Let the Word do its work
- Order of Service: Divine Service II, CWS p28
- Lessons: Isaiah 55:6-11, Romans 10:5-17, Matthew 10:32-39
- Hymns: God, Father, Son and Spirit (insert), 200
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
A watched pot never boils, right? As a child I remember running back and forth from window to doorway and back looking for Grandma and Grandpa’s car. The tension kept rising because I kept running and waiting and saying, “When are they getting here? Why aren’t they here yet?” Invariably when I finally quit watching, Grandma and Grandpa came.
What I did as a kid, what no doubt many of you did as a kid, really was about as useful as sitting out in the field watching the rows where you just planted corn or the garden where you planted your tomatoes or peppers or flowers. Did my running back and forth cause Grandma and Grandpa to get there any sooner? No. It just made my parents nervous. Does staring at the ground where you planted seeds cause your crops or flowers to come up any faster? What if you read it some Chicken Soup for the Growing Garden’s Soul? That just makes people think you’ve gone off the deep end.
So you step back. You plant. You water. You let the seed do its thing. Because a watched pot never boils. That’s what Jesus said too, wasn’t it? In Mark 4 Jesus told this parable: This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come (Mark 4:26-29, NIV84).
In the context of Mark 4 we discover what Jesus means. Right before this parable He told the more famous parable of the sower and the seed. That sower scatters his seed and it hits four different kinds of ground. The path where the birds snatch it away. The rocky soil. The weedy soil. Then the good soil. He explains that the seed is the Word of God. The different soils are the different ways the Word is received, or the different results that come from preaching the Word. So close on the heels of that parable comes this one, that we can take it for granted that here scattering the seed is, once again, spreading the Word of God. In this second seed-spreading parable, the focus isn’t, however, on the possible results of seed scattering – unbelief, belief choked by persecution and trouble, belief choked by selfishness and materialism, or belief in Jesus. Instead, Jesus focuses on the way seed grows.
And how does this seed grow? Jesus uses three choice phrases: night and day, though he does not know how, and all by itself. Night and day means all the time. When the seed gets scattered it goes to work. It’s not like your gelcap pills with that protective layer to keep the drugs inside until the pill gets to your stomach. The Word always does its job from the moment it leaves your lips, or hits your ears, or jumps off the printed page. The hard part to understand is that the Word works, even when we’re not seeing results, even when the results are negative. As Isaiah put it, My Word will not return to me empty. Whether it was Pharaoh hardening his heart or David clinging to the forgiveness spoken by Nathan, the Word worked.
That leads to that second phrase: though he does not know how. Paul told the Romans, Faith comes from hearing the message. And to the Corinthians he said, I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. That still doesn’t explain it completely, does it? That doesn’t tell me why Peter repents and Judas hangs himself. Why did some of those who heard Jesus preach and saw His miracles love Him and others wanted to kill Him all the more? Why did you stay in the faith, but your best friend confirmed with you didn’t? We know that part of the answer is our sinful nature. That’s how bad sin is and how corrupt it makes us. It causes us to reject God’s Word and God’s grace, to reject Christ. Yet we still haven’t answered the why some and not others puzzler. We leave that in God’s hands, as our Augsburg Confession did: Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given. He works faith, when and where it pleases God, in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake.
That sounds so flippant though, doesn’t it? It makes God sound capricious and cruel. Or at least random. But just because we can’t explain something doesn’t mean we have to assign bad motives. Can anyone really explain all the natural processes that lead to a seed growing, or aspirin working, or the body healing, or electricity lighting our homes, or wireless communication devices? Yet that doesn’t mean A) that those things don’t work, or B) that we don’t use them and adore them.
Rather than focusing on that question – why some and not others – focus on what the parable says: “Where we plant God’s Word, crops and fruits grow.” That is, where we preach the Word faithfully, where we baptize according to God’s command, where we correctly prepare and distribute the Lord’s Supper, there we know that we will find Christians. It just happens. We can’t always explain why it happens beyond the bare fact that the Word works, because, finally, Jesus says it happens all by itself.
Like I said before, if you sat beside your garden and read inspirational poems, that’d be silly, not helpful. Some people think the Word needs that kind of assistance. They preach the Word, and then they hover all around trying to force some kind of results out of it. That’s the method of the tent revival. Revivalists preach and preach and preach and gin up so much feeling and fervor and emotion. They bring people up to the anxiety bench. They call upon people to testify. They go on for a weekend, or a week, or months at a time until finally you crack and confess and testify. It’s almost like waterboarding people into loving Jesus. A revival forces someone to “convert,” which may be no conversion at all. You can’t force someone to bear fruit because it happens all by itself. The Greek word there gives us our English word automatically. Not magically. Not superstitiously. Rather it means, “from itself.” It’s not the ground properly prepared with the right kind of music, or emotions, or prayers. It’s the seed of God’s Word. Faith comes from hearing the message, which is the Word of Christ. God makes it grow. No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.
A slightly less obvious form of this revival technique, but no less rejecting the power of the Word of God, is found when we think that if we just have a friendly enough atmosphere, or well-manicured grounds, or the right amount of pew padding, or some nice family programs and teen events, then we’ll really see some growth. No. Those are all fine things of themselves, things churches will probably pay attention to. But they don’t produce fruits, they don’t produce believers. Because they’re the Word of Christ. The Word of Christ is the seed we scatter and that seed grows all by itself. So everything we do centers around scattering that seed. The number one, two, and three priorities of a Christian Church are: preaching the Word, preaching the Word, and preaching the Word. So we have VBS and send 40 kids back to their homes with a week more of the Word than they had before, not just well exercised and fed. We post our sermons online, not just inspirational messages. Your pastor spends more time focused on preaching and teaching God’s Word, baptizing, and distributing the Lord’s Supper than on any other activity. Because that’s scattering the seeds that God makes to grow. If that’s not being done, no seeds are scattered. No growth will happen.
So we just let the Word do its work. We scatter before people the truth that they are received into [God’s] favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight. So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given. He works faith, when and where it pleases God, in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake. This happens not through our own merits, but for Christ’s sake. Christ worked it all for us already. We let that Word do the work. Amen.