It's always nice to hear the old familiar bible stories and parables now and again, isn't it. There's almost a warmth and feeling of safety in covering old ground, restating the obvious. it's more difficult of course for the preacher, as he or she feels a desperate urge to squeeze something new - some small as yet undiscovered pearls of wisdom - from such a well remembered passage.
When it comes to a passage such as the parable of the sower, then I would have to admit that the chances of finding a new angle upon which to base a sermon would be fairly slim. But what I would like us to do is to look at the story as if it were not just a tale about how the gospel is received and acted upon between the ears of an assortment of different people, but to see it more as a parable which talks to us as a church.
Let's imagine us, the church here in this town, rather than us as individuals, as the target of this story.
And as it's a story concerning the planting of seeds, perhaps the first point of reference would have to be the conditions under which planting is to take place.
When you're looking to establish a garden, it's always a good first step to look at the soil in which you are about to plant. What are the right conditions for a good fertile soil?.
Healthy soil is of course essential for successful seed germination and plant growth: it physically supports plants and supplies them with water, air, and a range of mineral nutrients. There are different types of soil to be found in the garden. We might have sandy soil, mainly clay, peaty, chalky or a silty soil - each have their own peculiarities, and each in their own way will produce results for a limited range of plants.
But by the same token each may be improved with a little time and effort to the point at which the fertility is such that any seed planted in it stands an even chance of succeeding.
Do you get the impression that there's an analogy building up here?
Let's take it that little bit further
The soil of course may be prone to problems with weeds. Now weeds come in many shapes and colours, but really there's only two types - the annuals, generally little things that are annoying but relatively easy to overcome with judicious use of a hoe; and then the nastier perennials, which if you just try pulling them out leave bits of root behind which just grow up again within a week or so, or creep unseen underneath the flower bed until it's too late to dig the bed over without disturbing the flowers. Perennial weeds are problems that take some getting rid of.
Are you still with me?
Do we dig the soil over, or leave it undisturbed? There are arguments for and against either. Digging mixes the soil particles and gives them fresh oxygen, and can help the soil should it be prone to getting bogged down. But digging deep can also bring to the surface some things we'd rather not see, like weed seeds which until then had laid dormant but now will be quick to germinate and grow.
Adequate watering is vital for good plant growth, but an excess of water in the soil causing waterlogging can be as dangerous as a lack of water. Ditto with nutrients. A perfect soil may need very little extra nutrients to produce good crops, but how many of us have perfect soil in our gardens - so in order to get the best from our garden we feed our plants with the necessary food to ensure that they give of their best.
And the result of all our hard labour? Our garden may have the occasional weed or two or three or four, but we can deal with that. But the effort involved in improving the soil fertility will always more than repay us by the quality of the plants and crops that are produced.
And I think that's the point at which to leave the gardening analogy and return to Jesus' parable.
This is a parable that Jesus told concerning the kingdom of God. How do we know? Because it is placed by Matthew among a whole group of other stories about the Kingdom; there's the one about the mustard seed, the yeast, another about separating the wheat from the weeds, a treasure in a field, a pearl of great price and a fishing net. The message was basically the same one, but the stories he told, based on the life of the people were designed to make them think. For the one thing Jesus never seemed keen to do was spoon feed the people with his message.
In fact Matthew says in a later verse "In all this Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables; indeed, he would never speak to them except in parables. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet: 'I will speak to you in parables, unfold what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.'"
The parables were there to be interpreted, to have the truth hidden within them revealed. And it's quite possible that in a large crowd listening to Jesus there might be many variations, should they have been questioned, as to what they thought Jesus was saying. Just as we can look at a portion of scripture and apply it to our lives today, even though it was written at a particular time in history and to a particular people or situation.
And I'm sure that's exactly what Jesus hoped would happen to his words, otherwise why would he have spoken in such a way? What he wanted was for each one of his listeners to go away and puzzle over his words, come to an understanding and relate that to his or her life. It was only to his disciples that he sometimes took the trouble to spell out his exact meaning. Everyone else had to puzzle it out themselves.
I said earlier that this parable was one of several concerning the Kingdom of Heaven, and Jesus made it very plain that the Kingdom is to be enjoyed not only in the hereafter but also in the here and now. What is a Kingdom if not simply that place in which the people live under the rule of a king, and how often do we sing in our hymns of God as Lord or King?
Individually we enter into that Kingdom as we make our first commitment to the Lord, that acceptance of our failings and our wish for something far, far better. As a fellowship we become the small community residing in this part of His Kingdom.
But it doesn't end there.. it can't end there, because the King we serve is a dynamic King, constantly working his purpose out and his purpose often involves us as individuals or as a body. He nudges us at times into action, or at least calls in the hope that we will listen and respond. And that of course is where we touch on the parable again.
If we consider ourselves as the soil of which Jesus spoke, then it is surely our responsibility to ensure that we are a fertile soil. We need to provide the proper conditions under which the word of God can flourish.
What happens if we don't?
Quite simply it affects the way that our church and fellowship will grow. Listen once more to the words of Jesus as he explains the parable to his disciples and lets try and apply them to our fellowship.
"When anyone hears the word of the kingdom without understanding, the Evil one comes and carries off what was sown in his heart: this is the seed sown on the edge of the path."
Well, I suppose it could relate to how well we listen to the sermon each Sunday, but how about we relate it to our depth of faith. We've been to church, some spiritually uplifting event or other, and come away with the firm conviction that we need to get our lives sorted out, or do something in particular - maybe put right a relationship that's gone wrong.
But then, by the time we've got home there are distractions which take our mind away from what we were so sure was our next course of action. It becomes "maybe tomorrow" or "one of these days.." and then "well, maybe maybe not"
"The seed sown on patches of rock is someone who hears the word and welcomes it at once with joy. But such a person has no root deep down and does not last; should any trial come, or some persecution on account of the word, at once he falls away."
That's the trouble with a poor quality soil of course. If the soil is too rocky, then a large plant can have difficulty getting a good foothold; the roots remain very shallow, and the plant easy to dislodge. How easy is it for the winds of doubt to cloud our understanding - for the occasional spiritual high to be blown away at the slightest testing.
It's so important that our faith is not a shallow but a deep-rooted faith. We might be able to survive for many years like the seed at the edge of the path, but how do we counter the arguments of the Jehovah's Witness at the door - simply tell them to go away, or share our faith honestly and with conviction.
We need to be sure of our faith and where it is grounded, and just like a stony soil in our garden benefits from improvement by the addition of muck or compost, so our faith benefits from regular applications of bible reading and prayer.
"The seed sown in thorns is someone who hears the word, but the worry of the world and the lure of riches choke the word and so it produces nothing."
Wild briars are annoying in a garden. They are of course a very successful plant if looked at botanically, but a source of much cursing when they scratch bare limbs. They take some of the enjoyment away from gardening. Likewise in our church council deliberations, we can sometimes spend an inordinate amount of time discussing several "thorny" issues which might have a lot to do with, say, the building or assessments, and not a lot to do about the more important business of building up the kingdom.
In a fertile soil, tended with care, treated with respect, kept free of choking weeds and thorny briars, we can expect growth to occur - sometimes not as quickly as we would like, some plants take time to establish - and ultimately our efforts to be rewarded by a show of colour, or a welcome crop for the freezer.
In a fertile fellowship, receptive to God's word, where the groundwork has been done, then we can expect others to hear and respond, we can expect growth, and we can look forward to a harvest, not of flowers but of souls.
"And the seed sown in rich soil is someone who hears the word and understands it; this is the one who yields a harvest .."