Good Friday 2019: A Tale of Three Trees

10a-Jesus dies on the Cross-1

A meditation on Luke 23:33, preached by the Rev. Justin Clemente on Good Friday, 2019 at New Creation Church (Anglican) in Hagerstown, MD. A Mission of the Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic.

“And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.”

Luke 23:33

I’ll pick up on Good Friday where I left off last year by saying again that preaching directly on the Cross of Jesus is like trying to hold the ocean in your hands. It helps to break of little bits and hold them close to see their meaning better. Last year, you may recall, we looked at the Good Thief and what he has to teach us. The year before that, we looked at the taunt of the Jewish leaders as they yell, “He saved others; let him save himself!” Tonight, I want to look at a “character” in the Passion that we may be tempted to overlook: that is, the cross itself. The very wood of the cross. What does it teach us? Well, one of the main things we should notice is that it is wood – in other words, a tree. The cross brings together the threads of three trees in Holy Scripture, and I want to meditate on that narrative with you as deeply as we can with the time we have this evening.

I. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

In this Tree, we hear of the Fall. Like it or not, it is the Tree makes sense of all that is painfully wrong with our world. We know how this goes: tempted by the Serpent, Adam and Eve fall for the bait:

6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” (Genesis 3:6-7)

I think when we read of the Fall, we’re tempted to say, well, it wasn’t that bad, was it? This is only because we do not understand the gravity of what is happening. In eating the fruit, our parents essentially say to God, we’ll have it our own way – so shove off! We do not need you telling us how to run our lives. And so the history of the world spirals downward as each of us have, one after another, said the same. We must see that this first Tree contains something foundationally, thoroughly true about the world: that something is wrong, and it was brought about by us. We all share in it and we cannot make it right.

By the fourth chapter of Genesis, this act of eating becomes the murder of a brother. Eventually at the next tree, the Cross of Christ, it will be another brother who is put to death. But this time, the brother is God himself. In your mind, I want you to attach Christ’s Cross back to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

II. The Cursed Tree (The Cross of Christ)

So that brings us to the Cursed Tree: the Cross of Christ. Deuteronomy 21:23 says, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” That is how most everyone saw what was happening to Jesus. Perhaps the Cross itself has become too sanitized for us today. We do not understand how deeply scandalous it really was. This is why Paul notes in his great Philippian hymn that Jesus became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. The cross was a terror to both Romans and Jews. The cross was, in the words of Cicero, “a most cruel and disgusting punishment.” To Jews, the cross was a horror and a sign of God’s judgement. What’s more, it was part of Rome’s subjugation of Israel. We have records of thousands of Jews being crucified in the siege of Jerusalem some three decades before our Lord’s Passion. Quite simply, a cross was an abomination.

And yet, this is the singular and enduring symbol of our faith, recognized and ridiculed the world over. As John Stott notes in The Cross of Christ, the universal emblem of Christianity is not an animal’s manger, a carpenter’s bench, a fisherman’s boat, a servant’s towel, or even an empty tomb, but, instead, a cross. Why? Because for us the cross is a sign of life.

Again, in John Stott’s phrase, once we see the cross as something done by us, we will be able to see it as something done for us. As Augustine says, “For our sake he stood…as both victor and victim, and victor because victim; for us he stood…as priest and sacrifice, and priest because sacrifice, making us sons and daughters… instead of servants by being born of [God] to serve us.”

As our Preface to Good Friday itself says, “By the Cross we are redeemed, set free from bondage to sin and death. The Cross is a sign of God’s never-ending love for us. It is a sign of life, in the midst of death.”

The Cross of Jesus was planted and watered with his own blood, and it has born the fruit redemption like no other tree ever has or ever will.

So now, in your mind, I want you to attach this Cursed-And-Yet-Blessed Tree to one last Tree in Scripture: The Tree of Life.

III. The Tree of Life

This tree was there in the Garden, though never tasted. It was God’s good will and purpose to give it to us, though in his way, at his timing, as a gift from him. It could only ever be “good” in that way. It appears again at the End of Holy Scripture. John says in Revelation:

22 [I saw] the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

The Scriptures speak of a life to come in God’s Kingdom so abundant that it will never fail nor fade. But, the incredible thing we find here tonight is that in some sense, the Tree of Life is here now, bringing together what was promised to Man and what was lost by the same. Putting it as simply as I can: the Cross of Christ is the Tree of Life in this world. May I say to you this evening, whether you are on the verge of giving up or you feel quite secure, you need the Cross. I beg you to see that. Come. Find life in and through Jesus and his Cross.

I end with an excerpt from a poem from John Donne called, “Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness.”

We think that Paradise and Calvary,

         Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;

Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;

         As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,

         May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.

So, in his purple wrapp’d, receive me, Lord;

         By these his thorns, give me his other crown;

And as to others’ souls I preach’d thy word,

         Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:

“Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.” 

Amen.

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