery sword guarded the way, but the gates of this city are always open! All are welcome there although we are told nothing unclean can enter but only those written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

Here is the remarkable part, the nations—presumably the same nations that were seduced and corrupted by Babylon—stream into The New Jerusalem. They willingly bring their gifts and treasure to honor her. They come to the New Jerusalem not only to honor her, but to be healed. The leaves of the Tree of Life are for the Healing of the Nations.  There is not a permanent opposition between the City of God and the City of Man, rather the City of God exists for the healing and redemption of the City of Man.

When God’s people were in exile in Babylon, God instructed them through the Prophet Jeremiah, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” The Church is meant to be a colony of the City of God in the midst of the City of Man. We are in the world, but not of the world. Our citizenship is in heaven and yet we seek the welfare of the various places in which we live because in their welfare we will find our own.

The local Church should be like a little miniature type of the New Jerusalem placed within our communities. It is the place where the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world is seated on the throne, where he is our light and life, where the doors are never shut, and where all people can receive healing and redemption.