Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Parables of Jesus: How's Your Reception?

Last week I began my very first appointment as a pastor at Druid Hills UMC. This is the sermon I delivered and it is part of a four week series on the Parables of Jesus.


Matthew 13:1-23


As my family and I were preparing to join you all here at Druid Hills I found a box of old photos and mementos. Knowing I had a lot to pack and get done I thought it best to not go through them but just pack them. Well how many of us can resist the chance to go through items like that? I certainly couldn't that day, so I sat down and begin to look….and remember. I found pictures from years ago from school, boy scouts, and bowling leagues. I also found newspaper clippings from my time as a high school runner, clippings from my Eagle Scout ceremony, and my wedding and engagement announcements. Then just as I was about to pack it all away I came across a journal I used to keep. I opened it and began to read. It was a nice trip down memory lane recalling what I did and how I felt, but more than that I was able to read about some of my beliefs. There were things that I was so certain of in my earlier years that I now wonder how I ever could have believed that way. I started thinking about some of my other views that might have changed from high school to the working world, from before I entered seminary to when I graduated. You see I am not the same person today that I was 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 15 or 20 years ago. I have changed, I have grown, and I have learned. And I am not alone in that. All of us have gone through the same thing. We have all changed our views about certain subjects, changed the way we act and respond in certain situations, learned information that has caused us to change what we think and believe. I believe that is some of what Christ is trying to tell us in the parable that we read today.


As this story begins Scripture tells us that Jesus was gathered with his disciples in a house near the Sea of Galilee and had left to go down by the shore. Shortly after Jesus arrived, an immense crowd gathered. So many in fact, that Jesus had to get on a boat and go out on the sea a bit so everyone could see and hear him. Matthew says Jesus told many stories but the first he gives us is this parable of the four soils.

Jesus describes a farmer that goes out to plant seed. As the farmer begins to scatter the seed four different types of possible landing places are described for us, a footpath, shallow soil with rock underneath, thorns, and fertile soil. The seed that fell on the footpath is eaten by birds and never gets the chance to produce anything. The seed that fell on shallow soil with rock underneath while it grows quickly soon dies out from heat and lack of nourishment. The seed that fell in the thorns, while it grows, is eventually choked out and withers. And the seed that falls on fertile soil produces a crop of 30, 60, or even a 100 times as much as had been originally planted.

I imagine that most of the people that were gathered there that day probably were somewhat confused after this story. Was Jesus giving them a farming tip? How did that apply to the people that were there? I imagine most people were confused because even Jesus' disciples, the people that have been with him the most, came up to him and asked him, "Why do you tell stories when you talk to the people?" Even the disciples want a strait teaching. No riddles, no metaphors, they just wanted him to tell them what he meant. Jesus takes heart to their concerns and he takes the disciples aside and actually explains what he meant.

Recorded in Scripture for us Jesus explains that the people that hear the Good News of the Kingdom but do not understand are represented by the seed that falls on the footpath and is eaten by birds. We are told that those people have the Good News snatched from them by Satan before it can ever take root in their hearts. The seed that falls on the shallow soil are the people that hear the Good News, understand it for a while but do not have a secure foundation in which to allow the Word to grow. At the first sign of trouble they are lost. The people that allow the pressures and distractions of this life to take them away from God are represented by seed that falls in the thorns. The Good News takes hold and begins to grow but soon the cares, priorities, and commotion of this life take them away. And the fertile soil where growth is abundant and overflowing are those people that not only hear the Word and understand it, but allow it to overtake their lives. They allow the Word to be the driving force behind their existence, the object by which they judge all truth.

Now as I was reading this parable and putting this message together my first reaction was to try and figure out which type of seed I was. I imagine that many of you felt the same way. How was my relationship with God? Was I in tune and listening? Was I following his direction? Or was I preoccupied and distracted by the events in my life? It was then that I realized that at some point in my life and points again in the future, I have been and will be again, all of these types of seed.

You see there have been times in my life where I simply did not hear nor heed the voice of God. God's prompting on my life feel on deaf ears and I went my own way. As a teenager I got bored by church. I still went, but I did not pay attention. The Word was being given to me, I did not have to seek it out. It was simply placed in my lap and I did nothing with it. I heard it but I did not understand.

There are also people that when they hear the Good News they get excited and the Word begins to blossom in their lives. But then some problem or obstacle comes up and they struggle because that layer of rock does not allow their roots to go very deep. Now this rock could be lack of support in the way of family, friends, covenant or small group relationships and when problems arise they have no one to help them through it. No one to guide them and show them that God is still there. The rock can be any number of things that make our enthusiasm and obedience wane.

Jesus also tells us of seed that wilts when it is choked out by thorns. Those thorns are the cares of this life that distract us and take us away from God. There were also times I was told of the Good News and got incredibly charged up to only have the distractions of this life get me. I remember one year after going to a United Methodist Men's Retreat in Leesburg, I was pumped. I was so excited I could hardly sit still for a week. I had been challenged that weekend to read my Bible. To read it cover to cover and really work on taking the Good News and placing it in my heart. I was told to get a Bible and mark it up, write all in it, and really commit to learning what the Bible had to tell me. I made up my mind that I was going to accept that challenge and as soon as I got home I grabbed my Bible off my shelf, the very top shelf of my book case, the shelf where you have to get a chair and stand on your tip toes to reach it…and I began to read. Genesis was great! Creation, Noah, Abraham, it was good! Then work started to get busy. I worked retail and the retreat was at the end of October and November begins the Christmas push. I was working longer hours, I had more customers and product to deal with and every day that went by it got easier and easier to walk away from that enthusiasm and from my reading. What was beginning as a good work in me a few weeks prior was wilting.

Then Jesus tells us about the soil that is fertile, the soil where abundant growth occurs, where the Good News of the Gospel has no choice but to shine in the hearts and minds of believers. That is place that we should strive to be and I am sure that some of us have found ourselves in that place at some point. Some of you here today may be there right now and if you are God Bless You and I pray you remain there forever!


But for the rest of us all is not lost. Our God is a God of love, a God of Grace, and a God of redemption. God does not want us to suffer. God does not want us to be lost. God wants us to prosper. As believers we are God's children and simply put, God is crazy about us! There are seasons to our lives, some more prosperous than others but we will never find ourselves out of God's grace or God's reach.

So what can we do to help ensure to help focus our attention to be fertile soil for God? I have come up with three but feel free to add to this list yourself later. One is daily meditation and prayer. Every day I strive to spend those first waking minutes with God. I have two, very active, very loud, and wonderful boys. Quiet time in my house does not exist unless they are sleeping. So I wake up before everyone else and hole myself up in my study. And I read Scripture. I read four chapters every day and after I read I say a quick prayer and then I’m quiet. Sometimes I am quiet for just a little bit if the boys wake up, other days I get the opportunity to be quiet for quite while. But the challenge is to be quiet. When we are talking with someone, in order for us to listen, to really listen, we have to stop talking. Psalm 46:10 tells us to be still and know that I am God. I encourage you to simply be still and be quiet before God. There are some days when I can feel God stirring within me with such force that it takes my breath away. Other days I do not feel anything. But the point is to give God the chance! We need to give God the opportunity to speak to us. We need to work on being still before God.

Another way to help ensure we are fertile soil for God is through the act of fellowship. We are called to be in fellowship with others. We need to be in fellowship with others. Matthew 18:20 tells us that Jesus said, “And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I'll be there." I like that version from The Message, because it says you can be sure that I’ll be there. There is no if, you can be sure. That idea of two or more, that is fellowship. I firmly believe that it is through fellowship that we are strengthened by the hearts and minds of other believers. We need that communion of strength, that love and support of others to be strong, courageous witnesses for Christ. Look, a wise man once told me that “if you try and do this yourself, without the help of the Holy Spirit, I promise you will burn out!” I believe that! We need the fellowship of other believers.

And finally, in order to for us to remain fertile soil for God we need to observe the Sabbath. Deuteronomy 5:12-15 commands us to observe the Sabbath. (Read Scripture) We are all humans and our bodies, in order to perform as God intended, need to rest. If we are frayed, burned out, and exhausted then there is no way we can be at our absolute best. When I get tired, everything suffers. My quiet time is exchanged for a few more minutes of unbeneficial sleep, my time with God, being still, evaporates. And my focus and opportunity to be fertile soil for God is gone. We need rest. God rested and God commands us to rest. Now this is not a free pass to lie on the couch all day and watch TV. You see it is in that rest that we have the time to commune with God, to read Scripture, to pray, to recharge via the Holy Spirit. This is time that God wants to be in fellowship with us, with our undivided attention.


As we finish this time together I want to offer you a challenge. I want you to examine your life and your relationship with God. Not just today or this week, but frequently and see where you are. If you are not where you want to be then ask God for help. If you are, then ask God to help keep you there. It is up to us, to you and to me, to tell others about the love of Christ and to be God's mouthpiece. It is up to us to make sure we are doing everything we can to become and remain fertile soil for God to do with as God’s will sees fit. So I ask…How's your reception? Are you in tune with God?

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