“Seeing More Clearly”

March 30, 2014


Isaiah 55:6-13

John 12:20-33


During  Lent we have been looking at the ways in which the changes of late winter and early spring inform our lives in Christ, giving us new ways of living the good news that we hear in the scriptures, and helping us better to open up to the warm mercy of God. We’ve seen that our frozen lives and begin “unlock” in a time of thawing even though we might also find ourselves a muddy mess in these days.

This morning I want to call your attention to the green sprouts that will be appearing in our yards and gardens and outside our church building in the weeks to come. Often by this time we might have seen a few of those sprouts—but this has been a slow spring, a long Lent.

Yet even when spring slouches into the world, many people find ways to know the early joy that we experience when we see bits of green poking through the black soil.

There was an old member of the old church I served in Connecticut who lived in the middle of town on what used to be a farm. He still had a good amount of land around his house and all summer long he sold plants out of a barn that, surprisingly, didn’t collapse when the wind blew on it. One year in February or March I was visiting him and he said, “Let me show you something in the basement.” So we went down this rickety staircase into what was one of those New England basements with a dirt floor. In several musty rooms there were lights glowing above tables that were filled with various sized flats filled with potting soil. A few already showed signs of life pushing upward from the countless seeds he had planted. We were both delighted at these harbingers of new life.

I remembered this last Sunday morning when Darin spoke during the announcements. He said that there are two things he gets excited about this time of year—the spring work day here at the church—remember, next Saturday morning—and even more, the seeds that he’s planting in his basement with the hope of plants and produce in his garden some months from now.

Darin first told me about his late winter/early spring planting some years ago—and I love to check in with him between March and September, following the story from seeds to shoots to plants. Some years there’s too much rain; some years not enough.

But each year, Darin reminds me what it means to have “faith in a seed,” as Thoreau put it. He looks at seeds and is “prepared to expect wonders.”

At times even I have faith in a seed, faith in bulb, when I see their enduring power and life.

In some places in rural southern Illinois each year in the spring you can find crocuses coming up in the middle of nowhere. Usually they’re in two clumps. Decades ago in there used to be a house by these flowers. The bulbs had been planted on either side of the front door by someone who looked toward the future, someone who trusted that those shoots would rise in the spring.

And to this day they still rise.

One day as spring was approaching some 2000 years ago, Gentiles at the Passover festival in Jerusalem came up to Philip and said: “We wish to see Jesus.”

Those words have been the prayer, the hope, of many.

Richard of Chichester, who was born over 800 years ago, prayed “Lord Jesus Christ, may I see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day.”

Over forty years ago that prayer became the lyrics for “Day by Day” in Godspell, still echoing the request of those unnamed Gentiles two millennia ago.

2000 years ago, 800 years ago, 35 years ago—and still today we wish to see Jesus and see him more clearly.”

Jesus tells all who have ears to hear that if we want to see him more clearly, we must look at the Jesus who is crucified. “When I am lifted up from the earth,” Jesus says, “I will draw all people to myself.” Then John’s gospel tells us, “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”

As one person put it: “Christ hangs there before us, beseeching us to stay and look, and as we gaze upon him, the awful picture of sin’s curse becomes at the very same time a shining image of the unconquerable love and mercy of God. This is how the redeeming work is still done today, if only we will stay long enough to see what is really going on”[1]

But let’s be honest. Usually the last thing we want to see is Christ crucified.

Every year when Lent draws to a close, many jump from the triumphant entry of Palm Sunday to the joyful announcement of Easter resurrection. Many avoid hearing the troubling account of betrayal, suffering, and death on a cross that Jesus endured. It’s the hard part of the story, isn’t it?

Our world is still filled with  Good Friday places—places where suffering and violent death still rule. Many come to worship hoping for “good news”—not a recounting of the weekly horrors of the world or the tortured death of one man 2000 years ago.

Now, it can seem like we have good reason to avoid Christ crucified. After all, the message that we proclaim is not death but resurrection. The Christ we want to see is not only crucified but risen as well.

But listen to Jesus. Andrew and Philip come to him with the request of those Gentiles: “We wish to see Jesus.”

And as is often the case, Jesus doesn’t respond directly. He doesn’t say: “Sure, here I am;” or “No, they’ll just have to wait.”

Instead Jesus starts talking about seeds and sprouts. Speaking out of the agricultural understanding of his time, Jesus says: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Do you remember the children’s song:

Oats, peas, beans and barley grow

Do you or I or anyone know

How oats, peas, beans and barley grow

The words sing of the mystery of growth and development. We get the desired result, but how? Yes, a botanist could tell us how oats, peas, beans and barley grow. In another sense, however, this growth speaks of an even deeper reality. From death comes new life.

The song tells us that no one can be quite sure just what is going on. It echoes the words of the prophet Isaiah:

the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

and do not return there until they have watered the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater…

All of this points to the creative power of the living God. What God has done and is doing among us is always wrapped in this mystery. It’s not always easy to say: “Sure, this is what God was doing,” or “God was certainly present here.” We live our individual lives and our life together in faith. We act in faith, with the awareness that beyond all thanksgiving, beyond all regret are the ways of God.

Not that we can ever fully understand those ways. Isaiah put it plainly: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

That Jesus’ ministry of healing and compassion, his display of God’s mercy and forgiveness, his bold announcement of the coming of God’s realm of peace into a world of violence ended so abruptly and brutally disturbs us. It should not surprise us, however. Unwilling to compromise his convictions, the way Jesus lived brought about the way he died. We need not think that his death was the result of an angry God demanding payment for sin. Human beings, always at odds with God’s desire for abundant life, killed Jesus.

By God’s forgiving grace, however, that death means life.

A tenth-century African hymn sings:

The cross is the way of the lost

The cross is the staff of the lame

The cross is the guide of the blind

The cross is the strength of the weak

The cross is the hope of the hopeless

The cross is the freedom of the slaves

The cross is the water of the seeds

The cross is the consolation of the bonded laborers

The cross is the source of those who seek water

The cross is the cloth of the naked.

Christians have never defined the doctrine of the Atonement—the affirmation that the death of Jesus somehow restores our relationship with God. We’ve never sought to be exact or precise in saying just how it is that the death of Christ means life for us. Instead, we sing about this wondrous love in our hymns, we celebrate it in our worship, we act it out at the table, and we experience it in our lives. The death of Jesus somehow shocks us into an awareness of our own condition. And this is followed by the healing experience of genuine forgiveness and the faith that Christ is alive, Christ lives in us.

“Whoever serves me must follow me,” Jesus says, “and where I am, there will my servant be also.” If Jesus is with those who are suffering and dying, we will follow him there. If Jesus is raised to new life, we will find ourselves there as well.

One reason that I’m a minister is because I have seen the ability of people to reshape themselves by the grace of God, to find new energy and purpose; I'm instructed by relationships that are renewed after sinking into hatred or, worse, apathy. This often seems to happen at those times that seem least likely—when people hit bottom, when no life at all appears possible.

Something dies and bears much fruit.

I once heard a woman talk about her life: a life of poverty, having two children while she was an unmarried teenager. She said people told her, “You made your bed, now lie in it.” But she chose another way. She found employment, started helping others, and was planning on attending college.

And I love what she said about all this: “Not only do you not have to lie in the bed you've made,” she said, “You can go out and get a whole new bed if you want!”

This is what we mean when we talk about “new life in Christ,” or the “power of the resurrection.” It's the energy that makes new life possible.

We see that energy every time a green shoot rises out of the thawing, muddy earth.

So let us recall once more the meaning and purpose of these days of Lent.

They come to us as reminders. They are days that announce to us that we encounter  God’s mercy each day. We can know frozen, wintry hearts even in the middle of July. New life can shoot forth even in January, even in the dark and musty basements of our souls.

Lent is not the timetable for a once a year opportunity.

Lent is a reminder.

Lent is an invitation to a new way of life.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon God while he is near,” Isaiah tells us. Lent reminds us that God might always be found by those who seek, that God is always near.

With those Gentiles long ago, we wish to see Jesus.

We will see him as we look at the cross.

We will see him as we serve him in the suffering of the world.

We will see him leading us to new life.

May we see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly.

Day by day.

[1] Richard Holloway, quoted in Bearing Our Sorrows, pg. 150-151.