A sermon on Mark 4:1-20 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 30 September 2018
Listen! If you have ears, tune them in to what I’m saying. If you have hearing aids, turn them up. Listen to me like your life depends on it. Because it does.
In Mark chapter 4 Jesus told a story. And not just a story, but the story. The story that is the key to understanding all Jesus’ other stories. In this story there is a farmer sowing his seed. He doesn’t have a tractor. He doesn’t have a direct drill seeder. He has ploughed his soil using a team of oxen. And now it is as ready as it will ever be. The farmer has a bag slung over his shoulder. And as he walks down the path that cuts through his field he reaches into the bag, takes a handful of seed, and scatters it as widely as he can.
This is what Jesus was doing as he walked through Galilee, visiting the towns, teaching the crowds. He was broadcast sowing. His message was like a seed. A little packet of life and energy, just bursting to come to life and to grow and to produce under the right conditions. Jesus threw his message to the wind, tossing it far and wide to whatever ear would pick it up, to whatever soil would welcome it in.
And this is what I do too. As we meet on Sundays, as I visit people during the week, as I take my turn to teach in the schools at Scripture, I am broadcast sowing the gospel of Jesus. Not every ear will listen. Not every heart will welcome it. But life finds a way. And wherever the soil is fertile the seed of the gospel will take root and grow and flourish and produce a harvest.
But the seed as it is thrown and falls, lands on all kinds of soil, just as the gospel reaches many different kinds of ears and hearts. In Jesus’ story, there are four kinds of soil. The first is hard. It is the path. Because the farmer must tread somewhere as he sows, and when the field is fallow, he still has to walk around his farm. So the farmer sticks to the same path. It ruins the soil. It packs it down hard. And ploughing it never really rejuvenates it. The path is hard. And where the seed falls on it, it bounces once and twice and then settles on the top, announcing that it is dinnertime for the birds. Like those stretches of the highway where there must be a bump and the trucks carrying the grain jump and some of the grain falls out and just lies on the road. And the little birds thank their creator that when they order take away, sometimes he delivers.
The path is hard. The seed that lands there doesn’t take root. It doesn’t grow. Its head never fills with grain. Instead, it is gobbled up before it even had a chance.
As Jesus taught the crowd, maybe in some deserted place, maybe from a boat, while the people sit on the sand on the shore, as Jesus broadcasted the message of the kingdom, some people’s hearts were as hard as the path. They’d come to see a miracle. They’d come to see what the fuss is all about. But sooner or later they found out that it was just some carpenter from Nazareth trying to teach them how to sow seed. They didn’t listen. They didn’t ask questions. They didn’t stay back afterwards to learn more. His message didn’t reach them. It went in one ear and out the others without hitting anything in between. They were comfortable with their lives as they were. They felt no urge to change, to live, to make a difference. The message of the kingdom sounded just like baby talk.
The message for us is, don’t be hard. When the message of the gospel is preached, when the word of life is announced, don’t be so hard that it can’t take root in your life.
Two weeks ago in Mark chapter 3 we saw what is at stake. In his ministry Jesus saw himself as plundering Satan. The evil one has taken captive unjustly those whom God had made for himself. And Jesus’ mission is to overpower him, to break in and take back the souls that rightly belong to his Father. And at the heart of that mission is Jesus’ message, the truth that sets us free. But if our hearts are hard. If we refuse to listen to Jesus. If we fool ourselves that he is just a myth invented by the church to take people’s money, if we deceive ourselves into thinking that he was just another mad prophet whose ravings make no difference in our modern world, then we will be playing into Satan’s hands and doing his work for him. If we harden our hearts against Jesus, the only one who can save us, then we will remained bound to the evil one and the bonds will be of our own making.
But the path isn’t the only soil the seed lands upon. There is rocky soil. It’s rocky not because it is full of rocks, but because the bedrock lies close to the surface. This second soil isn’t hard, but it is shallow. A small amount of rain can fill the whole soil profile and make it damp because the water can’t go down deep. It’s got nowhere to go except to sit near the surface. So the soil looks good and seems to provide what the seed needs. It isn’t hard so the seed penetrates through the surface. It is damp so the seed germinates and begins to grow. But it is shallow. The roots can’t go deep. When the rain stops and the sun comes out, the soil begins to dry out. If it doesn’t keep raining every second day, the soil profile eventually dries out completely and the little plant starts to wither.
As Jesus broadcasted the message of the kingdom, the truth that sets us free, some people’s hearts were as shallow as the rocky soil. They heard the good news and thought, “This is good for me. This is great. I’ve been waiting my whole life for this. This will completely change my life for the better. I have peace with God. I have assurance of faith. I have joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart. Following Jesus is the best thing since they invented the dishwashing machine. I should have done this year’s ago.”
They are shallow and so following Jesus isn’t about Jesus, but it’s about themselves and all the benefits of following him. Until they realise that the grace of God for them in Christ is free, but it doesn’t come cheap. They realise that they aren’t sheltered from suffering and that grace comes at the price of suffering for Jesus’ name. And that suffering burns down upon them like the heat of the sun, and I don’t mean like the gentle warmth of a sunny winter’s day, but like a hot, dry spring day that threatens to dry out the crops. And because their hearts are shallow, because they’ve fooled themselves that the gospel is all about them, they complain, I didn’t sign up for this. When Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me, I thought he was talking metaphorically.” And they turn their back on him because he has let them down.
The message for us is: don’t be shallow. Because, believe me, suffering will come. Either because you are not being sheltered from what everyone else has to go through, or for the sake of Christ. Our Saviour died on the cross. Eleven of the twelve disciples lost their life for his sake. Generations of Christians have paid the ultimate price. The gospel is not about you. It’s not about us. Even our salvation only serves the purpose of bringing glory to our creator God. We cannot afford to be so shallow. The roots of our faith must go deep in God’s word and in his purposes that reach further than just our peace and happiness so that we see that it is all for him. That we only find our true selves when we lose ourselves in the cause of his kingdom. And those roots must go deep in a life of prayer that is not afraid to ask for what we want but above all is not afraid to seek his will first whatever the risks, whatever the consequences. When those roots of faith go deep to find the nourishment of God’s Spirit, we learn that whatever we think we lose for the sake of Christ, is never lost.
The third soil isn’t hard or shallow. It is just full of other things. It is full of weeds. Weeds aren’t evil plants. They are just plants in the wrong place. In the right place they might be beautiful and useful. But in the crop they compete with the crop for all the resources. Because the weedy soil is soft it takes the seed right in. And because the soil is deep the seed germinates and its roots go deep. When the birds come, when the sun shines, the little plants are safe to grow. But the weeds grow too. And they outcompete the plants for the moisture below and for the light above and the plants are starved, choked before they can develop a head and fill with grain.
And as Jesus broadcasted the message of the kingdom, some people’s hearts were just full of other things. They aren’t hard or shallow. They hear the good news and they know that it is only good for them because it is ultimately not about them. Troubles come and their faith does not wither. They love God, they love him well. But their hearts are full of other things as well and they love those other things just as much if not even more than they love Christ. Pleasures. Material things. And the worries that come from loving and seeking material things. Those things are not evil in themselves, like Satan or suffering. We may not want to rid the world of them or announce a crusade against them. But they are in the wrong place. In the right place they might be beautiful or useful. But when they are in the wrong place in our hearts, when they take the place of God, they easily become rivals for God, distracting us from serving him, leading us away from finding our true life in him.
In Australia, for example, this weekend is the great festival of the great god of organized sport with the grand finals of the two big football codes. And who wants to ban sport? It’s a great way to lose weight, stay in shape and make friends. It’s a great way to learn how to set goals and meet them and to develop mental strength and resilience. I thank God that I have always loved sport. And I thank him that I have never been good enough to be paid to play but I’ve always had to pay to play. Because sport is a wonderful pastime. It’s fun and good for you at the same time. But it is a cruel god that promises false hope, that cripples those who serve it and lets down those who worship it. This weekend is the festival of sport and it is also the time of year that has the most calls from women suffering from domestic violence. And it is no coincidence. It is a toxic mix of testosterone and alcohol and failure.
Every god but the true and living God will let us down. They will promise much but deliver nothing but temporary happiness at the cost of eternal regret. Like weeds they are not evil in themselves, just in the wrong place. Taking the place of our creator and our Saviour in our hearts. These pleasures and worries do not wither our faith like suffering or persecution, but they choke our faith so that it is not fruitful or productive. And so our lives fall short of the destiny for which they were made.
The fourth soil isn’t hard. It isn’t shallow. And it isn’t full of other things. It is soft, so it receives the seed. It is deep, so the seed germinates and grows and puts its roots down deep. And it is clean and free of weeds so that all the nourishment is for the little plant to go to seed and fill with grain, and the sower reaps a harvest many times over what he planted.
And so as the Lord Jesus broadcasted the message of the kingdom, some people received it with clean hearts. I don’t mean innocent, but clean of other distractions. They receive the gospel. It brings them joy. But in the time of testing they persevere, and they aren’t distracted by a love for other things. It’s not that they don’t face the other threats that other people do, but they aren’t vulnerable to them. And the seed of the gospel, that word of life, that little bundle of life changing energy can take root and grow and do its work. And so they bear fruit in love for others, and in souls won for Christ by sharing and living the gospel.
To put it bluntly, Jesus’ story shows us that God is a farmer, not a gardener. A gardener may plant for show, and there is no shame in that. But a farmer plants for a harvest. Right now, as I am speaking, Jesus is broadcasting the message of the kingdom, the gospel that declares that he is Lord and that you may have life in his name. A life not just for yourself, but a life for him and for others. Do not be hard and fail to receive this gift. Do not be shallow and abandon it at the first sign of trouble. And keep your hearts clean, free from the love of other things that may distract you from bearing fruit. Listen to me, as if your lives depended on it. Because they do.