Last week, people loved by God, we heard the Church’s call for us to begin our preparations for Lent, and we were reminded that those preparations do not earn us eternal life. That always remains a gift of God’s grace. Thus, we might think of last week, Septuagesima, as “By Grace Alone” week.
Today, Sexagesisma, some 60 days before Easter, the Church is still intent on preparing us for a real conversion during Lent, a turning from all that is sin and death to the new life that was poured out on us in the font and which we constantly fall away from and God constantly calls us back to. Today’s readings remind us that such a return is possible only “By the Word alone.”
You see, the Word of God is not inert. It isn’t just data or information. It’s not something that depends on people’s interpretation. No! Listen to how the Word is described in today’s readings.
In Isaiah we heard that just like the rain and the snow descend from heaven and don’t return without doing what they were sent to do, causing the earth to bud and supplying seed for the sower and bread for the eater – so is the Word that goes forth from the mouth of God. Listen to His promise: “It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.”
What a promise that is, people loved by God! His Word has the power to do what God sends it to do. And what He sends it to do is to bring us to repentance and awake and keep us in saving faith. The Word of God has the power in itself to do that.
Think of how the Word is described in our second reading from Hebrews 4. After telling us that we need to strive to enter God’s rest, so that we cease from our works as He ceased from His, the Apostle points the way for this to happen: “For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The Word of God, when you let it down inside of you, slays you. Kills you by revealing your sin in a way that you never dreamed possible. After all, “no creature is hidden from his sight but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.” There’s no dodging that fact when you listen to God’s Word. And so we drop to our knees constantly and plead for mercy. Mercy that God is also eager to pour out on you through the Word. The grace of forgiveness wipes out your debt of sin entirely; the grace of renewal begins to give you a share in the life of Christ.
And so onto today’s Gospel. Jesus, of course, is the sower. He plants His Word into all kinds of soil, throws it out for whoever will bother to hear it. But here’s the kicker: not all who hear it end up being saved. How does that fit with the first reading that the Word of God always the power to accomplish what God sends it to do?
Make no mistake about it: the Word of God you hear has that power. Every time it is preached, read, heard, God the Holy Spirit is present and seeking to give the gift of repentant faith.But the gift is always a gift. And as a gift we can reject it. In today’s Gospel Jesus warns against that rejection. It can happen in a variety of ways.
First, by the inattentive listening. We spoke about that last week too: just sitting in church and letting the Word float in one ear and out the other. What’s really going on there, Jesus says, is that Satan snatches the Word away before it can bear fruit, before it can do what it has the power to do. If Satan can keep you day-dreaming during church, he’s already won.
Then there’s the listening that hear and rejoices, believes and thanks God, and yet it’s only a good-time faith. When the bad-times come along – and they always do – the person lets go the Word and their faith withers and dies. One of the purposes of hearing the Word is to store up in your heart and mind those passages that will get your through the terrible times with your faith intact. The Word has the power to do it, provided we don’t let it go. So often this happens when tragedy comes – people stop going to church, stop listening to the Word, and then they’re surprised when their faith grows weaker and weaker and finally dies. Remember: faith is NEVER something you can keep alive inside yourself. It only comes from hearing and holding the Word of God.
Next, our Lord reminds us that even folks who listen to the Word attentively, can still lose it, and so their faith, if they let it get crowded out of their lives. Crowded out by what? He speaks of cares, riches, pleasures of life. Cares and riches often go together: “Gotta finish that project for work. No time for the Word this week.” Pleasures? “But pastor, you know that we spend the weekend at the lake; our kids had ballgames; we have so little family together that we like to keep Sundays just for us.” "No time to read my Bible today; too busy shooting bad guys on the computer, or watching T.V., or whatever." What do they all have in common? This: the choking of the Word of God, squeezing it into an ever smaller place in our lives until at last we don’t hear it at all. Treating the third commandment as though it were optional, instead of the express will of God!
And then our Lord reminds us that it is possible to hear His Word in such a way that it bears abundant fruit. He describes those hearts that hear and hold fast the word as honest and good. How did those hearts get to be honest and good? Precisely by hearing and holding the Word. If, as the Apostle says, faith is what cleanses the heart, and faith comes by hearing the Word of God, then our hearts will be “honest and good” in no other way than by letting the Word live inside of us, find a home in us, and there give us all its rich bounties.
Lent comes: we will be walking with Jesus up to Jerusalem. We will stand at the foot of the Cross and behold Him as He takes the sin of the world on His back and bears it before His Father– including the sin of our not hearing the Word, thinking other things in life are more important that what the God who created us has to say to us. He will bear that sin and all sins in His body. And He does it NOT so that we can rejoice that He forgives us and go on then ignoring God’s Word. He does it so that we might be forgiven and so grow into grateful and faithful hearers of the Word. That’s what the Lenten Midweek Vespers are here for: to give even more opportunity for the Word to come to you.
And when you listen to the Word that is whispered to you from from garden, from the cross, from the empty tomb, and from the glorified body of your Lord at the right of the Father, the Word that He always speaks is a word of His eternal love. The God who created and formed you wants you with all His heart to share in His unending life, to enjoy Him and His presence forever. The Word already can give the gift of that presence now– just as it does when the almighty Word of Jesus causes the bread and wine to be what He declares them: His body and blood, for the forgiveness of sins.
God speaks His Word. Only by His Word comes renewal. Will you listen when He speaks? Will you let His Word be planted inside of you and grow inside of you that you may abide in Your Savior until death and through death to the life that never ends? That’s what He wants and His Word has the power to do it. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Amen.