There are some phrases we’ve heard a lot during the pandemic. Like, ‘the new normal’, or ‘these unprecedented times’ or ‘you’re on mute.’ But recently I’ve heard lots of people say, “It’s not much of a life right now”, Which begs the question, what’s a life worthy of the name? Oscar Wilde once said:
To live is the rarest thing in the world – most people are just existing.
And I guess most people, at least sometimes, feel that’s true but can’t see quite what would turn existence into life. And even those of us who’d call ourselves Christians aren’t immune from feeling we’re just existing – especially right now. So what turns existence into life? Well, that question finds an answer in our Bible passage tonight, as we return to our series in Genesis. So if you have a Bible, would you find Genesis 2.4. And if Genesis was a film, so far in Genesis 1 we’ve been shown the big, wide angle sweep of God creating the whole universe, with the Earth and us within it. But then in Genesis 2, the camera zooms in to show us a close-up of some of the key relationships we were made for – with God, with the opposite sex, with creation, and so on. And it begins like this, Genesis 2.4:
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.
And that’s the first appearance of a heading you find throughout Genesis. For example, Genesis 6.9 says:
These are the generations of Noah.
And what comes next is the story of Noah and his sons. Because that heading, ‘these are the generations of Fred’, meant, ‘This is the story of Fred and his offspring – this is their family history.’ So, Genesis 2.4:
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created…
Means this is the story of the heavens and the earth and the ‘offspring’ God put in them – this is the human family history. And so the writer of Genesis meant us to read this as being about real events and a real, original human pair. And he says three things about the life God made us for. And the first is that:
1. God is the one who gives us life
Now Genesis has already shown us that. But Genesis 2 zooms in to show us more of a close-up. So, look down to Genesis 2.7:
then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.
So that means: we’re not here by accident (as the atheistic evolution story says) but by personal creation. And the picture in Genesis 2.7 is of God as a potter and Adam as the clay – because that word formed was used back then for a potter working clay. We once visited a pottery where the potter was working in her shop. And she let our children sit on her lap and ‘help’ (in inverted commas) with the jug she was making. (Thankfully pottery’s reversible.) And her shop was full of beautiful, one-off pieces. And I said, “How do you feel about selling them?” And she said, “It’s not easy. Because you put something of yourself into every one of them, and every one of them is personal”. And the picture in Genesis 2.7 is of the love and value that God the potter places on his first, one-off, personal creation. And each of us was likewise made by God as another of his loved and valued one-off, personal creations. And we can say that because Job said about himself later in the Bible. He said (Job 10.8-9):
Your hands formed and made me…Remember that you have made me like clay
I was reading someone’s autobiography recently, in which he describes a loveless childhood. And he says: ‘The day came when Dad explained that I was an accident, and that they’d never wanted me at all.’ But according to Genesis 2.7, whoever else says you’re an accident (whether it’s Darwinism or your Dad), and whoever else doesn’t want you, doesn’t include you in their friendships, doesn’t offer you that place or that job, doesn’t rate you at work or grade you an A…God loves and values you as his one-off, personal creation – and doesn’t want you to be anyone else. And knowing that helps turn existence into life. That’s the main point in Genesis 2.7. So what’s the point of Genesis 2.5-7?
When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist [or you can translate that ‘rain cloud’] was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed the man…
Well the point is that God doesn’t just give us life, but what we need for life, as well. So remember: Genesis 2 zooms in on what we’ve seen in Genesis 1. So this is zooming in on day 6 of God’s creation work, when he made man and woman. And back in day 3, vegetation had already appeared on the Earth. So what are to make of Genesis 2.5 here, where apparently there’s no vegetation? Well, the answer is: Genesis 2.5 is not talking about the whole Earth, but about the land – the particular bit of land God had earmarked for the first humans. And it’s talking about the middle east, where there’s a cycle of dry then rainy seasons. So, Genesis 2.5-7 again:
When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field [ie, edible crop] had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land [it was still the dry season], and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist [or ‘rain cloud’] was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground [ie, the rainy season was just beginning]— then the Lord God formed the man
In other words, he only gave him life once he’d created the conditions to sustain his life. So Genesis 2.5 reminds us that it doesn’t just rain. God causes it to rain. And Genesis 2.10 reminds us: there are other ways he delivers water, as well:
A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden
So this is a reminder that what we need for life doesn’t just happen. And it’s not just down to Northumbrian Water and Sainsbury’s and John Lewis and your payslip or pension. It’s all ultimately thanks to the Lord. Because he loves and values you as his one-off, personal creation, and he hasn’t brought you into this world only to neglect you. Isn’t that why the Lord Jesus said (Matthew 6.25-26, 31-32):
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life…Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?... Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
So Christian believers don’t have to join the rest of the world in anxiously looking out for number one – because we know that the Lord is already looking out for us. And of course, unlike the birds, we do need to sow and reap and store – we need to train for work and look for work and do work.
But not with the anxiety of thinking, “No-one else is looking out for me. No-one else is ultimately on this.” Because he is.
So God doesn’t just give us life but what we need for life, as well. Which means we can trust him – especially when it’s not obvious where that’s going to come from next. And it means we can thank him for everything the rest of the world just thinks happens. Someone came up to me after a funeral I’d spoken at and said, “I’m an atheist myself, but I envy you – because there’s so much in life to feel thankful for, but I don’t have anyone to thank.” To which the answer is: she does, she’s just not thanking him, yet. And a Christian believer does, too. And that also helps turn existence into life. But the Lord has provided way more than just what we strictly need. Look onto Genesis 2.8-9:
And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east [and the word for ‘garden’ means ‘parkland’ or ‘pleasure ground’ – it’s the word from which we get our word paradise], and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.
So God clearly thinks life is about more than just existence – more than just having our daily bread (or in Eden, your daily banana). He clearly thinks it’s about pleasure. And beauty. And sights that take your breath away and move you to tears. And creativity and the arts – I take it that explains the throwaway line in Genesis 2.11-12 about…
the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there.
As if the Lord put them there with future generations of jewellers in mind. And it’s about music and poetry and literature and all the rest of it. So it’s sad that Christians have sometimes got a reputation for being life-denying. For example, someone once said:
‘Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.’ [H L Mencken]
Now that actually wasn’t fair on many of the Puritan Christians. And it certainly doesn’t reflect Genesis 2 – where God clearly wants us to enjoy life, and not just eat and exist. And that may be news to you if you’re just looking into all this, and have been brought up on the cultural lie that God is the great killjoy in the sky. So that’s the first thing: God is the one who gives us life. Then the second is that:
2. Real life means relationship with God
Let me read from Genesis 2.8 again:
And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
So here we meet two trees that stand for two truths about relationship with God. And the first is the tree of life. Now if you go to a webpage like Biblegateway and do a search for tree of life, you’ll find it comes up again in Proverbs and Revelation. And in both places, it symbolises life in relationship with God. It symbolises the truth that the only life worth living, because it’s the one we were made for is life with God at the centre. So here in Genesis 2, it might have been a real tree with a meaning attached to it. But I think, more likely, it’s a symbol (as it is in Proverbs and Revelation). And it stands for life lived in constant fellowship with God. And that is the thing that turns existence into life, because we can have all our needs met, and we can have all those extras on top – pleasure, beauty, art, music; and throw in love and success as well, and yet, still feel like we’re just existing.
A while back we had a student called Patrick here in our church family. And we interviewed him one time about how he came to faith in Jesus, and he said something I’ve never forgotten. Because he was converted out of what the world would say was the absolute definition of ‘having a good time’. And he said, “I was into drinking, I was into girls, I was into everything that was supposed to be fun, but in my experience, non-Christian life is like vegetarian food; you can eat as much of it as you like, but it never really fills you up”. And he hadn’t planned to say that, and from the look on his face you could tell he knew he’d just offended all the vegetarians. So he quickly put in something conciliatory about macaroni cheese. But then he said,“I’d never swap the life I have with God now for the existence I had before”. Because he’d discovered the truth of the tree of life. Which is that the only life worth living – because it’s the one we were made for – is life with God at the centre. Or as Augustine put it in one of his prayers:
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.
I wonder if that feeling is moving you towards faith in Jesus? And I wonder if those of us who’ve already come to faith in him appreciate enough the life we have in him, compared to the existence we’d have without him. So, God is the one who gives us life. Real life means relationship with God Third and lastly:
3. Relationship with God means he defines good and evil
Look at Genesis 2.9 again:
And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
So, two trees that stand for two truths about relationship with God. We’ve looked at the the tree of life. And now we need to look at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And after Genesis 2.10-14, which show more of God’s provision – from water to gold – and that Eden was a real place, we’re told about that tree. Genesis 2.15-17:
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 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.”
So what does the tree of the knowledge of good and evil stand for? Well take a look at this picture.
The crown stands for the Lord. The stickman stands for Adam – and us. And the tree of the knowledge of good and evil stands for…who has the right to define good and evil – who has the wisdom and knowledge to draw that line between good and evil. And the answer is only God does. And so he says to Adam, and through Adam to all of us (Genesis 2.16-17):
You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, [you have all that freedom] 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.
In other words, “I’ve given you amazing freedom – but you’re not free to define for yourself what is good and evil. You’re not free to draw that circle yourself. My place is to draw the circle. Your place is to trust me and live within it”. At which our culture would say, “No! Don’t accept any limits on your freedom. Freedom is being anything you want to be and doing anything you want to do. Why would you let anything or anyone else decide what you’re free to be and do?” So Richard Dawkins puts it like this in The God Delusion:
There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point…The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful…as we choose to make it.
In other words, we define reality. We define good and evil. We define gender. We define sexuality. We define marriage. We define life. And that’s the culture we live in, this side of Genesis 3. But Genesis 2 is how it’s meant to be – and how Jesus is re-making it in your life if he’s your Lord. And is that picture really of someone being infantile? Isn’t it better to call it child-like? And isn’t a child being wise when it lets its parent decide things that it knows are beyond its own wisdom? And isn’t that what Proverbs is on about when it says (Proverbs 3.5-7):
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
So when the world says, “Why would you let God set limits to your freedom? The answer is, “Because I recognise the limits of my wisdom. Because I recognise that I’m a creature made to be the image of my Creator. And that only he knows what will therefore fulfil me and satisfy me. And that my freedom is therefore not to found in being or doing anything I want but in being what I was made to be”.
Some friends of ours have a goldfish which from time to time leaps out of its bowl onto the table. And so far, thankfully, someone’s always been there to put it back. And you can see it from the goldfish’s point of view, because it’s stuck in the same bowl, with the same weed and the same rocks and the same view every day and it longs for freedom. But actually, the life of true freedom for a fish is to be a fish – which means living in water, with all the limits that implies. And the life of true freedom for us is to be the creatures we were made to be – which means living in relationship with God, with all the wise and loving limits that implies. That’s what the Bible says turns existence into life. Whereas, if you jump out of the bowl of relationship with him, then as the end of Genesis 2.17 puts it:
you shall surely die.