The Parable of the Sower

Text: Luke 8:4-15

There was a something in my sermon last week that I’d like to visit again today in light of our text. Last week I said that the parable of the vineyard shows us that God’s grace is shown equally to all sinners. This means that no one is more sanctified than anyone else. Rather, all sinners receive the same grace of God in Jesus Christ – the forgiveness of their sins and eternal life that are given through faith. You will receive the same grace whether you were baptized as a baby, or you are convicted by God’s Law and receive His Word in faith on your deathbed. If this is the case, that God is so extravagant in showing mercy, why is it that out of 7 billion people in the world, only 2 billion are Christians?

Or, maybe the more traditional way of asking the question will make more sense; Why are some saved and not others? This question could take us into some heady realms, where theologians and pastors argue past each other, or we could keep our heads down here where Jesus is in the parable. To put it bluntly, Jesus’ ministry was met with two responses. The overwhelmingly popular one was rejection. Jesus indicates in our text that to His disciples, and to the others who received Him in faith, it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God. But to the crowds, who pressed in on Jesus from every side, seeking not forgiveness but food for their bellies, it has not been given. That is why Jesus spoke in parables, so that the words of the Holy Spirit through Isaiah are fulfilled, “Seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”

Jesus teaches through the parable why some are saved and others not. There are two reactions to God’s Word: rejection or faith. Many hear the Word, but it goes in one ear and out the other. Others receive the Word with joy, but when times of persecution come, or the cares and riches and pleasures of this life, they fall away. But, all is not lost. For, by the grace of God there is another group: those who receive the Word in faith, and hold it fast in their hearts with patience. Though the broadly-cast Word of God is met by many with rejection, in those whom it takes root, it bears fruit – even a hundredfold.

  1.  

Since this is the second week in a row that our text one of the parables, it’s important to get something out there. Not everything in a parable is filled with meaning. In allegories, another type of story, different elements can all have different levels of meanings. A parable is different. There is usually one central point, and everything else given is to support that one point. It’s kind of like spokes in a wheel, but instead of going out from the center, they go into the center. In the parable of the sower the central idea is that the seed is sown generously and bears much fruit when it takes root. Jesus says the seed is the Word of God. The sower is Jesus. Now having said that, let us hear the parable.

A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.

In the parable Jesus compares Himself to a sower, who goes out to sow His seed. This parable is first about Jesus and His ministry, but then it is also about how He continues to sow His Word among us today. He does this through those who follow in His stead: His disciples, the Apostles, pastors, teachers, missionaries, and all others who teach and spread His saving Word. The sower in the parable scatters the seed just about everywhere. Some fell along the path, some on the rocky soil, some fell among the thorns; but some fell into good soil. This teaches us about the spread of God’s Word.

When Jesus came to preach the Gospel, He didn’t come to share it with just a few people. Rather, He directed that all nations be baptized and taught. The Good News is not just for some, but for all. The scattering of the seed all over, even in places where it wouldn’t have been sown otherwise, is like how Jesus sends us out to the byways and alleys, to sinners and tax collectors, to those who dwell in the shadow and darkness of death, to share with them the light of His Gospel. His will is that all be saved through the preaching of His Word, and through it be brought to repentance and faith.

  1.  

Therefore, God broadcasts His Word throughout all the world, and will continue to do so until time has reached its fulfilment. But, now we get to the hard question: why aren’t all people saved? We learn in the Catechism that the temptation to sin comes from three places: the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. Luther gets that partially from this text. Jesus contrasts the two types of hearers in the parable: those who reject the Word and those who keep it in an honest and good heart with patience. These are represented by the different types of soil.

Some of the seed fell along the path and was devoured by the birds. Jesus interprets this for us, “The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.” Notice that devil isn’t too concerned about people hearing the Word of God, but it’s their hearts that he battles for. It is with the heart that we believe and are saved. The seed that falls along the path represents those who hear the Word preached, but it goes in one ear and out the other.

These are not just the open unbelievers, unfortunately, but even some who go to church. There are some who come to worship, not to receive forgiveness and the gifts of our Lord’s body and blood, but purely out of habit or custom. And when the sermon comes, they check out, and the words are lost. There is no repentance, there is no progression in the faith, for the devil comes and steals the Word before it takes root.

Others are like the seed that falls on rocky soil. These are the ones who hear God’s Word and initially receive it with joy. But, as we learned from the Transfiguration, there is no glory without the cross. The Christian will be faced with persecution for the sake of Christ’s name. And many, when faced with the hatred of the world, fall away. They might not be openly divorced from the Word, but they dilute it just enough fit in and siphon off the world’s ire. And still, there are others who receive the Word, but then the cares and pleasures of life come. This was St. Paul’s point last week, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” For many, the Church is not seen as the place where forgiveness and grace are, but as an inhibitor of life’s pleasures. And for that reason, many depart from God’s Word and surround themselves with teachers who will tell them what they do want to hear.

III.   

This is all painting a pretty grim picture, but it confirms what we see in the world around us. Many people reject Christ and His Word – most even. That’s because God’s Word always produces one of two reactions: rejection, or faith. Faith is the reaction that God desires and creates. It’s why He casts the seed all over, so that as many as possible can hear the Word. In the parable, some of the seed does fall into good soil. It takes root and grows, yielding even a hundredfold. The interpretation that Jesus provides is that these are the ones who hear the Word and keep it. Though faced with many a persecution, the cares and pleasures of the flesh, they hold the Word and bear fruit in patience.

Though so many hear the Word and fall away, all is not lost. The fault is not with the seed. God says of His Word, “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…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth.” Neither is the difference in the soil, for the Scriptures clearly testify that all are equally conceived dead in iniquity.

The difference is that some, according to God’s will, receive the Word in faith. They are forgiven their sins through the washing of Holy Baptism and in the words of Absolution spoken from the altar. They are fed and strengthened in the faith with the very body and blood of Jesus Christ, and are led to take up their crosses and follow. They weather the persecutions and hatred of the world, and they refuse to be ruled by the pleasures of the flesh. These are the ones who bear fruit with patience. We are the ones who bear fruit with patience. Soon, the seed of Christ’s cross will bear fruit that is one hundred-fold, the eternal triumph over the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh in the resurrection to eternal life.

Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” May He ever grant us those ears by His Holy Spirit, so that hearing the Word, we receive it in faith, casting off the hatred of the world and the pleasures of the flesh, and according to His will, abide until the end. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

Chosen to be Holy and Blameless

Text: Ephesians 1:3-14

Today we have an interesting text for our Epistle reading. As part of the assigned readings for each Sunday we’re going to be going, more or less, through the entire letter to the Ephesians. The whole letter is fantastic. Some of the chief parts that you may remember are: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” At weddings you’ve heard from Ephesians 5, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.”
We begin with Ephesians 1. In the Church’s history, this chapter has been the one that is known for the topic of predestination. Predestination is the teaching that God, from eternity, has decided both who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. Obviously there are some issues with that second part, which we don’t believe. This teaching lead to a serious controversy in the 9th century, and particularly for us, in the 1880s. It was during that decade that the Missouri Synod defended the true teaching of God’s Word against what were then the Norwegian and Ohio Synods.
The reason we bring this up is because, if taken the wrong way, the teaching of predestination can confuse us and introduce doubt about our own salvation. That is not the purpose of Scripture, nor of St. Paul in our Epistle reading. Instead, the doctrine of election, another name for predestination, is meant to be one of comfort, whereby we know that, because our salvation is not dependent upon us but upon God’s mercy and grace, our salvation is secure. God our heavenly Father has revealed the mystery of His will to us: we have been chosen in Christ for redemption through His blood.

I.

So, to start with, we have this big elephant in the corner of the room: predestination. When I first looking ahead at the church year and planning my sermons I was really excited for these next few weeks in Ephesians. That’s because it’s a really interesting book of the Bible, and because I think the topic today is fascinating. In a nutshell, predestination is exactly what it sounds like; it says God has decided who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell. There are some variations, but it all balls up into that. But, before we even begin to say more, we must be clear: salvation is entirely a free gift of God, given to us by His grace through faith. We must uphold that salvation is a free gift of God and not a product of our work against all other teachings.
The places we could go in Scripture for this include Ephesians 2, which we already know, “By grace you have been saved through faith…not a result of works.” St. Paul also writes to the Romans about salvation. He says, “If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” Titus 3 says, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal.” Lastly, it says in 2 Timothy 1, “[God] saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our own works but because of His own purpose and grace, which He gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.”

Phew. Now that we’ve gotten that scaffolding in place, we can begin to talk about predestination. An issue arose in the mind of some Christians about why some go to heaven and others don’t. The clear instruction of Scripture is that salvation is by grace. Jesus Christ suffered for the sins of the world on the cross. By His death He set aside the penalty of death and damnation that we all deserve for our sins. This forgiveness is given us through faith. We receive faith through the preaching of the Gospel and the washing of Holy Baptism. The reason why some are not saved is because many, in their sinfulness, reject the saving Word of Jesus. They want nothing to do with Jesus nor do they desire His salvation. There are like the seed that falls along the path. When they hear the Word, Satan immediately comes and takes away the Word. But, those that teach predestination teach that God chooses, or at least influences, those who will reject His Word and suffer.

II.

What a monstrous idea, that God chooses people to go to hell. Put that far away from your mind as we hear the true teaching of God’s Word. St. Paul writes to the Ephesians,

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”

The true teaching of predestination is this: before the foundation of the world, you were chosen by God to receive the forgiveness of sins in Christ. Through the shedding of His blood, you are made holy and blameless before our God and Father in heaven. According the purpose of His will before all time, Christ was put forth as the payment for your sins.

See how far this removes the work of salvation from your hands. For, if salvation were up to us, we could never be sure. Every day, every second, is a constant battle. We wage war against our own bodies and minds which are filled with temptations to sin. All too often we fall into those temptations, committing terrible sins against God and each other. We sin with our bodies, which according to Scripture, are temples of the Holy Spirit. My friends, if salvation were up to us, it would be over before it even began.

Therefore we turn away from all other opinions. Here in God’s Word is revealed the mystery of His will in the matter. St. Paul writes that in Christ God has revealed to us the mystery of His will, which was His plan from the fullness of time. That is, we are saved because God, in His mercy, chose us for the redemption that is in Christ. This is apart from any and all works of our own.

III.

This is called the doctrine of election, and it’s meant as a comfort for us. Against all the hell that the world throws at us, our salvation is secure through faith in Christ. This hope does not put us to shame, Scripture says, “Because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” St. Paul writes in our text that when we heard the Word of truth, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and were called to faith, we were, “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of His glory.” We confess in the Apostles’ Creed that we believe in the Holy Spirit, who calls us to faith through the preaching of the Gospel. Therefore, having received the forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit now resides within us as a down payment and guarantee of the inheritance we have in heaven.

Some use the doctrine of predestination, also known as election, to terrify. They say that God chooses who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. That is scary and untrue. What is true, however, is that God does chose who goes to heaven. Before the foundation of the world, God chose to forgive your sins through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Therefore your salvation rests secure, because it’s not dependent on your works, your feelings, or your thoughts, but wholly upon the death and resurrection of Christ. How can you know this? Because God said so in Scripture. In Holy Baptism you were claimed as God’s own child and washed free of your sins. Through the preaching of the Word the Holy Spirit continually calls you to repentance and faith. In the Lord’s Supper Jesus feeds you His own body and blood to forgive your sins and strengthen your faith. By these things you may know that God has chosen you for salvation, and you may rest secure.

The Parable of the Wedding Feast

Text: Matthew 22:1-14

We have another difficult text this week. Jesus gets right to the point of the parable in verse 14, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Elsewhere He says, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matt. 7:13-14) It’s a perilous question, and one that every single one of us will deal with at one point or another; Why some, and not others? Why will some go to heaven and feast eternally at the marriage feast of the Lamb and some to the eternal darkness of hell, forever separated from God’s love? This is the question that one of Jesus’ followers already had in Luke 13, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” (Lk. 13:23)

Why is it that not everyone will go to heaven; why is it that not everyone we see is a Christian, or that some people we identify as Christians are yet proven not so by their words and actions? This question has driven many a Christian to and fro. Some, like John Calvin, who lived during the 16th century, placed the responsibility for this in God. He said that, from eternity, God chose who would eventually go to heaven and who would go to hell. Thus, he sort of placed the blame for hell on God. This is contrary to Scripture. Some, in more recent memory, have said that hell doesn’t exist. Or, if it does, it’s only temporary and one can get out of it once he’s in. This is also contrary to Scripture.

But rather than sit and debate the question within our own minds, let us look to the words of Jesus. He explains that the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding feast. It is a sumptuous festival, prepared by the king to be given freely to everyone who is invited. And yet, not everyone who is invited takes to the invitation kindly. In the parable, Jesus shows that God calls and desires all to come to the wedding feast, and yet few are chosen.

I.

The text for this week picks up as sort of a capstone to the previous chunk of Scripture we’ve been covering in the Gospel readings. We’ve heard Jesus says that the children of Israel were like a son who said he was going to work in the vineyard, but then later refused. They were like the tenants hired to work in the vineyard, but instead of bringing forth its fruits to the owner, they embarrassed and killed his servants, and ultimately killed the vineyard owner’s own son. Now today, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He “sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.” ’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.” (vv. 3-6)

The kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet. It’s a banquet where all are invited to feast with the heavenly Bridegroom, the Word of God made flesh. They feast because Jesus has conquered death and brought the forgiveness of sins, life and immortality, to light. It’s God’s nature to be gracious and merciful, and He desires that all come to the feast. He begins by calling His chosen people, the children of Israel. The text says that the king first sends out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they wouldn’t come. Martin Luther and C.F.W. Walther say this is like the time when the Patriarchs lived. At the beginning there were over a thousand years where people could hear the promise of salvation that God gave to Adam either from the man himself or from one of his sons, and yet people refused.

Jesus said that He longed to gather the children of Israel as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but they would not. The Father prepared an incredible banquet for His Son and His chosen people, but they wouldn’t have it. Not wanting to be left alone, the king sends out servants again, this time appealing to His guests, “please come.” Everything was ready and prepared, all they had to do was come and receive God’s gifts. But instead, “they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized His servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.” (vv. 5-6)

God again sent servants to call His people to the feast. He sent John the Baptist, the Apostles, even Jesus, but His own people would not have it. They would not come to the feast because of their own hardness and sinfulness. Rather than receive the free gift of God in Jesus Christ, they clung to their own righteousness. Rejecting the invitation to the feast, the people brought the wrath of the king upon themselves. Jesus says that whoever does not believe stands already condemned. The king will not force those who reject his invitation to come and sit at his table, only to have them reject him there, too.

Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.” (vv. 8-10) God created man to be in fellowship with them. He created us to give us all good things. That’s what God wanted to do with His chosen people, but they rejected Him. So He sent out His servants a third time, this time to those who weren’t invited. Just as Jesus sent out the Apostles to spread His Gospel, so He continues to send pastors into the world to preach His Word and administer His Sacraments, calling all to the wedding feast.

II.

The king sends out His servants into the world. They are to gather everyone they see, both the good and the bad, proclaiming to all the wedding banquet is prepared and ready. The servants do so and the wedding hall is filled with guests. The text continues, “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness.” (vv. 11-13)

The king in the parable, representing God, comes into the feast to check out his guests, but he finds one there who didn’t have a wedding garment on. The wedding garment is the robe of righteousness, the robe of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Though the man made it to the banquet, he was speechless when it was found that he did not have a wedding garment; he was not clothed in the righteousness of the Lamb of God. And so he was bound and thrown into the outer darkness.

This is a tough teaching, and I wish that I were more eloquent and could convey it better. Jesus says, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” (v. 14) God desires the death of no one. He loves all and wants all to come to the wedding feast, but admittance to the feast comes through faith in Jesus Christ. Thus, the Father has continually sent out prophets, apostles, and pastors to proclaim His Word, which works faith in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. The reason Jesus gives for why few are chosen is that the sinful nature rejects God’s invitation. It turns up its nose and goes to its own business or even ridicules God’s Word.

 But thanks be to Jesus Christ, who through the washing of Holy Baptism destroys the power that sin and death and unbelief had over us. In the washing of Holy Baptism you have been made clean, you have been given the white wedding garment and welcomed into the feast, through faith in the Son of God. St. Paul writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world.” (Eph. 1:3-4) In Christ you have been chosen to feast in heaven with all the saints who have gone before us.