This was preached at New Wine Christian Fellowship [9/28/2014]
“The tree of knowledge is not the tree of life! And yet can we cast out of our spirits all the good or evil poured into them by so many learned generations? Ignorance cannot be learned.”
(French Romantic poet Gerard de Nerval)
Two giants of atheism bridge the span between the 19th and the 20th centuries: Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche. Freud, a brilliant theorist, established the popular theoretical framework for understanding how the mind works. The fact that his work rests on five case studies and that his personal life suggests someone in need of counseling should lead to the conclusion that his work is closer to pseudo-science than actual science. His book Totem and Taboo describes God as a social construct meant to enforce patriarchal control.
Nietzsche proclaims, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” as if God was an idea, no longer useful. He goes on to champion the ‹bermensch or “Superman”, that is the master of his own fate, at wheel of the ship of destiny. The Superman seizes the day and establishes the future, for better or for worse. It should be noted that Hitler was fond of Neitzsche's work.
But as stimulating as these two figures where, they only tell half of they story. Carl Jung, student and protege of Freud set a very different course with his writings, one which permanently estranged him from his mentor. Rather than deny God, Jung affirms all gods. The son of a Swiss Pastor, Jung loved Bible stories, but was quickly enthralled by the Kabbalah and the writings of Alchemists and Gnostics. Again, he is presenting his theoretical work as science, but in fact his work is Gnosticism reformulated, a neo-Gnosticism. Jung's work play out in a raft of 20th century writers such as Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, Bruno Bettleheim and sociologist Peter Berger.
While the two sides would seem to naturally conflict, the two lines seems to blur together in popular culture with a lean towards the neo-gnostic. The notion of the Superman, the one who charts his or her own course is solidly at the heart of modern thought. As the slogan goes, “Just rebel!”, “Do your own thing”, “dance to your own tune”. On the other hand, no man is an island, nor does anyone want to be. So we naturally clump together in affinity groups, tribes, or associations. Modern tribalism delights in picking up signatures from long distant cultures. Maori war dances are on display at football games. Tattoos and piercing evoke themes from all sorts of cultures mostly predating any sort of large societies, i.e. tribal. American Indian, Celtic, Pacific Rim, African or Amazon rain forest are all popular cultural sources. Gnosticism appears in popular movies such as Avatar, The Fifth Element, The Lawnmower Man and most prominently in The Matrix. Morpheus asks, “What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” At the heart of this Gnosticism is the idea that reality is shaped by the mind and not the other way around.
For the new Gnostics the idea of how we think about our world reshapes the world and therefore creates the reality we live in. In essence they believe that God or gods are useful constructions of the mind. Their approach to religion is a backhanded embrace.
“Society is a dialectical phenomenon in that it is a human product, and nothing but a human product, that yet continuously acts back upon its producer.”
(Peter L. Berger. The Sacred Canopy)
Sociologist Peter Berger in his book The Sacred Canopy puts forward the theory that religion is process whereby society confronts or Objectifies realities that are stirred up by the outward flow of human action, mental or physical (Externalization). They are given shape in a myth, a legend, or other religious tale. That truth is then teaches in such a way as to allow it to be Internalized. His handing of the subject is much more refined than a thumbnail snapshot allows, but his work is not the subject, merely and example. The ‘sacred canopy’ is the Tree of Life, which not only stands at the center of Judeo-Christian thought, but appears in all sorts of religions. His point is that we have placed the religious center in our midst. Put more explicitely by another writer, “Man Makes Himself”.
Biblically this is not the story. Adam and Eve are placed in the garden with the Tree of Life only to be removed. Thus the Tree of Life is outside of our grasp. Instead we have chosen (by the choice of Adam and Eve) the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. From the first moment of what Christians refer to as the Fall of Man, God has been pursuing us, seeking to take us from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and return us back to the Tree of Life. So we need to look at just what the Tree of Life represents.
The Book of Genesis starts with God creating the world and all that is in it. Finally he places Adam and Eve, the first human ancestors, in the midst of a garden. In the center of the garden are two trees. These are the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:9). Out of this garden flow four rivers that supply the abundance of the middle east and north Africa (Genesis 2:10). These rivers don't have one literal source so I am applying a figurative sense to this passage. The place where the Tree of Life is, is the place of abundant supply.
There are several proverbs which pick up this theme. Proverbs 3:18, referring to Wisdom in verse 13 says, “She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her” (Proverbs 3:18). We see the same theme paring wisdom and the abundance of the Tree of Life in Proverbs 11: “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, And he who is wise wins souls” (Proverbs 11:30). Similarly see “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12). And also “A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4).
In all of these cases it should be clear that the Tree of Life refers to abundance in life through godliness; i.e. the Tree of Life is our connection to heaven. The theme of connection to heaven through the tree, the root, the vine as well as the theme of the rivers that flow out of the place where the tree is found appear everywhere in the New Testament. First let's look at the direct reverences to the Tree of Life, which are all found in the Book of Revelations.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.(Revelations 2:1-2) Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, 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.
Notice that healing is being emphasized in both of these places. Coming into the place of God is having full access to the healing river and the tree's healing leaves.
The last chapter of the Bible, Revelations chapter 22 goes on to clarify who gets that access and who doesn't. “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” (Revelations 22:14-15). Those who have repented and accepted the cleansing sacrifice of Jesus Christ have open access to the Tree of Life. Those who remain in sin, remain cut off. John then adds, “and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Revelations 22:19). This last must refer to those already at work gerrymandering the teachings of Christ and the disciples in order to fit various personal visions of holiness. This is ultimately the issue that started the whole process. But amongst them are the sexually immoral (I believe “dogs” refers to homosexuals as it does in many cultures today), those who practice occult arts, those who worship anything other than God and finally those who twist the truth.
The beauty of the passage is that for those who stop, turn and repent everything is washed away. There are former witches and warlocks who are now serving Christ. I myself once served Sun Myung Moon, but now I serve Jesus. I know former homosexuals who have turned to Jesus. Even amongst the Christians I have known throughout my life, many have walked for years in falsehood, turning the gospel to suit their own fancies, or simply hiding sin behind a pious smile. God doesn't ask for perfection, God simply asks us to wash our robes, repent and turn to Jesus, and turn to the nurture of Christ's people. Take note: mature Christians are nurturing (this does not preclude “tough love”, which the apostle Paul exhibited on several occasions). And the first fruit of turning, is a release from the burden of guilt.
“Religion is the human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established.”
(Peter L. Berger. The Sacred Canopy)
The sacred canopy that Berger is admiring in the center of his world is not the Tree of Life, it is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It has been there since Adam and Eve first heard the serpent whisper, “Did God actually say…?” (Genesis 3:1). It all starts with this question, not with the “you shall not…” (Genesis 2:17). The serpent's question puts in play for the very first time a choice: trust God's warning and don't eat or choose for yourself. Eve at first answers confidently, “God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree’ ” (Genesis 3:3). But the serpent presses harder, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5). Eve chose self-reliance, and Adam followed.
I have heard a lot of teaching about what exactly the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is. My answer is simple. It doesn't matter what they did in the natural. What matters is that Adam and Eve changed their primary allegiance from God to themselves. Think of it this way: when a child is young and it is hurt, it runs to its parents; but the older a child gets the less likely they are to run to mom and dad. When we become teens, well, speaking for myself, I told my dad off in no uncertain terms. I “became my own man”; even though it was obvious to all (but myself) that I was nowhere near ready. In our own lives, time and time again we re-enact the fatal choice made in the garden.
In the next chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve have children: Cain, the first, and Abel, the second. They both make offerings to the Lord. It says that God liked Abel's offering but not Cain's, so Cain was very upset (Genesis 4:5). I have a brother who is three and a half years older. Growing up he was always ahead of me in everything. He was also stronger and not always kind. But, my first year of high school I joined the wrestling team. I was also catching up in size and strength. Imagine his surprise when Billy pinned Bobby down. He had to try for several rematches before he came to the conclusion that I really could beat him. I'm sure my own smugness could have added a bit of nudge to try again. Was Abel a bit smug. I can only imagine.
In fact Abel had done nothing to Cain. God had simply picked one but not the other. Cain had an issue with God. So God comes to Cain and speaks to him directly, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7). Cain, calm down, take a deep breath, this is just a blip on the radar. In the end, Cain gets himself so worked up in his own little world, (remember the theme set in motion: ‘I see it my way’), he kills Abel. At least for a moment, Cain was completely convinced that killing Abel was the right thing to do. God, Adam, Eve and of course Abel would have all disagreed, but their opinions no longer mattered to Cain.
In essence, The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, is the tree of the way I see it, or the tree of the way we see it. From the very beginning the results have turned out very badly. God saw it coming and said don't go there. But we did anyway. Human history is a history of God trying to get us to let go of The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and come back to The Tree of Life perfect, child-like trust in God.
The current Islamic extremists are sure that they are doing the right thing. The Nazis where equally sure of the rightness of their cause. The Soviet and Red Chinese Communists caused the death of more than Hitler and the Islamists together but were perfectly convinced of the rightness of their cause. History runs red with self justified violence. The only solution is to stop trusting in ourselves. That requires a relationship with someone that we can trust. That can only be God.
Matthew 18:3 “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The wildest fish story ever is recorded by Matthew a few verses earlier than the statement about becoming like little children. Jesus has been challenged about paying taxes. He turns and gives Peter instructions on how to get the money for the tax, “not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”
This story, told in a single line, is fully intended to blow apart anyone's well ordered understanding of how the world works. With a shrug a man with no money, no income, describes the most ridiculous method for raising money. The tax collectors could only laugh, “If wishes were fishes…”, but Jesus picks his fruit from a different tree.
Now back up a few more lines to verse 14. Here Jesus, Peter, James and John have just come down from the mount of transfiguration. Apparently while they were up on the mountain, the rest of the disciples have been struggling in vain to cast a demon out of a boy. The father comes to Jesus for help. Jesus casts the demon out and heals the boy, but not without rebuking his disciples, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?”. Later the disciples come to Jesus privately to find out what they did wrong. Jesus makes this oft quoted statement, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
It is one thing to say “Have faith!”, but is quite another to have faith. A child has faith in mom and dad for one reason. That child knows mom and dad and trusts them by experience. When the child is injured, where do they run, Mom. Faith in God is the same. It is born of solid relationship with God, and a body of experience which establishes reliable trust, that is: faith. If that faith is strong and well established and trouble comes up, where does the child of God run without hesitation? God.
Now think of the older child, who is out acting independently. Convinced of their own maturity they do something that they know dad and mom do not approve of. Think of the young girl striking up a relationship with someone that dad and mom disapprove of. They get hurt. Now where do they run. Most likely they will just endure the pain or run to someone who will comfort them and tell them that they were right when they were wrong. Dad and mom will have a hard time getting to the truth of the situation.
It doesn't get much sillier than trying to hide from God, but that the first thing that Adam & Eve do after they have eaten the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:8). Having decided to trust their own instincts, they make grass skirts (Genesis 3:7). When God confronts them, they start with their own story, which God dismisses and asks the obvious question: “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (Genesis 3:15). What ensues is a lot of finger pointing: she did, the snake did it… They all get punished (Genesis 3:14-19). Then God makes them a decent set of clothes (Genesis 3:21).
Now tell me if this doesn't sound like negotiating with a teen-ager? There are consequences, but there is no genuine repentance so a work around is established. We are living the history of the work around. By that I mean, God could have eliminated all people and started over, but He didn't. The work around is long, arduous and painful. For many, there is no resolution. But for those of us who are blessed to know Jesus, mercy flows and freedom from the curse is available. It starts with doing what Adam & Eve failed to do: confess and repent. I.e., they failed to run to God, but tried to continue in their own way.
Religion as we generally use the term today, refers to our attempt to go to God, but stay in charge of the process. There are too many examples in the Bible to number them all, but let's take one, the Tower of Babel. We find the story in Genesis 11. People have migrated from the East and settled in Shinar (modern Iraq). “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.’ ” (Genesis 11:4). God looks down and sees this and causes their language to be confused, dispersing the people. So what is the issue? They want their city to center around a monument with its top in heaven. So far so good. But we see this is not faith in God. Rather they say, “let us make a name for ourselves”. Their reach is to God, but the center of their desire is themselves.
Many of the very same people who sneer at religion are just as self focused, just as personally motivated to get the all that God has to give, but without giving themselves into his full and complete charge. Their dismissal of religious movements of the past presupposes that they have gone a new and different course, when in fact, any progress they have made is on the backs of those same saints. We are too quick to see the missteps of our forefathers and never notice the sweetness of their achievements.
Hosea 7:14 They do not cry to me from the heart, but they wail upon their beds; for grain and wine they gash themselves; they rebel against me.
Hosea 10:12-13 Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the LORD, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you. You have plowed iniquity; you have reaped injustice; you have eaten the fruit of lies. Because you have trusted in your own way and in the multitude of your warriors
Social capital is the new catchword for trust. A recent study found that the level of trust is in decline. High school seniors, who already have the lowest level of trust in others among the general population, have plummeted in their trust level during the last forty years covered by the study. In other words, the social capital of parents, bosses or pastors has dropped to a very low level. Last night I watched Divergent, a movie for teens, similar to the Hunger Games movies. Like a lot of movies the theme is the helpless few against the power of dominant evil. Another recent movie aimed at children is the Lego movie. Like far too many cartoons, the hero is the child and in this case the bad guy is not just an adult, but dad.
It shouldn't surprise us that such a steady message from the culture creates an atmosphere of distrust. When the zeitgeist of the age is trust only in yourself, and you know your own proclivities to be wrong, you are left adrift. Jimmy Carter was mocked for his use of the word malaise, likely because no one expected him to use such fancy word. But, malaise is exactly what it is, and it hasn't gotten better in the ensuing years. Sadly those who cannot trust anyone land easily on trusting the most comfortable idea available. It is a time of great opportunity and great danger.
Opportunity, because people are ready to sacrifice a great deal for something they can truly believe in, and great danger because this leaves the door open for great fanaticism. Politically we see this in more extreme and unyielding positions on the right and the left. Religiously we see deadly extremism in many places, and repulsiveness in many others. Personally, I consider anti-religion in the same category as religion. There are extreme advocates of all sorts.
On the other side of the equation are those who don't have an extreme position one way or another and who want the extremists to leave quietly. This isn't weakness, as the extremists accuse, it's simply that the more we try to fix things, the more we see ourselves destroying things. Extremists everywhere are causing anything from grid lock to wholesale slaughter. And yet the most fruitful servants of the Lord have been extremists starting with Stephan, passing to Paul and on down through history.
Jesus came for one reason, to give us someone we can trust in, whose trust will connect us strait back to God. Jesus is the Tree of Life. “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5). Let me say this more clearly: Jesus can be trusted, more than you can trust yourself. When you place your trust in Jesus, you become fruitful. When you place your trust anywhere else, that includes creeds, doctrines and church culture in all its variety your fruitfulness declines precipitously until, like the Judaizers of the early church, devotion to the ‘godly’ idea opposes God.
In Jesus there is power to move mountains. We like to say there is power in the name of Jesus, but as the sons of Sceva discovered, the name alone is not sufficient (Acts 19:13-16). How many times have I prayed for someone, with no apparent affect? At that point I usually assume that there is too much of me at work, and not enough of Jesus. When I pray and something dramatic happens… Wow, Wow, Wow! Praise the Lord!
“Faith is a living, daring conficence in God's grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times.” (Martin Luther. Commentary on Romans, 1976 . From Luther's preface, page xvii)
I got a call from a friend saying that they were excited to have found a task at their church which no one was doing and which they took up as their own initiative. They were even more delighted when some of the leading figures at the church noticed their efforts. Then a few weeks later they were most downcaste. Someone else had gotten to their special project before them.
Haven't we all had those moments of glorious recognition. It just feels so good to feel like we have done something special for God. But when the glory fades, or as in the above example, someone steals it away, suddenly we are struggling to maintain our Christian composure. Why? Without even noticing it we have stopped eating from the Tree of Life and started eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This is how Oswald Chambers states it:
“Most of us are on the borders of consciousness, consciously serving, consciously devoted to God; it is all immature, it is not the life yet. Maturity is the life of a child—a child is never consciously childlike—so abandoned to God that the thought of being made broken bread and poured-out wine no longer unseals the fountain of tears. When you are conscious of being used as broken bread and poured-out wine you are interested in your own martyrdom; it is consciously costing you something. When you are laid on the altar of the Cross all consciousness of self is gone, all consciousness of what your are doing for God or of what God is doing through you is gone.” (Oswald Chambers. Conformed to His Image, 1996 . Pages 89-90).
A toddler marches out among guests without their diaper with no knowledge of should a's and could a's. The toddler has not achieved self-consciousness. The toddler has no knowledge of good and evil. A toddler unfortunately doesn't know God intimately either. Hence, one psychologist wryly noted that the so-called innocence of the child would look a lot different if that toddler tantrum was performed by a child the size and weight of an adult.
So when Jesus calls us to “turn and become like children”, he is calling us to stop focusing on ourselves, our righteousness, or our sin. Run to Jesus, and let him lead you into a relationship with the Father through the presence of His Holy Spirit.