“Wherever Paul traveled, revolutions broke out. Wherever I go, they serve tea.” So said an Anglican bishop, lamenting his perceived lack of impact upon people.
Thus begins a chapter on life-changing preaching in Pastor Gordon MacDonald’s book, Building Below the Waterline: Shoring Up the Foundations of Leadership. He goes on to say,
We all know what he’s saying, particularly in the area of preaching. You spend hours in preparation: both spiritual and scholastic. You seek stories and illustrations that ooze meaning and significance. You search your own life to make sure that you are as transparent as possible. Then, when the moment arrives, you preach your heart out. Words flow, thoughts build, stories produce laughter or reflective silence, decision time comes, and you expect . . . Pentecost!
Moments later, the people file out with opaque comments such as “Nice sermon, Pastor,” or “You gave me something to think about,” or “You were really ‘on’ today.”
On the drive home, your nerves are raw. Indeed, it was a nice morning, but did anything happen? Like a revolution, for example? Or did we just serve our usual tea?
I’ve made that trip home countless times. I’ve entered the pulpit feeling that I possessed the spirit of a John Wesley, and I’ve come out of the pulpit feeling like Cedric the Entertainer. It’s a blue moment.
As Jesus explained in Mark 4:1-20, not every lesson, not every message, not every small group Bible study will result in revival. Some will produce tremendous fruit, but not all. Some will fall by the wayside and appear to be wasted effort. One of the keys is how receptive the listener is to hear God’s voice. A receptive heart yields a fruitful life.
The parable of the sower has five parts: the setting (1-2), the story (3-9), the purpose (10-12), the meaning (13-20), and the challenge (9).
The setting (1-2) takes place at the Sea of Galilee. Because the crowds were so large, Jesus got into a boat while the crowd remained on land. This would allow a greater number of people to see and hear him.
Jesus was using parables to teach truth. A parable was an extended metaphor comparing spiritual truth to something from daily life—farming, fishing, family life, royalty, and banquets. The key to understanding a parables is not to ask, “What does this detail mean?” but rather, “Where am I in the parable?”
The story (3-9) begins and ends with the instruction, “Listen!” “Pay attention.”
Jesus tells the story about a farmer seeding his field. Our practice today is to plow the field before planting the seed. In Jesus’ day, the farmer scattered the seed and then plowed it under. Because he scattered the seed in every corner of his land, some seed fell on good soil and some on bad. Some places were trodden down, some were rocky, and some areas were infested with weeds. Needless to say, the seed on the bad soil did not grow very well. But it was extremely fruitful in the good soil.
The disciples did not understand the story so they asked Jesus for clarification (10-12). Jesus explained that parables have a two-fold purpose. One is to reveal truth to those who are ready to listen and change. They also conceal truth from those who are not ready to listen.
Jesus then explained the meaning of the parable (13-20). While the sower is not identified, he represents Jesus or anyone who sows the word of God or proclaims the message. The seed is the word of God. The different soils represent various types of hearers in whom the message is sown.
The seed that falls on the path represents someone with a hard heart. These folks listen with hard-hearted indifference. Perhaps it is from busyness that they have beaten the ground hard. Perhaps it is from gross sin. Perhaps it is a resistance to the truth. In addition, Satan comes along and takes away the seed even before the person has time to think about it.
The second seed falls on rocky ground, the shallow heart. The message is received with joy and it appears the person is well on their way to growth. When life gets difficult, however, the person runs for the exit. Rather than lose their faith, the reality is that it was never that deep to begin with.
The third seed falls among the thorns, the crowded heart. The seed is strangled by worry, the self-sufficiency of wealth, and the distraction of the stuff of life. All of these conspire to choke the word and not allow it to take root.
The fourth seed falls on good soil, takes root, and bears fruit. This is the receptive heart. In farming, an average seed bears 7 1/2 times the seed. A good seed bears 10 times the seed. But a supernatural harvest produces 30, 60, or 100 times the seed.
The challenge Jesus gives his listeners (9) is to pay attention and act. As sowers, we need to be faithful in sharing the message. We need to faithfully preach and teach the word of God. While important and true, neither of these principles is the point of the parable.
The point of the parable is that as hearers, we need to be receptive to receive the word. A receptive heart yields a fruitful life. Each of us needs to honestly ask and answer the questions: “The soil of my heart is …” and “For me to become fruitful, I need to …”
“Father, break up our hard hearts. Remove the things that hinder us from growing deeper. Take away the worries and competing desires that choke our faith. Help us to be receptive to your Spirit.”
This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, on January 25, 2015. It is part of a series in the Gospel of Mark. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.