Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
On today’s bulletin, you will see a picture from our pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It is the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed the night he was betrayed. Gardens in the ancient were seldom filled with flowers. Most often they were filled with olive trees. The Garden of Gethsemane is no different. The name Gethsemane actually means “oil press” as in olive oil. Pilgrims have journeyed to this place since the 4th century. Several trees in the garden have been carbon dated to the 1100’s. The trees may actually have roots dating back to the time of Jesus, since new branches can spring forth from the hollow dead trunk of the old olive wood and form a new tree.
The Garden of Gethsemane has become synonymous with wrestling with God. In various Christian traditions, the event is known as the “Agony in the Garden.” It is where Jesus prayed that God would spare him from taking the cup of death. “Not my will, but thy will be done,” and it is where he was betrayed by Judas. Oddly, there is no scene of spiritual wrestling in the Garden of Gethsemane in St. John’s gospel, nor does Jesus pray for deliverance. No, in St. John’s gospel, Jesus is in the garden waiting for Judas unafraid and he is standing his ground. Jesus is confident in his Father’s power. In the days preceding his suffering and death, in the passage we heard this morning, Jesus cries out, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say- “Father, save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Yes, Jesus is prepared for his death and resurrection, all because he knows and trusts that if the grain of wheat is to bear fruit, it must die. Every new beginning, begins with an ending. That is the lesson at the heart of today’s gospel.
My friends, we may all have our personal moments in the Garden of Gethsemane when we wrestle with God’s purpose for our life. But ultimately, we must act by faith. We must embrace boldly and confidently the certainty that in God’s hands all will be well. Jesus sets out before each one of us two choices, two ways of life for his followers. The one is a life of comfort where there is no suffering, but few lasting rewards. The other is the path which Jesus chose which brings discomfort and pain but the possibility of new life.
Let me share with you three convictions drawn from today’s gospel. First, a new beginning for your life is always a choice. Second, you can never rest on yesterday’s decision. And finally, remember, that the seed that dies will rise and bear much fruit.
First of all, a new beginning is always your choice. There is a spiritual principle at work in this world, and it is a choice: it is only in dying that a person begins to live. So what does that mean? It’s a favorite phrase of actress Bette Midler. After talking about herself for several minutes, she turns to her interviewer and says, “OK. That’s enough about me. So what do you think about me?” In Scripture, Jesus speaks about dying to self. It means dying to selfishness. It means dying to the attitude that I am going to live for me alone, and that the purpose of life is my self fulfillment and experiencing all that life can give me. The choice Jesus offers is to deny yourself. Of course, to deny yourself is not an easy endeavor. Sometimes we want to hold on to an idea, a place, a particular sin, or a bad relationship simply because they are ours.
Martin Luther wrote that you must deny yourself daily, and die and then rise again. Mind you, denying yourself doesn’t always mean a tragic end without joy. Not all of life’s ending are negative. Some of life’s greatest joys come with sacrifice and self-denial, but it means letting go of your past. I have known many a teary-eyed mother who I have caught weeping- not for the beauty of her new-born child, but who was weeping for the loss of her freedom and independence. I knew a young bride who wept because she knew the relationship with her younger brother would no longer be the same after marriage. Even accomplishments and achievement can make us mourn the past. Anne Wilson Schaef writes, “We begin to see that the completion of an important project has every right to be dignified by a natural grieving process. Something that required the best of you has ended. You will miss it.” Making peace with the old means accepting its loss, and its ending. But remember, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain.” A new beginning is always a choice.
Let us turn now to my second conviction: You can never rest on yesterday’s decision. Each one of us struggles with our own sense of value and worth, but it is only when you allow that seed to die daily that you can begin to live. In the early years of the 18th century, a French field marshal requested an audience with his general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The field marshal brought news of a great victory he had achieved. He talked for a long time about his accomplishment, piling detail upon detail. Napoleon listened closely throughout the entire narration, but said nothing. The officer was disappointed. He had hoped for a more enthusiastic reception, as well as Napoleon’s congratulations. Neither was forthcoming. When the marshal finally stopped talking, Napoleon asked him one question: “And what did you do the next day?” The field marshal was speechless. But the lesson was not lost on him. From then on, the officer understood that he should never rest on his laurels. The same is true for you. You can never rest on yesterday’s decision. You must renew your commitment to life for others each day.
Unfortunately, making a decision can be the hardest and scariest time of life- because of the transition that waits before you. Transitions come in all shapes and sizes. Some are quite ordinary and easy such as birthdays and changes in the seasons. Then there are the critical transitions, such as entering a new phase of life, of marriage, parenthood, the lonely nest, the loss of a loved one, a fractured relationship, the diagnosis of a terminal disease, or a major career change. One day you discover that you are standing on a stage of being in-between, of emptiness, a winter of discontent, a time of fallow ground. During this middle time you feel like you are a foreigner in your own home, a stranger in the company of close friends. You are treading on unfamiliar ground. And you wonder, “Where do you go from here?” It is at that moment, you need to trust God’s promise present in the grain of wheat.
I must admit even though both my parents grew up on farms, I never really understood what it meant for seeds to die. Placed into the earth, I can understand. But die? That seems a little too dark and severe. So I read the description the University of Washington plant physiologist Dr. David Gibbs, who wrote that inside every seed “there 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, and inside that little embryo, there is an “on” and “off” switch. 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. Now there is also a thin coat around that seed which protects the oxygen from coming in prematurely. So when this dormant seed is in 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 the old seed dies. The new life draws from the energy of the old seed.
That is God’s promise. Every new beginning starts with an ending. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit.” It’s a word of comfort and hope about the redemptive power of self-giving suffering. It is word of hope for the legacy we leave in death. If you do everything to protect your present life and lifestyle the way it is, if you successfully prevent change, prevent conflict, prevent pain-then at the end you will discover that you have had no life at all. It may be nice, and comfortable, painless and free, but as far as the Kingdom of God is concerned, such a life is wasted, empty, and fruitless- it like the grain placed in storage with no future purpose.
Jesus could have chosen that path, but he trusted his Father’s promise of life and death, and life again. Yes, if Jesus had loved his life in this world only and wanted to hang on to it, he could have avoided his death on the cross and we would have never heard of him again. But he didn’t. Instead, he chose to offer himself, so that you and I could enjoy the possibility of a new, richer life to share with others. Choice, you see, is ultimately about letting go and trusting in God.
I am reminded of the mother whose only son was preparing for college, she wrote the following letter to the college president: Dear Sir: My son has been accepted for admission to your college and soon he will be leaving me. I am writing to ask that you give your personal attention to the selection of his roommate. I want to be sure that his roommate is not the kind of person who uses foul language, or tells off-color jokes, smokes, drinks, or chases after girls. I hope you will understand why I am appealing to you directly. You see, this is the first time my son will be away from home, except for his three years in the US Marines. Nothing, apparently, could make that mother let go of her son. My friends, there is another choice. It is trusting in God’s power and grace.
Choosing to change and making peace with the past each day is a part of God’s holy preparation for your new beginning. There is an ending, and a transition, and then a new beginning. It is a pattern found in life, in the tiniest grain of wheat, and it is found in the promises and work of Jesus Christ. So you need not fear, your personal Garden of Gethsemane. All will be well. Though there may be a little time of awkward transition. It is your choice. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.