Christ As the Gardener – Louis Albert Banks (historic sermon 1855-1933)
“She turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thout Whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him. Sir, if thou hast borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I Will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni ; which is to say, Master.” —John 20:14-16
In the days immediately after the resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples in many forms. And that is what he is always doing to men and women in our own time. He appears in a different form to every one of us. To some he comes as he came to the disciples in the storm at night, when they thought he was a spirit and cried out with fright. There are many people to whom Christ now appears to be only a ghost to haunt them on the stormy voyage of life. If they would but listen to him, however, they would hear him saying as of old, “Be of good cheer; it is I ; be not afraid.”
To some Christ comes as a deliverer. Their sense of bondage to sin is so keen that the supreme cry of their hearts is for some one strong enough to unlock the prison doors and spring back the great iron bolts that hold fast the dungeon walls of their prison. To such Christ comes as the liberator to set them free, and they ever think of him as a heroic Savior. Others there are, whose souls have long been hungry and starved for hope and sympathy and love, to whom Christ comes as does the harvest after an Indian famine, with abundance of bread. Jesus to them is the bread of life ; they feed upon the bread sent down from heaven. Still others, like Paul, are smitten down by the light at noonday ; by the glory of that Light which is greater than the brightness of the sun, and ever after, looking backward to the old days of blindness and darkness, Christ seems to them to be the light-bringer.
Christ comes to many in childhood with the tenderness of a shepherd who carries the lambs in his bosom. A little boy who had been accustomed to seeing every day in his play-room a picture of the Good Shepherd carrying a little lamb in his arms was confronted with the picture of the Madonna and her Child. He looked up into my face and asked, “Is that the Good Shepherd when he was a baby?” There are many to whom Christ comes as naturally as that, and who are led on through all the days of childhood by his gentle spirit, who never know what it is to stray away from the Shepherd’s side. There ought to be many more than there are of that class. I doubt if Christianity, or rather the Christian church, is acting with so little wisdom at any other point as it is in relation to children. Our children should be consecrated to Christ in infancy and be given over to his care and training with never a thought of a period for the sowing of wild oats which must be uprooted again in penitence and sorrow. Isaiah says, ” Peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near,” and if we do our full duty by childhood the overwhelming majority of our children reared in Christian homes will be kept ever near to the side of the Shepherd Christ.
But I wish especially to call your attention to the form in which Christ appeared to Mary at the sepulcher. Joseph’s tomb, where Christ had been buried, was in the midst of a garden ; and when Mary turned about and saw Jesus clothed in the ordinary garb of a gardener –she thought he was the gardener. What purpose Christ had in thus appearing to her we do not know, and yet we surely do not in any way distort Scripture meaning by studying this figure as representing Christ’s cultivation of our hearts. Christ is the gardener of every soul that yields to him. In one of his parables he especially sets himself forth as a gardener. He tells the story of a certain man who had a fig-tree in his vineyard; and this man came and sought fruit year after year, but the tree was always barren and fruitless. So there came a day when he said to the gardener, ” I have been coming every year now for three years to taste the figs on this tree and have never found any. Cut it down; why should it be left to cumber the ground?” But the gardener had sympathy for the tree and pleaded for it. He begged the owner of the vineyard to let it alone for another year and during that year he would fertilize the soil, and dig carefully about the roots of the tree, and if it bear fruit, well and good; but if it still remained barren after that, it should be cut down. I think we can take that parable as illustrating Christ’s gardening in human hearts. There is a sense in which we are all trees in God’s vineyard. Some of us are barren trees, yielding no fruit; but as the barren tree in the vineyard drinks in the sunshine and the summer dew and the spring showers the same as the trees that are full of fruit, so God sends his rain upon the just and the unjust, and the sinful man receives the blessings of God, giving opportunity and privilege for every good thing to come into his life, the same as does the righteous. Not one of us is so poor and barren in moral and spiritual inheritance but that it is possible for us to bear fruit unto God if we yield ourselves completely to the Heavenly Gardener.
It is the glory of the skillful gardener that he is able to make common plants develop into forms of beauty and usefulness that the ignorant gardener would never dream of producing. In the great gardens scientific men are every year producing new combinations in roses and carnations and many other flowers. I remember last year a certain Eastern florist paid many thousands of dollars for the exclusive privilege of growing in America a new carnation which had been developed in England. It is the glory of great artists in every department of life that they are able to bring much out of little ; that they can give value and splendor to common things. Dr. W. L. Watkinson says that on visiting an art-gallery recently he noticed that some of the greatest pictures had not a splendid thing in them. The ordinary artist when he wants to be effective paints in a breadth of golden harvest, or he portrays a kingfisher or some other iridescent bird, or a tree in bloom, or that captivating thing, a rainbow. But you will notice that some of the greatest painters that ever lived never touch these things. They take common things: a railway cut, a plowed field ; no conspicuous object ; only the black earth, the brown earth, the red earth; but their touch is a supreme touch, so that you can see the blossom in the dust, and the rainbow in the cloud; and the picture, although it contains not a brilliant thing, is bathed in imagination, poetry and beauty. So Christ can take the most common human plants in his garden and develop them into the most indescribable beauty and interest.
Just think of some of the human plants that grew in Christ’s garden when he was here on earth: a man who had a whole legion of devils ; and Mary Magdalene, who had seven ; and fretful and peevish Martha ; an old beggar, Bartimaeus, blind since he was born; Zacchaeus, the tax-collector; a handful of fishermen without education or standing. Jesus picked up people like that, and how they blossomed under his hands ! They have grown into the heart of the world for eighteen hundred years, and the sweet fragrance of their Christian graces bless humanity in every land.
What Christ did with these people he can do with us. In soul-gardening it is possible for the gardener to impart his own nature to the sensitive human plant under his care. It is said that among the Dutch the rose is sometimes cultivated by planting a rose of ordinary variety close to a rose of unusual beauty and fragrance. The common rose is carefully watched and its anthers removed so as to avoid its propagating its own species ; the object being that it shall be pollinized by the superior rose. Gradually the rose thus treated takes upon itself the characteristics of the nobler and sweeter life of its neighbor. This is a striking illustration of what happens when we permit ourselves to be planted in the garden of Jesus. Our lives receive the gracious influences of his own divine spirit. We become like him. We lose the characteristics of the lower life to which we have been accustomed and begin to show the indications of the nobler and sweeter life of him who is the Rose of Sharon. How can any intelligent man or woman refuse to yield the heart to this Divine Gardener?
I do not doubt that some of you are greatly discouraged by your own lives. You have had much higher ideals for yourself than you have ever realized. You have meant to live a much nobler life, and to perform deeds of rarer value, than any that have ever been put down to your credit. But you have never yielded your heart to the care of him who is able to make out of your life something far better than the things you have hoped for but failed to accomplish. K you have tried in your own strength and are not satisfied with your success, why not give your life over into Christ’s hands? A young man who was converted a few months ago told me recently that when I had long pleaded with him to come to Christ, and seemed ready to give up in discouragement, the thing that started him was my final sentence, “It cannot do you any harm, anyhow.’* And so I say to you, it cannot, by any possibility, do you any harm to obey Jesus Christ, and yield yourself to be led by his hand. This young man says now that it not only did him no harm, but has been of more good to him than anything that has ever come into his life. You will say the same if you surrender your life to the training of Jesus.
There is something very touching in the parable of the unfruitful fig-tree, where Christ pictures himself as interceding in behalf of the unfruitful soul. How many years has God been coming to your life seeking in vain for the fruit of thought and conversation and conduct which he had a right to expect. Instead, perhaps, there has been bitter fruit, fruit that could do no one any good, and it may be has done much harm. Bring this home to your own heart, and think of that barren tree as yourself. Hear God saying: “Cut down the unfruitful tree. Cut down this useless life. I have been coming year after year to this man, or this woman, seeking for fruit and finding none. Cut them down. Why should they cumber the ground? And then hear Jesus as he pleads for you: “Let him alone one year more; let me fertilize the soil with the preaching of the gospel, and the invitation of Christian neighbors, and the rebukes of conscience, and the whispered pleading of the Holy Spirit ; perhaps he will turn and repent, and all will be well; but if lie does not, then shall he be cut down.” When that last year’s limit is made, none of us can tell. You may be in that period now. Possibly it is already drawing near to a close. It is a solemn thought. But, thank God, the probation has not yet ended, and this very hour you may by the divine grace and the forgiving mercy of Christ be transformed in your inmost nature so that you will begin to bear fruit unto righteousness.