Matthew 13:18-23 (JDV)
18 “So listen to the parable of the planter:
19 When anyone hears the message about the coming kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been planted in his heart. This is what was planted along the path.
20 As for what was planted on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the message and immediately receives it with joy,
21 yet he has no internal root, so stays true for a while, but when troubles or opposition arise on account of the message, he falls away right then.
22 As for what was planted among thorns, this is the one who hears the message, but the worries of the age and the untrustworthiness of riches choke the message, and it becomes unfruitful.
23 As for what was planted on good soil, this is the one who hears the message and understands it. He really bears fruit and produces, in one case a hundred times as much, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
Our church has experienced a series of unfortunate events in the past few months. Bad things have happened one after another, and it has caused many of us to rethink our situation. Some of us are wondering whether our church is going to survive, as domino after domino keeps toppling. I think it is appropriate for us to look into the Bible, and see what God has to say about when Christians go through tough times.
This passage is a good one to start with. It is the place where Jesus explains his parable of the soils. The parable itself was used by Jesus to show that there will always be different responses to the gospel when it is preached in the world. Jesus highlights four different responses using the allegory of four soils, and how they affect the seed planted in them.
The first soil he mentions is “the path” which doesn’t really receive the seed at all. The birds come and eat the seed before it has a chance to germinate and start growing. There is no life there. The truth comes and goes without any affect.
The last soil Jesus speaks of is the good soil which produces an abundant crop. This is the ideal.
I don’t want to focus on either one of these today.
In other sermons, I have talked about the four different kinds of response to the gospel, but that is not the direction I want to take today. Instead, I want to talk about the way Jesus describes tough times in this story.
TOUGH TIMES COME TO CHALLENGE OUR FAITH, TO TEMPT US TO DEFECT.
“when troubles or opposition arise on account of the message, he falls away right then” (21).
This is when the tough times come into our lives for the express purpose of destroying our faith, and getting us to deny either God’s existence, or his relevance for our lives.
But I want you to notice the picture that Jesus has painted for us to look at. It is a picture of a crop that spouts up immediately. It is on rocky ground, so there is no internal root, but it looks just like the crop which had spouted on the good soil. When Jesus explains what the picture means, he says that it is people who receive the message of the kingdom immediately and joyfully.
I have seen so many people who appeared to have quickly and dramatically come to faith in Christ, but then just as quickly and dramatically lose all connection with the gospel and the church. That is what Jesus is talking about.
There are two causes for this phenomenon: an internal cause and an external cause. The external cause that Jesus refers to is when someone or something challenges the message of the gospel in your life. That is “when troubles or opposition arise on account of the message.” So, when the enemy of our faith notices that we are taking God’s word seriously, he will send direct challenges to the veracity of that word. But the parable does not say that Satan is directly responsible every time trouble comes into a person’s life. Trouble comes because trouble comes. Opposition arises because the message of the gospel is counter culture. Opposition is a natural thing in this world system. It should not surprise us when it happens.
But Jesus also mentioned the internal cause of defection. The defector “has no internal root, so stays true for a while” … but defects as soon as his beliefs are challenged. In other words, there is no faith there strong enough to overcome the effect of the troubles that Satan or the world sends to destroy it.
I worry sometimes that we tend to idolize people with the wrong kind of faith. Celebrities come along and appear to say something nice about Jesus, and we evangelicals fall all over ourselves to promote them. Then, when Jesus is no longer the flavour of the month for those celebrities any more, we look like idiots.
One thing we can learn from this portion of scripture is that true faith is long-haul faith. Troubles coming into our lives can actually help us to determine if we have that long-haul kind of faith. They can prove our identity as true Christians, because they reveal our roots. If our faith is real, it can withstand the challenges of the opposition.
TOUGH TIMES COME TO CHOKE OUR FAITH, TO DIVERT OUR ATTENTION.
“the worries of the age and the untrustworthiness of riches choke the message, and it becomes unfruitful” (22).
The second way that Jesus describes tough times in this story is by painting a picture of a crop surrounded by thorns, briers, gorse.
This is when the tough times come into our lives for the express purpose of distracting us from the natural process of maturing and bearing fruit as disciples of Jesus Christ.
If the enemy cannot get you to defect, he is going to do all he can to distract you so that you are not productive in your faith.
The devil has two major tools that he uses to divert our attention away from productive Christianity: the worries of the age and the untrustworthiness of riches.
The “worries of the age” can be big things that affect the entire planet, or they can be things that affect us more directly. They can be global warming, or a high fever. They can be war in the middle east or not getting along with your spouse. They can be anxiety over the next political election, or even worrying about money.
The “untrustworthiness of riches” can be anything that is considered valuable that might serve as a substitute for the lordship of Christ and the pre-eminence of his kingdom. We have to seek his kingdom and his righteousness first. If we put anything else first, it becomes for us the “untrustworthiness of riches.” Even if it is a good thing… in fact, especially if it is a good thing.
- Tolerance of other people’s world-views is a good thing. But if it keeps you from sharing the gospel with them, it has become your chief distraction.
- Love of your family is a good thing. But if it keeps you from your commitment to your family of faith then it can become your chief distraction.
- Desire to provide for your family is a good thing. But if it forces you to focus on making money instead of making disciples, then it becomes greed, and your chief distraction.
Those thorn bushes are going to be there. There is no secret weapon that will eliminate them from the patch of land we happen to be planted on. We have to overcome the distraction in order to be fruitful in our Christian lives.
I titled today’s message “TOUGH TIMES PROVE OUR IDENTITY.”
But I do not want to give anyone the impression that I am teaching that having troubles is proof that you are not a Christian. Jesus said this to his followers on another occasion:
“Blessed are you who are poor, …
Blessed are you who are hungry …
Blessed are you who weep…
Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil…” (Luke 6:20-22 ESV).
That sounds like tough times, and it is actually proof that you are in the sky kingdom, not proof that you aren’t.
If you are a Christian, I want to tell you today that God knows your situation. He is not challenged by your challenges. He has things under control. He does not lack the power to change your circumstances. He may not choose to fix your problems today, and he has every right to make that choice.
But he is the one who planted the seed of the gospel in your life. He knows what you are going through, and he knows that the gospel message inside of you has the power to overcome the obstacles of the day. Those tough times that you are experiencing to not have to lead to defection or distraction. You can still thrive and grow as a Christian. And when you do, the one who planted the gospel in your life will be glorified by your perseverance.