Friday, 14 July 2017

Parable of the Sower

Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23 (NRSV) SERMON

The Parable of the Sower

13That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.9Let anyone with ears listen!’

The Parable of the Sower Explained

18 ‘Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

My text this morning is written in Matthew 13:23:

23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

There are different ways of accepting the Word of God and the fate of any spoken words depends on the hearer. This is evident in the work of comedians: if the spirit of the gathering is receptive – if people want to laugh – even those jokes that in a different context will fall flat, get a laugh. I have found this to be true when watching comedians on television with others. Those of us at home have less laughs than those in the audience.

The image of stony ground represents those whose minds are shut – people like Richard Dawkins – who refuse to listen or hear anything to do with God. Prejudice can make a person deaf to everything. An unteachable spirit is a barrier that cannot easily be broken down. This sort of attitude can be the result of the following:

-          Pride that thinks that it does not need to know anything;
-          Pride that thinks it has already found all the answers. (This is often true of some in the Church who feel that they know it all and their theological approach is the only way);
-          Fear of new truth;
-          Refusal to adventure and to discover new ways of thinking;
-          An immoral character and way of life;
-          The truth often condemns the things people love, and so they reject it.

The old saying holds true “... there are none so blind as those who deliberately will not see ...” These are the people who are like stony ground.

Secondly, hearers who are like the shallow ground: These are the people who fail to think things through. As a result they are at the mercy of every new craze; they take things up quickly and then just as easily drop them. They feel the need to always be in fashion. They begin things with enthusiasm, but when things become difficult, they just abandon them. They are swept off their feet by emotional preaching or some experience, but the truth of the matter is that no person can live only on emotion. Barclay adds: “People have minds and it is a moral obligation to have an intelligent faith ... Christianity has its demands, and these demands must be faced before it can be accepted.”

Thirdly, there are the hearers who have so many interests, that the most important things get crowded out. Our modern lives are so busy, that we often do not have the time to read and to pray – in fact – a recent statistic revealed that even the majority of Christians do not find the time to study the Scriptures other than on Sundays. Meier writes: “faith is strangled by the silken chord of deceitful wealth or suffocated by a pile of anxieties over worldly success.” There is also a danger that even doing ‘good’ things can get in the way and can be done for the wrong reasons and at the wrong time. So it is not the things that are obviously wrong that are always the danger – as Barclay states: “... second best is always the worst enemy of the best ...”

Lastly, there is the reference to the good ground. Here the person’s mind is open and fresh and cleansed. There is a willingness to learn. Understanding comes when a person thinks things through and discerns what it means to them personally. But this is not all, there is the final, most important part, allowing the word to transform action, producing good fruit from the good seed. Barclay concludes: “The real hearer is the person who listens, who understands and who obeys.” Meier states that the good ground represents true disciples – those who understand and do what it commands.

This parable not only has an important impact on those who hear it; it also has an impact on those who are already members of the Church; not only did it have something to say to the crowds; it also had something to say to the disciples.

At times the disciples would have been discouraged. Humanly speaking, at the time, Jesus would have enjoyed little success: he was being excluded from the synagogues, the most important religious leaders of the day were against him, and few lives had changed significantly. It is true that many came to hear, and to receive the blessings of healing and deliverance, but most went away unchanged when they had got what they had come for. The disciples can be excused for being disappointed and discouraged from time to time. And for disciples, today, read the members of the Church. We too can easily become discouraged, because we seem to be such a small minority, and our numbers seem to be declining rather than growing.

The good news is that the harvest is sure. Our job is to be faithful and to plant the seed: some will fall by the wayside, some might appear to grow and develop only to die out, but we also know that there will be some that will deliver good, rich fruit.

But we need to pause here, and ask an important question: Are we sowing good seed?  Are we sowing seed at all? J C Ryle warns: “He must sow the pure word of God, and not the traditions of the Church, or the doctrines of men. Without this labour will be vain.”

What is our message? Are we wrestling with the Scriptures? Are we searching the Scriptures? Are we, as the author to the letters to Timothy reminds us, ‘... rightly explaining the Word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15)’.

It is all too easy to slip into the confidence of fundamentalism, claiming that we just take everything in the Bible as literal truth. But we know that it is never as simple as that. God wants us to wrestle with it so that we can hear Him speak to us, as a Church and as individuals.

When a sower sows seeds, they do not look for quick results - it takes a long time before an acorn becomes an oak. It may take a long time before a seed of truth planted into a person’s heart, takes root and grows and flourishes into something beautiful, as one’s life is filled with God’s love. We live in an age that looks for quick results, simple answers, and easy certainties. None of these are part of a life of faith. Craig Keener comments:

... in the long run drawing crowds is less significant for the kingdom than training those who will multiply the work by training others in turn. Perhaps many of us prefer numbers in the short term over spiritual depth because we lack the faith to believe that such depth is essential; ... but 50 disciples with spiritual depth will produce greater numbers in the end than a million raised hands without commitment ever could.

There is only one evidence of hearing the Word rightly – it is bearing of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Without this, our religion is worthless, no matter how committed we might seem to be – it is like the sound of a gong or the tinkling of a symbol. Jesus has made it clear to us, as recorded in John 15:16 where he stated: “... I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the father will give you whatever you ask him in my name ...” and ending with verse 17: “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

J C Ryle adds: “We must never be content with barren orthodoxy, and a cold maintenance of correct theological views; we must not be satisfied with clear knowledge, warm feelings and a decent profession; we must see to it that the Gospel we profess to love produces positive ‘fruit’ in our hearts and our lives. This is real Christianity.”

The letter to James reminds us in chapter 1 and verse 22:  “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Galatians adds: “... for you reap whatever you sow ... So, let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap and harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for the family of faith.” (Galatians 6: 7b, 9-10)

Jesus put it this way:

23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’


Monday, 3 July 2017

Matthew 11:16-18, 25-end: (NRSV)

Matthew 11:16-18, 25-end: (NRSV)

16 ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,
17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”;

Jesus Thanks His Father ...

25 At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Some thoughts from Barclay …

Jesus seems disappointed in the people he was dealing with: some seemed like little children playing in the village square where one group did not want to play at weddings or funerals – they did not want to play at being happy or sad. They seemed contrary! No matter what was suggested to them, they did not want to do it – they found fault with everything. In the same way they rejected the way of John the Baptist because he isolated himself from society and lived such a different life; and they rejected Jesus who lived so in the midst of life. They could find grounds for criticism in everything and anything!

Barclay suggests that when people do not want to listen to the truth, they will easily enough find an excuse for not listening to it. There is also no need for reason in the process: they will criticise the same person or institution from conflicting points and ignore the fact that they are contradicting themselves. Adults can be like children in the village – contrary!

The only way to silence them and prove the truth is through deeds: John moved people’s hearts to repentance – and this had not happened for a very long time (about 400 years); in Jesus people were finding new life and goodness and power to live as they ought, and most important of all they felt a real sense of connection with God.

It is time for people to stop judging and finding fault and rather give thanks when we are enabled to draw close to God – even if the style and methods we are exposed to are not the ones we prefer.

Barclay comes up trumps yet again!

From verse 25 onwards, Jesus is speaking from experience: the rabbis and the wise men of society had rejected Jesus; intellectuals had found no use for Jesus – but the humble welcomed him. Barclay reminds us that we need to be careful here and to discern what Jesus is really saying here:

“He is NOT condemning intellectual power; he is condemning intellectual pride – The heart not the head is the home of the Gospel.”

There is nothing wrong with cleverness, there is something wrong with pride. You don’t need to abandon the intellect, you need to adopt humility. Faith is not connected with ignorance; it is connected with lowliness. Barclay adds:

“A man may be as wise as Solomon, but if he has not the simplicity, the trust, the innocence of the childlike heart, he has shut himself out.”

The rabbis recognised this truth and there are many parables within the rabbinic tradition revealing how it is the simple that are often the closest to God.

This passage ends with the greatest claim that Jesus ever made – and this claim is at the centre of the Christian faith, and it is that it is in Jesus alone that we see the revelation of God to man. Other people may be sons of God, but Jesus is the Son of God. St John put it this way where he has Jesus saying: “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:19) Here Matthew records Jesus as saying: “If you want to see what God is like, if you want to see the mind of God; the heart of God, the nature of God; if you want to see God’s whole attitude to people – look at me!”

In Jesus Christ alone, we see fully, what God is like. Jesus can give this knowledge to anyone who is humble enough to receive it.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Matthew 10.24-39 (NRSV)

Matthew 10.24-39 (NRSV)

24 ‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

Whom to Fear

26 ‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
32 ‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

Not Peace, but a Sword

34 ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35 For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

My text is Matthew 10.39:
39 ‘Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’
Jesus tells his disciples that they cannot expect to be treated in any way better than him. If people showed no respect for Jesus, they will not show respect to his disciples. Jesus refers to Beelzebul, which in Aramiac means Lord of the house. We as Christians belong to the house of Jesus, and so those giving their allegiance to others are going to have little time for them. But we are not to be afraid, because the truth will prevail. Jesus had explained the truth to the disciples, but the world was not yet ready to receive it. But the time would come when our Lord’s suffering, death and victory over sin, death and evil would be proclaimed from the rooftops for all to hear. The sad truth is that this proclamation often lead to the martyrdom of those who proclaimed it. But even this should not concern us, because Jesus explained that people can only harm – even kill – the body; who we really are is present within our souls, where true life happens. Who and what we are is not contained in our bodies, the God life, the true life, the real life, the life in all its fullness – what God offers to all and what we have accepted as Christians - is a gift from God alone. But if the life of a sparrow matters to God, how much more do we matter.
God’s knowledge of us, even our physical bodies, is intimate and detailed – even the hairs on our heads are numbered by him. But why ought we to ‘fear’ God. Here we see our Lord once more using hyperbole to get his point across.  Death comes when we deny our Lord by betraying ‘… the love which he has manifested to us …’ When we live in a way that fails to imitate our Lord, this is when we perish, this is when our lives are compromised and some even die. People in this state can be in perfect physical health, but have died inside!
This is the truth that we need to declare from the rooftops; that there is life, real life, life in all its fullness, and it is a free gift, offered by Jesus to all who would receive it. Once more Jesus goes into hyperbole, stressing the need to proclaim this message, loud and clear, so that people might know what it is to live, and not merely exist.
Our world is full of people who merely exist. They have everything that money can buy and then some, but they still have nothing. We need to be eager to pass the message on. Love, is at the heart of what it means to be fully human, for it is the nature of God himself, as John explains in his first epistle.
What then is it that we must proclaim?
We are to announce salvation to all people, for ‘… such a pardon is only truly received if we are eager to pass it on …’
In Romans 10.14-15 Paul writes: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”
We bring the good news that real life is possible, full life is possible, but it is not what people think it is; it comes when people live for others and not only themselves. Fulfilment follows selflessness.
And what it our motivation: In 2 Corinthians 5.14-15 Paul explains: “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” Unless our motivation is love, then we are doing everything for the wrong reason; for God is love and he calls us to follow the ways of Christ which are the ways of love.
From verse 34, Jesus returns to his earlier theme … the struggles his disciples will need to face up to. These even happen within one’s families. Verse 34 is shocking in its hyperbole and paradox. These seem strange words to come from the person who exalted peace in the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount. De Dietrich explains: ‘… to announce the peace of God is to denounce all false ideas of peace, which are only frightful caricatures of it …’ Verses 34-37 have been sadly abused at times and have been invoked to justify some dreadful behaviour – but only if they are embraced in their literal expression. The division comes when the disciple of Jesus follows his ways of selfless love and their family oppose it. This could be seen in South Africa where children opposed Apartheid and were opposed by their parents; where parents opposed the money grabbing dishonesty of a child who was using unjust business practices or when a daughter-in-law supported her husband in doing what is was right and his parents objected. Our love and obedience to the message of Jesus must be prominent. And this can imply the cross of forgiveness and self-sacrifice in the midst of hatred, dishonesty and injustice. Real peace comes when people follow the example of our Lord and live for others, even those who might harm us.
Sadly, we today live in a world where real peace is not the experience of many. Today’s ‘peace’ is a mask, a cover up, disguising falsehood – and so there is no peace. This is what Jeremiah spoke of … ‘they have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6.14)
Jesus came to disturb all false ideas, to tear to pieces with the sword – his words – all the false masks that people use to pretend and not be themselves as the author to the Letter to the Hebrews explains:  Hebrews 4.12-13:
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.
There might come a time when the call will come and we will need to leave all to follow Jesus. It could even mean a Cross. This is not a symbol of death, it is the mark of humiliation – the condition of a slave. It is in this that a disciple is not above his master. But we are seldom asked to go this far. The question is would we be prepared to, if the call came?
Again, this passage reminds us of the folly of literalism. We know that throughout the ages, the New Testament and the Christian leaders throughout history have warned about taking things literally that are meant to explain and reveal a deeper truth, for this is to limit the real depth of gift we are being offered. What we are called to is the willingness for extreme self-sacrifice, for this is the way to the only true life. When we are willing to give up everything, then we find the real meaning of life.  This is summed up in the prayer of Ignatius Loyola:
Lord Jesus, teach me to be generous,
teach me to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to seek reward,
except that of knowing that I do your will.

Christians are those who live selfless lives. In reality the Christian parent lives for their children and their children for their parents. It is selfishness that is the cause of division within families and when the Christian calls for selflessness, conflict arises.
Jesus said: 39 ’Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ This verse is pivotal; it occurs in six different forms. Here the word translated as ‘life’, is the same as can be translated as ‘soul’. As Argyle explains: ‘Both meanings are included here. By gaining his (physical) life, a person will lose his real self; by losing his (physical) life, a person will gain their real self.’
We look after our bodies as best we can, but never at the expense of the soul. As Bonhoeffer explains, Jesus was the example of true love, divine love, the expression of the nature of God himself he was – ‘a man for others …’ and we are called to be the same. As Jesus put it:
39’Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’