Yr B ~ Lent 5 ~ Jn 12:20–33 Rev 21:1-5
Today I’m hoping to invite you to wonder about a rhythm so profound that even Jesus couldn’t find the right metaphor to teach it, and for two thousand years people have been struggling with it because it’s so mundane that it’s obvious and at the same time it’s so wondrous that it’s mind-boggling.
We’re going to focus on two verses from John 12:24 and 25 where Jesus says – “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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
and one verse from Revelation 21:5 where God says – “Behold, I am making all things new.”
Let’s start with the love/hate language on Jesus’ lips here. It’s a rhetorical device to compare two things – it’s not love/hate like we imagine, it’s more like “value more and value less” – or to hold something in higher esteem than the other thing.
So the verse says if you love or value highly this world and this breathing thing you’re going to lose it.
We’re back to Qoheleth/Ecclesiastes again – this world is all hevel, smoke, and eventually you’re going to stop breathing and your aliveness will end so if your deepest love and highest value is the physical, tangible stuff of living then you are going to one day lose it. Guaranteed!
But then Jesus says that if you hate your life in this world you will keep it for eternal life. It sounds confusing, but it just means that you shouldn’t be unhealthily attached to the stuff of this life. If you “hate” or “hold in lower esteem” or are unattached to the physical, tangible stuff then you’re open to being “attached to” or “love” something more – Something More (God) – and that love endures forever and ever.
It’s a teaching that has resonance in Buddhism too. Attachments hold you back from embracing something more. I don’t mean things like being attached to your family. Don’t be ridiculous. I mean being attached to things that are fleeting and less important in the bigger picture.
You’ve heard this many times before: if you’re holding tight to something you cannot grasp something new. You have to let go of what you’re holding to receive the better thing.
Or a worse thing! These things require discernment!
You don’t want to let go of a good thing for something lesser. But sadly humans do that all the time – because we love our “stuff” rather than being “detached” from our stuff.
But this isn’t a teaching about materialism, it’s a teaching about the rhythm of growing deeper and growing in humanity and divinity. The rhythm is profoundly true, whether we like it or not.
John 12:24 – “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.”
Jesus could just as easily have said “Unless a caterpillar goes into its chrysalis and dies, it remains just a caterpillar. But if it dies it becomes a butterfly!”
Now, far be it from me to tell Jesus his business, but I actually wish he would’ve used a different metaphor to make his point – because his point is sheer spiritual brilliance!
Jesus is teaching a profound spiritual rhythm here – the rhythm of dying and rising – of dying to what was in order to embrace what could be.
In light of the cross theologians call this “cruciformity” – and they suggest that as followers of Jesus we are called to live a cruciform life.
Richard Rohr says: “All of creation has a cruciform pattern of loss and renewal, death and resurrection, letting go and becoming more.”
But let me tell you my challenges with the way we usually talk about this. All our examples are one-offs – once-and-for-all-never-to-be-repeated-again movements in your life.
A seed, a caterpillar, the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings who leave behind the safety of the Shire to go off on a quest and return changed, people like Nelson Mandela who emerged from prison a transformed man – these all only happen once and for all.
But that’s just not what faith feels like – at least in my experience. I mean, sure my faith life has some big once-in-a-lifetime transformational moments in it but the real depth and growth happens slowly over time with a long series of little dyings and risings that move me bit by bit toward who I’m meant to be.
If you’re looking for one big moment that’s going to change you from a caterpillar to a butterfly I’m sorry to say that such a thing rarely happens. It may take something on that scale to get you travelling but the journey is more of a daily rhythm of tiny course corrections. A constant rhythm of cruciformity, of letting go of lesser things in order to embrace Something More.
And that’s what I wish Jesus would have said more plainly. So, since I’m kind of on Jesus’ PR team for today I’d like to give you a new metaphor.
Let’s talk about the sun instead of seeds.
Every day we experience a wondrous and profound rhythm of dying and rising as we watch the sun slowly fade into darkness in the evening, trusting and knowing that it will re-emerge in the morning and run its course again the next day. The rhythm is relentless – and it’s also a beautiful metaphor of renewal.
Very truly, I tell you, unless the sun falls out of the sky and dies, it cannot be what it is meant to be; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
The sun must let go of today in order to be reborn tomorrow morning.
But even that rhythm of sunrise and sunset is limited because the sun doesn’t have any choice in its dying and rising – nor does the caterpillar – nor does the seed.
But we do.
I wish I had a neat answer for this but I don’t. So we need to keep exploring metaphors to try to understand this rhythm of cruciformity – of endings and beginnings – of doors closing and opening – and of letting go in order to grasp something new.
This is a massive and foundational teaching from Jesus.
The cross that hangs in our churches and symbolizes Christian faith is a visual expression of this profound rhythm of cruciformity.
It really is all about the cross.
Jesus lived this rhythm and in the end he reveals this pattern in the ultimate example through his death.
The ultimate revelation has a special word in Greek. The word is apocalypse. Now usually we hear that word associated with sci-fi movies and we picture a huge battle and the end of the world. But apocalypse doesn’t mean a battle (that’s actually armageddon), it means the ultimate disclosure or revelation. That’s why the last book of the bible is called Revelation – it’s a translation of the Greek word apocalypse. It literally means to unhide – to reveal.
So how did apocalypse become associated with end times? It’s because it’s referring to such an overwhelming and profound disclosure of something that it requires nothing less than the end of the thing that came before it because the two things cannot co-exist.
We speak in epic terms because in order to embrace something so holy, so wondrous, so awe-some, the previous thing must be totally let go of.
I wonder if that’s why people seem so drawn to apocalyptic end of everything stuff? Maybe deep down people sense that things are so out of tune, so far off the mark from what could be, and should be, that they intuitively know the slate has to be wiped clean in order for Something More to be embraced.
So if you read the book of Revelation it spends a lot of time talking very creatively about the cleaning of the slate. It’s like a bunch of special effects movie people had a party and dreamed up the wildest scenarios they could imagine. But all that is just the set up for the ultimate revealing of God’s Presence.
And what’s really surprising is that after all this time and attention to these things that we’ve basically got it wrong. We’ve got it backwards. We don’t ultimately “go to heaven” – heaven comes to us!
Have you heard of a thing called the rapture? It’s popular among fundamentalists. They think that at the end of the world those who are in God’s good books will be “taken up” into heaven with their clothes carefully folded. These folks are very concerned about being “left behind.” But it’s all a myth. It’s simply not in the bible. It’s a philosophy that’s been imagined into Revelation but it isn’t there.
In fact, the opposite ultimately happens.
The ascension of humans that they imagine is really a “descension” of the heavens to us. (Remember, in their cosmology the heavens are “up there”.) Heaven comes to earth in Revelation, not humans rising to heaven.
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals (God has moved into the neighborhood). God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and God will be with them.”
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
Here it is in a nutshell. Revelation 21 has God saying, “Behold I am making all things new” – it does NOT say “Behold I am making all new things.”
Making all things new is the opposite of making all new things.
Apocalypse is all about beauty obliterating the distance between ‘heaven and earth’.
It’s the ultimate renewal.
It’s not the destruction of earth but rather earth transformed by God’s Presence. We pray for this every time we say the Lord’s Prayer – “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The image is of God making God’s home on the earth – the deepest of incarnations – making God’s home among us, dwelling among us.
Which makes more sense to you – that God is up there waiting for us to get it right so God can finally move in? – Or might it be that the new heaven and earth are already here but we’re too self-involved and self-important to notice so we keep mucking it up?
We’ll never see and experience this mind-boggling, wondrous thing if we’re holding on to our previous thing too tightly.
God says, “Behold, I am making all things new!”
And we answer, “Oh no you’re not! Don’t you dare mess with my stuff!”
And we don’t see that God has already moved into the neighbourhood, because too often we’re afraid to let go.
What will it take for us to really see this teaching?
What will it take for this to be revealed?
Well, maybe it’s being revealed all around us and we’re looking at it the wrong way. If you watch the news you’ll see people who make their living being giddy about what they think are signs of the apocalypse.
But maybe the signs of the apocalypse are not ebola, or climate change, or war – but rather, how about something like an urban garden! – a merging of urban and nature, a transformation, a renewal.
Or maybe something like the fact that equal marriage is now pretty much equal.
Or maybe something as simple as planting your garden this spring,
or taking on a new challenge or opportunity,
or agreeing to participate in something that stretches you out of your comfort zone a little and grows you.
God isn’t looking to make a new thing for you – God is looking to grow you into a renewed thing!
What might your renewed thing look like this season?
What might the new thing God is inspiring in you look like?
God isn’t trying to make you better so you qualify to go and be with God – God is trying to make you open so God can emerge and renew you here and now.
Jesus is getting nearer and nearer to Jerusalem and Holy Week.
We engage in this journey every year to try to emulate his cruciform rhythm.
An apocalypse is on the horizon. A cross looms in the distance.
It represents the ultimate revealing of the rhythm of renewal – a rhythm so mundane, yet so wondrous.
Behold, God is making all things new!
iWonder if we can let go of the old?