Automatic Soil Action

Text: Mark 4:26-34

St. Paul wrote in our Epistle reading, “In this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened…we walk by faith, not by sight.[1] Paul lived in a time where the Word of God was spreading rapidly, but it was also a difficult time. The Christian Church faced persecution from without and within. The threats of physical injury or death for our confession of faith were real. Backsliding and abandonment of one’s faith were a thing. As much as Paul wanted God’s Kingdom to expand on earth, meaning that, as much as Paul desired the spread of the Gospel of Christ, it wasn’t matching up with what he saw. He described our lives as Christians as ones of groaning and burden. But even in that, Paul says, we walk by faith and not by sight.

Like Paul we live in a temporal world full of change and disappointment. So often it seems like we work and work and work, and nothing becomes of our endeavors to share the faith of Jesus Christ with a sinful world. We long to put off this perishable tent and put on the imperishable, our eternal home in the heavens. It’s difficult because we live in a transitional time as we await the return of Christ. We are born from above, we have eternal life here and now…but we’re not there yet. We are exhorted by Paul to continue walking by faith and not by sight.

Jesus tells a parable in Mark 4 that is sometimes called, “The Automatic Action of the Soil.” In it a man goes out to scatter some seed on the ground. Then he goes about his business. Without any further action of the man, the ground produces fruit by itself. When the grain is ripe, the harvest comes. In this parable those who hear the Word of God preached are the soil. The man is Jesus, who preaches His Word. The seed is His Word that takes root in those who hear it and causes fruit to come forth, but not all at once. Despite appearances, which sometimes cause us to groan, God’s Word causes fruit to come forth until it’s time for harvest.

I.

The parable Jesus gives goes like this. “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”[2] Last week and this we’ve gone from having almost no Mark to jumping right into the thick of it, especially considering that we’ve jumped and landed in some parables. The way parables were explained to me as a child, a way that’s stuck with me, is that parables are earthly stories with heavenly meanings. They use various figures of speech and forms of imagery to explain a greater or higher concept.

Our text this week follows one parable that probably everyone knows or is aware of: the Parable of the Sower. Our text shares some elements, but uses them in some different ways. In the Parable of the Sower a man goes out to sow some seed. He sows the seed just about everywhere, and it falls on different types of soil. Here the sower is Jesus, the seed is His Word, and the different types of soil are us. It’s important to not try and figure which type of soil you are, but to recognize that at various times, we’re all four. The Parable of the Sower shows us that when God’s Word is preached and falls on good soil, it bears fruit beyond all comparison.

Likewise, in our parable today, a man goes out to sow some seed. The principal man is Jesus, if we carry His interpretation of the Sower here. The seed is His Word. During His ministry on earth Jesus preached the Word and the seed fell on the soil, those who heard His Word. Today Christ sows the seed of His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins through pastors and faithful Christians. The one type of soil in our parable is representative of those in whom the Word of God takes root, those who hear the Word of God, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit, keep it. Without any further action, the seed takes root, and comes forth bearing fruit by itself.

II.

The man in the parable sleeps and rises after spreading the seed, and, by itself, it “sprouts and grows…The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.”[3] I think this is a sobering and realistic truth – we don’t see growth all at once. Sometimes the candle burns really bright, like when you’re baptized, or when you work up the courage to go to Bible study, or you mention Jesus to your friend at work. Other times, it burns not so bright. What fruit are you producing when you sit at home and watch TV all evening? What fruit are you bearing for Christ when you put your boat in the water at church time on Sunday morning?

We’re told by the world and our own consciences that, if we want to be good Christians, we gotta put in the work. We have to do the studying, we have to do the discipling, we have to do the following. And if we do all these at the right time, in the right place, in the right order, and with the right enthusiasm – then we’re gonna bear fruit. Visible, tangible, measurable fruit. If you’re not bearing fruit, or if you see that someone else isn’t, we’ve found the reason why. By thinking this way we steal the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word and make it our own.

But Jesus isn’t using this parable to condemn; He’s using it to comfort us. When we look around and find our lives lacking the fruit of the Spirit, when we go weeks and months without a visitor in church, when we tell someone about the forgiveness of sins and they never mention Jesus again, this is our comfort: all by itself the seed sprouts. Without our work, God’s Word takes root and bears fruit. We may not always see it, but God’s Word works. It takes root and bears fruit thirtyfold, sixtyfold, even a hundredfold. This reflects the work of Jesus on the cross. By His death for our sins He has reconciled the world to God, which He promised in John 12: “When I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself.”[4] For those in whom the Word takes root, Jesus promises, “I will raise him up on the last day.”[5]

 III.

So a man goes out to sow some seed. The seed lands on the soil, takes root, and grows. All this while the man goes to sleep and wakes up every day. He doesn’t make the seed sprout, and he doesn’t see it grow all at once. It just does. The man in the parable represents Jesus, and like Jesus we spread the seed of His Word. It takes root and grows even when we don’t see it, and sometimes in ways and places that we don’t expect. Scripture says that God’s Word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword that pierces the heart. God says as much in Isaiah 55, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”[6]

St. Paul wrote in the Epistle that we groan while we are in this tent, meaning that life isn’t always how we’d hoped it would be. As Christians we find ourselves lacking in our fruit bearing. We see others and maybe even ourselves refusing to listen to God’s Word. We live in this world as heirs of eternal life in heaven, but we’re not there yet. Jesus told this parable of the soil as a word of Comfort to us, that even when we don’t see it, God’s Word takes root and works, even until the harvest. At the harvest Jesus will return and takes us and all believers to be with Him forever.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), 2 Cor. 5.

[2] Mk. 4:26–29.

[3] Mk. 4:27–28.

[4] Jn. 12:32.

[5] Jn. 6:44.

[6] Is. 55:10–11.

Because He First Loved Us

Text: 1 John 4:7-21

This week was St. John’s vacation Bible School. The title was Camp Discovery: Jesus at Work through Us. Each day the children learned about the work of Christ through His Word and Sacraments. They learned that Jesus gives them courage and wisdom, that He saves them through faith and then leads them to share His love by serving others. The theme verse for the week and our text today is from 1 John 4, “We love because he first loved us.”[1]

This text was the Epistle reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, but it is profitable for us for it to come up again today. In 1 John 4, the apostle exhorts his beloved fellow Christians to test the spirits, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. Those that confess that Jesus has come in the flesh are from God, and those that don’t are not of God. They may rage against us, but St. John assures us, “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”[2] Therefore, since those who have faith in Jesus overcome the world, the apostle then exhorts us as to what sort of people we have been called to be.

I.

St. John writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”[3] Before we can begin talking about anything, we must start with the source of our life: our Triune God. Last week on Trinity Sunday we took a few minutes to confess our faith in the One God in Three Persons. We believe from Scripture that God exists eternally as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Today we learn what is the epitome, the essence of God Himself: love.

John writes that love is from God because God is love. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always appear that way. That’s not because God isn’t always love, but because our sinful nature drives us to see things differently. Instead of seeing the love of God in Christ Jesus, many people only see the God of the Bible as one of hate and Law. This is due largely to the sinful condition we are all in that reacts scornfully against any attempts to curb its evil desires. But often it’s also because we as Christians abuse God’s Law. Instead of learning from Christ that He is the fulfillment of the Law and that the whole goal of the Law is love, we remake the Law in our own image. We turn the Law from a mirror that shows us all our sins and need for salvation, we take it and turn it into a set of rules that one must follow to be a good member of the church. The Law becomes a maze for human rats to follow to get cheese at the end. Thus, we fail to live in love.

Thankfully, our failure to live in love does not undo the fact that God is love. Scripture says, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”[4] But wait a second, I haven’t said anything about not loving God, right? But that’s exactly the point: our failure to live in love towards our neighbor is a failure to love God. Ever since the Fall our natural inclination is to love ourselves more than God and our neighbor. None of us by nature possesses the ability to truly love as love itself was created.

Our failure to love is what prompted God to send His only begotten Son. In this is love, not that we loved first, but that He first loved us and sent Christ to bear the guilt of our sin. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God bore our sins, our constant failure to love, in His body on the cross. He suffered the ultimate punishment for us. He died for you. God is love, even the perfect model of sacrificial love.

II.

St. John writes, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”[5] What he means is that, if God has loved us so much as to look past the guilt of our constant sinning by sending His only Son to die for us, thus we also ought to love one another. The Bible says that as we abide in Christ and His Word, He abides in us and His love is perfected in us. The children learned this week in VBS that the main goal of the love of Christ that dwells within us is that we serve others and share the saving work of Jesus Christ with those in need.

If you’ve ever gone to a wedding, you’ve probably heard the familiar words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. Maybe you had them at your own wedding. Paul writes of perfect love saying, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”[6] This is a long description of the life to which all Christians have been called. But, if we’re honest, it doesn’t sound much like us. We might be able to check off a couple of the boxes here and there, but never are we able to live perfectly in the love that Christ has shown us and has called us to. At the bottom, all our problems are the result of our sinful failure to live in Christian love.

The theme verse for VBS this year is 1 John 4:19, “We love because He first loved us.” There’s two parts to that sentence: our love, and Christ’s love. We already know that more often than not, our love is poor or non-existent. We fail to serve others, we gossip and slander; we’re inactive and apathetic; instead of building others up, we puff ourselves up. But Jesus is none of those things. He is God, He is perfect love. He is patient and kind, bearing with us when we fail to love. He does not envy or boast. He is not arrogant or rude; He does not shame us when we sin. He is not irritable or resentful, but always willing to freely forgive.

Therefore, we love. We love because He first loved us. Christ knew our weaknesses and the punishment we deserve for our sinfulness. He knew that we, all too often, fail to love. And so, He loved us. He loved us even to the point of death, death on the cross. There He won for us the free forgiveness of all our sins. Now He freely gives us that forgiveness through the preaching of His Word, through the renewal of the Holy Baptism, and in the supper of His own Body and Blood. By these things we are strengthened for lives of service in love towards Him and one another. We love because He first loved us.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), 1 Jn. 4:19.

[2] 1 Jn 4:4.

[3] 1 Jn 4:7–10.

[4] 1 Jn 4:10.

[5] 1 Jn. 4:11.

[6] 1 Cor. 13:4–7.

Born from Above

Text: John 3:1-17

This Sunday brings to a close what is called the “Festival” half of the Church Year. This means that in the first half of the Church year, we have all the sweet festivals like Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, and Holy Trinity. After today we don’t really have anything super special until we, as Lutherans, celebrate the Reformation in October. During the first half of the Church year we generally follow a chronological series of events in Christ’s life. But during the second half, the non-festival half, our Sundays are organized by theme.

Today is Trinity Sunday, a Sunday where the Church has historically set aside time to specifically treat the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Traditionally, congregations recite the Athanasian Creed this one Sunday of the year. But of course, for us, every Sunday is a Trinity Sunday. We begin each service in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Our hymns and prayers address all three persons of the Trinity. Just last week, the sermon mentioned the Holy Spirit over thirty times. This thinking is what led German Christians to be stubborn when Pope John XXII declared this Sunday Trinity Sunday in 1332 and keep the original Gospel reading, instead of switching to Matthew 28.

The original Gospel reading for this Sunday, the first after Pentecost, is from John 3. This gives us an opportunity to speak about another area of Christian doctrine that remains a mystery to many people. In the Gospel reading Jesus teaches Nicodemus about the necessity of rebirth. Jesus says, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”1 But what is this being, “born again?” Why is it necessary, what is it, and how does it happen?

I.

You must be born again,” is really a slight mistranslation. I know that there is a footnote in my Bible that says the word, νωθεν, is ambiguous and could also mean “from above.” Given the context, we would wager that that is the correct translation; Jesus said, “Unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.”2 But Nicodemus didn’t understand. He thought that Jesus meant that one must be physically born again. And so Nicodemus scoffed at the idea of an old man returning to his mother’s womb to be born a second time.

Though Jesus is not saying that one must be physically born out of their mother’s womb again, He is saying that rebirth is necessary. In fact He makes it a fourfold oath. He uses the word, “truly,” four times. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Then clarifies what He means, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”3

Jesus is dreadfully serious. Unless one is born from above, not only can he not enter the kingdom of heaven, but He can’t even see it. How true that is. Unless one is born again of water and the Spirit, they can neither enter nor see the kingdom of God. And so the world misunderstands the Gospel. Instead of looking to Christ for forgiveness and renewal, many claim from Christ affirmation for behavior they are already dead-set in. The necessity of rebirth is underscored by Jesus’ words, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”4

All things that are born in the natural way are tainted by the corruption of sin. Even the inmost desires of our hearts and minds are devoid of righteousness. Like Nicodemus, our natural inclination is to come to Jesus in the dark, clinging to our own good works and morality as proof of our goodness. But minds set on works and our own worthiness are minds set on the flesh, which St. Paul, says are “hostile to God.” For minds set on the flesh cannot please God.5 Therefore Jesus knocks Nicodemus and us on our butts: “You must be born again.”

II.

But what does that mean, “You must be born from above?” Jesus explains in verses 14-15 of our text, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”6 To be born again, from above, means to have faith. But lest we rest on our laurels and say, “I have faith, therefore I am reborn,” and stop there, we must say that to be reborn is to have a living and active faith. When you are physically born, you have a will, an understanding, and a desire to act. Thus it is also with the spiritual rebirth. We are given a new understanding, a new will, and new desires to act according to God’s Word.

Before rebirth, we were all by nature children of wrath. Our thoughts were evil, our actions were evil. Even our good works were a stench to God. But the rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit, being again, is having faith. By faith we are made children of grace. Jesus says this faith, this rebirth is necessary for salvation. He says, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven.” So far we’ve seen the necessity of rebirth, and that to be born again means to have faith in the Son of Man who was lifted up for our trespasses; But how are we born again?

III.

We are not born again by our own actions. It’s not your decision or prayer that makes you reborn, but it is solely the work of the Triune God. Thus Jesus says, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”7 This also what James says when he writes, “Of [God’s] own will He brought us forth by the word of truth.”8

Article V of the Augsburg Confession, one of the documents that makes us Lutheran Christians, paints exactly where rebirth, where faith, comes from. It says, “So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given. He works faith, when and where it pleases God, in those who hear the good news…This happens not through our own merits, but for Christ’s sake.”9

To be reborn, to be born from above, means to receive the gift of faith. Without a living faith, one can neither see the kingdom of God nor enter it. So that we may receive this faith, Christ instituted the preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these things the Holy Spirit is given. The Holy Spirit works faith in us to believe in God the Father who created all things and still takes care of them. The Holy Spirit works faith in us through preaching and the Sacraments to believe that Jesus is the Son of God who suffered and died as payment for our sins. And, the Holy Spirit calls us through the Word to believe that He is the divine Comforter who is with us in all afflictions and assures us of the grace that we have in Christ.

Jesus said with utmost seriousness, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. These are serious words, and like Nicodemus, we can be left in bewilderment by them. The biggest question that comes away from these words is, what if I don’t feel reborn? The answer: believe. Believe in Jesus Christ, who was lifted up on the cross as payment for your sins, and you will be saved. Pray that the Lord would continue to beat back the old sinful nature in you. Continue to hear God’s Word preached and receive Jesus’ precious Body and Blood for the forgiveness of your sins. By these things, Word and Sacrament, the Holy Spirit works in faith in you and causes you to be born from above, so that you already live in the Kingdom of God here in time and will always live there, in heaven.


1 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Jn 3:3.

2 Jn. 3:3.

3 Jn. 3:6.

4 Jn. 3:6.

5 Rom. 8:7-8.

6 Jn. 3:14–15.

7 Jn. 3:8.

8 James 1:18.

9 Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 33.