St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 17th August 2014
Reading – Mark 4:1-20[audio https://stbarnacles.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/tim-17-aug-2014-mark-4-the-sower.mp3]
I want you to imagine that today you are one of the crowd who’s flocked to the lakeside to listen to Jesus. You’ve already heard so many good things about Him. You’ve been told of His wonderful power to heal, and His inspiring teaching. Everyone has urged you to take some time out and go hear Him for yourself. You turn up, only to realise you’re at the back of a huge crowd, all struggling to make out what Jesus is saying. So politely, but firmly, you work your way forward until you come within earshot.
And then you discover Jesus is telling a story about a farmer. This farmer goes out one morning with his basket of seed and begins to scatter it on the ground. Some falls on the path and it is eaten up by the birds. Some falls on the stones and although it grows for a while, sooner or later it scorches in the heat. Some more falls among thorns, and try as it might, it is eventually choked by the weeds. But some falls on good soil and in the fullness of time it produces a harvest, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.
It would be very hard if you were hearing this story not to think to yourself, “So what?” After all, everyone knew that was what happened when a farmer went out to sow. It was a familiar scene repeated up and down the land. Indeed there were plenty in the crowd who were probably used to doing exactly the same thing. So if you were there for the first time, listening to Jesus, I would expect you would probably wonder – at least for a little while – what all the fuss was about. This guy was hardly telling you something you didn’t know already.
It’s no surprise then, that later on, when Jesus is alone, His disciples ask Him what is the point of the story. They are puzzled not because the parable is so obscure or so difficult to understand, but because it is, well, just so ordinary. Why talk about something everyone is just so familiar with?
And so we read in verse 10: When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables.
Now we will look at Jesus’ answer to their question in a moment. But before we move on, I want us just to pause and look at what apparently seems a very ordinary, straightforward verse. Because Mark here actually doesn’t talk about the disciples. He talks about the Twelve and the others around him. Isn’t that strange? One good rule of thumb whenever we read the Bible is to notice any small features that seem unusual or out of place, because they often give us the key to understanding the whole passage. And I believe that if we want to make sense of this well-known parable, then it’s important to understand why right at the heart of this reading Mark talks about the Twelve and others around him.
So let’s step back for a moment, and ask: who exactly are the twelve? Well, if you were here two weeks ago, you’ll know they were the men Jesus called to Himself and appointed as His apostles (Mark 3:13-15). And what was their mission? That’s right – “to preach and to have authority to drive out demons”.
Now I wonder how you would feel after you had been called by Jesus to be one of those apostles? I guess you must have been pretty excited. Yes, for now you were just part of a little band of followers in Galilee. But pretty soon, you were sure, Jesus would go up to Jerusalem, God’s kingdom would miraculously appear and you’d be right there, in the thick of the action, taking pride of place as God comes at last to save His people.
Well, we don’t really know what the apostles were thinking when they were chosen. But if they thought even for a moment that was what was going to happen, they were about to get a rude awakening. Because as soon as they come back down to civilisation, the first thing they encounter is misunderstanding, accusation, opposition. Jesus’ message is clear – if you want to follow Him, whether you are a leader or not, you will be opposed, even by those who love you and those you might think would most welcome the good news of salvation.
All that’s in chapter 3. And now as Jesus moves on to the parable of the sower, He has an equally clear message, that if you think that sharing the good news always brings positive or instant results, then you need to think again. The gospel will produce a variety of reactions, and we must not be surprised by the responses we encounter.
First of all, there will always be people who simply do not understand the good news you are sharing with them. No matter how much you tell them about Jesus, or how often you share your faith, they just don’t take it in. And it’s not because they don’t have the basic intelligence or lack the right education. It’s that somehow or other whenever they hear reference to God, it’s as if the shutters come down, and you might as well be talking to them in a particularly obscure dialect of Chinese.
What is it that, then, causes such failure to comprehend? Well, let’s listen carefully to Jesus’ explanation: 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 (Mark 4:15). Now I guess when we read this we find the reference to Satan somewhat alarming. But it’s worth dwelling on what Jesus is saying because actually whenever the gospel is preached there will always be spiritual opposition.
The gospel, you see, is the word of the living God. It tells us the truth about who God is and about who we are before God. And the evil one will do anything to prevent people from grasping that truth. That’s what the apostle Paul tells us in 2 Cor 4:4: The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
So to be involved in gospel ministry is to be involved in a spiritual battle. And while we might long for all we know and love to come to a living relationship with Jesus Christ, sometimes we will encounter a stubborn refusal to engage with anything we are saying. That doesn’t mean we should write that person off. Rather, I believe that with broken hearts and fervent prayer we should go back to our Lord and ask that He might open their eyes to the glorious truth of who He is. And even if we ourselves do not see the answer to our prayers, we leave that person in the Lord’s hand, trusting only that in His way and according to His timing He might show grace and reveal His saving power.
Of course sometimes there is a response. Sometimes folk immediately accept the good news and there is an instant and wonderful transformation in their lives. Maybe for the next few days, or the next few weeks, they seem really on fire for the Lord. But then just as quickly they came, they seem to disappear again. When in the years to come you ask them about their experience, they will talk about that time when they had some kind of spiritual encounter – but only as a very distant memory, or a phase they were going through.
So what’s gone wrong? Again Jesus tells us: 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. Of course there is nothing wrong with being filled with joy. Indeed, I would say there isn’t half as much joy as there ought to be in the churches that bear the name of Christ. When someone comes to know the Lord, we should be rejoicing with angels in heaven and throwing a party for the prodigal son. But if there is no understanding to go with the joy, then there is the real danger that this new Christian’s faith will wither at the slightest obstacle.
That’s why it is just so important we take to the heart what Jesus tells us to do in the Great Commission. He doesn’t just tell us to go and make converts, or go and fill our churches on a Sunday morning. He tells us to go and make disciples. And how do you make a disciple? Well, yes of course, you share the good news with them. But you don’t stop sharing that good news as soon as they make a commitment. You spend time with them, you teach them to pray, to read the Bible. You invite them to come along to church and to a small group. You help them take their place within the body of Christ.
And this isn’t something that only the vicar does. After all, one person can only disciple a few people at a time. But imagine how fast a church would be growing if every established church member had a new Christian under his or her wing! I’m leaping ahead of myself here slightly, and anticipating the end of the story. But for now, I just want to make the point that if we are serious about real, long-term growth, then all of us need to be involved in the work of the kingdom. The danger is, especially in an age where we see so few obvious responses to the gospel, we are happy whenever there is a commitment and think our work is done. And then we wonder why a few months down the line this or that newcomer has disappeared again, and why growth seems so slow and so patchy.
Then there are others who seem to make a promising start. For a few years they really get stuck into the life of the local church. They maybe take their place on the rotas or start using some kind of spiritual gift. If you were to describe them, you would say they were at the core of the church. But then something in their life changes. Maybe there’s a new baby in the family. Maybe they’ve got a better job. Maybe they’ve bought a house which needs a lot of work doing. And gradually, bit by bit, they start to fall away. They ask other people to fill their rotas, they resign from the committees they’re on, you see them less and less on a Sunday morning.
What’s gone wrong? Simply this: that for all their hard work and commitment, their faith is no longer the most important thing in their lives. 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 (Mark 4:19-20). Jesus isn’t saying that such people have necessarily lost their faith. It’s still there, but it’s got buried beneath the business and concerns of daily life. It is no longer visible; its growth is stunted; and it stands alone and isolated from the rest of the crop.
In 2 Timothy 4:9-10 we read these sad words of Paul: Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Now we know from a couple of other references that Demas had once been a loyal worker for the gospel, and that he had faithfully stood by Paul in times past. But when the opportunity arose, he upped and went to Thessalonica because ultimately his heart was not set on the Lord. What a way to go down in history, as the man who abandoned Paul! It’s a sobering reminder that when we allow ourselves to be distracted by other things, not only does our own faith suffer, but so does the life of the whole church. Because by choosing to step back from the life of the church, you are depriving the body of Christ of your gifts and ministries.
Of course many people who drift away from the church do intend to come back, once the new baby has grown up, or they’ve finished work on the house, for example. But from my observations when the drifters try to return, more than not, they find they cannot. There’s simply too much else going in their lives. So, if any of us here this morning think they are drifting, please do take Jesus’ words to heart, please bear in mind the example of Demas. To be a disciple involves discipline. It may be hard putting Jesus first. It may involve making choices other people find difficult. But if we are serious about faith, if we mean it when we sing Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all, then we do not have an option. Either Jesus is Lord of all, or He is not Lord at all.
So far the parable of the sower sounds quite depressing, doesn’t it!? But there is a fourth response to the word of God and that is the seed which fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times (Mark 4:9). These are the people who respond with joy to the word of God, who become disciples and who are committed to Jesus whatever the cost.
Now they do not instantly become spiritual superheroes. The whole point about sowing a crop is that there’s a long time between sowing and reaping. But in God’s timing and according to God’s grace there is a harvest, and what a plenty one it is! Not just twice, or five times what was sown, but thirty, sixty or even a hundred times. I guess there were would have been many in the crowd who would have longed to see results like that from their sowing.
Of course the one thing Jesus doesn’t explain in this passage is what this crop actually is. But I think it’s fairly easy to work out. The point of sowing seed is that one day you will produce a plant that produces seed of its own. So the long-term fruit of becoming a disciple is that you start to sow seeds into the lives of other people. Of course you do not know what will happen to that seed. But Jesus strongly suggests that if we remain faithful and committed to Him, we will see others coming to know and love Him through us.
In November 1949 two old ladies came together on the island of Lewis. One was 84, the other 82. They had been walking with the Lord for many years. But they gripped with the knowledge no-one else on the island attended public worship. What could they do to change the situation? They were nearing the end of their lives, they were no longer as able as they once were. So they prayed. Not just once in a while, but faithfully, persistently, asking for the Lord to act. And out of their prayers came the revival in the Hebrides which still impacts on the life of that island to that day. They had to wait many, many years before they saw the Lord at work. But in the end they saw fruit thirty, sixty, hundred fold what was sown.
Now there is much, much more I could say about the parable of the sower. Even though those in the crowd were probably wondering what was the point of the story, there is just so much here about what happens when we share the good news. Sometimes there is rejection, sometimes there is joy with little understanding, sometimes there is good growth that gets swallowed up by the cares of this world, and sometimes, just sometimes, there is a real harvest.
But of course none of this happens unless the word of God is shared. So to finish, let me just stress how important that all of us really take on board the overall message of this parable, that if we want to see the church grow, we need to concentrate on the ministry of the word. After all, there are so many good things a church can do. Ministry of the word does not produce instant results. Its effects are not often immediately visible – we’ll think more about it next week. It is often put down as something from a bygone age. But it is this ministry that in the end produces the long-term fruit we all desire. So let me ask: what place does the word of God have in your life? What kind of seed are you?