This sermon was a blast to study for, write, and preach. My first thought when I saw this text was, “What am I going to say about this? Christ explained it all already.” But, as is often the case, there is plenty that can be said, because the Word needs to be applied. Thus the constant and eternal need for preaching — for the Word that is sown.
In pondering this text, I noticed how violent the language was. Birds gobble, the sun scorches and burns the tender plants, the thorns choke — very vivid, active, violent pictures. We are used to thinking of a placid pastoral scene (like the one below), but there’s more to Jesus’ teaching than that — a lot more. So also the preaching of the Word is not a snore-inducing, soporific, sleepy-time exercise (at least it shouldn’t be!), but the active conveying of the vital power of God that changes hearts and saves to His people.
When you preach to farmers, you’d best know what you’re talking about with this text! A corollary to that: if you want to know about farming, ask a farmer. Farming is a worthy but oft-overlooked profession in today’s world. Yet so much of the Bible’s teaching is cast in agrarian terms, e.g. this parable. It frees the preacher, in a certain sense, because he doesn’t have to take time explaining aspects of farming or plant life that city dwellers don’t get right away. One can jump right to addressing the text to their lives.
This text is one from the historic series of readings which is also selected for year A (readings from the Gospel of Matthew.) It’s easy to see why it was used historically — it offers the preacher a wealth of thoughts to work with, a wealth of Christian admonition, comfort, and instruction packed into a few short verses. Many of the historic readings offer the preacher richer material to work with, versus the newer readings which may fit into the same part of the church year or talk about the same general ideas but don’t fit the day quite as well or convey as much as concisely or beautifully. That’s why historically those particular readings were chosen in the first place — it’s all God’s Word but some readings work better for the purpose of teaching the faith. Many times the historic readings are free of sectarian bias and teach the Christian faith more completely than newer arrangements or series of readings. I’ll be investigating this more in the future; stay tuned. As far as this sermon, I feel like I barely scratched the surface. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to do more, but this is what I could do for now. SDG.
May you humbly accept the Word planted in you, which can save you, and may the Lord of the harvest bring to fruition everything good and pleasing to Him in your life. Amen.
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.”
“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. 22 The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. 23 But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (matt 13.1-9,18-23 niv84)
Looking at our text today, I almost feel like there are many in our congregation who are better equipped to explain Jesus’ words than I am. Some of us grow things for a living. You know a lot more about weeds and plants and weather than I do. We could look at this text and think, “This needs a farmer to expound it, not a pastor.” Thankfully, the picture Jesus uses is intentionally simple and easy to understand. Even a novice gardener or someone who grew up in the city can understand it. Today we’ll do what Jesus does: we’ll follow His example through and see the spiritual meaning behind the parable of the sower and the seed. This parable has a lot to say about the way we teach our children. It has a lot to say about the way we worship, what activities we choose to do at our church, the way we do evangelism, and a whole lot more about our lives and our church. Let’s listen as Jesus teaches us how to get Great Yield from God’s Seed.
Jesus is still in Galilee as our text begins. Matthew records that He went out of the house and sat by the lake, and a great crowd gathered around Him. There’s a subtle play on words in verses 1 and 3. Jesus says the sower went out to sow the seed, just as He went out of the house to teach the people. Jesus is doing what He describes in the parable as sowing seed: He’s teaching the Word to everyone, not stopping to think about whether or not they’ll listen.
We look at the parable He tells the crowd, and right away we notice that there are a lot of details. Jesus lists three kinds of problems or dangers to the good seed, and one positive outcome. This positive outcome has three levels of yield – thirty, sixty, or a hundred times what was sown. With parables, we know that there’s always one main point of comparison and we shouldn’t press the details to look for additional truths where they’re not explicitly taught. Sometimes Jesus gives more details, as He does here, and in those cases we are right to make further applications – but we should only go as far as our Lord Himself goes. Here, Jesus gives quite a few details, so let’s look at each part of the parable in turn and apply it to ourselves.
“A farmer went out to sow his seed.” At first glance, this farmer doesn’t seem to be too good at what he’s doing. The seed ends up on the hard path, in the weeds, on the bad ground – it doesn’t seem like he knows what he’s doing. But remember this is a parable, and there’s another reality behind the picture. The sower is ultimately the Lord Jesus, and He uses us. We are the way the seed is sown. Jesus works through us as we use His Word in our lives – for ourselves, for our families, as well as those we come into contact with.
The seed that is sown is God’s Word, as we might expect. We’re used to thinking of the Word as seed, based on this and other parables of Jesus. Notice that the Word that is sown is the Word that’s heard. It’s not just the Word in general, but the preached and taught Word of God. What Jesus says in this parable applies to what’s happening right now as we listen to the sermon. Would you or I be so inclined to close our eyes and nod off at times if we kept that in mind?
Notice also that there’s nothing wrong with the seed. It’s perfectly good – it’s perfect. Yet it doesn’t always give a huge yield every time. Why not? The difference is in the soil that the seed lands on – which is the different kinds of people who come into contact with the Word. When the seed bears fruit, it’s because of the seed. When the seed doesn’t come to harvest, that’s the soil’s fault – not the seed’s. I mention this because we can easily become dissatisfied with God’s Word. We can think that it doesn’t work, or we need to add something else or combine it with something else. We don’t: it works just fine on its own. If it doesn’t seem to work, that’s because of the people we’re dealing with – not the seed itself. That being said, let’s examine how the seed is sown.
So the sower goes out and sows his seed, and the first area Jesus mentions where the seed falls is the hard path. Nothing grows on the hard-packed path, and besides, it’s easier for the birds to swoop down and gobble it up. They snatch up the seed almost before it’s hit the ground. It never has a chance to grow. Jesus teaches us that the seed along the path is the Word that is heard, but the hearer doesn’t understand. Because the hearer doesn’t hold on to the Word and pay attention to it, the devil is able to strike and steal the Word away.
The devil does this in a multitude of different ways. He does it through fear – through suddenly intimidating a person and making them afraid. He knows how to strike fear in our hearts and get us to take our eyes off God and His Word. One of the biggest ways the devil steals the Word from us is through distraction. The devil knows how short our attention spans are, and he makes sure to wave all sorts of blinking lights and flags and shiny things in front of our eyes – almost anything to get us not to think about God’s Word. You’ve probably experienced that. You sit down to read your Bible and pray, and all of a sudden you realize you have a hangnail, or the phone rings, or your belly rumbles and you need a snack. He uses whatever will work to get you not to pay attention to the Word, so he can take it from you. Things don’t usually grow in hard-packed earth, but God can make His seed sprout even there – but not if the person loses the Word or lets go of it immediately.
What’s the remedy for the devil stealing the Word from us? We need to guard the good seed of the Word by paying attention to what we pay attention to. We need to feature the good seed in our lives and in our thoughts. Consciously make time for God’s Word in your heart and in your day, and don’t let anything short of a house fire or someone bleeding take you away from it. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Ten or fifteen minutes of concentrated meditation on the Scriptures is plenty at first. You can always add more later. If you don’t understand something, ask – and keep asking until you get the answer. Keep searching the Scriptures, because they’ll help you to understand. Don’t let the devil take the good seed away from you.
Next, Jesus says that some of the seed fell on the rocky soil. The plant came up quickly, but it died off just as quickly because it had no root. This pictures the person who receives the Word and is all enthusiastic and fired up. They love what they’re hearing and they love Him. But then the road becomes more uphill, he starts to struggle, and his newfound faith is tested. In the time of testing he abandons the Word as quickly as he embraced it. Notice that Jesus says the trouble or persecution come because of the Word. The very thing that brought such joy also brings hardship and problems. The great temptation in those circumstances is to let go of the Word in order to avoid the persecution, whatever it is. If you do, then you’ve lost out on any chance to bear fruit for the Lord. This plant springs up, but it dies before it can come to harvest. This part of the parable is a warning for us. The Word always brings persecution, but if we don’t sink our roots into that Word, we won’t be able to resist and pull through the hard times.
The remedy is to know God’s Word so well and to trust in it so much that you believe what it says over the pleadings of your flesh, which urges you to abandon the Word and save yourself from the trouble of belonging to God. Sink your roots down and hang onto the promises God makes in His Word so that you can persevere in the droughts and fierce heat of this world. Let nothing move you.
Next, Jesus says that some of the seed fell among the thorns, and it started to grow – but the thorns choked it out and the plant bore no fruit. Jesus says that this represents someone who hears the Word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it. Thus the plant grows, and it grows for longer than the other two, but it doesn’t produce any fruit either. There’s no harvest.
The thorns are a long-term danger, as opposed to the birds and the rocky ground, which are more short term. The thorns can spring up at any point, and they grow quicker than we realize. Those of us who garden can attest to that. You can go outside and look at your garden, notice a few little weeds, then get busy and forget to look at your garden again for a few days or a week, and all of a sudden you’ve got more weeds than good plants. The thorns are perhaps the most dangerous threat, because they can crowd out God’s Word in our hearts slowly and gradually – and we might not realize it. The temptation to become absorbed in the cares and pleasures of this world gets worse and worse as you get older. As you go through life, you work harder, you get more prosperous, and you’re able to afford more and do more. You want to relax more and enjoy the good things more – and the thorns start to sprout and grow, silently and quickly.
The two things Jesus mentions, the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth, are really two sides of the same coin. They’re two facets of the same problem. The common factor is being too attached to the things of this world – whether you worry about them or you’re intent on chasing them, getting them, and using them. Wealth is deceitful because it promises all sorts of good things, but none of them last. None of them truly endure.
The thorns, love of the world, can crowd the Word right out of our hearts – and that’s scary. Jesus says that the seed among the thorns is unfruitful, which He doesn’t say about the other two. The plant manages to live for awhile, but there’s no fruit. The reason that’s scary is that an unfruitful faith cannot save you. This is what the Apostle James calls dead faith, faith without works. If you say you believe in God but you don’t show it by the way you live, what you say has no meaning. There must be fruit to prove that faith is alive – otherwise you’ll be cut down and thrown into the eternal fire, Jesus says. This is also the scariest of the three threats because it’s not always readily apparent that your faith is dead. The other two kinds of people don’t have the Word at all. Someone whose faith is getting choked out by the thorns still has the Word, but only in an outward, superficial way. They don’t have a living, vital faith in their hearts that produces good works, but they still think they have God’s Word, so they think they’re okay. They’re like the person who has nerve damage but can’t tell. He can hurt himself, perhaps severely, but because he doesn’t feel the pain he doesn’t notice something is wrong, so he doesn’t get help.
What’s the remedy for this? First, dig weeds. Root them out while they’re small and they won’t grow into monsters that take over your life. Be extra vigilant that love of the world’s pleasures or worries about money or finances aren’t creeping into your life. Don’t get so attached to what you own. It’s all going to burn anyway. Keep the eyes of your heart on God’s Word and Sacrament, the treasure He has stored up for you in heaven. Also, give the Word time and space to grow. Protect the good seed by giving God’s Word first place in your heart and in your life. Listen to God’s Word intently and devoutly, and then try your utmost to live it every day. “Do not merely listen to the Word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” That’s the way to bring forth fruit that will endure.
Then you’ll be able to do what Jesus describes. You’ll produce a crop yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown. I’m told that you can expect different yields from different crops. Wheat might yield you twenty times what you sow, while soybeans might give fifty times. That’s true spiritually as well. We all give different yields, because we all produce different crops – yet they’re all for the same one purpose of God’s glory. We all produce different fruits, so we shouldn’t envy someone else or judge ourselves unfavorably because someone produces something different or something more. God produces in us exactly what pleases Him and what He needs for His kingdom – and that’s all we need to remember.
Did you notice the way this harvest is produced? It’s by God’s Word. Jesus points to God’s Word as the means by which all this fruit is produced. It’s not our effort or our good intentions – it’s God’s Word working in our lives. It works exactly as our first lesson describes: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 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 way the seed grows is instructive for us. When the conditions are right, the seed grows and produces a harvest all on its own. It doesn’t need anything else except itself. God’s Word work the same way in our lives. It’s not like we only do good works when we’re consciously trying. We do good works when the conditions are right – and the conditions are God’s Word in our lives, and lots of it. When we hear God’s Word in worship, when we ponder it and study it on our own, then our lives will naturally bear fruit. We won’t have to think about it all the time or wonder if we will. We just will! God’s Word produces those good things in us.
Then we will be fruitful, happy, and content – doing what we were designed to do all along, fulfilling the purpose for which our Lord put us on this earth. What kind of a harvest of righteousness can we produce? I don’t know, but I’m eager to find out. So now, go – go and bear fruit that will last, and the Lord who gave the good seed of the Word will also give the harvest to His glory. Amen.