“The Seen and the Unseen”

April 6, 2014


I Peter 1:22-2:3

II Corinthians 4:16-5:1


Over at the Duane Banks Baseball Field, the infield is already green, while the outfield struggles to lose its brown winter coat.

My friend Craig writes that his yard turned emerald while he was at work on Thursday. In my own backyard the grass is slowly turning green after getting some help from fertilizer this past week.

The parking on the Jefferson St. side of our building, however, still seems uncommitted. In recent days it has been frozen, thawing, muddy, and the patches of grass wait to show any sign of spring.

That’s somewhat like most of us, I think. Still emerging from our rough winter, slowly thawing, cautiously letting ourselves hope for warmer weather.

This year during Lent I’ve let the changes of the seasons inform my sermons. I’ve encouraged us to look at what that gradual change from freezing to thawing to muddy to sprouting might tell us about God’s love toward and mercy for us. The name Lent, as you know, comes from a word that means “to lengthen.” This is a sacred season that takes its cues from the natural world as the creation tells us about the Creator.

On this fifth Sunday in Lent we’ve come far enough that we can turn our attention to the grass beneath our feet, no longer buried by the snow. The grass speaks of the slow transformations all around us, of the slow transformations in our own lives. The hymn tells us that we are “changed from glory into glory”—but that’s taking some time, isn’t it? Still the endurance of grass through the cold of winter, its slow greening brings joy and hope to our lives.

And yet, just as the ball parks and the city parks and our own yards begin to change, we hear those words from Isaiah quoted in the First Letter of Peter: “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls.” The author of I Peter didn’t include what follows, but Isaiah is quite explicit: “The grass withers, and the flower falls…sure the people are grass.”

We are once again confronted with the Lenten message of our finitude, our mortality. The grass proclaims the message of Isaiah that is, as one person put it, “a discouraging word.”

In a way, there’s nothing new here, nothing that should surprise us. Having been through any number of springs, we know that the hope and promise of spring fades. “Nature’s first green is gold,” Robert Frost told us, “Its hardest hue to hold.”

Then leaf subsides to leaf

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

Certainly Robert Frost can almost always provide as discouraging a word as Isaiah. But if we discover both hope and despair in the blades of grass now turning green, there is something greater than spring in what is not seen.

Under the ground are the roots. Under the ground are the tendrils that provide water and nutrients, that turn brown blades green, that bring life out of death. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery told us, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

The grass withers, the flower fades, but we do not loose heart, Paul says, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. Yes, Paul no doubt had in mind the spiritual realm of the eternal. But those words encourage us always to look deeper, look longer. To look through what can be seen until we encounter what cannot be seen. We might even take the advice of Paul Tillich to look at nature in quietness and there find its heart. It will show forth the glory of the divine ground, he tells us. It will show us the indestructible hope of salvation.[1]

Underneath the grass, hidden in our own hearts, sensed in the invisible connections we have with one another are the roots that sustain and nourish us. In faith we even speak of the “communion of the saints,” reminding us that even death itself cannot separate us from the support and encouragement of other people. The unseen roots go deep and bring life.

I often read those words of Paul to the Corinthians at funerals. They are a strong and beautiful expression of the Christian hope. They point us beyond what we can see, what we can touch.

He asks us to set our gaze beyond what can be seen and look at what cannot be seen. He asks us to look beyond the temporary and consider the eternal.

If we look at what cannot be seen, we discover in the spring that there is something going on in our world that is greater than the greening of our yard and ball parks.

In the first paragraph of his foundational work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin famously writes: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

These two types of knowledge are joined together in many ways. That is to say, the more we know of ourselves, the more we know of God. And as our knowledge of God develops, we come to know ourselves better as well. When we know our own finitude, we come to better recognize the depth and breadth of wisdom and goodness and love that are found in God. In the same way, as we grow even in our limited, human knowledge of God, we begin to better understand who we are as human beings—finite and fallible, yes, but also created with an ability to create, with the freedom to choose, with the need to love.

One of the things we know about ourselves as human beings is that we will die. Indeed, it’s said that human beings are the only creatures who know that they will die. And such knowledge has an ambiguous nature to it. On the one hand, the awareness of our mortality can be a cause of great anxiety. At the same time, an existence that went on endlessly, in time would seem to be senseless and pointless. Our existence has meaning and our actions have urgency because one day we will die—and we know that. We are finite.

As we know ourselves as finite, we come to a deeper knowledge of God as the infinite, the Eternal One. This infinite God whom we come to know in Jesus is the loving and merciful creator of humankind who willingly gives God’s very self for our sake. To have faith in such a God is to affirm that while we cannot know the shape of our eternal destiny in any detailed manner, in life and in death, our future is in God’s loving care. We have no special knowledge, no secret wisdom about life beyond the grave. That is beyond all human knowledge, experience, and power.

Still, we can entrust ourselves at all times to the God who created us and gives us life.

In our living and in our dying, we are held in God’s care.

Next Sunday we will turn from considering the weather and the changing seasons to remembering those events long ago that continue to be at the heart of our own lives: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the meal shared with his disciples and still with us on Maundy Thursday, the betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion on Good Friday. All of this leading to our celebration of the resurrection on Easter two weeks from this morning. At the heart of all of this is the good news of God’s love that is stronger than death. The word of God which begins the new creation in Jesus Christ stands forever as the word that roots us and gives us life.

We’ve been through these spring days many times now as adults who know the weariness, the pain, the profound loneliness, the confusion, and the fear of living. But as one person put it: “In the midst of our desolation, we find the risen Christ, triumphant over death and still shockingly alive, present to us in ways we cannot understand much less explain. In Christ we find vibrancy of life and a firm compassion that does not deny our suffering but transforms and illumines it.”[2]

So let us continue in the days ahead to look at nature for what it might tell us of God’s great mercy even as we look with hope toward what cannot be seen.

[1] Paul Tillich, “Nature, Also, Mourns for a Lost Good,” The Shaking of the Foundations, pgs. 79-80. Original quote: “Listen to nature in quietness, and you will find its heart. It will sound forth the glory of the divine ground. It will speak of the indestructible hope of salvation!”