"To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God.” That’s what Jesus says to the disciples in our Gospel lesson this morning. And today I can say the exact same thing: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God.” I can say that to you, and know that it is true. I know that it is true because you are here.
You have come to the Divine Service this morning to hear God’s Word. You have come to receive Holy Absolution. You have come to receive the true body and blood of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. You have come to respond to God with praise and thanksgiving.
You are here because it has been given to you to know the secrets of the kingdom of God. If it hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here. It’s that simple. We encounter in our text this morning what we confess in the Small Catechism’s explanation to the Third Article of the Creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”
You know the secrets of the kingdom of God. To you, these things are no secret. You have just celebrated Christmas. You know that in the fullness of time, the Father sent the Son into the world as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. You know that Jesus Christ is true God and true man.
You have just celebrated the season of Epiphany. You know that the saving glory of Jesus Christ was revealed in his ministry of preaching and the miracles he worked. You know that Christ was the presence of the kingdom of God – the reign of God – that was overcoming the forces of Satan, sin and death.
We are about to enter into Lent and then Holy Week. You know that Jesus Christ came to be numbered with the transgressors. He came to be nailed to the cross as he bore your sin and received God’s judgment in your place. But you also know that Holy Week leads to Easter. You know that on the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead. He vindicated Jesus as the Christ who has defeated death by passing through it himself. Because Jesus rose from the dead, you will too. You know that Jesus ascended into heaven as he was exalted to the right hand of God, and that he poured forth the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – the Spirit who has called you by the Gospel and enlightened you with his gifts. And you know that on the Last Day, Jesus Christ will return in glory to raise you from the dead.
These are no mysteries to you. They are the Gospel that you know and believe because God has given you the gift of faith through the Spirit. You have been saved by grace, through the saving work of Jesus Christ. You believe by grace – because God has called you to faith: "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God,” just like the disciples in our text.
In our text this morning, we hear Jesus teach in a parable – the parable of the sower. The disciples ask Jesus about the meaning of the parable and he replies, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’” Jesus says that the parables reveal and conceal at the same time. For those who have been called to faith in Christ, they reveal about Jesus and his saving work, and about life in the faith. For those who do not believe – those who reject Jesus or have their own ideas about what the Messiah should be – they are only interesting and entertaining stories.
Jesus begins the parable by saying, “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it.” We are used to seeing fields plowed and then planted with seed. But in first century Palestine, the seed was sown on the ground and then was plowed into the earth. The initial step was the sowing, as the farmer cast the seed out onto the ground. Not all of the seed would land in exactly the right place. So in this example, foot paths bordered fields or even went through the middle of them and seed could land there. Trampled by those passing, the seed was eaten by the birds.
When our Lord explained the parable to the disciples, he said, “The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.” Jesus reminds us that the preaching of the Gospel does not take place in a neutral setting. A person has one of two Lords – either Jesus Christ is their Lord or the devil is.
The devil does not want to lose those under his power. He wants to pluck the word out of the heart of the those who hear. One of the ways he does this today is by promoting a culture that believes there is no truth. He also promotes the secularism that rejects the very idea of a God who reveals himself in his Word. You know what I am talking about – you know friends and family who won’t give the Gospel any real thought, because to them the whole idea of religion and revelation is simply absurd.
Next Jesus said, “And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, and so it withered away, because it had no moisture.” Some of the seed feel on rocky soil. It did grow for a time, but ultimately there was not enough moisture in the soil to sustain it, and so the plant withered and died. When Jesus explained this he said, “And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.”
We have moved into the part of the parable that begins to describe the threats to your life in the faith. Jesus refers to a time of testing or trial. It’s not hard to look around the world and see how this is present – and how it is certainly going to get worse. I have already mentioned the general worldview of postmodernism and secularism that makes Christians appear to be stupid and foolish to the world. This presses in on us. It can wear us down.
And then there is the more overt pressure to accept the world’s views on sexuality – pressure that is only going to grow. If you think the First Amendment is going to protect your religious freedom in this country, you are deeply mistaken. Foundational biblical teaching about God’s creation of man as male and female, and his ordering for marriage as the union of a man and a woman are denied by the world. More than that, the very expression of the biblical view is labeled by the world as offensive and unacceptable. The world will eventually define it as hate speech and set up mechanisms to penalize and criminalize the truth of God’s word. If you don’t believe me, look at what is happening in Europe and Canada. As this happens will you be ready to suffer for speaking the truth? Or will it become a reason to drift away from the faith?
Next Jesus says in the parable, “And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it.” He explained this by saying, “And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.”
Our Lord’s words teach us that while faith is a gift of God’s grace, living in the faith is something for which we must take responsibility. Certainly, life in the faith is never lived apart from the Holy Spirit’s work in us, but we recognize that continued life as a child of God is also dependent on decisions and choices that we make.
Jesus sets forth the cares and riches and pleasures of life that can choke out faith. When you think about it, that’s a very wide range of threats. The cares and worries of life can cause us to cease to trust in Christ. The struggles and hardships we experience can become reasons to blame God and turn away from him.
The riches and pleasures of life include all of those things that become false gods. Sports, money and wealth, travel, hobbies, career, the freedom to use sex however I want – all of these can become things we love and trust more Christ. Like the thorns, they gradually grow and choke out faith. It doesn’t happen overnight, but if we allow things like these to be more important than Christ and his Word then they will kill faith in Christ.
Our Lord teaches us this morning, that we cannot take our faith for granted. What troubles me most as a pastor are the people who once sat in these pews and heard the Gospel, but now are not Christians. Some have explicitly rejected the Christian faith as they were seduced by the lies of the world. Some have simply had their faith choked out by the cares and riches and pleasures of life. They drifted off away from Christ as they ceased to receive his Means of Grace. Other things were more important to them, and eventually Jesus ceased to be important.
Finally, Jesus says in the parable, “And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” After hearing about all the seed that did not produce, one might think the sower was a failure. Yet the seed that fell on good soil produced a tremendous harvest.
When Jesus explained this he said, “As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word in an honest and good heart, hold it fast, and bear fruit with patience.” Those who receive the Word of God – those in whom God works faith and who continue in the faith - hear the word with an honest and good heart. We understand the amazing love and grace of God that we have received in Christ. We recognize the precious gift that we have in the Means of Grace for through them Christ is present giving us forgiveness. Through them the Holy Spirit sustains and strengthens faith.
And because we understand and recognize this, we use them – we receive them. Jesus says that there is the need to hold it fast. If we are to continue in the faith, then we must hold fast to the word by which God created faith. We must hold fast to the word because through that word God enables faith to thrive. Through the word we continue to receive Jesus and his saving work. Our Lord surrounds us with the various ways by which he gives us the word – in the reading of Scripture, in hearing the word preached, in baptism, in absolution and in the Sacrament of the Altar.
Through this word he not only sustains us in faith, but he also gives us the ability to bear fruit with patience. The fruit of faith is the life of service and love directed toward others. We seek to put the needs of others before ourselves. We help others, just as we would want to be helped. And we do this with patience because the life of faith is not a sprint. It is a marathon. It is a pilgrimage in which the way of service is a way of life. Faith acts in love, and it does so patiently day after day; week after week; year after year. It can do so because it holds fast to Christ who comes to us through his word.
We learn that when Jesus finished the parable he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” This morning our Lord calls us not simply to hear his words, but to listen and understand them. He calls us to put them into practice. He urges us to hold fast to the Word of God – to receive the Means of Grace in all of their forms for in this way Christ’s Spirit keeps us living in the faith, and we are able to bear fruit with patience.