Text: Luke 8:4-15
Today we observe Sexagesima Sunday, the 2nd Sunday before Lent, which comes from the Latin word for “sixty,” referring to the approximate number of days before Easter. Last week was Septuagesima (seventy), next week will be Quinquagesima (fifty), and Lent itself is called in Latin Quadragesima (forty). These three Sundays of what our Prayer Book calls the “Pre-Lenten Season” serve as a way for us to spiritually and physically prepare for our upcoming season of fasting, repentance, and prayer. Our Sunday readings for these three weeks, especially the Gospels, are supposed to help us get into this Lenten mindset. Last week we had the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard from the 20th Chapter of St. Matthew. We were reminded that many are called but few are chosen, a concept that we should find to be sobering, driving us to repentance. But we were also reminded that everyone received the same wages. That is, it’s never too late to repent.
Today’s Gospel is another familiar-yet-sobering parable, the Parable of the Sower, from St. Luke 8, beginning at verse 4 (page 121 in your Prayer Book):
And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: “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 the thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” And as he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
You may recall that our Gospel from two weeks ago was the similar Parable of the Wheat and Tares from Matthew 13. St. Augustine and several other church fathers always liked to discuss these two parables together for two reasons. First, St. Matthew tells these parables together; his version of the Parable of the Sower is earlier in Chapter 13. Second, the two parables deal with the same basic issue: some folks receive the Word of God, but it bears no fruit. Not all who name the name of Christ are truly regenerate. Two weeks ago, we talked about how a sign of being wheat rather than a tare is the fact that, like the disciples, you follow Jesus to have him explain the parable. In Verse 16 of Matthew 13 (part of Matthew’s version of today’s Gospel reading), Jesus says to the disciples: “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” Or, as we just read from today’s Gospel: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
This is our first lesson as we prepare for Lent: we need to listen to Jesus. We need to seek him out. We need to go to him and humbly ask him to explain the Gospel. And where do we find Jesus? In the Word and in the Sacrament. In Scripture we find his teachings and everything necessary for Salvation. In the Sacrament we commune with Christ and are joined to him and his body.
Just like with our Gospel from two weeks ago, Jesus explains the Parable of the Sower for us in the text itself. Luke 8:11:
Now the parable is this: 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 seed is the word of God. This goes back to last week’s theme of “many are called but few are chosen.” The call goes out to everyone. The general call to repentance and faith is universal. Yes, the essence of the Gospel is clear from Scripture and is widely proclaimed. Our bishop recently sent a message to the diocese in which he summed up the basics of the Gospel as he discussed “doing the work of an evangelist.” Bishop Felix wrote:
Doing the work of an evangelist involves continually proclaiming in the church and outside the church what the Bible says about Jesus as well as what it says about sin and its consequences. Sin leads to eternal suffering and separation from God called Hell Fire in the Bible. The only escape from [these] eternal consequences of sin is repentance from sin, and faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord. He died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins so that we are forgiven, reconciled to God, given eternal life, and made children of God to spend eternity with Him in heaven.
He then goes on to quote several scripture passages to illustrate his summary. Indeed, everything we read in Scripture ultimately points us back to this Gospel message. Everything we do in our Liturgy also points us back to this Gospel message. Sometimes we get so familiar with these things that we forget the wonder of it all. Lent is a good time to be reminded of this. Lent is a good time to repent of becoming dull in our affection for the Gospel. If you have never really considered the Gospel message, but just went through the religious motions, Lent is a good time to wake up!
Jesus gives three examples in the parables of ways that the Gospel can be missed, three states of soil that bear no fruit. First, we have the “ones along the path.” In this case, the word of God never penetrates the heart to begin with. Jesus says the devil snatches the word away. Make no mistake: blindness to the Gospel, blindness to God’s word, is a spiritual problem first and foremost. This is one of the reasons the Church has historically included a renunciation of the “devil and all his works” in our baptism. Satan does not want people to hear the Gospel, and he will do everything he can to keep folks dead in their sins. The lies of the Enemy can be false religions and heresy. Or they can be the insane things that the culture buys into, sometimes subtly deceptive and sometimes overtly evil. In all those things, the Old Serpent sings the same song the ensnared our first parents: “Did God really say?”
Second, we have the “ones on the rock,” who believe with a shallow faith. Testing, temptation, and suffering wither away any fruits of the Gospel, just as the hot Texas sun withers anything I’ve ever planted in our garden! If biblical faith is trusting in God based on what he has said in his word, a shallow, stony faith is like a person whose trust is still in their flesh, especially the comforts that the flesh desires. It would be like taking a parachute because you thought it would make your flight more enjoyable rather than because the plane was going to crash. No, the Gospel calls us (as we say in our baptismal vows) to renounce the lusts and sinful desires of the flesh, lest they keep the Word of God from taking root in our hearts.
Third, we have that which “fell among the thorns.” Jesus said that these hear but are “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life” which leads to an immature faith. Our baptismal vows call this the “vain pomp and glory of the world” in which we allow the circumstances of this present life to choke out any concerns for the life to come. Life certainly has cares that must be addressed. Money is something we all deal with, and riches can certainly be a blessing. Life certainly has pleasures, many of which are good, as God spoke in Genesis 1 over creation. But we cannot make these things our top priority. Jesus told us “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things would be added unto you (Matthew 6:33). The Kingdom of God is to be our priority, and we are to let the world take care of itself, even as we do our proper duties as people who rightly live in the world.
To sum up the poor soil, the unfruitful soil, we cannot be led by the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, if we want the Gospel to bear any fruit in our lives. We cannot serve the World, the Flesh, and the Devil if we want to also follow Christ. What do we do if we search our hearts and find that they are hard, or stony, or thorny? Well, St. John Chrysostom tells us to plow the bad soil! He writes:
There is such a thing as the rock changing, and becoming rich land; and the wayside being no longer trampled on, nor lying open to all that pass by, but that it may be a fertile field; and the thorns may be destroyed, and the seed enjoy full security. For had it been impossible, this Sower would not have sown.
This is why our liturgy always proclaims either the Summary of the Law or the 10 Commandments. This is why we have a call to repentance along with a general confession and absolution every service. This is why we include so much Scripture in both the Offices and Holy Communion. The Church is putting the plow to our hearts that the stones may be turned, the path broken up, and the thorns burned, in whatever way such things manifest in our lives. Remember the lesson from last week: it is never to late to repent and turn to God.
How about that fourth soil? The Good soil? Jesus says that they, “hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” For the Gospel to bear fruit, we must hold it fast. We must let it grow. We must be patient and humble, coming before God, that he might work the soil. I’m a terrible gardener mostly because I’m impatient. I don’t diligently water and fertilize the soil. I don’t wait for the right time of year. I don’t work it every day. No, I’d rather buy my vegetables ready to go. I’d rather buy flowers that are already potted. We can’t do that with the Gospel. We can’t do that with God’s Word. We must be patient as the Lord Jesus Christ works in us, molding us little-by-little, through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, into his image. If we want to keep our hearts plowed, we must go to the Lord by reading his word, praying to him, fasting, fellowshipping with other Christians, and partaking of the Sacrament. You may see no fruit at first. But then there will be a sprout, and then a stock, and then leaves, and then fruit, even up to a hundredfold.
Lent is a good time for this kind of patience. Lent is a good time for plowing. And these “gesima” Sundays of Pre-Lent are our annual reminder that planting time is coming. Jesus, the sower of the seed, is on his way! Let’s be ready.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.