(Significant Scriptures: John 12:20-25)
On May 19, 1845, two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror set out from England with 24 officers and 110 men in an expedition led by Sir John Franklin to discover and map the Northwest Passage. The mission turned out to be a disaster. The two ships became trapped in the Artic ice in September 1846. A year and a half later, the remaining crew abandoned the ships and set out on foot, carrying provisions in sleds. In 1848, rescue missions were sent out to find the missing Franklin expedition. No survivors were found.
While there has been much debate about what actually happened to the Franklin expedition, scientific examination of the remains of some of the crew has shown high levels of lead in the tissues. Though the crew likely died of pneumonia, tuberculosis, scurvy, and exposure, lead poisoning was probably a contributing factor. Lead poisoning causes physical weakness, delusion and impairment of one’s decision-making abilities. And the lead likely came from the Expedition’s food and water supply. Lead was used for soldering tin cans in those days, and the food supplier to the Franklin Expedition was in a hurry to prepare the canned food for the Expedition before it left. In his haste, he did a sloppy job, dribbling some of the lead solder on the inside of the cans, which contaminated the food and poisoned the crew. But the two ships also had special steam powered water systems on board to create distilled water for the men to drink. Since lead was a major component in plumbing systems in those days, it is likely that the water they drank was also a source of lead. The very things that Franklin and his crew thought would keep them alive turned out to be poisonous to them.
There is a tragic irony here, that the things we think bring life, turn out to bring death. But this irony is not particular to the Franklin expedition. William Foxton and Thierry de la Villehuchet were two of the many people who invested millions of dollars with Bernie Madoff. In December 2008, Madoff admitted that his investment business was really a giant Ponzi scheme. Villehuchet lost $1.5 billion that he had invested with Madoff. Foxton lost his family’s entire savings. Distraught, both men committed suicide, Foxton in England, Villehuchet in New York. They both likely thought that investing as they did would enhance and enrich their lives. It ended up leading to death.
And this is common for us human beings, the things that we think bring us life, actually bring death, and the things that we think are death, actually bring us life. In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther notes that our god is that person or thing in which we fear, love and trust above all else. So I ask you this question, “In what do you fear, love and trust above all else?” Or to put it another way, “What could you not carry on without?” Is it your spouse, your children, your home, your work, your investments or your looks? If your answer is anything but God, there is a serious problem because while these things are not harmful in nature, when they become the most important things in our lives, they become death to us. They will lead to our downfall.
The things that we think bring life can actually bring death, and what looks dead to us is actually what brings us life. Jesus talked about this principle shortly before he died. While in Jerusalem for the Passover Feast, Jesus said to his followers, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24) He goes on to explain, “Those who love their life will lost it, while those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) The song “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” puts it this way, it is “In dying that we’re born to eternal life.”
And Jesus not only spoke of life coming from death. He lived it. We have in our sanctuary a big, old wooden cross. It is an instrument of death. It is a means of capital punishment. And yet Jesus willingly allowed himself to be beaten and whipped and nailed to a cross to suffer and die. They took his bruised and bloody body down from that cross and buried him in a cold, dark tomb. They rolled a rock in front of the entrance and sealed it. Nothing could be deader than that. Yet something miraculous happened on the third day after Jesus’ death. Jesus rose from the dead! He is alive and he is with us right now!
Jesus is the seed planted in the ground that dies and gives us life! When we trust in Jesus, he gives us the same life-from-death that he has. It is an everlasting life. It is a life free from guilt and shame. It is a life devoid of worry or concern. It is life filled with eternal purpose and meaning. And, best of all, it is life with Jesus. With Jesus, we know that we have a God who loves us and only wants what is best for us. With Jesus, we know that we have a God who is always with us to carry us through whatever challenges we face. With Jesus, we have a God who gives us a life with him that lasts forever and that life does not depend in any way on outward appearances.
So when we are old and wrinkled, like Mother Theresa, with Jesus, there is life. When we poor and destitute, like the Dalit Christians of India, with Jesus there is life. Even when we are about to die, like Karla Faye Tucker did when she was executed on February 3, 1998, with Jesus there is life.
For the Christian Church, this time of year is a special time of reflection called Lent. During Lent, we reflect on our own need to be saved from all the things that cause death in our lives. And we also reflect on the new life that Jesus has given to us. And to help people in their Lenten reflections, we are giving away these Lenten Table Top Devotions. Each week, the devotions focus on a symbol of Easter, and the symbol for this coming week is the lily. It starts out life as a scaly bulb that looks lifeless and ugly. And yet it produces such a beautiful flower that has become for us a fragrant symbol of life. The white blossoms symbolize the purity and the wholesomeness that Jesus gives us. The gold stamens symbolize the richness of life with Jesus. And the three large blossoms surrounded by the three smaller blossoms remind us that our life is centred in the three-in-one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And all this comes from a bulb that looks to us as if it is dead. As Jesus tells us in John 3:16, 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Jesus has given us everlasting life. Therefore, let us die together during this season of Lent. Let us die to everything and anyone that comes between us and Jesus. Let us turn away from all the desires within us and all the temptations outside of us that could possibly draw us away from Jesus and the life that he gives.
And let us share the life-that-conquers-death with others. In writing about the early church, Luke says this, And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. (Acts 4:33b-35) With the downturn in the economy, there are people in our country, in our community and in our church who are hurting. And we, as followers of Jesus, have a gold opportunity to bring Jesus-life into the economic-death of others. This is a time for the Church to be the Church. As Steve Bell said at a concert last year in Abbotsford, “the Gospel is not really Good News unless it is Good News for the poor.” How will this look for us in the future here at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, I do not know. On March 31, Lynn Gergens and I will be attending a special event presented by World Vision on the topic of poverty. And both of us are hoping to learn more about the cold hard facts of poverty and what can be done in our region. So stay tuned. But in the meantime, I urge you, as individuals, to keep your eyes open for those personal opportunities that God presents to you to help someone else who is in need.
A few weeks ago, Susan and I visited my parents in Arizona. The desert, which is usually dry and dreary, was full of life because they have received about three inches of rain about two weeks before we arrived. And every once in a while, as Mom and Dad and Susan and I would drive along the highway out in the desert, we would see one of these-a dry creek bed. There is nothing there now. But during these heavy rainfalls, the desert soil is unable to absorb all the water and these dry creek beds become streams of flowing water.
The prophet Isaiah describes the new life from death that God gives us as being like the new life that comes to a dead desert.
1 The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.
3 Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
These streams of living water that appear in the dead desert are dramatic and unpredictable and yet there is one other important aspect to them. The Department of Highways in Arizona builds bridges where these stream beds occur. In other words, they plan for life from death to happen. And with the help of Jesus, we can do the same. We can intentionally live the new life Jesus has given us even when it looks like death has won the day, because Jesus has overcome death for us. Amen.
(Preached at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on 15 March 2009)
 “Franklin’s Lost Expedition,” Wikipedia, Internet, available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franklin%27s_lost_expedition, downloaded 15 March 2009.
 Susan Thompson, “Bernie Madoff has ‘blood on his hands’ over William Foxton suicide,” Times Online, Internet, available at: http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/banking_and_finance/article5720211.ece, downloaded 15 March 2009.
“Madoff investor found dead in apparent suicide, police say,” CNN.com, Internet, available at: http://www.cnn.com/2008/CRIME/12/23/madoff.investor.suicide/index.html, downloaded on 15 March 2009.
 Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, (Concordia: St. Louis, 2005) 58.