Sunday, March 24, 2019

THE LESSON OF THE SEED

Life from Death
 
There are no days that can compare with those of the early spring in Northern Wisconsin. Upon waking up in the wee hours, just before the sun comes up, the frost is still crisp on the ground as the stars are still shining overhead. Down in the valley, you can hear the rushing water of the creek, full to the brim from the newly melted snow of the winter.

Then, as the sun begins to ascend in the heavens and show itself in the treetops, the first life of the year begins to awaken.

Most of the seasonal birds have not yet made it as far as these northern latitudes, but as you walk out in the predawn light, there are a few that begin to flit around in the branches of the trees, looking for any buds that have swelled a bit to give them little breakfast.

These are the very first sights and sounds of the end of a winter that seemed like it would never give up its dominance to another season. These nascent days of spring are actually very few. The season soon picks up its rhythm, and the air and the trees and the ground will be abuzz with activity. However, in these early days, life is just starting to awake. We should not this brief and unique period pass without thinking the thoughts that come with the turning of the seasons. 

The Arrival of Spring

Among the many joys that come with these days, this time of the year should also once again remind us all of one of the great life lessons that comes to us every year in this particular corner of the world. The lesson can only come to us in either the far northern or far southern latitudes, for as a prerequisite, one must first be coming out of a cold and dark winter. This is because it is out of this darkness that the message itself emerges.

It is a lesson that is not so obvious in many places that I have lived, because I have spent many years living in places that do not have such distinct seasons as we do here in the northwoods. The winters in Wisconsin are ones in which nature is in a deep dormancy. We might even say that in winter, almost all of nature has appeared to have died. A walk through the woods in the winter is one of stillness. There are very few signs of active life.

Of course, as we well know, winter has its own unique beauties, but the point that I wish to make here is that there is more about winter that speaks of death than there is that speaks of life. The trees are not growing, and many have even dropped whatever green signs of life that they once had. There are no new little plants emerging from the forest floor. Even many of the animals have entered into hibernation, which one could call a sort of semi-death.

But then spring arrives! The trees, which once looked completely dead, begin to show a swelling on the tips of their branches as they begin to pump life back into their emerging leaf buds. The bears and other animals that once appeared to be lying dead in their dens, gradually begin to stir and rouse themselves. Then soon, everywhere you look you see life. New little plants are emerging out of what was lifeless soil, some of them so eager to grow that they do not even wait for the snow to be completely melted. All that was dead has again come to life! 

A Lesson from the Seasons

Those of us who are from Wisconsin understand the difficulties of living in an area that has such a deep winter. All of us are equally happy to see the efforts of the daily living in those days come to an end in the spring, but sometimes I think that there are relatively few of us who appreciate the great lesson that comes from watching life spring forth out of death.

Certainly we are all glad to see spring arrive. No longer do we have to bundle ourselves with many layers of clothing and plow our way through the snow to get out of our driveways. No longer do we continually have to throw wood into our furnaces or pay the heating oil man. Warm weather has arrived and we are excited to enjoy the fine summer months!

But we must not be so wrapped up in our playing in the sun that we miss the great lesson that we have just experienced. We have just seen life emerging from death! It is one of the great themes of the Bible. If we would take time to notice, nature itself, as God’s creation, gives us a lesson on this subject. 

The Lesson of the Seed

It is not only in the spring time that we should notice this, because we see this same lesson in other aspects of living. Jesus once said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

This is how Jesus explained this lesson of life coming from death. When Jesus used this illustration, he was preparing the disciples mentally and emotionally for his own death, which, without this understanding, would have appeared to be a defeat for him. However, if one understands this principle of life emerging from death, we come to realize that death may instead be the means to abundant life.

All life is ultimately connected with Jesus. In fact, the Apostle John, in writing his gospel, opens and closes his writings with the subject of true life coming from Jesus. One of the very first things that he says in his gospel concerning Jesus is, “In Him was life, and the life is the light of men” (John 1:4 NAS).

He then closes this same book of the Bible with these words, “Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31 NAS).

Once we understand that all of life stems from Jesus Christ, then other distractions, even that of death, are put in their proper perspective. This is sometimes difficult for us to understand. In our experience in our everyday lives, there is a finality about death that we cannot easily overcome. Whether it is a houseplant that we are trying to keep alive or if it is a loved family member who is on life support at the hospital, we apply every method that we have at our disposal to keep that spark of life viable.

However, once that ember of life has faded and turned cold, we know that there is nothing else that we can do. Death has brought about its icy finality against which we can no longer struggle.

But Jesus came to teach us that this is not necessarily true, not if we have learned to connect our lives with his. In Jesus Christ resides such a power of life, that death does not bring finality. It may be a distraction, but it is not the end. 

Believe in Life

As I said, this is difficult for us to accept. I don’t think that we need to feel ashamed to say that we struggle with this, because the disciples also struggled with it. Once, when Jesus was trying to teach this to some his followers, many simply did not accept what he was saying. It was contrary to their everyday experiences. They did not understand the concept of life arising out of death.

Jesus told them, “He who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life…I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear shall live” (John 5:24-25).

It is important to notice in these words of Jesus that he speaks of the life that is given to us as something that has already taken place. Jesus said that the one who believes in him has already passed out of death and into life. This is something that many Christians fail to recognize.

It is common for Christians to believe that the eternal life that the Bible talks about is something that begins when we die. But this is not exactly true. The life that Jesus gives is a present reality to us. We may not be able to see this reality at present, but it is there. 

Life that is Hidden

Think of it in terms of the seed of wheat in the verse I quoted earlier. When Jesus was speaking of his own impending death, he spoke of it not as a death that would be a final death, but one that would actually give rise to much new life.

When you plant your gardens this spring, take a moment to inspect one of the seeds that you are planting. From all outward appearances, the seed looks dead. Many seeds are shriveled up and have a dried up appearance like a maple leaf in the fall. But deep in the interior of the seed, unseen by our eyes, there is life. It is a life that will only be revealed when the correct conditions for it occur.

We just take for granted that when we put some seeds in the soil, that from these dead-looking grains, new life will appear. It is commonplace for us and we do it without much thought. But think about it for at least a moment. This is really a marvelous thing! It seems just so unlikely. I dare say that if we had been put in charge of the way plant life should propagate itself, we would not have used this method. 

The Life of Authority

We accept that this is the way things work in the natural world, but we miss the meaning of what God is trying to teach us about our own existence. Here, in this statement about a dead-looking wheat seed falling into the earth and producing life, Jesus is trying to teach us that we also are much like that wheat seed.

First of all of course, Jesus was preparing the disciples for what would happen to him. When he told this to his followers, he knew that they would need this understanding. He was soon to die, but his death was not to mean finality. It instead would give birth to new life—abundant life.

Jesus says this concerning what he was about to go through, “I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18).

Authority over his death? Yes, authority.

Jesus could have said that he had the ability to be raised from the dead, but the word ability would have been much too weak of a word. Having the ability implies that although death may be a mighty foe, Jesus is mightier still.

It is true that Jesus is stronger than death, but it is important for us to see that he actually has authority over death. Authority demonstrates to us that death is subservient to Christ. Death has no power at all that is not granted first by God.

This means that when death comes to a believer, it does not indicate a defeat. It means only that God is using this for his own ends. And, if we are believers in Christ, it is also for our best ends.

This is why Jesus could tell Martha, concerning her brother Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). 

A Life of Faith

Notice that Jesus includes that word belief in his statement to Martha. Jesus always conditions his promises with our need to believe his words and put our trust in him. His promises do not apply if we do not believe. This life that Jesus talks about is not something that comes to us automatically without any preparation, or without giving any thought to what Jesus said.

The truth be told, it is not in our nature to believe Jesus. It is rather our nature to look out primarily for ourselves. If we take an honest view of the actions of people of the world, we can see that it is our nature to put all that we can into living for the present. It is our nature to try to accumulate wealth. It is our nature to not do anything to put our present circumstances into jeopardy.

 People think in this way, because life viewed only from our present circumstances would tell us that it is only in this present life that holds for us any hope of fulfillment. We only go around once in life, and if we do not find fulfillment here, then our life was really lived in vain. This is the view of the world, and it is a very short-sighted view of our existence.

Instead, Jesus brings to us the lesson of the seed. This lesson tells us that there is so much more than this present life. Jesus used this illustration to explain to his disciples what he was about to go through, as he would die on the cross and then be resurrected again from the dead.

When that time arrived, the disciples witnessed this reality. They saw Jesus hanging dead on the cross. They saw his dead body being placed in a tomb. But then, three days later, they saw Jesus alive! They saw that he overcame death to live again. Even though Jesus had tried to prepare them for this, they had a difficult time believing that Jesus really did rise from the dead. But they finally were convinced.

After showing Thomas his wounded hands and side, Jesus told him, “Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).

That Jesus should rise from the dead is in itself astounding enough, but as Jesus told Martha the sister of Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies” (John 11:25).

All who believe in Jesus live! 

Firstfruits

Early spring may be too early to start speaking about harvest time, since it is premature in those first days to even begin to plant the seeds. But speaking of the resurrected life of Jesus as it relates to our own, there is something very important about harvest that we must say.

When we have a tree full of apples that are not yet ripe, we watch them and wait for the first apple to become fully ripe. With great anticipation, we pick that first apple and take that first taste. It is with the taste of that first ripe apple that we know what the taste will be from all of the apples of that tree. It is the called the firstfruits and is an indicator of what is to come.

In much the same way, the Apostle Paul calls the resurrection of Jesus the firstfruits (1 Corinthians 15:20). Jesus says, “Everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I Myself will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40). 

Two Results

What does all of this mean to us? It means at least a couple of things.

The first is that Jesus tells us that this promise of life requires our belief. It requires faith. Remember that he said “He who believes in Me shall live even if he dies.” Also, there is this, “He who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).

Do you see how often Jesus speaks of life rising out of death? This is a life that is always accompanied by belief and faith in Christ.

It is not so strange that this belief requires faith on our part. We practice faith almost every day in our lives. When we are traveling to a place where we have never before been, on faith we are taking the word of others that the place really exists. We trust that others who have been there really know what they are talking about. We have not seen it, so we cannot know by our own experience. We act on belief.

In much the same way, we have never before seen or experienced the life that Jesus talks about. It requires faith to believe that Jesus knows what he is talking about.

Even the act of planting seeds is an act of faith. It is true that there are always some seeds that have no viability and do not grow, but taken as a whole, we plant seeds in faith that we will receive a crop. There certainly is nothing in the appearance of a seed that is very promising, and once the seed has been covered with dirt, we cannot observe what is happening underground. We wait in faith that they will grow.

Likewise, our lives in Christ are lives of faith. Another thing that Paul says is that our lives are hidden with Christ (Colossians 3:3). Like a seed with the life hidden within, so our lives are hidden in Christ. 

Secondly, if we really do believe in what Jesus tells us about our lives, that means that our perspective of this present life will be radically altered. At one point in his ministry, Jesus performed the miraculous by multiplying a boy’s lunch of five small bread loaves and two fish to feed some 5,000 people. This impressed the people so much that, the next morning, they sought Jesus out and followed him, even though he had rather surreptitiously sneaked away during the night and traveled to the opposite side of the Galilean lake.

They sought him not primarily because of his teachings, but because he had given them food. This is what Jesus told them: “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man shall give to you, for on Him the Father, even God, has set His seal” (John 6:27 NAS).

What does Jesus mean when he says that we should seek for food which endures to eternal life? Jesus explained his words a little later when he said, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.”

The basic reason that we eat is to maintain life. This is not wrong, of course, and it is the reason that Jesus did give the people food to eat. But if it is eternal life that we seek, we must find a source of nourishment that which can give life into eternity. Jesus further said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (John 6:63 NAS). 

Conclusion

Jesus said of his own impending death, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

The Creator and Lord of life has authority over death and gives life to all who will believe. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12 NAS).

“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:27-29).

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