Dying to Grow

Jerusalem in the days leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion provides the setting for this morning’s Scripture lesson.

But it is recent events taking place in nearby Bethany that set the stage for everything we’ll shortly hear from the Gospel of John.

In Bethany, Jesus has been hanging out with his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha, and the pinnacle moment of his visit comes when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.

Overjoyed that Jesus brings their beloved their brother back to life, Mary and Martha throw a grand dinner party in the Lord’s honor. And during that feast, Mary kneels down and anoints Jesus’s feet with costly perfume.

But not everyone is happy about what Jesus is doing.

In the minds of the religious authorities, the grand miracle of raising up Lazarus cinches the case against Jesus as a blasphemous, rabble-rousing trouble-maker. Their thinking goes something like this:

If they let Jesus keep doing this kind of thing, there’ll be no stopping him. And the spiritual momentum that Jesus enjoys poses a very-real threat to the power and authority of the religious leaders, who enjoy the prestige and profitability that come with their office.

So, the authorities begin conjuring up plans to kill Jesus as well as Lazarus, who’s become the poster child for the resurrection power of the Lord.

The smell of death has been lingering in the air for some time, and the foul stench only gets stronger after Jesus says his goodbyes to Lazarus, Mary and Martha and enters Jerusalem, where the people welcome him to the city with the waving of palm branches.

Listen now, with all your senses, for the word of the Lord in chapter 12 of the Gospel of John:

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.

They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew, then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them:

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”

Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (John 12:20-33)

As the saying goes, a brave man tastes death only once, but a coward tastes death many times before he finally dies.

That adage plays itself out in the movie Saving Private Ryan.

Most of the soldiers in the World War II story are brave-hearted and stoutly spirted. They have endured many harrowing battles but persevere knowing that they’ve acted with nothing but courage and bravery.

Some of soldiers and officers die in course of the story, but none of them ever experiences the kind of repeated cowardly deaths that one their comrades, Corporal Upham, experiences over and over again.

Corporal Upham begins his military hitch as a language translator, serving in safe places far behind the front lines. But able-bodied men are needed to take up arms in the fight against the Nazis, so Upham suddenly finds himself swept up into the harrowing blood of real war.

The young and naive corporal is far better trained to handle grammar than he is grenades and finds himself woefully unprepared for combat. He regularly freezes up in the heat of battle – barely able to advance on a position, rarely ever firing his rifle with any lethal accuracy. His behavior is, by definition, that of a coward.

In one of the film’s most excruciating scenes, Upham cowers on a staircase – paralyzed by fear – as he listens to the death screams of a fellow soldier slowly being killed by a German at the top of a staircase he’d been so gingerly climbing with rifle in trembling hand. In the end, cowardice prevents Corporal Upham from saving his comrade’s life.

After the man is dead, the German who killed him casually walks past Upham on the steps. Upham is such a tragic, pathetic figure that the enemy just leaves him alone. In the gut-wrenching sobs that Upham then lets loose, you sense that in a very real way Upham is dying on the inside.

The brave man tastes death just once, but the coward dies again and again, and that kind of repeated spiritual death is not what any of us is supposed to aspire – at least that’s what the world around us believes and teaches.

Jesus sees things in a different light – the light of his truth, which is this:

Not only does death produce life, but followers of Jesus also lead lives of self-denial and perpetual death to bring more life to the world. “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies,” Jesus says, “it remains a single seed.”

Actually, the literal translation of the Lord’s words goes like this: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone.” The kernel of wheat remains monos – solo, alone, a mono-seed. “But if it dies, it produces much fruit.”

By itself, a single kernel of wheat is lonely and ineffective. One way or another, for a kernel of wheat to do any good it must die – give itself up, give up the very essence of what it is – if it has any hope of producing life. That single kernel must be buried deep into the rich soil of the good earth where it can sprout and grow, because it’ll do no good by itself. It has to die, Jesus says, if new life is to rise up.

Here in John 12, Jesus is referring primarily to himself. Frustrating everyone’s expectation about what a savior is supposed to do and be, Jesus is going to have to sink deep into furrows of death if he’s ever going to give life to anyone.

But this journey into death isn’t only about Jesus.

The Lord makes clear that this cycle of dying and rising must be our pattern of earthly life, too.

If we are to be faithful servant followers of Jesus, death is where we must go as well – over and over, again and again – if we expect to receive and experience the blessing of resurrection new life.

The kind of death we’re supposed to experience over and over, again and again, is the dying of our sin, the dying of our brokenness, the dying of evil’s grip on hearts and minds, the dying of old habits, behaviors and beliefs.

In dying with Christ to what was and in rising with Christ to what will be, our lives become more fruitful – a bin-buster of resurrection overflowing with the sweetness of the Holy Spirit: love, patience, kindness, joy, generosity, gentleness, and self-control.

Sprouting and growing into that newness of life isn’t a one-time event that happens when we “accept” Jesus.

Sprouting and growing comes when we synch up with Father, Son and Spirit in a spiritual rhythm of death and resurrection that is daily transforming us into the image of God in Jesus Christ by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

“When I am lifted up,” Jesus says, “I will draw all people to myself.”

Don’t hear that as anything glamourous or glitzy.

The “lifting up” that Jesus has in mind is the cross. Yes, Jesus ultimately will be lifted up into heaven, and so will we! But the first stones-throw of that journey comes by way of a cross.

Jesus’ upward journey starts when Roman soldiers hoist him skyward at the Place of the Skull. But in that horrific moment, Jesus is nowhere close to the end of the journey, and neither are we.

So, if you want to fly off into glory with Jesus – if you yearn to experience resurrection in the here and now as well as on that great day yet to come, you’ve got to join Jesus on the first 10 or 15 feet of his journey as well.

You can’t prop up a stepladder on the side of the cross, climb it, and meet Jesus at the top to tag along for the ride. No, you’ve got to be crucified with him. You have to be the kernel who gets buried into death with him.

“Where I am, my servant also will be,” Jesus declares.

As a servant, you cannot pick and choose the times and places that you want to be with Jesus. You are with him always and everywhere, or you are with him never and nowhere.

Friends, hard as it is to hear, it’s time to die – time to be buried deep like the kernel of wheat so that fruitfulness can grow and flourish in your life.

Hard as it is to admit, it’s time to feel the Holy Spirit tapping you on the shoulder, calling your attention to those aspects of yourself that need to fall away and die.

Hard as it is to believe, hard as it is to die and let go of those things that make you a lonely mono-seed, it’s time for you to blossom and flourish into something far more green and lush – someone in whom God is even more well pleased, as Father, Son and Spirit together transform you into being a greater blessing to others.

It is a deeply personal sacrifice – oftentimes an intensely painful sacrifice, but it is – by the grace of God – a sacrifice that heals and repairs what is broken in your life and in the world around you.

In the movie Babette’s Feast, Babette is a talented chef who’s driven from her native Paris by political turmoil.

She almost literally washes ashore in a small Danish fishing village, where a small religious community is enduring a time of fractious bickering. The once-tight-knit band of believers spends most of its days sniping and snipping at each other – much to the heartbreak of the spinster sisters who head up the community and take in the refugee Babette as a scullery maid and cook. Mostly, the sisters ask Babette to prepare only the blandest of foods, which is the regular diet of the community.

But then, one day, Babette gets word that she’s won the Paris lottery, and with her winnings, she offers to pay for and prepare a true feast for the sisters and their little religious community. Babette treats them to a feast of rare delicacies, excellent vintages of wine, and simply some of the best gourmet cooking anyone in the world could ever want.

Members of the religious community have no idea what they’re eating, and yet – through this fine meal – the harmony of their community restored. Arguments are dropped. Past misdeeds are forgiven. And when the evening is finished, they join hands and sing the Doxology under the stars.

Only then do the sisters realize what Babette had really done: she’s spent ALL her lottery winnings, not just a portion of them as they had thought. Babette has foreclosed on all her own options. She can never return to Paris, never work as the chef at one of the world’s leading restaurants. She has sacrificed herself – died to what the lottery winning could have done for her, and because she sacrificed fame and fortune, new life emerged from the barren ground of that little Danish village.

If resurrection is to be, then something has to die.

And now, my friends, is the time to die – through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ – so you and I can cash-in on the riches of resurrection that God vows to bestow upon you and me. That’s precisely what the Lord promised through the voice of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, generations before the disturbing and fateful events of Holy Week:

“Within them, I will put my law – my instruction, my direction. I will write my instruction and direction upon their hearts. I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33)

May it be so by the mercy and love of God, the grace and peace of Christ, and the power and work of the Spirit.”

Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message on the fifth Sunday in Lent, March 21, 2021. It is the fifth in a series of sermons around the theme “Again and Again: A Lenten Refrain,” which draws on Psalm 13. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by T. Denise Anderson, Lisle Gwinn Garrity, Scott Hoezee, Gail R. O’Day, and Gerard Sloyan inform the message.

Our song of the day is “In Christ Alone” by Keith & Kristyn Getty and Alison Krauss:

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