Spring: A sermon based on John 20:1-9
Those of you familiar with the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis probably remember how in the book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, four children mysteriously travel through a wardrobe. They grab for the fur coats that were hanging in the wardrobe and wrap themselves up in them because in this new land, it’s the dead of winter. As they travel, they discover that it has been winter here for a long, long time. Always winter, but never Christmas. Probably from around February to April here in the Bulkley Valley, I feel like we’re journeying in the land of Narnia where it has been winter for an unnaturally long time. In truth, I think April is the worst month of the year as far as weather goes. This year though, this awkward spring season has been to me a bit of a picture of the kind of times we’re living in. It has been showing me something to do with Easter.
Let me see if I can share what I’m getting at this way: Jesus’ disciples and the Jewish people at the time had a particular idea of what seasons looked like. They saw themselves as being in the season of winter. In winter, other nations and powers ruled over them. In winter they were separated from God. In winter, there is death and tears and pain. People take advantage of others and get away with it. People get sick and don’t get better.
But the Jewish people also believed that summer would come. In summer, God would show himself to be the one who has all the power and everyone would see it. In summer those who had died would be brought back to life. In summer, God would defeat his enemies and no one would be able to stand in the way of his totally renewing the whole world. There wouldn’t be any more death or tears or pain. There wouldn’t be any injustice or sickness. God would totally be in charge and there would no longer be anything that would separate his people from him. This season would never end.
This understanding of the seasons is one reason there was so much confusion surrounding Jesus. If Jesus who his disciples thought he was and who he said he was, how come it wasn’t summer? Why wasn’t Jesus bringing Rome to its knees to show that God is the one who really has the power? Why wasn’t his work more complete? Why wasn’t he wielding his power in a more public way? And, as Jesus journeyed to the cross, why did he allow himself to be mocked, to be humiliated? How could he let himself be subject to the most cruel and humiliating kind of execution? The kind of death that was not allowed as punishment to Roman citizens because it was thought to be too degrading, too inhuman, too cruel. Surely, when the disciples placed Jesus in the tomb they saw in Jesus’ death also the death and burying of their own hope that summer had come in Jesus. Surely, they must have seen Jesus’ death as a confirmation that they remained without question in the dead of winter. That power remained quite securely in the hands of Rome and in the hands of those who had their own selfish interests at heart.
Notice in our text that there is no expectation from his disciples and friends that Jesus would rise from the dead. This is something that the Jewish people expected would happen at the end of the age. In John 11, Jesus is talking with Martha and he says to her about her brother, Lazarus, who has just died, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answers, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” When Mary sees the tomb open, she immediately concludes that someone has stolen Jesus’ body. In each of the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection that we have in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, most of Jesus’ friends respond to his empty tomb in shock, fear, and in many cases skepticism. Many of the disciples take convincing and seeing the risen Jesus a number of times to believe. No one expected Jesus to come back to life. It doesn’t make sense of their vision of the seasons. Jesus’ resurrection is like a red rose blooming in the snow. Or strawberries ripe for the picking in February at -30 degrees. It’s the in-breaking of summer in the dead of winter. Can you imagine that? Going out into your yard in February and finding ripe, red strawberries? Jesus’ resurrection is just as unexpected, unbelievable, joyful and also a little unsettling. What does it mean?
Part of what Jesus’ resurrection means is that a whole new season has begun that no one had anticipated. It’s spring. Remember that in Jesus’ day, the Jewish people understood history as moving from winter, when sin and death and the enemy reign, directly to summer, when God will reign and the enemy is totally defeated. But when Jesus rises from the dead right in the middle of history, instead of at the end, it was the start of this new season, that no one had imagined. This springtime season that we continue to live in today.
I’d like to name together today three pretty key things about spring, for those who are new to the season.
First, spring means that from now on, we are moving in a summer, not a winter direction. Jesus’ resurrection is the first sign that from now on, things are different. Summer is breaking in, and winter can’t stop it. Narnia fans might remember a few key signs pointing to the fact that the white witch’s reign of winter was doomed. Snow was melting. The children were getting hot in their fur coats and took them off. And once all this begins, there is no turning back. Jesus’ resurrection means that from now on, history is moving in a different direction. Summer is coming.
Come spring, you start to think about things differently. You start thinking and acting more and more like summer. Even though it’s still too cold outside, you might start planting some seeds in the house in anticipation of planting them in your garden. You might tune up your bike and think about where you’re going to go riding. You put away the snow shovel and the winter clothes. You do things knowing that summer is coming. Jesus’ resurrection invites the same kind heart and mind shift. Knowing that in the new age, we’ll all be one in Christ, we aim to move in that direction now by doing the hard work of reconciliation and forgiveness or by including someone who may be feeling left out. Knowing that in the new age, there won’t be any injustice, we aim to move in that direction now by standing alongside those who have been mistreated or misunderstood or by sharing our resources of kindness, time, or money with those who need. We act differently in the spring because summer is coming. And winter is not coming back.
Second, Spring is a strange, in-between season. It’s not winter; it’s not summer. It’s kind of both at the same time. It can be confusing. You can see snow and crocuses in the same yard. One day it may be warm enough for a T-shirt. The next day you may be reaching for your winter coat. Winter and summer exist together at the same time.
Jesus talks about two ages existing together when he tells the story a farmer in Matthew 13, who planted good seeds in his field. While everyone is sleeping, an enemy came and planted weed seeds in among the good seeds. When the wheat sprouted, the weeds also appeared. The farmer allows both to grow together so as not to rip out any of the wheat by accident. They both grow together until the harvest. Jesus warns us not to be surprised to see both the power of darkness and his own healing power alongside each other in this time.
Jesus uses the picture of yeast working through dough, or a mustard seed eventually becoming the biggest tree in the garden to describe the season we are in now. There is something hidden about God’s power at work in these things. That’s why Jesus points to them. He doesn’t want us to miss them or what they mean. Just like right now we need to look closely at the branches of the trees to see whether there are any buds. We can’t see what the seeds are doing underneath the surface. We have to point out signs of spring to each other or else we might miss them. Pointing out these things to each other is an extremely important springtime practice. Especially here in the north. Otherwise, it is very easy to despair and believe that winter will actually last forever. As Jesus’ followers in this time it is important to point out to each other the things we see God doing. The new life he is growing. We need to tell each other stories of hard hearts being softened, of forgiveness being offered, of dreams and visions God gives us or of God causing good to come out of something intended for bad. In this confusing time of spring where both winter and summer exist together, we need to keep pointing out to each other even the smallest of signs of spring, hidden as they may be, to keep our hearts rooted in the reality of the new life that has already begun.
The third thing about spring that I wanted to name together here about spring is a powerful mystery that none of us will ever understand, but we will all know and experience to some degree in our lives. It’s this: that somehow, it’s the very stuff of winter that by God’s power he transforms to nourish the new life of spring. Snow isn’t plowed away at the end of winter. It melts. God warms and transforms the snow to water that sinks into the ground and nourishes the seeds that are hidden and waiting. Jesus faced the worst that the Enemy had. Separation from God, intense physical pain, rejection and abandonment from his closest friends, cruel execution. Jesus didn’t bypass death. He went through it and redeemed it. He transformed it so that it no longer does what it intended to do. In John 12 Jesus says, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Somehow, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the stuff of winter can be itself transformed. In spring, death still occurs but we plant our loved ones like seeds in the ground trusting they will rise again. Tears still fall but we plant them too, trusting that those who weep will come home carrying a harvest of joy. Pain becomes something that God can use and transform to accomplish his purpose. This is to me one of the most mysterious and beautiful parts of Easter. That God can take what was intended for evil, and make good come out of it.
Mysteriously, Jesus takes the very stuff of winter, and he somehow transforms it to water and nourish this springtime season.
So welcome to spring! This sometimes confusing, sometimes joyful in-between season. Let’s rejoice in it, point out its signs to one another and live in trust in it, that winter’s power truly is gone, that summer is coming and in the meantime, that new life has already begun. Amen.