Why You Should Stop Trying To Be Good Soil

Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” – Mark 4:8-9

As someone with no background in farming and absolutely no clue how farming works, it’s probably unwise for me to blog about a parable rooted in this line of work. But I’m a brave soul, so here it goes.

The natural inclination is to read this parable, compare the soils, and say, “I want to be the last one? How do I do that?” We all want to be good soil. We want to yield a good crop. There is a problem, however.

Soil can’t make itself good, and neither can you.

Soil has to have both the benefits of nature and the hard work of the farmer to be good. So if we are the soil in the parable, and we want to be good, what do we do?

The danger in reading Scripture is that we tend to take it in chunks that were never meant to be separated from a longer dialogue. This is one of those cases. This parable is situated amidst a larger dialogue, and it is helpful to look at the rest of the conversation to get at what Jesus is trying to say.

In the same dialogue, Jesus talks about a lamp, a growing seed, and a mustard seed. He tells the disciples (and us) that truth will not be kept hidden, that a seed will grow in ways mysterious to the grower, and that even the smallest of seeds yields a massive harvest.

According to Jesus, this is also how it works in the Kingdom.

Simply put, if you want to be good soil, seek the truth of the Kingdom. It will reveal the kind of soil you are. Trust that this truth will go to work in ways you will not understand and that even the seemingly insignificant events of your life can be orchestrated by God to have significant impact on you and your world.

You cannot make yourself good soil, but through Christ, God is already at working preparing you for the fruit that will bring a harvest for the Kingdom.

What Will You Do With Your Freedom?

“Pilate said to them, ‘Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ All of them said, ‘Let him be crucified!’” – Matthew 27:22

Imagine yourself sitting in jail cell. Every convict will claim he is innocent, but deep down, you know the truth. You are and have been found guilty of that which you have been charged, and the punishment is death.

Outside, a crowd has gathered. You aren’t sure why, but you are the notorious criminal, so you are sure they are there for you. They want to see justice done. You hear them shouting, “Barabbas! Barabbas!” It’s your name on their lips.

You can’t make out everything being said, but you hear the dull roar, and then you hear a chant that sends a chill down your spine and strikes fear in your heart.

“CRUCIFY HIM! CRUCIFY HIM!”

Crucifixion is the most horrific way to die, and you had hoped for something more swift, more humane. But your crime mandated the worst punishment. An example needed to be set.

As you stand near the narrow slit that has been your window for months, you hear marching coming down the hall. They are coming for you. The guard’s key slides into the lock and turns, and the door to your cell opens. You drop to your knees to beg for mercy, even though you know your fate is sealed. Then the captain of the guards utters these words:

“You are free to go.”

At first, your mind doesn’t register what has just been said. You look up from the ground and stare at the captain in shock. “Didn’t you hear me, criminal? I said you are free to go!” His men hoist you to your feet, unlock you from your chains, and push you towards the door. You are dumbfounded and don’t know how to respond.

Just then, another man is led past your door. It is clear that he is another prisoner, and appears to have been beaten severely. He looks at you with knowing eyes. You have never seen him before, but as your gaze meets his, this overwhelming sense of love and grace floods your heart. You’ve never felt anything like this before.

“Who is this man?” you ask the captain. “The Nazarene,” he says. “He is dying in your place.”

Barabbas was set free, and had to decide what do with his freedom. Would he return to his life of crime? Or would his life change in response to the price paid on his behalf?

The decision Barabbas faced is the same one we face. What will you do with your freedom?

The Very BEST Way to Read the Bible

Ok, maybe that sounds a little pompous, but I do believe there are right ways and wrong ways to read Scripture. As was stated in this week’s “Beyond Sunday” episode (click to view), it is not enough to read the words on the page. For us to experience the “kairos moments” God has for us, we must ENGAGE.

In the video, I outline a process of scriptural engagement and discernment, and I would like to offer an example of what this looks like practically using a reading from our Gospel 90 Challenge from the past week. I will be using Matthew 20:1-16 (click to read).

Let me be clear that what I am sharing is the way in which I sense God working on me through this text. God may speak to you in a different way as you engage this text.  It is both of our responsibilities to share what we are hearing from God with others as a means of accountability and an avoidance of heresy.

This is also different than how I would exegete, or unpack, the passage in preparation for a sermon. The goal in sharing this is to model the process, not to offer a teaching on this specific text.

I welcome your comments on either my reflections or on the process that I have laid out. I really do think it is the very best way to read the Bible.

What is the “kairos moment” for me in the text?

I am really captivated by the motivation of the landowner in hiring the additional workers. It doesn’t say he hires them because there is more work to do, but because he sees them standing around aimlessly. One could make the argument that he hired them out of compassion for their situation, not because there was an abundance of work to be done. Working for him would provide them with purpose and provision, and they did nothing to earn the invitation to the vineyard.

 What is God saying to me through this “kairos moment?”

God is in constant pursuit of “workers” for His vineyard. He looks for those standing aimlessly, hoping for purpose and provision. He invites them in as equals with those who have been working longer, sometimes their entire lives. He bestows His blessing generously, and it is bestowed as He pleases.

This is all Good News.

How is God calling me to faithfully respond?

Do I view God’s Kingdom this way? Am I on the lookout for those without purpose or provision? Am I an instrument of invitation to God’s vineyard? Am I excited about the blessings of this vineyard? Do I want these blessings for others and am I invested in participating in the work of the vineyard?

The answer to all of these is…sometimes. Sometimes the answer is no. In these moments, I am forgetting how great that invitation has been for me. Getting back in touch with my invitation and what is now true of me as a result will serve as motivation to be an extender of invitation to others.

Why Jesus Isn’t Really Scolding You

“Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’” – Matthew 14:31

Ouch.

If you are anything like me, when you read this, it calls to mind your own failings, doubts, and fears. It is easy to read the text and imagine Jesus standing over you, wagging His finger in judgment as He scolds you.

But is that really what is happening?

When Peter tries to walk on water and fails, it’s because he measured his ability to stay at the surface by the size of the waves. When the disciples failed to heal the demon-possessed man, they wondered why THEY were powerless. In both cases, failure came when it became about the ability of the disciple, not the character of Jesus. Of course Jesus would save Peter. Of course He would heal the boy. Did anyone even need to ask?

The source of the Savior’s rebuke comes not because of our failure to perform. It comes because we forget who Jesus is, what He has done, and how much He loves.

There is no condemnation coming from Christ here. There is just a legitimate question: “Why did you doubt? Why do you lack faith? In light of everything you know to be true about Me, how is fear possible?”

Contrast that with the one whom Jesus honors for having great faith, the Canaanite woman of Matthew 15. As a Gentile, she could demand nothing of God in the flesh.  In a bizarre move, Jesus even tries to send her away, saying He has come for the Jews and then refers to her status as a “dog” in the eyes of society. However, she is undeterred. She knows she is unworthy, but she knows Jesus can heal, and so she comes unashamedly and audaciously to the Messiah who owes her nothing.

That is the kind of faith Jesus think is pretty great.

Perhaps we have gotten a little too arrogant. Like the disciples, perhaps we think it is up to us. Perhaps we have forgotten the character of the One we worship. Perhaps we believe God owes us something.

Whichever it is, our lack of faith in the character of Christ is revealed. And yet, in each situation, no matter the quality of faith, Jesus still acts. Peter is pulled from the water. The children of both Jew and Gentile are released from bondage.

God gets what God wants, regardless of how strong our faith is or how much we resist His plan. What He wants is forgiveness for your sin, restoration for your soul, and freedom to live as His beloved kid and a citizen of His Kingdom. He proved all this at the Cross and He gives it freely. Great faith is not mustering up belief but approaching Christ with humility and trust in His character and desire to save.

And even if you reach in your pocket of faith and merely pull out a mustard seed, according to Jesus, mustard seed faith is some pretty potent stuff.

No, God Does NOT Help Those Who Help Themselves

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3

Have you ever heard someone say something that sounds really smart at first? You find yourself nodding along in agreement, until your brain kicks in, and you realize, “Hey…wait a minute…that doesn’t actually make any sense…”

Hopefully that never happens in one of my sermons.

There is a fair amount of bumper sticker theology floating around, and one example is the belief that, “God helps those who help themselves.” A poll back in 2000 found that 75% of Christians believed that this teaching was biblical.

Go ahead and look for it. Or don’t, because it will be a waste of time. It’s not in the Bible ANYWHERE.

In fact, the witness of Scripture demonstrates the opposite. Those who think they can help themselves don’t really need God, so why would they be the ones God helps?

You see throughout the Gospels that Jesus opposes those who think they have anything to offer of their own strength and doing. The Apostle Paul calls his own efforts at religiosity apart from Christ “rubbish” (better translated as “dung”). Elsewhere, he says that he has been crucified and no longer lives but that Christ lives through him. In other words, he is incapable of doing anything of worth that is not done in the power of Christ via the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

But we don’t like this.

And so pushback to this reality usually comes in some form of the question, “Does that mean we just sit around and do nothing?” I think the answer is both “Yes” and “No.”

From the perspective of our salvation, the answer is “Yes.” We are passive recipients of the God’s grace. Paul writes in Romans that while we were STILL sinners, Christ died for us, meaning we never do and never did anything to deserve it. We also have no capacity to manufacture blessings, miracles, healings, or any other work of God in our lives. It is only the mercy of God by the will of God that produces these.

From the perspective of our lives as disciples, the answer is “No.” We are called to obedience. We have been commissioned to love God with everything, to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to be disciples who make disciples. But even in that, we are promised that Jesus will be with us always, so while we live out the commands of Christ, it is Christ who enables us to be obedient.

Being “poor in Spirit” means recognizing the true poverty of our sinful condition, turning to Christ for forgiveness and restoration, inheriting our identity as children of the King and citizens of the Kingdom, and then living as though all of this was true.

It’s just not theology that will fit on a bumper sticker.

Why Herod’s Fear Is No Different Than Your’s

“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.” – Matthew 2:3-4

I am not too ashamed to admit that I have fears. Heights, spiders, and clowns. Not necessarily in that order.

But I can also be afraid of that which is good for me. When I was younger and single, I feared commitment. Before I had kids, I was afraid of what life would be like with the added responsibility of being a parent. Even now, as I prepare for ordination and a life-long career in ministry, there is a bit fear about carrying the spiritual burdens of those I shepherd.

It is a strange thing to fear that which will ultimately bless us. And yet, we do it all the time.

Herod was a man of murderous ambition, and the Messiah was a threat to that ambition. But why? The Messiah would bring peace, justice, mercy, healing, and the favor of the Lord. The acquisition of power and the assertion of control pale in comparison, right?

Except they didn’t for Herod, and they often don’t for us. Certainly, none of us will likely commit mass infanticide, but we are familiar with desire for power and control of our own lives. The world God promises to bring sounds great, but we fear the surrender of power and the loss of control that comes with that world because we just aren’t sure our needs and desires will be met. Simply put, we just don’t believe these promises to be true.

How do I know this? Any time there is the presence of anxiety, there is fear. Any time there is fear, there is a lack of trust. And there is anxiety EVERYWHERE.

What Herod failed to realize, and what we fail to realize, is that this power and control is an illusion. The Messiah entered the world and there was nothing Herod could do about it. God was on the throne, and God reigned over Herod despite his best efforts.

And despite our best efforts, God is on throne now, too. This is good news, because the Creator of the Universe reigns over your life, and not the way a cruel dictator might. He is a loving Father, and even when you try to wrestle control away, He forgives and continues to work for your good.

When you feel anxiety, in whatever form it takes, look for the fear that is driving it. Take that fear to the cross where Jesus will remove it’s burden and replace it with His peace.

And yes, even when there are clowns.

You’re Going To Fail. Why Not Do It Successfuly?

We have all heard the mantra “FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION!” Nonsense. Failure is always an option. Sometimes, it is the only option. Sometimes, it is the best option.

My first job out of college was at Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Enterprise prides itself on customer service, so much so that employees are empowered to take whatever steps necessary to ensure customer satisfaction. It was not uncommon to discount bills, give away free coupons, and even send customers restaurant gift cards to make up for poor service.

Whenever these steps proved necessary, we would record what happened on what we called the “Successful Failure Log.” My manager was fond of saying, “If we are going to fail, then gosh-darn-it, we are going to fail successfully!” (He said something other than “gosh-darn-it,” but you get the idea.)

Failing successfully meant mistakes were not fatal, but were opportunities to grow and innovate. There was a culture of permission to fail when done successfully.

So often in church life, we lack this permission to “fail.” We are unwilling to explore innovative ways of reaching the lost, of meeting needs, and of engaging God and each other in authentic community. Our fear drives us to do only what we have always done, because, while the results may be mediocre, they are known to us. They are what we can control.

However, our fear is rooted in a faulty understanding of failure. In one sense, we are all failures. We have all sinned and fallen short. If God was a boss who evaluated us with a success/failure paradigm, we would all be fired.

But He is not our boss. He is our Father. He is our King. He is our Provider and Protector.

All failure in God’s Kingdom is successful because God works in all things to reveal His glory and draw people to Himself. Even our sinfulness can be a means by which God’s glory is revealed as we repent, find forgiveness, and become victorious through Christ’s death and resurrection.

If we are faithful to a process of discipleship that invites us to look at our perceived failures in light of where God might be working and speaking, these events become opportunities for growth. Too often, however, they produce shame and guilt that paralyzes us from moving forward. If failure has produced these in your life, I invite you to return to the cross, cast these burdens on to Jesus, and be set free.

What would our lives as disciples look like if we embraced the freedom to fail and were committed to failing successfully? What would we learn? What would we see God do?

In one sense, the world’s mantra about failure is correct. Failure isn’t an option. Failure is a certainty. The only question is whether we will see ourselves as failing successfully.