Labouring in Hard Soil
By Mike Treneer
“Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.” Psalm 126:5
Jesus often used agricultural metaphors to describe the growth of the Kingdom of God.
• The Kingdom is like “a man sowing seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows though he doesn’t know how!” Mark 4:26-27
• It is like “a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.” Matthew 13:24-25
• It is like “a mustard seed which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of seeds, yet when it grows …” Matthew 13:31-32
Perhaps the best known of these farming stories, which Jesus told to explain the Kingdom of God, is the story often called the parable of the sower (Luke 8:4-15), in which Jesus describes the seed of God’s word falling on different types of soil. The differing responses to God’s word, even in the context of Jesus’ own ministry on earth, should be enough to prepare us to expect mixed results to our sowing of the word of God in any context. But even with this warning, it is difficult to accept that not just some people but also some contexts seem especially hard ground.
When we returned to Europe in 1998 after 20 years serving in Africa we found a situation very different from the one we had left. In a relatively short time people had become much less open and the ground seemed very hard. Some of my friends were finding such little response that they had lost confidence in the life-giving power of the seed! Many needed the encouragement of hearing that, although 21st century Europe is hard soil, in other parts of the world the Gospel is growing and spreading more rapidly than ever before. For some, however, even that news seemed only to make them more discouraged.
As I wrestled with this difficult context I was drawn to reflect on the story of Jeremiah, a prophet of extraordinary faith and faithfulness at a time when his fellow countrymen were aggressively resistant to God’s word and were embracing the lies and half-truths of apostate priests, lying prophets and godless rulers. For some reason the picture of King Jehoiakim’s futile burning of the scroll of Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jeremiah 36) seemed particularly poignant.
Jeremiah saw almost no fruit from his faithful sowing. Yet through his one known disciple, Baruch, his message still inspires the faith of many 2,500 years later! In fact in Daniel 9 we read that Jeremiah’s teaching was still guiding the prayers of Daniel in exile in Babylon, 70 years later. If, as seems likely, Daniel had been influenced as a young man by Jeremiah’s ministry then even the amazing story of the repentance of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (recorded in Daniel 4) is in some sense a fruit of Jeremiah’s witness, though completely unknown to Jeremiah himself.
Clearly the hard ground of Jeremiah’s contemporaries was not a negative reflection on Jeremiah’s approach to ministry, nor was it because the Word of God lacks life-giving power. The resistance of Jeremiah’s contemporaries was somehow a part of God’s larger plan and, despite the hard ground, God was still using Jeremiah’s faithfulness to accomplish long term purposes that were invisible to Jeremiah himself.
So, as the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 6:9, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up”.
In his day Jeremiah remained faithful to God’s Word even when people around him didn’t want to hear it, for God had promised him, “I am watching to see that my Word is fulfilled” Jeremiah 1:12. He prayed for the people around him and urged those who would listen, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have sent you … Pray to the Lord for it because if it prospers you too will prosper” Jeremiah 29:7.
So, in summary, when God calls us to labour in hard ground let’s remember Jeremiah, let’s keep doing good, seeking the welfare of people around us as we serve and love them. Let’s keep praying for the people among whom God has placed us as we seek to make the Word of God intelligible to them. And let’s encourage one another to trust God to accomplish His long term purposes through our sowing of the seed of God’s Word, believing His promise that, even when we do not see it, “those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy”.