By Linda Rex
March 21, 2021, 5th SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—Last fall as some of my flowers went to seed, I decided to spread some of them in the empty spots in our garden. This winter, I gathered more of the seeds and sprinkled them in a pot on the patio. As time went by, I began to see little sprouts rise from the soil. Are they weeds or flowers? I’m not quite sure yet. And I’m not sure how many will survive the freezing temperatures.
But what I do know is that even though the process of planting looks a lot like death and burial, it is the means by which new life happens, new flowers bloom and fruit is borne. What seems to be the end is actually the way in which new possibilities open up—planting season accomplished means harvest season may be looked forward to with anticipation and hope. God is our divine Gardener, and he loves to plant seeds and watch them grow. When we come to situations in life that appear to be an end, we need to remember they may just be a seed God is planting so he can later reap a bountiful harvest.
When Philip and Andrew told Jesus about some Greeks who wanted to see him, he said that his hour had come. The hour Christ was speaking of was that time when his ministry would culminate with his death on the cross. I stand in awe of Jesus’ ability to confidently and courageously walk intentionally toward the crucifixion, while knowing the consequences of that decision. In close relationship with the Father, he did not ask that the hour be removed, but continued to move forward, thinking of all humanity’s need, and joyfully anticipating our freedom from evil, sin, and death.
Jesus said that when he would be lifted up, he would draw all people to himself. In the crucifixion, all humanity finds itself at a new place—dying in Christ’s death and subsequently rising in his resurrection and ascending with him into the presence of the Father in the Spirit. When the disciples saw the crucified and dead Lord planted in the tomb, they believed it was all over—even though Jesus had told them he would rise again. To them, death was the end.
Today we can look back with joy and see that death isn’t the end. The celebratory voice of the apostle Paul comes to mind here—“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting” (1 Cor. 15:54b-55)? In the gift of the Spirit, we receive by faith all that Jesus forged for us and begin to participate in the divine life and love, sharing in Christ’s perfections.
The psalm passage for this Sunday, Psalm 119:9-16, contains meditations on God’s ways. The psalmist uses the phrase “your word” three times in this pericope. The first, in verse 9, says, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word.” When the living Word took on our human flesh, he experienced our human existence, and forged into our flesh the obedience and faithfulness we are unable to practice on our own. In sending the Spirit, Jesus enables each of us to participate by faith in his purity and obedience. Members of the early church were called followers of “the Way,” a good description of what it meant to follow Christ. To keep our way pure, we need “the Way, the truth, and the life”—Jesus—implanted in our hearts. It is Christ in us, the living Word, planted in our hearts by the Spirit, who enables us to bear the fruit of purity and faithful obedience to God’s will.
The second phrase I’d like to mention is in verse 11, which says, “Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You.” Here again we see the idea of the implanting of the Word of God in our hearts—and treasuring its presence there. We implant the written Word by reading, listening to, and studying the Scriptures. But the living Word coming to us is a gift of God through Christ in the Spirit. God himself comes to dwell in our hearts by faith, as we trust in Christ and in his finished work. We want to treasure this precious gift, for this is how God writes his law on our hearts and minds, enabling us to have the desire as well as the ability to obey him (Jer. 31:31-34). By faith, we find ourselves in a new relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit—one in which we depend upon Christ’s obedience, not our own, and on his right relationship with the Father in the Spirit, not on our own.
We find the third phrase in verse 16: “I shall delight in Your statutes; I shall not forget Your word.” The reality—if we are honest with ourselves—is that we don’t remember the written Word of God like we should. Maybe we really don’t have an interest in remembering anything about God. And even when we’ve spent time learning the written Word, we find that in critical moments, we seem to completely forget all we have learned or memorized of God’s ways. This is the human condition. Our flesh gets in the way and we begin relying on our human understanding or efforts rather than pausing to remember what we know from the Scriptures.
But when by faith, the Spirit of Christ is planted in our hearts, we begin to discover that we don’t always forget. There are little seeds God has spread about in there that we aren’t even aware of. We are at times surprised by a small snippet of Scripture popping into our mind, offering us encouragement or guidance when we need it. A song we’ve sung or heard on the radio begins to run around in our head, reminding us of our belovedness or the grace of God. A friend calls or stops by and mentions something that brings to mind exactly what it is we need to remember. The reality is that there is divine life at work in us—the living Word implanted in human hearts by the Spirit produces fruit! God is always at work as a good Gardener, doing all that is needed in order to bring forth the fullness of Christ in each of us.
As we can see, the work Jesus accomplished through the crucifixion, as well as in his death, resurrection and ascension, made possible so much more than simply our rising from the grave one day. Jesus looked forward with joy to the cross because he knew that the culmination of all his efforts would mean our healing and transformation, and the renewal of all things. The planting of the Seed, the Word of God, in the grave means in due time there will be an abundant harvest—one we are able to participate in even now by faith in Jesus Christ.
As we approach Holy Week, we have the opportunity to take some time in reflection, allowing ourselves to listen for the living Word at work in our hearts and minds. How is the Spirit affirming in you that you are the Father’s beloved child? What is your relationship with the written Word of God right now—do you need to go deeper with the living Word so that the written Word has greater impact in your life? What are some ways in which you need to participate in Christ’s death so that resurrection and new life can burst forth in your life?
Heavenly Gardener, gracious King, thank you for your grace extended to us in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thank you for raising us up in Christ, and for sending your Spirit, awakening us to new life. Enable us to trust in your faithfulness and goodness, allowing you to finish what you have begun in us through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And Jesus answered them, saying, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him. Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, “Father, save Me from this hour”? But for this purpose I came to this hour.’ … ‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.’ But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.” John 12:23–27, 32–33 NASB
(All references above, NASB.)
By Linda Rex
Outside the house next to our patio door sit two flower pots. Last summer we moved some tiger lilies out of a flowerbed and into these pots because the local mole had decided he had a hankering for flower bulbs and managed to eliminate most of them we had planted earlier in the year.
Even though we planted the tiger lily bulbs in the flowerpots, we assumed they were too far gone to even come up. But this spring they began to grow and after quite some time they put on buds. We were delighted when the bright orange blossoms opened fully—they are quite stunning when in full bloom.
In comparison with a tiger lily, the bloom of an avocado tree is quite tiny and unimpressive. If one were to look at an avocado flower, one would have to get up really close in order to even see it. It has six tiny white or green petals surrounding an intricate white and yellow center. And yet, when the flower has done its work properly, it produces a seed the size of a walnut enclosed within a thick layer which we consume as fruit. The entire avocado can be bigger than the size of a human fist—a far cry from the tiny flower it came from.
The size and beauty of a flower may be large and glorious, but this is not what determines what type of fruit it produces. Nor does it determine whether or not it produces fruit which matures in such a way as to produce seeds. Some flowers produce fruit which is seedless—a natural process which botanists and producers have taken advantage of in order to provide us with such produce as seedless grapes and seedless watermelons.
Plants come in all shapes and sizes, and so do the “fruit”—this word includes nuts, vegetables, and fruit. Fruit from a plant may mature beyond the state any of us would be willing to consume, but for many plants, this is what is necessary for the seed to fully ripen so when it is put in the ground it will produce a new plant. We often consume what is produced before it is fully mature—corn on the cob is a good example of this. In order to plant corn, the corn kernel has to ripen completely and then dry—only then is it mature enough to be used as seed for planting. But dried corn kernels are quite hard to chew and they’re not very tasty either.
A lot of what I’ve shared here is common knowledge for a farmer, botanist, or master gardener. They understand the process by which a plant reproduces and how to work with seeds, plants, and flowers to produce the best crop possible. It is interesting that Jesus, our Master Gardener, often used the process of planting, growing, and harvesting crops in order to talk about himself and the kingdom of God.
In one parable, Jesus used seed to represent the Word of God. He was explaining the different ways in which the Word of God was planted and the results of each scenario:
“Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God. Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away. The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.” Luke 8:11-15 NASB
It seems that the problem with producing quality fruit lies not with the seed, but with the soil it lands on. The Word of God always produces a result—it is fruitful—there’s no doubt about that. But the ground which receives the seed can be harsh and unreceptive, or provide little room for the roots to grow, or be so filled with weeds that a new plant can’t grow and thrive.
If we were to consider this parable for a bit, we might see that the point of putting the seed in the ground is not just to have pretty flowers. Flowerbeds are lovely and I personally enjoy a garden filled with colorful blooms. But this was not the point of this parable—the focus is on the seed and what the seed was to produce—more seed. This means each seed needs to produce a plant which will grow to the place it flowers, it produces fruit, and the fruit matures to the point that it produces seed.
Seeds come in all shapes and sizes, and travel all over by a variety of means. Seeds are not meant to stay on the plant, but to be spread to new places. We experience the reality of this when we find oak trees growing in our pansy bed or an apple tree coming up in the vegetable garden.
When we hear the Word of God—the good news of God’s love for us expressed to us in his Son Jesus Christ, it is meant to take root in our hearts by faith. The Word of God, the indwelling Christ by the Spirit, works transform our hearts and lives. We open ourselves up to the work of the Spirit in our walk of faith and begin to mature as followers of Jesus Christ. Our lives begin to reflect the Word of God at work within us. Like beautiful blossoms on a plant, we glow with the glory God created us to bear—the image of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This flowering is not the end of the story though. We are meant to go even farther and mature into seed-bearing plants. Our lives and words are to be a testimony to Christ. In other words, the life-giving Word is carried to new places and planted in new ground—new hearts—because we have become mature seed-bearing plants. Jesus said as we go, we are to make disciples. Making disciples, sharing the Word of God with others, is to be a natural by-product of our spiritual growing up in Christ.
The environment in which the Word of God exists within us is critical in this process. Do we allow ourselves to be deceived by a word other than that which given to us in Jesus Christ? Do we allow ourselves to be tempted by other things which supplant the Word of God? Do we allow ourselves to be so absorbed in the cares and pleasures of this life that we suffocate the Word of God? All of these are ways in which we disrupt or hinder the process of spiritual growth God meant for us to participate in.
The healthier alternative is to receive the Word with an “honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.” The Word of God sinks deep roots in the soil of our heart as we practice spiritual disciplines which open us up to the work of the Spirit within us. The Word of God can transform our lives and hearts as we obey the Spirit’s inner prompting to put away our idols and distractions and focus wholly on Christ. We make space for God to work by making sure we are not preoccupied with the cares and pleasures of this life.
And we are not satisfied with just the external trappings of spiritual growth. It’s easy to look as though we are a stunning example of spiritual maturity. But the proof is when what God has done and is doing in us is duplicated in the lives of those around us. When the Word of God begins spreading into the hearts and lives of those around us, then we know we are being fruitful, and that God’s Word is living and active, taking root in many new hearts and lives.
Thank you, Lord, for planting your Word in our hearts. By faith, may we allow your Word to grow and develop, transforming our hearts and lives in such a way that your Word may be planted anew in others hearts and lives as well. May we be productive plants for your glory, through Jesus our Lord and by your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” Luke 8:14 NRSV