‘For thus says the Lord to the men of Judah and Jerusalem: Break up your fallow ground, and do not sow among thorns’ (Jeremiah 4:3).
Last summer I was walking along a path through two fields near my home. It was during the dry spell at the end of June. In the first field, the farmer was growing maize and the corn really was ‘as high as an elephant’s eye’.
Although there had been no rain for a while, the maize was growing splendidly, as the roots sucked up moisture and nourishment from the ground. The field was doing what a field is supposed to do — providing a crop — and the farmer would soon have a harvest from it.
That is what such fields are for, to produce a harvest. But when I walked into the second field, it was a very different story — there was no crop. There had been at one point. I could see the stalks where the maize had been cut down by a combine last year, but since then the farmer had let the field lie fallow.
Now, because of the hot, dry weather, the ground’s surface had been baked hard. Underneath it might have been soft, but there was a sort of hard skin on the surface, and almost nothing growing, just some scrub and a few weeds, but no crop.
A day or two later there was a torrential rainstorm and I thought, ‘Well, the rain will turn the second field into a real quagmire’. But to my surprise, the next day the ground was as dry and hard as ever. The rain had not penetrated it, but flowed off into the ditch.
Now, imagine if the farmer had dropped seed on that land hoping for a harvest. No hope! The seed would have remained on the surface, and either the birds would have eaten it or the rain washed it away. The seed needs to go deep into the ground before it will germinate.
So what does the farmer need to do to get a crop out of a field like that? He must break up the fallow ground. The field may be fertile underneath, but he must break up its hard-baked surface to expose the soft ground. Today, I expect a farmer would use a heavy mechanised plough, but in biblical times he would have had to break up the clods with a hoe before he could plough — and back-breaking work it would have been. Then the seed could have been laid in the furrows, and the rain would soak deep into the ground to make it fertile.
So it was while I was looking at this field that the text above from Jeremiah came into my mind. I preached it to myself as I strolled along the path that day. I now pass it on to you!
What does it mean for Christians to break up their fallow ground? I believe the ‘fallow ground’ here is the hearts of believers. Before we were converted, we were dead in trespasses and sin. The field of our lives was a spiritual desert. But in salvation God took away our hearts of stone and made them fertile ground, bearing the fruit of the Spirit (Ezekiel 36:25-27; John 15:16; Galatians 5:22-23).
So what goes wrong? Doesn’t the world often keep coming between us and the Lord? Don’t we often get so tied up with such things as jobs, family, pension schemes, finance and holidays, and forget to put the Lord Jesus Christ at the forefront of our lives?
None of the things I’ve listed are wrong in themselves, but, isn’t there a danger that they can keep us from the Lord? The world crowds in, so we have no time for private devotions; our Bible reading becomes perfunctory; we don’t meditate over what we’ve read and don’t pray about it. So it does us no good. We quench the Holy Spirit, and our hearts become calloused. But the Lord says, ‘Break up your fallow ground. It is time to seek the Lord!’
And what about our prayers? Are they earnest, thankful, pleading with God that he would make us useful in his service? Or are they increasingly automatic and perfunctory? And do we find them being answered less and less? If our heart and mind are not engaged in them, what right have we to expect God to answer? But the Lord says, ‘It is time to seek the Lord with all your heart’.
Are there not so many things to distract Christians today? How easy it is to pick up a magazine or turn on the television and be wafted into another world, usually an unwholesome one.
God says, ‘Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy, meditate on these things’ (Philippians 4:8). But today it seems, ‘If there is anything nasty, anything unwholesome; whatever is vile, whatever is corrupt or evil, if anything is worthy of condemnation, stick it on the BBC at prime viewing time!’
If Christians watch such things day after day, their hearts harden, they grieve the Holy Spirit, and he increasingly distances himself from them, leaving only weeds and scrub in their spiritual lives.
Now, what about going to church? Did you wake up last Lord’s Day morning and think, ‘Great! It’s Sunday. Church today!’? The psalmist said, ‘A day in your courts is better than a thousand [elsewhere]. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness’ (84:10). He couldn’t wait to get to church and worship God.
How is it with you? Do you get cross because the hymns are too old, too new, too fast or too slow? Is the sermon too long? Do you not like this preacher as much as that one? Is there a hard crust over your heart, so when God rains down his Word upon you it doesn’t get to your heart, but goes into your head and out again, without affecting your life?
The Lord says,‘Break up your fallow ground’. We must remove that hard crust on our hearts which desensitises us, so that we are open, tender and sensitive before the Lord.
Now note it is we who have to do these things. There is a song that goes, ‘Purify my heart’, but if we pray ‘Lord, purify my heart’ or ‘Lord, break up my fallow ground’ and then think we’ve sorted the problem, we’re missing the point.
If a parent tells his child to tidy his room and the child says, ‘No! You do it for me’, that’s both rudeness and disobedience. Breaking up our fallow ground is something we have to do — and it’s not easy!
Just as that Hebrew farmer had to sweat and struggle to break up the hard crust of dry earth from over the fertile ground, so we must battle to break the habits of worldliness and indifference that blunt our love for the Lord. For it is clear that those very habits in Western Christians today are reaping judgment from God.
If we want to see the Lord coming in power on our land again, as in the days of Wesley and Whitefield, we need to break up your fallow ground. So just how do we do it? Well surely we need to ask ourselves what aspects of our lives are lying fallow.
Paul told the Corinthians, ‘If we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged’ (1Corinthians 11:31). We need to identify our shortcomings and come before the Lord in repentance. That means not only confession of sin, but a change of heart and life.
You need to give yourself that extra time for prayer and Bible reading, to make a special effort to attend as many of the stated meetings of your church as you can. The Puritans used to say that the Lord’s day was the ‘market day’ of the soul — that the teaching they received then would sustain them all through the week. You need to place yourself under the authority of the preached Word instead of standing in judgment upon it; and you need to attend the midweek prayer meeting.
You need to break bad habits that are grieving the Holy Spirit and stop distracting yourself with things that quench him. If you set yourself to do these things, praying for God’s help, he will give you the necessary strength. You will be able to say with Paul, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ (Philippians 4:13).
And look at the blessing God promises us! ‘It is time to seek the Lord, until he comes and rains righteousness upon you’.‘Bring all the tithes into my storehouse … and try me now in this, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven and pour out such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it’ (Malachi 3:10).
Let us take the Lord at his word and bring him his full tithe of our time, prayers and service. How little blessing there has been in our country for many years, while the professing church has turned away from God in so many ways!
The church needs to break up its fallow ground. It has to start somewhere. Why not with you and me?
Stephen Owen is a deacon at Scott Drive Church, Exmouth, and author of the Martin Marprelate blog (www.marprelate.wordpress.com).