In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I wanted to say that trees are everywhere in the Scriptures. But they’re really not. They show up prominently only in the beginning, middle, and end. First, God put trees in His creation and specifically in Eden: “[O]ut of the ground the Lord Yahweh made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9). “The Lord Yahweh took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord Yahweh commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall surely die’” (2:15-17).
But the serpent overcame them by the tree of the garden. Adam had the Word of God and gave it to the woman. The woman gave it to the serpent, and the serpent denied it and twisted it and distorted it, as he still does. So the woman believed the serpent’s word instead. And the man believed the woman’s word instead. And though God had given them all the trees as pleasant to the sight and good for food, Eve decides for herself that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is “good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and…to be desired to make one wise” (3:6).
Good not because God gave it and said it was; desired not because God gave it and made it that way; but good because she looked and saw that it was so; desired it for some purpose beyond the gifts God had given, to make herself wise in evil. She already had the knowledge of the Good because she lived in God’s creation and God Himself was with them in the Garden. But she wants more. And we’ve never been satisfied since, neither with what God gives us, nor with what we try to get for ourselves.
The serpent overcame by the tree of the garden. And then those trees disappear from the story after the fiery angel guards the way to the tree of life until the flood destroyed that garden. But there are hints here and there of the tree that is to come. The psalmist says that the righteous Man is “like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither” (Psalm 1:3). And Solomon calls Wisdom “a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed” (Proverbs 3:18). He says “the fruit of the righteous one is a tree of life” (11:30); and “hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (13:12); and “a healing tongue is a tree of life” (15:4).
But where is that righteous man? Some priests, prophets, and kings come close with their outward righteousness, clinging to the bare Word of God, and returning to God in repentance. But a Man with an inner righteousness, who embodies the Word of God, and one who has no need of repentance cannot be found. He cannot be found, that is, until Wisdom takes on flesh, and the desire of the nations is fulfilled. The ones who hold fast to Him are blessed. His tongue speaks words of healing and life. He is the one who will take all the death that flowed from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and take it as His own. It is He who yields good fruit in His season, and whose leaves always show forth His never-failing life.
Moses had commanded the people in Deuteronomy 21 that if someone is executed by hanging on a tree, “his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that Yahweh your God is giving you for an inheritance” (21:22-23). The sin and the punishment defile the land as a curse. The fruitful garden has become a dry wasteland. The thriving forest has become a wilderness. The ground is under a curse because of the curse of Adam. But “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). In His own flesh and blood, He becomes that curse, so that the curse is dried up and exhausted. And He who is Blessing itself pours out that blessing on His dying creation. He waters the barren ground around a dead tree with His life-giving blood.
What a spectacular defeat! God comes to save and He is killed. We had hoped He was the one to redeem Israel. That is all human eyes can see when they look at the crucified One. But it is not all that is there. Here the Proper Preface for Holy Week guides us to see the truth that all the Scriptures proclaim. Where we would see only death and defeat, God accomplishes life and victory. Jesus accomplished the salvation of mankind by the tree of the cross that where death arose, there life also might rise again. The serpent overcame by the tree of the garden, but now he is likewise by the tree of the cross overcome. The serpent bruised His heel with nails, but He bruises the serpent’s head with the crushing weight of His crucified feet.
This is victory, not defeat. This is life, not death. That’s why we sing the glorious battle and the ending of the fray. We sing and tell how Christ, the world’s redeemer, as a victim won the day (“Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle,” LSB 454). It was on the hard arms of the cross that the weight of this world’s ransom hung, the price of humankind to pay and spoil the spoiler of his prey (LSB 455:4). And when He rises from the dead, He gives us the full fruit of that tree, feeding us with the life that resides in His own body and blood. “The death of Jesus Christ our Lord, we celebrate with one accord; it is our comfort in distress, our heart’s sweet joy and happiness. He blotted out with His own blood the judgment that against us stood; for us He full atonement made, and all our debt He fully paid. That this forever true shall be He gives a solemn guarantee: in this His holy Supper here we taste His love so sweet, so near” (LSB 634:1-3). Here our true Paschal Lamb we see, whom God so freely gave us; He died on the accursed tree—so strong His love—to save us. See, His blood now marks our door; Faith points to it; death passes o’er, and Satan cannot harm us” (LSB 458:5). By the tree of the garden, the serpent overcame; by the tree of the cross, he is overcome.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/12/19