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Sermon XV: 


by the Rev. John Keble

found in

Sermons for the Christian Year Volume III

Septuagesima to Ash Wednesday




 S. MARK iv. 3.
“Hearken: Behold, a sower went forth to sow.”

THE Holy Gospel here tells us of the beginning of one of our Blessed Lord’s sermons. “Much people were gathered together, and were come to Him out of every city:” (St. Luke viii. 4.) and when they were all in expectation, thus He began, “Hearken.”  You may imagine how they listened, how every eye, ear, and mind, in that great multitude was fastened on Him, wondering what He might be going to say. And can you not also imagine, that when He went on and just told them, “A sower went forth to sow,” they might for a moment or two be surprised, and begin to say in their hearts, What is this? What has this to do with faith and religion and the service of God? “A sower went forth to sow!” well, that is no new thing: of course the sower goes out at the usual time of year to get the crop into the ground: and if he did not, we all know that we muse do without bread: but the kingdom of God which this Jesus of Nazareth is preaching, we have always understood to be something new and strange, and we cannot imagine why He begins speaking of such an ordinary thing as sowing seed. They might say among themselves what was once said by the hearers of the prophet Ezekiel, “Wilt thou not tell us what these things are to us, that thou sayest so?”  (Ezek. xxiv. 19.)

Our Lord we know expounded it all to His disciples. But without going on now to that explanation, which you heard in the Gospel of the day, I wish you to consider only those simple words, “Behold, a sower went forth to sow.” You will find a great deal more in them than you might at first think; deep knowledge, warning of heavenly truth.

In the first place, the mere act of putting the seed into the ground is a lesson from Almighty God, to put us in mind of the fall of our first parents, and our sad condition in consequence of it. Before Adam fell, as you know, the Lord God Himself planted the trees upon the fruit whereof Adam was to live; no need for Adam to sow or set them in the ground, God caused them to grow there (as men speak) of their own accord: “every tree that was pleasant to the sight and good for food.” Adam had indeed to dress and keep the garden, but it was not in the way of toil or hard work : it was rather, as we may believe, in the way of service done to Almighty God the Owner of the garden; it was pleasurable exercise, not wearisome trouble: and having so done, he had but to put forth his hand, and take of all trees but one, and freely eat. But when they had unhappily listened to the enemy—when lust had brought sin, and sin death—all this as you know was changed; the sentence went out immediately, “Cursed is the ground:” and ever since the rule of this world has been, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.”  (Genesis iii. 19.)  The ground, left to itself, as we all know, brings forth only thorns and thistles, nettles and all manner of weeds and rubbish: if you want good food out of it, “Wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man’s heart,” (Psalm civ. 15.) there must be ploughing, raking and harrowing, planting and sowing, fencing and weeding, and all the hard and anxious work of the farm and garden. And why should it be so? What reason is there in the nature of things, why a piece of ground left to itself should not bear wheat and barley, vines or good fruits, as well as nettles and brambles and all manner of weeds?  You never can find any reason, but this one, that it so pleased God.  It pleased God that the ground so left to itself without any sort of cultivation, should not ordinarily bring forth the food that is needed for man’s life.  And why?  For a token to us all how displeasing sin is to God: for a remembrance of His curse laid upon the earth for the first sinner’s sake.  That curse is not worn out: this world indeed appears to grow on the whole, outwardly and bodily, more and more comfortable to live in, as fresh contrivances are found out, and civilization, as it is called, goes on: but still each new generation finds, as the former generation had done, that the old sentence remains, man’s life must be labour and sorrow.  Earth, left to itself, will not feed him.

And thus you perceive that so common a sight as a sower going out to sow his seed is, as I said, a lesson from God, to make you aware how He hates sin, and how surely the words which He has spoken against sinners will sooner or later come to pass.

But the same thing, the sight of a man sowing, is in another way a token of His great mercy. For by this parable He has taught us that this our ordinary sowing is just a type and parable of Jesus Christ the great Husbandman coming to amend this wicked and unfruitful soil—man’s fallen and corrupt heart and life—whose end otherwise is to be burned.  “He that soweth the good seed is the Son of Man:” He soweth, that we may reap, and then so merciful and condescending is He, that He looks forward to the harvest as to a time of joy for Himself as well as for us:  “that both He that soweth and he that reapeth,” (S. John iv. 36) the Saviour and those who are saved by Him, “may rejoice together.” That is, at the last day, when He will see us again, His joy, which He took in us when He first made us His children, remaining in us, and our joy made full by our entering into His joy: entering for ever into the joy of our Lord.

That will be the harvest: but now it is the seed-time: and Christ, as you have heard from Himself, is the Sower: “He that soweth the good seed is the Son of Man.” Christ is the Sower: now consider what is the seed. First, the seed is the Word of God: He tells us so Himself. The Sower went forth to sow when Jesus Christ began to go about in Galilee, preaching the Gospel of the kingdom, shewing forth the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. His Sermon on the Mount, and the rest of His holy sayings, were the good seed of the Gospel, scattered here and there: like bread cast on the waters, to be found after many days. It was sown broadcast over the whole country, sometimes among the multitude, sometimes among His disciples only. And when He was gone away from us into heaven, still the same Word continued to be sown, and He to be the Sower of it. No longer indeed in His own Person, but by His Blessed Spirit coming down upon His Apostles, He filled their bosom with good seed, “pressed down and shaken together, and running over;” (S. Luke vi. 38.) and what they had freely received they were freely to give. And they did so in all peoples, nations and languages: “their sound went out into all lands, and their words into the ends of the world.” (Psalm xix. 4.)  And so He has done ever since, by the same His Apostles and their successors, with whom He has promised to be always, even unto the end of the world. So He does to each one of you, my brethren, as often as you come into this Church and hear the Bible read and the meaning of it preached. At every such time it is as if God’s providence spake to your inward ear and conscience, saying, ‘Hearken: behold the Sower is going forth to sow.’ Nay, and this is true also as often as any one of you, rich or poor, man or woman, opens his Bible in faith and humility, and reads the holy Word which the Blessed Spirit has caused to be written for his learning, whether he read it in silence to himself or in fatherly care to his family, or in quiet friendliness to some other who cannot perhaps read it for himself.  Such moments are very serious, and by God’s help may be very blessed. For then it is indeed the Divine and gracious Saviour, sowing the very word of life: as He has been doing, publickly and from house to house, now for these 1800 years: as it is written, “He hath dispersed,” that is, hath sown His seed, “abroad, and given to the poor” (for “to the poor the Gospel is preached”). “His righteousness endureth for ever.” (Ps. cxii. 9.)

But the good seed which the Son of Man sows has yet another and a still more gracious meaning.  It signifies not only the Word and doctrine, but the living souls also which hear the Word and believe the doctrine : for so we learn in another parable: “He that soweth the good seed is the Son of Man: the good seed are the children of the kingdom.” (S. Matt. xiii. 37, 38)  So that the heavenly and Divine Sower is always, night and day, sowing not only the Word but the Church upon earth.  The Word He sows by preaching and teaching: the Church by holy Baptism: as the Holy Ghost tells us by S. Peter, “Ye are born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God which abideth for ever:”(1 S. Peter i. 23.)  i.e. Christ Who is the Word of the Father, Himself living and enduring for ever, gives you a new birth of incorruptible seed by making you members of Himself, which we all know He does in our Baptism. Christians then, baptized persons, wherever they are found, in whatever way they are behaving, are or have been the crop and the harvest of Christ. As such He sowed them in His field, the world; as such He is ready to cherish, to water, to protect, to fence them in by all the means of grace in His holy Church.

You, my brethren, e.g. you who are gathered together in this congregation are as a field of standing corn, which the careful and wise Husbandman has planted in His own ground, has anxiously provided for in every way: a field on which the eyes of the great Owner of all are continually fixed as on Israel of old, (Deut. xi. 12.) from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.  You one with another make up the standing corn in this field, each one a separate plant, and from each one according to his growth the Husbandman looks for fruit in due time.  Only He is not like an earthly husbandman, in that He knows each seed separately, yes every one of the innumerable plants, the millions of souls that are growing or ever have been growing on His land. He takes account of each separately, what fruit it ought to have borne, and what it really does bear. His eye detects every weed, every tare, which has intruded itself among the wheat. For the present indeed He seems to take no notice, for the harvest is not yet come: but it will come, and that speedily: and then you will know and feel, if you would not before, that His Eye has all the while been upon you; and what if you should also feel that you have been all the while forgetting Him?

Christ then is the Sower, and His Word and His Church are the Seed. Now you know how a man who goes out to sow feels as concerning the crop which he sows. What if he sees any one disturbing the seed on purpose? pulling up the young plants? trampling them down as they grow? turning in mischievous animals? sowing or planting weeds, to choke the good corn? How should you like this, brethren, were any one to deal in this way with your field, or your garden, and that perhaps regularly year after year? Of course you would say as it is in the parable, “An enemy hath done this.” (S. Matt. xiii. 28.)  You would count that person your enemy, and one of the most spiteful of enemies, who should so deal with the crop on which you had set your heart; on which you had spent your labour, your time, your care. Much more if the person so wronging you should prove to be one most deeply obliged to you; one whose life you had saved; one who owed to you all he has in the world. You would say, and all your neighbours would agree with you, ‘How would he like it if any one used him so?’ Well, my brethren, do as you would be done by. Behold, here is your best friend, your only Saviour, the Good and Holy Jesus Who bought you with His own Blood, behold He has been here sowing His seed, the seed of eternal life, in your hearts, and in the hearts of all these your fellow Christians on every side of you. This parish, this congregation, is one of His fields. His corn is growing here: He will come bye and bye at the harvest to gather it in: and He would fain save it all: not one grain would He have spoiled or lost: it is a thing which He has so much at heart, that He even died the death of a malefactor that He might bring it about. If then you love Him at all, if you have the least wish to please Him, must you not be very careful not to damage this crop of His? You would think it very unkind if any one came into your garden, and rode or walked carelessly about among your choice herbs and flowers, for which you had paid a large sum : but you think very little of dealing carelessly with the souls for whom Christ died. You will utter your oaths and curses or other bad words in the hearing of young Christian children, or you will even come here and keep a sort of school for teaching the little ones to behave amiss in the very house of God.  Is this doing as you would be done by?  Do you think your Saviour cares less for the souls of these little ones than you do for your plants and flowers? Nay, He will not endure them to be trampled on: He is even now preparing the millstone to be tied round your neck and to drown you, not in the depth of the sea but in the bottomless pit of fire, whoever you are that take a wicked pleasure in teaching these little ones to sin.

And as His anger is towards those who damage His crop, such is His tender love and favour towards those who take an interest in it.  The least little token that you really care for instruction; your coming here when you can on Festivals and other week-days; your listening at lessons and sermons; your turning away from those who would disturb you at Church; your making a rule to read in your Bible, if it be but a few verses, regularly at home; your sparing, if it be but a few pence, as often as you can for Church Missions: every one of these things, even the least little prayer and endeavour to promote the working of God’s word on your own and other men’s hearts, our dear Lord will take kindly; He will not forget it: in its way it will bring you a blessing. It is said to such, Ye “are labourers together with God.” (1 Cor. iii. 9.)  What an honour is that, my brethren, and at the same time what a great thing to answer for!  Think of it in this way!  Most of you are labouring men : you work for this master and that: but remember that after all there are but two masters. Under which are you now working? Whose wages are you now earning? Do not sleep this night, until you have tried to answer this question in your own secret heart and conscience: lest you should find yourself, waking, where those must go, who die scorning God’s Word.