February 11, 2008

First Sunday in Lent

Of Trees and Gardens

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Once upon a time, at the beginning of time, the whole world was like a garden. It was so beautiful, planted and populated with every good thing, fresh and fragrant, because it was God’s garden. God created the garden for us, and it was God’s delight to be there with us.

The garden was full of trees, trees of all kinds: shade trees and fruit trees and flowering trees, trees bearing nuts and spices, quaking aspens and weeping willows, elms and oaks and evergreens. And in the middle of the garden, God planted a special tree, one of a kind. It was the tree of life. I imagine it as a big and beautiful tree, high and lifted up, with branches spread wide, and deeply rooted, too, firm and faithful, established there for all time. And it must have been that everything there was centered around this tree of life, and the life of the tree flowed out to everything else. It was as God intended: life in the center, goodness in abundance.

There were many trees in the garden and they were all meant for us, all of them except one. Somewhere in the garden, there was a tree called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God planted the tree in the garden where we lived but that tree was reserved for God alone.

We lived in that garden for a time, back when time was new, and we had everything we needed. And God would come and walk with us in the cool of the day. We lived with all creation and with God in perfect harmony. We even lived with each other in perfect harmony – that is part of what made it seem like paradise. It was so good, but since it was all we knew, we didn’t know there was anything so special about it. It was just the way the world was. It was just the way God meant it to be.

But it didn’t last. We began to have some stirrings, some longings, some cravings. It is hard to say where they came from exactly. They sneaked up on us somehow, like a snake in the grass, and pretty soon we became convinced that it wasn’t enough to be made in the image of God, to be like God. And it wasn’t enough to walk with God in the cool of the day, to be with God. It wasn’t enough to be like God, to be with God; we wanted to be God. So we reached out and seized that which was reserved for God alone. We claimed for ourselves the knowledge of good and evil.

And we scattered the seeds of that knowledge through the whole garden. And good sprouted up, yes, but so did evil. And somehow the evil has grown thicker and more pervasive, like briers in a garden, growing up so thick and fast that the tender green goodness almost gets choked out. And pretty soon the world doesn’t even look a garden at all any more. It looks like a wilderness. It is a dangerous place; it is a threatening place; this place where we live, this place where good and evil grow up together and become so entwined we cannot even tell them apart any more. And we feel alone in the wilderness; we are afraid of everything. We even hide ourselves from God.

And the world has been this way for so long that the pure green goodness of the garden seems like a fairy tale, a myth. We can no longer remember how it was when the world was new. We can’t even imagine what it was like we walked with God. We have a hard time believing that it was ever so. But God can remember it, God can envision it, God is faithful still. And deep in God’s heart, in the place where memory and vision and faithfulness flourish, God’s original intention for the world has not changed: life in the center, goodness in abundance.

And maybe the word that best describes all this is love. There is really no other way to explain why God just doesn’t give up on us. But God doesn’t. And God has gone to extraordinary lengths to show us what this love looks like. In order to reach humans who want to be God, God becomes human. And this human God, this God-man, the one we know as Jesus, walks into the world’s wilderness. He comes to us where we are, as we are. And just like all the rest of us, he too possesses the knowledge of good and evil. But unlike all the rest of us, he alone is not distracted by that knowledge; he is not corrupted by it. And because he has dwelled for all eternity in the realm of God, in the place where the garden still grows green, he knows the heart of God. He understands God’s intention for all creation. He understands it and he embodies it. He is life and he is love. And all that is good in creation is centered around him. And the life that is in him flows out to everything else. It is just what God intended: life in the center, goodness in abundance.

And because he is somehow like us, it seems possible for us to be somehow like him. It seems possible for us to resist the temptation to be other than who God intends us to be. It seems possible for us to resist the temptation to use our gifts for our own good, rather than the good of others. It seems possible for us to resist the temptation to exchange the power and glory of God for the sparkly glitter of the world. It even seems possible to see the world as God always intended it to be: life in the center, goodness in abundance. And if we are paying attention, we can even catch a glimpse of the garden.

And maybe that is what we are called to do in these forty days of Lent, these forty days of wilderness. Maybe we are called to pay attention to the places where the garden is breaking through. At the end of these forty days, there will be another kind of garden, and there will be another tree. Those who see only the wilderness, will look at it and think that it is a tree of death. But those of us who have caught a glimpse of God’s garden will come to the tree and know it as it really is: rooted and grounded in love, firm and faithful, established here among us for all time; and high and lifted up, with arms spread wide. We will come to the tree and know that it is the tree of life. And Jesus will be waiting for us, there in God’s garden – as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever more. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith 2008

No comments: