ďHearing and BearingĒ
July 13, 2008 - Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
†††††††† A telemarketer dialed 500 numbers. At 67 of them, it rang seven times and no one answered. At 129, an answering machine picked up and she left a message, but only two called back and they didnít buy anything. 155 people answered, but immediately hung up as soon as they realized she was selling something. 42 times someone picked up, listened for a bit and then asked to be removed from the calling list she was using. Another 32 listened a bit longer, then hung up. 13 people cursed her out for interrupting their supper. 1 put the phone in front of the radio and turned it up as loud as he could. Another handed the phone to her three year-old who then babbled about dinosaurs. 29 people answered, listened to the whole spiel, asked a couple questions, then said they were sorry but didnít really want any of the magazines she was offering. 9 listened and said they would order a magazine, but then didnít have a credit card. Another 4 placed an order, but their card failed to be approved. 6 bought subscriptions, but then cancelled them after the first free issue arrived. Only 12 of those she called actually bought subscriptions and didnít cancel, some just one, a few two or three. They paid with good credit and gladly received their magazines.
†††††††† Does that do it? Have we brought the Gospel up to date in a way to which you and I can relate? Have we captured in contemporary, American, consumer-oriented, technological terms what Jesus was trying to say in ancient, middle-eastern, sustenance-focused, agricultural words? Or should we keep trying? A spammer sent out 50,000 emailsÖ? A politician spent six million on television advertisingÖ? A pharmaceutical researcher tried 1,200 formulasÖ? How can we ring the changes on this old, old story so that it sounds fresh and new and exciting once again? But maybe thatís the wrong question.
†††††††† Verses 20 says, ďThe seed falling on rocky ground refers to people who hear the word with joy,Ē with excitement, we might say. ďBut since they have no root, they last only a short time,Ē continues verse 21. Excitement, relevance, even joy is not everything there is to hearing the Bible in the way God desires.
†††††††† This text, this parable, is all about how you and I hear the Word of God. And we will make a huge mistake right from the beginning if we listen to this parable seeking only a momentary thrill of excitement or flash of insight, but then turn away again for the business of life as usual. This story is all about being people in whom Godís Word sinks deep and a warning against being those in whom the message is only shallowly rooted.
†††††††† Thatís why, as much I like and use the lectionary (the weekly assigned Scripture readings used in many different Christian denominations), I have to say it makes a huge mistake with this weekís text. The assigned reading for today is Matthew 13, verses 1-9 and verses 18-23. It skips over verses 10-17. It does read quite well that way. Jesus tells the parable and then He explains it, offers an interpretation. Isnít that really all we want from a sermon or from Bible study? Give us the text and then interpret it in some lively, entertaining, encouraging way.
†††††††† The problem is thatís not how itís actually presented in Scripture. In between the parable and its explanation, which fits so beautifully and makes perfect sense, there are eight strange, difficult verses full of warning and reproach. The problem with skipping those verses is that their content is what the parable is about. Right after the parable of the sower, in verse 10, the disciples ask Jesus, ďWhy do you speak to the people in parables?Ē Jesus answered them in the next few verses. Now check it out in Mark 4 and Luke 8. All three of the Gospels that contain this parable set it up so that Jesusí answer to the question about parables falls right between this parable and its interpretation. The parable of the sower is the parable about parables. Itís an explanation of how the Word of God, the teaching of Jesus, works in us and in the world. Itís a warning against faulty understanding.
†††††††† With verse 13, Jesus explains the reason for parables in terms of peopleís response to the Word. He speaks a proverb repeated three or four times in the Old Testament; in Deuteronomy, in Jeremiah, in Ezekiel, and, as He goes on to quote, in Isaiah 6:9, ďThough seeing, they do not see, though hearing, they do not hear or understand.Ē Godís message comes and it is perceived, but itís not received.
†††††††† In Isaiahís context, that saying came to him right after his calling to be a prophet to Israel in chapter 6. The message he was given would be ignored and fruitless. His nation would be overrun and destroyed. But, as our reading from Isaiah 55 said, the Word of God would not turn up empty. It would last. It would produce fruit. The last verse of Isaiah 6 says, ďBut as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.Ē Godís Word, the message of His Kingdom is the ďholy seed.Ē
†††††††† The parable of the sower was not just Jesus being relevant, finding some clever way that fit His own context to express the thought that some people would believe in Him and some would not. No, it goes far deeper than that. Jesus spoke in images already deeply rooted in Scripture, growing out of what God had already spoken. God promised His Word would be effective, promised to replant His people, restore their nation, and bring forth His kingdom. The Gospel Jesus Christ preached is the fulfillment of that promise. In Jesus, God planted His kingdom.
†††††††† All the parables in chapter 13 are parables of the kingdom and the sower is the key to them all, the parable about parables. Itís not about individual salvation or who will saved or lost. Itís about how Godís kingdom will be planted and grow. The kingdom begins with a Word, with a message. And the kingdom depends on how that message is received.
†††††††† Those hard verses in the middle are not about predestination. When Jesus told His disciples in verse 11, ďThe knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them,Ē it wasnít because God chose some and not others. He went on to say, ďThose who have will be given more, and they will have an abundance. As for those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them.Ē The kingdom grows more and more in those who are receptive and shows up less and less in those who are not.
†††††††† Parables are not the Lordís attempt to deliberately mystify and prevent folks from believing. When Jesus quotes here from Isaiah 6, we discover it is not Godís choice but ours which determines how the Word is received. Verse 15 says, ďFor this peopleís heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.Ē The ground beneath the Gospel gets hard because we make it that way in our hearts. We donít see itís growth because we deliberately close our eyes. Thatís not Godís choice. Itís ours. Godís Word is effective. It produces. We either to frustrate that outcome or cooperate to let it happen.
†††††††† Some have suggested that this should be called ďthe parable of the soils.Ē The focus is definitely not so much on the sower or the seed, but on the different productiveness of different soils. But this is one of the few parables that Jesus Himself named and He calls it ďthe parable of the sowerĒ in verse 18. Thereís focus on the soils, but itís still about what the sower, who is God, is doing. Through His message, through the Word of Jesus Christ, God is planting His kingdom. Thatís the point. The question is whether it will grow in us.
†††††††† There is also a focus here on the seed. As Klyne Snodgrass says in his new book on the parables, the importance of the seed shows that ďthe kingdom is a kingdom of the word; it involves a proclamation about God and Godís purposes in the worldÖ the proclamation of the kingdom makes a new reality available.Ē The kingdom of God is made real through the preaching, hearing and living out of the Word of God, which is the seed.
†††††††† This parable calls for us to hear and pay attention to the Word of God. Itís absolutely essential. Itís the seed. It doesnít matter how good the soil is if there is no seed to grow in it. Thatís why reading and hearing what the Bible says is an essential part of Christian worship, why the centrality of the Word of God is the first of our Covenant Affirmations, why Scripture itself begins with God speaking the world into being. If we ignore the Word, there will be no kingdom. Without the Word, there would be nothing.
†††††††† Snodgrass also says that Word of the kingdom presents a challenge. If the kingdom is to grow, the Word must make a difference. We must perceive, understand and reorient our lives around the message of the kingdom as Jesus taught it. In our recently approved Covenant Resource Paper about the Bible, we read that the Word is meant to transform us, to make us more and more into people who live as citizens of Godís kingdom. The seed is meant to grow, itís meant to bear fruit and it does that when the message of Jesus begins to take shape in our lives, begins to reshape our lives.
†††††††† We preachers and Sunday School teachers and Christian writers have been taught that our great goal is to find ways to make the Bible relevant in todayís world, to do the kind of thing I did at beginning of this sermon. Find fresh, new words and images to repackage the old Gospel message so that it fits into todayís context. Thatís why we have so many Scripture translations and editions of the Bible, each aimed at a particular target group. Menís and womenís Bibles, youth Bibles, college student Bibles, childrenís Bibles. Bibles for leaders, for those wanting to filled with the Spirit, for those with inquiring minds, for those in recovery, for those doing evangelism. The list goes on and on. Take the Word and fit it into a package thatís going to appeal to you no matter where you are in life.
†††††††† Itís almost as though the parable of the soils has been turned on its head by modern genetic science. Instead of cultivating the soil to make it more receptive, we gene-splice and alter the seed to grow in different sorts of ground. A seed for rocky soil. A seed for shallow soil. A seed to grow among weeds. Even a seed to plant on the walkway.
†††††††† But maybe weíre not meant to fit the Bible into our lives. Maybe weíre meant to fit our lives into the Bible. Maybe we shouldnít be looking for contemporary images and language to express what the Bible says. May we should be changing our lives express what the Bible says. As I said on my blog, maybe instead of recasting the message into forms called for by todayís language, our goal is more to recast todayís lives into forms called for by the language of the message.
†††††††† Most of you know we recently moved in order to be closer to the church building here. And you know how the process of packing goes. Youíve got that box youíre trying to fill. As you near the end, thereís often good space left in which what youíre packing wonít quite fit. Your box is nearly full of books, but you throw in a few CDs to fill it up. Youíre packaging baking pans from the kitchen, but you stuff in a pillow from the sofa so they wonít rattle. We make the items fit the package.
†††††††† But then along comes that treasured lamp or that china platter your mother gave you or that expensive stereo receiver. It doesnít fit any of your boxes, but you arenít about to just cram it in somewhere. You may actually buy a box just for it. Or you may do as I have occasionally and start cutting and shaping and taping cardboard until you have a container that does match what youíre trying to put into it. Thatís how it ought to be with our lives and the Word of God. Thatís what the parable of the sower is saying to us. When the Gospel of Jesus Christ falls into our hearts and minds, we ought not to reshape the message to fit who we are. Weíre meant to become people whose lives are reformed and shaped to fit the message.
†††††††† The parable of the sower is partly warning. Jesus is telling us not to be people in whom the Gospel makes no difference. Donít be people whose faith is plucked away by Satanís temptations. Donít be people who exhibit an initial excitement but whose faith is so shallow that we forget it and ignore it whenever itís inconvenient. Donít be people who so caught up in all the ordinary cares of life that any time for practicing our faith is choked out. In Isaiahís terms, donít be people who hear what Jesus is saying, but donít really hear Him in a way that makes any difference.
†††††††† Yet the parable of the sower is also encouragement. If we truly hear, if we let the teaching of Jesus really take root in us, then there will be growth. Godís Word is effective. It does not get planted in good soil and come up bare. There will be a crop. There will be fruit. There will be joyful, abundant living. There will be the kingdom of God.
†††††††† Thatís the hope and promise of this parable. The seed is sown. We have received the good news that Christ has died and Christ is risen and Christ will come again. We have received His teaching about how we are to live in order to be people who will die and rise with Him and live together in His kingdom. Weíve got the seed. Now we are called to change our lives in order to be good soil, and when we doÖ the kingdom shows up.
†††††††† The kingdom of God shows up whenever we let ourselves be changed by the Word Jesus plants in us. The kingdom showed up this past Tuesday as some you gave up an evening and packed food for the hungry. The kingdom showed up yesterday as some of you helped the McDonalds move. The kingdom will show up in a few weeks when four young women from Valley Covenant go to Feet to Faith in Seattle, giving up five days to learn how practice justice and compassion. The kingdom will show up the week after that as most of us get involved in Dirty Hands Days and offer ourselves in service to others.
†††††††† Godís kingdom is growing in this world. Thatís what the parable of the sower and the parables following it teach. Snodgrass says, ďThe kingdom is at presently at work and is established partly as people respond with believing obedience and inhabit the world created by the proclamation.Ē The seed Jesus planted by what He did and taught is growing a new world. The more we obey and live in that new world rather than our old world, the more the kingdom grows.
†††††††† Itís the kingdom growing when you respond with a gentle word when someone offends you. Itís the kingdom growing when you take a job for less pay because it allows you time to worship and participate in your church. Itís the kingdom growing when you make a loan you donít expect to be paid back. Itís the kingdom growing when you dare to share your faith in Christ with a friend when you donít know how it will be received. The kingdom is growing whenever you take it deep into your heart and mind and then let it change you, help you make different choices, grow new habits, build fresh relationships. Then the kingdom of heaven is really here.
†††††††† The seed is planted. God is on the move. Like grass seed blowing on the wind, His kingdom springs up wherever the ground will let it. May it spring up in you and me. May we be good soil. May the crop be plentiful. May His kingdom be forever and ever.
†††††††† Valley Covenant Church
†††††††† Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
†††††††† Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj