Artwork: Vincent van Gogh, The Sower, 1888. Oil on canvas, E.G. Bührle Foundation, Zürich.
A sower went out to sow his seed.
Friends, seeing as we are still in the dead of winter, it may seem a bit early think about planting our gardens.
And every year, come February, we often impatiently wonder just how much longer we’ll have to wait until spring.
This is, of course, the big question supposedly answered annually on Groundhog Day. But this year, as you may have heard, Groundhog Day in Canada was a big letdown because apparently old Wiarton Willie did not show up! An article in the Owen Sound Sun Times fears that he may have died before his successor could be found! Hopefully he was just taking the stay-at-home order seriously!
So in the absence of the groundhog’s prognostication, we will have to look elsewhere for direction and hope – and thankfully we find it in the Church calendar and in today’s Gospel.
Over the past month, throughout the Epiphany season, we saw how the glory of God has dawned upon the world through His Son Jesus Christ.
Jesus refers to Himself as the light of the world and the Scriptures liken His coming to the rising of a new and better sun, which gives the world life and growth, illumination and truth, beauty and joy. And so it is no coincidence that Epiphany brings us well past the Winter Solstice: now that we’ve reached February, the days are noticeably longer. Even without Wiarton Willie’s shadow predicting 6 weeks more or less of winter, we know that spring is surely on the way.
So friends, as the daylight hours increase outdoors, so too should the light of Christ shine all the more in your hearts and minds, your homes and relationships, our church and community.
Outside, the increasing sunlight will slowly but surely bring warmth to the earth, melt the snow and get the ground ready for seedtime and spring. And therefore, so should we as Christians get ready for the upcoming season of Lent; in fact, the word ‘Lent’ comes from the Old English word for ‘springtime.’ The purpose of Lent is to prepare ourselves to grow in Christ and bear fruit for His glory.
As we heard in our first reading from Genesis, we humans were made from the earth. We may not be groundhogs, but we are made from the ground; and therefore, as we see in today’s Gospel, we are like the earth in that we too need tilling, planting, and cultivation.
In order for the ground of our hearts to be fruitful, they first need water and sunlight - that is, the refreshing shower of the Holy Spirit (or perhaps we could see the Holy Spirit as pure white snow melting into us); and our soil also needs the warmth and light of Christ. We are utterly dependent on these life-giving gifts from above – without them there is no hope of growth and any agricultural work is futile.
But there’s also work to be done from down below: our hearts and souls are like soil that needs to be worked, tilled, weeded, cultivated. And that, friends, is precisely the purpose of the upcoming Lenten Spring: to work and till the soil of our heart through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. To that end, I encourage you to participate in our Lenten agricultural activities here at St. James:
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These three practices work and till the soil of our hearts so that we may be fruitful ground for the seed of God’s Word to take root, grow and bear fruit within us.
Now as our prayer of the day says, we ‘put not our trust in anything that we do,’ so we should not put our trust in our performance of these spiritual disciplines. But by God’s grace and mercy and the work of His Spirit, they can serve as useful garden hoes, shovels, spades, and trowels.
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, because friends, our question for today is a preliminary one, but so important; and it is simply this: what kind of soil are you now? What is the current soil condition of your heart?
Jesus says, some seed fell by the wayside and was trampled underfoot or consumed, some grew without root and withered, some was overcome by weeds, and some took root and sprung up to bear fruit.
As Jesus explains, these various soil conditions are the common ways in which we can respond (or not) to the Gospel.
We must be clear that our faith and church membership do not in themselves guarantee that we are good ground. Each of us, day by day, stands as the seed bed for the Word of God, to receive Him and allow Him to grow up within us.
And everyday we find ourselves confronted by areas of our hearts that are willing, and parts that are unwilling, to receive His Word. We are partly hard of heart; we are partly vain and shallow; we are partly choked with worldly cares; and by God’s grace, thanks be to God, we are also partly prepared to grow and bear the fruit of our redemption.
The Lenten Spring is a season set apart to focus on self-examination and repentance, which means looking honestly at the soil condition of our hearts, so that we may open the way to meet Christ, that He may enter there and take root. Friends, to that end, today I encourage to ask yourself these questions of self-examination:
Because, you see, a tender plant needs space to grow. The Word of God cannot thrive as just one concern among others, but must be cultivated and tended as the central focus of your life.
So friends, today, as we prepare for the Lenten Spring, honestly examine where in your life you most need the Lord’s ministry, so that as you enter Lent, it may be an enriching season for the soil of your heart. As Jesus says, for those in the good soil, they are those who, hearing His Word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.
This agriculture of the soul is a slow and gradual process – one that must necessarily begin with the hard work of self-examination and repentance.
Now examining and admitting your weaknesses and failures may seem unpleasant, and so we’re tempted to skip over it – but notice what St. Paul says in today’s passage from Second Corinthians: H says that his weakness is his glory, because it is precisely in his weakness - the places of his need, and even failure - that the grace of God, the redeeming work of Jesus, is known and received.
It’s good to be strong, hardy and well-established (as long as it doesn’t go to your head). Strength is a great blessing. But to be ministered to by Christ in our frailty is even greater. So friends, may your hearts be enriched with this honesty and His goodness as we you learn this.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20–21 ESV)