Sunday, January 28, 2024

Fields of Freedom, Seeds of Doubt

Up to this point, our stroll in God's garden has turned up nothing but artful flowers and cheering sunshine, sparkling rivers and luscious fruits and critters in harmony, and noble people crowned and commissioned, with an even more awesome glory ahead of them. Well, that all isn't going to survive the day, I'm afraid. In these few short verses at the opening of Genesis chapter 3, groundwork is laid for a grave fall. For into this idyllic scene has slithered an intruder.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made” (Genesis 3:1). Let's start with the obvious: at the literal level, we're confronted by a “beast of the field,” a wild animal. Before whatever else we can say, this is one of God's creatures which has an assigned role to play in God's good world and which, when it was first made, was pronounced good.1 It's one of those same “beasts of the field” which, in the last chapter, the human had rejected as a potential partner but given a name, an identity (Genesis 2:19-20). That means its proper place is under human dominion, a creature subject to their “rule over every creeping thing that creeps on the land” (Genesis 1:26). And as a “beast of the field,” the serpent is alien to the garden.2

Now, how were the humans just described? They were “naked and unashamed” (Genesis 2:25). What you see is what you get, and with them you see everything. They're innocent, devoid of guile. They speak plainly exactly what they mean. But here comes the serpent, and he's crafty, cunning, sly, shrewd. It's interesting that Genesis describes the humans as naked, 'arummim, and the serpent as cunning, 'arum – those words sound the same. Just like others in this story, this pun is meant to provoke thought.3 The serpent is so cunning that it seems as openly transparent as the humans – but actually the transparency is camouflage. But to what end?

His goal is to misrepresent and mislead, to deceive and delude, and ultimately to prey on the bearers of God's image. It's a rejection of God's decree putting the serpent under human dominion. It's also vindictive retaliation for his own rejection: if the man prefers the woman to the serpent, the serpent will seduce her out of spite.4 So the serpent's shrewd rhetoric and tempting promises aim to undercut her trusting relationship to her LORD God.

Notice, by the way, that ever since the Eden story began, the Creator has consistently been referred to as “the LORD God,” Yahweh Elohim. 'Yahweh' – in our Bibles, 'LORD' with all caps – is his covenant name, his name for relating to the people whom he's chosen, and it emphasizes his eternal faithfulness. The commandment came from 'Yahweh God' (Genesis 2:16). But the serpent only wants to discuss what 'God' has said. Now, of course the serpent's got no right to be on a first-name basis with God. But it's also a tactic. He wants the woman to mentally disengage from thinking about God on a level of personal relationship.5

So the serpent begins by setting a framework of his choosing: “Has God really said...?” On the surface it looks almost friendly, but the serpent is opening up the possibility of putting God into a question.6 The tone that comes through is a feigned confusion: “How could it be that God would say...?”, “Isn't it outrageous that God said...?”, “Really! It's unbelievable that God would say...!” Implied is the idea that God's word is an appropriate topic of debate, something on which creatures get to pass judgment.7 It's a totally disingenuous question, without an ounce of sincerity. The serpent doesn't want to be informed; he wants to scoff, mock, manipulate.8

Next, the serpent attributes to God the exact opposite of what God said. The LORD God commanded humans, “You shall eat of every tree of the garden” (Genesis 2:16). The serpent quotes those words exactly, but sticks a 'not' at the very front of them (Genesis 3:1). What a massive difference it makes, that one little word! In what the LORD God really said, he spread forth almost limitless fields of freedom in front of us and urged humans to go enjoy ourselves, to make the most of it, to receive the world as sheer gift and to live in it without anxieties or fears. But the serpent turns this truth on its head. The serpent caricatures God as a stingy miser, a God whose first instinct is to forbid, restrict, oppress.9 In the serpent's telling, this is a God who surrounded us with delicious delights and then effectively condemned us to slowly starve as we stare at the taunting treats we may not eat.10 And so the serpent pits God against blessing, God against humanity, God against life.11

Even now, this is one of the devil's favorite opening gambits. When he wants your mind and heart to accept sin, either he'll convince you that God is less generous than he really is (and therefore you're entitled to do whatever was unjustly withheld from you) or else that God hasn't said what you thought he said (and therefore the sin isn't really against God's law after all). So be on guard whenever either kind of thought begins to probe the boundaries of your mind. If clever justifications explain why sin isn't really sin, watch out. And if the voice whispers that God is a stingy naysayer, there's the serpent's other angle, getting you to mistake the God of Yes.

Okay, so put yourself in the woman's place. The serpent – unbeknownst to her, the deceitful voice that tempts – has introduced this question implying a totally reversed view of God. What are the woman's options? What are our options? The first option would be to realize that the serpent is an unclean trespasser who doesn't belong in the garden to begin with, and so for the humans to judge it and silence it by casting it out of God's garden.12 If possible, the best answer to the deceitful voice when it aims to weaken your faith or rationalize sin, is expulsion. Take dominion over your passions, over your beliefs, over those inner voices and intrusive thoughts.

A second option would be to silently snub the serpent. “There was no need for her to get involved in conversation with him in the first place.”13 She owes the serpent zero attention. If you can't get that deceitful voice, out of your head, you can refuse to engage. Give yourself critical distance: notice it, then walk away. Recognize that the whisper has no power over you but what you give it. So give it nothing. “When temptation comes, never dialogue. Close the door, close the window... We do not converse with the devil.”14

The third option, if the woman insists on speaking, is: just say no. The LORD God didn't give his commandment to snakes, did he? So it's none of the serpent's business. The woman can just tell him, “Wrong!”, and go about her day. “Let your yes be yes and your no be no; anything further comes from the Evil One,” Jesus pointed out (Matthew 5:37).15 Faced with the voice that misrepresents God, all the answer you need give is simply “No.”

But the serpent was oh-so-clever. His caricature of God was so insane, so ludicrous, that the woman opened a deeper dialogue with the serpent. She means well! She's speaking up to set the record straight. She hopes to help the serpent by correcting his ignorance with gentleness and respect. She aims to serve the LORD God by defending his honor.16 But that's what the serpent wants. He used his absurdity as bait, a way to lure the woman in. He aims to exploit her good intentions. In proving the possibility of wrongness, the serpent has gotten his nose in the door.17 Paul would've told her: “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).

So the woman answers the serpent, not by quoting God's word precisely, but by paraphrasing it. What had the LORD God said? “Of all the trees of the garden, absolutely you may eat” (Genesis 2:16). But how does the woman say it? “Of the fruit of the trees of the garden, we may eat” (Genesis 3:2). She adds the word 'fruit' – no problem there – but what words does she subtract? 'Absolutely' and 'all.' Her portrayal of the permission is muted, less forceful than what the LORD God actually spoke.18 In letting herself be put on the defensive, she's tacitly been drawn a half-step closer to the serpent's point of view. And that's part of what the serpent will do to us, too. If the serpent uses a voice of presumption, smuggling in false promises under God's name, then we're liable to get carried away. But if the serpent uses a voice of doubt, then even as we defend our faith, we'll be prone to waffle a little bit, to shave the edges off, to make our faith more palatable – and so we'll understate the raw audacity of the gospel. The woman's defense understates the raw audacity of God's gracious invitation.

But it's worse than that. She doesn't actually say the permission comes from God at all. She only mentions God once she speaks, not of what she can have, but of what she can't have.19 So she fails to relate the bounty of the garden to God its Giver. She fails to highlight how every fruit is a sign of ongoing relationship with a God of generous love.20 How typical for us, too! When we find ourselves pushed toward that borderland between faith and doubt, it's not uncommon to begin to mentally connect God more with his apparent failures than with his abundant faithfulness. In those dark and lonely hours, our thought might be, “God isn't visible here in my hurt, here in my prayer.” But we forget to think, “But God is visible in making my heart beat, in giving me food to eat and water to drink and air to breathe, in raising up friends who love me, and in countless other blessings.” So here, in the woman's misstep, we notice a bypassed off-ramp in temptation: explicitly thank God for all the blessings you do enjoy, and it will put into perspective any dos and don'ts he's given alongside them.

Then the woman continues: “But God said” (Genesis 3:3). There it is: taking her cue from the serpent, she's implicitly downplaying that this God is Yahweh, the Eternally Faithful One. The devil would love to get us to do that, as he whispers in our ear. It's easier to find fault with a generic God than with a God we know by name. So when you face the serpent, remind yourself: “This word I stand on is what Jesus, my Jesus, my Jesus who loved me all the way to the cross, is saying to me.” What doubt can't we defy if we look our Jesus in the eye?

Now the woman explains God's law to the serpent. “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that's in the middle of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die” (Genesis 3:3). Here's what she gets right: there is only one exception to the blank-check freedom the humans have to enjoy the garden's fruits. Only one tree is off-limits, so she recognizes that the law doesn't imperil human life or human plenty. But notice where the woman goes off-script. Which tree was the one at the heart of the garden? First and foremost, it was the Tree of Life (Genesis 2:9). But now, in the woman's eyes, the garden's heart has been replaced. The garden is recentered around the one thing she's saying she can't have. And that's a sure recipe for discontentment.21

God had designed the garden with his own life-giving presence at the center, but the woman has remapped it. Only now does the forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil take center-stage, precisely because it's the one in the commandment. Therefore, the humans' world is portrayed as all about the rules, about the law. Instead of being focused on living life to the full within God's gracious boundaries, instead of having her eyes fixed on the God of Life, now her eyes are anxiously aimed at the sin she ought to avoid. But the more this becomes her center, the more obsessed she gets about this tree and the rule, letting it loom larger than the God who gave it. If 'legalism' is a meaningful word, this is the perfect example.22 What makes life life is lost.

When you're faced with temptation, don't lose sight of the commandment, but remember that it's a means to an end. The point of God's no is to preserve God's bigger yes. We don't love God in order to obey him; we obey God for the sake of his love. Because God is Love, because God is Life, we trust and obey. We can run our race better by fixing our eyes on Jesus, in whom God's Love has a face, than we ever could by fixing our eyes on all the pitfalls to avoid. If you can remember what you're obeying for, if you keep your eyes not on the sin to be resisted but on the Spirit who supplies the strength, then you'll be better able to keep the faith with gusto.

Back to the woman, and what she says about the tree she's misplaced. “You shall not eat..., neither shall you touch it, lest you die” (Genesis 3:3). Now, this might have been part of the original command, since dietary laws often ruled out both eating and touching (Leviticus 11:8), and since this tree was like the Ark of the Covenant which even the Levites “must not touch..., lest they die” (Numbers 4:15).23 But on the other hand, she might have been trying to enhance the commandment by putting a fence around the law.24 If you shouldn't eat from it, why even get close enough to touch it? Better stay back, just in case. It makes sense! But the trouble with building fences around the law is, if we forget what we've done, then God seems more restrictive than he really is.25 Then this fence makes the law seem harder to keep, which can in turn rationalize despair: why bother trying, why not just give in?26 And then the fence around the law ties the Lord's command to human wisdom: if we breach the fence and no disaster hits, we might assume that the whole law has no bite.27

But the way her final words came out, the woman portrays her reason for not eating, not as love for God, but as self-preservation – lest she die, for the sake of not dying, she won't eat.28 But that leaves the serpent an opening: if loving God is her motive for obedience, the serpent has no argument, but if she obeys out of fear, once neuter her fear and her obedience might fall. So again the serpent quotes God exactly, but prefaces it with a 'not': “You shall not absolutely die!” (Genesis 3:4). Before, the serpent was content to insinuate, to question; now he out-and-out contradicts the God of Truth by an open challenge, confident the woman will be receptive.29 Next, he offers a plausible-sounding theory for why God would have lied: “For God knows that in the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened...” (Genesis 3:5). Now the serpent, in portraying the woman as blinded, has piqued her curiosity. We always want to know what someone doesn't want us to know. We always think that our wish to know gives us a right to know, and therefore anyone preventing us from knowing is opposed to us.30

And so God is caricatured as a lawgiver motivated not by justice, generosity, and love, but by envy, selfishness, and fear. In the serpent's telling, God gave this command as a way of keeping us docile, to prevent us from having the power that could set us free to pursue our desires unconstrained. And this is what the serpent's whispers to us often amount to: that either God doesn't even know what's really good for us (and therefore we should just make up our own mind), or that God does know but is against our good (and therefore we need to escape his control). Which lie we buy doesn't really matter, so long as it avoids the truth which works by love.

Finally, the serpent dangles the deceitful delusion, some candy to be coveted. Whereas the LORD God had said “In the day you eat of it, you shall absolutely die” (Genesis 2:17), the serpent promises that “in the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be as gods, knowers of good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). In the pagan religions that tempted Israel, the last step in turning an idol statue into a god was, they believed, a ritual opening of its eyes.31 So that's what the serpent professes to offer the humans: godhood in their own right. The serpent says that God knows that humans could become gods who are knowers.32 In becoming “knowers of good and evil,” humans would be capable of laying down their own law, of blessing and cursing with divine power.33

Of course, the serpent is a deceiver, a false prophet calling the woman not just to worship a false god but to try to turn herself into one.34 The serpent is the forerunner of every blasphemer who slanders God, every heretic who twists God's words, every voice of doubt and contradiction toward the true faith. And in service of this, the serpent's final twist is that, in telling the humans they need this one extra things to be 'like gods,' he tricks the woman into forgetting that humans are already made “in the likeness of God” (Genesis 1:26). He's given her a false insecurity he promises he can remedy, as any savvy advertiser does.35 And he'll gladly, he suggests, smuggle to the woman all the hidden treasures God's been selfishly hoarding for himself.36 Picture the serpent here as a sketchy guy pulling his van up beside a kid and offering her a little bag of white powder, saying, “C'mon, forget your parents, this'll make you grow up real fast.” Well, maybe in a way, but not in any way the kid should want. Actually, he wants her hooked, vulnerable, “captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:26).

But now the serpent is able to posture falsely as the humans' liberator, defender, teacher, and friend, as if to say: “Look, God is all bark and no bite on this. He's just jealous, he's afraid, he's hiding something from you. God isn't looking out for you. Stuffy and uncool, oppressive and obstructive, God is keeping you down, drugging and distracting you from getting what you really want. I, on the other hand, want you to succeed! I want you to be reach your fullest potential! Don't you want to be sly like me, godlike like me? I, not God, have your best interests at heart. I, not God, am the one who loves you. You can trust me: I've told you the whole story, the naked truth. God's commands were just a way to control you, but now you can break free. You can imitate me. You can please yourself. You can grab power. I know you want to see what you've been missing.”37

And there, for today, we leave their conversation. Having planted and watered these seeds of pride and greed and unbelief, the serpent has nothing more to say. He never outright tells her to take the fruit; he only sets her head spinning and watches things burn.38 When the conversation started, she lived by faith in the goodness of her LORD God's provision. But now she's been forced into a self-consciousness where nothing can be taken for granted, not even God.39 She hasn't yet surrendered. But her faith is at a decision point, for her ears have been opened to suspicion and doubt. And the serpent's call is played out in our lives day after day, as the serpent tries to reframe our thinking to be more like his.40 Paul tells us: “I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be corrupted from the sincerity and the purity that is in Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). Facing the Tempter daily, “we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Corinthians 10:11). But we have help from “One who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15), a Savior perfectly qualified “to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). Thanks be to God! Keep the faith.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Lay Hold of Life!

Last Sunday, resuming our tour through the Book of Genesis, we found ourselves in a garden in which God had planted a large number of very pleasant trees, which offered all we could want out of created goods – they're useful, enjoyable, interesting, and varied. But among them, we met with two trees that stood out, two trees that are something more than the others. There's something sacramental about these trees. The one we focused on the most last Sunday was called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It represents the presence of divine wisdom in the garden, and its fruit offers the royal power to govern by handing our blessings and curses, just like the Law of God. But this was withheld from us, because we weren't capable of handling it – not, at least, without growing through discipline. And so to have it planted there, available but forbidden, presents us with the very first law, the original commandment: Enjoy everything else, but don't trespass in this one thing. In turn, that commandment created the possibility of obedience – or disobedience. Two very different options.

Today, we're not going to take long, because we don't have much time. But I want to turn our focus away from this tree that's forbidden, and over to another tree, a more central tree. And that was called the Tree of Life. Its fruit is a sacrament of divine life, God's own life-giving presence in his creation. It's symbolized, in the later tabernacle and temple, by the menorah that shines 24/7 to fill the holy sanctuary with light, including shedding it onto the golden table that always offers holy bread. These two things together – the lampstand and the table of bread – reveal the illumination and provision that the Tree of Life was there to give in the garden-sanctuary. The Tree of Life represents the opposite of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, insofar as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, if approached disobediently, becomes a tree of death. Obedience to God's word, keeping his commandment by refusing the forbidden fruit and enjoying all the other fruit, is what's shown to us by this other tree, this first-mentioned tree. The pathway of obedience to God leads to sharing God's life.

Later, we hear that the wisdom that begins with obedience is “a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed” (Proverbs 3:18). God wants us to lay hold of life, God wants us to cling to this tree of life and be blessed. The problem, you might have noticed, is that we presently are not living in the Garden of Eden. We're going to find out how that happened over the course of the next month. But the fact remains that this isn't Eden. So it looks very much as if the Tree of Life has been taken away from us, left to us only in symbols like the lampstand in the temple and the ability to approach wisdom through God's law.

But when the early Christians read Genesis, they saw a prophecy. “Very sad was the Tree of Life when it saw Adam hidden from it!” they said. “Into the virgin earth it sank and was buried, but it arose and shone forth from Golgotha.”1 From these early days, Christians identified “the tree of life” with “the mystery of the cross.”2 In advance, Christ's “crucifixion was symbolized by the tree of life.”3 After all, what did the Apostle Peter say? “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” That's what Peter calls the cross: 'the tree.' Why did Jesus bear our sins in his body on the tree? Peter says: “That we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” That is, the fruit of Christ's cross is that we come alive – alive to righteousness, alive to the life God wants for us. And Peter goes on: “By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). How does John depict the Tree of Life? “The tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). And so “by the tree of life he restores us.”4

The Tree of Life is a sign, a prefigurement, of Christ crucified. His wounds are the medicinal leaves that bring healing to all the nations of the world. His fruit is the life he offers to us, the life he surrenders into God's hands as he dies. Although the cross was a Roman instrument of death, Christ brilliantly turned it into the Tree of Life – it's the wooden tree on which he sacrificed himself so that we could come alive to righteousness. And in this way, Christ crucified “became the Tree of Life that saved creation.”5

Last Sunday, we heard from Moses that, when confronted with this choice posed by the trees, this divergence of life and death, we ought to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). And now we know how to choose life: by choosing the cross of Christ. Now, to the world, and maybe to the worldliness in us, that's absurd! The cross is such an ugly, foolish, scandalous thing – pain and blood and tears and death. “Christ crucified” is, the Apostle Paul already told us, “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). How could this tree of a curse, this tree that terrorizes and kills, be the Tree of Life? Only because Christ is on it to save. A bare cross, a cross that isn't Christ's throne, could do nothing. But Christ crucified is everything.

Paul tells the Corinthians, not long after mentioning the scandal and the foolishness of the cross, that he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). The reason was, he said, so that their faith “might not rest in human wisdom” – in other words, in what the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil gave – “but in the power of God,” the power of the Tree of Life (1 Corinthians 2:5). Right now, we're in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, because – contrary to the express wish of Jesus – Christians have fractured from the unity he gave to his Church in the beginning. These different denominations, these self-governed 'non-denominational' churches – none of that was what Jesus gave his Church. He gave the Church a unity to gather around, be fed by, and abide in a single Tree of Life. That was what Paul proclaimed: that Jesus “might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross,” through the Tree of Life he became on Calvary. And our prayer and passion should be to resolve these divisions, to reconcile into the one unity of the Church, to really become a single kingdom of peace, for the sake of that life.

And I will tell you this: there is nothing more unifying, nothing more powerful, nothing more healing for all these sicknesses of life – including our disunity – than to gather around the Tree of Life, than to gaze at Christ crucified, than to cling to that old rugged cross, than to feast on the fruit of his love. So come. Come and stand at the foot of the cross, and know you tread ground holier than Adam and Eve trod. Come, stretch out your hand to him, and take what the cross is offering. Lay hold of life – at great cost does it grow for you to take!

I'll close with a quote from a medieval bishop, one of the great scientists of his day: “It is right for the blessed cross to be called the tree of life, because by the fruit of that tree of paradise, the human being, if he had not sinned, would have been able to make his life everlasting. So by the fruit of the tree of the cross, the life of grace is made everlasting. The fruit of the tree of the cross is Christ … Other trees, though they bear fruit from which one may live, do not bear the fruit which is life. The tree of the cross not only bore fruit one could live on, but the fruit which is Life. … And on this tree of life, he put death to death and gave life to the dead.”6 Thanks be to God, who makes us alive by Christ crucified, our Tree of Life which saves all creation! Amen.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Two Trees

As we pick up the Book of Genesis again in the new year, let's briefly refresh our memories of where it took us during the year so lately concluded. After a sneak peak behind the veil at the Creator at home in his eternal triune self, we watched creation explode into being out of nothing, loved into existence by the God who spoke his Word and poured out his Spirit. We saw chaos become order, saw darkness yield to light, and marveled at earth and starry sky and sea, at the blooming forth of the plants, at the swimming fishes and soaring birds and the countless marvels of the animal world. We watched as, from the dust of the earth and the breath of life, a new kind of creature was welcomed to the scene: the human being. We began to probe the mystery that this one kind of creature is stamped with the Creator's very own image: a priestly animal ministering in God's cosmic temple, a royal animal administering God's dominion over the others. We turned then to examine the incredible value of men and women, how they share these callings, the mystery called marriage, and how they're meant to fruitfully multiply God's image, spread Eden to all the earth, and ultimately ascend to a supernatural life.

In studying the human habitat called the Garden of Eden, we were suitably impressed at its pleasantness, as we enjoyed all the comforts God offered us in our originally innocent condition. We found a wide variety of plants there, though today there are two we have our eye on, because Genesis highlights them for their significance. It is of course a garden where the LORD has planted and grown “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” But we're told about two particular examples that stand out among this bounty.

First, we're told that “the tree of life was in the midst of the garden” (Genesis 2:9). This tree grows at center-stage, even though it's going to in fact be veiled from our attention throughout most of the story. All other trees of the garden are there to sustain life by the supply of nourishment – that's what it means that they're 'good for food.' But it's been said that this tree is something deeper: not just nourishment, but a sacrament.1 It's a symbol that makes truly present the Creator's own life-giving presence within his creation, because “God, who gives life, is at the center” – not anything else, not even the human being, is central to the garden, but God's life is.2

If the Garden of Eden is in some ways the original model for the Tabernacle and later the Temple, then the Tree of Life is what grows in the Holy of Holies. But actually the items modeled on the Tree of Life were moved into the central sanctuary. It's often suggested that the golden lampstand – with its branches and flowers and buds – was designed as a depiction of the Tree of Life (Exodus 25:31-39), always lit to signify the Tree of Life being always fruitful (Exodus 27:21).3 And in the Tabernacle, the lampstand – the menorah – always shed its light on the golden table displaying the Bread of the Presence (Exodus 25:23-30; 26:35). In a similar way, the Tree of Life in the garden preaches that the Eternal Word of God “is life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4), so that “life and immortality” are “brought to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).

But the Tree of Life isn't the only special tree in this garden. We're told there's a second tree worth comment: “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” is nearby (Genesis 2:9). What that means – this phrase 'knowledge of good and evil' – has been debated for over two thousand years with no end in sight. Early Jewish writers gloss it as “the Tree of Wisdom,” which doesn't clear up as much as we'd like.4 If the Tree of Life represents divine life in the garden, then this tree emphasizes the presence of divine wisdom in the garden.5 If the Garden is the model for the Tabernacle, then some have compared this tree to the tablets of God's wise Law which were stored away inside the Ark of the Covenant.6 Those stone tablets were the standard, and they could feel good in vindication or bad in punishment, could be felt as peace or penalty.7 The tree offers the royal wisdom to govern, a divine knowledge and capacity to hand out blessings and curses, rewards and punishments, like in the Law.8

In the world where Israel lived, divine life plus divine knowledge was basically the recipe for what it meant to be a god, a personal entity on a higher plain of existence than ours.9 Of course, Israel knew well that the God they worshipped was in a class entirely his own: “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Exodus 15:11). But the word for 'god' even in Hebrew is flexible enough to cover not only the God but also other heavenly beings, including those we think of as angels and those who were wrongly worshipped by the other nations. So the Psalmist envisions the LORD taking “his place in the divine council” so that “in the midst of the gods he holds judgment” (Psalm 82:1). Israel's neighbors would've heard in this story that the ingredients of godhood grow in the garden.

Earlier, we read how God had granted to humanity “every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit..., for food” (Genesis 1:29). Now here, we hear God's word again, the first thing he says in this chapter: “You shall absolutely eat of every tree of the garden” (Genesis 2:16). This isn't just permission; this is impassioned encouragement, virtually an order to eat up!10 It's like God is saying, “Look at all these trees I planted in my garden! Behold, I'm sharing everything with you. You're dining at my table, friend, and I don't want you to leave any dish of this banquet untouched.” Not only did God make these trees nutritious, but he made them flavorful, beautiful, diverse. And what else could we want from created goods than for them to be useful, enjoyable, interesting, and varied – all while reminding us of God their Good Giver?

By implication, this invitation covers every tree in the garden – including the tree of life itself.11 But there is one exception to this carte blanche free-for-all. “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat” (Genesis 2:17). This stands out in sharp relief. And this is important, because what we're reading here is “the first law in Scripture.”12 It's every bit as much a Thou-Shalt-Not as the later Big Ten, but it's the Big One.13

Pause here for a moment to notice that, of all the kinds of actions God could have given a commandment to prohibit, or all the ways God could have phrased this, he chose this. What is the sort of act that the original commandment bans? Eating. The first commandment given to humanity is depicted in Genesis as a dietary law.14 Remember, this book is given to Israel, who had their own collection of laws regulating food. Of some creatures, they were told: “These you may eat” (Leviticus 11:2); of others: “This you shall not eat” (Leviticus 11:4). An entire chapter of the Law is filled up with nothing but details of what “may be eaten” and what “may not be eaten” (Leviticus 11:47). That doesn't even count rules about certain foods allowed only to some people in some places under some conditions, but not to other people or in other places or under other conditions.

Whatever we think about it today, God had a lot of laws about what his people Israel could eat, and how, and when. Though foreign to us since in the New Testament we learn that every dietary law was “an ordinance of flesh imposed until the time of reformation” in Christ (Hebrews 9:10), yet they were so central for Israel that the most righteous were willing to withstand torture or even lay down their lives for these dietary laws.15 To Israel, what a world of difference it must have made to see those laws in light of Eden – to realize that the one thing Adam was commanded in the garden was to keep kosher, just like them!16

With that said, now we can ask why this is the tree that's off-limits. Doesn't God want to share knowledge with us? But, first, there are some ways of approaching knowledge that aren't good. In the Old Testament, seeking knowledge from God by asking prophets and priests is one thing, and seeking knowledge from spirits by consulting mediums and fortune-tellers is a very different thing (Leviticus 19:31; Isaiah 8:19). Just so, trying to become wise 'from below' would be to seek “not the wisdom that comes down from above,” James says, “but the wisdom that is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:15). And the tree remains a source of earthly wisdom so long as it's treated as such. Grabbing at it with our own hands, taking it because we hunger for it, is theft. That makes it knowledge that does not begin, as all true knowledge does, with the fear of the LORD (Proverbs 1:7). And that is just the kind of unspiritual knowledge God doesn't want us to consume.17 So God is saying: “I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil” (Romans 16:19).

Second, there are some times or conditions of knowledge that aren't good. Generally speaking, we're aware that some kinds of knowledge presuppose a certain level of maturity to handle, and without that maturity, they can be quite harmful. We as a society accept this principle: you'd be wary about entrusting nuclear missile launch codes to a high-school student, you wouldn't hand the keys to a bulldozer to a sixth-grader, you wouldn't teach a third-grader the essentials of bomb-making or a second-grader the art of knife-throwing, you wouldn't take a first-grader to an R-rated movie, and you realize that a toddler is hardly ready for the knowledge of vodka and cigars. The Bible says that one characteristic of children is that they “have no knowledge of good and evil” (Deuteronomy 1:39) – they aren't equipped to handle it without psychological harm.

Just so, the humans in the garden aren't yet in a condition of full maturity. One of the earliest Christian readings of Genesis we have tells us that, since “Adam was as old as an infant, therefore he wasn't yet able to acquire knowledge properly... God wanted the man to remain simple and sincere for a longer time,” for “it is shameful for infant children to have thoughts beyond their years.”18 Adam and Eve already have the simpler wisdom of childlike faith available to them, and they need to grow in that before they can possibly cope with the mature wisdom this tree confers.19 Otherwise, they'd be traumatized. But maybe, after getting to know God over time as they carry out their mission more fully, they'd have grown to where they could have asked for this knowledge from above. After all, that's exactly what Solomon asks: “an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may know between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9). What this tells Adam and Eve is that they need to be humble and patient, need to wait, grow, learn from God before they can take the place at his side that's meant for them.20

And then, third, there are some uses of knowledge that aren't good. Even equipped with this knowledge in the right way and at the right time, it has to be used well, with a heart fixed on God, used in ways that conform scrupulously to God's directions.21 The knowledge of good and evil is a powerful and potentially dangerous thing when it tries to escape its foundation in God's Law. Cut loose on its own, this knowledge is deprived of its deep connection to truth, beauty, and goodness, and can become a weapon for accomplishing great evil. So it's no wonder the humans were warned against coveting their God's one reserved tree (cf. Romans 7:7).

Right before we hear the words of this first law, we're told that humanity was put in this garden “to serve it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Over prior months, we've peeled off layers of that purpose, and we've got one more to go. Part of our purpose in the garden is to serve, and elsewhere we're reminded “to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12). We're to cultivate God's law, study God's word. This is the work of “a worker... rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). This is attentively digging into what God has said, in order to get a deeper and more fertile understanding of it.22 And what does God say all the time? “So you shall keep my commandments and do them – I am the LORD!” (Leviticus 22:31). “You shall absolutely keep the commandments of the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 6:17).

One of the earliest Jewish glosses on this line in Genesis is that Adam's job is “to toil in the Law and to observe its commandments.”23 And early Christians agreed that Adam was “set [in Paradise] as a laboring farmer to perform divine commands,”24 with “no other task than keeping the commandment of God.”25 The purpose, the point, of Adam and Eve being in the garden is to give them a space in which to exercise obedience, “to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach” (1 Timothy 6:14), to preserve their grace and virtue intact.26 That's a key part of the mission he's been given. Even in paradise, there's got to be self-denial for the sake of our souls, which means we need to have some sort of law at the foundation of our growth – even if it's described as just about the easiest commandment you could possibly invent.27 We are not meant to be without limit, are not meant to be totally self-determined. Paradoxically, if God refused to give us a law, we'd be less free.

For if there were no commandment, no constant reminder that humans aren't the garden's masters but only its tenants by grace, then nothing would stop us from being inwardly corrupted by pride.28 Because of how much we'd been given, “it was absolutely necessary for the man who had come into such glory and delight to understand clearly that God held a position over him as his King,” and so “God immediately issued a law.”29 Thus one tree was forbidden, “to commend the good of pure and simple obedience, which is the great virtue of a rational creature set under its Creator and Lord.”30 It thus became a sign, symbol, and sacrament of obedience.31

To Adam and Eve, the point of this command must've seemed mysterious, obscure, pointless, arbitrary. But that was because it was an opportunity to exercise life-giving faith, a trust that God's reasons for the command, though beyond our understanding, must be good because God is good. What they needed to be in a position to show was what Paul calls “the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26). And so, to many readers through the ages, access to this tree served as a sort of test: to see whether humans would choose the obedience of faith or would take a lesser path. A test, by its nature, offers a chance for success or failure, for a good or a bad outcome; but a test also implies the offer of a reward, that the obedience of faith should not go uncrowned.32 It is, as Paul put it, “the very commandment that promised life” (Romans 7:10).

No wonder “the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12)! But, God warned Adam, there is also a chance of a bad outcome. “In the day that you eat of it, you shall absolutely die” (Genesis 2:17). That phrase – literally, 'dyingly die' – is a common Old Testament expression for the death penalty.33 Approached in a wrong way, this second tree is so far opposite the tree of life as to become practically a tree of death. Though actually, as one early Christian wrote, “it is not the tree of knowledge that kills; rather, it is disobedience,”34 “the transgression of public law and the experience of misery.”35

Obedience to God, trusting that his word is the right way to live, is a life-or-death situation – that's what trees like these aim to show us. In disobeying, we would experience not just life but also death, not just good but also evil.36 “Whoever keeps the commandment,” says the Bible, “keeps his life, but he who despises his ways will die” (Proverbs 19:16). So, says Moses, “see, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil” – but the choice is ours (Deuteronomy 30:15). That's what the trees are about, to let us choose life or death. God makes his preference clear: “Choose life!” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Through obedience to a commandment, we were to train and build up our souls to realize not only our natural potential but the supernatural goals God always had in store for us.37 Martin Luther went so far, then, as to label these trees as “Adam's church, altar, and pulpit: here he was to yield to God the obedience he owed, give recognition to the word and will of God, give thanks to God, and call upon God for aid against temptation.”38 It was by worshipping the Lawgiver through the obedience of faith that life, true life, divine life, could be ours.

Ultimately, the point of the Law comes down to one question: what do we love most? Jesus himself says to his disciples: “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (John 14:21). If the people in the garden endure in loving God more than all the trees, more than life itself, then this commandment can't be too hard for them, and it certainly isn't a far-away thing (Deuteronomy 30:12). Rather, it's quite literally in their mouth, in their hand, in their heart, for them to render this loving obedience of faith at all times (Deuteronomy 30:14). “And his commandments are not burdensome” when approached with a heart of love (1 John 5:3).

That's as much for us in the world as it was for them in the garden. Over and over again, Jesus tells us – not Adam, not Eve, but you and me – that the measure of our love is keeping his commandments (John 14:15), and that keeping his commandments is the way we remain in his love, continue to know his love experientially (John 15:10). Then Jesus sent his apostles to the nations to “teach them to keep all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). The Apostle John says that anybody who professes to know God and yet doesn't keep his commandments is lying about knowing God (1 John 2:4). And even Paul, for all he says about the Law, also says that “keeping the commandments of God” is all that really matters in life (1 Corinthians 7:19), and that “obedience... leads to righteousness” (Romans 6:16). For Jesus is “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9), God gives his Holy Spirit “to those who obey him” (Acts 5:32), and “whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life” (John 3:36). The truth of these two trees follows us all our days.

Standing between the trees, with life and death set before us, good and evil right at hand, may we prefer always whatever God's word and will will give us over what his wisdom won't, because we love him, we trust him, we know him, and therefore we obey him – obey him with a faith that works by love – and so shall we live. Amen.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Gold, Grain, and Glory

If you were with us last Sunday to close out the old year gone by, we began to take a look at Psalm 72, a mighty treatment of a royal son who would be all that Solomon ever dreamed of being, and then some. He'd be a good king, a fair king on the side of the poor, a wise and compassionate king who refreshes life. And, what makes this king stand out even from the historical Solomon is that his reign will last “while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations” (Psalm 72:5). Brothers and sisters, Solomon is off his throne, his wealth gone who-knows-where, and sun and moon endure without him. Solomon couldn't live up to this Solomon song. We needed someone better, someone greater, someone who could be King of All the Years. And then Jesus Christ was born. He was born, but he'd already been King since before sun was lit or moon was crafted. He is born, this Potentate of Time, and all history passes beneath his scepter and before his judgment.

Back to this psalm we come, hungry and thirsty for more of King Jesus. Now we find he isn't just Potentate of Time, but he's the rightful king of all space: “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth!” (Psalm 72:8). The psalm prays that even the most distant powers would submit: “May desert tribes bow before him, and his enemies lick the dust!” (Psalm 72:9). “May all kings bow down before him! May all nations serve him!” (Psalm 72:11). It's a picture of total submission, of every knee bowing and every tongue confessing – even the national ones, even the royal ones, even the imperial ones (Philippians 2:9).

And that calls for more than just words. “May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts!” (Psalm 72:10). Tarshish – Tartessos – was in south Spain, rich in silver and tin. Sheba, whose queen visited Solomon, was in south Arabia, while Seba was across the Red Sea in northeast Africa. So God tells Zion: “A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come, they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD. All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall come up with acceptance on my altar, and I will beautify my beautiful house” (Isaiah 60:6-7).

If a few of those words leapt out at you, they should. Yesterday was the ancient Christian feast of Epiphany, of the manifestation of Jesus to the world after his birth. In addition to celebrating his baptism in the Jordan, it also remembers how, just as the shepherds were the first Jewish witnesses to the newborn King, so God called Gentile witnesses, too. “Behold, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star at its rising and have come to worship him'” (Matthew 2:2). Early Christians specified that these were “Magi from Arabia,”1 and suggested the reason they knew the significance of this birth was that, from the time they saw the royal star, they found their power vanishing.2 After some next directions courtesy of the Hebrew Scriptures, these Magi traveled the last miles to Bethlehem, and found the heavenly light revealing the exact house to visit. “They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and, going into the house, they saw the Child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him” (Matthew 2:10-11).

Later, people started picturing them as kings, based on the recognition that easterners treated magi with nearly royal honors.3 Tradition made of them Gentile kings bearing tribute for their True Sovereign, the king of Psalm 72, as a way of showing us that from the moment of his birth, Jesus is already so much more than even Solomon was at the height of his empire. And, however many they were, they came bearing three gifts (Matthew 2:12).

They brought gold, that precious metal we still prize. To be a king practically meant being surrounded by the gleam of gold. They brought frankincense, hardened tears of the light-colored resin produced by a scruffy-looking coastal tree that grows in south Arabia and northeast Africa – Sheba and Seba.4 This frankincense, excellent in perfumes, was an expensive commodity traded around the world; the Romans imported thousands of tons yearly, unable to conquer the land where it grew.5 Frankincense was also used in worship, including at Israel's gold-plated temple. And then there was myrrh, the darker resin produced by a different genus of thorny tree that grows in those same parts of Arabia and Africa.6 Likewise valued for perfumes and also for medicines, Israel had it as a major ingredient in the holy oil that could only be used to anoint priests (Exodus 30:23). But it had long been used during burials to mask the scent of decay. And so the Magi came bearing “not only gold as a sign of honor and frankincense as a sign of worship, but also myrrh as a sign of his future burial.”7

When they found the one they came to see, all they saw with their eyes was a little Jewish boy, not dressed up in fine silks or ornamented by any outward displays of glory. They'd undoubtedly been much more impressed elsewhere, so far as their eyes were concerned. Yet they'd been led there by signs in the sky and the voice of prophecy. And so they fell on their faces before him, they emptied their treasure chests to him. In heartfelt humility they gave him gifts fit for a loved one, for a king, for a temple, for a God.

But back from the House of Bread (Bethlehem) to the Psalm of the King. It asks, “May there be abundance of grain in the land! On the tops of the mountains may it wave; may its fruit be like Lebanon, and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field!” (Psalm 72:16). Not only was grain a basic foodstuff, but it was central to Israel's life of sacrifice: with every sacrifice came grain on which frankincense had been sprinkled (Leviticus 2:14-15). Grain was bound up with sacrifice, with worship.

And now this King in Bethlehem has, as the psalmist prayed, become the abundance of life-giving grain. Jesus calls himself “the Bread of Life,” after all (John 6:35). There is no greater abundance of grain than when Christ is its giver – and so there is bread made from grain on our altar this morning, enough for all. Down through the centuries, Christ's name has been proclaimed over and over again by those ordained to invoke his blessing, and his voice speaking through them names this fruit of grain as his own sacred body, given for the life of the world. In offering his body as food and his lifeblood as drink, King Jesus openly hosts a royal feast of blessing to make us flourish and blossom in every city and every country. Jesus is, as he said, “the food that endures to eternal life. … If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. … Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:27, 51, 56).

How much difference would it make, then, if we shook off our humdrum attitudes about it, refusing to see only a tiny token, a subjective symbol, a morning snack? If Magi eyes can see a baby and recognize God, can we recognize him in the bread and in the cup, accepting by faith that the Lord God may well be here to “do wondrous things” (Psalm 72:18)? What could be more wondrous than a miracle in our midst? What could better proclaim his name, in his death and resurrection, until he comes again (1 Corinthians 11:26)? May this whole earth be filled, in the eating and the drinking, with his glory (Psalm 72:19)! Bringing our tribute before him, we walk away filled with a much grander gift: “spiritual food and drink and eternal life.”8 Amen.