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Epiphany 7, “Listen to Jesus”

Pastor Gary Wong, February 7, 2021

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That same day Jesus left the house and was sitting by the sea. 2 A large crowd gathered around him. So he stepped into a boat and sat down, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 He told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen, a sower went out to sow. 4 As he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil. Immediately the seed sprang up, because the soil was not deep. 6 But when the sun rose, the seed was scorched. Because it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns. The thorns grew up and choked it. 8 But some seed fell on good ground and produced grain: some one hundred times, some sixty, and some thirty times more than was sown. 9 Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.” 18 “So listen carefully to the parable of the sower. 19 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 the seed that was sown along the path. 20 The seed that was sown on rocky ground is the person who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he is not deeply rooted and does not endure. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. 22 The seed that was sown among the thorns is the one who hears the word, but the worry of this world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it produces no fruit. 23 But the seed that was sown on the good ground is the one who continues to hear and understand the word. Indeed he continues to produce fruit: some a hundred, some sixty, and some thirty times more than was sown.”

Did you hear the words I just spoke? Everyone who heard those words is blessed—not because I spoke them, but because they are the words of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Our sense of hearing is truly a blessing from God. Without two good ears to hear, we might miss out on a lot of things—the beauty of a bird’s song, or the warning clang of a fire alarm. Imagine trying to carry on a conversation if you only heard every other word that was said. It would be embarrassing to have to repeatedly ask, “What did you say? I didn’t hear you.” Not only would it be frustrating for the listener, it would be quite a challenge for the speaker to speak every word clearly so that his message would be easily understood.

We use our ears to listen. The most important person to whom Christians listen is Jesus. Jesus was and is the master communicator. He always knew exactly what to say and how to say it. Jesus spoke to all kinds of people from different walks of life and situations. Sometimes he singled out just one person, such as his evangelism call on the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus also talked with small groups such as his circle of disciples. As word spread about this amazing teacher, larger and larger crowds gathered to hear this former carpenter now turned rabbi. On this particular occasion, there was such a large crowd eager to listen to Jesus that Jesus got into a boat and made his way out into the Sea of Galilee so that the entire crowd could see and hear him.

From that boat, Jesus taught the people many things. What was Jesus teaching? His subject was something everyone wanted to know about: heaven and how we can have eternal life. Now, as vital as Jesus’ message was, we also want to take note of how Jesus communicated his message. Matthew tells us that Jesus taught using parables, earthly stories that have a heavenly meaning. A parable uses familiar objects and situations to explain something less familiar and more complex. Parables were some of Jesus’ favorite teaching tools because they catch and hold a listener’s attention. The vivid, yet simple pictures make the truth of the parable easier to understand and to remember.

At the beginning of our lesson, Jesus tells the parable of the sower. This picture of a farmer sowing his seed would have been very familiar to the people of Jesus’ day. His audience could easily picture a farmer tossing generous handfuls of grain as he walked in his field. Some of the grain fell along the path; other seed fell on shallow soil, others landed among the thorns, while still others went onto good soil. What happened to the seed that fell in various places was also easily understood. Since the seed that fell on the path was out in the open, it was quickly eaten by the birds. The seed that fell on shallow soil or among the thorns failed to thrive, while the seed that fell on good soil produced a bountiful crop.

Do you think that the people listening to this parable understood its deeper meaning? While the big picture and individual details of a farmer sowing his seed were easily understood, did everyone get the spiritual meaning? Simply put, the answer is “No.” Since the kingdom of heaven is so important, why didn’t Jesus just describe it in plain language? Apparently, Jesus’ disciples were thinking along the same lines. Sometime after Jesus had finished teaching from the boat, his disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” The reason can be found in Jesus’ rather unusual statement at the end of the parable: “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matt. 13:9). Was Jesus telling people that if they simply opened their ears and paid close attention that they would get it? The answer is “No.” Our ears are the organs that God has given us that transmit sounds to our brains. Our brains then process those signals into words and ideas. In teaching spiritual truths, however, God speaks to our hearts. Understanding God’s Word is not a matter of mechanical hearing; it’s a matter of faith.

Jesus taught using parables because not everyone who hears God’s Word believes that Jesus is the Savior. Why is that? Doesn’t the Bible say that God “wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” and that “the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes”? While that is absolutely true, we, unfortunately, have the power to reject that message. The Gospel is powerful. It always produces results. It creates faith and strengthens faith in hearts that believe; however, it also hardens the hearts of those who reject Jesus as their Savior. Without saving faith, Jesus’ parables would be nothing more than simplistic stories told to foolish people that have no spiritual significance.

Jesus spoke in parables to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy about those who reject Jesus: “This people’s hearts have become calloused…though hearing, they do not hear or understand” (Matt. 13:13, 15). On the other hand, Jesus said to his disciples, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you” (13:11). How do you think Jesus’ disciples felt when Jesus told them that they were among a very select few whom Jesus had chosen to learn the secrets of the kingdom of heaven? Should they have felt blessed? Absolutely! Should their hearts have swelled with pride? Absolutely not! The fact that Jesus had chosen them and us, to be his disciples, fills our hearts with gratitude and humility, not pride. God did not choose us to be his own because of who we are or what we have done. He didn’t choose to unlock the kingdom of heaven to us because we are smarter, stronger, or better looking than others. He didn’t choose to give us the ability to understand the Scriptures because we try harder to do the right thing or are less sinful than others. God chose us simply because of his grace. Before the beginning of the world, God chose to make us his own dear children—not by our merits, but by the merits of Jesus, his Son and our Savior.

Knowing that Jesus has chosen to reveal the secrets of God’s kingdom to us could fill our sinful hearts with pride. You and I might be tempted to look at this parable and say, “It’s obvious that I’m the good soil” and not look any further. But as we dig deeper, we see ourselves throughout this parable. At one time, all of us had been the hard path upon which the seed fell. Because of the sinful nature we inherited from our parents, our hearts had been as hard as stone. But solely by God’s grace, God turned our rock-hard hearts into good soil. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God said, “I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Eze. 11:19). Through the power of the gospel, the Holy Spirit planted the seed of faith in our hearts at our baptisms. Through God’s Word, our faith takes root, grows, and produces fruits of faith.

Yet, even as we have been given new hearts that are eager to listen to Jesus and follow him, we still have our sinful natures that listen to the devil and want to follow the ways of our sinful world. Sometimes, our faith is like rocky soil. In other words, we sometimes have a shallow faith—a faith that is there, but is barely hanging on. A person with a shallow faith looks for the easy life and mistakenly thinks that being a Christian means that he won’t have any problems. So, when persecution and troubles spring up, their faith withers and dies. Sometimes, our faith is like the seed that grows among the thorns and weeds. At first, we gladly hear God’s Word and our faith grows. But then the worries of this world begin to crowd out our faith. We become preoccupied with the temporary, material things of this world which rob us of the peace and contentment we have knowing that we have a heavenly inheritance that will never pass away. In that environment, our faith may survive, but it will not thrive. God doesn’t want us to be satisfied with a small faith. He wants our faith to grow. He gives us the means to accomplish that. As we feed our faith with the living water of God’s Word and the Lord’s Supper, we produce fruits of faith—countless acts of love toward God and our fellow human beings.

So, what lessons are we to learn from this parable? First and foremost, let’s listen to Jesus. We want to listen, not just with our ears, but with our hearts. We listen to the law that convicts us of our sins—the law that exposes our shallow faith and less than wholehearted devotion to Jesus. We listen and take to heart the law tells us that because of our sins, we deserve to be thrown into the fires of hell. Yet, we joyfully listen to the gospel that tells us that because of his love, Jesus suffered the punishment that we deserve. Jesus’ perfect life and innocent death assure us that God has forgiven all of our sins. His resurrection assures us that Jesus is the firstfruits of all believers. All who believe in Jesus will also rise to eternal life on the Last Day.

Not only does this parable teach us to look at ourselves in the light of God’s Word, it helps us to look at others in the same light. It’s not up to us to determine what kind of spiritual soil is in a person’s soul. Only God can see into a person’s heart. Only God knows whether he has planted faith. Only God knows whether that seed will take root, grow, thrive, and produce fruit, or whether it will wither and die. It’s not for us to decide who is worthy to hear the gospel. It is for us to be the farmer who generously sows the seed. We share the gospel with fellow Christians to strengthen their faith and we share it with those who don’t know Jesus so the Holy Spirit can work faith in their hearts. In that way, God will produce a crop thirty, sixty or a hundred times greater than what was sown.

Friends, let’s listen to Jesus—not just once in a while; not just scratching the surface; not in one ear and out the other. Let’s carefully listen with our ears and our hearts and put his Word into practice. As we dig into his Word regularly and often, we will be blessed and will yield a bountiful harvest for ourselves and for God’s kingdom. Amen.

“Speak, O Savior I Am Listening” (CW 283)

Text: Anna Sophia of Hesse-Darmstadt, 1638-83, abr.; tr. Composite

Speak, O Savior; I am list’ning,

As a servant to his lord.

Let me show respect and honor

To your holy, precious Word,

That each day, my whole life through,

I may serve and follow you.

Let your Word e’re be my pleasure

And my heart’s most precious treasure.

Oh, what blessing to be near you

And to listen to your voice!

Let me ever love and fear you;

Let your Word still be my choice.

Many hardened sinners, Lord.

Flee in terror at your Word,

But to all who feel sin’s burden

You give peace and words of pardon.

Lord, your words are waters living

Where I quench my thirsty needs.

Lord, your words are bread life giving;

On your words my spirit feeds.

Lord, your words will be my light

Through death’s cold and dreary night;

Yes, they are my sword prevailing

And my cup of joy unfailing.

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