READ : John 12:24-25
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.
John 12:24-25 rsv
The Russian author Turgenev sometimes told crowds of admirers about his heroism at sea. It seems that once when fire enveloped a steamer, he, Turgenev, had kept his head in the midst of danger, comforting distraught women and encouraging all hands. That was his story. But another person who had observed the same incident described it quite differently. He said that the captain had to reprimand this large young author for pushing his way into a life boat ahead of women and children, moaning all the while, “I’m too young to die!”
It’s easy for us to sneer at this pretended bravery, easy to feel contempt for such cowardice masquerading as courage. But isn’t Turgenev much like many of us? We all like to appear brave. We want others to see us as noble, generous and self-sacrificing. But when the pressure is on, we often find ourselves, as we say, looking out for Number One. Self-preservation remains our constant law.
What amazes us, shames us, and leaves us wistful is to see someone now and then living in a different way. A person we know perhaps actually does what Turgenev only pretended that he did. A man bears a load of undeserved blame and makes no excuses. A friend stands up for you, even when he gets laughed at for his trouble. Or family members reach out to you with a caring that costs them deeply. You don’t know quite how to take that. You can’t figure it out. Those people are really “going against the grain.” They seem to be marching to a different drum.
One life that has so impressed the whole world is that of Jesus. He chose not to save Himself. He saw the meaning of His life in giving it up. Listen to these words about Him. I’m reading from the Gospel according to John, chapter 12, beginning at verse 20:
Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew went with Philip and they told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.
“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? `Father, save me from this hour’? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify thy name.”
Jesus had a commanding vision that shaped His life, a vision different from that which motivates most of us. He saw glory rising out of shame. He saw fruitfulness as the result of death. He saw gain coming out of loss. Let’s try to glimpse things for a moment as Jesus saw them.
GLORY IN SHAME
First, the glory out of shame. When certain Greeks had come to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover, they made contact with Jesus’ disciples, saying that they wanted to “see” Jesus. That is, they wanted to meet Him, have an opportunity to talk with Him, get to know Him. When the disciples related this to Jesus, it seemed to have a profound effect on Him. He took it as a momentous sign. We aren’t told that He actually met with the Greeks at that time, but He said, in the hearing of the disciples and perhaps of the visitors also, “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified.”
Jesus had said a number of times during His ministry that His hour had not yet come. He said that when Mary wanted Him to provide wine for the guests in Cana. He said it when His brothers urged Him to show Himself to the world. No one could arrest Him early in His ministry because that “hour” of His had not yet come. Jesus seemed to be conscious that a time was ahead that would be the climax of His ministry. It would be His “hour.” Somehow, the coming of the Greeks signaled to Him that the time had arrived. “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified.”
What makes those words striking and memorable is the fact that they clearly refer to His approaching death. Jesus was about to be arrested and condemned. He would be mocked, whipped, spit upon. And, in the worst form of torture ever devised, He would endure the agony and shame of public crucifixion. Yet He says nothing of the shame. Rather, He sees in the death He will die something supremely glorious. He, the Son of man, will be exalted. The Greek word upso? which means “to lift up on high” has that strange double meaning. It means “to lift up on a cross, to impale on a cross, to raise up for all to see,” but it means also “to exalt, to glorify, to lift up on high.” The latter is what Jesus sees in His crucifixion.
What is this on His part, a kind of fantasy? Is He living in a dream world, refusing to face the grim reality of what is to happen to Him? No. He probably had witnessed crucifixions before. He knew what was in store for Him. But what others saw as ignominy, He could see as glory because of what it meant, because of His motive in submitting to it. The cross of Jesus is the highest revelation imaginable of self-giving love. Here God, in the person of His incarnate Son, was taking upon Himself the weight of our guilt and shame. He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquity. He drank the bitter cup of judgment to the dregs for our sake. At Golgotha the full measure of God’s mercy became evident for all to see. His cross was the sign of His grace. It was the full revelation of His glory, a glory of suffering, sacrificial love.
FRUITFULNESS THROUGH DEATH
What about fruitfulness out of death? Listen to Jesus again, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The grain of wheat, the kernel of corn, as long as it remains intact and above ground, can produce nothing. It can impart no life. It must fall into the ground, must experience a kind of burial. It must relinquish wholeness, disintegrate, be torn apart. Otherwise, it remains, as Jesus says, alone. But if the process of dying goes on, a miracle happens. A new plant begins to grow. A new life begins to burst forth. So for the Lord to bring forth a great harvest, to bring many sons to glory, He must first pass through death. There is no other way.
Early one spring morning sixteen years ago, I had been reading these very words of Jesus in my morning devotions, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Just after that reading, I went to wake up our handicapped son Billy for his day at the sheltered workshop where he labored. It was a morning I’ll never forget. At the age of 24, our oldest son, our firstborn, my namesake, had slipped away to be with the Lord. When I went to wake him, I found him dead. Heart arrest.
We had prayed for Billy even before his birth that his life would be to the praise of God’s glory. When he was stricken with encephalitis at age six, our hopes for his life as a servant of God were deeply shaken. Billy was left with a number of serious handicaps. We kept on praying for his healing and for his life, in whatever circumstances, to honor the Lord. Now the word of Scripture had come to me, just before he was called home, that somehow in death the witness of Billy’s life would bear fruit. And so it did, almost immediately. The young man who came with the emergency medical team seeking to revive Billy was deeply affected by what happened. He soon made a commitment of his life to Jesus Christ. Many others were drawn toward the Lord through this son of ours who had suffered so deeply and yet with such contagious joy.
Our next door neighbors gave us a plaque with this verse about the grain of wheat on it. It hangs today in our home. I often notice it and remember how fruitfulness comes through death.
GAIN OUT OF LOSS
What about the loss that somehow becomes gain? Listen again to the Lord, speaking now to all of us: “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). Strange. If you love your life, if you clutch it to yourself, if you make it your main concern to preserve it, somehow you will lose the very self you try to protect. But if you hold it with a light grasp, if you stand willing to let it go, if you’ve discovered something which means much more to you than looking out for yourself, then a miracle will occur. The life you will seem to lose won’t be lost at all. You’ll gain it, Jesus says, for life eternal.
Jesus lives that out before us here. He confronts a decision. His soul is troubled, He says. He’s feeling something of the horror and great darkness that came over Him in Gethsemane when He faced the prospect of bearing our sins, of enduring forsakenness for us. He would have to drink the cup of the world’s woe. He would have to bear the judgment all of us deserve, and it meant the Father’s face being turned away from Him. No wonder His soul was troubled.
“What shall I say?” He asks. “Shall I ask the Father to save me from this hour? Shall I keep on asking Him to take away the cup?” “No,” Jesus says, “for this purpose I have come to this hour.” That’s why He had come into the world. That’s why He set His face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem. This was the climax toward which His whole ministry moved. And just as He had resisted every temptation along the way to save Himself, so He resisted it now. He would not try to clutch His life to Himself. He would yield it up to God for His purposes. He would choose the Father’s will no matter what it cost. Jesus humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
And you know what happened then. Listen to the apostle: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:9-11). He lost His life. He gave it up. He was obedient to the death. But how wonderfully He found it again when God vindicated Him and raised Him from the dead on the third day!
We face those hours of temptation too, don’t we? We’re tempted to save ourselves from blame by putting the responsibility on someone else. “It was his fault, not mine!” We try to save ourselves also from ridicule. We don’t want to be identified with an unpopular cause. We don’t want to stand for something or someone the crowd may be jeering at, so we’ll deny the Lord or just say nothing. Some kind of temptation like that meets us almost every day. Will we go our own way, seek our own interests, or will we take the sometimes costly road of obeying God, of pursuing His will for us, no matter what it brings?
I don’t know about you, but I want my life to be shaped by the vision that moved the Lord. I don’t want to be like a Turgenev, pretending to be courageous or devoted, when in fact I’m not. I want to follow in the footsteps of the One who saw glory rising out of shame, fruitfulness in death, the One who knew what it was to lose in order to win.
But I’m not kidding myself, friends. I know I haven’t the resources in myself to live that way. My only hope is in Jesus Christ, in the gift of His life for me and the gift of His Spirit to me, to make me one of His authentic followers. And you know, He’s your only hope, too.