May I speak in the name of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit
In my favourite Message Bible edition, in the middle of this parable of the sower Jesus asks the $64,000 dollar question- Are you listening to this? Really listening?
When we hear the familiar story of the sower and the soil his seed fell upon, we can find ourselves feeling a thrill of satisfaction. After all we wouldn’t be here if we were not fertile soil, or would we?
I was taught at theological college that every sermon should contain both a gift and a challenge. The gift of these passages together is a promise of God’s gracious power.
Isaiah declares the power of the Word of God when he uses a nature metaphor for comparison. What the rain and the snow do is enable to seed to mature, grow and flourish, and in the same way the word of God accomplishes the purposes of God, enabling us to mature, grow and flourish.
The lines which come just before this in Isaiah 55 give us another clue for understanding both these passages and the way that God works- my thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways.
So, what we can take away from Isaiah is that God’s Word is powerful and produces real outcomes in our lives, but that it does not operate in the ways that we would expect.
This reminds me of the first verse of a hymn I know ‘O lord all the world belongs to you, and you are always making all things new, what is wrong you forgive and the new life you give, is what’s turning the world upside down.’ God’s Word turns the world upside down.
So, the gift here is that God’s Word will turn the world upside down and remake it, and that includes us. My hymn suggests that world turned upside down is actually the kingdom of God, and that brings us very neatly to Matthew and the challenge of this sermon.
The context of Matthew chapter 13, which is a whole chapter of parables, is that since the beginning of chapter 11 Matthew has been focusing on Jesus as the revealer of God’s reign and on the varying and often hostile responses to that revelation.
Jesus reveals God’s reign both by what he says and what he does- remember he is God’s Word translated into the language of human beings so that we may listen, understand and respond fully.
In his telling of parables Jesus is asking us not just to hear the story but to enter it, to see things from the point of view of the parable, even if they appear upside down at first. Not only this, but parables lure us in, they tell us stories about the seemingly familiar and then surprise us with a twist we didn’t expect- this moment of surprise is also an opportunity for us to really listen, to understand and respond to the challenge which the parable offers.
Notice that although Jesus tells this parable to the crowd, it is the disciples that he really explains it to. Last week we heard Jesus inviting us to take his yoke upon us. This phrase had a very specific meaning in his time, it talks about the yoke of the Torah, the law, and the following of the law by apprenticing oneself to a specific teacher.
Bright and eager young men would look for a teacher to follow, and this following was taken very literally. Once you committed yourself to a teacher you would stay with him every moment of the day, in order to listen to every word of teaching he spoke-modern disciples even follow their Rabbi into the toilet! This following of a teacher or Rabbi was known as taking his yoke.
Jesus has already turned the world upside down by offering his yoke, not to the brightest and the best, but to a bunch of fishermen, tax collectors and common labourers. Now he instructs them about what taking his yoke really means. For in this parable, discipleship is not about the first moment of choice, when we respond to Jesus’ invitation, it is about how we continue to listen, to receive and to be changed so that we too become part of turning the world upside down.
We tend to assume that the first three soils are outside the company of the disciples which we call the church, but supposing they are not?
The first soil is the path- a surface made not for receiving seed but feet, it has been compressed by the crowd. You could say that these are people who fail to understand Jesus because they are focused not on God’s sowing but on the activity of other people, they are the kind of people anxious to join the crowd, easily distracted by the opinions of others, rather than listening and forming their own opinion and so the seed never takes root there, but is eaten by the birds. They are always trying to keep up with the latest fad or gossip and not taking time to ponder God’s Word or to refresh themselves with remembering their own past encounters with God or reading spiritual biographies to get inspired by others. We are not good at taking the time to create a sacred space to be with God.
The rocky soil stands for the kind of people who start out in their discipleship full of enthusiasm, but don’t allow the Word of God to penetrate deeply and so easily wither away to nothing when challenged in any way. The stones could be seen as the parts of themselves they refuse to surrender to God, the blocks which prevent their discipleship from becoming fully rooted in God. We could try noticing when they feel a moment of resistance to God and asking God help them tackle these strongholds.
The thorny soil shows the more subtle dangers of prosperity compared to persecution. The anxieties and apparently attractive promises of life in the world, slowly but surely push our commitment to God aside, so we resort to compromise and fence sitting in our following of Jesus. There are too many things competing for the nutrients in our soil. This can lead to a sentimental distortion of Christianity which attempts to offer meaning without judgement. We need to be prepared to pull out at the root the things in our lives that are choking our discipleship to death.
Finally, the good soil responds to Jesus fruitfully. How fruitfully isn’t relevant, it could be thirty, sixty or a hundredfold- but this fruit can only come as the result of proper listening, understanding and responding to God’s Word in Jesus. It bears fruit when we keep connected to the vine, and are prepared to make space and put commitment into our relationship with God.
Jesus speaks to us not just through what he says, but also what he does. He offers us an alternative view of the world, God’s view, where the hungry are fed and the rich are sent empty away, where the humble and meek are valued, where the world as we know it is turned upside down- it’s called the kingdom of God.
He asks his disciples ‘Are you listening to this, really listening?’ Will you take my yoke upon you, not just in the emotion of the moment, not just when other cares and preoccupations aren’t getting in the way but steadily, faithfully, fruitfully- allowing yourselves to keep choosing to follow me and in that following to be changed so that you become part of turning the world upside down in how you live, in what you do and what you say? ‘Are you listening to this, really listening?’