Sunday, July 13, 2014

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither. . . so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth.

The Gospel appointed for this Sunday is the familiar parable of the sower. There will probably be many sermons preached on this text today that take the parable as an exhortation or command to be like that good soil. Don't be bad soil, be good soil. Such an interpretation misses the wider context of the Gospel. In the passages that precede and follow our text, Jesus is confronted with the unbelief of the Pharisees. Despite our Lord's works of mercy and miraculous healings, they do not believe that he is sent from God. Theirs is a stubborn refusal to believe, despite the visual evidence. On the other hand, there are wealthy individuals, like the rich young ruler, who do not want to hear the message of Jesus either, because he demands the sacrifice of all to God. I would suggest that the parable of the sower illustrates the reality of different people's reactions to the work and word of God. Jesus is not saying be good soil, but rather illustrating the facts of existence. Probably many of us have wondered how people make it through life without a belief in God. This parable helps us to understand that this the way the world is. Some receive the message; some reject it; others receive it but only superficially. Another way of summarizing our Lord's message in this parable would be: do not be surprised if people reject or stray from the Gospel message. Even in his own time—even eye-witnesses of his works—did not necessarily become disciples.

A secondary aspect of this parable is that it affirms the truth that God's word is fruitful. It is no fault of the seed that it fails to germinate and take root. The sower could be said to have some culpability for scattering seed in unfruitful places, but if the sower is really a picture of God, it shows the liberality with which God spreads the seed of his word. The Scriptures say that God has not been without a witness in every generation. Evidence of his eternity and goodness is all around us in the ordered and beautiful creation, in the power of human love and in the diversity of human creativity. Each in its own way points to God. Furthermore, once we have been awakened to matters of faith, we can look back on our own lives and see the marks of God's working even when we did not believe. The book of God's word is now and always open.

In the fifty-fifth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah, the Lord brings a message of hope to the people. He says that, as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose. The prophet was writing to a people who had gone into exile in Babylon. Having seen their homeland destroyed, their city, their temple razed, they were taken captive into Babylon, a thousand miles from everything they had known as home. The prophets said that 70 years would pass before the possibility of return to Jerusalem. No doubt their situation seemed pretty hopeless and bleak. Isaiah reminds these exiles that the Lord's word cannot be undone. He has spoken a word of new life and hope that they will return, and whatever their outward circumstances look like, God's purposes will prevail in the life of his people.
We too are a people who need to hear a word of hope and new life. If you are living and breathing, you are going through trial and difficulty. This is the nature of human existence. Your problems may feel like a wall that surrounds you, from which there is no escape. But like those Israelites, a word has been spoken over you. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10, We are [God's] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. In the Gospel of John 10:10 Jesus says, I am come that [ye] might have life, and that [ye] might have it more abundantly. Again Paul writes in Romans 8:32, He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? The Lord has spoken a word over you. It cannot be undone. We might summarize the content of this word by the statement you are a child of God. There is a homeless man and chronic alcoholic who calls on me periodically at the church, usually asking for things for which I find it impossible to refuse: some socks, a pair of shoes, a sandwich. I long ago renounced the idea that people are simply problems to fix, so I do not think any of this will solve his many problems, but I do encourage him to go to meetings and invariably I look him in the eye and tell him that he is a child of God.

This word of hope and new life is spoken over my friend and over us not because we deserve or merit it. In point of fact, these words were spoken long before we were born, before we had done anything good or bad, before we were facing any of the trials and difficulties of life. The Lord will accomplish his purposes in your life if you will surrender to him. The reason we know this is because our Lord Jesus is the Word of God. He has come to show God's goodwill towards us, to give us new and abundant life. If there is truth in the Gospel, if Jesus is who he says he is, then God's Word has been spoken once for all over us and all God's people. You have been claimed. His word will not return to him empty but will accomplish that for which he sent it.

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