Yesterday marked the first day of spring, although it’s been feeling that way
off and on for some weeks now. Having come to the realization that a late
blizzard to counteract what seems to be another unusually dry winter isn’t
going to happen, many of us are thinking about turning on the irrigation
systems to water the flowers starting to bloom. Others of us of us are
perusing seed and flower catalogues, all the while sneezing and sniffling
into our hankies and tissues as the annual allergy season opens. Ah,
spring has sprung!
It seems that spring was in the air in this morning’s gospel reading. It was
indeed springtime, when the Jewish nation made their way toward
Jerusalem for the annual Passover celebration. Just prior to this morning’s
reading, Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding on a
colt – the sign of a king or messiah (more on that next week). According to
John, the crowds who had been present at the raising of Lazarus not long
before, as well as those who had heard about that remarkable event, all
gathered to cheer Jesus on and into the Holy City.
An event of this magnitude attracted not only the children of Israel, but
citizens of other lands as well. Among those who happened to be on the
road at the same time, were a group of gentile pilgrims, coming to attend
the festival. No doubt they were impressed and intrigued by the throng
accompanying Jesus, and wanted to see who and what all the commotion
So, they probably inquired around and finally found Philip, and made the
request. “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Philip relayed their request to Andrew and together, they told Jesus. But at this point, their query fizzles
out and the story takes a new turn. We never learn if the Gentile pilgrims
got an audience with the one about whom they had heard so many rumors.
Jesus seems to have no notice of them. He had darker things on his mind
than the curiosity of the crowds.
But I have to wonder – why did they want to see Jesus? Were these
pilgrims genuine seekers or mere gawkers? Did they simply want to find
out what the fuss was all about? I wonder what they hoped to see or hear
from Jesus? Did they want to see this celebrity miracle worker with their
own eyes; this miracle worker who turned water int o wind and raised
Lazarus from the dead? The storyteller whose parables simultaneously
revealed and obscured? The renegade rabbi who violated purity laws,
broke the Sabbath, embraced the sexually suspicious, ate with ethnic
outsiders and who profaned Israel’s most sacred space, the temple? Was
this just a case of what we might call celerity worship?
We don’t know, because if they ever saw Jesus, John doesn’t say. But if
they were seeking the man of miracles, that was NOT the Jesus that was
on the road to Jerusalem that week. If they did get to meet him, they did
not meet a conquering political figure. Rather, the Jesus on the road that
day was a deeply disturbed man. The time for healing and miracles had
ended and he begins what many commentators call his “final discourse”.
“Now my soul is troubled”, he says. His time is at hand; the countdown has
begun. He knows that the cross is imminent, and will soon be looming over
him. Jesus does not want to experience pain, rejection and death. Yet, he
never asks God to save him from his troubles. Rather, he says that his
troubles are the very reason he came. And so, he begins to speak, to prepare his disciples, to once again forewarn his disciples about what was
ahead, to remind them once again why he had come. He is headed, not for
immediate and earthly glory, but for suffering and death.
The Greeks wanted to “see” Jesus. The word can mean “meet”, but it can
also mean “know” who he is. To “know” Jesus is not to ride the coattails of
a conquering hero. Jesus was very clear about that. Jesus rather speaks
of dying and rising and losing and gaining. In this passage, Jesus speaks
in what is as close to a parable as John can manage; that a grain of wheat
must fall into the ground and die in order that it might flourish and grow.
In light of these words of Jesus, I am looking at my iris rhizomes a bit more
thoughtfully this season. Once it has produced a beautiful bloom, the
rhizome dies. Its roots shrivel and decay, never again to produce another
bud. It becomes an ugly, dried up root. Only if and when it is planted
beneath the dark earth and allowed to grow, will it develop a new root and
shoot system, producing more rhizomes, which in turn grow into more
beautiful flowers. But only when the old plant dies to itself, can it live to
produce new flower shoots.
Likewise, I consider the tomato seeds I accumulated from last season.
They are edible, in and of themselves, but certainly that small number of
saved seeds would never stave off hunger. Only when sown into the dirt
will they be able to sprout and grow and produce an abundant harvest, food to nourish the hungry body, with seeds to begin the process all over again the next growing cycle.
And so, it is with life. Sometimes we have to die to the old in order for the
new to emerge. We need to let go of the past so we can be open to new things, often better things. We need to let go of the familiar but not
necessarily healthy, habits, ideas and relationships in order to be able to
receive something better. As Jesus says in other discourses, we need to
die to our old selves in order to be able to live. In order to find a better life,
we may have to let go of the familiar- with its ideas, attitudes and values.
Christian youth ministry worker Les Christie has illustrated this concept in
his story entitled “The Balloon Man”. He tells the story of a man who
carried a bunch of brightly colored balloons wherever he went. He would
hold the strings in his hands or wrap them tightly around his wrist and take
them everywhere he went. The people he worked with didn’t mind – it
brightened the office a little. Even at night, the balloons would float above
the man as he slept.
One day he went to a fair and had a great time. At the fair, he could blend
into the atmosphere of the rides and lights and noise. Oh, sometimes the
people tried to buy his balloons, thinking he was a vendor, but of course,
wouldn’t sell even one.
At one of the booths, he filled in a ticket for a free ocean cruise. He
certainly didn’t plan on winning, but it wouldn’t hurt to try. Two weeks later, the call came – he had won! He would enjoy great entertainment and the world’s finest chefs would be providing his meals. The man was thrilled.
He began packing immediately. He was ready to go days before it was
time to leave.
Finally, the big day came. He called a taxi, but discovered that all the
balloons would not fit into the cab, so they made their way to the dock very
slowly so that the balloons hanging out the window would not blow away or pop. Once on board, he was able to stand on the deck and enjoy the
bustling activity – confetti, horns and streamers – and lots of balloons as
the travelers bid farewell to friends and family and prepared to begin their
voyage into the open seas.
Sailing on the ocean liner in the salt air was wonderfully refreshing and
eventually the man became hungry. When the bell rang for dinner, the
man was more than ready. The aroma of the food was absolutely amazing
and promised to taste as good. But there was a problem. Whoever had
designed the ship hadn’t left enough room for a man with a handful of
balloons to get down the passageway. Only if he released some of the
balloons would it be possible, but the man was unwilling to let go of even
one. He contented himself with a handful of crackers and cheese that were
available on the top deck and figured that was good enough. And he still
had his balloons.
After enjoying a magnificent sunset and a stroll along the deck, the man
became tired. He asked one of the ship’s crew to show him to his room.
Together they walked down a wide hallway, and the crewman opened the
door to his room.
It was exquisite – beautifully decorated with a bed that looked so
comfortable and inviting. But there was just one problem. The doorway to
the room was so designed that he was not able to get all the balloons into
the room without breaking some. He tried very hard, but it just did not
Back on deck, he found some blankets and a deck chair. He tied his
balloons to the arm of the chair and tried to sleep. The next morning, he was still tired. All that day, he ate crackers and cheese and that night he
slept on the deck again.
The next day, the man received and engraved invitation from the ship’s
captain. He had been invited to sit at the captain’s table for dinner and
enjoy the specialty of the world-famous chef, prepared especially in his
honor. All day he watched the crew prepare for the banquet. At 8:00, the
ships bell rang and the passengers began to enter the dining room. He
could hear the murmur of voices, the sound of silverware and the clinking
of glasses. The aroma of the food became even more enticing.
He stood at the end of the passageway for some time. Finally, he walked
to the back of the ship. He could still hear the dinner progress. He
reached into his pocket and fingered the engraved invitation. He knew
there was a special place reserved for him at the captain’s table. Then he
looked up at the balloons. It was incredibly hard to do, but slowly – very
slowly (for he hadn’t unclenched his hand in years) – one at a time, he
uncurled his fingers. One by one, the balloons began to drift away.
As he watched, the wind caught them and blew them out of sight. The man
turned and walked down the passageway. That night, as a guest at the
captain’s table, he enjoyed the finest meal and the best companionship he
had ever known.
Only as a seed fall into the ground and dies, can it live; only as we give up
the old ideas and attitudes can we be open to a new and better life. As we
make our way through Lent and into the shadow of the cross, let us be
open to the new opportunities God has for us in the kingdom. Go in God’s