The Seed and the Soil
Sexagesima Sunday Sermon 2005| Rev. Rolf Preus| St. Luke 8:4-15
And when a great multitude had gathered, and they had come to Him from every city, He spoke by a parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?” And He said, “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that ‘Seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity. But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.”
Churches that take God’s word seriously will not throw out the historic liturgy of the Church and replace it with praise bands that play religious pop music borrowed from the entertainment industry. They will not replace biblical law and gospel preaching with a message about the power of positive thinking. Churches that take God’s word seriously will not be lured by the siren song of promised success promoted by today’s Church Growth entrepreneurs. So-called Church Growth experts will teach you how to package your message just so. They teach you how to test the soil, that is, to learn from your community what it is people are looking for in a church so the church can be sensitive to their felt needs. They seek to apply the tried and true methods of successful businesses to the Church, as they show you how to relate to people in such a way as to draw them into your church and keep them there.
There are, of course, things that any sensible congregation will do to invite people in. Being friendly to visitors and inviting them back would be nice. Advertising in the newspaper and Yellow Pages might be a good idea. Sponsoring a radio broadcast through which the gospel is proclaimed over the airwaves is also a good idea. But according to many Church Growth “experts” there are more radical things churches should do if they want to grow. They point to the fact that mainline churches have been losing members for decades and they think they know why. They know what people are looking for. Or so they claim. It is not a formal liturgy that features confession and absolution. It is not binding doctrine. It is not the sacraments. None of these things is relevant to potential church members. Instead, people care about their relationships, money, job, sex, marriage, their future, and how they can overcome their many personal problems. The church must address these felt needs and not focus in on irrelevant religious matters that just don’t resonate with today’s religious seeker.
Well, it’s perfectly true that God’s word does address such things as relationships, money, job, sex, marriage, and so forth. And so we must preach about these things. But you can have good relationships, a good job and income, a healthy attitude toward sex and marriage, and still be without God and without hope in this world. The reason you need to hear God’s word is because you need Christ. But you don’t know that you need Christ until God Himself convinces you of it. And you don’t by nature want to be convinced. You think you’re right and God’s wrong. This means that the central truth of God’s word is completely irrelevant in the mind of the religious seeker. This fact is apparently lost on the contemporary Church Growth Movement that looks to unbelievers for advice on how to turn them into believers.
The heart of the Christian gospel is Christ, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world for the sins of the world. Sacraments are considered irrelevant to people who don’t know Christ for the simple reason that Christ is irrelevant. After all, He instituted the sacraments in order to bind Himself to His Church throughout the ages until the end of time. But if you don’t need Christ you certainly don’t need Holy Baptism. Why be baptized into union with Christ’s death and resurrection if His death and resurrection are irrelevant to your life? Why eat and drink His body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins if you don’t need His body and blood or the forgiveness of your sins? No wonder the vast religious market out there isn’t looking for a church with sacraments! Why should they be looking for sacraments when they’re not looking for Christ?
The religious seeker isn’t looking for binding doctrine that doesn’t relate to his felt needs. Well, God doesn’t tailor His teaching to the sinful desires of sinful people. He teaches us what He knows we need to know, not what we think we need to know. And His teaching is binding. It doesn’t change from day to day because the truth doesn’t change. What God taught last year He’ll teach next year and as little as God can change so little can His word change. It is people who must change – not God or His teaching.
God’s word changes people. They don’t change themselves. It’s not as if the soil can choose to grow a crop when no seed has been planted. The word of God is like seed. Without receiving the seed the soil grows nothing. We don’t convert ourselves to Christ. He preaches His word to us and His word brings us the new life of faith. St. James writes, “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.” (James 1:18) The word of God is His power to change us into Christians and to keep us steadfast in the Christian faith.
It sometimes appears as if the word of God has no power. But appearances can be deceiving. In His parable about the sower and the seed, Jesus gives us three reasons why the word of God does not take root in people’s hearts. He does so by comparing the word of God to seed falling on different kinds of soil.
The first kind of soil on which the seed falls is the path where people walk. The seed is trampled down and the birds come and eat it before it can take root. This refers to those who hear the word of God and the devil takes the word away from them before they can believe. He simply falsifies what God says. Every assertion of God is met with a contradiction. If God says the world was created in six days the devil will say it evolved over billions of years. If God says that Jesus is His only begotten Son who died for all and took away the sin of the world, the devil will say that Jesus was only a man or that He didn’t really take away all sin. Whatever God says the devil says the opposite. The first group doesn’t receive the word at all. It goes in one ear and out the other. The devil blinds them to the truth of what God says and so they dismiss it outright and simply don’t believe. There was nothing lacking in the word. It simply wasn’t given the time of day.
The second kind of soil on which the seed falls is the rocky soil that has no depth. These are those who believe for a little while, but because their faith has no depth they fall away as soon as they are tested. They are full of joy in learning of their God and Savior, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life. They receive the word with joy. And they want that joy to continue. But life isn’t always full of joy. The Christian must often suffer pain and losses and this is God’s holy will. But they refuse to accept this. They experience a loss and then think that God is at fault. Their faith is shallow. It is based on how they feel and not on what God actually promises. When Jesus speaks of the joys of the kingdom of God they think only of those joys and they ignore Jesus when He says that it is through much suffering that we enter into the kingdom of God. They confuse emotional sensations with God’s truth. They are bored with doctrine because it doesn’t make them feel good about their spirituality. They become impatient with instruction in the faith because they think that their religious feelings are more important than knowledge of the truth. So when they are tested they fall away from the truth. It never took deep root within them.
The third kind of soil on which the seed falls is where the thorns grow. These are those who hear the word but do not prize it. They do not regard it as the one thing needful. They care more about their personal problems, their money, the pleasures they have or want, and their affection for everything else but God’s word chokes their faith to death. Their so called “felt needs” are not the needs identified in God’s word. But they think they know better than God knows. The gospel of the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake becomes so much excess baggage to be discarded in favor of something that looks more impressive to them.
Then there is the seed that falls on the good soil. This soil is not hard like the path where the seed just sets there to be spotted by a bird and eaten. This soil is not a thin layer over a rock that cannot be plowed deep. This soil is not hidden under weeds that will choke any new growth. No, this soil is cut deep. It is plowed and turned over. It has suffered. And from this suffering it has been opened up so that the seed may fall in and go down deep to do its wonderful work of growing into everlasting life.
This soil cannot plow itself. But God can. And when He does, He isn’t being cruel or unkind. He most certainly isn’t being thoughtless. He knows how His word will work in our hearts. He knows what there is within us. He knows what there is surrounding us. He knows what will falsify His word. He knows what will appear more attractive than His promises. He knows what will distract us from the truth that we so sorely need. So he prepares us well. His hard steel plow digs deep so that the seed of His gospel can transform our lives.
We want so much to play an active role in our salvation! This is why the self-centered praise services with their songs that celebrate how pious we are attract so many people. Who wants to moan and groan about being such poor miserable sinners? Who wants to come to church week after week only to hear the same condemnatory law and to go right back to where we started, clinging to the crucifixion of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins? Can’t we move beyond this basic Christianity to something a bit more impressive?
But when you are hurting you know where you must go. If my life were just a long list of successes and my spirituality a growing and flowering bouquet of righteousness, then I might perhaps be able to progress a bit beyond where I began. But I keep on sinning. I keep on offending my God. I keep on loving the things of this world, putting myself and my wants above the needs of my neighbor. And I need a righteousness that is greater, purer, and lovelier than anything of which I am capable. So I must go to where God’s word is proclaimed. I must go to where Christ’s sacraments are administered. Not because I am a righteous man looking for something righteous to do, but because no matter how hard I try I remain a sinner every single day of my life. I need God to show my faith what will penetrate my deepest pain and bring me true spiritual rest. I need Jesus.
He is the One who makes my heart receptive. He, Who bore the pain of all my sins, understands whatever pain I must face and feel. He brings to me His own righteousness. He forgives me my sins. He bore them. He has authority to forgive them. He gives me the Holy Spirit Who chooses to live within me and bear fruit in my life. He turns my doubts into faith. He keeps my pains from becoming bitterness by joining me through my baptism to Christ’s death and resurrection. United with Christ’s death my sins are washed away, just as surely as He bore them on the cross. United with Christ’s resurrection, I have eternal life in heaven, just as surely as Christ has ascended to the right hand of the Father. No pain of this life can falsify God’s promises. No joy of this life can compare with the joy of my sins being fully forgiven for Christ’s sake. Nothing this life can promise me can tear my faith away from the word of God that He has planted inside of me. And if He must cut through the soil of my pride and self-centeredness, then let Him cut away. With the power of Christ’s grace resting on me, why should I complain? His strength meets perfection in my weakness. Amen.