“The Cross of Christ, the Tree of Life” (1 Corinthians 1:18-31)
What a joy it is to be back here in the house of the Lord! Because of the snow and ice, we lost four out of the first five services we had scheduled this Lent: Ash Wednesday; the First Sunday in Lent; the Second Sunday in Lent; and then this past Wednesday, what was to be our second midweek service. But we were able to have the first midweek service, in our series called “The Tree of Life.” And since we didn’t get to do the second message in that series, we’ll pick it up today, and that will get us back on track for this coming week.
Now it is a happy coincidence that what would have been our message on Wednesday ties in perfectly with one of the readings appointed for today. I’m speaking of the Epistle reading from 1 Corinthians 1. This is St. Paul’s famous passage about the word of the cross, that the preaching of Christ crucified, while it may seem like folly and weakness to the world, in reality it is the power and wisdom of God to save sinners like you and me. And so this passage ties in very nicely with our “Tree of Life” series. Thus our theme this morning: “The Cross of Christ, the Tree of Life.”
Now it will be helpful for us to review briefly the first message in this series, not only because it seems so long ago now, but also because there may be some of you here today who were not here for that first midweek service. That night our message was called “A Tale of Two Trees.” It was the story of Adam and Eve in the garden, where God had placed two trees in the midst of the garden and called special attention to them. Those two trees were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The Lord God had given the man and the woman access to the tree of life, and they could eat of it freely and live forever. But at the same time, the Lord had given a certain command regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were not to eat of that tree, for in the day eat of it they would surely die.
Well, the tempter came along, that old serpent, the devil, and he tempted the woman and the man to go ahead and eat the forbidden fruit from that tree, which they did. They wanted to be their own god, independent of their Creator, and make their own decisions about right and wrong, good and evil. So they disregarded God’s word; they did not fear, love, and trust in God above all things. That is what sin is, at its core, and when they did that, they fell into sin and the curse descended upon all of mankind. You and I bear that sinful nature inherited from our parents, that tendency to not trust God, to tune out God’s word and go our own way. And so we bear the curse that goes with sin, which is death: “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” Man was driven out of the garden and cut off from the tree of life. This is the curse of death, which we all have hanging over our heads. We all sin. We all die. The wages of sin is death. And each one of us has earned his or her way into death and eternal damnation.
Now if that were the end of the story, it would be a grim tale indeed. But, thank God, there’s more to the story than that. You see, our God is a merciful God. His plan, even from the beginning, was to redeem sinful mankind, to forgive sin, to reverse the curse of death, and to restore this fallen creation. So with the curse, God also gave a promise. When he cursed the serpent, Satan, the Lord said: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
And this is what now will take us to the tale of a third tree, the tree of the cross. This is how God’s plan would succeed. The Lord promises a seed of the woman, who will stomp on the serpent’s head, even as the serpent lashes out and strikes his heel. This is a picture of what would happen at the cross, and it explains why this cross is indeed our tree of life.
“The seed of the woman”–that’s an unusual phrase. Usually the Bible will talk about the seed of the man. But this unusual phrase perfectly matches the unique, one-and-only Savior, Jesus Christ. For he is the one born of the virgin Mary. The eternal Son of God became our brother, born in the flesh, precisely to redeem us from sin and death. And note the irony here: The serpent got at mankind through the woman. Now, through the woman, the one who will overcome the serpent will be born. God is turning the tables on the devil.
And that irony then continues to the tree. It was by tempting Adam and Eve at a tree, the tree in the garden, that the devil led mankind into sin. Now, through another tree, the tree of the cross, Christ will win the victory for us over the devil, stomping on his head, so to speak, dealing a death blow to Death in the process. God’s sense of irony in this is delicious.
You know, we have a section of the liturgy that captures this very irony, about the tree in the garden that brought death, and the tree of the cross that overcame death. It’s the Proper Preface for Holy Week, and it goes like this: “It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who accomplished the salvation of mankind by the tree of the cross that, where death arose, there life also might rise again and that the serpent who overcame by the tree of the garden might likewise by the tree of the cross be overcome.”
What a wonderful reality this is! Christ’s cross is for us, then, the tree of life! Jesus was lifted up on that tree for you! He bore your sins! He took the curse of death there for you, in your place! His blood cleanses you from all your sins. His righteousness covers your guilt. And with the forgiveness of sins, death has no more power over you. You have an eternal future to look forward to. The grave will not hold you. You will rise to live forever in a perfectly restored creation. Christ’s resurrection guarantees it. Christ’s return will manifest it. Faith in Christ clings to this promise. Hope springs forward, not merely one hour, but hope springs forward to that time when everything will change.
And so what Paul says in Corinthians is true: Weak and foolish the message of the cross may appear to the world. But for us who are being saved, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Let the world deride or pity, we will continue to proclaim Christ crucified. This is the only hope for sinners. The word of the cross connects us to that cross and to the benefits flowing from it: forgiveness of sins, life, and eternal salvation. What sweet fruit this tree yields! The cross of Christ is indeed the tree of life.
Faithful cross, true sign of triumph,
Be for all the noblest tree;
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thine equal be;
Symbol of the world’s redemption,
For the weight that hung on thee!