The LORD God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. Genesis 2:8
Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. Revelation 22:1-2
God Planted A Garden
The Scriptures are replete with the language of agricultural life. In the opening chapters of the creation story, God plants a garden and places humanity in it to tend it and care for it. In truth, this is a unique opportunity for humanity to exercise the first mandate of “subduing the earth, and having dominion over it.” At the end of Scripture, we see the account of a different sort of garden, one that is watered from the Living Water of Jesus and is a part of the new heaven and new earth. In it, there is only a tree of life; in it, there is only found life, joy, and peace. Between these two bookends of the garden in Genesis and the garden in Revelation is a regular supply of garden, tree, lily, plant, shrub, etc. motifs, all pointing to the greater reality of how God interacts with His people.
Cultivating the Gospel by Cultivating the Ground
“Cultivating the gospel through gardening, huh?” I know from the outset of this post – I will be accused of all sorts of things. They will include, but not be limited to, “being too mystical,” “being too liberal,” “majoring on the minors,” “being a hippy,” etc. Yet, I want to take time in this post today to discuss why I, as a Christian and a pastor, find it important to take the time to care for the space God has provided for me to occupy on this earth.
I believe that the Christian life is a holistic life. I know that phraseology has become something of a buzz word these days, but it really is the best to describe what I mean. I do indeed believe that Jesus came to die for sin and to forgive and deliver. But I also believe in that in that redemption He supplies us with an abundant life. That abundant life starts now, not just in the hereafter. As such, we can now see the world in ways we were never able to apart from the grace of Jesus. We really can see everything in life as a gift of grace from the Triune God. As such, we can (and should) interact with all of life in a way that cultivates the divine relationship, i.e., that cultivates the gospel. If the gospel is defined as the “good news” of God’s grace through the person and work of Jesus, then such good news should penetrate every avenue of existence. That includes, but is obviously not limited to, our ability and willingness to care for the creation around us.
Using the Space God Gives for His Glory
How A Garden Can Cultivate The Gospel
The above picture is of my family’s meager home garden. We are using a method called Square Foot Gardening, in which you take a 4×4′ space, divide it into sixteen equal squares (one square foot apiece) and you plant various crops in it. This, combined with a raised herb bed, a couple of fruit trees, and a bucket of carrots, and the Dancy family has quite the gardening enterprise going on in our backyard. Couple this with our flowering plants, and there is a festival of color, smells, and wildlife on our small space we call home.
So, how can these things cultivate the gospel?
1 – By taking the time to grow a crop, we learn about reliance upon God, patience, and perseverance. As Christians, we often speak of relying on God. Yet, most of us (if we are honest), don’t usually give deep, meaningful contemplation to God as the giver and source of life. We go do a job we are trained to do, we accomplish our tasks, money shows up in the bank account as a result, we go to a store, we buy food, we put it in the pantry, we complain that there is nothing to eat, we grab some takeout! I have three kids, I know how it is! In that hurried, instant satisfaction way of living, we seldom feel the need to “rely on God.” Oh sure, if the money is a bit short that month, or if we get sick, or if some other trouble comes our way, we “rely on God.” The Christian life, however, is one that is a call to constant reliance, which by default requires a great deal of patience and perseverance. Gardening demonstrates these things in a real, tangible way. God must supply rain, he must keep off severe heat, there must be the safe protection of the crop against pests, etc. We can plant, and we can water – but God must bring the increase. Paul really was on to something using gardening as a metaphor for how the gospel actually works.
2 – We are able to participate in real world examples of the biblical metaphors. We are called branches and Jesus is the vine. Pruning is required for proper growth. Try growing healthy roses or tomatoes, and suddenly this metaphor becomes very clear. Have a branch not budding? It is cut off and cast away. The judgment parallel in this passage suddenly becomes quite clear as well, as do the implications for the love of God. Is it that God is unloving and cut off the unfruitful branch? Of course not. Yet, he knows (like any small or big time farmer), if you let a bad branch continue to grow on a good vine, it will eventually destroy the life of the entire plant. It is a greater display of love to cut off the one than have the whole plant, and by extension harvest, ruined. What about the parable of the good soil? You could plant some seeds just in the dirt and hope for the best. Or, you could cultivate the soil, making sure there is the proper balance of life giving nutrients so that plants can thrive. You could protect your seeds from the birds of the air (those beautiful rascals will do a number on your fruits and veggies). And you will see an incredible increase if you do these things. And that should cause the conscientious Christian to ask, “In what sort of soil is my life planted and growing?”
3 – It gives us a chance to teach ourselves and our kids about significant theological issues. “Why does the ground seem so bent against these plants growing to maturity?” “Why do the crops often fail?” “We do we have to wait so long for the onions and carrots to grow?” Want to learn about the effects of the fall? Plant something. Want to learn patience? Wait on a harvest, no matter how small. Want to learn how much harder good work is now with sin in the world? Try digging up anything, anywhere, for any reason! My kids were asking why we were using that really smelly dirt (compost) for our plants. I explained that they needed the best possible nutrients to have the best possible chance of growing up strong and healthy. I was able to tie that into how we should take care of our own bodies, and (since we aren’t Gnostics), how we should also tend to our spiritual well-being. The care of the whole plant, from soil to root to water to pruning to harvest, is not unlike the well-being of our physical and spiritual existence.
4 – No matter how “hippy” it sounds, a properly functioning ecosystem shows us the gospel picture of resurrection. Jesus speaks of a grain of wheat falling to earth and dying. But, because of its death, a greater life comes. The nature cycle pictures, however imperfectly, the concept of resurrection. The “death” of winter gives way to the life of spring. The “death” of nighttime gives way to the resurrection of the dawn. The “death” of a plant gives life to the one that consumes it, and new life to the plants that grow from it.
When we and our kids see us working hard, striving diligently, cutting off dying/deadly branches, we are showing to them, ourselves, and our neighbors many significant aspects of the fullness of gospel life. We show the principle of hard work, neighborly love through creation care, provision for our families with food, perhaps our neighbors as well if the harvest is plentiful, a willingness to “un-busy” our lives enough to do this sort of work, a sense of community as the family works together, a reliance on the divine hand of God to supply what is needed for the harvest to come, etc. The past two weeks of being outside and planting, watering, digging, feeding, sowing, and tending the space God has given has supplied numerous gospel conversations with my kids. And, Lord willing, as harvest approaches, many more with them and my neighbors as well.
Yet, the greatest gospel reminder in all of this will come when this growing season ends and preparation has to be made for the next. For then I will be able to remind myself and teach my kids the greatest lesson of all: we are presently caught between the first and second gardens. A day is coming when the tree will bear its fruit all year long and the need for painful labor will cease. The work we do will seem but as rest, when the Lamb becomes the fullness of our Sabbath rest. In that day, we will be fully grafted into the tree of life, which is Jesus and our leaves will not wither. We, through the Lamb, will bear our fruit in our right season as well. So, consider getting out your gloves, digging up a little space, and doing some gardening. You might find a richer appreciation for the world God has made, and maybe even for the gospel He is using to save it.