5 Lent – March 22, 2015
J.R.R. Tolkien, of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings fame, was many things: a university professor, a medieval scholar, a writer of fantasy, and a Christian. During the First World War, young Tolkien served in the trenches with the British army, and that experience is said to have had a major impact on his fiction. During World War Two, while Britain struggled against the Axis powers, Tolkien, no longer young, wrote these words to his son Christopher:
“I sometimes feel appalled at the thought of the sum total of human misery all over the world at the present moment: the millions parted, fretting, wasting in unprofitable days–quite apart from torture, pain, death, bereavement, injustice. If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapor, shrouded from the amazed vision of the heavens! And the products of it all will be mainly evil–historically considered. But the historic vision is, of course, not the only one. All things and all deeds have a value in themselves, apart from their ’causes’ and ‘effects.’ No man can estimate what is really happening in the light of eternity. All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labors with vast power and perpetual success–in vain: preparing the soil for unexpected good to sprout in.” [I have substituted “in the light of eternity’ for Tolkien’s Latin phrase sub species aeternitatis.]
Tolkien describes the powerful, successful work of evil as amounting to a preparation of soil, a preparation of soil where unexpected good will sprout.
Tolkien talks about soil. Jesus talks about seed. Hear again Jesus’ words from today’s gospel: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, 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.” From a solitary seed, Jesus tells us, much fruit will come forth. Unexpected good will sprout.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus” our gospel story for today begins. The Greeks wanted to “see Jesus”. The wanted to see Jesus face to face. They wanted to experience Jesus. Isn’t that what most of us really want, too? A personal experience of Jesus? A divine encounter? The people who classify themselves as spiritual, but not religious, are really saying, “we wish to see Jesus”. But what Jesus do we want to see? When Andrew and Philip went to Jesus and told him that the Greeks wanted to see him. He responded with words of his upcoming death. Jesus has us looking toward the cross. In fact, we are not told whether they ever did get to see Jesus.
Tolkien tells us of how, strangely, it is evil that prepares the soil. And there was much evil when Jesus was put in the grave. Religious and political power had conspired to kill him. People had disowned their discipleship by betraying him, deserting him, denying him. The machinery of evil had spit out its product: a corpse, a body left without life, and endeavored to lose that body in the dark soil of its own misdeeds. In Tolkien’s language, the machinery of evil had labored with vast power and, with reason, had anticipated perpetual success, but this was not to be.
Jesus looks ahead to his resurrection, and does so long centuries before our time. But this resurrection outside Jerusalem is not some freak event, isolated and unique. It provides the basis for what Tolkien says about the sprouting of unexpected good from the soil over which evil has labored.
Tolkien speaks in a time not much before our own. He speaks in universal as well as specific terms. The sprouting of unexpected good is a deep law of life. The most potent example of this is the one that turns Lent into Easter and announces an inclusive harvest when time will be no more. To catch a glimpse of these things requires the eyes of faith.
Next Sunday is the Sunday of the Passion, when we hear about the seed’s death and burial. Throughout Holy Week, the same song is sung in a variety of keys. During those dark days, we feel how rich is the soil which evil has prepared. Then comes the Sunday when unexpected good sprouts out of this dark, rich soil over which evil has labored with vast power and–seemingly–perpetual success.
Today we hear it all by anticipation in what Tolkien writes to his son about the soil, and in what Jesus tells us about himself, the seed.
Yet Jesus does not rest content with declaring that in the soil the seed will sprout. He speaks of much fruit, an abundant harvest. He speaks of being lifted from the earth, like a plant reaching heavenward, and drawing all people to himself. This is a promise, and it is a reliable one.
It’s normal enough to believe in the force of gravity. We see it demonstrated all the time, and sometimes we are the demonstration!
There is also a gravity that is moral and spiritual, that drags us downward into alienation and death, into that soil over which evil has labored with vast power and–seemingly–perpetual success. It is normal enough to believe in this gravitational force. We see it demonstrated all the time, and sometimes we are the demonstration.
But by faith we recognize another force at work, the power of resurrection, a moral and spiritual force that draws us up from the dark soil of death, away from the grip of evil, in order that we may sit with Christ in heavenly places. The power of resurrection is at work in the saints, in all who claim the faith of Jesus. By faith we recognize it at work in the world.
This power turns to its own holy purpose the soil over which evil has labored. From that soil sprouts unexpected good.
Is it the Jesus we want to see? The Jesus who reveals the heart of our loving God by going to the cross is the Jesus we get, and the Jesus who is raised again on the third day to demonstrate that love is more powerful than hate and life more powerful than death is the Jesus we believe in. Do you believe? Become part of that unexpected good. Amen.