November 1, 2010 David Balzer

Mark 4:1-34: Secrets, Sowers, Seed & Soil

There’s nothing worse than a JOKE you’ve got to EXPLAIN. It falls FLATTER than a PANCAKE.


I.S. was telling me about when he preached at a church in Korea. During his talk, he told a short joke. He was hoping to get a CHUCKLE from the congregation. Just to break the ice. As he waited for the translator to finish. And as he waited for the laughter. He started to worry. Because the translator was spending a LONG TIME translating his joke. Eventually he finished. And immediately everyone ERUPTED in loud, raucous laughter.


Now my friend didn’t think the joke was that funny to begin with. So after the talk, he asked the translator why it took so long to translate, and why everyone laughed so hard. The translator was a bit coy and embarrassed, but after a little prodding said “It wasn’t funny, and they wouldn’t understand the joke, so I just said, ‘This man has tried to be funny. Please be polite and laugh very hard when I finish this sentence’”.


If you’re in the know, you’ll understand. If you’re not, it loses something in the translation. And the more you try to explain it, the less funny it becomes.


And it’s the same with the parables Jesus tells. Stories with a POINT. If you’re in the know, you’ll get the point. You’ll see the connections Jesus is trying to make. But if you don’t, no amount of explaining will help.


The BEST parable is the one where THOSE IN THE KNOW work it out without explanation. It’s at its SHARPEST at the first telling. When it provokes the biggest response. It only gets duller and less effective the more you explain it.


So Verse 9. Jesus warns everyone to listen up. Put your ears on. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”


Because there’s a secret to be revealed. And a mystery to be unravelled. And it all depends on how you LISTEN.


There are those with their ears on. And there are those who DON’T. And Jesus warns EVERYONE to make sure that they’re listening. ESPECIALLY for this FIRST parable.


Because this first parable is the KEY to the rest. The SOLUTION to the rest of the puzzles.


Because the whole PROCESS of teaching, and telling parables, is described in the FIRST parable. So if you miss this one, you’ve already missed the boat. And that’s why Mark puts it FIRST.


Listen to what Jesus says about this parable. Verse 13. “Don’t you understand THIS parable? How are you EVER going to understand THE REST?


Seeding the seed:

So let’s look at this parable together. Verse 1. Just like the last chapter, Jesus is teaching huge crowds. So many, he’s getting shoved into the lake. So he sits in a boat to teach the mob as they line out along the shore.


And there’s LOTS of things he teaches them. LOTS of parables. But here’s the crucial one.


Verse 3. Jesus begins. “Listen! Put your ears on!” A farmer’s sowing seed. And the seed gets thrown on ALL sorts of ground. Same seed, different ground. And each type of ground accepts the seed differently.


Verse 4. The PATH was so HARD the seed just sat on the top until the birds pecked it up.


Verse 5. The ROCKY GROUND had SOME soil. But when the seed germinated there, the roots couldn’t grow down very far, and the plants shrivelled up.


Verse 7. Plants that started to grow in the WEEDS got choked by all the competition.


And finally verse 8. GOOD soil. Where the seed grew and produced a great crop.


Jesus finishes. Verse 9. “If you’re ears are on, make sure you hear!” But obviously the message DOESN’T get home. Because a bit later they ask him what’s going on. Verse 10.


Now it’s not the CROWDS who ask. That’s what you’d expect. It’s the TWELVE and the others around him. The ones who’re SUPPOSED to be listening. THEY don’t even get it! “Stop playing games with us. Tell us straight. What’s with all these stories?


And how does Jesus answer? In v 11, he says it’s a matter of seeing the secret. (Mark 4:11 NIV)  “He told them, “The SECRET of the kingdom of God has been given to you. ..”


What’s this secret Jesus is talking about? Is it something that’s to be HIDDEN from lots of people? Something you pass on quietly? That’s what WE think “a secret” is.


The Nature of a mystery 10-13

Secret’s probably not the best translation. The word is the one we get our word MYSTERY from. In fact the good old King James says, “The MYSTERY of the Kingdom of God has been given to you”.


In the bible, MYSTERY refers to something that’s BEEN REVEALED. In the past, people haven’t known about it. But now it’s there for everyone to see. Like the curtain going up on the stage to finally reveal the show. Something hidden, that’s now been revealed.


So it’s not really a SECRET. Well, at least not a secret ANYMORE.


And Jesus says, “The mystery’s finally here. It’s arrived. The message about THE KINGDOM OF GOD!” It’s not some particular set of words, or some sermon of Jesus about the future. It’s to do with the Kingdom of God.


And what do we know about that? Well, back in Chapter 1:15. Jesus’ first words about HIMSELF. The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near. I’M here!


Jesus had arrived, and the kingdom was on its way.


It’s JESUS who’s the mystery. HE’S the secret of the kingdom. He’s been hidden in the past. And now he’s been REVEALED … to those who are LISTENING.


But it’s not a secret that everyone’s in on. Jesus goes on to say that the PARABLES are for those who DON’T listen. ONLY parables. For those in the dark, they never get PAST the parables. They’re just nice amusing stories. There’s no meaning or depth in them. Like a joke you don’t get.


And in v12 Jesus says it’s just like in the old days. In Isaiah’s time. People didn’t listen to ISAIAH when he told them what God wanted. And people don’t listen to JESUS. And so he quotes what ISAIAH said about his hearers.

(Mark 4: 12 NIV)  “.. ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'””


When people misunderstand the parables, it reflects something about THEM. Not about the trickiness of the parables. It’s SPIRITUAL BLINDNESS AND DEAFNESS which is on show. Not how understandable the PARABLES are.


It’s what the parable of the sower is all about. Sowing is the whole process of speaking in parables. The complete ministry and teaching of Jesus is like scattering seed.


That’s why Jesus says that if they miss this one, they haven’t got a hope with the others. Verse 13. “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” You can hear his frustration. Having to explain the joke.


The Nature of a Lamp (21-25)

You see, the whole point about a MYSTERY is that it’s meant to be UNDERSTOOD. There’s no use having a SECRET if you don’t TELL someone. And that’s what Jesus says in v21. The nature of a MYSTERY is to be REVEALED, And the nature of a LAMP is to GIVE LIGHT.

(Mark 4:21-23 NIV)  “He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? {22} For whatever is HIDDEN is MEANT to be disclosed, and whatever is CONCEALED is MEANT to be brought out into the open.  {23} If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.””


JESUS is the lamp who’s come to give light. It’s against his nature to be under a bowl. He’s the SECRET of the Kingdom of God who’s been given to those who listen. Once he was HIDDEN, but his whole job now is to make himself CLEAR. Visible. Because the nature of a lamp is to shed light.


That’s how he answers the question right back in v10. When they asked him about the parables. The purpose of the parables isn’t to keep people in the DARK. The whole idea is to ENLIGHTEN people.


By thinking them through, you get a new understanding about things. And that’s what Jesus means when he says he’s the lamp that gets put on a stand.


How’re ya growin’? (14-20)

But even though they don’t get it. Even though they’re the ones who’re supposed to have their ears on, but can’t hear him, he explains it anyway.


He explains it because his nature as a lamp is to shed light on things. To help people see.


Better to have a joke EXPLAINED to you and to be in on the secret, than to miss out all together. Better to have this IMPORTANT one under your belt, so the rest might become a little easier. So verse 14, he explains it.


And as he does, he’s making a comment about everyone who hears his message. Then AND now. As they listened to Jesus. As they followed him around. Or as others rejected and ignored him. He’s describing THEM.


As WE read about Jesus, we hear Jesus warning us, too. “Put your ears on. Make sure you’re listening. Because I’m talking about you. You’re a soil. HOW’RE YA GROWING?”


Jesus says, I’m the farmer, who sows the word. Preaching is what Jesus came to do. And the different reactions he gets from people are like the different soils.


Growing hard (15)

Verse 15. Some people are hard as nails. The message rolls off them like water off a duck’s back.


Just like the Pharisees and teachers in the last chapter. They thought Jesus was the Prince of demons. Wouldn’t have a bar of him. And Jesus warns them that doing THAT/ is unforgivable.


Growing hard to the gospel. Are you HARD to the gospel? Perhaps you’ve sat in church for YEARS. And just learned to SWITCH OFF. Whenever you’re challenged to DO something about God’s offer of salvation/ you think about something ELSE instead? Or fool yourself that you MUST be a Christian/ because you’ve been around Christians for so long?


Have you ever actually confessed your sin? Have you ever accepted the gift of friendship and eternal life that God’s offering you? Thanked him, and resolved to spend your life following Jesus/ in obedience and love? Have you actually DONE IT?


Or are you HARD to the message?


Or perhaps you ARE a Christian, but you’re attitude has BECOME hard? Are you taking God’s forgiveness for granted? Just going through the motions? Saying empty words?


Does the grace of God for you in Jesus still move you to tears? For YOU? He’s chosen YOU!


Does your own sinfulness fill you with sorrow? Do you want to become more like Jesus?


How have you changed in the last year? Think about what you were like this time last year. How have your attitudes changed? What do you think differently about? What people are you finding it EASIER to love than this time last year?


Perhaps if there’s NO CHANGE anymore, you might be growing HARD to the message. How’re ya growin’? Don’t be rock hard to the gospel. Don’t let that be you. Put your ears on.



Growing shallow (16-17)

But there are others who seem to LOVE the message. Verse 16. They accept it gladly. And they seem to be growing really well. But there’s no DEPTH to them. Maybe that’s Jesus’ family in the last chapter. They didn’t understand Jesus deeply.


Perhaps these plants didn’t really know what they were getting into. That seeds can’t grow by themselves for very long. Drawing on their internal energy reserves. Pretty soon they have to get their energy from the sun.


As long as things are easy, they’re fine. But as soon as any small bump comes along, they’re hit for a six. And they wither and die. Because they go searching for their energy reserves inside them. They didn’t put their roots deep into the soil. Into God, and the strength he gives. Rocky soil’s like that – there’s no DEPTH to it.


Putting down deep roots is about growing to KNOW JESUS. To trust him. Letting him be the Lord of your decisions, and your actions, and your friends, and your job, and your marriage.


Trying to keep all of this rolling along in your own strength is like a plant trying to grow without roots. And you fall away. It’s a Christian who’s grown shallow. Don’t let that be you. How’re ya growin’? Put your ears on.


Growing unfruitful (18-19)

And the next type of soil. Verse 18. The seed starts to grow well. But pretty soon the stresses of modern life start to choke. The PRESSURE of that work deadline. The PRESSURE of meeting the mortgage payment each month. The PRESSURE of trying to be LIKED by everyone. The PRESSURE of keeping up appearances. Conforming to the materialistic expectations of your friends and neighbours.


The PRESSURE from the kids who bombard you with questions and noise and demands as soon as you walk in the door. The PRESSURE from your wife, who’s expectations you never seem to be able to live up to. The PRESSURE from your husband who always needs to be reassured like a child, and who refuses to acknowledge that you’ve got a life too.


It’s pressure that could kill a plant. Choke the life out of it. Maybe that’s the crowds in the last chapter who followed Jesus around. Healing and full stomachs and entertainment were more important than strong growth.


But notice what happens to this plant. It DOESN’T die. It doesn’t shrivel up, or fall away. All the pressures make it UNFRUITFUL. It’s like a sick peach tree that doesn’t produce any fruit year after year. It’s not pruned. It’s not fertilised, or cared for. It SURVIVES, but it’s a SECOND-BEST TYPE OF EXISTENCE. A life-time of coming second.


Is that what your Christian life seems like at the moment? A second-best type of existence?


How’re ya growin’? Don’t be a Christian who’s choked into being unfruitful. Don’t let that be you. Put your ears on!



So what’s the secret to keeping your Christian garden weeded? How can you keep the thorns at bay so you can be fruitful? Where do you buy THE SPIRITUAL ROUNDUP?


Maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe it’s not the WEEDS that’re the problem, but the way you ALLOW them to AFFECT you. Because the weeds are always going to be there. Life will ALWAYS have the same pressures to deal with.


The funny thing is, it’s these SAME WEEDS that OTHER Christians seem to cope fine with. The same sorts of pressures that can choke some people, don’t affect others.


So the question becomes, how can you DEAL with the weeds, and STILL be FRUITFUL?


Growing fruitful (20)

And that’s the fourth type of soil. They don’t have problems with weeds choking them. Or shallow soil stopping deep roots. And they PRODUCE FRUIT. They live life RICHLY. In a close, deep relationship with Jesus. It’s those who sat at Jesus’ feet in the last chapter. Who got to know Jesus, and what he wanted. And who grew their roots deep into him.


For the fruitful plant, the weeds which can choke, are put into PERSPECTIVE. Jesus is Lord of EVERYTHING. The Kingdom of God reigns over EVERY OTHER kingdom.


For the fruitful plant, every decision and attitude is seen from under the umbrella of God’s purposes in Christ. Purposes where everything happens to make me more like Jesus. An opportunity in which Jesus can be glorified.


And surely that’s what WE want to be, isn’t it – FRUITFUL? As individuals AND as a church? Producing FRUIT. Personal godliness. Friends and neighbours coming under the influence of the gospel. Coming to know Jesus as Saviour.


Have you noticed the LOGO we use for church here? ONE of the things it represents is a FRUITFUL TREE. That’s what God wants US to be.


Isn’t that our WHOLE PURPOSE in LIVING? TO bring glory to God by BEARING FRUIT. Living a LIFE of SIGNIFICANCE. That makes a DIFFERENCE in the lives of people. A difference for eternity. That’s FRUIT.


The nature of a seed

it grows naturally (26-29)

And the key to this sort of living is found in the next two parables. If you keep in mind what he’s teaching HERE, you’re well on the way to growing your roots deep. To killing off the choking weeds. To living a fruitful life.


Because in these next two parables, Jesus describes what the KINGDOM is like. What life under the rule of God is really about.


The first parable is about a farmer who sows a crop, and then it grows. No matter what he does with his time, the crop still grows. Whether he sleeps or wakes. Is lazy or works hard. He doesn’t know how. He can’t make it grow any faster by worrying. And he can’t make the sun shine any brighter. Or the rain fall any heavier.


And verse 28. All by itself the soil produces the grain. Step by step the crop grows. And when the time’s right, it’s the harvest.


Jesus is saying that the kingdom is about GROWTH. It’s growth which doesn’t depend on man. GOD’S KINGDOM GROWS BY GOD’S MEANS.


If you’ve been listening. If you’ve been thinking about what type of soil you’re like. If you recognise the shallowness of your roots. Or if you can feel the strangling fingers of the worries of the world. Then listen to what Jesus says about growth. About YOUR growth. He’s speaking to YOU.


1. God’s growth in you is SLOW AND STEADY. Sometimes we’re hard pressed to see change from one week to the next. But if we look at how we’ve changed from one YEAR to the next, mostly we can see growth. So be encouraged.


2. God’s growth in you is CONSTANT. God doesn’t run out of steam. He sticks at his task. He doesn’t give up. Others might throw in the towel, but not God. So be encouraged.


3. God’s growth in you is INEVITABLE. “He who started a good work in you WILL carry it onto completion”. A tree might grow slowly, but it can rip a concrete driveway, or pipeline to pieces. Your weakness is no barrier to God doing his work in you.


Growth is sure. So stop doubting about whether you’ll ever get there. It’s God’s job to put the fuel in the tank. You’re just along for the ride. So be encouraged.


4. God’s growth in you HAS A GOAL. He’s getting you ready for harvest.


When Jesus comes back to judge the world, he’ll look at you. He’ll see every stumble. Every doubt. Every silly word you’ve ever said, and foolish decision you’ve ever made. Every selfish action you’ve ever done, and evil motivation you’ve ever had.


But God’s growth has moved you forward to THIS DAY. HARVEST. And Jesus will look at you, and say, “WELL DONE, good and faithful servant! I’m so pleased to see you’ve finally got a full head of grain. It was hard work. But it was worth it. You look so fruitful! Welcome home!”


So be patient. It’s not exam day yet. You’ve still got time to study. It’s not how ready you are NOW that counts, but how ready you’ll be on that final exam day. Be PATIENT.


And because God’s getting you ready for that day, live TODAY with HOPE. Don’t focus on where you are NOW. Keep one eye on where you’ll END UP. Because you’ll have grown much more by then. So be encouraged.


God’s growth is slow and steady, constant, inevitable, and has a goal.


Perhaps you can’t see that far ahead. You’re too short-sighted. Spiritual myopia.


You’re discouraged at how TINY you seem now. At how INSIGNIFICANT this little group of God’s people seems. How powerless Christianity seems in the midst of multicultural, pluralistic, hedonistic, post-modern Australia, where nearly everyone else couldn’t give a stuff about God.


it starts small and finishes big (30-36)

Then the parable of the mustard seed is for you.


Verse 30. Jesus says that the Kingdom of God starts small but will finish big. Like the tiny mustard seed that grows into the biggest plant in the veggie garden.


It’s not how you START the race that’s important. But how you FINISH.


And God’s kingdom started pretty small in Jesus and a ragged bunch of twelve misfits. And perhaps it even seems pretty small and insignificant now. But Jesus promises that it’s growing into a huge kingdom. And we can be SURE of it.


It’s a perspective like THIS that helps us “shallow-rooted plants”. As we learn to live this attitude out, we grow our roots into Jesus. In trusting him to lead us where he knows best. To make us more like him. Because his kingdom is growing.


And the same perspective helps us “weed-choked plants”. Because the weeds that USED to seem so important, don’t SEEM to be anymore. And God’s kingdom which perhaps seemed little, we can now see as growing bigger. Slowly but surely.


God’s working on you, and in you. He’s working to grow you. To make you fruitful.


How’re ya growin’? Put your ears on. Are you listening?

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