Romans 4.1-5, 13-17
In the various places we’ve lived over the years, at this time of year the window sills are always full of seed trays and plant pots. At this time of year I’m trying to get ahead of the spring, starting plants off from seed indoors before acclimatising them outdoors as the days get warmer and the nights milder. I’m not always terribly successful in getting things to germinate. It would be much simpler and less messy just to buy plants. But there’s something very special about growing things from seed. At least I think so. This year I’m doing quite well. I already have lots of well-developed tomato plants, and I’m now starting off some ox-eye daisies, and some teasels for the many shady corners in the Rectory garden.
There’s something very special about the moment when you spot the first appearance of a tiny seedling in the compost. At first they’re often curled over, bent double, both their heads and their roots in the compost. It’s as if they’re reluctant to come into the light. But once they’re fully unfurled, their attraction to the light is extraordinary, their tiny stems leaning desperately towards the window. And if you turn the pot around to try to get them to straighten up, it’s only a matter of hours before you find them leaning into the light again.
This Sunday we’ve jumped away from S. Matthew’s gospel, and we find ourselves in the rather different world of John. We’re in the third chapter – if we had just started reading from the beginning, the opening of the gospel would probably still be quite fresh in our minds. But as it is, we haven’t heard the opening of the fourth gospel since Christmas. So let’s quickly refresh our memories. The prologue to S. John’s gospel announces the coming of the Word made flesh, and that this same Word made flesh was “life” and “the light of all people”. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world”. Jesus is the light that awakens new life, the light that feeds and sustains growth.
Nicodemus – and by the way, it’s worth remembering, in case we feel inclined to be to hard on Nicodemus, that he hasn’t had the benefit of hearing the opening of the fourth gospel – Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Nicodemus is drawn through the darkness to the true light which enlightens everyone. In the light, things look very different. It’s no wonder that Nicodemus seems a bit lost. When our eyes are used to the dark, too much light too quickly dazzles and blinds us. It takes time to adjust.
The word Lent comes from an old English word meaning spring. It may be related to lengthen, as in the lengthening of days. We have to be careful about reading too much into a word’s history. Other languages have very different words for Lent with quite different origins, usually related to the number of days of the fast. But that said, I think the connection between the church’s season of Lent and the lengthening of days in the springtime points us to something helpful. Yes, Lent is a time of self-examination and repentance, it is a time of fasting, of giving things up, even of letting things go. But it is also a time of new life and a time of growth.
And if you will permit me to reach again for horticultural metaphors, we can think of the seedling shedding the husk of the seed as it reaches up towards the sunlight. Or we can think of the way in which a rigorous pruning can so often lead to vigorous growth. Abram is not called to leave his father’s house and the land he knows to become a wanderer in a strange land because God wants him to be lonely and miserable. Abram is called to leave his father’s house because it is through giving up and letting go that Abram can grow towards the light; it is through giving up and letting go that Abram can be blessed by God. So we take on the discipline of Lent not because God wants us to be miserable but so that unhindered by husk and dead wood we can grow towards the light, be fed by the light, be blessed by the light.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus. And yet Jesus has made the greater journey in coming to him. The Word of God, which is light and life, empties itself and is made flesh, a human being like you or I. Nicodemus’ effort in seeking out Jesus is nothing in comparison to this unfathomable mystery. This too reminds me of the seedlings on my windowsill. Their straining towards the light is a matter of millimetres; it is nothing at all compared with the great distance the sun’s rays have travelled to them. And it is the sunlight itself that attracts them and feeds them. It is the sunlight itself that gives them energy and life.
This is a good image to keep in mind during Lent, because self-righteousness is the great hazard of this season. In fact self-righteousness is the great hazard of the Christian life in general. The thought that apart from God we can do anything, the thought that we can work our way into God’s favour, this thought will be our undoing. Like the seedlings on our windowsills, we can grow towards the light, we can re-orientate ourselves to maximise our exposure to the light. But it is only because of Jesus that we have new life, and it is only because of Jesus that we have the sense of direction and the energy to grow towards him. Jesus is the light that enlightens everyone. Jesus is the light that awakens new life. Jesus is the light that attracts, that gives a sense of orientation. Jesus is the light that gives us energy for growth.
The kingdom of God is a matter of new life. In conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus speaks of being born again, of being born from above. Elsewhere Jesus speaks of the tiny mustard seed, and the sower who went forth to sow. The gardener finds joy in the new life of the seedling bursting forth from the seed; the gardener finds joy in the unfurling of the tiny curled green thing, joy in its desire for the light, joy in its growth. And so surely does Jesus rejoice in our new life in him, in our desire for his light, and in our growth in love for him and for each other.