Sunday, July 13, 2014

Growing a Crop on the Family Farm: a sermon for July 13th 2014 on Matthew 13:1-23

I’ve been interested in evangelism ever since I was a young teenager, when I was evangelized myself by my dad. Yes, I’d been brought up in a Christian family, and yes, I’d been taken to church every week, and yes, I believed in God and I’d never really rebelled against my church upbringing. But to tell the truth, I wasn’t really that interested in it, and God certainly wasn’t personal to me. I never thought of myself as being in a relationship with God, and there were many things in my life that were more important to me than Jesus Christ.

As I said, I was evangelized by my Dad. He knew I liked to read, so he lent me Christian books, and one of them was very influential for me. It was called Nine O’clock in the Morning, by Dennis Bennett, a story of an ordinary Anglican priest in the late 50’s and early 60’s who experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in a remarkable way in his life and ministry, including miracles and healings. It got my attention, because it told of a real living God who did real things in people’s lives. So I got curious, and went into a process of searching that I won’t describe in great detail right now, except to say that it led to an evening in March 1972 when my dad said to me, “You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?” And he was right, and that question was the tool that the Holy Spirit used to help me begin a conscious walk with God. I remember going to my room that night, sitting on my bed, and praying a simple prayer giving my life to Jesus. Not long after that, my dad gave me a little booklet that taught me how to have a daily time of praying and reading the Bible, and so I got started on a habit that’s been with me now for over forty years.

That’s how I was evangelized, and it was a wonderful thing for me. I found a real relationship with God that changed my life, and I was keen to pass this on to others as well. I was quite open with my friends about what had happened to me, even though I was a shy young teenager, and a couple of years later my best friend began to get curious. We were both guitarists and I had invited him to play guitar in the worship band at our church. He had never been a churchgoer, but some of his other friends went to our church too, and so it wasn’t hard for him to slip into the community. Eventually the time came when he decided he wanted to be a Christian too, and since he’d never been baptized, I got to stand beside him on the day when, at the age of sixteen, he gave his life to Jesus in baptism.

So I’ve been on both sides of this process. I’ve been the soil that the Word of God is planted in, and I continue to be that soil today, as I read the Bible and think about it and try to put Jesus’ message into practice. And I’ve also been a sower of the seed, sharing the good news with others and hoping for a harvest. All farmers hope for a harvest, of course. Stan Rogers had a great line in a song he wrote about farming: ‘Watch the field behind the plough turn to straight dark rows, put another season’s promise in the ground’. That’s what we Christians are called to do: put another season’s promise in the ground – in other words, plant seeds of the Word of God wherever we can, in the hope that some of them will come up and we’ll have a good harvest.

But of course, that doesn’t always happen. I have talked about the good news of Jesus with many, many people over the years. Some have not been interested at all, and some have been interested, but not ready for a commitment. Some have just been too busy to add one more thing to their lives, and some have responded and turned to Christ in faith. That’s the way it goes: the seeds are scattered, some of them bear fruit, and others don’t.

This was Jesus’ experience too. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is describing his own ministry; he’s been travelling around Galilee and Judea, scattering the seed of the Word of God – that is, sharing the message of the Kingdom and calling people to put their faith in him and to follow him. Huge crowds have been attracted by his healing miracles, and have stayed to listen to his teaching. But, contrary to what people often think, the response to his preaching isn’t always a stunning success story.

Some people hear the message and can’t make sense of it; Jesus says that it’s as if the devil comes and snatches it away from their hearts, and so they don’t believe.

Some people are wildly enthusiastic about the message when they first hear it; they seem to be thoroughly converted and follow Jesus enthusiastically. But after a while they start to run into opposition, and perhaps even persecution, because of their newfound faith in Jesus. They hadn’t bargained for this; they thought it was going to be plain sailing all the way, and so they get discouraged and give up.

Some people hear the message and believe it, but they’ve got too much else going on in their lives, and their love for their material wealth is like a chain around their hearts. So the word of God doesn’t produce a harvest in their lives; there are too many weeds growing up along with it, and the weeds drain the life out of the soil.

But some people hear the word and understand it, and put it into practice in their lives. The word bears fruit in them; their lives are transformed and they are able to share the message with others also.

Let’s think of this parable from two points of view. First, let’s see ourselves as the recipients of the seed of the Word; how do we make sure that we are like the good soil that bears a rich harvest? Second, let’s see ourselves as joining Jesus in the business of scattering the seed of the Word. What might we learn about that work from this story?

How do we produce a rich harvest in our own lives? Jesus tells us that we do this by paying attention, by listening carefully to what he has to say, thinking it through and working out what it means for us to practice it.

In verse 9 Jesus says, ‘Let anyone with ears listen!’ As you know, not all listening is attentive listening. A runner says “I was listening to my mp3 player while I was jogging’; a mother says, “My three-year old just won’t listen to me!” They aren’t describing exactly the same kind of listening, are they? Jesus calls us to a careful and attentive listening to him. He says, “But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, in another thirty” (v.23). This is not just hearing the words of Jesus as background noise; this is pondering them, thinking through how we might actually obey them in our daily lives, and then putting them into practice. If we do this, Jesus says, we will produce a wonderful harvest.

So we have to think carefully about Jesus’ teaching and what it might mean for us to live by it. For instance, what would it mean for us to be so habitually truthful that no one would ever think of asking us to swear an oath; they’d just know that we never lie? What would have to change for us to obey Jesus’ teaching about turning away from anger and loving our enemies? What would our lives look like if we truly did not store up for ourselves treasures on earth, but concentrated instead on the kingdom of God and his righteousness? When Jesus tells us to sell our possessions and give to the poor, how do we put that into practice in a world where we need to provide for our families in a cold northern climate?

There are legitimate questions and disagreements about the meaning of Jesus’ teaching, and so we need to think hard and pray honestly about what obedience might look like in our daily lives. What is not an option for us, if we’re Christians, is to say, “I just never think about obeying Jesus in that area of my life”. Remember what happened to the foolish man who built his house on the sand? And Jesus says that the foolish man represents the one “who hears these words of mine and does not act on them” (Matthew 7:26).

So much for our responsibilities as the recipients of the seed of the Word. Now, what about when we take our place on the other end of that process – when we join Jesus in the family farming business, so to speak, helping him to spread the good seed of the Word of God? In the parable, of course, Jesus was talking about his own ministry, but at the end of the gospels he tells his church to join him in this work; he calls all of his followers to go out and spread the good news, to make new disciples for him, and to teach them to obey his commandments. To him, this is part of the normal Christian life.

There are many different ways to be a witness for Christ. Thankfully, God doesn’t call everyone to go up to total strangers on the street and ask them if they’re saved! We’ve been created with different temperaments, and there are ways of being witnesses that ‘fit’ for us.

Perhaps you put a church calendar or a Christian poster up on the wall of your office. Maybe one day someone makes a comment or asks a question about it, and you share briefly about what it means to you.

Or perhaps a fellow-worker finds out that you are a Christian and goes out of her way to tell you that she thinks Christianity is an emotional crutch for weaklings. You listen and you say that you have known others who shared that opinion. Then you go out of your way to care for that person, not because you’re trying to prove her wrong, but because you have a hunch she needs some extra love in her life.

Or perhaps, in conversation with a friend, both of you are talking about difficult times you have gone through. You don’t try to pretend that Jesus took all your pain away, but you do say a bit about the help you found in your faith and your church.

Or maybe a friend shares with you that her daughter’s new baby has some serious health issues. You reply, “Would it be okay for me to pray for them?” By the way: if you’ve never done this, you will be totally amazed at how appreciative most people are when you make this offer! This is perhaps one of the easiest ways for most Christians to start sharing their faith with others, and over time it can lead to all sorts of opportunities for conversations about God.

Or perhaps a friend who knows you are a Christian asks you about Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and other books like that by well-known atheists; don’t those books prove that the Christian faith isn’t true? You tell your friend that you don’t know much about it, but you’ll try to find out. So you ask your trusty parish priest to recommend a couple of good books on the subject, and then you get together with your friend again and talk about what you’ve learned.

You see, these are all examples of ways in which we can help to scatter the seed of the word. We aren’t responsible for results; as Paul says in one of his letters, “I planted the seed, someone else watered it, but God is the one who made it grow”. And believe me, if you start being more intentional about scattering the seed of the word, you are going to see some of those seeds growing!

Of course, not all of them are going to come up, and not all of the ones that come up are going to last. Every gardener knows that. We plant peas or beans, but not every seed produces fruit, and not every pea or bean plant survives to produce a harvest. In the same way, not every conversation we have with a friend leads to a new disciple for Jesus, and not every new disciple of Jesus sticks with him forever. But some do, and for them the result is tremendous blessing.

Let’s go round this one last time. Jesus is in the farming business, sowing the seed of God’s word in people’s lives. The purpose of the seed is to produce the blessing of a good harvest – the transformation of lives by the love of God, and the sharing of that love with others so that they too can experience God’s transforming power.

So let’s receive the good seed of the Word of God, and let it produce a harvest in our own lives. Paul says, ‘the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control’ (Galatians 5:22-23). Those are good things, aren’t they? Those are wonderful things; I’d love to be that kind of person, and to live in a world full of that kind of people. And Jesus tells us that the way to do that is to listen carefully, to try to understand his message, and to learn to live by it. Let’s resolve to bring forth that kind of good fruit in our own lives, with the help of the Holy Spirit.

But the other side of this is that we, too, need to be scattering the seeds of the Word of God. In our daily lives we have all sorts of opportunities to speak a word for Christ, and I’ve given some examples of ways we might do this. There are many other ways as well. One of the most wonderful experiences a Christian can have is to speak the right word at the right time to the right person, and see that word starting to bear fruit in people’s lives. I’ve had that experience, and if you haven’t had it, then let me encourage you to start looking out for opportunities to spread some seed around. Believe me, the Holy Spirit will use the words you speak in the most unexpected ways, and the harvest will be wonderful! So, as Stan Rogers would say,
‘Watch the field behind the plough turn to straight dark rows,

Put another season’s promise in the ground’.

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