By The Rev. Sherry Deets
5 Lent – March 25, 2012
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. That is what struck me in today’s gospel reading from John. Don’t we all wish to see Jesus?
My friend speaks of a family picnic. “We went out to one of these lovely state parks; and the water was so green, so blue green as it is around here on the high mountain streams. The water came tumbling down that white waterfall, and it came into this deep, green pool of water. There was a great rock formation that came out into the middle of that deep green pool. Obviously, this was a great swimming g hole. And so just as we were getting ready to dive into that swimming hole of cold water, I noticed a huge salmon, a whole bunch of huge salmon, lumbering along the bottom, slowly, ever so slowly, their noses worn white from the long trip up this mountain river, their bellies and backs were colored black. They had traveled literally hundreds of miles, thousands of miles, to that swimming hole to spawn. For a half an hour, we watched these old hogs, as the fisherman fondly call them, old hogs lumbering like logs along the bottom, swirling, preparing to die. ….. I know the stories about the instincts of salmon. A salmon has an instinct inside of it to bring it back to the place of its birth. After spending a year or two or three out in the ocean and swimming thousands of miles back up to the stream of their birth, the salmon are preparing to die. These salmon come back to the place of their hatching, being driven over rocks and dams and waterfalls. They finally at the end of their long laborious journey and dig a hole, lay their eggs and they die. And out of those eggs comes new life. For it is through dying that there is new life among the salmon.
Our story today from John’s gospel finds Jesus six days before he was going to die. How would you feel if you knew for sure you were going to die this coming Friday? If you knew that you were going to die this coming Friday of cancer, a heart attack or whatever, wouldn’t you be preoccupied with death? Would you not be preoccupied with dying? Distracted by it? Would you not become philosophical about death? Well, in the passage for today, Jesus is philosophical about death. He is philosophizing; he is thinking; he is contemplating for it is only six days until he is going to die.
The story for today is in the city of Jerusalem. It is Passover time, and literally hundreds of thousands of people are gathered in Jerusalem. In this wild mass of humanity, there were a couple of Greeks in the crowd. They came up to the disciples and wanted to talk with Jesus. These Greek travelers came up and listened in on the conversation of the disciples, and they heard that one disciple in particular had a Greek accent. Philip from Bethsaida. If you know anything about Bethsaida, it was a Greek speaking city in Israel. The Greek travelers approached Philip and asked him, “Can we SEE Jesus?” That is often the question in the Gospel of John, “Can we SEE Jesus?” Philip went to Andrew and the two of them went to Jesus and said: “There are two Greeks who want to SEE you.”
Now you think that Jesus would have answered them directly, but he didn’t. Jesus was distracted. Preoccupied . He was preoccupied with his death, and therefore he said: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will remain a single grain. But if it dies, it will produce many grains of wheat. For whoever will find his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it. If anyone would serve me, they must follow me. They must follow me in death “
Now that’s a strange answer!!! Wasn’t that a strange answer? All the Greeks wanted to do was to see Jesus, but Jesus was preoccupied with his death, was distracted by death, was thinking about his death. But maybe there is a connection: That is, to see Jesus is to see the importance of dying in order to live.
You can almost see Jesus words; they are so visually clear. “If a seed is planted into the ground and it does not die, it remains a seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds and seedlings and those seeds and their seedlings produce much fruit.” His words are so visual. And it all begins with the seed dying.
So what exactly happens to seeds when they are planted into the ground and die. Dr. David Gibbe, who has a Ph.D. in plant physiology, tells it this way: inside every seed is an embryo, and in that embryo is a root which goes down into the ground; and a shoot that goes up into the sky. Every embryo has a root and a shoot; and inside that little embryo, (and this is really a miracle), there is an “on” and “off” switch. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that seeds have “on” and “off” switches. Every seed has a little “on” and “off” mechanism. And when you plant a seed into the ground at 40 degrees for 40 days, that mechanism goes on, but if the temperature is at 20 degrees, the mechanism stays off. There is a miraculous mechanism which goes on and off. Now there is also a thin coat around that seed which protects the oxygen from coming in prematurely. And then when this dormant seed is planted into the ground, for 40 days at 40 degrees, the switch goes “on” and the seed takes in water, and it miraculously begins to expand, and the seed coat is broken, and it begins to mature and produces sugar and protein; and then out comes the little roots and the little shoots, and the shoots produce more seeds which produce more fruit. And that’s what happens when a seed dies,” said the professor. “It’s a miracle.” Thank you, Dr. Gibbs.
Jesus said, “Unless a seed dies, it remains a single seed; but if it dies, it produces many seeds and then much fruit.” And so there is a parallel, is there not, between the seed and the salmon. That is, in both the seed and the salmon, death is necessary for life. Dying is important for living.
It is in dying that we begin living. It is only by first dying before we will ever begin living. St. Francis of Assisi knew this well when he wrote in his famous prayer for peace; “it is in giving that we receive; it is in dying that we are born again.”
There is a spiritual principle at work in this world: it is only in dying that a person begins to live. But what does it mean to die?
Jesus talks about dying to self. It means dying to selfishness. It means dying to “the big I,” the old Adam, the attitude that I am going to live for me, the purpose of my life is my self fulfillment and me experiencing all that life can give me. Life is preoccupied with me and my happiness; I am preoccupied with myself, my successes, my failures, and what other people are thinking about me; that I am the center of the universe. That’s what an infant believes; that the infant is actually the center of the universe and everything revolves around the infant’s needs. And many of us grow up but remain infants; still believing that we are the center of the universe. We never grow up but experience infantile paralysis; being paralyzed by self-centeredness. But when life revolves around me, I am not really living at all. When that childish self-centeredness finally begins to die, finally I begin to live.
Jesus said, “Unless a seed dies, it remains only one seed; but if it dies, it produces many seeds and seedlings of little love which then grow into great love.”
It is not only our childish self-centeredness that needs to die but also our sinfulness. Our sins that hurt us and others around us. It is when our sinfulness dies, that we are healthier and better.
For example, a colleague shares this story : a person called me recently and told me about being with their father in the midst of death. Father, age 5l, cancer, down to 95 pounds. And there on that Sunday afternoon, rubbing her father’s back with oil. The joy, the pleasure, the satisfaction of touching and caring for her father. How wonderful Sunday was, and how awful Monday was when he died. But it wasn’t that long before that this young woman was healed of her addiction, so that she was free and able to take care of her father in death. There on that Sunday afternoon, she was free, free to love and care and focus on the needs of her father, not being paralyzed by her addictions. There would have been no living with her father in his closing moments of life if there hadn’t been dying, dying of her sinfulness.
So Jesus says that it is a fundamental truth, that it is only in dying, that you begin living.
Each one of us struggles with our own sinfulness. I have mine and you have yours. And it is only as your personal sinfulness dies daily that you begin to live. And we can see Jesus.
Amen. (Based heavily on a sermon given by Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington)
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