Sunday, July 16, 2023

God's Law and Gospel, July 16, 2023

The Powerful Seed of God's Word

[Below is the message from both of today's worship services from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. You also will find live stream video of both services. I hope you find it helpful. Have a good week!]

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
I want to begin with two words of promise, of gospel, for you.

First, Romans 8:1: “...there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…”

Second, Romans 10:9: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

If, by the power of God’s Word, given to you by the Holy Spirit in Scriptures and in Holy Baptism and in Holy Communion, you trust that Jesus, by His death and resurrection, has conquered sin and death for you, you are saved for life with God that never ends.

As the old hymn puts it, “The strife o’er, the battle done!”

You belong to Jesus!

I begin this way because I want to inoculate you against the second-guessing of your salvation that so many preachers, including this one, may have planted in your minds over the years in our preaching on today’s gospel lesson. In fact, I became so convicted about this that last night, I deleted all the sermons I’ve preached on this text from my blog. (I think I got them all.)

So, I want you to know that if you believe in Jesus, you can know that you have been saved–justified–by God’s grace through faith in Jesus. You need not doubt that!

We will then take great care in considering the parable in our gospel lesson today because our familiarity with it may prevent us from understanding it and because the parable deserves careful consideration.

The parable Jesus that teaches there, along with the explanation of it that He offers privately to us disciples, is familiar. Matthew says that Jesus tells the parable not in “the house,” that is the Church. Instead, He goes out by the lake and climbs into a boat in order to preach to the crowds surrounding Jesus. This is key to understanding the parable.

The crowds to whom Jesus goes to teach aren’t following Him out of conviction. They do so from curiosity or in the hope of getting something out of Jesus. They want blessings without discipleship; salvation without repentance; assurance without faith. They want to keep their options open in case some other savior comes along with a better offer.

Most in the crowds will hear Jesus’ story, yawn, and move on.

In fact, the truth that may shock you is that Jesus intends precisely this reaction from those who refuse to listen or believe in Him. And while Jesus teaches the parables with the desire that some would have their curiosity piqued and might come to repent and believe in Him, He doesn’t teach them directly, but obliquely, symbolically, in this parable. That’s because, as He puts it elsewhere, Jesus doesn’t throw pearls to pigs. Those who do not want to hear Jesus usually won’t.

Later though, Jesus freely explains the parable to the Church, to the disciples, to those in whom His Word creates a desire to hear His saving Word.

In Jesus’ parable, there is a Sower. This is Jesus Himself or any disciple who seeks to share His Word–the seeds of life in God–with others.

And the soil, the dirt? That’s me and you.

Now, our Old Testament lesson for today, from Isaiah, reminds us of the power of God’s Word: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)

God’s Word always does what it sets out to do. There are no exceptions.

According to Genesis, God unleashed His Word on chaos and brought life into being. In New Testament days, Jesus, God the Son, the Word of God, gave His life as the sinless sacrifice for our sin and rose from the dead so that He could by His crucifixion and resurrection, speak eternal life into all who repent and believe in Him, into you and me.

Now, remember that God speaks two words to us, as you know:

His law that convicts and condemns sinners and

His Gospel about Jesus that sets sinners free of condemnation now and forever.

Keep that in the back of your mind.

In the parable, a sower liberally scatters seeds on the dirt.

Some seeds fall on the path and are immediately eaten by birds. Jesus later explains that the birds represent Satan.

Many people have never heard the good news of new and everlasting life through Jesus because Satan, still desperately at work in our world, sweeps it away from them before they ever have the chance to have the gospel about Jesus grow into faith within them.

And I have seen this so many times. So many times, I’ve been with people who were spiritually-disconnected, who did not know Jesus Christ. They’ve known I was a Christian and a preacher and they ask me what the Christian faith is about. And just as I’ve been ready to tell them about Jesus, something happens. A phone rings. A child screams. Some distraction comes along. When that has happened, it was never an accident. Satan is always trying to distract unbelievers from hearing the Word of God that might save them from sin and death.

This is why we need to be consistent and persistent–all of us, clergy and laity–in sharing the gospel and scattering its seed everywhere.

Every time we scatter that seed, it may not grow. But we need to keep on spreading the good news of Jesus because people need Jesus, don’t they? They need Jesus for everlasting life!

And Satan is our implacable enemy.

Some seeds fall onto rocky ground. Jesus says this pictures those who receive His Word and initially believe, but when they go through tough times or opposition to their faith, they leave Jesus and His gospel behind. They figure this whole gospel about Jesus is a made-up thing because it doesn’t prevent the hard realities of this world from falling onto them. But, in fact, the gospel gives us the power to face life’s hard realities: to face grief, to face death in the certainty that beyond grief and death, all who believe in Jesus will live with Him in His perfect kingdom forever.

Some seeds fall onto thorns. This describes people who initially receive the Gospel Word with faith but then let this life’s distractions or wealth lead them away from life with God.

Finally, Jesus says, some seeds fall on good ground. Some people receive the Gospel, the good news of how Jesus, God in the flesh, died for their sins and brings forgiveness and everlasting life with God to all who trust in Him. They receive the gift of faith. God lives in them, Jesus says, and through them, God blesses not only them, but all the people whose lives they touch. He even uses them to spread the seeds of His gospel to family members, friends, and others.

Now, when we hear that parable, the first thing we’re likely to think is, “I hope I’m good soil. I don’t want damnation and hell. I want to be with God forever. I hope I have a saving faith.”

And preachers, like me, God forgive me, have even preached sermons on this text in which they–and I–end the sermon by saying, “Be good soil.”

Now, friends, let me ask you a question: Can soil change itself?

The answer is, No!

So, why does Jesus tell this parable?

The first disciples wonder the same thing.

In the verses that fall in Matthew’s gospel between the two blocks of verses in today’s lesson, Jesus answers that question: Why does He tell these parables?

Jesus quotes words spoken by God to the prophet Isaiah back in the eighth century BC, when He first called Isaiah to be a prophet.

God tells Isaiah that He’s calling Isaiah to preach His Word, to call people to turn from sin and to trust in God, and then He tells Isaiah that most people to whom he gives God’s message, the vast majority of Isaiah’s hearers, will never repent and never believe. “Isaiah,” God effectively says, “I’m calling you to be a prophet and you are going to be an abject failure!”

Now, as I approach the end of my time as a full-time pastor, I sometimes wonder, “What have I accomplished in the past forty years?” I have to tell you that when I think about that question, I haven’t been able to even list the first accomplishment.

But the reason for that is simple. I wasn’t called to accomplish great ends. I was called to preach the Word of God, in season and out of season, to scatter the seeds of the Gospel and leave the results to God.

Churches, as well as pastors, get hung up on all sorts of programs and activities rather than focusing on its one mission: making disciples by sharing the Word of God.

And so, God tells Isaiah at the beginning of His ministry as a prophet to proclaim His Word and to know that most people will reject the Word he preaches.

God says to His unwelcoming people through Isaiah (and Jesus quotes these words in that section between the two blocks of Scripture that make up our gospel lesson): “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.” (Matthew 13:14-15; Isaiah 6:10-11, LXX)

During his ministry, Isaiah would, in words we cherish in the Church today, often call people to repent and believe in God, to turn to the God we all now know in Jesus and live with God forever. Some did so. Most didn’t.

Listen: The only thing that can turn exposed, rocky, thorn-infested soil–the only thing that can turn the hard-hearted, the self-obsessed and the worldly, the worried and the self-satisfied–into good soil, into sinners receptive to the grace of God given in Jesus Christ that makes us saints…the only thing that can make us good soil is the Word of God.

You can’t make yourself good soil.

But God’s Word can and does!

Your being good soil and your salvation doesn’t depend on you. It depends wholly and completely on the Word of God that you receive from outside yourself.

If, friend, you believe in Jesus, you know that God’s Word has made you good soil, that God is living in you even when you don’t perceive Him, and that He is doing good, God-honoring things through your life.

The miracle of new and everlasting life belongs to you because Word and Sacrament empower you to say, “I believe Jesus is my God and Savior!”

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus told parables to bad soil in the hope that some might turn to Him and live, but also to speak a condemning Word, a Word of Law, to those who refused to believe.

God’s Word never returns empty!

His Word of Law condemns the unrepentant.

And His Word of Gospel gives everlasting life to those who receive it with faith!

Friends, by the power of the Gospel Word, I get to tell you again this morning what I love to tell you, that in Jesus Christ, your sin is forgiven and you have life with God that never ends. It belongs to you.

Certain of this truth, I urge you to scatter the gospel liberally and indiscriminately and trust Jesus and the Holy Spirit to do with that seed what He wills.