Sermon for Sunday, 12 July 2020
By Revd George Mwaura
Isaiah 55: 10–13; Matthew 13: 1–9 & 18–23
The art of listening
Creator God, you who set the stars in the heavens and causes the sun to rise and set,
we pray that you will shed the light of your wisdom in the darkness of our collective minds
by the power of your spirit in Jesus’ name.
The setting of this parable – or sermon, if you like – is rather interesting, if not tricky. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ listeners came to the beach where he had gone to relax. There is no evidence that the people came to hear him preach, but that should not surprise us at all – most people I know do not go to the beach to listen to sermons anyway. To complicate the matter, Jesus had to retreat to a small boat, anchored a few feet offshore, to deliver his message. Without the benefit of an adequate sound system, he had to try to be heard over the sound of the waves washing against the beach. In that setting, Jesus tells this simple parable drawn from an agriculture setting during the planting season. There was nothing unusual about the story, although it sounds a bit strange to us. Farmers simply went to an open field with a bag of seed and scattered them across the ground. Some seed sprouted and grew, and other seed did not. One never knew exactly where the crop would be the best. I always imagined that when Jesus finished telling the story, the crowd shrugged their shoulders, scratched their heads, and said to one another: ‘Is that it; there’s nothing new about that story, we see that happen all the time; so what?’ But then, in one of those magical strokes of effective public speaking, Jesus brought their casual responses to an abrupt end by adding: Let anyone with ears listen – as if to say, and to remind us, there is more here than a casual planting story to kill the hours on the beach.
I wonder what prompted Jesus to add this last line. Perhaps Jesus added this line, and maybe even told the down-to-earth story of the land in the first place, because of what he saw when he looked at the crowd from his perch in that boat. What he saw is the same thing I see when I look at the congregation each Sunday from the pulpit: a group of people who have come together for a variety of reasons. Some have been forced to rise and dress when sleep would have been preferred; some have come out of a sense of duty or habit. Others have come to display their piety and practice their faith. A few have come, no doubt, with a sense of expectation, knowing there is a need and a longing to have it met. These listeners are hoping beyond hope that maybe this will be the Sunday when the Word will break through for them. When Jesus looked into their faces, he probably saw the same thing I see. You see, the body language and facial expressions reveal much about what is going on in a person’s mind, and from the pulpit vantage point, I can see more than I sometimes care to see. For instance, there are those blank expressions which say, in essence: I am not interested. Then, there are the glassy stares which betray the fact that someone’s mind is on a different planet. Of course, there are those with drifting eyes, searching for who is wearing what and oh, where is that couple with the annoying child seated? Then, of course, there are those keen looks, which are, essentially saying, entertain me for 60 minutes and then let me get out of here, feeling good but not disturbed. Those of us who stand in pulpits to engage God’s people Sunday after Sunday have come to know one truth: most of what is said will go in one ear and out the other. It should not surprise us then that Jesus would tell such a story as this, and boy I am I glad he did!
Listening seems to be one of those automatic things which we too often take for granted. When listening stops in a marriage, family and even in the Church, relationship hit rock bottom. We bury our heads in TV, Tiktok, WhatsApp, emails, texts, and other social media distractions and forget to listen to one another. While your Minister may not be the most entertaining or thought-provoking preacher, the problem may not be all his; quite often it is the listener who has issues. Could it be that one of the reasons we think that God no longer talks with a plain clear voice, as God did in the Old Testament days, is not that God stopped speaking, but that we stopped listening? Before us, this morning is a story that says more than just the poor farming techniques and uneven soil conditions. It is, at one level, about how we listen when the Word is proclaimed. The parable offers some guidelines on the art of listening for God’s Word in a sermon.
Here are three guidelines to ponder.
Guideline Number 1: Do not have your mind made up before you go to church. We often fail to hear anything because we think we know everything there is to know already. There is nothing that will be said that will bring any more information than we already possess. Just before I started training for ministry, an elder in my church said to me, ‘George, do not let them change you at Westminster.’ I am glad I did not follow that advice! To have done so is like those seeds, when scattered, fall on a path where the birds quickly eat them up. They never have a chance to grow because they never got inside the earth. Some people are like that; so rigid that nothing can penetrate their spirits. It’s pointless to preach to them.
Guideline Number 2: Do not be swept away with emotional ecstasy. We often fail to pay attention, because we are on some mountaintop; high on emotions and feelings, either before we come, while we are present, or after we leave. Too many times we listen only with our feelings and emotions. We get inspired not by the content but by the presentation; we are moved not by the Word but by the persuasiveness of the personality through whom the Word comes. Emotional listening is like a seed that finds itself on rocky soil, a bit of topsoil where it can sprout quickly. But since there is no root it soon wilts during the reality of the sun and the heat. Angelic choirs, charismatic preachers, and majestic buildings are fine in their place as tools and agents that enable the hearing of the Word. But remember they are not the Word. Listen to the Word!
Guideline Number 3: Do not be distracted by the surroundings. We often fail to hear because there is so much coming at us and there is so much activity swirling around us that it is difficult to sort through the noises, to hear the Word. And the times we live in are not the most conducive in hearing God’s Word either. There are far too many things vying for our attention and energy. As a result, we miss the annunciation of good news. Distractions divert our attention from what is to be the focus of the moment, and we turn off our hearing to think about what has just happened. For example, we lose our concentration when a mobile phone rings during a sermon, a hymn book is dropped, or a door is opened. It is like seed planted among the thorns and the thorns grow up to choke off the good growth, preventing or hindering the ability to listen.
So this, my good friends, is not just a parable; in this sermon, we find guidelines for the art of listening. What message then can we find in this parable today? It is this: the seed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is sown. As a result, the reign of God is established, it takes root and grows in this world sometimes in surprising places, where we would least expect it. It starts small, like a seed; but the result is an amazing return at the harvest season. It is a return that is not based on what we do with or to the soil. It is simply an act of God’s grace. Above all this is a story of hope. Even when we come to realise that not all our efforts are productive, the result is still astonishing: God’s grace. Life can indeed be the art of the possible which succeeds despite overwhelming odds to the contrary. If we hear the Word, then we are called to go tell it, to plant more seeds and to scatter our brand of hope on a world which has none. A world brought to its knees by an invisible virus. So, friends, go, scatter some seeds because you have heard the Word. Let anyone with ears, listen!