I wonder if anybody else here does a bit of gardening. I’m not very good at flowers and decorative stuff, but I do quite enjoy growing veg. I do find some satisfaction in growing stuff for the meal table. A couple of weeks ago I planted some tomato seeds on our kitchen window sill, and now I’ve got a whole load of little tomato plants in their pots, in the first stages of their lives, it’s all quite exciting. Every year the miracle repeats itself. This tiny little dried out brown speck of nothing goes into the soil and two weeks later there is this green, alive, moving, growing plant. It really is astonishing. There is the potential for life in the seed, but unless it goes into the ground and dies, the potential is never realised.
In our reading from John’s account of Jesus life, we hear Jesus speaking about this to his friends and followers. They would all have been familiar with the principle, after all they lived in a far more agricultural world than ours. They would have been far more closely aware of the relationship between planting and harvesting. I grow food for the satisfaction of eating something I’ve grown, but if the crop fails I can always go to Tesco. In their world, there was no Tesco, what they grew really did keep them alive.
And in that context, in the world of grain agriculture, the metaphor is even more telling. Because the choice facing the grain farmer is whether to eat all the grain now, or to save some of it for planting next year. The foolish farmer might eat or sell all this year’s crop for a short term gain, but when it comes to planting time the next year the long term folly of his actions would become apparent. He would have no seed to put in the ground to die and bring new harvest this year.
There is another aspect to this example that is even more extraordinary. I wonder who is the most dedicated gardener you know. It might even be you. The person who is out every day weeding, trimming, dead heading, lavishing care and affection on a perfect and beautiful garden. Someone who really loves their garden, who would do anything for it to grow well and fruitfully. I wonder if you know someone like that.
I wonder if that person would die for their garden. I know this is a flight of fancy, but just imagine with me for a minute that this perfect garden is being invaded by pests that are eating up everything in sight, they are completely resistant to insecticides and are destroying the garden. The only thing that could get rid of them is if the gardener goes down into the garden, becomes tiny and does battle with the pests. More than that the gardener has to die so that a plant can grow up whose scent drives the pests from the garden. Do you know a gardener who would go to those lengths for her garden? It sounds fantastic, doesn’t it. And yet we do all know that gardener. God came down into the garden of creation to destroy the pests of sin and death. He did that, not only by becoming part of the garden but by being planted it in it, dying in it, so that new life could come.
A few weeks ago I was reading an article about a new theory about Stonehenge, that it might have been a platform on which sacrifices to the gods were made. In the middle of the article was this comment, ““All the great raised altars of the past suggest that the people who built Stonehenge would never have performed celestial ceremonies on the lowly earth, that would have been unimaginably insulting to the immortal beings, for it would have brought them down from heaven to bite the dust and tread in the dung.” “
Whatever the merits of this theory on the purposes of Stonehenge, it seems to me that this writer really understands the scandal of the incarnation, of Jesus coming to earth as a creature, as a person.
So why did Jesus do it? Why did he come down into the dust and dung to die? Well, why is any seed planted? It is planted to bring fruitfulness, whether that is the kind of fruit that we can harvest and eat or the kind of fruit that flowers and brings beauty into creation. What fruit came from Jesus death and new life? Firstly, something we’ve already talked about is the fruit of the defeat of death and sin in the world.
Jesus said, “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” To be honest, sometimes it doesn’t feel like the ruler of this world has been driven out, when I look at the world around and see the evil that still prospers it can be hard to believe this. We live in the in between time. The seed has been planted, and the judgement has been made, but the plant is still growing and we have not yet seen the full fruit of that judgement, of the end of evil. But we will, that is the promise of God.
What else can we see in this fruit? Well, the consequence of the driving out of sin and death is that we can live forever with God.
As Jesus says, “those who hate their life in this would will keep it for eternal life.” The fruit of Jesus death and resurrection is our life, secure forever in his hands, as long as we trust him with it.
And there, perhaps, is the rub. For us to be part of the fruit, for us to enjoy the fruit, we have to lay something aside. Like the farmer who has to choose not to eat all the grain he has, but to save some of it, and throw it away again, into the field, trusting that the miracle of new growth will happen again this year, so we have to throw something away, we have to plant something, we have to allow something to die.
I’m in the middle of reading a book called, “The Gift“. The person who wrote it has been collecting folk tales about gifts, and looking at different cultures to find out about why people give gifts, how they’re different to things bought and sold, and what they mean. He recounts the tale of the shoemaker and the elves. You probably know it. A poor shoemaker only has enough leather left for one pair of shoes. He cuts it out and goes to bed, hungry. The elves who live in the shop see his distress and take pity on him, and in the night come out and make the leather into a beautiful pair of boots, with the most delicate stitching imaginable. They are so fine that the shoemaker can sell them, buy food for his family and enough leather for more boots. Again he cuts them out, leaves them on the side and goes to bed. Again in the morning they have been transformed into exquisite shoes. This goes on day after day and the shoemaker really begins to prosper. One night his curiosity gets the better of him and he stays up to see who is making the shoes, and he spots the elves, and realises that the elves have nothing to wear. So the next day he makes some tiny little clothes for them and leaves them out that evening. The elves are delighted with the clothes, and fully dressed head off into the night.
The writer suggests that the real gift of the elves was not the shoes, nor the ability to make shoes, the real gift was the ability to see another’s need and respond to it. The Shoemaker had not fully received the gift of the elves until he had given it away.
Jesus’ gift to us is life. But we will not receive that gift until we give it away. There are perhaps two ways that we do that. The first is by following Jesus’ example and sacrificing ourselves to the needs of others, by loving our neighbours, despite the personal cost to our selves and to our preferences. The second is by telling others about the gift of live that we have received so that they can receive it too. The seed we’ve received we must sow. If we try to keep it to ourselves and fail to plant it, then there will be no harvest, either in our own lives or in the lives of others. This is a great responsibility, but also a great joy. There is nothing more joyful than seeing seeds we’ve planted starting to shoot, coming to maturity and then bearing fruit for themselves. It is a joy in the garden and it is an even greater joy in people’s lives. It is my prayer that we will all have that joy of seeing eternal life blossoming in our friends and families, and then seeing them plant into other lives and seeing them blossom as well.