Here's my homily for Sexagesima (23 February 2014), based on the day's Gospel reading, Luke 8:4-15, and including Jesus' words from Luke 8:18:
Do you hear as the wayside soil—the seed of the Word bounces off of you and the devil rushes in to gobble it up before it even has a chance to grow? Or do you hear as the rocky soil—receiving the Word with joy but also with little root, and thus falling away in time of trial? Or do you hear as the soil under thorn bushes—the seed of the Word takes root and sprouts, but the cares, riches, and pleasures of everyday life choke out the faith that comes from the Word? Or do you hear, as Jesus commends, as the good soil—receiving the Word with a good heart, holding that Word in you, and thus bearing fruit?
Some people may very well have hearts and minds that are hard and unyielding to God’s Word. God’s sacred truths revealed in His Word bounce off of them as seed bounces when it hits a paved road. Unclean spirits and Satan himself have trodden such hard hearted and hard minded folks and they are quite sterile and unfruitful.
Some people might have hearts and minds more like the shallow, rocky soil. They hear God’s Word proclaimed, even Sunday after Sunday, but their faith and their religion have no root. They might sit in the pew, enjoy the surroundings, delight in seeing fellow saints. They take part in the sacred mysteries—the Gospel and the Sacraments—but perhaps with little attentiveness to what’s really happening, perhaps merely out of habit, perhaps only to be entertained or “personally fulfilled.” And when they leave church and go home, they easily and quickly forget the holy teachings that have been planted in their ears.
Some people might have hearts and minds like the thorn infested soil. The seed of God’s Word is planted in them, but it soon gets choked out by the cares, riches, and pleasures of the world. Making a decent living, paying for college, planning for retirement—they can very well choke out God’s Word. Anxiety about your health, your children, making ends meet, or about our decaying, self-centered, pleasure-seeking culture—they too choke out God’s Word and faith. You know the Word is being choked out when you view life from Monday through Saturday as the “real deal,” but Sunday morning is only an optional diversion. You know the Word is being choked out when you think more about your latest Facebook status than you do about your status before God and how He genuinely “likes” you in Christ Jesus.
Three kinds of hearers hear the divine Word to no fruitful effect. The fourth kind of hearer, though, is different. Some people have hearts and minds like good soil. When the seed of God’s Word is planted in them, they patiently endure the attacks of Satan. They persevere through the trials and persecutions. And they resist being ruled by the cares, riches and pleasures of this life. In other words, they bear much fruit. Life with God takes priority over the shallow kind of church life that sees Sunday morning as only a time with friends and familiar faces. Life with God sustains you when the scorching heat of trial comes upon you. Life with God helps you put the cares, riches, and pleasures of this life in proper perspective. Life with God bears fruit as you no longer fixate on your wealth, as you no longer get anxious when troubles arise, as you view life as a time of service rather than a time of pleasure-seeking. Life with God bears much fruit.
So “take care … how you hear,” Jesus says. How you hear God’s Word really IS a matter of life or death.
I’ve been using the phrase “God’s Word.” How many of you heard those words—“God’s Word”— and thought of “a book, the Bible”? Or how about “the words that come from the pastor’s lips”? Jesus does say, “The seed is the Word of God.” But what is that Word which is the seed? The Seed-Word is not primarily a book, nor is it primarily words from a man’s mouth. The Seed-Word IS, first and foremost, a Person. The Seed is the Word of God Himself—Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, the Word made flesh. The Father sows His Son in the world, and the divine Word—Jesus Himself—is received in these different ways. Now you see why it’s crucial to “take care how you hear”!
How can the Seed-Word be a Person? Well, God prepared us for this. In the Old Testament, God promised to bless Abraham and said, “In your [seed] shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). Then, in the New Testament, Galatians 3(:16), St. Paul shows us how to understand this one: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his [seed]. It does not say, ‘And to [seeds],’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your [Seed],’ who is Christ.”
About 1000 years after Abraham, God spoke to David in the same way. David wanted to build a house for God, but God turned it around and promised to build an eternal house for David. God told David, “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring [seed] after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.” (2 Sam. 7:12). That Seed is Christ, who would come 1000 years after David. Psalm 89(:29) even ties David’s throne with the Seed whom God will send: “I will establish his offspring [seed] forever and his throne as the days of the heavens.” That eternal Seed is Christ.
So “take care how you hear,” because you are hearing Jesus Christ Himself, your very life with God. The very Son of God is being planted in your ears, in your hearts, and in your minds to bring you God’s mercy and to enliven you with His own life. If you use the time during the sermon to read your bulletin or write out your offering check, you’re most likely putting up a hardened, footpath kind of soil, and the Word who is Christ simply bounces off. If you come to church, hear the words of Scripture, sing the hymns, and listen to the sermon, but really your mind is constantly distracted by what people in the pews around you are doing, then the Seed who is Christ cannot take very deep root. And while your Lord does want you to bring your cares and anxieties to Him, you don’t want those cares and anxieties to consume your attention while you hear the Word who is Christ. Yes, bring your cares and troubles to Jesus. He promises to take care of them for you so that they will not choke out your trust in Him. After all, He promises to make your burden light.
You see, when God the Father plants His Seed, His Son, the Word made Flesh in the world and in you, He wants to accomplish some amazing things. His Word who is Christ “shall not return to [Him] empty, but it shall accomplish that which [He intends].” The Seed who is Christ will always “succeed in the thing for which [the Father] sent [Him]” (Is. 55:11). God planted His Son in the world first in the womb of the Virgin Mary, but later He planted the Word made flesh into the ground itself. Remember when Jesus was crucified and buried? Right before He went to the cross, our Lord said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:24). He was talking about His own death on the cross and His own resurrection. So Jesus bears much fruit. In His death, your sin is trampled down and gobbled up, and death itself is choked out. In His resurrection, you also are made alive to God in Christ Jesus.
So think of the fruit that Jesus bears in your Baptism and in His Supper. As St. John says, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s Seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 Jn. 3:9). In your Baptism, you have been born of God. And in the Holy Supper the Seed who is Christ comes into you and remains in you. That’s how you can bear abundant fruit—the fruit of trusting God in trials and worldly cares, the fruit of enjoying life with God, the fruit of living together in love toward one another. After all, we all have the same Seed who is Christ in us.
In ten short days we will begin the rigorous journey of Lent. Last week we heard that the journey will be work, but work that receives the wages of God’s grace. Today we hear Jesus’ call to “take care how you hear.” Let’s remember to hear and heed the Word who is Christ. After all, He comes to bear fruit in us, and that fruit comes through patient endurance. We can and we will patiently endure the disciplines of Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—because the Seed who is Christ remains in us. So, get ready for the journey, for the praying, for the fasting, for giving to the poor, and especially for the repenting and being forgiven. These are the good fruits of Christ planted in you. Amen.