15th Sunday after Trinity September 8, 2002
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
348, 400, 206(1-3,7-10), 46(1,3)
Grace be to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, by whose side we long to spend eternity. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
Satan would like us to believe that it is a single, uncontrollable incident or temptation that leads us into sin. Most often it is not a single incident but a series of carefully planned temptations, many times lasting over the course of months, even years. What is more, it is never “uncontrollable.” Part of the calling of every pastor is to warn his flock of these on-going, bearable temptations, these patterns in our lives through which Satan sets us up for a spiritual fall. The most difficult part of this warning is that, because of our human nature, when the warning works we don’t even know it. In fact, in the mind of man when the warning works well, it works itself out of a job.
Here’s an example from everyday life to illustrate exactly what happens to us spiritually:
A growing number of Americans today believe that our nuclear arsenal is an unnecessary waste of money and should be destroyed. As a result we have been doing what they suggest—destroying the weapons. The irony is that it was the nuclear weapons themselves that made the world a safer place following the Cold War. In a rather strange twist of logic, it was the very existence of nuclear weapons that made nuclear weapons unnecessary in the end. Yet because they did their job so well in deterring an invasion and in preventing war, the American people have come to regard them as one gigantic, unnecessary waste of the taxpayers’ money.
Here’s another example from the early history of the Western Frontier:
Cavalry troops used to ride out from forts scattered across the unsettled frontier. The military commanders in these outposts learned the very lesson that we are discussing, but they learned it the hard way. Huge patrols would ride out in search of the warring Indians. These great armies would see few Indians, and the few they did see would turn and run to be seen again only at great distances. The Army concluded that they didn’t need such a huge concentration of men, so they branched out to cover more territory. Still no Indians to fight—only the few who turned and ran. Fewer troops were obviously needed, so the army branched out yet again, and again. All at once, the elusive Indians no longer turned and ran. Suddenly, the patrols did not find the Indians, the Indians found them. Many of the patrols were wiped out. It had been the sheer number of troops that had deterred the Indians. The Indians had only to wait until the impatient white leaders spread themselves too thin.
The same sort of thing happens to each of us spiritually. When the Holy Spirit strengthens our faith through frequent prayer, Bible study, church attendance, and the like, Satan is held in check. In this way, countless temptations are overcome before they are given a chance to take root. And yet the pitiful result of this spiritual strengthening is often that we feel that we didn’t really need so much “religion stuff” in the first place. We begin to feel like we don’t need daily prayer and Bible reading because we are doing rather well, thank you. We become bolder and bolder, spreading ourselves thinner and thinner, until one day Satan turns on us with all his fury and our great strength and spiritual prowess evaporate like morning mist in the summer sun.
That is why this morning we are going to examine several areas in our lives that need attention—Now! Today! Well before it is too late! One of these areas is The Company We Keep. The text that will guide our meditation is found in Matthew’s Gospel, the 13th Chapter:
On the same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the sea. And great multitudes were gathered together to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore. Then He spoke many things to them in parables, saying: “Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them. Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them. But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!…Therefore hear the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside. But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles. Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”
…So far the holy words of our perfect God. Praise be to God for giving sinful human beings His very words so that we might live with Him eternally. May each of us give due reverence to these life-saving words. To this end we pray, “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.
First a few notes about parables in general:
Jesus, in our text, taught a great crowd with a parable. In fact, our text is believed to be the first of Jesus’ parables. After He was done, Jesus disciples promptly asked Him what many often have wondered, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (Matthew 13:10). Good question, isn’t it? You would think that Jesus would want to speak as plainly as He could when He spoke to the unconverted masses who came to hear Him. You would think that a parable, especially a difficult parable, would be the very last teaching tool our dear Savior would want to use. It was, on the contrary, the teaching tool He used most often when instructing the masses. Why? Listen, first of all, to Jesus’ own answer when his disciples asked him this question: “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them (the unbelievers) it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: “Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; for the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them”’” (Matthew 13:11-15).
Parables are strange and wonderful teaching devices—used before Jesus’ time, but perfected by the Master.
The first lesson we learn from Jesus by His use of parables is simple and profound: “Also in things spiritual we want what we do not have, and we often despise both what we do have and what we can easily obtain.” What does that mean? It means that when we have to struggle to understand something, it usually becomes more precious and important to us. It sticks with us. What comes easily is often treated with contempt.
Parables therefore had different effects on different hearers. Those who were steadfast in their unbelief dismissed the parables as shallow and of little value. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” Those who scoff at and reject the Word of God gain nothing from a parable. As in all other areas of faith and Christianity, God seems always to have allowed for a rational explanation—humanly speaking, a “plausible excuse” for doubting and rejecting.
Faith must always, therefore, be “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). To those who seek the truth, and to those in whom the Holy Spirit has worked saving faith, the parable becomes a gold mine of instruction and inspiration. Parables attract our attention. Parables hold our interest and help our thought patterns. They help us to grasp a spiritual meaning that is beyond our human power to fully understand. To teach these same truths to His disciples in plain words would, surprisingly, make the truth less valuable to them. It is therefore also true about parables that they make the truth they are teaching our very own. For when a man works to understand something and finally does come to understand, then that truth becomes his own. He regards it as personal and precious. Of the truly wise men I have come to know, each of them has understood and used this fact of human nature.
Finally, on Jesus’ use of parables, the Master knew that the truth must be preserved in a world of ever-changing and evolving language and word usage. A parable—or picture lesson—not only sticks in the mind and becomes part of us, it continues to teach a lesson even though words might change dramatically over time. The parable’s picture-image remains.
In our text, Jesus teaches His disciples with a parable—the Parable of the Sower and the Seed. It is this parable that gives life to our title, “The Company You Keep.”
The parable is all about those who hear the Word of God. Some reject it out of hand. Others hear and believe, but do nothing to feed and strengthen their tender new faith (which is destroyed in the first counter-attack of Satan). Still others hear and believe, but are slowly choked into unbelief by the cares and pleasures of this earth.
On the surface it almost appears from this parable that many are simply doomed from the start by the Sower Himself—much like a seed can’t help where it is sown and what weeds grow up around it. Remember, however, that a parable has a central truth we are to learn. To go beyond that central truth is to misuse a parable.
In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus is relating to us a simple fact: Human beings react to the gospel in at least four different ways. 1) A man rejects immediately; 2) A man rejects after a short time; 3) A man rejects after a longer, careless time; or 4) A man is strengthened and kept in the faith by the working and indwelling of God the Holy Spirit. The fact is that although we cannot bring ourselves to faith, we can throw that faith away.
Using the images of this parable, we can make the soil shallow by lack of Bible exposure; or deep and rich by consistent Bible reading and study. We can choose to live in the weed patch; or we can rip out the cares and temptations of this world by the roots before they destroy our faith. More to the point, this morning, is the fact that a good deal of our troubles we bring on ourselves simply by the company we keep. Paul quotes Solomon in 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Do not be deceived: ‘Evil company corrupts good habits.’”
What is the “company we keep” in modern-day America? You have to answer that question for yourself, but it’s not hard to identify problem areas in your life. With whom or with what do you spend your time? That is the company you are keeping. Do you spend your time with television? Videos and movies? Secular books? Unbelieving friends and co-workers? The cast of daytime dramas? Oprah? If yes, then count these among the company you keep. Next, ask yourself if these things serve to tear down or build up your faith.
Nor do we want to downplay the significance of the decisions we make day by day, or the stakes that are involved. Make no mistake; those who hear and reject the Word spend eternity in hell. Those who for a time believe and then fall away spend eternity in hell. Those whose faith is choked by the deceitfulness of riches will also spend eternity in hell. Is that a risk you care to take?
The picture begins to grow more and more clear. Satan tries to destroy Christians with diabolical subtlety. Inch by inch he creeps into our lives. Above all we do not want to lose our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. The time to prepare is not when you feel the slide into unbelief. Like drifting off to sleep, you will neither know nor care once you fall from faith. Instead of keeping company with those things that tear you down, immerse yourself in that which builds up and strengthens. Focus once again this day and every day on the perfection of our dear Lord Jesus, who left his throne in heaven to suffer and die for our sins.
“Christian” is not just what we do, it is what we are. We are God’s holy children, snatched from the jaws of death by a merciful and loving God. We are pure, holy children who are left on this earth to bear fruit in keeping with our office and calling. Pray God the Holy Spirit to give you the strength and conviction to truly dedicate yourself to the same Lord who has rescued you—to truly dedicate yourself to the God who created and converted us, who preserves and protects us even today.
Do you need direction in what this involves? Let the words of Paul in Philippians 4:8 be your guide: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy; meditate on these things.” That is the kind of company the Child of God should keep.
To this end we pray: “Dear Father in Heaven, thank you for the joy of our salvation, won for us by Your Son Jesus Christ. We must confess to You, however, the many times we have repaid Your love by keeping company with evil. Countless times we have fallen into temptation and sin. Give us the wisdom and strength to cut away from our lives all filth and perversion. Help us to improve the way we spend our time, devoting our lives to Your service and to that which builds up rather than tears down. We ask you Lord for both the strength and the desire to carry out this your will.” Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.