Snatched, Scorched, & Strangled (or: High Fructose Hymns and Liturgical Saccharine): A Sermon for Sexagesima on St. Luke 8:4-15

Sower iconThere were two types of sowing in the ancient world. The first method, by far the most accurate, was to scatter the seeds by hand, placing them with an almost surgical precision in the most fertile soil. The other (less efficient) method of sowing was done by cattle. They would take a sack full of seed and put holes in it so that when the animal moved the seed would be scattered. This, of course, would make a terrible mess and get seed all over the place. Some might end up where you wanted it, but a ton would get wasted.

Clearly, any responsible farmer would choose the first option if possible. But God isn’t a responsible farmer. He could sow the Word any way He wants, but He chooses the reckless scattering method. This is how it goes in the Kingdom of God. To us it looks like a total waste. Seed is precious. We’re told the Word always prospers, but just look at the parable: most of it gets snatched up, scorched, or strangled.

God’s Word doesn’t always seem all that powerful, or maybe even useful. How often have you prayed for something but never got it? Nor does the Word produce the rich harvest we’d like in the Church. Just consider the long list of congregations that have closed around here lately: Beautiful Savior, Messiah, St. Martini, Apostles, Timothy, a couple of Hopes, and most recently, Nazareth. And those are only the congregations within about a 20 mile radius. Not great, statistically: that’s about one congregation every two miles. Many of the congregations that are still around often limp along, and others are on life support.

Why hasn’t the Word produced the rich harvest we’d like? And then there’s the problem of the soils—that is, the church members. 90% of a congregation’s work always seems to get done by the same faithful 10%. And thank God for them! But, the quote our Lord, were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? (St. Luke 17:17) Why the apathy? Why is the quickest way to clear out a congregation to ask for volunteers? Why doesn’t the Word seem to make for more fertile soil?

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It’s no wonder the today’s liturgy sounds as if it’s begging us—almost desperately so—to believe that God’s Word actually does work. And not only that, but that His Word is powerful. It sure doesn’t look that way most of the time. Today’s liturgy is sort of like the unfaithful husband who keeps promising his wife, “I promise I’ll change—things really will be different this time!” After being repeatedly broken time after time, those promises start to ring hollow.

The Psalmist from our Introit was in such a desperate spot that He actually accuses God of snoozing on the job! “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself!” (Psa 44) The prophet Isaiah almost sounds like a used car salesman in today’s Old Testament reading: “God’s Word accomplishes its purpose, or your money back, guaranteed!” (Isa 55:11). The Epistle insists: God’s Word is living and active (Hebrews 4:12). The psalmist from our Gradual (Psa 83) looks on in dismay as the wicked continue to prosper with seemingly no consequence. So he begs God, “Let your enemies know that you alone… are Most High over all the earth”, because it sure doesn’t look that way.

At least Jesus comes clean in today’s Holy Gospel, admitting that the Word doesn’t always take root. Some will hear but not understand. The Word of God can be rejected. But this does not render the Word powerless. You can reject Christ, but He’s going to judge you either way. Thus the Epistle: And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:13). The Word hardens and condemns those who are seeing but do not see and are hearing but do not understand. This is why our epistle said, “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience,” (Hebrews 4:11). There is no rest for the disobedient. They might live it up for 80 years or so (if they’re lucky), but then there will be, quite literally, hell to pay. Be warned, therefore, and repent.

Our Lord doesn’t tell this parable against those who worship false gods. All of the people—the soils—initially received God’s Word. They had saving faith in Christ but lost it. The little faith they had was snatched, scorched, or strangled.

It’s sort of like the Parable of the Talents (a talent was a lot of money). That parable has always bugged me because it seems like the guy who had the least amount of money, the one talent, was only doing the responsible thing. He didn’t want to lose his Master’s cash, so he buried it in the ground and gave it back just as he had received it. But the Master wasn’t impressed. Instead of praise his servant for preserving his money, he gets angry, tells him he’s wicked, and then takes the pittance he had away from him, giving it to the one who’s already filthy rich! It doesn’t seem fair and is entirely unreasonable.

But God is neither reasonable nor fair. Fair would be a lifetime of suffering for your sin, and then when that’s all over, an eternity of suffering in hell. Neither is God reasonable; He’s jealous. He wants all of you, and He’s not willing to share. With God, it’s all or nothing. He demands nothing less than a complete divorce from those vain things that charm you most. Sin is a mistress that will do everything in her power to drag you to hell. “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”

praiseband1God’s Word calls for obedience and faithfulness. Sow the seed and leave the results to God. If the parable is any indication, most of the work will look like an utter failure. Nothing tempts the church to manipulate God’s Word quite like the prospect of closing their doors, whether it’s a financial crisis or the loss of members. Panic sets in and we start tampering with the Word. Sure, it’s still there—to an extent. But we feel the need to “help God out”, to make His boring old Church a little more enjoyable and “relevant.” Or we smooth out some of the more jagged edges so as to make His Word a little less offensive. But when a church embraces sin—come as you are, no need to change—it has become a synagogue of Satan.

The Evil One is the master of substitutions. His goal is for churches to keep just enough of the truth so that they don’t notice the error that’s crept in or think it’s a big deal. But just a little poison is enough to kill you. Consider the high fructose hymns and liturgical saccharine that churches regularly manufacture these days. Like high fructose corn syrup, the average contemporary church service is devoid of any nutritional value. Like artificial sweeteners (which are known to cause cancer in lab rats), liturgical saccharine is a leading cause of spiritual cancer. Satan loves most so-called “praise songs” because they encourage about a me-centered, shallow faith that sounds religious, but is easy to snatch up, scorch, or strangle. It’s little wonder our country is spiritually diabetic. The difference between liturgical and contemporary worship isn’t a matter of style or preference. One sows the pure Word of God, and the other is chock full of artificial ingredients.

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After a while, we even develop a taste for the unhealthy fake stuff. I remember being excited a few years ago when they came out with Throwback Mountain Dew, made with 100% real sugar. But all I could manage was one sip of what tasted to me like battery acid. The high fructose stuff may not be good for me, but I’m addicted. It’s sad, really, but I can drink over 100g of sugar without even batting an eye. There was a time when I could barely handle 10g. But we adapt.

Men have always preferred darkness to the light. The novelty of contemporary services may be addictive, but it’s not a healthy addiction. Satan loves giving people spiritual highs. In his book, that’s a wonderful substitute for God’s Word. Contemporary worship is neither stable or substantive enough for the Word to ever take root. It’s shallow and has an insatiable lust for novelty. It needs to change or it’s no longer contemporary. It is, by definition, temporary. The boring old liturgy, unsatisfying though it may be to itching ears, is stable and timeless, just like God’s Word. Unlike temporary worship, the liturgy is not defined by its age. The liturgy is defined 100% by the pure Word of God, no artificial ingredients added.

We certainly have the ability to manipulate God’s Word enough to get people through the doors or guilt them into giving more money, but when it’s all said and done, the failure rate is 100%. We’re kingdom building all right, but it’s not the kingdom of God that we’re building. The Word may not always yield the results we would like, but where the Word is replaced with something else, we are doing the work of Satan under the guise of Evangelism or Stewardship.

Believe it or not, the spiritual persecution that comes from shallow preaching or liturgy is even worse than physical persecution. To paraphrase something Walther once said,

“It is true that at times the kinder heathen kings permitted [Christians] to build beautiful churches. Often, however, the very same king ordered these churches torn down. Yes, it repeatedly happened that their churches were set on fire while the Christians were assembled in them; all who worshipped Jesus Christ were burned to ashes…

Those certainly were trying times, yet it is even more trying when Christians possess a beautiful church in which they can assemble peaceably but in which God’s Word is slandered or falsified. A church which [is centered around entertainment-driven emotion worship] instead of God’s Word is nothing else than an open door to hell, a shambles of Satan… What a blessing if Christians… not only can go peacefully to church but also if they have a church where God’s Word is preached in its purity and the Sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution! Such a church, be it ever so small and plain, is worth more than all the glittering palaces of the great and rich of this world (Gospel Sermons, Vol. 1, 138-140).

The Sower understood this, which is why He was so reckless with His Seed. He has absolute confidence in His Word. He has no worries about how it will all turn out. Even if there’s only one meager harvest and the rest is wasted, that’s enough. His Word always accomplishes its purpose. Jesus doesn’t change His message to make it more palatable or adapt to conditions to have more success. He goes about His business, casting His Seed into the ground then leaves it alone to do its work.

Our Lord knows life is filled with disappointments and struggle. It won’t always be this way, but He wants us to be realistic about the way things are in this present darkness. He wants us to know that most of the Seed will be snatched, scorched, or strangled. The Sower Himself is rejected. His methods were so offensive to the farming experts that they gave His trampled body over to Satan at a place called the Stone Pavement (St. John 19:13).

Satan did His worst: He tempted the Sower with comfort and luxury. He did everything he could to take the Word away from Christ, offering to replace it with something a little more comfortable (St. Matthew 4:2–3). When Satan realized he could never snatch the Word away from Christ, he choked away this Sower’s life, scorching His body with the fires of hell on the cross.

Vine-Branches iconBut through it all, the Sower held the Word fast in an honest and good heart. From this Word sprung forth life on the Third Day, thwarting all of Satan’s efforts to the contrary. Three-fourths of the Seed may get snatched, scorched, or choked, but you who have been grafted into Christ, the True Vine, will find shelter in the shadow of His wings forever.

Your prayers will probably not be answered the way you want them answered. Suffering is the way of the cross, both for Christians and for Christ’s Church. This is the way it is in God’s Kingdom. The only alternative is the instant-gratification, but never-enduring ways of Satan.

So trust God’s Word. Above all things, trust the Word made flesh. Remember, seeds don’t grow overnight. Keep sowing and wait on the Lord. His Kingdom looks like a bunch of seed scattered all over the place that’s doing apparently nothing—for now. The Kingdom of God is like the future harvest. When His promises ring hollow, remember that’s only because your hearing is defective. Christ is the faithful Bridegroom who always keeps His promises. Even when Jesus is snoozing on the boat in the midst of the storm, He’s in complete control (St. Matthew 8:24–26).

As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.

Soli Deo Gloria

+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Luke 8:4—15
Sexagesima, 2015: Snatched, Scorched, & Strangled (or: High Fructose Hymns & Liturgical Saccharine)
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