text :: John 12: 20-26
theme verse :: “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.” (John 12:24)
Is it a 'circle of life,' or is it something even more profound? We hold tight to the life we have and the ways we live it, but nature make us aware that something more plentiful lies beyond. Jesus says a single grain of wheat can teach us how to find abundant life. And aren’t you just dying to discover that?
musical meditation :: 'Shall We Gather At The River' (arr.L.Shackley) : Susie Monger Daugherty & Marilyn Rhodes, piano
anthem :: 'Wonderful Grace of Jesus' (arr.L.Shackley) : Chancel Choir ; Kelly Ford, director; Susie Monger Daugherty & Marilyn Rhodes, piano
reader :: Jamie Jones
preaching :: Rev Kevin Howe
special music :: 'My Hallelujah' (B.&K.Torwalt) : The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
John 12: 20 – 26
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 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. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
Those are heavy words we just heard from the scriptures—from Jesus, no less. Typically, if someone tells you that they hate their life that should raise a red flag. If a friend who is healthy tells us that their life will be over soon, we’re justifiably alarmed and would seek outside help for intervention. In an age where there is growing public discourse about illnesses like depression, a person who speaks about their own death prematurely worries us. We wonder if they have given up on hope.
But perhaps we can forgive the Light of the World for being a little dark here. After all, anyone reading the gospel of John must know that we are approaching the final act. In the previous chapter, the funeral of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, takes an unexpected turn as Lazarus miraculously walks out of the grave. And now that he is out each morning taking postmortem jogs in the park, rumors of Jesus are all over the regional tabloids. But up to this point in the Gospel of John, Jesus has been telling his listeners that the time has not yet come. “The time for what?” you ask. Jesus doesn’t explain. Perhaps because it’s a forecast that nobody would have believed even if he would have told it plainly. A young man in his early thirties, his acclaim expanding—we heard today that even foreigners, some Greeks, are coming to his interns to make an appointment. And now Jesus says “The hour has come.” The thing that he is expecting, like seeing a storm cloud rolling in that is now is ominously close. Jesus death on the cross is only about a week away.
It is in the context of this rising tension in Jerusalem, that Jesus unpacks this strange teaching: A kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, and it is buried in the soil. And at first…nothing. But then from that death, almost invisible to us in the earth, a new thing begins to break into the light. You might recognize here that Jesus had a thing for parables that included seeds. They seemed to him a great illustrator for matters of faith. In this case, the real purpose of a grain of wheat is what is in question. He says, “Look, the virtue of a grain of wheat is that it can give birth to newness of life; it can bring forth a bountiful harvest. But it can only do so by giving away its life as a seed. We know this to be true: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.” (The Message) A seed can give way to things that are much bigger, much grander than itself: a towering oak, an impossibly strong cedar, a field full of gluten, as is the case in Jesus’ illustration. This, he says, is the true nature of our purpose: to diminish ourselves as the primary actor, so that a gracious and loving God can use us to produce something grander and more beautiful.
What do you think? Can you imagine your life to be a grain of wheat? I can tell you this: if left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t have self-selected a seed as the illustration for my life. I might have likened my life to something more impressive, like a mountain, or more enduring, like a shining star. Instead, the parable says that ours is that of the tiny grain of wheat, and our path the humble path of Christ; to give up our lives in sacrificial love so as to fulfill our true purpose.
This reckless, sacrificial love is what we see on full display in Jesus living. In fact, Jesus is obedient to embrace sacrificial love even to the point of suffering and death. He demonstrates for us God’s way which is strength through vulnerability. Power through what appears weak in the eyes of the world. Justice through love, mercy and forgiveness. And he calls those who would follow him to the very same kind of living, which–if we are honest with ourselves—is easy to hear and believe…but to actually live that out, sounds a bit (what should we say?) risky.
This weekend I drove to the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch to witness an annual rock climbing tournament. This unique competition attracts climbers from all over the world, as the best of best dress in festive costumes and attempt to climb as we many routes as they can in 24 hours. Appropriately named for the grueling task, the 24-hour Horseshoe Hell was truly a sight to see! I enjoyed walking alongside the high sandstone bluffs of the ranch, taking in both the exceptional athleticism of the climbers and some pretty fun people watching!
Following the competition, I saw a father/daughter duo out on the bluff. The young girl—maybe 10 years old—had climbed up most of a route, but was clinging extra tightly to the rock face and crying. Her father, who had her taught on the rope, was yelling up the face of the cliff with an encouraging, if excited, tone: “It’s OK, just lean back and let go. The rope will hold you.” His pep talk was not persuasive. Remaining frozen on the wall, the young climber shouted back with her one-word retort “No!”
“You’re OK!” the father started back in. “You know that the robe is going to hold you, just like we practiced a few feet off the ground.” But she wasn’t having any of it. “Sweetie, you won’t be able to hold on forever. At some point, you’re just going to have to risk it!”
Eventually, and essentially out of sheer exhaustion, she did let go and returned safely to firm ground; the rope holding just as promised. And this scene stuck with me. On one hand, you can believe the rope is going to catch you… But when it comes to putting your life on the literal line that is something you must risk. There is a difference between propositional belief in something and risking your life on it. On what narrative are you risking your living? What do you trust enough to lean the whole weight of your life on it?
Consider for a moment the resurrection. Like the seed that finds newness of life after giving up its own. What a wonderfully beautiful story and a compelling concept. I have heard many speak about believing in the resurrection, which is fine and well. But resurrection isn’t really something to which one mentally ascribes. It is something you must risk.
Ask those people that ran away from the tomb that first Easter morning, and I don’t think you are likely to hear them talking about belief in the resurrection. If you follow their lives a bit further—the women, and Peter, and the other disciples—to find out what the ripple effect of that empty tomb was on their lives you are not likely to encounter at the word belief as much as you are likely to encounter the word risk. Their story is told to this day not because of what they believed about resurrection. That would not distinguish them from most people. Instead, they leaned into it, gave their purpose over to it, risked their status on it, and, truthfully, many of them lost their heads because they came to the conclusion that Jesus wasn’t held by death anymore and he was still on the move among the breathing. And that is something you cannot simply believe to be true. That is something that you must stake a bit of personal risk on. Those disciples didn’t go to the ends of the earth without risk to themselves in the name of the resurrection. They embarked on something that is truly the root of faith: to give one’s self over to something much bigger, much grander, than one’s own safety or happiness.
This week, a fellow HACCer sent me a quote from Teddy Roosevelt**, who said “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” Friends, we can dock the ship of our lives harbor by holding tight to the life we seek for ourselves; to find ways of ensuring that we can preserve it for as long as possible, but that is not what we are built for. We find ourselves still clinging tightly to a small vision for our lives than risking our living on resurrection.
We are told to fight, to stand up for ourselves. To battle, and struggle for what is rightfully ours and our respect and a secure future. This is the glory and victory of this world. But how much different is the glory and wisdom of risking one’s living on sacrificial love? That we might be drawn more deeply into the kingdom of God through risking our lives on God’s way of love for, service to, and sacrifice on behalf of those around us.
I’m fortunate to see a good measure of sacrificial love around me. I have seen families where parents give up a whole lot of themselves so that their children might flourish. I’ve witnessed spouses who set aside their own wants or needs to help the other become who they are meant to be. I’ve seen it in this congregation, even in the simple act of giving up the seat we would have for ourselves so that a newcomer could be welcomed. When children are welcomed, even when they fuss. When we reach beyond our shyness or our fear to speak out against the suffering of others or the injustice in our communities, especially when it is a well-known fact often times that can mean putting your life on the line.
But Jesus makes it clear: when all the safety nets are taken away, when the security measures of comfort and protection you’ve put in place must be abandoned to show Christ’s love, when the things you thought would destroy you are staring you in the face, do not fear falling to rock bottom. Don’t shy away from leaning the weight of your life on sacrificial love. There is something that will catch you. The One who has ushered you into life will catch you on the very floors of death.
Friends, we can try and cling tightly to ones own wants and desires—to our self-centered way of living. And it’s scary to give it up; to lay it down; to let it go. But let’s face it: you can’t hold on forever. At some point you’re just going to have to risk it. And when you do, I pray that you will remember the words of our teacher who went before us: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”
**The quote was received as attributed to Roosevelt. It is more accurately attributed to author and entrepreneur John A. Shedd.