St. James the Less #99
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” “Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
The Power of Words
This morning I want to talk to you about the power of words and language. I came across a quote this week that says, "Good words are worth much, and cost little." It’s from the 17th century priest and poet George Herbert. He knew a thing or two about the power of words. His works of prose have earned him a distinguished place in English literary history.
Why do all the greats have to be so dense? I’ll read a few stanzas from Herbert’s The Temple, and I’ve got to walk away for a few minutes before picking it up again.
I’m always amazed at how perceptive writers are to the power of the words they use. Each word is meticulously selected in order create the desired effect. They are master craftsmen shaping and forming their creation, and we as the reader enter their grand creation through the pages of a book.
Words can shape our personal thoughts, but they can also transform the world we see in front of us. They have a distinct power over us, don’t they? Even a few words can stir up feelings in us. Any good writer knows this and uses this to their advantage.
What do you feel when you hear, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal”, or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, or maybe this, “Once upon a time…”?
Each of these get us in a certain mood. We prepare ourselves to hear the rest of the story just by that introductory sentence.
But it’s not just words we read on a page that can have a profound effect on us. The words we say to others or that others say to us can stay with us a lifetime, both good and bad.
Think about when someone you care for says “I love you.” Or someone you look up to says, “I’m proud of you,” or worse, “I’m disappointed in you.” In those moments, they aren’t just words, but they become part of our reality, they color the way we see the world and our place in it.
Good words are worth much, cost little, and can change everything.
Our readings for today are focused on the power of words, and in particular, God’s Word. Isaiah 55 sets the stage for the parable we hear Jesus tell in the Gospel of Matthew.
In Isaiah, God says that his Word will go from his mouth and it won’t return to him empty. In fact, it will accomplish its purpose and will succeed in that for which it has been sent.
These are not merely words on a page. Here in Isaiah, God’s Word is active and purposeful. It is seen as an energy and force that shapes those who hear it. Many times in our Bible study this week the phrase, “it shall not return to me empty” came up. We got the sense that when God speaks, something will happen.
Parable of the Sower
And so our Old Testament text tells us the power and purpose behind God’s Word, and Jesus tells a parable about the different ways we hear and receive that Word. They fit quite nicely together in that respect. God speaks in Isaiah and Jesus tells us how we hear him speak.
Jesus uses the image of a farmer planting seeds in the ground, and with that same diligence God sows his Word into human history. God reveals himself principally through the act of speaking. The very first chapter in the Bible attests to this. Every time God creates something, he does it by speaking it into existence. “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’”
God speaks and we hear it, but Jesus’ parable addresses the varied ways we respond once we hear his Word. Specifically, he talks about four different kinds of soil; four different ways to hear and respond to the Word.
He starts by describing seeds that fell on a footpath. This kind of person heard the Word but did not receive it, and just moved on to the next thing. A footpath is not a good place to grow anything, and so this seed is quickly snatched up.
The second type of soil received the seed with joy, but under pressure let it go. The experience burned out quick, and had no time to dig any roots in the ground. It could not last through any tough times.
The third type fell among thorns and was choked out. The seed was able to take root, but there were other things vying for the attention of the soil. The seed couldn’t flourish. There were too many distractions, even good and noble things that could distract from the power of the Word. It was as if this person received it with only one hand because the other hand was busy doing something else.
Only the fourth soil received the seed of the Word with both hands. In this case, the seed was given room to grow and flourish. Only this fourth kind of listening to the Word allowed for it to dig deep roots, unaffected by the distractions of the weeds or the heat of the sun.
Jesus says that the good soil are those who hear the Word and understand it. That’s great and all, but what does Jesus mean by “understand the Word.” That seems a little daunting. At what level are we supposed to understand? A children’s illustrated Bible level of understanding? An “I’ve been to Sunday school four times in my life” level of understanding, or a PhD level? What does Jesus mean?
Take a deep breath because in the Gospel of Matthew the word “understanding” is code for “having faith.” If you “understand” in this way, it’s not that you could ace a seminary level Old Testament exam today but that you hear the word and have faith. Matthew wants us to break the word “understanding” into two separate words: if we stand under the Word of God then we have faith.
Seen in this way, it becomes obvious why this fourth way of hearing the Word of God isn’t affected by the heat of the sun or the threat of weeds because this person is standing under the Word.
The only way that we can stand under the Word with this kind of faith is to rethink how we engage with the Bible. Our parable is clear, if we are going to be fertile soil for the Word of God then we must be patient and open to what God is trying to say to us.
In this case, faithful listening is what is required of us. Remember, God’s word is active and will not return to him empty. We will be shaped by God when we stand under his Word.
You may be saying to yourself, “That’s all well and good but how do we actually do this in our lives? What does it look like to stand under God’s Word?”
Well, this past week Megan and I watched the musical Hamilton on Disney Plus. For the first time people are able to watch this Broadway hit on TV. As you probably know, it’s about the life of Alexander Hamilton set to rap music.
I wasn’t sure what I’d think of it, but when the show ended I just sat there. It was so powerful that I wanted to sit with it for as long as possible. And all this week I’ve been mulling over Hamilton. We’ve been playing the songs around the house, and my mind keeps returning to the major themes. It’s really stayed with me.
You’ve probably had a similar experience with a movie or book you love. Once it’s ended you may sit back in your chair and think about it, ponder it for a while, and hold onto that feeling as long as you can before moving on to something else. In the movie theater when the credits start rolling do you head for the door, or sit there for a moment soaking it in?
I think this sense of ruminating and mulling over something is exactly what Jesus is getting at in our parable. The way we should engage with the Word is what some have called a “spiritual reading” of Holy Scripture.
It requires a patient way of reading that does not only stimulate the mind but can take root in our soul. The writing we find the in Bible requires readers who, in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, “does not always remain bent over [their] pages; [rather they] often lean back and close [their] eyes over a line [they] have been reading again, and its meaning spreads through [their] blood.”
Three times in the Bible God hands a prophet a scroll and says, “Eat this book.” As strange as that sounds, that is the idea behind spiritual reading of the Bible.
We’re not to read the Word hastily as if we are cramming for an exam, but we are to figuratively eat it—to digest it and get it into our bloodstream and deep into our soul. The Word then can become part of the interior of our life, so that we can be shaped from the inside out.
As Eugene Peterson says, “Reading is an immense gift, but only if the words are assimilated, taken into the soul—eaten, chewed, gnawed, received in unhurried delight” (11). If not, then what’s the point of reading anything at all?
The point of this form of reading is not to know more, but to become more like Jesus. This way of reading is how we become fertile soil for God’s active and life-giving Word.
We must be open and receptive, God will do the rest—it won’t return to him empty, after all.
Good words are worth much, cost little, but God’s Word, when read with open ears and an open heart, can utterly change us…so take and eat.
6th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 10. Year A. Isaiah 55:10-13. Mt 13:1-9, 18-23. Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson. Bruner’s Matthew.