Having a Fertile Heart

images-2Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times
(Mark 4:8).

In one of her recent books, Beth Moore describes a trip she and her husband took to Angola. While they were in Angola, they saw children with signs of malnutrition. One sign of malnutrition in Africa is when the normally dark hair of the children turns blonde. In Angola, they saw many, many blonde children. In some villages, the farmers were so poor that they ate their seed for planting. Therefore, the crops were habitually bad. Beth Moore sees an analogy between physical hunger in Africa and the spiritual hunger in America. Too often, Christians go to church and receive the Word of God, eating spiritual food, without sowing it for a harvest. Here is the way she puts it:

“Some just eat the seed and never sow it for a harvest. You want examples? Why have many of us heard hundreds of messages on freedom, done every line of Bible studies like Breaking Free, wept over them, been blessed by them and even memorized parts of them, yet remain in captivity? Because we ate the seed instead of sowing it. Why have many of us read books on forgiving people, known the teachings were true and right, cried over them, marked them with our highlighters, yet remain in our bitterness? Because we ate the seed instead of sowing it. Why have we repeatedly heard how Christ has forgiven our sinful pasts, and sobbed with gratitude over the grace of it, yet we remain in bondage to condemnation? Because we ate the seed instead of sowing it.”  [1]

parables-2-sower-5This blog completes a series on the parable of the four soils by talking about being fertile and the harvest Christ can reap from our hearts if we will only give him open, humble, faithful, and fertile hearts. God is always sowing his Word into our hearts. God is always seeking to fill us with his love and grace. The question is, “Are we open to the growth of God in our hearts?” “Are we ready to allow God to grow a crop of love and wisdom in our hearts, sometimes in unexpected ways?” “Are we ready to stop just eating and bear fruit?”

For the last month, the “Parable of the Four Soils” has been at the center of each weekly article. The parable is about a farmer who is sowing seed in a First Century Galilean farm. Unlike many of his parables, Jesus took time out to explain the parable and the New Testament writers recorded his explanation. He began and ended the parable with the injunction to “Listen.” We began looking at the seed that falls on the rocky path. Nothing can grow on rock. Seed falling on a rocky path is eaten by birds (4:4). Some human hearts are like this soil. The good news cannot find any root, and the Evil One comes and takes the seed away (4:15). We looked at the rocky, shallow soil. Such soil permits some growth, but growth cannot last because the ground is shallow (4:5). Some people are like this spiritually: At the beginning they are enthusiastic; but, when hard times come, they have no depth, and their faith dies (4:17). Some seed is like seed that falls among thorns. Such seed cannot grow. Any growth is choked out by the thorns (4:7). People dominated by the worries of life, by the desire for wealth, and by other desires, are like this soil. Their faith is choked to death by their thorny heart (4:18-19).

The Good Soil

At the end of the parable, Jesus tells us that some of God’s good seed falls on the good soil—and it produces a crop, thirty-fold, sixty-fold, and sometimes even a hundred fold (4:8). A fertile human heart is like this soil: when the word of God falls upon it, it bears a crop of faith (4:20).

images My great grandfather on Mom’s side was a farmer in Muncie, Indiana. He traveled over into Illinois, to just west of Muncie, Illinois, where he bought 160 acres of land, which he and his son farmed all of their lives, and which my uncle and cousin have farmed all of their lives. My mother, who grew up on and near the farm, was exceedingly proud of it. The topsoil in that particular part of Illinois is some of the best farmland in America. Year in and year out, in good years and bad years, this little farm produces a crop. Some years are great. Some years are not so great, but there is always a crop. Why? Because the topsoil is some of the deepest, richest topsoil in America.

The human heart is like this topsoil. If we have humble hearts (the word “humble” comes from the Latin word for soil), if we pray diligently both talking and listening to God, if we allow the Word of God to enter our lives in Scripture and in the presence of Christ, if we allow God’s Grace to transform us, and if we reach out in loving service to others, then we have a heart that will grow a crop for God.

The parable warns us that the Kingdom of God does not automatically grow in our hearts nor is it automatically felt in our lives. For the Word to grow in our lives, we must have hearts open to God. Our minds, our emotions, our will, our bodies, and our unique human spirit must be open to the Word and Sprit of God, so that we grow to become more like God, which means becoming more like the Lord Jesus Christ.

Wisdom literature always begins with the injunction, “The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom.” I another work I have defined this “Fear of the Lord” as a Deep Respect and Awe.” [2] When we are open to God and revere God for who God is, we become open to the growth of his Word in our lives. When we become humble before God, the Kingdom of God finds a place to grow in our lives, as we trust in God and the Way of Christ in forming our character and guiding our actions. The result is a wonderful, fundamental change in our personalities and in the way we live and relate to other people.

The Good Seed

In any kind of farming, it is true as the old proverb says, “You reap what you sow.” No one ever sowed corn and got tomatoes. The kind of spiritual crop we will ultimately reap in the spiritual life depends on the seed we sow. If we sow the seed of God’s Word, if we sow the seed of the Good News of God’s love and mercy for the human race, if sow the Good News of the Kingdom of God, if we sow a seed of the kind of self-giving love God showed on the Cross, then we will certainly reap a crop that reflects the character of God and God’s intention fort the human race. In fact, the Kingdom of God grows up right in our hearts.imgres

As we mentioned a few weeks ago, the seed in this passage is the Word of God Jesus came embodying in his life, and which God desires to be embodied in our lives. God desires us to become little Christ’s, filled with God’s Spirit and bearing a crop for Him. Receiving Christ is not the end of the journey of faith; it is its beginning. The life of discipleship is the gradual growth in our lives of God’s Kingdom and character. The point of coming to Christ is to become a disciple and to grow, change, mature, and deepen all the days of our lives.

There is a passage from Revelation, which reads like this:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:1-2).

imgres-2These words, from the last chapter of Revelation, show God’s intention for the lives of the Apostles and for our lives. We are to be little trees of life drawing our spiritual sustenance from God by the power of the Holy Spirit, the water of life. And, we are to bear fruit—fruit that will heal our lives, the lives of those closest to us, and even the lives of those we hardly ever meet, even to all the nations of the world. The growth of the kingdom in our lives has consequences for everyone around us and for the entire world. What we do in our homes, in our families, and among our acquaintances has eternal consequences for us an for our world. Love is just that powerful.

The Incredible Growth

You might be thinking, “How can I possibly become a person who bears a crop like that?” “I am so broken or so immature or I’ve done so many things wrong, how could this possibly apply to me?” If you are a person like this, perhaps the way Jesus concludes this teaching in this area might be helpful. A little further in Mark, we read this:

imgres-3Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade (Mark 4:30-32).

Jesus is saying that the power of God is such that a very small seed of the Kingdom planted in your heart can grow and grow and become a great tree of faith—in fact it can become such a fruitful tree of life in you that your life will actually and really be a healing not just for you but for everyone your life touches.

As I have been thinking about this blog over the past week or so, I have been remembering trips to my grandfather’s farm. One of the things I remember is a certain smell in the springtime. Early in the spring, the farmers till the soil and prepare the soil for planting. If a spring rain occurs just as the soil has been tilled, there is a particular smell in the air. It is the fresh, fertile smell of soil just before the crop is planted.

Today, they don’t plant like they did in Jesus’ day. Modern computerized farming techniques permit farmers to place each seed just where they want it to be to maximize yield. If you were to drive by sometime in late April or May, you would not see a thing. But, if you drive by that farm in late July or August, the corn will be taller than a man, and the fields will be green with a harvest for miles and miles and miles.imgres-4

The Kingdom of God is like this. When you’ve opened, softened, deepened, and fertilized your heart, you will smell something wonderful—but you won’t see the fruit. You won’t even see the seed. Later, sometimes months and years later, when you look, you will see the seed of God’s grace.

Just before the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jesus says the following:

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).

If you allow God to plant the kingdom in your heart, one day you will look back and see the crop—a crop that when it is harvested, you will not believe or understand or how it could happen in your life. In the beginning, faith looks like an awfully small, insignificant seed. Later on, it will be the largest crop you can imagine! It will be a crop of personal healing, of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in your own character, and it will have sown itself into countless lives around you.

The Cross is the Tree of Life for Us.

searchIn John, Jesus puts it this way: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). In the end, whatever crop any of us manages to sow and reap is dependent upon another sower—one who sowed his life for us. The final message of the Gospel is not a message for today. We will meditate on this message later in Lent. The hardest lesson of the Gospel is this: Those would enter the Kingdom of God and have their hearts and lives transformed, must take up a cross and follow the One who went to the Cross for us. The Kingdom begins with faith, but it grows with love—not just any kind of love, but a love that gives and gives beyond any human wisdom. It was that love God showed us on the Cross, and it is that love which finally transforms our lives.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Beth Moore, Stepping Up: A Journey through the Psalms of Ascent (Nashville, TN: Lifeway Publishing, 2007), 81.

[2] G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love Rev. Ed. (Cordova, TN: Shiloh Publishing, 2010, 2014) and Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

Avoid Being Choked By Thorns

imgres-1Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. (Mark 4:3-9).

 I find gardening frustrating. There are several facts of life about gardens that I don’t particularly like. Among them is this simple fact: Weeds are easier to grow than flowers. No matter how well you prepare the soil, no matter how much fertilizer you put in the ground, no matter how-well tilled your garden is, sooner or later the weeds begin to take over—and when they do, they choke out everything else. I don’t know why God could not have created a world in which the flowers crowd out the weeds in my garden. It makes perfect sense to me, anyway.

In the Midsouth, we are so used to Bermuda lawns that we forget that in other parts of the country Bermuda is thought of as a weed! When it gets into a border, or a flowerbed, it is almost impossible to get out, and it eventually will take over the garden. Just across the street and the pond from our yard is a wooded area. This wooded area has poison ivy in it. The poison ivy gets into my yard every spring, and I have to eradicate it. There are also thorns in the woods. The variety of thorns we have are not particularly bushy, but they have a deep tap root and are almost impossible to get out of the garden once they have become established. I have several pretty large azaleas in my front yard and in two of them these thorns have managed to get well-established. The root system of the thorns is intertwined with the root system of the azaleas and it is almost impossible to keep the thorns from choking out the plant. Every spring, I fight another year of the never-ending battle between the azalea grower and the thorns. I guarantee you if I stopped fighting for five years, the thorns would win.

The same phenomenon is true in the spiritual life. It is far easier to develop negative spiritual qualities than positive ones. If we are not vigilant in rooting out the thorns in our spiritual life, sooner or later they will come to dominate us.

The Parable of the Four Soils

This is the third blog in a series of four blogs on the “Parable of the Four Soils” from Mark. In this parable, Jesus describes the human heart as like four soils, hard, rocky and shallow, dominated by thorns, and fertile.

Two weeks ago, we talked about the problem of hardness of heart—a heart so hard that the Gospel simply cannot find a home. Last week, we talked about the shallow, rocky heart—a heart in which the gospel finds a home for a time, but when hard times come and growth is necessary, that person’s heart is too shallow for faith to take root and grow. Today, we are talking about the third problem—the cluttered and thorn-filled heart where faith can grow for a while but is eventually choked out.

Life among the Thorns

In Spanish, the word for “Footpath” is “Sendera.” One day, years and years ago, I went hunting on a ranch on the north side of the King Ranch in South Texas. sendero-1Large bushes, some of them thorn bushes taller than a man’s head, cover the land. In order to get from place to place, someone had bulldozed paths through the bushes called “Senderas” by which a person or jeep could get from one place to another. There were some smaller paths that animals had made in the predominate brush. (I had a frightening encounter with a havalina, which is a kind of wild pig, in one of these Sendera’s.) These thorn bushes were all the plant growth there was in places they took over, because once it was overgrown with the brush, light could not reach the ground and everything else was killed. The thorns and brush choked out every other kind of growth.

In the Holy Land in Jesus’ day, some of the land was sometimes covered with bushes, what Jesus calls “thorns,” because these bushes did have thorns on them. If land were left unattended for any length of time, these thorny bushes would take over a field. The way farmers tried to control the thorns was to burn the ground after each harvest. This would burn any thorns to the ground. However, in the spring, the thorns would take over again, and if a farmer were not careful, they would choke out a crop. [1]

imgres As I mentioned in the first blog, this parable is significant because Jesus explains the parable in detail to his disciples, and that explanation is found in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Here is how Jesus explains the parable in Mark:

Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. (Mark 4:15-19)

 So we see that Jesus sees the thorns as representing (1) the worries of this life, (2) the deceitfulness of wealth, and the (3) desire for pleasureable things. This is one of those cases when the Bible might as well have been written yesterday. These same things choke out our faith today.

When our staff met this week, Cindy immediately took us to the first thing on the list: worry. So often, when reading a list that includes greed and desire, we shift our attention immediately to those things as potential thorns. This is unfortunate because “the worries of this life” are more common ways in which our faith is choked to death. What are the “worries of this life?” The worries of this life are all the things that you and I legitimately worry about taken beyond the point where there is anything productive in our worries. For example, we all legitimately worry about our children. It begins to choke our faith when we worry and worry without trusting that God will take care of them once we’ve done the best we can. We worry about our work. We all worry about having enough money when we grow old. We legitimately worry about a lot of things. When we continue to worry once we’ve done all we can do, our worry begins to choke out our faith. I could go on and on because there are as many worries of this life as there are things to worry about!

The second thing Jesus mentions is the deceitfulness of wealth. I think that the only way we can get a handle on this in our society is to think about what was wealth in the ancient world. Wealth in the ancient world did not include stocks, bonds, investments in hedge funds, gold futures, 401k plans, IRA’s, or any such things. In Jesus’ day a wealthy person owned his own home, and it would have been nicer than most but not nearly as nice as most of our homes, had a reserve of food of some amount, and had accumulated some silver or gold items. This was wealth in the ancient world.

Over and over again, the Bible makes two comments about wealth being deceitful. First, it promises a life without the worries of the common person—but it never delivers (Proverbs 11:28). The wealthy worry just like the poor. Second, it promises a security it cannot give. Proverbs warns us that wealth can flee away (Proverbs 25:3). As we begin trusting in riches and in power we come to trust in an idol—in something that will, in the end, leave us empty. Having enough is important. However, we cannot focus all of our attention and time on making money. It cannot be our ultimate source of security in life.

Finally, we can allow the good things of this life, the pleasures of this life, to gradually choke out our faith. Once again, these pleasures are not bad things in themselves. They become thorns that choke out our faith when they take up too much of time and energy. I don’t want to belabor the point—and there are a thousand possible illustrations. Perhaps just one in one area will give us some idea of how good things can become bad things when taken to excess. Let’s suppose I have a hobby, like sailing. (It is a safe bet that most people in Memphis do not spend a lot of the time sailing!). I purchase a small boat that I can afford and I begin sailing. Pretty soon, I am leaving work early on Friday, taking of all day Saturday and Sunday to sail my little boat. I begin to buy extra equipment for my little boat, and I must take classes to qualify as an expert in the use of all of them. One day, I decide I need a bigger boat, and after a while a still bigger boat. What was once a hobby to help me relax from work has now become a huge distraction. I no longer have time for church, for my family, for friendships, or for God. My little boat has become a big thorn bush. This same analysis applies in every area in which there are pleasures of life we can legitimately enjoy or let them dominate our lives.

Clearing out the Thorns

If we are going to be able to allow the garden of our hearts to grow in discipleship, we have to get the thorns under control. This can be hard because as I said at the beginning, thorns are not necessarily bad in themselves; they just take too much of our time, talent, money, and energy, sapping us of the ability to bear fruit for God. In some ways, the easiest thorns to get rid of are the worst: if I am an alcoholic or a drug addict, I know I must get rid of my alcoholism before I can grow in Christ. It is not so easy to see the necessity if I am a workaholic. Working hard is a good thing. Therefore, it can be hard to see when it has become something demonic. Golf or exercise, or any hobby is a good thing. It can be hard to see when it is taking up too much of my time, money, and energy. Some thorns need to be eradicated; some thorns just need to be controlled.

new phone day 027One of my worst thorn problems in my front yard is, as I said earlier, in my azaleas. I cannot get the root system for these thorns completely out of my yard. However, I have learned that what I can do is control the thorns by cutting them back as far as possible the minute they come up and I can see them. The thorns don’t threaten the azaleas because I have stunted their growth. Our dealings with thorns can be the same. There are thorns, like the allure of pleasures and riches that we cannot entirely eliminate, but we can get them under constant control. We can prevent them from dominating our lives.

Life in a Thornless Field

One day in those Sendera’s in South Texas, I went down a winding path looking for a javelina or a deer.  imgres-2After a few twists and turns on the path, I was pretty well lost—and I had a hard time finding my way out. As I mentioned before, the bushes, some which were thorny, were taller than my head and it could be dark inside the path. There was always the danger that you would turn the next corner and face a charging animal (which never happened). Not only do the thorns choke out the spiritual life within us, they also cause us to lose our sense of spiritual direction.

One of the benefits of cutting out the thorns from our lives and burning them to the roots is that we can gain a clear vision of what God is calling us to do and to be. We have a clear set of priorities—with God firmly implanted in first place. And, because we have God in first place, it gets a whole lot easier to put everything else in the proper place as well. Pretty soon, we have a kind of peace, not a peace in the sense of no possible worries, but a peace in the sense of having done the best we can possibly do.

Not long ago, I went to a professional about a problem common among people my age. I was worried about the problem and had taken a lot of steps to solve the problem over the years. After our consultation was over, and I and done what was asked of me, I felt a kind of peace. I had done all that I knew to do about the problem. Now, the future is in the hands of God. I’ve done my part, and all I need to do is to keep doing my part. If it doesn’t work out, I’ve done my best.

The peace we get from getting the thorns out of our lives is the peace of having done the best we can do. We may still wish we had a bit more money, more things, more pleasures, etc. However, we have them in the proper place; and, we can no longer be seriously shaken by our desires. With God first in our lives, we have plenty of time and money left for secondary things—and these secondary things no longer dominate us the way they used to. There is something liberating about this.

An Important Key to Fruitful Discipleship: Get Rid of the Thorns

This week our text really asks us to do two things: First take an inventory of the thorns in our lives. Secondly, we must perform what I call a “thornectomy” on them. No two of us have exactly the same thorns. For some people, things are thorns that barely bother others. However, we all have thorns in the garden of our heart that can and will crush out faith if we let them grow. If we are to be the disciples God calls us to be, one of the first things we must do is cut the thorns out of our lives or burn them to the ground so that they no longer choke our faith to death.

Copyright G. Christopher Scruggs, 2015, All Rights Reserved

[1] William Barclay, “Mark” in The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1975), 96.

The Sower and Shallow Ground

imgres“Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” Then Jesus said, ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear’” (Mark 4:3-9).

When we moved to Brownsville, Tennessee, we lived in a home with very shallow topsoil and a lot of clay underneath. It was almost an acre. One winter, we decided to purchase a pine tree that would grow in the midsouth as a Christmas tree and then plant it in our yard. A group of men in the church helped move the very heavy tree in and out of the house, a farmer with a backhoe helped dig a hole of the correct size and depth, and we planted the tree at the recommended time of year. It was dead by August 1. The soil was just too shallow and poor to support the tree. Over the time we lived in the house, we had a similar problem with every non-irrigated foot of our yard. Each time we planted anything less hardy than privet, it looked good for a short time, and then when the weather got hot and dry as it does in mid-summer, it died.

Last week, we began a series of sermons concerning the Parable of the Four Soils. The parable is about a farmer that sows seed in a field. Some falls on ground that is packed hard and filled with rocks. Nothing ever grows there. Some seed falls on what is called “rocky ground,” that is soil where the topsoil is not deep enough and rich enough to allow the plant to receive nutrients when the weather is hot and dry. Some soil falls in among the thorns. Some soil falls in the places where there is deep topsoil.parables-2-sower-5

In the parable, God is the sower, the Word is the seed, and we are various soils. Last week, we talked about what it means to have a heart so hard that nothing, not even the Word of God, can penetrate it. This is is the worst condition we can be in. When our hearts are hard, we do not even allow God to enter into our being. We don’t respond to the Gospel. The Word of God, the Wisdom of God, and the Grace of God are simply eaten away by the Evil One.

Soil in Jesus’ Day and In Ours

Years ago, I had an opportunity to travel to Israel. A retired Baptist pastor, beloved in Brownsville, led a trip to Israel every few years. He lived across the street from the Presbyterian Church, and his next-door neighbor was one of our members, an elderly lady who loved her neighbor and our church. As this retired pastor entered his 80’s, his friends had mostly died, and so he had trouble filling up his last trip to the Holy Land. In addition, he had fallen off his roof and had several pins in his legs and hip. Our Session asked if I would go along to help fill up the trip. The congregation offered to help with the costs, and so I went. We landed in Tel Aviv late one night. After clearing customs, we got on a bus and traveled north of Tel Aviv to a hotel in a beautiful place on the Mediterranean Sea area called “Natanya.”

ranchmainThe next day, we got up and traveled first to Haifa and then south to Nazareth. At one point, we crossed from Israel to the West Bank. In some places, unimproved land in Israel and the West Bank reminds me of the Hill Country of Texas. It is filled with rocks with very little topsoil. A few rugged trees and grasses can live in the soil, but most of it can intermittently be just barren rocky soil.

Jesus, of course, had walked the “hill country” of the Galilee from one side to the other. He was very familiar with rocky, shallow soil. One characteristic of this soil is that it is shallow, rocky, and poor. In the winter and spring when there is some rain grass and a few hardy plants can grow, but when the sun gets hot the water in the soil evaporates, and almost any crop dies.

We sometimes read our Bibles and think of what a religious people the ancient Jews must have been. Scholars think otherwise. There is a passage in II Chronicles that alerts us to the fact that, from the time of the prophet Samuel until the days of Josiah, Passover was rarely, if ever, celebrated by the average people or by the leaders of Israel. Only a few folks probably continued to celebrate the feast. [1] It faded from most people’s memory. The writer James Michener wrote a famous novel about ancient Israel called The Source. [2] I remember being kind of disturbed by his portrayal of the Jewish people in the ancient world. He pictured them as only partially captured by the religion of Moses, and continually intermixing with the native religions. It was not until I got to seminary that I learned that this is probably true. The Jews could have a very shallow faith.

The ancient Jews were not unlike us. They were busy and often had all the worries people have. Discipleship takes time and energy, and they did not always have the time and energy. They lived in a culture in which there were many non-Jews, most of whom worshiped fertility gods and goddesses. Over time, many Jews only paid only nominal attention to the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus would have known many such people. They had some connection to the faith of Israel, but when the crops were bad, they visited the pagan shrines, performed the ancient fertility rites, and hoped for the best. Their faith was a shallow faith.imgres-1

We laugh each Christmas and Easter about “Christmas and Easter Christians.” The truth is, however, that the problem with contemporary Christianity is a bit deeper than just those who rarely attend. All of us some of the time, and a few of us most of the time, are content to be shallow Christians. We are unprepared for the heat of the trials that come into every human life. When trials come, we don’t have the depth to meet them.

What Prevents Your Soil from Being Deep?

When I began thinking about this blog, I thought it would be hard. First of all, Americans in general don’t like to be called shallow. There is something in our psyche that rebels against that particular charge. Second, I don’t normally think of myself as a shallow person. I can relate to hardness of heart and thorns a lot easier than I can relate to shallow soil. (At least I could before I began to write this sermon.) Therefore, I began to think of the ways in which I can be a shallow Christian. Interestingly, it was not long before it was much easier to to think of myself as spiritually shallow.

Perhaps it will help to think about what it means to be shallow soil. Literally, our text reads “rocky ground.” The land in Springfield Missouri is really rocky and my father was a gardener. I am very familiar with the need to remove rocks from soil. Whenever my father would extend his garden or plant a new one, one of the things we most needed was a pick age. The ground around Springfield is filled with rocks, some of them so big you have to break them to get them out of the ground. Planting a garden meant getting rid of rocks.

imagesI used to travel to Lexington Kentucky to attend Asbury Theological Seminary. In order to shave a few miles off my journey, I would take a short cut that took me through the horse country outside of Lexington. I used to wonder at the fields where those thoroughbreds graze: they were greener and had fewer weeds than my front lawn! Interestingly, it was not the grass that first attracted me. It was the wonderful, lovely rock walls lining the fields for miles. Where do suppose those rock walls came from? They came from the fields. The farmers who originally farmed that land, removed the rocks, and worked the soil until the land was able to grow that lovely grass.

In order to have good soil, you have to remove the rocks and deepen the topsoil. It may, therefore, be important for us to ask the question, “What are the rocks in our spiritual topsoil?” One of the most important things Christians can do to make our spiritual topsoil better is remove the rocks. The biggest rocks in our field are sins we have never confessed, never repented of, never gotten out of our lives. We all have such sins. These are the sins we kind of like and don’t want to stop. We may occasionally feel bad about them. We may confess them in the sense that we know they are there. But, we have never really and truly repented and removed them.

We might ask if we, like many ancient Jews, have shallow commitment that simply will not withstand the pressures of hard times. In order to sustain our faith through the many, many difficult times of life, we have to be committed. The word in the Bible we translate “faith” does not mean simply believing that Jesus was the Son of God. It includes the element of trust. We have to believe in our minds and in the depth of our hearts, so that we live and act on the basis of our faith. Our faith is like a marriage: we must be committed to God and to his Word absolutely and without compromise.

We can also ask if we lack will power. marathonYou know, I have never run a Marathon. I have a medical reason I sometimes give, but the truth may be that I just do not have the will power to do the level of necessary training. I don’t want to get up at 5:30 every morning week after week, month after month and run several miles. The spiritual life is not a sprint. It is a Marathon, and it takes will power. You have to get up and be a disciple even when it is cold or hot and you don’t feel like it.

The life of discipleship also takes endurance and conditioning. I don’t watch a lot of sports, but here is what I can tell you—most experts will tell you that the difference between the best athletes and the average athletes is not usually native talent. Once you get to the professional level or the highest college level, all the athletes are extremely talented. It is conditioning that makes the difference. It is conditioning that produces the endurance athletes need. It is keeping on keeping on every day in the conditioning process and not letting up. Endurance is the single most important thing in a Marathon—and it is important in our spiritual life.

The difference between Mother Teresa and most of us is not native talent. It is practice. It is being a disciple in good times and in bad, in rainy seasons and dry seasons, in times of growth and times of stagnation. It is being a better disciple tomorrow than I was today, day after day, month after month, year after year. When we do that, we grow as disciples and we bear a crop for God.

Improving Your Topsoil

Many, many years ago, I backpacked across Europe. One day, high in the Swiss Alps, I stopped because something smelled really bad. In the field just down the road a farmer was emptying his septic tank, spraying the accumulated waste into his field using a giant hose. For generations, every spring and early summer the farmers in Switzerland have been emptying their septic tanks and fertilizing their fields. After a few hundred years of this, you have some really great fields.images-1

This fall, we had the opportunity to visit Italy for a wedding. The land in Italy in the area we were in is very interesting. I have told many people, the land outside the window of our room was so lovely, I thought I was in a scene from the Lord of the Rings where Tolkien describes Hobbiton in my copy of the Fellowship of the Ring. [3] It looked just like the cover of my old copy from college. Interestingly, the land is often kind of rocky and poor near where we were. However, generations of farmers have tilled and improved that soil. They have built little walls to keep erosion down, fertilized, hoed, and deepened the soil year after year for generations until it contains lovely olive groves and vineyards. Good farmers are always improving their soil. Great farmers of the past did so year after year, after year.

If we want the soil of our souls to be deep, fertile, and lovely, we are going to have to go about the task of improving the soil. We are all sinners. We all have rocks in our souls. We all will have some “rocky sin” in our lives until the day of our death. But we can have deeper spiritual soil than we have today. Actually, God has made it pretty simple, if not pretty easy. Here are a few simple tips.

First, get rid of those rocks. It really helps to form the habit of reviewing each day and asking what you think you did best and worst. If you have a temper, or a rash tongue, or a tendency to drink a bit too much, or whatever, I can assure you that reminding yourself daily that you wish you had done something a bit differently is a wonderful way to keep your mind on the rock in your spiritual life you want to remove. [4]

Pray for yourself, your family, your friends, and your co-workers—everyone you know. Pray for the Holy Spirit to enter your life in a new way. Read your Bible daily and join some small group of folks who are getting together to let the Word of God transform them. Finally, find a place to serve. Service changes you outside and inside. We need also to remember that part of serving is sowing. In the Parable, God is the Sower, Christ is the Sower, the Apostles are the Sower—and we are the sower. Our primary duty as Christians is to sow the Word of God into the lives people day in and day out.

God Wants Us to be Deep.

You remember my trip to the Holy Land? I forgot to mention a little fact. At one point we crossed a border. On one side of the border, the land was wasteland. images-2Within just a few yards, we saw oranges, grapes, grapefruit, and all kinds of crops. What made the difference? One one side no one improved the soil, never irrigated, never fertilized, never added new humus, never improved the soil. On the other side they did.

Jesus told us this parable to teach us that we need to be sure that the soil of our souls is deep enough so that the seed of faith doesn’t just pop up and die, but has room to grow and prosper, even in hard times. To do this we must get rid of the rocks of sin, pray, read our Bibles daily, and serve others in love. This is the key to having a deep heart.

Prayer: God of Wisdom and Love: Thank you for this wonderful parable of the human heart. You came to show us what we were intended to be and to give us a glimpse of the wonders of your Kingdom. You call us to enter this kingdom of wisdom and love as little children. Help us to hear this story with the ears of little children and to understand in the depth of our souls its meaning for our lives. In Jesus Name, Amen.


Copyright, 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] II Chronicles 35:12 reads: “The Passover had not been observed like this in Israel since the days of the prophet Samuel; and none of the kings of Israel had ever celebrated such a Passover as did Josiah, with the priests, the Levites and all Judah and Israel who were there with the people of Jerusalem.

[2] James A. Michener, The Source (New York, NY: Marjay Books, 1963).

[3] J.R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York, Ballantine Books, 1965).

[4] One of the best ways to do this is to have the habit of examining yourself daily. A common so-called examen is one attributed to St. Ignatius: It goes something like this: 1. Become aware of God’s presence. 2. Review the day with gratitude. 3. Pay attention to your emotions. 4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it. 5. Look toward tomorrow. See more at: http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/#sthash.zzhGUx24.dpuf

Are you on the Path or in the Field?

“Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” Then Jesus said, ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear’” (Mark 4:3-9).

parables-2-sower-5About four months ago, Kathy sent me a note concerning a discipleship program she wanted to help begin at our church. For several years, I have been pondering how we could have a more vital local evangelism and discipleship program. Because we are involved in Living Waters for the World, I have pondered how we might develop a more intentional evangelism program for our Living Waters installations. Because our church has an active local and international missions program, I have wondered how we might do something in the area of evangelism and discipleship that was truly international–something that would work in America and overseas. As I began to read about the program Kathy sent me, I became very excited, because it seemed to me that it potentially answered these questions.

Part of the program Kathy sent to me is built upon the “Parable of the Four Soils” found in all three of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Immediately, the idea came to me for a four-week sermon series entitled, “What Kind of Soil are You?” Once the staff got their mind around the idea of four sermons on one parable of Jesus, they suggested that we change the title to “The Four Soils: Working in God’s Field.” For the next few blogs, will be looking at one aspect of the Parable of the Four Soils and then talking about how this parable challenges us as we grow as disciples in Christ.

I think it was about thirty-five years ago that I first read this parable as a new Christian. I’ve now read it many, many times through many phases of life. This story, which is absolutely one of the most important of Jesus’ parables, challenges and enlightens every Christian in every phase of the Christian life. I have experienced times when my life looked like each of these soils, and I hope the next weeks will help readers think about how they can become better disciples of Christ in 2015.

Jesus often taught in parables—seemingly simple stories that, properly understood, open up the reality of God and God’s Word in new and powerful ways. Some people can pass over the parables just because they seem so simple. This is a great mistake. When I was a new Christian, I liked the clear passages of the teachings of Jesus and Paul because they helped me the most. These days, I like the parables more and more. Twenty years as a preacher have shown me how hard it is to be simple and clear. Twenty years as a preacher has taught me that the most profound lessons cannot really be taught propositionally. They must be taught in such a way that they enter the heart of the person. Jesus was a master of this art.

imagesThe philosopher Soren Kierkegaard talked about the importance of indirect communication. Direct communication is when we state a proposition or lesson clearly and didactically. We leave the reader no choice but to accept or reject what we are saying. There is a place for this kind of teaching. There is, however, another kind of communication. This kind of communication we may call “indirect communication.” Here we leave the reader open to understand the story or concept in different ways. In his book, Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard tells and retells the story of Abraham and Isaac in different ways, all the while making the reader think about Abraham and his faith, and how unusual this faith was. [1] By this method, he hoped to help the reader—and all of us—come to a deeper understanding of Christian faith. This is exactly what Jesus is doing in his parables.

The Battle Between Farmers and Birds

In Mark, the Parable of the Four Soils is found after Jesus has been introduced as the One who brings the Kingdom and the Good News of the Kingdom to Israel. By this time, he had gained a certain amount of notoriety and opposition to his teaching had begun to develop. The parable is set near Capernaum, by the Sea of Galilee. The crowd that came to see him was so large that he got into a boat and began to teach (Mark 4:1-2). One can imagine that in the crowd there were those who wanted to know more and those who really came to criticize Jesus.

Jesus tells a pretty simple story about a first century Jewish farmer. It is very possible that, as Jesus was teaching, he looked up and saw a farmer sowing seed and told the parable as a farmer was actually doing exactly what he described. [2] If this interpretation is true, Jesus was both using a story and an object example to reinforce his teaching and to support the memories of his listeners.

In Jesus’ day, fields were crudely prepared. imgres A farmer would go through his field, remove rocks and other impediments to growth, rough the ground, clear thorns and weeds, and then sow seeds by hand. Many of the fields around Jesus would have had paths running through them, perhaps running from the Sea of Galilee up into the hills beyond. A farmer might walk down one of these paths sowing seed by hand. As he threw the seed, the wind would catch some of it and blow the seed back on the path. Other of the seed would travel out, some to the very perimeter of the little field. After sowing, a good farmer would then cover the seed as best he could with dirt to prevent birds from eating most of next year’s crop. Some of the seed, however, fell right on the path where it could not possibly grow. There, the land was filled with rocks and the dirt beaten hard as concrete by passing feet. Nothing could live there. Therefore, whatever was left on the path sooner or later was going to be eaten by the birds.

imgresWhen I was thinking about this parable, I had two images in mind almost immediately. The first was the Alfred Hitchcock movie “The Birds.” [3] If you remember the movie, you will recall that the movie depicts a town in California that is suddenly attacked by swarms of birds who try to injure and even kill human beings. It was very scary! It turns out that Hitchcock’s use of birds as a main character in a horror movie is not without precedent. Jesus does the same thing! It turns out that the Bible just occasionally uses birds, and especially black birds, as a symbol for evil. [4]

The second memory was a memory of reading Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven” when I was in Junior High or High School. We all remember the constant dark refrain in the poem, “Nevermore!” The  poe__s_raven_by_twistedsynapses-d3keb3lRaven in that poem was really pretty scary. The poem ends with the Raven depicted as a demon like creature. It reads like this:

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil – prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us – by that God we both adore –
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore –
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting – “Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore! Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken! Leave my loneliness unbroken! – quit the bust above my door! Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!” Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor; And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor Shall be lifted – nevermore!” [5]

Jesus, when he explained the parable to his disciples, identified the birds with the Evil One, Satan, or the Devil who prevents and devours human connection with God if at all possible (Matthew 13:19; Mark 4:15; Luke 8:12). This identification must have some common resonance in the human psyche. We all have a kind of fear of irrational creatures that can peck at us and harm us. images-1 For farmers, until quite recently, birds were predators that might eat up a crop if not scared away by the farmer with scarecrows and the like. In Jesus’ day, no farmer would have wanted to see birds near his field eating his seed or his crop. We are not supposed to like these birds or the idea that we might be like the seed that falls on the rocky path. This is a place no sane human wants to be or should be.

The Battle in our Hearts

The parable, then, portrays a battle between God and the Evil One, a battle that is being fought on level of the human heart. God is constantly sowing his message of love, mercy and grace into our lives and into our hearts. The question is not, “Does God love us?” The question is, “Are we open to the message of God’s love?”

Over and over again in the Bible we are told that God is interested in the heart. For example, In Proverbs, the writers often talk about the importance of the heart:

“My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity. Let love and faithfulness never leave you;  bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:1-6 [emphasis added]).

In Jeremiah, when the prophet speaks of what God will do when the Messiah comes with the Kingdom says: “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:32-33). In Ezekiel, God makes it even plainer when the prophet says, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).

hard-heartAs we mentioned more than once in the wisdom series, the human heart in the Old Testament is more than an organ for pumping blood to the organs of the body. It is the human person at the depth of the being of the human soul. It is the unique combination of our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual being. It is what makes “us” us. One reason why Jesus uses parables is that he is after more than how we think. He is after a change of heart. He wants us to change our entire orientation toward reality. He wants to change how we think, act, feel, and how our thoughts, emotions, and actions impact our personhood.

The Prophets and Wise Men of Israel recognized that the human race has a heart problem. We are all subject to hardness of heart, towards God, towards family members and friends, and towards other people. Jesus tells this parable to warn us that one of the problems we human beings can have is to have hard hearts. Therefore, when God sows some seed of the Spirit, some seed of Grace, some seed of his Kingdom, some seed of his Love, into our lives, one thing we can and often do is to harden our hearts and reject what is being offered us.

Most Christians understand that it is never an excuse to say, “The Devil made me do it.” There may be times in my life when the Devil made me do it, but in each of those times I can look back and see that Chris was cooperating with the Devil in some way. The fact that we are being tempted, the fact that we face overwhelming spiritual opposition, the fact that our faith does not seem to be bringing us the life we hoped for and desire, does not excuse our bad or faithless behavior. Our best bet when tempted is not to harden our hearts, not to reject the love of God, and to be sure that the seed of God’s word falls in a field ready for it to grow in.

Jesus, the Parable, and Us

This Parable of the Four Soils is not easy for a number of reasons. In the parable, we see in the person of the farmer the person of God, who sends his message of grace by prophets and others. We also see Jesus who has been sent by God to share the good news of the Kingdom, as he just told is in Mark 1:15. [6] Finally, we see the figure of those who shared the Word with us and those with whom we share the Word. The farmer is God, Jesus, and each person from the days of Jesus until now who ever shared the Good News with another person. [7]

The Seed is the Word of God, the Good News of God’s love for the human race: of God’s forgiveness for our sins in Christ,  in the love of God showed on the cross, and in the salvation and New Life we can have in Christ. The Seed is that in us that can result in a crop of love, peace, godliness and joy in our lives. We might think of Galatians in this regard where Paul says:

imgres-1“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:19:24).

The Evil One wants us to harden our hearts to the things of the Spirit so that we will be concentrated on the things of the flesh and miss out on the blessings of God. God wants us to be filled with the seed of his spirit and grow in the fruit on the spirit can give: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

I think most of us can think of times in our lives and areas of our lives when and where our hearts have been less than receptive to God. We are not to judge, but most of us, I think, can think of people we have known whose fundamental problem was a hard heart. Jesus warns us that there is a God and there is an Evil One. The Evil One can and does try as best he can to kill any hope of spiritual growth in us. I don’t know about you, but I have experienced times when I just made a resolution to avoid a temptation—and right after that resolution, I was tempted! At such times it is good not to have a hard heart.images-2

This problem of hard hearts can give us pause as we share the gospel with others. No one likes to be rejected. The parable gives us a kind of answer to this problem. The Sower knows that some of the seed is going to fall along the path. The birds will in fact eat some of the seed. Nevertheless, the sower sows. As Disciples of Christ, we too must sow knowing that not all the seed we sow will bear fruit. One of the commentaries I read quotes an inscription from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London that reads: ““Fear not to sow because of birds!” [8]

January 2015: Reflecting on Our Walk with Christ

I am excited to be able to take one whole year and concentrate on what it means to be a better disciple of Jesus Christ. When Kathy and I begin a trip, we take out maps and think about the journey we will take. Then, Kathy begins to get maps of specific places and perhaps books and brochures about the places we will see. When I begin looking at the map I always begin by finding Memphis and tracing the journey. We all begin somewhere and the best way not to get lost is to figure out where we are and where we are going right at the beginning.

We are all beginning the journey of 2015, and our own personal journey of the coming year. It is a good idea to begin with a time of centering on the truth of where exactly we are on the journey. Some of us are at the very beginning of the life of faith. Some of us are halfway through our discipleship journey. Some of us are near the end. We are all somewhere on the journey of discipleship.

Our hearts are also somewhere in some condition. I have been through times when my heart was hard, shallow, thorn-encrusted, and fertile. This week in staff meeting, I made the comment that each one of us—each human being—is a strange combination of hardness, shallowness, thorniness, and depth. I think we all find ourselves in more than one place in the parable. That is a good kind of taking stock as well. It is good to ask, “Where am I hard, shallow, cluttered with desire, deep and fertile.

The purpose of this taking stock is not just to take stock. God is not interested in our reaching some mental idea of where we are on the journey of discipleship. Looking at a map is part of taking a journey. It is part of beginning the journey of the year to come with a commitment to developing a soft, deep, fertile heart, filled with seeds of God’s love and growing a great crop of fruits of the spirit in our own lives and in the lives of others.

Prayer: God of Wisdom and Love: Thank you for this wonderful parable of the human heart. You came to show us what we were intended to be and to give us a glimpse of the wonders of your Kingdom. You call us to enter this kingdom of wisdom and love as little children. Help us to hear this story with the ears of little children and to understand in the depth of our souls its meaning for our lives. In Jesus Name, Amen.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (London, ENG: Penguin Books, 1983).

[2] William Barclay, “Mark” in The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1975), 88ff.

[3]The Birds”, wr. Evan Hunter, dr. Alfred Hitchcock, based on the novel by Dauphne Du Muaurier starring Rod Taylor and Tippy Hendren (1963).

[4] This parable is not the only place in Scripture in which birds are used as symbols for evil. Revelation 8: 2 reads: “And [an angel] cried mightily with a loud voice, saying Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and has become a habitation of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird!” This is not a univocal idea, however. Doves for example, are often used as symbols of the Holy Spirit.

[5] Edgar Allen Poe, “The Raven” https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome instant&ion=1&espv= 2&es_th=1&ie=UTF 8#q=the+raven+poem+text&revid=1280564404 (Downloaded January 8, 2015). Poe in writing of a raven is drawing upon our human fear of beasts that might peck and kill in a moment of irrationality. Birds, like parrots can speak, and thus appear almost human or possessed by a demon while still being brutes.

[6] Mark 1:15 reads, “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

[7] If one surveys commentaries and sermons on the parable, one finds writers and preachers focusing on each one of these alternatives.

[8] This quote is found in Hallford E. Luccock, “Exposition” in Volume 7: The Interpreters Bible: The Gospel According to St. Mark George Buttrick, ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1951), 696. The inscription is found on a bronze tablet found in the cathedral in memory of Canon Samuel Barnet who worked in London’s east end for many years.

He Came to Make Disciples

Most of us do not know the name “Benjamin Graham.” He was born in England, came to the United States of America, went into business, and ultimately wrote a book with the scintillating title, Security Analysis. [1] Graham, along with his co-author, David Dodd, whom even fewer people know, was the father of what we call, “Value Investing.” One of his disciples has name we all know—Warren Buffett.imgres

Today, most people have forgotten the name Chuck Noll. Football people call him “the forgotten coach.” He coached only one team, the Pittsburg Steelers. Nevertheless, Chuck Noll coached some of the most famous players in NFL history. He coached Jack Lambert, “Mean Joe Green,” Jack Hamm, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swan, John Stallworth and many players who made NFL history. He developed the famous “Steel Curtain” defense. When he became head coach the Steelers had only played in one post-season game in 36 years. He took them to four Superbowls.imgres-1

Most of us do not know the name Mary Mahoney, but she was a famous nurse. Mahoney worked at the New England Hospital for Women and Children before she was accepted to the hospital’s nursing school at the age of thirty-three. Mary Mahoney was black when black nurses were unheard of. She was a source of inspiration and opened doors for generations of nurses. [2]Mary_Eliza_Mahoney

Everyone is a disciple of someone. All of us owe our attainments to someone who cared enough to help us accomplish what we have accomplished in life. This morning, we are visiting about the most important discipleship opportunity any of us will ever have, the opportunity to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The Wisdom of Following Jesus.

On Epiphany Sunday, Christians remember the coming of the wise men (or Magi) to see the Baby Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12). As you might expect from someone who wrote a book on wisdom literature, the story of the wise men is one of my favorites. Sometime before or just after Jesus was born, a group of wise men far to the east of Israel looked into the sky and saw a star. After consulting astrological charts, they determined that the star was a sign that a new king had been born, a king of the Jews who lived in Palestine to the West. They set out to confirm their theory. First, they went to Jerusalem where they saw King Herod. Herod, however, had no new child. After consulting experts on the Old Testament, they learned that the child was probably born in Bethlehem in Judea. The wise men set off and continued following the star to where the baby was. They worshiped the child. They were the first Gentiles, non-Jews, to worship Jesus.

imgres-2The story was placed in our Bible partially as a testimony to the accuracy of the prophesies of the Messiah and prove that Jesus was the Messiah. Partially they are included in Scripture to reflect the understanding of the early Christians that, while Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, he is also the savior of Jews and Gentiles alike.

The image of the star is an image of the light of God coming into our dark world with all the wisdom and love God can give us. The earliest name for Christians was “People of the Way.” Jesus came to show us a Way of Life, what wisdom writers called “The Path of Life”—a path leading to health and wholeness, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. To be a disciple of Jesus is to follow the path of Wisdom and Love he lived out among us. It is to become the people God intended us to be.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul tells the new Christians to “shine like stars” in a dark world (Philippians 2:14). Earlier in Daniel, the prophet is told by God that those who serve the Messiah will shine like stars with these words: Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. (Daniel 12:3) we were meant to shine with the light of the Gospel in our own day and time, just as those in the New Testament were asked to shine with God’s truth in their own time.

He Came to Call Disciples.

As might be expected of wisdom in human form, when Jesus came, he invested himself in people, and especially in those around him who were his closest disciples. Jesus, when he came, formed a community of people who lived and worked together to learn, live, and share the Good News of God’s love for all people. It appears that first Jesus called his inner circle: Peter, Andrew, James, and John. In chapter 2 of Mark, we learn that Jesus called others, even hated tax collectors, to be disciples. When Jesus called Levi (or Matthew) to follow him, we are told that he also immediately got up and followed Jesus. The call of Jesus is to all kinds of people, and that includes us. He called us that we might call others, that the world might finally come to live in the light of God’s love, reflecting that light in the life of every human being.imgres-3

Later in Mark 3, we learn that there were twelve disciples who were at the very center of Jesus’ ministry. Mark lists the names:

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him (Mark 3:13-19).

The twelve were important because they symbolized the Twelve Tribes of Israel and God’s continuing ministry to his Old Testament people. However, we know that the Twelve were not the only disciples. We know that there were also seventy people who followed Jesus and who provided important help for his ministry (Luke 10:1-24). We also know that there were at least 500 people who were disciples and to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:6). We know that there were men and women called to be his disciples. Some of the women had important rolls in supporting his ministry (Luke 8:1-3). Paul, when he writes his letters almost always ends with notes to specific people (See for example, Romans 16). Paul, you see, like Jesus was interested in specific people—and making of them disciples who would share the gospel.

I don’t know about you, but I find lists of names of people I don’t know, like the genealogies of the Old Testament, pretty boring. There is, however, an important lesson embedded in the listing of the names and numbers: God calls real people. Jesus called real, specific people to follow him. This is important for us for a very simple reason: God has also called us to follow him. Jesus came to call people to follow him—and we are among the people so called.

Jesus Calls Us for a Purpose.

Not only does Jesus call Peter, Andrew, James, and John to follow him, but he also tells them just exactly why he called them. He called them to be “fishers of men” (Mark 1:17). We always think of evangelism as being Fishers of Men. This lets those of us who are not fishermen off the hook. This is unfortunate. I think if Jesus had called teachers, he would have said, “I will make you teachers of human beings.” If he had called nurses, he would have said, “I will make you healers of human beings.” If he had called musicians, he would have said, “I will make you minstrels of the good news of God.” God told fishermen to be fishers of men. He wanted them so share the wisdom and love of god that he embodied just as they were with the skills and abilities they had! The same is true of us.

imgres-4Right here we come to a problem with our understanding of what it means to be a disciple. When you ask Americans if they believe in God, a substantial majority of them will say, “Yes.” When you ask them what religion they profess, most will say, “Christianity.” If you ask them if they are followers of Jesus, most of those will say, “Yes.” If you ask them how often have you shared your faith, invited another person to church, or made another person a disciple of Jesus, only a very small percentage will answer, “I have.” Most Christians in America have never invited another person to church much less shared their faith or been instrumental in another conversion. If you ask American Christians to describe their life-style, the life-style they describe is most likely exactly like the lifestyle of their non-Christian friends and neighbors. Most Christians in America live pretty much like everyone else around them.

This might have been O.K. in our parent’s generation. It might have been O.K. when most people believed in God, went to Christian churches, and at least thought they were trying to follow Christ. In our culture, it is not O.K. We live in what is a “post-Christian culture”—that is a culture in which the cultural leaders, the intelligentsia, the artists and writers are not generally Christians. Not long ago, I was watching a television show and decided to learn about the star. He or she listed her religious preference as “Pagan.” All I can tell you is that, in 1955 or so when I first noticed what was going on around me, no one told anyone that his or her religious preference was pagan. They might act like pagans, but they would not proclaim themselves to be pagans.

If we are going to be disciples of Jesus, we have to think about what that means in our culture, in our time, and in our age and be willing to be different. In other words, we cannot just talk about Christian faith and Christian morals, and debate who is right. We have to live out the life of a disciple just as close as we can to the lives of the best disciples of the past. To do this we all need to be in close relationships of love and nurture with other Christians as we are discipled and as we disciple others.

New Year’s Resolution

I am not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. I have found that they either reflect things I intend to do anyway or things I won’t do anyway. Nevertheless, each year I do think about a few resolutions. As I look back on resolutions of the past, I can see that the few of them I kept have made a difference in my life. If you have not made any New Year’s Resolutions, here are a few suggestions of some resolutions to become a better and more impactful disciple of Jesus:

  1. Be Regular in Worship. Christians always worshiped on Sundays. Make worship a priority. The fact is that almost no one who abandons worship continues to embody the wisdom and love of God for very long.
  2. Share your Faith with Friends. The Great Commission was to “Go make disciples.” The Church does not exist for itself, but for the world that needs to find the Path of Life.
  3. Live a Life of Love. The Great Commandment was to share God’s self-giving, agape love with the world. Resolve this year to share the Deep, Deep Love of Christ with others.
  4. Read the Bible Daily. We will only be wise and live wisely in the Way of Christ if we know what that way entails. The habit of daily Bible reading and devotional study is central to successful Christian living.
  5. Devote Yourself to Your Family. This fall in our Path of Life Study, we saw how weak the American family is. This year resolve to find one significant way to strengthen your family. [3]
  6. Take a Day of Rest. All of the Ten Commandments are important. However, in our society remembering to make time for Sunday to be a day of rest is more important than ever.
  7. Have a Close Personal Friend who is also trying to live out the gospel. This past week, I was with an old friend for a short period of time. We are both in late middle age. Our children are either grown or almost grown. We have the same struggles and uncertainties concerning our future. There have been times when he came to me for advice. There have been times when I came to him for advice. There are times when I have suggested a Christian response to a problem to him, and there are times when he has suggested a Christian response to a problem to me. We write each other an email about once a week or so. We all need a Spiritual Friend, a mentor, and a person who is on the journey of walking with Jesus and with whom we can share our journey.

imgres-5Each person has to determine their own New Year’s Resolutions. However, I think if we all made a list something like the list above, we would find that next New Year’s day would find us happier, healthier, and more filled with the wisdom and love of God as well as the joy of his Presence than ever before.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Benjamin Graham & Dared Dodd, Security Analysis (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1934).

[2] Maria Timarchi, “10 Most Famous Nurses in History” http://health.howstuffworks.com/medicine/ healthcare/ 10-most-famous-nurses-in-history.htm#page=2 (Downloaded December 14, 2014).

[3] The sermon on which this blog is based was also the final sermon related to the Path of Life study of our congregation. G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Wipf & Stock, 2014) and Path of Life: An Eight Week Devotional Study (Shiloh Publishing, 2014). A bit of the sermon makes the point made in the final chapter of Path of Life.