Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, 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. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.
-John 12:23-26 (NIV)
After Miami Marlins pinch-hitter Adam Greenberg struck out on three pitches in the seventh inning against Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey ten days ago, the crowd of over 29,000 Marlins fans gave him a standing ovation.
Every one of his teammates high-fived him as he came back to the dugout.
Manager Ozzie Guillen reminded him that Dickey struck out over 220 hitters this year.
Even Greenberg himself said, “It was magical...you could just feel the genuine support. It was awesome.”
Normally, of course, striking out on three pitches is nothing for a baseball player at any level to celebrate, not matter how overpowering the pitcher. There are few ways to fail more spectacularly on a baseball diamond, in fact. But nothing was normal about Adam Greenberg’s at-bat, because nothing has been normal about his career - from his very first major-league at-bat.
His first, and, until ten days ago, his last.
In 2005, Adam Greenberg was an up-and-coming prospect with the Cubs. On July 9th of that year, he got his first plate appearance in the majors - against the Marlins (then called the Florida Marlins). The pitcher, Valerio de los Santos, hit Greenberg in the head with the very first pitch the young player had seen at the major league level. The crack echoed around the stadium, quieting the crowd. Greenberg’s helmet flew off and he went down, his arms wrapped around his head because, as he put it, “I felt like my head was coming apart.” His head started to swell immediately. His eyes rolled uncontrollably. He was taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a severe concussion.
“Severe” doesn’t cover it. For years, Adam suffered from positional vertigo. He would roll over in bed, and his eyes would roll uncontrollably. He would bend over to tie his shoes and lose his balance. He had headaches for hours on end. He went on playing baseball for parts of four seasons at different levels, but never back in the major leagues.
Not until this season, when Adam signed a one-day contract with the Marlins worth $2,623.
The money will be donated to the Sports Legacy Institute for research into brain trauma in athletes.
In the movies, of course, Adam would hit a game-winning home run, maybe in the World Series, in his return to the plate. That’s what success looks like in Hollywood. But, in real life, sometimes success looks a little different. And sometimes, you have to be willing to change your own definition of success.
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” Jesus once said, and then immediately began talking about kernels of wheat dropping to the ground and dying in order to produce “many seeds.” There seems to be a disconnect, doesn’t there? Little is less glorious than kernels of wheat dropping to the ground and dying.
Well, there is crucifixion.
Incredibly, Jesus saw his own painful, shameful end as glorification. While his friends and enemies alike could be forgiven for seeing his broken, bleeding body hanging on a cross as the worst kind of failure possible, the end of everything he had proclaimed and promised, the abortion of the kingdom he dared claim to inaugurate in the world, he knew differently. Though his “soul [was] troubled,” he knew that “it was for this very reason [he] came to this hour,” and that his Father would be glorified through what he would accomplish through the death of his Son.
He knew that God turns abject failure into unqualified success.
That’s why, through his tears and prayers in Gethsemane, he could still pray “your will be done.” That’s why he could envision seeing his friends again, and the unstoppable world-changing force they would become. That’s why he could imagine gathering with them around the table in the kingdom of God.
That’s why knew that he wouldn’t occupy Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb long enough to be an inconvenience.
And we’re all right on board with that, aren’t we? We’re thankful for his resurrection, and for the forgiveness of sins and promise of life that we have because of it. We understand why his death wasn’t a failure, why even though it cuts against and calls into judgment what the rest of the world calls “success”, it was in the end a victory. We know what God did with that cross and that tomb.
Rightly, we worship because of it.
And we might miss something pretty important.
“Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.”
That little parable about the kernel of wheat wasn’t just Jesus making himself feel better about what he was to suffer. That was for us, for those of us who wear his name. It’s a reminder that the life Jesus lived is to be a model for our own, right down to the giving up of our own lives, right down to giving up on the world’s definitions of success. Where he is, we are to be. And he’s never found in self-glorification, single-minded pursuit of prosperity, or laser focus on our own agendas.
He’s found, instead, at the intersections of life where kernels of wheat fall to the ground and die and give rise to new hopes, promises, and realities.
Where we minister in love to our growing children or our aging parents, we’re where he is.
Where we care for those who have so little of what we’ve been given so much of, we’re where he is.
Where we visit the sick, not to heal them, but simply to be with them, we’re where he is.
When we faithfully teach students in ill-equipped classrooms in tattered buildings, we’re where he is.
When we treat our co-workers and employees, clients and customers, with love, respect, and generosity, we’re where he is.
When we risk being misunderstood, ridiculed, and hated to speak the truth of the gospel in the love of the gospel, we’re where he is. We’re giving our lives, letting go of our desires, putting aside our comfort, spending our resources - and for no other reason than that’s what he did.
When is a strikeout a success?
When is there hope and promise in death?When we go where Jesus goes.