We aren’t the dirt.

“A sower went out to sow”.

Anyone who has spent any time in the church at all will be familiar with the parable of the sower.  It’s a beloved parable, not least because it’s one of just a handful of parables where Jesus goes back and explains what he meant – a great gift that guides us in interpreting the other parables of scripture.  And, it helps because the farming image comes back again in the letters of Paul: one plants, another waters, but God gives the growth; only God can wrap the full potential and beauty of a strong, fruitful plant into such a small package.

The sower is a wonderful image because it’s so down-to-earth, so simple.  Seeds are planted, some are eaten by birds, some spring up before others but are scorched because their roots can’t reach water, some are choked out by weeds, some grow and produce a mighty harvest of grain.

They’re familiar words.

But sometimes, familiarity gets in the way.  Sometimes we become so familiar with what we think something says that we actually miss something important.  Just as a prophet isn’t welcome in their hometown, or the hardest thing we can do is try to speak the truth to our own families, familiarity can cloud the message.  So I invite you this morning to look at this parable with fresh eyes.

What’s up with that sower?

One of the obvious questions with this misunderstood parable is “what is that sower doing?”.  Seriously, what sort of a farmer wastes seed like that?  If we stop to think about it, most of those seeds never had a chance from the start. 

You know I’ve got a garden planted behind the Rectory.  When I bought my carrot seeds, I borrowed a roto-tiller and tilled a deep bed, mixing in some rich black dirt; I raked it out to make sure the water wouldn’t wash the seeds away; I planted those little carrot seeds in a neat row, and sure enough, almost every one of them sprang up and is now a leafy stalk with a little tasty orange root growing by the day in that soft, well-prepared soil.

But, come on – if I bought that carrot seed but just started wandering around throwing them here and there, no one would think I’m being generous.  You’d think I’m foolish, even wasteful.  If I threw carrot seed in the parking lot, you’d think I’ve lost my head; if I threw carrot seed on the grassy front lawn, you’d think I’m insane.  Those seeds never had a chance!

…And there’s the big misunderstanding so many of us bring, even without thinking about it, to this parable.

For many of us, yes, we understand that God is unceasingly generous and merciful, but at the end of the day, we see God as a bit of a foolish farmer, wasting seed.  After all, we say to ourselves, we’re just the dirt in this story: it’s not the dirt’s fault that no one tended it, or that it was full of rocks or thorns.  Perhaps, as we see people snatched away or scorched or choked by the cares of the world, we think “well, that’s just how it is; God scatters the seed, but sometimes he doesn’t give any growth.  He’s a generous farmer scattering seed, but sometimes the soil just isn’t ready.” 

But, right off the bat, something there should smell fishy: anytime our understanding of God’s merciful desire to adopt us as his sons and daughters takes us off the hook, we can be guaranteed that we’ve missed the point.

And the same is true here.

If we step back, if we peel back the years of comfortable sermons we’ve heard on the topic, if we look at the actual words of Christ, one thing should jump out at us: at no point does it say that God is the farmer; at no point does it say that God owns the soil, that it’s His fault the soil was left rocky, or shallow, or full of weeds.  God, in the parable, is just the sower – the hired hand scattering seed on the land allotted to the farmer.

If God isn’t the Farmer, who is?

Sowing seeds in Jesus’ day wasn’t like our backyard gardens or our commercial farmers today.  Planting seeds in neat rows is a modern invention, impossible without modern tools.  No, rather it was the farmer’s job to wait for that first heavy rain of the Middle Eastern spring, then, as quickly as possible while the moisture was still on that hard crusty, sun-baked top layer, hitch up the oxen to the plow, and plow up the soft soil underneath.  The seeds from last year’s harvest were stored in the large granaries owned by the king or the wealthy land-owners, and once the farmer had done the back-breaking work of overturning that hard soil, removing the rocks and weeds, then a sower would come behind with the bags of seed borrowed from the storehouse of the king.  Seed was broadcast – thrown evenly from one border of the farmer’s field to the other.  And then, the farmer was to plow the field again to bury the seed, dragging branches behind the plow as a rake to smooth out the ground.  For every bag of seed borrowed to the farmer, the farmer owed that much seed and a portion of the harvest back to the king’s storehouse at harvest.

Jesus makes it perfectly clear that, in this parable, God is the sower.  The sower’s job is to take the good seed from the king’s storehouse and scatter that seed evenly from one edge of the allotted field to the other.

And, in spite of how we might be used to hearing this parable, at no point does it say that we are the soil.  After all, soil is just, well, dirt… you can’t expect much from dirt… and certainly not a relationship or a lifetime of discipleship.

No, my friends.  We are the farmer, the one responsible for the dirt.  We’re the one to whom a field has been allotted, and which the king expects we will tend.  It’s our responsibility to have the ground plowed and the rocks removed, to have the thorns weeded out, and to have the soil of our own lives ready for when the sower comes with the good seed from the king’s storehouse.  The Sower – Christ – is doing as he was commanded: scattering the seed evenly from one corner of the field to the other.  It’s the farmer’s job – it’s our job – to have that thick, sun-baked crust broken and ready to receive the seed.  It’s our job to go back through our own fields and plough the seed under so that they’ll have deep roots.  It’s our job to make sure the field has been weeded so the sprouts aren’t choked by thorns. 

That’s the extent of God’s patience and mercy, and his desire in giving us free will to freely choose to become his sons and daughters: Christ will faithfully scatter the good seed, again and again, year after year, season after season, in the hopes that we will have chosen not to sit idle, or to let our field grow in with weeds, or to stumble around drunk with bellies filled on another’s harvest, but that we will have our field ready.  Because, when the time comes for harvest – and that time is coming – we will need to give an account for the seed that has been lent to us.  The time comes when we must pay it back, with a portion of the harvest, into the king’s storehouse.

All that to say, when we look at ourselves, when we look at the fields allotted to our family members who have gone astray, when we look at those around us whose fields are as dry and dense as a well-worn path, or overgrown with weeds, we’re not to shrug and say, “oh well, I guess God didn’t give the growth”.  No, the seeds from the king’s storehouse are always ready to sprout.  With God all things are possible… after all, haven’t you ever seen a little evergreen tree sprouting horizontally out of the side of a cliff?  Seriously, the good seed can take root in even the most unlikely of places.

But we’re never to take ourselves off the hook.  God invites us into relationship with him.  God offers us the opportunity, season after season, to let that seed take root.  But, as the farmers that we are, responsible to tend and keep and have dominion over the soil we’ve been given, it’s on us to cooperate.  It’s on us to have our soil ready to plant, to bury the seeds deep in the furrows of our hearts, and to tend the field, knowing full well that we are the ones responsible to repay, to make account for, to offer back a portion of the seeds we’ve been given.The Good News.

The bad news, as we read this parable with fresh eyes, is that we’re not off the hook.  We’re not the dirt.  As farmers, it’s up to us to prepare and tend our own field, for which we will give account.  That’s the reality: we can’t blame the lack of growth on anyone else; after all, the good seed can take root in even the most unlikely of places if it’s given a chance.

That’s the bad news.  But the good news is that, while God won’t force us, he does have a plan to help each farmer prepare that soil.  When you were baptized, when you were confirmed, when you renewed those vows, you accepted God’s call to be a labourer in his vineyard; that call to come alongside another, to step into their field, to help them prepare and tend the soil.  That’s what Paul means when he says one planted, another watered; it’s our task, as those sent forth by God’s Spirit, as those whose seeds are already sprouted and have taken root, to step into another’s field and help them clear the weeds, to help them break the boulders, to wake them from their slumber when that spring rain of the Holy Spirit is falling on their field and the time has come to prepare the soil for planting, to get down in the dirt in our mission field and work to prepare even space for one of the Lord’s good seeds to take root – even on the side of a cliff – to produce fruit, knowing that each stalk produces hundreds of seeds, as our rocky fields become fertile, fruitful land bearing much fruit for the king as we learn, year after year, to be better stewards, better farmers, better able to share our God-given knowledge and experience with those struggling around us.

My friends, as we look to the year ahead, a year where everything as we know it will look different, this is a call to action: once we know our seeds have sprouted, once we’ve tended our own field, watering it with the daily dew of prayer, and weeding it with daily study of God’s Word, we have work to do: God is scattering seed all around.  I’ve seen seeds taking root in the most unlikely of places.  Some are waiting to be planted, while the ravens pick away at them.  Others have found receptive soil because of this pandemic, but unless those seeds are lovingly plowed under to grow deep roots, the plants will shrivel. 

We’re the farmers.  We’re the labourers in Christ’s mission field.  The seeds have been scattered.  Let’s get to work, for harvest always comes sooner than we expect.

Notes:

My exegesis follows that of Cyril of Alexandria (from Matthaus-Kommentare aus der griechischen Kirche, in ACCS, Manlio Simonetti, ed.), and John Chrysostom’s homilies on Matthew as found in Schaff’s Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church.

Called to be an Epiphany

Today we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ; that occasion over two thousand and twenty years ago when non-Jewish astronomers and philosophers from Persia read the Hebrew scriptures and took note that the God of Israel had promised to send a king to sit on David’s throne, who would be a great priest and anointed one who would save his people from the consequences of their sin and disobedience.  Then, these scholars of their day noticed a bright light in the sky – one theory suggests that what they saw was the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter on August 12th in the year 3 B.C., a pattern that repeated 10 months later on June 17th, perhaps coinciding exactly with the time it would take to prepare for a journey, travel 800 kilometers across the desert, and then wait for an audience with King Herod.

The Epiphany – a word that means “a life-changing discovery”, a great insight, or a big “eureka” moment – is the realization that God’s promise that he would work through Israel to reveal himself to the entire world had happened with the birth of Jesus.

All of the Old Testament promises that God would bless the whole world through Abraham; that Jerusalem would not just be a holy city for the Jewish nation, but would be a beacon on a hill shining forth light and life for all the world to see; that the true glory of Israel would be in enlightening the nations with the truth of God’s mercy and love.  This is the “eureka” moment, the realization that all of this is finally happening, that this Holy Child is indeed God’s Son, uniting God’s nature with human nature so that he can blaze a new path for humanity, a path of humble obedience that leads to life in place of the age-old path of pride that leads to death.

Who knew a bright light in the sky could mean so much?

Epiphany is a big deal.

For much of the Christian Church around the world, ourselves included, today marks the beginning of a season of Epiphany, a season from today until the start of Lent in which we focus on how Christ is revealed for the world to see, and how we are to respond.

And Epiphany is a big deal – especially for us gathered here today.

We probably never stop to think about it, but Christmas – that major celebration of the promised Messiah, God’s own Son, coming to earth – only applies to us because of the Epiphany.  After all, as far as I know, none of us in this room are the biological descendants of Abraham, members by birth of the Hebrew people in accordance with the law given to Moses.  It’s only by the grace of God, and his revelation of himself to the whole world and not just the Jewish nation, that we’re invited to be included in God’s great work of redemption! 

It’s only by the grace of God… and that’s a key point we read in today’s Gospel as we hear of the wisemen coming to King Herod at Jerusalem – our relationship with God, our status in God’s covenant community, is not something that we can take for granted.

Just picture it: There in Jerusalem you have the beautiful, carved stone palace for the king, sitting on a hill on the western side of the city, almost directly across from the great Temple on the mountain of the Lord on the city’s east side.

Statues and art and tapestries depict the king’s greatness, while by this point, all the trappings of the Roman Empire are also displayed, while the soldiers in their blood-red tunics and bronze armour stand guard. 

The king sits surrounded by the highest ranking priests and the expert teachers of the Old Testament law, those who see themselves as the exclusive keepers and interpreters of God’s will for the world.

And then, a messenger comes in and says “Your Majesty, there’s a group of foreign scholars here to see you.”

And this is where it gets interesting. 

I’m sure they make an appointment and then enter in with all the pomp and circumstance you would expect in a royal palace; King Herod is sitting on a platform, I’d say he’s surrounded by his high-ranking advisors, and then what do these wisemen say?  “Your Majesty… what a splendid palace you have, and thank you so much for your hospitality to us.  Now, O King, please tell us where is the one who has been born King of the Jews?”

Can you imagine the look on Herod’s face?

The lesson we read this morning says that he was “disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him”, but I think that’s putting it politely.  Imagine a foreign contingent arriving at a royal palace to celebrate the birth of the heir to the throne, except the king and his wife haven’t had a baby.

I’m sure they were politely removed from the room as the King totally lost it.  Yelling at his advisors, “what do they mean?  I’m the king of the Jews!  What’s this star they’re talking about?”

The chief priests and the legal experts come together, perhaps shaking in their boots, embarrassed and now fearful of the King’s notoriously short temper.  Trying to save face, they say, “oh yes, of course, we know what they’re talking about… there are some old prophecies that we forgot about while we were going about our business and trying to get by in the modern Roman world – a ruler would come out of that farming town about 9 kilometers south of the city, the town of Bethlehem.

A great revelation with a solemn warning.

With the Epiphany comes an embarrassing warning for all of us.  God is in the business of revealing himself.  You would think that these chief priests and experts in the Old Testament law would be the first to notice and recognize when the prophesies are fulfilled, and how embarrassing that it’s not just people outside the royal household, but foreigners – those who aren’t even Hebrews – who are now teaching them their own religion. 

And it’s a warning to the Church, too.  When we, like them, become too caught up in the business of day-to-day life, when we become too worried about how we make our religion fit in a changing society, without being too costly or overbearing, lo and behold, the proud chosen ones are left behind as God carries on revealing himself to whoever is searching for him.

What happens next?  Well, Herod begins to weave a web of lies, feeling threatened that he may lose his worldly status – threatened to the point that he would lie and even kill innocent children to protect his so-called God-given right to rule.

Meanwhile, it’s foreigners, Gentiles, who fulfil the Old Testament prophecies with their gifts.  Gold, a gift fit for one who would be King of Kings and Lord of Lords; Frankincense, the incense burned by priests in the temple and still used by millions of Christians around the world in their worship today, demonstrating that Christ is the Great High Priest, the one foretold by prophets who is able to enter the heavenly sanctuary and offer the blood required for the price of sin; and myrrh, the perfumed oil of anointing, the oil used to anoint kings and prophets, the oil used to prepare bodies for burial, proclaiming that he is the Messiah – a word that literally means “the anointed one”. 

This is the Epiphany – the life-changing eureka moment that proclaims that Christ is the one who fulfills the Promises of God.

The Epiphany Challenge

But, we have a problem.

The anointed saviour of the nations, the light to enlighten all humankind has come into the world, but so many haven’t recognized him.  So many, like Herod and the priests, were so busy with their goals and priorities that they forgot what they had been taught; many more, I’m sure, were just worn down with the struggle of everyday life that, if they even noticed Venus and Jupiter lining to make a bright light in the sky, they thought “oh, that’s nice” and went on their way.

But God is in the business of revealing himself.

And one of his great revelations – a great epiphany – is that he doesn’t want to use lights in the sky or the movement of planets and stars, but now wants to use us instead.

Every person who is baptized, whether we realize it or not, is called to be an epiphany – a revelation of God to the world.  We are called to speak the truth and reveal the good news of God in Jesus just as that light in the sky called wisemen to cross the desert.  We’re all called to do that – some of us do it well, some of us really need to work on it, but, if you’re baptized, there’s no escaping that duty to reveal Christ to the world.

And as we start this new year together, this is an opportunity for each of us to reflect on how we’ve done.  God wants each of us to be that star that shines for those who are searching for truth, not pointing to ourselves, but leading the way to Jesus.

And how have we done? 

I can guarantee you that there are many who are searching.  Each of us rubs shoulders each week with those who have no direction in their lives, who are searching for meaning and purpose; each of us knows someone who is silently struggling, putting on a strong face to mask frustration, and disappointment, and pain; we’re all surrounded with people who, at the end of the day, feel like they don’t belong anywhere, like they don’t have anyone to really share their burdens. 

And how have we done with showing them the way?

When they look to us, do they find a light inviting them out of the darkness, or do they find us silent, or perhaps worse, do they find us bewildered ourselves as we, like the priests and teachers of the law, have missed the point of our own religion.

You are to be an epiphany; you are to be a revelation, a “eureka moment” for those you meet.  How many have we invited to church this year?  Or invited to Kids’ Club, or offered to pray with, or even offered for them to talk to your priest in their time of need?  Or do we only invite our friends to share our worldly concerns, to give us money for fundraisers, without inviting them to share in the benefits of belonging to a church family that cares?

These are big questions, but a new year is always a good time to start.

The point of Epiphany is that it’s only by the grace of God that we’re here; and that, one way or another, our great God is in the business of revealing himself to the world, and he wants us – he wants you to be a part of that. 

Now, are you willing to be that light, to be that Epiphany for those around you?

May God help us to respond, as with all our promises at baptism: I will, with God’s help.  Amen.