I won’t do this weekly, but I thought I’d share with you my first sermon back in the Offerings Community. You can download it or listen to it online here. If you’re interested in getting our weekly updates, subscribe to the iTunes podcast.
If you prefer reading rather than listening, the original manuscript is below. The printed and spoken versions are quite different. The manuscript is to help me think clearly, not for reading. I leave it at home on Sundays. There were some late additions and some parts left out for the sake of time.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 — The Soils
A few months ago, I was talking with a friend who told me he’s not a Christian anymore. He had two main reasons:
First, he said, “There’s this girl in my class at school who’s really active in the church. But she’s one of the rudest people I know. And then I have a lot of other classmates who are atheists, and they’re much kinder people. In general, I don’t see any real difference between people who are Christians and people who aren’t. It doesn’t seem like being a Christian changes them at all. They just go to church more. I guess I don’t see the point if nothing changes.”
After that, he said, “Here’s the other thing… If Jesus was really God, it seems like more people should have believed it. But most of the people who lived back then didn’t believe it. If they couldn’t believe it then, and they saw him, why should I believe it now?”
My friend was asking how Christianity matters. Surely something this valuable would change lives. The people who have it would look different from the people who don’t. And surely anyone who came across it would want it.
I think the parable we’ll see below has some of those questions in mind. Just a chapter before in the gospel, you see a bunch of people denying Jesus—actually saying he’s doing things as the work of the devil. And as soon as this set of parables ends, we see more people denying him and offended at him.
How could people be so close to Jesus and yet so blind to who he is? How could people hear his words and be in his presence and remain unchanged?
Jesus tells a farming story that I think begins to answer these questions. I think it has a lot of warnings for us today, but also a lot of hope.
I. The Parable of the Sower
Let’s look at Matthew 13:1-9:
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
You may not need any explanation of this. I’ve planted about a dozen seeds in my life. And most of them died soon thereafter. So for the sake of anyone like me––any of us without green thumbs––let’s take just a minute to understand this.
First—what Jesus describes here is pretty unremarkable. This is just how farming life goes. You sow seed. Some of it doesn’t grow. Some grows in the wrong places. Some grows but never bears fruit. And some actually produces a crop!
The first time I heard this story, my first thought was about the farmer. “That farmer needs to be a bit more careful with his seed sowing.” I was thinking it went something like this.
How do seeds end up in so many of the wrong places? But apparently, it probably would have worked more like this.
That man, by the way, is not an ancient Israelite.
A. Seed falling on the path
So Jesus says the first seed fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. What’s probably in people’s minds here is a little footpath that would mark a boundary line, or a place for farmers to walk between the crops. Maybe a smaller version of this…
That path has been walked on over and over and over. The dirt is packed down solid. And when you go to plow the other seed in, this part goes unplowed. So seed just sits on top of the hard-packed soil until crows or ravens come gather it up.
B. Seed falling on rocky ground
Then there’s that next seed that falls on rocky ground. It might be falling on ground that looks like this.
On top, there’s soil. It might even look like a good spot for things to grow. But not far underneath, there’s a limestone bedrock. What happens then, is in the earlier days of summer, that soil heats up more quickly because it’s shallower. And the seeds spring up more quickly because of it.
This is like fool’s gold for people like me, who don’t understand farming. Pop quiz for all of us: Which way do seeds grow?
My ignorant, quick response would be “Up! Seeds grow up!” But you green thumbs know how this actually works. Seeds grow up and down—they grow shoots up and roots down. And if the roots aren’t growing almost as much down as the shoots are growing up, we have a problem. Here’s a diagram of a full wheat plant.
That diagram actually comes from a big study on wheat, where they concluded something important, if not too surprising:
“Examinations at several periods during its growth showed clearly that the root system developed in correlation with the aboveground parts, for it was only in this way that the increasing demands of the developing shoot for water and nutrients could be met.”1
So in the shallow soil, those early, fool’s gold shoots spring up. But then in the real heat of the summer, the roots just haven’t gone deep enough to handle it, and the plant withers. What starts with such promise ends without any fruit.
C. Seed falling among thorns
And then there’s the seed that falls among thorns. What was the problem with the last one?
It grew up—but it didn’t grow down enough. Lots of shoots, shallow roots.
This one has the opposite problem. It can grow roots, but the shoots get choked out. They don’t produce fruit.
D. Seed falling on good soil
And then there’s this last seed that falls on good soil. And it makes it all worthwhile. Because for all the seed that doesn’t bear fruit, this produces a crop that yields a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.
Some people read this and call that a miraculous yield—something a farmer would never expect. Other people read it and say, “No… that’s pretty typical.” This is just describing how it usually works
That’s the interesting thing here. Some people might have listened to all of this and said, “Okay, thanks for the story about everyday life.”
It might not have been much different than me saying to you, “A man got in his car and drove to work. Some lights were green, and he went. Some lights were red, and he stopped. Other lights were yellow, and… he used his best judgment.”
It doesn’t seem to be a spectacular story. But Jesus gives a clue that more’s going on in verse 9—“Whoever has ears, let them hear.” That’s usually a signal for, “I just told you something important!”
So what does it mean? We’re lucky — because Jesus explains it…
II. The Parable of the Sower Explained
Look down a few verses—to verse 18. Jesus says,
“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
First of all, what does Jesus compare to the seed?
The message about the kingdom. In this book of Matthew, Jesus keeps talking about the kingdom of heaven—how it has come near—how God’s kingdom is coming to earth. (That’s the prayer, right? “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”) In fact, all of the other parables we’ll look at are going to focus on what that kingdom is like.
It’s interesting to see what’s assumed in this story.
This little seed is a good seed. It’s latent with life. It’s quite a miracle, isn’t it, that this little thing can turn into this?
So whether it’s typical or not, to yield thirty times what was sown, it’s still a miracle to me. Show a kid that process for the first time, and they’re amazed! I wish I could never lose my childlike wonder about things like that.
Now sometimes in real life, there’s a problem with a seed. There’s a dud seed. But in this story, the problem is never the seed. The seed is always good. The message about God’s kingdom is always good. Always capable of producing life—a great harvest. There’s no question about the seed. The question is always what kind of soil it finds.
A. The seed falling along the path
So Jesus says the first seed—the one that falls along the path—is about someone who hears and doesn’t understand.
I’ve struggled with this idea before. “How could someone miss the kingdom of God simply because they don’t understand it?” There’s been something that doesn’t sit well with me about this. I’ve always thought about this understanding in terms of what someone can comprehend. And after the year we just spent in Spain, let me tell you, I have a new compassion for people who can’t comprehend things.
I would stand at the meat counter in the grocery. And I wanted to understand what that guy was asking me, but ended up just staring at him… When I didn’t understand, what happened? I accidentally bought six pounds of ground veal, rather than six pounds of ground meat. Ahhh… that’s why he thought it was an unusual order. (That one hurt—veal’s expensive!) But how could someone miss the kingdom of God just because they don’t understand?
There’s a really important conversation that happens in between our parable and Jesus’ explanation of the parable. I think it shows that I’m thinking of “understanding” the wrong way here. If you look up a few verses, you’ll see the disciples come to Jesus and ask why he speaks to the people in parables. And Jesus replies, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.” He actually quotes the prophet Isaiah about them:
“ ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’”
What is causing them to not understand? Their hearts have become calloused! They hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Any of you who have spent some time with a three year-old: what do they do when you try to tell them something they don’t want to hear? [Close eyes tight, put hands over ears]
This isn’t about mental comprehension, this is about understanding with the heart. And if someone is determined not to hear and see and understand, then they won’t.
An example—back in 1847, there was a doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis who discovered that when doctors washed their hands before delivering a baby, a lot less women died after giving birth. He ran tests, he had plenty of evidence, it was a no-brainer. “Wash your hands!” But the medical community rejected it. A lot of them actually were insulted. They refused to believe a “gentleman’s hands could transmit a disease.” It took 20 more years (and a lot of senseless deaths) before hospitals adopted the hand-washing procedure. It wasn’t a matter of facts—they had all of those. It was a matter of pride, a sort of hardness of heart, hands over ears and eyes clenched closed.
A more personal story… I was talking with someone a few years ago who had one of the deepest struggles with God that I’ve seen. Every time we got together, she peppered me with questions about God the whole time. “How can I know that God is good? I don’t want to trust God until I know.” “How come God hasn’t shown me a sign—something that makes me know he’s real and he cares about me?” And after a while, she would say she just was too tired of it and didn’t want to think about being a Christian anymore. And then five minutes later, she would start in on a whole new set of questions. At one point, I asked her, “Is it really more proof of God that you need? Is that really what’s keeping you from faith?” And she said something I wasn’t expecting. She said, “I think I have a hard heart. I think all of the bad things that have happened have made my heart hard.” It was like we were watching this seed constantly placed on her heart, then snatched away by the evil one—over and over and over. Her heart had become so calloused that it could never sink down in.
In the book of Ezekiel, God talks about a time when he’ll bring the rebellious Israelites back to their land. He says, “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God.” But then there’s also this warning: “But as for those whose hearts are devoted to their vile images and detestable idols, I will bring down on their own heads what they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD.”2
So a question for us today: is your heart hard? Is it possible that this great invitation into God’s kingdom—to be God’s people, to follow his decrees and keep his laws—is there a chance that message is falling on hard soil? Is there a chance that all of the logical and philosophical questions aren’t really about logic and philosophy, but a hard heart? If this describes you, can I urge you to pray and ask for prayer? The friend I mentioned has experienced so much hurt that she doesn’t want to give anyone else her trust. But in the process, she’s denying the one who could start to bring some healing. Those doctors didn’t want to start washing their hands because their pride rejected any notion that they could be dirty. But when something is a matter of life and death, we have to let go of our pride.
And if someone in your life fits this description: three things. First, pray for them. Pray for a softening of their heart, for them to open their eyes just a bit and take the hands off the ears. Second, keep showing them love. You may be as close as they’ll let God get to them. Show them God’s love. I believe it has the power to soften a hard heart. And third, keep sharing the message of God’s love with them. Keep scattering that seed. You may not know when someone’s heart is open and receptive to that message. Don’t give up.
I hope we’ll take those same three points as a church community. We know that some of our invitations are going to land on hard soil. Let’s not get discouraged by that. Let’s keep praying for our community. Keep scattering. Keep inviting. And let’s trust that God is at work preparing hearts—even when we don’t know it.
B. The seed falling on rocky ground
Okay, let’s move on to the next seed—the one that falls on rocky ground. This is the one who hears the word and at once receives it with joy, but since they have no root, when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.
Interesting note—Jesus actually uses the same word here twice. They at once spring up, and at once fall away. Same word. Both happen almost instantly.
Okay, again, which way does a seed grow?
Up and down. I think we can miss that just as easily about our faith as I missed it about farming. We can get all fired up and go out to change the world, but it’s not sustainable without roots. At pastors’ conferences, we hear a lot of people warn about burnout—“quit going out with your hair on fire to change the world when you’re not taken care of yourself.” But we do it, because we’re in such a rush to produce. Because there’s so much to do. Because, well, the shoots are flashier than the roots.
Without deep roots, though, when the heat is on, these people abandon their faith as quickly as it sprung up.
Now, we don’t make ourselves grow. God does that. Actually, notice what grows here. The seed! The seed grows! Maybe the language about us growing is the wrong language in the first place. Maybe it would be better to talk about how the gospel grows in us.
And I believe God has given us certain practices—things to do, places to put ourselves, ways to live—that allow the gospel to extend deep roots into our lives. Some people call these practices “means of grace.” They’re things that allow us to receive God’s grace.
First, the Church itself is a means of grace. These roots grow deeper as we become part of a community of love and forgiveness—a community of people who will challenge us, ask us hard questions, and keep loving us throughout. This popular notion today that you can be a Christian all on your own—I think it’s messed up. It’s not how we’re made to do it. It’s the kind of shallow soil that puts you in a position to wither quickly as soon as trouble comes.
There are other things, too—praying, reading Scripture, receiving communion, and fasting to name just a few. Are you finding time for these things? Without them, I think the gospel’s roots remain shallow in us. I think we get set up for easily falling away. This is why, in our catechesis groups, we ask each other week after week about Christian practices or means of grace.
When we think about evangelism—sharing the gospel with people—I think this has something really important for us, too. In America, we’re still at a point that if you do a survey about faith or religion, most people will say they’re Christians. In an extensive survey in 2007, 78% of all adults said they were Christians. A whopping 1.6% said they were atheists, and another 2.4% said they were agnostics.3 We are a Christian nation—at least in name. But I wonder how deep most of that soil is. If evangelism is really about making disciples of Jesus—people who are devoted to following him—I think most of the work that we would call “evangelism” today is with people who say they’re Christians, but there’s not much there. It would be hard to say that the gospel is really taking deep root in their lives.
I think this part of the parable is a good caution for us as a church, too. As a community, we’re having lots of talk about moving into a new location, and with that comes a lot of things that we can be doing. I’ve seen whole churches get so focused on what they’re doing that they lose their roots. As a community, the bigger we grow up—the more ways that we reach out and serve in our community—the deeper we need the gospel’s roots to grow in us. We need to constantly be coming together around God’s word, receiving communion together, meeting together in our catechesis groups to encourage and challenge and comfort. If we lose those things, all the rest will wither with the first sign of trouble.
C. The seed falling among thorns
Let’s consider the next seed for a minute—the one that falls among thorns. Now this is interesting. The plant grows, right? It develops roots. It develops shoots. The plant survives, at least for a while, but there’s no actual fruit. Some other translations call the plant barren, or they say it produces nothing. Because what chokes it out??
The worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth.
Some questions… Do you have worries? Do you have anxieties? Is there a conversation in the past—or some imagined conversation in the future—that you keep coming back to? Or a personal offense? Or a certain goal or achievement that you’re not going to rest until you attain?
Or let’s ask ourselves this—is wealth deceiving you in any way? Some people say, “I don’t know. I’ll tell you when I’m wealthy.” Because almost all of us think “wealthy” is what someone else is, not us. That might be the easiest way it deceives us in the first place. You may have heard of John D. Rockefeller—he’s considered to be the wealthiest person in history. When you consider inflation, he was about 10 times wealthier than Bill Gates. A reporter asked him, “How much money is enough?” And he said what a lot of the rest of us think: “Just a little bit more.”
I think that’s the deceitfulness of wealth. How much is enough? Always just a little bit more. It can make us greedy to gain more and stingy about giving it away. It can make us compromise values when patience and kindness and honesty get in the way of making more. Or when family and friends and faith and the church get in the way of making more.
The worries of this life… the deceitfulness of wealth… they can choke out any good fruit because there’s always something more to do for ourselves. At some point, we have to find a way to cut those thorns down from around us. We have to ask God for some help removing those.
One of the things I think can start cutting back against those thorns — Serve. Find someone or somewhere to serve. And commit yourself. Commit to something regular and on a schedule. And keep showing up. Show up when you don’t feel like it. Show up when you have other things you want to do.
One of the things that comes with wealth is that we can go more places and we can do more things. And that commitment to show up at the same place at the same time each week or month or two months can really get in the way. But I think it also can be life and fruit. We keep serving, and we’re slow to change those plans, even when our own cares and wealth could drag us away to something else. Now this isn’t the burnout sort of hair-on-fire not-taking-care-of-yourself serving. But it’s being honest about our priorities. If our own success and wealth and pleasure are our top priority, we probably just won’t ever get around to serving someone else—surely not in that disciplined, inhibiting sort of way.
This is where maybe we need people around us to know the difference, too. When are you not serving because you’re already doing plenty and you need rest? And when are you not serving because you’re just being selfish?
And again, I think we need to keep this in mind as a community. We have a bigger budget than we did a few years ago. We’re actually on the hook for making budget on our own now. A lot of churches run the risk of becoming selfish—overly concerned about their own needs and desires—and forgetting the world around them. How will we find those regular, disciplined ways to keep serving?
D. The seed falling on good soil
And then, finally, there’s that good soil—the person who hears and understands and produces a great crop. This is life. It’s what we’re made for. Deep roots; tall shoots; lots of fruit.
I told you at the start about a friend who said he couldn’t believe the gospel anymore. He saw too many Christians who looked no different from the rest of the world. He could have said, “I don’t see fruit coming from these people.” And he didn’t understand why everyone didn’t receive Jesus as the Messiah when he first came.
Jesus seemed to anticipate all of this. Not everyone will receive this word. Some have calloused hearts—it’s like they have their eyes clenched closed and their hands over their ears. Some don’t really take the message in. The hardness isn’t right on the surface—it’s just underneath. And some are just too concerned about their own lives, their own desires, their own wealth, and all of those things choke out any fruit the gospel should produce in them.
But none of that says anything negative about the gospel. The gospel is always good, always latent with life and capable of producing a great harvest. The question: will it find a suitable environment for growth? Will it find a receptive heart—ready to understand and believe and live out the Christian faith?
The seed in this parable is the message about the kingdom. Ultimately, though, I believe this seed is also Christ himself.
In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”4
Christ is the kernel of wheat who fell to the ground and died to produce a great harvest. And he produces that harvest in us! Will we receive him? Will we allow his life to grow up from within us, in such a way that we can say, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me”?5
Every week when we come to communion as a church, we pray that God would pour out his spirit on these gifts of bread and wine and make them for us the body and blood of Christ, so that we might be the body of Christ for our world, redeemed by his blood. The call to communion asks much the same as this parable asks us. Will you come openly and receive Christ? Will you take his life in and allow it to form deep roots? And will it be his life emerging out of you to produce a great crop?