Sermon for Sexagesima
2 Corinthians 11:19-12:9 + Luke 8:4-15
The parable of the sower. One of my favorites. It’s such a vivid picture of what happens when the word of God is preached, how it falls on different kinds of soil and how it fares in each case.
There is some sadness in it, as Jesus tells us ahead of time that many or even most of those who hear His Word will either never believe, or will eventually fall away—not because the Word of God was ineffective, not because God didn’t want them to believe, but because, unlike the good soil, they don’t hear the Word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.
From the perspective of the sower, it’s very helpful to know that, and this applies to preachers, but also, to some extent, to parents and to all Christians who scatter the word of the Gospel in their vocations. You see people mocking the truth of God’s Word when they hear it. Or, you see Christians drifting away from the faith, slowly or quickly abandoning the Lutheran faith (that is, the true Christian faith) they once confessed. Drifting away, shriveling up—not cursing Christ or rejecting Him completely, but His truth loses its importance to them as other things become more important. And so often we wonder, why won’t they believe? Or, how could they drift away like that? And you feel responsible. You feel like you weren’t persuasive enough, didn’t teach clearly enough, weren’t zealous enough for their salvation. But the word of Jesus calls you back and reminds you, many will not believe. Many will not remain in the faith. And the problem is not with the seed or how it is sown. It’s not one’s persuasiveness that causes the seed to take root, nor is it the zeal of the preacher that affects the soil. The problem is not with the sower or with the seed, but with the soil on which it falls. When a person hears the word and either never believes it or later falls away—as long as the Word was, indeed, preached—the blame lies 100% with the one who falls away.
The same thing happened, of course, when Jesus Himself was the preacher, because, instead of using His divine omnipotence to force the seed down people’s throats and compel them to be and to remain Christians, He chose instead to use the divine power of His Holy Spirit, who works on the human heart, not omnipotently and irresistibly, but through the humble, resistible preaching of the Word. As we confess in the Augsburg Confession, Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given. He works faith, when and where it pleases God, in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake.
That’s comforting. It means that the sower doesn’t “target” certain kinds of soil, certain kinds of people. Instead, he scatters the seed broadly, almost recklessly. And he simply leaves all the results up to the Spirit of God, whose word is always powerful, always effective, always sincere, always true. And when he sees people completely ignoring God’s Word, or when he sees believers drifting away, their faith being dried up by the heat or choked by the thorns, then he doesn’t despair; Jesus told him it would be this way. And he also knows that some of the seed will find good soil out there. There will most surely be a harvest.
On the other hand, from the perspective of the hearer, the parable of the sower is sobering. Again, the good soil represents those who hear the Word with noble and good hearts, who keep it and bear fruit with patience. All the other soils represent…other situations, those who do not hear with noble and good hearts and who do not keep the word or bear fruit with patience.
The path, where the seed fell and the birds came and plucked it up and the feet of men trampled it, stands for those who hear the word, but never believe. They either never become Christians, or, what’s even worse, they become Christians in name only; they don’t believe for themselves. They may show up for church and recite parts of the liturgy. They may memorize words in a catechism. But they don’t listen to the word, they don’t take it to heart. They make up their own doctrine, their own versions of Jesus. They go out and act like they were never Christians in the first place, because there is no true faith in their hearts.
The rocky soil, where the seed sprang up at first but then the plant shriveled up in the heat of the day, are those who hear the word with joy, but have no root, so they fall away in time of temptation or persecution. These are not openly wicked people. They’re people who give in to temptation and don’t repent. They’re confessing Christians, until the persecution gets too hot, until making the good confession of the whole truth of God’s word means sacrificing more than they’re willing to sacrifice. Those whose faith is superficial, not very deep, will fall to those temptations and persecutions. They’ll choose this life over the life of Christ. And, tragically, they will lose both.
The thorny soil, where the seed grew, but then was choked by thorns, are those who drift away from the faith when the cares, riches, and pleasures of life entice them. Again, these are not openly wicked people. They are Christians—Christians who allow themselves to become distracted from Christ, to become bored with the word and Sacraments. Their Christian faith, their Lutheran faith (again, it’s the same thing) is choked by a friend, by a colleague, by a teacher, by a fiancé or spouse, by a parent or a child; choked by work, by sleep, by money, by sex, or by drugs.
All of that is sobering, to say the least, because you all know how hard your own heart can be at times, so that the word goes in one ear and out the other. You all know what it is to be tempted and to give in to it. As for persecutions, we’re living through some very difficult times in the Christian Church, in many ways more difficult than ever before, especially for those who cling to the Lutheran faith as the true Christian faith, without compromise and without concession. We’re small. We feel isolated. We’re lonely. We’re forced to make many sacrifices to belong to this church, and still, most people, even within the Christian world, call us foolish, hateful, and mean. And then there are the cares, riches, and pleasure of this life, which fill our day-to-day activities and surround us on all sides, at all times. School, work, relationships, health concerns, bank accounts, entertainment…How does the good seed of God’s word stand a chance in this world?
But then Jesus adds one last part to this parable, and it is inspiring. There is the good soil, where the seed fell and grew and produced an abundant crop, those who hear the Word with noble and good hearts, who keep it and bear fruit with patience.
Oh, pray that God would plant His Word in you, that He would make you good soil, that He would bless the Word that has been preached, and not just once, but every time you hear it. As for you Christians, to whom the Holy Spirit has already given new birth through the baptismal washing of rebirth and regeneration, and in whom the Holy Spirit has created a New Man: keep the word! Retain it; hold onto it! Pray! And practice bearing its fruits: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Do you see the danger that threatens each one of you? The only remedy is the Word, and you are not fatalistically bound to hear it in vain. If you hear the Word with a less than noble heart, if you hear the Word preached and fail to meditate on it and believe it and cling to it, it’s no one’s fault but your own. Instead, will you go home today and read it? Will you get back to reading it and studying it regularly? Will you make it your highest priority to be in church on Sundays, if at all possible, to hear the Word and to receive the Sacrament? Will you take the comfort and the strength it provides into the week with you, to bear the cross, to deny yourselves, to battle against sin and to serve your neighbor with sacrificial love? Then you will be the good soil, and the Holy Spirit will not abandon you or let any harm come to the plant He has planted. Take this parable of Jesus and use it for the comforting, sobering, inspiring purpose for which He intended it. Many will hear the word in vain. Don’t you be one of them! Amen.