Sunday, February 19, 2017
Luke 8:4-15; 2 Corinthians 11:19 – 12:9; Isaiah 55:10-13
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is the Sower, and the parable you have just heard is His Seed, His Word. Your ears and your hearts are the soil: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” All soils “hear,” for hearing is passive and receptive, but not all soils are fruitful. Indeed, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” And, no soil is called or fruitful apart from the Seed of the Sower, the Word of the LORD.
A great crowd of soils was gathered around the Sower, all having ears to hear, and the Sower began to sow, Jesus began to preach. Now, an enlightened, wise, and efficient sower sows his seed only in the best of soils. Not so our Lord Jesus. Jesus sows His Word-Seed indiscriminately, equally, and liberally upon all types of soils, without any regard to the type or condition of the soil whatsoever – “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 spout, 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.” Ah, did you catch that? Men of wisdom count success only in that which produces the desired result of a fruitful harvest, but the LORD counts success even when soily ears and hearts do not bear fruit. How can such foolishness be? The Word of the LORD never fails; it always accomplishes its purpose. Either it is received in Spirit-created faith and bears fruit, or it is hindered, refused, and rejected in unbelief. Isn’t it amazing that the all-powerful and all-sufficient Word of God can be hindered, refused, and rejected? And yet, the LORD “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” And so, the Lord sows indiscriminately, equally, and liberally upon all types of soils, without any regard to the type or condition of the soil whatsoever. Indeed, one of the purposes for which the Word of the LORD goes forth, Jesus warns, is that “seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” For, when the Word of the LORD is rejected, the soily heart of a man returns to what it was before – hard, dead, and fruitless. Nevertheless, in the divine mercy, patience, and forbearance of the LORD, He keeps on sowing, even when His Word-Seed is hindered, refused, and rejected in unbelief.
And so here is an aspect of this parable that typically goes unrecognized and unconsidered: Who does the plowing? At least in three of the conditions of soil Jesus names, all but the trodden path, the soil has already been broken up and plowed, prepared to receive the goodly Seed. But, who has done the plowing? As Luther explains in the Small Catechism, it is the Holy Spirit who has His hand on the plow: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Indeed, the Holy Spirit is the active person in and through the Word-Seed of the LORD, Jesus Christ, the Sower and the Seed. Thus, the plowing, the sowing, the fruit-bearing, and, ultimately, the harvest, are the LORD’s. Indeed, the fact that there are various soils in various states of preparedness is indicative that the Sower has been this way before. The present condition of the soils reflects what has been done with the goodly Seed the Sower has sown yesterday, today, and tomorrow for as many tomorrows as the LORD may in His mercy grant, desiring that all might be saved.
For, once the Holy Spirit has plowed, once the Sower has sown His goodly Seed, there is work to do – work in cooperation with the Holy Spirit in retaining what has been plowed and sown. Mind you, and mind you strongly and assuredly – WE DO NOT COOPERATE IN ANY WAY IN OUR JUSTIFICATION OR IN THE PRESERVATION OF OUR JUSTIFICATION, but that is purely and entirely the work of the Holy Spirit who has “called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Nonetheless, as we confess in the Formula of Concord concerning Free Will, “As soon as the Holy Spirit has begun His work of regeneration and renewal in us through the Word and holy Sacraments, we can and should cooperate through His power, although still in great weakness (FC II, 65).” Just a few verses following today’s parable, St. Luke records Jesus’ exhortation, “Take care then how you hear.” And then, in the following chapter, Jesus warns, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
We see this in action as Jesus describes the conditions of three types of soil, two of which, although initially receptive to the goodly Word-Seed, even resulting in living and growing faith, nevertheless remain fruitless. Working backwards, there is the thorny soil – “those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” That is to say that the Word of the LORD and faith have competition in such soily hearts, all the things, people, pursuits, and passions that you are tempted to place before the LORD and His Word. These are the things that keep people from the Word and the Sacraments on Sunday, that keep them from taking time for meditation on the Holy Scriptures and prayer, that tempt them to set up idols that demand their fear, love, and trust before and above God. Faith in such hearts gets choked out and strangled. While it may continue, it does not and cannot bear the fruits of faith and thus is counted as no faith at all.
Then there is the rocky soil – “those who, when they hear the Word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.” Surely, lack of root and moisture are just as dangerous to young and growing faith as are thorns and weeds. Again, faith is present, alive, and growing, but it is not being nourished. Such it is with Christians who neglect their faith and starve it by not drinking deeply from the well of God’s Word and receiving His Sacraments. Either ignorantly or willfully they refuse to put on the armor of God and so they remain weak and defenseless against the attack of the Evil One. And, when trial and tribulation, disease, unemployment, death come upon them, they have no deep and strong root and so are uprooted and swept away in the torrential flood of despair. Likewise, when the wisdom of the world attacks their faith like the scorching sun, having not the moisture of the Word of the LORD, their faith withers and dies.
And last of the three unfruitful soils, there is the hard-packed soil of the path – “those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the Word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.” Do not think as the Calvinists and Enthusiasts do that some are predestined to be the path and cannot be plowed and planted, believe, bear fruit and be saved. No, but we were all the path at one time, and some of us have likely returned to path-like status one or more times throughout our pilgrimage. No, there is hope even for the path, for the Sower continues to sow His Word-Seed even where it has been rejected in the past – Thanks be to God for His grace and mercy and patience! Perhaps what you should ponder more when considering the path is that the devil is eager to steal the Word of the LORD from your hearts. He doesn’t want you to believe, and he uses a multitude of very creative and inventive tactics to keep the Word from implanting itself within your hearts and minds: distractions, pleasures, and entertainment; boredom, work, and pragmatism; the false wisdom of men which we consider enlightenment and scientific fact; personal pettiness concerning the pastor, his personality, voice, preaching style, etc.; self-righteousness which tempts you to puff yourself up with pride while looking down on others with disdain and contempt, instead of pity, mercy, compassion, and love. Again, unlike the Calvinists and Enthusiasts, we must not believe that if we have once believed that we cannot fall from faith. No, the devil is just as relentless in seeking to devour you as your LORD is in saving you. Yet, there is still hope for those who have fallen away, for the Sower keeps on sowing until the day and hour the LORD has appointed for the harvest. Therefore, you must “take care how you hear” and keep your hand to the plow without looking back.
But, “some [seed] fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” Remember, faith also “grew” in the thorny and rocky soil, but remained fruitless. Only the soil of faith that produces fruit does Jesus call “good soil.” Moreover, the good soil not only produces fruit, but it produces a miraculous abundance of fruit, a “hundredfold.” This is in accord with the teaching of St. James that “faith apart from works is dead,” and “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” It’s very simple, plain, orthodox, confessional, Lutheran, Christian doctrine that faith – true, living, and saving faith – always produces fruit, good works that serve the neighbor and glorify God. It is enough, it is sufficient for justification that you have faith, but faith is never alone, but is always active, always working, always bearing fruit. Thus, Jesus teaches concerning the good soil, “they are those who, hearing the Word, hold it fast in a an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.”
Again, the Holy Spirit plows and prepares the soil your heart. And, Jesus, the Sower, sows the Seed of His Word into your heart and makes it fruitful. The LORD is Sower and the Seed. You are the soil, and you are His, your faith is His work, and the fruit you bear is His fruit which serves your neighbor and gives glory to the LORD alone. While your faith, your New Man, indeed cooperates with the work of the Holy Spirit in and through you, your Old Man, your sinful and corrupted flesh cooperates with the devil to return the soil of your heart to the hard-packed path once again. There is nothing that you can do to change the condition of your soily heart, but the Holy Spirit must continually plow, the Son must continually sow, and so you are preserved in faith unto salvation by holding the Word of the LORD fast in an honest and good heart and bearing fruit with patience. Thus, the Christian faith and life is one of humility, repentance, and perseverance through all adversity: through trial and tribulation, through the thorny temptations of the flesh, the passions, and desires; through the rocky, faith-compromising vices of boredom and complacency, self-righteousness, pride, and idolatry. These are natural to your Old Man, and the LORD will permit them to befall you that, by the Holy Spirit, your faith may be strengthened, that the rocks may be uprooted, the thorns pulled out, that the root of your faith may grow deeper and stronger in Him, and you bear His fruit, a hundredfold, to the glory of His Holy Name.
O God, the strength of all who put their trust in You, mercifully grant that by Your power we may be defended against all adversity; through Jesus Christ, You Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit one God, now and forever.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.