Have you ever seeded a new yard with grass seed? You put the seed in one of those spreaders with the rotating wands underneath, so as you walk along the yard the seed is dispersed in a circular pattern around the spreader. You basically spend most of the day walking around, with the spreader sowing the grass seed. But, because of the way the seed is spread, some of it falls on the soil, some of it falls in the planting beds, and some of it falls on ground that’s kinda rocky, and some of it falls on the sidewalk and driveway. So, at the end of it you have seed everywhere and you break out the hose and start gently watering it.
Now, the seed that falls on the driveway or sidewalk won’t spout, no matter how much water you give it, because it has no soil in which to take root, and so the birds come and eat the seed. The seed that falls in the planting beds may sprout, but is usually overcome by the many weeds that often inhabit the beds. The seed that falls on the rocky ground may grow for a little while, but then tends to get swept away by the wind or rain, because they haven’t taken root. But, the seed that falls on the good soil grows and eventually produces a nice green yard.
This is basically what Jesus is saying in his parable in Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23. He uses his parable to illustrate the work of God and the impact of God’s Word on four different types of people. God is the sower who sows His Word in the world. And He does this through the preaching of His Word and the administration of His Sacraments. For the Sacraments are God’s Word made visible. The Sacraments are giving us the same thing that the preaching of the Gospel is giving us. The Sacraments are God’s Word of promise attached to a visible element, such as the waters of Baptism and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. These are the means of God’s grace through which He has promised to act. He calls pastors to preach His Word and administer His Sacraments so that His Word may be given to all people. And through this preaching and administering, God’s Word is sown in the hearts of people.
This is the way that God has promised to act. As He said through the prophet Isaiah:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there 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 out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).
God has promised to act through His Word. And His Word is double-edged: He kills with His Law and makes alive with His Gospel. Every week, in congregations of Christ’s Church across God’s creation, God is killing and making alive through the divine service. He is killing us as sinners, putting to death our old selves, but then making us alive again through Christ as new creations in him. For our God is not far off, but is here in our very midst through Word and Sacrament. We call this the divine service, because He is here acting among us. And He has promised that His Word will not return to Him empty, but shall accomplish that which He wills.
But, there are four classes or types of people who hear God’s Word, as explained by Jesus in his parable.
The first class consists of those who hear His Word, but do not understand it. It’s like when you throw seed on concrete, it kinda bounces off and then sits on the surface of the concrete, but never penetrates. And so birds come and take the seed away. Likewise, with some people you can preach the Word to them, you can walk them through the Bible, you can explain things to them, and you can proclaim God’s grace through Christ, and yet they don’t believe.
And so despite the intense smattering of God’s Word that is dropped on them, it never sinks in, and so Satan comes and takes it away from them so that they do not come to faith. He snatches the Word away through what the business world often calls FUD – Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. Satan spreads fear – fear that God is not gracious, fear that God is holding something back from us, fear that God is not good. Satan also spreads uncertainty – uncertainty concerning whether Christianity is true, uncertainty concerning the teachings of the Church, uncertainty concerning the Bible, uncertainty concerning the exclusivity of God’s saving actions through Christ. And Satan also spreads doubt – doubt in God’s Word, doubt in who Jesus Christ is, doubt in whether God exists. In all of this, Satan’s goal is to make sure that God’s Word does not take hold, and some people succumb to this fear, uncertainty, and doubt, because the Word never took root in them.
The second class of people who hear God’s Word consists of those people who are as rocky ground. They hear the Word and receive it, sprouting into faith, but later lose their faith when the scorching of trials and tribulations come. These are the people that may initially run very hot; they are excited, motivated, and eager. They may seem to have a great active faith, but, they have no root in themselves; they have placed too much emphasis on the emotional and experiential aspects of the faith.
What I mean is that those of the rocky ground feel that God loves them as long as things seem to be going well. They thrive off of the experience of faith and what they feel as God acting in their lives – relishing in the emotions, feelings, and apparent blessings of faith. This is what we would call the “theology of glory.” The rocky ground thinks that when things are going well, it’s a sign that God is blessing us and when things are going poorly, then God is punishing us. So, when tribulation or persecution comes, they lose the Word, because they were never really rooted in the faith. They had a false faith that was focussed on what God can do for them; God was an idol to them, expected to reward them for their faith and works. And so when trials and tribulations come, they fall away because they were never actually worshipping God as He has revealed Himself to us through Christ. Instead, they were worshipping their own idea of how God should be.
The third class of people are like the seed that is sown among the thorns or in the planting bed. They hear the Word and may start to sprout and grow in the faith, but their faith is soon choked out through the cares of this world, just as weeds choke out the grass. Their faith never really becomes healthy, because they don’t read the Bible and they don’t gather with the Church, because they have other things they’d rather do. And so, they never tend to the weeds in their lives and eventually the weeds overtake them; their faith either gets choked out or they become so pre-occupied with other things that their faith never bears fruit.
But, then there’s the fourth class of people who are as good soil on whom the Word falls. They receive the Word and it takes deep root in them. They may not always possess the enthusiasm and excitement of those who are as rocky ground, but their faith will endure, because it is rooted in their very being. They are battered by the wind, scorched by the heat, drenched by the rain, rooted at by birds, and surrounded by the weeds, and yet they endure. They realize that in this life we will endure trials and tribulations; there will be periods of heat and drought when things are not going so well. And yet, they know that God is still with them, He still loves them. This is the “theology of the cross;” an understanding that we cannot judge God through what we see. In this life we see suffering, pain, sorrow, sin, and death; and yet, we know that God is with us in our suffering, He shares in our pain, He partakes of our sorrow, He suffered for our sins, and He endured the death we deserved. He did all this for us through Christ on the cross.
And so, we know that we cannot judge whom God is blessing and whom He is cursing by looking at the outward signs that we see in this world. There are a great many good people who suffer and a great many bad people who prosper. But, we know that Christ is returning and will bring His justice with Him. On that day, God’s justice will no longer be hidden and far off; it will be here and now.
So, this fourth class of people “… indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” because they have heard the Word and understood it. This is because they have been adopted as children by God and given the Holy Spirit through Baptism. God’s Word takes root in them and sprouts up and bears fruit; God is working through them. Just as God is working in the midst of the Church through Word and Sacrament, so too is He working through His people in the world. He sends those whom He has called as His own out into the world to be His witnesses and to care for His creation through the vocations into which He has called them.
As we’ve been talking about these four classes of people who hear God’s Word – the path, the rocky ground, the thorny ground, and the good soil – your thoughts may have wandered to consider what type you are. And indeed, the first three classes are warnings to us not to fall from the faith. And you may think back to events in your life and recall that you were not as faithful as you might have been, or maybe you fell into some sort of error, or maybe some aspects of the faith are confusing to you, or maybe you fear that you are even now being choked by weeds. So, maybe you are wondering whether you have heard the Word and understood it and are the good soil? After all, isn’t that the question that ultimately nags at us when we hear Jesus’ parable?
Now, I would be a poor Lutheran preacher indeed, though, were I to point you to yourselves to “dig deeper” or look for the proof of your faith within yourselves. For, your salvation depends on God’s promises through Christ and not in anything you have done. You are sinners, that is true; and so am I. And you deserve eternal death, as do I. So I point you to look not at yourselves, but to Christ, to his cross; for God in His mercy has given Christ to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. And as to the question of whether or not you are the good soil: you are the good soil, because Jesus says you are – this is the proclamation of the Gospel.
Why some people are the path, the rocky ground, and the thorny ground we do not know. God hasn’t told us why some people don’t receive His Word and why His Word doesn’t take root in them. But, what He does tell us is that His Word is for you. Christ died for you. And He has called you as His own through Baptism – an act of God that He did to you. And thus, God Himself has made you disciples of Christ. And this is a message we can confidently tell to others as well, because Christ died for the sins of all people. That is, we proclaim to people God’s Word of Gospel with the assumption that they are indeed good soil in whom the Word will take root. We trust in God’s Word to act and let Him worry about the rest.
And as God continues to pour out His Word through His means of grace, we trust that you and all the others receiving God’s Word will continue to grow in faith and grow in understanding of God’s gracious workings through Jesus Christ. God baptized you, gave you His name, and called you as His own. And each week He gives you Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper – a body that was given into death for your sins and blood that was shed for your forgiveness. God is giving you all this to assure you that you are His; by hearing, touching, and tasting His forgiveness. You are creatures living in this world, and God comes to you through means which you can receive.
This is how God creates and sustains faith, through His Word which He plants in you and continually waters. And through His Word you will grow in faith and understanding. You will crack open the Bible and see Christ in it from the very first verses of Genesis clear through to the closing verses of Revelation. You will see the promises of God in the Bible fulfilled in Jesus Christ. And you will see that Revelation ends where Genesis began, God again dwelling directly in the midst of His people, even as He dwells with us now mediated through Word and Sacrament.
And it will occur to you that the Church has existed throughout the Bible as Israel; the Old Testament Israel was the Church, just as the New Testament Church is Israel. For Israel is God’s people that He has gathered to Himself around the promise of the Messiah, or Christ, who redeems us from our sins and who is restoring all of God’s creation.
And so, in the Church here and now we have a foretaste of the full restoration that God has in store at the end of time. God is here in our midst now, through the mediated means of grace. And on the Last Day, when Christ returns for us, he will raise us up to be with Him forever – no longer partaking Him through the preached Word or the Sacraments, but directly, immediately, face to face, just as it was with Adam and Eve before the fall. And all things will then be complete, God again dwelling in the midst of His people in His perfect creation, and you will be there too. For, you are the good soil, and God has planted His Word in you and will see you through to the end; you have His Word on that. In Christ’s name, Amen.
(Image: The Sower, By James Tissot – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2006, 00.159.119_PS1.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10195964 )