How Is Your Soil?

Text: Is 55:1-13; St. Matthew 13:1-23

One of Beth’s favorite hobbies is gardening. My part is the prep work. I till the ground for tomato plants, build raised beds and deliver soil and fertilizer in my truck. My part is small but not insignificant because in the end it does not matter how healthy the plants were when Beth planted them, or how carefully she tends the garden; if the soil to begin with is not good, the results will be bad. 

That, of course, was Jesus’ point in this parable that is before us. The problem is not the seed. In each case the seed was the same. The problem was with the soil and its varying conditions. 

It is worth noting that Jesus does not typically explain His parables but He does in this case. In fact He explains it in detail. He clearly does not want us to miss His point here. Since conditions of the soil represent the conditions of our hearts we can understand why this message must understand and acted upon. It is for the sake of our souls. So how is your soil?

Let’s review. The first soil was a hard path and the birds of the air ate the seed even before it could take root. Jesus says that represents anyone who hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it. The enemy comes along and snatches it away. 

Please note that the state of the soil of this person’s heart has nothing to do with their intellectual ability, their personality, or even their character. They are without understanding because, as the prophets put it, they have hearts of stone. Therefore they cannot comprehend the things of God.

If you know such a person, and most of us do, may I suggest how to be there for them. First realize that because it is a heart matter and not a head matter, you must take a different approach with them. You can have them listen to the best of Christian apologists, you can fill their shelves with C.S. Lewis, you can even sneak Gospel tracts into their bathroom, but none of it will work. It will all be water off of a duck’s back. Why? St. Paul puts it very bluntly. They are dead in their transgressions. You cannot argue a dead man into the kingdom.

Does this mean that they are hopeless? Of course not! As Jesus told Nicodemus, nothing is impossible with God. Your best role therefore is to pray for them. Pray that the Holy Spirit will turn their heart of stone into a heart of flesh so that the seed, which is the Word of God, will be sown into their hearts and take root. 

The second soil is rocky ground. They receive the word of God with joy but because of how shallow their soil truly is, they end up falling away. The text says, “he has no root in himself.” 

This is the immature Christian who has been baptized and perhaps even confirmed but has done nothing since to deepen their spiritual life. Their prayer life is shallow if it exists at all. They rarely delve into the Holy Scriptures. They are absent during Christian Education and they only receive the Sacrament if nothing else is happening on a Sunday. Their faith is really more of a feeling and so they are unable to make a defense for the hope that is within them. In the end they do not finish the race.

The third soil may be deeper than the rocky soil but it is mixed with thorns. Jesus tells us that the thorns are the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the thorns eventually take over. 

This is the Christian who has divided loyalties. He has one foot in the kingdom and the other foot in the world and as Jesus said, a house divided against itself cannot stand. 

The fourth soil is the good soil. This is what we want. This is the Christian who receives the Word of God, understands it AND does something about it in order to produce fruit… and lots of it. 

This parable is often presented to describe four different types of people but I also think that it is possible to have them be different stages in the life of one person. Either way Jesus is telling this story so that we will address the soil of our heart and seek to make it good soil. But how do we do that?

A place to start is by heeding the words of the Prophet Isaiah in our lesson today. If we do what he says there can be no doubt that the soil of our hearts will be properly prepared to receive the Word of God and to produce fruit.

I love this passage. It is beautifully filled with mercy and hope. And what is amazing is that it is a clear presentation of the Gospel and yet it was written 800 years before Christ. 

Isaiah begins with such a gracious invitation. “Come everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”  With the imagery used here of water and wine and bread, it understandably takes our minds to the Dominical Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. These are Gospel Sacraments that convey and sustain eternal life. 

Additionally where this invitation is so clearly the Gospel is that it comes to us without charge. It is a gift. This matches the statement of St. Paul to the Ephesians.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

At first it seems like a contradiction to be invited to buy without money and without price. But that is to underscore not that there is no price, but rather that we do not have to pay it. Salvation is free to us but salvation is not free. Two chapters earlier Isaiah tells us who paid the price. 

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.”

We also need to see that although we have no price to pay, nevertheless something is required of us. Two things stand out here.

First we are to respond to God’s call to us. Again and again He says “Come, come.” “Come everyone who thirsts…Come by wine and milk…Listen diligently to me…incline your ear and come to me.” Then He adds “Seek the Lord while He may be found.” Not only is the invitation passionate and has a sense of urgency, but to say “Seek the Lord while He may be found” implies that a time will come when the invitation is withdrawn. 

The LORD’s urgency here is not from any need that He has. It is because He knows how brief our lives really are. Isaiah said earlier.

“All flesh is like grass,  and all its glory like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall when the breath of the LORD blows on them; indeed, the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.”

The truth is that the sands of the hourglass are moving quickly for every one of us and so we need to respond to the urgency of our Lord. As we pray in the additional prayers; “…and grant that, perceiving how frail and uncertain our life is, we may apply our hearts unto that heavenly wisdom which leadeth to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The other response to which the Prophet calls us, that in turn will prepare the soil of our heart to receive God’s Word, is that of repentance. Verse 6“…let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”

Lest you think that this verse does not apply to you because you do not consider yourself “wicked” lets focus on what the LORD tells the wicked man to do in order to see if the shoe fits. What is he to do? He is to “forsake his way.” 

This touches on the heart of our sin nature. Sin is when I insist on having my own way rather than walking in God’s way. It is when I pray “Thy will be done” but then live my life so that my will is done. A W Tozer writes, “The natural man is a sinner because and only because he challenges God’s selfhood in relation to his own. In all else he may willing accept the sovereignty of God; in his own life he rejects it. For him, God’s dominion ends were he begins.”

This understanding of sin goes a long way to explain the current discord that is in our nation. You could probably come up with a list as long as your arm of the various social and political groups that are demanding that things be done their way. The leader of one of these groups actually said, “We are going to get what we want or we are going to burn the whole thing down.” How is that a way to honor God or reconcile us to our neighbor? 

We need to be alert to false solutions even from the Church. A Canon in our Province is promoting the Critical Race theory that has elements of Marxist philosophy in it, much like Liberation theology. I asked a group. “If we have the Great Commandment and the Golden Rule from Jesus why do we need the Critical Race theory? Some said it is because we are not doing a good job at obeying Jesus and so this theory will aide us. I replied, “I don’t look to Marxist philosophy to help me to obey Jesus, I call on the Holy Spirit.”

I said that because God call us to walk in His will and way and not in the way of the world. Again from Tozer. “’What shall we do?’ is the deep heart cry of every man who suddenly realizes that he is a usurper and sits on a stolen throne. However painful, it is precisely this acute moral consternation that produces repentance and makes a robust Christian after the penultimate had been dethroned and found forgiveness and peace through the gospel.” Repentance tills our hearts. Demanding our own way hardens them.

It is important, however, to see repentance in its biblical context. I reject the Puritan image of a sinner repenting because he is in the hands of an angry God being daggled over the fires of hell. Everyone knows John 3:16 but how many know John 3:17? “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through Him.”  The Scripture says that it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance. Repentance is when the prodigal comes to his senses and realizes that going back home, even if it is to be a servant, is far better than living with the pigs in a foreign land. Repentance is a cause for great celebration. Jesus said, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

Admittedly there is a factor that makes repentance difficult beyond the deadly sin of pride. It is the feeling of being so undeserving of mercy, especially when we take into consideration all that the LORD has done for us. The penitential prayer that we pray during a private confession captures it so well. “Holy God, heavenly Father, you formed me from the dust in your image and likeness, and redeemed me from sin and death by the cross of your Son Jesus Christ. Through the water of baptism you have clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness, and established me in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and have wandered far in a land that is waste…”

We find it difficult to forgive people who have used or misused or taken advantage of our kindness. So deep down we wonder how or why God would forgive and accept us after we have squandered his inheritance and wandered far in a land of waste. Why would God abundantly pardon the wicked?

Verses 8 and 9 tell us, and you have probably never heard this verse in its context. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  What the LORD is saying here is that, (thanks be to God), He is not like us. His love is not fickle for He is love. His covenant is not temporal, it is eternal. His promises are not broken, they last to a thousand generations. He does not eek out forgiveness, He abundantly pardons. His word is not weak but always accomplishes His purposes. We can take refuge in Him precisely because He is not like us. He is utterly, utterly trustworthy.

Years ago a German Abbess wrote a book called “Repentance: The Joy Filled Life.” That title seemed like a contradiction. Then I met some of her nuns and they were the embodiment of joy. I realized it was because they properly understood repentance. They were not carrying the unbearable load of guilt and condemnation.

The Prodigal Son understood repentance. He was hoping just be accepted back as a servant to his Father. Instead a robe was put over him, a ring was placed on his finger and he was welcomed back like a man who just returned from the dead. He was even thrown a party. That can be your story too. 

Isaiah too speaks of the joy that follows repentance. Verse 12. For you shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace and the hills before you shall break forth in singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” So rather than running from repentance we should run to it and then revel in the joy and peace that it brings. 

Responding to the urgency of God’s call and living the joy filled life of repentance tills our hearts and helps us receive the seed of Word of the LORD and produce fruit. So how is your soil? Amen.

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