“And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this evening is the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the book of Genesis. Dear friends in Christ, the Lord God planted a garden in the land of Eden, in the east. It was the sixth day. He had already created light, sky and land, plants, the moon, sun, and stars, and a multitude of animals to fill the sea, sky, and land. Now He does some gardening. The world is paradise, perfect and good, but it is not yet ‘very good.’ The garden in the land of Eden is to be the center of that perfection, the perfect sanctuary in a perfect world, and in the midst of that garden, in the holy of holies, He will plant two trees.
That sanctuary, indeed even the holy of holies, the inner chamber, is to be the dwelling place of His final creation, the creation that alone can make all things complete, ‘very good.’ Before this final creature is set in place, the world isn’t imperfect, but it isn’t finished. This creature will be the crown of His creation, and it will be entrusted with the care of all else as God’s own steward and representative. Therefore the Creator, who made all else with the power of His Word, does this final act of creation in a completely unique way. “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” God gives life, that is His gift to the crown and ruler of His creation. He takes the dust of the ground, forms it into man, and gives us the breath of life. We all go back to a pile of dust and a blast from God’s nostrils. Before God formed us, we were simply dirt on the ground. Before God breathed His breath into us, we may have looked like man, but there was no life in us. Apart from God, there is no life. Life is His gift, pure and simple.
But God isn’t only concerned with giving life. His abundance doesn’t stop with the breath of life. Man is put in this perfect world’s inner sanctuary and told that all things are his. “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden.” What kinds of trees were in that garden? “And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” We even had access to the holy of holies, where the tree of life grew. Surely every tree provided good food, but the tree of life provided exactly what the title implies: life, full and complete, providing in continual abundance the gift God first gave into our nostrils. But another tree stood in the holy of holies, the one thing in all of creation that God withheld from us. “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” This tree was our place of worship, where Adam preached his sermons, pointing to the tree and proclaiming the one command that God had given. This was our church, where we worshipped God by not partaking of what God had not given to us.
But Satan snuck in, and twisted God’s words, with his, “Did God really say?” and his “You will be like God.” He led us to fix our eyes on the one thing God had not given rather than on all the abundance that He had given. He tempted us to be dissatisfied, and then fed that fire until it roared. That is how Satan works. God gives a gift, and Satan immediately starts tempting, pointing us to what God has not given. God gives us a spouse, and we lust after those whom God has not given. God gives us a home and food on the table, and we covet what our neighbor has. Maybe God doesn’t give certain gifts to us, maybe He hasn’t given a spouse or children, or a high-paying job, but even though He has given us Himself and a tremendous array of gifts, Satan tempts us to focus on those things God hasn’t given, to covet and to take. It’s been this way from the very beginning. God formed us from the dust of the ground, breathed into our nostrils the very breath of life, and if that weren’t enough, He put us in a perfect garden and gave us the wondrous fruit of every tree save one, including the magnificent tree of life. And we fell for Satan’s trick, fixing our eyes on the one thing in all creation that God had withheld.
We grasped after what God had not given, and so we lost all that He had given. “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die,” God said, and on that terrible day, death entered the world, we began to die. All that God had given in such abundance was taken away. We were driven away from the garden, cast out of the holy of holies; that place which we were to guard was now guarded against us, and when the Flood came, the garden in the land of Eden was no more. But the curse didn’t end there. We were formed from the dust, and now we are destined to return to dust. We were given the very breath of life, and now are destined to give up that breath. The great gifts of creation are now to be reversed; one day you will return to the state of Adam on the morning of that sixth day of creation. First, you will give up your breath, and then you will turn to dust. The life that God gave to you as His gift will be forcibly taken from you.
You desired and you took what God had not given, and so you receive what God never intended: death. But God in His mercy and grace doesn’t stop giving. You are barred from the tree of life in the midst of the garden, but God gives another tree of life. This tree isn’t beautiful, ripe fruit don’t hang from it, it isn’t a delight to the eyes. Instead, it’s an instrument of torture, ugly to the extreme, unseemly and offensive. In place of fruit, there hangs upon this tree of life a man, beaten and bloodied, pouring out his life upon it. It doesn’t look like a tree of life, only a place of death. But when the death that is died upon that tree is the death of the sinless Son of God in your place, then the cross of Jesus is truly the tree of life. When the death that is died upon that tree forgives your every sin, then the cross of Jesus is more beautiful than any tree. For on that tree, God withholds from His Son the breath of life in your place, and Jesus pays your penalty for you.
Jesus dies to make His cross the new tree of life, the new source of life for those sinners who are destined to give up the gifts God first gave to us in the garden. Yes, you will give up the breath of life one day, but because Christ breathed His last having preached His final sermon, “It is finished,” because you have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit as Jesus breathed into your ears His Word, that breath will one day return. Yes, your body will return to the dust from whence it came, but because Jesus laid down His life into the dust of death for you, bearing your sin and enduring your penalty, you will be raised from that dust to live before Him forever. Yes, you were excluded from the holy of holies, cast out of the inner sanctuary, but Christ has gone into the most holy place by means of His blood to open a way for you.
Yes, you were cast from the garden in the land of Eden, but there is another garden to which Christ has won you entry, a garden in which you will dwell forever. Saint John saw in the New Jerusalem “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.” The tree of life that is the cross of Jesus has won you access to this tree of life that will never be destroyed, that you will never be barred from. The entire new heavens and the new earth will be the inner sanctuary, the holy of holies, and you will have access forever, for you are the redeemed, the saved, those for whom Christ died. Life was God’s gift in the beginning, and life is God’s gift at the end, life through Jesus, and as Adam was created from dust, so you will be raised from the dust, to live before Christ forever, to eat from the tree of life without end. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.