TEXTS: Isaiah 55:10-13 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
… he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow…” (Matthew 13:3)
It has taken me a very long time to learn to appreciate the value of even a small backyard garden. But my dear wife has always understood it, and—thanks to her persistence—I’ve finally learned to enjoy not simply the produce of a garden, but also the experience of tending a garden. Because, you know, if you persevere at it, a garden—even a small one—gives you an intimate view of Creation. The gardener, after all, gets down in the dirt. He sorts out weeds from valued seedlings. She collects seeds for next year’s flowers, and picks aphids off the rosebuds.
The garden touches all of our senses. It offers fragrances that envelop us, colours that dazzle us. It presents us with the ever-changing picture of the seasons—and also the sounds of the seasons, like the evening breeze rustling through the shrubs and bushes. The garden offers us taste—like ripe tomatoes; and touch—like the sudden brief pain of a thorn. Above all, the garden offers us time to reflect—not just upon gardening, but upon life.
No matter how urbanized we may have become, we are still drawn to the soil and what grows in it. Gardens touch the human soul. It’s no wonder, then, that the Bible is filled with narratives based upon the garden—from Eden to Gethsemane; from the Song of Songs to the Gospel of John. It’s also not surprising that most biblical garden references speak of the garden’s beauty. The biblical garden is a place of nurturing, of comfort, of spiritual growth—a place where God walks closest to us.
The prophet Isaiah used the language of the garden to bring God’s Word to the troubled and oppressed people of Israel. They were oppressed because Jerusalem and Judah had fallen to the Babylonians, and the leaders of the Jewish nation had been exiled. In the great, optimistic passage which opens chapter 55, the Lord reminds his people of the covenant with David:
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David. (Isaiah 55:3)
Then—in magnificent poetry—God promises that the mountains and the hills shall burst into song (v. 12), and that the trees of the field shall clap their hands!
And what precedes these lovely and exciting words? God’s description of falling rain and snow, and the purpose of their falling: they are like God’s Word, which will accomplish God’s will—the redemption of his people. God, you see, is eager to bless them—to provide them with rain and snow and seed and bread. All they have to do is change their ways. God asks them to reaffirm their side of the great Davidic covenant. So the will of God requires some nationwide gardening efforts, rooting out weeds of wrongdoing. Once that happens, God assures the people that the garden which is Israel shall flourish once again.
Over 500 years later, when Jesus told his disciples the parable of the sower, he had been rejected by those he had come to save. Just as the leaders of Israel had turned their back on God during Isaiah’s time, they were doing so again. And just as God offered redemption for the repentant in Babylon, Jesus—the Saviour sent by God—offered redemption for the repentant in Palestine. But only a few heard his message and took it to heart.
Hence, the parable of the sower. It tells a gardener’s story. We know that each seed that falls on the ground has the potential to grow into a sturdy, beautiful plant—but we also know that the seed has to fall on the right ground, and it has to be protected, and watered, and fertilized. If it’s not, then nothing good will come from it.
The parable tells us that it’s not enough to just be passive ground. If the seed lies too long upon the hard, unprepared surface, then birds will come and eat it up. And so the seed will fail to produce a harvest. In just the same way, if we close our ears to the Word about God’s Kingdom, the consequence will be sin and moral failure.
We must at least open our ears to hear, to allow God’s Word to penetrate our consciousness. We must do more than that, however. We must also hear God’s Word with joy in our hearts! Mark that: we must hear it with joy in our hearts! If God’s Word brings us joy, we will want to hear it again and again. We’ll want to hear it—and meditate on it, and pray about it—every day. With the dedication and persistence of a gardener, we are to persist in tending to God’s Word—every day, no matter what else is going on.
If we make it part of our lives only when times are good—if we make time for it only when we find it convenient—then we have not prepared the ground for it to grow within us. An undisciplined approach to spiritual practice and belief will not last long. It is not enough.
Of course—even if we read the Bible and pray and attend church regularly—it’s possible to hear the Word and yet ignore it; to allow the routines of daily life to make us numb; to allow the pursuit of wealth to distract us. If we would be faithful stewards of the seeds God has sown in our lives, we must cease the barren chase after mere wealth—and we must break free from the deadening effect of mindless routines.
But you know, even that is not enough for a disciple of Christ! We must also be good soil—hearing the Word and understanding it—so that we may bear fruit and yield 30, or 60, or 100 blossoms for every seed that falls upon us.
How can we prepare ourselves? How can we be the gardeners of our own spiritual backyard? We can do that—first of all—by dedicating a part of each day to God. We can do it with a prayer first thing after awakening—and by prayerfully taking stock of the day when evening comes. We can do it by studying the Bible—alone, or in a group. We can do it by seeking the company of fellow believers—not just on Sunday morning, but all through the week. We can even do it while we work in the garden!
We discover clues to God’s garden plan in Scripture, and our moral life grows tall. When storms bend our stalks, we look for help in our community of faith—and Christian friends bolster us against the wind. The important thing is this: that we do what good disciples and good gardeners must do. We must tend our plants and our souls in all the seasons of life—during the dry season and the flood, during the planting time and the harvest.
To be sure, our garden demands much of us in return for its bounty. It requires ongoing, loving, informed attention. Just like gardening, Christian faith is not a low-maintenance enterprise! We are sowers of seed and receivers of God’s blessed showers of grace. The interplay between who we are in God’s sight and how we act in God’s world—this is what defines us as people of faith.
Each one of us is both garden and gardener. So, let’s remember that we are the garden, receiving God’s gifts and graces as passively as the earth receives the sun’s warmth and the cooling rains. And at the same time, let’s also remember that we are the gardeners, tilling the receptive soil of our own hearts and minds.
Together, as people of God, we are called to do God’s work—in our own backyard and in the garden of our community. The soil awaits us, and the garden tools are in our hands. Let us use them well—for Jesus’ sake.