DEAD WHEAT - A Lenten Sermon
March 4 2003 by Tony W. Cartledge , John 12:20-25

DEAD WHEAT - A Lenten Sermon | Tuesday, March 4, 2003

Tuesday, March 4, 2003

DEAD WHEAT - A Lenten Sermon

By Tony W. Cartledge John 12:20-25

Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. "Sir," they said, "we would like to see Jesus." Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.

Jesus had come to Jerusalem for the last time, and people had begun to notice him. Hundreds of people gathered about him and put him on a donkey and threw palms in his path and followed him into town. The disciples were ecstatic at the popularity of their movement -- Jesus was weeping over the failure of the people to understand what his mission was all about.

Shortly after they entered the city, according to John's gospel, a group of Greek people who worshipped the God of Israel let it be known that they wanted to see Jesus and learn more about him. They told this to the disciple Philip, whose name is Greek and who came from the Hellenistic city of Bethsaida. Philip took the message to Andrew, and together they approached Jesus with the good news.

Greeks were not easily impressed, and the interest of these people was an exciting turn of events. The Jesus movement was growing in popularity! The disciples longed for a broader base of support. Opposition to Jesus was growing rapidly among the Jewish leaders, and there were rumors that they intended to do him harm. Perhaps this was just what they needed -- by going to the Greeks, Jesus could avoid the dangers of Jerusalem and widen his sphere of influence at the same time! There is a good chance that Philip and Andrew were grinning when they came to Jesus to make the arrangements for a meeting with the Greek delegation.

But they were no longer grinning when they heard Jesus' response. "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, 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."

What? What? What is this about? We talk about growth, and He talks about death. We talk about opening up to the world, and He talks about turning away from the world! We talk about live prospects, and He talks about dead wheat!

Sometimes Jesus simply knocked the disciples right out of their sandals, and left them standing in the dust. They were speechless. They hadn't a clue. What is he talking about? Indeed, what is Jesus talking about? And can we understand it any better than his disciples?


The outward image of what Jesus said is fairly obvious. If you want more wheat for tomorrow, you have to sacrifice some of the wheat you have today. That is a familiar issue in an agrarian society. You harvest your crop, but you don't eat all of it. Some of it you must keep back to use as seed for next year's crop. If you are wise, you also keep back a reserve supply in case next year's crop is a failure, and the next. There are always shortsighted people who say "Here's wheat, let's eat!" But those who see down the road say, "No, it is better to be hungry today so that we might be fed tomorrow."

That made sense. The disciples understood that. But what did it have to do with Jesus meeting Greeks? What was wrong with getting excited about the interest these people had shown?

Evidently, Jesus knew that his disciples were still thinking short term. They called him "Lord." They believed he was the Messiah. But they still expected him to set up an earthly rule, to conquer Rome, and to usher in the kingdom. For the disciples, the addition of fresh troops with Greek influence would be a sign of progress. For Jesus, it was a temptation.

You see, Jesus could have gone that route. He could have become an earthly ruler, could have brought immediate peace on earth, could have saved his own skin in the process. But that was not the plan of God, and Jesus knew it. He could not save Himself and save others, too. The kingdom he came to establish was spiritual, not physical. His intention was to save all people from eternal death, not just to save some people from Roman domination. And in order to accomplish that goal, Jesus had to look down the long road.

There was a price to pay, and he had to be willing to pay it. In order for the church to be born, Jesus had to die. In order for Christians to be born again, Jesus had to die. In order for the gospel mission to be launched throughout the world, Jesus had to die.

Jesus knew that he would rise again -- that was an integral part of the plan. But somehow that didn't make it any easier to face the prospect of suffering, and dying. Still, Jesus was willing. He was willing to die, that we might live. God loved the world so much that he sent his only begotten Son into the world, that whoever believes on him should not perish, but have everlasting life.


What Jesus wanted his disciples to understand was that the story did not end there. For his mission to be fully accomplished, for the church to grow, for the world to be reached, Jesus' disciples must be willing to make the same sacrifice that he did.

"The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life."

Here John brings us to the central core of the Gospel and the central reason we celebrate the Lenten season: we must learn to die if we want to truly live. And John is not alone in telling us this. If you look for Matthew's opinion, or Mark's, or Luke's, you will find all of them remembering that Jesus said "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt. 10:39, Mk. 8:35, Lu. 9:24).

If you ask Paul's opinion, you will hear him say, "I die every day" (1 Cor. 15:31).

"Unless something is dying, nothing is getting born. All good things grow out of life-and-death struggles and nothing that is new or truly good will come easy." (William Cotton, "Imitate the Wheat," Preaching [Mar. 92], 42-43).

We must learn to die to our old way of living if we are to find a new way of living. We must put to death our old way of dying in order to discover a new way of dying -- and living again.

This basic principle works in ways both small and large.

Suppose your house is painted white with black trim, but you want it to be gray with blue trim. That old color scheme has to die so that the new one might live.

Suppose you want to lose weight or cut down on your cholesterol intake. Old habits and ways of eating will have to die before you can make that change and new, more healthful habits can be born.

Suppose you want your life to make a difference for good and for God. Something of your old selfish nature will have to die before that happens, and the goodness of God is born fresh in and through your life.

Suppose again. Suppose you don't want anything to change, but it does anyway. You lose your job. Your spouse walks out. Your body gets sick, your heart gets broken, your spirit gets depressed. Every time change occurs, something dies -- but that does not mean that death is the end. "Out of weakness and frailty come greatness and strength. Those who open their lives to the painful business of change, discover that scars are growth signs -- stretch marks with life welling up around them" (Cotton, 43).

We can lose ourselves in ourselves, and be lost to the world -- or we can allow ourselves to be constantly reborn, scars and all, and to become someone new and stronger and somehow more holy because of our experience.

The period of Lent is intended to be a time of self-examination, a time for Christians to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves. Frederick Buechner suggests some questions to help guide that thought process.

"If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn't, which side would get your money and why? "When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore? "If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less? "Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember? "Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for? "If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?"

Buechner suggests, "To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end" (Beuchner, Wishful Thinking, 74-75).

If we ever take the time to ask these kinds of questions, we might fantasize about what it would be like to have a fresh start in life, to begin anew in our pilgrimage, to become more than we are.

In the words of William Cotton, "Fresh starts come from letting go of the old life, of wearing the scars proudly, of being the wheat that risks falling into the ground to die, so that the beautiful new field of grain can prosper ... Life is always a risk. Someone is always cutting into the wood when it is green. We have what we give away. We keep what is freely given. To be truly alive is to be always dying. At its core, life is paradox. But only those who are willing to imitate the wheat will understand the miracle of new life" (Cotton, 43).


"Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me."

Jesus called on those who would follow him to throw themselves into the cosmic ground like wheat and to be willing to let themselves die, believing that a new and more productive life would follow. The servant follows the pattern set by the master, and that is a pattern of sacrifice.

If we love our life too much, we will lose it, but if we are willing to lose our life for Jesus' sake, we will gain new life, and eternal life.

What does it mean to give up our lives for Jesus' sake?

A. We Give All

The word "sacrifice" comes from a Latin root that means something like "to make sacred by setting apart." To sacrifice is to give up something you care about. It is tempting to trivialize Lent by giving up something that we don't want to start with -- like giving up broccoli when you don't like broccoli, or giving up movies when you rarely go anyway (cf. Robert Kopp, "What Are You Giving Up for Lent?" Great Preaching 1992 [Jacksonville, Fla.: The Preaching Library, 1992], 31-34).

One night on "The Simpsons," Homer got into trouble at the plant, and Marge started praying. "I promise to be a good Christian. I won't just give pumpkin pie filling and lima beans when they ask for canned food for the needy."

B. We Give Now

Sacrifice is not a dollar here and a volunteered hour there. Proper sacrifice is to sacrifice ourselves, to give up anything that rivals our relationship with Jesus, not just during Lent, but throughout our lives. This is why Paul put it so clearly: "I urge you, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship" (Rom. 12:1).

Sacrifice is not a little here and a little there, nor is it something that lies idly out there in the future, waiting for us to pick it up when we get to it.

In Tales of a Magic Monastery (1988) Theophane the Monk recalled when he gave it up: "I had just one desire--to give myself completely to God. So I headed for the monastery. An old monk asked me, `What is it you want?' I said, `I just want to give myself to God.' I expected him to be gentle, fatherly, but he shouted at me. `Now!' I was stunned. He shouted again, `Now!' Then he reached for a club and came after me. I turned and ran. He kept coming after me brandishing his club and shouting, `Now, Now!' That was years ago. He still follows me, wherever I go. Always that stick, always that `Now!'"

God does not chase us with a stick -- but he does pursue us, he does call us now. If you would follow me, Jesus says, you must go where I go. You must walk where I walk. You must give as I give. You must be with me where I am.

And where is Jesus? He is always in the places where children are hurting, where parents are searching, where people are losing themselves to the broad way of destruction. He inhabits the lowest depths of human misery, and the highest reaches of eternal glory. Today he calls us to take with us our scars and go with him into the pain of a hurting world. One day he will call us to come with him into the joy of eternal life. "My Father will honor the one who serves me," he said.

Life can be full with the presence of God's Spirit and the promise of God's future, but as Mother Theresa once pointed out, "God cannot fill what is full..." She went on to say, "It is not how much we really `have' to give -- but how empty we are -- so that we can receive fully in our life and let Him live His life in us" (Prayer Times With Mother Theresa, K. Egan and K. Egan [New York: Image, 1989], 93).

Dead wheat -- and multiplied fruit. Loving life -- and losing it. Losing life -- and gaining something greater.

Who are you? Who do you want to be? Where does Christ fit into your plans, into your life? Whoever would serve me must follow me.

Who are you following?

(EDITOR'S NOTE - Acknowledgement for some ideas and quotes to William Cotton, "Imitate the Wheat," Preaching, March 1992)

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3/4/2003 12:00:00 AM by Tony W. Cartledge , John 12:20-25 | with 0 comments
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