We tend to think of the Parable of the Sower as a commentary on evangelism. As congregations spread the Word of God, the majority of our work will not result in a harvest. A remarkable 75% of the effort appears to be wasted as faith is either never created at all, or quickly meets its demise. Only 25% of the Word yields a harvest. While this does give some insight into why every congregation isn’t bursting at the seams and planting new churches every year, it’s not the main reason why Jesus tells the Parable. Three verses after the Parable Jesus tells us why He told it. He said, “Take care, then, how you hear.” That’s a sobering sentence. “Take care, then, how you hear.” The Parable of the Sower isn’t about analyzing everyone else and how they responded to the Word. The Parable of the Sower is about me taking a look at my own life to realize that I have not been careful in how I heard and received the Word.
What this means is that, if we were to do a soil analysis, we’d find that we’re all four types of soil at different times. Which is a thought that makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t it? This shows that not one of us sitting here this morning are the beautiful, well-tilled, nutrient-dense soil we’ve convinced ourselves we are. It means there are times when we allow the devil to snatch the Word out of our heart. It means there are times we fail to allow the Word to be nourished and our faith suffers. It means there are times we make the Word compete for our attention and it loses. Thanks be to God that there are times the Holy Spirit triumphs over our sinful wills and allows the Word to take root and bear fruit!
“Take care, then, how you hear.” That is Jesus saying, “Repent!” Each of us must come face-to-face with the reality of what we confessed, perhaps by rote and not by heart, not all that long ago. We are poor, miserable sinners. We not only have sins and iniquities, we have welcomed sin and iniquity. The Word of God has been brought to us by the Holy Spirit and we have said, “Yeah, that’s nice, but sin looks a whole lot better right now. I’d rather daydream about how I can get all of my neighbor’s money. I’d rather spread the gossip instead of protecting their reputation. I’d rather give into the sexual temptation than remove myself from the situation. It’s much more therapeutic for me to hold this grudge against that jerk than to actually do what Jesus asks me to do and resolve the conflict.” So we allow the devil to swoop in, snatch the seed, and leave us worse than we started. “Take care, then, how you hear.”
And then there are times we don’t allow the Word the nourishment it deserves. We come on Sunday, the seed is cast, and it tries to grow, but we don’t allow any water to be poured on the seed; we don’t allow contrition and confession and absolution to do the work of removing the rocks. We roll over and think, “God would want me to get rest. And besides, it’s better to go to church once a month than never at all, right?” Or we don’t take even a few minutes out of the day to read a Psalm, to meditate on Scripture, to pray, praise, and give thanks. We receive the Word with joy on Sunday, but have no time or use for it the rest of the week. Take care, then, how you hear and how you use your time.
The slipperiest of slopes is making our faith compete for our attention among all the other things in our lives, treating faith as if it’s just one more thing to fit in or if it’s equal to everything else in our life. We can only focus on so many things. It’s not possible to get our kids to three different places after school gets out, fit in our own activities, do the household chores, make sure homework gets done, make sure we’re ready for the next day, sneak in a few minutes of rest, and still allow time in the Word. Maybe that kind of active family lifestyle isn’t yours anymore, but the concept is the same for all of us, regardless of lifestyle. So many things compete for our time and attention, and it’s all too easy to allow faith get pushed to the side. “Well, I’ll hear the Word on Sunday. I’ve gotta get the kids to their game.” “There’s no way you can expect me to stay for Bible Study. That’s when I go grocery shopping.” Jesus is warning each of us: it’s easy to be one who hears, “but as [we] go on [our] way [we] are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and [our] fruit does not mature.” Take care, then, how you hear. What’s more important: your faith or fitting in one more activity?
So, of course, we have seen that we’re all bad at this. None of us are as careful as we should be about how we hear the Word and guard our lives. What’s the fix? This is where the fix-it attitude of “I created this mess, I’ll fix this mess” doesn’t work. This isn’t a self-help Gospel on how to get your life in order and have a prosperous life. You don’t have to be a seasoned farmer or award-winning gardener to know that soil doesn’t change itself. The rocks don’t remove themselves; the hard and compacted soil doesn’t till itself; not even the good soil fertilizes itself. Soil is made better only by an outside force acting on it. So, if you’re soil in Jesus’ Parable, it means something from outside of yourself needs to do the improvement, right? What is that outside force? “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” That’s right—the Word is your only hope, because the Word brings the Holy Spirit who does all of the work. You’re only going to get your life in order, you’re only going to improve spiritually if the Holy Spirit does it through Word, and Sacraments where the Word is given to you in a tangible form. The Holy Spirit, through the Word, shows you your sin and corrects you. The Holy Spirit, through the Word trains you in righteousness, that is, teaches you that your righteousness comes not from what you do, but from Christ your Righteousness making you righteous!
The Holy Spirit is the one who gets your life in order, who aligns your priorities so that your faith receives the nourishment it needs. He did His work this morning by bringing you here. Even if you hit snooze a few times too many, you still listened to His call. He brought you to this place so He can deliver to you the forgiveness of sins Christ won on the cross, forgiveness for all the times you gave into temptation or gave your spiritual life the brush off. That’s because as He does His work through reminding you of Christ’s willing obedience, suffering, and death in your place, faith will, like a seed in good soul, take root and bring forth the fruit of good works. And by His work in the Word He now transforms you by tilling your stony heart. He cuts away the thorns and the weeds so the seed to takes root and yields a harvest a hundredfold. The Holy Spirit is the one who motivates you, who helps you set your priorities right so that your desire is no longer sinful, selfish desires, but every good work, everything that is pleasing to God and good for your neighbor. He answers your prayer to be defended in body and soul against all adversity by defending you with Himself and placing the full armor of God upon you.
And all of this He does recklessly, not counting the cost. Your God is not stingy in His forgiveness or in His work. He knows the rocks will reappear, that you will sin again even after He forgives you. But He does not tire of digging up the rocks of sin, pulling out the weeds and thorns of this world’s cares, and pruning away what leads to death. The same God who gave the guests at Cana’s wedding hundreds of bottles of wine even after they had their fill, who flings the seed of the Word with reckless abandon, eager to spread it everywhere, who fed the five thousand to their heart’s content, is the same God who forgives all your sins and preserves you in body and soul to life everlasting. He will not stop working on you, because He loves you, He longs for your salvation, and He will give everything, even His life, to make sure you are His now and eternally.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.