After the Word Is Heard

By Chuck Griffin

Parables, those little stories Jesus used to illustrate how God works in the world, are not always intended to provide immediate answers. They are more like mental Juicy Fruit, designed to keep us chewing on an idea until it makes sense.

Jesus does, however, explain his first parable in Matthew, the story of a sower who liberally scatters his seeds in different places: a path, rocky ground, thorns, and fertile soil. The seeds represent “word of the kingdom.” The landing places and the fate of their seeds stand for responses to Christ’s message.

When Jesus speaks of the “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” in Scripture, he describes something that is here but that will later arrive in full, like a train that has just nosed into the station but is still moving.

The coming of the kingdom of heaven has an individual effect. We each accept Christ’s work and allow the Holy Spirit to transform us in unique ways. But the kingdom also is having a universal effect, changing creation as a whole and moving us toward a time when evil, sickness and death are no longer a part of the world.

That is really good news, the kind of news that should cause us to reconsider every aspect of our lives. When we first believe the news, we are reunited with God through Christ. As we understand the news on deeper and deeper levels, we further incorporate its meaning into our lives.

Not everyone reacts the same way to this news, however. That’s the point of the rest of the parable.

First, there are the “path” people. Jesus reminds us that the “evil one” will do all he can to pull back into his deadly grasp people who don’t initially understand the message. Those of us who want to help them are called to engage in very real spiritual warfare, relying on the Christ-sent Holy Spirit to overcome the work of Satan.

Second, there are the “rocky ground” people. You’ve seen them—they are energetic and enthused about their new faith, until they face trouble for the first time after their conversions. These people remind us why discipleship is so important to a new Christian’s life.

Third, there are the “thorn” people. They find the temporary baubles of the world attractive, so much so that their desire for these riches keeps them from appreciating the word of the kingdom. What they need is a big-picture understanding of their own lives and the lives of people around them.

The “good soil” people are of course what all believers want to be, Christians who let God work through them to bring along the full arrival of the kingdom.

One of the great gifts of the kingdom is that we can move from being one kind of soil to another. The God who made the earth remakes us, at least as much as we allow.

Lord, may your word take deep root in us and flourish to the benefit of others. Amen.

Confusing to Satan

Philippians 1:12-19 (NRSV)

I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.

Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.

By Chuck Griffin

The words of Paul we find in Romans 8:28, “All things work together for good for those who love God,” were more than just an idea to the apostle. He saw them come true in his own tribulations.

Paul suffered mightily during his service to the Lord, and by the time he was writing to the church at Philippi, he was in prison. And yet, he was able to observe the effect his faithfulness continued to have on those around him, even those charged with keeping him imprisoned.

It’s a story repeated throughout the history of the church. Some who are against Christ attack those who stand for Christ, and the faith exhibited by those brave, Spirit-filled Christians makes strong disciples out of weak ones and believers out of skeptics. Somewhere in their minds, these witnesses to the suffering look at those under attack and think to themselves, “I want what they have.”

These moments surely send Satan into a frenzy. Just when he thinks he has those Christians where he wants them—just when they should be in despair—the Holy Spirit works through them, and he loses more of his minions to the dawning Kingdom of Heaven.

Even those who preach Christ with wrongheaded motives can end up doing good. The growing presence of the kingdom is inexorable. It will not be stopped, and it continues to creep into the world in the oddest ways.

Well, Jesus did tell us the kingdom would be like yeast, eventually permeating the whole loaf.

Lord and Savior, work your way more deeply into our lives so we may withstand any time of trial and draw others to you. Amen.

Soul Soil

Gardening taught me something spiritually interesting several years ago. It’s possible to make soil in infertile places.

You accomplish this by layering various organic elements. First, you use a heavy layer of newspaper as the base. This kills any weeds in the plot where you want something to grow.

Then you start making layers an inch or two deep, each composed of different organic substances: compost, ground leaves, vegetable peelings, grass clippings, peat moss. You simply lay it on inch-by-inch until you get the depth you want, finally topping it off with a layer of mulch.

After it sits for a while, it’s ready for planting. While living in Georgia, I made some very productive little gardens for herbs, peppers and other vegetables where I had nothing but barren red clay.

One day, I was thinking about what is sometimes called the “parable of the soils” or the “parable of the sower.” This is the story Jesus tells in Matthew 13:1-9 and then explains in Matthew 13:18-23.

The different kinds of soils represent different kinds of people: those who don’t understand the truth about Jesus, those who hear the truth but become discouraged by trouble, those who hear it and become distracted by worldly pleasures, and those who hear the truth and let it grow mightily in them, until it begins to spread to others.

And then I asked myself, “Do you have to remain one kind of soil?”

I don’t think so. God has given us the tools to make good, deep “soul soil.”

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, sometimes talked about the “means of grace,” those ways we can hold ourselves out to God and say, “Please change me.” There are five big, scripturally based ways. And they work together, enhancing each other’s ability to make a person more spiritually fertile.

Prayer is like the paper base. We use it liberally to keep the weeds of the world from growing. Lying close to prayer is fasting. Fasting makes prayer more effective because it keeps us mindful of our dependence on God.

The third layer is Scripture. How can we understand God’s truth if we’re not reading what our Creator has revealed? Reading the Bible has to be a daily experience for any Christian.

The fourth layer in our “soul soil” mix is what Wesley called “fellowship.” We practice fellowship whenever we gather with other Christians. Fellowship keeps us mindful of our need for community.

The fifth layer is the taking of communion. Jesus told us to remember via this act what he has done for us. Communion should be meaningful. It should be regular. And it should be done with the knowledge that God transforms us for the better every time we faithfully participate.

Make some soul soil. God’s truth will sprout in amazing ways.

Lord, in this season of Lent may we find ways to practice all the means of grace, enriching our experience of you. Amen.