Make Me Good Soil
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I was watching an episode of “Austin City Limits” recently and you may know I’m very much into a genre of music that’s generally called “Americana.” Brandi Carlile is part of this and I like her music a lot and this episode of ACL featured her. Before one song, she was talking about her daughter being born and how difficult it can be to be a parent. She talked about how parents often speak of the tidal wave of love, instinct, and understanding that they felt when their children were born – an overwhelming welling up of love for this new life. She said, quite honestly (and if songwriters and preachers aren’t honest what’s the point) – “I felt nothing.” She talked about the time that it took for such feelings to develop. She said that when she shared this with other parents, many of them said “Yeah we felt that too, we were just saying the other stuff ‘cos that’s what you’re supposed to say.” She talked about having had to earn her love for her daughter and assured any new parents that if they hadn’t yet, then they surely would.
This line stayed with me – about earning love. It reminded me of what someone said about this parable that we read this morning which was this – “God’s grace is no cheap grace: you must pay for it with all you are and all you have.” At the same time “It’s an exciting thing to be a Christian. It always goes the limit.” I agree it stretches us. Growing in the love of God is a wonderfully exciting thing. Growth can also be a painful thing of course, and we don’t talk about growing pains for nothing. So I put this thought before us as we begin – “The love of God/our love for God is no cheap love; I am called to pay for it with all I am and all I have.” Hold onto this as we ask for God’s help in looking at this parable today.
“And he told them many things in parables.” Jesus has used parabolic-type language early in Matthew’s Gospel (think of the wise and the foolish man building their houses on rock and sand). Here in chapter 13, we have for the first time in Matthew a group of parables. They’re more than sermon illustrations. Last week I talked about Norman Powell not being able to play for two teams to illustrate a truth about God and wealth. These go beyond mere illustration.
The first two parables in chapter 13 are very much about separation. One of the things that a parable does is create a line of separation or delineation – between knowing or having been given to know the secrets or mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, and not perceiving; hearing and not listening, nor understanding. And so we pray to be given hearts to understand. And as another singer I like very much once asked, “What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?”
What is so funny about peace, love, and understanding? Not one thing. Jesus says, “But as for what is sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit…” This is what we want yes? “Bear fruits worthy of repentance!” was the cry of John the Baptist. This is what we long for. I hope it’s what we long for. This doesn’t come cheap. Understanding – receiving and perceiving God’s word in our heart doesn’t come cheap. Remember that seeds need to die to produce fruit. Seeds need to die in order that something new might come about. Jesus told his followers very truly “… unless a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies, it remains a single seed” and I don’t believe Jesus was just talking about himself. Let us be challenged by Jesus’ words. I have been challenged already in these weeks after Easter, I pray you have too. We don’t just listen to Jesus' words and sit with them and pray with them simply so we can feel good about ourselves or simply learn a moral lesson for the day. We don’t want to look at parables like this one and take them as wise words of a 1st-century sage who wanted to make sure people knew about good farming practices.
May Jesus' words cut us to the heart. May Jesus grant us understanding. Understanding does not come easily. Are we the seeds or the soils in this allegory? Of course, a parable is much more than simply an allegory and there is no end to our wrestling with them. Of course when we wrestle we can come away bruised. If we don’t come away from wrestling with God’s word a little bruised then what’s the point? Receiving and perceiving God’s word in our heart is hard-earned. God didn’t rename Jacob “Israel” for nothing. The one who strives with God. If you think this language is overly harsh or even violent, or you’re discouraged right now, remember that we have the Great Physician with us to the end of the age. To tend to our bruises. The one whose business is healing. Making whole. This is serious stuff. We’re really getting serious. This is a parable of separation or delineation and it hurts us to acknowledge that lines of separation run through us. We know though that being aware of hurts and pain is the first step toward being healed, isn’t it? When we’re talking about wanting to come to an understanding of parables, we’re not simply talking about an intellectual understanding. Someone has put it like this about parables, “Their significance points again and again to everyday life: they ask to be lived, not to be grasped by the intellect.” Parables ask to be lived.
Today’s parable was told in a particular context too. We said before Easter that Matthew 11-12 is marked by a very mixed reaction to Jesus. Everything from wanting to destroy him, to ignoring him, to following him. It’s interesting to note the situation that Jesus and his followers are in when Jesus tells today’s parable, which, in one way, has a sense of sadness about it. It describes three ways the word of the Kingdom of Heaven is not successful. The seed has a 25% success rate. It makes us ask the question “What does success mean in the Kingdom of Heaven?” Is it crowds? Is it a large number of people? Look at the crowds! The crowds are so great that Jesus has to get into a boat while the whole crowd stood on the beach. Does Jesus say something like “Look at this! I came to kindle a fire and it’s catching!” “Look at this great number of people – this Kingdom thing is really taking off! Give yourselves a round of applause! Such success!”
What is success in the Kingdom of Heaven? Is it numbers? This is conventional wisdom no? If something or someone is attracting large crowds, it must be good right? The more likes, the higher your click-through rate, the better right?
Jesus looks at the crowd. Jesus looks at us. He begins to speak in parables. We’ll never in this age come to and end of understanding these things. Jesus wants to shake us up. Jesus wants to shake and stir our imaginations as he did in the Sermon on the Mount. Here he speaks in a parable which, to quote someone, has the power of “arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”
He began to speak in parables. “Listen! A sower went out to sow.” The seed is the word of the kingdom. Seeds are going everywhere. The sower sows recklessly, with abandon. This sowing has been described as “sowing anywhere and everywhere, regardless of reception and regardless of risk.”
What does this have to tell us about how we spread the word of the kingdom. “What is the word of the kingdom?” you ask. I would put it most succinctly with Jesus' own words. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Turn to God, for the reign of heaven is inaugurated in Christ Jesus. How else might we say it? How might we live it out? We said recently that if we’re ambassadors of Christ and living letters of Christ and if Christ is the living Word of God then we are in some way the word of God to the world – which is sown anywhere and everywhere, regardless of reception and regardless of risk. I must say that this whole online service thing has opened up the word going out from Blythwood in a whole new way. One which we’ll surely want to continue in some way no matter what lies ahead of us.
The seeds are also the hearers. “As for the what was sown… this is the one who…” There are four results for the seeds and, while we may want to spend time thinking about who around us represents what result, I think we do well to get introspective on this. I think it behooves us to consider how the dividing line between bearing fruit and not bearing fruit runs through each and every one of us. I said we may come away bruised but don’t despair. Remember who’s telling the parable. The one who loves us recklessly and with abandon and who is with us. Keeping this in mind let’s dare to consider the three non-fruit results.
Some seeds fell on the path. The birds came and ate them up. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. There’s nothing wrong with paths, per se. There is nothing wrong with streets, highways, and byways. They help us get places. The thing is you need to get off them. Life in the fast lane is no life. Life in the fast lane. Surely make you lose your mind. Everything all the time. Frenetic activity. Frantic activity even. It’s no way to live and the birds are always circling, my friends. Luther said, “We can’t stop the birds from flying over our heads but we must take heed lest they build their nests in our hair.” Maybe the next time I see a sparrow in the garden or hear the birds in the morning it will remind me to get off the path. To rest in the field. I will live in the open space, where water flows with love and grace. What sort of attention are we paying the word of God? Do we rest with it or do we take it in small bites (if we’re taking it in at all) on our way to our next activity the way we eat fast food in the car? Do we welcome God’s word into our days or is it more like an unwelcome visitor we just want to get away from our door or our desk or computer or phone so we can get back to the path and get stuff done? Paths can be beaten down and that’s a wearisome thing. Paths can be covered with cement and hardened, just like hearts. Love for God and people is not easily earned. It doesn’t come cheaply or it will be cheap.
As for what is sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arise on account of the world, that person immediately falls away. The walk with Christ is a walk, a long one. Eugene Peterson calls it “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” It’s a long-term thing and we’ll talk about this next week too when we look at some other parables from Matthew 13. We are into instant results, no lag, no buffering, no waiting. Instant gratification. “What’s in this for me?” we ask. So much of how the message of Christ is presented has to do with the benefit to you. Have you noticed this? I heard a preacher say recently “Wouldn’t you like to get in on that deal?” as if we were selling something. We’re not selling anything and the word of the kingdom is not primarily something to make you feel good. It’s something to give our lives to. Sometimes literally as in “I would die for this” at which point some say “This is not what I signed up for.” As I said some weeks ago this is second-level stuff but we want to be deeply rooted do we not? The wondrous thing is that in giving ourselves to our King and his Kingdom we know peace, we know joy, we know hope, we know grace. We know what it means to be loved and to love.
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. It’s a hard thing to be rich in the kingdom of heaven. It’s not impossible thanks be to God, but it’s not easy. The difficulty is not just for individuals but it can be difficult for entire nations. Do we ever wonder why the church isn’t doing very well in the West? There are many reasons of course. Listen to this one from Stanley Hauerwas, US theologian, and ethicist:
“…it is hard to imagine any text more relevant to the situation of churches in the West. Why we are dying seems very simple. It is hard to be a disciple and be rich. Surely, we may think, it cannot be that simple, but Jesus certainly seems to think that it is that simple. The lure of wealth and the cares of the world produced by wealth quite simply darken and choke our imaginations. As a result, the church falls prey to the deepest enemy of the gospel—sentimentality. The gospel becomes a formula for “giving our lives meaning” without judgment.
Too often those who propose strategies to recover the lost status and/or membership of the church do so hoping that people can be attracted to become members of the church without facing the demands of being a disciple of Jesus.”
How could we ask others to face the demands of being Christ’s disciple without being willing to face them ourselves?
We’ve heard about three degrees of failure and we end with three degrees of success. Three degrees of grace. Three degrees of fruit. “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears to hear, listen.” Listen and understand. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. Again not in a purely intellectual way but in such a way that the words of the Living Word are lived out in and through us. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” said the Baptist, and we say “Make us good soil Lord. I want to be good soil.” I can picture you here with me nodding and saying “Amen” (softly) because I know I’m not the only one who longs for this. Let the fruit be our success. Let love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control be the measure of our success, whether it’s a hundredfold, sixty, or thirty. This is a prayer for the most seasoned of disciples (which I’m increasingly feeling like myself I have to say age-wise and God bless our elders and all those who know about the long obedience in the same direction). It can also be a prayer for someone who hasn’t made that step. Someone who hasn’t yet said, “I want to follow you and call you Lord and give my life to you and your kingdom’s cause.” Someone who doesn’t even know yet what all that means. Donald Miller in his book Blue Like Jazz writes of a young friend named Penny who tells him of her story of coming to follow Jesus. One of the parts of her story was reading through the Gospel of Matthew with a friend. This is what she tells him: “Yeah. There is a part in Matthew where Jesus talks about soil, and He is going to throw some seed on the soil and some of the seed is going to grow because the soil is good, and some of the seed isn’t because it fell on rock or the soil wasn’t as good. And when I heard that, Don, everything in me leaped up, and I wanted so bad to be the good soil. That is all I wanted, to be the good soil! I was like, Jesus, please let me be the good soil!” There’s more to Penny’s story and you can borrow it from me anytime. In the meantime friends, may her prayer be on the hearts of each and every one with eyes to see and ears to hear. May this be true for us all. Amen