July 10, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
Jesus told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. . . .”
Jesus’ method of teaching included telling many stories or parables about the Word of God and the Kingdom of God. As the Church gathers in worship this summer, Jesus’ followers will hear many of these parables. The first that you hear is the Parable of the Sower. Jesus begins the story very simply: “A sower went out to sow.” It is a task that has been done for millennia, a familiar action found in most civilizations. Fields will be planted, so that a harvest can be had. Seed goes into the ground; plants rise up; grain is collected. Planting is a ritual repeated every winter or spring.
But note what Jesus says about the sower in this story: he is a very wasteful planter. Listen to what Jesus tells about the sowing that goes on. The sower has seed fall on the road, producing no plants: “And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.” The sower tosses seed into unsuitable soil where nothing can take root: “Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away.” Even the bed of thorns gets planted: “Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.” But he also manages to find some good soil, so that a harvest happens: “Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”
The sower is a very wasteful planter. He doesn’t seem to care where the seed falls. He shows no concern about the amount of seed that never brings about a harvest. Road, rocky soil, weed bed: the sower’s seed hits them just as much as it finds good soil. This is much different than the way that fields are planted now: careful analysis of soil, precisely tilled rows, perfectly spaced plants, even a satellite-mapped field. Seed is conserved, used in the best possible way. There is little to no waste like the sower in Jesus’ story endures.
But the sower in Jesus’ story is not like you and me. Jesus is not giving instructions on how to plant a corn or wheat field. Rather, the story He tells is a description about the Word of Christ, the seed that He sows in the world. Jesus explains the story, so that its true meaning can be known. Each of the seed’s landing sites is a different type of people. And the Word of Christ hits all of them. Jesus’ explanation helps you understand why preaching the Gospel does not always bring about new disciples. But it also tells you what happens when it does.
Hear again Jesus’ explanation of the seed hitting the road: “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path.” Jesus’ teaching is spoken to many who simply do not understand it. That is expected because ever since the Fall into Sin, mankind does not have the will or mind of God. What He says stands contrary to how the world thinks. Jesus presents the mindset of God, not the mindset of the world. He calls for sacrifice, compassionate action, humility. Jesus speaks against self-reliance and proclaims that people are dependent upon Him for salvation. This is not how the world thinks. So when Jesus’ words are spoken to some people, they simply do not understand. And when that happens, “the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown.”
What about the rocky soil? Jesus says: “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.” Hearing of what Jesus has done can bring great joy. There is initial exuberance: “My sins are forgiven! I have a place in heaven! I belong to a community of fellow people!” But what happens when the opposition to discipleship arises? You heard what Jesus said two Sundays ago: “Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. . . . Whoever does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.” He even says: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account.” Discipleship is following, not leading. It means walking the same suffering path that Jesus took. But when that comes, when those statements start coming true, only the rooted will endure. Those who are just exuberant, shallow, ungrounded Christians will fall away. Such is the rocky soil.
And then there is the weed bed: “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” Jesus’ parable talks about the ongoing challenge that faces all His followers. Tribulation and persecution arise in particular times and places, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches are universal. You encounter them. Life and all its concerns demand attention, even to the point of occupying all hours of the week, so that no time is given for God to do His work in you through His Gospel word. There are the gods of the earth who demand not just diligence, but devotion: work, leisure, school, other organizations. And then there is the wealth of the world that passes itself off as true treasure: “You really don’t need a Savior. You have everything that is needed here. Just look at how successful, popular, and well-loved you are on your own.” Slowly, but surely, the fingers of the world’s cares and riches choke out the Word of God, so that there is no place for it to take root and prove to be fruitful.
Despite all this, the sower continues to toss the seed out there. It seems to be a waste—a waste of time, a waste of talent, a waste of treasure. But the sower flings the seed because His Word will accomplish its purpose: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Jesus continues to send His Word into the world because He desires to have people become His disciples and share in the salvation He achieved for them. It is His Father’s will to have this be so. And the Holy Spirit brings that salvation to those who hear and believe. Faith only comes through hearing the Word of Christ, so that Word is sown in this world.
Note well that Jesus’ parable did not end with a road, rocky soil, and weed bed. He also spoke of good soil: “As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” This is His description of those who hear and believe. It does not always happen: the seed does end up on the road, among the rocks, or choked out by weeds. But there are people in whom that seed does take root. They do not have the Word of God strike the eardrum and bounce off. They do not lack depth of knowledge and trust in what that Word says. They do not have the cares of this world or earthly riches choke out the Word. Instead, they are given a new mindset. They look forward to what awaits them when they will leave this sin-plagued world. They are given to know what Jesus speaks about is a greater order than this world has.
But Jesus’ description of the good soil is not just a textbook example. He is not providing an agricultural manual. No, He is describing what has happened in you. You are the good soil. You are “the one who hears the word and understands it.” You are given the share of Jesus’ salvation. You are set on a new way of life. Jesus’ Word has taken root in you, forgiving your sin, motivating you to lead lives of discipleship, causing you to follow Jesus’ example. Jesus tells what happens in you: “He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” That description of a harvest speaks about the good works that you are led to do, including the possibility of speaking the Word of Jesus that you know to others, so that it also may take root in them.
Only through receiving the Word of Jesus, the seed that He sows, does this happen in you. But when it does, a great phenomenon takes place. This is what the Apostle Paul spoke of in today’s Epistle Reading: “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry: ‘Abba! Father!’” That Word of Jesus planted in your hearts, minds, and souls has produced life in you. You are no longer dead, a bunch of fallow fields. No, you are people in whom the Spirit of God works. You are dead to sin and alive to Christ. You are the resurrected people who look forward to the resurrection of all who are Jesus’ followers.
That is what the Word of Jesus achieves in you, but only when it is heard, believed, and followed. Cutting yourself off from receiving that Word or failing to listen to it will make you just like that road on which the seed fell: the evil one will snatch away what had been sown. Not grounding yourself in that Word or only chasing after exuberance will make you like the rocky soil: there will be no root in you. Allowing other concerns to choke out all the space in your life so that you are not molded by that Word will make you like the weed bed: you will prove to be unfruitful. Those are the negative fates that are always possible.
But you can be that good soil in which Jesus’ Word takes root and produces great fruit. That fate meant for you is found in following what Jesus establishes as His way of discipleship. It is His desire for you. It is why He has even generously dared to sow His Word in you. As the Church has prayed this day, you also must ask: “Blessed Lord, since You have caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may so hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.” Hearing, reading, marking, learning, and taking to heart what Jesus has planted in you, you will be that good soil that produces the harvest, even the great end of everlasting life. So may it be for you who have heard the Word and understand it, especially the Gospel that Jesus died for your sins, was buried, and was raised on the third day for your salvation.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.