I read an interesting and challenging statistic recently
that although there are more people in church at the weekend in the UK than in football stadia there will be a greater number who visit garden centres at Easter than worship in church.
Perhaps the church needs to advertise better and hold out a greater beauty and more hope than the garden centres. I know that for my part garden centres only create wishful thinking and dont really enhance my garden, though I am ever hopeful.
But Easter church and garden are not strangers to one another though I believe there is more hope from the message of the church than any gardening guru.
At my very first Easter in my present congregation of Stormont I received an Easter present which has survived through the years until recently.
Christmas presents are taken for granted
but Easter presents are much more rare apart from chocolate!
Yet Christmas and Easter are part of the one great event of God sending his Son into the world to save us.
My present was an Easter garden beautifully planted out in a container with even a rock to resemble the tomb donated by Joseph of Arimathea. It came from the Sunday Church School teachers who had prepared it and used it for the Sunday School lesson and then kindly passed it on to the minister for his first Stormont Easter.
Time and again over the years it turned my thoughts to the Resurrection events. Last year the remaining plants from that Easter garden were finally reallocated elsewhere. Some of you have visited another garden, a real one in the Holy Land, beautifully maintained by an English charity: and in it there is a tomb. It was first discovered by General Gordon many years ago and it impressed him as very much like that described in the gospel:
"Now at the place where he was crucified there was a garden
and in the garden a new tomb not yet used for burial.
There, because the tomb was near at hand and it was the eve of the Jewish Sabbath, they laid Jesus." (St John 19: 41-42)
Above Gordons tomb is an outcrop of rock on top of which is a cemetery but the face of the rock is like a skull which is the description the Apostle gave to Golgotha where the crucifixion of our Lord took place.
When I walked in that garden just outside the walls of Jerusalem I thought of the Easter garden from the childrens Sunday School as well as the resurrection experiences of the first disciples on Easter morning in that or a similar garden.
Perhaps as these first disciples came - and the very first were three of the women, soon to be followed by Peter and John - their thoughts turned to another garden where they frequently sat with Jesus and listened to him and prayed. It was one of his favourite places around Jerusalem: the garden of Gethsemane. But the last time he had been in Gethsemane his mind had been in turmoil. It was the previous Thursday night into Friday morning and for him then it was
A Garden Of Agony.
His experience there has given us the terrible expression "He sweat blood." The disciples were sorry for his anxiety but could do little to help. Most of them fell asleep while he prayed through the midnight of his soul. There he was taking to himself all the sin of the world, all the wrong, the hurt, the pain, the guilt. Earlier as he approached the holy city over Mount Olivet he saw it stretched out ahead on the hill opposite and he wept over it. In the Garden of Agony it was not only that city that broke his heart but every city and every land and the people of all generations who could not do the will of God.
There and then he resolved to do Gods will even if it meant a cross to make good our disobedience and shortcomings and demonstrate the extent and power of Gods love and forgiveness for the unwilling. But it was agony to reach that point where he could move from a plea to pass on the horrific implications to say "Nevertheless not my will but yours be done."
On Easter morning they remembered Jesus pray in the garden of agony. They remembered, for they had their own agony of heart and mind now, their whole lives shattered by his betrayal, his torture, his death on a cross and quick burial late on Friday. Now they knew too what it was to sweat blood and to weep until tears ran dry. Perhaps I have taken you again with them to where you have been in an agony of mind and spirit too. But this is part of the gospel message that God came in Christ to be in all the places and in all the situations we are in - even the garden of agony.
It recalls that mythological garden at the beginning of human time - "Eastward in Eden" as the Genesis parable describes it.
It was a
Garden Of Broken Communion.
Adam and Eve had been in bliss in that wonderland but broke their friendship with God when they could not resist the forbidden fruit. They thought they knew better than God and rebelled against his wishes and plans for them. Then they hid from him as so many still will try to do rather than offer him their willingness to do his will. Expulsion from paradise followed and the human race was for ever to be at odds with itself as well as with the creator and the whole of creation. Nothing would be right, all would be a struggle and evil would lurk everywhere and especially deep in the human heart.
As the disciples came to the Easter garden they had bitter thoughts about the evil in the heart of Judas, the temple authorities, the Roman Governor, and their own cowardly hearts. The evil in them and around them had robbed them of the friendship of Jesus and cut them off from the Lord of life. So much had been within their grasp. So much lost.
Neglect your garden only for a while, less than a season, and the weed multiplies, the wild returns, the cultivated and cultured parts are overgrown. Paradise becomes a jungle. In life we struggle through a jungle of broken promises, lost relationships, cowardly failures and cheap betrayals with these disciples on the way to the garden tomb.
A surprise awaits them.
There are no guards to harass or prevent them.
The stone no longer blocks their entrance but has been rolled back in its groove.
And when they set down the spices and dressings they can find no body on which to use them!
At first they are confused and puzzled
then alarmed and fearful.
But gradually, through incredulity and doubt, this garden, their garden of agony, their garden of broken communion, becomes for them
The Garden Of Celebration.
They tell us that at first they cannot believe what their wits tell them - that the tomb is empty because death could not hold Jesus, that God had raised him from the dead, that he was making a laughing stock of his enemies, that they would be empowered to continue his work for the Kingdom of God and nothing on earth could stop it. They began to understand his power was let loose in the world and that the friendship once enjoyed with him in Galilean countryside and Judean towns and villages was not a thing of the past but an ongoing relationship with love stronger than death and reality larger than threat of ridicule or persecution.
He met Mary in the garden
the Apostles in the upper room
his followers in Galilee
Paul on the road to Damascus
and is with us in bread and wine
- with us too in every moment of the day to make every situation a sacred garden where his friendship is revived and continued. He stands by us in every agony we experience and breathes forgiveness on us for our sins.
His presence was not imagined by the disciples. They were at pains to describe him as physically present even if there were peculiarities about his coming and going. He was neither ghost nor hallucination but real - and his reality transformed their sorrow to joy, their fear to daring, their weakness to energy - and created the church, which from that to this has worshipped in his living presence and celebrated his undying love and mercy.
When they visited the garden tomb it became also
The Garden Of Glory.
It held the promise of Paradise restored. He had promised them Heaven. Soon he left them. Resurrection appearances ceased. But they believed what he said: that he had to return to his Father and they had to spread his message on earth. They would recreate something of Paradise by obedience, faith and loving action until the time came for them to join him.
Is heaven a garden?
Some say you are nearest to God in a beautiful garden. So perhaps the analogy is no bad one. But the message is this, that the Risen Christ who met Mary in the garden when she went there to look for his tomb is the Christ who promises those who have faith in him that they will meet him in an eternal existence hereafter. They will receive, as St Paul said, a new glorious body like his heavenly body at the Resurrection. It will be Paradise!
We have taken the path too the garden tomb.
We have walked in the garden.
Its the Easter garden where the Risen Lord still walks and meets his friends
and promises them they can pass through agony of mind and spirit
in communion with him
anticipating a glorious hereafter.
My miniature Easter garden has gone.
The real garden tomb is lost in history and only Gordons replica remains outside the wall of Jerusalem.
But the risen Christ - friendly, forgiving, empowering,
is as real as ever
and to those who put their faith in him so is Paradise.