For the rest of the summer we’re going to be looking at trees found in the Bible. The Bible is full of trees: from the first chapter of the Bible until the very last chapter of the Bible, you find references to trees and plants and the gifts they give us. Trees are an important part of the cycle of life that God has embedded as part of creation. Trees contribute to their environment by providing oxygen, improving air quality, climate enrichment, conserving water, preserving soil, and supporting wildlife. During the process of photosynthesis, trees take in carbon dioxide and produce the oxygen we breathe. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “One acre of forest absorbs six tons of carbon dioxide and puts out four tons of oxygen. This is enough to meet the annual needs of 18 people.” Trees, shrubs and turf also filter the air by removing dust and absorbing other air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. After trees capture unhealthy particles, the rain washes them to the ground.
Trees also supply us with many things that make our lives better: tree sap that can be made into glorious syrup, bark for canoes and utensils, wood for building and other purposes, fruits and nuts for food, and beauty to enjoy, among other uses. In Genesis 2, creation is completed in all its vast array, and it’s very good. Now God plants a garden in the east, in a place called Eden. It’s a garden filled with trees that are pleasing to look at and good for food. Right in the middle of the garden, where they’ll always be noticed, God plants 2 more trees: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. This is where God places the man, it’s the first home for humanity and humanity’s task is to take care of the garden, to discover the potential in everything and then help it all to flourish and be everything God has created it to be. We have a deep relationship with creation, having been made from dirt and then formed by God’s own hand and then being told to care for it.
We discover in the garden that we’re not meant to be alone; so, God creates a woman from the rib of the man because God saw that the man was alone and it was not good. Relationships are key to our health and our flourishing and are important to God as well. His desire is to have deep relationships with us, but he doesn’t force himself on us. God gives Adam and Eve the opportunity to choose relationship with him by commanding the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.” There’s a choice here, a test of obedience and trust, Adam and Eve are able to eat from any tree in the garden, free choice from any tree except one, the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
It’s so easy, and yet proves to be so hard. The tree is good, it’s designed and created just as God intended. For the Jews, knowledge is less about knowing stuff with our heads, for them, knowledge comes from experience, from doing or not doing something. It’s like teaching your children that the stove top is hot when you’re cooking, they know it because you’ve said so, but it’s only after they’ve touched the hot stove top that they really know that it’s hot when you cook. This is the kind of knowledge the Jews hear about when God calls the tree the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
The choice is to trust God that knowledge of evil through having done it, is not the best kind of knowledge for us, that God’s word is good enough. Yet it’s hard because we often learn best by doing, and the reality is that because we know evil through having done evil, we recognise it quickly. We still face the same issue today. We look at who God calls us to be, the limits he places on us and we question God’s limits and commands. We’re told that if it looks good and doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s fine and don’t worry about what God says, after-all, the Bible an ancient book and doesn’t really apply today. The question is: do we trust God and put our relationship with him first, or do we satisfy our desires at the possible cost of our relationship with God? God allows us to choose.
This story is about being faithful to God. God doesn’t want a relationship based on rules and religious rituals, as God says later through the prophet Hosea, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. As at Adam, they have broken the covenant; they were unfaithful to me there.” Just like you want your boyfriend or girlfriend, or your spouse to stay faithful to you because the relationship is precious to you, in the same way, God wants you to see your relationship with him as precious too, he wants you to come to him and tell him that you want to follow him, to live like his child.
Satan uses the tree to test humanity’s commitment to God by casting doubt on God’s commitment to them. Satan offers Adam and Eve the opportunity to step out of a dependent relationship with God and become independent, to be their own gods. As Bob George writes, “Adam and Eve choose lie over life,” they choose a relationship with themselves rather than with God, which explains why there is so much loneliness today, because we’ve stepped back from our best relationship for much less. Adam and Eve choose death over life and this is why we need Jesus; he chooses death on the cross, taking our sin and dying for us so that we can have life through and in Jesus; a new life where our best relationship is being renewed again. Paul writes in Ephesians, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”
The wonderful thing is that there’s another tree in the garden, the tree of life is there, right beside the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Matthew Sleeth reminds us, “The tree of life is always here, right beside temptation—just to remind you. Beside every bad decision in life, there is a good alternative.” Adam and Eve are kicked out of Eden so they cannot eat from the tree of life and escape death. Can you image a creation where sinners could never die and we would simply drift further and further away from God forever? There would be no hope because the penalty for sin could never paid, we could never experience a relationship of love and grace with God again, there would be no salvation.
Jesus uses the image of a vine rather than a tree in John 15, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” When Jesus describes himself as the vine, it reminds me of what Paul says in Romans 1, that when we walk through the woods, when we take a close look at the trees and vines and fruit and nuts, and birds nesting in the trees, that we see God, that we can recognize him through creation, through the trees and vines.
Trees and vines provide life to their branches, they’re the source of life for the branches, and the only way that the branches can produce fruit and abundance. In the same way, our life strength and nourishment come through Jesus. If you are feeling wilted and depressed, Jesus can revive you, bring you back to your feet again with strength and hope. He does this through many different ways: Scripture, preaching, friends and family, through creation itself as you walk through the woods or along a stream or river, or work in your garden, or sip a cup of coffee and allow the taste, aroma, and energy connect you to the life giving relationship with Jesus he’s calling you to.
Just like oak trees produce more oak trees and pine trees produce more pine trees, being connected to Jesus, the vine, produces followers who look like Jesus. As you leave here this morning, take a look down the tree lined street and let the beauty of the trees remind you of the beauty of Jesus and the life that we have being connected to him.