One of the big issues that we face in our lives is who God is. We’re sometimes afraid to talk about this, especially at church, but it’s a question that’s always there. It colors everything to do with how we worship, how we relate to him. We don’t always feel safe talking about it, but it’s a reality for all of us.
This happens in the big moments, when something big has taken place and we ask how God could allow it. But it also happens everyday, as we do things like pray. When we read the Bible, we bring a lens that colors what we read. If you start to read the Bible, you don’t get too far before you find lots of numbers and lots of rules. It’s easy to see why we get a picture of God that is a little scary, a little judgmental at times.
There are certain people that make me feel guilty. They don’t even have to say anything. You know the kind? Usually, it’s not anything they’ve said or they’ve done. Maybe I’m feeling guilty about something, and seeing them triggers that guilt in my mind. Some of us see God that way. We feel guilty even thinking about him.
I have to admit that this has been an issue in my life. I want to give God everything that he asks, but in the back of my mind I’m scared with what he’s going to do with my life. When I’ve made some pretty major life decisions, I’ve been more than a little scared to let God weigh in. This is hard to admit, but it’s true. Our understanding of who God is one of the most important issues that we face.
It’s sometimes surprising that God is presented very differently in the Bible than we think. Today, I’d like to look at one of the earliest passages of Scripture. It’s found in Genesis 2, which is right at the front of your Bible.
The past few weeks, we’ve been looking at the account of the creation of this world. In chapter 2, we come to an important break that marks the start of a new section of the book. Verse 4 says, “This is the account of the creation of the heavens and the earth.” This type of statement appears a number of times in this book, and it’s always a signal that a new section is about to begin.
In chapter 2, we read about the creation of the Garden of Eden. Even if you’ve never read this story, you have probably heard bits and pieces of it. We’re going to read quite a bit in this chapter – about the creation of the first man, the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We’re going to look at some of the details in this chapter, but none of these are the point of the chapter. It took me a long time this week studying this chapter before I even realized what the point of this chapter is.
The star of this chapter isn’t the Garden, the first man, or any tree. It’s God. God had just finished creating and blessing humans. He told them to rule the earth under his authority, and he allowed them to reproduce. Two things were needed for humans to carry out this blessing. In order to rule under God, they needed something to rule. That’s what today’s passage is is about: God providing a setting for Adam to carry out this part of the blessing. In order to reproduce, humans needed male and female. Right now, you’re saying, “I came to church for this?” That’s the second part of the blessing. It’s what we’re going to look at next week.
The story of chapter two is all about God giving us exactly what we need to do what he put us here on earth to do. This story tells us more about God than it does about us or anything else. It’s about the type of God who goes out of his way to give us everything good. Let’s look at the details and see what we can discover about God.
The story of this chapter starts with the “before” picture. Before God went to work, there was nothing to cultivate, no plants or cultivated grains:
When the LORD God made the heavens and the earth, there were no plants or grain growing on the earth, for the LORD God had not sent any rain. And no one was there to cultivate the soil. But water came up out of the ground and watered all the land. (Genesis 2:4-6)
God then creates the first man. In chapter 1, we read that God had created humans in his image. Here we get the same story from a much more earthy view. God created man (the first woman comes next week), but this time we read it from a more creaturely perspective. Verse 7 says, “And the LORD God formed a man’s body from the dust of the ground and breathed into it the breath of life. And the man became a living person.”
Here is where you can find biblical proof that men are dirt. We may be created in the image of God, but we’re very connected to matter, to this earth. There’s no conflict. God created us. He also created a Garden for us to work in, so we could carry out the blessing to rule under God on this earth:
Then the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he placed the man he had created. And the LORD God planted all sorts of trees in the garden-beautiful trees that produced delicious fruit. At the center of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
A river flowed from the land of Eden, watering the garden and then dividing into four branches…
The LORD God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and care for it. (Genesis 2:8-10, 15)
Here you have a well-stocked garden, with everything the first man would need to live. The image is of an enclosed, protected area that was lush with all kinds of lush vegetation. You read later that this is called the Garden of God. The rivers symbolize the presence of God. Everything is in balance and harmony. The first man is put here to enjoy his life.
Sound too good to be true? It is hard to believe. It’s actually a unique story. The other traditions of the Ancient Near East didn’t have stories that were similar to this. This tells us about what God originally intended for us. It also tells us about God.
One more feature of this garden. Two trees are mentioned in detail, as we read in verse 9. One was the tree of life. It seems as if this tree had fruit that sustained life, almost like a tree of youth. It may have healed, enhanced, and prolonged life.
There was one other tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This was the only tree they weren’t allowed to eat. What’s so bad about this tree? God reserved the knowledge of good and evil for himself. He essentially said to us, “Take me word for it. If it’s bad, I’ll tell you.” It required trust in God, and submission to him.
So why did God leave the tree there? I don’t know. Maybe it was because staying in the garden required active faith, to take God at his word. Maybe God wanted us to have the choice, so following him was not forced upon us. Verses 16-17 say, “But the LORD God gave him this warning: “You may freely eat any fruit in the garden except fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat of its fruit, you will surely die.”
If this passage tells us things we need to know about God, what are they? Let’s try to look at a few.
One of the things that this passage tells us about God is that he is a God that provides. The whole story, and the story next week, is about God providing what we needed to get started. He didn’t provide sparingly, either. He provided humanity with everything we needed to get started. Not only did he provide food, but he provided food that was good to look at and delicious to eat. He even provided a tree that extended life and health. He sends out rivers that branch out and water all the earth. It was all good. That tells us a lot about who God is.
One of the issues we face all the time is that we have a hard time believing that God is going to provide what is good for us. It’s not a new problem. Jesus even talked about the fact that some of us think that if we ask God for what we need, we somehow think that God is going to give us something else. Right back at the beginning of human history, we’re encountered with a God who gives us exactly what we need. He’s not stingy. He doesn’t hold back. He gives richly. He provides not just what will help us get by, but he also gives the gift of beauty and enjoyment. At the root of God’s character, he’s a generous God. He’s giving. That’s the God we encounter in this story.
The tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil also tell us something about God. You know what God’s first command to humanity was? It’s right there in 16: “And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden…'” The first commandment that God ever gave us was to enjoy, to eat and enjoy. God also gives us the flip side, about avoiding what’s harmful for us. God’s interest is in giving us life. His will and his intention for us are good. He wants us to have access to what’s good for us, and to avoid what’s dangerous for us. He offers life.
It’s interesting that while God offers us life, he also offered us a choice. I suppose that God could have given us a tree of life and removed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from us. But that wouldn’t have required any faith response on our part. We wouldn’t have been able to choose to worship God and to submit to him willingly. Instead, God gave us the opportunity to obey him, but he also gave us the opportunity to do so willingly. We had alternatives. The odds weren’t even stacked against us. Everything was good to look at and eat. Only one tree was dangerous, and was clearly marked and warned against. But he still gave us a choice.
It also tells us something about God’s desire for relationship with us. The garden was God’s garden. It’s a temple garden, rich with life and with God’s presence. Later on, we read of God’s presence within the garden, of him walking in the garden in the cool of the day. This was a place of safety, of relationship.
God is described later in the Bible as love. When Jesus was asked about the two greatest commandments, both of them boiled down to love. Love God, love others. God wants relationship with us. That’s what he desires from us today.
In a few weeks, we’ll see at how sin messed a lot of this up. The world is no longer all good, and a lot of things have gone bad since that point. But God has not changed. The God we read about here, who wills life for us, who desires relationship with us, who provides for us – that God has not changed.
I wanted to talk about this for a couple of reasons today. The first reason is simple: our past is our future. What we read here is the before picture of what happened before sin messed up our world. We live in the now picture, and we see all the damage that’s taken place. But our after picture – what is yet to come – looks a lot like the before picture. God is at work, and he’s restoring the world to what it once was. We see glimpses of it; it’s already, but it’s not yet. It’s here, but there’s still more to come. This is exciting for me.
When we say the Lord’s prayer, we say, “Your kingdom come.” You know what that means? When Jesus came to earth, his kingdom began to break into this world. He’s bringing wholeness and healing and restoration to all things. Romans 8 tells us, “All creation anticipates the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay” (Romans 8:21). God is going to recreate the heavens and the earth, and to undo the damage that was done. I want you to understand that your future is a lot like what we read from this passage. The story ends much as it starts.
But I also want to make this a lot more personal for us. I mentioned earlier that some of us have a hard time trusting God, because we’re not really sure where that will lead. We probably wouldn’t be this direct, but we’re not sure what God will do with us if we trust ourselves to him.
Some of us have been carrying around images of God as a guilt-inducing, stingy, rule-loving God who’s a little bit ticked at all of us. The God we discover here is a God who gives all good things to us. He provides. He gives us choice. He gives life. He desires relationship.
There once lived a man who chose to enter religious service in his fifties. He thought that he was making a big sacrifice for God, that in taking this radical step he would be subjecting himself to hardship. Listen to what he said in a letter that he wrote:
I decided to sacrifice my life with all of its pleasures to God. But He greatly disappointed me in this idea, for I have met nothing but satisfaction in giving my life over to him.
When we discover God as he really is, we discover that it is no sacrifice to trust ourselves to him. There is nothing lost when we choose the tree of life. This is who God is.
Confessions about carrying the wrong image of God
Responding to who he is: relational, providing, life-giving
Prayer of commitment in an area we’ve been holding back