Friday, December 27, 2013

The Parable of the Sower: The Cost of Being a Kernel

Let's picture the scene.  Jesus leaves the house and makes His way to the seaside. The multitudes, eager to hear Him, become so numerous that He must get into a boat, and make it His pulpit.  Then He starts teaching.

What is remarkable is what went on before this parable. Going back a few chapters, we see Him:
1.  Harvesting grain with His disciples, because they were hungry, and being accused by the Pharisees of breaking the law about no work.  He then reminds them of what King David did--eating the consecrated bread--and how the priests break the law by doing the sacrifices and yet are innocent.  He reminds them that mercy, not a blind adherence to the Law, is what God desires and then proclaims Himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath.   (Matt.12:1-8)
2. He then enters a synagogue, where Sabbath services are in full swing, and heals a man with a shriveled hand.  He reminds the leaders that in doing good on the Sabbath, the Law is not broken.  The Pharisees are so livid that they "plotted how they might kill Jesus." (Matt. 12:9-14)
3.  He withdraws from that place and heals the sick and thus fulfills Isaiah's words about God's Chosen Servant, Who will bring hope to all. (Matt. 12:18-21)
4.  He then heals a demon-possessed man, and the Pharisees attribute His power to the Devil.  Jesus says, in no uncertain terms, that attributing the work of His Father to Satan will never be forgiven.  He then talks of how a tree's fruit indicates what kind of tree it is.  He then excoriates them for their evil hearts and that their very words have condemned them. (Matt. 12: 33-37).
5.  In response to the Pharisees wanting a sign, Jesus offers the ultimate one:  like Jonah, He will be held in the darkness of the earth for three days and then He will reappear.  He talks of how utterly unwise this generation is and how they have provided a habitation, in their thoughts and actions, for evil.
6.  His mother and brothers show up and want to speak to Him.  In the heated exchange with the religious leaders, has His family detected some danger and do they wish to whisk Him away from the leaders' menacing gazes?  He gently reminds them and His disciples that doing the will of His Father constitutes His family.

So, now, (no coincidence here) that He tells the parable of the sower to the waiting crowd, and in His mind, He surveys all the different people who have been listening to Him recently.

"Then He spoke many things to them in parables, saying: “Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them. Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them. But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matt. 13:3-9)

What's interesting here is, later, with the disciples eagerly inquiring of Him, He explains the meaning: "Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity. But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience." (Matt. 13:18-23).

We could stop here, but Jesus isn't talking in general terms.  The disciples have already seen the various "soils" in action.  The sower is God and the seed is His word.  Notice, He casts it far and wide.  Now, does a sower throw the seed just anywhere?  No.  He is going to throw it upon tilled soil, prepared and ready.  He doesn't cast His seed on stones, on concrete or on a lake.  He casts it on the soil of human hearts prepared by the tillage of the Holy Spirit.  Now, the disciples just experienced watching the first instance of where the seed falls--on the hearts of the Pharisees who are so hardened in their hearts that they attribute God's miracles to Satan.  The Holy Spirit tills, but the rocks of pride, the drying sun of hatred and the eroding rains of judgment have rendered the soil unfit to receive the words of the Almighty, spoken through His Son.

The ones with shallow hearts, will receive the word with joy, but later will fall away because of temptation.   The disciples just experienced this with the healings.  They saw how the people rejoiced when the man's hand was healed and how eager the people were to follow Jesus.  But when the fear of disapproval, the disdainful gaze of the leaders fell upon the people, did they turn away?    When Jesus' own family showed up, rejoicing earlier over the wonderful things He was doing, but now afraid that He was attracting the wrong kind of attention, did they, too, lose heart in Him and His ministry?

The leaders and many of the richer people, whose lives directly benefited from the way things were, did Jesus threaten their status with His kingdom built on love?  Did they wither away, leaving smaller and smaller fruits behind?  Was their place in society more important than Truth?

Jesus scanned the crowd as they sat on the shore.  He could see into the hearts of those whose soil, tilled like all the others, were willing to receive the "word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience." (Matt. 13:18-23).  Ah, there it is:  a soil tilled by the Spirit, watered with the rains of sincerity and seeking, warmed by the belief that here stands the very One of Whom their prophets heralded would come.  Even after they felt the scorching heat of others' disapproval, they were willing to grow in the knowledge of Him and the One He sent.   

He must have smiled, seeing His disciples whose soil would produce a crop whose very seeds we would harvest, and those sincere followers whose love for Him would never fail.

But He also knew the price that is paid when a seed, a kernel, falls on the soil:  "Jesus replied, 'The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.'" (John 12:23-26).  The price they would pay, we will pay, is enormous.  His death will bring us life, and His blood will water the soil.  We will be His witnesses to His work in the soil of our hearts.  

Cast the seed of His word.  Trust the Sower to go before you and pray for a harvest.  He did no less.  We can do no more.

For more posts in my parable series, click here.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

O Holy Night! Yes and So Much More...

We are all familiar with the characters that inhabit the Christmas story: Mary, Joseph, the Baby, the Wise Men, the shepherds, and the angels.

Every year, we encounter Nativity scenes...all set up on someone's lawn, staged in familiar poses, pink and blue, plastic and lights. Or we see a Living Nativity...we feel sorry for the folks who are participating in it, knowing how cold we are in our parkas and how cold they must be in their cotton costumes.  Or we receive Christmas cards, with endless variations on the "Mary holding the Baby/Joseph hovering nearby/shepherds in awe/Wise Men with gifts" theme.

We encounter this seasonal scene so often, is it possible that it loses its wondrous quality? Do we smile rather than fall on our knees in utter gratitude for the majesty and message this scene so softly delivers? Have we ceased to hear the angels sing, drowned out in the noise of our modern age?

Come, stand with me. Let's look into the manger with eyes willing to see anew this familiar picture. It is indeed a holy night. But: Everyone who journeys to this manger has something that will challenge them. They will have to give something up…but, oh! on that very night…they will have something to gain!

They give up the safety of their homeland, traveling from Persia to Israel. This is a risky journey. They carry valuable items for the newborn King. They have only a star to follow. What did their compatriots think as they load up and head out? These men have a reputation. These are men of books, stars, and maps. What if they are wrong? They are traveling to a foreign land…Will they be accepted by the people of that land? Will they arrive on the appointed day and time? Will they be able to get in close to the action? They are not Jewish. They are bright guys…wise men… possessing a lot of head knowledge…But they must follow that star! Despite the danger to self and reputation, they must go. Yes, there is a lot to lose, but look at what they will gain!

The hardest journey for these men will be only a distance of 14 inches--from their heads to their hearts. They fall down on their knees once they come near to the Baby King. Any doubts they carry with them are cast into the light coming from His precious face. The very gifts that made their trip so dangerous are now placed at His side. Each gift reflects this Child:

Gold: It is precious beyond measure, and must be burned in fire to purify it. He is precious beyond measure and His excruciating death will purify us from our sins.

Frankincense: It is burned to release a sweet fragrance. His death will release the sweet fragrance of the penalty paid, to be inhaled by all those who believe.

Myrrh: It is an aromatic resin with a slightly bitter taste. It is used for embalming but also for healing. His death will be bitter but His Resurrection will be the healing of our souls.

These men give gifts and yet now into their empty hands are given the greatest gift of all: They look upon the face of God. Their hearts now know God.

They give up watching their sheep momentarily. That is their job, their responsibility. They are in the outskirts of town. They are low in status but they will break through that and go into town, emboldened by the message they hear. They risked scorn and disapproval--Do angels really sing praises out where people like you may hear them? Oh, come on!

But here they come--nothing will stop this excited band of men, whose ears still ring with the heavenly chorus. Their gain? They are going into the manger to witness this Baby. They are trusting God to watch their sheep. He is the God of the big things--like this News and the voices of praising angels! He is also the God of the little things--keeping the flock together while the shepherds seek and find His newborn Son.

A room for an expecting mother? No can do! The town and the inn are so crowded. He is frantically busy. Yet, wait a minute. He is willing to direct the desperate couple to a cave where it is quiet and out of the wind. He takes a moment to look into the eyes of this soon-to-be father and remembers the day when his son entered the earth. He is willing to take extra moments to direct the couple to the cave, so that they will not be disturbed.

He was willing to help, even if he couldn't do something monumental. A small kindly offered favor drew a mighty blessing from the Most High.

He had to give up his fear or at least, not allow it to paralyze him. Has Mary betrayed him? Is she lying to him? He is wounded by the possibility of her infidelity…doubt, anger, consternation, and hurt all swirl in his heart, wounding him over and over. As a craftsman, whose reputation in the community keeps his trade alive, will it be done in by whispering? What will others think? He feels such shame for Mary and his hearts seizes up when he ponders the consequence of her actions: death. All these questions and more challenge him to the very marrow of his bones.

Yet, he will hear the voice of God as he sleeps and will rise out of his slumber a determined man--he will provide for Mary.  He will gain a walk...not just any walk, but one beside the Son of God. He will raise the Boy, teach him to hew wood, and to cut stone. Someday this very Child will hang from a wooden cross and lie behind a large stone. But Death will not hold Him for long. Joseph cannot see what the future holds, but he knows Who holds the future.

She gives up her reputation. She will give up peace. Her sense of what is normal will be replaced with a fear of husband’s distrust or reprisal, of public humiliation, of even death.

But she will gain the smile of God. She will nourish the Son of God Who will someday nourish her. She will comfort Him when He cries and she will comforted by Him, even as He hangs on a cross and gives her a new son to care for her. She will treasure much in her heart, to sustain her in the days when she cannot understand Him, and when she must stand beneath His cross. But her greatest treasure will be when she beholds Him once more: glorified and radiant on that future Sunday morning.

Is that the end of story? Has the gentle Christmas card scene prevailed?  No. The three Wise Men will leave Bethlehem, hearing of the butchery by King Herod. They will hear of the order to slaughter all male children under the age of two to root out this future King. In their grief, they will cling to the promise of "Peace on earth, good will to men."

Joseph and Mary will leave to Egypt, far away from everyone, to avoid the coming slaughter. It is not their Lamb's time yet. They will long to return home someday. In the future, when they hear of Herod's death, their joy will turn once again to fear as they learn of Herod's son on the throne. They must go and settle in yet another village. Do they ever stop looking over their shoulders while Jesus is small? Will evil men come for Him to take Him to His death? Not for now. But someday, He will go willingly. His cross is our gain.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Parable of the Lost Coin: DON'T MOVE! I've Lost My __!

     Fill in the blank:  it could be your contact, your iPhone, your keys or your mind, for that matter!  Has anyone ever said this to you?  Have you ever had said this to anyone?  The world you live in skids to a halt when you have lost something.  Now, is that something just any ol' thing?  Not usually.  The sound of screeching brakes occurs when you lose something valuable.  Now, the two parables in Luke 15 that we have explored--the Prodigal Son and the Lost Sheep--are spoken by Jesus in this setting: "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'”  The NIV Study Bible says that when you eat with people, you are recognizing them and accepting them.  This is the reason for the muttering--Jesus is acknowledging the very people that the Pharisees and teachers disdain.  What's interesting is that Jesus shares three parables with a common theme:  something/someone valuable is lost, then found and then celebrated over.  We have looked at the sheep and the son--let's finish up with the coin.
     How often do we not value something until it is lost?  To quote an old 60's song: "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."  So true.  But valuing goes both ways:  Our prodigal son didn't value his father's love until he was eating pig food.  But the father valued his son immensely and waited patiently until the son returned.  The older brother in the parable didn't value his younger brother nor his father's love. But the father valued the older son and made everything he had available to the older son.
     The shepherd with the lost sheep valued it and was willing to leave the other ninety-nine to find the one.  He then returned to the town and wanted the people to rejoice with him.  Seeing the joy in the shepherd's face perhaps made them go home and look with renewed joy in what they had.  Sometimes, others' loss reminds us of what we have and how we should value it.
     Let's look at our lady who lost her coin: “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

     The floors of ordinary people in Israel in Jesus' day were made of dirt.  People with money had flagstones.  The windows were few and light was minimal.  Finding a coin would not be an easy task.  So, let's see what our lady is doing... I want to make sure that my money hasn't gone missing.  There are thieves out there who want to steal what I have.  Each coin is worth day's wage and one less coin means a day's work for nothing.  I will pull out the coins from their hiding place--I will never tell where they are!--and I will sit at the table and start counting...what?  Is that neighbor's dog barking again?  Wait a minute!  Don't move!  I have lost a coin!  Did I drop it?  When I was pouring the coins out onto the table just now, did one roll off?  Oh no!  Wait, calm down.  I can't see it!  The light is terrible in here.  Let me get the lamp and start hunting.  Oh, the floor hurts my knees.  But I bound and determined to find it...
     Do you see it?  Each coin is as valuable to the woman as the next, because each coin represents a day's labor.  How did it fall to the floor?  Does it really matter now that the coin is lost?  Her concern is not because she miserly--it's because each coin represents her blood, sweat and tears and she worked hard for each coin.  Now, once she calms down, she has a plan of action:  light a lamp and start sweeping.  Two ingredients are needed here for the search and the ultimate restoration:  light and cleaning away of dirt.  
     Jesus Himself is the Plan of Action:  He is the Light we need to see our way in the darkness.  He calls Himself "The Light of the World," implying that the our earthly room is dark and needs illumination.  But with light comes revelation of just how dark the world is, how covered in dirt it is.  Here He "sweeps," looking for each valued person, who struggles in the dirt of sin and pain.  He searches for us, "carefully" as does our lady.  He looks in every corner, desiring to return us to the safety of His keeping.  Satan is a thief who desires to steal us away.  Each one of us is valued.  How do we know this?  We were "bought with a price."  Jesus Himself did a day's labor on the cross, paying once and for all for our freedom, not because we are so good and wonderful, but because He values us.  
     A coin has value because a government assigns an amount to it.  Jesus' death is the ultimate assigning of value to you and me:  He paid our debt of sin with His life and will continue to search for us until we return His Father's kingdom.  
     The heavens resound when a sinner comes home.  Jesus doesn't give up on us...nor did our lady.  She kept searching until she found it.  She didn't jingle the money bag and just focus on the ones already in her possession, ignoring the one over by the chair in the dirt.  Both are important:  the ones in the bag and the ones in the dirt.
      Remember the muttering religious leaders listening to Jesus?  Jesus is saying that all of His Father's children are important.  The ones in the "bag" need to rediscover their compassion for the ones in the "dirt."   Why?  Because you, religious leaders, are valued.  You are not valued for how good you are at church.  You are not valued for how much you tithe.  You are not valued for how much you obey the rules.  You have been assigned value by the One who "minted" you.  His image is stamped on each of you and on each of them...yes, even those "sinners" over there.    
      What about those "sinners" listening to Jesus as well?  Jesus is saying that when He reaches down and offers to lift you out of the dirt, don't roll further under the chair.   Accept His offer of restoration.  Allow Him to cleanse you of that dirt and when you join the others in the bag, rejoice and don't shrink away into a corner.  
     Finally, notice how the woman celebrates her finding of the coin.  All of her friends and neighbors are invited in to join her!  Heaven rejoices when one sinner is found, because that person realizes that lying in the dirt of life is not what a loving God would have us do.  

     The kingdom's doors swing wide open when we realize who we are--sinners.  

       We hear the songs of angels when we accept Who He is--our Savior.  

For more posts in my parable series, click here.
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