by Pastor Cherie Dearth
After a couple week break, we are continuing our sermon series, The Kingdom, referring to the Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God that Jesus refers to. What is the importance of the Kingdom? One thing is that it is not something that we have to wait until we die to experience. We can live as Kingdom people now.
But, what does “kingdom” really mean? Most of us who have lived in some form of democracy for most if not all of our lives. We equate democracy with freedom and fairness, and we may associate rulers like kings and queens with dictators and authoritarian rule. Basically, the opposite of freedom. We may associate a “kingdom” not with England or Britain and Queen Elizabeth who we know is very rich and tries to be a great example to her people, but other than that, we are not really sure what she does. We may think of kingdoms more in the style of France’s Louis XIV. The absolute monarch who claimed to rule by divine right. That God had put him in power, so he was free to do and treat his subjects however he pleased. As far as he was concerned, the sole purpose for the people of his kingdom was to do his bidding.
Have you ever noticed that when people look into their so called past lives, they are always someone famous or someone powerful, a king, a queen, some noble person? Never are they a peasant or a serf. Serfs, you talk about someone with no rights, no power, no money. They were basically slaves by another name unable to leave the place they were born. They were effectively owned by the Lord or Lady of the Manor on the estate. They were FAR more prevalent than any of the nobility, aristocracy, or royalty. So, if I believed in reincarnation, which I do not, it would be far more likely that I was a serf, someone with no freedom, spending her whole being dictated to by others.
In a legal sense we live in a free democratic society. However, when we live by the world’s standards, we are dictated to by the rule of MORE. We are dictated to by the rule of POWER. Might makes right, and those with the most toys wins. We are less than if we are not doing what we want when we want with whomever we want. Therefore, we must have more things. Show people that we are with the powerful people or the smarter people or the powerful people. Within these groups there is an expectation to be MORE, do MORE, have MORE. We exercise our freedom to do whatever we want, but we become buried under the weight of it all. Instead of having the freedom to do what we want we are under the rule of these things, these ideas, these schedules, these idols that have come to control our lives.
When we live in The Kingdom, live under the rule of God. We live under the law of love.
Today’s Scripture is a famous parable that talks about spreading the Kingdom. We talked about parables a couple of weeks ago. We learned that parables are intended to spark our thinking. Getting us to think about things in different ways. Often Jesus let a parable stand on its own, but this time he explained its meaning. Like a map of a labyrinth. Have you ever been in a labyrinth or a corn maze? Sometimes you get lost. Can’t find your way to the center. Can’t find your way out. In this case, Jesus gives us a map to the center (NT Wright).
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 NIV
1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed.
4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.” …
18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 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. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 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. 22 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. 23 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.”
We have this very familiar parable of the Sower. The first question to think about is why does Jesus tell this parable? In the preceding chapter (and of course through the rest of the Gospel to an increasing degree), Jesus has encountered a lot of hostility to his message and preaching that the Kingdom has come near. The Jewish authorities, his family. There are throngs of people around him now as he teaches and heals people. There will be even more as he feeds them (Think of the feeding of the 5000.), but most will fall away when things become more difficult. This parable describes these different groups.
The same is true of the people we encounter when we try to share the Gospel, the Good News of the Kingdom, the message of how much God loves them and has not forgotten them. Of course, we can do this in many different ways. Verbally, talking to them, but we can also do it through our actions, through service, a kind word, etc. (cooking, gardening, building, being a friend, etc.) To some people it will be meaningless. They may even find it insulting and unwelcome. Not our favored outcome, but a true one. Some people, for whatever reason, have no interest in the message.
Some we will see what looks like an initial burst of enthusiasm but withers away, or it seems to be growing but then they are overwhelmed with things (work, school, finances) that we might consider worldly. Or, even the very things that we could and should take to God. But then … But then … there are those times, and they might be rare, those times when we someone comes alive in Christ, and their growth is exponential. They hunger and thirst for God.
None of this is a reflection on us. That can be hard for some of us to fathom. None of this is a reflection on us, the receptive or the unreceptive. If God has prepared their heart, it doesn’t matter that we may have made a mistake or said what we thought was the wrong thing. Remember what Paul admits in his first letter to the Corinthians in Chapter 2.
He says, “And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you th testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Cor 2:1-5)
The demonstration of the Spirit’s power may have been the fact that they accepted the message despite Paul’s poor delivery of it. Our job is to distribute the seed. Our responsibility is to be in relationship with people and showing the love of God to them by being a good neighbor. Our job is to be available and willing if they have questions. The rest is between them and God. God prepares the soil of the human heart. God prepares our hearts.
Sometimes when people hear the parable of the sower, they play the game of “What kind of soil am I?” It can be helpful to be mindful of whether you are letting the worries of the world choke out your relationship with God. But the truth is, if you are even asking the question, it is a good indicator that God has prepared the soil of your heart. So, it really isn’t a helpful exercise. It causes unnecessary guilt, doubt, and concern.
We have a cast of characters in this parable:
- Sower = Jesus or Believers (other spreaders of the Gospel)
- Seed = The Word or Message of the Kingdom
- Soil = Receivers of the message or Us
What is our responsibility as soil?
To develop our understanding to the best of our ability with the resources that are available. There need for understanding for the Word to thrive. Jesus says: “But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it…” (Mt. 13:23a) We have an example of this and how we have an opportunity to participate in it with the story of the Apostle Philip and the Ethiopian in (Acts 8:26-35)
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” 30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. 31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.” 34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
This gentleman had the Scriptures, and he was studying them diligently, but he realized that he needed to understand them. That was where Philip could help.
We have to remember though that God prepares the soil of the human heart. God knows what it looks like. We do not. There is a young lady, Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber. Some of you may be familiar with her books or have heard her speak. She is a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This was not always the case. Twenty-five years ago she was a drug and alcohol abuser. She is full of tattoos. Her language might have been quite colorful. She might have been doing some things that at the best might be questionable and at the worst might have been dangerous.
It would be easy to look at someone like that, and say, “There’s no way that this could be an example of good soil. I’m not going to waste my time, my effort, my resources on this person. I might even be willing to help this person get clean and sober or get a job, but I don’t want to be friends with this person. It might get messy. It might get complicated, and frankly, I’ve got enough problems of my own.”
Thank God that someone, perhaps many someones, took a chance with Nadia. Not only did she fell God’s call on her life to become a minister and follow that call. She founded a church in inner city Denver called the House for All Sinners and Saints. She reaches hundreds of people for God, people who have felt marginalized and rejected by the church and society, rejected as people who were hopelessly lost and had no way to contribute. Where Nadia’s tattoos may be off-putting in some circles, in her community they are a sign of welcome and acceptance. With Nadia, the seed yielded a crop of 100 fold, but many of us would have presumed that her seed was that which fell on the path. Who would have ever guessed? We can’t know, so we must distribute the seed liberally, spread God’s love liberally because without knowing it, we may be sowing seed that will produce that 100 fold crop. Because it takes time, we may never even see it.
What does this tell us about the Kingdom? Despite appearances, God is still in charge. The disciples didn’t look like good soil to the powers that be … like the Pharisees. They were fishermen, tax collectors, zealots (read terrorists), poor, uneducated, collaborators. When we talk about diversity or polarized opinions of what one’s relationship with the government should be, this group has all of these together as disciples.
We have our responsibility of spreading the Gospel, but if someone does not have the reaction we hope, we cannot be discouraged. We have done our part, and we don’t know how it will play out in the future. Even the seed planted in the good soil will take a while to be ready for harvest, slower than the seed planted on the rocky places that ultimately did not thrive there.
We cannot tell what kind of soil a person has/is, so we still need to spread the seed liberally – despite what the soil looks like to us. What it looks like to us is not important. What is important is how the soil looks to God. We many think that the soil is not suitable, or that it is not growing and therefore it must not be suitable, but it could be that the seed is merely waiting for water. We may never see it, but that is not our concern. We did our part.
Despite what we may think looking at the world today, there will be a harvest. We may be uncertain about the future of the church in the Western World. We may be doing all the wrong things for the church to thrive. No matter what we may do wrong, it won’t kill God or kill the church. God promises that there will be a harvest. The “Lord of the Harvest” has promised that it will be 30, 60, 100 fold.
There is a beautiful passage from the 55th Chapter of Isaiah. “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)
I get a picture of a wine-dy path of a stream as is comes down a mountain, seemingly twisting and turning at random, but that is not true at all. There is a specific cause and effect. It changes the land, and that causes the course of the stream to change.
That is how it can be with our perception of God’s plan. It seems random. It does not seem like anyone is in control, but there is a bigger picture there, one that we can’t see. One that spans millennia.
We (humanity) are like the course of that stream. We ebb and flow. We are affected by our environment as we have an effect on it. Though we cannot see the mighty ocean that we are headed towards hundreds of miles away, God knows where we are headed and what we will encounter before we get there.
For the past six years, I’ve lived in fairly close proximity to the Snake River though it’s a lot harder for me to get to here than it was when I was in Eastern Idaho. When I was on my way to Joseph from Pocatello, Idaho, I paralleled the course of the Snake River almost all of the way until Farewell Bend State Park just before Baker City.
Over that course, the character of the river is very different in different places. It almost always full of lot of bends, but sometimes there is a lot of water in it, while others it is barely a trickle, and you could easily walk across it barely getting your feet wet. In some places it fills giant reservoirs. In others you would not be sure if you could fill you canteen or water bottle with it.
No one in Eastern Idaho only seeing the Snake River there would suppose that it would flow into the Columbia River and the Gorge with its vast abundance of water and eventually empty into the Pacific Ocean. But that is the kind of scale that God sees. We may be experiencing a place on the river where it is more of a trickle than broad and flowing, but God promises that there will be plenty, full to overflowing. And we have to remember that God is in a position to know when we can only see a very small part of the river.
“[My Word] will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
Each one of us is the masterpiece of God, and we all have a place in that river of life that will go in a direction that we cannot fathom from our vantage point, a way of life in the The Kingdom. It is our job to give as many people as possible the chance to know about it wherever the course may turn.
Thanks be to God!