We had at least two beautiful, sunny, 70-degree days this week and all of nature—at least here in central Indiana—seemed to respond. The grass in my backyard is already greening up. Mornings are full of birdsong. There are buds on the maple tree. The tulip and daffodil shoots in the front garden—which is on the north side of the house so it gets very little sunshine—are now almost three inches tall. The bunnies and chipmunks are back (the fat red squirrels of course never left). And just yesterday afternoon, the duck couple who come by every spring—the female leading the way and the male following adoringly along behind—came to scoop up the scattered bird seed beneath the feeders. Life is stirring yet again, ramping up the energy that will soon—the moment the time is right—burst into riotous joy with the crab apple, pear, and redbud blooms.
It seems like it was just a week or so ago we were all hunkered down inside, wrapped up in sweaters and snuggled beneath blankets, bemoaning the cold, gray, winter days. And now, almost like a light-switch—and maybe it is a cosmic light-switch–we are literally on the verge of full-on spring.
If you live in a neighborhood, you can see the effects that the coming growing season has on people. We are all getting ready in our own ways for a new season of growth, sunshine, freedom. Folks have started walking—or jogging—again, perhaps to drop those winter pounds so they can fit comfortably into their shorts. Families are appearing with babies in strollers and dogs on leashes. The bicyclists are back out on the roads with their insect-like helmets and their color-coordinated-and-reflective clothing. The gardening centers are busy again, with customers stocking up on mulch and fertilizer and the tools they need to work the soil as soon as its warm and dry enough for digging.
Each year, like clockwork, Life comes back to life, and our hearts and minds and spirits are lifted right along with it. As the sunlight increases, it gives our minds and hearts a boost—it is harder to be discouraged on a beautiful, sunny day—and our minds fill with things we can do outside to enjoy the gift of the days. Hope is reborn. Possibilities emerge. Who knows what this next growing season might bring? We look forward—we lean forward—toward the blessings God will bring us next.
In our Old Testament reading today we heard from the prophet Isaiah. You know the story of this book—Isaiah is a major prophet, warning the people that they have strayed far from God, calling them back to the source of their life and faith. Isaiah warns them of an angry, fed-up God who is hurt by his children’s lack of care; but he also writes tenderly about the God who loves his children, who promises them a beautiful, safe, and harmonious future, and who foretells the coming of Christ, who will lead us back to the reconciliation we need. In the verse we heard today, Isaiah reminds us of God’s ever-creative ability to bring something new into our lives and our world:
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
Think about how this message might have been received by a people defined by their connection to a religious heritage that spanned generations. History, tradition, ritual was important. Even though the people by this time had lost the seed of reverence at the heart of their faith, they were nonetheless defined by their Jewish heritage and the rabbis were leaders of the community and teachers of the law. The Holy Days were still sacred and the community was ruled sternly by the laws set forth in the Old Testament. Tradition was vital, the core that helped them know who they were as a people. And now Isaiah is saying, “See, God is doing a new thing!” Who knew what that might be? There may have been a mixed reaction, as people worried that their traditions would be changed and their known ways of life altered. But here God was asking them to have faith, because the new thing God was doing was only just beginning to appear—like the tiniest daffodil shoots just breaking the soil. God also was asking them to have hope, because their lives had been difficult in exile, a desert wasteland, but now God was preparing to change all that, to bring streams of water into the dry places, so they could live, and grow, and dream again.
It’s in our human nature to get comfortable with familiar traditions—whether they are related to faith or not—and to like things the way we like them. Many of us have certain tasks we do in spring, inside and out. We like to keep it the same year to year; it just feels right. I remember my mom turning the house completely upside down each year doing what she called spring cleaning. It seemed like some kind of extra torture to me, washing fingerprints off the walls when it was sunny and 70 outside. But that was her way of welcoming the season, and try as I might, I was not going to talk—or whine—my way out of it. But those traditions we hold on to, even though they may be meaningful to us, can also be a sticking point when God wants to do a new thing in our lives. Can we be open to the change? Will we welcome or resist God’s efforts? How uprooted, how challenged, how blessed are we willing to be, if that’s what God has in mind for us?
Being flexible like that, comfortable with the attitude that—whatever God wants is okay with me—requires us to keep a loose hold on our own plans, to not get too caught up in what we want, to listen for the mystery of God’s leading so we will be open to new creative possibilities. We don’t often live that way, but it’s likely easier than we think. On a deeper level, it is simply cooperating with life, being part of what’s emerging around and within us. It does mean we have to give up planning and driving everything ourselves–but if you’ve lived any measure of time, you’ve probably realized that we are really not in control of much anyway. It means remembering the big, beautiful mystery that’s all around us and trusting that God is unfolding things for us and with us in their proper season.
We don’t often think about it, but we live every day of every season awash in mystery. We don’t know why things grow the way they do, why they hatch and bud and blossom into this rich symphony of life we’re part of. Scientists tell us that life on Earth began more than 3 billion years ago, but the most basic questions of “Why did life begin?” and “Why here on this planet?” and “How exactly did it happen?” are all still unanswered. Scientists and theologians and philosophers all have their ideas, of course. But the mystery remains.
As former National Institute of Health director Francis Collins said, “There are 15 constants- the gravitational constant, various constants about the strong and weak nuclear force, etc.- that have precise values. If any one of those constants was off by even one part in a million, or in some cases, by one part in a million million, the universe could not have actually come to the point where we see it. Matter would not have been able to coalesce, there would have been no galaxy, stars, planets or people.” And Collins also said, “God is an awesome mathematician and physicist.”
We have learned, over time, how to make the most of a growing season, even though the why and how of life elude us. We know which conditions help the seeds in our packet grow. We know how much sun and water the seedlings we plant will need. We’ve discovered how to guard against garden pests and what to do when leaves get spots or turn yellow. But those things we’ve mastered all have to do with caring for the growing plants and feeding and protecting them. We’re not actually making them grow.
The principle of life itself—what makes a seed grow, what makes an egg hatch, what mysterious force of spirit gives us hope and energy and ideas to improve our world—that’s a mystery that God holds close. As a hospice chaplain, I have been a witness to Life’s leaving many times: Life is there and then, quietly, it’s gone, and that truth is unmistakable. It is also an unanswerable and eternal mystery, held tenderly in the heart of God.
In our New Testament reading today, Jesus was talking to the disciples in the upper room, preparing them for the difficult days ahead. They didn’t know they were nearing the end of what we now call Holy Week in the Easter season. They had just finished supper together and Judas Iscariot had gone to meet with those who would come to arrest Jesus. Soon they would go to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus would pray and the disciples would sleep. In the beautiful passage we heard, Jesus is offering words of hope and reassurance to them, that his strength, his life, his Love and goodness, the blossoming of His Spirit would continue in the world, through them, whether he was here physically with them or not.
As he always did, Jesus used examples they would recognize to explain the spiritual truths he was teaching. “I am the vine,” he said, “and you are the branches.” He tells them to remain connected to him, to carry forward the ideas and principles he demonstrated. “No branch can bear fruit by itself,” Jesus told them. “The branch must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
He was explaining to them that the principle of God’s grace, God’s life, God’s blessing would continue flowing to them and through them if they simply stayed connected to their source of Life and Light through Christ. Jesus was surely aware of the challenges that would be coming, when these beloved disciples would be persecuted because of their relationship with him, when early churches would face judgment and attack and be approached by many false teachers. He knew the truth he spoke and the faith he demonstrated would be twisted and distorted by those who were not open to change. But there is natural solution, Jesus said, when you are going through a desert wasteland in your life—“remain in me.” Stay connected. Care for the seed of truth God has planted in your heart.
This idea of the flow of life, with roots deep in the mystery of God’s grace, continues to bear fruit in our lives today. The growing that we do, the deepening of our spiritual lives, new understandings that come and the new truths we grasp, all have to do with how open we are to letting God’s Light inspire and teach and guide us. If Jesus is still our vine, those learnings will happen because that is part of the blossoming of our lives over time. God will always do a new and greater and more loving thing, if we allow ourselves to stay open and let God’s grace flow into the world through us.
This week as we all continue to pray for the people of Ukraine, we have heard heartbreaking stories and hopeful stories. On two different days, I heard news that reminded me of those words God spoke through Isaiah—See, I am doing a new thing! First Italy declared that it would rebuild for Ukraine the bombed theater where parents and children were sheltering in the basement. And then Greece said it would rebuild the maternity hospital that was also bombed. Caring nations inspired into action, bringing beauty to a wasteland. Turning places of fear and pain and destruction into symbols of goodness and compassion, peace and restoration. God, these actions tell us, is there. And God is doing a new thing.
Perhaps, Friends, our world is finally weary of war, tired of walls, done with division, and is beginning to unite over principles of goodness and care, beauty and respect and peace. Those are God’s loving qualities literally at the root of all creation. Perhaps this is the time the world will begin to recognize that and abide—and flourish—together.
It’s something to envision and to hope for. It’s something to pray for. We could be at the beginning of a great new growing season—maybe one greater than we’ve witnessed in our lifetimes—a time of peace and harmony, friendship and fellowship for all God’s children everywhere.
Our part is to stay deeply connected to the Light of Christ so the life-giving principle of God’s love continues to flow through us. How can we do that? Take time daily to pray and listen. Keep the example of Jesus in mind. Treat people kindly. Act with compassion. Let go of judgment. Don’t dwell on grievances. Be encouragers. Act with love and forgive the rest. We can carry with us the mercy, the gentleness, and deep humanity of Christ. And notice as we blossom—naturally–in His love.
In closing I’d like to share with you these beautiful, hopeful words of George Fox:
Sing and rejoice,
you children of the day and of the light;
for the Lord is at work in this thick night of darkness that may be felt.
And truth flourishes as the rose,
and the lilies do grow among the thorns,
and the plants atop of the hills,
and upon them the lambs do skip and play.
And never heed the tempests nor the storms, floods nor rains,
for the seed Christ is over all, and reigns.
- OT Isaiah 43: 19
- NT John 15: 1-8
- Francis Collins: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Collins