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Sermons

Fall into the Ground and Die

May 02, 2004

Bible Reading

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.

Jesus answered, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, 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. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servants be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor."

(John 12:20-26)

Reading from Swedenborg

When the "earth," or person, has been prepared to receive heavenly seeds from the Lord, and to produce some goodness and truth, then the Lord first causes a tender thing to spring forth, which is called the "tender herb"; then something more useful, which bears seed in itself, and is called the "herb yielding seed"; and at length something good that becomes fruitful, and is called the "tree bearing fruit, whose seed is in itself, each according to its own kind."

When we are first being reborn, we think the good we do and the truth we talk about come from ourselves. In reality, all goodness and truth come from the Lord. If we think they come from ourselves, we do not yet have a life of genuine faith; but we can receive it later. For we cannot yet believe that they are from the Lord, because we are only in a state of preparation to receive the life of faith. This state is represented by inanimate things, and the following one, of the life of faith, by animate things. The Lord is the one who sows; the "seed" is his word; and the "earth" is the human being, as the Lord himself said. (Arcana Coelestia #29)

Sermon

Falling into the ground and dying is a method for living. It has nothing to do with the funereal business of dying and being put into the ground, and everything to do with approaching each episode of life in the best and most effective way. It is expressed through the symbolism of organic germination and growth.

In giving this formula for living, the Lord was talking to a group of people whom John called "Greeks." These were descendants of Jews who had been resettled after Alexander the Great conquered Israel some generations before, and who now returned from Greece to observe the Passover in Jerusalem. As a group they were better educated than many of the audiences Jesus addressed. Although he spoke to them in simple terms, he dealt with a deep paradox that philosophically trained minds might comprehend. Looking back from our position knowing of his death and resurrection, and with a knowledge of correspondences, we don't need their erudition to be able to plumb the depth of his meaning.

"Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies it bears much fruit." In context, the teaching concerns Jesus' imminent crucifixion and resurrection. But in a more universal sense, it speaks of every treasure we have, including our greatest treasure: life itself. It includes the teaching in Matthew 25 about the talents given to the different stewards--and that is a teaching that applies to our life. If we hang back, protecting ourselves from the challenges of life, we remain no more than a seed, valuable for our potential, but otherwise useless. We have to risk failure and even destruction if we are to fulfill our potential and be of use to ourselves and to others.

Some seeds serve a dual purpose: they serve as food, as well as filling their essential function as seeds. But all seeds share an inherent power to become something far greater than what they are. We share this inner dynamic with seeds. If we fall into the ground and die, as a seed does when it is planted, we can become radically greater--and of greater use--than we are now.

Falling into the ground and dying is the necessary precondition of this growth and greater usefulness. But it is a risky, frightening, even painful thing to do. We tend to resist it. When we meet the challenges of life, our natural inclination is to work, to fight, to do what we have to do to overcome them. But our greatest power to accomplish things is a power we find only when we surrender; only when we let ourselves fall into the ground and die. That is, we succeed best when instead of trying, we surrender; when we let ourselves serve as a medium for the power of God.

That is never more true than when we face the kind of challenge that is called "temptation" in the Bible. Temptations are most commonly seen as times when we are faced with alternatives of doing things our own way, or doing evil. But it is just as truly a temptation when our way is doing the best we can, the Lord's way is doing a great deal more or better, and our natural inclination is to do it our way, using our own best strength, skill, or judgment.

The way to overcome in these temptations is not to fight it, but to surrender and let the Lord fight it. When we are faced with a challenging task, or even a completely internal struggle, the way to victory is to admit that we cannot overcome the challenge, and to figuratively fall into the ground and die.

The Lord did just that. To become as human as we are, he let his divine omnipotence fall into the ground and die. In doing so he became the universal power that all of us can use in overcoming every temptation that comes into our lives. He overcame the hells, not as a mighty conqueror, but, in the image from Isaiah:

He was wounded for our transgressions, and was bruised for our iniquities. . . . He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth. . . . They made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death. (Isaiah 53:5, 7, 9)

The way to live is to fall into the ground and die. That is a great lesson for each one of us, every day. I know the truth of it from my own experience. I have struggled against temptations for years, exerting all the power of will that I could muster, but not succeeding until I quit trying to overcome them, and "fell into the ground and died" by giving up every vestige of self-confidence that I could handle the problem myself. That kind of silent surrender to something I have fought against as I would fight to save my life has felt something like dying might feel. But it has worked more vividly and dramatically than I could have believed.

I suppose each of you has a temptation you are dealing with in your life. If not, you will meet one soon, for that is the way life is. If you can trust this age-old message enough to try this method for living, and fall into the ground and die instead of trying to overcome the temptation yourself, you will find new power for living that will astonish you. When you meet a challenge that you have failed to overcome before, or that seems overpowering now, remember this simple, powerful command: fall into the ground. Let yourself go into the best you have learned in the church of how to live; and surrender yourself to it, and to the Lord.

Prayer

Dear Lord, help us to lay down our struggle to maintain the status quo. As a seed must fall to the ground and die before it bears fruit, may the negative thoughts, feelings, and actions that separate us from you also fall away and die, so that new behaviors, thoughts, and feelings can come to life and fruitfulness in us. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Robert Kirven