Text: Mark 4:1-20
This is Thanksgiving Sunday. We won’t spend much time on Thanksgiving, but simply link the fact of the harvest that lies behind the celebration of Thanksgiving, and the way that Jesus draws on an agricultural image to communicate what he wants to say. The Parable of the Sower belongs at this time of year. The parable also speaks to us of our whole lives, just as the Thanksgiving season stands at the centre of the whole of life.
Jesus taught in parables. This was a common form of teaching for rabbis of his time and place. Parables mean more than they say—like poetry. (Ray Zercher described it as “saying less, meaning more”). As Jesus explains his use of parables in Mark 4, they reveal God’s truth to those who are ready to hear it.
A basic characteristic of parables is that they make one primary point. In that respect the parable of the sower/parable of the soils is unusual. Jesus gives an explanation to the disciples and those gathered around him (verses 10 and 11). His explanation reveals several themes for us to consider this morning.
First Theme: The Sower or the Soils?
Some call this the parable of the sower, which places the emphasis on the action of the sower. Jesus tells us, “the farmer sows the word” (verse 14). Who is this farmer? God himself certainly, but also Jesus in his earthly ministry, and by a reasonable extension, his disciples as they follow in Jesus’ footsteps, preaching the kingdom of God. My own view is that Jesus refers primarily to himself, to explain why many of the Jews did not receive his word (verse 12).
Some call this the parable of the soils, which places the emphasis on the response of those who hear the word. Everyone hears; some reject it, and some accept it. Since Jesus uses the parable to explain why many did not receive his word, this emphasis makes sense; but also since the growth of the word depends on the action of the farmer, planting the gospel generously everywhere, we see also God’s grace making growth possible.
The picture is of God coming to you and to me, not asking whether we are the right ones to receive him, but assuming that we are. Generously he gives us his word, whether we have the right last name or a good reputation in the community. All that he asks is that we receive it and let it grow in our lives. “Wonderful the matchless grace of Jesus, deeper than the mighty rolling sea;/ Higher than a mountain, sparkling like a fountain, All-sufficient grace for even me!”
But the picture includes our response. The soil gets to choose, unlike any dirt that I know! The picture of different kinds of soils does not suggest such choice—dirt just is. If anything, the farmer prepares the dirt for a good harvest. It chooses nothing by itself. But Jesus says, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (verse 9). Because we are real people and not just one kind of dirt or another, we get to choose whether we will receive the word or not. As Jesus puts it in verse 20: “Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.” We have the choice—to hear and accept and bear fruit.
Remember the sermon on thankfulness Randy preached last week? There were ten lepers who were healed, and only one came back to say thank you. You remember something else that Randy brought out—a note that struck me strongly. Jesus never said to the lepers, “Be healed.” He said only, “Go and present yourselves to the priests.” They were healed when they responded. Our part is to respond, and without our response, God has bound himself so that Christ cannot plant himself in our hearts.
Perhaps we should use both names: the Parable of the Sower—God’s work in our lives is a free gift that we can never earn, but that penetrates us and changes us; the Parable of the Soils—God gives us the dignity of choice, to accept or reject. In the terrible words of verse 12, those who reject have their choice sealed by God, so that “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!”
Second Theme: The Responsibility of a Heritage
One of the questions that the early church wrestled with was why the Jewish people as a whole did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah and follow him. Many people did; they are the good soil of this parable. But the greater part of the people did not; they are the soils in which the seed did not grow. Jesus told this parable partly to explain why so many did not follow him and partly as a warning to those who thought that their standing as Abraham’s children was enough to get them into Heaven (cf Matthew 3:8-10, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”)
Part of the warning in the words, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear”, is found in the Jews’ reliance on their heritage. God comes to each one of us anew. It has been said truly that the church is always one generation away from extinction. As Ezekiel stresses in Ezekiel 18, each God wants all to turn from self to God, each generation turning anew to God.
I stand in a long line of Christians. My father was a pastor and missionary in the Brethren in Christ Church. My grandfather was a bible teacher and missionary. My great-grandfather was the treasurer of the Foreign Mission Board. His father was a strong member of the church, and his grandfather—my great-great-great grandfather—was known for his strong faith as a BIC lay minister in Ontario. When I stand before God at the end of my life, of what value is this great heritage? I treasure it. I thank God for it. It has prepared the soil well for the seed to be sown. But the real question concerns me. What kind of dirt am I? Have I also received the word? Such a heritage is a treasure, but it does not transform my life. Only God can plant the word in me. Only God’s Spirit can deal with the human rebellion setting myself up in God’s place, which I share with all people. If Jesus does not plant the word in my life, nothing good can grow there.
Often when we give our testimony at baptism, we find no particular moment of conversion, but say something like, “I’ve followed Jesus all of my life.” I rejoice when a candidate can say that. Often the decision to be baptized is also the time when you make that commitment clear and certain. But I repeat, you must commit your life to Christ to plant his word deep in your heart. Your family cannot plant God’s Word in your heart. Only Jesus can.
Third Theme: The Crop
Jesus does not specify what this wonderful crop is that grows in the fruitful soil (verse 20). The three parables that follow in Mark 4 emphasize several ideas. One is the importance of living our lives openly for Christ (the lamp on a stand)—the idea is that the community of Christ shows the meaning of Christ clearly to the world. A second is that the seed grows quietly, then bursts forth in full growth (the growing seed)—the idea is that growth is great, and brings a harvest, which suggests also the presence of God’s kingdom in this world. The third is that a small seed grows into a great plant (the mustard seed)—the idea is that the growth of God’s kingdom surprises us by growing from a small beginning to a great size.
Common to all of these is the idea of the growth of the kingdom. I think that is what Jesus has in mind also in our parable this morning. Some people want to see the growth of numbers here—the church will fill up with people! That is not a bad desire, but the idea in this parable is that God’s kingdom, God’s reign, takes possession of our lives and God does what he chooses to do in us and in our world.
I have been good soil and bad soil at different times in my life. I learned recently that my influence in an old friend’s life was formative for good. In my 20s, when I was not even aware, God was growing good fruit. I remember another relationship in which I carried on an email argument with another friend’s son that pushed only resulted in bitterness and anger. Not such good soil that time!
I suggest that our concern with numbers is often misplaced. We ask how we can fill this building. Jesus says, “Receive my word. Be good soil!” He doesn’t promise us a full house; rather he promises that God’s kingdom will grow. That might mean more numbers, but having more people in the sanctuary is not the point. As long as you are trying to fill this building, instead of seeking to be filled with God’s Spirit, God will not do his work here.
Synthesis: The Word of God
Let me try to bring these themes together. I could preach this passage as a call to conversion and focus especially on younger people in and around the church, but that would miss the point. God sows the word in our lives throughout our lives. This is a call to be radically open to God’s work in us throughout our lives.
We haven’t defined God’s word. In verse 14 Jesus says, “The farmer sows God’s word.” What is God’s word? Jesus is the word (John 1). Jesus comes speaking the word. As Mark 1: 14 and 15 tells us, “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” This good news is the word of God—that Jesus has come and brings us God’s reign, God’s rule in your life and mine.
The word of God is the call to repent (turn away from ourselves) and embrace God’s reign, which comes in the person of Jesus. This includes conversion at the beginning of our walk with God, as well as every moment throughout the rest of our lives in which God comes to us and restores this word within us. Whether you are 15 or 50, 25 or 75, whether you are a child or a middle-aged person or what we sometimes call “a senior”, the parable calls to you to get ready for God’s Spirit, God’s Word to enter your life in a new way.
In a book called Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Richard Foster tells the story of a graduate student he calls “Jim Smith”. In his second year of graduate studies Jim realized that his spiritual life was growing weak, so he went to a retreat house where a spiritual director led him through a private retreat. The brother gave him only one assignment, to spend the day meditating on Mary’s encounter with the angel in Luke 1. Jim spent two days reading and re-reading. He used all his ability to interpret the passage. On the first evening his director asked, “What was your aim in reading the passage?” Jim said that he was trying to understand the passage. His director told him to let go and stop trying to understand. On the second day of reading and thinking about the passage, he felt like “he would go deaf from the silence.”
After two days of struggling, Jim felt drained and frustrated. His director said, “You’re trying too hard, Jim. You’re trying to control God. Go back to this passage and this time be open to receive whatever God has for you.” By noon on the third day Jim was defeated. Finally he shouted, “I give up! You win” “He slumped over the desk and began weeping.”
“A short time later he picked up his Bible and glanced over the text once again. The words were familiar but somehow different. … The opening words of Mary’s response became his words: ‘Let it be to me … let it be to me.’ … Then God spoke. It was as if a window had been thrown open and God wanted to talk friend to friend. …
“The Spirit took Jim down deep into Mary’s feelings, Mary’s doubts, Mary’s fears, Mary’s incredible faith-filled response. It was … also a journey into Jim’s feelings and fears and doubts, as the Spirit in healing love and gentle compassion touched the broken memories of his past.
“Though Jim could barely believe it, the angel’s word to Mary seemed to be a word for him as well: ‘You have found favour with God.’ Mary’s perplexed query was also Jim’s question: ‘How can this be?’ And it was so, and Jim wept in the arms of a God of grace and mercy.”
When the soil of Jim’s life was ready, God planted the Word in his heart. Is your heart ready for God the Great Farmer to plant the living Word in your life?