Monday, April 22, 2024

Earth Day | The Story of God in Nature During Eastertide

What is the Bible, then,
if not a story of God
meeting humanity's need
for a Savior
to reunite us to His Tree of Life?
+ Dr. Matthew Sleeth,

In Article 2
of the Belgic Confession (1561 A.D.),
it reads:

We know God by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: God’s eternal power and divinity ... Second, God makes Himself known to us more clearly by His holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for God’s glory and for our salvation.

On Earth Day, April 22, it is good for us to recognize again that the Creation is a beautiful book before us about the God of heaven and earth whose story is found in the Bible. And one of the keys to understanding the Story of God, from the beginning of His creation with humanity to His fulfillment of new creation, is found in the trees of our planet.

Below you can see part of the "Tree of Life" mural in Saint Clement Parish in Chicago.

There are many things to notice in this historic work of art, including some of what Saint Clement Parish highlights in their description of the dome:

" ... The centerpiece of the Tree of Life is the glorious cross, the throne from which Christ reigns and from which springs a vast acanthus vine. The cross is rooted in the earth and reaches to the dome of heaven ...  The acanthus vine is an allusion to Christ and the Church, based on the words 'I am the vine, you are the branches' (John 15:5). ... The curling tendrils of the vine terminate in stylized flowers and oil lamps, baskets overflowing with food, and vessels of oil and wine, symbolizing the richness of life in Christ. ... The streams that flow from the foliage at the base of the Tree are symbols of the rivers of the Garden of Eden, which are associated by tradition with the four Gospels, baptism, and the Holy Spirit flowing from Christ to evangelize and nurture the world. ...  

So let's take a moment to think more about the connection of the Tree of Life to the Cross to the New Creation during this Eastertide season of celebrating death trampling over death and the resurrection of Jesus. To help us do so, Dr. Matthew Sleeth, author of Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us, provides a walk through the Story of God in the Bible with the Tree of Life and God's love of trees in view.

Through a tree
we were made debtors to God;
so through a tree
we have our debt canceled.
+ St. Irenaeus of Lyons

The Story of God: Creation, Crisis, Covenant, Christ, Church, (New) Creation

 | God Loves Trees

Other than people and God, trees are the most mentioned living thing in the Bible. There are trees in the first chapter in Genesis 1:11-12, in the first psalm in Psalm 1:3, and on the last page of the Bible in Revelation 22:2. As if to underscore all these trees, the Bible refers to wisdom as a tree in Proverbs 3:18. Every major character and every major theological event in the Bible has an associated tree. The only exception to this pattern is Joseph, and in Joseph's case the Bible pays him its highest compliment: Joseph is a tree (Genesis 49:22). In fact, the Psalmist and the prophet Jeremiah urges all believers to be like a tree (Psalm 1:1-3Jeremiah 17:7-8). The only physical description of Jesus in the Bible occurs in Isaiah. "Want to recognize the Messiah when He arrives?" Isaiah asks. "Look for the man who resembles a little tree growing out of barren ground" in Isaiah 53:2 (paraphrase mine).

To go back to the beginning, by highlighting every sentence containing a tree in the first three chapters of Genesis, one can get a pretty good sense of what God thinks about trees. Nearly a third of the sentences contain a tree. In Genesis 2, God makes two things with His own hands. First, He forms Adam and blows the breath of life into His nostrils (Genesis 2:7). Then, before Adam can exhale, God pivots and plants a garden (Genesis 2:8). It is here, under the trees, that God lovingly places Adam, giving him the job of "dress(ing) and keep(ing)" them (Genesis 2:15, KJV). And the trees have their divinely established tasks to accomplish, too. God charges them with keeping humans alive (Genesis 1:29), giving humans a place to live (Genesis 2:8), and providing food to sustain them (Genesis 2:16). Scripture also continuously portrays trees as things that communicate. They clap their hands (Isaiah 55:12), shout for joy (1 Chronicles 16:33), and even argue (Judges 9:7-15). In the last two decades, tree scientists have discovered something fascinating about trees: They really do communicate. They count, share resources, and talk with each other using a system dubbed the "Wood Wide Web" (you can read a little more about this Wood Wide Web in the post, "Withward: Forestry, 'Ubuntu,' and the Expansive Family of God" w/ AJ Sherrill).

Like us, God thinks trees are beautiful. Genesis 2:9 declares that trees are "pleasing to the eye." This aesthetic standard does not waver throughout the Bible. Whether God is instructing His people on how to make candlesticks (Exodus 25:31-40), decorate the corbels of the temple (1 Kings 6), or hem the high priest's robe (Exodus 28:34), the standard of beauty is a tree and its fruits. 

Crisis, Covenant, Christ, Church 
Getting Back to the Tree of Life

There were two trees at the center of the Garden of Eden. One, the Tree of Life, represented humanity's connection to the divine and the eternal. The other, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, represented human agency and possible rebellion. When Adam and Eve ate from the wrong tree, they tried to cover up their crime by undressing the very trees they were charged with "dressing" (Genesis 2:15; 3:7). Their next move was to run and hide behind the trees (Genesis 3:8). Chapter three of Genesis concludes with Adam and Eve banished from the Garden. What is the Bible, then, if not a story of God meeting humanity's need for a Savior to reunite us to the Tree of Life and communion with God in His Garden?

The connection and collection of trees in the story of God continues throughout the Bible. Without trees, the waters of Marah would have forever remained bitter (Exodus 15:25), the Giant of Gath would have not been thrown off his game (1 Samuel 17:43), and David would have missed his call to battle (1 Chronicles 14:15). Deborah would have been without a place to judge Israel (Judges 4:5), and God wouldn't have called His people to be trees of righteousness (Isaiah 61:3). Job wouldn't have uttered his famous line about trees and resurrection (Job 14:7), and there would have been no almond tree grove for Jacob to fall asleep in and dream of a wooden ladder that connects heaven and earth (Genesis 28:10-19). 

Later, Jesus of Nazareth would tell His disciple, Nathaniel (whom He saw under a fig tree in John 1:48), that he would see the ladder made from a tree that Jacob dreamed of long ago in Jesus Himself: "You will see 'heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending' on the Son of Man" (John 1:51). A rescue plan involving trees had been unfolding in time. So it is no surprise that Jesus spoke of His disciples bearing fruit (John 15:8) as they abided in Him, becoming fruit-bearing branches connected to a life-giving vine (John 15:4-6). 

And yet, the only thing that could harm this carpenter from Nazareth was a tree. Why? Because He who is hanged on a tree is cursed (Deuteronomy 21:23, Galatians 3:13). The cross is really a tree of life chainsawed down by man's sin, and Jesus' blood caused a dead tree used as a Roman torture instrument to grow into the symbol of life everlasting, the Tree of Life. This incredible image  and transformation gives reason why, if we reach back more than a thousand years, we will find in one of the oldest pieces of English literature, The Dream of the Rood (translation in Modern English), the story of the Passion of Christ told from a tree's point of view. 

New Creation | A New Kind of Door

As a carpenter, Jesus would have known how to craft a door from wood from a tree, as well as hang it. A door is topped by a header, or, as the Bible puts it, a door has two side posts and is topped by a lintel (Exodus 12:22). The Passover Lamb's blood was applied to these three boards to showcase God's provision and protection. At a Passover celebration more than a thousand years later, Jesus made a new and very strange kind of door, a narrow door. Unlike all other doorways that require three boards, this door uses only two: a vertical piece and a horizontal one. When Jesus' blood is applied to these two crossed pieces of wood, the doorway to heaven opens and an even more powerful and eternal Passover occurs for all of God's people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

Along with the tree that helped make the cross, other trees are also essential to the resurrection. On Easter morning, when Mary went to the tomb, her eyes were raw from crying. She looked up and saw Jesus ... and she mistook Him for a gardener (John 20:15). Yet this was no mistake. He is the new Adam, back on the job where the old Adam failed, dressing and keeping the garden. His invitation to us in the Bible's last chapter is to keep His commandments and meet Him at a tree, the Tree of Life before God's throne, with branches that flower and bear fruit in every season and leaves that heal the nations (Revelation 22:214).

As we live now on this earth until that future day, we can also look back to the first person in the Bible to plant trees, Abraham. At the time, Abraham owned not a square foot of land and was on the move, so scripturally, tree planting started as an unselfish act of faith. "And Abraham planted a grove in Beersheba, and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God" (Genesis 21:33, KJV). By virtue of the way that trees work, Abraham's act would make the earth a better place for generations to come even if he would never receive the benefit. Today, we understand a tree's role in the global oxygen, carbon, and water cycles. But all that was unknown to Abraham during his day. Nonetheless, Abraham's grove is part of his first faith-filled practices of being a blessing to all the families of the world (see Genesis 12:3). Abraham planted for the next generation of people and the next phase in God's story of His creation. And as children of Abraham by faith (Galatians 3:6-7), we can do the same, bringing creation care to the trees of the world for future generations in view of our Creator and worshiping Him with them until Jesus returns. 

What might such worship look like? King David danced and shouted for joy when the ark of the covenant containing the story of God (up to that point), a jar of manna, and Aaron's staff (a branch from an almond tree that was blooming) was moved into the royal city. His celebration included writing a song of thanksgiving to celebrate the occasion in which people look forward to the coming Messiah and the trees join in the celebration: "Let the trees of the forest sing, let them sing for joy before the Lord, for He comes to judge the earth" (1 Chronicles 16:33). Trees are invested in God's future, and trees are God's investment in humanity's future. Only God knows when Jesus will return. In the meantime, we plant trees that will grow after we die for the sake of other. And until that day, we share about the Good News of Jesus' first coming to die on a tree to atone for us, and look forward to His second coming to bring the Tree of Life that will heal those who believe in Him when heaven and earth reconcile.

+ adapted from Dr. Matthew Sleeth's
What Trees Teach Us About
Life, Death, and Resurrection

For a devotional video featuring this story, check out the link below followed by a beautiful and brilliant quote by my wife (she should have done the video instead):

I was thinking as you spoke that the very physiology of trees reveals their essential life-giving nature. God made them to take in our toxic gas/waste (carbon dioxide) and breathe out life for us all (oxygen). We wouldn't be able to exist without the waste-consuming, life breathing quality of trees. So, when Jesus is compared to a tree and vine, it reminds me of His taking on our toxic waste (sin), redeeming us and breathing His life into our souls. From this Earth Day on, I think I'll always look at tree respiration in a new light.

Also, for another reflection on God's care for His creation through His Church, as well as how this creation care witnesses to His promised restoration, also read National Geographic's "Ethiopia's 'Church Forests' Are Incredible Oases of Green." The stunning article showcases a powerful, bold, and beautiful witness to the conservation of creation, as well as the promised restoration by the One who loves what He has made, calls it very good, and promises to answer its groans for redemption. 

And as a bonus to complement the written story above, I would highly recommend checking out the recent Bible Project video for a beautiful visual representation of these themes: BP: Tree of Life Video (4:51 minutes).

Scene from Bible Project Video: Tree of Life

Other Story of God posts

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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