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"Cross in the Garden"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on April 21, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: John 19:30-20:18

He walked slowly, stooped over a bit, as though he were always looking at the ground. The mud-covered boys who chased frogs in the rice paddies called him "Tata," which in the local dialect means grandpa. Like generations of Tata's before him going back more than a thousand years, he cared for the land, the mud, the water, the nascent life held in the rice paddies. In the fullest sense of the word, he was a gardener: one who cultivates the soil for the sake of his people.

If you've been listening to the Gospel of John with us over the last few months, you may likely remember that Jesus has been given many titles.

1. He is the Word of God and Son of God and Lamb of God.

2. He is rabbi and teacher and prophet.

3. He is the light of the world and Savior of the world.

4. He is the bread of life, who gives the water of life, the way, the truth, the resurrection and the life.

5. He is the Messiah, the King of Israel, the King of the Jews.

6. He is the great I AM, Adonai, the Lord.

John has stacked the titles of Jesus high enough to give us a glimpse of heaven come down to earth. All these titles tell us something, even the one silently assumed of Him the very first moment He is seen risen from the dead. This was the happy mistake of Mary Magdalene, who saw Jesus and supposed He was the gardener, the one who cultivates the soil for the sake of His people.

Here's how it goes, picking up the narrative in John 19:41.

"Now, in the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

"Now on the first day of the week, very early, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. She SEES that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb. So she RUNS and GOES to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and she SAYS to them, 'They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put Him!'

Then Peter and the other disciple went out and STARTED GOING to the tomb. Now both of them WERE RUNNING together. And the other disciple ran ahead of Peter and arrived first at the tomb. And when he looked, he SEES the strips of linen lying there, but he did not go in. Then COMES Simon Peter, who was following him. And he went into the tomb. And he LOOKS at the strips of linen lying there and the burial cloth, which had been around Jesus' head. It was not with the linen but folded up in its own place. Then, the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that it was necessary for Him to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to their homes.

"But Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she leaned over to look into the tomb and SEES two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They SAY to her, 'Woman, why are you crying?' She SAYS to them, 'They have taken my Lord away and I don't know where they have put Him.' After saying this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 'Woman," He SAYS to her, "why are you crying? Who is it you are seeking?' Thinking He was the gardener, she SAYS, 'Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have put Him, and I will get Him.' Jesus SAYS to her, 'Mary.' She turned toward Him and SAYS in Aramaic, 'Rabboni!' (which means Teacher). Jesus SAYS to her, 'Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father, but go to my brothers and tell them, "I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to my God and your God."' Mary Magdalene went, announcing to the disciples: 'I have seen the Lord! And she told them that He had said these things to her."

This is the Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You O Christ. Christ is risen from the dead. Alleluia, He has risen indeed!

Dr. Paul Brand, a noted surgeon, author, and missionary, wrote of this man he knew as "Tata" or "grandpa." Tata was a gardener of sorts. He cultivated the land for the sake his people. Paul met him as a little boy, growing up in South India, the son of Christian missionaries. Paul remembers when he was playing in the mud of a rice field with a half-dozen other little boys. These rice paddies had been patiently terraced hundreds of years earlier, along the slope of land above the river. Suddenly, all the boys were all scrambling to get out of the mud and onto the narrow earthen dams that formed the borders of the rice paddy. One of the boys had spotted Tata, walking toward them.

Old age is highly respected in India; the boys did not run away. They waited, heads bowed, as Tata approached. Bobbing on the surface, they could see the tiny stems of rice plants they had uprooted with their careless feet. The elderly man stood before them for a moment. Then he stooped down and scooped up a handful of mud. "What is this?"

The eldest boy of the group answered, "It's mud, Tata."

"Whose mud is it?"

"It's your mud, Tata, this is your field."

The old man turned and looked at the nearest of the little channels across the dam, "What do you see there, in that channel?"

"That is water, running over into the lower field."

For the first time, Tata looked angry. "Come with me and I will show you water." Taking a few steps along the dam, he pointed to the next channel, where clear water was running. "That is what water looks like." Then he pointed back to the paddy out of which the boys had just scrambled. "Is that water?"

Having heard this speech before, the young spokesman said, "No, Tata, that is mud, and the mud from your field is being carried away to the field below, and it will never come back, because mud always runs downhill, never up again. We are sorry, Tata. We will never do this again."

But Tata wasn't ready to stop his lesson so quickly. "The mud flowing away has given my family food since before I was born, and before my grandfather was born. It would have given my grandchildren and their grandchildren food. Now it will never feed us again. When you see mud in the channels of water, you know that life is flowing away from you."

Who knew a handful could be so valued? Only a true gardener could love mud like that: a true gardener like the One who stooped down and formed humanity from the mud of His garden, breathing the breath of life into the earthen body. Only a true gardener could love the soil so much that He would assign the first man and woman the task of guarding and keeping the garden to the glory of the One who created it. Only a true gardener would stoop down to make mud from His spittle to open the eyes of a man born blind, to open our eyes, that we may see that without Him life is flowing away from us.

Dr. Paul Brand once more saw Tata's life lesson. Near the end of his life, Dr. Paul Brand moved to Louisiana. Paul's home was just a stone's throw from Big Muddy, the Mississippi River. There he saw the mud of Kansas, Iowa, and Ohio flowing out to sea. A Midwestern visitor might stand on that Louisiana river bank, scoop up a handful of mud and say, "My farm, my family's farm."

This is an old problem. In ancient and present times, in developed and developing nations, everywhere, all the time, life is flowing away from us. It is a problem as old as our first parents' desire to have the garden but not the God who created it. It is a problem as old as our first parents' desire for God's garden but not the God who gave it. The source of our disaster is not lack of knowledge. The problem is not merely that we're too greedy and consumeristic. The source of our disaster is that we wanted the garden but not the God who gave it.

This is not our garden. "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof" (Psalm 24:1). He shared His garden with us so that we could share life with Him. But when we tried to take the garden for ourselves, apart from him, life began to slip away. In mercy, God turned His garden against us. Like a wild elephant, God's garden throws off our control. It grinds us down and returns us to dust so that He can make us new in Jesus.

Son of Adam, daughter of Eve, don't look to your knowledge or technology to save you. Son of Adam, daughter of Eve, don't look to your environmental virtues to save. Trust in the One who was nailed to the tree in the garden. Trust in the One from whose pierced side life flows; life for you, to you, in you. Turn to Him. Trust in Him. He was crucified for you and life flows from Him to you. He is risen from the dead and returning to raise the dead from the dust and make all things new. He is risen from the dead with the promise to raise you from the dust of death, to give you a new title: son, daughter, child of God.

This weekend the church is celebrating Easter. This coming Monday, April 22nd, many in the United States will be celebrating Earth Day, calling all people everywhere to reduce, reuse, and recycle. These are good practices that all followers of Jesus should embrace insofar as they help us serve our neighbor in the Name of Jesus. And yet, because of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, we have a peculiar way of seeing Earth Day. Maybe you're the kind of person who cherishes Earth Day. Maybe you think it's a bunch of malarky.

However you feel about it, if you celebrate the Resurrection Day of Jesus, here's one thing you could do on Earth Day: you could teach like old Tata. Scoop up a handful of dirt. Come alongside a young person and ask them, "What is this?" Maybe they've just come from science class, and they can teach you something about the microbes, minerals, and the fragile balance of the carbon cycle in the soil. Then you tell them about the God of the garden who became human, who took this earth into His very being, to make a new creation in the midst of the old.

I invite you to pray with me: Lord Jesus, by Your death You ended darkness of our rebellion in the garden. By Your resurrection from the dead, You opened Eden's doors to all who trust in You. By Your great love, set us free from all greed, guile, and vain-glory. Give us wisdom and energy to care even for this eroding-yet-still good creation, as we look for Your coming, because You are risen, risen indeed, Alleluia, Amen.

Reflections for April 21, 2019

Title: Cross in the Garden

Mike Zeigler: Thanks Mark. I have in the studio with me today my friend, Chuck Arand, also my teacher. Chuck you're on sabbatical now, I'm very thankful that you could join us today to talk.

Chas. Arand: Thank you. I'm very happy to be here and boy I can't say how proud I am of you. Here you are as The Lutheran Hour Speaker. The teacher becomes the student.

Mike Zeigler: Oh, thank you. Well especially with this topic you have been so formative in my thinking, and I'm grateful to you. Let's start with a more personal one. Of all the creatures with which you might identify as connected to them through the Earth, as Genesis says, what creatures do you identify with?

Chas. Arand: Well in terms of wild creatures I would have to say cranes. With regard to domestic creatures, probably my daughter's 12-year-old Labrador retriever.

Mike Zeigler: Oh very good. What is it about cranes that are endearing to you?

Chas. Arand: That's a really good question. I'm not sure if I have the best answer to that, but I happened to be reading a book years ago by a well-known naturalist, Peter Matthiessen. It's called The Birds of Heaven. It happened to be on cranes. Well at the end of the book he said one way not to be overwhelmed by everything in environment and within creation is to choose one creature, one species, and learn everything you can about it. In the process you're going to learn about the ecology, you're going to learn about environment, you're going to learn about a lot of other things. I chose cranes.

Mike Zeigler: Speaking of the potential to be overwhelmed, this coming Monday is Earth Day, April 22nd. It could be overwhelming because it just seems like such a bold thing to proclaim that this about all Earth. Christians, I've heard have different perspectives on the value of such a day. Imagine you heard two Christians arguing about Earth Day, one for, one against, how would you try to give them a common ground with which they could approach this day?

Chas. Arand: Well, my guess is they're coming at it from two different vantage points. Those who don't like Earth Day or argue against it are probably reacting against people that they perceive to be worshiping the Earth, to be pantheistic, and you don't want to support that, much less encourage it. Those who view that it's perhaps a good thing to observe are maybe coming at it more from the standpoint of the popular non-Christian perception of Christians is that Christians are more interested in the life to come and they aren't interested in life here on Earth. It's important for Christians to show that that's not in fact the case. In one sense the entire Christian story to be honest is basically the story of creation.

Mike Zeigler: Right.

Chas. Arand: It's a story of God creating the creation, us messing it up, and God restoring it. So to focus only on the second article the creator of redemption, the third article of the creator, sanctification, apart from the first just doesn't make sense. Those redemption and sanctification take place within creation.

Mike Zeigler: So extending this a little bit, in our political climate, especially when the environment comes into discussion, we're often met with doomsday scenarios about the state of the environment and the future, or outright dismissal of the environment as a concern. How does the Christian story offer something different than either of those?

Chas. Arand: Yeah, that's a very good question. I think it's an important one for Christians to answer. First of all, I do think Christians need to distinguish their politics from their faith and their theology. Politics can come into play on both sides of that question. Secondly, I think what Christians bring to the table is both a sense of realism and a sense of hope. The realism is this. We cannot save the Earth. That is not our job. That is what Christ does. Our role is a little bit more like what I would call EMTs, arriving on the scene of an accident. You don't perform surgery there; you're trying to stabilize the patient to get the patient to the hospital and into the operating room. In some ways our current role here is to keep things going, to sort of stabilize the patient. We're holding the house together; we're patching it up, but in hope. In the confident hope that Christ is going to ultimately renovate the house and make it new again.

Mike Zeigler: I love John's emphasis on the new day, the first day of the week, as if to say that this renovation has already begun in the most important way with Jesus.

Chas. Arand: This is the one thing that Christians really do bring to the table because there have been some studies have shown that environmentalist are some of the most anxiety-filled people in our country because partly despite all of our efforts things don't seem to be improving. It can become perhaps discouraging that they're not improving or getting fixed as we would like. But again, Christians say well we don't approach this from a cost-benefit analysis. We approach this because it's the right thing to do.

Mike Zeigler: And in a less anxious way, as you were saying earlier-

Chas. Arand: In a less anxious way.

Mike Zeigler: To just come and say just chill.

Chas. Arand: Yeah.

Mike Zeigler: God's got this.

Chas. Arand: He's got this. In the meantime, our labor is not in vain, to borrow from the last verse of 1 Corinthians 15. Our labor is not in vain. In the end we'll see how it is not in vain when Christ makes all things new again. When we do care for the environment, it's a witness to the hope that we have. It's a witness that we know all things are going to be restored. In looking after endangered species, which is one of the reasons I'm interested in cranes, and so forth, it's a way of testifying to that hope.

Mike Zeigler: Well, thank you for being with us today and testifying to the hope that we have in the risen Christ.

Chas. Arand: Thank you.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Awake, My Heart, with Gladness" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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