A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on July 10, 2011.
Psalm 119:105-112; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23; Romans 8:1-11
One day a customer walked into a garden center and immediately began looking for an employee for assistance. Eventually, the customer corralled the owner of the center and said, “I want to start a garden, but my yard’s a problem. I get blazing afternoon sun for about two hours, but otherwise it’s all shade.”
“What kind of soil?” asked the garden store owner.
“Hard clay, lots of rocks,” said the customer. “What do you recommend I plant?”
“Hmmm,” mused the store owner. “Why don’t you look down aisle B.? We’ve got a big new supply of birdbaths and flagpoles….”
Any of us who’ve wrestled with yards and gardens may have our days when we wonder why we didn’t give up on growing grass or flowers or vegetables and just go with birdbaths and flagpoles.
Today I want you to think not about your garden at home but the garden of your soul. Try to picture your soul as a garden. Be as honest as you can. What do you see when you look deep inside at the place where you and God connect—at least in theory?
Spiritually speaking, do you see well-ordered rows of thriving fruits and vegetables? Or do you see organized chaos, complete with hard clay, lots of rocks and weeds, and produce that looks like it could wilt at any moment?
Remember that one of the Christian disciplines we are called to practice as we make the pilgrimage of spiritual transformation is self-examination. It’s not only Socrates that believed “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Jesus is forever asking his audience, including his inner circle of 12 disciples, (and including you and me) to do the hard work of surveying their souls. Make no mistake—self-examination is hard work, and it takes courage to do it well. But there is no detour around it if we want to position ourselves to become conformed to the image of Christ…the ultimate goal of spiritual formation.
Jesus ushers into this exercise of self-examination by telling what is commonly called “The Parable of the Sower.” But I prefer to call this “The Parable of the Soil” because if you will listen carefully you will notice the parable places much more emphasis on the soil than the sower.
“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears, listen!”
Now the traditional interpretation of this parable is that Jesus is the sower portrayed in the parable. And Jesus is hoping to accomplish two things with this story—explain to the crowds and most of all to his disciples why large numbers of people have rejected the seed of the gospel, and parenthetically why many will also resist the evangelistic efforts of the disciples—all the while reassuring them that there will be a positive response, in some cases an incredible response to the seed of the gospel eventually.
I don’t necessarily reject this approach to the parable because I can imagine that lots of people are wondering why many of Jesus’ own countrymen and women are rejecting him and his message. And this parable offers both an explanation of the mixed results of the present and hope for bountiful fruit in the future.
But I think there is another way to look at this story, and that is as a potential tool for the analysis we need to do of the soil conditions of our own souls. Because the truth is if the soil of our soul is lousy it won’t matter how skilled the sower or how potent the seed of the gospel is. The gardens of our souls will be a mess, regardless.
Now, if you drove to my home right now and looked at the condition of my yard, you might question my authority to say anything about the properties of fertile soil! The truth is, I know very little about this subject. But that internet encyclopedia known as “Wikipedia” (which is inerrant and infallible in all things!) reminds us that fertile soil usually is rich in nutrients like nitrogen and potassium, and a variety of minerals like copper, iron and zinc. Fertile soil has the right balance between acidity and alkalinity, and is at the same time well-drained and moist. It contains sufficient organic material to maintain soil structure, a range of microorganisms to insure plant growth, and typically large quantities of topsoil. (Aren’t you impressed!).
The opposite of fertile soil is depleted soil. A number of things can cause soil depletion including: intense cultivation, inadequate soil management, large-scale industrial logging, slash-and-burn agriculture and ranching, and overuse of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. And here’s the thing—the collapse of entire civilizations can be attributed to the depletion of the topsoil that supports that civilization. In other words depleted, infertile soil is no small thing.
It can be catastrophic, and not only for civilizations. It can be spiritually catastrophic for us individually, and for us corporately as the body of Christ. That’s why we need to listen, and listen carefully to what Jesus has to say about depleted and fertile souls.
The first type of soil described by Jesus is that packed hard along a path. This soil represents those people who can come to church Sunday after Sunday and nothing penetrates their hearts. They could even hear Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount and their souls would remain as hard as a stainless steel frying pan. Don’t you wonder about people who hear the gospel presented repeatedly and it’s like water running off a duck’s back?
What’s going on?
Jesus speaks of these people in Matthew 13 when he quotes the prophet Isaiah describing disobedient Israelites as a people whose heart (i.e. soul) has grown dull (i.e. depleted), and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes. Later, Jesus will add that a personalized force of evil, or Satan himself actually does his best to cover our hearts with calluses and keep the soil of our soul chronically depleted.
Paul also speaks of a personalized force of evil that turns our minds and hearts from God. In Romans 8, Paul pictures sin not just as our misdeeds but as a force of evil that left unattended can mess up our minds and control our souls. He describes this as living with minds set on the flesh in a way that is hostile to God.
This does not mean we are captive simply to carnal desires. Our bodies aren’t the problem so much as our closed minds and calloused souls that repeatedly offer nothing but a cold shoulder to the loving advances of God. Another take on this condition of living is that folks in this soil category willingly live out of their “false selves” that are focused on promoting and defending their own self-appointed agendas rather than paying attention to the agenda of God, the creator of our “true selves.”
And then there is the rocky soil, representing those people who appear to be to a good start in the race of the Christian life, only to fade well before the finish.
We’ve all witnessed the phenomenon of the Christian on fire today and flaming out tomorrow. And so today they might be involved on many fronts in church. Six weeks from now we may see them every now and then. Six months from now they are no longer to be found.
And we wonder, “What happened? Did the preacher, or the staff, or did we do something to offend these people?” Maybe we did. Then again, maybe there’s another explanation. Dallas Willard describes folks who are on again, off-again Christians as “consumer Christians.” “The consumer Christian,” says Willard, “is one who utilizes the grace of God for forgiveness, and the services of the church for special occasions, but does not give his or her innermost feelings, and intentions over to the kingdom of God. Such Christians are not inwardly transformed and committed to it.”
In other words, they are not adequately rooted in the soil of the faith.
A third variety of depleted soil is that overtaken by thorns. Jesus defines “thorns” as the cares of the world and the lure of wealth (that) choke the word (so that) it yields nothing. Often those in this category think they “can have their cake and eat it too.” They can follow Christ, cultivate a strong family and climb the corporate ladder, and manage a huge financial portfolio, and maintain a full social schedule, and __________ (you fill in the blank).
Then again, it may be their lives are simply filling up with the demands of our rapidly developing telecommunications. A recent study points out that the average office worker gets 220 messages a day, including emails, memos, phone calls, interruptions, and ads. And we haven’t even factored in postings of Facebook and tweats on Twitter!
None of this is bad in and off itself. But there is truth in the observation that “Christianity is fighting a losing battle in so many of our lives not because we are bad but because we are too busy with our briefcase (and we might add blackberry) full of second-rate stuff.”
Of course, Jesus is pleased to note a fourth kind of soil that is so fertile it not only yields fruit, but fruit in surprising quantities. In fact, some New Testament scholars think Jesus is pulling our leg when he says there are some people who hear the word, understand it, and then bear fruit a hundredfold, or sixty, or thirty when a good yield that day would have been tenfold. But other scholars argue that if the seed was good and the soil conditions were just right, these yields were attainable even with primitive methods of that day.
“If the soil conditions were just right.” That seems to be the key. Until or unless the soil conditions of our souls are right, our fruit yields for the kingdom of God will be small to non-existent.
So what makes up a fertile soul for God?
Let’s start with a genuine openness to God. Maybe today in all honesty you’re not even sure there is a God. But you are open to the possibility. If so, the soil in your heart can yield surprising results when the seed is planted by the consummate sower, the Spirit of Jesus Christ. If your heart is like hard clay and your mind is made up, it’s hard for even Almighty God to break through. But if you’ll allow the Spirit to “break up the dirt” of your soul, if you’ll be open, that’s a major first step.
Then let’s move quickly to becoming rooted in God’s word. The reason so many would-be disciples finally disappear into thin air at the slightest provocation is because they were never rooted in the word of God. They don’t know God’s word. They spend little if any time reading, or absorbing, or meditating on the word. And before long they lose their way.
Here’s where the Psalmist is very helpful. The author of Psalm 119 is absolutely enthralled by the word of God, which he also calls the law, or the statutes of God. “The word of God,” he says, “is a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path.” “Your decrees,” he adds, “are the joy of my life.” This is written by a man who has not only been informed by the word, but utterly transformed. He knows without this word he is utterly lost. Do you know that? And do you weave into your day time spent in the word of God?
Of course, it’s not enough to read the word. What we want to do as Christ-followers is listen to the voice of Jesus in that word, and submit ourselves…our very lives to him. This involved carving out time in our day for solitude and silence, for deep reflection on what the scriptures are saying to us in this moment of our lives.
And every fertile heart is a dependent heart, dependent in a healthy way upon the power of the Holy Spirit. There are no self-made disciple of Jesus. It is the Spirit who transforms us from false selves to our truest selves. It is the Spirit who helps us overcome the power of sin and Satan and empowers us to live for Christ in a way otherwise would not be possible.
And when that power of the Holy Spirit is unleashed in our lives, we have a soil that can bear much fruit, far more than we could ever imagine. In fact, the Bible is full of people who are anything but perfect, save Jesus. But these flawed people, like Abraham and Moses and David in the Old Testament, and Peter and Paul in the New Testament had one thing in common—a soul full of fertile soil. And now billions of people claim to be the fruit of their faith.
So—what’s stopping you from allowing God to transform your soil of your soul into a fertile garden for him?