I guess the parable of the sower is a familiar one to most of us. It’s one of those stories that have been told and retold countless times. So the danger is that when we hear it again we can think we already understand everything that there is to learn from it. Yet God’s word is living and active, sharper than any 2-edged sword. So we should expect that each time we look at something like this passage we’ll discover new insights, that we’ll be challenged anew by the simple message of the parable. Well, what I’d like to do today is to concentrate, not so much on the story itself as on the three things that make up the story. That is, the seed, the soil and the sower.
First of all the seed.
If you were a follower of Jesus and you observed the things that were going on at this point in time, you’d have no trouble imagining the Kingdom of God taking over the world. People were flocking to Jesus, people were being healed, evil spirits were being driven out of people’s lives. The power of the kingdom was obvious to all who were there. It would have been easy to think that the Kingdom of God would simply overwhelm all who opposed it. Yet as Jesus tells this parable he raises something puzzling for us. If this is meant to tell about the growth of God’s Kingdom, there’s something wrong. First of all, the means of the growth of the Kingdom seems a bit weak. A tiny seed? And it’s all a bit hit and miss. Some of it grows and some dies! Yet this is God’s plan to bring in his kingdom. There’s a mystery here.
You’d think if the Lord of the universe wanted to bring his rule to bear on the world he’d be employing an army of angels. He’d be calling down lightning on his enemies. He’d be silencing those who oppose him by supernatural means. But that’s not what’s implied in this parable that, he says, reveals to his disciples the secrets of the kingdom of God..
No, the kingdom is going to come about by a slow and secret process, that won’t be immediately apparent. There’ll be a time of planting, a time of growth in secret, and only at the end of time will the harvest be fully reaped.
So how is this growth to occur? What is the seed that will be planted? What is the secret ingredient that will lead to the kingdom of God taking root in this world? The answer is simple. "The seed is the word of God. (v11)" The seed is the gospel that will be proclaimed from Jerusalem to Samaria and to the furthest ends of the world. The preaching of the gospel will germinate into a kingdom of God’s people that will expand and flourish as people hear and respond to the call of God.
Now we can’t underestimate the importance of that statement. There are so many other means that people would prefer to use to bring in God’s kingdom. In fact there are many Christians in our world today who are embarrassed to use God’s word to spread the Kingdom. Instead they put other things in its place. There are some who put ritual and liturgy, the sacraments, perhaps at the forefront. Who when faced with a crisis, offer comfort and concern at a human level, perhaps grief counselling but wouldn’t think of bringing God’s word into the situation. There are some who replace the word of God with social action, or political involvement. Who rightly see the need for Christians to be involved with those who are downtrodden and abused by those in power. But the danger is that they forget the message of the cross in their work for justice. They forget that the kingdom of God will come into being only as people’s hearts are changed by the working of his Spirit in their lives. That even a totally just society wouldn’t represent God’s Kingdom unless those in that society had given themselves wholeheartedly to God’s rule in their lives.
Now these are all excellent expressions of the love of God and the healing that the gospel can bring, but if they’re offered in the absence of the proclaiming of God’s word, then they’re empty vessels. Jesus knew that his healing of people by itself was insufficient. That’s why at the start of Mark’s gospel, when Peter tells him there’s a crowd waiting for him, presumably so he can continue his healing ministry, he says, "No, we need to go to the other villages so I can preach the Kingdom of God there as well." And then he adds, "That is why I have come." He had come to preach a word which wouldn’t solve the problems of the world. It wouldn’t put an end to terrorism, to injustice, to poverty or starvation. It was a word about personal repentance, personal forgiveness, personal faith, and personal discipleship. It was a word that wouldn’t change the masses. It would just change individuals. It sounds like a very inefficient strategy doesn’t it? But as we’ll see in a moment it carries within it the seed of revolution as individuals respond in obedience and continue to spread the word of God to others. That’s why when the crowd tried to take him and make him their King he walked away from them. It wasn’t that radical change wasn’t needed in the political and social systems of the world. As we’ll see when we come to the parable of the Good Samaritan, later in the year, the word of God calls for social and political action of the most radical kind. But the word of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, must come first. First people’s hearts need to be changed. And that’s why the seed that we plant must be the word of the gospel.
Now before we go on to think about the soil and the sower, it might be timely to think about the events of the past week. We’ve seen this week the way events in one small part of the world can have an enormous effect on people everywhere. As we watched the horror in New York, followed by the local events around the collapse of Ansett and saw the way people’s lives have been devastated, economies undermined by decisions made by a few, the sorts of words that have been used have been horror, despair, sorrow, mourning, helplessness. Then as time wore on words like justice, punishment, retaliation, recompense began to be used. And I wonder what you thought when George Bush stood up and said they would fight terrorism until it’s eradicated, no matter how long it took. I must admit, my thought was that they were embarking on another unwinnable war. But that thought just leads to more despair doesn’t it?
So what does the gospel say to this situation? What does this parable say? It says that the only hope for our world is if the word of God takes root in the hearts and minds of people so that they stop desiring power and control and vengeance. And that that will only happen in small steps as individuals are changed, as the power of the cross takes over in the lives of individuals so that individuals begin to love and serve the living God.
Well, then, what about the soil. I think it’s vital, in this world of experts, of trained practitioners, of sales techniques, that we understand the back to front nature of this parable. You see, if a modern day guru were telling this story they’d talk about one type of soil and four different ways of sowing. But not so here. There is only one sower, yet the seed has 4 different ends. This is not about technique. This is not about one of the sowers who researched his market better than the rest so that what he sowed bore better fruit.
In fact the method of sowing is quite unskilled. The seed is just scattered willy-nilly without any control over where it lands. The sower doesn’t have to look for the right soil, he just scatters the seed. That’s because what matters isn’t the skill of the sower, but that the seed is actually scattered and that the soil is fertile. Now we’ll come back to that when we think about the sower, but for now lets think about the soil.
As Jesus tells this story it becomes clear that there appears to be, at first glance at least, a terrible waste of effort involved in sharing the gospel with people. I imagine, as he spoke, Jesus looking up and seeing the huge crowd that had flocked to hear him. These apparent converts would mostly fall away in the end. Why? Well, for the sorts of reasons that he explains here. There are some who hear but then the devil almost straight away comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. I guess there were some in the crowd who had made up their mind about Jesus long ago, and weren’t about to take his words too seriously.
We too will encounter those sorts of people. People who’ll reject the word of the gospel out of hand without even thinking about it. Some will refuse to consider the possibility of changing their lifestyle because that would be too hard. Some will object self-righteously that they have no reason to repent, they’re just as good as the next person. Others will simply ignore the gospel because they have their own form of spirituality that they’re perfectly happy with, thank you very much. Others again will think they’re too sophisticated to believe any of that religious mumbo-jumbo.
But notice where Jesus points as the source of this hardness of heart: "The devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts." Jesus is convinced that the work of preaching the gospel will be opposed by a personal force of evil that he identifies as the devil. If that’s so then we’d better be praying for God’s help as we share the gospel with people hadn’t we?
But then there are others who receive the gospel with joy to start with. Of these there are 2 types. Some hear and respond, but they don’t take it much further. They fail to dig any deeper. Their response is largely superficial. The adrenalin rush of the initial conversion experience soon wears off and isn’t replaced with anything else. Perhaps they were misled about the realities of following Christ. Perhaps they were led to believe that life would be rosy once they were in God’s kingdom, and now they’re beginning to experience the reality of discipleship, of being a follower of the suffering servant. And so they lose their enthusiasm for following Jesus and decide to throw it all in.
And the reason for all this is that they have no roots. They haven’t delved into the depths of God’s word to develop a root structure that will sustain them in the difficulties of life.
The other type of short lived growth is where there’s an initial growth in discipleship, but their commitment to Jesus still isn’t 100%. And as time goes on the percentage drops even further. Their mind gets distracted by other things: the cares and riches and pleasures of life. These can be all sorts of good things. It might be our sporting interests. It might be our social service activities. It might be our kids. It might be our work.
Church leaders have been reporting a growing phenomenon over the past 10 or 20 years, where people’s attendance at church has become more and more erratic. It’s now unusual for people to be committed to being at Church every week. They have so many calls on their time that regular church attendance begins to slip. Kids have their sport to go to. Work pressures mean they have to work on Sundays, or else Sundays are the only day they have to relax, and how can you relax if you have to get up to go to church? Now you may be one of those people. Well if you are, watch out. Because the cares and riches and pleasures of life are very subtle in the way they undermine our faith. And they’re lethal. They’ll choke us so the fruit of the gospel never matures. (14)
But the message isn’t all as depressing as that. There is some soil upon which the seed falls, and when the seed falls in this soil it grows and grows until it produces a hundredfold. Again, this has nothing to do with the sower. It’s just that this soil is fertile. When the seed falls on this ground the initial growth is followed by ongoing development. These people receive God’s word and hold it fast in an honest and good heart.
At this point the image diverges a little, because at this point God’s word acts not just as the seed, but as the food as well. It’s as these people hold fast to God’s word that they grow. And what’s the result of that growth? They bear fruit with patient endurance. They persevere in their service of God and in the process begin to bear fruit. Notice too, the bountiful nature of the harvest. They produce a hundredfold.
Now at this point we’ve come full circle. Do you see how that is? As the word takes root in the believer’s heart, they begin to bear fruit. And how do they bear fruit? By sowing the seed themselves. So let’s think for a moment about the sower.
What do we discover about the sower in this parable? Not a lot really, do we. "A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed ..." That’s all we’re told. So what can we learn that might help us sow the seed. Well, the first thing we see is that
The sower isn’t the critical factor.
The critical factors are the seed: it must be the word of God if it’s to bear fruit for God; and the soil: it has to be receptive to the seed. But the sower simply scatters the seed.
Now I hope that that’s an encouragement to you. What it says to me, you see, is that I don’t have to be a gifted evangelist in order to take the gospel to people. All I have to do is make sure I’m able to express the gospel clearly and make sure I know God’s word enough to tell other people about it. I don’t need to know some special techniques. I don’t need to know the answers to all the hard questions. In fact I went to a lecture this week by a theologian from London who was arguing that the days when people were interested in the logical arguments for and against Christianity have just about gone. What people are worried about now is not the quality of my reasoning, but the quality of my life. I gain credibility through my lifestyle, credibility that gives me openings for sharing the gospel with people. Look around you. What you see here is a compelling argument for the validity of the gospel isn’t it? Here is a place where you can find genuine love and community. That sort of thing can’t be faked can it? That means that every one of us is able to scatter the seed of God’s word, simply by pointing people to the life of those who have received that word and are living by it. But secondly
There is no right or wrong way to sow.
Most of us come out of a time and culture where we relied on programs to bring us success in evangelism. Billy Graham Crusades, Evangelism Explosion, the 4 Spiritual Laws, Alpha, you name it. Churches would develop their programs and the members would be expected to join in and bring their friends and we’d hope that something would come of it. And we still do it. And in a sense there’s nothing wrong with that sort of thing if we do it carefully and wisely. But let me suggest that in this new age in which we live, we need to give one another the freedom, the licence to think outside the square. To come up with new and innovative ways of sowing the seed. We need to recognise that a technique that works for me may not work for you. You may be far better not working with a technique at all. That doesn’t mean you don’t need to sow the seed. If you’re going to bear fruit a hundredfold, you need to be sowing seed. But it may be that the way you do it may be unique for you. I was at a seminar given by Alan Roxburgh a few weeks ago, entitled ’Leading the Church after Christendom". He told a story of visiting a small group who were working on ways that they could serve God in their own way. There was a woman in the group who always provided coffee and cookies for their group. When the time came that they asked her if she knew where God was leading her, she said she really couldn’t see what she could do for God. She didn’t have any great skills. She was happy to bring afternoon tea for the group but that was about it. Well they suggested she continue to pray about it. The next time they met they asked her again and this time she said, "Well, you know I have been worried about all the kids who gather in the streets after school before their parents get home and I thought maybe I could do something about it. In fact there’s a basement in my tenement that’s not being used and I wondered about providing cookies and drinks for the kids down there in the afternoons." Well, they encouraged her to check out the possibilities and it turned out that she was able to use the basement and her after school drop in centre was started. Well, Dr Roxburgh returned to the area a couple of years later and while he was there, his host said, "Before you leave you’ve got to go and see Annie’s Drop-in Centre." Well, he went down to the basement and there were a handful of kids sitting round eating cookies and playing pool. Then they said come through here. There was a passageway that led to the basement of the adjoining tenement. In there he discovered another group of kids working on computers with older students tutoring them. Then they went through to the next basement and found an area divided into cubicles with music coming from them. The students from the local conservatorium had volunteered to give music lessons to these working class kids. All this had happened because Annie had the idea of serving cookies and drinks to these kids after school.
Now what I want to say to all of us today is this. We don’t need to be specially gifted to spread the seed of the gospel here at St Theodore’s. We don’t need to use a particular technique. All we need is a desire to bear fruit and a willingness to try scattering the seed. I suggested last week and I’m doing it again now, that we each ask God to show us how he would like us to do our bit in sharing the gospel with those who haven’t yet heard it. You might already have an idea, or even the seed of an idea that’s just waiting to burst into flower. Or you might need to pray about it and talk to others about how you might do it. But really it’s up to each one of us to do what we can to bear fruit for God isn’t it?
I’m going to hand out a piece of paper in a moment which has on it some ideas that other people have come up with to stimulate your imagination. Please don’t let these ideas limit your imagination though. Ask yourself is there an activity that I’d like to get involved in? Are there interests and skills that I have that I could use as a platform for sharing the gospel with others. If you come up with an idea or three, write it down and share it with others and lets see what God can do among us.
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