Sunday, February 7, 2016

Taste and See...

Jesus identified the command to love our Maker with all that we are as the “greatest” of all God's commandments. In truth, I find it to be the most tragic of all His commandments. Only because there was a time when this commandment—and by extension, all other commandments—would be as unnecessary as an edict requiring humans to acknowledge that fire is hot and water is wet or that life is to be chosen over death. The first humans were crafted with the capacity to be captivated by His beauty. It seems they loved Him like they loved their next breath—like they loved life itself. We have since lost our taste for Him, the Tree of Life. Stumbling in the darkness, we have tasted of another tree, and in our broken state all we crave is ash and death. Frequently returning to the alternate tree, we gorge ourselves on “that which is not food” and are left in perpetual famine and want (Isaiah 55:2). Central to the Father's redemptive work in the world through Jesus then is the Spirit's restoration of our scorched palate. He renews our desire to feast on Him.

When God spoke the world into existence, He created a beautiful garden in which the first humans were meant to thrive. As image-bearers, we were made to be an extension of Him to the universe, a mirror radiating His goodness and glory and administering and celebrating His justice and virtue throughout His good world. At the center of the garden He placed two trees unlike the others. And so humanity was presented with a monumental choice from the beginning: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Duet 30:19). God makes His desire for His creation abundantly clear, and yet, by His own sovereign will, He does not completely bypass human volition. The fruit of the first tree offered eternal life while the fruit of the other would forever infuse the eater with the forbidden knowledge of good and evil. As you probably already know, they foolishly forfeited their claim to the Tree of Life and instead grasped for the authority to define good and evil for themselves, a task for which they were—and we still are—hopelessly ill-equipped.

At this point, we must have a word about metaphor. You may recall how Jesus created quite a stir among His First Century followers when He claimed to be the “bread of life” come down from Heaven to be consumed by whosoever willed. The thought of cannibalizing their beloved leader was understandably grotesque. Most of His disciples walked away in disgust. Christ's meaning is debated still. Jesus' comparison of His body and blood to bread and wine was undoubtedly meant to be jarring. As we follow His metaphor, though, we will note that bread is a necessary and external source of life to the eater. It literally becomes a part of us as we digest it, empowering us and changing us from the inside. The bread is also unavoidably destroyed in the process. Jesus effectively described something otherworldly that we couldn't otherwise understand by using something that we do understand. His death, burial, and resurrection are objectively real, historical events with boundless implications. The symbolic explanation in no way obscures or robs the events of their meaning. It is Jesus' stories, in fact, that actually convey the true meaning of what He accomplished, which would otherwise be missed. Many fundamentalists see virtue in dogmatically adhering to a hyper-literal interpretation of all sacred scriptures. They may see an appeal to metaphor as the voice of the serpent who cunningly asked, “did God truly say...?” When in truth, it is the hyper-literalist who tragically misses Jesus' actual message in this instance.

I'm not suggesting that the book of Genesis should be exclusively understood as metaphor. While there are scriptural authors who the Spirit moved to consistently write in very poetic and hyperbolas styles, Genesis, like the gospels, is primarily written as a straight-forward, historical narrative (objectively chronicling real people, places, and events). Furthermore, recognizing Adam as a real human being who actually lived is arguably pivotal to understanding the necessity for the “new Adam.” Interestingly, though, Jesus frequently relies on metaphor when He is explaining the nature and function of the kingdom of God (He uses a lot of similes in particular: “the kingdom of God is like” such and such). In His revelation to the seven churches, He describes the full reunification of Heaven and Earth in a very symbolic way. He likens His people to a city and a beautiful bride. He presents Himself as a bridegroom, a lion, and a lamb and so on. Could it be that this early period of human history described in the first few chapters of Genesis, in which Heaven and Earth peacefully co-existed, is so foreign to us post-Eden folks that we can only now be told of it through metaphor? When I muse that Jesus was/is the Tree of Life, the fulness of God made incarnate and accessible to humans, spoken of in the Creation story, I'm not suggesting that He existed as an inanimate tree with magic fruit any more than I would suggest that Satan, a supernatural being, in the story is meant to be understood as a literal reptile. Satan is often likened to an ancient sea serpent, a dragon, a deceiver, and an angel of light elsewhere in the pages of holy scripture, and so we have little trouble identifying him in the story. I would argue that there are other passages that reveal Jesus as the Tree of Life, to whom our first parents lost access and instantly “died” as a result. In Jesus' depiction of paradise restored, complete with ample references to Eden, He claims, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city” (Revelation 22:14). In this passage, access to the “tree of life” and entrance into “the city” are inseparably linked. And if this weren't enough, Jesus claims the tree's leaves are for the “healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). Jesus is truly Light, Life, the Door, the Rock, the Lion, the Lamb, the Word, the Alpha and the Omega, the Vine, the Truth, the Bread of Life, but He is not literally these things.

Whether the Tree of Life is a supernatural fruit tree which grants the eater physical immortality, or it is a metaphor for something, or someone, far greater which we could not otherwise understand, the central message of the fall must not be overlooked: The first humans tragically rejected God—their true source of sustenance—in favor of an existence apart from Him. “My people have committed two sins,” says the Lord, “They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13). We have all believed the lie that we can define and manage good and evil for ourselves and in so doing have chosen death over abundant Life. Still, He humbly beckons us back, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare” (Isaiah 55:1-2). In His mercy, God has graciously brought the once-rejected Tree of Life to us. Through the work of His Spirit He has renewed our taste for its fruit. He invites us to feast, to delight in Him. If there is anything truly good, anything of pure joy, anything worthwhile in this broken world, it is merely a faint echo of Him. For He is the source of all goodness, creativity, justice, and beauty—LIFE itself.

“Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8a). 

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