One of the interesting experiences of the 1960s was communal paranoia. The feeling was caught in a popular song by Buffalo Springfield:
There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
The context of the song was the Viet Nam War. The kids had taken to the streets to protest the war. The police, too, were in streets trying to protect property and preserve civil order. The protestors were suspicious of the government and its intentions, sure that the government, business, and the military were involved in a large conspiracy to deprive our citizens of freedom and inflict damage on the rest the world. Hence, their conviction, Somethins happenin here.
It was clear that something was happening in the ministry of Jesus. He announced that in his coming the kingdom had come. Something was happening look at the responses. Many were amazed at the authority of his teaching and his power over sickness and demons. Some were clamoring to get close to him hoping they might get healed. Others gave up their jobs and followed him. Still others thought he has lost his mind while others said he was demon possessed. Here is one man with one message. How do your explain the various responses?
The same thing happens every Sunday when we go to church. Some sleep through the sermon. Some stare into space. Some think its all unbelievable. Some get upset. Some hear it as the very Word of Christ. How do we understand whats happenin here?
This is what Jesus answered in the story he told in Mark 3:1-20
Jesus was continuing his ministry in Galilee near the city of Capernaum along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Again great crowds gathered around him. Jesus was teaching. The crowd who wanted to hear him was so large that he could no longer stand along the seashore. So he got into a boat, and spoke to the people from the boat just off the shore.
The story itself is straightforward enough, taken from everyday life in Galilee. The winter crops of wheat and barely were sown in the late summer. The farmer would put his seed in his bag and go out to his field where he would broadcast the seed far and wide. Then he would go into the field sown with seed with his plow and plow under the seed.
He would watch his field for the outcome of his labors. Some would fall on the path that was left in the field so that people could pass through the field. This part of the field was never plowed, and as people walked over it, it became compacted and hard. Any seed that feel on the path had no chance of germinating. The birds would come in and eat the seed.
Other seed fell on the rocky areas, where a thin layer of topsoil covered the limestone beneath. The farmer did not plow this area either, for he knew the plow could do nothing in the limestone. Nevertheless, the seed that fell there seemed initially to do well. The thin soil would absorb the suns heat retained in the limestone. The seed sprang up and began to grow almost immediately showing great promise. The experienced eye of the farmer knew better. When the sun beat down hot enough, the plants withered, because they had no root down deep to draw the moisture the plant needed.
Other seed fell on ground that had never been fully cleansed of thorns. The farmer might well get his plow in there and turn the soil over. The seed sown would sprout and grow well in contrast with the quick and temporary effects of the seed that grew on the rocky soil. These plants would form roots that could sustain them in the hot and dry weather. But something else was happening, too. The roots of the thorns that had never been cleaned out grew with the plants. The result was that these plants never got to the point of producing any fruit. The thorns choked out the plants, so that they never attained the goal of producing fruit for harvest.
But then other seed fell on good soil. It germinated, sprouted up, endured the sun, grew and developed till it produced fruit. The production of fruit varied some producing thirty times the amount of sown, some sixty, and some a hundred. It was seed planed on good soil that gave a harvest.
Note the way Jesus opened and closed this story which appears to be all the crowds heard on that occasion. He said, Listen. Jesus was about to speak, what he was going to say was important, and people needed to focus on what he was going to say. Jesus was going to preach, and he called people to listen. What should we do when we come to church it comes time to hear the Word of God read and preached? The Shorter Catechism says, That the Word may become effectual for our salvation, we must attend thereto with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in their hearts, and practice it in our lives (SC, Q.90).
Jesus concluded the sermon with, He, who has ears to hear, let him hear. What Jesus had said was of vital importance. He had called them, before he said it, to listen. But have they listened? Have they retained what he said? Would they continue to think about it? Will it be effective in their lives? These are just the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves as we leave church. Did I have the ears to hear what was said when Gods Word was read and preached?
When Jesus was later alone, he had around him the twelve and some others who had committed themselves to him. They asked him about the way he had spoken to the crowds, about why he chose to use parables in teaching them. That is, his own closest followers were a little perplexed and maybe even a little upset at Jesus chosen method of communicating with the crowds.
What is a parable? Many of us in Sunday School years ago learned that a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. That helps a little because it reminds us that parables usually take ordinary elements of earthly life, such as sowing a field, and use them to teach some spiritual truth. The word parable means to lay one thing beside another. That is, it makes a comparison of some sort. What the parable does is give us a story or a statement that says something about the kingdom of God. It is not a misleading story, but it is one that requires thought. One must ask himself, Do I understand the kingdom of God? Do I understand what is going on in Christ? And, not only do I comprehend, but am I responding to the kingdom of God in Christ, in the way I am called to? The parables are far from entertaining stories; they are challenging stories that make you think and examine yourself.
Jesus said to these followers about the parables, To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God. Now when we hear that word secret, which is the same word from which we get our word mystery, several things may come to mind. We may think of the kinds of secrets that are held close by secret societies and that one gets initiated into. Or, if we think of the secret of the murder mystery, we may think of something that is not immediately obvious but that we will figure out as we put all the pieces together.
But in the Bible a secret is not something esoteric, nor is it something you can use your brain and ingenuity to figure out. It is something that you can know only because it is given to you to know that is, only because God reveals it to you. Its not a riddle and cannot be resolved by your searching out and connecting pieces of information. For this parable what Jesus is saying is that God has revealed to them what it teaches us about what is going on in the world since the Kingdom of God has come and how that kingdom is being received.
But the case is different with those who are outside. They have not been given the secret of the kingdom, so the parables function in a different way for them. For them, rather than revealing, they conceal. They leave the person just as much in the dark as he was before the parable was spoken. Jesus goes back to the prophet Isaiah, who in response to seeing Gods glory and receiving the assurance that his sins were forgiven, volunteered to go and speak for God to the people. But the commission God gave him to preach did not predict great success.
The Lord told Isaiah to preach to the people so that they may indeed see and never perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven. There is an element of judgment on those whose minds are closed, whose hearts are hard, and who are unbelieving. They may see but they will not perceive what they are saying, as I might stare at a Jonathan Pollack painting and have no idea. They my hear but they will not understand, even as I might listen to a musical work by John Cage and have no so much as a clue what it is about. And the end of their remaining in the dark is that they will not turn and be forgiven.
There are two things operating in this statement that challenge us. The first is divine sovereignty. For a person to understand it must be given to him that is, God must intervene and grant revelation and insight into the truth. And God does not grant that to everyone. That is something we should remember as we come to church to hear the reading and preaching of Gods Word. It is an inestimable privilege that must not be taken for granted. The opportunity to hear the Word of God and to understand it is as wonderful a blessing as God gives us.
There is also the element of judgment. The people are spoken to in parables lest they see and understand and turn and be forgiven. These people have reached the point in their blindness, hardness, and unbelief that God will not enlighten them. These, too, are sobering thoughts to absorb. Again we must remember the privileges that are ours. Nothing should cause us more to fear than the thought that God might take his Word or our understanding of his Word from us.
This parable of the sower, the seed, and the soils is so important for understanding everything else about the kingdom. It challenges the Twelve and the other faithful followers, and it continues to challenge us today: Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?
To make sure that his own closest followers do understand this foundational parable, Jesus went on to do something he did not make a habit of doing, to explain the parable in detail.
The sower sows the word. Who is the sower? Primarily the Sower is the Lord Jesus Christ who goes from place to place preaching the good news of the kingdom. But it was always his plan to send out other sowers into the fields. He later sent the Twelve to sow the seed. And today, when he calls a minister of the Word and sends him into a field or several fields to work that minister is a sower sent into the field by Jesus. The seed is the word, the word of the kingdom. This word announces that the kingdom of God has broken into this world in the coming of Jesus, that Jesus by his life, death, and resurrection has dealt with sin and death, that he has met and defeated the devil and all of his allies, and that the world has been reclaimed for God and will be recreated in righteousness and justice. This is good news that needs to be announced everywhere. It calls all to repent of their sins and believe this good news. Thats the word Jesus sowed, the word that is being sown all over the world today, and the word that is being sown even now among us.
Now Jesus shows the responses to the preaching of the good news of the kingdom. There are six seeds, four soils, and six responses.
The first response is of those along the path. Jesus says of them: When they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes the word that is sown in them. We must remember that whenever the Word is sown in preaching, Satan is there, and his goal is always to interfere so that in one way or another the Word never bears fruit.
The easiest and most effective method for him is to keep the Word from having any impact at all. Just as the birds would come and get the seed that lies on the hard surface of the path, he comes and takes the word from the person who is hearing it. He may do it through boredom, through distraction, through indifference, through some sitting near to us, through the family feud that broke out on the way to church. But the point is that the person is in church, he hears with his natural ears some of what is said, but it has no effect on him. The Word, as it were, just lies there, dry, dead, un-germinated.
This helped the disciples understand one response to Jesus preaching; it helps us to understand what is happening in various missions fields today; and it can help us to understand one response that may be occurring among us at this very moment.
Then there are the ones sown on rocky soil. In some sense these really do hear the Word. The understand it, and they make a response to it. The response is joy. They may be the happiest of converts. They are excited about the message, about the church, about the Christian life and service. They may show a great amount of enthusiasm. To many they appear to be sincere Christians who, perhaps, even shame older Christians because of their joy. We may even press them into service and responsibility when we see their joy.
But there is a part of the Christian life they have not yet experienced, and it will prove to be the test of the genuineness and permanence of their initial response. Tribulation and persecution comes because of the Word. Sometimes today, and too often the church is complicit in this, people think of the good news of the kingdom as a way you can have it all. The gospel will ask of you nothing. It will only help to make the good life even better. Not so.
There are tribulations that will come. When Paul went back to each of the first churches he planted and made sure they had elders, he told them that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). And there are persecutions to endure. Paul told Timothy, Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2Timothy3: 12).
When these things come to those who are like seed sprouted from rocky soil, immediately they fall away. They have no root; they endure only awhile, and when the inevitable tribulations and persecutions come, they want none of it. Like the fellow who joins the Marines because he like the dress blues, but wants out as soon as he finds out they make you get up at 4:00 in the morning to run 10 miles, their joy dissipates, their enthusiasm dries up, and their faith proves to have been only temporary.
Then are others who are sown among the thorns. They hear the Word, and while not necessarily showing the external joy of those sown on the rocky ground, they sprout and begin to grow and show some promise of future fruitfulness. But before the fruit is produced the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word and it proves unfruitful.
There are many cares in this world jobs, mortgages, sick parents, baseball leagues, harried schedules. These are the things that are normal and inescapable aspects of life, but they can so consume our hearts and lives as to leave no room for any beneficial effects of Gods word. Then there is the deceitfulness of riches Who wants to be a gazillionaire? Well, we all do, and we think we would get a lot of happiness from those riches. Knowing the odds on winning a lottery somewhere we decide we will work hard and invest smart. And, of course, our families and we deserve to enjoy it some, so we have to start planning how to spend some of it and get the most out it. Its deceitful, offering you success, happiness, and security. But it lies. Trouble is if you believe it, it will choke out the word in your life.
And then there are the desires for other things. Who doesnt want some other things? Give me a moment and I can rattle off a mental wish list. So can many of you. We focus on these things, we check them off when we get them, and then we begin the insatiable search for something more. These desires will consume us, and coming to church and listening to sermons will do us no good, for all these anxieties, quests, and desires choke the Word.
Finally the seed of the word fall on the good soil. What is the good soil? Here the Word is heard that is heard with understanding. It is comprehended. The Word here is accepted that is received with trust and submission. And here the Word produces fruit the fruit of faith, repentance, endurance, and increasing conformity to Gods will. Now the results in the good soil are not identical. The fruit produced may be thirty fold, or sixty fold, or a hundred fold. But this Word is alive and it is productive and from it comes a harvest of all the good the kingdom produces.
Do you want to understand what was going on when Jesus sowed the Word of God in this world? What is going on around the world today as the Word is proclaimed in truth? What is going on in our church? And what is going on in your life?
Whats happening here is that the good Word of the kingdom is being sown. Some never comprehend it. Some receive it, but will turn away when the hardships come. Some receive it, but too many things in their lives compete with and crowd out the word. And, to Gods praise, many here and all over the world are hearing, accepting and bearing the fruit of the Word.
TE William H. Smith is pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Ala.
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