Sunday the 16th of July 2017
Matthew 13: 1-23
The church in New Zealand that I grew up in was started as a mission church. A number of people who were involved in larger congregations from the surrounding area met together and decided to plant a church in the town of Feilding. This church started in the 1970s and it had a small group of people who had a passion for mission. When I was in my teenage years in the 1990s this congregation was still small. I remember quite distinctly that some of the people were despairing, because they had been witnessing to their neighbours and others, yet our church was still small. We had people come for awhile who were enthusiastic, then they fell away and stopped coming. In my early teenage years there was one other person in my age group. The two of us started inviting our friends to a youth group. Within three years it had gone from a group of three or four to a group of one hundred and fifty; we even had to have a waiting list! There was real hope. This church is still going today, but it is very small now and at times has been on the brink of closing. None of the hundred and fifty from that youth group attends the church anymore. Yet there are still those faithful people worshipping and the church continues.
In the Isaiah reading for today the Lord says these words (chapter 55:10,11): “10 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” In these words spoken to a people who were small in number, who were in a foreign land, in exile, the Lord spoke a word of promise. God speaks his Word and it does bring about fruit.
It is not easy to trust this promise at times, is it? As we look around us do we see God’s Word at work? It seems to me that it is getting increasingly difficult to see Him at work around us. But this is His promise to Israelites and to us that the Word of God has come down from heaven; already it is working steadily, accomplishing what it was sent to do. This is the promise that we as Christians need to hold on to. And as we hold on to this promise we continue to bear witness to this. And as we bear witness to this we start to see God working. However, how people respond to Jesus and His Word is a challenge and it is a challenge that Jesus was addressing in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 13. Today’s reading is the famous parable of the sower. At its very heart, this parable is about the working of God’s Word in the lives of people and how they respond.
Jesus’ ministry began to take a turn for the worse in chapter 11; people who were hearing him did not like what he was saying and were starting to become offended and angry with him. And it is in this context that Jesus tells this parable. In this parable he is again teaching the crowd and his disciples about the reality of how people respond to him and to his Word.
I think that we all would like to be the people whose hearts are the good soil ready to receive his Word and produce his fruit in our lives. And I think many of us have a deep desire that others whom we know and love have a heart that is ready for God’s Word to work in their lives. But the reality is it is not like this. People respond to Jesus and his Word in many different ways and these ways are not within our control. We cannot make people respond to God’s Word no matter how much we may try.
This is where so much discouragement comes. We as a church proclaim God’s Word of forgiveness of Jesus, we meet to worship him, we desire to have him work in the lives of those around us, but our hearts become burdened because there are so many times when we do not see his Word falling on the good soil, but rather we see people falling away. The results of the Gospel which we know and hold to are rarely received immediately, and more often than not, we cannot see God’s Word working.
One of the most important teachings from God’s Word that Lutherans and all other Protestants hold is that we cannot earn our way into heaven. We are not saved by works. So when it comes a parable like this the temptation is to think that God’s Word and promise is that he will work according to his purpose, so this means that we just need to get out of the way and let him work, because there is nothing that we can do—it’s all up to God. However, after telling the parable Jesus says to the crowd: “9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
When Jesus says this he is making a point that is all too often overlooked. It is not only important that we hear the Word of God—after all, the crowds were hearing God’s Word to them through Jesus—but it is equally important how we hear the Word of God. And whether we like it or not, we do have a part to play in how God’s Word is received by us.
It is true that we can do nothing to add to the power of God’s Word, but we can do things to impede its power. Our reading makes this clear; if we’re choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, we bring no fruit to bear. When there are too many thorns in our lives, things like carelessness, indifference, worry, grudges, materialism, etc., these can choke the Word of God and get in the way of its working in us.
It is true that if we have too many thorns in our lives, God struggles to get a word in edgewise. If our house is filled with too many things, the Holy Spirit can’t crowd in; there’s simply no room for him.
We do need at times to think about the condition of our hearts and ask if we are receptive to His Word. But as we do this, we need to remember that although the emphasis of Jesus’ parable is on the power of the soil to impact the seed, the Gospel of our parable is that the seed alone (the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen on our behalf) can make the soil grow things—such as faith and good works. For this you and I need to be thankful, that God is at work in our lives through Jesus, that we are where we are with him. There is a temptation to see ourselves as the ones with the good soil and those who are not like us as the ones with the shallow soil or the soil filled with weeds. However, we are not to judge, but rather focus on our own hearts, making sure we receive the Word of the Lord to us, making sure we listen with ears that are hearing.
The farmer in this parable was scattering the seed, and it was falling on many different places. God scatters his Word, and it lands in many different places. Often it is in the unsuspected ways and in unexpected people that the Word finds good soil. It is not always predictable who has the right hearts to hear and receive. But this is how the Gospel in God’s kingdom works—he reaches out to all.
During my time in Australia over the last twenty years, God has given me the opportunity to see his Word taking root in many people, which has always been a great encouragement to me. But at the same time I am aware of those who are faithful and yet don’t get to see the results of their witness, as in when I was a child. I have had the opportunity to be involved in large congregations where there are many things happening, where God is very visibly working in churches and in communities. But being in a small Christian community like ours I can see that many are struggling to see God at work.
My encouragement to you all is that God’s promise is that his Word will bring about its purpose. And his Word is at work here today within our parish. We at times may struggle to see him working, but he is working in people’s hearts. We cannot control how people respond to Him, even though at times we would like to. But we can trust Him. As your pastor I can assure you that as I visit I see his Word at work in the lives of many. He is working in many ways that many of you are not aware of. But he is at work scattering the seed of his Word in the hearts of people. I encourage you to open your eyes and your ears to see how his Word is working in our parish.