GOOD SOIL (Soil – Part 4)

Still other seed fell on fertile soil. This seed grew and produced a crop that was a hundred times as much as had been planted! … And the seeds that fell on the good soil represent honest, good-hearted people who hear God’s word, cling to it, and patiently produce a huge harvest. [Luke 8:8a,15 (NLT)]

strawberriesIn Jesus’ parable of the four soils, the farmer’s seed finally falls on fertile soil: the people who do more than just hear the Word. Receiving it into their hearts, the Word takes root, grows, and eventually bears fruit. This is the kind of soil we’d all like to think describes us!

The very same seed was sown in what we think of as four different soils but, in actuality, it was the same kind of dirt in four different conditions: hard packed, shallow and rocky, filled with weeds, and fertile. All of that soil had the potential to receive the word—but only if it yielded to the plow! Sadly, at various times in our lives, our hearts can grow hard, become shallow, or be overwhelmed by life’s weeds. If we are willing to yield to God’s plow and accept His seed, even the hardest soil can be farmed.

We often think of the heart only in terms of emotions but, in the Bible, the heart is more than the core of our feelings. The center and source of our belief and faith, the heart is the seat of our thinking: our imagination, ideas, interests, intentions, purposes, and understanding. Fertile soil is the honest and good heart that receives the word eagerly and with good intentions. Moreover, such hearts don’t stop at hearing the word (receiving the seed); they retain it, let it shape their lives and, with perseverance, yield a large harvest.

In this parable, we are both the soil—the hearer of the Word—and the farmer—the one who spreads the Word. The fertile soil of a receptive heart allows us to see, hear, understand and apply God’s Word so that we bring forth an abundant harvest of good fruit. To bring forth that harvest, however, the cycle must continue as we become the farmer in the parable and sow God’s word far and wide. It is our responsibility to spread the seed; whether or not it takes root, however, is between God and the soil!

The quality of the soil determines the future of the seed. [Mike Murdock]

I said, “Plant the good seeds of righteousness, and you will harvest a crop of love. Plow up the hard ground of your hearts, for now is the time to seek the Lord, that he may come and shower righteousness upon you.” [Hosea 10:12 (NLT)]

And I will give them singleness of heart and put a new spirit within them. I will take away their stony, stubborn heart and give them a tender, responsive heart, so they will obey my decrees and regulations. Then they will truly be my people, and I will be their God. [Ezekiel 11:19-20 (NLT)]

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THORNS AND THISTLES (Soil – Part 3)

Other seed fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants so they produced no grain. [Mark 4:7]

nodding - musk thistleSome of the farmer’s seeds fell among the thorns (probably what we’d call thistles). Prolific seed producers, thorny plants like thistles can grow in the harshest environment. While they may have been cut down and no longer were visible to the farmer, their seeds and roots remained. With their deep roots, thistles are masters of survival and can flourish in adverse conditions. Stealing the moisture and sunlight from the plants around them, they stunt their growth and, if allowed to grow, can overtake a field.

The farmer’s seed was good, it took root, and started to grow but, because of the thistles, it never developed into maturity. The thistles represent the material concerns of the world—the cares, riches and pleasures that distract us from God’s word and, like a thistle’s roots, are deeply seated in our hearts. Rather than robbing us of water, sunlight, and nutrients, they stunt our growth by keeping us from God’s living water, the light of Christ, and the nourishment of His church. The busyness, distractions, and cares of life; the challenges of work and tending a family; the pursuit of wealth; the desire for possessions, status, amusement, contentment, and even revenge: all of these distract us from letting God’s Word bear fruit in our lives.

The faith of Judas was like a field with thistles. He heard the word and followed Jesus as a faithful disciple and yet he betrayed our Lord. We never know exactly why. Perhaps, it was simply for riches. John tells us he was a thief who stole from the disciples’ purse and we know he received money for his betrayal. Judas also may have been distracted by politics and a desire to be among the elite when Jesus defeated the Romans. Disillusionment may have set in when he realized that wouldn’t happen. Whatever it was, like a field of thistles, those distractions allowed Satan to enter him

In God’s perfect plan, there were no weeds and He didn’t mean for thorns or thistles to be in hearts, either. Weeds and sin both came with the fall. Ridding a field of thistles and other weeds is nearly impossible but, with diligence and hard work, it can be done. It takes continual inspection of the field and, once spotted, the weeds must be eradicated. The questions we must ask are simple ones. What are the thistles or thorns in my life? What is holding me back? What is keeping me from bearing His fruit? Is my faith genuine?

Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith. [2 Corinthians 13:5 (NLT)]

When the ground soaks up the falling rain and bears a good crop for the farmer, it has God’s blessing. But if a field bears thorns and thistles, it is useless. The farmer will soon condemn that field and burn it. [Hebrews 6:7-8 (NLT)]

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HARD HEARTS (Soil – Part 1)

A farmer went out to plant his seed. As he scattered it across his field, some seed fell on a footpath, where it was stepped on, and the birds ate it. [Luke 8:5 (NLT)]

old world wisconsinIn the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, we find Jesus telling the parable of the four soils in which the farmer’s seed falls on four types of ground and yields four different results. Although the same good seed is sown over the entire field, only one kind of soil will yield a good crop. Jesus isn’t giving a lesson about agricultural practices; the seed that is sown is God’s word and the soils represent the different responses we have to God’s word. The lessons taught are both for the sowers—those who teach, preach, or witness—and for the soil—the people who hear the Word.

Some of the farmer’s seed falls along a footpath. There the soil is packed down so hard that the seed can’t take root. At first, it seems like the farmer is at fault, but he was doing what farmers did at the time—sowing before plowing. In Jesus’ day, farmers’ plots were small and adjacent to one another’s plots. Wanting to avoid stepping on growing plants, there were pathways between the fields used by the farmers. As the farmer walked along the path, he’d scatter seeds with a broad sweeping motion of his hand. Inevitably, some seed would land on the footpath between the fields. Heavily used and neither plowed nor fertilized, its soil was hard packed and nothing would grow on it.

 It’s not enough for the word to be heard any more than it is for seed to fall on hard ground. In Scripture, faith and belief are products of the heart. Just as seed must germinate to grow, the Word must be accepted, but a hard heart, like hardened soil, cannot receive God’s word. Instead of birds, it is Satan who snatches the Word away.

We know what makes a footpath hard but what hardens hearts? I think of Herod Antipas who married his half-brother’s wife (forbidden by Mosaic Law). When John the Baptist denounced Herod’s illegal marriage, Herod arrested and imprisoned the prophet at his wife’s urging. Scripture, however, tells us that Herod respected John and liked to listen to him but, not wanting to recognize his own sin and repent, Herod didn’t allow John’s word to change him. Unrepentant sin caused both Herod’s and Herodias’ hearts to harden enough that John died a gruesome death.

In Pharaoh’s case, it was pride and arrogance that hardened his heart to the powerful God of the Israelites. It was setbacks and disappointments that hardened the heart of the Israelites when camping at Meribah. Ignoring God’s previous provision, the ungrateful people quarreled with Moses over the lack of water. Hearts can harden in times of prosperity, as well. God sent Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Zechariah to warn Israel and Judah about their hard hearts and the coming of God’s judgment but they didn’t change their ways. Distractions like fear and blame can cause hearts to harden enough for Satan to snatch away God’s word. Twice Scripture describes the hearts of the disciples as being “too hard to take it in” when they failed to let Jesus’ miracles of abundant provision grow into faith in His power. [Mark 6:52,8:17]

Hardened hearts dull our ability to perceive and understand God’s message, blind us to the value of the gospel, and keep us both ignorant of God and alienated from Him. As hearers of the Word, we must not let the enemy harden our hearts and, as sowers, we must keep spreading the seed; whether or not it is accepted is up to the soil! The good news, however, is that even the hardest soil can be broken and even the hardest heart can be softened.

Hardness of heart evidences itself by light views of sin; partial acknowledgment and confession of it; pride and conceit; ingratitude; unconcern about the word and ordinances of God; inattention to divine providences; stifling convictions of conscience; shunning reproof; presumption, and general ignorance of divine things. [Matthew George Easton]

Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him. [Ephesians 4:18 (NLT)]

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FAULTY MEMORIES

Be careful not to forget the Lord, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt. You must fear the Lord your God and serve him. [Deuteronomy 6:12-13a (NLT)]

They refused to obey and did not remember the miracles you had done for them. Instead, they became stubborn and appointed a leader to take them back to their slavery in Egypt. [Nehemiah 9:17a (NLT)]

grey catbirdMany of us have friends and relatives whose memories are declining (and some of us may be those people). As my mother-in-law’s memory started failing, she rewrote history with what we called “wishful memories” and “selective forgetting.” Since her memories became rosier and happier as time passed, it really didn’t matter if nearly a century’s worth of memories were accurate or not; they were good ones. Happy to see her enjoying her version of the past, we ignored faulty memories that were of no consequence.

Research conducted by Northwestern University, however, reports that, regardless of age, our memories aren’t nearly as accurate as we think they are. The memory isn’t like a video camera that preserves the past in perfect unedited detail. Instead, it’s more like a movie that is continually edited; information from the present gets added to the past and then re-framed in the light of present circumstances. Our situation today seems to affect how and what we remember about our yesterdays. If we’re happy, the memory might become sweeter and, if we’re distressed, the memory may get a dash of sour added to it.

In addition, every time we remember something, it gets less accurate; instead of the actual event, we simply remember the last time we recalled it. Any mistakes in our last recollection inadvertently become truths in our next one. Details may be omitted while others are added and a story can change over time without our consciously meaning to do so.

God didn’t need university researchers to tell Him that mankind’s memory is faulty. Eve couldn’t even remember His one rule for Eden! Perhaps that’s why God had the various Biblical scribes and prophets repeat His words and works over and over again throughout Scripture. He knew that, with time, the Israelites would do a little wishful remembering and selective forgetting of their own. In fact, only a month after escaping Pharaoh, their 400 years of Egyptian slavery didn’t seem nearly so terrible to them. Instead, the hungry Israelites chose to remember how well fed they’d been as slaves. Even though God’s miraculous deliverance of His people out of Egypt is repeated in at least sixteen books of the Hebrew Bible (from Exodus through Psalms and all the way to Micah, Amos and Hosea), as the years passed, the Israelites began to remember their part in winning battles and forgetting that God gave them those victories. As the memories of God’s deliverance and provision faded, they started to believe they’d achieved everything on their own power and strength.

Since we must remember complex combinations of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols for passwords and the names of pets, schools, and first grade teachers for security questions, we’ve probably written them down or safely stored them in the Cloud. Are we as diligent about remembering or safely saving God’s hand in our lives as we are those phrases and words? It’s not just for accessing our email or shopping on Amazon; it’s for our very lives that we need to correctly remember God and how His love, forgiveness, deliverance, and provision have saved and sustained us.

Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me. [Psalm 103:2 (NLT)]

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KOINONIA – FELLOWSHIP

pelicans - royal terns - clam passGod is faithful! And it is through God that you have been called into the fellowship of his son, King Jesus, our Lord. Now I must appeal to you, my brothers and sisters, through the name of King Jesus our Lord, that you should all be in agreement, and that there should be no divisions among you. Instead, you should be fully equipped with the same mind and the same opinion. [1 Corinthians 1:9-10 (NTE)]

Because there are various Christian fellowship associations, our churches have fellowship halls, and they sponsor fellowship meetings, meals, and events, we tend to associate Christian fellowship with friendship and socializing. Christian fellowship, however, is a great deal more than simply spending time with other believers. The Greek word commonly translated as “fellowship” is koinonia. While it does mean fellowship, association, community, and communion, it also denotes intimacy, participation, or a share which one has in something. No one English word fully captures all that koinonia encompasses.

Signifying more than merely associating with each other, the sharing of food and necessities, or even joining together in the celebration of the Eucharist, Paul used koinonia to include the fellowship Christ’s followers have both with one another and with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the church’s sharing of Jesus’ sufferings, and their combined effort both to serve one another and to spread the gospel with the funding of missions work. In that light, koinonia (Christian fellowship) is far more than filling a pew for an hour a week, gathering for coffee before services, or bringing a dish to a church potluck. Rather than a membership in a club, koinonia is more like the commitment a businessman makes when he forms a partnership and it was during a video Bible study with N.T. Wright that I first heard koinonia translated as “partnership.”

Perhaps, because my husband has been involved in several business ventures with partners, the word “partnership” resonated with me. His partners were more than just acquaintances, friends, or colleagues and their partnerships required an investment of some kind. In some cases that was a capital investment but, in others, it was sweat equity through a service that added value. Along with financial responsibility, his business partners shared the same vision and goals, were passionate about their venture, and motivated in pursuing it. Seeing themselves as a team, they didn’t base decisions on their individual wants but looked to what was best for the business. They knew and appreciated both their own strengths and weaknesses and those of their partners. Because his partners were committed, ethical, honest, and dependable, his ventures succeeded.

Sometimes, we mistakenly think of ourselves as customers and the church as a business we patronize; if we like the ambiance, approve of the message, and enjoy being with the other patrons, we continue to support it. That, however, is not koinonia! We may not get the minister’s or worship leader’s paychecks, but we are partners with them and with each other. If anyone is the customer in this scenario, it is God! He is the One we all serve and the one we are supposed to please. He is the One who matters and He, as the only customer, is always right!

Simply put, koinonia is the art of Christian community. In the spirit of koinonia, rather than “members,” many churches have what they call “partners.” With membership, people are inclined to ask, “What do I get from this group?” but, when we become partners, we ask “What do I bring to this group?” Partnership means a commitment (and not just to regular attendance). It’s a commitment to study, serve, and support. It means living an authentic Christian life both in and out of church, growing in God’s word, praying with and for others, focusing on commonality rather than differences, sharing spiritually and materially, and reaching out to others. In koinonia, our connection to Jesus connects us to one another and we become partners in Christ!

The winning word in the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee was koinonia. Knowing how to spell it or even knowing what it means is useless, however, unless, as Christians, we live in koinonia!

My prayer is this: that the partnership which goes with your faith may have its powerful effect, in realizing every good thing that is at work in us to lead us into the King. [Philemon 1:6 (NTE)]

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DUELING PROVERBS 

Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are. Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools, or they will become wise in their own estimation. [Proverbs 26:4-5 NLT)

owlSince they’re not hard and fast rules, some proverbs are contradictory. Perhaps the most glaring contradiction (and one non-believers love to mention) is found in Proverbs 26:4-5. First, we’re told not to answer the foolish argument of fools but then we’re told to do that very thing!

Proverbs 26:4 reminds us never to stoop to the fool’s level, which can mean anything from answering vindictively or hurtfully to resorting to half-truths or misinformation. Foolish arguments often come from out of the blue. Unanticipated, we rarely are prepared with specifics, facts and evidence to answer intelligently. I recently had such a situation during a casual dinner conversation with a fervent global warming denier. I thought him a “fool” and his “facts” misleading and incorrect but, at the time, I wasn’t armed with decisive evidence of my own. Replying, “I’m not so sure about that,” I moved on to another, less controversial, topic. When we imitate the style of a fool, we become fools ourselves and, had I entered into a debate at that time, I would have looked as foolish as did he!

On the other hand, Proverb 26:5 tells us there are times when foolishness and absurdity must be brought to light and rebuked: that fools should be dealt with to prevent credibility being given to their words. While we can ignore the fool in trivial situations or on negligible issues, the fool should be answered on issues that matter, especially in a more public setting. For example, there were several of us together when one person made a sweeping and offensive generalization about a minority. In that case, his incorrect and offensive statement required an answer, both to correct him and to make clear his opinion was not shared. When remaining silent supports a fool’s position, his assertion should be answered, especially if there is a possibility of enlightening him.

The New Bible Commentary describes fools as “students who have accumulated knowledge but not acquired the ability to apply it: like someone who has a dangerous weapon but does not know how to use it.” We would be fools if we thought one proverb covers every situation. Life is complex and there is no one solution to every problem. How we respond to foolish, irrational, obtuse, fatuous, thoughtless, or futile arguments depends on the circumstances. The point of Proverbs is to teach discernment and the truly wise do more than recite proverbs; they know how and when to apply them. Regarding these two contradictory proverbs, Ecclesiastes tells us, there is “a time to for every activity under heaven.” If we’re not sure which time it is, the Apostle James reminds us to ask God for wisdom.

For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. … A time to be quiet and a time to speak. [Ecclesiastes 3:1,7b (NLT)]

If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. [James 1:5 (NLT)]

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