One fall day, a young boy tagged along to his father’s greenhouse. There, he marveled at his father’s work, the greenery and flowers, the stages of plant life, and the woodwork that his father did as a hobby. Entering for the first time in weeks, he asked his father about a simple wooden cross that he hadn’t seen before. It was even bigger than those around his house, and even than the one in his church’s sanctuary.
So he asked his father, “Why are you carving that one so big? Did you need another one?”
The boy’s father explained that he had been studying the way that the different trees showed up in the Bible, and that this new one was a different kind of wood than he had used before. “This one,” he said, “is a mustard tree.”
The boy’s interest was peaked. “A mustard tree? Like hamburgers and hotdogs mustard?”
“Yes,” his father smiled. “But not quite so smooth.”
“Why that tree? What’s so special about the tree?” the boy asked, running his hand over the beam of the cross.
His father, aware that a real moment was in the making, put down his watering can and rake, smoothed out a spot on a nearby bench for the boy to sit down and said, “You can learn a lot from the history of trees. Sit down, and let me tell you a story.”
“We know that a long time ago, when there was nothing but God, that God created the world. Shaping the sun and the stars, the land and the sea, the plants, the animals, and finally, the people, that God breathed breath into these people called Adam and Eve, and there was the beginning of something special. God made them to be with him, and like him in their ability to love and relate to each other.
“Adam and Eve had two rules: to govern over the animals, and to not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. See, there were two trees that were special. One was the tree of life, and one was the only tree from which they should not eat. We don’t know what each tree was like, but we know that people think of what they ate, the only thing they should not eat, as an apple.
“See this apple? Seems pretty harmless doesn’t it. But in the story, it’s that they ate what they weren’t supposed to. They disobeyed God. And because of it, they were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, the place God had made just for them. They ate, disobeyed God, and they found themselves outside, figuring out what to do next.
“Before too long, they had children, and their children disobeyed too, especially one called Cain. Cain was a farmer- he grew things out of the ground. But he wanted the best things for himself, and he thought he should get all of the credit. He couldn’t see that God was still with them, even outside of the Garden. So one day, out of jealously, he killed his brother Abel, who had watched over the animals, and found himself kicked out of his family, ashamed, and all alone.
“After several families had come and gone, all of the people who were living then were full of selfishness like Cain. They took what they wanted from the land, tearing down plants and trees carelessly, and never planting where they had cut down. They killed animals just for fun, and thought they should just take from each other, too, even if it meant killing other people. They disobeyed, and failed to love God, and gradually lost the way they were supposed to be like God.
“But there was one man, one family, lead by a father named Noah. We don’t know what Noah did beforehand, but one day, God showed up and told him to build an ark. We’ve talked about the ark before but it was BIG. God told Noah to make it out of gopher wood – what we call cypress. Can you imagine how many trees it took to build a boat that would house two of every animal, and Noah’s family? It must’ve taken a whole great garden, a forrest even.
“Noah obeyed, and the ark became the way that God saved humanity. Then the rain came down. Water helps crops grow and gives people water to drink; it washes us clean. But this much water wasn’t good for most of the earth; thankfully Noah and his family were on the ark!
“We know that many people died in the flood, but rather than running away from something, Noah went toward God. The ark was the way God used the remnants of the Garden to save his dream for people and the whole world, that one day there would be peace. Of course, wherever there are people, there is trouble,” said the father. “But that’s how we came to understand that God started with a garden and a few trees, and used trees to be the means by which Noah was saved. I’m sure you’re getting tired of this story though.”
“No, I’m not!” the boy protested. “But what about the mustard seed?”
“Well, if you’ll keep listening…”
“Things went from good to bad and from bad to worse and back to good again for thousands of years. People didn’t quite know what to do with what God had said, but they tried hard, and some sought to build up a relationship with the same God who had created people in the Garden of Eden. But they couldn’t agree on what God wanted or how God expected them to behave. And that’s where Jesus enters the picture.
“Jesus was born on Christmas, just like we celebrate every year, but his birth wasn’t like yours or mine. There were no hospitals, no electricity. Instead, it says his father Joseph found a quiet corner of a stable- can you imagine a baby in the middle of all of these animals- and cleaned out a wooden manger for his son to sleep in.
“Wait, wood showed up again?” asked the boy, incredulously.
“Certainly. There is even a story about how the same Garden where the tree for the manger came from might’ve also been where the cross came from. But I’m getting ahead of myself. See, Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph in the wooden manger, but he wasn’t just a baby- he was actually God’s son, too! It’s a miracle that shows how important it was for God to live life like us and to know us and to be Immanuel, God with us, just like God was with us in the beginning, in the Garden.
“So Jesus grew up, just like you’re growing up. He did the same things that you do, like playing with his friends and going to school. And just like you, he learned from his father, Joseph, about their jobs, cutting wood and making it into new things, because Joseph was a carpenter. But Jesus also learned from his Heavenly Father, and before he was too old, he started to teach other people.
“Like how to love your neighbor,” said the boy, excitedly. “I remember that one from Sunday School!”
“You’re right! He taught about love and about what it meant to be with God. Jesus obviously liked to tell stories that used gardening and woodwork to get his point across. He told the people who followed him, said the father, pulling a Bible off the shelf, ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15:1-5).
Wood was pretty important to Jesus’ ministry- he went out in Peter’s boat to go fishing that was made out of cedar and ended up preaching to those who gathered around. One time he even calmed a storm from the boat when Jesus’ friends thought they were going to get swamped by a storm. I bet they thought they were in the middle of a flood! But God had told us he wouldn’t destroy the world by flood again, and Jesus told the storm to be quiet, and it settled down.
“But my favorite thing Jesus had to say about wood came in Matthew 17, said the father as flipped through the Bible. ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’
“That’s why you’re making the cross out of a mustard tree!” the boy practically shouted. “Because Jesus said you could have faith like that tree.”
The boy’s father smiled. “That’s part of it. You know that Jesus ended up making some people angry who didn’t like that he said we should be kind to each other, that we showed God we loved him by how we treated other people. They ended up getting the people to vote to have Jesus crucified- basically, they nailed him to a tree that they had put together like this,” said the father, turning back to the cross.
“Here’s where we understand the story of the Garden of Eden and the story of Jesus come together. God wanted so badly to be with us, to make it like it was before sin, before bad choices, before disobedience, that he was willing to send his own son, who was perfect, to die, so that we could be forgiven.”
“But why did Jesus have to die?” asked the boy.
“That’s part of the mystery,” said his father, shaking his head slowly. “I don’t understand it all, but I know we’re told that if we believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection, that we’ve accepted God’s forgiveness for our sins, our mistakes. I know that the cross, the tree, reflects back on what happened in the Garden and what will be when God makes everything right. No more sickness, or disasters, or broken relationships.
“The cross is that sign that the way the world worked before isn’t the way it’ll work forever. That Jesus did something crazy- he won by losing.”
“So I get the cross part,” said the boy, “but why make one out of mustard tree boards? Isn’t the cross kind of it? Does it really matter?”
“Well,” said the father, flipping forward in his Bible again, “do you remember the second tree? The tree of life? It doesn’t really get mentioned after Genesis’ first few chapters, but it comes up again at the end. Listen to this: ‘Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.”
“Jesus told us that he was going to prepare heaven for us, and we have this image of the tree of life bringing it all back together again. Jesus said if we had faith as small as the mustard seed- like the one that grew this tree (again pointing to the cross)- that we could move mountains, do the impossible. Living forever seems impossible. So does being forgiven for the bad things I’ve done. But if we believe, just a little, Jesus said it would happen. So what if the tree of life wasn’t a mustard tree?”
“The smallest seed- the littlest faith. Jesus said it was enough to bring us into the Garden, into relationship with God. And that faith, that relationship, it’s what really gives life. It’s what helps us hope, and shows us love, and directs us on who we should be so that we can be like God.”
“That’s why the cross is made out of mustard tree. It’s a reminder to me that the God of the Garden of Eden still grows things today, like new trees and faith. That there’s hope waiting at the end of all of this, that the trees still have plenty to teach us.”
“I believe!” said the boy. “I know God loves me and I’m working to figure out how to love him back.”
“That’s a good start,” said the father, with a grin. Reaching back into a shelf and digging out a jar.
“What’s this?” asked the boy, as his father dropped something small, nearly invisible into his hand. “Wait, I know!” he exclaimed.
“It’s a mustard seed.”