Sunday, February 24, 2013

Getting to the Heart of Faith

Second Sunday in Lent
February 24, 2013
Some things you never forget. I will never forget one of my seminary profs saying that there is nothing more misunderstood than faith. Based on the disciples’ reaction to this Canaanite woman in the Gospel reading, I would say that he’s right on. This woman, as Jesus said, had great faith. The disciples, they thought she was an irritant. They thought Jesus should have nothing to do with her. He showed how He had everything to do with her. This is the heart of faith. Jesus doesn’t so much teach what faith is as He gives it.

He gives it by being the object of it. He is the object of faith by accomplishing what is necessary for salvation. When you look to the one thing in which there is certainty for the salvation you need, you have faith. When you look within yourself, or rely on your faith, or find that Jesus’ apparent help for you is lacking, you lack true faith.

So let’s get to the heart of faith. Getting to the heart of faith is wrestling with God. If you are concerned if you have faith, or if your faith isn’t strong enough, you are getting to the heart of faith. Because faith is centered in Christ. Faith is not faith if you are content. Jacob wrestled with God. The woman in the Gospel reading wrestled with Jesus. Both had strong faith because both set their focus on Christ. The life of faith is the life of struggling with God. If faith is not centered in Jesus it is not great faith and it is not true faith. If you are not struggling with God then you are going to become content. If you are content, you will not see your need for mercy and your humble state before Christ.

Getting to the heart of faith is getting to the heart of life in Christ, or you could say, the life of faith. How would you summarize this description of the Christian life in the Epistle? This is what is referred to as sanctification, or holiness. This is a description of the life of faith. The life of faith is life in Christ. Faith receives. Whether it’s forgiveness and salvation, or whether it’s sanctification and holiness and a life of good works.

When people come to a passage like we have in the Gospel reading, they often try to get to the heart of it. What is the upshot of it? Many would approach it this way: What did the woman do? She had great faith, and therefore her request was granted. Therefore, go and do likewise. You have great faith too, and Jesus will grant your requests. If you don’t have great faith, then don’t expect great things from God.

The problem with this is that it looks at the woman and forgets about what the woman was actually doing. What she was actually doing was nothing. We’d like to think that she was some stalwart, when in fact she was at the end of the line. She had nowhere else to go. Nowhere to turn. No hope. She had hit rock bottom. This is what we need to learn from her. Not what she did, not how great of faith she had. We need to see in her how great a need she had; how hopeless her situation was.

While we like to learn from the passage that we ought to have great faith like the woman did, what is truly being taught here is that we are doing the exact opposite of what she did. While we spend our time looking to the woman, she spent her time looking to Jesus. She was under the realization that she had nowhere to go but to Christ alone. He must do it all. He must grant the mercy. He must provide the hope. He must be the only one who can help me, because my efforts, my hopes, my wishes, my faith, are all nothing. Jesus is everything, and that’s why I appeal to Him. There is nothing I can do to bring about the answer to my prayer.

And yet, Jesus says something stunning. “Great is your faith.” Did she have greater faith than others? Do some of us have greater faith, while others have less faith? It’s very tempting to say that she had greater faith than the disciples did. She was a Gentile, they were good Jews. Surely they had greater faith than she. But Jesus said she was the one who had great faith. We can safely say that the disciples had faith in Jesus. But we can also safely say that, as with all of us, they were utterly uncomprehending when it comes to faith, and what it is, and why it’s at the heart of the Christian life. As my prof said, there’s nothing more misunderstood.

What was it, then, that Jesus meant by saying that the woman had great faith? He was referring to the intensity of it. It was firm faith. The greater the need, the greater the faith. The greater the need, the greater the Savior. The greater the Savior, the greater the faith. Faith is not so much an intellectual assessment of your situation as it is a complete understanding that you’ve come to the end of the line. You have nowhere else to go. You have no more hope when it comes to everything you have tried or what you hope might be out there. Therefore, the trust. The utter humility that you are at the mercy of the Lord you appeal to.

Faith is only as good as the object to which it looks. If you have faith in a grain of sand, good luck. You may have the greatest faith of all. You may trust in that grain of sand with all your heart, your soul, your strength, and your mind. But your faith will be in vain. It will not be truly great faith because it will not be truly faith.

What Jesus is talking about is not having more faith. Or having greater faith. What Jesus is simply talking about is true faith. It is faith in Him. That’s nothing else than to say that what Jesus is talking about is not her, but Him. He is talking about Himself. He is pointing her to Himself because her faith is in vain apart from it being in Him.

What he is doing is showing her that her faith is great because her need is great. She was weak, therefore she was strong. She had been brought low, therefore she was lifted up. She was in need, therefore she was filled.

The cry of faith is the cry of mercy. Faith that is considered great faith is vain faith. It is not true faith because it is faith apart from the only object in which there is true hope. Namely, Jesus Christ. Faith apart from Christ is great, but only in our own eyes. Was the woman looking to herself? No, she was looking to Christ. Was she seeking help by something she could do? No, but what Jesus could do. Was she making determinations about how she could muster more faith? No, she was appealing to Christ alone for her help.

Your sin is great. It is beyond what you can handle. It is so great that you are crushed under its burden and you have no hope. You can almost hear Jesus saying to you, “Your sin is great.” But hear this, your Savior is greater still. When you are weak, you are strong.

The way we approach passages like this in the Bible shows that we don’t understand faith. That we want to make faith about us. That we don’t have true faith on our own because we look to ourselves and our faith rather than looking to Jesus. True faith sees Jesus and appeals to Him for mercy. Faith is not going back to yourself when it appears that there is even no hope in Jesus. What, exactly, was Jesus doing when He didn’t answer the woman? What, exactly, was His point when He said that He wasn’t sent to people like her, Gentiles, but rather people like His disciples, Jews? What was He trying to tell her in comparing her to a dog?

Jesus, it must always be remembered, does what is best for you. What you don’t see is what He sees. What you don’t know is what He knows. What you count on is simply His word. What you count on is Him. Even if it appears He is silent. Even if it appears that He is dismissing you. Even if it appears that your faith is in vain. If it is centered in Christ, then your faith is true faith and great faith. It is true and great because the object it grasps is true and great. That object is the Person of Jesus. Faith clings to Jesus.

Faith is not faith if it is trusting in itself. If you put your trust in the fact that you have faith, your faith is in vain. If you look to what you need to do or how you need to be or what you have accomplished or even how you are humble and are putting yourself in the background, you are looking to the wrong thing. Your faith is in yourself. And so Jesus taught this woman that no matter the appearance of Him not helping her, her only hope was in fact in Him.

The heart of faith is Christ. The heart of Christ is you. The amazing thing about Jesus is that while He teaches you to not look to yourself but to Him, He, on the other hand, does not look to Himself. He looks to His Heavenly Father, and therefore to you. He doesn’t put His faith in you, He simply loves you with perfect love. Giving you what is truly best for you. Giving you what you truly and desperately need.

That’s why He put His faith in His Heavenly Father. It was His Father’s will to crush Him. To place upon Him all of your sin and guilt and punishment. Jesus did not waver. He did not veer from this. But He was weak. He was burdened with the load of the sin of the world. This was not some cosmic injustice on the part of God. It wasn’t some twisted child abuse on the part of God the Father toward God the Son. This was the eternal Father giving His only-begotten Son for the sin of the world. This was love in the flesh, God becoming man and suffering on behalf of man. Make no mistake, this was Jesus fully and joyfully choosing this in submitting to the will of His Heavenly Father.

This is the heart of faith. It is Christ. It is the cross. It is salvation—paid for, accomplished, secured—in Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. Faith apart from this is no faith at all. Faith not centered in Christ, in His suffering, death, and resurrection, is a pipe dream. It may make us feel good that we have such great faith, but it doesn’t save. Faith in Jesus Christ, in who He is and what He has accomplished, saves.

It is so much easier to learn a lesson from that woman—stir up your heart, muster up greater faith! Rather, learn from Christ. Receive what He gives. That, dear Friends, is Himself. He gives Himself, and faith clings to that. It simply receives. It simply rejoices. Go your way, He gives you everything you need, you can rest assured in that. Look no further than the cross to see. Amen.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

He Did This For You

First Sunday in Lent
February 17, 2013
The Old Testament reading today gives the account of the Fall into sin. It details the crown of God’s creation, human beings, desecrating God’s good gift of creation. Before that was the creation itself. God bringing into being all good things. He did this for you. He gave to Adam and Eve everything in His creation, all for them, all for their benefit.

What Adam and Eve did was the opposite of that. What they did was for themselves. They took what God gave them and twisted it into their own making.

Then there is Satan. What he did was to harm them. What he does is to harm you. He seeks your destruction.

There is God’s good creation and there is also the way we and Satan desecrate that creation. We do this for ourselves. God intends to bless us, we intend to look to ourselves rather than to Him alone for all our good.

In the Gospel reading we have a reprise of sorts of the account of the Fall in the Old Testament reading, this time with a different ending. In the Gospel reading a human being is there. Satan is there. Again what we have is God doing what is good for us and what Satan is doing as what is harmful to us.

It begins with Jesus being led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. What a strange thing. God the Holy Spirit driving God the Son into the wilderness in order to be tempted by Satan. The Bible teaches us that God tempts no one. But on this occasion He drove His Son into the place where Satan could freely attack Him. Why did God do this? He did this for you. He would never drive you into the wilderness for this kind of temptation, but He would His Son, a foreshadowing of His going to the cross in your place.

What did Satan do to Jesus? He tempted Him. He did this to defeat Jesus. But what Satan was doing was what he was doing to you. He was doing this to harm you. If he brought Jesus down it would be your downfall. Satan has only destruction in his sights when he considers you. This is what he was attempting in his temptation of Jesus. If Jesus had fallen into sin you would have no hope.

What did Jesus do? When Satan attacked Him, He attacked Satan. Satan tempted Jesus, Jesus combated him with the Word of God. Why did He do this? Was it to show His power? Was it to show His superiority over Satan? No, He did this for you. He did it to save you.

The amazing thing about how Jesus did this for you is that He did it precisely in the opposite way Satan was tempting Him to act. Satan tempted Adam and Eve with power. Do you really need God? Wouldn’t it be better if you struck out on your own? Wouldn’t it be better to rely on yourself rather than to have to rely on God and always have to wonder if He’s holding out on you? Did God really say what He said to you because it was best for you, or because He just wants to keep you in check so that He can hold sway over you and your life?

He did the same thing with Jesus. So You’re the Son of God, huh? I believe it, I really do, You don’t have to convince me. But it would be great if you could give a little display. Just show me a little glimpse and I may just come over to Your side. So turn these stones to bread and then I’ll go around telling everyone that You are, indeed, the Son of God.

Enticing with power, that’s what Satan does. Enticing with relying on yourself, with dispensing with having to entrust yourself to God while never knowing, for sure, whether God really is on your side; whether He’s really going to come through for you. Think about faith for a moment. What is it? It’s full reliance on God without being able to see that your reliance on Him is worthy of that reliance. It’s, as the Bible says, walking by faith, not by sight. So Satan comes along and says, “Wouldn’t you rather go by sight? Doesn’t that make more sense? Is God really for you if He’s withholding something from you?” And all of a sudden that forbidden fruit looks a lot more enticing. All of a sudden those stones turning to bread look a lot better than continuing a forty day fast.

But Satan is not for you, he is against you. Jesus, He is for you. God, He is for you. What God does, what God the Son does, they do for you. Jesus does not respond to Satan in power, but rather in humility. In the full reliance on God His Father. When the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness He fasted. He was weak. He was hungry. He was in no condition to do battle with Satan. But that is precisely the point. Jesus did what He did for you. He didn’t display His power, rely on Himself, call into question what in the world His Heavenly Father, what the Holy Spirit, was doing, but rather fully relied on His Father, and fasted. He went without basic and strengthening sustenance so that the Word of God alone could be His sword that would defeat Satan. He did this for you.

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Jesus became a man. He needed food. He ate food. He slept, He rested, He had needs that all humans have. But in attacking Satan, it is the Word of God that was His weapon. This He did for you.

And this you have, as well. You have the Word of God. Eve fell into sin because she went on the word of Satan rather than retreating to the Word of God. Adam fell into sin because he listened to the word of his wife rather than submitting to the Word of God. What did Jesus do? He was weak, He was hungry, He was ready for something good, so to speak, from His Heavenly Father, after the Holy Spirit drove Him out into that wilderness. But Jesus found His hope only in the Word of God. He said nothing original to Satan, simply quoting the Word of God. He did this for you.

Satan seeks to destroy. He doesn’t do it by assaulting you physically. He entices you. He gets you thinking about those things that can’t be that bad; after all, God has given us good things in this life—surely we should enjoy them! And so if Jesus is going to quote the Word of God, Satan is going to play that game all day long. “Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”’”

Satan hasn’t changed. Just as he did with Eve, he doesn’t quote God’s Word so much as he twists God’s Word. He quotes it so that it sounds good and so that it seems like he’s looking out for you, but alters it in such a way that it will harm you if you succumb to his temptation. We rationalize and think that it can’t be that bad. Jesus, He goes to the Word of God and quotes it according to what it is intended for. And that is for your good. Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Well, that’s what Satan does. He puts God to the test. And so “the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’” Power. Going beyond what God has given you. Consider for a moment what God had given His Son Jesus Christ. A humble state. The Holy Spirit sending Him into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. You think Satan didn’t know this? He most certainly saw his chance here in giving Jesus an opportunity to get a lot more than what His supposed loving Heavenly Father had given Him.

But one thing Satan didn’t realize, or at least thought he could get around: Jesus did this for you. He did this because He wanted to. He who is God and eternal and who holds all glory and power became a man. He was born. He went through the awkwardness of adolescence. He suffered scorn and experienced loss just as you do. He was tempted as you are. He chose all of this. He did all of this for you.

And that’s why Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Jesus is God. That you know and believe. But always remember, His being God has never been something He enjoys for its own sake. His being God is quintessentially being love, and specifically, loving you. He has no qualms whatsoever of submitting to the holy and loving will of His Heavenly Father. That’s because it is His own will to love you and save you. He worshiped the Lord His God and served Him only, His eternal Heavenly Father. He did this for you.

And while He is God He nevertheless remains man. He became a man and even now carries the scars in His hands, His feet, and His side, from the suffering He endured on the cross. They are glorious scars, as they bear witness to the atonement He accomplished in that very suffering and death. They are eternal marks, pointing you to what He did. That is why you can always look back to the things He did. The things He accomplished. The things He did, for you. In His humility, in His weakness, He accomplished the most glorious, most powerful thing—salvation for you. Where Satan sought to destroy, Jesus accomplished salvation. Where Satan sought to bring you down, Jesus lifted you up.

Consider, He did it in the unlikeliest of ways, which is why Satan will always try to get you to second-guess it. But Jesus has more power than Satan and His power is all concentrated in His love for you. And that is why when Satan failed in his attempts at getting Jesus to succumb to his temptations, the Gospel reading says that “then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to [Jesus].” This, perhaps, is the most remarkable thing of all, as it takes us back full circle to where Jesus started, in being led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan; weak, humble, vulnerable.

Now that it is over, He is the recipient of angels’ ministering. This is Jesus! This is God! this is the Creator and the Sustainer of the Universe! Needing angels to come to minister to Him. Never forget that He did this for you. Always remember that what He didn’t need is what He willfully and joyfully chose. He was glad to be the recipient of lowly angels ministering to Him. Because it meant that what He was doing He was doing for you. It was His joy to go to the cross, because what He was doing He was doing for you. It is what He did, it is what He continues to do for you. Even now, where it would appear that there is simply bread and wine given to you in the Sacrament hosted at this altar, it is His joy to come to you in and with that bread and wine with His very Body and Blood. He does this for you. Given and shed, for you. Amen.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Fasting, and The Feast

Ash Wednesday
Commemoration of Aquila, Priscilla, Apollos
February 13, 2013
 A Christian software company, Logos, recently advertised some of their products for Lent. This is how the advertisement began:

“In many Christian traditions (Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican and Presbyterian), this Wednesday marks the first day of Lent. For 40 days, observers everywhere will be forsaking things like meat, chocolate, or television—all in preparation for Easter.”

I don’t intend to criticize this advertisement, it is, after all, an advertisement, but I do find it striking that this is how a Christian company would describe Lent. Lent is often misunderstood, and this is a good example. What will happen for forty days? “Observers will be forsaking things like meat, chocolate, or television.” This way of understanding Lent is similar to how a lot of people think of it. Many people have the custom of “giving up something for Lent,” and one would assume that this came out of what was originally the discipline of fasting.

Actual fasting doesn’t work very well in our modern times. But choosing something you really like and going without it for forty days is doable. And there’s no intention of criticizing this custom either, merely to point out that what we often think of as observing Lent really has little to do with what Lent is all about and what it is for.

In our Lenten midweek worship services this year we are going to be meditating on the Lord’s Supper. In a sense, this is what Lent is all about. It’s not hyperbole to say that at the heart of Lent is the Lord’s Supper. So what role does the discipline of fasting play in preparation for the celebration and the receiving of the Lord’s Supper? Our Lenten meditation this year should help us in answering this.

It’s ironic that there are people who observe yesterday, the day before Lent, as Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, as a way of indulging in those things they are going to abstain from during Lent. The idea comes out of celebrating a feast of sorts before the fasting begins. Jesus presents us with the opposite pattern, that of fasting and feasting. He outlines for us the discipline and the way of fasting, only in order to prepare us for the Feast.

The Feast, in a very real sense, is what the Christian life is all about, as we will see in the days ahead during our midweek Lenten worship services. The Lord’s Supper is the Feast our Lord invites us to and partakes of with us. But partaking of the Feast without fasting is missing the true blessings of His rich Feast He blesses us with. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we are celebrating the Feast, even as it is a foretaste of the Feast to come. We partake of it now by faith, in heaven we will see face to face. We will celebrate the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in glory as we cannot imagine now.

There we will have no needs. There will be no hindrances. There will be no sin. There will be no fallen nature and no evil surrounding us. We will behold Christ in pure glory and eternal joy.

Here there is sin and sorrow. There is fallenness and sadness. There is evil and there are hindrances and temptations. We are not able to partake of the Feast of the Lord’s Supper in true glory because we are fallen and sinful and are beset by temptations. The main reason, in fact, we partake of the Lord’s Supper is to receive the forgiveness our Lord gives to us in His Holy Meal. The Feast our Lord bids us to forgives our sin and strengthens our faith. The Feast we celebrate is a joyous celebration of being forgiven and renewed in body and soul.

Thus, in this life there is fasting. At a basic level, fasting is abstaining from food. At another level, fasting is done as a religious rite. It is associated with humility and repentance. It is a discipline that can be of value to living the Christian life and trusting in God for all things you truly need.

It can also be abused. If one fasts and seeks favor from God because of it then that person is missing the point of fasting. Fasting is to be done for the purpose of getting your focus off of yourself and onto Christ. It is to be done to help you see what humility truly is, that you need to suppress your needs and desires and seek all your good from God alone in His Son Jesus Christ. If you place your trust in your fasting, or you think more highly of yourself because you fast, then you are not repentant, but self-righteous.

And so Jesus gives guidance, as we heard in our third reading: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” It is one of the greatest temptations for Christians, to think of themselves as better Christians than others. And even if you don’t fast, you can just as easily fall into this trap. “I go to church every Sunday, unlike others I know.” “I actually live out my Christian faith, unlike others I know.” And so on.

Nobody needs to know how good and faithful of a Christian you are. God knows. He sees in secret. He sees what is in your heart. So you may fast, no one needs to know. So you are here every Sunday, it needs to be because you need to be here to receive God’s blessings, not so people can see what a faithful Christian you are. If you seek glory from others, that will be your reward.

Jesus goes on to say, “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” As Jesus has directed us to observe such a discipline as fasting in secret and in humility, so we see that we do so not for reward or favor or glory. We do it to help us learn humility and to live a life of repentance. And guess what God does? He rewards you. It is a reward of grace. He gives you what you do not deserve. Not because you fast, or live such a good Christian life. Because of grace.

His reward He gives is all because of the perfect life that His Son Jesus Christ lived. It is because of the perfect substitutionary death of His Son. It is because all your sin was reckoned to Him. All the blessings of eternity are thus reckoned to you, or as Jesus says it in the third reading: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Jesus’ guidance in fasting goes on from there with these words: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” There is nothing wrong with eating food. There’s even nothing wrong with enjoying it. And the same goes for all the many blessings our Lord showers down upon us. He is, after all, the one who invited us to pray, “give us this day our daily bread.”

The reason fasting, or another similar discipline, may be necessary for us, is to keep our desires in check. It is all too easy to go from enjoying the good gifts God gives us to desiring them and trusting in them, rather than entrusting ourselves to God’s care, no matter our circumstances.

And that is where the Lord’s Supper comes in. Any discipline, whether it be fasting or another form of discipline, should be for the purpose of showing us our true need. Without keeping our sinful nature in check, we desire more and more the things of this world, and less and less the things God gives to us, which are eternal. The Catechism says this about preparation for the Lord’s Supper: “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

If you fast, let it be in secret, and let it be for the purpose of hungering and thirsting for the forgiveness of sins, that very thing you receive in the Lord’s Supper. You won’t receive it from daily bread, but you will from the body and blood of your Lord in and with the bread and wine of His Holy Supper. Consider what discipline you might follow which will help you focus more and more on Christ and less and less on your needs, and your desires, and the things you too often put your trust in.

Certainly the daily practice of being in the Word of God and prayer takes time away from you to do other things you want to do and need to do. But if God’s Word and prayer become an afterthought, then it is all too easy to see the Lord’s Supper as an afterthought as well. Humility, repentance, submission of your needs and wants, these are characteristic of the Christian life. They point you to your true need, that of the forgiveness of your sin. Thus, your Lord gives you something greater; something lasting, something beyond what you would seek. He invites you to His Table. He welcomes you to The Feast. In His Holy Supper, He hosts and He feeds you with Himself, His Body and Blood, for you, for the forgiveness of your sin. Amen.


Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Work the Word Does

February 3, 2013
Jesus tells a parable, which is straightforward enough. There’s the seed, and the different kinds of soil it falls on. “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.”

He also gives an explanation of His parable: “The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard. Then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.”

The upshot of it all is His description of the fourth type, the good soil, as He calls it. Here He talks of those who have “an honest and good heart.” How is it that one has “an honest and good heart”?

Is it that Jesus is teaching here that there are some who have this innate quality about them that enables them to receive the Word of God and therefore they are saved? What does Jesus say about the seed? It is the Word of God. What does He say about the soil? It is the person who has an honest and good heart. How, then, does one have has this thing known as an honest and good heart?

If it were so that there are certain individuals that have this innate quality, that would do away with what Jesus says in the first place, which is that the sower sows the seed. God sows His Word. Jesus is speaking in the same way the Old Testament reading is speaking of the Word. The Word goes forth from the mouth of God. The Word accomplishes the purpose for which He has sent it.

The Scriptures do indeed speak of what we as human beings do in regard to salvation. The way it speaks of it, however, is not in the way we’re inclined to think of it. We are inclined to think of it in terms of some of us having of ourselves an honest and good heart, and that’s why we’re saved. The Bible teaches differently. It teaches that when one has this, an honest and good heart, it isn’t because it’s innate to the person but because God has granted it to the person. His Word, after all, accomplishes the purpose for which He sends it.

Consider how we usually think of Jesus’ parables. We think of them as simple stories that He uses to unpack for us profound spiritual truths. And they are that, no doubt. But there’s more to them than meets the eye. He tells the parables to everyone. Then, when His disciples are alone with Him, they say to Him, “So Jesus, can you please explain what that means?” His response is counterintuitive: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’”

Huh? Jesus tells His parables so that people may not see, and so that they may not understand? But think about who He is telling the parables to. Everyone. He tells them to His disciples. He tells them to His other followers. He tells them to the passersby. He tells them to the crowds. He tells them to the religious leaders. He tells them to anyone and everyone. There’s no one of whom He says, “Hey, look, people, there are some here who I don’t want hearing this, so I’ll wait till they leave, and then I’ll tell you My parables.” He tells them to everyone.

So if you go into His parables thinking that you have some part in your being a good person, or that you have some part to play in why you are saved, or something innate in and of yourself of why God blessed you over against others who have something innate in them of why they are not blessed or are not saved, you are going to hear what you want to hear in Jesus’ parables. You are going to hear that the ones who are saved and blessed are those who have a good and honest heart, and you will not see that you in fact do not have that of yourself. You most certainly have it, but not of yourself. It is a gift of God even as salvation is; and as the very sowing of the seed of the Word of God is.

So why would Jesus deliberately act in such a way as to prevent someone from understanding? Isn’t His whole point to make known who He is and that He is the source of salvation? That is just the point. The problem, as He is aware, is that we don’t see that. We don’t understand it. And we don’t believe. He knows this and so what He does is strip away everything about us that prevents us from seeing Him for who He is and understanding Him as who He is and believing in Him as who He is. Of our own, our eyes our closed and our ears are stopped up and our minds are dull.

Think about it this way. When Jesus was telling this parable to the people, all kinds of people, He was there before them. He was in the midst of them. God was in the flesh. The Creator of the universe and the Lord of all creation and the Savior of the world was standing in their midst and some refused to believe it. They didn’t entrust themselves completely and fully to Him, but rather saw Him as just another among many different paths to fulfillment or salvation or whatever else people look for as their highest good.

What Jesus can do in this instance is only one thing. Okay, He could actually do two things, but the one He didn’t do wasn’t an option for Him because He is the essence of love and mercy and desires that everyone be saved. This option He didn’t do was simply to leave them as they were; leave them to their sin; leave them to their unbelief and their obstinance. He could have done that, but He didn’t. He didn’t because His heart went out to them. His grace overflowed to them in their sinful state.

So there really was only one thing He could do, and that is what He did. He thrust His sword of the Law through their unseeing eyes, and their stopped-up ears, and their dulled minds. He spoke in such a way as to show them their need for repentance. If you strip away the individual’s ability to do anything on his own, the hope is that he will see that he is in need of outside help. The grace of God is that the outside help was standing before them in the person of Jesus Christ. He was the one who was the mystery in the flesh. Impossible to understand, readily believed through faith. And this is the grace of God, that the faith He requires is the faith He gives. An honest and good heart is the heart of faith, what the Holy Spirit gives you in Baptism.

Jesus’ parable shows us that He is the one who sows and He is the one who produces faith. He closes His parable with this description of the fourth soil: “as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” His parable places upon us a tension. It is a tension between zeal, or you might say unflagging action, and that of patience, or you might say steadfastness. Taking the second one first, we should never get so caught up in why some fall away, or some seem to be apathetic when we share the Gospel with them, or some don’t see the need at all to be in worship, or some refuse to believe that God could forgive them. We must be patient. We must let God do His work through His Word. Converting others is not our job. Our job is to bring the Word of God to others, to make known the Gospel to them. Patience and steadfastness leaves it up to God. Isn’t it the same with God’s patience and steadfastness with us?

It’s easy to mistake this patience, and entrusting this to God, as cause for sitting on our duff. Since God does the work, I’ll just go about my business. Since it is not up to us, we as a congregation can simply be content in knowing God will do His work. Jesus’ parable reminds us and exhorts us to be unflagging in zeal. Get that Word out; make known the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the world. We can’t be patient and let the Word do its work if we’re not getting the Word out.

There are people you know as an individual Christian that other Christians may not. Sow the seed. Talk to them about Christ. Share the Gospel with them. Instead of thinking of the different types of soil as different types of people, think of the different types of soil as different opportunities in your life and various situations in which you have to make to others aware of what they otherwise may not hear. Tell them about the love of God for them in sending Jesus as Savior. Don’t worry about whether you said the right thing or the wrong thing or whether you gave a good impression or a bad one. Commend it to God. Pray for the person you have talked to. Continue to love and be a friend to him or her.

As a congregation, too, there are things we can do. The most important is to gather as we do in God’s House to receive His grace and His Word. Here is where we hear His Word and where He blesses us in the Gospel and in His Sacraments. Without this there is no reason for us to be a congregation. Through this we are not only blessed, but equipped by God to serve others. To make known this very Gospel to the world. We give of our money in the form of offerings so that the Gospel may continue to be proclaimed here in this place and so that we may support the Gospel being proclaimed throughout the world.

Instead of thinking of the four different types of soil in Jesus’ parable as different types of people, consider how all the different types apply to everyone. If you are among, as He says it, the good soil, is it not true that the devil comes and tries to snatch away the Gospel from you? Isn’t it a fact that the cares of this world threaten to overwhelm you? Don’t you find often that what you once held in great joy at times seems dim because of the temptations that crop up around every corner of your life?

And isn’t it true that as you are one who, as Jesus says, has heard the word and “hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience,” it is due solely to the work of the Holy Spirit in creating this faith in you? Isn’t it true that if Jesus were outlining some sort of list of different kinds of people and how they must be receptive and if they’re not then there’s no hope for them, and therefore His suffering and death on the cross was for nothing? A parable that reveals the mysteries of salvation actually covers up those very mysteries if that parable is understood from our reason rather than from the mystery and the glory and the grace of the cross.

The seed is the Word. The Word became flesh. The Man Jesus went to a cross and paid there the sins of the whole world. That’s you, me, and everyone. He desires all be saved, and that’s why He accomplished salvation there on the cross. His resurrection confirms it, and in Baptism the Holy Spirit delivers it. Do not seek understanding of Jesus and His mysteries apart from this. He opens your eyes and your ears and your minds to see and hear and believe. And He keeps you steadfast, now and forever. Amen.