Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, May 25, 2018
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Fertile Soil For Growth

Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23

 One of the best things Jesus did as a teacher was to talk to people in ways they could easily understand.  All of his listeners were familiar with the image of a farmer sowing seed.  Some Bible scholars wonder if Jesus may have pointed an actual farmer sowing seed as he told the story.  

 One of the unique elements of this parable is how allegorized it is.  Now a parable and an allegory are not necessarily the same thing.  But a parable can be an allegorical parable.  A parable is a short story about everyday things that has a deeper meaning.  An allegory is a symbolic story, where each element of the story represents something else.  Most parables should not be allegorized.  You can get into trouble if you try to force every parable to be an allegory.  But in this case, Jesus tells us that the parable is an allegory.  That’s how Jesus explains it.  

 The farmer goes out to sow seed.  In first century Judea and Galilee, seed was planted by first broadcasting it over the field.  You would walk through the field and toss it here and there.  Then you would go back and plow the seed into the ground.  

 Some of it falls on the footpath.  Fields were divided into long, narrow strips with footpaths in between.  And the footpath would be too hard for the seed to take hold.  

 It doesn’t take a whole lot of traffic to make ground too hard to grow plants.  I can tell you that from my experiences in backpacking.  I’ve done a number of trips on different trails in north-central PA.  Sometimes, the footpath on those trails gets changed.  For one reason or another, they change where the trail goes.  Usually when they do that, they put logs across the old footpath to keep you going the right way, because that old footpath will endure for a long time.  I’ve been on trails where they changed the path 5 or 10 years earlier, and you can still where the old one was, even though there was no traffic on it except for backpackers.

 Some seed falls on “rocky ground” or “thin soil.”  This was a thin layer of soil over top of bedrock.  The thin soil didn’t hold enough moisture to sustain the plants during the summer. In the land of Canaan, they would only receive rain from October to April.  It didn’t rain in the summer.  And this situation was common because a lot of the land of Canaan was just not very fertile ground.  And the farmer wouldn’t know this when he was planting because in the spring, everything would be green, since that was the rainy season.  He wouldn’t know his error until later.

 Some seed fell among the weeds and thorns.  Land was usually cleared for farming by burning the weeds.  And it might look clear after the fire, but of course, the roots of many weeds would survive and the weeds would return in time.

 But some seed fell on fertile ground, and it produced a crop of 30, 60, or even 100 times what was sown.  Even a 30-fold return would be a good return.

 Later Jesus explains the parable. 

 The seed represents the gospel message, the message of the Kingdom of God.  Even when it is faithfully proclaimed, there is no guarantee it will be received.  The fate of any spoken word depends on the receptivity of the hearer.  A joke only becomes funny when it is told to a person with a good sense of humor.  Haven’t we all had the misfortune of wasting a good joke on someone who just doesn’t get it!  Likewise, not all people are receptive to the gospel message.

 The seed that falls on the hard path represents those who are unable to understand the message.  This could be those who are too proud to receive any message from someone else or those who are prejudiced against religion in general, or against Christ in particular.  It could be those who are unteachable.

 It could be those with “hardened hearts.”  Hard times often produce hardened people.  People who have endured abuse or tragedy or any kind of hardship can become hardened themselves.  They may not be able to receive grace because it doesn’t fit with their experiences.  Haven’t we all met someone at some point who just has the attitude of, “No one ever helped me out or cared about me, so why should I care about you?”  

 But it depends on the person.  There’s an old story I’ve heard about the potato and the egg.  If you put a potato in boiling water, it becomes soft.  But if you put an egg in boiling water, it becomes hard.  The same circumstances yield different results.  In the case of the egg and the potato, they have no choice, because of what they’re made of.  But we have a choice.  Hard times can make us hardened people.  Or they can soften us, making us more empathetic and gracious.  It depends on how we respond to hard times.  

 The seed that falls on thin soil represents those who hear the message and receive it, but they never develop the depth of faith to endure in the message.  They have shallow faith.  

 I worry that there are many people in the Church who fall into this category; they haven’t developed the kind of deep faith that can endure testing.  They get along fine until things get tough, and then they fall away.  When they encounter death or divorce or the loss of a job or severe illness or tragedy, their faith doesn’t last.  Worse yet, sometimes I fear I am one of those people.  I worry how my faith would respond if I were to go through difficulty.  It’s arrogant for any of us to think that we are the “good soil.”  As Paul warned the Corinthians, “Be careful if you think you are standing strong, for you too may fall!”

 It is up to us to develop the kind of deep, mature faith that can endure hard times.  And you can’t count on waiting until you need that kind of faith to develop it.  You need to be growing in your faith daily: reading the Scriptures, praying, studying, worshipping, and getting together with other believers for growth and accountability.  Do those things before you really need strong faith, and hopefully, by the time you need it, you’ll have it.

The seed that falls among the weeds represents those who hear the message and receive it, but are eventually overwhelmed by the troubles of life and the lure of wealth.  Let’s be honest, life is full of “troubles.”  I think the word concerns would be better.  We are concerned with getting an education, finding a good job, finding good relationships, nurturing children, planning for retirement, having a nice home, and so on.  Which of those things are bad?  None of them.  They’re all pretty good.  

 There’s an old saying, “Second best is always the worst enemy of best.”  Sometimes we become so wrapped up in things that are second best that we never give the proper time to the things that are best.  I think the best thing of all is to know God and have a good relationship with him.  It helps us in so many ways, and it’s the only thing that will last beyond this life.  

 I think there are a lot of people out there who want a good relationship with God.  But they are just too busy with other things.  People have told me dozens of times over the years, “I’ve been meaning to get back to church, but I’m just too busy right now.”  That’s never going to change.  God is not a luxury for people who have it all together.  God is a necessity for those of us who know we don’t.  

 We have to choose to seek God first.  God’s promise to us is that if we do seek him first, then “all these things will be added unto you.”  In other words, if you choose

to put God first, then the rest of life will come into focus.  But if you choose anything else first, you will not have God.  God won’t take second place.  “Christ will be all in all, or he will be nothing,” as the Wesley Covenant Prayer says.

 And of course, at the end, the seed that falls on fertile ground represents those who hear the gospel, receive it, and then act on what they hear.  They bear fruit.  

 How should we understand this parable?  

 First, I think we can read it as a message of encouragement to all those who proclaim the gospel.  And I hope that’s all of us, not just me!  The encouragement is that the harvest is sure.  God’s purposes will prevail.  Even if we don’t see immediate results.  

 And I find that encouraging.  I’ll be honest enough with you to admit that from time, I find myself saying, “Am I doing any good?  Is anyone listening?  Is anyone ever going to do anything with the message I’m proclaiming?”  I mean I certainly have never thought that here at Seward…  

 But ultimately, we can’t control other people.  We’re not in charge of other people.  We can only control ourselves.  I think the question all of us should ask ourselves from this parable is, “What kind of soil am I?  Am I the kind of person in whose heart the gospel message will take root and grow?”    

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