Sunday, October 22, 2017

Our identity in Christ

Last week, Andy introduced our sermon series with a look at the life of the apostle Peter. This morning, we will take the next step in that series by looking at Peter’s first letter.

For all those who were taught how to write letters -- I suppose it is mostly texting and e-mail now -- I am sure you remember that we were taught a traditional format, with return address there, the date there, and all. And back when Peter wrote his letter, there was also a customary format. In those days, a letter was begun by identifying the author, then identifying the recipient followed by a greeting to the recipient. And Peter does exactly that in the first two verses. But before I read it, I’m going to go out on a limb and claim that based on Peter’s identification of his intended recipients, this room is full of people to whom he is writing. See if I’m right. So please turn with me to the first chapter of first Peter, and I will be reading from the first verse. Peter writes:

Peter, a missionary representing Jesus Christ, [that is, he identifies himself]
To God’s pilgrims scattered throughout the [world -- you’ll notice Peter lists a bunch of Roman provinces, but he would likely permit his audience to stretch beyond them], 2 [those] who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood: [and now the customary greeting:]
Grace and peace be yours in abundance.

Peter’s self-identification is no surprise. He is a missionary representing Jesus Christ. But what about his identification of the letter’s intended recipients?

As I’m sure you know, not that long ago, people identified with their occupation, or their education, or their activities, or perhaps who they hang out with. But we now live in a world where we are increasingly told that our identity is determined by the color of our skin, or by our sex. Unfortunately, there is no liberating power in such things, and the accompanying trend is to become more isolated and disconnected and resentful. We see this all around us today.

And so it is refreshing, inspiring and even liberating to see Peter identify his readers in a way that gets beyond such insignificant identifiers. Now Peter was by no means unfamiliar with such things. Peter grew up in a society with enormous barriers between Jews and Gentiles -- a racial divide -- so you might almost expect such a thing to feature in his identification of his intended readers, but it doesn’t. Similarly, Peter grew up in a society with slaves and freemen and citizens, but those distinctions don’t appear in his identification of his readers either. Peter grew up in a society where women were treated as inferiors, but as we will see in a few weeks, this letter was clearly written to women as much as men.

So how does Peter identify his intended audience? Verse 2:

[to those] who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood:

First, Peter writes to those who “have been chosen by God the Father.” That’s the “already”. That’s our position. It is in the past perfect tense. This is our foundation: we have been chosen by God.

Do you remember what it was like at recess in the third grade? I can tell you how it was for me: A crowd would form out on the soccer field, and two of the older children -- usually those in sixth grade -- would “choose teams” dividing everyone up to play the game. One after another every child in the crowd would be chosen to play on one side or the other. Naturally, I wanted to play on the team with the best captain. That’s the team that always had the best chance of winning. I don’t know about you, but I l-i-k-e-d winning. Now Peter is writing to the team that has been chosen by the best Captain. He is writing to the team that is certainly going to win.

But back in grade school, I noticed that the best players were always chosen first, and the choices being made for the best players were done with much deliberation. As long as the team captains still seemed to care, it wasn’t so bad being picked toward the end. But oh, the humiliation, if there were five or six of us left, and the captain just waved his arm and said: this half of you are on one team and that half on the other - it doesn’t matter. Back then, I desperately wanted to be older and better and faster and stronger and bigger -- just so that I would be chosen... with greater dignity. And perhaps that I might be chosen sooner; or that the best captain would want to choose me. Nobody had written the rules down, but everyone just knew that the teams were chosen according to the skill of those being chosen.

But please notice the basis for our being chosen by God. It isn’t our skill; it isn’t our virtue; it isn’t our piety. Here’s how Peter puts it: [those] who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. Paul says the same thing in Ephesians (1:4):

he chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world.

That means the choosing was done ahead of time. And we weren’t chosen because God knew how wonderfully we were. The testimony of the Apostle Paul -- someone who certainly knew that God had chosen him -- is that he was the chief of sinners. And about us he says that, “we were by nature deserving of wrath (Ephesians 2:3)” and that we were reconciled to God while we were his enemies.

Being chosen by God is like being chosen by the best captain on the soccer field when you are the smallest and the slowest. No wonder Peter’s next words are those of praise: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” Nothing we do can make God choose us. Instead, in his second letter, Peter encourages us with these words:

you must do all you can to ensure that God has really chosen ... you (2 Peter 1:10)

Isn’t that curious? God might well have chosen you, but it is up to you to be increasingly aware of his choice of you; it is up to you to recognize the implications of that choice. Has God chosen you this morning? Take the time to explore that possibility -- and become sure about it.

So that’s our foundation: we are chosen by God. But there is a reason for our having been chosen (it is toward the end of the verse): “to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood.” That’s the “not yet”. It is in the future tense. This is our potential and our purpose. This is the blueprint for our lives -- what our lives are supposed to look like.

And that obedience to Jesus? Nowadays we don’t like the word “obedience” so much, but we are usually quite happy with the word “employment”. My older brother works for Google, and when he got that job, many people were “oh! Google” -- he received status for working for one of the richest and most powerful companies in history. But his employment? It represents an “obedience” of sorts doesn’t it? He plays by their rules, and does the work he that they ask him to do, and he doesn’t publish company-wide memos that could embarrass anyone...

But you know: Google won’t last forever. Does anyone remember Nortel? Well, earlier in his career, my brother worked for Nortel. Even the best and the biggest companies can and do collapse in the space of a frighteningly few years. In contrast, our King Jesus will reign forever and ever. And If the word “obedience” makes you uncomfortable, you can use the word “employment” for the time being.

Do you remember that call from the employer offering you a job. Either a job you really need or a job you really want? They chose you. This is the kind of thing that Peter is talking about: and just like your employer chose you with some expectation that you would be obedient to them. God chose us with the expectation that we would be obedient to Jesus Christ. But in the same way that you felt pride and joy landing that job, Peter gushes over finding himself (along with the rest of us) chosen by God, the best captain, the top employer -- that’s the next verse: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

What do you think Peter had in mind, exactly, when he wrote “to be obedient to Jesus Christ”? After all, Peter had had the privilege of hanging out with Jesus over the space of years, listening to Jesus’ teaching. Peter had heard Jesus tell all those who would listen: “Repent!” I’m sure that this is an important component of “obedience to Jesus.” Peter had heard Jesus say: “come, follow me!” to him, personally. It must have had great significance for him.

Peter had heard Jesus tell everyone: “[strive] to enter through the narrow door.” And he had heard Jesus tell his disciples, “Love one another” and later, “make disciples of all nations”. Peter could have been thinking of any of those things, but together, they represent a short summary of Jesus’ teaching, don’t they? Repent; follow; strive; love; witness -- this is what it means to be obedient to Jesus. Do you want to be obedient to Jesus? You could do much worse than to keep these words on hand: Repent; follow; strive; love; witness, and challenge yourself by them regularly.

But five things is a lot to remember -- when I go grocery shopping and my list is longer than three items, I'm sure to forget at least one. So here's a mnemonic that could help: "real flowers sure like water" (repent follow strive love witness)

Oh, and that business of being sprinkled with his blood? That is an image that had been drilled into the Jewish consciousness. It shows up again and again back in the book of Leviticus: a sacrifice was made, and the sprinkling of the blood of that sacrifice was an act of purification. Seriously! We might think, “ew!” But the Old Testament is clear: nothing was considered good enough for service at the Temple unless it was so sprinkled. So that’s what Peter would have had in mind. Jesus, making the ultimate sacrifice in his death on the cross for the sins of the world, purifies us with his blood, as long as we’re willing to experience that sacrifice “up close and personal.” You can’t be sprinkled with the blood if your only interaction with Jesus’ sacrifice is distant or abstract or superficial.

So Peter identifies us according to our foundation (being chosen by God), and he identifies us according to our blueprints (to be followers of Christ, purified with his sacrificial death). But he also calls out the means to get from where we are (the “already”) to where we want to be (the “not-yet”). If we want to live up to our potential, if we are to fulfill our purpose, we need what Peter calls “the sanctifying work of the Spirit.” God’s action in the past is to choose us. But God’s action in the present is this work of his Spirit. Is the Holy Spirit working in your heart this morning? In Romans, Paul writes:

The mind governed by our old nature is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.

In Galatians, the message is similar:

Whoever sows to please their old nature, from that old nature will reap destruction; [but] whoever sows to please the Spirit, from that Spirit will reap eternal life.

If you aren’t experiencing that life and peace this morning, if you haven’t received a glimpse of that eternal life, let me encourage you to pray to God for his Spirit. After all, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus promised that this is one prayer that God is certain to answer:

Which of you [asks Jesus], if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

So let’s come to God asking for his Holy Spirit today. For by his purifying work (that’s what “sanctification” means) we who have been chosen by God become formed according to our blueprints as Jesus’ disciples.

By the way, this verse (1 Peter 1:2) isn’t the only one of its kind in the Bible. In fact, it might even represent an early formula of Christian identity. We find a very similar passage in one of the earliest of Paul’s letters, written to the Thessalonians. There, (2 Thess 2:13b,14) he writes:

...God chose you ... to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit ... that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The three important elements are in both passages: (1) chosen by God and (2) sanctified by the Spirit as (3) we follow our Lord Jesus. And I hope that you picked up on the fact that obedience to Jesus implies sharing in his glory! May this be the reality in each of our lives. May this form our identity this morning. Established by God, pointed toward Jesus, and empowered by the Spirit. So let me ask you: is this where you find your identity this morning?

At this point, having identified his intended audience, Peter then greets them with the customary Christian greeting: “Grace and peace be yours in abundance.” Then he turns to the body of his letter (verse 3)

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

In his great mercy, God has given us new birth.” New birth -- being born again -- now sometimes folk who hang around churches misunderstand this concept. Too often, we are tempted to imagine that being born again means having another, parallel, fall-back life that we can hop over to whenever our “real life” gets rough. This unfortunate tendency: to cling to the old life and to treat the new life like a “plan B” isn’t right, and it isn’t new. Paul writing to the church in Galatia, asks them (4:9):

how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world?

But this isn’t God’s intention at all. Instead, God grants us new birth because the old life is of no value at all. As we already read:

The mind governed by our old nature is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.

You see, the alternative to the new life is death. The “new birth” is not like a “new convertible”, that we admire in the garage and take out to show off on sun(ny) days, but otherwise use the family minivan. Instead, imagine the Titanic, having already hit the iceberg and pitching heavily. It is going down, people. And that “new birth” is the opportunity to climb on board a rescue vessel. Let me remind you of another verse you all know (2 Corinthians 5:17):

if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

The old has passed away. It isn’t just “mostly dead”. It is no more. It has ceased to be. And it needs to be out of the way in order to make room for the new life! Because with this new birth, God has given us every reason to discard that old life, with all of its obsolete identifiers, and to put on the new identifiers that he provides: established by God, pointed toward Jesus and empowered by the Spirit.

Peter blesses God for the opportunity we have to experience this new birth. And then Peter lists two consequences of this new birth. First, we have been given new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Peter’s hope -- this living hope -- is grounded in a sure historical event. In his resurrection, Jesus demonstrated once and for all his victory over death and his power over those principles of this world. Power even over those worldly principles we call the laws of physics. I find it odd when people object to the resurrection on the grounds that such an event would represent a “violation” of the laws of physics. Because those laws didn’t just magically appear. Whatever determined those laws -- I should say “Whoever determined those laws” --  is bigger than the laws themselves. After all, God owns all the patents on matter and energy and all the relationships between them, and he can do anything he well pleases whenever he well pleases -- including raising someone from the dead.

And what a world-changing, history-defining event that was. Paul writes, “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” But Christ has indeed been raised, and we are confident that his resurrection is a trailblazing effort, for he is expecting to bring many of us to glory, experiencing this same resurrection even as he has. As we read in Romans (6:5):

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Hey: there it is again -- a death is necessary before the resurrection takes place. A death is necessary before a new birth takes place. The earlier that we are willing and able to write off that old life, the better off we’ll be.

We have been given new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. But we have also been given new birth into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, reserved in heaven for you. An inheritance: you know, I’ve never known an example of an inheritance that was earned. Instead, an inheritance is received on the basis of your family -- usually your birth. And the basis for our firmly established heavenly inheritance is our new birth. No wonder Peter is full of praise to God for such a wonderful gift.

Because it isn’t like earthly inheritances. I’ve been talking recently to someone whose grandfather’s considerable estate is still being fought over three years after his departure. Before it gets resolved, the lawyers will have spent a huge chunk of it. And then there is inflation, and worse. That’s all part of the territory of this old life that leads to death. Our new birth, on the other hand, is into the living hope of an undiminished inheritance.

Oh! And did you notice that this passage that we just read highlights once again the tension between the already and the not-yet? On the one hand, “In his great mercy [God] has given us new birth” - this is the “already”. On the other, “This inheritance is kept in heaven for you ... until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” And this is the “not-yet”.

But strangely, this “future-tense” salvation comes as a surprise to many Christians. Aren’t we already saved? What does it mean that the salvation is “coming”? What does it mean that the salvation is to be revealed in the last time? Well, it means what it says. And this isn’t an isolated passage on the matter, either.

In Philippians, Paul writes that we should “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”. Hmm, that make salvation sounds very much like something that we requires effort, doesn’t it? As we already heard, Jesus himself says, (Luke 13:24) that we should, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.” Make every effort. That also sounds an awful lot like “work” doesn’t it. In fact, the word that Jesus uses here is a Greek word that you would likely understand immediately: ἀγωνίζομαι agōnízomai. That is, our salvation -- our entrance through the narrow door --  is something that we can legitimately agonize over. “Many will try to enter, and will not be able to.” So we need to put in the effort, or we will be in the same boat.

As we read before, Peter echoes Jesus’ words in his second letter “My friends, you must do all you can to ensure that God has really chosen and selected you.” All you can. Make every effort. Fear and trembling. Work it out. God has done his part. He has chosen you. He has sent his Son, who died for our sins and was raised to life to demonstrate his Lordship over creation. Now, in between the “already” and the “not-yet” it is our turn to make the effort. It is our turn to do all we can. It is our turn to show that God really has chosen us. This is no small calling. This is no small task. But it isn’t a burden. In fact, God’s promises to make this task a joy. And that’s what Peter says clearly in the next passage:

6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. … 8 Though you have not seen [Jesus], you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Once again, we notice that salvation is the “end result” -- it is something that we “are receiving”. But in the process, we can be “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy”. And that even in the face of trials.

Our society is funny: we are richer than ever in history. We have huge resources of education and entertainment at our fingertips. We enjoy freedom and leisure as never before. Our medical system keeps us healthier and we grow older and are nourished with a greater variety of good food. But at the same time, people today suffer from more anxiety and from more depression than ever before.

In contrast, when Peter writes about “grief in all kinds of trials,” he knew what he was talking about. Those trials were greater than anything we’ve ever experienced by a wide margin. But they weren’t significant enough to cut into his “glorious joy” - he knew what that was all about, too. The salvation of our souls isn’t just something for the next life. It has significant impact on the present. Because even though we find ourselves between the “already” and the “not-yet”, the effect of the Holy Spirit in our lives can be that life and peace and great joy in the here-and-now. Notice that Peter uses the present tense: “you greatly rejoice”; you “are filled with a glorious joy”.

When we started, I asked if you could identify with the intended recipients of this letter: chosen by God, pointed toward Jesus, and empowered by his Spirit. Perhaps some could, and some less so. But now I’m asking a different question: would you like to experience this glorious life and peace and joy? Would you like to be on the winning team? Would you like to be led by the best Captain? Perhaps he’s chosen you. If you’re not sure, you could make sure. Start obeying Jesus now, and you might find God’s Spirit will increasingly participate in your life. How? Repent, Follow, Strive, Love, Remember, Witness.

do all you can to ensure that God has really chosen ... you

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Parable of the Soils

This last spring, Crosswalk ministries published an article whose title was “3 Kinds of Students That Leave Christianity After High School”. For some, this isn’t just an academic exercise. It was only last week that a teenage daughter of someone very close to me announced to her parents that she wasn’t interested in the whole church thing anymore. But I’m afraid that the article was a little late to the game: Jesus already addressed this topic -- and his list of “3 kinds of people that walk away from the gospel” is, well, a little more authoritative.

This morning we continue in our series of sermons on Jesus’ parables. Now while all of Jesus’ parables are important, if we had to choose the one that is the most important, it might turn out to be the one that we will consider this morning. Jesus could easily have given this parable the title: “3 kinds of people that walk away from the gospel.” There are four clues for us that this parable is really important.

First of all, most of Jesus’ parables only show up once in the four gospel accounts. For example, last week, M. took us through the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. But that parable only appears in the gospel according to Luke. Two weeks previous to that, A. took us through the parable of the unmerciful servant. But that parable only appears in the gospel according to Matthew. You get the idea.

There are only three parables that show up in three of the four gospel accounts. Now when that happens with any teaching, it is like the Spirit of God is underlining it for us. If something shows up in one of the gospels, that’s enough to make it significant, of course; but if it shows up in more than one of them, then it deserves special attention. This is the first indication that this morning’s parable is an important teaching of Jesus: it appears in the gospel according to Matthew, and in the gospel according to Mark and also in the gospel according to Luke.

In fact, in every one of those accounts, the parable we will consider this morning is the first of all Jesus’ parables (depending on definition of a parable). And this is the second indication that this parable is an important teaching of Jesus. This parable is like a lead-off batter: introducing the parables of Jesus.

So let’s read (from Mark -- the parable is essentially the same in Matthew or Luke):

Listen! 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, so that they did not bear fruit. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times. And he said, Whoever is able to hear – let him hear!

Now before we get to the meat of it, notice how much like what we’ve just read is like a sandwich: meat between two slices of bread. Before he begins, Jesus tells everyone in earshot to “Listen!” Now, to us, this way to start teaching is perhaps interesting, or perhaps quirky. But to Jesus’ hearers, this would be big. Even today, devout Jewish people often recited an important passage of the Old Testament twice a day. This is the text that Jesus himself said was the greatest of all the commandments. I’m sure you remember it: “love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.” But the common Jewish recitation actually starts with the previous verse, and, in fact, it gets its name from the first word in that previous verse, the word Shema. In English: “Listen, O Israel: the Lord is our God; the Lord is One!” Listen! And this word Shema didn’t just mean “listen” it also means “pay attention” and even “obey!” In fact, when your English Bible has the word “obey” in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word being translated is usually Shema. So when Jesus starts his teaching with this word, every ear would perk up for sure.

But then, as reinforcement at the end, Jesus says, “whoever has ears, let him hear!” (more or less: “pay attention!”) These two bookends, these two slices of bread for the meat sandwich, these are a third indication that this parable is an important teaching of Jesus.

So let’s quickly summarize this parable. Here, Jesus is telling the story about a farmer who was sowing seed. He wanted his seed to take root, and to grow up, and to provide food for his family and also to provide seed for the next season. It is pretty simple, really: Jesus seems to be saying that not all of the seed that a farmer throws around actually takes root. But we all know that. And not all the seed that takes root grows past a sprout. But we know that, too. And not all the sprouts become mature and give fruit. No news there. But instead of talking about the sower or the seed or the plants, Jesus spends this parable talking about the soils! So what is Jesus really trying to say?

Well, we aren’t the only ones asking such a question. The disciples listening to Jesus were smart enough to know that Jesus wasn’t just describing the experience of most of the local farmers -- he had a deeper meaning in mind. So they ask him what this parable is all about. And Jesus himself provides an explanation of this parable. Now this is a fourth indication that this is an important teaching of Jesus -- it is one of the very few parables that Jesus explained, and is certainly the longest explanation that Jesus ever gave for one of his parables. And this is how his explanation begins (Luke 8:11-15):

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts

The seed, says Jesus, is the word of God. The soil, says Jesus, is our hearts.

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along 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 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. 14 And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those 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 As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.

Jesus’ focus is on the soil, and now we know why: the soil is our hearts.

the good soil…[we read] are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit.

But before we get back to our hearts, how about that fruit? We can imagine how important fruit was in the Middle East at the time. We don’t have to go far to be reminded, either. One of the last times I paid a visit to our Syrian friends down the highway, dear A. brought out an item that she bought from Provigo.
“What is this?” she asked.
“A mango!” I replied.
“Do you like it?” she asked, with some evident skepticism.
“Sure,” I replied.
“But it doesn’t taste like anything.” she said, with some dissatisfaction. And she proceeded to cut it up, serve it to me and watch me eat it, as if there was something terribly wrong with it. And then I learned what fruit is supposed to taste like: that is, what fruit is like in Syria. The pomegranates; the apricots; the grapes; the figs; the citrus: each one more delicious, and succulent, and marvelous than the next. If there wasn’t a war going on there, we should all move to Syria… and not just for the weather: for the fruit! The fruit is what makes life worth living! And I believe her: I’m sure that the fruit in Syria is as wonderful as she claims! And I expect that the fruit in Jesus’ day was just as wonderful, but back then, agriculture was also a primary economy-driver. So it is no surprise that Jesus used fruit as an illustration again and again and again. As Jesus says to his disciples (John 15:16):

You did not choose me, but I chose you ... so that you might go and bear fruit

What Jesus is telling us is that the whole purpose of Christianity is that we go and bear fruit. The reason why you are in church this morning (whether you know it or not -- or whether you even like it or not) is that God wants you to go and bear fruit. And this fruit that Jesus is talking about isn’t just some “spiritual” thing. This is the stuff that makes life worth living. As we were reminded a few weeks ago, the Bible says that (at least some of) the fruit of the Spirit is love, and joy, and peace. I’m sure we can agree that we could all use more of those. Some of this kind of fruit even shows up in Jesus’ explanation: patience and goodness in verse 15, joy in verse 12. And in verse 13, we’re told that even salvation could be the result of receiving this seed.

But an easy lesson to miss from this parable is simply that there is no fruit without seed. The seed might be tiny. It might even go unnoticed. But if there were no seed, there would be no fruit. The soil doesn’t deserve all the credit for the fruit, after all.

In my office, we used to call this the “mailman principle”. Perhaps you call it something else. The mailman principle is the flip-side of the tendency to shoot the messenger. Shooting the messenger happens when the one bringing bad news gets blamed for it. Not cool, even though it happens far too often. Similarly, the mailman principle simply says that when the news is good, the one delivering the news gets far more credit than he deserves.

But we do this all the time. When something good happens to us, we forget that God’s investment in our lives is behind it. When we do something good, we want to take all the credit for it, naturally. But the Biblical principle is two-fold. On the one hand, we read that, “there is no one righteous, no not one,” and that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” And on the other hand, we also read (1 Cor 4:7): “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”

All the good things in life come from God. And God participates in every good thing that we ever do. Now some people find this offensive. Atheists like to say -- it is kind of a motto for some of them -- that they can be “good without God.” Well, I have news for the atheists. Sure, they can be good without acknowledging God. But that is a far, far different thing from being good without God. Wherever there is good, God is always involved. I expect that God himself would laugh at the idea that just because someone stops believing in God then God must stop His involvement in that person’s life. As Jesus himself says, “your Father in heaven... causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” God doesn’t cut himself off from people, not even if they think that they are cutting themselves off from him!

Now the first lesson was that all good things come from God. But the seed is the word of God. Does that mean that all good thing ultimately derive from the word of God? It certainly does. Now if you aren’t so sure about that, please remember that the Bible doesn’t just say “the Word was with God.” It also says that “the Word was God.” You see, the Word of God is not just a message -- He is also a person. And all things were made by this Word. And all good things come through him. I like how John Ortberg puts it:

Jesus had no place to lay his head, yet he became the primary inspiration for architectural progress. We don’t know what Jesus looked like, yet he became the most recognizable figure in the world. He had “no beauty that we should desire him”, yet he became the subject of more paintings and sculpture than anyone else in history. He never wrote a book, but he became the most written-about person ever and the greatest inspiration for global linguistic development. He is associated with no known music, but is the subject of more songs and music than any other human being. He died alone, yet people die for him still.

You see, the consequences of the Word of God in the world, its fruit is not just love, and joy, and peace, but all the things that make life worth living ultimately derive from the word of God. Those who held fast to the word of God were even responsible for the entire scientific enterprise: Newton, and Faraday, and Pascal, and Maxwell, and Kepler… and the list goes on.

But now I’d like to change gears and ask you to use your imagination. I’d like you imagine that you are really young (perhaps grade eight or nine). And I’d like you to imagine that there is someone in the world who could be your best friend for life. This is someone who would stick by you in the hard times, and celebrate with you in the good times. This is someone you could wake up in the middle of the night to talk to. This is someone you will eventually marry and be your perfect partner. I’m not saying that your happiness depends on this development, but -- and I speak from experience -- I am saying you will never know what happiness could really be without it. But now please also suppose that as this really young person that you are imagining yourself to be, you have never actually connected with this special person yet!

So let’s ask the very practical question: what does it take for this hypothetical young you and this other person who is just perfect for you to get together? Well, obviously, first you need to meet. You need to meet as human beings. Have you ever wondered if you’ve ever bounced off someone who could have been a really good friends? That would be pretty sad. Tragic, really. Avoiding that tragedy is the first step: you need to meet.

But the second thing that you need to become friends with this special person, is to somehow get past all the teasing that, as a young person, you would certainly get from all of your siblings and friends. You know – that’s what happens. Now they don’t do that because they don’t like you. They aren’t trying to keep you from future happiness – they just don’t know any better.

The summer before after kindergarten, my daughter G. had a best friend. They spent all day every day running around and playing in the neighborhood. But when school started, all the boys in the class started to tease J. about “liking a g-i-r-l”. And in a short time, in order to demonstrate the falsity of these outrageous accusations, J. began treating G. very cruelly. Naturally, G. was heartbroken. But that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. J. couldn’t take the heat. So he would never know how wonderful a person that G. was.

So you have to meet, but you also have to be willing to take the heat. And the third thing that you need to become friends with this special person – and this is the really hard one – you’ll need to spend less time with everything else. If you like to watch TV, well, you’ll need to watch less. And if you like to go shopping, you might need to shop less. You get the idea.

Nobody goes through life leaving big chunks of their time doing nothing in anticipation for that special person to come along and fill it in. Instead, our lives are typically full at all times, and adjustments will be necessary -- deciding to invest in this new person at the expense of other things and even other people -- in order to develop a relationship. And if we aren’t willing to make those adjustments, then we might as well give up the thought of ever having a healthy friendship let alone a healthy marriage.

So let’s summarize. What is necessary to make the deepest friendships? Three things:
  1. We need to MEET.
  2. We need to be able to take the HEAT.
  3. We need to allow this new friendship to comPETE.
And then, and only then, will you be able to discover that amazing human experience of a deep and healthy relationship.

But these three things are exactly the things that Jesus is talking about with the soils. With the pathway, the seed never really sinks into the soil. But that’s like never really meeting someone. With the rocky ground, the seed starts to sprout, but it gets scorched by the sun. That’s like giving up on the relationship when the going gets rough. With the thorny ground, the “competition” wins. The plant get choked out before it can bear any fruit. That’s like not taking the time to invest in the right person, because toys and superficial things are easier to handle.

What a tragedy it would be to meet a wonderful friend, but never get to know them; What a tragedy it would be to get to know this wonderful friend but then to abandon them when things get difficult; and it what a tragedy it would be to get to know his wonderful friend, but not give them the time or energy to really build a relationship… But this wonderful friend isn’t a hypothetical. This is the Word of God. This is someone who loves you enough to be willing to die for you. This is Jesus. As he says,

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a [seed] falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

This is the message of the parable of the Sower: the seed is the Word of God. He has come and sacrificed himself so that you can bear fruit, fruit that will last.

Sure, it is nice to meet someone special and even marry them. But as nice as that is, this is just a shadow of the reality to come -- another wedding, between this Word, the Lamb of God, who will come again in his glory, and his spotless bride. As the angel told John in Revelation: ‘“Write this!” he said, “Blessed are those who are called by name to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”’ But not everyone will be able to receive this blessing. As Jesus says (Matt 7:19),

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

These days, in some circles, it is trendy to reject the word of God. And those who reject God’s word like to pose as if their decision represents clear thinking and honest reflection. But there are only three reasons why people don’t accept the word of God, and Jesus calls them all out for us in this parable.
  • Number one: some people just don’t get it. Their hearts are hard, and they aren’t able to recognize the truth.
  • Number two: some people can’t stand the heat. They are easily bullied out of the truth – sometimes it is easier to go along with the crowd that to hang on to what you know to be true.
  • Number three: some people are easily distracted. There are other voices which are more appealing and easier to listen to.
That’s it; that’s all. These are the reasons -- and the only reasons -- that the word of God is rejected. In this parable, Jesus gives us “3 kinds of people that walk away from the gospel.”

Four types of soil; four responses to the word of God. And only the good soil bears fruit. But here’s the thing: as God looks at his church, he sees every type of soil in every one of his children. There are aspects of His word we just don’t get. There are aspects of His word that we are shy about. And there are aspects of His word that we don’t give nearly as much attention to as they deserve. But thank God there are also aspects of His word that we take to heart.

So how do we become less like those other soils and more like the good soil? Well, as any gardener knows, the major difference between a dirt path and the fertile soil (right beside it) is some muscle: the path could be turned into that fertile soil with some serious cultivation. Same with the rocky ground. Sure, cultivation can seem like work, but remove the big stones and bury the little ones, and the rocky ground could yield a crop, too. Same with the soil overgrown with weeds. Weeding is work, sure, especially when some of those weeds have deep roots that go deep down into your soul, but weeds don’t ever mean that the soil couldn’t be recovered. But here’s an interesting thing: the soil that is the most fertile is often the most messy, isn’t it?

But soil doesn’t cultivate itself. In the same way that the seed from God is necessary in our lives if we are to bear fruit, God’s cultivating activity is also necessary if we are to be able to permit the seed to sprout. It might be uncomfortable as God overturns the habits of our hearts. But it will certainly be worth it. But we need to be aware: God won’t be doing any heart-cultivation without our invitation, and certainly not without our permission. This morning, let’s ask God to prepare our hearts for his word, to help us with the removal of the stones and the distractions. And let us meet the King, allowing God to break down the spiritual barriers in our lives that keep us from understanding; let us resolve to take the heat, being prepared in advance to withstand mistreatment for his sake; and let us always allow the Kingdom to compete for our attention, for our loyalty, and for our energy. Amen.