This morning, we heard Jesus tell two parables. Both parables use seed and growth to illustrate a point. The central point of the first parable is that the farmer does not know how seed grows. The central point of the second parable is that something very small grows to become very large.
There is something in the first parable that even we as an agricultural community don’t think about too often. We know that farmers work hard to bring a crop to market. But what about the work that the plants do? What about germination or the complex biochemical processes that use the energy from the sun to draw water and nutrients from the soil and other nutrients from the air to grow? Pollen moves from tassels to silks and other complex biochemical processes use the genetic information to produce grain. How much work does it take to begin with a seed buried in the ground, germinate, grow a stalk that is more than seven feet tall, and produce an ear that is full of grain? The farmer puts in a lot of work to provide the conditions that encourage his plants to grow and produce a good crop, but it is the plants themselves that do the growing.
Current biological science understands a lot about the various processes that take place as a plant makes its way from seed to maturity. We can modify the genetic code to increase yield, produce resistance to pests, and so forth. That was not the case back when Jesus told the parable that we just heard. Farmers knew enough to plant, water, fertilize, and keep the weeds down, but the biology behind plant growth was a mystery to them.
Jesus used the mystery of growing crops to illustrate one of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. He said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.” (Mark 4:26) The seed represents the proclamation of the Gospel. It could be you reading a Bible story to a child or grandchild or confessing Christ to friends and neighbors. It could be a missionary in a foreign land. It could be the pastor proclaiming God’s word from the pulpit. God has many ways to scatter seed on the ground … to put His Word into the hearts of people.
The next sentence contains the main illustration. Jesus went on to say, “[The man] sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.” (Mark 4:27) Just as crop growth was a mystery to the people back then, so the work of God’s Word is a mystery as well. It is as Jesus told Nicodemus in the Gospel that we had a few weeks ago: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) [The Holy Spirit] works faith, when and where it pleases God. (AC: I, art. v, par. 2) These words have great comfort for us … especially when it comes to confessing our faith to our neighbor.
Have you ever felt guilty because you don’t confess your faith to your neighbor as effectively as you wish? Every so often some famous evangelist will give an interview, and, during that interview, he will tell the story of the flight from Chicago to Los Angeles. During that flight, the evangelist always manages to sit next to someone who is dealing with some sort of crisis. This other passenger is always some sort of flaming liberal pagan. Well, the evangelist does his thing and while the two of them are waiting for their luggage, the other passenger draws the evangelist aside, drops to his knees, and begs him to tell him where he can learn more about Jesus. Then the interview proceeds to make all the listeners feel guilty because that sort of thing never happens to them.
The Old Adam is devious. If he can convince us that we are responsible for making Christians, then he can load us up with guilt and fear. He accuses, “See, you confessed your faith, and nothing happened. You must be doing it wrong. You should stop confessing your faith until you can get it right.” In this way, the Old Adam produces guilt and fear within. In this way, the Old Adam prevents us from telling our neighbor about Jesus.
The first parable that we heard today illustrates the words that Jesus gave to Nicodemus. It is the Holy Spirit who produces faith. Just as the farmer was not responsible for the growth process of the crops … indeed, he did not even know how the growth process works, so also, you are not responsible for making Christians … you do not even know how that works. It is the Holy Spirit who creates and sustains faith in the believer.
The best example of this is the criminals who were crucified with Jesus. Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. (Luke 23:32–33) These two criminals experienced the greatest proclamation of the Gospel. Jesus hung between these two men as He paid for the sins of the world. These two men experienced the Gospel with every fiber of their being. All five senses … seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling … they were all at work bringing the Gospel to these two men. In the end, the Holy Spirit worked faith in one of the criminals. [The criminal] said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42) The other criminal rejected the work of the Holy Spirit. The ultimate expression of the Gospel and one of the men said no.
So, we tell people about our sin. We tell people that Jesus removed that sin with His death on the cross. We tell people that Jesus rose from the dead for us. We tell people that Jesus ascended to heaven to prepare eternal paradise for us. We tell people that Jesus promised eternal paradise to us. Then we tell them that Jesus has done all this for them too. We follow the example of the Apostles who said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:31)
Sometimes the Holy Spirit will work faith immediately. Other times the Holy Spirit will take His time. The Holy Spirit has His own timetable. Sometimes the person will reject the Holy Spirit and never believe. We do not take the credit if people believe. We receive no blame if they don’t.
Jesus gives us the comforting assurance that responsibility for the kingdom’s growth does not rest on our shoulders. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to supervise the scattering of the seed that is the Word of God. Perhaps He will give you the privilege of scattering the Word of God by confessing your faith to your family … your friends … your associates. Perhaps He will work in some other way to scatter the Word of God. The point is that the Holy Spirit will see to the scattering of the Word of God, and He will attend to the growth. The growth will not come as the product of our efforts and ingenuity. The Lord of the harvest is in control. There’s no need to worry.
Instead Jesus calls us to trust the promise of the scattered seed which is the Word of God. We need the seed of the Word of God to continue to grow its roots deep into our hearts. This is the source of the faith that receives the gifts of God as the Apostle Paul writes, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17) He also writes, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes …” (Romans 1:16) Jesus Himself said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31–32) It is this seed that that the Holy Spirit uses to maintain our faith in our savior Jesus Christ who died to save us and rose to give us eternal life.
Just as we trust the Word of God for salvation in us, we also trust it for salvation in others. Just as Jesus told Nicodemus and illustrated in today’s parable, the Holy Spirit works faith, when and where it pleases God. He works faith in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who trust Christ for the forgiveness of sins. This happens not through our own merits, but for Christ’s sake.
The Old Adam wants to shift the responsibility for salvation back to us and burden us with guilt for not attaining that salvation. This applies not only to our own salvation, but also the salvation of others. Either way, the Old Adam wants to take us into the pit of despair.
Jesus teaches that salvation is never our responsibility in the whole or in any part. It is not our responsibility to save ourselves or to save others. It is the responsibility of the Holy Spirit as Martin Luther explains in the Small Catechism:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true. Amen
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