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Of Trees and the Tree (revised)


Genesis 2:8-9; 15-17
Genesis 3:1-7
Deuteronomy 21:22-23
Galatians 3:13
1 Peter 2:24
John 19:16b-30

I: — What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with the world? What’s wrong with the world is something the world would never guess: it slanders the goodness of God.

The old, old story (saga, legend) of Genesis 3 is a timeless story about the history of every man and every woman, for “Adam” is Hebrew for “everyman” and “Eve” for “mother of all the living”. According to the old story God has placed us in a garden abounding in trees: “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food”. God has placed us in a setting that delights us and nourishes us abundantly. In addition to the myriad trees in Eden (“Eden” being Hebrew for “delight”) there are two extraordinary trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree of life symbolizes the fact that the origin of life and the conditions of life and the blessings of life rest in God; the tree of life symbolizes this and reminds us of it. As John Calvin says so finely, “God intended that as often as we tasted the fruit of the tree of life we should remember from whom we received our life, in order that we might acknowledge that we live not by our own power but by the kindness of God.”

In addition to the tree of life there stands the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. “Good and evil” does not mean “good plus evil”. “Good-and-evil” (virtually one word) is a semitism, a Hebrew expression meaning “everything, the sum total of human possibilities, everything that we can imagine.” To know, in Hebrew is to have intimate acquaintance with, to experience. In forbidding us to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil God is warning us against intimate acquaintance with the sum total of everything that we can imagine. He is warning us against thinking we must experience or even may experience whatever we can dream up. In other words, God has set a limit to human self-extension; God has set a limit to our extending ourselves into anything at all that the mind and heart can invent.

Why has God set such a limit? Why does he urge us to become intimately acquainted with everything that is both nourishing and delightful, both essential to life and culturally rich — and then in the same breath warn us not to become intimately acquainted with “good and evil”? He sets such a limit just because he loves us; he sets this limit for our blessing. This side of the limit is blessing; the other side is curse. This side of the limit there is the blessing of curative medicines; the other side of the limit there is cocaine, curse. This side of the limit there is the one-flesh union of marriage, blessing; the other side there is the curse of promiscuity and perversion with their degradation and disease. God, who is good in himself, wants only what is good for us.

Good? We don’t think that God is good when he tells us, “Every tree except the one tree”; we think he’s arbitrary. After all, he didn’t consult us when he decided where the boundary line was to be; he simply told us; arbitrary.

The root human problem is that we disparage the goodness of God. We disparage the goodness of God when we scorn the tree of life, dismissing the goodness of God and the truth of God, even as we tell ourselves that he has proscribed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil not because he longs to bless us but just because he’s arbitrary; and not only arbitrary, but a spoilsport as well since he won’t allow us to extend ourselves into all those possibilities that would surely enrich us.

The tree of life represents discipleship; the tree of life represents what it is to be profoundly human: human beings are created to be glad and grateful covenant-partners with God. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil — prohibited! — is the alternative to discipleship, the alternative to glad and grateful covenant-partnership with God. The root human problem, then, is that we don’t want life from God’s hand under the conditions God sets for our blessing. We prefer an alternative; we want to be the author and judge and master of our own life.

According to our ancient story the garden of profuse creaturely delights continues to delight us as long as we hear and heed the creator who gave them to us. As soon as we try to “improve” upon him, however; as soon as we disobey him, proposing an alternative to the covenant-partnership of discipleship, the creaturely delights no longer delight us. They become the occasion of endless frustration, emptiness, futility, curse.

II: — The process by which we typically arrive at God-willed curse in place of God-willed blessing is subtle. The serpent is the personification of this subtlety. The serpent asks with seeming innocence, “Did God say? Did God say you weren’t to eat of that one tree?” The serpent hasn’t exactly lied: at no point does it say, “God never said….” While the serpent never exactly lies, neither does it ever exactly tell the truth. The serpent (subtlety personified) smuggles in the assumption — without ever saying so explicitly — that God’s word, God’s command is subject to our assessment.

The subtlety takes the form of a question that appears innocent but in fact is a doubt-producing question with a hidden agenda. What’s more, the doubt-producing question is an exaggeration: “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’” Any tree? There’s the exaggeration. God has forbidden us to eat of one tree, one tree only.

Eve (mother of all the living) decides to correct the serpent. Surely there’s no harm in correcting an exaggeration. But for her there is, for as soon as she attempts to correct the serpent she’s been drawn into the serpent’s territory; now she’s dialoguing with a subtlety to which she isn’t equal. When first she heard “Did God say?” the only thing for her to do was to ignore the proffered subtlety. Correcting it looks harmless but is ultimately fatal, for now she’s been drawn into the tempter’s world.

Isn’t it the case that as soon as you and I begin to reason with sin we are undone? As soon as we begin to reason with temptation we’re finished. Temptation can only be repudiated, never reasoned with, for the longer we reason with it the longer we entertain it; and the longer we entertain it the faster our reasoning becomes rationalization — and rationalization, as everyone knows, is perfectly sound reasoning in the service of an unacceptable end.

As soon as Eve attempts to correct the serpent’s exaggeration she exaggerates. “God has told us not to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree; we aren’t even to touch the tree, lest we die.” God had never said they weren’t to touch it. They were certainly to be aware of the tree, always aware of it, and never to eat of it, never to experience it. In trying to correct the serpent’s exaggeration, Eve now exaggerates. In trying to undo the serpent’s distortion of the truth, she now distorts the truth. Of course. To dialogue with a subtlety pertaining to temptation is invariably to be seduced by it.

Eve doesn’t know it yet, but she’s undone. She doesn’t know it, but the serpent does. For this reason the serpent leaves subtlety behind and accosts her blatantly. “You won’t die”, it tells her as plainly as it can, “You won’t die; you’ll be like God, the equal of God.” It’s the tempter’s word against God’s; it’s temptation’s contradiction of God’s truth.

But God has said that we shall die if we defy him; we are going to be accursed if we extend ourselves into areas and orbits beyond blessing. “You won’t die.” Please note that the first doctrine to be denied is the judgement of God. Doctrines are the truths of God, and the first truth of God to be disdained is the judgement of God. We should note in passing that Jesus everywhere upholds the judgement of God.

Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, with the result that “their eyes were opened”. They had thought that by defying God they were going to be enlightened. By defying him, however, they have moved to a new level of experience; their eyes are opened — but they are anything but enlightened. They now know “good and evil”. They now have intimate acquaintance with, first-hand experience of, what God had pronounced off-limits. Too late, they now know too why it was pronounced “off-limits”: it’s accursed.

To sum it all up, the primal temptation to which every human being succumbs is the temptation to be like God, to be God’s rival (actually, his superior). The primal temptation is to regard God’s truth as inferior to our “wisdom”; to slander God’s loving “No” as spoilsport arbitrariness; to regard obedient service to God as demeaning servility; to pretend that a suicidal plunge is a leap into life. Ultimately the primal temptation is to look upon God’s goodness as imaginary, his will as capricious, and his judgement as unsubstantial.

III: — The result is that Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden. Expelled means driven out. By God’s decree. Does forced expulsion strike you as too heavy-handed for a God whose nature is love? Then be sure to understand that the forced expulsion is also the logical outcome of disobedience. After all, Jesus insists (John 17:3) that life, eternal life, is fellowship with God. And fellowship with God is precisely what humankind repudiates. Then a forced expulsion from the garden — a forced expulsion that issues in estrangement instead of intimacy, creaturely goods that frustrate instead of delight, daily existence that is cursed instead of blessed, and a future bringing the judge instead of the father — all of this we have willed for ourselves. We think the expulsion to be heavy-handed? We wanted it.
In the ancient story the cherubim, spirit-beings who safeguard God’s holiness, together with a flaming sword that turns in every direction; these guarantee that God means what he says: humankind is out of the garden, can’t find its way back in, is now living under curse, and can’t do anything about it.

IV: — We can’t do anything about it. Only the holy one whose holiness cannot abide our sinfulness can. Only he can. But will he? Has he? Peter cries, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree!” (1st Peter 2:24) He himself did? Who is “he himself”? It is our Lord Jesus Christ, he and none other.
We must never think, however, that after Peter had denied his Lord and run away he suddenly came to the happy conclusion that Jesus is the great sin-bearer for the whole wide world. At the cross he had concluded only that Jesus was accursed. After all, the Torah said it all clearly: “…a hanged man is accursed by God. Therefore, if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and you hang him on a tree, don’t leave his body on the tree overnight; remember, anyone hanged on a tree is accursed by God.” (Deut. 21:22-23) Since Jesus had been hanged on a tree (of sorts), Jesus had to be accursed by God. Such people weren’t accursed because they were hanged; they were hanged because they were accursed; and they were accursed because they were unspeakably debased sinners.

It was only in the light of Easter morning that Peter understood what had really happened. It was through his Easter morning encounter with the risen one himself; it was in the light of the Father’s Easter vindication of the Son that Peter saw several things simultaneously.
[1] Jesus was accursed; he had died under God’s curse.
[2] Yet Jesus wasn’t accursed on account of his sin; he was accursed on account of humankind’s sin. That is, while he was not a transgressor himself, he was “numbered among the transgressors”. While not a sinner himself, he identified himself so thoroughly with sinners as to receive in himself the Father’s just judgement on them.
“He bore our sins in his body on the tree.” To “bear sin” is a Hebrew expression meaning to be answerable for sin and to endure its penalty. The penalty for sin is estrangement from God. In bearing this penalty — demonstrated in his forlorn cry of God-forsakenness — Jesus answered on our behalf.
[3] Because Jesus Christ is the incarnate son of God he possesses the same nature as God. Father and Son are one in nature, one in purpose, one in will. It is never the case that the Son is willing to do something that the Father is not, that the Son is kind while the Father is severe, that the Son is eager to pardon while the Father is eager to condemn. Incarnation means that Father and Son are of one nature and mind and heart. To say, then, that Jesus bore the judge’s just judgement on our sin is to say that the judge himself took his own judgement upon himself. But of course he who is judge is also father. Which is to say, when Jesus bore our sins in his body the Father bore them in his heart. The just judge executed the judgement that he must; then he bore it himself and therein neutralized it, and this so that his characteristic face as Father might be the face that shines upon you and me forever. Father and Son are one in judgement, one in its execution, one in anguish, and one in pardon. What the Son bore the Father bore, in order that justice uncompromised might issue in mercy unimpeded.

In the light of Christ’s resurrection the truth of the cross and the nature of its curse flooded Peter.

V: — When Peter cried, “He bore our sins in his body on the tree” (the Good News of Good Friday), he went on to say in the same breath, “in order that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”

Then the only thing left for us to decide this morning is whether or not we are going to die to sin and live to righteousness. Here only do we have anything to say, to do, to become. We can’t do anything about Eden. We have been expelled, and rightly expelled, having disparaged the goodness of God and disobeyed the wisdom of God and disdained the blessing of God. Just as we can’t do anything about Eden we can’t do anything about our consequent condition: we can’t overturn it, can’t right it, can’t alter it however slightly. In the same way we can’t do anything to effect atonement, can’t do anything to make ourselves “at one” with God once more. We can’t do anything here for two reasons. In the first place, offenders can’t finally achieve reconciliation in any personal relationship anywhere in life. Reconciliation is always finally in the hands of the offended party anywhere in life. Since we are offenders any possibility of reconciliation rests with the God we have offended.
We can’t do anything to effect atonement, in the second place, just because it’s already been done.

God wrought our reconciliation to him in the cross. To think we can improve upon it is to disdain the blessing he has fashioned for us; and this is to commit the primal sin all over again.

Then there is only one matter for us to settle. Are we going or are we not going to die to sin and live to righteousness? If we intend to do this today or to go on doing it today we must cling in faith to the crucified one himself. He is the son with whom the Father is ever pleased. Then in clinging to him in faith we too shall become that child of God who delights the Father. He is the wisdom of God. Then in clinging to him we shall forswear our folly and know blessing instead of curse. In clinging to him and following him throughout life we shall know that his service, so far from servility, is in fact our glory. His tree, the cross, is now become the tree of life. To become ever more intimately acquainted with it is to relish the rigours of discipleship, recognizing all alternatives as the spiritual suicide that they are.

VI: — As we cling to our Lord Jesus Christ in faith the psalmist will say of us what he said of others so long ago:

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do they prosper.
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1:3,6)

Victor Shepherd
Revised March 2013