Monday, November 13, 2006

Pictures in the Trees

PART I: Pictures in the Trees
THESIS: God has used the simple things of His creation, such as plants and trees, to provide pictures of His Love, Provision, and Righteousness.

Pictures in the Trees

Can you see God in the ordinary things that surround us, or the handiwork of the Divine Artist in those things that are all around us? When you look at look at an intricate seashell, can you see the traces of the hand that spoke the first one into existence? Or when you look at a great river like the Potomac, can you see the elements of Hydrogen and oxygen spilling off of the lips that spoke it into existence? Some of these may take a big imagination to visualize but remember; we worship and serve a Big God who among His many attributes also has a great imagination. It may be a stretch to see some of these pictures, but the Father, through His word, has created imagery that doesn’t take a tall imagination to see.

God is certainly no vegetarian (He’s Spirit, he doesn’t require food), but a systematic look through His word reveals that it is full of vegetation. It’s in there; everything from burning bushes that aren't consummed to trees with medicinal leaves. We’ll also find things in and on these plants that range from fruit that's been specifically forbidden, to trees containing the bodies of criminals. The hand of God here is much more evident and we could even safely propose that the Father has chosen these objects to give us a sense of His character and attributes, He’s done and where He’s leading us.

There are “pictures in the trees” if you’ll have it. We can look and observe God’s provisions, God’s promises and views of God’s judgment and man’s redemption. Let’s take this knowledge and take a step into the world of “Biblical Botany”.

I. Pictures of Sustaining Providence and Provision

A. A Picture of physical provision (Genesis 1 & 2)

Days before the Father breathed life into the dirt-man Adam, He filled the earth with trees. On the morning after speaking into existence the islands and continents and other inorganic components of His new earth, God spoke and once more matter spilled from His lips. Only this time, the particles would coalesce into organic materials. His words wove carbon atoms into intricate Glucose chains, then vegetation exploded into existence. Trees rose from the rich nutritive soil, along with other vegetative creations. In a moment, great stands of forest, mighty oaks, graceful willows, succulent aloes and trees bearing luscious fruit came into existence. And God saw that these new creations were “good”. Their goodness transcended the fact that they had beauty or aesthetic values. The Father, filled with joy, proclaimed they were perfect in every sense of the word. You can almost see smiles light up the faces of the Godhead as He made the declaration.

Trees weren’t the crown jewels of the Father’s creation, that honor went to Adam. As the breath of God entered his nostrils, Adam became a living soul. He had the exclusive claim above all of the creation as being made “In the Image and likeness of God”. Though he bore the marks of their maker, he was a physical being who would need routine, life-sustaining nourishment if he was to be an active steward of God in this lush garden. God’s generous provision immediately met the need; the trees of the garden would be integral to his diet, along with the other lush seed-bearing plants of Eden.

It’s difficult to determine the length of time that elapsed between verse 15 and verse 18 of the second chapter of Genesis. Was in mere moments or multiple days? That’s a tough call. What we do know is that the Father saw his supreme creation in His garden and declared that he needed a companion. None of the creatures in the garden, wonderful as they were, were suitable. It was clear Adam needed more that a Scottish terrier or a West highland to play fetch. So, the father placed him in a deep sleep, reached in and created the original “sidekick”, Eve. Now, the two stood there together before the Father as he reiterated the house rules for Adam, and explained them for the first time to Eve. They had full kitchen privileges. With the exception of one tree, they were free to feast from whichever tree or plant they saw in Eden.

Long before Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount” or St. Paul’s letter to the church in Phillippi, Adam knew of the Father’s generous provision. Like the sparrows and starlings, he ate from the bountiful table of God. He knew firsthand, that God would and did “Supply all of his needs”, according to His riches and glory.

With this spread of lush bounty and goodness set out for Adam and his bride Eve, we might conclude that the Father was just another overindulgent parent. The trees would paint a far different picture. Yes, God’s provision was both astounding and overflowing in the garden. Yet amidst this, we see an omniscient and powerful one who was wrapped in powerful authority.

B. A Picture of God’s authority (Gen 2:18; Gen 3).

Let’s walk into the center of Eden to see a picture of God’s ultimate authority seen adorning the branches of one particular tree. Genesis tells us that the Tree of the “Knowledge of Good and Evil” stood in the midst of the garden, near the “Tree of Life”. The Father made himself clear; the fruit of this tree of knowledge was off Adam’s menu. For an indeterminate length of time, Adam and his wife Eve were able to abide by this simple rule… Don’t eat the fruit found on the “tree of knowledge”. This would all change when the serpent made his move and targeted Eve.

Eve was no match for the serpent as she became fixated on the fruit in front of her. She had become confused to the point where she began to misquote the Father’s command concerning the Tree. The rest is a matter of biblical record as she and Adam rebelled, disobeyed, and began to die. I don’t know who was first to realize that they weren’t dressed for the party, or just dressed for that matter. They dove for the cover of the undergrowth and hid from God. To cover their nakedness, an animal was slaughtered and skinned to provide suitable coverings. The couple saw and smelled death in all of its graphic force for the first time. Perhaps Adam and Eve doubted the Father after seeing the lifeless, skinned carcasses and realizing that they were not in the same state. But they WERE dying, and though it would take nearly a thousand years for his death to be realized, Adam and his wife reaped the consequences of their disobedience.

This tree gives us a stark picture of the Father’s prerogative to demand obedience and to punish those who trespass against His commands. The wage for disobedience or sin was, and remains, death. “God will not be mocked”, St. Paul, tells us in Galatians 6:7. The Father is deadly serious and does not make vain threats. It is a sad fact that many have mistaken the Father’s patience and longsuffering for slackness. We hear a similar message nearly every day; “A loving God surely wouldn’t send someone to hell.” In this sense, little has changed since St. Peter cited this fact in his epistle.

Even after the disobedience that led to their expulsion from Eden, God made provision for their sustenance, in allowing them access to the fruits and vegetables of the earth. The provision was still there, though the couple would have to battle the fallen earth to draw out its bounty. Though they’d committed a capital offense, and were under a death sentence, they weren’t driven to a barren wasteland to starve. The Father’s provision is still seen in the trees surrounding the couple. We might even note the reborn trees awaiting Noah, as witnessed by the tender olive branch

C. A Picture of the Father’s abiding Presence (Psalm 1:3; Jude 12)

As God began to paint again on the human canvas, he called Abram out of the relatively lush Fertile Crescent to a land which He was giving to him as an inheritance. His family, along with those of succeeding generations would find themselves in an arid land that was largely absent of trees with the exceptions of oasises and the strip of vegetation along the banks of the Jordan. So, to see a tree away from the life-giving water of an oasis or a wadi was a rare sight and to see a lush healthy tree was rarer still.
This sight was so rare that David, in Psalm 1:3 used this simile of a lush tree to describe the blessed state of the one who walks in the counsel of God. Think about this picture for a moment. In a world that’s parched, cruel and colorless, God’s children are lavished with abundant provision and lavish grace. We stand out (or should stand out) in stark contrast to the world around us. Jude’s letter offers both credence and contrast to this picture (Jude 12) when he compares the godless to barren dead trees that have been ripped from the ground, left to decay in the wasteland. Where the redeemed stand out against the background of our world, the unredeemed in there current state simply melt into the scenery.

As we look onward, we see other pictures in the trees, Pictures both bloody and beautiful

II. Pictures of Retribution and Redemption

A. A Picture of Holy and Righteous Justice (Deuteronomy 21:23)

The children who grew up in the sterile, barren deserts of the Sinai eventually found themselves east of the Jordan River in a place that approximated modern Jordan. Forty years had passed since their parents broke faith with God. Moses, who was fast approaching his 120th Birthday, was performing a handoff of sorts to Israel and her next generation of leaders. Israel was to be not only devout in the service to their God, they were to be society of but civil and criminal laws. Their Criminal codes a number of capital offenses that demanded the death of the offender. There were to be no kangaroo courts, pleas or pardons; no one languished on death row for decades awaiting their fates. Justice was swift and final. Upon execution of the sentence, Israel was instructed to hang the deceased “upon a tree”, as seen in Deuteronomy 21:23.

Theatrical death not withstanding, we are a society that insulates ourselves from death. The majority of Americans will not die in the presence of their families, our accident victims are hidden from interlopers, and the last lawful public execution took place nearly seventy years ago. For Israel, the deaths of her criminals were in plain view. There were no professional executioners on the public payroll, the townsfolk executed sentence upon the condemned and then hung their bodies in plain sight. To a sheltered American, the view outside of a typical Israelite town would be horrific. In plain view were bloodied stones, piled or strewn about. The next thing to catch the eye was a battered corpse hanging from a tree.

The picture of God in this tree, though shocking to our “refined western sensibilities”, is quite clear. The holy and righteous justice of our God seen here is absolute. Evil was not to be tolerated in the midst of Israel just in the same way that it would not stand in the midst of God. In the removal of the corpse from the tree, we have a “future view” of sorts. There is a dreadful day coming for who chose a way other than the Lord’s path. The Almighty will banish the lost away from His presence, and the presence of His redeemed ones. “Depart from me”, He will say, then He (and we), will not be compelled to view the lawbreakers.

Stare contemplatively at this snapshot and another picture will come into focus, a picture of extreme mercy. Like a sign saying “Bridge Out”, or “Danger High Voltage”, the body of an offender gave a clear warning of the price for rebellion against the Command of God. The corpse wasn’t swaying in the breeze saying “Come on, who’s next”, it was lifted above the street level, screaming “PLEASE, don’t let this happen to you”.
Speaking to the Church at Corinth about idolatry, St. Paul made a keen observation stating “These things became our examples…“ (Speaking of the punishment meted out from on high on idolatrous Israel). Paul’s language here gives us a sense that the response of the Father exists as just such a warning.

B. A Picture of Perfect Redemptive Justice (Galatians 3:13-14)

Push aside these visceral images, and another picture of our God is framed. One will find the perfect Mercy of God standing alongside of His perfect Justice. The Westminster catechism tells us humanity was created by God, for God and to enjoy His fellowship forever. Humanity had become thoroughly corrupted by sin and was banished from His presence. A paradox? No, it was the opportunity to see yet another portrait come into focus. Under the law, humanity had been sentenced to death through the sin of Adam. It would take “another Adam” to satisfy that sentence. Because the ultimate could only be satisfied by the perfect, God allowed His only son to step into human form and release us from that death debt. The one who knew no sin, took on flesh and blood to become the perfect offering for sin past, present and future. For three agonizing hours, Jesus became “Cursed” upon the tree of the cross for our sakes.
Our debt was paid on that horrible tree. Because He paid our debt, Christ can lawfully stand before the Father and vouch for his redeemed. We no longer have to hide in the shrubs, cowering in our nakedness before God. We can approach the throne knowing that we’ve been clothed in Christ’s perfection. When the father looks in the direction of his servants, He sees his son staring back.

III. Pictures Eternal Care and Communion

To this point, we’ve been looking backwards at the trees, in a sense, and seeing imagery that has demonstrated the character and actions of our Lord. In doing this, we’ve only seen part of the forest. God’s word provides us with not just past and present views, it also allows us to catch glimpses of the future, albeit through smoky glass.

A. A view of Eternal Provision (Ezekiel 47:12)

The Lord spoke to and through the Prophet Ezekiel in ways that were perhaps beyond that of any other of His prophets. The messages could range from the inspiring to the frightening. This prophet saw the frightening vision of the Spirit of the Most High departing the temple and heading east. The Lord blessed Ezekiel with the vision of His presence returning to His people, Israel. In this intricately detailed vision, Ezekiel was shown a restored Israel whose wonders are too numerous to discuss in our limited timeframe. If you are expecting to hear about the trees in this restored land, you’ll not be disappointed.
The forty-seventh chapter of Ezekiel’s prophecy provides us with imagery that clearly speaks to the provision of our God, with its healing waters and trees that are in a state of perpetual bloom. One either side of a healing river, are trees that will be, according to the prophet, a perpetual source of nourishment and “medicine” in this yet-discovered country. Eternal food, eternal care, all found within these great trees.
There is a reason our Lord has told his disciples not to fret over the future; He has already secured that future! It’s essential to save for a “rainy day”, or to set aside for our retirements, this is just common sense stewardship. It’s an entirely different thing altogether to worry about what hasn’t even occurred yet! The market will revert to a bear cycle, housing starts will decline, and we’ll undergo another recession… Accept it and get on with it. Child of God, these things have no effect on our eternal inheritance. This provision is laid up in a place without “moth or rust”. These trees grow in a country that knows neither drought or crop failure! The “futures of God’s future” are the soundest investment in all the cosmos.

CONCLUSION: It would take days to thoroughly tour all of the exhibits found in the Smithsonian Institution and in the same sense, we‘re not going to see all of the leafy pictures of our God in these few minutes. Consider the pictures we did see. Placed in a big coffee table book, we would soon see the overarching theme of God’s Love for humanity. In His love, the Most High conceived us in eternity past, provides for us in the moment, and has planned an astounding future for us. All of this is rooted in a love that is bigger than our imaginations, deeper than our most hidden hopes and higher than any conceivable aspiration.

1 comment:

Anna said...

Hi, I just found your blog and find your posts very interesting, insightful, and thought-provoking, especially your essay on the trees... I am a Christian, but my "religious" beliefs are centered on nature. You draw many interesting correlations that are too often overlooked between nature and God. Thank you for a thought-provoking read!