Reading Matthew 13.1-9 & 18-23
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
A bit of science to start off with: all living things are made up of cells. Some consist of just one cell – bacteria, for instance – but we human beings are made up of, literally, trillions of them – possibly as many as 70 trillion. No wonder we have an obesity crisis, you might think, but even the slimmest human body contains many trillions of cells.
It wasn’t until the advent of microscopes that we knew that these cells even existed. At first they were thought to be just simple blobs of stuff.
We now know that each cell is immensely complicated – vastly more complex than would have been conceivable, say, 200 years ago.
The very small can be very rich both in what it is and in what it can do.
You could say something similar for seeds. We’ve always been able to observe seeds but until recently we had no idea of their complexity or what it was that made for the potential abundance and fruitfulness which they embody.
A seed contains within itself an immense richness and capacity for growth. It is as it were a tiny packet full of vibrant energy. It does after all contain the future plant’s own blueprint for itself, its DNA, as well as the means to make itself happen.
And yet, as the tiller of an allotment for the last 5 years, I for one know only too well that a seed – despite all its vibrant potential – needs the right conditions for it to grow.
The Parable of the Sower is unusual in the Gospels in that we not only hear the parable itself, we also hear a detailed explanation of what it’s about. From the preacher’s point of view I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing but it should at least keep me on the straight and narrow.
We are told that the seed is the word of God – and therefore, by definition, it must be full of richness and potential.
The parable is about the Gospel and its reception. In fact it’s mainly about its non-reception. Why is it that some people do not come to believe, or at least not for long? Three explanations are given.
Some seed falls on the path. The evil one comes along straightaway, makes off with the seed and there isn’t the slightest opportunity for the seed to grow. Well, I’m not sure that’s really an explanation at all, but the fact remains that some people seem completely impervious to the Gospel. It’s like the proverbial water of a duck’s back.
I remember a visit to the Chapel at Christ’s School on Queen’s Road. Ruth Scott was the chaplain – it was some time ago – and she told us that going to church was deeply uncool among the students. That somehow just stuck in my mind.
The last thing students wanted fellow students to know, or even think, was that they went to church. Obviously, it wasn’t good for their image.
And I think that’s prevalent in our whole society. Being a Christian is bad for your image. So people just don’t want to know about Jesus. No wonder the seed of the gospel has a hard time finding a place to grow. Our society has made people impervious to the gospel.
Some seed falls on rocky soil and though it grows well initially, eventually it dies back when the going gets tough. How easy it is for us human beings to get knocked off course by adversity. When things are hard, we just want the adversity to go away. We can lose sight of the bigger, the eternal picture.
Many new Christians are full of joy and fervour when they find Christ, which is wonderful. I wouldn’t want to take that away from anyone.
But faith is a long haul and there will always be trials on the way. A trial can always go either way – or it wouldn’t be a trial – but it’s also and always an opportunity to deepen our faith.
Growth is sometimes choked by the cares of the world, the lure of wealth and the desire for other things. I often reflect that these days we can also be distracted by the myriad of things going on around us and God can easily be squeezed out. Those other things can be very enticing.
There are so many things we can do and buy, so much music we can hear, so many books and magazines and newspapers we can read, so many TV programmes we can see, so many websites to explore, so many places to fly off to, so much work to be done, so many organisations we can get involved in – it’s a wonder we have time to sleep, let alone make space in our lives for friendship with God.
None of those things are necessarily bad in themselves – not a single one. That’s important to note. It’s just that they can take over.
It’s sometimes said that the best is the enemy of the good – meaning, I think, that when we strive for supreme excellence, we can end up with something worse than if our ambitions had been more modest and more realistic.
That may well be true sometimes but at other times the good can be the enemy of the best. We can spend our time, say, watching enjoyable films and doing any number of other good things but neglect our relationship with God.
You can’t foster and deepen a relationship if you don’t put time and effort into it.
We sell our birthright for a mess of potage. There’s nothing wrong with a bowl of good potage. There’s nothing wrong with a good film. There’s nothing wrong with Facebook or Twitter or smartphones. They’re just not the real deal when it comes to what life is ultimately all about.
And then there’s the seed that falls into good soil. It yields thirty, sixty and a hundredfold.
As I said at the beginning, however much potential a seed may have, it needs the right environment in which to grow. So the gospel is a cooperative venture between us and God. Our job is to prepare the soil, communally as well as individually.
But if we are in the happy position of yielding thirty, sixty or a hundredfold, we shouldn’t give ourselves too much credit.
That harvest comes from the richness in the god-given seed that has fulfilled its potential within us. That is what has caused the growth. And the DNA of the growth we ourselves experience will be the same as God’s own DNA. We will have become like God in our capacity to love.
We may be receptive soil – let’s pray that we are; we may help others to be receptive soil – let’s pray that we do, but it’s always God who gives the growth.