Fall has always been my favorite season, but until recently, I was never fortunate enough to live in a place where you could experience a true autumn. So these last several years in Colorado have been a real treat–enjoying the crisp cool days and chilly nights during this transitional time of year, but above all marveling at the beauty of the foliage. Colorado is somewhat famous for its aspen trees and for just a few short weeks in either late September, or early October (depending on the elevation) they treat everyone to a riot of fall colors–vivid yellows, oranges, and reds. The leaves appear to “shiver” as they prepare to fall and hence the trees are sometimes termed “quaking aspens.” During the fall, I love to go up to one of the aspen groves in higher elevations, and lose myself in the scenic beauty of God’s Creation. As I’ve thought about trees during this fall season, it brings to mind the fact that the tree is a powerful, recurring symbol used throughout Scripture.
Our teaching theme for the students this semester is “One Thing, Same Thing”, which is all about the fundamentals of our faith, and how to have a walk, and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And one of the things we wanted to do for the semester was to find an image, a recurring illustration we could use that would help convey our teaching in a visual way. We decided on the image of a tree. And so one of our artistically gifted students in Christian Challenge, Jose Canizares, made a beautiful painting of a tree to give us a good visual illustration. I’ve entitled this post “The Tree of Life”, because ultimately what I desire for each of my students in Christian Challenge is the opportunity to begin or continue a life that, just like a healthy tree, is firmly rooted, a life firmly rooted in the promises and person of Jesus Christ.
Now, as I started preparing this post, I was reading a little bit about famous, unusual and noteworthy trees from around the world, and the story of one in particular really caught my attention. You see a photograph of it above, the Tree of Tenere. It was located in a very remote area of the Sahara Desert in northeast Niger. So remote in fact, that this tree was reputed to be the most isolated one in the entire world, the only one for some 250 miles in all directions. Despite its harsh surroundings, the tree had developed deep roots, deep enough to reach the water table some 100 feet underground, and keep it sustained. For years the tree was celebrated as a symbol of life amidst scarcity, and the local Touareg people considered it sacred. Yet this fragile, beautiful symbol of the perseverance of nature, which even the harsh desert couldn’t kill, was gone in an instant as a result of the carelessness and stupidity of humanity. A drunk trunk driver struck, and killed the Tree of Tenere in 1973. Imagine the callous disregard of this deed. In this whole dead, empty expanse of sand, that individual managed to take away the one symbol of life!!
I share that story with you because it reminds me in some ways of another famous tree, one that we read about in the Book of Genesis. For when God first created humanity, He placed our ancestors, Adam and Eve, in a beautiful garden, one filled with lovely plant life. Listen to this description in Genesis 2:9 of the vegetation found in the Garden of Eden—“And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Then a few verses later, God gives this command to Adam, in Genesis 2:16-17—“Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” These would appear to be pretty simple instructions, right? God has created a wonderful garden for Adam, and then his companion Eve, to live in. There are no doubt all variety of different fruits and plants that they can enjoy, with just this one restriction. And yet in Genesis 3, we discover something very interesting about our human condition, and our human psychology. For what is it in us as humans, that would make us disregard the 99 wonderful gifts that God offers to us, and go after the one thing He wishes to protect us from? But the temptation of the serpent, and this perverse human impulse to do the forbidden prevail, and so Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The curses of death, work, and pain in childbirth follow, and to top it off, Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden. We are told in Genesis 3:24 that God places a heavenly being, a cherubim to stand east of Eden, and with a flaming sword guard the way to the Tree of Life. So the tree first appears in Scripture then as a symbol of the Fall of humanity, and of our own sinful disobedience. Here’s the question: After this inauspicious beginning, how can we ever return to Eden, and go back to the Tree of Life? Well keep that question in mind as we begin to answer it by looking at some other tree images that occur in Scripture.
Psalm 1 is a passage which uses the image of the tree to help illustrate for us how we can enjoy a healthy, and fruitful relationship with God by being well-rooted, and choosing our location wisely. Or to put it another way, this Psalm talks about the importance of keeping good company, and surrounding ourselves with others who are also pursuing God, and will encourage and help us in our faith journeys. Listen to Psalm 1:1—“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful.” So you see here, the Psalmist is describing someone who doesn’t imitate the unrighteous or allow themselves to be influenced by those who are not following God. We all naturally tend to be influenced and shaped by those around us, and it can be so easy, without even fully realizing it, to begin to take on some of the characteristics and attitudes of your friends, and the people who you spend the most time with. So we must strive to make sure that people we’re putting ourselves into community with are going to be positive influences, especially in the spiritual realm. In verse 2, the Psalmist continues by describing how the person who is well-rooted spiritually will delight in the knowledge and pursuit of the Lord—“his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night.” One reason why we study Scripture, and even meditate over it, is so that we can learn how to more faithfully walk with the Lord. Then, look at Psalm 1:3. Here we get the tree image in detail—“He shall be like a tree, planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither, and whatever he does shall prosper.” What a beautiful word picture–a tree that is has deep roots, because it’s located in a good place, specifically near a body of water, which is the source of life and sustenance. Notice too that this tree proves its health by bringing forth fruit—this is a topic we’ll come back to in more detail in just a few moments.
I mentioned earlier that one of my favorite species of trees, and one which is very much associated with the West and the Rocky Mountains is the Aspen tree. This picture is actually of an aspen grove called Pando, located in Utah. And what’s fascinating is that although this would appear to be a grove of many different trees, it’s actually considered by scientists to be just one single living organism. You see each of these aspen trees is genetically identical, and supported by one vast, interconnected root system. While the individual trunks may only live to be 100-130 years old, researchers believe the root system may be as old as 80,000 years!! This beautiful grove, this single living organism illustrates the idea that as Christians, our ultimate spiritual health comes from not only connecting to and associating with one another, but also connecting with Christ. And though the church features a wonderful diversity of different gifts, backgrounds, and individual stories, despite our uniqueness, Scripture says we are also One in Christ. As Paul writes in Romans 12:4-5—“We have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ”. In a similar fashion, in one of the last prayers of His life, Jesus, in John 17:20-21, asks that all of His future followers would be unified by their belief in Him: “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, as You Father, are in Me, and I, in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that you sent Me.” So as we strive to follow God individually, let us seek also to find fellowship and unity with one another based on this common purpose, and the common salvation we can share through Christ.
Now as we consider the image of the tree, we should also note the importance of good soil. A healthy tree can only grow where there is adequate soil, and when the seed has a chance to develop. This was the message of the Parable of the Sower given by Jesus in Matthew 13. As it happens, Matthew 13 also contains another parable of Christ with a similar message, the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Listen to Matthew 13:31-32—“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.” Certainly, one of the truths we can discern from this teaching is that big things can sometimes come from very humble, seemingly insignificant origins. In 1688, Edward Lloyd ran a coffee house in the city of London. It was frequented by sailors, merchants, and ship-owners. Due to the nature of his clientele, Lloyd offered reliable shipping news and weather forecasts in addition to serving food and beverages. Gradually, the shipping industry took more precedence than selling coffee, and eventually Lloyd went into the insurance business full-time. Now, some three-plus centuries later, Lloyd’s of London is headquartered in a slightly more imposing edifice than that original coffee shop, and is perhaps the best known insurance company in the world.
James was a young man from Seattle, a high-school dropout, who, after a failed stint in the 101st Airborne Division, decided to try and make a career in music, since more than anything in the world, he loved to play guitar. He moved to Tennessee, but as a black man in the early 1960’s his professional options were limited. He ended up on what was known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit”, playing clubs that catered to an African-American audience and serving as a backing musician for many different performers such as Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke, and Jackie Wilson. But after a couple of years, with his career going nowhere, he moved first to New York, and then in 1966 all the way to London to try and make it. And it would be there in England, that the world was first come to know of Jimi Hendrix, who in just a few short years during the second half of the 1960’s completely revolutionized the music of the electric guitar.
Born in 1860, Anna Mary Robertson Moses had lived a hard life, rearing ten children on a farm in upstate New York, only five of whom lived past infancy. And yet in her spare time, she enjoyed some creative pursuits, such as quilting, and embroidering. However at age 76, she was forced to give these up due to arthritis. Her sister suggested that she try painting as a new hobby. So in the early 1930’s, this self-taught artist began to paint simple scenes of American life–the holidays, and customs of the now bygone era she remembered from her childhood. Then in 1938, an art collector named Louis Caldor happened to be passing through the little hamlet of Hoosick Falls, New York. He stopped at a drugstore, and bought a few locally-made paintings he liked for between $3 and $5 apiece. Over the next few years Moses’ works slowly gained more and more acclaim, until eventually the farmer’s wife known as “Grandma Moses” gained exhibitions in some of the most prestigious museums in the country. By the time of her death in 1961, she was known around the world as an American cultural icon. One of her paintings today hangs in the White House, and for an artist whose initial work sold for $3, she had a painting in 2006 auctioned off for $1.2 million dollars! So in the business, music, and art worlds just to name a few examples, big things can come out of very humble, seemingly insignificant origins. To return to the parable in Matthew 13—Jesus wants to demonstrate with this message from the mustard seed, how from the humble origin of a tiny seed, given the right soil and enough patience, a great tree can spring up. Notice too that this tree is great not just because of its own size and prominence, but because it is able to offer a place of refuge and shelter to the birds. In other words, a mark of the life rooted in God is that such a person will influence and impact the lives of many others. And it doesn’t take much to get started. So those who are thinking that they don’t have much to offer God right now, or who are worried that they lack the amount of faith or the spiritual desire to start, don’t fear!! Because just like the tiny mustard seed in this parable, with God’s help your life can eventually sprout and transform into a sturdy tree of faith—a tree of life!!
Earlier, as we looked at Psalm 1, we saw how the tree described there demonstrates its health by bearing fruit. So let’s talk just a little more about that idea. Now you don’t have to be a farmer, or an arboreal specialist to know that if you plant an apple tree, or a pear tree, one way to ascertain its overall health is to check the fruit. And just because the tree might be tall, and have big branches, and otherwise look good—none of that really matters too much if it’s not producing healthy fruit, because it is then failing the very purpose for which it was planted and cultivated. Now I realize that all of us have different spiritual gifts, and talents. Each will serve the Lord in a different way—that’s fine, and that’s part of the beautiful diversity of the Kingdom of God. But we all must find our places of service!! Because just to sit back, and watch others, or to think that being a Christian merely means that you’ve obtained salvation, and are saved from going to hell, reveals a profound misunderstanding of our purpose as Christ followers. Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms in Matthew 7:17-19 about the importance, indeed the necessity of bearing fruit. “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Now these are strong words from Christ, and again maybe some people wonder about how exactly they can bear fruit in the Kingdom? Maybe you think that you don’t have the gift of being a pastor, or a teacher, or an evangelist—but there are still so many things you can do. God has uniquely given each one of us a platform, some special ability that you can use to serve Him and others. So, it is imperative that you discover how you can be not just a passive believer in God, but an active follower of His!! The great Christian author C.S. Lewis explained what it means to bear fruit by using another metaphor—that of the egg. In a passage from his classic work Mere Christianity, Lewis writes: “When He said, ‘Be perfect,’ He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder—in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” Do you see Lewis’ point here? To bear fruit is to realize our full, God-given potential. That is what we are called to do, and the fruit we bear, is our witness to others. By that fruit, outsiders, non-Christians, people who don’t yet have a relationship with God, can know what that looks like. But in order for this to take place, we have to become active in our faith!!
Well in closing, let’s talk about what is really the heart of the tree—the trunk, and then what extends from the trunk—the branches. A healthy tree, we might say, is one in which the branches spread wide and strong, twisting outward and upwards from that central trunk. But how much good is even the strongest, sturdiest branch, on its own—if it gets disconnected from the trunk?? You have to learn that you can’t do it on your own. This is certainly true in the sports world, even for the greatest individual players. After his team went undefeated during the 2005 regular season, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady bought an Audi Q-7 luxury SUV for each of his starting five offensive linemen. In case you’re wondering, the Q-7 retails for around $50,000!! In 2012, when Adrian Peterson rushed for an NFL-best 2,097 yards, the Minnesota Vikings star showed his gratitude by purchasing personalized snowmobiles for the members of his offensive line. Now Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson are household names, major stars in the world of sports, but even the most ardent Patriots and Vikings fans might be hard-pressed to name all five starting offensive linemen on their respective squads. But Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson, and many other NFL stars instinctively know that for all of their individual talents, without the dedication and skill of their offensive lines, they could accomplish nothing in football. The role of offensive linemen is basically to be like a human shield. They block and hit people, pushing them out of the way so that hopefully the quarterback and running back—or whoever is carrying the ball on offense, won’t get hit. It’s a punishing occupation—but offensive linemen essentially sacrifice themselves and their bodies so that others on the team can have success. So back to that central truth–you can’t do it on your own. And that is very much the case in your spiritual life too. Jesus teaches us this in John 15:5 using a tree metaphor: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.”
The reason that we should abide in Christ is because that is how we reflect our love for Him. And this love on our parts is but a pale reflection of the great love that Jesus has demonstrated already for all humanity. For Christ took it upon Himself to be the sacrifice for sin. He died on the cross, but that cross can be envisioned in another form, as 1 Peter 2:24 describes in reference to Jesus: “Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the three, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness.” The same tree which was a symbol of our sinful downfall in Genesis is now recast in 1 Peter as the symbol of God’s redemptive work on the Cross. I asked earlier how could we, after the sin of Adam and Eve, ever make it back to the Garden of Eden, and that Tree of Life which we’d been banished from? Well now we have the answer. It’s nothing that we could ever do—but that which Christ has already done!! Let’s look briefly at Revelation 22. Revelation comes at the very end of Scripture, and is kind of like a fast-forward through spiritual history, to give us a glimpse of how God will one day bring all of His great redemptive work as well as history itself to a perfect conclusion. And in the last chapter of Revelation, we get a portrait of heaven itself. Hear this description of heaven from Revelation 22:1-3—“And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him.” Do you realize what’s happened here?? In the end, we shall once again have access to the Tree of Life, and we’ll be healed of that curse pronounced on Adam and Eve back in Genesis 3. Our lives will then perfectly resemble the tree planted by the waters in Psalm 1. All of these different Scriptural images of trees are fulfilled and perfected here in this last passage in Revelation 22. And again what makes this possible—what allows us to once again have access to the Tree of Life, is because Jesus gave His life for us on a Tree, on the Cross. S0–what kind of plant will you be?? Will your seed sprout up, and if it does, will it develop in a strong, healthy tree, that is in community with others, is well-rooted and watered, draws life to itself, and bears fruit?? The way to do that is to stay rooted in Christ. Invite Him to be Lord of your life, and strive to follow His example every day. Don’t feel like everything has to be perfect in your life before you follow Jesus, but heed the words of that beautiful old hymn—“Come ye weary, heavy-laden/Lost and ruined by the fall/If you tarry until you’re better/You will never come at all/I will arise and go to Jesus/He will embrace me in His arms/In the arms of my dear Savior/Oh, there are ten thousand charms.” If it’s rooted in a relationship with Christ, your tree then will indeed grow, and will serve to bless and be an example to others. May we all have the chance to prosper, and grow, while staying rooted in the life-giving truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen!