Four kinds of soil, four kinds of disciples

Sermon for Sexagesima

Luke 8:4-15  +  Isaiah 55:10-13  +  Hebrews 4:9-13

As the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish…so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

The Word of God is powerful and effective, living and active.  God sends forth his Word into the world – his Word that centers in the Person and work of Jesus, the Christ.  His Word goes forth and calls sinners to repentance and faith in Christ Jesus for the forgiveness of sins.  That’s where true life begins, a life that will never end.

But the Word of God – the message of Christ – does not produce fruit in everyone who hears it. That is, it is not always understood, believed, retained, and confessed by its hearers. In fact, for as powerful and effective as it is, it only produces fruit in a minority of its hearers.  Whenever the Word of God goes out to the ears of men – even now as it is being preached, the message of Christ falls like seed on different kinds of soil – four kinds of soil. Four kinds of soil, four kinds of disciples – and only one kind bears fruit.

The seed of God’s Word is not sown in neatly arranged rows.  Jesus’ parable of the sower pictures a man taking a handful of seed and tossing it out over a wide area that includes a walking path, a rocky place, a weedy area, and a patch of good soil.


The seed that falls on the path is trampled by men, snatched up and eaten by the birds.  It doesn’t grow; it doesn’t bear fruit.  These, Jesus says, are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.

As in the other four soil types, we’re not talking about pagans and false religions out there in the world. We’re talking about hearers of God’s Word – the message of Christ.  Those along the path hear, but it goes in one ear and out the other. They’ve hardened their hearts to God’s message, like the hardened ground of a walking path. And men trample the seed of God’s Word, as the parable says – people teach false doctrine, and heretics gather around themselves a great number of people who will tell them just what their itching ears want to hear, as Paul says to Timothy.  And the devil comes and snatches the seed away from their hearts so that they don’t believe and can’t be saved.

So this category of disciples includes all the heretics of the world and the sects.  It includes those who refuse to believe God’s Word, no matter how clearly it reads.  They’ll believe what they want, and do as they want, and still pat themselves on the back for being such good Christians.  They listen to God’s Word but aren’t serious about understanding it or guarding it against the devil’s theft, and so they live under the delusion that they have it, but they don’t. 


Then there’s the seed that falls on rocky soil, that sprouts quickly, but then withers just as quickly because its roots don’t penetrate deep enough into the soil.  When the sun gets hot, there is no moisture to sustain the growing plant and it dies.  These, Jesus says, are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.

These disciples have the pure Word of God and hear it gladly at first.  They hear the Word and hold onto it – loosely. But then they realize, it’s hard to learn doctrine and keep it straight.  It hurts when people ridicule you for stubbornly sticking to the truth of Holy Scripture.  It’s painful to address false doctrine and practice in your own church body.  And don’t even think about threatening their income or their livelihood or their life.  And when the cross comes and persecution strikes, these disciples wither and die.  They’re too afraid to do what they know they ought. They give up and give in; they either walk away from the church or they hunker down and remain silent when they see error and false practice creeping into their midst, because they know it will be too painful to speak up and speak out.  The cross will be too heavy. It just isn’t worth it.

These disciples wither and produce no fruit.  That doesn’t mean they stop being nice people who do nice things.  The fruit of which Jesus speaks is the fruit, first of all, of confessing the faith of God’s Word, speaking it, preaching it and spreading it so that God’s kingdom grows, and serving your neighbor in love.  But those who fall away or keep silent in fear of the cross do their neighbor no good at all.


Then there’s the seed that falls among the weeds, the thorns that grow up with the plant and choke it and make it unfruitful.  These, Jesus says, are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.  The cross attacks the flesh on one side of the path, but these disciples who grow up among the thorns are dragged off by their flesh in a different direction, not running away from the cross, but running to the things of this life – worries, riches and pleasures.  They have the pure Word of God, but they also have a standard of living that needs preserving and a job that needs doing, and if that comes before hearing the Word and receiving the Sacrament, if that comes before serving your neighbor, then, well, so be it.  They have the pure Word of God, but they also have family issues to deal with and an education to pursue, and if the Word of God has to take backseat to some of those things for awhile, then so be it.  They have the pure Word of God, but they also have friends to see and a party to attend and sleeping in to do and music to listen to and an ego that needs stroking, and if that means that the Word of God has to wait until I’m ready to listen, if that means that the message of Christ is but one of many priorities that require my attention, then so be it.

And when the plant is surrounded by thorns in the kingdom of heaven, guess who always wins?  Not the plant.  It’s choked by the weeds and becomes unfruitful.  Those disciples whose faith is choked by the worries, riches and pleasures of this life – are no good to anyone.  They’re too busy attending to their flesh and to their earthly life to worry about confessing their Lutheran faith in their daily life and spreading the Word of Christ to those around them and living out their Christian vocation in the world.  They’re distracted, and useless.

Don’t the prospects look bleak for the Word of God and the kingdom of heaven that grows up out of it?  “Preach the Word!” Paul says to Pastor Timothy.  “Preach the Gospel!” Jesus says to his disciples. But realize what the results will be.  Most of your hearers will not hear rightly.  Most of your hearers will never mature into fruit-bearing plants that will survive the winter freeze or the summer blast of heat.


But then there are a few – some disciples who are like the seed that fell on good soil and yielded a crop.  These, Jesus says, are those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a cropa hundred times more than was sown.  Some hear the Word of God – the message of Christ – and take it seriously.  They hear God’s law and are cut to the heart as with a sword and they agree with God that they are wretched sinners who deserve only his wrath and punishment.  They hear the Gospel – that God has sent his Son into the world to redeem sinners to purchase the forgiveness of sins by his death on the cross and to hand it out in the promise of the Gospel, in Baptism, in Holy Communion, and they believe.  And the devil comes and tries to snatch the Word away, but they’re constantly on guard, watching out for him, clinging to the Word of God for dear life, and the devil flies away defeated.  And the cross comes and life gets hot with one battle after another, but their roots go deep into the Water of Life, and God’s baptismal promise sustains them.  And the flesh calls to them, too, with the same worries, riches and pleasures that seduce so many others, but unlike so many others, these disciples struggle against the flesh and crucify each day the sinful nature, and rely on the body and blood of Christ to keep the thorns at bay.

These disciples know this simple truth: that doctrine is life, that the Word of Christ is worth hearing, learning and also retaining and confessing – at all costs!  They know it will not be easy, but they keep going with patient endurance, with perseverance, and they make the good confession, not once at their confirmation, but all the time, confessing their faith in their vocations, looking for ways to spread the Word of Christ and extend the kingdom of God, serving their neighbor in love.

Where does a good and noble heart like this come from?  That, too, is a creation of God’s Word, that even now is plowing your heart to make it into good soil, to wake you up from your apathy, to strengthen you for the cross, to clear away the thorns and make you into a fruit-bearing plant that understands God’s Word, holds onto it and bears the fruit of a Christ-centered life.

“He who has ears to hear,” Jesus cries out, “let him hear!”  These words are written for your instruction, because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you by God’s grace.  Take warning from Jesus’ words, lest the birds and the rocks and the thorns make his Word unfruitful in your heart.  And take comfort in Jesus’ words and in the reckless grace of God who sends his Word out into the world knowing full well that most will not receive it in a good and noble heart, even within the visible Church.  God does not consider that a defeat, and neither should we, because he also knows and sees to it that whenever his Word goes out, it also falls on some good soil and produces a harvest for eternal life.  It is for their sake that the Word of God is preached, and for that, we rejoice. Amen.

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