Genesis 2:17: “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” This was God’s solemn warning to Adam and Eve. They could eat the fruit from any other tree in the Garden of Eden. But not this one. Not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To do so would bring death.
But when it came right down to it, none of this mattered. The serpent was already sinking his hellish fangs into the heart of Eve. And it didn’t take much. Just a simple question: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” Suddenly Eve is no longer seriously considering the consequences of her actions.
After all, the benefits seemed to outweigh the consequences – at least, for the moment. Eve saw that the tree was good for food, it didn’t look dangerous or unpleasant, and it could make her wise. How could something that promised such wonderful things possibly be bad for you? How could something so inviting and so attractive to the eye be filled with such dreadful poison?
Adam and Eve would soon find out that God was deadly serious when He said, “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” For “the wages of sin is death,” says the apostle. And death is what they got. For where there is sin, there is also death and damnation.
The age-old problem with mankind is that we have never stopped eating the fruit that leads to death. Every day the scene in the garden gets replayed. Man sees something that he desires. God says no. Satan taunts, “Did God actually say …?” And man says, “Well, maybe this one little bite won’t hurt.”
You, too, know the commandments of God. You know that He requires you to be holy and to live a holy perfect life in thought, word and deed. And yet, how quickly caution is thrown to the wind and the warnings of God’s Word ignored when you see something that you want. You try to pretend that God has not spoken, or that He was not really serious when He said, “You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.”
You test the limits of His patience. Like a child testing His parents, you see just how much you can get away with – just how far you can push the limits before God will inflict punishment upon you. Not content with what God has given, not content to stay within the bounds of the Law, you continually try to renegotiate with God. But that always ends badly. That is how Adam and Eve ended up banished from the tree of life and exiled from the garden. And that is why you must eventually return to dust.
Adam and Eve needed a Savior, and so do you. A Savior from sin and its consequences. One who would undo the spiritual train wreck left behind in the garden and save you and all people from sin, death and the devil. One who would open up a way back into paradise and to the tree of life. It would take one from woman’s seed to do this. It would take the Son of God, assuming your flesh, taking your sin, shame and death upon Himself. It would take Jesus, true God and true Man, as we will sing in our closing hymn this evening, drinking the “cup of scorn and dread to crush the ancient serpent’s head.” (LSB 561:3)
For us, and for our salvation, this new and better Adam said “no” to the devil’s temptations. He refused to satisfy Himself, to indulge His appetite, and denied Himself food and drink for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness. He was content to live by the word of His Father – for you.
This is what the season of Lent is all about. Beginning tonight, as ashes are smeared on the foreheads of the faithful, we return to the garden. We remember with shame the fall of our first parents and the mortal life we now share with them on account of sin. We take our place next to Adam and Eve and hear the terrifying voice of the Lord: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
But we also remember that, in words from the Small Catechism, “no creature could make satisfaction for our sins. Only Christ, true God and man, could do that” (Christian Questions and Answers, LSB pp. 329-330). Our only joy, our only comfort in the midst of sin and death is Jesus, who bore our sins on the tree of the cross for us, and gave Himself over to His Father’s wrath in our stead.
All of this He did so that Adam and his children might live. So having returned to dust, we might also rise again with Him. He drank the cup of suffering and tasted death for us all so that we, the fallen sons of Adam, might once again have full and free access to the tree of life. During this Lenten season, we rejoice that this access is given to us uniquely in the salutary gift of the Lord’s Supper.
Now, in sacramental bread and wine, Christians washed in the blood of the Lamb are given to eat another kind of fruit; a life-giving fruit given to us straight from the tree of the cross. This fruit is none other than the body and blood of our Lord, given and shed on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. And whereas the fruit from the tree of knowledge brought death to Adam, this truly is life-giving fruit. For Jesus says, “Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
This holy gift, when received in repentance and faith, bestows the very life of Jesus and seals to the one who eats of it the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. As we will confess in the closing hymn, “Now from that tree of Jesus’ shame Flows life eternal in His name; For all who trust and will believe, Salvation’s living fruit receive. And of this fruit so pure and sweet The Lord invites the world to eat, To find within this cross of wood The tree of life with ev’ry good.”
We eat this fruit when we hear Jesus’ death proclaimed in the holy Gospel. But we also eat of it in a sacramental manner when we come to the Lord’s Table, open our mouths, and receive “salvation’s living fruit.”
The thing about the Sacrament is that it is not impressive to the eyes. Unlike the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which was pleasing to the eye, there is nothing extraordinary about the appearance of this fruit. To our eyes, it seems too ordinary to be worthy of reverence and adoration. But our eyes can deceive us. We can all make the mistake of Naaman the Syrian, wishing that God would work His healing in a more spectacular way.
The unbelieving world looks at this gift and asks, “How can something so ordinary, something so unattractive, so unimpressive bestow such gifts?” The unbelieving world mocks the Christian for trusting so mightily in something that appears so powerless, just as it mocks us for placing our trust in a crucified Savior. Yet the words of Jesus do not lie: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
Tonight, it is fitting that you mourn over your sins while the ashes of death adorn your foreheads. It is fitting that as the prophet Joel wrote, you “rend your hearts and not your garments” and that you “return to the Lord your God.” You are Adam’s sons and daughters, after all, and you lived as if God did not matter, and as if you mattered most of all.
But you do not mourn without hope. For God, as Joel also tells us, is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and He relents over disaster.” The same God who excommunicated Adam and Eve from the tree of life now welcomes you to His holy Table. In His mercy, He has left “a blessing behind Him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God.”
In the beginning, God warned Adam and Eve concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” But now, in the body and blood of Jesus, God has made a solemn promise and pledge to you and to all the faithful: “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely live.”
Note: This sermon has been adapted from The Salutary Gift, a sermon series published by Concordia Publishing House.