“When Sowing the Seed Seems Useless” (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)
It can be very discouraging to be a Christian these days. It seems like our whole culture has turned against the Christian faith. It can be very discouraging to be a member of a congregation these days. It seems like every church all across the country is having to deal with lower attendance and financial difficulties. It can be very discouraging to be a pastor these days. It seems like all your work is falling on deaf ears, and you wonder where the zeal for the gospel is, even among your own members. Yes, it’s very discouraging, and we can feel deflated and defeated. What’s the use anymore? We’re tempted to give up.
That’s why the Gospel reading for today is so timely and so needed. In the Parable of the Sower, from Matthew 13, Jesus gives us a picture of what’s really going on. This parable helps explain why there can be so meager results in response to the ministry of the gospel. But at the same time, this parable also encourages us, in the midst of our discouragement. It encourages us to know that our work will not be in vain. And so this Parable of the Sower is a very fitting word for times like these, “When Sowing the Seed Seems Useless.”
Jesus uses an agricultural metaphor as the vehicle for his parable. It’s the image of a sower going out to sow seed. Jesus begins by telling the story purely in those terms, talking about where the seed falls and what happens to it and what the results are. And then later in the chapter, he explains the parable in terms of the spiritual realities it conveys.
Jesus provides four examples of what can happen when the seed is sown. And three of those four examples are negative. That’s why it can be discouraging to be involved in the sowing of the seed. We don’t see the results we would like to see after the seed is sown. Note throughout here, by the way, that the problem is not with the seed. There’s nothing wrong or deficient in the seed itself. The problem is in what happens once the seed has been sown.
So four examples. Let’s take them one at a time. Jesus begins: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.” And Jesus then provides the interpretation: “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path.”
Look, the sowing of the seed does not happen in a vacuum. There are forces at work that would hinder the gospel seed from taking root and producing fruit. And noted first here is the work of the evil one, that is, the devil. The devil’s goal is to keep people from believing God’s word, and thus keep them in darkness and unbelief. That’s what happens when people come in contact with God’s word, but it seems to bounce right off, to go in one ear and out the other. The hard ground has not been plowed or broken up, so that the seed just sits there on the surface, and the devil comes along and snatches it away. People don’t sense their need for a Savior. They feel sufficient in themselves. The thing is, their heart becomes so hardened that it may take some painful plowing–a tragedy or a setback or failure, whereby they finally hit bottom–in order to get them to feel their need for the gospel. So that’s the first example of when our sowing the seed may seem useless, that is, when the ground is so hardened that nothing gets through, and the devil comes and takes the word away.
Second. Jesus continues: “Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away.” And then the explanation: “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.”
Here are people who come into the church–for a while–but they don’t last. At first they seem happy to be a Christian. And that may last some weeks or some months. But maybe they’ve been misled into believing that being a Christian should mean that everything is going to be pleasant from here on out. They think that they should be living their best life now. They’re not ready to endure hardship or persecution. The Christian faith has not taken real deep root in them. They can’t stand the heat, so they get out of the kitchen. They leave the church. They fall away from the faith.
I’m sure we’ve all seen examples of this. People who come into the church and seem happy to be here–for a while. But when things don’t go their way, whether in their life or in the church–then they drift away and stop coming.
But friends, today I want to warn us against this happening to us. It’s not just about other people. This is a danger for us, as well. When life turns sour, are we going to give up on God? Are we going to bail out on the church? God forbid! God help us in our weakness! We need the sustaining power of the gospel, the Word and Sacrament God uses to strengthen our feeble knees, so that we do not fall away.
Third example: “Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.” Interpretation: “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”
The thorns, what are these? “The cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches.” These things can choke out the word of God in our life. We get so caught up in these things that our faith gets squeezed out. We get so busy or consumed with other things that we have no time for God’s word. People claim that they have no time to go to church. But our priorities then are out of whack. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.” “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.”
Again, this is a danger even for us. We can get so caught up with other things that we lose sight of the priority of hearing God’s word. Like Martha, we can become so anxious and worried about many things that we neglect the one thing needful, which is to sit at Jesus’ feet and receive from him.
Well, three examples so far, and all of them negative. The seed is sown in each case, but there are no lasting results. The devil snatches the seed away from the hardened ground. The heat of trouble or persecution causes the plant to wither and die. The cares of this world and the desire for wealth choke out the priority of God’s word. Bad results in each case. And that helps to explain why we see empty pews in church and a lack of zeal and fervor for the gospel.
But lest we become totally discouraged, Jesus adds one more example to give us hope when we feel like giving up. When sowing the seed seems useless, we learn that things are not always what they seem. Jesus tells us why: “Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” The interpretation: “As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
Well, finally, at last, some positive results! All is not lost! There will be seed sown will not be snatched away or burned up or choked out. There will be seed that does take root and grow and produce a good crop. We have Jesus’ word on it.
Why? It’s not because we are such good soil in ourselves. No, we must confess that apart from Christ we can do nothing. You see, the power is in the word itself; the power is right there in the seed. Consider what you heard in the Old Testament reading today. The Lord God promises: “My word that goes out from my mouth shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I send it.”
Yes, God’s word is powerful and creative and efficacious. It does produce results, very good results indeed! This is the gospel word that tells us of our Savior. It is the word of Christ. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” God’s word is alive and active, and it penetrates into our heart to produce repentance and faith. This is faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Savior, who rescues us from sin and death and the devil by his own death on our behalf and his glorious resurrection. What Christ won for us on the cross is delivered to us in the mighty and life-giving gospel. The word works.
So do not despair, little flock. All is not lost. Sowing the seed is not useless. Christ is building his church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. God will keep you in the faith. God will bring others to faith in Christ and keep them in the faith and in the church. And God does this through the ministry of the gospel, through the preaching and teaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments.
And so we continue to sow the seed. Christ has sent us on this mission, and the results are up to him. Sometimes it seems like nobody is listening, nobody is responding, and we feel like we’re just spinning our wheels and not getting anywhere. The Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles also experienced this frustration. We’re not alone in this. No, Christ our Lord is with us as we sow the seed. Along with his commission to baptize and teach, Jesus gives us his assurance: “And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Jesus has not abandoned his church. He is with us, and he will help us keep on keeping on.
Dear friends, when it seems like sowing the seed is useless and will not produce results, and we feel like giving up and packing it in–at times like these, remember the Parable of the Sower. Jesus assures us that all our sowing is not in vain. The word works. There is no greater activity going on in the world today than the sowing of the gospel seed. You need it. The world needs it. And Jesus will bless it. “He who has ears, let him hear.”