Sunday, November 14, 2010

On Proclamation and Persuasion

In the year 1989, the second major International Congress on World Evangelization met in Manila in the Philippines to take up where they'd left off at the first such congress, which met in 1974 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Where the first International Congress on World Evangelization released a document called the Lausanne Covenant, the second such Congress released a document called the Manila Manifesto. I happen to think that both of these documents are powerfully written and right on the money, and today I'd like to ponder one of my favorite quotes from the Manila Manifesto. It says:

The good news must be boldly proclaimed, wherever possible, in church and in public halls, on radio and television, and in the open air, because it is God's power for salvation and we are under obligation to make it known. In our preaching we must faithfully declare the truth which God has revealed in the Bible and struggle to relate it to our own context.

We also affirm that apologetics, namely "the defence and confirmation of the gospel", is integral to the biblical understanding of mission and essential for effective witness in the modern world. Paul "reasoned" with people out of the Scriptures, with a view to "persuading" them of the truth of the gospel. So must we. In fact, all Christians should be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them.

I really want to leap into that second paragraph there, but I think maybe we should take our time and go in order. What do we need to do? We need to proclaim the good news. First of all, let's stop there for a moment. How often do we think of the Christian message as "news" these days? It seems these days that most folks consider it totally 'old hat', yesterday's news, but outdated for today. But it isn't! And it isn't just a 'lifestyle' either; it's a 'message', something you can say or write. And we're supposed to say it! We're supposed to talk about it! But why? Well, first of all, because it's good news. It isn't just some interesting story that you might find tucked on page C5 in the local newspaper. This is front-page stuff, and anyone who's got a good grasp on reality and who reads that headline in faith - "Jesus, Promised Messiah, Dies to Save Everything, Defeats Death; Declared by God to be King over Heaven and Earth" - should have the same reaction that a parent might get when they've lost their toddler in a dangerous part of town, and then find the child happily standing on a street corner, safe and sound; or that a person might feel when they've been suffering for ages from a painful, lethal disease, and suddenly the doctor announces that the medicine is working and they're going to be cured. This is powerful news, wonderful news, marvelous, miraculous, stunningly significant news!

Where should we talk about the good news? Is it something that we should chit-chat about amongst ourselves in cozy, air-conditioned and heated church buildings, and then leave thinking that it can wait again until next week? No! We definitely must talk about it in church. But we also should be talking about it in public halls; it should be on the radio and the television - the real deal, not the counterfeit 'get rich quick: use God for fun and profit!!!' schemes of so many popular televangelists - and it should be spoken in the open air. Indoors and outdoors, in person or on the media, and these days even on the Internet, we need to be sharing the message. From hi-tech to low-tech, leave no tech unused!

So that answers the what and the where, but why? Why should we be spreading this message around? Because it saves. A compassionate person who knows what can help other people will judiciously share that news with others. If I've found out about a really great bargain at the local store and I know that my neighbor is in real need of what the store's got, I should let them know! And more than that, the good news isn't just good news that saves; it's God's power for salvation. The message we're spreading? That is the saving, freeing, liberating might of a God who could easily call entire galaxies into existence from absolutely nothing without the slightest strain or effort. And is it just a nice thing for us to spread it, something we could do if we wanted to be especially nice? No. No, we are obligated to make it known, to make absolutely sure that the whole world has heard the message, whether they believe it or not. It's not an option, like, "Oh, well I could either be a Christian who stays real quiet about it, or I could be a Christian who tells other people about the news." That's not a choice we have. The first person is by definition not being a faithful disciple of Jesus. Only the second one is. This is not a suggestion, it's an order.

When we declare the message, we need to faithfully declare it as truth. It sometimes seems these days that "truth" is not a popular idea. Some folks think that there's something very evil about claiming to have the truth. After all, if on some issue we have the truth, and other people have different ideas, then those ideas are... wait for it... wrong! (Any of you pass out from the sheer shock of it all?) But let's face it, virtually everyone should recognize that there's such a thing as truth. For instance, take the statement "Grover Cleveland lived in the United States of America". That is actually saying something about the way reality is (or, in this case, was). Once you understand what it means, then it's obvious that it can be either true or false. If it's true, then it's true, period. If it's false, then it's false, period. But what it can't be is true-for-me and false-for-you. You might not believe it to be true, but that doesn't make Grover Cleveland suddenly a Pakistani shepherd! Or take another statement: "There is no such thing as absolute truth." First, you have to understand what the terms mean - for instance, that by "absolute truth" we're meaning a statement that has a truth-value independently of any contingent being's assessment of it's truth-value - and then you can see that either it's absolutely true that there's no such thing as absolute truth (in which case, there really is, so then it's false after all), or it's false that there's no such thing as absolute truth (in which case, there really is such a thing as absolute truth). And what Christians are declaring is just such a message. It makes a claim about the way things really are. It could be true; or, it could be partly true and partly false; or, it could just be wrong. But there's nothing somehow bad about claiming that something is absolutely true, though there is, I think, something bad about not being willing to hear what other people have to say on the issue and being willing to be somehow affected by it.

Furthermore, this truth is truth which God has revealed in the Bible. I've known a lot of professing Christians who have said to me that they don't really care what the Bible says on [pick an issue of choice], for some reason that usually amounts to, "Well I don't like not being the boss." And that is a sad, sad, sad thing, because that is not the heart of a disciple. That is not the attitude that Jesus had towards the Scriptures, and it isn't the attitude that a disciple of Jesus should have towards the Scriptures either. Now, before you get too far, does this mean that every Christian has to be a biblical inerrantist, so that if - for example - there's some mistake somewhere in 2 Chronicles, then Jesus didn't rise from the dead and doesn't now rule as Lord? Think for just a moment how ridiculous that is. Instead of worrying about whether the Bible is inerrant, what Christians can and should agree on is that it's authoritative. We do not get to just make up whatever we want. If the Bible says, 'X is a sin', and if our best methods of sifting the text give us every reason to believe that that's still true today, then it's time to face the facts, quit living in la-la land, and deal with it.

And thus, Christians are called to struggle to take what the Bible actually says - which of course requires that we do the serious work required to understand it, rather than being lazy like so many Christians who think that real study of the Bible is and should be forever beyond them because it goes over their head now and they don't really care enough to try to learn something for a change - and accept that that's really what it says, and that the Bible is not something we can discard at random. But then we must also struggle to take what we've seen there and figure out how to apply that to where we are today. A lot of Christians have a "the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it" mentality. And I'm not saying that there isn't some truth in there. But it also isn't sufficient. Very, very few Christians believe that everything in the Bible is equally applicable to today's situation in the exact same way. The Bible itself says otherwise, since obviously the Old Testament distinguishes between the circumcised people of God and those 'uncircumcised Philistines', while the New Testament says that you can be part of the people of God and keep your foreskin too, so long as you have the reality to which circumcision was pointing all along: namely, a heart, a center of being and willing, that's allowed the Spirit of God to come to it and to remove everything that might hinder it from being a public witness to a covenant made with God. And then there are the sacrificial laws, and plenty of others. Is this always an easy task? No. And that's especially true for people who don't study how to do it. But as Christians, we need to be able to faithfully relate the Bible to our context in ways that are accurate to how God would intend us to do it.

But that's not all! The Manila Manifesto next goes on to talk about something called apologetics. That's not a very common word; what does it mean? Well, the Manifesto defines it as "the defence and confirmation of the gospel". The word 'apologetics' comes from the Greek word apologia, meaning 'defense'. It's the name of one of Plato's works, the Apology, which was not about Socrates saying he was sorry for being so annoying all the time, but instead was about Socrates' speech in his defense when he was on trial. There are a lot of people out there these days who would love to put Christianity on trial, whether in the media or in the classroom or just in general. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, etc., etc., etc.... there are a lot of them. And beneath all the plentiful rhetoric and bluster and irrational outrage, sometimes - whether intentionally or by accident - they actually make a case (almost always a weak one) against the Christian faith. You could say that they're acting as the prosecution. And Christians are called upon to speak up for the defense, to answer the charges. And even more than that, Christians are at times called upon to make their own positive case for Christianity and against other rival ideas. Christians are called to argue. That doesn't mean that we're called to be abrasive, arrogant, annoying, loud, or obnoxious; it means that we're called to present our case, our reasons, for the position we've taken.

Now, one of the phrases that gets bandied around pretty often is, "You can't argue somebody into the kingdom." And that's true. There's no amount of arguing that can bring somebody to faith, all on its own and without the involvement of the Spirit and their own free will. You also can't love somebody into the kingdom. There's no amount of love you can give that is sure to bring somebody to faith in Jesus, apart from the work of the Spirit and their own choice in the matter. The same is true of preaching. The same is true of quoting the Bible. The same is true of, well, anything you can do. So does that mean you shouldn't preach, or love, or witness? Nope! The Spirit can use those fruitfully to bring a person to the point where they have the option of whether or not to respond - and the same goes for arguing/apologetics.

Another thing that gets thrown around a lot is, "Oh, well, you just have to have faith." And it's true; we do need to have faith. But that means real faith, not misdefined faith. Faith essentially means our trust and our loyalty to someone or something. When we have faith in God, we're loyal to him (which is why obedience is a crucial component of a living faith, and why "faith without works is dead" - James 2:26); we also trust in God, which means not only that we trust in his capacity to save us and his love for us, but also that we trust him to be faithful to his promises and to be truthful to us when he speaks. Nothing in that means that we're supposed to do things contrary to reason. Nothing in that means that we should just will ourselves to believe things really really hard. Faith is a proper component in a rational life - and, as my favorite quote from Galileo runs in part, "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." We can, at least in part, use reason to help us realize that God exists, that God can be trusted, and that he actually has (or hasn't) said what we think he's said. Nowhere does the Bible command us to believe things without good reason; nowhere. It is, after all, a book where God tells people, "Come now, let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18). If faith were believing things for no good reason, the Bible would not have told us to be faithful!

But back to the Manila Manifesto. We've mentioned what apologetics is and looked at two common objections to it, and both fail. Furthermore, as the Manifesto itself points out, apologetics is very, very biblical! Over and over again in Acts, we see Paul going into new places and immediately reasoning with people to try to rationally persuade them that the Christian message is true. In Thessalonica, Paul "went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead" (Acts 17:2-3). In Athens, Paul "reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him" (Acts 17:17-18). In Corinth, too, Paul "reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks" (Acts 18:4). At Ephesus, Paul "went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews" (Acts 18:19). And Paul is not alone! An Alexandrian Jew named Apollos became a Christian and swiftly was noted as a very capable apologist; the Bible says that Apollos "was a great help to those who by grace had believed" precisely because Apollos "vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah" (Acts 18:27-28).

Now, not all people were convinced, even by Paul and Apollos, and the Parable of the Soils helps us understand why. But note the contrast between the people in Thessalonica and the people in Berea who eagerly accepted Paul's message, after they checked it against Scripture and saw that it matched up - and the Bible praises the Bereans for that. This work was not without success! So the alleged ineffectiveness of apologetics also can't be used to discredit it. The Bible is pretty clear that apologetics is a good thing. This is why the Manila Manifesto is able to say that apologetics is "integral to the biblical understanding of mission". The evangelists of the early church did not simply walk around proclaiming the message; they made a case for the message; they offered people reasons why they ought to accept it. A crucial aspect of the mission that the Church has is apologetics.

Evangelism used to be very apologetic in nature - and we still often need the same today, where it's called for. And it's for good reason that the Manila Manifesto says that apologetics is "essential for effective witness in the modern world", and that "all Christians should be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them". (The last quote, by the way, draws on 1 Peter 3:15: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have"; the word 'reason' here is apologia, the Greek word from which we get 'apologetics'.) This is not an option; this is not something that is good for some Christians who are really into that sort of stuff. Apologetics of some sort is a task given to all Christians in some capacity, just as serving others and witnessing are. Now, not all of us have an equal capacity for all of those, nor do all of us have a particular desire to do all of those. But we all have all of those callings. And apologetics is also important. In today's world, Christianity has many challengers. There are plenty of worldviews that reject important aspects of the Christian message; Christianity is not the only message vying for your obedience, or my obedience, or your neighbor's obedience. There's Islam, and Buddhism, and atheism (including, of course, the 'new atheism'), and scientism/verificationism, and relativism and various strains of postmodern thought, and a wide range of others; and then within the church, many of the ancient heresies still exist - both at the lay level in regular churches, as well as in unorthodox religious movements that some people call "cults" (though I don't think that's an accurate use of the word) - to compete with the orthodox faith that was "once for all entrusted to God's holy people" (Jude 3). And Christians need to be equipped to deal with living in the presence of other religions and other worldviews. That is not just recommended; it is essential for effective witness - because many people these days are not in a position where they will simply come to faith the moment they hear someone mention Jesus. They may need some persuading as a part of the evangelistic process that, by the grace of God and through the work of his Spirit on that person's heart, may in due time bring them to a point where they, too, are ready to begin a life of Christian discipleship. So, to reiterate:

The good news must be boldly proclaimed, wherever possible,
in church and in public halls, on radio and television, and in the open air,
because it is God's power for salvation and we are under obligation to make it known.
In our preaching we must faithfully declare the truth which God has revealed in the Bible
and struggle to relate it to our own context.
We also affirm that apologetics, namely "the defence and confirmation of the gospel",
is integral to the biblical understanding of mission and essential for effective witness in the modern world.
Paul "reasoned" from people out of the Scriptures, with a view to "persuading" them of the truth of the gospel.
So must we. In fact, all Christians should be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Trinity and Creation Out of Nothing

Today I'd like to start talking about some things that Christians* believe - some things that a lot of people assume are just dusty, archaic, impractical ideas that people debate for no good reason and which don't have any real significance, but which really make all the difference in the world.

[* I'm talking about "what Christians believe" here, and what I mean is what has been handed down as agreed-upon Christian doctrine from ancient times all the way up to the present; these things are shared by Roman Catholics, by Orthodox (Greek, Russian, or otherwise), by all sorts of Protestants, and even sometimes by other Christian groups outside of those broad families. These are truly ecumenical doctrines, and they are definitely not theological novelties. Speaking of these as what Christians believe isn't meant here to suggest automatically that someone who rejects some of these beliefs is therefore obviously not saved. They may very well be; they may be true disciples of Christ for all I know. But they don't hold to the historic orthodox faith, which is what I'm concerned with here.]

One thing that Christians have historically believed is the doctrine, or teaching, of creatio ex nihilo. That's a fancy Latin phrase meaning "creation out of nothing". Now, that doesn't mean that God took a big fistful of a stuff called 'nothing', and then poof! he turned it into a universe. That's crazy talk. What it does mean is this. The world has, in some sense, a beginning. Christians have often held that it had a first period of time to its existence, and in many respects it's gotten some strong scientific support from modern cosmology. So 'before' that beginning to the world, God was all there was. It's not like, pre-universe, there was God plus a lot of other stuff lying around. No, God is the only eternal reality, not God plus matter. There was nothing that just happened, lucky for God, to be there so that God could make stuff with it. When it came to creating the world, it was entirely God's decision for there to exist anything but God. If God had wanted, he was totally free to not create anything. And if he'd made that call, then eternally there would be only God - and that's it, because that's enough. (More on that in a moment.) God has no equals. Nothing but God's own self, or aspects of his own self, can be co-equal with God, because only God is a necessary being. And God did not need anything outside of himself in order to create. That's the main lesson we get from creatio ex nihilo - as opposed to the idea, which the early Christians rejected, of creatio ex materia, which would have meant that God had some matter existing eternally and independently alongside of God that he used to make the world. Like I said, there was no such matter; God made that, too. And what that teaches us is that everything that exists is dependent on God. Nothing is independent of him. We are dependent on God for our existence. God created us, and he is absolutely responsible for the fact that we exist; we are dependent and contingent and merely temporal, while God is independent and necessary and eternal. Like Christian philosopher Peter Van Inwagen said:

To say that God is the creator of all things besides himself is not to say that he formed them out of some pre-existent stuff, like the cosmic craftsman of the Timaeus. If there is a God, then there never was a chaos of prime matter that existed independently of his power and his will, waiting through an eternity of years for him to impress form on it. This could not be, for, if there is a God, nothing does or could exist independently of his will or independently of his creative power. God creates things from the ground up, ontologically speaking. His creation is, as they say, ex nihilo.1

Two other Christian philosophers have similarly noted:

For the author of Genesis 1, no preexistent material seems to be assumed, no warring gods or primordial dragons are present - only God, who is said to "create" (bara, a word used only with God as its subject and which does not presuppose a material substratum) "the heavens and the earth" (eth hassamayim we'eth ha'arets, a Hebrew expression for the totality of the world or, more simply, the universe). Moreover, this act of creation took place "in the beginning" (bereshith, used here as in Is 46:10 to indicate an absolute beginning). The author thereby implies creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) in the temporal sense that God brought the universe into being without a material cause at some point in the finite past.2

So God did not need anything outside of himself to create, but Christians also believe that God did not need anything outside of himself for any other reason either - including his own happiness, or fulfillment, or for relationships. God is not just a God of love; God is essentially love. He doesn't need or require us, because everything needed for relationship, he has eternally had within his own being, within his self. What Christian teaching says that? Turns out it's a pretty famous one: the Trinity. That's right, the doctrine of the Trinity isn't just some academic thing that theologians talked about and argued over for ages simply to hear themselves talk or find something to fight over. It's actually important! It's important because, for one, it shows us that relationship isn't something that required creation. It's not as if God was forced to create because he got bored. God could never be bored because God's life is the eternally blessed communion of the Father with the Son and the Spirit, of the Son with the Father and the Spirit, and of the Spirit with the Father and the Son. And it's not as if God felt lonely; how could God feel lonely when he is, in his very character, relational within himself? So what this shows us is, first, that God does not need us for companionship or for anything else. God has everything it takes to be completely and perfectly fulfilled, and he had it eternally and necessarily. If he didn't, then he wouldn't be eternally and necessarily perfect, which is also something that Christians believe about God. What it also shows us is that God is and has always been perfect relationship in himself, from before the world began, and that when he freely chose to create a world, he created it in a way that reflects his nature. We were not made to be alone, because God is not alone. We were made to be in community because God himself is Community. And God created us so that he could enter into contingent and free relationships with us - not because he needed to, but because he freely chose to - and so that he can by grace bring us as contingent partners to share in the community of the Trinity. Think about that. God called us so that by grace we can share in the relationships that are from everlasting to everlasting, so that we can be brought into the communion of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit! This participation in God's inner life, as participants who have been freely invited by God from the outside, is a large part of what ancient Greek-speaking Christians - as well as Orthodox Christians today - call theosis, 'deification'/'divinization'. That doesn't mean that we become God by nature - we don't get to be omnipotent, for example, nor do we get to become the source of all things that exist, or uncreated, or anything like that - but it does mean that we get to share in some profound ways in who God is, as an act of God's grace.

Now, all those ancient heresies that some people who haven't done their history homework think were valid forms of Christian belief but were oh-so-brutally repressed by those evil orthodox Christians who wanted to control everyone? ("Help! Help! I'm being repressed!") Those heresies don't give you this. Take Sabellianism, for example. That's an ancient heresy, also known as 'modalism', that taught that there was really only one person who was God, and that when you saw the 'Father' and the 'Son' and the 'Holy Spirit' in the Bible, this was just one divine person playing a bunch of different roles, like a guy with a puppet in each hand, pretending to have real conversations with them - but really, there's only one center of consciousness there, only one person, so there's no actual relationship going on. That's what a lot of Christians mistakenly think the Trinity is, but it isn't. Jesus was not praying to himself, he was praying to a distinct person: his Father. There are real relationships between them. If Sabellianism were true, then if God hadn't created, he might well have gotten lonely; he could not have had a relationship unless he created something to have one with. And in a real sense, that would mean that God would have been in need, and therefore not perfect. And that God could never have a rich enough inner life to invite us to share in; it would forever be closed to us. Not only would that God be too small, so would the salvation he offers. Sadly, modalism of some form is still with us today in the teachings of the United Pentecostal Church International as well as other Oneness Pentecostal groups, as well as in the personal beliefs of a lot of well-meaning Christians who haven't been taught well enough to know better.

Or take Arianism, for example. This was the heresy that the Council of Nicaea fought in the year 325. Arius, a church elder from Alexandria in Egypt, taught that the Father was the uncreated God, but that the Son was a lesser created god who wasn't eternal like the Father. And because the Son was of a different essence from the Father, the Son couldn't know the Father perfectly; there are some things about God, in other words, that even Jesus doesn't get, and so he can't perfectly reveal God to us. What's worse, only God is eternally perfectly good; all other created agents can choose to fall away. What this meant for Arius was that it's theoretically possible for Jesus to rebel against the Father just like Satan did - and if he does, then say goodbye to your salvation. (Oh, and also, since only the one true God is worthy of worship, if you've ever worshipped Jesus, you're an idolater. Congratulations! The early Arians actually tried to hang on to some form of worship of Jesus, but they ultimately couldn't escape the logical consequences of their views.) And if you believe that Jesus is the Word/Reason (Logos) and Wisdom of God, like the New Testament says and the church recognized, then to believe that Jesus is a created being means that God was once totally speechless, irrational, and foolish until he created Jesus. This is why early Arians had to resort to saying that God had an uncreated Word/Wisdom as well as a created word/wisdom, and that Jesus is the second one instead of the first.

Note that this all means that Arianism has nothing better to offer than Sabellianism here. God in eternity is still a solitary individual without a robust inner life of relationship and community, and he can't bring us into a divine community by grace. Add to that all the other problems with what Arius was teaching, and you can see why the church had to make a big fuss about it! So when the Nicene Creed said that the Son is "of the same essence as the Father", using the Greek word homoousios, they were safeguarding what they knew about Jesus and his eternal relationship to the Father, as well as the fact that the church had always worshipped the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (which is why when some heretics decided to concede when it came to Jesus and go after the Spirit instead - they were called 'Pneumatomachians', or 'those who fight against the Spirit' - they didn't get any further). Sadly, forms of Arianism are still with us today among Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians, and a bunch of other sects, as well as probably a lot of uninformed Christians in the pews.

Sabellianism can't give you a God of eternal community. Neither can Arianism. Neither can other anti-Trinitarian ideas such as tritheism, which is any belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three totally separate gods. Aside from the fact that this is obviously not what Christians have ever believed, each of these 'gods' would be incomplete without the others. None of them has relationship within his own self, his own divine essence. And so while they might be able to invite you to join their society and become a peer, it isn't their inner life that you're entering into. And there's also the possibility that, unless they are necessarily always in agreement, they'll fight and break off their relationships - and then where would we be? But if they are necessarily in agreement, and if they do share an inner life, and if they're all co-eternal and mutually related, then really they aren't three gods but one God, just as the doctrine of the Trinity says.

None of these false theologies, these heresies, can give you what orthodox Christianity can. And in my opinion, not only is the doctrine of the Trinity better grounded in what the Bible teaches, but the doctrine of the Trinity is simply more beautiful, more promising, and more meaningful. There really are practical implications to believing in these things; don't let anyone try to tell you otherwise. Only the doctrine of the Trinity, coupled with creatio ex nihilo, speaks to you about one God who has no needs, who exists eternally as Community - which means that our relationships on earth are a reflection of something divine. And only these doctrines affirm God's true freedom, independence, and unique eternity in creating. And only these doctrines offer you the hope of being invited to participate by grace in the Community of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, in which they eternally participate by nature.

1 Peter Van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil: The Gifford Lectures Delivered at the University of St Andrews in 2003 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2006), 29.
2 J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 554.

So This Guy Goes Out to Sow Some Seed...

Alright, alright, listen up, I've got a story for you, so get this image in your head: So there's this guy, alright? He's out working hard in the field sowing seed; it's planting time. Think of him out there, hard at work beneath the hot sun. He's got this big bag that's full of the stuff he's sowing, and he just reaches in, grabs handful after handful, and tosses it all over the dirt; he figures he can come back later and plow it all into the earth. So this guy, he doesn't worry about where it lands; there's plenty of seed to go around. Now some of his seed is gonna just land on the path in the field where he's walking, or right next to the path - somewhere that isn't for planting. The seed lands on that ground, but that kind of ground can't receive it, can't take it in. Does the seed make any difference to the ground at all? No way. It just lies there, inert, useless, until finally some birds swoop down from the sky and peck it up. Then what's the deal with that ground? Absolutely nothing. One thing's for sure: nothing's gonna grow there.

But okay, okay, the path isn't the only place seed can land, is it? Some of the field is pretty rocky - just a layer of topsoil over a layer of hard rock. So some of the seed lands there and gets plowed in, and that's good, right? But what happens once the seed gets in there? It doesn't get in very deep, does it? Well the top layer of soil gets pretty hot from the sunlight, so the seed germinates real quick and starts growing, it shoots up fast like it's eager to get to the surface. But look! Where do the roots go? The rock blocks them from getting deep into the dirt to get nutrients. So then there's this plant there for a while, it grows up quickly and all that, but it's got terrible roots! Now maybe when it's raining and cool out, that's no problem, you don't need good roots to deal with most of that. But what happens to the plant when it gets hot and dry and the sun's just beating down on this poor thing? There's not much moisture in that dry soil! So the plant gets all dried out and withers up. What good is that to the farmer? None at all.

Now alright, not all soil is rocky. There's some much better dirt the seed can land on, and some probably would, right? Now in a lot of fields, you're gonna have some patches with these nasty thorny bushes growin' in 'em, so what about the seed that lands in those parts? Well it'll sure sink into the soil, that's a plus, and it might not grow as fast as the seed that falls in rocky soil, but it'll have much better roots. But look! These thorns are gonna keep growing, and if you watch, they'll grow up over some of the plants and hog all the sunlight, and their roots will wrap around the roots of the good plants and get in there with 'em and hog all the water, too! So maybe those plants will grow, but bit by bit the plants get just strangled by these thorns. So what good is the plant? What kind of crop are you gonna get from something that's dying because other stuff is stealing its sun and water? That's not gonna help the farmer either!

But don't you worry about the farmer; see, this guy knows what he's doing. What's left of the field is good soil, right, it doesn't have rocks or any other plants growing there. So what's to stop the seed from sprouting? Nothing! That's the beauty of it. In good soil, this stuff he's planting just flourishes! It grows and grows and grows - and it's good stuff! The seed gets into the soil, it gets down in there, the soil receives it. The sprouting seed works its roots all throughout the soil so that it can draw up enough water into itself - and that way when hot, dry days come along, the plants won't wither up and give in; they'll keep growing anyway! See, this soil is good soil, so it doesn't put up much resistance to the roots. And since this soil is good soil, there aren't any weeds or thorns or thistles or any of that junk growing there. This is not land where the sower's crop has to share space with anything else, or compete with anything else. No, the sower's crop gets the whole plot to itself! And what happens when the crop gets the plot all to itself like that? It grows and grows and grows and grows until it matures and turns into a bountiful, flourishing crop, bearing its fruit in abundance - so much so that it more than compensates for the seed the sower lost on all the ground that wasn't good for it! Now we can see that the sower wasn't crazy, casting his seed from one and to the other without worrying which kind of ground it was gonna fall on. He knew what he was doing all along!

So that's my story, but what's it meant? The seed he's planting is the announcement we've all been waiting for. We live in a good world, but bad things, horrible things, happen because we decided we didn't want to live under God's rule; we didn't want God to be king over us. And so we rebelled. But God always promised that he wouldn't leave us to our own devices forever; he'd show us the error of our ways and would come and invite us back and establish his rule again, bit by bit. And the announcement we've been waiting for is that God's coming to reign at last, and so we'd better be ready to live that way, and not like the rebels we've been. That's the message that a wandering sage named Jesus started to spread thousands of years ago among the people God had chosen to bless the whole world through. And that's the message that Jesus sent his students to spread after they'd learned about it from him. But that's not all there was to the message. Jesus also told a lot of stories to show people what God's rule is like - and as it turns out, it looks a whole lot different than pretty much everybody had always figured it would. Instead of looking like God storming in and smashing up on everybody who's been picking on his people, it looked a lot like God sneaking in and letting all those bad guys - and even his own people! - smash him up instead. It looked a lot like a big failure, but it would turn out to be the great victory. And this topsy-turvy reign of God was going to come, Jesus said, through him! So that's the message that this sower is spreading: "Hey, you! You've been living like a rebel, not like a loyalist to God - and he's on his way to stop your great secession, so if you know what's up, you'll do an about-face pronto. God's rule has shown up on your doorstep, and you didn't even know it because it didn't look a thing like you wanted it to! And God started it through Jesus, his anointed son - the one you've been waiting for is here!"

So the sower, then, is anybody who spreads this message - but even if they get it exactly right, even if they're as convincing as could be, plenty of people are still going to miss out. Some people, like the dirt alongside the path, are packed so hard that there's no room for the message to even get into them. They aren't open to it. It takes effort to get your head around this shocking news, and they just aren't willing. So the message may hit their ears, but it won't stick around. The subtle powers that don't want God's rule to come can easily swoop in and snatch it away. And then some people, like the thin dirt on top of rocks, do accept the message gladly, but they don't really get it. They've got something in them that won't let it get any deeper, so the message does good in their lives when things are well and cool and all that jazz... but the moment things get too hot to handle, these fair-weather followers fall to the wayside. They're in for the good, but as soon as they realize that the message calls for putting up with a lot of hot, dry days, they drop it like a hot potato. And then there are other folks, like the thorn-infested plots, who don't have that problem. It's not that these people don't let the message in, it's not that the good news doesn't set up shop there. Don't get me wrong, it does, but they've got a whole 'nother problem. The kingdom message ain't the only message vying for their attention, and they've let a bunch of other messages - like the familiar story that it's all about take, take, take; or the story that he who has the best toys wins; or any of those old lies - set up shop there too! There's competition - and God's rule wants the whole plot, not just what other things leave aside. So these folks are trying to invest their resources in God's kingdom plus all this other junk, and that's a loser's bid. Can't pull it off. So they may have received the message, but they didn't really get it and follow through, and so it won't bear fruit there.

But then there are other folks who are like good soil. When the good news gets to them, they really get it. The message gets into them, so the anti-God forces out there can't just swipe it away and pretend it never happened. The message gets its roots deep into them; there's nothing blocking it, because these folks aren't shallow. For these people, it's about more than an emotional high. God's rule isn't about signing up and feeling splendiferous for the rest of your life; it's about dying and rising with Jesus the Messiah. It's about becoming like Jesus in his agonies and his tears and his anguish so that we can become like him in his victories and his shouts of joy and his indestructible life of power becoming fuller, not emptier, when poured out in love. So the message gets its roots into these people, and then when they suffer for trusting Jesus and giving him their loyalty as their Lord - because that's what faith is all about - they don't dry up, give up, wither up; they stick with it no matter how many difficult days come through. And the message that brooks no competitors finally finds that these people have no plans to provide it with competitors. Their lives, their plots, have no thorns, no other things striving against the rule of God. You can't serve God and something else that isn't God, be it Mammon or Pleasure or Convenience or Independence or Selfhood or any of those other lame counterfeits that only look so tempting because we haven't yet really seen for ourselves how the reign of God is so fully of the realities of which all rival masters are cheap replicas. "Accept no substitutes" is the wisdom these 'good soil' people live by. Their lives are devoted to God's rule, no matter what comes their way, and they're willing to go through the effort to grasp the message in both their minds and in their acts. So what's the consequence of that? These are fruitful people! You just won't believe how productive they are when you really see them as they are. And when it comes to God and his rule, these people are the ones God has good reason to consider finally useful - because they yielded to his message.

So what's the point of this whole story? First of all, now that you've heard the message, what kind of soil are you going to be? Are you like the soil of the path - never yielding, never receiving, never comprehending, and so never finding out what it's like to even have growth? Or are you maybe like the rocky soil - so shallow that while your growth looks amazing at first and everybody's impressed, it turns out that you never really got the meaning after all, or else you would've let the message penetrate you deeper, and now that times are tough, you're ready to throw in the towel? Or are you maybe instead like the thorny ground - you've received the good news, you're planning on sticking with it, but there are so many other things you want to serve too, so instead of giving everything over to God's rule, this message has to compete with all the clutter in your life? Or are you - praise God! - like the good soil - yielding to the message, taking it in, letting it get deeply into you, not keeping anything back from it, so that when all's said and done, you're the one with real results to show for it all? Be those people; don't be the other people. And if you're like those people, the 'good soil' people, then you'll want to go and share this message with others. Go, do it, and do it as effectively as you can! Train well, go forth, and serve! But don't labor under the delusion that if you were only a bit more persuasive or skilled, everyone would accept the message. Many just aren't ready for it - but those who are, are blessed indeed.