Sermon for Sexagesima
2 Corinthians 11:19-12:9 + Luke 8:4-15
The seed in Jesus’ parable fell on four different kinds of soil. Or better, there were three out of four scenarios in which a set of obstacles prevented the seed from taking root and growing up into a fruit-bearing plant: the hard, trampled-down soil of the wayside, and the birds that snatched the seed away; the rocky soil that didn’t allow the seed to send down roots to soak up the much-needed moisture; and the thorns and weeds that sprang up with the seed and choked it.
The constant in the parable is the seed, which is the Word of God. No matter where it falls, no matter how it is received when men hear it, it has the same power, the same purpose, the same strength. No matter what the soil is like, the seed has power in itself, and life—life that will germinate and sprout and grow into a plant that produces much fruit, unless it is resisted and hindered by surrounding conditions.
Now, first, what is the Word of God? It’s every word recorded in the Bible as those words are put together into the story—the true story!—of God: the story of creation, the fall into sin, the promised the Seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head. It’s the story about man, God’s fallen creature, how our very nature is corrupted and diseased with sin, and how we have filled the world with our wickedness. The Word of God is the story about God’s mercy and grace toward rebellious mankind, and His deeds in history to bring about the birth of mankind’s only Savior. It’s the story of Christ Jesus, true God and true Man, His deeds, His Words, His life, His death, His resurrection, His sending of the Holy Spirit, His working in and through the ministry of the Word, His call to repentance and His promise of the forgiveness of sins to all who believe and are baptized. The Word of God is, in summary, His Law and His Gospel.
The seed—the Word—is sown whenever it is preached. What happens after that…well, that’s the theme of the parable.
Consider the seed that fell by the wayside. Why is it trampled by men? Why are the birds able to come and snatch it away? Because the ground is hard. Stubborn. The mind and heart are distracted. Disinterested. Here the preaching of the word falls on deaf ears, as they say. People don’t take it seriously. They don’t think about what they hear or meditate on it. They assume they don’t need it, or that they know enough already. They may eat up what comes out of a false teacher’s mouth, but the plain and simple Word of God, with its call to repentance and faith in Christ—that sits on the surface until the devil snatches it away.
Consider the seed that fell on the rocky soil. These people, Jesus says, receive the Word with joy at first. They believe for a while. They start out as Christians. But they have no roots, and therefore, no moisture. Their faith is not watered by God’s Word and Sacraments. Instead, they become enamored of the empty philosophies of this world. They’re satisfied with the latest Christian meme on Facebook, or with drive-by theology, if you will, soundbite-Christianity. “Jesus loves me this I know—and this is all I want to know. Don’t bother me with doctrine.” Their faith is rooted in what men have said as opposed to what God clearly teaches in His Word. They cling to human teachings or human institutions instead of clinging to Christ and His sure and faithful Word. I’ll give you one example from Thrivent’s January calendar. It shows a picture of a pretty outdoor winter scene, and the quote reads, “This is where I go to relax and be with God.” Do you see how shallow that theology is, how false? God has never sent anyone out into the cold to “be with Him.” Instead, He sends people to where the Word is preached and the Sacraments rightly administered in order for them to “be with Him.” But this is rocky soil. And when temptations and persecutions come along, there are no roots to sustain faith. They give in to falsehood instead of suffering for the truth. And the plant withers and dies.
Consider the seed that fell among thorns and weeds, which are the cares and riches and pleasures of this life. The importance of Christ and His kingdom are placed further and further down the priority list as they begin to worry about money or sickness or comfort or entertainment. Their faith becomes a matter of Sunday mornings, at best. And the rest of the week it’s as if they had nothing to do with Christ. That’s what can happen. Until even regular Sunday morning slips away and is choked out by other things.
There are two messages in this text: one for the preacher, and one for the hearer; one for us Christians as we observe what happens around us in the world when the Word of God is preached, and another for us and for all people as we ourselves are hearers of the Word.
Jesus first wants His own disciples to understand how they are to preach. They are to preach the Word as this sower in the parable. Scatter it abroad. Don’t cater to this one or that. Don’t mess with the Word. Don’t try to focus your preaching on what you perceive to be the good soil. Don’t try to manipulate the soil. Don’t try to change the conditions or the atmosphere. Simply preach the Word.
Then Jesus wants His disciples to understand what happens and what will happen when they preach the Word. It will fall on different kinds of soil with different conditions and be received differently by different people. The always-effective, ever-powerful Word will not always produce a desirable effect in those who hear it. In fact, rarely will it find good soil, where it will grow into a faith that perseveres and lasts and that produces an abundance of love and good works.
Too often preachers and Christians in general have the wrong idea about the results they see. Too often Christians look at the size of a church or of a gathering of believers and measure the church by the numbers they see. “Is it growing? Is it growing? If so, they must be doing something right! If not, they must be doing something wrong!” Too often Christians doubt the efficacy of the Word of God and imagine that it’s really other things besides the Word that will cause the plant of faith to grow or cause a church to flourish and bear fruit. Too often Christians worry about the conditions surrounding the preaching.
But Jesus would have us simply preach the Word and trust God to do what He wishes through that preaching, trust that, through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit will work 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, as we confess in our Augsburg Confession. Most will never believe, not because the Word was ineffective, but because they resisted the Word in many different ways. But God’s word will not return to Him empty, as Isaiah says. It will find good soil, too—those who receive it with a good and noble heart, who believe every word, who take it seriously, who keep hearing the word and receiving the Sacraments, who live in daily repentance, who bear fruit with patience and who bear the cross with perseverance.
That’s the first main message of this Gospel, for us as preachers and as observers of how the Word of God works around us. The second message is for us as hearers of the Word, so that we take to heart the dangers that threaten the Word when we hear it and take care for ourselves, lest we hear it and fail to keep it. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Jesus says. In other words, everyone! If you have working ears, God wants you not just to hear the sounds of these words, but to take them to heart and learn from them.
How do you avoid being the soil of the wayside? It’s not about removing the distractions around you or about making the devil disappear. It’s about being a different kind of soil. A softer one. A more receptive one. It’s about fighting against the devil, praying for God to let His word penetrate your hard heart, and then listening attentively whenever it’s preached.
How do you avoid being the rocky soil? It’s about taking the doctrine of Christ seriously and studying it and learning it. Pray for God to strengthen your faith and to keep you rooted in Christ Jesus, which means being rooted in His Word and nourished by His Sacrament. Then when trials come, when false doctrine comes along, when persecution attacks you, you’ll be able to bear up under it, as God promises in His Word to help you and to protect you.
How do you avoid being overtaken by thorns? Be on your guard. You know that the cares, riches and pleasures of life are like creeping vines that are constantly inching toward the plant. And the devil will use even the good things in your life to lure you away from Christ. Recognize those cares and riches and pleasures and then stop and remember the words of Christ, to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
As you hear these very words of Christ, His Holy Spirit is working the ground of your heart and would turn it into good soil. Not that you’re good by nature. But the power of the Word is such that it breaks up the hard ground and leads you to repentance and to faith in Christ, who is good and merciful, who bore your sins on the cross and covered them with His blood in Holy Baptism, and who is even now tending to the seed that He has planted, so that you may persevere in the faith, and bear fruit with patience—all of which will not be your doing, but the faith and the fruits that God Himself has produced and will produce in you, for His honor and glory. Amen.