How will we respond to Jesus?
Readings: Romans 8: 1 – 11 and Matthew 13: 1 – 9 & 18 – 23
Try and imagine the scene if you can – a large crowd is gathering to hear Jesus speak. In fact, he’s been on a preaching tour around Galilee and everyone is talking about him. The word soon gets round: – you really must come and hear this man. We’ve never heard anyone like this before. The rich, the poor, the educated, the peasants, the fishermen, the farmers, the women, the children they are all coming to get a glimpse of Jesus and to hear what he has to say.
And the backdrop to all this is the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) where the crowd on the beach (shoreline) has grown so large that Jesus decides to get into a boat and push off from the shore a little so that he is able to address such a large number of people.
And as he surveys the crowd from where he is, he knows what’s going on in their hearts. He knows they are not all there for the same reason and that they are not all going to respond in the same way to the things he’s teaching. And although they may be fascinated by him and his miracles he knows many come, like today, with their own prejudices and biases and with their hearts already hardened against him. He knows that many will come just to listen to what he has to say and then go away. But he also knows there will be those who come with open hearts ready to fully embrace his word and the newness of life he offers.
“A farmer went out to sow his seed” he begins to say. And maybe in the fields behind a farmer is doing just that. No doubt the crowd are mesmerised by his words but not really sure what to make of them. It’s not really what they are expecting to hear. It’s rather a strange story. Why should a farmer waste so much precious seed? Throwing some on the path where the birds come along and eat it, throwing some on to rock and some on to where all the thorns are. Jesus isn’t giving any easy answers but he is giving his listeners something to think about. And, of course, he’s also giving us something to think about as well.
Well the story, on one level, can be interpreted as a retelling of Israel’s history. A sorry tale of not listening, hardening of hearts and so on. But what might the story mean to those of us who hear it today? – And for me one of the things it does do is to prompt us to ask ourselves a series of questions as the story unfolds. Questions on how we personally might respond to the Good News of Jesus and his Kingdom. The Good News of how through him we can find forgiveness of sin; newness of life and how we can enter into a living and meaningful relationship with the Father; Son and Holy Spirit.
And so for example, when we hear God’s word to us does it just bounce off us like seed falling on the hard path that runs along the side of a field? And in ancient Israel they didn’t have large fields like we have today, just strips of land with well-worn paths – pressed down mud in between each of the strips. And what Jesus is saying is we can be like the soil on those paths – trampled down hard and compacted. We hear the word but it has very little impact. We soon forget about it and consequently it has very little effect on our every day lives. It’s a bit like seed falling on concrete. And that means it can’t germinate and grow and the birds come quickly to gobble it up.
And it’s in speaking of the seed falling on the path – that Jesus opens up another dimension in the story as he talks of ‘the evil one’ who comes to snatch away what is sown in the heart. And this evil entity is represented in the parable by the birds who come and eat the seed. And the point being made is that there is an enemy at work who is constantly seeking to undermine the work of God in our lives. And this evil entity tries to steal and destroy everything that God wants to grow in us. And in John’s gospel account Jesus presses home this point saying: ‘The thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy” but Jesus says “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ Or more abundantly as it says in the old King James Version.
And the spiritual life – can be a battle at times; and it’s something the Apostle Paul, in his New Testament letter to the Ephesians, advises us to take seriously in encouraging us to put on the full armour of God so that we can take our stand against the devil’s schemes. And then, in chapter 6 of the letter, he goes on to explain in practical terms how we can do that.
And so let’s move on now to the next condition of heart which Jesus highlights and it’s represented by the seed that falls on to the rocky places. And in many parts of Israel the soil can be very thin. You only have to dig down a few inches before you hit a bed of limestone into which many roots can’t penetrate. And yes, any seed that falls there can germinate very quickly but in the scorching sun the plant growing from it soon begins to wither and shrivel because it has so little root to sustain it. And this prompts us to consider just how deeply rooted in God is our own faith. Do our own spiritual roots go down deep enough for the long haul and is our faith strong enough to sustain us when the going gets tough and bad things happen and everything seems to be going wrong?
And it’s something that does occasionally happen with those who come to faith in Christ. They embrace the good news of Jesus and initially they are full of joy and bubbling over with their new found faith. And yet when trouble comes they haven’t really gone deep enough with God to weather the storms. The initial response has been largely emotional and the shallowness of the soil has meant that the root hasn’t been able to go down deep enough to sustain the growing seed.
And it’s something I’ve seen happen on occasions over the years. Someone comes to faith in Christ and they are so excited about Jesus. And they get involved in everything and then something happens – sometimes you know what it is and sometimes you don’t- but they begin to fall away. And while the seed may germinate it only grows for a while and then it withers away as there is an insufficient depth of soil for it to find the nutrients it needs. Well let’s move on now to the next type of soil.
And as we know our lives are led by many kinds of desires and hopes and aspirations and the way that Jesus describes it here is as seed falling on to soil occupied by thorns. And the problem with this is that thorns, like brambles grow fast and are not easy to get rid of. And not only do they take out all the nutrients from the soil but they also block the light as well. And the point that Jesus is making here is that there are certain things in our lives that can be like that as they compete with our faith and the same heart-space and, if we are not careful, they finish up choking it.
And if these other things start taking the central place in our hearts that God should occupy then we are in danger of drifting into the realms of what the Bible calls idolatry. It does not necessarily mean that these other things are wrong in themselves but they do need to be brought under the Lordship of Christ in our lives.
And so to recap a little – we have the seed falling on to the hard ground and bouncing off and the birds coming along and eating it. And then we have it falling on to the rocky places where it grows it quickly for a while and then begins to wither and shrivel. And then we have it falling on to thorn infested ground where, when it grows it is likely get choked by the other stuff it’s competing with. And in none of these situations is it producing anything like the sort of fruit that God is looking for.
But there is yet another condition of soil for us to consider and that is where the seed falls on to rich and fertile soil in which the seed of God’s Word can become deeply rooted and begin to flourish. And the seed growing in this soil is not affected by the wind or the scorching sun at all because the roots have gone deep down and become firmly established. And this is a picture of the follower of Jesus who fully embraces what God wants to do in their life. One who remains faithful to Christ through both the good times and the difficult times and whose trust in him is unwavering. And this is the sort of soil in which produces a rich abundance of fruit that’s pleasing to God.
But then again do we say I’m not really sure I can identify with any of these situations? I know I love Jesus and his Word has taken root in my life but I can’t see that I’m producing much in the way of fruit – well, not at least, in the biblical sense.
Perhaps I can then change the metaphor a little and ask you to picture a garden growing all sorts of things. It’s OK but it still needs plenty of work doing on it if it’s going to produce a good crop and yield its full potential. Things are growing but some of the soil looks as though it needs weeding a bit and digging over and the plants are drooping a little and look as though they could do with watering. What it really needs is the attention of the gardener to give it some sorting out. And then I think of that beautiful verse in chapter 15 of John’s gospel in which Jesus says:
“…My Father is the gardener.”
And maybe that’s what we are like. We know we have the potential to be more fruitful but we cannot do it alone. It’s as though we have progressed so far but become stuck and we need to become unstuck. We need the gardener to help us prepare the soil so that what he has planted can grow freely and produce a bumper crop. But it’s only as we invite the gardener to come in and take control of our lives that things can begin to change.
And as the gardener gets to work it maybe that some pruning is required and that, at times, can be painful. And that is why the Father is the gardener as it’s his desire that we are fruitful and grow into the people he has created us to be.
The Apostle Paul when writing to the Galatians talks about the fruit of the Spirit doesn’t he? – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and so on. But it’s only as we allow him to change those things that need changing in our lives that the fruit can develop as it should.
And perhaps that can be a prayer for us this morning. ‘Lord Jesus I want you to be at the centre of my life, please help me to open my ears to hear and to be obedient to your Word and allow my life to be shaped by it so that I can be fruitful for you.’ Amen.
Philip Newell (Reader)
Sermon preached at St Laurence’s, Scalby at a service of ‘Morning Worship’ on Sunday 16th July 2017.