June 26, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
Every year our entire church becomes whatever Vacation Bible School is all about that particular year. This year the theme is “Cave Quest”. As soon as we knew the theme, our creative, talented, energetic crew went to work. And so here we have our whole sanctuary transformed into this giant cave. Isn’t this cool! It’s a massive undertaking every year and every year I am blown away and so very grateful to all the people who work so hard to make all this happen.
When I went to VBS many years ago I had a lot of fun, but I didn’t have nearly as much fun as our kids had last week. We didn’t do a thing to decorate our church. We didn’t have any music videos to sing and dance to. And we didn’t have very many kids. In fact, that’s the way Vacation Bible School was in pretty much every church I have been a part of. Until I came here. This church knows how to do Vacation Bible School! Do you agree?
But why do we do it? Is it to impress everyone by how awesome our decorations are each year? Well, they always are awesome, and it always is impressive, but that’s not the reason we do VBS. We do VBS, and we work hard to do it as well as we possibly can, because Jesus loves children. And Jesus wants children to follow him. Jesus wants children to start early in life, living life the best possible way.
So what is the best possible way to live our lives? That’s actually a pretty important question for all of us, not just for children. How are we supposed to live so that our lives will be fruitful?
Some of you have fruit trees. We don’t have any at our home here in Nampa, but we had several apple trees when we lived in Portland. How do you know if a fruit tree is doing what fruit trees are supposed to do? There’s only one way. A fruit tree is doing what a fruit tree is supposed to do if it is growing fruit. The more fruit and the tastier that fruit, the better.
Today we’re going to look at what Jesus had to say about this. We’re going to look at two places in the Bible where Jesus teaches us how we can know if we are living our lives in the best possible way. In other words, how we can know if our lives are fruitful.
Jesus told a story, we call it a parable, about a gardener who was sowing seeds. It ends with Jesus saying, “Let those who have ears to hear, listen” (13:9). He said that because this is important. He told this parable for an important reason. He wants us to pay attention.
But what do we pay attention to? Once we know what to pay attention to, the meaning of this parable becomes clear. But if we are paying attention to the wrong thing, we might get confused and left wondering what it means.
So here’s what we don’t pay attention to in this parable: Don’t pay attention to the gardener who sows the seed. The parable is not about him. And don’t pay attention to the seed he sows. We learn at the end that it is grain seed that he sows, but that doesn’t really matter. It could be any kind of seed. The parable is not about the seed.
So what is the parable about? It’s about the soil. We need to pay attention to the soil if we are going to understand what Jesus is saying. And as we will see, Jesus isn’t really interested in soil. Jesus is interested in people. He tells us about soil because he really wants to tell us about people. He wants us to see ourselves in this parable.
There are four kinds of soil that the seed falls on. First, there is seed that falls on a well-worn path. This path has been walked on and beaten down and it is now so hard and compacted that nothing can grow. There is no way the seed can penetrate the surface. So the seed that falls here gets eaten by birds before it has a chance to grow.
Now remember, Jesus is talking about people, not soil. So he is talking here about people who have been stepped on and walked on so much that they have become hardened. They are no longer interested in spiritual things. Maybe they’ve had a bad experience with church. Maybe they’ve had a bad experience with Christians. That happens. Maybe they are mad at God. Maybe they are just stubborn by nature or maybe they think they know it all.
Whatever the reason, their heart has now grown hard. They are not interested in listening. They have closed the door on God. And once that door is closed it isn’t easily opened.
Often it gets opened when some major unpleasant event happens to you. There is a crisis that breaks loose the hard soil of your life and allows the seeds of God get in and start growing. Some of you are here this morning because that’s happened to you. The one good thing about something really bad is that it makes you realize how much you need God.
Now this next part is not in the parable Jesus told. But since this is VBS Sunday, since the theme this year is “Cave Quest”, and since this whole sanctuary looks like a cave, I’m going to ask you to use your imagination. Imagine that the gardener in this parable went into a deep, dark cave and he scattered his seed all through that cavern. Cave gardening. How likely do you think it is that those seeds are going grow? Not very. The birds probably won’t eat them, but the bats just might. You have to have good soil and plenty of light for things to grow, and caves have neither.
That’s the first kind of soil Jesus tells us about. Hard soil or cave soil. Take your pick. And that’s the first kind of people Jesus is talking about. He met them in his ministry. People who just wouldn’t listen. They wouldn’t even listen to Jesus.
And then we have the gardener sowing seed on rocky soil. There was a thin layer of topsoil this time, but it was way too thin. So what would happen is the seed would get off to a great start. The little plant would burst out of the ground and it would look so healthy and full of life. But it wouldn’t last. Because the soil was too shallow. There was no way for the roots to go down and find water. Or there was no way for the roots to anchor the plant, so the next heavy wind or heavy rain would come along and knock it over.
What kind of people is Jesus describing here? People with a superficial faith. They start off well. They are so excited and passionate about their newfound faith. But they never manage to develop a spiritual root system that goes down deep. So the faith that came so quickly and easily is lost just as quickly and just as easily.
This happens with youth at summer camp. They give their lives to Jesus the last night of camp. They are in tears. It’s so real. It’s so meaningful. But they come back home and never get involved with a youth group or never learn to pray or read their Bible. And they fall away from their faith.
That happens here more often than we wish it did. New people discover our church and they really like it. They have a spiritual awakening and they intend to follow through, but they never get involved with a life group or get into the habit of regular worship or spiritual disciplines at home. We haven’t seen them for a long time. We think they are going to another church, but in a lot of cases they aren’t. They aren’t going to any church. They’ve just lost interest.
The third seed fell among thorns. The soil was good enough to grow healthy weeds and healthy thistles but there was too much trying to grow all at once for everything to have a chance. So the plant that grows from the gardener’s seed gets choked off.
This soil represents distracted people. They have so much going on in their lives, so much they are trying to do, so many cares and worries and interests and activities, that their lives end up in chaos. Picture a garden that hasn’t been weeded. It might be full of life, but it’s also a mess. So much is happening in that garden that nothing that’s happening is of any value.
Some people never can quite get around to figuring out what is important and what is not so important. What is a weed that needs to go and what is a plant that needs to grow. Jesus said to seek first the Kingdom of God. When we do, everything else falls into its proper place (Matthew 6:33). Some people never quite manage to do that.
Jesus is describing these three kinds of people he often met in his ministry — they were closed minded, they were superficial, they were distracted. It must have been discouraging and I’m sure it was, but there was one other kind of person that kept Jesus going.
Some of the gardener’s seed also fell on good soil. It must have been really good soil. Because it “brought forth grain, some a hundred-fold, some sixty, some thirty” (13:9). In other words, it produced a harvest. It produced fruit.
This soil stands for the people who are living their lives the best possible way we can live our lives. They are like fertile soil that grows things. And doesn’t just grow things. It grows things with compounded interest. So one single grain seed can produce thirty or sixty of even a hundred new seeds of grain. One single life can be so much more productive than we could ever imagine when we live our lives the way life is meant to be lived. When we multiply our influence.
“Let those who have ears to hear, listen.” Are you listening?
There is a second scripture we are going to look at today where Jesus develops this idea of fruitful living a bit further. It’s in John 15. Jesus says here, “I am the vine and you are the branches” (15:5).
The way I like to see this is by picturing a tree. A fruit tree. The trunk of that tree is Jesus. The roots, the foundation, that which makes the tree possible is Jesus. And then we are the branches. We are connected to that trunk. If we get disconnected, we die. We’re firewood. But as long as we stay connected, we are alive.
Jesus gives us life. And not just life so we can stay alive. It’s life for a purpose. And what is that purpose? Fruit. A fruit tree is doing what a fruit tree is supposed to do if it grows fruit. Lots of fruit. Delicious fruit. Fruit from a living, healthy tree that feeds other living creatures so they too can stay alive and be healthy.
I am the vine and you are the branches. He who abides
in me, and I in him, he it is who bears much fruit.
Notice it doesn’t just say “fruit”. It says “much fruit”. Thirty, sixty, hundred-fold. Here again, the test is the harvest. Do we produce fruit? Do we produce abundant fruit? More fruit, better fruit, fruit that just keep coming and coming?
I switched from vine and branches to a fruit tree because I thought that might help you picture what Jesus is talking about, but let’s switch back for a moment to vine and branches. Because that’s how tomatoes grow. All indications are that we are that we are going to have another bumper crop in our church garden this year.
I love tomatoes. And they taste so much better fresh from a garden! One of the amazing things about a tomato plant is that as fast as you can pick the tomatoes, the plant will just keep producing more. It amazes me each year how many tomatoes we harvest from our little garden. There’s a Zamzow ad playing now about a single tomato plant that produced 200 pounds of tomatoes. With their special brand of tomato fertilizer, of course!
When we are living our lives the best possible way, we are like a tomato plant. Or an apple tree. Or grain seed planted and growing in good, rich soil — not cave soil — and producing an incredibly bountiful harvest.
But what do we grow in our lives? What is the fruit that we are meant to produce? Love. Galatians 5:22. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love.” It goes on to mention a lot of other good things — joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc. But love is the main fruit. It says “the fruit of the Spirit” not “the fruits of the Spirit”. The one main fruit that we are to grow, and keep growing in an abundant harvest, is love.
Jesus makes this real clear in this passage about the vine and the branches and bearing much fruit. Because look at the verse it all leads up to:
This is my commandment, that you love one another
as I have loved you (John 15:12).
Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, love is the fruit.
So how do we measure our lives? How do we know if we are living our lives the best possible way? How do we know if we are getting our children off to the best possible start in life?
Here’s how: Look for the love. Is it there? Is it growing? Is it spreading? Is it like a 30-fold, 60-fold, 100-fold harvest?
Jesus says, “I want you to be good soil.” Jesus also says, “I love you.” So put the two together. When his love is planted in the soil of our lives, it produces a bumper crop. Of what? Of love.
It was time for the fifth grade Scholastic Olympics. This year it was a contest to find the greatest sentence ever written. The teacher told the class that they were all to choose a sentence. They were to name the author, identify where the sentence is found, and explain why it’s the most important sentence ever written.
Here are a few of the entries: “All people are created equal.” “Be kinder than necessary.” “Some people are worth melting for.”
“I still believe people are good at heart.”
But do you know which sentence won? It was not written by a famous author. It was written on a postcard from Hawaii. It was sent to one of the fifth grade girls in that class. Her name was Charlotte.
Charlotte’s mom and her new step-dad were honeymooning in Hawaii. The postcard was from her step-dad.
The students had to explain why the sentence was so important. This made the teacher a little nervous. She wasn’t sure what Charlotte was going to say. But she let her speak.
She stood in front of the class holding that postcard. She was pretty nervous. She explained that until she got it she wasn’t real sure how her step-dad felt about her. Then she read the sentence, the sentence that won the prize. Written on the back of a postcard from Waikiki Beach, it said, “Charlotte, I love you.”
God, we want to live our lives the best possible way. You want us to love. You’ve written us a love letter telling us how much you love us. It’s called the Bible. And the Bible tells us that love is not meant to be held onto tight. It is meant to be given away. The more we give it away, the more we have. The more we give it away, the more the world has. And the world needs a whole lot of love these days. So help us to do our part. Thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred-fold. ‘Till there’s so much love, there isn’t room for any more hate. In Jesus’ name, Amen.