Sunday, August 05, 2012

Sermon: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 The Parable of the Soils

Where would your ideal holiday be? You might be the adventure type, wanting to go and climb mountains, or even ski down them. Perhaps you would prefer to get away from it all, a little cottage in the middle of a forest, far from other people. Or maybe you’re the type who likes the beach, water lapping at your toes, relaxing.

At the start of our reading today, it seems as if Jesus is doing the same. He went out of the house and sat beside the lake. But rather than getting away from everything, Jesus isn’t there for rest. We’re landing into the middle of Matthew’s gospel, and Jesus has been attracting a crowd, following him to watch him perform miracles of healing, and to hear him teaching. In fact, the crowd is so great that Jesus has to get into a boat, and it’s from the boat that he teaches the crowd.

This whole chapter, set on the beach, contains some of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God, as he tells a number of parables - stories with a deeper meaning. On these four Sunday mornings in August, we’re going to listen in as Jesus teaches.

So this morning, Jesus begins with a story that most of us have probably heard before. He says: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow.’ As he goes along, he spreads the seed, and Jesus tells us that it lands in lots of different places - the path, where it is eaten up by birds; the rocky ground, with a promising start, but it withers as quickly as it sprouted; among the thorns, where it is choked out; and finally the good soil, producing a crop.

You’ve heard the story before. You know what it’s all about. You know that Jesus gives the explanation a little later. But stop here, at this point, and that’s all Jesus says to the crowd. If you were in the crowd that day, that’s all you would have heard about the seed and the soils. What would you make of it?

Would it seem as if Jesus was branching out into giving agricultural advice? Was he writing a column for the farming section of the Impartial Reporter on how to sow seed? What was it all about? You see, in verse 10, the disciples come to Jesus (probably later) and ask him why he speaks in parables. It’s only to the disciples that Jesus explains the parable (we’ll think next week about the purpose of the parables from the middle section).

So what is it all about? Jesus starts with what the people know - they all know about farming, they either sow themselves, or have seen their neighbours doing it. They know about the different places that the seed can land; and the way the seed grows in those places. But Jesus isn’t just teaching about farming - instead he’s pointing to the deeper truth, and it’s highlighted in the first and last word of the parable in our NRSV version: ‘Listen!’

When I was at school, every few months I got a day off school, and a trip into Belfast on the bus with my mum or my granny. I would be taken to a little box in the hospital, wearing headphones, with a stick in my hand, listening carefully. When I heard a sound, I had to hit the block of wood. It seems my hearing wasn’t great - I ended up getting vents in my ears three times!

Jesus is asking us in this parable the same question: how’s your hearing? Are you really listening? The other day we were round at my sister-in-law’s house. The TV might have been on, the kettle might have been boiling, but my sister-in-law was able to hear their youngest one crying upstairs - we might have heard it, but weren’t really listening, but she was listening out for it. Her listening moved her to action - she didn’t just say, oh, Catherine is crying and then go back to chatting; no, she heard and she acted - she went to see how the baby was doing.

In verses 18-23, Jesus explains the parable. He says that it’s all about our listening - what we do with the word that we hear. He begins: ‘When anyone hears the word of the kingdom...’ (19). Even as Jesus tells this parable, he is sowing the word of the kingdom, he’s spreading the good news, but there are different responses; different reactions. Some will hear the word (as they listen to the Bible read and the sermon preacher), but they won’t take it in, it’s taken away by the evil one. Are you listening?

For others, just like the rocky soil, there’ll be a quick sprouting, ‘immediately receiving it with joy’, but there’s no roots - ‘when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.’ The good news sounds good - yes, I’ll go for that, but then the Christian life is harder than you thought.

Other people will be like the thorny ground. You hear the word, you begin to respond, but then ‘the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.’ Are you caught up in this world with its wealth and its worries? Those weeds need to be uprooted, and the soil prepared for the seed.

And finally, Jesus talks about the good soil, where the person hears and word and understands and bears fruit. In fact, it’s a bumper crop, with a hundred, or sixty, or thirty times what was sown.

Now what was the problem with the first three? Was it the seed that was faulty? Were there different qualities of seed being sown? Was the word different to the four groups? Not at all! It’s the same seed being sown at the same time - the difference comes in the types of soil; the responses to the word.

This means that any time the word is read or proclaimed - as we meet together as a church family; as we read our Bibles at home; as the word is read in GFS or Sunday School or Mothers’ Union or wherever; these are the possible responses - it’s nothing to do with the preacher, it’s to do with how we receive the word.

This parable is like a mirror being held up to us - we’re confronted with that question: how’s your hearing? Which type of soil are you? How will you receive the word from God? How will you prepare to hear from God? Are there ways you can break up the rocky ground or clear away the weeds in your heart and life to help you hear better?

Last year when the lawn at the front of the Rectory was being sown, the seed wasn’t just thrown down there and then - the ground had to be prepared, the weeds removed, so that the good seed would grow. What might that look like for us? It might mean getting to bed at a decent time on Saturday night in order to be fresh for Sunday mornings at church; coming ready to hear and really listen; not being distracted.

There is encouragement here for us as a church family, dedicated to hearing from God - that even though some may not hear, the yield from the seed on good soil is worth the frustration and disappointment - so we’ll keep on sowing - on Sundays, in small groups, as parents teaching their children; in lots of different ways.

Our prayer for little Olivia today is that, in time, she too will be like this good soil, that she too will hear the word of the good news, and that she too will be fruitful for her Lord, for the glory of Jesus.

How’s your hearing? Are you listening?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 5th August 2012.

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