By Simon ManchesterSunday 18 Oct 2015Christian Growth with Simon ManchesterFaithReading Time: 0 minutes
Mark chapter 4 verses 1-20 – a very familiar parable of the 4 soils or the 4 responses to God’s Word. I want to say at the very beginning that if you want to know what the “seed” is, it’s simply the Good News of Christ. We might say in a way that the seed is “That God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life”. And that message goes out to the world like seed.
And some people don’t get it,
some people seem to get it,
some people seem to get it for a good time but don’t really get it
and some people really get it.
That’s really what this parable is proclaiming – the message of Jesus, his life, his death and his resurrection.
Now the Parable of the 4 Soils is so familiar. We have had Children’s’ Talks and we know this parable, many of us, inside out and we need fresh help to appreciate it. So I am going to pray a few lines from Psalm 139 – if you would like to bow your heads with me.
“Search me O God and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting”. In Jesus’ Name – Amen.
It is easy to miss this parable and I am tempted to do this as somebody who knows it well. I think to myself – OK I have got it, I am a Christian – this is for somebody else. But I do want the parable to have good fresh effect on me and you will see that there are 4 types of hearers.
Some who hear – but nothing goes anywhere
Some who hear – have a short reaction
Some who hear – have a middle reaction
Some who hear – have a great reaction
Everybody hears and everybody we might say is in church. This parable is going to be lived out this morning in the next half hour – (20 minutes!) – what will seem like 3 minutes! It’s going to be lived out this morning so please open your Bibles if you haven’t already to Page 993 – Mark chapter 4.
This particular parable appears in 3 of the Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke. It seems to be the key parable because Jesus says in Mark 4 verse 13 “if you get this one, you get the others”. And obviously chapter 4 in Mark comes after chapter 3 – and you won’t remember what took place in chapter 3 but I will remind you that in chapter 3 we were faced with a lot of religious people who were not Christ’s people and we were faced with some family members (blood family members) who were not Jesus’ real family members.
So Mark chapter 3 is introducing us to this kind of false group that hangs around and the true groups and then we come to chapter 4 – a sower went out to sow.
Well Kathy and I were having a meal on Friday night with a couple from the Ukraine, a couple who have come over to study Theology in Australia. And he was telling me (we were talking about Mark chapter 4) that he had heard a great sermon on Mark chapter 4 and I was tempted just to borrow it and lip sing to it this morning and basically the preacher (the American Preacher) said the title for the sermon this morning is “How to Wreck Your Life”. And he took the parable and turned it on its head and he basically said
‘Here is the first step in wrecking your life – don’t listen to me
The second step – get distracted – find something to distract you
The third step – why not be excited about the sermon for about an hour and
The fourth step – why don’t you view Christ as small and the world as big – that will help to wreck your life.
And I thought that would be a very interesting plan for the sermon, but it was too late as I had already prepared. And so I want to look with you at chapter 4 like this.
4 regular reactions
And then I want to look with you at what are 3 real enemies to the Gospel,
And then I want to quickly look at 2 meaty truths that come in the middle of the passage
And finally 1 great triumph
and if that’s too much for you to take in, I simply hope that this morning you will see that despite all the opposition to the plan of God, the harvest of God will take place. If you only remember one thing – remember that God is planning a wonderful harvest and it will happen.
So I want to think firstly about 4 Regular Reactions. These are reactions that happen when somebody preaches the Gospel or when somebody preaches the Bible. Ok – so you just don’t say to yourself “I heard the Gospel, I believed it”. These reactions take place whenever the Word of God goes out. These reactions are going to happen this morning.
So we read in chapter 4 verse 1 – Jesus is teaching by the lake. The crowd is enormous and you would expect Jesus at that point to be very excited and try to get everybody on board, you know and say nice things and he doesn’t get excited by the crowd. It seems to worry him. He becomes kind of blunter when the crowds are big as if he feels more responsibility to prevent them from some sort of emotional band-wagoning. And he gets into a boat and he begins to teach and he teaches a lesson on listening.
Now we know that preachers are very feeble people. We know that preachers Sunday by Sunday can have very very feeble days, feeble weeks, feeble months and feeble years. But Jesus is not so much speaking to the preacher here – although he is saying something to the preacher – he is primarily speaking to the listener. He is turning the tables and he want to know whether you and I have ears to hear. And he uses a parable about a farmer who scatters seeds. Now let’s look at the 4 reactions as the seed is scattered around.
First of all, the first group – we know this so well – (verse 4). The seed sort of falls by the way and the birds come and snatch it away. The seed doesn’t even go in – it goes nowhere. Now friends can you believe this could happen? Can you believe that somebody could say something so crystal-clear like John 3:16 and it just wouldn’t be heard? Well of course you do. Somebody in the same pew as you could be listening to the Gospel – it goes in and transforms their life and for you ——straight over the head or vice versa.
Bishop Ryle says in the 19th Century “these are people who pay no attention, take no interest, the Word has no more effect than WATER ON A STONE and how many live without faith, without fear, without knowledge and without grace – they live, they die and they get buried and go to hell”.
Now we can understand a visitor missing the point – somebody turns up as a ‘one off’ and don’t really know what a sermon is for, don’t listen and don’t get it but what do we make of the person who comes for years, even decades? Do you think somebody could sit in the front row for 70 years and hear everything that I can possibly think of saying and every guest who has ever come and not hear the Gospel? – The answer is ‘YES’. I went to visit one not too long ago. Didn’t understand Christianity at all and has been coming for 70 years, taking Communion for 70 years in this building. It’s astonishing!
And I am so glad that Jesus explains this because he experienced it himself and every preacher experiences exactly the same – so I might get to the end this morning and I will be talking to somebody and I will say “did any of that make sense? – and they haven’t a clue – nothing went in and I have to say to myself ‘this is Mark chapter 4’.
The second group in the parable get very excited when the message comes (verses 4-6) but they soon lose interest like seed landing in a centimetre of soil. The reaction of these people seems to be encouraging. It seems as though they have been greatly affected, even illumined but it dies off very quickly and again Bishop Ryle says “the temporary impression is good – they speak with apparent joy but there is no root – their religion has no more life than A CUT FLOWER”.
These phrases of Ryle are absolutely fantastic –
WATER ON A STONE
A CUT FLOWER
And it’s hard for us not to rejoice when people get excited. It looks like there has been a sort of a change, a transformation or a conversion and we may sometimes want to say ‘there was a conversion but it turns out to be just a profession which goes nowhere’.
Christianity Explained/Christianity Explored – we have had so many people over the years who have responded with joy and then given up quite soon. We might despair again except Jesus prepares us. He experienced himself – crowds of people who gave up and turned away.
The third group we read about go for quite a while. They get the point, they don’t drop off quickly but they die slowly – they are choked. Bishop Ryle says ‘these people approve of the truth; they acknowledge it is right and good but something appears to chain them and they never get beyond a certain point. The reason is the world and they bring forth no fruit’.
Many years ago when I was a young believer I was given the book called “Holiness” by Bishop Ryle and I was rocking back in my chair on one particular day in a particular time of drifting and backsliding and I opened into the middle of the book and I landed on this paragraph which was a bit of a sermon from Bishop Ryle on the text “HE LINGERED” from Genesis with Lot – he lingered. And this is what Ryle says:
“There are many real children of God who appear to know far more than they live up to and see far more than they practise and yet continue in this state for many years. It’s wonderful that they go as far as they do and yet go no further.
They acknowledge the head – even Christ. They love the truth – they like sound preaching. They ascend to every article of gospel doctrine when they hear it but there is an indescribable something which is not satisfactory about them. They are constantly doing things which disappoint the expectations of their Christian friends. They believe in heaven yet they seem faintly to long for it – and in hell yet seem little to fear it. They love the Lord Jesus but the work they do for him is small. They hate the devil but they often appear to tempt him to come to them. They know the time is short – they live as if it were long. They know they have a battle to fight yet a man might think they were at peace. They know they have a race to run yet they often look like people sitting still. They know the judge is at the door – there is wrath to come yet they appear half asleep. Astonishing they should be what they are and yet be nothing more.
And what should we say of these people – they often puzzle godly friends and relations and they often cause great anxiety and they often give great rise to great doubts and searchings of heart but they be classed under one sweeping description – they are brethren and sisters of Lot – they linger”.
Punchy isn’t it? Even Jesus experienced this among his 12.
The fourth group as we know – hear the word (verse 20) they welcome the word and they produce a crop. There is a transformation. Bishop Ryle says –
”Plain and unmistakable results are seen in heart and life. Sin is being resisted and renounced. Christ is being loved and followed. Holiness appears in their conversation”.
What a wonderful transformation. Those are the 4 reactions. Actually there are only 2 reactions – unfruitful and fruitful. But those are the 4 that Jesus mentions.
Now let’s think secondly about 3 Real Enemies. There are the birds that snatch the seed, there is the shallow soil and there is the thorny soil. They are really aren’t they, 3 of our old enemies.
The world, the flesh and the devil – they are just here in Mark 4. And they are a very formidable opposition to the work of the word. They really are. In fact they are so formidable that you might wonder sometimes whether the work is really worth it. The devil arranges for the seed to be snatched, sometime he does this by blinding (as we read in 2 Corinthians). Sometimes he does it by distracting – somebody around you is annoying, attractive, interesting – you are distracted. Or think of the things technologically now which take our attention and the devil is so inventive – all these things that sort of clamour for our attention. The first thing in the morning – must check the phone, must check the emails and must check Facebook or whatever. It’s all so distracting.
One of my great friends who is a member of this Congregation was at The Feast Lunch on Wednesday and in my very short talk of 20 minutes that only seemed like 3 minutes his phone went off twice for a very long time. So we have punished him by putting him in charge of the Property Committee at St Thomas, North Sydney !! But just watch all the attention disappear – amazing.
And then of course not only is the devil at work to distract but the flesh is so shallow and the rush of emotion. Some people live their Christian lives on emotion, don’t they? The heart rules the head. Some feeling comes over them and they get excited and then they get unexcited.
You don’t want to lose emotion in the Christian life but if everything is emotion it’s just a rollercoaster. If the talk is all emotion, if the response is all emotion it is just milk going out to babies. Somebody said once that a preacher who gets up and preaches –
“Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go”
If it was done emotionally it could get a real response from the Congregation. During the week I was going for a walk at night and I was walking around the block and I decided to give this a try – it was fairly late. I thought what would it be like to sort of call out in a mildly loud voice – Mark had a little lamb…….. in a very emotional way? So I did! I then discovered 2 people standing about 10 metres away from me who I had not noticed so what they thought of that – I don’t know but it’s possible, isn’t it to just bring on the emotion – THE FLESH.
And then the world chokes the seed – slowly, steadily and tragically. The truths of Christ move to the background and the things of the world come to the foreground. What is a man or what is a woman excited about? – PROFIT, PLEASURE, HOBBY. Work out what people are excited about – it’s a very interesting test. And the Christian life in this choking becomes a kind of a dull facade.
So these 3 enemies are really very formidable.
The devil is able in a way to keep somebody from life.
The flesh is able to keep somebody from lasting because as soon as trouble comes along they give up.
The world is able to keep some from being productive – what a tragedy.
What a tragedy that something would choke me or chain me and I am perfectly capable of this taking place so that there is no productivity.
Now a very interesting thing about these responses to the seed is that the first 3 of them HEAR THE WORD and the word that is used in the original for ‘hearing’ is that they HEAR and then people FINISH HEARING. It’s just “I heard that – stop it’s over”.
But the fourth group that hears the word HEAR and the word that is used in the original is a “HEAR AND GO ON HEARING”. So this is the danger is that a person will hear the noise but nothing will really change but when the person hears and there is an ongoing ‘hearing’ then there is great productivity.
I want to look with you at 2 Meaty Truths that come in the middle of the passage – between the Parable and the Interpretation and I am going to read the 3 verses of chapter 4 (10-12) because these are very strong verses.
“When Jesus 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 every seeing but
And ever hearing but never
Otherwise they might turn and be
I want to point out 2 things from this passage and I am asking you to think hard about this, this morning. Those of you who know this passage like the back of your hand; we need to think more deeply about what’s being said here.
First of all I want you to notice that there are 2 parties at work in the sowing of the seed. God is at work giving people understanding (chapter 4 verse 11) “he has given you the secrets”. So if you are a believer here this morning and you have been converted and you have been transformed, God has been at work giving you that grace. You might think that the parable is all about listening, you know God scatters the seed and then he nervously waits up in heaven – Gee I hope somebody takes this in, and I hope somebody takes this in. No God gives the understanding. We are responsible to listen and we can never turn around and say ‘it’s not my fault’ – we are responsible to listen but God gives the eyes and the ears and the heart and the understanding so that we respond.
And the second thing to say which is quite meaty is that the parable is a two-edged sword. When we go through Sunday school, we hear little parables and we think to ourselves – these parables are stories or illustrations to make things easier. NO the Bible says that parables are a two-edged sword.
For some people they make things easier but
For some people they make things harder.
For some they illumine
For some they darken
That’s why we read in verses 11 and 12 Jesus said “things are said in parables to prevent perception – to prevent understanding – to prevent turning and forgiveness”. And at that point we say – why would God do that? Well the answer is that it may be that in his present timing a person is being hardened before they are softened. It may be that God is judging a person. These verses are taken from Isaiah chapter 6 in the Old Testament. They are quoted 6 times in the New Testament and they are verses where Isaiah says that his people (God’s people) are being judged because they have resisted the Word of God.
So we cannot avoid the fact that a parable is going to have a two-edged effect on a Congregation. Some people find it deeply helpful and some people will find it exactly the opposite – it’s a two-edged sword.
So Mark chapter 4 is a great call to listen well but it’s also a great reminder that God is utterly in charge of the process. What sort of soil you and I are is extremely important but the one who scatters the seed is not helpless. He knows exactly what he is doing which brings us to the last point this morning – The Great Triumph. We read in the last verse 20 that there is going to be a great harvest.
I remember driving in my last Parish when I had had a particularly bad interview – I think a Baptism interview – and the couple had basically said ‘we want a baptism and we don’t believe anything’. And I was driving home in what had been a particularly bad week and I put a cassette into my car – I always remember this. Do you know what a cassette is? I will tell you – a cassette is like a talk – and I pushed it into my car and as I was driving along I listened to this person speak on Mark 4 and the utter beauty and confidence of this plan of God just washed over me and I think I can honestly say it has never left me. The ability of God in the face of great opposition to send out the seed and bring a harvest which at the end will be so extraordinary and so wonderful and so unexpected – that’s what this passage is telling us.
The harvest in chapter 4 verse 20 is 30 – 60 – 100 fold. I gather an average harvest was 7 fold. Out goes the seed and you actually get back 7 times as much. A good harvest was 10. When Jesus talks about 30 – 60 – 100 this is the work of God.
So this parable, my friends, is not just about seed being scattered about and then a nervous God waiting and hoping something will happen – this is God breaking into his world with the Word, with the message of Jesus that he lived and died and rose – with the message of the kingdom and that message is going to do exactly what God has planned and he is going to bring up a harvest which will be so great. The believers and unbelievers at the end will be astonished with joy or grief.
So we could ask ourselves as we finish this morning – we could ask the question – am I hearing the Word of God? (That’s a good question). Am I hanging in as a believer? Am I bearing fruit? They are good questions.
I think the better question to ask is this: Is the Word of God actually shaping my life? Could I say that my life is being shaped by the Word of God? Is it leading me? – Not just trailing but leading me?
And we might also ask the question from this parable – Are Biblical talks being given in the church that I go to? – because they should be. Are sermons being preached which are really the Word of God? They are about Jesus and they should be.
But I think a better question to ask is – As the Word of God is being preached week by week, month by month and year by year and there are great mornings and there are ordinary mornings and there are ordinary sermons and there are good sermons – the big question to ask is – Can I see that God through the apparent weakness of the sowing of the Word is bringing a harvest which is going to be global and eternal and wonderful?
It’s a personal challenge you see for us. We don’t want to be THE STONE on whom the message rolls off. We don’t want to be THE CUT FLOWER who just goes for a short time. We don’t want to be the one who is CHAINED OR CHOKED by the world – it’s a good challenge – we want to be fruitful but we also want to have confidence in this very great God that he is going to bring a harvest beyond all the opposition and even beyond all expectation – blessed is the one who hears the Word with ears to hear and brings forth fruit.
Let’s pray –
Our heavenly Father we thank you that you are a great and gracious God. And we pray that your Word would have its full effect in our lives. We pray for all who are around us this morning that in your mercy you would cause them to be receptive and welcoming of the Word.
We pray that you would also help us to have the confidence in you – that you are wonderfully at work to achieve what you set out to achieve. We pray that you would fill us with confidence and fill us with faithfulness.
We pray this in Jesus’ Name – Amen.