5th Sunday of Lent
Jeremiah 31:31–34; Hebrews 5:7–9; John 12:20–33
Unless Wheat Dies
Like the tiny grain of wheat, we must die to our own will if we are to live and bear fruit.
Several years ago Catherine Marshall wrote an article called “When We Dare to Trust God.” It told how she had been bedfast for six months with a serious lung infection.
No amount of medicine or prayer helped. She was terribly depressed.
One day someone gave her a pamphlet about a woman missionary who had contracted a strange disease.
The missionary had been sick for eight years and couldn’t understand why God let this tragedy happen to her. Daily she prayed for health to resume her missionary work. But her prayers went unanswered. One day, in desperation, she cried out to God:
“All right, I give up, if You want me to be an invalid, that’s your business.”
Within two weeks the missionary was fully recovered.
Catherine Marshall laid the pamphlet aside. She was puzzled by the strange story. It didn’t make sense.
“Yet,” she said, “I could not forget the story.”
Then one morning Catherine cried out to God
in words similar to those of the missionary:
“God, I’m tired of asking you for health. You decide if you want me sick or healthy.”
At that moment, Catherine said later, her health began to return.
The story of the missionary woman and the story of Catherine Marshall illustrate what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel.
They illustrate the teaching of Jesus that unless a grain of wheat dies, it cannot bear fruit. Or to put it another way, unless we die to our own will, we cannot bear fruit for God.
Had the missionary not died to her will, and said “All right, God, I give up,” she would probably have remained an invalid. Instead, she got well and bore fruit.
Had Catherine Marshall not died to herself, and said, “God, you decide what you want,” she would probably have remained sick. Instead, she too got well and bore fruit.
The story of the missionary and the story of Catherine Marshall remind us of the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. During his agony there, he cried out to God,
“Father . . . not my will . . . but your will be done.” Luke 22:42
Had Jesus not died to his will in the garden, you and I would not be saved from our sins.
The stories of the missionary woman, of Catherine Marshall,
and of Jesus—they all teach us the same lesson.
They teach us that we must be willing to die to our own will
if we wish to bear fruit for God. They teach us that we must be willing to trust God and put ourselves in his hands if we wish to gain eternal life.
Concretely, what does all this mean for you and me in everyday life?
Consider some possibilities.
Suppose our marriage is falling apart and we need outside help but are too proud to ask for it. Dying to our own will means dying to our pride and asking for help.
Or suppose close friends tell us we are developing a drinking problem but we keep denying it, in spite of mounting evidence.
Dying to our will means admitting our problem and seeking medical help.
Suppose a friend or a family member has hurt us in some way
and we are holding a grudge against him or her.
Dying to our will means forgiving that person from the heart and treating him or her with love once again.
Dying to our will is not easy. No one said it was.
The missionary didn’t find it easy to tell God she would accept being an invalid if that’s what he wanted.
Catherine Marshall didn’t find it easy to tell God she would
accept whatever fate he decided for her.
Jesus didn’t find it easy to agree to do whatever his Father wanted him to do.
But all three—the missionary, Marshall, and Jesus—trusted God and put themselves in his hands. They died to themselves and, as a result, bore much fruit for God.
The good news in today’s readings is that we can do the same. We can follow the example of the missionary,
of Catherine Marshall, and of Jesus. We too can bear much fruit for God.
We may have to struggle, as the missionary and Catherine Marshall did. Or we may have to endure agony, as Jesus did.
But if we do, we too will bear fruit for God and gain eternal life.
The important thing is to put our lives in God’s hands in complete trust.
The important thing is to let go of our lives and let god do with them whatever he wishes.
And so this is the good news contained in today’s gospel.
It is the good news that if we imitate the grain of wheat
and die to ourselves, we too will bear much fruit.
It is the good new that if we imitate the example of the
missionary woman, of Catherine Marshall, and of Jesus, we
too will bear fruit for God and gain eternal life.
Let’s close with a prayer. Please pray along with me in silence:
God our Father, as we prepare to break bread together,
help us realize that had not the grains of wheat been ground into flour, and had not the individual grapes been crushed into juice, we would not be able to share this holy meal together.
Help us imitate the wheat and the grapes and offer our lives to you for whatever use you wish to make of them.
5th Sunday of Lent
Ezekiel 37:12–14; Romans 8:8–11; John 11:1–45
(Short form may be used.)
The raising of Lazarus is a sign that we will be raised from the dead on the last day.
Father John Powell teaches theology at Loyola University in
Chicago. In his book Unconditional Love, he tells a beautiful story about Tommy, one of his students.
Tommy was a self-proclaimed atheist. He didn’t believe anything. He especially scoffed at the idea that God could love people unconditionally. Tommy was, as Father jokingly put it,
“a pain in the back pew.’’
Finally, the course he was taking ended. As Tommy handed in his final exam he said to Father in a cynical way,
“Do you think I’ll ever find God?’’ Father replied,
“No, Tommy, you won’t find God, but God will find you.’’
Tommy wasn’t expecting that answer. So he shrugged his shoulders and walked away. As he disappeared through the door Father wondered what would become of this strange young man.
A few years later Father learned that Tommy was dying of cancer. Before he could get in touch with Tommy, Tommy got in touch with him.
As Tommy walked up, Father could see that his body was wasted away and his hair had fallen out from chemotherapy.
But Tommy’s eyes were clear, and his voice was firm.
“I came to see you,’’ said Tommy,
“about what you said to me the last day of class. You said I would never find God, but that God would find me.
“Well, when the doctor told me that I had only a short time to live, I did something I never thought I’d do. I started praying to God real hard. But nothing happened. Nobody answered.
“I tried harder! But again, nothing happened. Nobody answered. Finally, after trying a few more times, I gave up.
“It was then that I remembered something else that you said.
You said it would be tragic for someone to die without having loved. Then you said it would be almost as tragic to die without having told someone you loved that you really loved them.
“I decided to do something about that. I started with the toughest person of all: my dad. One night when we were home alone, I told him how I felt about him.
“Then he did two things that I can’t remember him ever doing before. He cried, and he hugged me. The two of us talked all through the night, even though Dad had to work the next morning.
“Telling my mother and my little brother that I loved them was a lot easier. Like my dad, they also cried and hugged me.
“Then an unexpected thing happened. Out of nowhere, God entered my life. He entered it with such a force and a power that I was overwhelmed.
“That’s when I thought about what you said to me the last day of class. You said that I’d never find God, but that God would eventually find me. Well, Father, he found me!
He really found me!’’ (paraphrased)
Tommy died shortly after that. Or as Father Powell puts it,
Tommy never really died. He began living in a different way. He began living in the way Jesus promised when he said to Martha:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die.” John 11:25
And so the story of Tommy leads automatically to the story of Lazarus in John’s Gospel.
To understand the point of this story, we need to understand
that when John refers to a miracle of Jesus, he uses the Greek work semion, which is best translated into English as “sign.’’
The word semion, or sign, stresses the idea that a miracle is like a flashing red light.
The important thing is not the flashing red light itself
but what it means or signifies. It’s the same way with a miracle. The important thing is not the miracle itself but what it means or signifies.
In the case of the miracle of Lazarus, the important thing is not that Jesus restored a friend to life. The important thing is
what Jesus intended this miracle to mean,
what he intended it to signify,
what he intended it to teach.
Jesus intended it to say in a visual way what he said earlier to Martha in a verbal way:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die.”
And this brings us back to the story of Tommy. What Jesus did for Lazarus in a physical sense, he did for Tommy in a spiritual sense. He gave him a new life.
And this leads us to each one of us in this church.
What message do the story of Tommy and the story of Lazarus contain for us? It is this:
What Jesus did for Tommy and Lazarus,
he wants to do for us.
He wants to give us a new life.
He wants to share with us his own risen life.
He wants to raise us up to eternal life.
This is the message that the story of Lazarus contains.
This is the message that the story of Tommy contains. This is also the message of what the season of Lent is all about.
It’s about opening our hearts to others, as Tommy did to his family, so that Jesus can do for us what he was able to do for Tommy.
It’s about receiving new life from Jesus today so that we can receive eternal life from Jesus on the last day.
This is the message that the season of Lent is all about.
This is the message that the story of Lazarus is all about.
This is the message that the story of Tommy is all about.
Let’s close with a passage from the prophet Isaiah. It describes God’s tender love for the Chosen People in Old Testament times. God has this same tender love for us in modern times.
The LORD will comfort his people; he will have pity on his suffering people. . . .
“Can a woman forget her own baby and not love the child she bore? Even if a mother should forget her child, I will never forget you.” Isaiah 49:13, 15
No, Tommy, you didn’t find God, but God found you.
5th Sunday of Lent
Wisdom 9:13–18, Philemon 9–10, John 12:20–33
Crosses often turn into great blessings.
Jesus said, “A grain of wheat remains no more than a single grain unless it is dropped into the ground and dies.
If it does die . . .it produces many grains.” John 12:24
Emily Kingsley is the mother of a disabled child.
To help people understand what this is like, she penned a
lovely parable called “Welcome to Holland.” It goes something like this.
Planning the birth of a baby is like planning a glorious trip to Italy. You buy a guide book, map an itinerary, and even learn a few Italian phrases.
Finally, the exciting day arrives. You tag your bags, double-check your passport and plane tickets, and leave for the airport.
Your flight is called. You say good-bye to your friends,
board the plane, take off, and settle back to enjoy the trip.
A few hours later, the plane lands, and the stewardess says
in a cheery voice, “Welcome to Holland!”
“Holland?” you ask. “I’m supposed to go to Italy!”
All my life I’ve been planning to go to Italy. The flight attendant says, “I’m so sorry. There’s been a change in plans.”
You get off the plane in shock, get your bags, and go through customs. As you leave the airport, you can’t believe what has happened.
But soon you begin to notice that Holland isn’t a terrible place. It’s just a different place. You go to a hotel, buy a guide book, and set out on a tour bus.
You notice that Holland is less flashy and much slower paced than Italy. But it does have tulips, quaint windmills, and even Rembrandt paintings.
In the days ahead, you meet people coming and going to Italy. Everybody raves about it.
And for the rest of your life, you’ll say, “That’s where I was supposed to go! That’s where I always dream of going.” And the pain of that lost dream never, never goes away.
But if you spend the rest of your life regretting the loss of your dream, you will never enjoy the many lovely things Holland has to offer.
That lovely parable fits in beautifully with these words of Jesus in today’s Gospel:
“A grain of wheat remains not more than a single grain unless it is dropped into the ground and dies. If it does die . . .
it produces many grains.” John 12:24
If Emily Kingsley had spend the rest of her life regretting the loss of her dream, she would have never enjoyed the many lovely things Holland had to offer.
Instead, like the grain of wheat that fell into the ground, died, and bore many grains, she let her dream fall into the ground and die.
As a result, it bore much fruit—not the least of which was to discover the many lovely things that remained in her life.
It also allowed her to put in writing a beautiful parable that inspired many other people to accept the death of their dreams.
More importantly, it inspired them to get on with their lives
and discover the many lovely things that remained in their lives.
That brings us to each one of us in this church today.
We have all had beautiful dreams that have died.
we dreamed of doing great things.
We dream of being successful.
We dreamed of having the perfect marriage or perfect family.
But things just didn’t quite work out, and the dream didn’t
pan out as we had hoped it would. Perhaps it even turned into a nightmare.
Psychologists talk about the “midlife” crisis or “crisis of limits.” As I understand the concept, there comes a time in our lives when we become aware that our dreams are not going to be realized in the way we had hoped.
When that time comes, we can respond by blaming other people for the loss of our dream. Or we can blame bad breaks for interfering with the realization of those dreams.
When we do this, we are like the grain of wheat that refuses to die. We allow regret or anger or depression to take over our lives. As a result, we never discover the many lovely things that “Holland” has to offer.
Or to put it in another way, we are reluctant to pick up our “cross” and “loss” of a dream and follow Jesus.
As a result, instead of letting sorrow and heartbreak draw us closer to Jesus, we let it drive us further away from him.
In so doing we overlook one of the beautiful mysteries of the Gospel.
When we do not hold on to regret but pick up our cross and follow Jesus, we discover something we never anticipated or dreamed of.
What we feared would be a heavy cross often turns into a great blessing.
Malcolm Muggeridge, the British TV celebrity who had such a powerful influence in making Mother Teresa’s ministry known to the world, had this to say about the cross and its blessing. He wrote:
I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through affliction and not through happiness. Malcolm Muggeridge
To put it in another way:
Troubles are often the means God uses to fashion us into people
we never thought we could ever become. Anonymous
Or to put it yet another way:
For every hill I’ve had to climb . . .For all the blood and sweat and grime . . . My heart sings but a grateful song—These were things that made me strong. Anonymous