Sunday, July 10, 2005

Sermon: Trinity 7 (Pentecost 8)

10 July 2005 at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church

Text: Matt 13:1-9, 18-23 (3 Year)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s text is the very familiar Parable of the Sower. In fact, it’s so familiar, there is a temptation to gloss over it. But it is so important – especially in our culture – when words are no longer considered powerful, and are, in fact, simply matters of interpretation. In fact, our current age is different than most of the centuries of the Christian Church in that most people in our time and place no longer believe words have concrete and unchanging meanings. Today, words are seen as flimsy expressions of opinion, and they can even mean the opposite of what the speaker of those words really means.

In his horrifying novel 1984, George Orwell describes a government department called the Ministry of Truth (whose job it was to lie) and the Ministry of Peace (whose job it was to make war). There were language police and thought police – because we all know that if one can control language, one can control how one thinks, and thus, how one behaves. Political correctness is based on this desire to control the words we use as a way of controlling our thoughts and behavior.

But what does Scripture say about words, and specifically about the Word of God?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us a little short story – and, of course, stories are all comprised of words – words with specific meanings. In this story, a farmer plants seeds by tossing them to and fro. Of course, the outcome depends on the circumstances of where it lands. If the seeds land on the road, they are exposed to being eaten by birds, and produce no crop. Those that fall in shallow, rocky soil spring up quickly, but quickly die off because they have no sturdy root system. The ones that fall in the thorny ground get choked off, and die for lack of sunshine. And the seeds that land on good soil not only grow and thrive, but at the end of their lifespan, will produce up to 100 new seeds, so the farmer can plant anew.

Of course, Jesus explains this story as an allegory, as a parable explaining how God’s Word works. His word is tossed about like seeds by preachers. And although every Word of God has power (just as every seed has the power to become a viable plant) – not every preached Word yields repentance, salvation, and eternal life. We ourselves can become impediments to preaching, either by allowing the devil to snatch the Word from our hearts, or by lacking depth by not being rooted into the Church – causing us to grow quickly only to be scorched at the first sign of trouble. We can also allow the cares and worries of our lives to choke out the little plant of faith as it presses its way toward heaven.

This little story is a warning to all of us hearers of the Word, and also a warning to preachers who think they are anything more than one who delivers God’s Word. A preacher cannot bring a sinner to repentance by being a good speaker, or a salesman, or a debater, or a clown. A preacher may have the best personality and the most charming presence in the pulpit, and yet no-one is converted; while at the same time, another preacher, a dry, dull, uninspiring preacher, may well bring the life-giving Gospel of our Lord to many.

The rock band The Who have a line from one of their songs: “It’s the singer not the song that makes the music move along.” That may well be true for singers. But when it comes to preachers of the Gospel, the opposite is true: “It’s the Gospel not the preacher that converts the wayward creature.” Now, if you hear that line on Bayou 105.7, I need to know about it.

And yet, the Word needs someone to speak it, to proclaim it, just as a seed needs a sower to cast it about.

The preacher is basically a parrot, a mouthpiece. He is authorized to speak, but only what has been given to him: the pure Word of God. His own opinions, thoughts, feelings, plans, strategies, and schemes mean nothing. Whether it’s Forty Days of Purpose, or Ablaze, or Seven Steps to Living At Your Full Potential, or some other spiritual success program – he has no business preaching it. It is only God’s Word that can deliver the goods.

The most frustrating thing for any preacher is the age-old problem (in fact, it’s so old, it’s name is in Latin) “Cur alii, alii non?” Why some, and not others? Why can two reasonable and intelligent people hear the same Gospel. One repents, the other does not. One believes, the other scoffs. One enjoys everlasting life, the other, damnation and hell? This is the age-old crux theologorum, the “Theologian’s Cross.” The fact that some people will not only not be saved by our preaching, but will actually be condemned to hell by our very words – is indeed a pastor’s burden. It’s the kind of thing that makes us look to heaven and ask “Why?”

Our Lord’s parable explains all of this – though perhaps not to our liking.

But look at what comfort this text offers us hearers and us preachers. It is not up to me whether or not people repent. It is the Word alone.

It is not up to you to “empower” yourselves to lead a Christian life – not by seven steps, 40 days, or by telling a hundred million people about Jesus by 2017. In fact, it’s not about big numbers on your part at all: it’s about the one sacrifice of the one begotten Son of God for you!

No, indeed, it’s not about your works (thank God!), for you are merely soil. The power is not in the soil, but in the seed. God does it all for you. He creates the seed, and he provides a sower to plant it within you. He waters you with Holy Baptism, and nourishes you with his Holy Supper. He covers you from Satanic assaults with the canopy of Holy Absolution, and continues to lovingly weed and tend you using the farmer’s preaching and pastoral care.

And contrary to our post-modern culture’s view that words mean nothing, God’s Word is secure and sure. God will not, no, he can not break his own promise. When God created the universe, he did it through his word: “Let there be light, and there was light.” “In the beginning was the Word.”

In our culture, we often think of words only as symbolic squiggles on a page. In the Hebrew language, the word for “word” and the word for “thing” are the same word. To put it another way, God speaks, and there is reality. God says: “let there be…” and there is.

So what does this mean for the Church? We gather here every Sunday to hear and respond in the liturgy (which really is God’s Word). And when God speaks, it is a reality. When God says: “I forgive you all your sins,” and when God says: “This is my body… This is my blood… for the forgiveness of sins,” he is not merely expressing a hope, or describing something – God’s Word creates the reality itself.

You are not merely being described as forgiven, dear friends, you are forgiven. These elements of bread and wine aren’t just symbols, they are reality. When we join the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven in singing the unending hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy,” we aren’t just pretending, we are indeed joining the heavenly hosts around the throne of God himself, in a way that our sin-limited reason cannot understand.

In our Old Testament reading, the preacher Isaiah proclaims the Word of the Lord, and he quotes God as saying: “So shall my word that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”

And Paul, in our Epistle explains what the purpose of the Word of God is: it’s all about creation. Just as the Word of God created all reality in the book of Genesis, it is the Word of God that is re-creating the universe, fixing the very thing we broke. God’s word in the book of Revelation describes what this new creation will be like. We are part of this great divine construction project. And it is being carried out by God’s Word.

This Word is there to both condemn and save, it is both Law and Gospel. Preachers are not to change this simple biblical formula, but are there to proclaim it. To those whose hearts are hard, like unfruitful soil, the Word of God condemns (while always seeking the repentance of the sinner). To those who do repent, whose hearts receive the seed like a fertile garden, the Word of God saves. And it does more than save! It brings growth. It brings fruit. It multiplies and benefits many.

Though it seems to the preacher some days that he is wasting his time, that the preaching of the Word of God is doing nothing – this is not so. Though words seem to the world to be worthless wisps of air, this is not so. Though man’s word is laced with lies and easily broken, not so with God’s word. The word of God is always potent, always full of power and might.

As the hymnwriter, the sainted Dr. Martin Franzmann, proclaims:

Thy strong word did cleave the darkness

At Thy speaking it was done.

For created light we thank Thee,

While Thine ordered seasons run.

Thy strong Word bespeaks us righteous;

Bright with Thine own holiness,

Glorious now we press toward glory,

And our lives our hopes confess.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us pray that our preachers may ever faithfully proclaim the Word of God, in season and out of season. And that we hearers may not despise it, but always gladly hear and learn it. Let us pray that the seed planted within us may be nourished, that our faith may grow, that our good works spring from us like fruits on a vine, and that even as we live out our lives on this side of the grave, we may always be a blessing to those around us. And all of this so that our almighty and merciful Lord may use his strong Word to carry out his work of re-creating the universe anew. All glory be to the Triune God alone, now and throughout eternity. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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