“The Tree of Life”
A sermon on Zechariah 9:9-12; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 21:1-9; 27:1-54
Preached on March 25, 2018, The Sunday next before Easter: commonly called Palm Sunday
At Church of the Advent, Rochester, MI
By the Rev. Jeffrey Hubbard
A day shy of eight weeks ago, the day after Septuagesima Sunday, the Church, in her celebration of the Daily Office, the conversation between God and humanity that has been echoing through the ages for more than two thousand years, began reading the book of Genesis. As we anticipated our arrival at Holy Week and Easter, the climax of the story of creation and redemption, we began the story at the beginning.
It began good enough. After God created each and every thing, “all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small,” Moses tells us,God saw that it was good. And when he was done with it all, God said, as I once heard my Old Testament professor translate it, in the moment as she read from the original Hebrew, “Whoa! This is good. Good, good, very good.”
At the end of it all God creates a man and a woman, sets them in a garden, and you know the rest of the story. There are two trees: the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The first is self-explanatory, the second means death. And in the midst of complete abundance, of everything they needed and all they could ever want, they reach for the one thing they’re not supposed to take, and eat of the forbidden fruit.
And that’s how sin got its start. Yes, they had disobeyed God. Yes, it was serious. Yes, the consequences for them, for us, for all of us humans are devastating. But looking at the act itself, I mean, in and of itself, it didn’t seem that bad… merely eating an apple from the wrong tree.
But they know they’ve done wrong. Adam’s response, Genesis 3 notes, is that he hid himself among the trees of the garden because he knew that he was naked. And just a chapter later, the first fruits of sin start to quickly grow, as the sons of Adam start killing each other, as we’ve been doing ever since. Merely a few chapters after that, things get so bad, humanity gets so wicked, that God decides to wipe the slate clean and give it a fresh start, in the story of the flood: brimming over with such carnage and promise that we don’t quite know what to do with it. As the light shines through the diffuse waters that had just destroyed and cleansed the earth, a sign of God’s covenant emerges from the mist: all the colors visible to the eye, hung in a bow in the bright blue sky, as the sun breaks through after the rain. The omni-colored light reminds of God’s promise of mercy and care for the world he made and for us his image bearers.
Hope blooms in the wake of these waters. The trees start to grow again and yield their good fruit. But as for mankind, well, we are stubborn and stiff-necked. Worshipping idols, sacrificing children, neglecting the orphan and widow.Taking the Lord’s name in vain, not keeping the Sabbath. Murdering, stealing, committing adultery. Not loving God “with our whole heart, and not loving our neighbor as ourselves.”
But even amidst of this there were those that continued to see that hope would bloom in the aftermath of devastation. We call them prophets. One of them, Isaiah, wrote, “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” This Branch says of himself as another seer and Evangelist saw him say, “I am the root and the offspring of David,” and “I am the true vine.”
Zechariah, whose prophecy we read part of this afternoon, that sums up all of Holy Week in a mere four verses penned some five centuries before the first Holy Week, sees Christ the King arriving in Jerusalem, foretelling the story we read from St. Matthew’s Gospel during the Blessing of the Palms. Jesus does not enter Jerusalem amid pomp and circumstance, but humbly. He does not come riding a war horse, but a domestic donkey. He does not come followed by a mighty army, but children sweetly singing their “hosannas.” We join them today, waving our branches, and singing our hymns, and even as they laid down their garments in his path, we offer up our very selves to him in worship. This is what the kingdom of God looks like. It’s a kingdom characterized by the two virtues we prayed for in our collect today: patience and humility. It’s a kingdom where our King’s proclamation is: “I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off: and he shall speak peace unto the heathen.”
Zechariah tells us that the kingdom of God is a kingdom where once and for all we stop killing each other. But not before the death of all deaths, the death in which, and by which, death itself dies, the death of the King himself, which we heard about in St. Matthew’s Gospel this afternoon, this story in which we see side-by-side the best and the worst of what humanity is after eating that forbidden fruit.
As I read this Gospel this week, I was struck by how awful this story really is. Here hangs a human being, gasping for each breath. Each breath one closer to the last he will take. Blood pouring from his head, his hands, his feet. I wonder if you can remember the worst pain and agony you’ve ever felt, physically and spiritually, and imagine it being far, far worse than it was, and know that even this does not begin to approach the reality of the pain and agony that Jesus Christ felt on the cross.
And the response of those who passed by is to mock Jesus. Can you imagine going about your day, walking along, and seeing a public execution, seeing someone suffer as Jesus suffered, and responding with mockery? This is how Matthew tells us the crowds responded. Not with compassion for someone suffering. Not with shame for such cruelty flourishing in their society, but with mocking. They deride Jesus, “wagging their heads,” as Mathew puts it, taunting the sinless One as he suffers. There are also the robbers crucified next to Jesus, and the religious leaders responsible for his crucifixion, joining in the cruel taunts of the passers-by. There’s Pilate, washing his hands of the whole thing. There are the soldiers, beating him, swinging the whip, fashioning a crown from the thorns that emerge from the ground by the curse of Adam’s sin. We see before us right now that sin breaking forth into its full and hideous bloom. This is the absolute worst of humanity.
And yet at the same time we also see the absolute best of humanity. We see Christ, willingly laying down his life, not only for his friends but for his enemies. We see love of the highest sort: sacrifice. We see Christ, not grasping his divinity but emptying himself in humble service, becoming one of us, submitting to the most horrible death we could imagine. The first Adam, after eating the forbidden fruit and knowing that he was naked, hid himself among the trees of the garden. So now the second Adam, hangs naked on a tree, humiliated before all, for the redemption of Adam’s sons and daughters.
One of the early Church Fathers, speaking of the two Adams, says this: “When they had come to Golgotha, the Gospel says, “They gave him vinegar mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he refused to drink.” […] Take note of the mystery revealed here. Long ago, Adam tasted the sweetness of the apple and obtained the bitterness of death for the whole human race. In contrast to this, the Lord tasted bitterness of gall and obtained our restoration from death’s sting to the sweetness of life. He took on himself the bitterness of gall in order to extinguish in us the bitterness of death.”
The biggest plot twist in the entire story of creation is this: This cross on Calvary, this tree of dead wood, becomes for us the tree of life. On it hangs the true vine, laying down his life for his friends, bearing the first fruits of our eternal life. From his thorn-crowned head, his spear-torn side, his nail-pierced hands and feet flows his precious blood, the vintage that fills the cup of salvation. Our king who entered Jerusalem humbly on a donkey now reigns from a tree. The cross, as Paul tells us in Philippians, is his exaltation.
As you walk with Christ this Holy Week… approaching the cross… getting closer and closer each day, I wonder if you’ll see it like this, for what it really is. There are those in every generation that have. There are those in the story that did. I think Simon of Cyrene, who carried his cross saw it. I wonder if Pilate’s wife, who begged her husband to have nothing to do with this just man, and suffered much because of him in a dream, saw it. I know the centurion saw it, who said after the ground shook, the curtain was torn, the saints arose, and Christ died, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
Zechariah saw it, too. “Because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.” At the moment Christ’s blood of the new covenant was shed, the saints start to emerge from their tombs, from the waterless pit of death, Matthew tells us, and so the new tree of life bears its first fruits.
The curtain of the temple was torn in two… Christ, both high priest and sacrifice enters into the Most Holy Place, obtaining mercy for us by the shedding of his own blood.
The earth shook and the rocks were split… Like our Fathers, the children of Israel, who drank water from the rock that was split in the wilderness, who Paul says, “all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” We drink the spiritual drink that flows from Christ’s broken body which is given for us.
The tombs were opened and the bodies of the saints were raised… at the death of Christ, the first fruits of they that sleep, they that sleep began to awake.
And as we see these things, we will know that “truly this man is the Son of God.” As we approach the cross we will experience it as, in the words of Zechariah, a return to our stronghold, “O prisoners of hope.” Because if we have the humility to behold the cross, and the patience to endure it with Christ, we will see, and we will find it to be, the very tree of life.