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PASTOR: MAX STERNJACOB
“Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that “‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’” And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.””
—Mark 4:1–20 ES
Good morning, Emmaus. My name’s Max, I’m one of the pastors here. I’m the pastor for discipleship and care, and I’m also the newest full time staff person here, and that means that I get, sometimes, in the position of kind of wondering, how did I end up here? Because, I have had many jobs in my life. This is, by far, my favorite one, so you can be rest assured I ain’t going anywhere for awhile. But, when we come to this passage, I’m in a unique position here, because you’ve probably heard this passage before, right? It’s one of the most common passages that the world even quotes. The world, who maybe want nothing to do with Jesus, they like what he teaches, and they will use the parables to Jesus to their own ends. And so, even if you’re not a Christian this morning, you’re probably familiar with this parable.
But, the reason why this is unique is not just because it’s famous, but it’s also unique because it’s one of the only places where Jesus actually explains the parable. And, that makes my job hard. It makes it hard, because I don’t want to be the fool who gets up here and tries to make my word equal with Jesus’ word, and it also makes it hard because I don’t want to go beyond what Jesus has said here. So, my job this morning, I hope you’ll bear with me, and my job this morning is to hopefully take and make the most of what Jesus has said here, without going beyond it. My hope this morning is to pastorally help you to take this story that is probably very familiar to you, and helps us to apply it as a church, maybe see it fresh again. Because, usually as it is with things we’re familiar with, we tend to go yeah, yeah, I know the point, and so we don’t stop and think about it. So, with that in mind, we need God’s help, yes? I certainly do. Let’s pray and ask for his help this morning.
I pray this morning that our familiarity with this story and this parable and your teaching would not cause us to not hear. There is a warning here that we can use our ears, but we can walk out of here not understanding. And, God, I know for myself that there are many things that I have experienced in my life that want to twist, to try to insert into this passage to make myself feel good about myself, or feel better about my past. But, God, would you this morning allow us to actually hear you, not me, not ourselves, but you. And, God, would you this morning do the very thing this parable is talking about. Would you take your word and scatter it among us, that it might bear fruit. By your Spirit, in Jesus’ good name, amen.
If you were with us three weeks ago, our clerk of the clasis, our denomination, was actually here preaching, and he said something in passing that I thought was very insightful. He said that Mark is like the action movie gospel. It’s like scene after scene after scene of quick action, and Jesus is going from thing to thing, from teaching to teaching, from place to place, and it moves fast. But, just like an action movie, the scenes that come before it, influence the scene in the present, and what we have come from is this rising tension that has happened, here. And, there are three things that I want to take some time to look at when it comes to this parable, cause this is the first time, at least in the gospel of Mark, that parables are used by Jesus. The first one is that there’s a disturbance that this parable causes, we want to look at the details - the facts and figures - of the parable, and we want to look at the depth of the parable, the deep meaning and the application.
First, some context, cause context is king when we are trying to interpret. That rising tension I just mentioned is really surrounding not around the people, per se, but around the religious leaders. The religious leaders have their eyes on Jesus, and they don’t like what he is about. They don’t like what he’s saying, they don’t like what he’s doing. Jesus is going around healing people, freeing people from demonic oppression, forgiving people. But, the ministers of the day, the pastors of their day, the religious leaders, were not too keen on the subversion of their authority by Jesus. They didn’t like their influence being attacked. Because, the people in Mark talked about … we’ve never heard anybody teach like this. We’ve never heard anybody with this kind of authority. And, that cut right to the heart of the religious leaders, saying, well, wait a minute … I’ve been teaching for years, and no one's ever complimented me about my teaching. They’ve never talked about how I have authority, but yet this man from Galilee, this no name from Galilee, the people are following him, so much so that Mark says here that the crowds were so large that Jesus had to get on a boat and get away from land so that everyone could see and hear him when he spoke.
See, this conflict was not just with the religious leaders, though, but with his own family. If you remember in prior weeks, we talked about that Jesus’ own family thought he was crazy, and they came just prior to this section of Jesus talking in parables here, they came to arrest him, to take him back into custody and say, we’ve got to take this guy home. So, this context we find ourselves in Mark, it’s been action scene after action scene after action scene, yet now we slow down, and Jesus starts telling stories, and Mark takes the time to say, not only am I going to tell you this story, but I’m going to tell you what Jesus said in explaining the story. And, what is going to happen here, is that Mark in his gospel is trying to slow down and tell us something important. He’s trying to show us, how is it that smart, learned, religious people who ought to know and expect a messiah, and how Jesus’ own family who have known him his whole life and have watched him grow and act, can reject him when he’s right in front of them?
Jesus tells this parable about the reality of rejection. How can this be true? How can people, in spite of the evidence that’s right in front of them, in spite of Jesus’ character, in spite of his miracles, in spite of his teaching and authority, in spite of everything he’s demonstrated, how can they reject him outright? See, when I first started interning, I started interning at a church out in Banning when I was 16 years old, and I wanted to pursue working in full time ministry at 16. Had I known then what I know how, I probably would have said … I should find a better job, easier job. But, see, one of the first things that was told to me - advice, if you will - as I started interning at church and working with, like, junior highers and high school students, was, when you’re going to talk or preach, you want to make it easy for people to understand you. You want to share lots of stories, so that people can follow. You want to be relevant. But, if you read with us this morning already, Jesus doesn’t do that. In fact, Jesus makes it harder to understand.
Why does he do that? This passage seems to fly in the face of all the advice that I got as a young man. So, who’s right? My counselors, or Jesus? Jesus. Good. Someone’s listening, yes. This parable, I would suggest to you, is a parable about parables. Jesus uses this parable to talk about why he speaks in parables. And, the background here - if you notice in your Bibles, verse 12 of chapter 4, Jesus quotes something to them, from Isaiah 6 …
Go, and say to this people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.
—Isaiah 6:9-10 ESV
And, in Mark 4, verse 10, right before he quote that passage from Isaiah, it says … And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that “‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand” …
See, this parable is a parable about parables. In fact, later on in the next passage that we’re going to get into next week, Mark 4:34, it says that … from this point on, Jesus did not publicly teach without a parable … so, there is something that is happening in this parable that’s significant, and I think the key to unlocking what Jesus is talking about in his words here is starting at us right here. It’s from Isaiah, and if you go back to the beginning of Mark, what’s the first thing that happens in chapter 1? You can look there, it says … The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “I send my messenger before you, prepare the way, the voice of the one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight …” See, Mark explicitly, and in Matthew and Luke, implicitly, they are saying something about Jesus. They are saying that Jesus is fulfilling Isaiah’s words. And, if we go back to Isaiah and his commissioning by God, God tells Isaiah … go to your people, and they will hear but not understand, they will see and not perceive. Make the heart of this people dull, make their ears heavy and blind their eyes lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed … That’s Isaiah 6.
See, while all the gospels rendered this command as slightly different ways, it all captures the basic essence of Jesus’ words here in Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah sees a vision of the Lord and is charged to go preach to the nation. He spent his life proclaiming the impending judgement and the coming messiah, and the restoration of the remnant. But, God tells them right at the beginning of his ministry, that you’re preaching is not going to be received. In fact, the opposite result is going to take place. More people are going to be unresponsive. See, when Isaiah entered into his ministry, God told him that what you preach is going to stir faith in some, but most are going to be hardened. And, the Lord tells Isaiah in his ministry that is by design. In God’s mysterious plan, he is causing division between the repentant and the unrepentant. And, when Jesus comes onto the scene, especially in the gospel of Mark, Mark is saying that Jesus is taking up the same kind of ministry as Isaiah, it’s going to have the same result.
So, what is Jesus doing in this parable? First, he’s identifying himself as a prophet, because he’s using Isaiah to talk about his ministry. But, what he is saying is that the culmination of Isaiah is being brought forth, it’s being brought in. The kingdom of God that was talked about in the Old Testament is now in their midst. And, when he does that, when he starts speaking the way he does with authority, and now speaking with parables, it causes hardness of heart, it causes a disturbance. So, let’s dig in here to the disturbance of this parable, yes?
I. THE DISTURBANCE OF THE PARABLE (Mark 4:10-13)
We know the context. What’s causing the disturbance? It’s in Mark 4:10-13, let’s just read it again …
… And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that “‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’” And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? …
See, Jesus is trying to weed out true and false disciples here. Now, here’s the question … Jesus often includes elements in his parables and teaching that were shocking. And, by shocking I mean that he speaks in a way that goes against the normal conventions of the day, the way people would expect things to work. Just off the top of my head, you know, the parable of the prodigal son, the reaction of the father and the actions of the son, it flies in the face of the cultural conventions of the day. Noone would go to their father and ask for their inheritance early. And, no father would run out and be quick to forgive someone who did that. The good Samaritan, right? The Samaritan is the one who has mercy, the people who are enemies of Israel, and the Levite and the priest who we would think of as pastors of their day, ignore the needs of the man who’d been robbed. The two debtors, the one who owed much and the one who owed little, and the weeds where Jesus tells the parable of the weeds that are amongst the wheat and the farmer tells his workers, don’t pull out the weeds, just let them grow. All of these things, when Jesus talks in parables - and this parable especially - every single time Jesus talks in parables, there’s always something in the parable that is shocking, that people go, that just doesn't make sense. That doesn’t sound right. That sounds like it’s the wrong thing to do.
So, what is it in this parable that is shocking? What is it that flies in the face of our conventions, or at least the conventions of that day? What is it? Is there something miraculous going on here? I would submit to you that there is, and it’s the harvest. The fruitful yield, here, is the shocking result. See, the agricultural return here - now, how many of you guys are farmers? Do you count tomatoes as farming? Most of us don’t make our living by farming, and most of us get our food not from our backyard, but we go to the grocery store. So, we’re many years removed from this kind of lifestyle, and we’re many layers removed from this kind of living. And so, we forget how growing things work.
See, I think as modern western readers, we forget the shocking results that are talked about here from the sower and the seed. I have a picture here I just want to remind you of. This is wheat, you may not have seen it not in a loaf of bread, but this is where it comes from. And, I was doing some research on wheat and grains, and I don’t know if you can kind of see, he’s kind of holding two bunches here, but most of the time on a head of wheat like that, you would have 15 to 20 grains of wheat, little seeds. And, that means that when you go out to sow seed, one seed produced one grass, and one grass would produce 15-20 heads like that. Now, I couldn’t find records, but I did find this as I was researching, that in the middle ages, in the year 1250, in Britain, there were some parchment documents that talk about the yield and return on wheat and barley. And, what I found was that in the year 1250, farmers, on average, would get a 17 to 1 return. So, that means if they gathered their harvest and they would set aside some of the seed for the next sowing, they would get 17 back for each 1 bushel of barley, and that was considered good.
Now, in the ancient near east, you would think that in 1250 years, farming technology had gotten better, and the return was probably a lot less, right? I mean, you have things like locust and mice and people walking by and just … I mean, Jesus just previous walked by and took some of the grains with his disciples, right? We just saw that. So, the return would be somewhere, let’s just say 12-15 to 1. So, when Jesus tells this parable, and he gets to the end of the parable and he says, the seed that fell on the good soil produced a return of 30, 60, and 100 … the original hearers would probably be saying … yeah, right. That is unbelievable. That never happens. See, and we know that Jesus is purposefully saying something shocking cause he’s trying to elicit a response from his readers. And, I think we’re on good ground to think that that is a major point that Jesus is trying to make, because the next parable after this that we’re going to be talking about next week in Mark 4:26, if you want to look at it, it says … the kingdom of God is if a man would scatter seed on the ground. He goes to bed and sleeps and rises night and day and the seed sprouts and grows, and he knows not how … See, in the next parable Jesus is going to highlight something to us about the reality of the fruitfulness of the harvest, and the farmer doesn’t know what causes it.
See, in that day, everyone believed it was either God or the gods that were in charge of the harvest, right? They knew that. They assumed that there was something miraculous at play. They don’t know how things grow. So, for Jesus to talk about this kind of harvest was something significant, and he’s pointing to God’s providence, here, and he’s pointing to the fact that God is doing something miraculous. In 1 Corinthians 3:3-9, Paul later on reflecting on Jesus’ teaching, says this …
“for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.”
—1 Corinthians 3:3–9 ESV
See, Jesus talked about the sowers and the seed and the soils, and Paul, reflecting on this later, uses that same kind of analogy and conflict of the church to say, don’t you recognize that you are God’s field? You are being grown, not by me, not by Paul, but by God. See, for Jesus’ audience, nothing is out of the ordinary of what he said here, until he gets to the end. And, Jesus, who’s making things harder to understand, and who is clearly talking about a miraculous return in yield on the fruit, that at this point, the people listening to Jesus would say, Jesus, you need to stick to your day job. You need to go back to being a carpenter, cause you clearly don’t know how to teach, and you clearly don’t understand how farming works. But, see, Jesus is trying to teach something, and he’s doing a really good job of it, and he’s teaching us about the nature of the kingdom. And, he’s doing it in a way that forces people either to stick around and be near to him, or doing it in such a way that they can write him off and ignore him, or maybe even worse, kill him.
The parables of Jesus are dynamic stories that should draw us in to reflect. Jesus does not confine his teaching to just systematic propositions. He implicates the listener into the dynamic motion of the story, and just as Nathan in the Old Testament, arouses the moral imagination of David in calling out his adultery with Bathsheba, Jesus arouses the spiritual imagination of his hearers, that they might understand the nature of the kingdom. And, by choosing to speak to the multitudes in parables, Jesus reveals a deeper truth that we all really know about the teaching process, that if the content is made too easily accessible, we won’t actually learn it, because we were never forced to think deeply on it. Have you experienced that?
See, this is why in the age of Wikipedia and Google, and more access to information than we’ve ever had, are we smarter because of that? Are we wiser because of that? We live in an age where we can quickly and easily get access to any information and knowledge. But, why is it we’re not smarter or wiser? Why is it that we’re not more educated? Why are we not more adept at living? Why is it that we’re the dumbest age, right? Have you ever seen those man on the street things where people go out and they ask simple questions of, like, what’s the capital of the United States? And, people are like, I don’t know … Copenhagen, right? We have more access to information, yet we’re dumber than we’ve ever been. See, people don’t remember things if they know they can just go look it up.
And, the parables of Jesus also remind us that learning does not always have an immediate result. That, acquiring knowledge, sometimes, is very slow. We build upon line upon line, precept upon precept. In fact, this is exactly what being a disciple is, right? Being a disciple is being a learner. And, sometimes the slow, cumbersome, and tedious work that learning is, is actually producing in us a greater return, because through difficulty, we grow. Because, the only thing that will sustain us when things are difficult, is the pure pleasure of the learning, itself, right? See, Jesus knows that it’s okay sometimes to leave someone behind, because he knows it’s not the end of the story.
Wisdom also involves keeping the long view in mind. Beauty takes time, fruitfulness takes time, eventually we know, if we read ahead in Mark, that the disciples did eventually get the aspects of the kingdom that Jesus wanted them to know. But, their knowledge was not immediately demonstrable, was it? We’re going to see here, in the future, that Jesus teaches things. In fact, we’re seeing that God actually divinely gives revelation to some of the disciples about who Jesus is, and in the next moment, they can’t take that knowledge and put it into practice when Jesus tells them, I’m going to die. So, there’s good news for us, yes? If you’re not learned, mature, wise yet, there’s time. As disciples, we make room for this long process that Jesus is about.
See, I don’t know about you, but I have often gone back and thought about my parents, and teachers in my life who were trying to teach me something in the moment, and I missed it. And, it’s only years later, decades later, that I think back and I look, and I go … I see what they were trying to teach me. I get it, now. Thank you. Right? See, we should see a danger, here, which we’re going to get here in the details. We should see a danger, here, of getting it too quickly. Cause Jesus, in this parable, talks about growth that’s quick, and fast, but eventually dies out. So, let’s dig in to the details here.
II. THE DETAILS OF THE PARABLE (Mark 4:3-9,14-20)
We see that there’s a disturbance, and why does Jesus talk in parables? To cause this kind of disturbance in us, that we should want to stick around, to ask more questions. But, what are the details, here, of this parable? Look at Mark 4:3-9, and 14-20 …
… Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” …
See, it’s important as we dive into the details of this parable, to try to make the most of what’s here, but not go beyond it. The first thing that popped into my head is what’s not here. Jesus does explain some things about the soil, but what does he not spend time explaining? Where does he not spend his time? He does not spend his time talking about the sower, his character, his heritage, how many years he’s been doing it, who his father was, where he got his land from. He doesn’t spend time talking about the technique, his casting method, his equipment. He doesn’t talk about the time of year, or the weather. He doesn’t talk about how the soil got that way. He just jumps in to talk about the soils. And, I think it’s wise for us to stop and say, how much of our time is spent talking about those things as a church? Our technique, the time of year, the weather, the equipment. He doesn’t spend any time talking about that, he talks about the soil.
So, what do we see here in the soil? Let’s talk about it. The hard soil, right? Mark 4:14, what does it say in the explanation?
“The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.”
—Mark 4:14–15 ESV
It’s the path. It’s the hard soil. And, the idea, here, is that the seed - before it could even go into the soil, it’s on the hard path, and it’s stolen away. And, Jesus actually says it’s stolen away by Satan. And, as I thought about this, I would ask you to reflect with me the reality here that, I don’t know about you, but I have a strong conviction of protection of defending my stuff, and my family against threats that come and would threaten to take that away. But, do I have the same conviction and eagerness and passion when I know that God is sowing seed and that the enemy is taking that away, do I have the same zeal to prevent that from happening as I do with my own stuff? See, if the sower is sowing the word, is sowing the gospel in the lives of people, and there are things that are actively keeping that gospel from penetrating deep into the lives of people, there are things that are obstructing that, do I fight against those things just as much as I fight against the things that are my own?
See, for us as a church, we have unity with one another, friends. We are all called to defend one another, to preach the gospel to one another, and to remove those obstructions from one another. Do we do that with the same zeal that we would do for our own family, as for others, for our own stuff, as for others?
The rocky ground, Mark 4:16 …
“And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.”
—Mark 4:16–17 ESV
See, the rocky ground here, the idea is that there’s no root. It springs up, but the roots can’t go deep. It’s shallow. And, Jesus says here in the explanation of the details, that it’s the hardship, it’s the tribulation and persecution not on account of where they’re planted, but on account of the word. So, when they receive it with joy, we would expect that. There should be joy. But, when hardship comes, it leads to apathy and hostility, and they shrivel. See, we all can point to probably ourselves and other people that we know have grown chronologically, but they have not grown spiritually, right? They have no depth. Time ticks on, and we see growth, we see some green poking through, but eventually it fades, yes?
And then, Jesus talks about the thorny ground …
“And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”
—Mark 4:18–19 ESV
See, everything else around them in this one has roots already, right? He says it’s thrown among the thorns, and the reason why it can’t go anywhere is because all these other things already have deep roots, so there’s nowhere for it to go. It does try, it grows up, but eventually it’s choked out. And, it’s interesting, isn’t it, that Jesus - what does he say is the cause here? - the cares of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches. Woah, Jesus, don’t talk about money. Right? Of all the things that Jesus could point to as why things get choked out, why does he go to money? He says it’s not just money, the deceitfulness of money. It’s the way money lies to you. How does money lie to you? See, money and wealth, more than anything else, can actually functionally prolong your life. It can protect you. It can help you have control. Wealth, more than anything, can effectively replace our need for God, right? See, if you have money, you can actually have access to better health care, and better food, and better medicine. And, you can have a bigger, more safe house, and safer vehicle to drive, right? You can actually extend your life with money, to some extent, right? You know, more people die in the world from just lack of access to fresh water than anything else. So, with money, you can have that. You can have clean water. But, Jesus says it’s deceitful, the riches. Right? Because, we’re deceived about money. Because money actually can do those things, we think that’s enough.
See, money actually produces two things in us. It can produce significance, and it can produce safety and security. And, people who get significance from their money, spend a lot of money, right? Because, they want to feel important. And, people who get their security from money actually don’t spend any money. They save it, because it’s their security. And, both of those are lies. Both of those are deceitful. You cannot extend your life with money. You cannot have true life with money, and you cannot be safe because of money. They are the ones who get choked out, because money has a deeper root than God.
Lastly, Jesus gets to the good soil …
“But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
—Mark 4:20 ESV
See, the good soil that the seed goes in, and it goes in deep, and roots can go deep, and that’s why there’s fruit. Let me ask you this … how many of the seeds grew? Three of them. Three of them actually grew, 75% of them. Want to know something else? 75% of them didn’t have fruit. So, those 75% of them actually grew, only 25% actually bore fruit, and this is the point of the parable, right? We should really read that last sentence before we read the rest of the parable, cause it informs everything else. That 25% of the seed produces a return of 100 fold? Are you kidding? See, if you’re hearing this, and like the listeners that first heard this, you’re immediate thought should be … that’s miraculous. That’s a miracle. How could that few of seed produce that kind of return? Only God could produce that kind of return.
See, Jesus says here, by what he emphasizes, that it is not about our technique, or trying to change ourselves or the ground. He stops and says, it’s God’s providence that’s on display, here. So, this turns, now, to the depth of this parable, the meaning behind it, the application for us, the depth of the parable.
III. THE DEPTH OF THE PARABLE (Mark 4:14-20)
It’s the depth that is the determining factor. It’s the thing that unifies all of that. The reason why things grow up and die, or go nowhere at all, or actually produce fruit, is because of the depth. And, when we read the beginning of this parable, it says something that you probably would not know unless you’re reading from the Greek, but in verse 3 of chapter 4, it says, before he starts teaching this parable … listen, listen. It’s the world shama from the Old Testament. Do you know the shama? It’s … hear, oh Israel, listen, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one … He’s using the same language from the Old Testament about hearing, and not just hearing. Because, again, the idea of listening or hearing, that shama word, is know, understand, live as if it is true, that God is our Lord, and he is one.
And, Jesus uses that same language, here, to say, listen and hear this parable. Live as if it were true. All other activities of the church are subservient to the proclamation of the gospel, is it not? Everything we do should be to plant the gospel. This is why if, indeed, everything is subservient to preaching and planting the gospel, why we can celebrate things like Bible Camp. If you were with is for the week, you know. And, if you got to pop in, you know that on the surface it looks silly, what we’re doing, right? We’re playing games and reading stories with kids. Is that really going to go somewhere? Is that really going to produce fruit? Well, in God’s economy, yes. It will. This is why we can be celebratory of what was going on in San Bernardino. It was not a waste. Because, we see that we risk, we go and our job is to plant. Our job is not to determine the outcome. This is why we can be okay with paying for an empty building for a while. Right? Are we wasting money?
See, everything becomes subservient to planting and preaching the gospel. And so, from the outside, it can look silly, it can look wasteful, it can look risky, it can actually look like there’s nothing happening, but we plant on. Because, depth is the most important thing, let’s think about this. Let’s put our farmer hat on for a minute. What grows first? The roots. Do you see that? Do you see roots? You don’t see them. Roots grow first. What is unseen comes before what is seen. And, I would say to you, maybe you are here for the first time, that actually it is a miraculous work of God that you are just sitting here this morning. And, that’s all that we see. It is small, it is unassuming, but it’s something that God is doing, because we know that seeds produce roots, and roots produce shoots, and shoots produce trees, and trees produce forests. And, something small can have a return of 100 fold, because it is God who produces the growth.
Patience, slowness, steadiness, organic growth is slow growth, but it is also the healthiest and the most fruitful. Do we really believe, like Isaiah 55 tells us, and as this parable is teaching us, that all we have to do is scatter it? Do you believe that? See, for others of you, there’s a warning here. There's encouragement, right, that roots grow first. So, sometimes we don’t see growth, but God is at work. But, there’s also a warning here, that some of you might have been growing for a long time. There’s a lot of green, but there’s no fruit.
See, the theology behind this parable is that the Lord’s sovereignty in salvation is puzzling, but ultimately glorifying. The seed of the gospel is freely and lovingly scattered to any and everyone, and it is a soil that matters. God, alone, is the one who prepares the soil to receive the seed, and this is very freeing, is it not? It is freeing for me. It ought to be freeing to you, because you are not in charge of the yield. Jesus is still the king, even though his kingdom does not grow as fast as we expect, as large as we would expect, or when we expect, or where we expect. We do not need to worry about the percentages, or the numbers, we do not need to worry about waste or risk. We do not need to let our technique trump anything. We are just called to sow.
That should be freeing to you, because for some of you, you think your job is to get all the rocks and the weeds out of the field. You’re unhappy because you have forgotten that you are not the gardener in this story, you are the soil. You’re sitting there with thorns and rocks in your life, and you’re just saying … I need to get better at pulling these out. But, that’s not your job. Your job is to shama, your job is to hear, to live as it if it is true, that the gardener, the ultimate gardener, is the one who produces the growth. And, I am calling you - Jesus is calling you - to recognize that you are not strong enough for that job. That, you need the gardener in your life. You need to go to him and to say, I have rocks and boulders in my life, I have thorns in my life. I have the deceitfulness of riches in my life. I actually believe that I can extend my life and make it secure without you.
Have you received the gospel? Has God prepared your heart to receive it? The harvest is miraculous because it is only God at work in the life of someone who can urge them to stick around and ask questions about Jesus, right? Jesus is looking for people who not just hear, but understand, not just see and perceive. And, in a moment, we who have received are going to come to the table to remind us that it is all about receiving. Our liturgy from Isaiah 55 reminds us that God has prepared a banquet for us that we can come eat and drink without cost, and without money, without price. That’s the definition of receiving, isn’t it? But, to him, it costs him everything to bring his gospel into our life, and the hard soil of our hearts. Listen to the end of Isaiah 55 with me …
““For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the LORD, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.””
—Isaiah 55:10–13 ESV
See, friends, why am I getting emotional? I am guilty of putting my own metric on things. And, I am guilty of also assuming that just because I see some green, that I can ignore that. And, I am calling you, and Jesus is calling you, that if you do not have the fruitfulness of the gospel in your life, either because you’ve never received it, or because you’ve received it with joy but you have no depth, and no fruit, that you need to respond. You need to receive, without cost, without price. So, in a moment, we’re going to come to God’s table and we’re going to receive. And, if you have not done that, that table is not for you. But, if you need to receive, then I would encourage you to stick around, like his disciples did, and ask questions. I’m here, Pastor Matt is here, we would love to talk to you more about what that means to receive the gospel. Will you pray with me?
Help us, by your Spirit, to hear and understand ourselves, where we lack the gospel going deep into our lives and hearts. Would you help those who may never have received your Word and your gospel, to do so now, and would you help us, as a church, to have the long, fruitful view of your kingdom the way Jesus did. Would you help us not to assume that our technique, our stuff, and our experience, and our character is what you’re after, but you are after new hearts, and we can trust and rest in knowing that your Word will go out and be scattered, and it will not return empty, because you are good, and you are producing a miraculous harvest. Help us, God. In Jesus’ name, amen.