One of our values as a church is a holistic approach to mission “focusing on: supporting families, caring for creation, offering hospitality, acting as a voice for the voiceless, putting the poor first, praying for healing and miracles, and proclaiming Christ boldly.” Caring for creation is one we are particularly excited about, and which we creatively weave into our life as a church.
A few weeks ago, we hosted an outdoor event celebrating the Feast of the Tabernacles – in a way, practicing, embodying, and celebrating this value. Tabernacles is one of seven traditional Jewish festivals. During the festival, tabernacles or booths (i.e., tent-like structures) are constructed as a way of symbolizing, commemorating, and celebrating God’s protective presence with them in the wilderness for forty years.
Over time, this feast came to represent for the Jews an anticipation of the Messiah, who was expected to return through the East Gate of the Temple in Jerusalem. At the high point of the Tabernacles celebration ritual, water was poured over the altar so that it flowed towards the East Gate. This was to symbolize and enact the words and promise of Ezekiel 47, in which water flows east out of the Temple and brings healing and restoration to the land:
“This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Dead Sea. When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live.Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.” [Ezekiel 47:8-12]
Interestingly enough, it was at precisely this point, the high point of the Feast of the Tabernacles, when Jesus stood up and said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” [John 7:37-38]. In these very words, Jesus demonstrates that he is the embodiment of the Tabernacles tradition and Messianic expectation: he declares himself as Messiah and identifies himself as the true source of living water, the ultimate source of healing and restoration.
How cool is that?! Christ then is central to and very evidently concerned with healing the land. And not only that, but he has promised that rivers of living water will flow from us so that we too may be healers of dry land.
Our desire as a church is to join Christ in this: to seek healing for the land – an oft-neglected mission of the Christian church as a whole. In fact, as Christians we may well think that the healing of which Ezekiel speaks is merely figurative. Like, he really means to convey the healing of souls who are, [metaphorically] speaking, “dry land,” right? Because, as I have often thought, that’s only what this is all about: the salvation of souls, right?
Well, wait a second. What if Ezekiel’s actually speaking of healing the land, as in the real land? What if the scope of God’s redemption is more broad than we think? What if Jesus is actually commissioning us to not only bring healing to broken people but to sun-scorched lands? What would that look like? Believe it or not, in his next volume John tells us what that will look like:
“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. 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 forever and ever.” [Revelation 22:1-4]
The scope of God’s redemption is scandalously broad. It’s cosmic. This heavenly vision attests to the redemption of people, the transformation of the city, and the healing of the earth. It’s a fulfilment of what Ezekiel saw and for what the church longs – or perhaps for what the church should long.
Do you hear the echoes of Ezekiel 47 in Revelation 22? River flowing from the throne. Trees on the banks of the river. Trees bearing fruit each month. Leaves for healing. And perhaps best of all, God’s throne in the city [not just the temple] and his presence a light for the whole world.
Herein lies the value and, dare I say, the necessity of caring for creation. Though we live in the now-and-not-yet of God’s kingdom, we as a church are eager to participate in ushering in the final picture. And so we seek healing for the land in the middle of our city. In our urban context, the land for which we advocate is neglected, disregarded, and forgotten by both the government and the people. The degraded environment has a damaging effect on our community as the neglect for place quickly translates into neglect for people. This perpetuates a message of indifference towards the plight of our neighbours.
As a means of overcoming and counteracting this message, we seek to bring healing to the land, a new message of beauty. In doing so, we are inversely bringing healing for broken people affected by the brokenness of place, a new message of hope in the face of long-term neglect. As we seek to bring life and restoration to places of death and degeneration, we herald the present-and-coming kingdom of God and so lift up the name of Jesus – the true source of life, the One in whom all things have been made, and the One in whose life and light all things will be sustained.
[Much credit due to Paul Ede for his drawing and putting together this material and these themes. A piece of his on urban eco-mission can be found here.] Claire