"Is this is real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide; no escape from reality". With those words, Freddie Mercury began one of the most famous Rock anthems of all time - the Bohemian Rhapsody. He asks a question which haunts most of us from time to time. Is this it? Is this 'landslide' how it was supposed to be?
Let me ask you. How do you feel about the world? Is it getting better, or worse? For all our technology, and all our wisdom, and all our invention...how does the world seem to you? How is it that there can be so much beauty, so much good, and yet also so much pain, and so much hurt?
According to book of Genesis, when God created the earth, he planted a garden. The story goes that in that garden, God planted a tree...the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And God said to human beings, 'I'm giving you a choice. Either you can live as I created you to live, or you can live how you want. You can live 'in the garden' for ever, with me; or you can do your own thing, and die. That tree...the one over there...is the symbol of what you'll choose. Eat of the tree...and you'll choose your way, not mine. Good or evil. Life or death. It's your choice.
Lots of people get very steamed up about whether or not the Genesis story is true - whether it's actual history, or whether its a fable, like Aesop's fables; a story which points to a greater truth.
I think perhaps I had better pause there for a moment - just to let that idea sink in. It might come as a bit of a shock for some of you.
I believe, you see, that we have to be very careful how we treat the Scriptures. If we read them literally - believing that every image, every picture, every story literally happened - then we can quickly find ourselves in very difficult water. We have to use our minds, apply our knowledge and our common sense, and learn to discern what is factual history in the Bible; and what is story, myth, and fable. Now - please understand me. Just because a story is a fable doesn't mean that it isn't true. There is always truth underlying fables - just as there was truth underlying the fables - the parables - that Jesus himself taught. No-one believes that there really was a Good Samaritan. That story is obviously a fable - a parable - designed to help us understand who our neighbour is. Why then should we get hung up on questions about Adam and Eve. Instead of trying to do battle against Science - and arguing that the world is only 6,000 years old - why not look for the truth which underlies the story...the essential truth at the heart of it?
Perhaps the truest thing that can be said about the Genesis story is not whether or not it actually happened...but that it still happens. It is still happening. Just like our ancestors, we are still faced with the same choice...good or evil. Life or death.
At the other end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, there is another tree. That tree is depicted on the sculpture at the back our church - thanks to the vision of one of my predecessors here, Bill Sargeant.
Let me invite you to stand up, or turn around now in your seats...and have a look at it. It's called the Tree of Life - and it has 12 kinds of fruit, so that it produces fruit all through the year. The writer of Revelation, in characteristic fable-talk, says that the leaves of the tree will be for the healing of the nations.
So there's a tree at the beginning of human history, and a tree at the end. And we live between the trees. The trees act like markers. Before the first tree, God went on for ever, back into eternity. After the second tree, God will go on for ever, into eterntity. But for a brief, momentary blip in eterntity...we live between the trees.
In today's Gospel reading, we hear part of a much longer description, by Jesus, of the end of time - when the sign of Son of Man (maybe the Cross?) will appear in the sky, and history will be brought to its dramatic end. Now, again, we must be careful not to put too much faith in the precise images he uses. Jesus quite normally spoke in riddles and parables - again the language of fable... challenging us to go beyond the words, deep into the inner meaning of the text. In verse 35, Jesus says, 'Heaven and Earth will pass away - but my words will not pass away'. This period we are living in - here between the trees - this will end. But is that it? Is that what Christianity is ultimately about - waiting for the world to end? To meet some people of faith, you would indeed think that is all it is about.
Some Jehovah's Witnesses knocked on my door a few weeks ago. I leave you to imagine the shock on their faces when the door was opened by someone wearing a clerical collar. "Oh," they said, pointing to the sign on my door, "this really is a Rectory then!". I invited them in - because I always enjoy a good theological debate. And at the end of our time together, I concluded regretfully, that life for a Jehovah's Witness must be a very sad one. They are so focused on the end of the story, so caught up with the details about who will be saved, and when the end will come, that they forget the life that is now. They seem not to understand the real truth of the Genesis story - that we can choose life now, instead of death. They don't see the underlying truth of all the stories and fables about the end of history...the promise that God is Good...and that God will keep on inviting us to choose life, not death.
And that for now, we live between the trees.
I don't know about you, but I want a God who is interested in The Now. I want a God who helps me to choose life now. I want a God who inspires me to help others choose life now. I want a God who gives me a garden of eden to live in, and look after, now. And fortunately, I believe, the real God is precisely like that. Jesus - the man whose connection with God was undoubtedly stronger, deeper, more real than anyone else who has ever lived - Jesus points us to that God. When Jesus says that 'the Kingdom of God is among you' he shows us that eternal life is not something that happens after we die...eternal life starts now! We, his brothers and sisters, are 'inheritors of that promise'. We can choose life now, and begin to never, ever, ever, stop living. We can choose life now. Here, between the trees, is the promise of life. In Jesus words, "life to the full" is available to us now.
May you trust Jesus when he says that death has been taken care of; that you can live forever with God, and that you are never, ever, going to stop living. May you believe that you can be a partner with God in taking care of the world - in redeeming and restoring what has been broken in the world - in bringing healing and life to the places of darkness. May you believe that God calls you to join forces with God - to help make this earth the kind of place is was always meant to be...a garden of life.
Too many people live our their lives in deserts - deserts of arid consumerism, deserts of hatred and enmity, deserts of shattered relationships, war and poverty. May you be the kind of person who plants trees of life...trees of paradise...in the desert.
(I wish to gratefully acknowledge the work of Rob Bell, upon whose thinking much of this sermon is based - especially his DVD called 'Trees'. Go to www.nooma.com for more details.)