Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 13:1-23 for 8th Sunday after Pentecost. "See It, Hear It, Take It to Heart"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the Gospel reading, Matthew chapter 13, but I’m going to read the verses that were left out between the first part where Jesus told the parable of the sower, and the second part, where He explains it. If you’re following in your Bible, that’s verses 10-17. In those verses the disciples ask Jesus why He uses parables to teach, and Jesus gives His answer. He who has ears, let him hear.

10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
11 He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. 14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15 For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’
16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it. [1]

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus gives us a command twice in these 23 verses. The command is “He who has ears, let him hear,” and “Hear then the parable of the sower.” His command is to hear. Listen. For this parable that Jesus teaches is a parable about hearing God’s Word and understanding it. The parable of the sower portrays a man going out into his field to sow, or plant seeds. Now when we think of sowing seeds, I think most of us envision scooping out a little divot of dirt, planting a seed inside, and then covering it up and moving on to the next in the row. But Jesus is referring to a totally different method of planting seeds. It’s what was called “broadcasting,” where the sower carries a basket of seeds, and walks along a path in the field, casting handfuls of seed all across a broad area.

In the parable, the seed represents the Word of God, and this method of sowing implies the gracious generosity of God. It shows that God scatters His Word throughout the world (the field), without fear that some will land on unreceptive soil. God sends out His Word throughout the world, and allows it to land in hearts that will receive Him, as well as those who will not. God’s Word is for all to hear and receive, and as our Old Testament reading says, “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.” If it weren’t for words like that, we might almost think that God’s method of sowing His Word throughout the world was reckless! Shouldn’t hearts and lives be carefully examined beforehand to see whether they are fit to receive God’s Word? But we can’t look into a person’s heart as God can. And His Word promises that when it goes out—when people hear the Word from His mouth—it will accomplish what He sent it for. God’s Word is powerful and effective—you could say it “gets the job done!” It’s not in us, but in His Word that lies the power to accomplish His purpose.

Yet while the Word goes freely out to all, the response to the Word differs significantly. The parable describes four different situations into which the Word of God falls. The first is when the Word of God is heard, but not understood (remember this is a parable about hearing?). The devil snatches away what was sown in the heart. Here no faith was produced—the Word never had a chance to take root, because it was not understood, and so quickly lost. Many in the world may hear the Gospel, but never give it a second thought. Jesus told His disciples “It has been given to you to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” For some the Word of God remains a mystery, and not one they are interested in understanding.

But even we can be like the seed that falls on the path, when our hearts are not receptive to God’s Word. How often does the message of a sermon or Bible reading quickly fly from our heart as if a bird had snatched it away? I of all people, am not immune to this sin, that I have quickly forgotten countless sermons, and have heard the Word of God countless times, and often far too little took hold. It is no fault of God’s Word when we lose it, but the fault lies with our heart. For this reason, preachers are called to preach the Word “in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2), because we are quick to forget and slow to listen. So we should have ears to hear, and come continually to the Lord’s house, so that His Word may be sown in our hearts. For His Word will not return empty. And when we hear the Word, talk about it! Think about it, discuss it with other church members and your family members.

I think about one of my own relatives who had left church for many years, and when difficulties turned him back to investigate the church, he couldn’t even find people who were willing to talk with him about God. He eventually went searching for spirituality within Buddhism. I often wonder if things would have been different if someone at the church had spoken with him about God and faith. Are we willing to talk to a visitor or even each other about God and faith after a worship service? Or would we just be baffled, and uncomfortably turn the subject to sports and weather? I’m not criticizing the use of small talk, but if our conversations never turn deeper than that? And especially at church? Maybe if we can’t converse about spiritual matters, we need to “have ears to hear” and get deeper into God’s Word. It should be every bit as natural for us to speak about Christ, faith, and salvation, as it is to talk about our favorite movies, hobbies, and our work. But this comes through regularly hearing God’s Word and taking it to heart.

The second situation in Jesus’ parable, is the rocky soil. A thin layer of soil, on top of the rock cannot provide adequate root and depth for the seed. But the plant sprouts up quickly, and then is scorched by the sun. Jesus says that this represents a person who receives the Word of God with joy. The Word sprouts, and faith is created. The person believes for a time, but because the soil is shallow and he has no root, he falls away because of the troubles and persecutions on account of the Word. I fear for the countless Christians who have received God’s Word with joy, and believed in it, but have no depth to their faith. All it takes is for difficulties to come along, and like the plant in the parable, the heat of the sun scorches it. Will our faith stand up under trial? Do we know what we believe and why? Can we withstand attacks and ridicule against our faith? He who has ears, let him hear.

The third situation Jesus portrays is the thorny soil. Here the thorns grow up and choke the plant. Jesus calls this the worries of life and the deceitfulness of wealth, which can choke out the Word, and make it unfruitful. Here again, a person believes, but there are worries that drive away faith. Yet Jesus calls, “Do be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” In addition to worries about life, the deceitfulness of wealth also crowds out faith. Yet remarkably some “preachers” on TV have tried to make believers think that they not only should we desire wealth, but that God in fact ordains for true believers to have wealth and prosperity. Trying to mix the deceitfulness of wealth into Jesus’ message is a total distortion, and you can see why Jesus refers to wealth as deceiving. Vanity, greed, and self- indulgence are just a few of the deceits of wealth. All of these are spiritually deadly. And how much anxiety does wealth produce in the person who has it—whether or not his fortune will hold, whether his investments are sound enough, and on and on. The person who has little possesions to his name, or who manages their possessions as a trust from God has little to worry about, for God cares even for the lilies and birds of the field. God will provide for our needs.

The final situation in the parable, is when the Word lands in receptive hearts, where it grows and bears fruit yielding 100, 60, or 30 times what was sown. Here is a person who hears the Word of God and understands it. Here God’s Word bears great fruit in their faith and life, creating understanding and an active, growing faith. Hopefully by now, we are all eager to “have ears to hear” and be the good soil that bears fruit. How is it then, that we can come to hear and understand? When Jesus’ disciples asked Him why He taught the people in parables, He quoted Isaiah: “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.” In other words, God’s response to the stubborn refusal of people to listen to His Word, was to purposefully harden their hearts and hearing, to be resistant to understanding God’s Word.

If we are left with just this, we are left feeling rather cold. Did not God desire to win them back? We have to look back to where Jesus’ was quoting from, in Isaiah 6, to find the answer. In the verses that follow, Isaiah asks God about this hardening: “How Long, O Lord?” God’s reply is that first the land of Israel must become desolate and His people removed, till only a remnant remains. Then, at last, there are words of hope: verse 13 speaks of this desolation being like a tree that has been reduced to a stump. And it says, “The holy seed is its stump.” The holy seed. In the next chapter of Isaiah, we find out who the holy seed is, in the famous prophecy that a virgin would conceive and give birth to a son, and that His name would be called Immanuel: God with us.

The holy seed is Jesus, the hope of Israel, and our hope as well. Because in the birth of Jesus Christ, God-with-us went out in the world to sow. He entered the scene of humanity as a farmer going out in His field to cast forth His seed. God came down to us, bringing the life-giving Word. His Word, that does not return to Him empty, but accomplishes what He desires and achieves the purpose for which He sends it. Jesus the farmer, the preacher, sowing the Word that changes hearts and gives birth to faith. If we look back to the soils in the parable, portrayed as human hearts, we may wonder: If some did not understand or perceive the Word right away, does this mean their hearts can’t change? Is the state of the soil/one’s heart permanent? We might remember that Jesus’ disciples often seemed rather oblivious to the point He was making, and required further explanation later on. But they were indeed receptive to further teaching and hearing, and pursued Him for it, rather than closing their hearts in stubbornness. Hearts are changed, but it is God’s powerful and effective Word that does it.

Instead of blinding our eyes, deafening our ears, and hardening our hearts to God’s Word as Isaiah described—have ears to hear. Hear because it’s God’s Word that creates and gives understanding. See it, hear it, take it to heart. When God’s Word accomplishes His purpose in us, it will turn our hearts to Him, so that we may be healed. The hardening that God sends lasts for a time, for those who reject His Word, but He sends His holy seed to work faith in receptive hearts. The Good News is that God’s Word has found a place in our hearts, and that it has created faith and understanding, so that our eyes and ears are called blessed, for we see and we hear. For “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). And hearing that Word of Christ, we are given knowledge and understanding into the mysteries of the kingdom of God, and lasting faith is created in our hearts. Faith in God that will withstand the crafty attempts of the devil to snatch God’s Word away. Faith in God that will withstand troubles and persecutions that face us because of God’s Word. Faith in God that will withstand the worries of life and the deceitfulness of wealth, and puts all our trust in God. Our faith will last not because we have the strength, or the purity of heart, but because God’s powerful and effective Word does not return to Him empty. His Word is the root of faith that will bear great fruit, 100, 60, or 30 times what was sown. Being good soil is not a product of our own efforts or striving, but by hearing God’s Word, our hearts are made receptive to Christ, and the Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts. So when it comes to God’s Word, See it, Hear it, Take it to Heart! Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
[1]The Holy Bible : New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984), Mt 13:10-17.

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