Sexagesima – The Good Earth

 But that on the good ground are they which in an honest and good heart,
having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.

During Christmas and Epiphany seasons, we began by remembering the Incarnation of Lord, then we followed Jesus growing up – the manifestation of his glory as a boy, as the Wisdom of God, and then as the power of God, shown in his miracles of changing water into wine and in the healing of Jew and Gentile alike – his salvation is for all humanity. He is God and man in one person – and he calls us to be renewed in the spirit of our mind, to be transformed by the adorning of our natural gifts with grace that they may be supernatural, and to show love and mercy towards all of humanity, whether friend or enemy.  Last week we saw Jesus presented in the Temple, and we pray that He will be manifested in the living temple that is His Church and that is our souls.

We have moved into the few Sundays remaining before Lent. This is a time for us to begin to think more about our own souls and our response to this manifestation of God in Christ before our eyes and in our midst.

It is still deep winter, but the days are lengthening, and if I know Anne Miechielsen, who attends lovingly the church garden, she is already thinking about what to plant this year, getting ideas, pondering it, and can’t wait for the weather to warm, to turn over the soul, to plant that God may give the growth!

Likewise, we are to be thinking about our growth in Christ, of the ongoing planting of God’s Word in our hearts that it might take deep root and bear fruit abundantly.

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In my recent trip to Savannah Georgia I attended a conference on an ancient writer from the 6th century – Dionysius the Areopagite.  His writings speak of how the Creation is a theophany – it reveals something of God because it comes from God – it is God’s ideas made manifest, so when we look at the Creation, it helps us see how God thinks.  God created all things, and God is calling all things back to Him, a conversion.

And God has ordered Creation in such a way as to help us in that return. There is a whole hierarchy – the nine levels of angels, then humanity, then the lower creatures and down to the smallest insects and even the very stones. The angels above us help in that return, mature Christians in our lives help to show us the way to God, we in turn can help others to draw nearer, and even the lowest things can tell us spiritual truths.

In the Wisdom literature in the Bible, such as Proverbs, we are taught to “consider the ant…” – that’s because Creation is a theophany – a revealing to us of the mind of God.

Our Lord, Wisdom Incarnate, in his teaching us, often points us to nature – all things were made through Him, so at the same time that he made it, he knew he would one day come into the midst of it and show us how it reveals divine Wisdom.

  • Strangely, if you cut the branches of a vine, it becomes even more fruitful
  • Strangely, the birds always seem to get enough to eat
  • Strangely, the flowers of the field don’t have to work at being beautiful, their beauty comes from God.

In the Gospel today Jesus speaks a parable to us in figures, in images, from the Creation – in this case, the growth of plants from seed and their fruitfulness – to help us understand something of the mystery of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus says he speaks in parables so that things may remain hidden – “that seeing people may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” He gives us simple stories that aren’t so simple, that make us not so easily move on as if we understand, but rather draws us in by our temporary confusion, to seek that we might find.

The-Sower-van-Gogh1
The Sower, Vincent van Gogh (after Millet)

But to we, who have the Spirit of God, who are already seeking and watching at the doors of heaven for spiritual truths, we are given to know the secrets.

And many of you will know this parable of the Sower well, having heard it hopefully several times over the years.

Jesus explains that the seed is the Word of God – the Truth, the ideas of God, the way God thinks. The Sower is not described, but it includes God foremost who sends forth His Word – it drops all the time from God into our minds, by reading his Word and by hearing the Spirit speaking to us directly inwardly – and it comes from us too, if we are immersed in that Word – from our mouths, from our actions, ways in which we share explicitly and implicitly God’s Word with others – our lives become a kind of theophany, a manifestation in action of the divine Word.

The Word of God is being continually sown into the Creation in all sorts of ways.

If we are wondering why it is not being heard, or why someone in our midst seems to be not growing, or why our lives are not bearing more fruit, it is not that God is restrained from sharing His Word, that is not what is holding anyone back.

What is it then? It is the soil on which it is falling – Jesus lays out very simply why it will not take growth in some souls and why it does bear forth fruit abundantly in others. It is all about the state of the soul that hears.

The fruitful soul is the one who hears the Word of God, holds on to it fast, in an honest and good heart, and bears fruit with patience.

In a world of sound bites, where you can hardly buy the same toothbrush twice in a row, where a smart phone from two years ago now seems stupid, patience is something we find difficult.

I want my innovation and I want it now. I want full salvation, an end to sorrow and suffering, the perfect job, the ideal wife, and I want it now.

Our sanctification in Christ, our growth in holiness, our bearing fruit in the Spirit is a project in time – it is over our lifetime.  It is no doubt related to the complexity and glorious possibilities of the human soul that it is a project that can only be accomplished in time.  It is no doubt related to the fact that God wants us to be personally engaged, not forced, not to simply replace our nature with His grace, but to transform our nature in a way that fully engages our wills, that our response might be one of true love not compulsion.

Jesus is telling us not to be surprised if everyone does not receive His Word, but also that if we are receiving His Word, we need to be patient.

And he’s also telling us that there are some things we can do to make our lives more fruitful:

  • don’t follow the well trodden path that everyone else is following and beware of the devil who hates the truth and would try and snatch it from us,
  • open our hearts to the inward working of the Spirit, that necessary inward moisture, so that when external consolations are removed, we remain faithful to His Word;
  • and clear away the unnecessary and destructive worldly clutter and expectations that will choke the growth of His Word in us.  We will not bring forth fruit if we are still trying to hold on to worldly expectations at the same time.  We cannot serve God and Mammon.

We are to be engaged in God’s project of saving us, to grow in holiness, to be more fruitful.

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St Paul is held up as an example of fruitfulness in today’s reading.

He did not shy away in his life from the suffering he encountered, he kept going – because he was renewed inwardly in prayer and thinking upon God.

It is interesting to look at our translation of this passage – our modern ESV is clearly a Protestant translation: in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food – it suggests all these things that he endured. In the King James the translation is: in watchings often, (choosing to stay up in a prayer vigil as Jesus spent nights on the mountain alone) in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness – in the King James version, some these imply spiritual disciplines  that St Paul engaged in.

You can decide which of these translations is more accurate – is Paul speaking of willed spiritual disciplines or just circumstances endured – but in either case, his life was not luxurious, he suffered privation, and it all contributed, by being borne in faith, to his fruitfulness.

His life, through His writings continues to bear more and more fruit.

Lent will begin a week from this Wednesday.  It would not surely take much reflection on our own lives, to identify areas that we could curb, and some action we could undertake – even if it is to carve away a bit more time from our busy live for prayer and reflection, so that our lives might be more fruitful spiritually.

The idea of Lent should not fill us with dread, but with a kind of spirit of adventure, to the more lively engagement in our Christian journey, to the excitement of knowing more deeply our Lord and Saviour, catching a greater glimpse of his glory, and bearing, in time, ripe fruit for the picking, even a hundredfold!

Amen.