This is the transcript of my sermon “Listen Carefully” I preached on Mark 4:1-20; you can listen to the sermon audio here. In my covering of the passage, I skip over verses 10-13 in Mark 4 – I wrote a blog explaining them, which you can read here.
I entitled this sermon “Listen Carefully” because I think that is the main thrust of Jesus’ parable here. He opens up with a commanding “Listen!” beckoning everyone’s attention, and then closes the parable with “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” In the parallel account of the parable in Luke 8, after explaining the parable Jesus again reiterates the importance of hearing him rightly with, “Take care then how you hear.” And ultimately as we look at the parable itself, is it not telling us about four types of people who “hear” the word of God, but only one listens rightly? But what is it we are to listen to?
Jesus explains that it is the “seed” that we are to listen to. In 4:14 we see that the seed is the “word”, and in Scripture, whenever God is desiring to reveal Himself to us, He sends a “word”, typically conveyed through one of the prophets. When some of you hear “the word of God” you immediately think of the Bible – and that is good, but I want to make a clarification: The Bible is the word of God, but it is the word of God because it reveals to us the Real Word of God: Jesus Christ. Jesus explains that all of Scripture is here to testify to Him, and it is folly to study and memorize it without seeking Him in all of that, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39).
Are You Listening?
The story of the four soils is a picture of four different responses people have to receiving Jesus, and we know which ones truly receive the seed by the fruit they bear. And this is vitally important, friends, because Jesus tells us in John 15:2 that unless we bear fruit, we haven’t really received Him, and will be disconnected from Him forever – this is serious business. But here is the fascinating thing: entrance into the kingdom of God, eternal life begins not with doing, but with receiving, or as our parable will show us, listening rightly.
Imagine a kingdom that is in the middle of war. It has been a long grueling battle, with many lives lost. An emissary goes out to the battle field to get a status report of what is happening. He returns and stands up in the town square and proclaims, “The battle is over! We have won!” He is declaring gospel, good news! Now imagine the crowds reaction to that – they hear this and explode with joy and laughter, and break into singing and dancing. But imagine there is a group of people still barricading the gates and stockpiling supplies to prepare for battle – what happened? They heard the same news, but they didn’t really listen; they didn’t believe it, so they kept working.
Here is my challenge to you today: Listen carefully. As we walk through these different soils, I invite to ask the Lord if there is anything we touch on that sounds like your own heart. I invite you to not be thinking about someone else who really needs to hear this and their heart, but rather to think about your own heart.
The first soil that we see Jesus says the seed falls onto is the path. We see in Mark 4:4, “And he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.” Jesus then later explains the meaning of the parable, “And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them” (4:15). Jesus explains that there are some people’s hearts that are so hardened to God’s word that they are as impenetrable as a road – they are resistant to the word, even though they have close proximity to it. The Scriptures always link together hard-heartedness with pride; an unwillingness to submit to God – these hearts are proud hearts. And this important for us to note: it is entirely possibly have an intellectual experience with the word, but miss Jesus (John 5:39).
Jesus tells us that there is no chance of spiritual life with this heart, we see that the problem is not only the soil, but there are birds who are stealing the seed away. Jesus explains the “birds” are really Satan, blinding their hearts. Listen friends, if you do not know Christ, know that Satan is working as hard as possible to keep it that way.
A small caveat here: Lost people are not stupid; they are blind. Sometimes I hear the way Christians talk about how our culture is going and how sickened they are with people today and their utter disregard for God – and I agree, sin should break our heart – but there is a colossal difference between being saddened at incapacity and disgusted by stupidity. When we look at the world our heart’s should break, not harden. Paul explains in 2 Cor. 4:3-4, “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
So, this leads us to pray. Pray that God would kill the birds and remove the blindness – we know He can do that because that is what He did for us. John explained this last week – we all began in Satan’s house, and Jesus delivered us over into His house. We all were once hard hearted to things of God, but God being rich in mercy changed our hearts. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Do I respond with revulsion or sadness when confronted with sin I am not familiar with? Do you see the miraculous nature of your own salvation?
Jesus then explains that another group of people as the seed that falls on the rocky soil. “Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away” (4:5-6) And Jesus later interprets the parable for us, “And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (4:16-17).
If a plant’s roots remain only in the topsoil and do not reach down deep enough to receive the nutrients needed, it will not survive. And with such shallow roots going down into the soil, the plant could easily be blown over by wind or uprooted – the temporary nature of this soil is the danger. The same is true with people and the word of God. But the plant initially shoots up quickly, symbolizing those who are receiving the word with joy! That sure seems like a good thing – so what went wrong? They wouldn’t let the word go in deep enough. They only the word get in as deep as they would like; they accepted what they wanted from Jesus, but didn’t accept all of Him. Tim Keller says that these people are those who are not interested in entering God’s Kingdom, but inviting Him to come into their own. They have made a nice little spot for Jesus to slide into their life and give them what He has to offer. And in the beginning, it produces this burst of joy – but it will never last.
When roots dig into the earth they are pushing the soil around, reorienting it the further down they go – that is what we must let God’s word do to us. The deeper I press into the word, the more I try and master it, the more I find that it is the word that is pressing into me, and mastering me! Let us be careful of trying cut out or remove the parts of Jesus that may not be popular or easy to handle – we are not the potter and He is not the clay. If we receive only parts of the word, we don’t receive Him at all.
In the parable we are told that it is the scorching sun that withers the plant, which we are told is the persecution of the world. Simply put, superficial faith will not survive the difficulty of this world. Jesus promises that all who desire to follow Him will suffer in this world. Jesus explains, “I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Jesus promises both peace and suffering, and the key to walk through this painful world is being united to the One who promises, “I have overcome the world” – we find peace when we receive Him, but we must receive Him totally, not superficially. Ironically, those who only receive pieces of Jesus are doing so out of a desire to get peace, but by the very act end up severing themselves from true peace. You need the real Jesus to endure this life, not one of your own imagination. Calvin says that it is better to limp along the path of the Word, than to go sprinting off of it. How do you respond to parts of the Bible that are difficult to swallow? Do you feel like you let the Word mold you?
So far we have seen those who have an intellectual awareness of Jesus, but have a hard heart, and those who have an emotional acceptance of Jesus, but have a superficial heart – now we turn to the divided heart. “Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain” (4:7), “And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (4:18-19). This, I think, is the most dangerous kind of soil to be in, and here is why: the first two soils are very evident that they won’t work – the first one has no growth at all and the second is destroyed by the sun, but this soil produces a kind of life that it is just enough to deceive us. This is the heart that says, “Oh, I’ll receive Jesus! He will fit in nicely right alongside the other things I love in my life.”
The thorns and weeds in this soil don’t kill the plant; they just make it ineffective. Soil only has so many nutrients to give out, and if they are being primarily sucked up by the weeds, the plant will slowly be sapped of all vitality and fruitfulness – a patient in a coma has a form of life, but it certainly isn’t one to be envious of. Jesus defines these thorns as 1) the cares of the world 2) the deceitfulness of riches and 3) the desires for other things. Simply put, Jesus is saying that thorns here is anything in our hearts that is more central to our life than Jesus is. You know, in the Old Testament, Israel constantly fell into the pit of worshipping other gods, what the Bible calls idolatry, but did you know that they very rarely ever completely stopped worshipping Yahweh while doing it? It is only a few times that they completely stopped worship of God, but rather they would continue their worship of Him and then just add other gods as well. And this would above all infuriate God the most – He will not be pleased with divided worship. Now, today we don’t have Baals or Asherahs that we sacrifice to – we have careers, and vacations, and house remodels, and savings accounts – things that are trying to share God’s throne in our life.
Here is a good question for us today, “What is the most important thing to me? Do I have any roots in my life that go down deeper than Jesus? Is there anything that is functionally more important, more commanding, and more controlling of my affections than Jesus?”
Jesus elsewhere explains, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6:24). Jesus is speaking about money here, but the principle is true regardless. Notice the provocative nature of this statement from Jesus, 1) we have a master 2) and we can only serve one. Only one root can be the deepest. Money can be your master, but so can your family, or your GPA, or your job, or your looks – and if they are, they cannot share the soil with Jesus.
Now, this plant is a picture of someone who is not a Christian, but it is very possible for Christians to be thorny-ish. Perhaps we are bearing fruit, we do believe Christ is King and submit to Him, but in other areas we are nurturing a sin that is stealing the nutrients of our soil: our time, money, affections, desires, hopes and energy that are intended for Christ, but are instead going towards the thorns in our lives and making us less fruitful than we could be. All of a Christian’s life is to be one of repentance, which is continually finding these weeds, grabbing them by the root and yanking them out. One of the ways that we can do this is by partaking in the spiritual disciplines, for example: prayer, bible reading, tithing, and community. These hack at the roots of the weeds by challenging them with God’s truth: when I tithe, I am saying that money is not my God, God is my God, and I trust Him more than money; when I practice community, joining a GROW group, gathering here in large group on Sunday, I am saying that comfort and independence is not my God, God is my God, and I trust in Him more than my comfort. What thorny thing am I substituting for the word?
The Good Soil
Finally, after three examples of how not to receive Christ, we see the right way. “And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold…those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (4:8, 20). That’s what we want! Good soil, reproducing at a hundred-fold! Some people say the fruit here is probably the fruit of the Spirit in Gal. 5, or perhaps it is other souls being converted to Christ, or some say that it is the general idea of God’s Kingdom expanding here on earth as it is in heaven, through His people. I think that probably all of those are right.
So what makes good soil good? Jesus tells us that it is the one who “accepts it”. Every single one of the soils hears the word, but the good soil is the one who really hears it. The word for “accept” literally means “to welcome, accept or delight in”. The good soil is the heart that joyfully and humbly accepts all of Jesus, as He has revealed Himself. “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” (Isa. 66:2) God is explaining to us that the heart that produces good fruit is the heart that submits to His word, with humility and reverence.
Death by Submission
And look friends, submitting to anything is hard to do, and the more control you lose in the submission, the harder it is; or the bigger the object is that you are surrendering control over, the more it feels like a piece of you is dying, right? You ever have something that you know you are really good at, and you have to let someone else do it for you – isn’t that just agonizing? Something cringes and shrinks back inside of us when we have to surrender control. Now, what Jesus is claiming here is that you and I must surrender control, not just in one aspect or realm of life, but in everything. Everything! The problem with the other three soils that don’t bear fruit is that they refused to surrender control entirely to Jesus – they still kept their hands on the wheel, they tried to fit Jesus into their kingdoms, rather than coming into His –and if we are into come into His kingdom, we have to do so on His terms.
This is illustrated well in CS Lewis’ The Silver Chair, there is a girl named Jill, walking in Narnia and she has been wandering for a very long time with no water, and she is about to die of thirst, when she stumbles upon a clear, bubbling stream. But, much to her horror, blocking her path to the stream is a hulking, terrifying Lion, and she freezes in terror.
“Are you not thirsty?” said the lion. “I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill. “Then drink,” said the lion. “May I- could I- would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill. The lion answered this only by a look and very low growl. As Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience. The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic. “Will you promise not to- do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill. “I make no such promise,” said the lion. Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer the lion. “Do you eat girls?” she said. “I have swallowed up, consumed girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it. “I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill. “Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion. “Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.” The lion said, “There is no other stream.”
There is no other stream, there is no other way to life, but to come on Aslan’s terms, but to fully submit and trust Him – that means no contributions from us, no hands on the wheel, no reservations, no suggestions. And many of us, like Jill, are terrified to do so for fear of what the Lion might do. But, we know something that Jill doesn’t know.
On the night that Jesus was arrested, He prayed to the Father in Gethsemane and He pleaded with the Father, asking if there was any way that He might take this cup from Him. But, Jesus closes the prayer with this, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” What is Jesus talking about here? What is the cup? The cup is the cup of God’s wrath; God’s wrath, brimming and boiling over for the sins of the world. Jesus is asking if the Father can take the cup from Him, but He ends His prayer with saying, “No matter what, I will submit to you.” Think about this world-shattering injustice that is going on – Jesus, the only man who has ever lived his whole life under perfect submission of the Father, in a final act of perfect submission, is going to be dashed to pieces for it. He is going to drink the cup! Why on earth would He do that?
Earlier that night Jesus explained, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:23-24). What is Jesus talking about there? Whenever Jesus talks about “the hour” in His earthly ministry He is talking about going to the Cross – Jesus is saying “I AM the seed that falls to the ground, and by my dying, there will be life! Fruit!” What is the fruit that He is talking about? He is talking about you! You and me! At the Cross Jesus rode into the center of the inferno of God’s wrath, to rescue you from the judgment of your sin, and though He was consumed, you and I were set free. All of the cosmic forces of hell and wrath were absorbed into His body, so that we could experience all the blessing and freedom His perfect life earned. In Narnia, Aslan, the King of the Universe, takes the place of a traitor, and dies on the Stone Table, so that a traitor could be transformed into a King of Narnia.
Jesus was crushed by fully submitting Himself to the Father, so that when you and I submit to Him we find fullness of life. When you look at the Cross, when you look at what He has done for you, don’t you want to submit to Him? Doesn’t all of your misgivings and fears and suspicions about Him seem nearly blasphemous, and all your own plans of success and comfort seem feeble and preposterous? If we submit to Him, He will consume us, transform us – He is not safe, but He is good. There is an old hymn that defines when we try and maintain control in our life as “doing”. ‘Lay your deadly doing down, down at Jesus’ feet, stand in Him, in Him alone, Gloriously complete.” If we don’t see that, we are not listening carefully.