The scripture we have read today is called the 'Parable of the Sower.' Actually, it's the 'Parable of the Soils.' It speaks not of the power of the seed or of the availability of the opportunity. It speaks of responses to the Good News Jesus had brought into our world. I want to examine with you these responses, recognize ourselves, our situation, and our possibilities.
We Americans have come a long way in researching public opinions to just about everything. Since Elmo Roper and his competitor George Gallup predicted accurately that Franklin D. Roosevelt would be elected president in 1932, opinion polls have multiplied in every area of our lives. In our current complicated and computerized society, market studies are predicting the tastes, preferences, and responses of each of us to almost every conceivable thing. We're bombarded by marketing designed to match our personal preferences. Tragically, this attitude has seeped into the way we fashion the message of God's Good News. We're tempted to present the message of God's Good News of the Kingdom by altering its content to match the current preference of the public.
Franklin Littell tells of a German pastor visiting the United States shortly after World War II. As he took his guest around to various worship services, the pastor remarked his surprise that the pews of the churches had cushions in them. That would never have occurred in the churches in his country. Then he added, "I have noticed that your sermons have cushions in them too."
The parable we are examining is not about opinions; however, it's about responses. What will you do with what you see, hear, and think?
Sometimes the seed is snatched away by activities. We live in a high-pressured, fast-tempo world. Even the people who live in a leisured world feel pressed for time and haunted by tasks to be done. Many have "two-job" lives in order to make the economic demands of their families or stay up with the social pressures of their circle. Even our children are pressed with such busy schedules because we have organized entertainment, sports, and other activities so as to fill every moment of their lives. Home becomes a place where part of the family waits for another part of the family to get home with the car so they can leave. Leisurely family meals in which conversation can take place become a part of a long forgotten Brady Bunch world. Grabbing a bite on the run or dropping into a crowded restaurant is the order of the day. It's easy to ignore the silent signals of our starving souls that they must find nourishment. God's ideas are easily elbowed out of our lives.
Sometimes they're snatched away by attitudes. If schedules were our only problem, that could be easily dealt with. However, the far more serious level is that we live in a complicated, secularized, crowded world in which religion is a subject rather than an essential way of life. Scientific discoveries in our ever expanding knowledge of the universe have demanded the stretching of our religious understanding and shattered the limited world view of other days. Organized religion has a record of trying to force a world into its world view. The sad picture of Galileo humiliated by the demands of the religious leaders of his day to recant his discovery that the earth does move around the sun has been repeated again and again through the centuries. Out of that conflict comes a cynicism that rejects the idea of taking religion seriously. The fact is that the universe makes no sense without a belief in God. Calvin Miller says it well: "Perhaps the major difference between the Christian and the skeptic is this: The Christian accepts the Mysterious God and the universe is solved. The atheist denies God and therefore lives in a mysterious universe."
Added to the intellectual forces that snatch away the seed of faith has been the picture of churches absorbed in their own little worlds, ignoring the needs of the marginalized and needy for whom Christ came. As Robert McAfee Brown termed it, "The church is like a cruise ship irrelevant and useless, sailing through a sea of broken humanity." Cynics are often disappointed idealists. There is a cynicism abroad that makes it easy for many to ignore the claims of God on their lives by finding the flaws of the church's efforts.
That picture is changing rapidly as the world shrinks and crises increase. There is a transformation in attitudes taking place. Feeding a great deal of that transformation is the involvement of believers in hands-on help for fighting disease, hunger, and denial of human rights. This is what Paul Hawken calls a blessed unrest that is producing "the largest movement in the world" while no one saw it coming. It's a movement of caring. There are thousands of organizations and coalitions all over the earth that are forming and moving without coordination or single structure. Many sources feed its streams. However, a major source is the flow of compassion fed from pulpits and pews and work forces of those touched by the Spirit of God.
A second response in the Jesus parable is that of soil that is on shallow ground. The seed springs up quickly with great promise. Then the sun blisters, the rains fall, the winds blow. Trouble arises and the seed dies.
Some of us have been caught up in the shallow ground of emotionalism. We are looking to feel good. We're like surfboard riders skimming the surface of emotional response. Shallow in understanding but ready to declare ourselves followers of the hope that the experience we've heard from others will come to us. We embrace it, revel in it, move from church to church to find it. Emotions alone are not enough. They rise and fall. The commitment demanded is deeper and therefore far more satisfying.
C.S. Lewis, the British author, was a skeptic until his encounter with God in Christ Jesus. When he told of it, he titled his book Surprised by Joy. There is joy, the joy of the lifted load. The old gospel hymn says, "At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light, and the burden of my heart rolled away. It was there by faith I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day." However true that is, the joy and happiness are the result of the act of God in becoming Lord and Master of our lives. It's a byproduct of salvation, not its purpose. Jesus did not come into the world simply to make us feel good.
A third way in which the soil fails to nurture the seeds of God's Good News is when it is covered with thorns and thistles. He calls it the "care of the world and the deceitfulness of riches." This is a far more dangerous bit of shallow ground in that the promised prosperity here on earth is in return for faith in God. Auditoriums are being packed out over the nation by preaching that God will prosper us if we only give him the chance.
The danger of this shallow ground is that it has in it some elements of truth. Richard Jackson's ministry built a twenty-thousand-member congregation in Arizona. He refused to proclaim such a prosperity gospel and decries the shallowness of the ground by saying this is the work of the great deceiver. He says that Satan is the father of the lie in John 8, but he is wise enough to deal with near truth. People will flock not to a lie, but they will flock to near truth.
Winsome speakers with entertainment and promises of prosperity are popular figures in our society; however, Jesus did not come to entertain or enrich us with worldly goods. He came to reveal the will and reign of God and calls us to demonstrate it, declare it, and bring the Good News to beleaguered lives. When he calls us to him, it is not with a palliative for our hurts but with a power to change and sustain our lives. The burdens of life are bearable with his presence. The griefs of life are dealt with by his comfort. The meaning of life is discovered by his guidance. Beware of near truth!
Jesus comes to say that the seed that finds good ground will reproduce itself in fruit over and over again. It's the ground of one who "hears the word and understands it." How does this come to us?
We face up to our needs. Sin means to miss the mark. That means that we do our best and fall short of the target. We're out of harmony with God's intention for our lives. He comes to meet us at the level of our understanding and to the depth of our need. He's constantly present in our lives and in his world. He is at work drawing us to himself.
We call for help. We accept the promise. We declare the decision. We begin the walk.
The good ground of response to the seed of the gospel is beautifully demonstrated in the experience of Helen Keller. The work of Ann Sullivan in bringing this little angry and greatly gifted child who had been made blind and deaf in early childhood in infancy has been chronicled and is a part of our nation's experience. Jonathan Edwards, the eminent pastor, was the one who explained to her the story of Jesus and the way of meeting him. She responded that she had always known there was someone like that but did not know who he was. Her life was an eloquent testimony of that fact. She tells the story of her epiphany when she had her breakthrough of understanding.
"We walked down the path to the well house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water, and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand, she spelled in the other the word 'water,' first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still. My whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers. Suddenly, I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten...a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew that W A T E R meant the wonderful, cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free....
"I left the well house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house, every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together again. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done. For the first time I felt repentance and sorry. It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys that it had brought to me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come."
Good ground! Good seed! Good news!
Father, may we discover the way to respond to you in the deep of our lives to make you the Lord of our lives, so that you're freed up to do in us all that you can do as you bring us into harmony with yourself. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.