Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost + July 16, 2017
Text: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

In the Old Testament reading, we heard these words from 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.”[1]
The Parable of the Sower is the Lord’s explanation of how that plays out in the Church.  First, we learn about the Word that it does not return to God empty or void.  You could say that the Word of God is performative, meaning that it does what He says.  Think of Creation: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,” and there was light.’”[2] God speaks, and it happens.  We might think, That’s all well and good for the universe.  After all, when has an asteroid or a tree ever talked back to God?  When sin came into the world, that was the first time it seemed that the creation went against the will of the Creator.
But this Word of the Lord through Isaiah was spoken in the midst of a rebellious universe.  In spite of that, the Word of God still accomplishes what He sends it for.  This we can see in the Parable:
19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
In the first case, even when the evil one snatches away the Word, the Lord still says the Word was sown in a person’s heart.  In the second and third cases, the Word begins to grow, but other things cause that Word not to mature.  It’s only in the fourth case that the Word seems to reach its intended goal.
We know this parable to be true in our lives, because we see and feel the effects, don’t we?  We feel the absence of our children who grew up in church but are no longer here.  We see the empty places in pews where our brothers and sisters no longer walk with us.  Through the grapevine, we hear about them going to other churches or not at all.  We see discouraging statistics about church membership in today’s world.
Since we can only see these external effects, we look for explanations.  Was it something I didn’t tell my child as he was growing up?  Can we pin the blame on who our children married?  Did we participate in enough church activities?  In the face of statistics, we wonder about all the failings of pastors and evangelism efforts, and bemoan the secularism of our society and universities.  When someone leaves the congregation, we ask if something more could have been done?  Was it hurt feelings or something else?
The funny thing is if you ask people who have left the faith or changed congregations, they’ll also give you human explanations.  Those people were a bunch of hypocrites.  So-and-so hurt my feelings.  There weren’t enough activities.  I just didn’t feel inspired by the music and sermon.  My wife and I just couldn’t decide on whose church to go to.  It seems to make sense to answer these felt needs—change who we are and what we believe, teach, and confess so that we can somehow “close the back door” and prevent people from leaving.
In this Parable, the Lord teaches us what’s working behind the scenes.  The truth is, we don’t even know ourselves well enough to fully understand why we act the way we do when it comes to the Lord and His Church.  However, from His perspective, Jesus sees the devil at work and our weak and deceitful hearts.
The devil is always around with his lying and murdering day and night.  He won’t be satisfied until there is not a single God-fearing person left on earth.  So, he twists the Word and blinds people to its Christ-filled, spiritual meaning.  Faith springs up in people’s hearts, but it becomes a self-generated, deluded kind of faith, that withers when it is tested with fire.  Other times the Word is growing, but suddenly the cares of this life become overwhelming, so that instead of setting one’s mind on things above, they’re consumed by things below like jobs, vacations, and sleep.
Yet, in spite of all that works against the Word, it remains the living, active Word of God, which goes to work in our hearts and reaches its intended goal.  Your faith is evidence of this!  The fact that you are here today, hearing the Word, receiving the Lord’s Supper, is the fruit of the Word planted in your hearts.  Defying the devil, who wants to rob you of heaven, you are here today.  Against your own self-righteousness that only comes to church to feel like a good person, you are here.  Even though you have mountains of things to do when you go home which all demand your attention at once, you are here.
God’s Word is always effective, whenever and wherever it is proclaimed.  We often complain that today is more secular and the church is declining.  It seems like the Word is less effective than it used to be.  Yet, it always been this way, even when unbelief was masked by people going to church merely as a social norm.  It will continue to be this way until the Last Day.  “Who has believed what he has heard from us?”[3]  How little effect it seems to have.  But all this is no surprise to God, and it’s not too much for Him.  He calls us to trust His Word, that He will accomplish His good purpose among us.
That’s why we pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.”  In those petitions, we are praying first that God would send His Holy Spirit so that everyone who hears believe the Word, and second that in spite of the devil’s lies and our corrupt hearts that we would hold fast to this Word through our whole life.  That means clinging to Christ in times of grief as well as joy, in poverty as much as prosperity, and in the hour of death just as when we were young and active.  This is God’s good and gracious will for you, and it shall be done.  Amen.
[1] Isaiah 55:10-11
[2] Genesis 1:3
[3] Isaiah 53:1