Sunday, February 07, 2010

Sermon: Sexagesima

7 February 2010 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 8:4-15

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

The best stories are simple, and yet profound. The Lord’s Parable of the Sower is a prime example.

There are very few elements in this tale: a farmer, some seed, and four places where the seed lands. In three of the four situations, there are complications that result in failure. In only one case does the seed not only germinate, but grow, mature into fruit, and reproduce itself in a multitude of new seeds, so as to repeat the process.

Such a basic and barebones tale – and yet what a treasure trove of revelation about God and life and the kingdom! From our Lord’s simple little story, we learn about preaching, the Word of God, salvation, the devil, testing, the fruit of good works, sanctification and growth in the Christian life, patience, and the propagation of God’s love.

Our Blessed Lord reveals to us deep and profound theology: salvation by grace alone, the efficaciousness of preaching, the nature of evil, the relationship of faith to salvation, the theology of the cross, and the Christian’s vocation of bearing evangelical good fruit. All summed up in seventy five words as translated into English from Luke’s version of the parable. Christians have been considering, studying, teaching, preaching, and praying this passage for two millennia, and we never run out of things to say about it.

For this is God’s Word. And the power and efficiency of that Word is summed up in the image of the seed. One little kernel in the hands of a rather careless farmer has the power to create a world full of fruit-bearing plants. The Word of God carries its power within, self-contained, and unseen by the eye. But when proclaimed by a preacher, and when making contact with a hearer, the result is as natural and predictable as a seed sinking into soil.

But notice all the impediments and dangers lurking about, threatening to prevent the seed from becoming what its Maker designed and programmed it to be in its fullness. Three of the Lord’s four examples do not end well for the seed and the life it bears within.

In the first, the Word cannot penetrate through to the heart of the hearer, and the devil is able to pluck it away. This is what happens when hearts are hard and people make themselves impenetrable. In the second, the mixed conditions of the heart bear a mixed result – rapid growth followed by rapid death, thanks to a shallowness and rootlessness, a lack of discipline for the long haul that becomes a broken, lost faith in a time of trial. In the third, a triad of “cares, riches, and pleasures” conspire to choke out the growth that the Word of God creates, resulting in immature fruit and an eventual falling away.

And these tragic outcomes continue to play themselves out in the same way even today, nearly twenty centuries after our Lord’s warning.

In the example of the thorny soil, the Word of God is preached and it is heard. The transaction from sower to soil, from preacher to hearer, is made. Such a faith is even watered by Holy Baptism and made to grow. The soil does not make the seed sprout, for only the Lord’s creative power within the Word itself can do it, and does do it. And yet, in spite of the Lord’s power in the seed and in the growing plant, if the hearer of the Word surrounds himself and overly concerns himself with “thorns,” that is, the kinds of things that have the potential to choke the plant, it should be no surprise to see that a person falls away.

“Cares, riches, and pleasures of life” can often prove fatal to a Christian. The word translated as “cares” means “worries” and “anxieties.” And in this fallen world, what soil is without some of these thorns? And yet, wallowing in our worries, allowing our concerns and burdens to take precedence over hearing God’s Word, permitting our fears and anxieties to cause us to shrink from God’s Word is a formula for killing the New Adam the Lord has implanted within us by the Word. Our Lord is warning us not to do this!

Depression is no reason to flee the church. Difficulties in life are no reason to distance oneself from God’s Word. Times of struggle and temptation are especially the times when you need to make the Word of God a priority. Do not allow these thorns to become an entanglement to the Gospel! This is exactly what Jesus is warning us against, dear brothers and sisters!

And likewise with the thorns of “riches.” One does not need to be wealthy to allow riches to choke out God’s Word. Poor people can be as greedy as the rich. The Lord has given us six days to labor, and a seventh to rest. While we must do what we must to survive and take care of our families, we must not allow the seed of God’s Word to be choked out by the anxieties of making money. Our Lord Himself tells us not to ask “What shall we eat?” and “What shall we drink?” and “What shall we wear?” – reminding us that birds do not have barns, and flowers are clothed better than King Solomon. What profit is it to gain the world and lose one’s soul? Dear Christians, do not take God’s Word lightly. Grab hold of the seed. Treasure it. Water it. Nurture it. Make it a priority. Refuse to let it go – not for love or money – for it is true love and it is eternal treasure.

There is another class of thorns according to our Blessed Lord: “pleasures of life.” This is a little tricky to translate. It can be understood as “passions” or “lusts” – but they need not be sexual. For pleasure is subjective. How it manifests itself will be different in each person. No matter what your pleasure is, your joy, your passion; no matter how innocent it is, no matter how beneficial it may even be to the kingdom in and of itself – if it chokes off the Word of God, it is a death-trap – and our Lord tells us to cut it off. For it is better to enter the kingdom blind or maimed than to be cast into hell.

The triple thorns of “cares, riches, and pleasures” are especially dangerous to us, dear friends. We live in a high-stress, high-anxiety culture. In spite of our recent economic downturn, we remain one of the wealthiest nations on earth, surrounded by countless distractions to draw us away from God’s Word and to lure our resources away from the Lord and to our own selfish desires. And we are a people of many hobbies and interests – with more leisure time than any people in history. Indeed, we are surrounded by thorns.

There is an old saying: “Before you complain that the roses have thorns, rejoice that the thorns have roses.” And while this may be a clever turn of phrase to remind us to be optimistic, we must remember where the thorns came from in the first place, dear friends. Thorns are manifestations of sin, a curse of the Fall. They are nothing to rejoice over, philosophize into a good, nor excuse as “normal.”

The sacrificial lamb that was slaughtered as a symbolic substitutionary atonement for the boy Isaac was captured headfirst in thorns. The real Sacrificial Lamb (“that takest away the sin of the world”) that was the true substitutionary atonement for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and even the whole world, our Savior Jesus Christ, was crucified with His “sacred head now wounded” by thorns.

There will be no thorns when paradise is restored.

And this restored paradise, this new heaven and new earth, this remade and reborn universe bereft of sin, Satan, and death, is why it is so important to clear out the thorns and give the devil no stronghold to use against us. We rid ourselves of thorns by repenting, by allowing the Word of God access to our ears, to our hearts, and to our lives.

God has made us a priority, dear friends, and so we are freed to make Him a priority. The Word made flesh has borne the pain and shame of the thorns so that we might live without thorns. The Word of God comes to us to teach us to discern between good and rocky soil so that we might seek to be rid of the rocks which make our faith shallow and rootless, instead seeking the rock of St. Peter’s good confession that protects, rather than impedes, the implantation of the Word within our hearts. And the good Word softens our hearts, so that the Word does not lie vulnerable to Satanic counterattack as we push God away – instead yielding a place for Him to bore into us, grow within us, and bear fruit through us – a hundredfold.

Let us offer thanks and praise for our Lord’s warnings, for His wisdom, and for His Word – the Word that is the Seed of the woman who crushes the serpent’s head, the Seed who has become the vine to our branches, the Seed cast by the sower who “sows; his reckless love / Scatters abroad the goodly seed, / Intent alone that all may have / the wholesome loaves that all men need.”

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Amen.

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

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