Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Palatable Jesus?

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Jesus was not given to the telling of nice little stories. But that is what we’d like to hear from Him, right? We hear it often: Jesus spoke in parables because He wanted to teach in a way that ordinary people could understand. That’s why He told nice little stories about ordinary things.

This is just one way we make Jesus palatable to us. If He tells us nice little stories then we can do the same. We can tell people nice little stories, too. We can tell them things about Jesus that are palatable to their ears. We don’t have to tell them about their sin or about hell, because they might not be too agreeable to those kinds of things. But nice stories about how God loves everybody too much to damn anyone to hell will go down well. We can lead them to believe that God shows His love for us by telling us that we’re okay as we are—after all, we can convince ourselves of what good people we are. And we certainly don’t need to tell them that we’re not okay as we are and are in deep trouble without Him. We can put them at ease by assuring them that Jesus is not so insensitive as to offend us or judge us.

The very notion that Jesus told nice little stories really says a lot more about us than it does about Him. I think the people who say this are well-intentioned. But we take away what Jesus is teaching us if His parables are just nice little stories.

So what are they, then? They’re stories that do in fact use ordinary things. But they’re anything but normal stories. In the parable of the sower, what kind of farmer would throw seeds on a path? This is our first clue that Jesus is not just telling a nice little story but a challenging one.

What Jesus gives us in the parable of the sower is the very same thing He does when He tells it. It seems like no big deal, Him going out on the boat to teach the crowds. Jesus did not come just to do ordinary things. He did do ordinary things, but that’s not why He came. He came to do extraordinary things. But He did them using ordinary means. Just like His parables. He told stories with ordinary things, but they were anything but ordinary stories. They weren’t just nice little stories. Jesus getting into the boat and teaching the people wasn’t just simply Him doing little ordinary things. There’s eternal significance to what He was doing, as with all things He did. The very fact that Jesus has come to earth shows us something important about us. And it’s troubling. It’s that we are at odds with God. We are, in fact, His enemies. Why else would Jesus come to earth? To go on a vacation? To check on how things were going on this earth He created? He could do that just as easily in heaven.

Jesus didn’t come to be a nice little Jesus. He’s not a good luck charm. He didn’t come to make us feel all nice and warm and fuzzy. He’s not necessarily a palatable Jesus. He didn’t come to tell nice little stories.

The one for today is actually rather unnerving. It’s wonderful, this picture of Jesus the Sower. It’s comforting to know that He sows His seed. But then He goes into all that stuff about how the birds eat the seed up, the plants withering and dying under the scorching heat, and the weeds choking out the plants. Not necessarily a nice little story. Is Jesus just a man, a teacher, who came to be palatable to the world? A man who met the need for people who like to hear nice little stories?

In three instances of soil Jesus describes enemies that are against us: Satan, the world as it seeks to demoralize us, and the world as it seeks to entice us. But as sure as those are our enemies, seeking our eternal downfall and damnation, who really is our enemy? Satan comes after us, but why do we let him? The world tries to bring us down, but why do we succumb? The world also holds out its pleasures, but why do crave them?

Jesus pictures Satan here doing what Satan does, taking the very Word of God and snatching it up. He did this in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. “Did God really say?” he asked of Eve. The seed had been sown in Adam and Eve but Satan was right there, ready to snatch it up. He’s always there in our lives, ready to do the same thing to us. Whereas Jesus is the Way and the Truth, Satan is the Father of Lies. He is the Deceiver. Jesus Christ sows His Word in our hearts but Satan will do anything to snatch it away from us.

Satan is our enemy of enemies. People have the ability to take our life—Satan has the power to take our soul. But who is the enemy here? Yes, it is Satan, but what about us? If we fall away, do we get to walk away and be able to blame it on the devil, as Flip Wilson liked to do? Or are we also our own worst enemy? Why did Eve listen to the serpent? Why did Adam even let Satan talk to his wife? Why do we listen to the very same Deceiver? Because he is the Angel of Light and we often like what we see when he comes along and snatches up the Word of God. We begin to listen to him rather than our Lord Jesus Christ.

Some nice little story. It starts off just fine with the Good News of the Sower sowing His eternal Word. But then He tells us about how things don’t always turn out so well. Why would He want to tell us a story about how the devil comes along to crash the party? And then we don’t even get the luxury of blaming him because it’s actually our fault for listening to him. But in this nice little story others come along also to crash our little Christian party. We’re going along just fine, rejoicing in the Word, feeling strong as a Christian when suddenly the world gives what it sees as a reality check. Are you sure you want to believe in something like that? You know that religion is just a crutch. And what about all the problems you experience as a Christian? It doesn’t appear you have it any better than those who don’t believe in Christ. Why not just give up on the little stories that the Bible is made up of.

And do we respond to these voices with the Word of God? Do we stand firm in faith? Or do those taunts stay in our head and trouble our sleep? Do we ourselves begin to question the truth of the sown Seed, the power of it? We again become our own worst enemies.

But the world really knows how to throw a party. If it would have us believe that we’d have things so much better with God and His Word, without Jesus and His talk of sacrifice and love, it also attempts to show us. The world doesn’t just taunt us, it entices us. Enjoy the pleasures of the world. You only live once, don’t miss out. Before we know it, the Word of God becomes like a mist in our memory. We hardly even notice that it’s gone.

Jesus doesn’t make any of this better. If we think it’s bad that the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh are against us, it’s even worse that Jesus comes along and tells not so nice little stories. But very troubling stories. Stories that show us who we really are. That’s not palatable. And it never will be. You think Satan is going to jump on that? You bet he will. You think the world is going to ridicule us for believing that we are by nature sinful and unclean—and that they are, for that matter? Without question. You think the world will relish the chance to offer us something that seems far more pleasurable? You can count on it.

Jesus knows all this. But that’s why He tells His story. Because it’s really about Him. It’s not so much about us as who He is and what He does for us. He knows the depravity of our hearts. But you know what He does? He sows the Seed. And when He sows seed, He’s not a proper little farmer. He’s a terrible farmer. He just starts sowing that Seed. It’s more a scattering. Here. There. Everywhere. Good soil. Bad soil. Rocky ground. Paths. Highways. Byways. In season and out of season. Jesus didn’t come at any old time. He came at the right time. He came to save to save sinners. If you hear one thing, hear that. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.

What Jesus loves to do is not tell nice little stories. What He loves to do is come to us. What He loves to do is actually be the Story. John says that He is the Word made flesh that dwelt among us. He took on flesh to die in the place of sinful flesh. He came into the world to save sinners. Along the way He healed some people, He even raised a few from the dead. And he told a lot of stories.

Were they just nice little stories? Do we need just another storyteller? Or do we need a Savior? His stories, His life, tell us just that. It’s Jesus Himself. The Sower. Scattering that Seed. Planting that Seed into the hearts of sinners. A nice little story for Him would never be one in which we don’t hear about who we are and our eternal need for His salvation. His stories are the very Story of eternal love and mercy. His Word does not return to Him empty but accomplishes the purpose for which He sent it. That is to save and redeem. To produce fruit, a hundredfold, sixty, and thirty. In other words, beyond what we could ever imagine. That’s not just a nice little story, that’s the truth. Amen.


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