God reaches the heart through the ears

God reaches the heart through the ears

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Picture God as a father who, every evening, walks out to the end of his driveway in the golden light and looks up and down the road, hoping that maybe today will be the day he catches sight of a long lost son, a wayward, straying daughter coming home. But this Father isn’t content to sit and wait; long lost sons and wayward daughters don’t need to “find themselves,” they need to be found by his fatherly, searching love.


So he floods the world with letters addressed to every lost son and wayward daughter. But he doesn’t want even the slight hindrance of opening up an envelope and reading to get in the way, so he gathers together an army of people millions strong to carry his letters, his message, out to every street corner and lonely country road. Everywhere this army of people goes, they have the same message, straight from the heart of the Father: “Come home.”


Here’s how it happens. Two guys are sitting in a bar catching up. Only one of the two, though, is really alive. The other guy is just waiting to die. His life’s a mess, a string of ugly messes he’s made, and this evening he’s barely holding it together. His buddy says to him, “You should come to church with me.” He laughs. “Me? They don’t want the likes of me at your church.” He’s probably right, you can picture the people turning their heads and staring at him from the pews, and the most natural conclusion one would draw is that if the people in a church don’t welcome me, then why should I think God welcomes me. 


But his friend at the bar won’t let it go at that. “Let me tell you about a Savior who sought out sinners and ate with them. He didn’t live his life among fake saints, he lived his life visiting the houses of people like you and me, lives that were train wrecks and messes. And this Savior didn’t just rub elbows with sinners, he shouldered their sins and told his Father, ‘Welcome them, and forsake me.’”


That night, in a bar, a guy who had been hearing but not understanding, seeing, but not seeing—his eyes were opened. How could the devil snatch away such a plain sharing of this Gospel that is treasure above all treasures? He got the message. It took root in his heart. He became alive again. There’s a Father standing at the end of the driveway looking for sinners, welcoming them, forgiving them—forgiving even me.


Shift gears into the picture Jesus used. God is a reckless farmer. He doesn’t use a John Deere twelve-row drill to make sure his seeds are evenly spaced in the field. No, he just goes and throws seed down everywhere, never concerned about running out or wasting it, never worried that too much seed might hit in one spot. Not even glancing at the soil, just letting the seed shower down with a prayer that somewhere, in some shallow, rocky soil, in a place where plants spring up fast and wither just as fast, one little seed will find a crack between those rocks and send down a root that runs deep, one that finds the streams of living water that can sustain a plant through scorching heat.


The scorching heat, what Jesus calls a time of testing, it looks like this, like a Christian woman who’s been through the ringer. Not that her struggles and sorrows have been epic, just the kind of griefs that could be expected in any ordinary life, but they are griefs all the same and she’s in the thick of them. First her dad died and then her best friend was diagnosed with breast cancer and oh, is she worried about her son who’s away at college and she knows he’s struggling and she can’t seem to reach him, help him. If it were spread out, ok. But it all happened at once. Every time she opens her lips to pray and says, “Please, no more, God”…she has this aching fear that tomorrow will bring more bad news, maybe even worse.


“I thought God loved me,” she thinks, “but then why, why God, why is this happening? Why me?”


Her Christian friends mean well, they mean to water a thirsty plant, they tell her to have faith, they tell her God is good, she says it herself, “I know I’m supposed to have faith”—but in real life that’s like pouring dry sand over parched soil. Against the odds, she goes to church. The place where the God she once thought loved her, the God who, if he exists, is now clearly against her, is going to be named. Today the pastor is preaching about faith and he’s talking about how faith isn’t my own doing but the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart and, since that’s so, he says, it’s the worst advice you can give to tell someone “Just believe more.” No, he says, if you want a strong faith, don’t go rummaging around inside yourself and trying to find it there. Strong faith doesn’t look at me, he says, it looks to Jesus. The pastor goes on, now he’s giving an example, he’s saying, “Just consider the Christian who gets dementia. What matters then? What that person is thinking about Jesus, when the thoughts are no longer coherent? No, what counts at the end of the day, the rock on which true faith is built, is that Jesus is thinking about you.”


What counts at the end of the day is to see Jesus, to hear Jesus say, “Why me?” As in, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” That woman had never thought of it that way, that she had a Savior who’d been through the ringer. That day she realizes she’d been so worked up over what she was supposed to do that she’d lost sight of what her God had done, a God who hides his grace in trials and nail-biting worries and a heavy, bloody, sweet, blessed cross. And as she sits there, the words soak in, roots are pushing down, shoving stones aside, until hers is no longer a shallow faith but a faith that has been carried by God through adversity, now deepened into a faith with roots, one that can withstand the scorching heat.


If I drop the metaphors altogether and speak directly, this is what Jesus is saying in the parable. God has so ordered things in this world that he intends to reach our hearts through our ears. The sower sowing the seed is the way that God makes it so that his Word is proclaimed and shared and spoken aloud, in order for it to be heard. And then, Jesus says, something significant is going to happen. It’ll matter and make a difference. Is that Word going to enter the ears and reach the heart, falling into good soil, or will it bounce off a hard heart or, maybe, get choked out by the weeds?


Sometimes the gravest dangers are the weeds that we can’t distinguish from the plants, the cares and riches and pleasures of life that are just the water we’re swimming in.


Imagine a young person growing up right now. From little on, this boy is taught that he needs to get good grades and that if he does, he’d be able to trade them up for better things in life. High school is a blur with the repeated mantra of “do this, do that” so you can get in to a good college so you can get a good job so you can make lots of money so you can buy a huge house so you can be somebody. College, of course, involves a little detour into bragging rights about how much he can drink and how many girlfriends he can acquire, but by the time he graduates and lands a job at a firm it’s back to the same formula he learned from little on: happiness is always the next thing and I’ll work myself to the bone right now with the promise that it’ll be worth it when I get there. A soul-less existence. And something that treats God’s good gifts as ends unto themselves. So it’s no wonder that he can never stop. Because each time he arrives, he finds out he’s not satisfied, the goal posts have to be moved, there’s another step and certainly that’ll be it.


The question isn’t, “Will life’s riches, cares, and pleasures choke out this young man’s faith?” More like, “How could they not?” But someday in his life, after his wife’s convinced him he needs to see a counselor to help him with his depression, he’ll be driving away from that appointment wondering at the emptiness of it all and how he got there. Seemingly on a whim he’ll decide to check out a podcast he heard about when he was back home for the holidays and he went to church with his parents at that little church where he grew up and on that podcast, he’ll hear some men just like him who went through the ringer and found it empty, hollow. They’re talking about how incredibly freeing and wonderful it is when you stop investing your hopes for eternal happiness in hollow and empty things and find it instead in the eternal flame of love that is the Holy Trinity and how, when you finally hit your knees in the realization that Christ is all-in-all, then for the first time in your life you can actually enjoy whatever gifts God has given you and not just use them to get something more.


That podcast was like the first hacks of a hoe. Pretty soon he’d found a church where the preaching was more like a weed whip, clearing away the thorns and thistles with power. And he caught it—the joy that he’d never had before, joy that comes only from hearing the Word, the joy of Jesus and the certainty at the end of the day that he has done it all for us and that he is all we need, joy that enlivens the plant so it brings forth the most incredible fruits of faith in God and love for others in his life.


My friends, the Word of God is the most powerful and wonderful thing. I have seen with my own eyes what this Word accomplishes right here, in this church, in these pews. I’ve seen it in tearful eyes of families here waiting for test results and fearing the worst, I’ve seen it in otherworldly grace and humility from those this world would label successful who come forward and bow their heads to receive the priceless gifts of Christ in hand and mouth, I’ve seen it in beaming smiles of joy from a heart that thought it would never find relief from haunting guilt. 


And I’ll tell you this. They didn’t come to hear me. They came to hear the voice of their Savior that goes out into all the corners of the world. He has a way of being insistent on finding the tiniest patch of good soil and there planting his seed so that it springs forth. It’s what we as Christians do: we hear the Word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience. Amen.