Sunday, July 12, 2020

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-13
Romans 8:12-17
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

What was sown on the good ground, this is he who hears the word and understands it, who most certainly bears fruit and produces, some one hundred times as much, some sixty, and some thirty.

It is very hot in Texas right now, and it is expected to get even hotter in the next few days. I confess that these hot temperatures can be difficult, but Iíd rather heat than cold. I do not like snow. I would rather deal with heat in the summer than cold in the winter. It is a bias, of course, from a horrid winter in Washington state and troubling chest issues as a child. I decided years ago that I had seen enough snow, and I have happily enjoyed our mild Texas winters even though it means hot and dry Texas summers. Of course, the warm, dry weather of Texas has its own problems, but Iím happy to leave the snow to the northerners.

I suppose I would not mind snow as much if it would fall in specific places. I love the beauty of the fresh snowfall on the winter branches of trees. I like the snow that gathers on the lawns when it is crisp and white. I enjoy seeing snowmen standing guard in front of houses. But I donít like slushy roads or sidewalks that need to be shoveled. I donít like the dangerous roads that are slippery from ice. I could happily live in a place where the snow avoids the places we walk and drive.

That place doesnít exist. The snow falls where it will fall, so does the rain. We have had fairly decent rainfall this year, although it has been awhile since we are seeing the first signs of drought around the state. Thereís some rain out there today, but it is unlikely that weíll see any at our house. One time we had spotty showers in the area and the weatherman suggested that those who saw some rain should buy a lottery ticket because they were the winners of the day. The rest of us wished we were so lucky.

The problem with this type of rain is that some of these storms pour so heavily on the parched ground which is so solid that the water just rolls right off into the streets and gullies. Though the rain is watering the surface, we need a slow, deep soaking rain to see a real difference. If it does not rain again, the small amount of water that has replenished the surface will disappear when the sun shines brightly again. The officials and reporters have had to remind us repeatedly that despite this refreshing rain, it is still very dry out there.

The passing showers may not do much to help with the impending drought, but we rejoice when we see it because we know that every drop helps. Even if it doesnít do much for our lawns, those drops are part of the cycle which will eventually lead to the rainfall that will make a difference. The run off ends up in the aquifer where the water we use daily is stored. Relief might not come for weeks or months, but that drop will do what God has sent it to do today.

Despite the negatives, any rainfall is a refreshing and positive change in our weather. The temperatures go down, and the grass looks a little greener. The roads are washed clean of the dust and grime. There is always a pleasant smell in the air. The world around us becomes fresh and new. Yes, the water runs off in some places, but every drop of rain makes a difference. When God sends rain, it is never in vain.

The text from Isaiah is familiar to us. The chapter begins with the call for those who are thirsty to seek God; He offers freely and abundantly everything that is His. In todayís passage, we are reminded that everything that comes from God is productive. God is actively involved in His creation, and He is faithful to His promises. His will shall be done; He will make certain it is. Isaiah tells us that God has promised that we will see cypress instead of thorns and myrtles instead of briers. In other words, instead of plants that are useless and damaging, God will make the world productive and useful.

We sometimes think that our words just run off other people just like those summer showers on the parched earth. It seems like they are unheard or they donít reach beyond the surface. It sometimes seems as though our witness is in vain because it doesnít make a difference. We might see a bit of hope, but it soon dries up and disappears. We might think there is a glimmer of faith, but it quickly disappears as those two whom we have spoken face hard times or doubt.

God says that His Word will not be in vain. We simply donít know what it was meant to accomplish at that moment in time. We want to see a difference, to know that we have done a good thing. God knows, that is what matters, and sometimes the changes come very slowly. Sometimes the change comes so slowly that we never see it happen. But we can rest in the knowledge that Godís Word does not go back to Him void. We can live in joy knowing that our witness is planting the seeds or watering the fruit of what God is doing in the world.

Did you go see fireworks anywhere this weekend? Many of the usual celebrations were canceled, but there were a few opportunities. Fireworks are beautiful and they always make my mouth drop in amazement. When was the last time we did that over Godís creation? I have watched the lightening of a thunderstorm that is even more awesome than the best fireworks show. I have seen a sunflower that grew ten feet high with a head over two feet in diameter. I have seen kittens born. I have seen sunsets that fill the sky with every color of the rainbow. I have seen babies smile their first smile and toddlers take their first steps. I have seen the starry night from the top of a mountain. Despite seeing all these incredible things, I sometimes forget the source of all that is good and beautiful is our God.

We witness the incredible power of God in the lives of people and in the whole of creation day by day. When flowers grow, it is because God sent the sun and the rain. When kittens are born, it is because God knitted them in the wombs of their mothers. When the sky is filled with color at the close of the day, it is because God keeps the heavens moving according to their purpose as they count the days and the seasons as He designed them to do.

Unfortunately, it is easy to miss seeing God in the world. Many people do. Some people outright reject the idea that God even exists. Creation can take care of itself; we do not need something or someone greater than ourselves to explain the way the world works. Others believe that God created everything and stepped back, leaving us to go it on our own. After all, doesnít the suffering of this world prove that God has no power or has refused to take responsibility? However, it is even in the midst of the pain and turmoil of this world that we can see God is still active, loving, and powerful.

I love to watch the fireworks, but I am not so keen on the noise and the crowds that come with it. We often make ourselves comfortable at home and watch the fireworks in our neighborhood, or we find something on the television. It is never quite as impressive as the bigger shows, but we still ďoooĒ and ďahhhĒ over them.

How much more, then, should we notice the magnificent things God has done in this world? He created all things, and His hand still moves the waters of the rivers and brings life to the fields. He saves us from ourselves, forgives our sins, and shows us the ways of righteousness and truth. How can we go through any day, looking at the amazing things that God has done and not praise Him for His mercy and grace? I have seen some incredible things in my life, but God has His hand in it all. He is there in the good times and the bad. He is visible in the beauty and in the pain. God deserves our thanks and praise for all He has done.

Yet, there are still those who canít, or who refuse, to see.

Have you ever had to deal with a young child who has fallen and hurt himself? Every parent knows the frustration. Children react with intense emotion and it is impossible to understand what is wrong. They become hysterical and cannot even talk. I have searched intently and yet never really find the problem. They scream so loud and so long that they canít say anything and they canít even hear. Iíve searched intently to find the problem, only to discover it was really nothing. Iíve become impatient; I have even angrily insisted the child stop crying so that I can understand what is wrong. That never helps. The more we insist a child talk, the more agitated they become.

In todayís passage, Jesus said, ďHe He who has ears to hear, let him hear.Ē A hurt child has ears, but they donít have ears that hear. You speak words of comfort to help them to calm down so that you might understand the problem, but they just canít listen. They only know that they are hurt and they canít hear anything that might help make them feel better.

The people to whom Jesus was speaking may not have been screaming children, but they were often as deaf as a hurting child. They heard the words that Jesus spoke in His stories and sermons, but they did not really hear what He was saying. Jesus was sometimes very obvious in the message, giving the people very pointed and blunt information about His mission and ministry in the world, but they heard His words from their own point of view. When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, they thought He was talking about the restoration of Jewish independence. He was talking about a different kind of Kingdom.

Thatís why Jesus used so many parables to teach about how to live as the people of God. Parables help us listen more deeply. We have to look at the story from a different perspective. We might know and understand the earth-bound concepts, like in this one about planting seed, but we have to think more deeply about what it means in our daily lives. What is the seed? What is growing? What are the path, the rocks, and the thorns? Jesus was not giving the people farming advice. He wasnít a farmer and most of His listeners werenít farmers. He was giving them a parable to help them see Godís Kingdom in terms that they would understand. But to understand, they really had to listen to what He was saying, not just the words He said.

Springtime is the time to plant seeds. It is typical for preschools and early education classrooms to do different projects to learn about growth. One idea is to plant some flower seeds in a small paper drinking cup. This project is usually done far enough before Motherís Day so the children have a gift to give to their mom. Another project is more visible. You can put a wet cotton ball and a bean seed in a plastic bag, then hang it on the window. After just a few days the bean seeds break open and begin to grow. The seed had everything it needed: soil (the cotton ball), water and sunshine. Once the bean had ďsproutedĒ we sent the plant home to be transplanted into real dirt. It is fun to see the growing process through the plastic bag.

I am not a gardener. I usually buy some potted flowers to set on my front porch, but I havenít planted anything in a garden for years. I donít have a green thumb. The plants tend to die because I donít water then enough or I water then too much. I like to buy flowers that are already mature so that I have color and beauty immediately. Iím not very patient, so Iím better off getting the plants when they are pretty well established so that theyíll be beautiful for a little while.

There are many different kinds of seeds. Some have to be planted in the dirt or they will not grow. The seed needs a period of time in the darkness of the earth to Ďdieí so that it might sprout and grow. Many crops are planted in fields in long rows. The plow turns up the dirt, the farmer lays down the seed in straight lines, and then he covers the seeds with the dirt. Others are different. Grain is not planted with such precision. The farmer turns up the dirt on the field and then scatters the seed with his hand or a machine. The farmer might rake the ground to keep the seed from blowing away, but it does not have to be buried under the dirt. This is an easier way to plant seed, but there are disadvantages.

When you scatter seed, you canít control where every grain lands. Most of the seed falls on the good soil, but even the most careful farmer will lose a percentage to the path, the rocks, and the thorns. This is what Jesus was talking about in the parable. It would be impossible for a farmer to plant each one individually; it would be too time consuming and impractical. Unfortunately, it means some of the seed will be lost. Jesus compared the work of a farmer to the work of those sharing the Good News in the world. The seed is the Word of God. The soil is the hearts of men.

Unfortunately, we try planting one seed at a time, carefully placing the Good News only in the Ďheartsí of those we know will take it. We are too afraid that we might insult or offend someone. We are too afraid that weíll be rejected. We are too afraid that the people will not receive the words we say or that we arenít the right people to give it to them. We are imperfect, so we wonder how God could possibly use us to share His Word with the world. We donít have enough knowledge of the Bible or of the message. We are afraid to waste a good word because we think it might fall on the path, the rocks, or in the thorns to be devoured, withered, or choked. We are too shy to scatter the seed, so we keep it to ourselves or share it selectively.

Jesus says to scatter the seed because enough will fall on good soil. It is a matter of trust. We trust that God will make sure there is soil, water, and sunshine to make it grow. Just like the rain, Godís Word never goes back to Him void, so your witness is never in vain.

It amazes me to think of all the people who heard Jesus speak, who saw Him face to face and looked into His eyes, and yet never believed. We have to consider, however, how we would have responded to Jesus if we were them. After all, He wasnít teaching about a Kingdom like the one they expected. Would we have believed? Would we have understood? Would we have responded to His grace? A few did, but many did not. Would we have had ears to hear?

Communication is so important and yet is often the most difficult part of any relationship. Too often there are things that block the message from getting through. Jesus did not speak in parables to purposely cause them not to understand. Instead, they could not hear because of their hardness of heart. They werenít looking toward God with hearts and minds open to His word; their own biases, pressures, and traditions blocked their hearing. Even today, we spend too much time making excuses or thinking of a response rather than listening to what God has to say.

Matthew let us in on the secret. After speaking the parable to the crowds, the disciples asked Jesus why He used parables. The disciples did not understand: why not teach clearly so that everyone would understand? Jesus knew that there are always some who feel that they are righteous on their own account; they donít think they need mercy and grace and live in haughty pride. For these people, the parables are nothing but nonsense because they have no faith. Godís Word speaks for itself, but could not grasp how it applied to their lives. They heard, but they did not have ears to hear.

The disciples were given a spiritual understanding of Godís message because they had faith. They had ears to hear. But many had hardened their hearts and they could not see or understand. God uses very human, natural examples to help His children understand what the Holy Spirit is teaching them. He uses His creation to explain that which should be obvious. Everything we know about God comes from God Himself. At times, He gives us tangible examples that help us hear with faith. There will always be those who reject because they are not willing to listen, but Godís Word is always productive.

God sends His rain to water the earth. It might seem, especially to those living in a drought, that God has forgotten us. But it will rain. At times I wonder if there isnít a drought of another kind: a drought of Godís Word. But I know He will send His Word into the world and that those who have listening ears will hear. His Word will produce fruit much greater than the seed planted, bringing life to many. There are paths to deal with, stones to move and thorns to eliminate, but God can make it happen. His Word is productive and it accomplishes exactly what He means it to do. He is, in every way, worthy of praise. And He is generous.

There a story about Chuck Colson. Chuck was invited into a prison to preach the Gospel. He carefully prepared a message filled with the Gospel to share with those who were lost in darkness and sin. There were two thousand prisoners in the prison and about three hundred were expected to listen to him preach. Chuck would have liked to preach to every prisoner, but he was excited about the opportunity. Several days before he was scheduled to appear, the officials discovered hidden weapons and they locked down the entire prison. When Chuck arrived at the chapel, there were only a few men waiting to hear the message, and they were all Christians. He was discouraged and was ready to just give the men a few words of encouragement.

He noticed a video camera and thought perhaps he was being recorded for the prison library. He decided to give the entire message as planned in the hope that one day someone might view the video and hear Godís love and forgiveness. After the visit was complete, Chuck was told that the video would be aired to all the inmates at a later time. In the end, every one of the 2200 prisoners saw the video, not just once, but as many as a dozen times. Chuck trusted that Godís Word would accomplish the purpose for which it was sent, despite the disappointing circumstances he faced. He gave the whole Word even though he thought at first it might be a waste of time.

All it takes is one seed to change a life. Sometimes we donít even realize we are scattering many seeds.

Our God is a great and awesome God. He is faithful and generous. So why arenít we bolder with our witness to the world? Paul reminds us, ďFor you didnít receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, ĎAbba! Father!íĒ We are not alone in this world. God has given us His Spirit. We need not be afraid. We will be rejected; of this we can be sure. Jesus warned us that it would happen. But that is no reason to stop speaking His Word into the world. We might speak to a thousand people and never see faith grow. Thatís ok, because it is God who causes the growth. He sends the sun and the rain; He sends someone to tend the heart and another to bring in the harvest. It is never up to us to decide who should hear the Good News because God can and will make it accomplish exactly what He sent it to do.

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