Hard Ground

Luke 8:5, 11-12 “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up… The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.”

During archaeological excavations of Herod the Great’s palace on Masada in the mid-1960’s, a cache of Judean date palm seeds was discovered. The Judean date palm tree became extinct 800 years ago. For forty years this cache of seeds was stored at an Israeli university. In 2005 three of the seeds were planted, and one of them has grown into a tree that has been nicknamed “Methuselah.” The hope is that this tree can be crossbred with its nearest contemporary relative to produce fruit. After 2000 years this dry, hard, apparently lifeless piece of plant material has produced new life.

Seeds are little miracles of creation. Something that looks so simple, just a little ball of ordinary material to the naked eye, possesses the power to transform itself into a living thing thousands of times its size, complex in shape, and beauty, and function.

Seeds make a fitting picture for the word of God in Jesus’ parable. Something that looks ordinary and small–just some words, a simple message–has the power transform itself into a new heart, a changed man, a life that never ends.

But sometimes the seed does not get a chance to produce the new life God seeks. The first time the devil appears in the Bible, the first words out of his mouth are, “Did God really say…?” Since that time attacking God’s word has been central to his business. It’s no surprise, then, when Jesus explains the first part of his parable this way: “Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.”

Note that Jesus does not say the devil prevented these people from ever hearing the word of God. That is part of his business, too. He has many different strategies to keep God’s word out of human ears: oppressive governments that criminalize Christian mission work; lazy parents who won’t take their children to church; cultural forces that turn Sunday morning more and more into “me” time–you know, time to sleep in, golf, fish, or watch TV; jobs and sports that invade Sunday mornings and every other spare moment of time. The word of God terrifies Satan because of its power. He feels safest when he can keep a person from hearing or reading it altogether.

But when that fails, plan B is to attack God’s word inside the human heart. That’s where Jesus picks things up in his parable. The devil has ways of hardening the heart and snatching the word away before it can do any “damage.” He makes the word sound unreasonable. I mean, miracles and magic are fine for fairy tales. Prince Charming can kiss the princess and bring her back to life. But the dead leaving their graves and rejoining the living? Maybe in a horror flick. Grown-ups don’t put stock in that kind of thing, do they?

Or, he pits the word against our personal experience. “Honor your father and mother.” Yeah right. Maybe in some 1950’s Leave-It-to-Beaver family. Dad was a workaholic, and mom was an alcoholic, and neither cared about anyone but themselves. “He will command his angels concerning you to keep you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” So where were they when the car accident left me with chronic back pain, or robbed me of 80 percent use of my right hand?

By stirring up false human reasoning, flattering shallow human goodness, appealing to selfish ideas about “fairness,” the devil hardens human hearts and snatches God’s word away. He goes over the heart like a steam roller, making it hard to the idea that I am a sinner who needs God’s grace; or that there is such a thing as God; or that God is loving, forgiving, good, and kind. In this way the greatest gift ever given, Jesus’ selfless sacrifice on the cross, sits like seed on a concrete slab. It might be heard, but it won’t be considered or believed. Satan has effectively snatched the seed away.            

Thank God that his Spirit has ploughed and worked our hearts so that his word could find its way in, and his grace now stirs new life within our souls.

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