The Sunday called Sexagesima (sermon)

Sexagesima - Sower Van Gogh afterMillet

2 Corinthians 11:19-31            St Luke 8:4-15

Jesus said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables”

This Sunday is called Sexagesima, which counts about 60 days to Easter. In this period we are preparing our hearts for the season of Lent, in which we commemorate Christ’s travels to Jerusalem, His death on the cross and His mighty resurrection.

Introduction: Jesus and the parables

Our gospel reading for today presents us with a familiar parable, which is very suitable for this time of preparation. I’m talking about the parable of the Sower, which represents Christ, and by extension His Church and ministers. The Sower goes out to sow the seed, like Christ and Gods ministers go out to preach Gods word. In the parable we see the seed develop in diverse ways, which reveals the different responses of people to the gospel.  

As you all know, this parable challenges us to think about how we respond to Gods Word. Is it bearing fruit in our lives? 

Before I address this parable, there’s one question that needs to be answered first. That is: why did Jesus speak in parables in the first place?

When we read the gospels it appears that at a certain point in Jesus’ ministry, early on, Jesus changed His method of preaching and started to use parables as one of His main teaching instruments. According to Marks gospel, “He did not speak to them (the crowds) without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.“ (Mark 4:34) In Luke, but also in Matthew and Mark, we can notice the surprise of the disciples. Suddenly they needed an extra explanation after hearing Jesus’ teachings to be sure of what He meant. When Jesus saw their surprise, He explained: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’” (Luke 8:10)

You might find this answer as puzzling as I used to, more difficult to understand than the parable itself. It almost looks as if Jesus is saying, “I speak in parables because I don’t want them to understand my teachings.” Could this really be what Jesus meant? Does God want to exclude people from His Kingdom? 

When we look at the parable of the Sower, it already becomes clear this is not the case. The Sower spreads the good seed everywhere! It is not the Sower or the seed that puts bound on the growth, but the receiving soil, meaning the individual heart, and the birds of the air, by which Satan is meant. 

Jesus and Isaiah

But what then did Jesus' explanation mean, that He used parables so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’? I’d like to ask you to pay attention to these two words: see and hear, because they are central to what we’re about to discover. To understand Jesus’ Words, we need to recognize He was quoting from the 6th chapter of the book of Isaiah. So let’s take a closer look at this chapter. 

Isaiah 6 describes Isaiah’s life-changing vision. It happened in the year Uzziah, the king of Judah died, that Isaiah saw God on the throne in His holy temple, surrounded by Seraphim. Seraphim are mighty angelic beings with six wings. He did not only see them, but also heard them speak as they glorified God. They said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3) While they spoke, the temple started to shake and tremble and be filled with a cloud of smoke… All of it was enormously impressive!! Now one of the more interesting things about Isaiah’s vision is that we also learn what effect it had on him personally. Isaiah was terrified when he saw the vision. He exclaimed: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)

Isaiah was terrified, because he had seen a glimpse of God’s glory. But one thing made him particularly frightened: after hearing the pure words of the Seraphim, he realized that many of his own words had been vain talk and sinful nonsense. He said: ‘I am a man of unclean lips.’ In God’s presence Isaiah realized how unworthy and sinful he was. He feared he was lost forever, what was he to do?

Fortunately one of the Seraphim flew towards him with a coal from the altar. He touched Isaiah’s lips with it and said: ‘your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’ … Now this is interesting! The Seraphim didn’t say: ‘O my dear friend, don’t worry, nothing is wrong with you, you’re fine the way you are.’ The Seraphim didn’t deny his sin, but also didn’t accuse him; instead he offered Isaiah the salvation from Gods altar. 

So this is how Isaiah was saved! The first step was seeing Gods glory and hearing the proclamation of His greatness. Here they are again: the words: see and hear. This made him realize how much he needed salvation, then it was the gift from Gods altar, which literally touched him, that cleansed and saved him.

Now let’s turn our attention back to Jesus’ parable. It speaks about the Sower, who left his ‘heavenly home’ to go to the soil and spread His seed. It is not the seed in isolation that leads to fruit-bearing plants, as if those seeds came falling from heaven or were carried by the wind. An essential part of the parable is the presence of the Sower, who Himself brings the seed to the soil and spreads it around Himself.  

The importance of Jesus’ presence in the proclamation of the gospel is clear when we read the conversion stories in the Bible. You will remember the calling of the apostle Peter, when, after seeing the miraculous catch of fish, also recognized God’s presence in Jesus and said to Him: ‘Depart from me, for I’m a sinful man’ (Luke 5:8). Gods glory was visible in Jesus and in His acts. Jesus’ presence and personality increased the power of His Words. When Peter saw Gods glory, he also saw how much he lacked this glory, which led to the discovery of his own sins. Therefore it is important to note that the parable of the Sower is not only talking about the seed and soil, but also stressing the presence and nearness of the Sower! With this in mind we can recognize that Isaiah’s conversion experience operated on the same principles as in the parable of the Sower: first Gods glory is seen and the Word is heard, then the need for salvation is felt, paving the way for Gods healing and transformation. 

After Isaiah received forgiveness, he heard God speak. God asked: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” As a new-born man, Isaiah immediately volunteered. And here we arrive at the part Jesus quoted to the disciples. God said to Isaiah: “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’”  

By now you will recognize the quotation! Again, you might be inclined to think God doesn’t want the people to understand, but that interpretation doesn’t make sense when you look at the core message Isaiah preached. Because through him God said to the same people: “Come now, let us reason together, though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Is 1:17). God was clearly offering salvation to every one of them! 

So what did God mean? When He said ‘Keep on hearing’ it implied Isaiah was invited to preach intensively. This makes no sense if God really didn’t want the people to understand. When we continue reading we recognize God was using a figure of speech, because God then said: “Make the heart of this people dull, their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” If Gods says: ‘blind them, otherwise they would be healed’, it implies they can be healed! God was using a figure of speech, instructing Isaiah to proclaim Gods message so intensely, that nobody could escape it: they would have to hear it so often, either until they were healed or until their ears would become heavy and they would turn a deaf ear to it!

So this was Jesus’ quotation, which He used as explanation for speaking in parables. With this in mind, think again about His parables. You will remember Jesus always used familiar scenes from everyday life, like a Sower or people working in a vineyard. Why? By quoting Isaiah, Jesus showed this was part of an intense preaching strategy. Instead of regular preaching, with words that are easily forgotten, the familiar scenes of the parables would ensure Jesus’ Words would constantly ring in the peoples ears. Every time they would see a sower in a field, they would be reminded of His words. In this way the parables were part of a teaching strategy that would either result in people seeing and understanding and being healed, or turning away without understanding. 

Conclusion 

So Jesus really wants people to be saved; He wants the seed to grow! But what can we do to become that good soil, which we by nature are not? A part of the answer to this question perhaps also lies in the experience of Isaiah. Isaiah was changed by seeing Gods glory and hearing the proclamation of God’s greatness. Likewise we can focus our attention to Jesus, as John the Baptist said: “Behold, the Lamb of God”. In other words: look, see, pay attention! Through the study of the gospels, look to Jesus until you’ve recognized Gods glory in Him, and don’t stop until you do. And don’t look just once, but look every day. And then second comes: listen. Listen to His words, listen to understand, and don’t stop listening until you understand. And then finally: you will feel unworthy, but don’t be discouraged, let yourself be touched spiritually by the Holy Spirit and also accept the physical Gift from God’s altar! You don’t have to heal yourself, you even cannot heal yourself, but Christ came to heal and to offer salvation! And today we can receive His Gift! Therefore let us prepare our hearts to receive Him and His precious sacrament. 

Amen.

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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2