Breaking ground

“Judah must plow, and Jacob must break up the ground. Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of unfailing love, and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to seek the Lord until he comes and showers righteousness on you.” (Hos 10:11-12)

Continuing a pattern found in the law and prophets, there is a lot agricultural imagery in the teaching of Jesus: seed, vine, fruit, sowing, planting, reaping, wheat/weeds, pruning/bearing fruit, withering. It was a natural choice for a largely agricultural first-century Judea.

To many it sounds a bit archaic, but I lived the first half of my life in rural areas. The sight of broad, undulating fields under cultivation and the clusters of barns, sheds and silos every quarter mile or so was a common sight in the part of western New York I grew up in. The technology and techniques may have changed, but the cycle of plowing, planting and harvesting has endured for millennia.

The spiritual application first became apparent to me about 30 years ago when I began teaching in my local church. More than you might think, when you stand behind a pulpit you can gauge who is “getting it” from their facial expressions and mannerisms, from intent gazes and slow nods to the classic deer-caught-in-the-headlight blank look.

Because I don’t believe there is anything random or haphazard about the pairing of pastors, teachers and church members, my first impulse when encountering a lack of comprehension was to ask myself if I wasn’t doing enough preparation or I didn’t have a good enough grasp of the subject myself to explain it clearly and persuasively.

But after a while, I realized that the word is like the seed the farmer sows: It must have a place to grow. In other words, when Jesus taught that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit (Mt 5:3), that implies that the spiritually self-satisfied find themselves shut out. And in fact, in Mary’s song, we see this confirmed:

“He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Lk 1:53).

In natural terms, the ground must be plowed to make a place for the seed. Left fallow, the seed would dry out and die, be blown away by the wind or washed away by the rain or foraging birds or animals would eat it. And so, the first stage of growth is plowing, to turn over the mottled gray and brown crusty soil with its decaying stubble to expose the rich, dark earth in which the seed will grow.

So, what is the spiritual counterpart?

Obviously, areas of persistent resistance to the will of God are fallow or unplowed ground. But ground also becomes fallow naturally. After the harvest, the soil naturally settles from exposure to the wind, sun and rain. If you do nothing, all fields will conform to this state.

Plowing is simply force applied with tools (tractor and plow). Spiritually plowing is cooperation with the forces God applies to our lives. Here are some of the “tools”:

Precipitating a decision on dealing with something in your past. Jesus promised that “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:28:30). Yet believers can drag around burdens unnecessarily for months, years, even decades. And they can be heavy, grievous burdens.

Brooding about something someone did or said, revisiting personal failure or disappointment, self-condemnation instead of laying hold of forgiveness, all of these things and others make it nearly impossible to go forward.

When I was mired in this kind of stuck-in-the-past mode, the Lord once spoke to me, “Why do you remember what I’ve forgotten?” Talk about laying down a great weight!

Significant change in personal relationships. If this pandemic has reminded us of anything, it has underlined how we are social beings. Not just our personalities and character, we are also the sum of our relationships: with family members, neighbors, co-workers, pastors/teachers/elders, church families.

I’m not trying to imply that these relationships are prone to unhealthy extremes or inherently competing with our devotion to the Lord. But just as with spiritual gifts, “all the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines” (1 Cor 12:11) there are often “assigned” roles for persons who enter your life. And when their assignment has been completed, they change.

Isaiah the prophet and Uzziah the king were contemporaries and spiritual allies. But it was “in the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple” (Isa 6:1), Isaiah said.

This was when he saw the seraphs calling to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty” (6:3) and, overwhelmed with his unworthiness before God, received both cleansing and commission.

Was Uzziah a positive hindrance to Isaiah’s ministry? No, of course not. But his death coincided with a new chapter in the prophet’s life. Or was it coincidence?

Light brings more light. Psalm 119:130 says: “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” When you enter a dark room and switch on the light, it has no effect on the contents or construction of the room. It reveals what has always been there. But now you see it—clearly.

Shortly after I started teaching in the church, there was a shakeup in the ministry. The senior pastor in our group of churches asked the pastor of our church to go on sabbatical. The senior pastor became our local pastor.

Prior to this he had preached in Sunday services from time to time. He was generally recognized as a gifted expositor, and we all looked forward to hearing his messages. I was among those who thought him truly gifted by the Spirit.

But within a few weeks of him assuming the new role, I began to see things that concerned me, then disturbed me enough that I had to leave the church. That cost me dearly, as I was effectively blacklisted and ostracized. Persons literally skipped to the next aisle in the grocery store when they saw me.

At the time, this really knocked me off balance. It hurt emotionally, and it battered my grasp of spiritual principles by which I lived.

(For what it’s worth, consider how Paul dealt with character in discussing spiritual gifts in 1 Cor 12-14, not just listing them and instructing how to use them. Many who get introduced to the gifts of the Spirit let that overshadow the fruit of the Spirit, which is what 1 Cor 13 is about and why it is central to Paul’s discussion.)

Looking back, I am amazed at the ways God spoke to me while I was teaching (before the pastoral change). Though apparently most of the congregation was “unplowed ground,” I received the kind of scriptural reinforcement and added insight that I was teaching from the pulpit. In truth, I was teaching and preparing myself even if it was falling mostly on deaf ears in the pews.

And now, where I once struggled to recognize red flags and learn to avoid them, I can see them in an instant. Relatively speaking, I was “simple” in my understanding then; the “unfolding” of his word changed that.

Photo by Kelly Lacy from Pexels 

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