sowing the seed

The Vicar was passing the allotments when one in particular caught his eye. The cabbages were the size of basket balls, the garlic looked like leeks and it was surrounded by an abundance of beautiful flowers. The Vicar had been on the Diocesan Evangelism course, so he said to the old man tending the plants: ‘God has really blessed you with this allotment.’ ‘Aye, said the old man ‘but you should have seen the state of it when God had it all to himself’.

 

One of the great pleasures of gardening is enjoying the harvest. Since the Leylandii have gone from the back of our house, the vegetable plot has been transformed. The children love making holes, dropping in broad beans and then shelling them out of the pods when they’re ready. There’s nothing quite like veg you’ve grown yourself, and part of the interest is not knowing what’s going to do well in a particular year. Slugs, birds, disease all take their toll, yet despite many mini-tragedies along the way, there is a harvest to celebrate at the end.

 

Jesus uses that familiar scenario in this well-known parable. The farmer sets out into his field, dipping his hands into the sack of grain and broadcasting it across the field. The different fates of the seed parallel the various responses individuals may have to the good news about the Kingdom of God.

 

Perhaps you have had the experience of a late night conversation which turns to spiritual matters. Someone you never thought was interested seems intrigued by your faith, asking lots of questions. Maybe something came of it or perhaps the next morning they’re saying ‘that conversation last night, what was all that about then?’ – that’s the seed that fell on the path and was snatched away before it could take root.

 

The seed which fell on stony ground makes me think of bringing up children in the Christian faith. You do all you can for them – pray with them, bring them to church, teach them right and wrong. But you can’t make their choices for them and when they leave home, maybe their faith thrives, or maybe it seems to go all quiet, as if the root has faded.

 

And then the seed amongst the weeds and thorns – that’s a constant real danger. Perhaps someone comes to faith, starts off with a great burst of enthusiasm. But they get a promotion with longer hours, aged parents are getting frail and need support, the children acquire a pony and that seems to occupy every Sunday. You begin to notice they’re not around as much as they used to be, they’re at risk of dropping off the church’s radar. The pleasures and cares of life can choke the seed.

 

Yet when you look at a field of wheat, yes the plants where the tractor wheels have been are stunted, the field margins are less productive, and the crop that’s planted in shallow soil is of interest only to aerial archaeologists; but there is still a great swathe of growing wheat, with many ears of corn. These are the people who grow in their faith, commit through thick and thin, help, support and teach others. Although there are many tragedies along the way, the parable is a story of growth. As the Isaiah passage says, God’s word does not return to him empty. The Kingdom of God grows and bears fruit.

 

So why did Jesus tell the parable? After all, when you scatter seed, it lies where it falls. I know this: I have clumps of carrots where toddler hands have let go of seed, and bare patches where it did not fall.

 

But people are not like seed. If we were plants, we’d be Triffids! We can get up and walk – we can do something about our spiritual response. And we can change – we don’t have to stay in one category but by the grace of God we can move to another.

 

Jesus told the parable to the crowds, and I think he did so as a preparation, an encouragement to be self-aware. He urges them and us to ask: which seed am I most like? Are there patterns in my own life which could be harmful? What are the spiritual hazards for me?… How can I change my priorities and actions so that I flourish spiritually?

 

 

For as the reading from Romans reminds us, nothing can keep us from the love of God. Our loving heavenly Father will not allow anything to keep us from him – as long as we are prepared to be open to him and work with him. He will give us strength to resist temptation, he will give persistence to change our lives, forgiveness when we get it wrong – and we just need to be open to receive it. But he also gives us free will: if we persistently ignore his nudging, sideline the voice of conscience, then he will allow us to go our own way and the seed of faith will struggle. So we must keep deciding to live God’s way: work with him and he will work with you.

 

Jesus told the parable to the crowds as a warning. He then explained it to the disciples, which gives a slightly different emphasis. Like us, the disciples would be sharing the message of the Kingdom, and they would encounter these varied reactions.

 

Perhaps there is something they could do to make a difference. If, for instance, the evil one tries to snatch away the word as it is sown, then let us pray against him, pray for those who hear the word. If a lack of roots can put people’s faith at risk, then let us offer opportunities to grow so that new Christians – and old – can nurture their faith. Study groups, lectures, agnostics anonymous, meeting up with friends for prayer – all these things can grow our roots. If worries and wealth can choke the seed then maybe we need actively to support those who are struggling and be willing to challenge those whose decisions draw them away. Jesus tells us about the hazards so we can be proactive and do something about them.

 

Even so, Jesus himself found that the results were mixed. Surely then so will we. Jesus prepares the disciples: they will know failure and success. Some will reject the gospel, others will seem keen but fade, many will respond with joy, grow and thrive.

 

Let’s not beat ourselves up if some fade. It’s very disappointing when you share your faith but get no response. It’s even more difficult when a new Christian seems very keen but suddenly loses interest. You can end up blaming yourself or the church, what did we do wrong?

 

Now maybe we did do something wrong – we can never be complacent.

But the parable of the sower prepares us for the fact that even when the gospel is shared faithfully and in love, it is not always received well. We see that in Jesus own ministry – it’s no coincidence he tells this story when the crowds are so large he has to get in a boat. Yet he is aware this popularity is transient: some will forsake or deny him. For God’s invitation to a new life calls the rich to reassess their values. As God sets spiritual prisoners free, evil fights back. So not everyone will respond positively. Jesus warns the disciples, and us, that this will be the case. Let us not be disheartened if it happens but keep on trying.

 

Let’s be wise too about where we put our resources. It wouldn’t make sense for a farmer to spread fertiliser over the path – the seed there has already given up. And if he waters the weeds, he’s just creating trouble!

 

Yet churches can sometimes pour resources into activities that are no longer effective. They have projects that were once great ideas, a decade ago those activities connected and bore fruit. But society moved on, a generation grew up, and that activity (which was once worthwhile) no longer makes sense. Churches can end up maintaining what they’ve always done out of a sense of faithfulness, loyalty to those who’ve gone before, but sometimes we have to recognise that that patch of ground has produced what it can.

 

For Jesus calls us to a hopeful realism. People have free will and that will be reflected in each one’s spiritual journey. The gospel will receive a variety of reactions – some good, some bad. Sometimes we can do something about that, and if so we should. Many times we just have to leave it between God and people and trust that the seed will bear fruit. Our job is to sow, let us do that faithfully, trusting in God. Amen.

 

Don’t think of elephants. Or Britney Spears

‘Oops, I did it again.’ That was the title of a song by Britney Spears. You’ll be relieved that I won’t attempt a rendition, but the words are revealing. I think they’re a demonstration of how, 2000 years later St. Paul’s writing is totally relevant. So, Britney Spears:

I think I did it again. I made you believe
We’re more than just friends.
It might seem like a crush,
But it doesn’t mean
That I’m serious.
‘Cause to lose all my senses…
That is just so typically me.

She knows she has the power to make that chap fall for her. She knows it won’t lead anywhere. She knows it would be wrong to do so. Yet she can’t resist but do it again. It’s something deep down, in her nature.

Britney Spears was singing about flirtation. But the line ‘Oops, I did it again’ could sum up a common experience in all sorts of areas of life. If you prefer the Latin Classics to decade old teeny-pop then you might remember the poet Ovid’s version: ‘I see the better things and I approve them, but I follow the worse’.

It’s clear then that St. Paul describes a universal experience when he says in v. 15 ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate’. Don’t we all know what it’s like to be faced with a decision, to know what the right thing is, and yet end up doing the wrong thing? To know that we shouldn’t gossip and yet colluding in the criticism of someone? Or wanting so much to conquer a bad habit and yet being unable to do so? It’s not as if we don’t know what’s right – we do, in V.16 ‘I agree that the law is good’, and yet sometimes we do not meet our own standards.

Paul has a real sense of anguish here. He longs to do right, but lets himself down. In V.22 and 23a ‘I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in the parts of my body another law at war with the law of my mind’.
It’s like hearing the baby cry at night and knowing in my mind that it’s my turn, but my body isn’t really awake yet and though I do want to go and deal with her, my bed is so warm and comfy. And I want to get up, and I want to want to, but laziness is so strong. As the saying goes: the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Many Christians struggle with this. The big broad idea I mean. They get discouraged by their failings. They wonder: can I really be a true Christian if I can’t conquer my habits? How come it’s so difficult to be the person I want to be? Why do I keep on doing wrong? Does it mean I’m not really a Christian?

No it doesn’t. Actually, be encouraged by it. Because the very fact that you keep on with the struggle, and are concerned by it, proves that you are a Christian. Wrestling with sin, striving to do right is part of every Christian’s experience. And we can be comforted by the knowledge that even a great saint like St. Paul went through it too.

It may be more of a challenge at some stages in our journey than others. Sometimes our experience will be of victory. I’ve heard of people who’ve come to faith in Christ, and God has just taken away the desire for a particular thing that held them captive. There was a Chinese woman I read about who had an addiction to gambling, and she couldn’t shake it. When she committed herself to Jesus, God took away the addiction. She just didn’t want to gamble anymore. It held no attraction. So God can transform a desperate situation with his power.

Often though, he wants us to develop self-discipline and a daily trust in him. So he might not shield us from those temptations. Instead he says ‘keep trusting in me, keep coming back to me.’

It’s as if we’re caught between two worlds. As if there are two people under our skin battling for supremacy. One is a child of heaven, seeks God’s will, tries to put it into practice. That’s the new person, the one who’s been born again in Christ. This one seeks fulfilment and wholeness in God’s way. It looks forward to God’s perfect world.

But we also still inhabit our fallen human bodies. We are still, in this life, creatures living in an imperfect world. Old habits die hard. The expectations of society influence us, pressures within and without. So it’s almost like a war within, a split personality, an inconsistency. Paul recognises that it won’t be part of him for ever, but while he lives in a world which is not perfect, he cannot be perfect either. That will be case until we leave this world and go to be with Jesus, where we will be whole and healed.

What does this mean practically for us? Well, I’ve spoken about how we need not be discouraged when we fall short. Instead, we can rejoice in God’s forgiveness, pick ourselves up and try again. Don’t be disheartened by your struggle against sin. Know that God holds you, he forgives you, and the struggle is a sign that you belong to him.

And a practical tip: keep on fighting evil, but don’t focus on it. If I say to you ‘Don’t think about elephants’, what are you thinking of? In the same way, if you put a lot of energy into avoiding a sin, then you’re always being tempted. You know the advice if you’re trying to give up smoking and you get a craving? Don’t think about resisting the craving, rather go and do something else. Same with evil. Don’t obsess. Instead be positive. Don’t focus so much on avoiding evil, as on doing good. Then your mind will be facing towards the positive things.

So we shouldn’t be discouraged. If we apply that principle to ourselves, then we ought to apply it to others too. Other Christians will be struggling with temptations and their flaws. So we can’t expect churches to be perfect communities. Churches in this world cannot be places where everyone is sincere all the time, or where individuals never go off on one.

I know people get disillusioned because Christians don’t always live up to their calling. But the church is a regiment of the walking wounded, and we must be patient and forgiving with one another – as well as having the trust and confidence to confront problems with truth and love.

Coming towards the end, there is hope that in Christ this situation will be overcome. In the next chapter, Romans 8, the Apostle Paul describes how the Holy Spirit gives us strength and perseverance. People who have struggled for years with a particular temptation can overcome it. We just have to keep on going.

And finally, one day, Christ will release us. As Paul writes in v. 24 and 25. ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord’. He speaks of God’s new creation – the new heaven and the new earth in the life hereafter. One day we shall be free. When we die, we shall die to sin. If we are in Christ, evil will no longer have any power over us. All that will be in the past, and we’ll have new bodies and a perfect future. We’ll no longer be torn in different ways but able to live God’s way completely. We’ll no longer be snappy, or embarrassed by our failings, or feel that we’ve let ourselves down again. Instead one day we shall know the truth, approve the good things, and do them.

So never let the struggle get you down. Don’t focus on the evil but on the good. Never give up. But look to your future with God and persevere.

Evangelism 5

‘Grandpa, can you make a noise like a frog?’ ‘Darling, I’m watching the rugby at the moment, can you come back later?’ ‘Oh, Grandpa, please make a noise like a frog!’ ‘A noise like a frog – I’m not sure I can.’ ‘Oh Grandpa, pleeeease make a noise like a frog.’ ‘Darling, why do you want me to make a noise like a frog?’ ‘Because Daddy says that we can buy a house with a swimming pool when you croak’.

Motivation is a funny thing. What is it that makes us do what we do, and how do we change it?

This is the final sermon in our series on evangelism. Through June we’ve tried to dispel some of the myths about evangelism: it’s not a dirty word but a natural part of Christian life; it’s not just for extroverts, but anyone can do it; it’s not about door knocking or Billy Graham rallies but friendship and conversation. Everyone can share their faith – each one of us can talk naturally about what’s important to us, and each one of us has a story to tell. I really hope that we’re all feeling a bit more confident in our ability and more relaxed about it.

But what will turn it into action? What will turn a sermon series into speaking with others? What will be our motivation? Do you know the joke about it: ‘I was looking for a funny story about motivation, but you know after a while I couldn’t be bothered’.

In our Epistle reading from 2 Corinthians 5:10 to 6:2, St Paul describes the motivation behind his ministry. It comes in a point in the letter where the apostle has been responding to personal criticism. He’s described all the hardships he has endured for the sake of Christ, but still he carries on. What is it that makes him get up every morning and share his faith?

I think the first thing is that Paul is very clear about the good news. He’s clear about his message and why it is so important. In v. 10 it is literally a matter of life and death: he says ‘for all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ to receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.’

And then in v.14 ‘The love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one died for all: therefore all have died.’ For St Paul, Christianity is a message of salvation: We will all one day face judgement, but Christ in his love died for us so that if we turn to him we can be sure of forgiveness. That’s what gets Paul up in the morning: an urgency and longing that all should be able to receive God’s love.

So I wonder if one reason we can find evangelism difficult is that ‘the church’ has sometimes lacked clarity and ambition about the message it’s trying to share, and it’s become somewhat less than it could be.

For instance, many of us were given the impression at school that Christianity is a code to live by. And yes it is, but if that’s all it is, the non-Christian will say ‘I have my own ethics thanks’ – there’s no shortage of value systems out there for them to choose.

Or if Christianity is about being good, decent and getting stuck into community life – which is certainly an implication of our faith – but if that’s all there is, then lots of people do that anyway, why do they need God and the church?

If Christianity is a support in hard times, which is undoubtedly true and a great help for many, nonetheless the non-Christian can still say ‘I’m glad that works for you, but I’m feeling fine at the moment thanks’.

And of course if people get the impression that we’re trying to draw them in to keep the institution going, that if we don’t evangelise there won’t be a church here in 20 years time – well that may be true and it’s certainly motivated some churches to look outwards, but who’s it going to attract? Who would want to be seen as pew fodder?

Let us share Paul’s clarity. May our motivation be a message about a God who loves and forgives us, a God who wants us to know him now and forever, a God who can transform our lives. Let’s not sell the gospel short but be inspired by the huge love God has for us, and the importance of giving everyone the chance to respond.

Paul is clear, in v.21: ‘For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ Wonderful verse but I’m fully aware that this is asking a lot of people. That belief may be a massive motivator for Christians, but if you went up to the average non-Christian and actually quoted v.21 to them they’d barely understand a word.  

You’ll have heard the phrase ‘Pie in the sky when you die’ – and what Paul is writing can sound like that. When you’ve understood it, it’s immensely powerful, hope giving and life changing. But to the average person it can sound very far off. Your typical thirty year old is perhaps wondering about getting married, maybe starting to consider having children. To a 30 year old saving for a pension may well seem far off, let alone thoughts about mortality. So talk of judgement, heaven and hell, salvation and the cross – it can sound like you’re asking them to sign up to a whole belief system, an awful lot of metaphysics, a totally different world view from anything they’ve encountered before. So we need to be very patient in explaining these beliefs.

It can sound like ‘Pie in the sky when you die’ which is why it’s important to realise there’s also ‘Steak on the plate while you wait’! In other words following Jesus makes a real difference in our experience of daily life. In v. 17 Paul writes: ‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.’ Seeing the way that God changes people’s lives can be a huge motivation for us and very compelling for those who have not yet come to faith.

On the Alpha course they say the most important session is the Holy Spirit day – up till that point it has all been quite interesting. And then suddenly people see what God’s spirit can do. They experience his love, his healing power, things they cannot fully understand but know are good. And they say ‘Wow – the Christian beliefs were beginning to make sense but on the Holy Spirit day I saw that God is real’.

So motivations for us to share our faith can be that it makes an eternal difference, to let people know God’s love, and the life change now.

The final motivation St Paul gives us is that it is a gift from God. When I began preparing this sermon I thought I ought to say something about our duty to share our faith, and that God commands it. I thought I ought to say that evangelism is really a moral obligation – if you have a cure for a disease it’s right to share it. But I noticed that, while those thoughts are justifiable from elsewhere in the Bible, it’s not at all what Paul says here. The words he uses are remarkably different:

In v.18 God has given us the ministry of reconciliation. In v. 19 he has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us. These are really positive words: gift, entrust. They’re words of generosity, confidence in us, blessing. And that’s because sharing our faith is a blessing. When we begin to see people responding to Christ, when we see things happen in their lives and God doing amazing things for them, it is a great encouragement. That’s one of the biggest motivators there is – seeing it work!

Do you know what the best attended service in our Group last week was? It was Little Lights: almost 40 children and adults worshipping God together. I find the growth of Little Lights a real blessing and encouragement – it’s a privilege, a gift to be part of that service which is giving people the foundations of faith.

Seeing our efforts bear fruit through the grace of God is a great motivator – but to experience it we do have to pluck up our courage and step out in faith, see what God is doing now and join in.

For as our reading ends, in Chapter 6 v2, ‘Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation’. Now let us join in with God’s work, now let us be witnesses to him. Sharing our faith is an important act of love, it is a great privilege and it can be incredibly rewarding. Let’s do it, and let’s share with one another what we get up to!