Sunday, July 13, 2014

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

For ye received not the spirit of bondage again unto fear; but ye received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.

I have a confession to make: I am not very brave. Many of my friends would be quite shocked to know how shy I am, how difficult it is for me to step outside my comfort zone. It takes everything I have to try something new or to introduce myself to a stranger. Now, Iím not so afraid that I avoid other people or run away when approached. As a matter of fact, I am very friendly and open up rather quickly when someone speaks to me. Get me into a group of people where I am comfortable and Iím happy and free to be me. As a matter of fact, I won the ďMiss CongenialityĒ award at a weeklong conference I attended a long time ago. Thatís why my friends think Iím crazy when I say Iím shy. They see me when I am comfortable, but do not realize what it took for me to get there.

Now, I would love to be that person who can step out of my comfort zone and do the things I am afraid to do. I wish I had the courage to tell the guy sitting across the table in the waiting room of the dealership service center about my faith or to invite the lady who walks by the house every day to come in for a cup of tea. Iím not even willing to be pushy with my acquaintances: Iíll throw out the idea of having lunch or going on an adventure and then wait. I usually wait a long time; lunch never happens and I go on the adventure alone.

I donít think Iím that much different than everyone else. We are all afraid of the same thing: rejection. We donít like to step out of our comfort zone because at least inside we know what to expect. We donít want to be the first to strike up a conversation because we donít know how the person will react to what we have to say. We live in a world, sadly, where people are offended by the simplest things. We live in a world where someone can be fired for saying ďHave a blessed day.Ē

It is no wonder that Christians are afraid to share their faith. Jesus didnít make it appealing, either. Weíve heard repeatedly over the past few weeks how we will be rejected by people, authorities and even our own families. It is so much easier to scatter the seed where we know it will do some good, to share the Gospel with people we know are willing to listen.

I heard a story the other day about how a shortage of hops is going to cause problems for craft beer makers. See, craft beers, which are produced by small independent companies using traditional methods, tend to use far more hops than the mass produced beers for sale. As craft beers rise in popularity due to their uniqueness and stronger flavor, the supply of hops is dwindling. This is good news for the hops growers who are expanding their farms to supply the needs. One farmer said that his crops for the next three years have already been sold out, even before they are grown. He must hope for good growing seasons, and so do the beer producers who will rely on those harvests. A bad weather year and the whole system can collapse.

The hops farmer must do a good job with his planting, which includes not wasting any of his seed. He will take care to make sure every seed lands in good soil so as to produce a full harvest. He will protect his seed and tend to his seed until it is ready to be picked, to guarantee success not only for his business but for all those who rely on his product.

This is how we often think about todayís Gospel lesson. As a matter of fact, a few years ago I was thinking about this parable of the seeds, and the thought occurred to me that we have to prepare the soil. We donít want to waste our seeds, either. We want to scatter them to a place where they will take root and grow, so we avoid sharing the Gospel with people that we expect will reject it. We share our faith with others who have faith, joining in fellowship with other Christians and ďpreaching to the choir.Ē If we preach to strangers our seeds might be gobbled up, withered under the heat of the sun or chocked by the cares of the world. We donít want to waste something as precious as the Gospel.

Our scriptures for today give us a slightly different perspective, however. Isaiah writes, ďFor as the rain cometh down and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, and giveth seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.Ē Godís Word will accomplish what He means to accomplish with it.

I recently went to a state park and hiked the trail to the most beautiful grotto. I took my camera and photographed mossy rocks, cypress trees in the creek and wildflowers growing along the path. It was an unusual, almost foreign, landscape in Texas, which tends to be dry and desert-like. The bald cypress trees are amazing because they grow right in the middle of the water, weaving their roots together to hold each other solid and upright in the moving water. The swamp loving trees make excellent sermon illustrations, not only for their reliance on one another but also by their need for the ever-flowing water in which they live. As in the cypress tree, it is the ever-flowing Living water that gives Christians life.

We had an interesting discussion in Sunday School this week about the promise in Isaiah 55:13, ďInstead of the thorn shall come up the fir-tree; and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle-tree: and it shall be to Jehovah for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.Ē We use multiple translations in our class, often comparing the word choices and how they might change the meaning of the text. In this case, we noticed that different versions used different trees: this one (ASV) used fir-tree. New International Version uses juniper. English Standard Version uses cypress. One member of the class, thinking about the swamp cypress which is familiar to those of us in the south, preferred that choice, thinking about the necessity of the Living water for us to grow.

It is interesting, though, that in the case of Israel, it is a different type of cypress. The trees in Israel are actually quite drought resistant. The point of the choice is more about longevity and size. Isaiah says that it will be ďan everlasting sign.Ē The text shows us the difference between plants that last and plants that do not survive. God will plant seeds that will have a lasting impact on the world.

On a side-note, I would like to remind each of us to be very careful about how we choose to interpret the scriptures. We like to find deeply spiritual meanings and symbolism in the text, and there are often times when it is valuable to look for it. We should remember, however, that our interpretation of those deeply spiritual meanings and symbolism is often based on our own experiences and biases. While thereís nothing wrong with the idea that we, like the swamp trees, need the Living water to grow and to live, it is important not to let our limited human understanding limit the reality of God. Scripture interprets scripture, and while God is deep, spiritual and much of the scriptures are symbolic, the Truth of God is simple. Letís not complicate things with these details that donít usually matter.

One of the things I noticed during my trip to the state park is that there are some plants that actually do grow in rocky places. It is part of the cycle of nature. These plants find a crack in a rock or a tiny pocket caused by erosion and they take root. They break down the rock as they grow, leave behind organic materials as they die and form soil in which other seeds might fall, sprout and grow. I once saw a tree growing out of deep hole in a rocky shelf along a river; it seemed impossible, but the tree was taller than me and at least a few years old. Somehow it had enough of everything to grow, and as it grows it will continue to make that hole habitable for other plants.

See, we think we can guess where the seeds we scatter will grow, and we choose not to scatter seeds that we think will be rejected or that will be gobbled up, withered under the heat of the sun or chocked by the cares of the world. We donít know. We never know what God has planned. Godís Word does not return to Him void, and so He invites us to share it with excessive generosity. We arenít limited the way a farmer is limited. We donít have to worry about whether our seeds will produce enough crops to cover the needs of our customers. We only have to scatter the seed and let God make it grow.

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.

We make decisions about how to share our faith and the Gospel of Jesus Christ based on very human thoughts and expectations. We keep silent because we donít want to offend. We are afraid because we donít want to be rejected. We choose to tell only those we think will listen because we donít want to throw pearls before swine. Yet, God is not concerned about waste because His Word does not return to Him empty. If He intends for His Word to grow on the path, it will. He might actually want it to be gobbled up by that bird. If He intends for His Word to root in the rocky ground, it will. Perhaps the withering of that seed will establish the soil for the next heart. If He intends for it to grow in the thorns, perhaps He knows that the seed is for a cypress that will outlast the thorns and grow to last a thousand years. Who are we to guess what God has planned for the seeds we can sow? He is exceedingly generous and He is able to do the impossible.

Those of us who believe in God find it so difficult to believe that anyone could reject Him. How do you look at the world and not know that it was created by a Creator? How do you see sin and not realize that it takes someone greater than a human being to overcome it? How do you go through your day without knowing that there is a Redeemer willing and able to make things right in the world that you have messed up with your selfishness and self-centeredness?

Over the years, I have seen some pretty incredible things. 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 flowers grow bloom in a pot of rock without any soil to nourish the plant. I have seen babies smile their first smile and toddlers take their first steps. I have seen war and peace, hate and love. My life is no different or special than anyone elseís in this world. We have all witnessed the incredible power of God in the lives of people and His hand moving the whole of creation day by day. It is impossible for me to look at any aspect of this world and not see Godís sovereignty over it. When flowers grow, it is because God sent the sun and the rain. When kittens are born, it is because God has 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 God in all these things, many people do. Some 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 either 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 I see God is still active, loving and powerful.

Though it seems possible for people to do good things on our own, history has proven over and over again that people are for more likely to be selfish. Greed, lust, anger and hatred are natural responses to our experiences. We desire everything that will make us happy. Love, truth, unselfishness and peace are impossible for human flesh. Love brings pain, truth brings persecution, unselfishness brings rejection and peace very often brings death. We could never do it on our own. We need God.

When things become overwhelming for me in this world, I simply remember that God is in control. The psalmist today reminds us that 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? Yes, Iíve seen some incredible things in my life, but God has His hand in it all. He is there in the times of war and the times of peace. He is visible in the beauty and in the pain. God deserves our thanks and praise for all He has done. Let us rejoice and sing today.

And since He is such a great and awesome God, the real question we should be asking ourselves is why arenít we more bold with our witness in the world? Paul reminds us, ďFor ye received not the spirit of bondage again unto fear; but ye received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.Ē 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 makes the growth. He sends the sun and the rain; He sends someone to tend the heart and others 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.

St. Francis of Assisi is attributed with one of the favorite Christian quotations of many people. ďShare the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.Ē The idea that is put forth by this quote is that it is in our kindnesses and our good works that people will see Christ. While there is value in the command to live our Christian faith in real, tangible, physical ways, I see this as a dangerous cop-out. After all, human action will never save another human being. It is only by the name of Jesus that anyone can and will be saved. Our good works are a response to the Gospel, and it might help in preparing the soil for the Word. But they will never know about Jesus unless we tell them about Him. And they will never be saved unless they believe in Him. Lots of people do lots of good works, but God is calling us to do something more. He is calling us to speak His Word, to give a testimony of the great and wonderful works of the God who has created and redeemed the world.

Please join me in this prayer: Lord, make us brave. Give us courage to speak the Gospel to those who cross our paths. Help us to scatter Your seeds everywhere, even in the places we do not think it can grow. Help us to trust that Your Word will accomplish that which You intend and that it will always succeed in doing what You have sent it to do. Abba, Father, remind us that we are never alone, remind us that your Spirit joins with our spirit so that we can speak boldly with joy and praise You even when the work we do brings rejection and pain. We thank you Lord for trusting us with Your grace and for inviting us to be Your witnesses in the world. We ask all this in the name and for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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