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Sunday Worship 1 May | It happened in a garden

Updated: Mar 18

The Three Gardens
The First Garden (Genesis 2:8-10, 15-17, 22, 25; 3:1-8) Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters...The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”...Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man...Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made...“You will not certainly die [if you eat from the tree],” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
 
The Second Garden (John 20:1, 11-16) Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance...Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus. He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
 
The Third Garden (Revelation 22:1-5) Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

 


I was interested by an observation over Easter that both the fall and the resurrection happen in gardens, and further intrigued when I realised that we get a glimpse of a garden in the heavenly city too, and so this morning I want to take a look at these three gardens, or as I describe them in this week’s newsletter - the place where things started to wrong, the place where they started to go right, and the place where all will be good again.

 

 

Let’s start with the first garden, the Garden of Eden. As scriptural gardens go, this is probably the one we think of first. The story that unfolds there will be familiar to most, from popular culture as much as from church, and it’s got ‘garden’ right there in the name. The story of the fall may be familiar but that doesn’t mean it is easy. There are so many questions we might ask about what is going on and what it all means. I won’t be able to do full justice to those this morning, but I do want to dig into the passage a little, and it may help for me to begin by laying out where I start from when reading a text like this, because I don’t want to take for granted that we’re all starting from the same place.

 

I believe that the Bible is first and foremost an account of God’s relationship with creation, written by particular people in particular circumstances, trying their best to make sense of their faith and their world and their place in it. I believe that they did that through history and law and prophecy and poetry and story, and so we cannot read every piece of scripture the same way or expect it to do the same thing. I understand the early chapters of Genesis to be story, in much the same way as Jesus’ parables are story, telling us something that may not be real but is certainly true.

 

I don’t believe there was a literal tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but I do believe this story reminds us that we are all called to make moral choices. I don’t believe that Eve was made from Adam’s rib, but I do believe that this story speaks powerfully of human connection and interdependence. I don’t believe that a snake talked Eve into eating a forbidden fruit, but I do believe that this story confronts us with our own tendency to listen to the wrong voices and get ourselves in a mess. I don’t believe that Adam hid from God in a bush, but I do believe this story reflects our attempts to cover over our mistakes instead of repenting and restoring.

 

I spoke of questions and there are a few I have been asking of this story since I was a child. I’m not still not certain of the answers, but after many years I do have some ideas. First question: why does the story seem to say that God set humanity up to fail? The whole thing could have been avoided if the forbidden thing had not been in reach, but I have come to understand that in order to have a genuine choice for God and for good, there has to be the possibility of a choice not for God and not for good. Second question: why would God not want us to have knowledge of good and evil? It always seemed to me that we need to know good and evil to know the difference between the two, but Genesis 1 tells us that God made the world to be good, which means we know good from the beginning, and what is left for us to learn (and therefore what God really wants to keep us from) is evil. Third and final question: did God lie about eating the fruit leading to death? The story goes on to tell us that Adam and Eve didn’t die immediately, but they were cut off from the tree of life so that they would eventually die, and while it would be a dangerous oversimplification to say that all suffering is a direct consequence of sin, it is true that human failings lead to much pain.

 

In essence, if the opening chapter of Genesis tells me that God made the world and it was good, and that God made humanity and we were good, then the chapters we have heard from this morning tell me that God took the risk of giving us free will, and that we make mistakes which lead us to experience evil with often devastating consequences. I believe this is the truth of the garden where things started to go wrong.

 

 

Now onto the second garden, the garden where Mary meets the risen Jesus. This isn’t actually described as a garden, but given that Mary initially thought Jesus was the gardener, it seems a reasonable assumption to make. Plus archeological evidence shows that tombs were cut into the hillsides outside cities, so there would have been open space around, and if modern cemeteries are anything to go by, I think there is a human impulse to tend the places in which we lay our loved ones to rest, to make them places which celebrate life as much as they commemorate death. I don’t want to say so much about this passage, because of course it’s the story we celebrated two weeks ago, but I do think it is interesting to hear it again in the light of the passage from Genesis, and I want to consider why it matters that these scenes both play out in gardens.

 

Those of you who were here on Easter Sunday morning may remember that we heard a poem by Jay Hulme called Mary Magdalene and the Gardener. It pictures Mary confusing Jesus for the gardener, as she “saw the dirt of a borrowed tomb and thought at first of things which bloom”. I still don’t want to spoil the poem with too much clumsy exposition, but I love the idea that Mary did not simply make a mistake when she believed Jesus to be the gardener, but in some way recognised him as the one who brings life and joy and colour to the world.

 

I also love the way this image of Jesus as a gardener approaching Mary outside his empty tomb echoes the image of God the creator walking with Adam and Eve in the garden of a new world, as if God is once again strolling with humanity through a garden of God’s own design. Nothing that has passed in the generations since the story of the Garden of Eden was first told has been wiped out, for Jesus still bears the scars that speak of the evil we are capable of, but as Mary turns to Jesus in love instead of hiding in shame, we see that we have a chance to try again, to repair the damage we have done and heal the relationships we have broken. That is why I think this is the garden where things started to go right.

 

 

And finally we come to the third garden, the garden in the heavenly city. Again this isn’t actually called a garden, but the river and the tree speak to me of a place that is green and natural, and the subtitle of this passage in at least one translation is ‘Eden restored’, so it doesn’t seem to be a stretch too far. I think the idea that this vision represents Eden restored comes from the presence of the tree of life, although interestingly there is no mention of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, suggesting that we are not returned simply to the beginning of the story, that we will not make the same mistakes or suffer the same consequences when all is made new.

 

But if the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was planted to give humanity free will, does its absence mean there will be no free will in eternity? I don’t think it does, but rather that our choice for God and for good will already have been made. We will have chosen a place where there is no evil to have any knowledge of, only every good imaginable for us to keep choosing for all eternity.

 

But why wouldn’t we choose that place now? Why do we have to wait until this garden beyond time in order to live free from evil? When I asked myself that question my mind simultaneously went in two very different directions, but somehow I think they loop round to meet one another. I want to say that we can choose that place now. We don’t have to wait because we can make a commitment to choose good over evil every time. But I also have to recognise that we can’t stay in that place for very long. We have to wait for a fresh start because collectively as humanity we’ve made such a mess of things that it is almost impossible to choose good over evil every time.

 

The Good Place is a brilliant television series set in a form of afterlife and deeply engaged with moral philosophy. I’m reluctant to spoil the plot because it is well worth watching, but at some point the characters come to realise that life has become so extraordinarily complicated that there are almost no unambiguously good choices. You go to the shop to buy some bananas, and you’re faced with Fairtrade bananas in plastic, or non-Fairtrade bananas sold loose. Do you prioritise fair wages for banana farmers or not adding to the sea of plastic the planet is drowning in? This may seem a little hopeless, but I don’t believe it is. The solution The Good Place proposes is not quite the one I believe in, but the show and are in agreement that the mess we are in can be redeemed, that the good we can do matters and there is more goodness ahead of us.

 

Jesus spoke of the kingdom as something that is already here and is yet to be fulfilled, and so I believe that we are called to choose as much goodness as we can here and now, trusting that such goodness will find its fulfilment there and then. As I said on Easter Sunday, the world is not perfect but it can be better. So let us hope for perfection but work for better, until we reach the garden where all will be good again.






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