Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Christ: King of the Hopeful Planters

Preached March 20, 2011
Scripture readings:
Isaiah 6:9-13; Mark 4:1-20

When I went to seminary, I started in the spring semester, which meant that I went, from California, to Dubuque, Iowa in the month of January. That was a big leap for me. I brought plenty of warm clothing, but there were things about the snow I did not understand, even though I had played in the snow in the mountains.

One of my first Sundays there, we had a heavy snowfall, and I was invited by one of my professors to go, with him and his wife, for worship at a church they liked, out in the country.

It was a church in the cornfields, and the roads and the parking area were covered with snow. I was all dressed up, and got out of their car, and I almost fell on my rear, because my dress shoes had leather soles: they had no traction. The professor and his wife each grabbed one of my arms and started escorting me across the parking lot to the church. It felt like they were practically carrying me.

I told them I was OK. I tried to get free from them, but they wouldn’t let me. I was embarrassed. I felt stupid. I wanted them to let me go. I probably made a fuss. But they were both very polite. In fact they were always nice to me, and they often had me over to their house after that. They were good Christians.

I seem to have a lot of stories like that.

Have you ever tried to help someone who resisted you? Have you ever given advice to someone who wouldn’t listen? Have you ever tried to forgive, to their face, someone who refused to see that they had done anything wrong? Isaiah did that. Jesus did that.

Isaiah, when we meet him in chapter six of his book, is full of the wonder of God. You can read about this, in the first half of the chapter. In fact you ought to do that after you get home. But, trust me: here Isaiah is fresh full of the glory of God. He is fresh from the forgiving grace of God; fresh from the powerful cleansing of God in his life. Isaiah is ready for absolutely anything.

The Lord said, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And the Lord doesn’t say what he wants that someone to go and do. But Isaiah is excited enough to volunteer without thinking. He raises his hands and shouts, “Here I am; send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)

And the very next thing Isaiah knows, he is given the most horrible, the most thankless job possible. He is given the life-long career of telling his people what they don’t want to hear; the life-work of helping people who don’t want his help.

Have you ever known a person who was so passionately and relentlessly helpful that you dreaded the very sight of them? Isaiah was given the life-work of being that person. And he was required to tell his people that this was the very thing he was called to do.

The Lord said, “Go and tell this people, ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’” (6:9) The Lord told Isaiah to make his people sick of him. “Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes, otherwise they might see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (6:10)

They thought there was nothing wrong with them! They didn’t need to be healed! They didn’t need to change!

The Lord sent Isaiah to tell them otherwise. There was indeed something wrong. They needed to be healed. They needed to change. They needed this completely.

Isaiah asked the Lord, “For how long, O Lord?” “How long must I do this?” The Lord’s answer means to do this beyond hope. Do this past the point of impossibility. The Lord used the image of a great forest which had been completely over-logged until there was nothing left but mile after mile of stumps. And the Lord said; even then, don’t lose hope. He said: “The holy seed will be the stump in the land.”(Isaiah 6:13) When everything seems lost, there is something there that can grow. God has promised that something there will grow.

Isaiah had to be a living contradiction to the world around him. And the greatest contradiction was that he lived by faith and hope in spite of being surrounded by a world that had no interest in faith or hope.

As a lonely member of God’s people he stuck to those other members of God’s people who were traveling through life in the opposite direction of faith and hope, and he gave them what God had given him even when they had no use for him. Isaiah spoke, and worked, and acted against all odds, out of a great faith and hope that came from God.

The image of a forest reminds me of one of the developments in the environment of the Holy Land. The Land of Israel once had forested areas; at least the kind of forest you can have in a Mediterranean climate.

These forests disappeared more than a thousand years ago because of exploitation for the manufacture of charcoal, and bad land use, and over-farming, and over-grazing, and the destruction of war. But the people of Israel have replanted forests in places where they were gone for two thousand years.

That kind of vision and work shows the power of faith and hope. They reconstructed a reality that was long gone.

They replaced it with something that is probably not what once was there. But (in the place of the emptiness and desolation) they created something that is good in its own way, something remarkable.

The parable of the sower, or of the good seed, or of the four soils, is a picture story of faith and hope. Planting seed is always an action of faith and hope. Well, it’s true that planting seed can be an act of desperation, too. But we won’t go there!

The story of the seed and the sower, in Mark chapter four, is about faith and hope, because it is about good seed; and the principle that seed, and rain, and soil will make at least some kind of harvest; and the farmer in the story farms all over his farm with gusto.

Most farmers of that day were subsistence farmers. Such farmers as the ones who listened to Jesus farmed on a narrow margin of survival. Their families farmed their farms for food, and clothes, and shelter, and not much more. And, yet, they sowed plenty of seed where it might not grow.

In some ways, I think this is the story of a farmer so full of faith and hope that he was sloppy. He cast his seed on the road. He was sowing by hand; where was his self-control?

My first experience with wheat farming was when I did an interim pastorate (as an official pastor-between-pastors) at Waitsburg, and Bruce Abbey had me ride with him in his combine on his land in the Skyrocket Hills. At lunchtime, his wife Barb came out with their kids, and we all ate in the shadow under the wheat truck. While the grownups talked, the kids played in the wheat in the truck, as if it was a giant sand box. When we were ready to get going again, the kids had to get out of the back of the truck, and Bruce reminded them to empty the wheat in their shoes back into the truck; because wheat is precious.

Wheat is precious, yet (at the same time) farmers seed in the low places where they will probably have to reseed because it will wash out; or because the run-off will make a pond and drown the seed. They seed on both sides of the hills even though the wheat will grow better on one side of the hill than on the other. They seed across the patch that has a little too much alkali.

They will do this with their good wheat because it’s no good seeding without faith and hope. If you don’t plant the good seed you won’t have anything to harvest.

I think this is what is going on in Jesus’ story.

Now, when the disciples asked Jesus why he taught his message through the use of stories, it gets very strange. Jesus said he was doing an Isaiah-thing. He was bringing a message that contradicted the world; that (essentially) ran counter to what his listeners could accept; let alone understand.

They weren’t looking for faith and hope. They thought they had that already. There was nothing wrong with them. They were the good guys who were looking for a king to help them get rid of the bad guys. All the stories Jesus told were nice stories, but had nothing to do with what they wanted most.

So, when Jesus told his stories, they could meet the truth square in the eye and not see it. They could listen to the truth all day long and never hear it.

The story of the sower and the good seed actually predicted that this would happen. Not all the seed, not all the soils, would be fruitful. But some of it would, and that would be more than good enough. That would more than make up for the rest: thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold; everything from a good Franklin county/Adams county harvest, to a good Palouse harvest, all on one farm.

The most interesting thing about this story is that the disciples listened to it, and pictured it in their minds, and they couldn’t understand it at all. They couldn’t hear or see the truth that Jesus was trying to tell.

This was especially alarming because Jesus told these stories for the very purpose of mystifying the people who were not really with him. Jesus acted shocked. “If you don’t understand this story, how will you understand any of my stories?”

If the disciples who actually walked, and ate, and slept with Jesus didn’t get it, how can we expect to do any better? Can you ask for clearer evidence that no disciple can claim to be any better or any different than anyone else? Except for one fact only!

Except for this one thing! The twelve disciples, and the other disciples, went to Jesus, so that he could help them figure things out. And they did this together; not one by one. They came together to Jesus with their questions. And by doing this they became the good soil.

Think about the unfruitful soils. The road was a road. It wasn’t meant for growing anything. It was packed hard and smooth from the traffic of feet, and hooves, and cartwheels. There was simply no place for a seed to sink in.

The stony soil was a thin layer of soil over a layer of rock; or it was the soil that filled the thin spaces in a bed of gravel. The soil was shallow. There are places like that around here. I have some of that in my back yard.

The weedy soil was a place with way too much competition for the wheat to grow, and thrive, and bear grain. I am tempted, as a gardener, to over-plant. My problem is not weeds. Mostly I work hard to keep up with the weeds. But I plant too many good plants too close together. They don’t like that at all. They know when they are too close to other plants. Everything else can be right, but they won’t bear if I do that to them.

And my life is like that. I don’t have many weeds in my life, but I have too many worthwhile commitments to do a good job with some of them. I might as well have weeds. And I’m not the only one. Most of us are way over-planted.

We become good soil when we come together to Jesus. Jesus digs. He loves to dig. He works us up, and unpacks us, so there is room for the good seed, there is room for the good news, and there is room for Jesus…to sink in and not get picked off or blown away. He softens what the world has hardened.

Sometimes our wound-up thoughts run around and around circles, and make something like a road. Our worries and frustrations pack our souls down, and make us too tight and hard for Jesus to get in. But when you come to Jesus he digs, and digs, and tills, and softens your world-impacted and self-impacted hardness.

When we, whose lives are shallow soil, come to Jesus, he gives us depth. When you say, “Jesus, I have a question,” and when you say, “Jesus, I don’t understand, and I want to understand,” that is like dynamite that blasts the rock under the shallow soil to powder. The trouble and persecution that Jesus warns about will either burn the life out of you. Or else they make you come to Jesus, who is very, very deep.

When I was a kid, I was bullied, and harassed, and laughed at a lot. At night, in bed, I would think about how horrible my day had been. And it always seemed to me that the Lord was there. The Lord did not answer my questions, but he was just there, being deep. I had the sense of a great deepness there, that I could trust. I don’t know how else to put it.

When you are weedy soil, and you come to Jesus, you have just contradicted your weeds. Jesus said that the weeds stand for “the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things.” Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” calls these the “worries about all the things you have to do and all the things you want to get.”

I am very easily distracted. It has always been hard for me to focus. I have always had trouble with a daydreaming and a wandering mind. Sometimes I have trouble driving and listening to the radio at the same time. I do it, but I have to turn the radio off when I get to Spokane or the Tri-Cities.

If I start to work on one thing, I think of another thing I ought to do, and I stop the first thing in order to work on the second. And then I think I use my distractions to keep myself from getting the important things done, or thinking the important things through. And I use my distractions to avoid God.

But coming to Jesus for the answer to those weeds, those worries, those distractions, is like looking the purest and most breathtaking simplicity in the world square in the face.

One summer day, when I was a teenager, the phone rang and my mom called me to the phone, and it was a friend of my dad, who was a contractor. For some reason that I can’t remember, he needed to know how to figure out the exact volume of a cylinder, and so he called me.

He knew that, when you are in high school, you know all that stuff. He was struggling over it when, all the while, the formula (if you know it) is very simple.

Coming to Jesus is like coming to the formula that makes sense of things. It is this habit that simplifies your life. Actually coming to Jesus doesn’t make things simple, but it does boil things down to the basics.

Consistently following Jesus and coming to him teaches you the things that matter most. That is the simplicity of Jesus. To avoid this simplicity is why we distract ourselves, but the simplicity of Jesus will put our distractions in their place.

This is a process. This is a learning experience. The first disciples were not very good at it either, but they came to Jesus anyway, and that is exactly what we need to do. Coming to Jesus will make a distracted life into fruitful soil. You will see.

The fact is that the stories of Jesus are designed to make you think. Remember that Isaiah is the model here for the parables. No matter how long it may take, no matter how hopeless it may seem, there is hope.

Jesus designed his approach to us as his own act of faith and hope. Up to this point in time, in the gospel story, he hasn’t said one word about the cross. He hasn’t said one word about his real purpose for coming to earth and becoming human.

He didn’t have to. Everything doesn’t have to be clear at once. Since Jesus wants to contradict us, and take us the opposite direction of where we want to go, it may be best if he is not too clear all at once. Jesus has to make us think about what is hard in us, and what is shallow in us, and what is weedy and cluttered in us, and come to him for the answers.

Then he calls us, like he called the Old Testament prophet Isaiah and his own disciples. We are given a word from God. We are given a message to speak, and to live out, that contradicts what everyone else seems to care about.

He gives us the life-work of planting seeds in unpromising soil. He calls us to do this with faith and hope.

Jesus is the message, the word that sprouts and gives us life. He died on the cross and rose from the dead in order to contradict all the expectations and logic of this world. And the cross and the tomb seemed like the wrong direction for him to go.

At first, for the disciples, it spelled the end of all their hopes. How could there be anything for them after that? How could there be anything for them to do, once Jesus died?

Jesus was like the stump of a tree cut down, yet that stump was a holy seed in the land. Jesus was really alive and planting his life in the world, and in us. Jesus became the king of the hopeful planters; so that we could be hopeful planters like him.

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