Monday, July 17, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 13: 1-9 & 18-23 Kingdom Parables - The Sower

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 lake shore, contains some of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God, as he tells a number of parables - everyday stories with a deeper meaning. Over the rest of the summer, we’re going to listen in as Jesus teaches us what the kingdom of heaven is like.

So this evening, Jesus begins with a story that most of us have probably heard before. He says: ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed.’ 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 places, 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 Newsletter on a Saturday on how and where to sow seed? Is he on the Farmgate programme on Radio Ulster where they talk about the price of lambs and hoggets at the local marts? 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. They might not have understood it either. (see Luke 8:9). It’s only to the disciples that Jesus explains the parable (we’ll think next time 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 last words of the parable: ‘He who has ears, let him hear.’

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: what’s your hearing like? Are you listening?

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 message about the kingdom...’ (19).

In the parable, Jesus is the sower. He’s the one going out, spreading the seed. The seed is the message about the kingdom - the word of God. And just as Jesus sows the word, so we too are involved in sowing the word in different ways and contexts - in church, organisations, the home, among friends. And perhaps we don’t see the results we expect. You see, as God’s word is being sown, there are different responses, different reactions. Jesus says that we’ll see these different results as we sow seed, just as he did when he sowed the seed. The question is - which are we?

There’s the seed sown along the path. The seed is scattered, but it bounces off again straight away. The birds come along and eat it up. The seed doesn’t get a chance to grow. Jesus says that’s the people who hear the message, don’t understand it, and the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart.

Maybe you’ve brought along a friend to church, you’ve been praying that they’ll hear and repent and believe, but it makes no difference to them. You’ve thought it was a great sermon (someone else was preaching) but it doesn’t get in to them. It’s as if the words have just bounced off them, nothing has really gone in. Perhaps, at this point in time, they’re like the path. Keep praying!

The next type of people are more encouraging. Like the rocky soil, there’s a quick sprouting - they hear the word and ‘at once receives it with joy.’ (20). They’re madly keen, they go to every prayer meeting and every service and they’re full on for the Lord... at least for a wee while.

A fast sprouting, and a fast falling away. Why is it? Verse 21: ‘But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time.’ It’s not how we start that matters, but how we finish. In marathon terms, you could run flat out for the first mile or two, and then have to lie flat because you can’t keep going.

Maybe you can think of people who were so very keen, they seemed to come to faith, and were very zealous, but they haven’t really been about since. We need to put down roots, to be able to endure when things aren’t so easy.

That’s the case with this rocky soil. ‘When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.’ The good news sounds good - yes, I’ll go for that, but then the Christian life is harder than you thought. Be ready for the opposition and hardship that can come because you’re a Christian. The trouble and persecution comes (look at it with me, v 22) ‘because of the word.’

Put down firm roots to weather the trouble that will come because of the word. Encourage others who need help to get through the trouble!

Others are like the thorny ground. Again, there’s some growth, some signs of life, but then it doesn’t get much farther. ‘But the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.’ (22)

The seed of the gospel needs space to grow. But if we’re growing several sorts of plants on top of each other, then it’ll not work. One plant will win through; one will get the nutrients and the water and dominate. And if we’re watering our worries and our wealth, then the seed of the gospel can’t grow as well.

Perhaps we need to do some weeding, to get rid of the thorns that choke us and keep us from being fruitful.

Now, maybe all that makes you think, is it really worth it to do some sowing? You put your energy into preparing the Bible class for the BB, or your Sunday School class, or you take the courage to share something from the Bible with a friend at work. You post your favourite Bible verse on Facebook. You put yourself out to do some sowing... and... nothing. You’re discouraged by no response, or by a quick response and then falling away, or by seeing someone fail to reach their potential. Is it worth it?

Yes, Jesus says! Alongside the path, the rocky place, the thorny ground, there is also the good soil. The person hears the word and understands it. The seed goes in and produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. A bumper crop. It’s all worth it when the good soil gets the gospel seed.

But, you might be asking, well, what was the problem with the first three types of soil? Was it the seed that was faulty? No - it’s the same seed. Was it the sower that was faulty? No - it’s the same sower. The difference comes in the type of soil, that is, the response to the word.

When we sow the seed, when we share God’s word, we might get any or all of the four responses. But that should inspire us to keep going. The hundred, sixty, thirty times is worth it.

And for the hearer - Jesus says: ‘He who has ears, let him hear.’ Listen up! How’s your hearing? Which type of soil are you? How will you receive God’s word? Will you break up the rocky ground or clear away the weeds in your heart and life to help you hear better? To produce the fruit in your life.

May this word go deep into our hearts and spring up to eternal life, thirty, sixty, a hudredfold, in God’s grace. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 16th July 2017.

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