Saturday, July 12, 2008

When a Little Produces a Lot

Isaiah 55.10-13
Romans 8.1-11
Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

We haven't seen much snow for a long time but we do get plenty of rain, don't we? It might not be as much fun as the sunshine, but it does help the plants to grow. Most vegetables, for instance, need plenty of water in order to grow big and strong. God's word has the same effect. It stimulates spiritual growth making us more rounded people, closer to the image of God.

Of course, the rain which stimulates the growth of vegetables and garden flowers also helps the weeds to grow, which is not a good thing. Fortunately, the word of God is not like this. It doesn't cause the indiscriminate growth of good and bad things. Instead, it tends to suppress what is bad and promote what is good.

The Prophet Isaiah gives too examples of bad plants and two examples of good ones. The cypress tree was valued because its timber was highly valued in the ancient world. It was used, for instance, to make the coffins of the pharaohs. The myrtle was sometimes waved by worshippers during Jewish festivals. It was prized because it made a sweet smelling oil used in medicine and in perfumes, and also a drink. What, though, was so wrong with thorns? The Bible gives them a very bad press and yet their wood was often burnt during sacrifices because of its sweet smell, and honey from the nectar collected by bees feeding on the blossom of thorn or acacia trees is highly prized for its flavour. Perhaps the problem with thorns is simply that they are prickly. Or, more likely, Isaiah is using the word thorn as a synonym for briers or brambles - which also have sharp prickles or thorns, and which grow like weeds, choking out other plants. Wild brambles often have very small fruit, unlike cultivated blackberries. Either way, what God wants is to encourage in us those things which will bring a rich and fruitful harvest, making us better and more user-friendly people.

Romans 8.1-11 uses the image of dying to our old life, and rising to a new and fuller life in Christ, to express the same idea. With God's help we can root out those parts of our nature which would otherwise choke out the more selfless, gentle and loving side of our personality and help us to flourish and become more rounded and complete.

Jesus' parable of the sower, in Matthew 13, is a story which vividly illustrates the tremendous effectiveness of God's message. No matter how much of the work is wasted - because the message falls on deaf ears or on barren hearts and minds - there will always be a good harvest because, when it does take root, it has a tremendous impact on the life of the responsive hearer. It leads them to do different things from what they might otherwise have done, and to influence countless other people by their words and actions.

On the face of it, today, religion - and Christianity in particular - doesn't have much influence on the life of our nation and our city. But, actually, that's not the case. Because religious people make up the majority of those who volunteer for charitable or community work, and who join in any efforts to make the world - and their neighbourhood - a better place. That means our influence is out of all proportion to our numbers, and the harvest of goodness that results is still something to be amazed at and to celebrate.

For Matthew this message is simply too obvious. He looks, like Mark, for a hidden meaning. Each element of the story takes on a special significance for him, because it represents one of several different responses to God's message - ranging from indifference, through an initial enthusiasm that doesn't last, to a response that is deep-rooted and enduring.

We all know that Matthew is right when he identifies these different ways that people respond to the message. But it isn't quite so obvious that the number of people in whom the message takes root is necessarily always going to be so large. Matthew was living in a situation where the Church was rapidly expanding. While that is still true in many places around the world it doesn't reflect our experience.

It's easy to get dispirited when our efforts seem to reap so small a harvest. That's why Jesus' original point - about the huge impact that a few dedicated people can have - is so important for us today. Like us, he was living in circumstances where the number of faithful followers of God's word was quite small. Unlike us, he knew that - nevertheless - they could change the world.

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