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Matthew 13:1-23, Seeing Clearly, Listening Well

Seeing Clearly, Listening Well
Matthew 13:1-23

Hearing is an amazing process. Sound waves enter through the outer ear, traveling through the ear canal to the eardrum. The sound waves cause the ear drum to vibrate, and those vibrations are passed on through three tiny bones in the middle ear – the malleus, incus, and stapes – which amplifies the sound vibrations and sends them to the cochlea, the snail-shaped structure filled with fluid in the inner ear. Those amplified vibrations cause the fluid inside the cochlea to ripple, which forms a traveling fluid wave ridden by hair cells inside the cochlea. As the hair cells move up and down, microscopic hair-like projections on the ends of the hair cells bump against an overlying structure and bend, and that bending causes tiny channels on the tips of those hair-like structures on the tips of the hair cells to open up, allowing chemicals in the ear to rush into the cells, creating an electrical signal. That electrical signal is carried to the brain by the auditory nerve, and the brain turns the signal into a sound that we recognize and understand. Truly a miraculous process.

Until something happens to interrupt it. Some people are born with inherent physical or neurological problems related to their ears that impact their ability to hear. Others have ears that have been damaged by exposure to loud noises for too long. Combat veterans, for example, often have a very hard time hearing. Sometimes the ears work fine, but other noises block out what you’re trying to hear, making hearing difficult.

And sometimes we just plain, flat out, hear things wrong. We misunderstand, and that misunderstanding creates problems. Drama. Mistakes. Problems in relationships. All because, as miraculous as hearing is, we so often miss the point. Get it wrong. We hear what we want to hear, not what is actually being said. When it works well, hearing is truly an amazing gift. But there’s a lot that can go wrong.

You see, no matter how well our ears actually work, we all have filters. Filters are beliefs, thoughts, and assumptions, and we all have them. And as our brains take those electric signals and transform them into what we know as sound, those filters shape the meanings our minds give to the sounds we hear. If I believe someone doesn’t like me, I’m very likely to interpret their words to me in a negative way. If I don’t like someone, I’m probably going to interpret their words in a more negative way. On the other hand, if I really love someone, I’m much more likely to interpret their words positively. If I have an agenda or particular political filter, I’m going to interpret the things I hear through that filter.

The same thing happens when we listen to the voice of God in his Word, the Bible. We hear God speak, but we hear God speaking through our filters, our preconceived notions about who God is, and what God is like, and what we already think God wants to say. That’s why most of us never hear a really challenging word from God. We hear what we WANT to hear, rather than what God is actually saying. So how do we really prepare our hearts to receive God’s Word, whether we’re doing our own personal Bible study, or participating in a group, or in worship on Sunday morning? Turn with me to Matthew 13:1-23.

A parable is a story pulled from the everyday things and events of life that is used to teach a bigger point. And Jesus often taught in parables. This particular story is a story in which Jesus compares our hearts to a farmer’s field. The seed is the Word of God, the good news of God’s love revealed to us in Christ. It’s the good news that God’s Kingdom has come in Christ, that God is inviting us to take our place in his kingdom, and that we can grow as followers of Jesus in God’s kingdom. In a sense, the seed is what God wants to say to us.

And the farmer, ultimately, is God. But by extension, the farmer is the people in our lives who teach us the Word of God. It is those who preach, teach, and model the Word of God for us. Pastors, Bible study and small group leaders, even spiritual mentors. Now, remember, God is ultimately the farmer. No human who teaches and preaches the Word of God gets it right every time or always behaves in ways that move God’s Kingdom forward. We all fall short. At the same time, just because someone preaches or teaches something that challenges our assumptions and the way we live doesn’t mean they’re wrong. It may mean that WE’RE wrong, and need to bring our mindset and living into alignment with biblical truth. And that means we have to be aware of our filters, the lenses through which we see and hear what’s going on around us, and we have to be aware of the ways we’re good at fooling ourselves.

The soil in the story is my heart. Matthew may call this the Parable of the Sower, but it’s really about the soil. Because in every instance, the seed and the farmer are the same. The growth or failure of the crop wasn’t the farmer’s fault. The difference is in the quality of the soil. The difference is in your heart and mind.

Now, I want you to notice something. Between the parable itself and Jesus’ explanation of the meaning of the parable to his disciples, there’s this section where Jesus talks about why he teaches in parables. And the answer is the sinfulness and hard heartedness of the people. They don’t want to hear the truth, or see the truth, about God or about themselves. In fact, Jesus takes this long quote from Isaiah, which he probably had memorized (people didn’t walk around with their own copy of the scriptures in those days, and certainly didn’t have a Bible app on a cell phone in their pockets). And this quote from Isaiah makes his point loud and clear. Look at Vv. 14-15.

Dull hearts. Stopped up ears. Closed eyes. And when we do hear we don’t understand. When we do see, we don’t really perceive. That’s why the Holy Spirit has to open our eyes to see, and our ears to hear. Because what comes when our eyes and ears are opened? Repentance, and then healing. So let me ask you, which type of soil are you?

Look at Vv. 3-4. And then down at V. 19. This is the closed heart. The Word of God comes into my life, but because my heart is closed, it cannot enter, sprout, or take root. This is often the person who rejects the truth of Jesus outright and wants nothing to do with Christ or his people. But it can also be the person who is here, listening, participating, playing the part, but they really don’t want to be here. And because the seed doesn’t really penetrate the closed heart, Satan steals the seed. This person says, “I’m not here to grow. I’m here because it’s where I should be, because it’s my civic duty, because it’s what “good people” do. This soil needs to be tilled, broken. Is your heart closed to the goodness and truth of Christ?

Now, look at Vv. 5-6. And then down at Vv. 20-21. This is the shallow heart. Now, we need to realize that this is not soil with rocks and stones on the surface. Any farmer worth their salt would have removed those. But in the Holy Land, there are many places where the limestone base is very close to the surface, just a few inches below what looks like otherwise good soil. When there is plenty of rain in the spring, this rock bottom keeps the water near the surface, where the plant can get to it. But when the rains go away as the season progresses, the plant must go deeper for water, and it can’t because of the stone. The plant cannot achieve the depth it needs to continue to grow. The shallow heart is all for Jesus when he makes you feel good and you leave feeling uplifted, but doesn’t want to be challenged to go deeper. You see, following Jesus is full life, living life to its fullest, but it isn’t a guarantee of happiness and bluebirds and rainbows every day. We will face challenges, and we will make mistakes.

In this soil, the seed survives and becomes a plant, but the plant withers and dies when life turns up the heat, because it has no depth. It never bears fruit. This soil needs to have that layer of stone that keeps everything shallow removed so that the plant’s root can go deep. And the biggest thing that keeps us shallow? Pride. Ego. Feeling like we have to have all the answers, or appear to have things all together all the time. We put on our masks and try to play a role. And men, we in particular struggle in this area. Whether you look around this room or at my schedule of upcoming counseling appointments, you’ll see far more women than men. Why? Because, men, we can’t even admit it when we’re lost, much less ask for help from a therapist, a pastor, or Christ.

Two years ago I was heading down to Wes and Pam Reed’s farm to help them give their llamas some vaccinations and trim their toenails. Now, Wes and Pam live way down on the other side of Mesick. Let me tell you about things on the other side of Mesick … the roads make no sense and Google has no idea where things are down there. Now, I was pretty sure I knew where I was going, but I didn’t have the exact address written down, and I always use navigation in my truck when I’m going to a place like that so that I can tell them exactly when I’ll be there. But like I said, I didn’t have their address written down. I DO, however, have the Onx hunting app, which overlays property lines and the names of property owners over image data from Google Earth so that hunters can inquire with the correct people about getting hunting rights. It’s like Google Earth with property lines. So I found their farm in the app, found the GPS coordinates, and entered them into Google maps and started on my merry way.

When I got down there, though, there was some construction going on, and the Google had to recalibrate a couple of times. I ended up heading down some roads I did not at all recognize as being on the way to Wes and Pam’s. And then the Google had me turn onto a dirt road. And then a two-track. And then the two track became a deer path. And as I went the woods got thicker and thicker and the path got hillier and hillier. Ever wonder why I have big offroad tires on my truck? There’s the reason. The funny thing is, Google soon said “You’re here!” The problem was I wasn’t anywhere. So why did I have to hit a deer path before I finally admitted that I needed some guidance. I finally had to text Pam, ask for the specific address, head back out to the highway where I’d have signal for Google Maps, and try again. And I did find it that time. AND I wrote down their address so that won’t happen again.

So here’s the truth guys. And gals. We all need help. You need help, and I need help. Most pastors I know, if they need counseling or therapy, (and we all do) they have to see someone in another town an hour or so away, because they’re afraid of what their congregation will think if they see their pastor going for counseling. Same thing for therapists. Most therapists have a therapist. We ALL have issues. Therapists have to see special therapists because we’re good at saying a lot without saying anything and not really processing our issues though. So here’s the deal. I’m a pastor and a therapist. And I’ve been to therapy in the past. In fact, I’m talking to a counselor right now, about some things I need to deal with in my life. And when that’s done, I’m going to find a spiritual director. So let’s drop the pride and the ego, let’s get rid of that shallow layer of stone, and our roots will go deeper.

Then there is the divided heart. Look at Vv. 7 and 22. Like the seed on shallow soil, this seed falls on what looks like good soil. But in the past, a thorn bush has grown there. Again, any farmer worth his salt would remove a weed actively growing. But when a thorn bush has grown there, it is likely to come back as the growing season progresses. Why? Because while for some of us, our roots run shallow, the roots of weeds tend to run deep. Have you ever tried to pull a simple, single weed and realized that it’s root appears to run 6 miles straight down to the bedrock? If you looked at our yard over this past month, during the drought, our grass was all dry and brown, but our weeds were tall and green and growing just fine. Why? Deep roots.

The thorn that WAS there, whose root system is STILL there, will eventually come back and keep the plants from maturing and producing fruit. What are the root systems that need to be removed from my life? What root systems need to be removed from yours? Is it selfishness? Or greed? Or arrogance? Or stinginess? Or lust? Or fear? What root systems keep the good news of Jesus from growing in your life?

Now, look at Vv. 8 and 23. Here, finally, is the good soil. The soil that has been plowed, soil that has had the layer of stone removed for depth, soil that has had root systems that can’t be seen removed so that they can’t come back and choke and hinder the plant. This heart receives the Word of God and God’s Word brings lasting growth and productivity. We grow up in Christ and as we do, our lives are productive in the Kingdom of God.

And then the reminder. Look at V. 9. Eyes to see what God has done in Christ, and is doing in your life and around us all. Ears to hear what God is saying in his Word. And hearts to receive.

Have you ever heard the chirp of a hummingbird? I didn’t even realize that hummingbirds DID chirp, until I started spending time out on the front porch with Grandpa when we visit. He loves to feed his humming birds, and the feeders are either on or near that porch. And over the years, those hummingbirds have become pretty accustomed to feeding near people. They’ll come almost right up to us to get to the feeders. And over the past several years, I’ve learned to identify their chirp as they communicate with one another at the feeders. Now I can hear it anywhere? Why? Because I know what it sounds like and am tuned in to hear it. In the past, I couldn’t hear it. I didn’t even know it exists. But now I do, and now I can hear it. I just had to train myself to hear it.

Are you and I turning away, stopping up our ears, closing our eyes, and hardening our hearts, or are we willing to see, to hear, and ultimately, to heal? Let us pray.