“Again He began to teach by the sea, and a very large crowd gathered around Him. So He got into a boat on the sea and sat down, while the whole crowd was on the shore facing the sea. He taught them many things in parables, and in His teaching He said to them: “Listen! Consider the sower who went out to sow. As he sowed, this occurred: Some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground where it didn’t have much soil, and it sprang up right away, since it didn’t have deep soil. When the sun came up, it was scorched, and since it didn’t have a root, it withered. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it didn’t produce a crop. Still others fell on good ground and produced a crop that increased 30, 60, and 100 times what was sown.” Then He said, “Anyone who has ears to hear should listen! ” (Mark 4:1-9 HCSB)
Listen, can you hear it? Look, can you see it? It is happening all around us, yet we often fail to hear it or see it. God is at work in our world, God is moving in our midst, God is present in our fellowship, God is working in our lives but we often fail to sense, see or hear Him. The Psalmist says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims the work of His hands. Day after day they pour out speech; night after night they communicate knowledge.” (Psalms 19:1-2 HCSB) God has created a world in which His existence is evident in the things He made and His purpose is even revealed in the midst of our broken dreams, our selfish desires and our wavering goals. What we are and who He is evident if we will listen and really hear, if we will look and really see.
One of the things that most frustrates my wife is my hearing loss. I have tinnitus, a constant ringing in my ears. At times, it is barely noticeable – like right now. It is there but not overwhelming. In fact, I can actually hear the sounds of the traffic going by on the highway about a quarter mile from our home as I sit near a window writing these words. At other times, it is a loud roar in my head drowning out everything else. When that happens, it is difficult to hear and understand what others are saying and I have to ask my wife to repeat herself and that really frustrates her and it frustrate me, too. Even on a good day, like today, I generally cannot hear the sound of the birds twittering or the squirrels chattering. In addition to the constant ringing, I often cannot distinguish individual voices or, more specifically, individual words in conversations. I know people are talking but being able to actually decipher the words can be quite difficult.
In this week’s focal passage, Jesus focuses on our ability to hear and really listen to the voice of God. Fortunately, my ability to hear and understand the voice of God is not impacted by my physical hearing loss. Neither is yours. While our ability to clearly hear and easily understand God’s voice and His Word may be impacted by the noise and conditions of our current environment and even our past relationships and mistakes, those things do not necessarily leave us deaf, just hearing impaired and morally challenged. So, let’s strive to listen to Jesus’ words and see if we can distinguish what He’s trying to tell us and gain some insight into God’s desire for us and our lives. Also, I want you to remember that we need to keep this story in context. Jesus has just been dealing with two clear examples of misunderstanding that we’ve considered over the past several weeks, the concerns His family has expressed regarding His mental health and the charges by the scribes that His power and teaching flow from Satan or Beelzebul, the prince of demons. This current story needs to be heard and understood in that setting.
If you’ll remember, Mark told us that Jesus had returned home to Capernaum and this week we find Him back out on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. As He begins teaching, the crowd begins to grow and grow until it becomes “very large,” according to Mark. So large, in fact, Jesus steps onto a nearby boat and sits in the bow as He teaches and the crowd sits on the shore facing Him. I suspect, Jesus had expected this response and may have pre-arranged for Simon or Zebedee’s sons to provide the boat to keep Him from getting crushed by the crowd, again.
As He begins teaching, He tells them: Listen! He calls for them to pay attention, to listen up and hear His words. It is reminiscent of Deuteronomy 6, “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4 HCSB) It is a call to listen to the Lord and to strive for understanding and obedience. “These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them be a symbol on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-9 HCSB) Be so familiar with the Word of God that you know it when you hear it, it echoes in your heart, you speak them to your children, you talk about them in your daily lives. You wear them, you write them on your door posts and gates, you read them as you go in and out each day. You KNOW them and you DO them.
Jesus calls for those who are hearing Him to do the same. To hear His words, to recognize their importance, to listen for and obey the Spirit of God. He then tells them to consider a story about “a sower who went out to sow.” It is easy to focus in on the sower, but to do so is to miss the point of the story. He goes out to sow, but as he sows seed the real focus of the story occurs. The focus is not on the sower or the seed, but on the soil, its condition and the subsequent results. To listen is to hear these truths, to see ourselves in them and then to respond accordingly to the work of God’s Spirit in our lives.
Why would Jesus use parables if He really wants people to encounter God? Why not speak plainly? Why not just tell them the raw, hard, unqualified truth? We often think and claim that we want the truth, but we really don’t. We want to be assured that our perceptions are valid, that our assumptions are correct, that our choices are good and our goals and ambitions are noble. In other words, we don’t want the truth of God we just want Him to validate us. We want Him to step in, look around and say: “I couldn’t have done better, Myself. Good job! I’m very proud of you.” Don’t misunderstand me, we need to hear those words when we actually deserve to hear them but we often don’t deserve to hear them. And we know it.
Scripture tells us that if we seek God we will find Him. If we desire to know Him, He will reveal Himself to us. If we knock, He will open the door. It also tells us that He loves us and He desires for us to love Him in return. In fact, scripture says that the first and greatest commandment of God for man is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5 HCSB) Ah, there’s the rub. Love God more than anything else in life. Love God more than you love yourself or your identity, more than you love your own goals, more than you love your personal rights, more than you love your dreams, desires and plans and that struggle is what is at the heart of this parable and is our focus, today.
Listen, some of the seed fell along the hard pathway and the birds came swooping down and ate it up. Some of you hear God’s Word, you hear God’s heart, you hear His Spirit’s whispers and it falls onto hard, impenetrable ground and it never gets into your heart. Some of you read His Word and you only see how it applies to everyone else and never yourself. Some of you sit and listen to a pastor’s sermon and you only see how it applies to your spouse, your children, your neighbor or your enemy and never how it applies to you! There are many, many folks who come to church, read His Word, watch a video or attend a crusade and they only do so to soothe their conscience or silence someone’s nagging requests. So, His Word, the seed that’s being sown, never penetrates the hard surface of their heart but is gobbled up by the birds.
Listen, some of the seed fell on the rocky ground where the soil was shallow. It sprang up quickly because the soil was warm and shallow but when the sun came out, it had no root and was scorched and quickly withered away. Some of you hear God’s Word and you like what it says, but your commitment is shallow and it can’t really take root in your heart and life. Then when things get tough, as they always do, you begin to have doubts, your fears and questions overwhelm you and your faith quickly withers and fades away. Let me be blunt, following Jesus is the best thing that can happen in your life but it is very hard and it requires enduring faith and a deep commitment. For faith to take root and bear fruit you can’t have a shallow response to following Jesus.
Church and Sunday School records are filled with the names of people who liked what they heard, responded with a shallow commitment and quickly withered when things got hard or didn’t go as expected. Their faith never took root and quickly withered away under the struggle. Sometimes this is due to unrealistic expectations and sometimes this is due to misunderstanding the Gospel. There’s an old song that says, “I never promised you a rose garden.” We often want the blessings and benefits of being loved by God without the demands and sacrifices of following Him. Much like the crowd in John 6, we want Him to be king because He gave us bread but when His expectations go beyond providing us just a good meal we quickly find ourselves looking for another savior. So, His Word penetrated the surface of their hearts but was constricted by a shallow commitment and never was able to put down roots and grow strong and withered away under the struggle.
“Therefore, when many of His disciples heard this, they said, “This teaching is hard! Who can accept it?” Jesus, knowing in Himself that His disciples were complaining about this, asked them, “Does this offend you? …The Spirit is the one who gives life. The flesh doesn’t help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” (John 6:60-63 HCSB)
Next, some of the seed fell onto ground that was filled with thorns, thistles and weeds. Jesus simply tells us, these thorns choked it and it didn’t produce a crop. Simple words with sad results. The seed fell into soil where it could take root, it could grow and develop but it was choked out by the thorns. Later in this same story, Jesus tells us that the thorns are the “worries of this age,” the seduction of wealth and the desire for other things. In other words, life got in the way of God’s purpose and plan. Not my words, His. The worries of this age are those things that our culture puts in our faces as “most important.” Cultural concerns. Let me be clear, Jesus isn’t saying that things like racial injustice and sexual abuse are just weeds in our lives that should be ignored. Not at all. But focusing on them more than we focus on God, absolutely. However, I do want to state very clearly that the cultural response to some of these concerns is not biblical and certainly not helpful but more on that in a minute.
Jesus does get specific though when He confronts two MAJOR issues for His followers: the seduction of wealth and the desire for other things that choke out the word making it unproductive and unfruitful. To be honest, the church has been sucked into this pit time and time again. We believe the lie that wealth and possessions will fulfill our desires and meet our needs, but they never do. However, these things can and do divert us from being effective and fruitful for God. Instead of being focused on God and loving Him above anything else in our life, we get focused on getting and gaining wealth and accumulating stuff. Listen, don’t let the sounds of the crowd drown out the voice of God. Focusing on wealth and possessions simply chokes out our effectiveness and leaves us fruitless before God.
Finally, some of the seed fell on good ground and produced a crop. Some of the increase was 30 fold, some 60 fold, and some even 100 fold. Don’t get focused on the amount of increase, just focus on being obedient and productive and leave the rest to God. In his first letter to Corinth, Paul tells them: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6 HCSB) Just make certain your ground (heart) is prepared to receive the seed of God’s Word and then let it take root and grow. I think we often mistake the idea of fruitfulness with effective and successful outcome of sharing our faith with others or being a witness of our faith. I believe fruitfulness is developing and sowing seeds of God’s grace through faithful obedience to the Spirit of God. We are unable to produce or cause faith in someone else, but loving obedience in following Jesus points people towards Him and encourages their inquiry and journey into belief and faith.
What do these seeds of grace look like? Something like this:
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39 HCSB);
and this: “This is My command: Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12 HCSB);
and this: “In the same way, let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16 HCSB)
and this: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23a HCSB)
Those are just a few examples, but scripture is filled with others. Each of these soil types received good seed but each produced different results. Can you change what type of soil you are? Absolutely! Jesus ends this parable by telling us, “Anyone who has ears to hear should listen!” Doesn’t everyone have ears? Well, we all have the capacity to hear God’s voice in Jesus’ words and the Spirit’s work. We have the capacity to hear and understand, but it requires that we want to hear, that we want to understand. “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13 HCSB)
I started out by telling you about my hearing problem and my wife’s frustration with my inability to hear her or even understand her words well enough to distinguish them from the surrounding noise. Admittedly, sometimes I deserve that frustration because I’m really not paying attention or listening to her and that’s really the point of Jesus’ parable. Listen! Listen to His story and find yourself in its description. Be careful though, our tendency is not to find ourselves in one of these four types of soil but to classify everyone else into one of those four types. You can’t change them but you can change yourself. You can change your response to God and His Word. It is never too soon to make that choice nor too late.
You choose as to whether your heart is hard towards God, whether the seed just sits on top or has a chance to get in, whether Satan has an opportunity to snatch it away before it can germinate and begin its work in you.
You choose how deep or shallow your response towards God tends to be, too. You decide whether circumstances (pressure) and challenges (persecution) harden you towards Him or break you as you fall on your face before Him, crying out for His mercy and help. If they harden you, your faith and trust in Him never gets very deep. At least, not deep enough to transform you and your life. Then, when things get hard, what little trust you had in God quickly withers and dies out.
You also choose whether the cares of this life, the worries of this age or the desire for wealth and possessions, choke out your obedience and leave you spiritually barren and unfruitful. It is far, far too easy to become distracted from God’s will for life and to become consumed by the drive for the “finer” things in life. Be careful, it’s a lie and the bait is very enticing and easy to swallow. If you bite there will come a day when you look back and regret that choice.
In the end, those who are willing to give themselves totally to God and who dig down deep and remove the hindrances to being effective and fruitful for God will enjoy the results. Their lives will be filled challenges, with persecution, with fewer possessions and less wealth but as they LISTEN they will hear their God say, “Well done, my faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord!”