As you have received the seeds of faith and hope; go now into God’s world to scatter the seeds of reconciliation and peace, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
The Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-9; 18-23):
“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop--a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear…
“Listen then to what the parable of the Sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
We often understand this parable as talking about evangelism – as a picture of the Gospel being scattered across the earth, and growing to fruitfulness when it lands on good soil. But as I looked at it more closely, I’ve concluded that this is actually a parable of discipleship. Here’s why. In three of the four examples Jesus uses, the seed is “received” and begins to grow. The seed that fell on the “rocky places” is “received with joy.” To interpret, that person expressed faith in Jesus, prayed a prayer of salvation, and would have been reported as “successfully evangelized.” The seed that fell among the thorns also rooted and began to grow. This person also “became a Christian.” And of course, the final seed which yielded a harvest is the third of the four that began to grow.
If three of the four “became Christians,” and if the point of the parable is what happened after that point, I think we can safely conclude that this is a story of discipleship and not primarily evangelism.
So what is this discipleship thing all about?
As I study Scripture, the one constant measure I see of growing discipleship is obedience. Jesus says if we love Him, we’ll obey Him; if we desire to be His disciples, we’ll follow Him. The parable of the Sower concludes that the “disciple” is one from whom there is a harvest. The very ideas of faith and trust are meaningless unless they translate into action, in less they affect how you and I live on a daily basis, unless they bear fruit for God’s Kingdom. James writes that faith without actions, by which he means doing the things we are commanded to do, is meaningless. John writes that we know we love God when we look at our lives and see obedience. [reference]
As we talk about pursuing the goal of discipleship and obedience, we are using the image of a greenhouse – of the church becoming a greenhouse.
Greenhouses are places of growth, and our vision for discipleship is one of growing to be more and more like Christ. The church needs to have as one of its main goals the growth of its’ people in obedience. That is why “church” is such an important theme in the NT, that’s why there are so many commands for what we are to do for “one another” (a phrase which, by the way, makes a fascinating study). It is because God designed us to need to be together in community in order to experience growth. We simply cannot do it in isolation – and even if we could grow on our own, we could never be obedient to all the things we are supposed to be doing in community and in relation to one another.
But as we talk about growth, we need to be clear about one thing: growth is not the goal. Let me repeat that: growth is not the goal. That might surprise you – after all, isn’t that what a greenhouse is all about?? No. A greenhouse is not about growth as the end result – it is about fruitfulness and health. Think about it – lots of things will grow in a greenhouse, but if they are not the plants the grower desires they are destroyed. Even on the plants that do grow, if branches don’t produce blossoms or fruit they are described as “suckers” and are pruned off. The whole idea of pruning wouldn’t exist if the goal was merely growth. Likewise, in the spiritual realm the goal is fruitfulness and health, not merely growth for the sake of growth. Jesus had harsh words for the fig tree that produced no figs, and for branches that are connected to the vine but are not fruitful.
Let me put this in more concrete terms. You might be “growing” in terms of reading lots, taking classes, learning lots of interesting things, maybe even taking notes during the sermon. But if that is having no impact on how you live – if it has no impact on the decisions you make or the way you relate to a spouse or a child or a co-worker – if none of those things are helping you become more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind – if they do not result in greater obedience, then those things need to be pruned off. If our minds grow but our lifestyle remains unchanged, we are not making progress towards the goal of fruitfulness.
So the point of the greenhouse is not just to grow people, but it is to grow them so that they become fruitful in their spiritual lives.
The second reason for using the image of the greenhouse to communicate our goal of discipleship is that it is an image of nurture. Specifically, there are two groups of plants that need nurture: seedlings, and wounded plants.
Seedlings need the “leg up” that a greenhouse provides – the elements are more controlled than they are out in the field: temperature, light, moisture, soil condition – all can be carefully balanced to ensure optimal growing conditions. Most often the goal is to develop a healthy root system that can survive when transplanted out into the real world.
For our church, the “seedlings” are those who are young in their faith – both our children and those adults and teens who have recently come to faith. They need to be nurtured, taught the basics of faith and taught how to live in obedience. They need gardeners to come alongside and help them grow.
And you know, you can help those seedlings grow even if you don’t like working with kids. Even if you think you have no gifts or skills or abilities there whatsoever, you can still help them grow. You could make sure that a snack is here and prepared each week. There are lots of ways; talk to Jane or Jane and they’ll help provide an opportunity for you to serve in the greenhouse. You’ll enjoy watching the fruit that grows.
The second group of plants that need a greenhouse are those who have been out in the elements and have been beaten around, been starved of moisture, been run over or cut off at the knees or attacked by bugs or something else has happened, leaving these plants barely hanging on to life. Now, if the plant isn’t worth much, you just let it die and replace it with something else. God forbid we ever do that to another human being. If the plant is precious, as is every human life, you transplant it into the greenhouse where it can be nurtured back to health, and back to fruitfulness again.
My friends, that is probably going to be each of us at one point or another in our lives. We are all most likely going to get beat up by life, we are going to face difficulties and pain and we are going to feel pressed, persecuted, struck down, and like we are barely hanging on. I know that some of you here right now feel like that. I want you to have a spot in the greenhouse. A safe place, a caring place, a place of nurture, where people can come alongside and care and bandage wounds, help remove dead spots, can pick the insects clean, and can help you heal. This is what it means to care for one another – to be in community – to “love one another as [Jesus] has loved us.”
Two things must happen in order for this to work: 1) if you have a need, you have to share it with the community. You need to be open about the pain, and you need to let others care for you and nurture you. 2) there must be others who will come alongside and care and nurture – that will get their hands dirty and walk alongside through the pain and the muck and help carry the load. We need both things in order for this part of the greenhouse to become a reality. The alternative is not pleasant.
Most of the field is not a greenhouse. You’ve probably noticed that – with a few exceptions for commercial growers. Most often, a plant is not intended to live out its entire lifespan in the safe, controlled environment a greenhouse provides. Most often, a greenhouse exists to give plants a solid start, to encourage their roots to grow, to grow them to a point that they can be transplanted into “the real world” and be able to survive and be fruitful in the regular environment.
And for me, that is the goal. That you and I would live fruitful lives for the Kingdom of God in our world. I believe this is what Jesus means when He tells us we must be “salt” and we must be “light.” We must live in our fallen, sinful world, and we must bear fruit for the Kingdom of God in that world.
Let me return to the Parable of the Sower, and ask the question: what kind of soil are you? It is the obvious question, the one Jesus intends us to ask.
Are you the hard soil? Has life trampled you down, with the result that as you hear the truth of the Kingdom of God, you don’t understand and walk away without hearing and applying the truths of God? I think this is what happens even to Christians, if you’ll allow me to extrapolate from Jesus’ story for a moment, when we stop listening. When we stop learning how to live in a more obedient way. We get hard, calloused, we put up barriers to God and to others. And as a result we don’t hear, and the message gets snatched away before we allow it to sink in to our hearts and take root in our lives.
Or are you the shallow soil? You heard the Gospel and responded with joy, but then life got a little bit difficult. Then discipleship started to cost. There was that sinful habit that you enjoyed, which after all didn’t seem to do anyone any harm… Then God called you serve Him in a place that didn’t quite fit with where you wanted to be or what you wanted to watch on TV, so you closed your ears and pretended not to hear. Your roots don’t go down too deep, and so when life gets hard or Christianity gets inconvenient, your spiritual life dries right up. Once again, I think this can happen to people in the church. We are sometimes shallow – and as long as life is good we keep at it – but the moment life gets difficult, the spiritual life is the first to go.
Or perhaps the third example describes you. Maybe you once grew, even saw some fruit. But now, your life is spent mainly just worrying about this life, taking care of your needs, trying to manage everything so that all your bases are covered for tomorrow. Maybe your life is spent mainly trying to make money, to pay the bills or to afford some luxury, maybe that consumes you to the point where that is almost always what you think about. It is pretty much the only reason you get up in the morning. The only prayer you ever pray is the prayer of Jibes, asking God for more material things and less pain. Maybe even as I describe this situation, you can recognize how the worries of life and the pursuit of money have squeezed the life out of you, have choked the good seed that God planted and which you once enjoyed.
If any of those fit your life, what can you do? The answer is simple: prepare the soil. If it is hard, it needs to be broken up. Ploughed. Aerated. With the right attention, it can become good, fertile soil again. Do this by spending time in God’s Word – deep, concentrated, prayerful time, and by spending time in prayer seeking the Holy Spirit to come and break up the clumps and make you receptive. If your roots are shallow, you need to grow deeper. Grow stronger. Ask someone to come alongside and hold you accountable. Count the cost not on a day to day basis, but on an eternal basis. Again, you do that by spending concentrated time in God’s Word and in prayer. And if you feel life choking out your spiritual vitality, you need to pull the weeds. You need to give God control of the things that are choking the life out of you, and choose to trust Him to provide for the worries of tomorrow and for the material needs we all have. Learn to live in faith. Once again, the key to living like this is to immerse yourself in God’s Word and in prayer.
And then, here is what happens: “the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” Then you get to enjoy the fruit – not just temporarily, but eternally.