This sermon is available in audio or video at St John Lutheran Church, Champaign IL (3rd Sunday after Pentecost).
Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our Gospel lesson for today seems to direct us toward the topic of church growth. Growing the church is truly a hot topic these days. Preachers are constantly trying to invent creative ways to preach and keep the attention of the warm bodies in the pews or theater-style seats. Musicians actively seek modern and popular sounding music so as to attract the youth of our culture and stealthily give them a bit of God’s Word, which is usually the Law and not so much the Gospel. Such attempts at growing the church do not stop there for there are many others. We know that by speaking and singing God’s Word, the seed of the Word, the Gospel is planted, just like the parables of Jesus have said. But, when we see that the growth that occurs is slow or seemingly non-existent, then we try to take matters into our own hands. After all, what happens in your garden, your yard, or your field when seed doesn’t grow as well as you think it should? You invest in Scotts, Miracle-Gro, or some other miracle product.
Taking another quick look at the two parables in the Gospel lesson, what is absent from these scenes? Further action from the sower. Miracle-Gro. Scotts. Fertilizer. Instead, Jesus clearly states, “[The sower] sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.” The seed, which is the Word of God, grows automatically, by itself. It doesn’t need our help. This parable of Jesus teaches us that the work of growing the seed of faith, in essence, growing the kingdom of God, that work is not in our hands. Just as the farmer cannot make the seed grow and really plays no part in the life of the seed, so it is with us. We sow the Word of God by speaking that Word and proclaiming it to others. And really, we couldn’t even do that if the Word hadn’t first been sown in us. Because we have heard the Word of Christ, the message of forgiveness won by him on the cross, and because we have been baptized into Christ, the seed of faith has grown within us. And because that faith has grown in us, we have been made able to share that seed, the Word, with others.
Admittedly, that isn’t something we like to hear, that the work of growing the church, God’s kingdom, is out of our hands. And yet, it remains the truth, and actually, it is quite a relief. God is responsible for growing his church. It is as he says about his Word in Isaiah 55, “it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” What we glean from this first parable, then, is that we are called to sow the seed of the Gospel by proclaiming it, announcing it, and then let God do his work through it, while we just stay out of the way! God promises to do his work, in his time, in his way. None of our creative efforts or ingenious methods effect the growth of the seed, only its throwing onto the soil.
Even this should not discourage us, for God promises that the seed of his Word will grow greatly. The second parable testifies to that. In that parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, one of the smallest of all the garden seeds. And yet, when it grows to its fullest, it can support the homes of even large birds! So it is with the Word of God. Simply speaking the Word of God to others seems insignificant, like it isn’t enough. And yet, that Word of God contains great power, for it is from God. The Word of God is omnipotent, all-powerful, as is God. It is his Word, not ours. That is a huge difference! His Word is living and active, eager to fulfill the will of God.
In these two parables, something very important about God is revealed to us: his MO, his modus operandi, the way he operates. He works through the small, the insignificant, the humble. And he loves to do it that way. It is foolishness to the world, and even to us. Who among us would willingly choose the worst piece of wood to build a bookshelf? Who would willingly pick the worst junker car as their reliable set of wheels? Not a one of us. Using the least, the worst, is foolishness to us, but not to God. Our greatest wisdom is his foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:25). Our best ideas cannot compare with his worst ones, if even he had any! We are living, breathing proof of that, that God uses the least to do his work. He has called us sinners to be his children, and now to spread his Word, to do his work of sowing the seed.
Our God has called us through his Son, Jesus Christ. Contained inside that seemingly common man was the life that all sinners need. Hidden within the man Jesus was the fullness of the Godhead working to redeem creation. The world in its wisdom crucified Jesus, hoping to put an end to God’s will and his ways. Even that, the greatest act of wickedness, was in perfect harmony with God’s MO. The opening of Jesus’ flesh set free the remedy for our sin. The piercing of his beloved side was the letting go of the headwaters of our salvation. The death of Jesus was the death of the seed necessary to bring about life. For without the death of Christ, we do not have life, we do not have forgiveness, we do not have salvation.
Because Jesus was raised from the dead and now lives without end, we too share in that promise. We too will live with Christ, in Christ, forever. That message is the seed that created saving faith in our hearts, in our souls. That message remains the seed that we are to spread and share with others. Forth from Jesus comes life for all. Forth from Jesus comes the growth of his kingdom, the growth of his church, in his time and in his way. The fireworks of Pentecost have come and gone, but one element of Pentecost remains to this day: the preaching of Christ.
And with the preaching of Christ is the distribution of his Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Word even today seems powerless to save, insignificant by our standards. The water used in baptism isn’t even enough to wash our faces. The bit of bread and wine in the Supper aren’t enough to satisfy our bodily hunger. Even so, because of God’s Word, his promise, they are enough. The Word of God is enough and it is powerful to save. The brief pouring of water with the Word of Christ is God’s action to save. The meager meal of bread and wine with Jesus’ Word sustains us in the faith and forgives us our sins.
These are the means God uses to grow his church, his kingdom. We are privileged and blessed to be called to speak his word to others after we have heard it ourselves and received it. And so we use his Word faithfully, we proclaim his Word faithfully, we keep his Word faithfully. For that Word is Christ and Christ is that Word. It truly omnipotent, bearing the power to break the hardened hearts of sinners. And Christ, in his Word, will continue to do so, now and until his return. It is inexhaustible; it cannot be worn out, it cannot be used up. His Word will grow the kingdom in God’s good time. It will not fail to do what God wills it to do. So then, Christ remains the center of our preaching, the center of our teaching, of our hymns, of our worship, of our lives. For he has planted himself in us and has given his life to us through his Word and Sacrament. Blessed are we, that the Word, who is Christ, has cleaved our darkness and brought us into his life and his light. Alleluias to Christ without end! Amen.