When I was eight years old, I walked slowly out of church on a sunny, humid Sunday morning in Hong Kong. I remember looking at the large white cross that stretched to the sky amidst sloping green mountains overlooking the South China Sea. Church of All Nations, this gathering of Christians was called—made up of people who’d come to Hong Kong from all over the world, for many different reasons. There were business families there for short appointments of two or three years, Chinese people who had lived in Hong Kong their whole lives, Filipinos who came looking for work with expatriate families, and British people who worked for their own government, which controlled Hong Kong until 1997. I lived there because my parents were teachers at Hong Kong International School, and I loved Church of all Nations, which was a traditional Lutheran church with choirs and an organ. I was a bit curious about what happened down the road at Repulse Bay Baptist Church, where I heard that people raised their hands in the air and there was a touch of rock & roll in the music, but I’m grateful now to have learned old hymns, the Lord’s prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed at Church of all Nations.
Denominational differences aside, as I walked out of church that morning, I was only thinking one thing: “WILL I BE SCORCHED?”
We had read the parable of the sower in my Sunday school class that morning, and the word “scorched” really stood out to me. The parable of the sower is a bit of a misnomer insofar as this story that Jesus tells is not really about the farmer who plants the seeds. Rather it’s about the different kinds of soil that the seeds fall in, so it would make more sense to call the story “the parable of the soils.”
“A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (Matthew 13:3-8).
In this parable, there are two things that are unchanging: the farmer who delivers the message, and the seeds themselves, which represent the good news of God’s love for us in Jesus. And then there are four kinds of soils:
- Soil of the path (pecked at by birds)
- Rocky soil
- Soil full of thorns
- Good soil
And the explanation that comes at the end of the parable is this:
- Seed on the soil of the path doesn’t grow at all because even though the person heard the message, they don’t understand it and soon the seed is gone
- Seed in the rocky soil is someone who hears and understands joyfully but has no root, so the seeds can’t grow deeply and the plants are scorched by the sun—meaning trouble in that person’s life distracts them from their faith.
- Seed among thorny soil is someone who hears God’s word but finds that the worries of life and the allure of wealth make the message (seed) unable to bear fruit in that person’s life.
- Seed in good soil is someone who hears God’s word, understands it, and that message produces a fruitful crop in that person’s life.
Since I am not a Biblical scholar, I have some difficulty distinguishing between the rocky soil and the thorny soil—both kinds of soil eventually produce an unfruitful plant. Perhaps the difference is that the seeds in the thorny soil do take root but are later choked once they’re plants, and the seeds on the rocky soil grow quickly at first but then die because their root system was never well-established.
Even as a child, I knew that my heart was the rocky soil. I loved church, I loved Jesus, and I’ve known and understood the message of God’s love for me since I was very young. But I was easily overwhelmed by trouble, and fear and worry were my consistent companions. I wondered if I would be scorched, not in an eternal damnation kind of way, but if my heart was fragile and fickle enough that the seed planted in it would never take root. As an adult, I think the soil of my heart has changed somewhat. My natural bent towards anxiety and cynicism has by God’s grace been softened, and the roots of God’s love are now strong and deep in my heart. But while growing less rocky, my soil has grown a bit more thorny, and though I can’t be scorched, I find that instead of fear and trouble in my life, it is a desire for money, comfort, and having as many Amazon packages as possible coming my way that interferes with listening to the Lord and growing in my faith.
We are each tempted in different ways to stop trusting God, to lose faith, and to find Jesus irrelevant. Like me, you may have experienced a change in the soil of your heart. Did you start off by not understanding the Gospel but then working to learn and grow in a faith that initially made no sense? That would be the first type of soil turning into the fourth soil—the good soil. Have you always been drawn to wealth and power but made intentional choices to let the kingdom of God be first for you—rather than your stock options and the balance of your bank accounts? That would be the thorny soil turning into good soil. Or like me, did you start with one kind of soil that needed the watering of God’s grace, and then discovered that you’d become like another soil that still needed that gracious watering? We’re all on a journey of faith and we are all drawn to sin in different ways. This Advent, may God transform the soil of our hearts to welcome and nurture the seed of the Christ child.