5 Lent B—3/22/15
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
Pr. Scott Kramer
When we moved from Seattle to Fargo back in the late 90s my wife and I had some adjustments to make. Culture, the demands of her training and climate were all factors.
Today marks the second full day of spring. Even here in Washington where the weather is milder the seasons change and we gradually make adjustments to those changes: Our wardrobes change. Our routines may change. We might spend more time outside.
In North Dakota, of course, the seasons are more extreme. The summers, for example, are hotter and more humid. But it’s North Dakota’s winter that gets the attention, and rightly so. Winter in North Dakota is a long season. The last average frost date is Memorial Day!
So people who live in North Dakota have a choice. Either they resent and resist the winter or they make the most of it. We chose to do like the locals and make the most of it. We bought skates and went ice skating. We tried snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. We even went dog sledding. My favorite winter activity was ice fishing!
We all know that seasons are a part of life. They are mostly out of our control; they come our way whether we want them to or not. There’s the rhythm of four seasons in the natural world. (Even tropical regions have at least two seasons, “the wet” and “the dry.”) And, of course, there are seasons we all experience in the course of a lifetime: birth, childhood, youth, adulthood, and older age among them.
There is nothing new in all this and it’s written maybe most clearly in the Book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 3: For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to mourn and a time to dance… The writer goes on to describe various seasons that come our way, some joyful, others tragic, some painful.
In John’s gospel Jesus picks up the theme, as he often does, with images from the natural world: Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
This language of loving and hating life may seem strange to us. But clinging to one season can delay our inevitable movement into the next and sometimes leads to a lot of unnecessary suffering. Jesus knew toward the end of his life that he would soon face death. As he ponders his own future, he says, Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Some might call this resignation. I call it faith. Jesus sees the presence of God, even in his darkest hours.
Sometimes we find ourselves in seasons that we would dearly love to escape. But whether the season of our lives is one we love or hate, we are tempted to cling to the season we’re in for fear of not knowing what season might follow.
So imagine living in Fargo and loving winter—loving it so much that you wear long underwear, hat, gloves, boots and scarf through the winter, and then continue to bundle up into April, May, June, July, August. That would be uncomfortable—some might even say foolish! Or, imagine in that same climate loving summer so much that you continue to wear shorts and T-shirts outdoors into North Dakota’s November, December, and January. At that point it becomes more than just foolish; it becomes a threat to one’s health and maybe one’s life.
Resisting certain seasons of our lives is one choice. A different path is the way Jesus chose, and that is to look for God in whatever season we find ourselves. Who knows–God may even in the moment be giving us hints of a way through one season and into the next, not as an escape but as an opportunity to learn and to grow.
Again, in John’s gospel Jesus says, Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. When we hear the word “eternal” we might think “everlasting.” But can you think of anything in your life that never changes?
Imagine something—anything—that never ends. Even if it’s the best situation you can imagine the sameness is bound to wear thin after awhile. We at least run the risk of boredom. If you think about it, experiencing the same thing forever could sound less like heaven and more like hell!
Seasons are in the very nature of God’s plan, as we hear again in today’s first reading: The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors, a covenant that they broke… Change, renewal, seasons, are all part of God’s good creation!
To be alive means to experience seasons. The rhythm of seasons means change, and mostly not on our terms. The transition between seasons is often the most unsettled. For example, the end of winter and the beginning of spring is a mix of both, right? Yesterday, for example, we experienced rain, sun, wind, temperatures in the 40s at night, temperatures in the 60s during the day! And autumn is the same way.
The time between seasons may leave us feeling uncomfortable, helpless, and out of control. But there’s something worse, and that’s clinging to one season no matter what. There is a time for every season, the Scriptures teach. Our inability to eventually let go of one season, no matter how good or how bad, can have consequences. Show me someone who spends most of their life angry or unhappy and I will show you someone who is very likely resisting a change of seasons.
Our deep faith tradition has blessed us with seasons. We begin with Advent, then move through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. These seasons are relatively orderly and follow a calendar. But the seasons of our souls are a little more complicated, aren’t they? They don’t necessarily follow a calendar.
Sometimes it’s clear what season we’re in. Other times, not so much! So how do we know the seasons of our souls? How do we know what our work is in those seasons? How do we know when it’s time to move into a new season? And how do we do that?
One of the joys I’ve had over the past fourteen years is being part of a men’s group that meets for dinner and conversation once a month. Over the years I have heard their stories of joy and sorrow, of trust and betrayal, of fear and courage, of success and disappointment, of hope and despair, of faith and doubt. And they’ve heard mine, as well. We met again this past Friday.
And now, these many years later, all of these guys have either recently retired or are about to move into retirement. Knowing them and their stories, I get to watch as they discern the seasons of their lives, which are not cut-and-dried but as messy as the seasons of the natural world. They are learning new rhythms, new seasons in which nothing is the same forever.
How do we discern the seasons? We pay attention to the condition of our souls. For example, if we feel weighed down, fearful, despairing, maybe we’re in need of the company and encouragement of others. Maybe prolonged unhappiness is a sign that we’re stuck in one season, even while God is calling us into another. Today’s psalmist, for example, prays, Restore to me the joy of your salvation.
No one can sustain joy constantly but it is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Where joy is nonexistent or rare then it may be that we are being nudged by the Holy Spirit into a new season. Moving into that new season may be difficult—even painful–but resisting the new season will surely not be pretty.
It is a new season—spring has sprung! As the seasons change we remember that there is only one thing that never changes, and that is God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Or, as the psalmist puts it, God’s steadfast love. With that assurance each of us can ask ourselves, In this moment, what is the season of my soul? What new season is God calling me into?