Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
There is an eerie parallel between the political and cultural campaigns of modern times and what we find in today’s readings. It lies in the sense that much of our preference in politics lies in the heart and in the instinct. We may be persuadable of a case when we have no personal or emotional commitment, but otherwise when our interests and our futures are at stake, then our political arguments become bitter exchanges of invective, the scoring of points off one another while the areas of real concerns are contemptuously swept aside.
In so many of these things, we are already pre-disposed to hear one side of a case and to dismiss the other side un-considered if not unheard.
And what is true of our politics is even more true of our faith. Here also we hear what we want to hear, and even more critically, we hear only what we can hear. It is as if we become deaf to some things and alert only to things to which we are already attuned.
And this is where it becomes dangerous, for if we hear only according to our inclinations, and especially when those inclinations are governed by self and selfish demands and appetites, then our view of our city and our society will also be governed by blinkered self-interest.
This leads to a social, a cultural and a political dead end.
Paul was sensitive to this but on his own could not change it. It was here that he became acutely aware of his BUT GOD perspective. On his own Paul was morally and socially and culturally adrift, yet God had indeed intervened to save and give new focus and meaning to life.
It is here that we find that the reading from Isaiah comes into play. God would speak, yet to ears that are dumb and eyes that are blind, His words are meaningless: at best a background noise that is irritating and distracting.
But this is the point. God’s words are not just vain utterings into a mindless void. They are not uttered as an exercise in existential futility. Rather, they have meaning and purpose. They not only communicate but they create, they inspire, they give life and order to what is otherwise background noise and cacophony.
It is not for nothing that the Bible starts with God – and the God who spoke with the result that things happened. God spoke and it was so.
In Jesus, God has spoken with particular clarity. Jesus is one whom we can approach, pray to, whose person and mission are expressed to us in the words of the scriptures, and if we will read them with hearts willing to be taught then we will indeed receive and learn. In Jesus we indeed approach God, heart to heart.
And all this brings us to Jesus’ teaching and His use of parables. They were there both to reveal and to conceal. To those willing and waiting to hear the things of God, they reveal and illustrate, while those already wise in their own eyes will find them confusing and apparently contradictory.
Hence Jesus’ parable of the sower and His explanation of it. For this is a teaching about how God speaks and how we listen and then respond. Some have called it the parable of the soil – and I would not argue the point.
Jesus points to 4 kinds of ground and 4 kinds of response.
The first is the seed falling on the path, there to be trampled on. This is seed which is rejected out of hand, and is not even considered. It is regarded as foolishness and absurdity, and no educated, thinking or sensitive person could possibly pay attention to it. It is certainly not going to be fashionable or lead to advancement in life. Such a person will be self-sufficient in all things and will have no need for God in any part of life.
Then there is the seed falling on rocky ground. This seed does gain a reception, and at first it is attractive. It may lead a person into thinking about God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. But then it is tested, and it suffers from lack of root or moisture. This is where doubts and temptations come in. This is where theological games get played, and when faced with adversity in any aspect of life a person may indeed lose heart and lose hope. The faith once joyful now withers away until nothing is left.
Then there is the seed falling among thorns and into soil that is cluttered by other distractions – the soil where thorns grow up and throttle the good seed. It suffers from competition for soil nutrients and for rainfall and indeed sunlight.
This is the soil which also produces a growth and indeed even a foliage, but nothing comes to maturity. Such fruit is small and hard, and of little practical value. The competition from the thorns is too great – whether this is the business of earning a living, the entertainments and distractions of leisure, the demands of family and friends. These may indeed press upon the seed and throttle it before it can become established. But the result is the same: a stunted growth with little fruit and which falls away under pressure.
Finally there is the good soil. Deep, fertile, clear of rocks and free of thorns. This is the soil which can receive the word and which will allow it to germinate. The initial work may be hidden as the seed goes deeper into the soil and germinates, putting down its roots. It is a soil willing and ready to receive, without pre-conditions. It is willing to nurture the seed, to protect it from the heat of the day and the frost of the night. It may have had to be cleared of rocks and thorns by earlier efforts.
This is also the soil that will be fruitful, and in some areas more fruitful than others. Jesus here speaks of the quality of the soil and not its productivity or fertility.
Each of us represents one of the forms of soil of Jesus’ parable. But each can also be improved to receive the word: we can pray to be cleared of stones and thorns, and indeed to be protected from trampling. And indeed nothing in this is too far from the purposes of God – the depth or the reach of it in changing our own ability to receive and to be fruitful in that same Word.