Sermon for Sexagesima
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
February 7, 2010
Last Sunday morning in our Adult Education time following breakfast we took a look these three “gesima” Sundays which bridge the gap between Epiphany and Lent. We come this morning to the second of those, Sexagesima Sunday, which means that we are approximately sixty days from Easter. If you remember one of the points I made about this season of Church Year was the fact that the Daily Office this week began our readings again through the book of Genesis. We heard the story of Creation re-told; the Fall of Man through our first parents Adam and Eve; enmity between brothers in the death of Abel at the hands of Cain; yesterday we heard of God’s covenant with Noah and the preparation of the destruction of the world for man’s wickedness. One of the rationales we discussed as to why these passages are assigned for this time of year was the fact that as we prepare to experience the unfolding of the New Covenant established through our Lord’s death and passion, we might hear again the words of the Old Covenant and ground ourselves in the faithfulness of God from the very beginning.
In the middle of the nineteenth century the Church of England was going through a major shift in its theology, and a group of clergymen began to recognize that the Reformation might very well have sacrificed a bit too much sacramental theology. No pun intended there on the use of the word sacrifice, but it both meanings certainly apply! Anglicans such as Edward Pusey, John Henry Newman, and John Keble were among group of men who became the key players in what has been called The Oxford Movement or the Tractarians. This group followed along the same route as the Caroline Divines who preceded them by about a century. The churchmanship here at St. John’s would resemble that of the Divines or Tractarians with a high view of the Sacraments and a Eucharistically centered theology.
I mention this because of a sermon preached by The Rev. John Keble on this same Sunday some 150 years or so ago. He makes what I think to be a most profound observation in our parable and one that I’ve never heard expounded upon before. His analysis of the text begins right from the outset, and I think you’ll see quickly how he ties this observation to our Daily Office readings from Genesis this week.
Keble opens with these words
THE Holy Gospel here tells us of the beginning of one of our Blessed Lord’s sermons. “Much people were gathered together, and were come to Him out of every city:” (St. Luke viii. 4.) and when they were all in expectation, thus He began, “Hearken.” You may imagine how they listened, how every eye, ear, and mind, in that great multitude was fastened on Him, wondering what He might be going to say. And can you not also imagine, that when He went on and just told them, “A sower went forth to sow,” they might for a moment or two be surprised, and begin to say in their hearts, What is this? What has this to do with faith and religion and the service of God? “A sower went forth to sow!” well, that is no new thing: of course the sower goes out at the usual time of year to get the crop into the ground: and if he did not, we all know that we must do without bread: but the kingdom of God which this Jesus of Nazareth is preaching, we have always understood to be something new and strange, and we cannot imagine why He begins speaking of such an ordinary thing as sowing seed. They might say among themselves what was once said by the hearers of the prophet Ezekiel, “Wilt thou not tell us what these things are to us, that thou sayest so?” (Ezek. xxiv. 19.)
So he opens with these probing words setting the stage for this observation that he makes, and I find to be a brilliant exposition of the Scriptures, for he continues and says
Our Lord we know expounded it all to His disciples. But without going on now to that explanation, which you heard in the Gospel of the day, I wish you to consider only those simple words, “Behold, a sower went forth to sow.” You will find a great deal more in them than you might at first think; deep knowledge, warning of heavenly truth.
In the first place, the mere act of putting the seed into the ground is a lesson from Almighty God, to put us in mind of the fall of our first parents, and our sad condition in consequence of it. Before Adam fell, as you know, the Lord God Himself planted the trees upon the fruit whereof Adam was to live; no need for Adam to sow or set them in the ground, God caused them to grow there (as men speak) of their own accord: “every tree that was pleasant to the sight and good for food.” Adam had indeed to dress and keep the garden, but it was not in the way of toil or hard work : it was rather, as we may believe, in the way of service done to Almighty God the Owner of the garden; it was pleasurable exercise, not wearisome trouble: and having so done, he had but to put forth his hand, and take of all trees but one, and freely eat. But when they had unhappily listened to the enemy—when lust had brought sin, and sin death—all this as you know was changed; the sentence went out immediately, “Cursed is the ground:” and ever since the rule of this world has been, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” (Genesis iii. 19.) The ground, left to itself, as we all know, brings forth only thorns and thistles, nettles and all manner of weeds and rubbish: if you want good food out of it, “Wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man’s heart,” (Psalm civ. 15.) there must be ploughing, raking and harrowing, planting and sowing, fencing and weeding, and all the hard and anxious work of the farm and garden. And why should it be so? What reason is there in the nature of things, why a piece of ground left to itself should not bear wheat and barley, vines or good fruits, as well as nettles and brambles and all manner of weeds? You never can find any reason, but this one, that it so pleased God. It pleased God that the ground so left to itself without any sort of cultivation, should not ordinarily bring forth the food that is needed for man’s life. And why? For a token to us all how displeasing sin is to God: for a remembrance of His curse laid upon the earth for the first sinner’s sake. That curse is not worn out: this world indeed appears to grow on the whole, outwardly and bodily, more and more comfortable to live in, as fresh contrivances are found out, and civilization, as it is called, goes on: but still each new generation finds, as the former generation had done, that the old sentence remains, man’s life must be labour and sorrow. Earth, left to itself, will not feed him.
I hope that you see what Fr. Keble has done here with one phrase from Jesus’ parable. He has incorporated the two great themes Holy Scripture in one phrase. By saying that a Man goes out to scatter seed he incorporates for us the death/resurrection paradigm that is in fact the fundamental tenet of our faith. We who were dead and constantly die to sin are being raised to newness of life through the life of the one who scatters the seed. We who say our daily prayers, who come to this Holy Altar to receive again the life-giving Body and Blood of our Lord, who give for the work and ministry of the church, who share this gift with others are that good seed which has in fact fallen on good soil and begun to take root. In continuing to do those very same things we are being watered, nurtured, and nourished so that we might bring forth good fruit which is what we are called upon to bear.
Without the scattering of new seed, we are left to make it on our own, and this leads to one place only, death and destruction. Rather than being forced to confront a hopeless situation, we are given the lifeline that we desperately need, and the source of strength for us to be able to allow God to plough, rake, harrow, weed, and till within our own lives so that we can begin to follow in our Lord’s footsteps and start to sow those same seeds as his fellow sowers of the Word and stewards in his harvest.
Fr. Keble closes his sermon with a series of questions for his congregation then and are appropriate for us to hear this morning. He says
God’s tender love and favour [is] toward those who take an interest in [His crop]….Even the least little prayer and endeavour to promote the working of God’s word on your own and other men’s hearts, our dear Lord will take kindly; He will not forget it: in its way it will bring you a blessing. It is said to such, Ye “are labourers together with God.” (1 Cor. iii. 9.) What an honour is that, my brethren, and at the same time what a great thing to answer for! Think of it in this way! Most of you are labouring men : you work for this master and that: but remember that after all there are but two masters. Under which are you now working? Whose wages are you now earning?
He closes with those two daunting questions. They are daunting questions because the answer has eternal consequences. As we heard in the parable there were four types of soils, and only one of the four brought forth increase. 75% of the seed scattered fell on ground that was incapable of growth and fruit. Today, as we leave this altar, as we leave this service, as we prepare to embark upon the challenges which will confront us this week, may our prayer be one which seeks God’s grace to continue to prepare the good soil of our hearts to receive more and more of the seed that will produce the true vine which is Jesus Christ our Lord; that we might be grafted to that never failing source of life and nourishment; that we might accept with humility and joy the great benefit that is ours to be fellow labourers with God in this business of saying to the world, “Hearken: Behold a sower went forth to sow his seed.”
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. +
******Sermon text from The Rev. John Keble can be found at www.lectionarycentral.com under the Sexagesima link**********