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Tending Good Seeds

Reverend Philip Stringer

Isaiah 44:6-8

Romans 8:12-25

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

LET US PRAY: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Speak to our hearts with your living word and feed us, that we may live to serve you in faith and love. AMEN

Perhaps you have heard this famous observation: “Teenagers these days are out of control. They eat like pigs, they are disrespectful of adults, they interrupt and contradict their parents, and they terrorize their teachers.” That observation was made by Aristotle, who died in 322 B.C.

Every day we are surrounded by voices that point out the negatives around us— some of them true, some of them not. There is plenty of material to draw on in either case— from the health of the environment to the state of the nation and modern society. We have plenty of voices speaking negatives on the inside, too— our inner voice of self-criticism, judgment, prejudices, fears and regrets. It seems that for everything good there is something bad to off-set it. There is good and there is bad in the world.

In our gospel text for today, Jesus tells a parable about how we should behave in light of the fact that there is evil in the world— and his message to us is that we should not let the evil around us and within us direct our days. Rather, we should dedicate ourselves to participating in the good work that God is bringing forth in the world.

Once, very long ago, the people of Judah had every reason to give up hope. They came very close to being wiped away from the face of the Earth. The prophet Isaiah had come to them, telling them that their nation would be destroyed because they had embraced the ways of the world and other nations, and had forsaken their relationship with God. The people refused to hear him— and their nation WAS destroyed.

After the Babylonian armies had crushed Judah, they followed a well-known and tested process for erasing the people's heritage and culture forever— The Babylonians dispersed the population— absorbing them into their own culture. The Hebrew people were swallowed up by this massive empire so that they could be digested as a people— broken down and forgotten by history.

It was a tactic which worked remarkably well. History had demonstrated that within years after being immersed in a foreign culture, many people began to adapt to their new home, would marry people from outside of their tradition, and trade the religious beliefs and customs of their ancestors for those of their conquerors. In this way, many cultures vanished forever from the face of the Earth.

After nearly 70 years in captivity by the Babylonians, the Hebrew people were very much in danger of this fate themselves. Many of their people had, in fact, married non-Jews, and had accepted the customs of Babylon as their own. The number of those who identified themselves as descendants of Abraham was decreasing significantly.

What compounded this was the belief in those times that each nation had at least one god of its own. If one nation was conquered by another, that meant that that nation's god had been conquered by the other. It naturally followed that those of the lesser god would become followers of the greater god.

It was at this time of struggle and fading hope that a follower of Isaiah and also a prophet, appeared speaking words of encouragement to the people. He told the people to take heart— that they would not cease to exist as a people— and that Yahweh, their god— had not been destroyed or defeated, nor had he forsaken them. In fact, this prophet declared new and powerful words of Yahweh, "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god."

The words of this prophet refreshed the people in the promise God had made to Abraham— the promise to preserve them as a nation. And this promise was illuminated in a new light— the revelation that Yahweh was the only god— that Yahweh was faithful to Yahweh’s promise and would bring it to pass. "I am not defeated— and neither is my promise."

This is a comfort for us as well. For, though our context is much different, we have a similar fear of being overcome and defeated. The power of the tide of evil seems gargantuan. Those who would support the gospel seem often so insignificant and ill-prepared for the task. But never-the-less, the words from Isaiah remind us— There is only one God— who has always been God and will always BE God— and God has made a promise that will be kept— to hold us safe. These words from Isaiah are genuine words of hope which we can believe and trust—

So why is there evil in the world? — and why do evil and the injustices of the world still assail us? And perhaps most importantly for you — how should we respond to the presence of evil in our lives? Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds is his answer to this question. Ultimately, it is a parable that teaches a way of peace through the power of God’s love, as opposed to a way of violence rooted in fear. It is not a parable which seeks to divide us— good people mixed with bad people. It is a parable about all of us and each of us:

the Church

the world

the individual

And Jesus’ message is that our faith in the power of God’s love should be the only thing that shapes our behavior in the world.

The Word of God has been planted in us, and the seeds of God’s kingdom are all around us. But the devil, too, has sown seeds in these same places. Sin is part of who we are, and the suffering brought about by sin is within us and all around us. The burning question to be answered is, "WHAT SHOULD WE DO BECAUSE OF WHAT THE DEVIL HAS DONE?"

Before we can answer the question, we must understand what has happened. The devil is a liar who is exposed by the Truth— the Word of God. Nothing more. He cannot withstand an encounter with the Word. He cannot damage the Truth. The power of the devil is the power of a lie— and the purpose of a lie is to masquerade as the truth, in order to distract a person from what is right and good. And so the devil has sown seeds among the Word of God to create fear and panic, in hopes that out of our despair over what the devil has done, we will destroy what God has done.

Ultimately this is a parable which reveals the sovereignty and wisdom of God, who tells us what to do. God's message for us according to Jesus: pay no attention to the weeds. Leave them to me. They are nothing. Instead, tend to the wheat. In this way all of the devil's effort is for nought. Do nothing based upon what the devil has done— the devil is not your master. Instead, ask yourself, "what should I do based upon what God has done?" Turn your full attention to the work of God. Tend the wheat, and God will take care of the weeds.

A remarkable example of what Jesus was saying can be seen in modern-day China. Some well-meaning but misguided Christians in the United States — hearing the stories of Chinese abuses and persecution of Christians — have financed an underground network for smuggling Bibles and literature into China. Under the guise of visiting China as “tourists,” they carry a suitcase filled with 20 or 30 Bibles. Once there they will meet members of a secretive, “underground” church in China — to whom they will give the Bibles. These visitors will hear stories that confirm their worst fears of what Christians face in China and they will go home feeling proud of what they have done to battle evil.

But in reality, the first Christians arrived in China in the 5th century — nearly one thousand six hundred years ago — and they have been there ever since. There is no question that they have faced hardship and persecution under Chinese communism — but the truth is that Christians have been worshiping openly in China for decades.

There is a church as large as First Presbyterian in High Point, in Nanjing, I attended worship one Sunday and there were so many people in attendance that the building was stuffed elbow-to-eyeball, and there were three times as many people outside, straining to listen through the windows. I visited two of the many seminaries that operate in China— filled with hundreds of students studying to be pastors.

In the past 40 years, Christianity in China has grown faster than in any other place in the world— from an estimated 1 million Christians in 1980, to more than 100 million today. The wheat is growing in China.

Returning to our misguided Bible smugglers — by doing what they have done, they confirm Chinese government suspicions that Christians can't be trusted and do not respect a country’s laws, and so they undermine the legitimate activities of Christians in China. It is hard for Christians in China to gain additional freedoms when the example set by so many westerners is unfavorable.

The Amity press in Nanjing, China, printed more Bibles last year than were printed in America. They would have printed more if they had the funds to do it.

If those who smuggle Bibles were to give money to the Amity press instead of buying a plane ticket, a suitcase, and 20 Bibles they could legally provide THOUSANDS of Bibles for Chinese people. But instead, they insist upon conducting their not-so-secret crusade against the seeds of the devil.

And what about us? In our own, day-to-day lives, what is it that drives our actions? What directs our days? Or more pointedly put — who is the lord of your life? There are plenty of voices out there, playing on people’s fears. There are voices from within, too. Am I good enough? Are God's promises really enough to make me happy? Are they really true? There are troubles and worries that distract us from setting our hearts on following God's will in our lives. These are the weeds of the devil, trying to destroy our faith and confidence in God.

Jesus' words and those of the prophet in Isaiah should comfort and strengthen us in the face of such attacks. For they expose the weeds for what they are and assure us of the sovereignty and wisdom of God.

I quoted Aristotle at the beginning of this sermon. There are two more quotes— I’d like to share with you before I finish.

The first is one is not so much a quote as a paraphrase of an observation that Luther made — which I have referenced before. Luther once said that if a person spends all of their time and energy trying NOT to sin, the devil has already won his victory— for that person's mind is not on Christ; it is on the devil. They are so busy NOT following the devil, that they cannot follow God, either.

The second is a quote from Helen Keller. She wrote, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism, then, does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail."

We must not become preoccupied with the weeds. In the light of the gospel, they are nothing. We give the devil too much credit when we ascribe power to his lies and fear them. The devil must not be the lord of your life. Do not be moved by fear... As St. Paul wrote, “…you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption."

Here at this table — and here at this font — we are met by the one-and-only creator of heaven and earth. We are met here by a God of power and strength who assures us that we are safe. We are met here by a God who is at work in the world and promises to go with us into each new day — regardless of whatever else it holds — to work with us as we tend the good seeds of God that continue to give life to the world.



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