The Bible opens in an unspoiled garden and it ends in a city.
Once upon a time God created the heavens and the earth. It was all good, but he told us that he was giving us a choice of what we wished to do with it. If we enjoyed it with him its perfection would be our playground to share, but if we rejected him all of its goodness to begin to unravel around us. Sure enough, we chose an alternative approach offered by the Devil, and ever since then life has…well, really sucked.
However God–idealist that he is–was unwilling to let his loved ones slip away without a fight. He said he would do whatever it would take to reclaim the kingdom he had lost to our sabotage. After a while he chose one man, one family, to start again with him. God blessed Abram and his wife Sarai, promising them that someday they would enjoy far more than they could ask for or imagine. It took a long time and involved a lot of setbacks, but eventually a baby boy was born to the aging couple and the sound of laughter finally rang in their tents.
We come from them. In the years to come God blessed our family and our descendents, sustaining us through a famine and bringing us out of slavery until we were finally settled in the land that he has prepared for us.
Unfortunately old habits die hard, and once more we began to wander away from God after our own spiritual alternatives. Again and again we would wander from God, face the consequences of our arrogance and eventually stumble back to seek God’s help. Over the centuries, though, our bad choices took their toll. Eventually our Promised Land slipped into foreclosure, with the hated Romans taking ownership of the land we’d shared with God for centuries. For 400 long years God gave us the silent treatment while he waited for us to be ready for his next step.
Then one night it happened. God himself joined us in our brokenness to absorb the curse we couldn’t endure and break the grip of evil. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became flesh and began to live among us. A virgin conceived and gave birth to a son. They called him Immanuel, or “God-with-us”. He lived among us, walked with us, ate with us, wept with us. He fed us when we were hungry, healed us when we were sick and even raised some of us from the dead. But just when we thought our problems were over, he’d make dark references to an early death that he would die for us. Without warning, he allowed the Romans to capture him, torture him and put him to death.
Just like that, it was over. Stunned, we scattered. A few women braved the execution crowd and laid his battered corpse in a borrowed tomb.
We had no idea what had just happened.
On the third day after that those same women were stunned once again to discover that his tomb had been opened, the grave clothes neatly folded inside. Even more bizarre, they encountered Jesus Christ–fully alive. Jesus tried to explain that he’d now conquered even death for us, and was inviting us to follow him into a brand new life. In the days to come we thought we were done, our struggle finally over. But then he surprised us again by returning to the father in heaven, leaving vague promises about going to prepare a place for us and even more cryptic instructions telling us to wait for him to lead us.
On the day of Pentecost we were huddled together to avoid protesters when suddenly everything seemed to break open. We were all filled with an irresistible sense of Christ’s presence again, his joy crackling like the flames of fire that seemed to dance above our heads. We laughed, we shouted, we danced. People thought we were drunk, but when we explained they stopped and listened. They really listened. By the end of the day 3000 others had joined us in following the risen Jesus of Nazareth.
And it spread from there. The more we told people, the more seriously they took us, and the more people joined us. The religious folks, of course, were deeply threatened by all this and did everything they could to shut us down but it didn’t work. Our sense of joy was so great that even when they forced us from our homes and our businesses we simply moved on to other towns and told still others about this crazy thing that was going on.
Before a few decades were up, we had blanketed the entire Roman Empire, leaving trails of joy as people discovered the Messiah they hadn’t known they’d needed. The more resistance we faced, the more joy we discovered and the more the good news about Christ. The entire world was being blanketed by networks of people brings Christ’s healing in whatever forms it was most needed in that location.
We wondered where all this would lead, but over time God made it clear that he had still more up his sleeve. Jesus himself would return to us, we were told, heaven descending to earth and would finally finish the renewal that kept spilling out from us everywhere we went. Someday he would return, would make all things new, and would wipe away every tear from our eyes. His new thing would be like a perfect city, transformed with everything that makes life good, and finally cleansed of every source of suffering. The untapped potential of that first garden would now become the splendor of that urban marvel, with all of the wonders of any of the great cities of history. Finally we would see the real thing, the coming splendor of which every previous blessing had been merely a hint.
And we would all live happily ever after.