Sunday, January 22, 2006

Matt Messages - Seeds, Soils, and Secrets

“Seeds, Soils, and Secrets”
January 22, 2006
Mark 4:1-34

In the first three chapters of Mark’s introduction to Jesus, our Lord is presented as a Teacher. A teacher with his own authority, a teacher who is popular with the crowds, and a teacher who is teaching about the Kingdom of God [which He says is near].

Now in chapter 4, we are introduced to what and how Jesus taught. Jesus taught about the Kingdom in parables. You’ve probably been taught at some point that parables are earthly stories with heavenly meanings. And that’s true.

My friend Russell Muilenburg further defines a parable like this: “Parables are everyday, true to life stories that are easily understood but not always easily grasped.”

And what he means is that we can easily identify with the story in a parable, but the true meaning of the parable only comes through deeper thought about it and (in many cases) a receptivity to the Parable Teller Himself.

Chapter 4 of the Gospel of Mark is full of these parables, interpretations of the parables, and also an explanation of why Jesus uses parables. All of the parables in chapter 4 include seeds of some kind. Seeds are the “everyday, true to life” feature in each story. I’ve entitled this message: “Seeds, Soils, and Secrets.”

“Again Jesus began to teach by the lake [He is still in Galilee]. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water's edge.”

There’s that crowd again! Are crowds good or bad?

This one is so big that the “escape boat” that he had “at the ready” in chapter 3 is now put to use as a floating stage for his teaching. V.2

“He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: ‘Listen! [Key word: Listen!] A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.’ Then Jesus said, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’”

Jesus, the Master Teacher, tells this story, and it would have been immediately engaging for His audience. This was an agrarian society, and everybody would have immediately identified with the farmer’s story. They know all about scattering seeds, and different kinds of soils. This is a colorful story that they could have immediately identified with.

But then Jesus ended it with: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Oh. There’s some kind of a point to this story. What is it?

Everybody has ears on the sides of their heads. But not all have “ears to hear.” Not everyone is ready to receive this teaching.

Jesus is asking, “Are you listening? Do you hear?”

Later, when the crowd was gone, Jesus and his disciples talked this over. V.10

“When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, 'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'’”

That’s a quote from Isaiah 6 when the Lord gave Isaiah the role of being a prophet whose job was going to be very difficult by saying truth that actually drives people away.

Jesus is saying the parables have a role in both revealing and in concealing. They reveal truth to those who have ears to hear, but they conceal truth to those who are spiritually “outside.”

Jesus says, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you.” What’s that secret?

It is that Jesus is the King Who has come to bring in His kingdom. That was a secret. Now, it has been revealed. But it’s being revealed in a concealed way to those who are spiritually “outside.”

And then, Jesus interprets the parable for them. V.13

“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Don't you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? [This is foundational.] The farmer sows the word. [The seed is the word.] Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop–thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.’”

Now, let me ask you a question. Are you listening?

What was wrong with the seed that it didn’t produce a good crop in all four instances?

Nothing, right?

The seed is the Word of God. The Farmer is either God or one of His servants.

There is nothing wrong with the seed. What’s wrong with three of the results is the soil. The receptivity of the soil.

This is not a parable about a seed as much as it is a parable about 4 kinds of soils.

Four kinds of hearts.

#1. Hard Hearts. V.14

“The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.”

My friend Russell describes these kinds of hearts this way:

“It’s possible to be the kind of person who hears the Word of God preached, but to be so hardened that it doesn’t penetrate at all. It just bounces off. There’s no desire to respond to God’s Word, no willingness to admit failings or accept the help of a Savior. These are the kind of people Satan thrives on. He’s right there: like a hungry, hovering bird, ready to sweep in and snatch the message away again. These are people who simply don’t want to listen. Hard-hearted, stubborn, unrepentant people.”

The second kind of heart is a shallow heart.

#2. Shallow Hearts. V.16

“Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.”

My friend Russell writes, “In Israel, there is a ledge of limestone rock that runs under the soil. In places, this limestone comes up just inches from the surface. Seed scattered here would quickly germinate and grow but as the roots descended they would soon hit limestone and have no place to go. To compensate, the plant would grow extensive foliage, and often the crops in this area would look much better than the others. But when the hot sun came out and the long dry summer began, these plants would be the first to die. In verse [17], Jesus interprets this soil as “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.” In other words, some people will hear the Word and respond to it with an initial burst of enthusiasm. These people seem gung ho to follow God and put what they hear into action. But as soon as the time of testing comes—that is, as soon as things become difficult or changes are hard to make or persecution or opposition comes along—they whither away. These are people who appear to be listening, but they’re really not. They are shallow, not willing to take hold of all God says. They have a superficial faith.”

It’s not a real faith. It just looks real at the beginning.

We probably all know people like this. It seemed like they believe the gospel, but when the going first got rough, they dropped Jesus like a hot-rock.

The Bible gives no assurance of salvation to those who make some kind of a initial profession of faith but then deny Jesus when the trials begin. Shallow Hearts.

#3. Choked Hearts. V.18

“Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.”

Again, my friend Russell explains, “This soil is well tilled, there is no layer of rock underneath, and it looks as good as any other type of soil. But it contains something that the farmer can't see. As the seed lands there it begins to grow, but at the same time the hidden seeds of the thorns also begin to grow. And as every farmer knows, if you have two plants growing in the same piece of soil, one which you planted and one that got there on its own, the one that got there on its own will always win. Left unchecked, weeds win every time...Jesus interprets this soil as ‘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.’

In other words, some people will hear the word, but at the same time continue listening to the messages of the rest of the world. Instead of nourishing the plant of faith, these people continue to be consumed with the cares of the world, the pursuit of riches, fame, a career, looks, property, pleasure, prestige. They may attend church, they may be involved in service and mission work. But in the end they bear no real fruit. They are just there for what prestige it will lend them. They fail to put Jesus first in their lives.

These folks also appear to be listening, but they’re really not. There are too many other voices that they are attending to and—as a result—the Word of God is choked out. They are distracted, worldly people.”

This is the one I am the most afraid for us. Choked Hearts full of the World instead of the Word. That is the temptation for American Christianity. For Central Pennsylvanian Christianity. For our Church. For your pastor.

Have you got what the key word is for this portion of scripture?

Hint: It is not seeds, soil, or secret! It is “hear” or “heard.” It is “listen.”

Each of these soils hears the Word. But do they have “ears to hear” the Word?

I am afraid that too often our ears are plugged up with the world.

Television. Internet. Blogs. Magazines. Unhealthy friendships. Movies. Newspapers. Radio. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

“The worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.”

Whom or what are you listening to? What is your focus? What is your center? What are you concentrating on?

Is your heart receptive to the Word? Or is it being choked?

God wants our hearts to be like the fourth soil.

#4. Receptive Hearts. The “good soil.” V.20

“Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop–thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.” A terrific harvest!

This describes a heart that is truly receptive. That listens to God’s word and is eager to hear it. Who takes the truth deeply to heart, who puts aside all distractions, and who lives a life of great fruitfulness for God’s kingdom.

Heeding the Word, not just Hearing the Word.

That’s why Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

And then, let him share it! V.21

“He said to them, ‘Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don't you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. [All this hiding in parables is ultimately for the purpose of revealing!] If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.’

‘Consider carefully what you hear,’ he continued. ‘With the measure you use, it will be measured to you–and even more. [Be careful with what you do with what you hear!] Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.’”

Do you have a grasp on spiritual truth? Do you want more? There is more to come. You will be filled.

Do you spurn spiritual truth? Are you just casual about it? Do you even care? What little you have will be taken from you if you don’t value it.

“Consider carefully what you hear.” Be careful with what you do with what you hear.

It’s vitally important.

Jesus is penetrating to the point. The condition of our soils, of our hearts, is the most important factor in whether or not we are fruitful Christians.

What we do with what we hear is vitally important. Deathly important.

But sometimes, it seems like the Word of the Kingdom isn’t worth that much. Sometimes it is easy to discount what God says. Because it seems like it doesn’t matter much.

But the next two parables are designed to call out faith in us in spite of appearances. V.26

“He also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain–first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.’”

There is a lot in those four little verses. Here, the sower is now one of us. And the point is the automatic-ness of the soil producing the grain from the seed. The man doesn’t matter after he sows it. “Whether he sleeps or gets up,” it is going to come! The Kingdom is coming! It is certain. Even if it is hidden.

And the next parable is much like it. V.30

“Again he said, ‘What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.’

What is the kingdom of God like? It doesn’t look like much sometimes.

Sometimes, the kingdom looks like a tiny little seed. But don’t be fooled by appearances. The Kingdom is near. It is coming. And it is growing. And when it comes and is fully grown it will be spectacular!

Sometimes King Jesus appears insignificant. But don’t be fooled by appearances.

These are the things that Jesus is saying in parables of seeds, soils, and secrets. V.33

“With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand [or literally: HEAR]. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.”

Seeds, soils, and secrets.

Two points of application this morning.

#1. Hear the Word of the King with Receptive Hearts.

What kind of soil is your heart?

Good, Rich, Receptive, Obedient?

Are you doing what you can to eliminate distractions in your life from hearing the Word and heeding the Word?

Now, this “hearing” happens in all kinds of places. In your quiet times, in Link Groups, in Sunday School classes, in Bible Studies.

But one of the key places this happens is right here when we are in the Worship in the Word time in our Worship Celebration. When I’m preaching.

What are you doing to maximize your “hearing, listening” to the Word of God?

Can I recommend that we all return this week to Joshua Harris’ book Stop Dating the Church and remind ourselves of his chapter 6, “Rescuing Sunday: How to Get the Most Out of the Best Day of the Week?” He’s got really good suggestions on how to get ready for this moment when we open God’s Word together and how to be really receptive to its message.

He says this, “The real burden of responsibility on Sunday morning is not on the preacher to perform, but on the congregation to listen. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not justifying or encouraging sloppy or boring sermons. Pastors should strive to make their sermons easy to understand and to engage the attention of their listeners. But ultimately, it’s still the responsibility of the people hearing the sermon to listen carefully and apply the truth they hear. As my pastor C.J. Mahaney has taught me, I will be held accountable for what I have heard regardless of whether it moved me emotionally...If I have heard God’s truth, then I am called to obey it” (112-113).

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear. Consider carefully what you hear.”

I have noticed at times when I try to do some application in your lives, and ask you to write something down, many of you do not. Now, you may be doing it in your head. Some of you who write things down might be writing a shopping list. And others of you who look like you’re tuned out may be putting this stuff to work in your life. I can’t tell from here.

But I am concerned that we get serious about hearing and heeding the Word. Don’t bother coming to church to “play church.” It doesn’t impress anybody, especially God.

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear. Consider carefully what you hear.”

My friend Russell, obviously, recently preached on this parable. And he gave his congregation a list of 8 suggestions for Saturdays and Sundays to have receptive hearts. [Russell’s list is adapted from John Piper’s longer list in the sermon Take Care How You Listen, Part 2.]

Here’s the list. I can give you a copy of the full thing if you want it.

1. First, pray that God would give you the noble and good heart described in [this parable].

Pray that God would help you to hear his voice as you come to church. The kind of hearing Jesus describes does not come naturally—He says it is something God gives—but we can ask God to give it. Pray on Saturday night, and then again on Sunday morning. Ask him to prepare your heart.

2. Second, meditate on the Word of God. Read portions of your Bible with a view to stirring up hunger for God.

The more you take in God’s Word, the more you will hunger for it. Plus, you can read ahead of time, and meditate on the text I’m going to preach.

3. Third, get a good night's rest on Saturday night.

It is hard to come into church on Sunday morning and focus on a 30 minute sermon if you were up late the night before. We need to get to bed in a timely manner and then get up on time so that it’s not such a rush to get to church. It’s especially important for parents to teach our children that Saturday night is not the night to be out late with friends. If there is a night for that, it should be Friday.

4. Fourth, we need to forebear with one another without grumbling and criticism.

Sunday morning seems to be a notorious time for getting into fights with spouse or children. I often hear about fights that occur in the car ride on the way to church. And that makes sense, because if Satan can find a way to distract us from what we are about to hear, he’s sure to take it. But we need to learn not to let grumbling and controversy distract us from worship. My advice is this: when there is something you are angry about or some conflict that you genuinely think needs to be talked about, forebear, and put if off till later on Sunday after worship. Don't dive in on Saturday night or Sunday morning.

5. Fifth, come in a spirit of meek teachability.

Come wanting to learn. If we come with a chip on our shoulder that there is nothing we can learn or no benefit that we can get, then that is exactly what will happen. But if we humble ourselves before the Word of God, we will hear and grow and bear fruit.
6. Sixth, when the worship service begins, think earnestly about what is sung and prayed and preached.

Remember, the prayers and songs are not just pre-game warm-up for the sermon. Engage from the get-go. Be listening for what God has to say. Be on the look out for Him.

7. Seventh, be an active listener, eagerly searching out God’s Word.

Keep your Bibles open during the sermon. Check what I’m saying against what you can read for yourselves. Ask questions in the back of your mind. There should be an internal dialogue taking place. Asking questions doesn’t mean you’re not being teachable. Just the opposite. It means you are plugged in and alert and hungry to learn. Some people find taking notes helps them to listen actively. Others find it distracting. Either way. But make sure you are engaged.
8. Then eighth, apply what you hear to your life.

As you leave the worship service, take the message with you. Talk about it with your family in the car or at the dinner table, and ask yourself what changes in your life you might need to make because of what you have heard. Allow the Word to take root in your heart so that it can grow and flourish and bear fruit.

Hear the Word of the King with Receptive Hearts.

And application point #2. Hope in the Coming Kingdom Despite Its Appearances.

It may be hidden. It may look small.

But the harvest is coming. And soon that which seems insignificant will be all significant for all the world.

The King has come. And He is coming again.

Hope in the Coming Kingdom Despite Its Appearances.

[I am greatly indebted for this message to Rev. Russell Muilenburg’s recently emailed sermon (01/08/05) “The Greatest Stories Ever Told: The Sower.” Unfortunately, Russell is not yet publishing his sermons on the Internet. We’ll just have to wait for the book!]