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Parable of the Sower

November 22, 2020 Speaker: Daniel Nelms Series: Stand Alone

Passage: Mark 4:1–4:20

Mark 4:1–20

[1] 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. [2] And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: [3] “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. [4] And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. [5] 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. [6] And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. [7] Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. [8] And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” [9] And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”[10] And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. [11] 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, [12] so that “‘they may indeed see but not perceive,and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’” [13] And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? [14] The sower sows the word. [15] 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. [16] And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. [17] 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. [18] And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, [19] 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. [20] 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.” (ESV)

            After much prayer and thought, I landed on walking through this parable with you all this morning.  This pandemic is only heightening, it is raising and increasing in numbers.  I wanted to look at this parable because right now, because what it means to actually be in the Kingdom of God, as it is the first of Mark’s Kingdom parables, and how we should respond to God’s Word, as well as what we should expect our response to look like.

            I’m going to go ahead and spoil it for you today, but all commentators and everyone agrees in this passage that the Word, represented by the sower’s seed, is Jesus himself.  All throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been placing himself as the one through whom his audience enters the Kingdom of God.  He himself stands as the one through whom we know God – or do not know God.

            And as we work through this parable, it is known as the Parable of the Sower, and not the Parable of the Four Soils.  This parable is primarily about God and His work in people through Jesus Christ.  We need right now as the Church to remind ourselves of some of these basics, as there are many things right now calling for the loyalty of our hearts.  There are also many reasons to be in fear. This holiday season for many of us, we are going to have a different holiday with family, some much smaller and unable to fully be enjoyed.  As once again, we will hear of the Good News of Jesus this morning, we are going to look at the three ways in which the Word of God can be robbed from our hearts:

1) How can Satan himself rob the Word of God from you?

2)  How can trials rob the Word of God from you?

3)  How can the cares and desires of this world rob the Word of God from you?

4)  And finally, we will look at the kind of faith we must invite into our lives as represented by the fourth soil. 

Ultimately, this sermon is a prayer, an invitation, for the Sower, God, to further sow deep in our hearts through his Spirit the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  If you are a Christian this morning and have been for some time, this is still a sermon for you, and if you do not yet identify as a Christian this morning, you will hear of the kind of faith God desires to sow within us.  So let’s dive in:

           

 

[1] 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.

 

            Now we are jumping in on chapter four of Mark, and we don’t have time to properly set the full context here.  But thus far in the Gospel of Mark, we have seen Jesus be baptized and start his ministry.  He has healed people from physical blindness, demonic possession, physical ailments, all while talking about the “Kingdom of God” having arrived.  To set the subject for the entire book, Mark begins with these words: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” What is the Gospel?  Some think it is a message, and it certainly is, but it is more than that.  It is ultimately a person: Jesus Christ.  As John famously wrote at the beginning of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  This Jesus is the Good News, and he is the Word of God himself. 

            Keeping all of these things in mind, we can rightly understand why a massive crowd would be following him.  After seeing him do all of these miraculous things, and speaking with amazing authority, these crowds were hungry for more of Jesus, and perhaps they had mixed motivations, as you and I can often have. 

[2] And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:

            So in our passage this morning, he gets into a boat, presumably due to the size of the crowd.  He needs space to preach.  Everyone sits by the water, and Jesus begins to teach them from the boat, but in parables.  A parable is not a literal story, but rather a story that serves some sort of spiritual or moral purpose.  More often than not, Jesus’ parables go unexplained.  Thankfully, this one is actually interpreted for us today, making our work a bit easier I suppose.

            Now in the Gospel of Mark, crowds are almost never seen in a positive light.  They are the ones that are wanting more from Jesus, and often for the wrong reasons.  They are the ones wanting to see signs, to get fed by him, or to be healed by him – few come with the heart to actually receive Jesus himself, and not only to get something from him or out of him.

            In staying true to this tone, at the beginning of Jesus’ teaching this parable, begins with the word “Listen!”

[3] “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow.

 

 Although not explicitly mentioned here, but only alluded to, as the parable is told, the only other person who claimed such authority to say “Listen to me!” not “Listen to the word of the Lord” but rather “Listen!” He is speaking with the authority that only comes from his divinity – as the Son of God.  He continues:

[4] And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.

  • Some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. This makes you think of a well traveled road, hardened and pressed soil, and very ambitious for a farmer to sow seed there.  However, the birds come and before the ploughing was done, the seeds, still laying fresh on the hardened soil, were eaten up. 

[5] 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. [6] And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away.

  • Some seeds then fell on rocky ground. Israel, being an agricultural and agrarian community, as most places were in those days that were not urban, would have been familiar with this problem.  If you plant on rocky soil, that seed rises up with what little dirt is there, but when those roots hit the rocks, they shrivel up, because those roots have nowhere to go. 

[7] Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.

  • The third seed fell among thorns, and the idea of the thorns was that the plant itself would be “choked out” by the thorns. This is presumably some sort of thorn bush, or thorny vine bush, that simply would not leave enough room for the plants to grow and to flourish before the seed’s growth hit the thorns and got lost in its thicket, and slowly dwindled away.  Just like the year I plated pumpkins in my little garden.  Their crawling vines took over everything and choked out all the other plants in the garden, and I only had one pumpkin to show for it. 

[8] And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

  • Lastly, the final seed feel into good soil, and some of these seeds produced varying amounts of fruit: some thirty, sixty and even one hundred fold. Now, this is hyperbolic, intended to astonish you.  It would be like planting a single tomato plant and somehow instead of getting 15 or so tomatoes a season from it, you get hundreds of tomatoes.  In America, I guess we could compare this to a lottery ticket of sorts: one dollar that multiplies itself into a million.

    [9] And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
  • Jesus ends yet again, saying “He who has ears, let him hear!” The call to “listen” and “hear” comes from Jesus as he ultimately places the responsibility of the parable and its interpretation and application on to those who heard it.

OK, that’s the kingdom parable.  Its interpretation is sandwiched between a very challenging Old Testament quote from Isaiah, chapter 6.

After Jesus said it all, he was alone with the twelve and some other disciples, and they said, “So hey Jesus, now that the crowds are gone, can you tell us what you were talking about?”  Then Jesus says these interesting, yet difficult, words:

“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.”

There is a reason why Jesus did not explain the parable’s meaning in detail to everyone else.  This is part of the mystery of our faith: as this is quoted from the book of Isaiah chapter 6, and I can describe it to you like this:  my wife grew up hearing the Gospel regularly, attending a Church that talked often about Jesus and the Gospel, maybe said a prayer when she was a kid and read her Bible some, but her heart remained unchanged.  That is, until one day, someone handed her a Bible from Christian Surfers, and she opened it up to the Gospel of John and read about Jesus being the Way, the Truth and the Life.  She heard this before, but somehow in that moment, suddenly her eyes were opened, and she realized that she needed to become a Christian.

Why then, and not before?  It’s because ultimately the work of God is required in our hearts to really allow the seeds to be sown and to find deep roots that lead to faith. You and I MUST be open to the work of God in our life.  We must labor to the necessary work to say, “Lord, whatever it takes to allow you to sow your Word into my life.”  It can even be said that sometimes, people are not open to it, and God gets his way anyhow.  But as it is up to us: are you open to the work of God by his Spirit in your life?  Let’s look now at what that ultimately means.  Let’s hear Jesus’ interpretation:

[14] The sower sows the word. [15] 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.

Jesus says in verse 15 that it is Satan, as represented by the birds, who comes and snatches up the seed tossed on the rocky path.  Satan is better translated “The Satan” as it is not so much a name as it is a description of what he does – he accuses.  The Satan simply means “The Accuser.”  The nature of Satanic attack isn’t rarely if ever some sort of supernatural evil thing like movies portray.  It is almost always in the form of subtle accusations.

Satan wants you to think of yourself in one of two ways: 1) That you are a worthless person, unworthy of love, not valuable to others, in desperate need of other’s approval if you are to have value, or 2) that you are the greatest thing since sliced bread, and if only other people saw the world as you see it, that they would be better off. 

Satan wants you to know you’re a sinner, but he wants you to fall into the guilt that leads to despair.  Or, he wants you, like Adam and Eve so long ago, think that you are even more important than you realize.  In other words, both are one thing in common: you are at the center of both.  Just like Zechariah 3, when Satan stands there, accusing Joshua the High Priest as he stands there in his dirty garments, or like Herod, who stood before the crowd, hearing the change of “a voice of God and not a man!” It is there that you can identify the work of The Satan in our life.  Let’s continue:

[16] And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. [17] 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.

The second soil the sower tossed the seeds into is that of rocky ground – the word of God spirts up quickly, only to vanish.  In the context of this parable, it appears that Jesus is speaking to the crowds who apparently didn’t have faith, and also to his disciples, who did.  In an effort to really speak relatively to our current situation, lets talk about how the trial of this pandemic for many have caused their faith to not endure. 

Listen to these statistics:  According to The Barna Research Group, one out of every three practicing Christians in America left the Church entirely during the pandemic.  Now here’s an interesting question to explore: how did a pandemic and quarantine and restrictions cause people to leave the Church as a whole?  What does a pandemic have to do with people’s commitment to their church family – and yes, may I be so bold as to say, their commitment to their church family is representative their understanding of what it means to be committed to Jesus? 

Maybe some of these people imagine that Christianity is a private and individualistic religion, rejecting the community and fellowship and accountability that naturally comes with being a part of a Church family – Jesus’ design for his Body, and finding the opportunity to stay at home and watch whatever celebrity preacher they can access virtually while sitting in their PJ’s, who can preach the paint off the walls, and disappearing from their Church family is suddenly a very accessible option.  As a positive side note, some of you watching at home haven’t stepped foot in a church service here since the pandemic, but weekly are in touch with people in this church, maintaining your commitment to this church family even if you are still uncomfortable with meeting in a large gathering.  Thank you, you know who you are, and I want to encourage you that it is indeed possible to remain committed to your church Body, even without Sunday attendance in this pandemic. 

Maybe others left because the church they had been a part of for so long took a different stance than their own on the pandemic, not taking it seriously enough or taking it too seriously.  I know many people who switched churches during this pandemic, and when I asked them how their new church is, the first thing that came out of their mouth was, “they don’t care if you do not wear masks to church.”  Sadly, in churches, almost as much as in the nation, infighting over mask wearing and pandemic responses have occurred, finding reason to even be divided over it rather than reasons to be united over it.

Now, here’s the common denominator in all of this: you.  Trials place you in a position to say – what, or who, do you love most?  Yourself?  We are not used to trials and challenges, we’re used to comfortabilities and freedoms and conveniences.  I get that.  But the center of all this infighting across churches and in America is you.  It’s an American spirit that causes such infighting, looking for everyone to agree and conform with your views.  James 4:1 says it clearly: what causes quarrels and divisions among you?  Is it not that you want what you want, up and against others, even at their own expense?

This is dangerous ground here, because God, the Sower, sows his word, Jesus, in us by the Spirit.  He’s sowing within our lives in order that we may be conformed to Him.  If you’re looking for a Jesus that will always agree with your views – you’re not going to find him in this Bible.  Jesus will ALWAYS challenge you to love him and others before yourself, and often times you’ll find yourself at odds with him.  It’s called conviction of sin, and it hurts.  Let’s move forward as we begin coming to a close:

 

[18] And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, [19] 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.

The final negative soil mentioned is that of the thorny soil that allowed all the cares of this world to choke out God’s seed, and this really blends into the previous one.  These are the false idols that we so often bow down to: idols of money, of cheap pleasures, of leisure, of drink and escapism, of self-worth and achievement and the desire to be loved, or to please others.  These are all the cares of this world that can choke out God’s Word in our hearts, and are always, always, going to be easier to latch onto than our Lord Jesus, who asks us to consider others as more important than ourselves, and who calls us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him.  Again, this is a life of self, you at the center, another mechanism to side step God’s Word by something more palatable and more accessible: a life spent on yourself, on your passions and desires.  This will choke out and grieve the Spirit in your life. 

[20] 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.” (ESV)

            As we close, we will close on Jesus’ desire for us, and see what he labels as evidence that his Word he has sown in us has indeed taken root.  Continuing the farming images, he says that those who bear fruit show that God’s sowing in their lives is ultimately fulfilling his agenda for us.

            What does it mean to bear fruit?  As it says, some bear this much fruit, or thirty fold, sixty, and so forth: but its not really a matter of the number as it is that they are bearing fruit.  What does it mean to bear fruit?

            What better place than to look at the fruit of the Spirit?  In Galatians 5, Paul mentions things that are not fruits of the Spirit, things that this parable hit on and certainly implies:

Galatians 5:19–21

[19] Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, [20] idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, [21] envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (ESV) 

In danger of being redundant, what we see here are characteristics that we’ve hit on already: a life of self at the center.  Fits of anger, dissensions, divisions, envy.  In your life, whenever you place YOURSELF as first before others, you will reap the fruit of what the Bible calls “our flesh” – and it will be up and against the seed that God is sowing in your life.  But what is the fruit of the Spirit?

Galatians 5:22–24  [22] But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, [23] gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. [24] And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (ESV)

            All of these things were present in Jesus Christ, and that is why the Gospel is a Person: Jesus himself.  That is why we have hope, God’s Spirit has filled those with faith in Him, and the Church has become the body of Christ on earth.  A life of self at the center is what Satan wants for us, he wants your world to revolve around you, he wants you to live in insecurity and to feel unworthy.  Division and strife and dissension is what our nation is becoming known by – and that is not the Fruit of the Spirit, and if the Church partakes in such division, we are not partaking in the Spirit, but in the flesh.  Kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – always considering God and others before yourself is the only pathway to such a life filled with the Spirit.   

Remember: this is the parable of the SOWER.  This work is ultimately God’s work.  Now – the parting question is this, the question I’ve been really asking myself as of recent: are you OPEN to the Spirit’s sowing in your life?  If we recognize this fruit-bearing soil as ultimately God’s work, unleashing the power of the ‘secrets’ of the Kingdom of God, as Jesus said to his disciples – are you open to it?  He’s willing, desirous and ready to unleash his work and power in your life right now, that the roots of His Word will be sown DEEP, leading to radical inner and outer transformation before him – a life of loving God and others before yourself. 

Are you open to this?  In this time of trial and pandemic, if we are to stay intact as a Church, strong and weathering this storm as we struggle together, perhaps you and I need to be open to God’s work in our life more than ever, and I’m going to pray for that as we close.

 

 

More in Stand Alone

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January 3, 2021

The Transfiguration of Christ

November 15, 2020

Jesus, Our Living Hope