Feb - Mar 2020

The Tree of Life

Barry Rodriguez

Feb 2, 2020

Welcome to the first week of our new series, Return to Eden. This is what we call at Grace a "BYOB" series - Bring Your Own Bible. In these series we want to equip you to understand and study scripture on your own.

Over the last few years we've been following the narrative arc of the Bible, starting with the creation story in Genesis 1, all the way through God's rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea.

Last fall, we wandered with them through the wilderness, and left off right as they approached Mount Sinai, the place where God gives them what's called "the law of Moses."

Today we're going to start a new series all about that law.

Now look. I am fully aware that the law of Moses is one of the most weird, confusing, even uncomfortable parts of our Bibles.

It's the part we flip right past when we're reading it and it is the first place people go when they want to accuse the Bible of being outdated or even uncivilized.

And can you blame them? In the law you find regulations for bodily discharges and how to deal with donkey thieves and slaves and wizards. Not to mention page after page of detailed instructions for how to build a portable temple.

I'll be honest. For a long time I avoided even reading the law because, frankly, I was embarrassed by it. Maybe you feel the same way. So why in the world would we devote an entire sermon series to this part of our Bibles?

Well, because contrary to popular opinion, the law is not actually irrelevant to our lives. Quite the contrary. In fact, it's a foundational aspect to the entire story of the Bible, including the person and work of Jesus, who we follow.

If we can start to understand the law, we can better grasp the heart of our God for this world. And I believe it can change our lives for the better.

So here is how the series will work.

Next week we're going to explore the 10 commandments. After that, we're going to look at four themes which lie underneath the entire law: justice, holiness, sabbath, and sacrifice.

I'm going to go ahead and give away the ending right now. In every one of these messages we're going to see that the Israelites were being invited into a way of living which would bring them life, joy, peace, provision, and the very presence of God.

And spoiler alert: that invitation is extended to each of us as well. It's going to be so good. I've been looking forward to this series for a long time.

By the way, since this is a pretty deep series, I'm going to be on Grace's Facebook live every Wednesday evening in this series at 7pm to answer any questions you have, interact with you and to talk a bit more about that week's topic.

At any point, if you want to ask a question for Facebook live, go to gracechurch.us/byob and you can send it straight to me.

Ok. Let's dive in. Today I want us to start by taking a really big picture view of the law. And seeing if we can answer the question, "What is it?"

It's not as clear as you might think. We live in a modern, western society. We have a clear code of laws which govern our society. What we often do is take our modern understanding of law and lay it right over the Old Testament law.

We assume that the 613 regulations we find in the law of Moses work just the way our modern laws do.

But as it turns out, that's not true at all. In fact, what we call the law, the Israelites called the Torah - "teachings"

And those teachings go far beyond those 613 rules.

In fact, the word Torah doesn't just describe the law code, it describes the entire first five books of the Bible. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In the Israelites' mind, that was all the law. Including the narratives.

So when we see passages like Psalm 1 which say,

Psalm 1:2
They delight in the law of the LORD, meditating on it day and night.

It's not just about delighting in some regulations about oxen goring people to death. It's about meditating on a story which goes far deeper than most of us even realize.

The Torah, the law, is a story of God's creation of the world. A story of how and why humanity broke that good world. And it's a story of God calling out a unique people to join him in healing that broken world.

God makes a covenant with Israel. Kind of like a marriage covenant.

We know that a marriage is way more than two people just signing a piece of paper at a wedding ceremony. A marriage is love and compromise and forgiveness. It's a relationship.

In the same way, the Torah is more than just rules. It's the story of a relationship. Yes, there are laws, but it's bigger than that.

For example, there is a regulation about the Israelites not making idols for themselves. But just as important to the Torah is the story right after it where the Israelites make idols for themselves.

They fail at keeping the law. They face the consequences. God forgives them… This pattern repeats again and again. Which suddenly turns this story into a challenge to future generations. "Will I make the same mistake as my ancestors?"

When you understand the Torah in this way, you realize it isn't meant to be a comprehensive legal code at all. It's a story - one that continues throughout the rest of the Bible. And it's a story that you and I are still a part of today.

So today I want to talk about the story that lies behind every rule and regulation we read about in the law.

And as surprising as this might seem, it's the story that has a lot to do with the garden of Eden.

In the beginning, God created everything - heaven, earth, life itself. And it was good. Very good.

But then, God created something unique - humans - made in his image and put on the earth to serve and protect creation in his name. To be the kings and the queens of this world.

These humans - Adam and Eve - are like children. They're innocent. They have no shame. They're naked and they don't even realize it.

God creates a garden for them to live in. It's in a place called Eden. A place of abundance and life. Every plant and creature is in harmony. And God walks and talks with these humans face to face.
Now, this is going to blow your mind (some of you), but this garden was at the top of a mountain: in the Israelites' mind, this was the place where earth and heaven intersected - where God could dwell with humanity.

Eden was heaven on earth - the mountain of the Lord.

Genesis doesn't spell it out like that in so many words, but it does say rivers flow out of Eden (rivers come from high places), and every other place in scripture which talks about this garden - this meeting place between humans and God - it's a mountain.

So, God tells Adam and Eve they have free reign to eat from every tree in this mountain garden, even one at the center of the garden called the tree of life. They can eat their fill of nourishing, life-giving fruit - a gift of abundance directly from God.

But, he tells them there is one tree they cannot eat from. If they eat from this tree, God says, the result is death. The tree of the knowledge of tov and ra.

These are Hebrew words which we normally translate "good and evil." But the words tov and ra are not necessarily moral. They're more about the inherent quality and goodness of a thing.

I prefer to call it the "tree of the knowledge of good and bad."

Why can't they eat from this tree? Well, throughout the story so far, God has declared what is good and bad.

He creates light and calls it good. He creates trees and fish and birds and calls creation very good. He says it's not good - it's bad - for man to be alone, so he makes woman.

Adam and Eve eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad is essentially them saying, "yeah God' you've said what you think is good and bad, but I think we'll decide that for ourselves."
Why will they die if they eat from it? Because they're not ready to define reality.

Remember I said they were like children. "Yeah, mom and dad, you said it's not good to go out into the road, but I think it looks like a pretty fun place to play."

Even though God has given them the gift of abundant life, of his presence, that temptation to define good and bad for themselves is overwhelming.

In Genesis 3 it says Eve "saw that the tree was good for food." (She decided it was good) And so humanity eats the fruit of that second tree and they are exiled from the garden of Eden.

And just like that, the story of Adam and Eve becomes the story of the human condition. Their choice is the same choice every one of us makes.

Do I trust God enough to eat from the tree of life, or do I want to decide what's good for me? Do I want to decide what's bad? It is just too easy to believe that God doesn't really have my best interests in mind.

Just like Adam and Eve, we eat from that second tree again and again and again. We make ourselves gods. And the consequences echo into our world.

Like Adam and Eve our relationships - with one another and with creation - are broken. Hatred and violence and selfishness and abuse - our addiction to self is an epidemic. We can't seem to stop eating from that tree.

Like Adam and Eve we are exiled away from God's presence, out of the mountain garden, and into the wilderness.

And as promised, we experience death - not just physical death - but our abandonment of the life-giving existence we were created to have. The death of a broken world.
We determine what is good and bad and look where it leads us.

In Genesis 3, God places cherubim - powerful spiritual beings - at the gate of Eden, guarding the way back in. Humanity has exiled itself from the mountain garden and can no longer eat from the tree of life.

That is the story which kicks off the Torah - the law.

The story of Eden raises a question the rest of the Torah tries to answer: is it possible to get back to the mountain garden? Is it possible to once more dwell in the presence of God?

The answer the Torah gives is yes.

In his love for humanity, God begins the process of reconciling them to himself. He gives them a path back to Eden.

He starts by choosing a people - the Israelites. Rescuing them from the wilderness and chaos of slavery. And then he brings them to a new mountain. Mount Sinai.

At the top of this divine mountain he meets with a new Adam - Moses - and gives him Torah - he teaches Israel how to be a people set apart. How to experience life again.

A lot of this Torah - this law - revolves around something called the Tabernacle - a mobile tent in the wilderness where God and his people could meet.

[Image: Tabernacle]

Eventually, the tabernacle was replaced by a more permanent structure, the temple, which was at the top of another mountain, called "Mount Zion" in Jerusalem.

Both the tabernacle and the temple were meant to represent Eden:

  • They both had an eastward-facing entrance, just like the garden of Eden.

  • They were decorated with leaves and grapevines and nature, just like the garden.

  • Inside both of them was a menorah [Image: Menorah] - a seven-branched candelabra which represented the tree of life.

  • Adam was told to "tend and watch over" creation, the Levite priests were told to "tend and watch over" the tabernacle.

  • And of course, just like in the garden, in the center of the tabernacle was the presence of God.

  • And get this: on the curtain which guarded the way into the holiest place in the tabernacle were cherubim, just like the cherubim who guarded the entrance to the garden of Eden.

The mountain garden of God's presence could now travel with the people. The most important question then became, as Psalm 24 asks,

Psalm 24:3
Who may climb the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place?

The answer the Torah gives is this: those who choose not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad - to define reality for themselves, but those who eat from the tree of life, who listen to God's teachings and submit themselves to what he says is good.

The point of the law - of the Torah - is not for God to lay out a bunch of rules so he could zap anyone who disobeys.

The point is to describe what life in Israel could actually be if it began to resemble Eden. A society of justice for the poor and marginalized. A community which is set apart from the corruption of evil.
A people who willingly sacrifice their own selfish desires for the sake of something greater and who live not driven by the relentless slavemaster of work, but who rest in the promises and provision of God.

At the end of his life, at the very end of the Torah, Moses spelled out one last time the story they were a part of and reminded the people of what was at stake.

Deut. 30:19-20
"Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him. This is the key to your life."

"Oh, that you would choose life!"

As we know, the Israelites struggled to do that. They didn't choose life. They didn't obey the Torah. The temptation to define good and bad for themselves was too great.

Judges 17:6
All the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.

Again and again, they were unjust, corrupt, selfish, and driven by greed. Just like Adam and Eve, the Israelites exiled themselves from God's presence.

But in the midst of their unfaithfulness, God remained faithful. He sent his son, Jesus, to continue the story.

Jesus, who took the commands of the Torah to the extreme.

"The law says don't murder? Well, I say don't even hate someone."

"The law says not to commit adultery? Well, I say don't even lust!"

"The law says to love your neighbor? Well, I say love your enemy, too."

One of the biggest misconceptions about the Bible is the idea that we have the law in the Old Testament but then we take this huge right turn in the New. That Jesus came to throw away all the old stuff and start over. No!

Jesus understood that behind the 613 regulations of the law of Moses - laws designed to guide the people of Israel in a specific time at a specific place - behind those laws was a story which held the key to true, abundant life. He said it himself:

Matthew 5:17
Don't misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose.

And what was that purpose? To open back up the gate of Eden and to show humanity how to how to climb the mountain of the Lord. How to enter the garden of God's presence and eat once again from the tree of life.

When Jesus died on the cross, he paid the penalty for us eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. We didn't trust God, but he paid the price for us - the price of death.

But get this. It says in Matthew 27:

Matthew 27:51
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.

Do you remember what was on the curtain in the temple? Cherubim. Just like the ones guarding the way back to Eden. The curtain was torn. The gate was open.

Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we now have the very presence of God within us - the Holy Spirit. We are no longer doomed to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors, eating again and again from the second tree.

We can now taste the fruit of the tree of life, and live with one another the way the law of Moses always intended: justice, harmony, peace, provision, and rest…

Yes, the world is still broken. Our experience of Eden is still only a taste of what's to come. But God is in the business of healing the brokenness around us, and he is inviting us - as he did the Israelites - to join him.

And thanks to Jesus we can have confidence that after death is New Creation - where we can dwell again face to face with God in the mountain garden.

That is what we will be talking about in this series. How the Torah - the law of Moses - is just the first chapter of a story that continues even today.

The story of humanity learning to trust in a God who offers life to every one of us.