It started with a simple request: “I want you to build a raised bed for me.” Amy wanted to raise some flowers, and so Matthew and I built a raised bed, and Amy prepared it with the good soil and compost. But of course, that was not the end of it. There then followed a request for a second raised bed … and third one … and a fourth one … and a fifth one. I vaguely remember saying something after the fourth one about not building any more. But surely, I am mistaken.
Before you knew it, Amy’s Backyard Blooms was born and she was raising flowers to sell and was making bouquets. Amy has taken to this hobby with great enthusiasm. The amount she has learned in a rather short period of time is remarkable.
You can see this in the precision with which she plants her flowers. First, she diagrams out where and how many flowers she is going to plant in each area to maximize the use of space. Then the flowers are planted in rows with military precision. It turns out that different flowers are supposed to be planted with a different amounts of space around them. So, using a yard stick and tape measure, the flowers are planted in straight lines and provided with the exact spacing that particular kind of flower requires. The result is a beautiful picture of precision.
The planting method used in Jesus’ day was very different. Unlike the well prepared soil and the precision with which seeds and starter plants are placed by Amy, the planting in first century Palestine was random and ruled by chance. Seed was cast by hand out into the field, and then plowed into ground. Foot paths cuts through fields, and not all the soil was of the same quality. As Jesus describes in the parable, not all the seed fell into good soil. Our Lord uses this feature of first century Palestinian life to teach us. We receive an explanation for why some fall away from the faith, and in turn are urged to cling to the words of the Gospel.
Our text tells us that a great crowd gathered from a number of towns to hear Jesus. Jesus told them a parable. This is a word that has a rather broad range of meaning. It can include a number of different forms of speech that communicate some truth. However, this one is the rather classic form that we expect – a narrative in which various details bear a meaning that goes beyond the story itself.
Jesus described a scene that the people knew well. A farmer went out and sowed seed as he cast it out. Some fell along the foot paths that bordered and ran through the field. It was trampled and birds ate it. Some fell on rocky soil. It grew up but didn’t last and withered because it had no moisture. Some fell among thorns, and as they grew up together the thorns choked out the grain. However, some fell on good soil and yielded an abundant harvest – a hundred fold. When he was done telling the parable our Lord said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
This statement signaled that there was more here than just a story about agriculture. The disciples then asked Jesus what the parable meant. He answered, “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.’” Our Lord said that the parables revealed and concealed at the same time. To those who believed in Jesus they revealed the truths of the kingdom of God. To those who were there simply to see and experience the miracles that Jesus performed they were simply entertaining stories.
The disciples had been called to faith in Jesus. And so our Lord explained the different elements of the parable. He said that the seed was the word of God. In the very next chapter Jesus will tell the disciples, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” The word of God is the good news that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins, and rose from the dead to give us forgiveness. He is the Savior for all who confess their sin and believe in him and as the crucified and risen Lord.
Christ explained that the seed on the path are those who hear the word, but then the then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Here faith never takes place.
On the other hand that on the rock are those who hear the word and receive it with joy – they believe. But this is a superficial faith, and while people believe for a while, in a time of testing they fall away. Likewise, the seed among the thorns are those who believe. But as they live they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.
Finally, Jesus says, “As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” Here there is not just faith, but a faith that holds firmly to the word.
Our Lord’s words this morning give us important insight into the circumstances we see around us. They also provide us with instruction about how we are to live in the faith so that we not only begin but also end as believers in Jesus Christ.
The first thing we observe in our text is that the word of the Gospel does not go out into a neutral setting. The devil does not want people to believe. Those who are do not believe in Jesus Christ are under his power – he is their Lord even if they don’t recognize it. They belong to him.
And so he will use everything in his power to keep people from believing. Jesus says that the “devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.” He uses intellectual pride as people believe they are too smart to believe in “fairy tales” like that. After all, they know science and they don’t believe in anything that reason can’t demonstrate. In doing so, they refuse to consider the data of the apostles’ witness to Jesus Christ – a witness of words and deeds. And they fail to recognize that the reason operates in it own limited sphere. It cannot answer questions about what happens in death. It cannot answer questions about eternal truths. For all that it can do, reason can’t provide answers about the ultimate questions – the questions that really matter.
Second, Jesus says that there will be people who believe for a time and then fall away from the faith. Often there are those who want to blame the Church for the fact that believers fall away. We are told that the Church must be doing something wrong – as if it was the Church’s fault. But on the contrary, our Lord says that it is going to happen. We should not be surprised when believers fall away. And his explanation squarely places the blame on the individual in question.
Christ says that those on the rock believe, but that their faith has no depth. They believe for a while, but in time of testing they fall away. If faith is to survive it must have depth. It is only God’s Word that can provide this. Testing will come. It is hard to live as a Christian in this world – a world that heaps disdain on those who believe in Christ. The world praises those who don’t believe. It supports the view that there is no truth – just what is true for you and what is true form me. It castigates any who would speak of sin and God’s eternal judgment. After all, that is “not loving.” And “love,” which means the permission to do or believe anything you want, is the ultimate truth of our world.
Our Lord says that those among the thorns are those who hear the word. They believe. 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.” The cares and riches and pleasures of life are all the things in this world that compete for attention with faith in Christ. The cares and troubles of this world can lead people to doubt our Lord’s love and power. And so they decide that Jesus is no real help.
The riches and pleasures of life are the attractions of this world that compete with Jesus. These seem more rewarding, and certainly easier. Let us be clear. The belief that there are more important things to do on Sunday sets one on a trajectory that threatens the choking out of faith. Anything that regularly replaces attendance at the Sunday Divine Service has this power.
Finally, Jesus says, “As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” Note the emphasis on “holding it fast.” This means that we cling to the word of the Gospel. It also means that we study God’s Word. We have already heard about the faith that has no depth – the seed that falls on the rocky soil. To have depth of faith, we must be in God’s Word. We must read it. We must study it. Perhaps I sound like a broken record after last Sunday’s sermon. But I am simply repeating what Jesus says here. We must hold fast to the word in an honest and good heart – a heart that seeks to learn and grow. Where this is not present, we place our faith at risk.
Our Lord also says that this faith bears fruit with patience – or endurance as the word can also be translated. Faith that holds firmly to God’s word will bring forth the fruit of faith. It will forgive those who wrong us. It will seek the good of others, and place their needs ahead of our own. It will support and help those around us who are in need – those who need encouragement. Faith that bears fruit is a vibrant and living faith. It is a faith that can be patient and endure the challenges of living as God’s people in this fallen world.
In the parable of the sower, Jesus explains why some do not believe when they hear the word. He also tells us that there will be those who believe, and then fall away. We should not be surprised when this happens. We also know that our Lord is the good shepherd who leaves the ninety nine and looks for the one lost sheep. Our Lord tells us, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Those who fall away can be brought back. We pray for this. We share the Gospel with these individuals. We point them to the apostles’ witness for there they are confronted by Christ. We do this in faith with patience and endurance for the sake of the one who has fallen away.
And in our own lives, we strive to live as those who hold the words of the Gospel fast in an honest and good heart. We cling to this word by attending the Divine Service and receiving Gods gifts of the Means of Grace. We read and study God’s Word. And we bear the fruit of faith with patience and endurance. We do so knowing that Jesus Christ is the risen Lord, who will rescue us from this fallen world, and will give us the final victory of sharing in his resurrection on the Last Day.