Information or Transformation – A Sermon on the Goal of the Word of God for the 15th Sunday of the Year
What do you expect from reading and hearing God’s Word? Do you expect to encounter something that will change you? Frankly, from my discussions with people over the years, many do not even understand the question and, after puzzled looks, respond to me with another question: “What do mean by ‘expect’?” I then follow up with “Just what I said, ‘What do you look to have happen in your life from having heard or read God’s Word?'” This is greeted with puzzled looks and finally something vague like, “I dunno” or “Like, maybe, to get advice?” Some might even go so far as to say that they expect to be encouraged or instructed. But in the end, most of the responses to my question are pretty tepid, lukewarm, and uninspired. Most really don’t expect much and, frankly, haven’t expected much. Reading or hearing God’s word is more of a tedious ritual for them than a transformative reality.
Here again, I lay some of blame at the feet of clergy who don’t really teach the faithful to expect much. But this Sunday it is clearly set forth that God’s Word is able to transform, change, renew, encourage, and empower us. And we ought to begin to expect great things from our faithful and attentive reception of the Word of God.
Let’s look at what the Lord teaches in three steps.
I. Promise – That the Word of God can utterly transform us and bring forth a great harvest in our lives is clearly set forth in today’s first reading:
Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void (Isaiah 55:10-11).
God’s Word has power! If we authentically and attentively listen to God’s Word it will refresh us and bring forth the fruit of transformation. No one can authentically attend to God’s word and go away unchanged. If listened to with any alertness, God’s Word can open our minds to new realities, give us hope, teach us the fundamental meaning of our life, instruct us, thrill us, frighten us, make us wonder, make us repent, make us rejoice, and it can also transform us. It can make us mad, sad, or glad, but if we attend to it, it’s pretty hard to go away neutral from this Word, of which Scripture itself says,
- The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12).
- God says in the book of Jeremiah, Is not my word like fire,” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jer 23:29)
- And Jeremiah himself said, But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot (Jer 20:9).
- And yet again he cries out, My heart pounds within me, I cannot keep silent. For I have heard the sound of the trumpet; I have heard the battle cry! (Jer 4:19)
- Amos echoes, The lion has roared–who will not fear? The Sovereign LORD has spoken–who can but prophesy? (Amos 3:8)
- The Apostles join the great company of preachers and declare, For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).
- Yes, the Lord gave the Word, and great was the company of the preachers! (Ps 68:11)
- And through his preachers the Lord wants to set us on fire! I will make my words in your mouth a fire and these people the wood it consumes (Jer 5:14).
- Yes, if we will let him, He will set us ablaze with His Word. Thus He will also set the world on fire through us.
Yes, God’s Word, effectively preached and thoughtfully attended to, is fire that transforms. Pray for fiery preachers. Pray for ears attentive to God’s Word. Pray for a soul alive and alert to the sound of God’s trumpet. Pray for a mind capable of appreciating God’s Word in all its subtlety and all its plain meaning. It can change your life.
II. Problems – But the Lord also alerts us to some problems that can arise in the human person. For while God’s Word does not lack power, neither does it violate God’s respect for our freedom and our call to love.
God speaks to inanimate objects and they must obey:
- And God said, Let there be light. And there was light (Gen 1:3).
- And to the sea, This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt (Job 38:11). And the sea obeys.
- And he says to the mountains, “Move!” and they shake and melt like wax before his glance. (cf Ps 97:5)
But the human person is not inanimate. We are possessed of a soul and gifted with freedom so that we may love. God speaks to us and, remarkably, we are free to say, “No.” And the Lord Jesus warns us in today’s Gospel that our freedom is ultimately respected. So the power of God’s Word remains, but God Himself has made it dependent on our “Yes.” Consider, then, some of the problems Jesus warns us of, some issues that can cut off or reduce the power of God’s Word:
A. Rejection – Jesus says of some that they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand … Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted, and I heal them (Matt 13:13-15). The Greek word translated here as “gross” is παχύνω (pachuno), meaning fat, thick, or dull. By extension, it means having an insensitive or hardened heart. Hence there are some who have hardened their hearts to God and His Word.
God once observed about us, through Isaiah, I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass (Is 48:4). This is another way of saying, “I know that you are stubborn. Like iron, you are hardheaded. Like bronze, nothing gets through your thick skull.” For many of us, this tendency to be stiff-necked is gradually softened by the power of grace, the medicine of the Sacraments, instruction by God’s Word, and the humility that can come from these.
But for some the stubbornness never abates. In fact it grows even stronger as a descent into pride and an increasing hard-heartedness sets up. The deeper this descent, the more obnoxious the truth seems and the less likely conversion. As things progress these people are not just resistant to the truth, but hostile to it. They harden their hearts, stiffen their necks, and at some point it would seem they reach the point of no return.
There are some texts in the Scriptures that speak of God Himself hardening the hearts of sinners. This is a very deep mystery and tied up in the deeper mystery of God’s primary causality of everything. But the text before us today emphasizes the hardening of the heart from the human perspective. And thus those of hardened hearts have closed their eyes lest they see. They don’t listen either lest they be confronted with something they would rather not hear and sense the need for repentance and conversion.
The Word of God can have no place in them for they altogether reject it and hence its offered power is cast aside.
B. Reflection – The text says, The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart (Matt 13:19). The Greek word translated here as “understand” is συνίημι (syniemi), which means to put (or set) together. Figuratively, it means to connect the dots, to synthesize. In other words, a person who does not “understand” gives little thought or reflection to the Word of God. He does not try to connect it to his life or understand its practical application. He does not “set it together” with his experience, or seek to apply it in his life. This Word will not last in him due to his inattentiveness to its meaning and its deeper role in his life. Thus the Word stays only on the surface and in the short-term memory. Satan is able to take it away quickly with little resistance from the man, who has not really connected it to his life anyway. Here, too, there can be little or no transformation, for the power of God’s Word is little appreciated and is not admitted into the deeper recesses of the man’s soul.
C. Rootlessness – The text says, The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away (Matt 13:20-21). The image here is of a plant that thrives when the weather is good and calm. But let the wind pick up and the plant blows away for lack of roots. There are some who can rejoice in the Word of God as along as it paints fair pictures and tickles their ears. But when the Word convicts them, or causes them any negative reaction within, or persecution without they scram. When the wind blows they are gone. A common line from the Old Spirituals says, “Some go to church for to sing and shout. Before six month’s they’s all turned out.” As long as the preacher speaks of “fair weather,” and there are no consequences to the Word, they’re shouting “Amen!” and singing the refrains of the songs. But let that preacher step on their toes or let someone in the world raise an eyebrow to them and they’re gone, gone with the wind. Here, too, the power of God’s Word to transform is cast aside.
D. Ripples – The text says, The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety … chokes it off (Matt 13:22). This describes people who are simply too distracted by the things of the world to spend time with the Word of God. They allow the water of their life to be rippled and disturbed and there is never enough calm for them to be reflective. They obsess over every small ripple that rocks the boat and do not trust God enough to relax and ponder His will and His Word. They are ever-busy making adjustments to their life and responding to the alarms of life. The word “distract” means to draw away. And hence they allow the world to draw them away from reflection on God’s Word. This, too, limits the transformative power of God’s Word.
E. Riches – The text also speaks of the lure of riches [which] choke the word and it bears no fruit (Matt 13:22). Riches divide the heart. Scripture says elsewhere, People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Tim 6:9-10). The Lord says, For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:21). Hence if our treasure is in riches, our heart will not be with God’s Word. Job says, I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12). Only with a heart set on God’s Word as a treasure will we hunger for it and reflect on it enough to be truly transformed by it.
III. Produce – The text says, But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear… the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold (Matt 13:23). Here then the promise is reiterated that the Word of God is powerful and will produce a radical transformation in us of thirty, sixty, or one hundredfold! Note that this is for those who receive the Word with understanding. That is, as we saw earlier, those with συνίημι (syniemi), with a will to connect the dots, to synthesize, those who seek to understand the Word and apply it to their life.
I am a witness to the power of God’s Word to transform life and to yield abundant fruit. I have learned to expect a lot from God’s Word: a new mind, a new heart, and a new life. And God has not failed me. I have seen my life change dramatically for the better in so many ways. God has been good to me and He has been true to His Word, which says, If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). I cannot take credit for this new life I have received. It is the gift of God and He has given it to me through the power of His Word and the grace of His Sacraments.
Yes, I am a witness; how about you?
This clip is from a performance of Handel’s Messiah and features the following: “The Lord gave the Word. Great was the company of the preachers!” It’s not as easy to sing as you might think. The long melismatic lines are difficult for the singers to coordinate while staying on tempo; it’s quite a little workout. Pray for fiery preachers!