3rd Sunday in Lent March 15, 2020
155, 151:1-4, 151:5-7, 147
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
In Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God,
God’s power and wisdom are revealed in many things that are big and grand. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows His handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1) The vastness of the heavens testifies to the greatness of God who created them. We see His greatness also in the natural wonders of the earth—the mountain peaks, deep canyons and gorges. We look at the wonders of God’s creation and exclaim, “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is Your name in all the earth.” (Psalm 8:1)
But it isn’t only in the big things of His creation that we see His power and wisdom. It’s also in the small things, the things that we would almost certainly overlook, if it were not that Jesus calls our attention to them in His parables. In one of them He uses the mustard seed to picture the working of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:31,32). In another parable He uses yeast to illustrate the kingdom (Matthew 13:33).
In our text for this Lenten service Jesus again directs our attention to something very small—a single grain of wheat.
Behold and see a grain of wheat? That might seem like something hardly worth our attention, so small and apparently insignificant. But Jesus uses it here to say something profound and important about His passion and death, and about His resurrection. The characteristic of a kernel of wheat that Jesus uses here is that in order for it to reproduce it first has to die. It has to be sown in soil and die for it to sprout, grow into a plant, and finally to produce heads of ripened grain that can be harvested and used for food. But if a grain of wheat is not planted, it will not necessarily produce anything. It can be stored and under the right conditions it can be kept practically indefinitely. Grains of wheat thousands of years old have been found in Egyptian tombs. But as long as a single grain of wheat is stored and kept, it remains only a single grain; it will never reproduce unless it dies and is planted in the ground.
Now Jesus doesn’t explain this parable to us here, but we understand what He is talking about from the context. Jesus spoke these words in response to a request from some people who wanted to meet Him. They are identified simply as “certain Greeks among those who came up to worship at the feast.” They were Gentiles who had come to know and believe in the true God and therefore were among the Passover worshipers who were in Jerusalem during that week in which our Lord was crucified. They didn’t feel that they could approach Jesus directly, so instead they brought their request to Philip, one of the twelve. It may well be that these Greeks were from Galilee and knew him. Philip didn’t go directly to Jesus but first conferred with Andrew. We can understand their reluctance, for when Jesus sent them out to preach He told them not to go “into the way of the Gentiles,” or the cities of the Samaritans, but to confine their work to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10:5) But the disciples had also seen how Jesus responded to the pleas from the woman of Canaan whose daughter was demon-possessed. He commended her for her faith and healed her daughter. (Matthew 15:21-28) Philip and Andrew decided to convey the Greek’s request to Jesus.
Jesus’ answer was one that the disciples were surely not expecting: “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified,” followed by the parable of the grain of wheat. “The hour” was the time of His passion, death, and resurrection, the very things for which He had come into the world. The time for these things had finally arrived. In only a couple of days Jesus would be arrested, put on trial, falsely accused and insulted, subjected to brutal abuse, and finally put to death by crucifixion. And during His hours on the cross Jesus would bear the world’s sin, and, as the Sin-bearer, He would suffer being forsaken by His own heavenly Father. The prospect of it all was troubling even to Jesus (John 12:27). Yet He speaks of this as the hour in which He would be glorified.
When Jesus says that He would be glorified, He surely has in mind that which would follow His passion: His resurrection, ascension, and sitting at the right hand of the Father. He surely has in mind the coming of the Holy Spirit who would glorify Him until the end of the world by leading countless millions to believe in Him, praise Him, and dedicate their lives to Him. When Jesus says that He would be glorified He surely has in mind the multitudes of the redeemed gathered around the throne in heaven and saying, “Blessing and honor and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever.” (Revelation 5:13) But clearly Jesus also has His passion and death in mind here, for He says that the hour had come for Him to be glorified as the cross still lay before Him. The glory then began with His passion and death.
How that could be, Jesus tells us with the brief parable of the grain of wheat. For it to be fruitful it has to fall into the ground and die. In the same way, for Jesus to save multitudes of sinners He needed to offer up His life on the cross. That’s why there is glory also in the cross; there the Son of God willingly lays down His life, willingly submits to terrible abuse, and willingly suffers even being forsaken by the heavenly Father. He does it out of love, to free us from sin, death, and damnation.
The death of Christ is in itself glorious because of the result He achieved by it: the fruit of many redeemed and saved. The single grain of wheat, when it is sown in the ground and dies, grows into a plant that produces heads of grain. From the single kernel come many kernels. The death of Christ was exceedingly fruitful, resulting in multitudes of redeemed souls from all nations and peoples. The coming of those Greeks asking to see Him was a token, a foreshadowing of how fruitful His passion and death would be.
Jesus’ parable of the grain of wheat also says something about the attitude that we are to have toward our life in this world. The very next thing that Jesus says after it is, “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Our attitude toward our earthly life is to mirror that of Jesus Himself. He didn’t love His life in this world so much that He wanted to hang onto it at all costs. If He would have had that attitude toward His life He wouldn’t have laid it down for us, and He wouldn’t have saved us. Now He calls upon us not to love our life in this world, not to regard it as our highest good, our most precious possession to be held onto at all costs. No, in fact, He here calls upon us to hate it.
It sounds strange to hear Jesus say that we should hate our life in this world. But He uses that same word in other places where the meaning is to love something less than something else. Here it is Jesus and eternal life that we should love more than life in this world. Jesus calls us to sacrifice our life to Him by serving Him. He calls us to sacrifice this life to Him by serving others. When we do this it may appear that we actually hate our life in this world because we are willing to sacrifice it. To the world it looks like we aren’t getting anything out of our life. We humble ourselves before God in repentance instead of being proud. We strive against sinful desires instead of indulging them. We give offerings for the spread of the Gospel instead of just spending it all on ourselves. We spend time in worship and Bible study instead of doing something the world would consider “fun.”
The sacrifice of our life to Christ doesn’t accomplish what Jesus’ sacrifice did. But Jesus promises that in surrendering our life to Him we will protect it and keep it for eternal life. This life isn’t for keeping; those who try to hang onto it at all costs will lose it. This life is for sacrificing, for being spent. And we can sacrifice our life here; we can spend it for Jesus’ sake and do so without regret, because we have another one. We have the life that Jesus won for us when He laid down His life for us. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.