Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Sower

I'm preaching on June 2 - next Sunday.  Here's what I think I'll say.

The main passage is from Luke 8:1-21, which includes the Parable of the Sower plus a couple of stories which reinforce its central message.  Supporting passages come from Isaiah 6:1-13 and 1Peter 1:17-25.

The Parable of the Sower is one of those stories of Jesus that we learnt about in Sunday School, and it's unique in being the only one of Jesus' parables which comes with its own explanation attached.  This can mean we think we understand it.  However, I wonder if we really do get it's full message, or if our familiarity blinds us. 

The story starts off with the parable itself.

4 When a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: 5 ‘A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. 6 Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. 7 Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. 8 Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.’

This illustration is a preamble to the central part of the story, which contains the heart of Jesus' message.

As he said this, he called out, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ 9 Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant. 10 He said, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that
“looking they may not perceive,
and listening they may not understand.”
Then, having made his point, he reinforces it by going back over the parable and explaining its elements.
11 ‘Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. 14 As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.
To understand what he's trying to say, we need to understand the passage he is quoting, which comes from Isaiah 6.  This is one of the pivotal chapters of Isaiah, recording the vision in which Isaiah is first called to be Yahweh's messenger.  Isaiah is taken up to heaven, sees the angels and hears them singing praises, and an angel cleanses his lips with a coal from the altar.  When Yahweh calls for a messenger he volunteers to go, and this is the message he is given for the people of Israel.
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’
11 Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said:
‘Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
13 Even if a tenth part remains in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.
This is not a cheerful message by any means.  It is a call for repentance, but Isaiah is not encouraged to hold any illusions.  The people will not listen, until their cities and lands are laid waste and they are taken into exile.  Isaiah is being sent to be a classic prophet of doom.
Yet his message is not totally without hope.  The Hebrew of the last verse is ambiguous, but it appears intended as a reminder not to despair.  The nation of Israel will be like a terebinth or an oak.  These trees can be cut down, and even burned, but they will still re-sprout and grow a new tree.  The NIV renders this message a little more clearly than the NRSV.
But as the terebinth and oak
leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.
Like Isaiah, Jesus was sent to the nation of Israel with an urgent message of repentance.  He began his ministry saying; "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."  But would the people of Israel be able to hear it, or would they be like the people of Isaiah's time and refuse the message? 
The Parable of the Sower explains how hard it will be for Jesus' hearers to receive his message.  Some will be hard-hearted and the message will make no impression on them.  Some will be shallow and timid, receiving the message but unable to stick with it when it gets hard.  Some will be distracted by other things.  Yet there will be some who hear, and the fruit they bear will more than make up for the seed that is lost.
There is a thread which runs through the Isaiah passage, the parable and into our present day, and it is the threat of looming crisis and disaster.  In Isaiah's day the people of Israel faced very real and pressing dangers.  They were being threatened by hostile empires which wanted to dominate and subjugate them.  Early in Isaiah's life the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed and its people deported by the Assyrians.  By the end of his life the Babylonians were rising in their place and represented a real threat to the southern kingdom of Judea.  They were on the road to disaster and if they didn't repent and change course, they would be destroyed.  Isaiah's message was proved correct, a few decades later Judea was destroyed and its people also sent into exile. 
After their exile the people were able to regrow their nation from the remaining stump.  By Jesus' day there was a new threat - the Roman Empire - which dominated their lives.  They were also at risk, caught between fatal compromise and outright rebellion.  They were in danger of being either subsumed or destroyed.  They needed to change their ways before it was too late.  History tells us they did not, and forty years later they were once again destroyed and sent into exile.

We face different dangers, but their urgency is no less real.  We know that the way our civilisation is going is unsustainable environmentally, economically and socially.  We are damaging the environment we depend on, we are using finite resources as if they were infinite and the gap between rich and poor is obscenely wide.  All these problems are caused by our greed and our lack of care for one another and for God's creation.  We need to repent and start to live the way God intended for us, before it is too late.

It is hard for us to hear this message.  We are often hard-hearted and self-centred - as long as we are all right we can ignore everyone else.  We are often quick to run out of steam - we can hear something, vow to take action but soon lose our enthusiasm.  We can be distracted - and no other age in history has had as many distractions as ours, so many different voices blaring in our ears and clamouring for our attention.  Many of us will hear the message, but fail to listen.  It could be that like Isaiah's hearers, or like Jesus', we fail to avert the crisis.

Yet this is not a message of despair, it is one of hope.  Just as Isaiah likened Israel to an oak or terebinth that would re-sprout, so Jesus promises that some will hear the message and that it will bear abundant fruit.  The image of a seed is one he uses often for the Kingdom of God - a mustard seed which sprouts and spreads like a weed, a seed of corn that grows of its own accord, a field in which good and bad seeds grow together.  Once the seed is sown and has taken root, it will be impossible to eradicate, no matter what happens.  With that seed, with the Word of God which dwells in us, we have no need for despair. 

Hence in the final reading we have Peter writing to "the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia."  Depending on your views of the date of Peter, these may be exiles from the earlier wars in the time of the Babylonians or the Seleucids, or they may in fact be exiles from the later Roman invasion.  Either way, these were people whose lives and homes, or those of their ancestors, had been destroyed and who had become refugees.  Yet they were living proof that life continues, that after disaster people rebuild and go on.  The exiles in Babylon asked, "How can we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?"  The answer is that the Lord is still with them, wherever they are and whatever happens to them, and his word is still alive.
22 Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.  23 You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.  24 For
‘All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
25 but the word of the Lord endures for ever.’
We may fail, but the Word will not.  It will continue to be made available to us, even after the impending disaster.  The severed oak will still sprout, the seed will still produce grain if it falls on good soil.  So to finish I have composed a prayer.
Lord, it is hard for us to listen to your word.
We are often hard-hearted and refuse to listen
We are often shallow and run out of energy.
We are easily distracted and lose focus.

Help is to leave behind our hard-heartedness
our shallowness
our distractibility
and listen to your word for us in our time

Help us to bear the fruits of repentance
to abandon the things that harm and destroy
to do the things that heal and build.

When we fail
help us to listen again
and repent again.

Thankyou that your word endures forever
that you make it available to us in all times and places
and that your love for us never fails.


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