SEXAGESIMA SUNDAY – Exsurge, quare
Introit: (Ps. 44) Arise, O Lord, wherefore sleepest thou? awake, and cast us not away for ever: wherefore hidest thou thy countenance, and forgettest our adversity? Our belly cleaveth unto the ground: arise, O Lord, help us and deliver us. Ps. O God, we have heard with our ears: our fathers have told us. Glory be … Arise, O Lord …
Collect: O Lord God, who seest that we put not our trust in any thing that we do: Mercifully grant that by thy power we may be defended against all adversity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it. For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree: and it shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 55.6-13)
Gradual: (Ps. 83) Let the nations know that thou, whose Name is GOD, art only the Most Highest over all the earth. V. O my God, make them like unto a wheel, and as the stubble before the wind.
Epistle: Brethren: Ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise. For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face. I speak as concerning reproach, as though we had been weak. Howbeit whereinsoever any is bold, (I speak foolishly,) I am bold also. Are they Hebrews? so am I. Are they Israelites? so am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? so am I. Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; injourneyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine owncountrymen, In perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, inperils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not? If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not. (II Corinthians 11.19-31)
Tract: (Ps. 60) Thou hast moved the land, O Lord, and divided it. V. Heal the sores thereof, for it shaketh. V. That they may triumph because of the truth: that thy Beloved may be delivered.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: When much people were gathered together, and were come to Jesus out of every city, he spake by a parable: A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. And when he had said these things, he cried, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be? And he said, Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand. Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away. And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection. But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience. (St Luke 8.4-15)
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
They are rich and fruitful soil who yield fruit a hundredfold; and good and beautiful are the souls that take deeply into themselves the seeds of the Word, and keep them, and tend them with care. Of these it may be said, as was said by the Lord by the mouth of one of the prophets: And all nations shall call you blessed: for ye shall be a delightsome land, saith the Lord of hosts (Mal 3.12). For when the divine Word falls upon a soul purified of the things that afflicted it, then it takes deep root, and comes forth as an ear of corn, and yields fruit abundantly. (St Cyril of Alexandria)
The Pre-Lenten season is a time of preparation, and the appointed Lessons have as their purpose the preparing of our minds and hearts for the spiritual undertaking which lies before us – our pilgrimage with Jesus to Jerusalem, the Cross, and the empty tomb. But as the challenge will be great, so will be the reward. Today’s lessons carry on from the last two weeks, instructing us further in the meaning of this undertaking. In the Epistle, St Paul speaks of those perils and pitfalls which impede us and distract us from our goal: not just external things, but all our inner weaknesses. “Who is weak,” he asks, “and I am not weak? Who is offended, and I burn not?” No, the journey will not be easy, but the trials and infirmities are to be embraced as the very stuff of glory: “If I must needs glory,” he says, “I will glory in the things which concern mine infirmities.”
Today’s Epistle reading requires a bit of context: In the Corinthian church, which St Paul himself had planted, certain false apostles and teachers had crept in, who were challenging both Paul’s personal integrity and his authority as an apostle, teaching that Paul had been blowing this whole “Way of Jesus” out of proportion, and that Christianity needn’t involve all the rigorous discipline which Paul was preaching. And although he had managed to set things right to a large extent, a small yet vocal minority was still causing trouble in the church. So the entire point that Paul is making here, is that men do not rule the church; God does. The church is not a democracy. If God had wanted His Church to be run our way, He would have had us write the policy manual, rather than doing the job Himself in that decidedly inconvenient tome called the Bible. The church is a theocracy, and things tend to go badly when we adopt our own methods instead of God’s. But ironically, the only way we can achieve true freedom is by surrendering all to God. Jesus said (Mt 10.39): “He that findeth his life shall lose it, but he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” The paradox of our Faith is, that in surrendering our whole lives to Christ, we shall live more happily, and more abundantly, than we could ever have imagined possible.
St Paul then presents his own experience as a kind of parable, showing the external and visible witness of a true inner conversion. He says, “Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck … in perils of robbers, in perils of waters, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen … in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness …” In other words, conversion and discipleship involve much more than just a cursory and superficial assent to God’s Word. Conversion involves suffering. Again, St Cyril illuminates:
If it should happen that we must endure suffering for the sake of the religion of Jesus Christ, then in every way and everywhere we are blessed. For the Saviour has said to the holy Apostles: Be not afraid of them who kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul (Mt 10.28). And this lesson He gave us, not by words alone, but by deeds. For He laid down His own life for us, and repurchased all men by His blood. We are therefore not our own possession: we are His Who purchased us, and redeemed us, to Whom we owe our life. For as the holy Paul has said: To this end Christ died and rose again; that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living (Rom 14.9).
Thus the “parable” of Paul’s life reveals that the work of becoming a Christian involves the acknowledgement of one’s own utter weakness. Embracing God’s saving Word in the face of the world’s enmity and opposition will be difficult. Yet the confession of our own weakness will yield to God’s strength. “My Grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (II Cor 12.9).This Epistle reading can perhaps now be better understood in relation to Our Lord’s parable of the Sower and the Soil. “A sower went out to sow his seed, Jesus tells us, and some fell by the wayside; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon rocky ground; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it.”
This is one of the very few parables that our Lord actually explains to the disciples. It begins with one of those wonderful Hebrew constructions: “a sower went out to sow.” Now sowing methods in the ancient Middle East were much different from the ways with which we are familiar. For one thing, as strange as this might sound to us, it was usual to sow the seed before the ground was ploughed; and more significantly, the seed was broadcast, and it was simply taken for granted that some of the seed would be wasted in the process. The sower goes out and flings the seed everywhere possible, with large handfuls of seed cast into the air in all directions. This is the sowing method which God employs. Our Lord later says plainly, “The seed is the Word of God.” This seed, then, is not a thing, but a person—Jesus Himself, as St John says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” The Word is not simply a message from God; the Word is God Himself. Jesus is, in and of Himself, all Truth, the basis and explanation of all reality, the living reason and goodness of God the Father, and thus the solution and sole alternative to sin, bondage, and death. So the life that is being planted when God sows His seed is the life of Jesus Christ, poured out indiscriminately over the whole earth. There is no caution here, no worrying about the cost of the seed by the One who knew its terrible cost. In order to live forever, we must live as the Word lives forever with His Father. This would have been clearer to His original audience, since the Jewish name for the Ten Commandments was עשרת הדיברות [aseret ha-dibrōt] “the Ten Words” (cf. “Decalogue”). Still, they were mystified. They were used to thinking of the commandments as something we do, rather than as something we become by God’s grace, through His planting of His living Word and Commandment as a seed of new life in our hearts.
From the time of creation from the dust of the ground, the “Adam,” the “creature of earth,” has been a tiller of the soil (Gen 2.15). But since the Fall, when the “Adam” hardened his heart against the word of God and decided to follow his own way, that soil has been more challenging and uncooperative. As David Curry cleverly puts it, they “lost the ground of their standing with God. The ground of creation becomes the place of alienation from God.” As a result, God said, “Cursed is the ground for thy sake … Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee … In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken” (Gen 3.17-19). And He was not speaking only of the physical ground. So, ever since, as the בן־אדם (ben-adam), translated “son of man” or “mortal,” but more correctly “child of Adam,” and literally “child of earth (i.e., soil),” each of us is a cultivator of the soil—not only of the physical earth, but of the ground of our hearts. It is up to us what kind of soil we become.
In the sowing, some of the seed landed far from where the soil would be ploughed and fertilized, on ground that was dry, hard-packed, and neglected. So the birds ate it, and that was that. Perhaps these are those on the peripheries who choose to be outside; or they may be the self-satisfied, who have blocked out the call of the Word to repentance and salvation. Some Christians hear God’s Word only superficially; the soil of their souls is trodden down hard by the habitual busy-ness of this world or their own self-absorbed wilfulness. These souls are easy prey to the Devil and his ways since they live in a world that has no time for conversion. St Cyril writes, “Into … minds that are hard and unyielding, no divine or sacred word will enter.” They are hard and unyielding because their souls are obsessed with worldly things, so that when the Devil snatches God’s Word from them, they do not even notice. Other Christians hear the Word of God with excitement and joy, but they lack the depth of faith necessary to establish roots. Like the sun-scorched blade that has no deepness of earth, they fall away because salvation, they soon discover, will demand too much of that pain and suffering of which St Paul speaks, which they have spent their whole lives trying to avoid. These are shallow Christians who love the husk of Christianity—the sounds, smells, colours, and movements of a beautiful form, and, as St Cyril says, “As long as [these] Christians are left in peace, they keep the faith; but should persecution arise, they will be of a mind to seek safety in flight.” Then there are Christians who hear and more honestly receive God’s Word, but are soon overwhelmed by thorns and briars which spring up with it. The temptations to those sins that have not effectively been acknowledged and eradicated soon resurface and quickly overgrow and choke out the good seed. St Paul knows only too well that one of these kinds of spiritual dispositions always threatens his religious life as a parableof total surrender to Christ.
The Parableof the Sower teaches us that the seed of God’s Word can grow effectually only in deep, rich spiritual soil that is tended, weeded, and nourished by a faith that opens itself completely to God’s Grace. Only with much care, cultivation, and determined effort can the Word “take root downward, and bear fruit upward” (Is 37.31). And as St Paul reminds us, each condition described in Our Lord’s parable could be a pitfall for us. There are three types of bad soil, and only one type of good. This seems to reflect that truth from last week’s Gospel: that many are called, but few are chosen. Here Our Lord says the same thing, but in a different way: the seed is sown in the hearts of all, but for the most part it is never able to bear fruit. And so, He works patiently with us. He casts His seed upon all: He throws it onto the rocky ground, He throws it into the weeds, He throws it even onto the hard soil of the path. And why? Because there is always hope that soil may be changed. What matters is that there is the possibility and hope that, no matter which kind of soil you are, you can become good soil.
There are three types of bad soil, but only one good. Most of us fit into all four of these categories at one time or another, and sometimes all four at the same time, so Jesus speaks to each of these natures within us, challenging us to ask which level of receptivity best describes our relationship to Him. For ultimately, each type, save the last, is inadequate to salvation, so we must take utmost care to prepare our hearts to receive, and cultivate the seed of His Word in our souls. This parable, then, serves as a warning, but it also holds out hope. Just as actual ground can be changed from hard, rocky, or weed-ridden to rich, fertile soil, so too can our hearts. With the help of God’s grace, we can be transformed, and can bear the fruit of Christ’s life in our own. We must seek from God “an honest and good heart,” so that having heard the Word of God, we may keep it and bring forth fruit with patience. God is not asking us to do miracles. He is offering to do miracles in each of our lives. “And I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh” (Ezek 36.26). God promises to help us overcome the sinful heart that is within us, and to replace it with the heart of Christ; to give us His Truth in the place of all the lies we tell ourselves about who and what we are. He is offering us the gift of fortitude, so that Christ may bring forth in us the fruit of eternal life.
The message of this parable is simple: Let us cultivate the soil of our hearts every day, through prayer, through reading of the Scriptures, through continual recollection that we live in the presence of God, through endeavouring to be in love and charity one with another, following the commandments of God, and walking in His holy ways. Let us break up the hard-packed ground, uproot the thorns and thistles, dig up and cast away the stones, nutrify and water the soil, that it may become good and fertile. And as every gardener knows, this is not just a one-time thing, but a constant battle. We continually have to be loosening and aerating the soil, pulling up weeds, digging out rocks, and adding nutrients, lest our garden revert to its former state and become unfruitful once more. The Christian disciplines of prayer, fasting, self-denial, and almsgiving are not intended to try to please God with our good works, not things which are laden upon our backs as heavy burdens; they are intended for our good. They are to be used as spiritual tools, like the blades of a plough, hoe or harrow, turning up the soil of our hearts, so that we might be better equipped to receive the seed of the Word when the Sower passes, and that the seed may take root and grow, and produce abundant fruits. With St Paul, then, let us conscientiously die to all that threatens the life of Christ the Word in our lives. Let us fight valiantly against the evil without and within, so that enduring courageously, we may yield a bountiful harvest. And though we shall suffer, we shall also, like St Paul, become a parableto the world, revealing how Jesus Christ, God’s Word Incarnate planted in our hearts, bears fruit in our lives, as we grow up and come to full maturity, into what St Paul calls “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph 4.13). Wayside, rock, thorns, or good ground? It is up to you.
As the most learned Paul writes: Everyone hath his proper gift from God; one after this manner, another after that (I Cor 7.7). And we do not find the good actions of holy men to be all of equal merit. But it behoves us to strive earnestly after their better actions, and rise above the less worthy: so shall we be rewarded bountifully by Christ, to Whom, with the Father, and the Holy Ghost, be praise and glory for ever. Amen. (Cyril)
“So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”
Collect: Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God: that thy Word, which we have heard this day with our outward ears, may through thy grace be so grafted inwardly in our hearts, that it may bring forth in us the fruits of good living; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.