Unless the Grain Dies


Greed is a big topic today. It drives politics and business. Yet greed is insanity. It destroys the greedy and everyone connected with them. 


To help us understand that greed destroys and selflessness gives life. 

Sermon Plan 

We will look at the puzzle of the grain of wheat, self-preservation, the necessity of change, why the phrase “son of man” is so important, the paradox of shame, and humanity’s self-destructive behavior. 

A Grain of Wheat 

Self-preservation is a natural desire. We don’t want to die. We don’t want our way of life destroyed. However, we also know Jesus well enough to know that he would challenge that kind of thinking. One such place is in John 12:20-36. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it abides alone; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit. Jesus confirmed this teaching in different words at different times. If we try to make our lives secure we will lose them, but if we lose our lives we will save them. A kernel of wheat preserved is unfruitful, but a kernel of wheat planted can produce an unlimited amount more. A grain of wheat must die if it is to produce. So too, only the life that dies to self is truly productive. 

Self-Preservation is Death 

When I was a young man I worked in a factory that produced typewriter ribbons. In our department we had about a dozen people and the man who inked all the ribbons. My job was to clean up. I was bottom of the rung. The inker was unwilling to train anyone else lest he lose his position. He was afraid and wanted to preserve his job. The big boss took me into his office and told me that the inker could not be promoted, because he would train nobody to do his job. But, the boss liked my attitude and promoted me to be the boss of the department. Naturally, the inker was angry, but he created his own dilemma. As Jesus said in John 12:20-36, unless a grain of wheat dies it has no future. Self-preservation is death. 

Change or Become Irrelevant 

Unless a grain of wheat dies it has no future (John 12:20-36). Unless a church buries old fashioned ways it has no future. Change we must or become irrelevant to everybody. The message of the Gospel will never change, but the package must. Kodak, HP and Apple all compete in today’s electronic world. Two of them are failing and one is growing by leaps and bounds. What is the difference? HP and Kodak refused to change and are now companies with uncertain futures. Picture taking and printing will remain relevant, but doing it the old-fashioned Kodak or HP way will not. Apple is now ten times bigger than HP because it continues to innovate and create positive change. Churches must be willing to die to old ideas and innovate to be make the unchanging Gospel relevant to new generations. 

Why “Son of Man” So Important 

As Christians are we nationalistic believers or members of a global community? I have lived in four countries and heard the jingoism and xenophobia that exists everywhere. Each country thinks that it is the best. Each criticizes and puts down the others for various reasons. Yet God hates pride and arrogance. They are not on any list of Christian traits. In John 12:20-36, Jesus introduced his ultimate sacrifice not as a son of David, a loyal son of Israel, but as the Son of Man. In today’s language, we would call him the son of a human being. Jesus did not die for God and country, although that is a worthy thing. As the son of Man, or son of Humankind, Jesus died for God and all human beings. Christianity is not a narrow, nationalistic religion, but a faith for all humanity. 

How a Leader is Glorified 

As we look at potential candidates for national leadership what do we look for? What makes a leader worthy of the honor? Is it success in the greedy business world, making millions off of people for overpriced goods and services? Is it success in lying and flip-flopping and slinging mud? Is it the ability to win debates? None of that was at the center of what glorified Jesus as king of Kings. In John 12:20-36, we see Jesus’ glory and honor centered on personal sacrifice. While most leaders are self-defensive and self-promoting, Jesus set us all an example of true leadership in self-sacrifice. That is why when Jesus returns he will take the kingdoms of this world from their leaders and give the leadership roles to those who have proven themselves worthy of honor in lives of selfless service. 

The Paradox of Glory through Shame 

Jesus introduced us to the paradox of glory through shame. It was through the shame of the cross that he now lives in glory (John 12:20-36). Through dying alone he gave life to many. In giving up his life in this world he gained eternal life in glory for all. In the disrepute of the cross was the greatest reputation in the world built. In the greatest dishonor was the greatest honor given to any man in history. How does that affect us? Our natural desire is for glory and honor, but Jesus paradox teaches us that our means of getting it is all wrong. We seek it by means of self-promotion rather than self-sacrifice. The paradox of glory through shame teaches us that it is precisely at moments when we give it all up, that victory is ours. 

Spiritual Capitalism 

Material capitalism says that he who dies with the most toys wins. It is a lie, because he who dies having hoarded the most, will possibly not even have eternal life. He is in danger of becoming the ultimate loser. Spiritual capitalism says that he who dies to self gives life to many others (John 12:20-36). Material capitalists are deceived that they love their souls, but in reality they have lost their souls to the devil for temporary material gain. Anyone who loves their life (or soul) will lose it. Spiritual capitalists give their souls away to enrich the lives of others and so keep their souls forever. Anyone who hates their life (or soul) in this world will keep it for eternal life. Our Savior calls us to be creators of spiritual capital, enriching the lives of others. 

Humanity’s Self-Destructive Behavior 

Easter Island is famous as a microcosm of what we could potentially do to the planet. Destruction of the island’s natural resources almost totally destroyed everyone on the island. Greedy materialism is like that. We destroy our entire civilization in the lust for more and in the end we also destroy ourselves. The saying in John 12:20-36 that he who loves his life loses it, has a far more profound meaning in the original Greek. It says that he who loves his life "destroys it utterly." Mental health professionals recognize the need for people to get outside of themselves and give to others. In helping others, mental health improves. That is why greed is the ultimate insanity, because it only ends up destroying the greedy. The remedy is selflessness. Giving life to others is the ultimate act of sanity. 


Greed drives politics and business. Yet greed is insanity. It destroys the greedy and everyone connected with them. Only a selfless life is worth living.

Sermon: God so Loved


We hide from God because we think that he wants to condemn us. Yet the cross shows us that he does not want to condemn us, but is ready to forgive and to save us. 


To help us understand God’s love. 

Sermon Plan 

We will look at a puzzle of the exalted cross and God’s love. 

The Exalted Cross 

Our natural inclination is to think of suffering as one of life’s worst moments. John 3:14-21 seems to suggest just the opposite. The wording indicates that just as Moses lifted up a snake on a pole, so was Jesus to be lifted up on a cross. The words lifted up are elsewhere translated as exalted. We think of the cross as ignominy not exaltation. We think of money, power and fame as exaltation. That’s how we want to be exalted. We don’t want to suffer. That’s why preachers who perpetually emphasize material prosperity are popular. It’s not fashionable to teach that to be truly exalted, we must follow Christ, and if we follow him, are we also willing to be truly exalted by suffering? Do we come into the light of the cross, or dark and deceptive worldly materialism? 

How God loved the World 

“God so loved the world” means what? It means he loved the world in this way, or like this. So our famous saying from John 3:14-21 could be translated “God loved the world in this way.” What way? He lifted up Jesus in the same manner that Moses lifted up the snake for the healing of Israel. The snake on the pole was meant to remind Israel to trust God for healing but it later became an idol and had to be destroyed. Church traditions can be like that. Invented to point us to God, traditions degenerate into idols which need to go. We too need to constantly lift up Jesus, ahead of our traditions and denominational pride. Does Jesus take second place to our cheap human politics? Do we show love to the world by lifting up Jesus? 

Running away from God 

Humanity runs away from God. Do we hate him? Are we ashamed and think that he will want to condemn us for all of the bad things we have done to each other? Is John 3:14-21 saying just the opposite of that? Rather than wanting to condemn the world, God sent Jesus into the world to save it. An example is Jesus’ encounter with a woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8). Those caught up in false religion condemned her. Jesus told them that if any of them was without sin, they ought to cast the first stone. None dared and Jesus said he did not condemn her. Instead of running from God, it is condemning religion which we should run from. God and the true religion of Jesus do not exist to condemn but to save. 


It is a conundrum that the cross is exalted, yet it shows us how God loved the world. Sacrifice for others is a way to show love. We don’t have to hide from God. He is not here to condemn us, but to save us and show us his love.

Sermon: Surprise! Christians Agree

Given at the Morgan County Churches Lenten Luncheon Wednesday March 14, 2012 

by Ian Grant Spong 


I spent many years in a church that believed it was the one true church. To my surprise, as I grew beyond the boundaries of that Christian community, I found a number of other churches with similar ideas. Then I went to an ecumenical theological school and visited different churches. I found God speaking through dozens of different church contexts in many wonderful ways. 

Let's explore a surprise today, that we Christians are actually unified on the essentials of the faith. Let's look at several areas of agreement and conclude with the most essential thing that Christians seem to agree upon. 


I would like to create greater understanding between our denominations. 

Sermon Plan 

Christians are in remarkable agreement on the nature of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, angels, the nature of humanity, sin, the Bible, salvation, the Church and last things. We are unified when obeying Jesus' instruction to teach what he taught. 
  • Surprise 1: Christians Agree on the Nature of God — God is three in one, has a Plan (the Gospel), is Creator, Provider 
  • Surprise 2: Christians Agree on the Nature of Christ — Jesus was God with us, born of a virgin, that his death on the cross makes salvation, the Church and eternity possible for us. 
  • Surprise 3: Christians Agree on the Nature of Holy Spirit — The personhood and deity of the Holy Spirit, his work in the Church, comfort, power, gifts, teaching and fruit. 
  • Surprise 4: Christians Agree on Angels — The service of holy Angels, Satan and demons are fallen Angels, that our battle is not physical, but spiritual, with spiritual wickedness in high places. 
  • Surprise 5: Christians Agree on Humanity — Human kind was created, in two components (physical and spiritual), that human disobedience led to a troubled society, God had a plan in place to restore us through Jesus. 
  • Surprise 6: Christians Agree on Sin — Sin is to miss the mark, that we have all sinned, can be forgiven, must forgive others, that there is punishment for sin both temporary and eternal 
  • Surprise 7: Christians Agree on the Bible — the Bible was inspired by God, the canon is our measure of faith, the Holy Spirit illuminates the Bible to our understanding 
  • Surprise 8: Christians Agree on Salvation — salvation is rescue from sin, requires a Savior, is a process, and that there is no other name under heaven but Jesus whereby we are saved. 
  • Surprise 9: Christians Agree on the Church — church is an assembly of those who submit to Christ’s reign, love and worship God, taught to obey Christ, spread the Gospel and love our neighbors; we share water, bread and the cup; we baptize "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" 
  • Surprise 10: Christians Agree on the Last Things — we agree on the nature of death, that Christ will return, believe in a millennium, a resurrection, judgment and both a good and bad eternal state, that these are mysteries only partly revealed. 
  • Final Surprise from Matthew 28:19-20 
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (NRSV) 

In my experience, most mainline churches actually obey Jesus' instruction to teach what he taught. We may be buried under layers of man-made rules, traditions and fads, but most churches I have visited teach from the Gospels. I enjoy many types of sermon, but none so much as those that expound upon and elevate the teachings of Jesus. We obey Jesus when we lift his teachings to the highest level in our Christian curriculum. 


We are in remarkable agreement on the nature of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, angels, the nature of humanity, sin, the Bible, salvation, the Church and last things. We are unified when obeying Jesus' instruction to teach what he taught. 

Though there are differences between our traditions, the great blessing for us is that we broadly agree upon what is important. Despite rumors to the contrary, we Christians are remarkably unified on the essentials of our common faith. 

Surprise! We agree on what is perhaps most important of all, Jesus! There is no second class Christianity for those who follow Jesus Christ. A theology professor of mine once taught that all our dogmas and doctrinal differences are probably 80% wrong theologically. We human beings don’t understand God as well as our egos deceive us, but if we are in Jesus we are 100% saved. On that we agree.

Sermon: Turn the Tables


Is there ever a time to be righteously angry? 


Generate passion and encourage appropriate anger about the injustices all around us. Have us turn the tables.

Sermon Plan 

We will look at anger, Jesus’ anger in the temple, turning the tables on injustices, church finances and Jesus’ method of non-literal teaching. 

Legitimate Anger 

Ought Christians ever get angry? John 2:13-25 reveals that Jesus got angry. He turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple. The Old Testament mentions God’s anger a lot, mainly referring to his indignation at evils caused by humanity. Proverbs also recommends strongly against a quick temper and avoiding friendships with people who are impatiently angry by nature. Jesus also condemned unjust anger in the Sermon on the Mount and when it is justified Paul recommended not allowing it to last beyond sunset. Even modern psychology recognizes the wisdom of that advice. A quick temper can disqualify a person from church leadership. Jesus’ anger in the temple showed his passion for the one place where prayer ought not to be overshadowed. Church ought to be a place of refuge from the questionable practices of the market. 

Financial Abuse 

What do the money changers in the temple (John 2:13-25) teach us about the church and money? As a group once toured Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome someone in the crowd asked their priest tour guide how much it cost. His reply was that it cost much of northern Europe. He referred of course to the selling of indulgences under Tetzel as a fundraiser for reconstruction and a cause of the Protestant Reformation. Financial abuse has occurred throughout history and the church has not been immune. When denominational officials take more from local churches than the tithe of the tithe taken by Moses, then one wonders why the New Testament church is more burdensome than the Old. When popes and televangelists live in palaces while others starve at their doorsteps, one wonders what happened to the religion of Jesus. 

Money Changers at Church 

I visited a church once where there was a guest speaker. He had his videos, books and CD’s on the back table for sale after church complete with credit card machine. It reminded me of the money changers in the temple (John 2:13-25). I was offended. The money changers had good motives. People needed to buy sacrifices for the daily offerings. The problem was that it took the focus away from the purpose of church. It seems sometimes that too much of church life is about money-making. It seems that there is always someone trying to make money off of us, usually for good causes in far away places. Yet it is off-putting. It seems that church is sometimes overly focused on money and not faith. Would Jesus likewise upturn our efforts and have us focus more on prayer? 

Jesus not Literally 

Ought not Christians take the Bible literally? Some teach so. Yet in John 2:13-25 Jesus taught the Pharisees a lesson that was not meant to be taken literally. They took him literally, when they should have understood that he was teaching figuratively. They asked for a sign of his authority. He replied, destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. Of course they thought that he meant the literal temple that had taken forty six years to construct. However, he was speaking of his body, which was raised three days after his crucifixion. Even his disciples did not grasp the full significance of this saying until after his death. In fact a large part of what Jesus taught was not literal, but metaphor, parable and hyperbole. We understand Jesus by his intent not literal interpretations. 


Are we passionate and even appropriately angry about the injustices all around us? Are we angry enough to get involved and turn the tables on injustices?

Sermon: Against all Hope


Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed God's promises and became the father of many nations. Christianity is about long-term thinking, not short-term pleasure. It is about sacrifice for the greater hope and not giving in to fleshly desires and destroying our hope. 


To explore how hope comes in choosing the difficult and not the easy path. 

Sermon Plan 

We will look at the purpose of the most important anointing in human history, the anointing of Jesus, the anointed one, the purpose of taking up our cross and following the example of his anointing. We will see how temporary suffering produces far greater long-term rewards than giving in to the easy way. We will see that against all hope, we willingly suffer what we must now for the greater hope tomorrow. 

Anointed for What 

In Mark 8:27-38 Jesus asked his students, “Who do you[-all] say I am?” Peter correctly answered: Christ or Messiah (the anointed one) but what does that mean? For Jesus, it meant suffering and death on the cross. Peter did not want to hear it and rebuked Jesus for predicting it. But that is what being the anointed one meant. It also means that anyone who follows Christ must likewise be willing to give of themselves in order to serve human kind. There is a form of Christianity which claims to be spirit-filled, but is in reality self-centered and materialistic. It focuses on personal spiritual experiences instead of serving others and accumulating wealth for self instead of giving it away for others. Against all hope Christ focused upon totally giving up the self in order that others may live. 

Unpopular Jesus 

A popular message is that Jesus can help you get your life back, but that’s not exactly how Jesus said it. In Mark 8:27-38 Jesus said, “whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it.” We don’t want to lose our lives. Our natural desire is to preserve our way of life. Yet such a selfish life is a dead life. The only work worth doing is that of giving to others. When we we give, we gain the whole world. It is a message that is so contrary to our natural thinking that we believe it is a lie. Certainly, giving up our lives is not a popular message, but according to Jesus, it is the way to save our lives. 

Difficult Scriptures 

Some Bible passages which are hard to understand are called difficult scriptures. In Mark 8:27-38 Jesus said, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” What cross? For a thousand years overlapping the life of Christ, crucifixion was a method of capital punishment among several ancient peoples including the Romans. Convicted criminals were sometimes required to carry either the cross beam or the entire cross to the place of execution. For Christians to take up their crosses it means that we must deny our selfish, natural desires and devote ourselves to the service of Jesus and others. This is one of the most uncomfortable sayings of Jesus. It is not hard to understand. It is difficult to do. Often it is the easiest to understand which are the hardest passages. 

Against all Hope 

Christians are not called to do the easy thing. We are called to do the difficult thing that seems to be against all hope (Mark 8:27-38). Following Jesus is to lay aside the easy way and choose what appears to be the more difficult path. Just as Jesus gave up his life on the cross, so too do we carry our cross and take the difficult path to self-sacrifice. Few of us are called to do like Abraham and make a supreme personal sacrifice by leaving our country to follow God, yet we are called to selflessness. Against all hope, Abraham hoped in God’s promises (Romans 4:13-25) and became the father of many nations (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16). Like his promise to Abraham, God’s promise to us is a better life beyond the temporary sacrifices of the present.


I once knew a young mechanic who took every factory training course offered by his company. The other mechanics could not be bothered. They wanted the easy path. In his mid 20's he became the boss over his much older co-workers, because he took the hard road. In all of life's endeavors, there are those who choose short-term pain for long-term gain. Athletes cannot go home and relax between games, they must train. At college there are the party people who lose and the hard workers who succeed. Anything worthwhile involves short-term pain for long-term gain. There are two paths to take in life. The easy path starts out smooth, but ends up rough. The hard road often starts out difficult, but end up smoother.


Christianity is about long-term thinking, not short-term pleasure. It is about sacrifice for the greater hope and not giving in to fleshly desires and destroying our hope. Before us stands the choice. We can choose short-term pleasure and long-term pain, or we can choose self-denial now and the real hope of long-term blessings beyond measure. Against all hope let us believe in the blessings that come from God through long-term thinking.