Christmas has just past and we are now looking forward to New Year. In the advent run up to Christmas, I did the gospel of Luke advent calendar where a chapter of Luke is read every day from 1st December until the end of the gospel on Christmas Eve. I found it a great way to stay spiritual during a busy time of year with many things demanding my attention and time, it is easy to get distracted (more on this later). I have always enjoyed the gospel of Luke. I appreciate the details he puts in. Luke is also one of only two gospels which covers the nativity.
I have read the gospel of Luke numerous times but in Luke 22 was I struck by something I had never seen before.
“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
Jesus is talking to Simon Peter. He mentioned his name twice. It is important. Jesus wants Simon to remember what he is about to tell him. He tells Simon that Satan has asked to sift them like wheat. Previously, I had in my mind rendered the sentence as “Satan has asked to sift you as wheat” and not as it actually written as “Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat” (emphasis added). Although Jesus is just talking to Simon, he is relaying an interaction with Satan where all disciples are going to sifted as wheat, not just Simon. Strictly speaking I suspect that the reference to “all of you” is referring to the disciples around Jesus at time of the last supper, trial, death and resurrection. However, the broader context of Satan’s request I truly believe also still applies today. Anyone who has been a Christian longer than a few months will almost certainly testify to being sifted.
“We get higher on Satan’s hit list after we make the decision to follow Jesus”, I remember being told a few months after I had become a Christian. Certainly, if you are looking for an easy life without challenge, then Christianity probably isn’t what you are looking for. Challenges come. Sometimes one after another.
The farming and harvest analogies occur throughout the gospels. The parable of the sower in Luke 8 is one of the most well know stories in the New Testament.
“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants.Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”
“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.
Luke 8:4-8, 11-15
Jesus talks about four soils representing four groups of people. Everyone is represented in this parable. In fact everyone who has ever lived, living now and who live in the future is in this parable. Many people are in the first soil. The moment you mention Jesus, they run a mile. It is as it you have changed from being a respectable and normal person to being a flesh eating monster from outer space after the words Jesus, God or Church leave your mouth. Satan has tells them that God doesn’t exist or twists their view of Christ and the Father in such a distorted way to make it feel like they are unloved by God.
The second soil is such a tragic soil. In the 22 years I have been a Christian, I have seen so many people and friends make a commitment to follow Jesus wholeheartedly and then abandon their decision in the following days, weeks or months because their faith wasn’t deep enough. Good people who had the faith at the time to count the cost of following Jesus at the time they made their decision, but when reality hits they take their eyes of Jesus and revert to living by sight. Every Christian during their life will have times where they ask themselves, “I’ve had enough, why don’t I give up on Christianity, it is too much of challenge”. Sometimes it is sinful patterns which return; or peer pressure and persecution from friends and family; being upset or hurt by another Christian; the challenge of orientating life to follow Jesus or just the attractiveness of the world. Even the apostles got sifted like this. When Jesus was arrested, they all fled. Peter followed, but denied Jesus three times. After Jesus’ resurrection Peter gave up being a fisher of men and went back to catching fish, until Jesus appeared to him personally and called him back to his greater purpose. My prayer is that those in the second soil are only there temporarily and like Peter will one day turn back and rediscover the fulfilment of the with God life.
The third soil is described as where the word of God falls among the thorns. Where is become choked out by the world. Those in this soil are Christians, but are struggling to see God through the fog of life. Their faith is a challenge and at times an inconvenience to the other things going on in life. Life becomes overwhelming or too distracting and God is out of focus in the background. Every Christian spends time in this soil. Faith has been replaced by a few religious habits. Acting faithfully, following Jesus and trusting in him when the outcome is not obvious is a long way off. Jesus addresses this in the sermon on the mount:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? … you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Jesus tells us that the answer is to put the things of God first and everything else will fall into their place. CS Lewis writes in his book, The Screwtape Letters which is a series of fictional letters from a senior demon to a more junior demon about Satan’s schemes.
“It is funny how mortals always picture us [the demons] as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”
The Screwtape Letters
Being planted in last soil is the purpose of every Christian. Our presence in this soil is determined by how we hear and to response to God’s word. We can read to the Bible and glaze over the words or we can read it, absorb it, let it sink deep into our hearts and apply it daily. Troubles are still there, life still happens, but the focus is on God not what surrounds us. People in this soil are so inspiring. I remember when I was taking steps to become a Christian, I met a guy who was going a PhD at my university. He was applying for jobs. He go rejected time and time again, week after week. But was never down. He was always joyful when rejected. Eventually he found the perfect job for him. He lived in the good soil. On Sunday I heard a story about a member in an African church who after only a few weeks of marriage lost his wife suddenly. He responded by attending church. Not just being there, but joyfully giving to all he interacted with. He lives in the good soil. Good soil people see the bigger picture. They view life through the perspective of eternity. They understand that the spiritual reality is greater than the material world around us. The apostle Paul sums up life in the good soil in the following way.
For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4:17-18
Finally, back to the Simon Peter in Luke 22, his heart was sifted by Satan. He falls asleep in Jesus’ hour of need, he rejected Christ, he refused to believe the women at the empty tomb, he returned to his former profession. But then Jesus reminds him of his calling and responds. The rash, arrogant, insecure Simon becomes a humble, willing and obedient servant of God. Eventually being executed by crucifixion for bearing witness to the risen Christ. He changed the world and his faith continues to change the world today. How are you going to respond when sifted?