Years ago, I recall scanning through adverts looking for a gardener, someone who’d look after my mother’s garden. Perhaps that was in the back of my mind while preparing my thoughts for this chapter. Adam, the first human created, was the first gardener, since we read: “The LORD God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:8,15) “They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. Then the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:8,9)

There were two separate readings there: one from chapter 2 when everything was still perfect; and the second from chapter 3 when suddenly there was tension in the garden. What had happened between the two readings? Of course, our first parents had eaten the forbidden fruit. Their disobedience had shattered their relationship with God. Notice this, before any human ever thought of looking for God, God was looking for us! “Then the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:8,9). But wait a minute, why does the all-knowing God ask where they are? It’s so that we might recognize we’re lost without him. For unless we confess our lost state before God we cannot be found, we cannot be saved.

I remember as a child, playing hide and seek with my parents. I’d run away and hide behind some chair in the house, and if they were taking too long to find me, I’d start shouting out some clues. I was keen to be found – the excitement was in being found! Imagine trying to hide from God! Adam tried it, and Jonah was no more successful either: because you simply can’t hide from God – one man in modern times who tried to hide intellectually from even the very idea of God later spoke about how he came to sense that ‘the hound of heaven’ was on his trail – so there was no hiding.

The Hound of Heaven is a religious poem written by English poet Francis Thompson, first published in 1893. This was to be the poem that influenced authors J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. It begins like this:

I fled Him down the nights and down the days
I fled Him down the arches of the years
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind, and in the midst of tears
I hid from him …

But please remember from Adam’s experience there’s no hiding from God; and learn – even from my boyhood experience – that there’s nothing better than being found! Now, there’s a second gardener I want to talk about. He’s not a real gardener, he appears in a parable. Not a parable that’s found in the Bible, but this is an atheist’s parable, written by a famous British philosopher and atheist called Anthony Flew who died in 2010. It goes like this:

Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, “Some gardener must tend this plot.” The other disagrees, “There is no gardener.” So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. “But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.” So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Well’s The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At last the Sceptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?”

I think we can all follow the point that’s being made. For the garden we’re meant to think of the universe; and for the gardener, we’re meant to think of God. Despite writing this, Anthony Flew came to renounce atheism before he died. For over 50 years he’d been the United Kingdom’s number one proponent of atheism; a world-class scholar with over 30 books on philosophy in print; and one of the twentieth century’s most imposing intellectual figures. It was learning about the complexity of the DNA molecule which we have in every cell of our body that led him to change his mind. He said: ‘What I think the DNA material has done is that it has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements to work together.’ And so, in 2004 the world’s leading atheist, Antony Flew, announced that he was no longer an atheist. I don’t know that it helped him change his mind at all, but a third gardener was invented in another parable by a man called John Frame. This parable was designed as an answer to the challenge of Flew’s parable – and so it used the same method and technique to make its point.

Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. A man was there, pulling weeds, applying fertilizer, trimming branches. The man turned to the explorers and introduced himself as the royal gardener. One explorer shook his hand and exchanged pleasantries. The other ignored the gardener and turned away: “There can be no gardener in this part of the jungle,” he said; “this must be some trick. Someone is trying to discredit our previous findings.” They pitch camp. Every day the gardener arrives, tends the plot. Soon the plot is bursting with perfectly arranged blooms. “He’s only doing it because we’re here – to fool us into thinking this is a royal garden.” The gardener takes them to a royal palace, introduces the explorers to a score of officials who verify the gardener’s status. Then the sceptic tries a last resort: “Our senses are deceiving us. There is no gardener, no blooms, no palace, no officials. It’s still a hoax!” Finally the believer despairs: “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does this mirage, as you call it, differ from a real gardener?”

Now, I want to finish with the mention of a fourth ‘Gardener.’ Our reading is from John’s Gospel, from the end of chapter 19, a chapter which deals with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. “In the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.” (John 19:41) “But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher).” (John 20:11-16). If only those who choose not to believe in God would stop looking only for a gardener – then they too might be surprised at who they would find! Or, better still, at who finds them!

The story’s been told of a little girl who lived on the edge of some woods, and one evening she went exploring. It grew dark and she got totally lost in the woods. She sobbed so much she exhausted herself and fell asleep. Her father and others came looking for her, but when it became really dark, they had to stop their search until morning. At dawn the father got up and resumed his search. Finally, he saw his little girl asleep on the ground some distance away. He yelled out and ran to her. At that very moment the girl awakened, saw her dad who was by this time right in front of her, flung her arms around him, and said: ‘Daddy, I’ve found you!’ That brings us back full cycle to where we started off with Adam, the first gardener. He didn’t find God, but God found him. Even when a person has been trying to find God, in reality it’s God who finds us. He’s been looking for us, long before we started to look for him, indeed that’s why we’re looking for him. I hope the words of this hymn captures your own experience:

It was a lonely path He trod,
From every human soul apart;
Known only to Himself and God
Was all the grief that filled His heart,
Yet from the track He turned not back,
Till where I lay in want and shame,
He found me – Blessed be His name!