Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Tree of Life

In the part of Scripture that we are going to be looking at this morning we will encounter a biblical theme in seed form that the rest of Scripture develops. We’re going to be looking at one means by which God blesses His people. Let’s start by listening to Moses.
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever —” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. Genesis 3:22-23
So, what happened? God speaks about a problem. The man might eat from the tree of life and live forever. So, as a solution, God exiles him from the Garden where that tree was.

All of that is pretty clear and straightforward. But it does raise a question. What’s with the fruit from that tree? How could the man live forever just by eating it? Is it magic fruit? Well, no. It’s no more magical than the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And yet, in both cases, eating the fruit had spiritual consequences. So, what’s going on? A biblical theme is being presented. What is it?

What we have here has a fancy theological label: sacramental union. The point of those words is not all that complicated. God will, at times, associate something spiritual and unseen with something physical and seen.

This actually isn’t all that weird. Here’s something that comes somewhat close to this: money. Consider a ten-dollar bill. What is it? It’s a piece of paper with some ink on it. The paper and the ink can’t be worth much. But everyone uses it as if it is. Every day people give pieces of inked paper to a cashier at some store and walk out with stuff worth more than the paper and ink. How does that work? Well, the federal government has associated that inked piece of paper with something actually worth ten dollars. And so, we all use that paper as if it were something else, something worth ten dollars. The paper has been associated with something else.

God does something like that when He establishes a sacramental union. He associates something spiritual and unseen with something physical and seen.

There are plenty of examples of this in the Bible. Here’s one: Moses’ rod. What is it? It’s just a wooden stick. And yet, there was an association between that physical and seen wooden stick and something spiritual and unseen: the power of God. So, Moses turned the Nile to blood using his rod. He split the Red Sea, using his rod. He did lots of amazing things using his rod. There was no magic in the rod. It’s just a wooden stick. But there was a sacramental union between that wooden stick and the power of God. And as a result, God did things.

Another example is the Ark of the Covenant that Israel carried around all those years they were in the desert. What was it? It was a box made out of ordinary wood and covered with gold. That’s what was physical and seen. What was it associated with? What was spiritual and unseen? The presence of God with His people. So, who conquered Jericho? Don’t say Joshua. Don’t say Israel. Seven days the Ark of the Covenant circled the walls of the city. Seven days God circled the city. And on the seventh day He tore down the walls that defended it. God conquered Jericho. God associated His invisible presence with that very visible box. A sacramental union.

And that’s what’s going on with the tree of life. God had associated something spiritual and unseen with something physical and seen. God had associated the fruit of the tree with life. Eating the fruit would result in living forever. 

That, of course, leads to this. What would have been so bad if the man had eaten and lived forever? Why did God deny that to him? Well, when God makes these associations, these sacramental unions, His intention is to bless. The Ark of the Covenant was intended to bless His people with His presence. But there have been those who were not blessed by the Ark but rather cursed. There was that man who touched the Ark, Uzzah. He wasn’t supposed to do that. As a result, he died. While these sacramental unions are intended to bless, sometimes, because of sin, they curse.

So, what if the man had eaten the fruit and lived forever? What would be so bad about that? Remember, everything had changed because of the sin at that other tree. The man was no longer pure and holy and perfect. He was twisted and scarred and polluted. There was evil deep within him. And he was cursed by God. So, if he ate he would have lived forever in that state. Try to imagine that. Living forever like that would have been hell.

It could have been so very different. If the man had passed the test at the first tree, he would have been allowed to eat of the tree of life. He would have lived forever, but he would have done that as a pure and holy and perfect person, as someone enjoying the blessings of God. That would have been heavenly. But it was too late for that. The man had sinned. Eating now would have meant a horrible, eternal curse.

So, that’s the tree of life, a sacramental union. God associates something spiritual and unseen with something physical and seen. The goal is to bless, but when sin gets involved, there can be a curse.

Now, what does it have to say to us? We don’t have any tree of life. We don’t even have the Ark of the Covenant. But we do have some things, physical and seen, that have been associated with things that are spiritual and unseen. One obvious example is the Lord’s Supper.

Listen to words that are, I’m sure, familiar to you.
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Matthew 26:26-28
When Jesus says, ‘This is my body … this is my blood’, what kind of ‘is’ is that? Is it a literal ‘is’? Is the bread somehow the actual body of Christ?  The wine his actual blood? Some Christians believe that. But they make a mistake here because they don’t understand sacramental union. There are the physical, seen things: the bread and the wine. And there is also the spiritual, unseen thing: the presence of Jesus with His people. The Lord’s Supper is like the Ark of the Covenant, except better. When you leave this place the presence of Jesus goes with you. The Lord’s Supper is all about the blessing of a sacramental union. 

The same is true of Baptism. The association isn’t made with bread and wine but with water. It is by the application of water in baptism that a person has the Name of God applied to him or her. That’s what Jesus meant when He said,
… baptizing them into the Name
In both cases an association is made. And at the heart of both is the presence of Jesus. You do not go out into the world alone, to deal with it on your own. Jesus goes with you. His presence and power are with you.

Jesus’ goal in granting these two sacraments to His Church is to bless. He wants you to enjoy His presence with you. And yet, because of sin, the sacraments can also curse. Sadly, there will be many who have been baptized into the Name who will turn away from Jesus. And on the Last Day it will be worse for them than for those unbelievers who were never baptized. Those who were granted the blessing of the Name and yet turned away from it will receive a greater condemnation.

The same is true of the Lord’s Supper. It also can become a curse instead of a blessing. That’s why there is the exhortation about self-examination.
Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
There is to be this examination to avoid being cursed. But what are you to be looking for in this examination? It’s actually quite simple. You’re looking to see if you are still working at being a faithful disciple of Jesus. It’s helpful here to remember what you vowed when you became a member of this church.
Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance on the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes a follower of Christ?
You made a promise. You promised to endeavor, to work at, to strive toward, living like a disciple of Jesus. And that is not something that you can do on your own. You work at following Jesus ‘in humble reliance on the grace of the Holy Spirit’. So, self-examination is not seeing if you’ve been perfect - or even if you’ve been fairly good. It’s not even seeing if you have made any progress since last week. It’s about whether you are still working at it. Or to say it differently, it’s simply looking to see if you still have a living faith in Jesus as your Savior and as your Lord. If you can say ‘Yes’ to that then you can take and eat with a clear conscience, and as a result be blessed with more of the grace of the Holy Spirit. And what a blessing that is.

So, what have I done? I’ve pointed out a theme that shows up in the beginning of the Bible: sacramental union. I’ve connected it to other places in the Bible where the theme is developed. Then I used that theme to explain the Lord’s Supper and Baptism.

And why have I done this? I’ve done this so that you can enjoy Jesus more. In a few minutes we’re going to enjoy the Lord’s Supper. It is my great desire for you to think about and relish what Jesus is doing in that moment. He is doing us good. He is feeding our souls with more of His powerful presence. He is blessing us. So, when we leave this place we can leave encouraged and hopeful. Something has happened. We have met with our God, and He has changed us. He has blessed us with more of what we need by His Word and His sacrament. He has done that so that we can live well as disciples during the week. As we all see that we can rejoice in our Savior and in how He cares for us and loves us.

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