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Here We Grow: Withering
John 11, John 12:24
Free Community Church
20 March 2022
To say ‘Here We Grow: Withering’ sounds like an oxymoron, a contradiction – how do we grow when we are withering? Is withering part of the process of growth?
Wither: grow old, dry up, shrink, shrivel, wrinkle, wilt, decline, languish, die
Withering is the process of growing old, wrinkling, declining, dying. It’s not death yet. It’s when we become aware and conscious that we are declining in some way – our bodies ache more, our eyesight is not as good as before, more health issues are creeping up, and we become increasingly aware that there is a limit to our lives. In general, for those of us in our teens or twenties, death may seem like a very distant reality.
For those of us in our 40s, 50s, 60s, death is no longer an improbability or distant reality. We’ve begun to feel the declining of our bodies in various ways. Death is something we all need to confront and befriend, not something we can or should run away from. That’s why we confronting death and decline head on in this sermon. The Bible is full of wisdom where it comes to death and life. For example, the psalmist was very aware of the brevity of life.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
2 Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
3 You turn people back to dust,
saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
4 A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
5 Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
they are like the new grass of the morning:
6 In the morning it springs up new,
but by evening it is dry and withered.
Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
12 Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Have compassion on your servants.
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
At some point we will die and that’s why the Psalmist says in Psalm 90:12
Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Teach us to realize the brevity of life,
so that we may grow in wisdom.
Before we can gain a heart of wisdom, we need to acknowledge and confront death. Let me ask you: are you afraid of death?
Question 1 (Word Cloud)
What do you fear about death? Whether it is the death of someone you love or perhaps your own death.
You must die before you die- and then you will know how to die and not be afraid of it. –Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self
How many of you feel like you are in the withering phase of your life?
Maybe you’re feeling the effects of your age…For some of you, maybe it’s not so much chronological age but your situation or circumstances make you feel like you’re withering…Withering can sometimes feel like a part of us is dying or something within us is dying.
Death is a difficult reality for many of us to confront. Whether it’s the death of someone we love, or the death of something within us, or even our own death. We have a lot of questions and uncertainty around death, and that makes us more fearful. And Jesus had much to teach us about death and what Rohr says is exactly what Jesus tries to teach the people around him whom he loved. “You must die before you die – and then you will know how to die and not be afraid of it.”
Last week, Miak shared about Mary and Martha, and their interaction with Jesus at their home. Do you know Mary and Martha had another sibling? They had a brother named Lazarus. And from what we know in the Gospels, Jesus was close friends with all three of them.
Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Jesus (John 11:1–44)
In John 11, the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles[e] away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.[f] Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,[g] the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
We all know the ending of the story and how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. When they got to the tomb which was a cave, Jesus asked them to roll the stone away. Martha hesitated at first because as she told Jesus, there is a stench as he has already been dead for four days. But Jesus challenged her to believe and they rolled the stone away. Then Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
The miracle of the raising of Lazarus is the climax of John 11:1–44, but it is not its center. Of the forty-four verses that constitute this story, only seven of them take place at Lazarus’s tomb (11:38–44).
The story actually centers on the conversations that Jesus has with Marth and Mary as he makes his way to Lazarus’s tomb. These conversations highlight that the raising of Lazarus is the demonstration of God’s power to give life. Not just physical life, but spiritual life from within.
We know in this story that Jesus loves this whole family. Yet his actions are quite puzzling. Instead of rushing to the assistance of this beloved family, Jesus deliberately stays away longer. He explains quite clearly that he is doing so because this family situation belongs to a much larger story. Lazarus’s illness is part of the story of the glory of God. This illness is not an isolated event but is part of Jesus’ ministry and mission. When Jesus finally heads towards this family in Bethany, he does so knowing that his return to Judea carries with it the possibility of his own death (11:8). Jesus’ own future and the future of this family are inextricably linked.
The conversation between Martha and Jesus is the theological heart of this story. Martha’s opening words to Jesus express both a complaint as well her confidence in him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of God” (11:21–22). Many of us do the same thing…perhaps more the complaint part than the confidence part. We tell God, “If only you would heal or move or work, things wouldn’t be like this.”
But Jesus says, “Don’t worry, I have a plan.” We know that Jesus can heal Lazarus. He just chooses not to. John’s Gospel tells us Jesus delayed for God’s glory, but the delay doesn’t feel glorious at all. Why was Jesus deliberately delaying? There must be something important going on here. Something so important that it was worth delaying three days, even if that meant hurting the people he loved, even if the tragedy of Lazarus’ death and the weeping of all who loved him would overcome Jesus that he breaks down too.
Jesus needed those three days because without them, we might have missed the point. Without them, his actions might have felt like business as usual, just another one of his ordinary, day-to-day miraculous healing.
You see, it’s been three days and healing is no longer an option here. Lazarus is gone. Lazarus isn’t mostly dead. He is completely dead. Many Jews of that time believed that a soul hung around a body for three days before moving on. This meant that up until that third day, maybe something could still be done. A miraculous healing might still occur. But Jesus stalls, so any type of healing, even a miraculous one, is no longer an option.
Because this isn’t a healing. It’s a resurrection.
Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
It’s quite a strange thing to ask a grieving person, but he needs her to understand. The three days weren’t for nothing. There’s reason to hope. There’s a method to the madness. More importantly, there is some unbelievably good news here.
Growing up, I always thought that the point of this story of Jesus miraculously raising Lazarus from the dead is meant to reassure us about what was waiting for us in the end times. The promise that we will all be raised like Lazarus one day. But maybe Jesus has something more for us in this story.
You can hear it clearly in Jesus’ words, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” What does Jesus mean by “those who live and believe in me will never die?” It is as if he is talking about this life now and not just about the future.
What if Jesus is underlining the importance of the life to come and this life now? What if, as part of this promise, Jesus is offering countless mini-resurrections – times when we will die and be reborn, throughout the whole of our life, until we get to the final death and resurrection at the end of our lives? Perhaps this is why the three days mattered.
Question 2 (Word Cloud)
What is one thing that you think is withering or dead in your life?
You may think something is dead. This relationship is over. This job is gone. My health will never be the same again. This life of faith has ended. That time of happiness will never return. That part of me is dead.
But having a God of resurrection means that the story is seldom over when we think it is.
As Gracie Allen wisely said, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”
“Never Place a Period Where God Has Placed a Comma” – Gracie Allen
Nadia Bolz Weber says we are all in need of resurrection, both in the final sense and in the immediate sense. We all have tombs in our lives, caves within our heart. Each one represents an ending of something–a relationship, a belief, a moment–maybe even the end of this pandemic.
God has an amazing way of reaching into our tombs, and shining light on the dark places. God has a way of resurrecting us from graves that keep us entombed. God just keeps loving us back to life over and over again.
This is why the three days were worth it. Yes, Jesus could have healed Lazarus from afar, but he needed Mary and Martha–and us–to realize the lengths and depths to which God would go for the sake of love. We need to know there is nothing out of God’s reach, even death. And that means that we are never alone, even if we feel like we are, because hope was and is shining, and always will shine through the darkness because there is no place God’s love cannot go.
As we continue through this season of Lent, even in the midst of uncertain times and great anxiety, I invite you to be surprised by empty tombs and resurrection. Be surprised by God’s love showing up in unexpected places, be surprised that a withering branch might come back to life. Don’t just wither away, languish and feel sorry for yourself.
We see Jesus in John 11 had just raised Lazarus from the dead. And in John 12, he is talking about his own death.
Jesus replied, “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.” (John 12:24-25)
When I was meditating on this verse, I wondered, “Does a seed really have to die in order to produce many new kernels?”
Question 3 (Multiple Choice)
Does a seed really have to die in order to produce many new kernels?
The answer is both yes and no. It turns out Jesus was really a very good gardener. His knowledge of seeds and growth was extensive, and the death he is talking about is actually of the external form of the kernel of wheat.
We know botanically that the embryo in the seed is not dead, and does not die before it germinates and grows into a mature plant. The seed inside the shell does not die. It’s the outer shell of the seed that dies and falls off so water can get to the seed inside. The kernel needs to lose its existence as ‘grain’ and become something else entirely, so that it can bring new life and produce many new kernels. The outer shell in some ways represents our old selves that must also die and fall off, so new life can be produced.
Even in death, Jesus saw his purpose very clearly, and he wants us to also see our purpose in life and in death.
You must die before you die- and then you will know how to die and not be afraid of it. -Richard Rohr
I think Richard Rohr describes beautifully what it means to grow as a human. Growth usually happens when there is a death of some kind. The loss of a relationship, job, the death of a loved one, and precisely at the same time the death occurs, new life emerges out of the death. The ebb and flow of life is always played out through death and resurrection.
Question 4 (Open)
What is one thing in your life that is withering but might lead to growth and new life?
We are earthen vessels carrying something precious within. Paul totally understood what Jesus was saying here in John because in 2 Cor 4, he describes it as us having this treasure in clay jars.
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. (2 Cor 4:16-18)
Over these past two years of pandemic, a lot has changed and perhaps some things have withered away. But as Paul says, some things may be wasting away but our inner nature is being renewed day by day. So we do not lose heart. We continue to practise ways to deepen our connection with God and community.
Make use of the resources that are available to you. Last week, if you remember, Miak invited us to do a 2-min practice twice daily until Easter… “Thy will be done”… 3 deep breaths… “Thy will be done”.
And this past Wednesday, I taught and led a time of Centering Prayer, where we started with an experience of 3 minutes, and then 5 minutes of receptive silent prayer. Centering prayer really is about experiencing God’s presence within us. We choose a sacred word that represents our willingness and the opening of our whole being to God, and in our time of silent prayer whenever our thoughts drift, we use the sacred word to gently bring us back to the moment, to ground us back to being in the presence of God.
I use this app to help me. It’s a beautiful app and it’s free, and it gives you a guided sequence with lovely readings from Scripture and other reflections, and it has a built-in timer with a choice for your duration of silence.
Like the 2-min practice that Miak shared, Centering prayer is not difficult to do. But consistency is what helps these practices to truly benefit us. Be intentional and committed to what you say is important to you.
Some of you have shared with me that you honestly feel more disconnected from community over the past two years. And that’s understandable. We haven’t been able to gather in the same way, or have meals or casual conversations as easily as before. Many things have changed and you want to find a way back in…a way to reconnect with old friends and perhaps to get to know new friends. We are trying our best to create spaces for connection even as things slowly open up, so please feel free to reach out to either Miak or me if we can help you make some connections.
Withering is not always a bad thing. Perhaps it’s part of the process of growth and change.
My prayer for us is this:
“May we grow back not to what was, but instead towards what we can become.” -Radici Studios
Through sowing, through waiting, through withering, may God help us to become all that God has created us to be! Amen.