Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43. The 9th Sunday After Pentecost. "Appearances Can Be Deceiving"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the Gospel reading, from Matthew 13. Last week we heard Jesus tell the parable of the sower, a lesson about hearing the Word of God and taking it to heart. In today’s parable, following shortly after the parable of the sower, Jesus changes the imagery slightly and gives a new parable about planting seeds. This time Jesus contrasts the good seed that He has sown with the weeds that were sown by His enemy, the devil. Again the parable ends with the familiar admonition: “He who has ears, let him hear.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Above a small garden in my parent’s back yard, hangs a little sign on the wooden fence. It reads, “Garden of Weedin.” Of course it’s an ironic pun on the name “Garden of Eden,” where Adam and Eve’s first sin triggered the devastating consequences of sin into the world, with the accompanying curse of thorns and thistles that made gardening and farming toilsome. And ever since, gardeners and farmers and conservationists have struggled against the constant spread of weeds. In Hawaii thousands of invasive plant species and weeds constantly threaten native growth. Gardeners constantly combat the encroaching weeds. Weeding the garden was always one of my least favorite chores as a kid. I remember pulling weeds, always having to be careful not to pull up the wrong plant and accidentally ruin dad’s vegetables. Or, I wouldn’t grab the weed firmly enough by the root, and ended up breaking off only the leaves and top growth, with the root left firmly in the soil, ready to sprout up again. Pesticides and other methods to suppress weeds, show what a threat weeds are: they are a drain on productivity, and they crowd out the good growth.

So Jesus tells His parable of the sower planting good seed in His field, and how the enemy came while the men were asleep, and sowed weeds over the field. When the servants saw the weeds growing together with the wheat, they prepared themselves like anyone would, who knew the latent threat of weeds, and got ready to spring into action and weed the field at the Lord’s command. But surprisingly, the Lord told them to let both grow together till harvest, lest they harm the wheat by uprooting it together with the weeds. At the harvest the weeds will be collected first and burned, and only then will the wheat be separated and brought safely into the barn. To help understand why the Lord didn’t just tell them to pull up the weeds, we should know that Jesus didn’t just use a generic term for any kind of weed, but that He named a specific type of weed, zizania, that in English we call darnel or tares.

Unlike most weeds, the thing about tares is that during the early growing stages of the weed and the wheat, they are nearly indistinguishable from one another. Thus it would be very risky to try to weed out these tares during the early stages of growth, because one might confuse the good wheat for a tare, and vice versa. Appearances can be deceiving. It’s only at the harvest when the grain is fully ripe, that the poisonous black seeds of the tare make it easy to distinguish from the grains of good wheat. It’s only then that the tares are pulled out from among the wheat and taken to be burned, and the wheat are left behind to be gathered into the barn.

There’s an important spiritual lesson for us in Jesus’ unusual response to the servants who wanted to weed the field. We are to learn that believers and unbelievers grow side by side in the world, and that they may not always be readily distinguishable. Until the end of the age, when Jesus returns for judgment, we can’t be sure who will be wheat and who will be tares. Some may openly say they don’t believe, but may they believe in the future? Others may openly profess to believe, yet in their heart they don’t. Appearances can be deceiving, and we shouldn’t cast judgment on a person’s salvation. There are many who carry a pious front, and do many things that are moral and give a good reputation. They are outwardly associated with the church, yet inwardly true faith is lacking. Yet it’s not our job to try to find and uproot the weeds. We know that judgment will come at the end of the age, but it’s God who judges. Jesus assures, “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out His angels and they will weed out of His kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.” Actually the phrase “all who do evil” could more literally be translated, “those who practice lawlessness.” So those who Jesus refers to as tares caused others to sin and lived as if there were no law. To practice lawlessness is to pretend that we make our own rules, or that each person determines right or wrong.

One question we have to ask, when Jesus says that the tares and the wheat will be gathered out of His kingdom, and separated—does this mean that the “tares” or weeds are truly part of God’s Church on earth? No; it’s not that Christ didn’t sow with good seed, and now there are weeds in His church. Rather notice that He calls the tares are in the field, which represents the world, not the church. So while believers and unbelievers may outwardly coexist in the visible church on earth—unbelievers nevertheless aren’t truly part of Christ’s church, hidden in this world. The true church isn’t measured by whose name is in the church directory; it’s those who hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and follow Him. This teaching of Jesus echoes what He said elsewhere about believers being in the world but “not of the world” (John 17:16). Paul also wrote to the Corinthians about how it would be impossible for Christians not to associate with the “sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy, or the swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world,” but rather that we shouldn’t associate with any such person who does these things and yet calls themselves a Christian brother. (1 Cor. 5:9-11). He’s clarifying that we’ll be side by side with unbelievers in the world, but we shouldn’t allow open sin in our midst to be called Christian. That would be to practice lawlessness, a mark of the tares.

So we do recognize that scattered among true believers, there will be those who either have no faith in their heart, or who play the hypocrite. On the flip side of the coin, however, we may see others who are greatly afflicted by sin, and have a poor reputation, yet in their heart they are repentant and seeking only the mercy of God for themselves. They may appear to be tares, and we’d like to root them out. But who can say that we don’t often look like weeds ourselves! “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” We too are sinners seeking God’s mercy.

But if a tare is a tare, a weed is a weed, then why does Jesus wait till the harvest to separate them? God does not root up the tares, because in time they may become wheat. (repeat) What?! But this is a biological impossibility! Tares don’t turn into wheat! It’s impossible! Precisely. It’s a miracle. But we aren’t talking about weeds literally turning into wheat, but rather we are talking literally about those who were by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:3) becoming sons of the kingdom. Truly a miracle! This change doesn’t happen by any ability of the person, but by God’s miraculous transformation through His Word. For the sake of this transformation, the judgment and destruction of the tares is postponed till the consummation of the age.

How is such a transformation possible? Ephesians 2 is very helpful as it talks about “the sons of disobedience,” as Jesus’ parable talks about the tares as the “sons of the evil one.” It says that we were all dead in trespasses and sins. We were all following the course of this world, following the prince of this world, Satan, and we were “sons of disobedience” or children of wrath. And now I’m quoting Ephesians 2:4 and following: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Sounds like the gathering of the wheat into the barn to me; the gathering of believers into the kingdom of their Father, where the righteous will shine like the sun! Ephesians goes on in verse 7: “so that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it’s the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2: 4-10).

Ephesians 2 makes it so clear that our being saved is God’s gracious job, and that we left our former way of life, as sons of disobedience, as tares, behind. Not because of any of our works, because then we could become boasters! NO! But so that we may give all credit and glory to God, it’s a gift. Salvation, even faith in Christ itself, is a free gift…not a payment for what we earned or a good work. In order for us to be transformed into the good seed, into wholesome wheat, Christ had to die on the cross for our sin, for God’s wrath against us, so that in His rising from death He’d be able to make us alive together with Him, and be raised up and seated with Christ in the heavenly places. So this has huge implications for the parable of the tares! The tares remain in the world around us because there’s still hope that by the harvest they may become wheat! We are living—you might say we are “planted” in the mission field! Surrounding us every day, there may be people, friends, associates that are in need of God’s saving Word. Who is a person that you might tell the Gospel of Jesus? Who might you know that has never given serious thought to Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God, and our Savior? A simple question, “What do you think of Jesus?” might be all it takes to get that conversation started. And it doesn’t require you to “ram it down someone’s throat.” We speak the truth in love. And remember that God wants you to be His instrument in telling the Gospel; but that it’s His powerful and effective Word that gets the job done! He who has ears, let him hear! Speak God’s Word; leave the rest to Him. It’s by grace that we are saved, through faith. This is not your own doing, it’s a gift of God.

So how exciting! Rather than being part of an organized plan to root out and wipe out weeds, like any sensible gardener might expect, we get to instead participate in and witness the transformation of tares into wheat, as we grow together in this world. We get to share God’s Word and see its redeeming and powerful effects on the lives of others. We hope for them to be spared the same fate from which we are spared, namely the furnace of hell, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. There’s no pleasant way of putting it, nor should we try. Being separated from God for eternity will be only hopelessness and despair. But the complete opposite awaits the wheat that is gathered safely into the barn! Far from perishing in flames, the “righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father.” We have been delivered from a most terrible fate, into the loving arms of our heavenly Father, who grants us to shine with the righteousness of His own Son Jesus Christ. And the invitation into this kingdom of our Father stands open to all who have ears to hear.

As we look forward to the harvest, when we are gathered safely into our Father’s kingdom, I want to conclude by paraphrasing St. Augustine, who said: “When the harvest comes, may you be found to be wheat! Why are you worried and impatient that the evil is mixed with the good? In the field they will be together, but not so in the barn.”…. “First I speak to those who are tares, or false Christians, that you may know that God requires repentance. For while you are still in the field, you may yet become wheat, for God is not without power to turn you to Him.” …. “Second, to the wheat, I say, do you wish to root up the evil from among you? Would you desire to cause damage to the Lord’s harvest, by rooting up the good together with the wicked? It’s His to harvest, and the angels will do it. And remember, ‘Whoever thinks that he stands, take heed lest he fall.’” So with those apt words, let us not be built up in false pride, let us not be impatient that in this life evil is mixed with good, but when the harvest comes, may we indeed be found to be wheat! “For it’s God who made us, and not we ourselves” (Ps. 100:3). Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

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.