The Word of God


July 12, 2020                      Proper 15

Isaiah 55:10-13                                   Matthew 13:1-9,18-23 

What a lovely set of readings the lectionary gives us this Sunday. There is the familiar parable of the sower: of the seed cast generously, wastefully one might be tempted to say, on the ground – except that the returns of sowing are so wonderfully abundant, 30 and 60 and 100 fold.

Paired with this are those stirring verses from Second Isaiah, verses that promise a joyful return from captivity where all creation joins in rejoicing at the redemption of God’s people, in that glorious image of the trees clapping their hands and the hills bursting into song. And the instrument of this redemption is God’s word, which comes down like rain and works its transformation in secret, giving growth and life, seed and shoots and bread.

All of this rounded out by that beautiful psalm of rain and fertility and abundance. Certainly the image of the falling rain is close to us this week, as we rejoice to see the coming of summer drains to soften and water the parched earth, and cause our gardens and lawns to push up in rich green.

These readings are about God’s gift of rain and growth and life on this good earth; but remember, they are not only about that. In these passages, these good gifts are images, metaphors, similes, to talk about something that is closer to God’s very self. They are most fundamentally about the Word of God:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish the thing which I purpose.

The word of God – that is one of those churchy phrases, a piece of theological jargon, that we use a lot, but we don’t necessarily stop to think about what we are saying. First of all, we often think that the “word of God” means the Bible, the holy Scriptures. That is part of what the word of God means, but only part, and it leaves us with a very impoverished understanding of what the phrase really means.

In the widest sense, we are talking about the rather interesting fact that God is a God of words, that God chooses to use words to interact with us. That seems self-evident to us: but I think it is a peculiar characteristic of our Jewish and Christian tradition. Not all gods act that way. In many cultures, the gods communicate by dreams and visions – there is some of that in the Bible, but it is not the primary way God communicates. Some people look to the gods to act in the world in deeds of power, sending rain or storms or plague; again, there is some of that in the Bible, but the more fundamental truth is the one expressed in those verses of Isaiah: God works through God’s word, which comes down from heaven and works in secret, in our hearts and lives, giving growth and healing and inspiration.

Other religions might think of God as the inscrutable truth at the centre of all being, that we can only try to draw close to. Again, there is some of this in Christianity – this is the truth of mysticism – but for Christians this builds on a more basic truth: that God comes to us, as word, that God has chosen to be in conversation with us. Again, this is metaphor – we don’t actually hear voices from heaven – but it best describes the way in which we relate to God: we are invited into a conversation. And that is astonishing.

Christian doctrine teaches us that there are three forms of the Word of God. First of all, the true and original Word of God is Jesus. The name comes from beginning of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” How odd, when you think about it: that we use the metaphor of the Word to talk about who Jesus is. The tradition is saying that, whatever and whoever else Jesus may be, he is God’s definitive word about who God is and who we are. This word is the starting point, the basis of the entire conversation that is our life with God.

But we who come after of course don’t have the opportunity to have known Jesus in the flesh. We can know Jesus only through the accounts of his life and deeds and teachings and death that are the centrepoint of our Bible. And so the primary Word of God needs a secondary Word of God to keep the conversation going. The Bible is the Word of God in that sense: to the extent that it bears witness to Jesus, and to the Creator and Spirit. So the Bible is not God’s Word all by itself, but as part of a greater whole, as an essential element in that conversation that is our relationship with God.

But the Incarnate Word and the written Word give rise to a third form of the Word of God: God’s word spoken. The truth of the gospel does not want to remain bottled up in a book. It wants to break out, and enter into our lives, and shape the words we use with God and with one another. The spoken Word of God is the sermon, when we reflect on the Scripture and try to connect it with our experience; but it is also the words of the liturgy, the prayers we say, the hymns we sing – all these things proclaim Christ to us, and so become God’s words, God’s power presence with us shaping our hearts to love as God loves.

It has been an interesting by-product of the pandemic: as we have lost so many things that are important to us in our worship – our physical presence with one another, the visible expression of community, communion, the sacrament of our community with God and with one another – we have also been given the opportunity to pay more attention to other parts of worship. And especially, we have been forced to focus more on how the Word of God touches us. Going online, we have slowed the service down a bit, used fewer readings, tried out different translations to help us hear the words afresh, offered short meditations on the Scripture passages. We have used more poetry, and poetic and meditative prayers. And we still have the hymns, where the words of the faith gain extra power by being set to music, particularly as we take them into our own mouths. While the things we miss remain important, perhaps we have gained a deeper sense that God is always present to us through the Word, even when that’s all we have.

But God’s word will break out not only of the Bible, but also of the church. Even more important than the words of our preaching and liturgy is the word of God as we all speak it in our daily lives. As Christians we have been inoculated with the Word, and we are all carriers, so that it can break out at any time. We are, each of us, called to speak the word of God to one another. That doesn’t just happen when we speak explicitly about God or Jesus – frankly, we have to choose those moments very carefully, or we will just freak people out. Much more commonly, and much more importantly, are the times when we simply speak words of kindness and truth, comfort and encouragement. At those moments, we are enacting the gospel, and the words we are speaking are God’s words.

This week a colleague of mine who is retiring posted on Facebook a picture of a blue bin full of file folders, with the caption: “34 years of preaching off to recycling.” I can’t imagine how hard that must be. So much hard work, so much love poured into those sermons over so many years. I wrote to him, and sent this verse of Isaiah along, which came into my mind: “As the rain and snow come down from heaven, so is my word, it will not return to me empty.” When we look with human eyes at that blue box, it looks like such a waste and loss. But God’s eyes see differently. They see the thousands of ways over those 34 years that he touched someone’s heart, gave them hope or comfort or enthusiasm or a healthy challenge. These are the things we preachers can’t see, most of the time; we can only hope that the Spirit is touching people and feeding them, maybe in spite of our best efforts. Because that is what really matters, that is how the word is proclaimed, not in stacks of paper of well-crafted theology.

What I want to say is, this doesn’t only apply to us preachers. The same thing is true of all Christians. When we find a word to comfort a friend, to give hope to someone who doesn’t see a way forward, to share someone’s grief, just be with them even though there is nothing we can say to make it better; when we rejoice wholeheartedly at someone’s joy, and share their delight without envy; even when we confront someone lovingly, reminding them that they are better than the way they are behaving – whenever we find words that give life, we are speaking the word of God to one another. Even when God is not mentioned. Because this is how the word of God works: deep down, in secret, as it waters seeds in the dry corners of our hearts and brings them to life. That is how God is at work in the world: not in grand deeds of power, but by the word, by our words inspired by his Word, as they make this world a better place. Such words may seem weak, or futile, or unimportant; but they can bear fruit, thirty or sixty or a hundredfold.