Posted on February 3rd, 2013
It felt great having the church packed last week, didn’t it? It’s validating to have a large crowd of people; conversely, we can think we’re failing if only a handful comes to a service or an event. In the church, success is primarily measured by numbers. The number one question pastors ask each other at conferences is, “How many does your church worship?” The correct answer is, “Our church worships three Persons in One God,” but the question actually reveals what churches are really worshipping: people. Likewise, “How is your school doing?” doesn’t mean “How well are you implementing your curriculum?” but, “What’s your enrollment?”
Now consider the introduction to today’s Gospel lesson, the Parable of the Sower. The introduction sets the stage and gives us the reason for this parable: “And when a great multitude had gathered, and they had come to [Jesus] from every city, He spoke by a parable: ‘A sower went out to sow his seed.’” “A great multitude.” Jesus is successful. He’s become a celebrity. He’s gone from a handful of fishermen to an entourage. He’s gone from preaching to a tiny congregation to having so many people around Him that He can get no rest. They chant His name, they want to make Him king, He’s eclipsed the last big thing, John the Baptist.
What would we do with a “great multitude”? If we were smart, we’d get all their email addresses, pitch them an opportunity to donate to our campaign, use this great crowd to get a greater one, build the movement to become a force for change.
But Jesus, it would seem, is not smart. Not the way the world regards it. For what He does next makes no sense. He tells them a riddle. No one gets it, not even the disciples; they have to ask what it means. And what it means, what Jesus is preaching to this great crowd, is that most of them are fakes and phonies, most of them won’t make it to the end. In the language of the parable, their end will be devoured by birds, withered away for lack of moisture, choked by thorns.
What Jesus here is doing is radically redefining success. What do you count as success? The church world counts success in buildings and budgets, noses and nickels. What do you dream of? What would need to happen for you to say, “I am successful”? You want what everybody else wants: Perfect children, in just the right number, at just the right time; a great job, but one that gives you plenty of free time; to be in the best shape of your life; to have a great marriage without a lot of effort; Serenity Now!
But today Jesus defines success as endurance: those who hear the Word of God, “Keep it and bear fruit with patience.” Patience is more than a virtue; patience is the heart of the Christian life in the face of overwhelming opposition.
Whence cometh this opposition? In the language of the parable, your opposition comes from the birds of the air; from the dry, cracked ground lacking moisture; from the thorns that choke. All these are pictures of your true enemies: the devil, temptation, cares, riches, and pleasures of life.
Consider again the world’s idea of success, your idea of success: much of it is wrapped up in the very stuff that Jesus says is killing you: temptation for the world’s delights, to be swimming in riches and basking in the pleasures of life. What you think will be signs of your success—riches and pleasures—will be your ruin.
Since you are a Christian, put away all those false gods of worldly success. For the one thing that matters is the Word of God, clinging to it for dear life—for it is your life. Clinging to the Word of God doesn’t mean just acknowledging that the Scriptures are the true, inspired Word of God, without error, the only rule and norm for faith and practice. All that is true.
But we want to cling to the Word of God not merely as a proposition, a theological statement, but as that which tell us who we are and what this life means.
What does this life mean? What is the condition of this world? Today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah describes a world of thorns and briers, language that reminds us that creation was once unmarred beauty, but has now fallen into bondage to decay. “Cursed is the ground for your sake,” said the LORD to our first father; “In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground.” We live in that world of thorns and thistles, a still-beautiful creation nevertheless wild and hostile, reeking of decay and death.
Success is not stepping over others to become king of this dunghill. Success is when the Word of God accomplishes the thing for which He sent it, and that thing is identified in the subsequent verses, where the thorns and thistles of the fallen creation undergo a metamorphosis, from thorn to cypress tree, from brier to myrtle tree.
The death of Jesus was the great success of God, for on the cross He put death to death. Crowned with thorns, our Lord becomes the king of everything broken in this world. Crowned with thorns, He is crowned with the curse.
The resurrection of Jesus is the sign of the great success yet to come, the renewal of all creation, the regenesis of the world. “Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle.”
You are a Christian, and what makes for your success is entirely different than all the false images of success with which the world bombards you. Your success will be clinging to God’s Word in time of temptation: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Your success will be clinging to God’s Word when you become anxious about the cares of this life: “Cast all your cares upon Him, for He cares for you.” Your success will be clinging to God’s Word instead of this world’s empty riches: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” For “godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content.” Your success will be clinging to God’s Word instead of the pleasures of this life. For we will rejoice in the true treasures: the love of God and the love of His creation and people.
Lent is coming in ten days. Let’s have a successful Lent. Let’s have a successful life centered in patiently hearing God’s Word which call us poor sinners forgiven, calls us poor children of Adam redeemed, which will at the last bring about for this fallen world Genesis all over again. Then on the day of resurrection we will say, “My Jesus has given me His success.”