Sunday, June 10, 2007

Hearing, Understanding and Doing: My last sermon preached in Magheralin on 10th June 2007. The Parable of the Sower - Mark 4:1-20

As we approach the bible passage tonight, we are in great danger of being over-familiar with it. You probably heard the opening words of the reading and though, ah, here we go again, the parable of the sower. We’ve heard it all before.

This evening we’re going to look at the passage in terms of hearing, understanding and doing, as we follow the structure of Mark’s account. This way, we’ll see how we move from being interested listeners, to disciples, to those who bear fruit.

As the passage opens, we find Jesus teaching by the lake. Galilee was the scene of so much of his early ministry, as he travelled about teaching and healing. On this particular occasion, the crowd is so big that there’s a possibility of Jesus being swamped. So he gets into a boat, going out a short distance from the land, and begins to teach.

Mark records many of the parables Jesus taught, and here we find the parable of the sower, or rather, the parable of the soilsp. You’ve heard it before, so let’s just recap. The farmer sows the seed, where it lands in various places – the path, the rocky places, the thorns and the good soil. The various places bring various responses to the seed – some seeing initial signs of growth which are ultimately disappointed; and only the good soil produces a crop.

And that’s it. The parable is complete. Jesus adds his tagline to the end – ‘he who has ears to hear, let him hear.’ Jesus calls the crowd’s attention to hear what he has just said. To go away and ponder it.

And yet, you can’t help feeling that he’s perhaps being a bit unfair. As the crowd break up and go back to their homes, you might be able to hear them discussing what he has said. Was it just a story about farming techniques? The story was accurate enough about how the farmer would sow seed freely, before it would be ploughed in. But was that what Jesus was teaching about?

Was Jesus just someone who told nice stories – maybe even humorous stories? Would the crowd have gone away that day having gained a tip about sowing? Maybe that is like us. Are we just like the members of the crowd, who are on the edge of things. We think Jesus might be important, and his teaching sounds good, but we don’t really grasp what he’s saying?

We can take heart tonight. On first hearing, the disciples didn’t grasp what Jesus was saying either. Think about how slow they were to understand when Jesus told them plainly he would have to die and rise again. So we find also here, that the disciples didn’t understand what they had heard. They had ears to hear, but weren’t understanding!

So later on, when the crowd has dispersed, when ‘Jesus was alone’ (10), the Twelve ask him about the parables. What is it he’s saying through them? Here the disciples move on from hearing (like the crowd), to the next level – understanding.

Hard as it may be for us to think about it, Jesus seems to be saying that the parables are a deliberate way of teaching. While we can remember the standard definition of a parable from Sunday School – an earthly story with a heavenly meaning; it appears that without being let into the secrets, they will only ever appear to be earthly stories to some people. They’ll never move beyond the hearing to the understanding.

Look at the end of verse 11. ‘But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!”’

Jesus is here quoting the words of Isaiah 6, from the commission of Isaiah. You remember that occasion, when Isaiah was caught in fear by the sight of the Lord, holy, holy, holy? Normally when we read that passage, we finish with the words of Isaiah, ‘Here am I. Send me!’ But these words come from the start of the message Isaiah is tasked to take to his people.

The message is one of God’s judgement on the people – that even though they have the words of God, they don’t listen; and even though they have seen God’s actions, they refuse to turn. And, as Webb points out, ‘the very unresponsiveness of the people will be an aspect of God’s judgement on them.’

The fact that Jesus quotes these words here shows that a similar hardening is taking part in his hearers. Even though they’re hearing the words of God, and the message of the kingdom, they don’t realise it, and refuse to heed its message. Indeed, it is significant that this message of judgement linked to hearing God’s word is contained within the parable of the sower – in that parable we see the very process of hearing but not understanding the message. The seed is sown, but Satan takes it away, like the birds eat the seed on the path.

And yet, at the same time, the message is not complicated or difficult to understand. As Hewitt writes, ‘Jesus will always reveal enough of God’s truth for faith to make its response. Where there is a response then more faith truth can be given. A parable would sort out those who were keen to listen and to learn from those who were just casual in their interest.’

So what is the key for us to understand the parables? Look at verse 11. Jesus tells the disciples: ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you.’

That word ‘secret’ is also that of ‘mystery’ – things hidden. Paul is fond of this word too, speaking often of the mystery of God’s will, or the mystery of the gospel. But it’s not like a mystery story where we have to work it all out. Rather, the mystery of the gospel is revealed in Jesus. The secret, the mystery has been given, to them – revealed to the disciples. In this way, they can understand what they have heard.

Jesus has to go on and explain the parable to them. There seems to be an element of rebuke as he does this. Do you see verse 13: ‘Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?’

The question arising here is if we are understanding Jesus’ words. Are you on the outside, or the inside? As we read the Bible, do we accept what it says, or do we search the scriptures? Is your Bible reading at a superficial level, or do you dig deeper to understand what the text is saying?

It’s so easy to read a passage in your quiet time and glance through it. But how often do you pause to think about it? If you were asked five minutes afterwards what it was about, could you remember?

So how can we ensure that we understand our Bibles more? Maybe by varying how we do the quiet time – not getting stuck in a rut. Or by using some Bible reading notes to help our reading. I have found ‘Explore’ by the Good Book Company very helpful, others may find Daily Bread or some other notes useful.

It’s important that we move from being on the outside, hearing, to being on the inside, and understanding. But it’s not enough! The reason that we are called to understand God’s word is to make us fruitful. In the parable, there is only one successful outcome, even though early signs seemed positive.

You could argue that the three groups of people who see some growth all had a measure of understanding. The ‘rocky places’ people received the word with joy; and the word was received by the ‘thorny places’ people. But the end result was that what understanding they had was crowded out or lost in the end.

The rocky people’s understanding was ruined for lack of roots. When persecution or trouble comes, they wither away. Their understanding is shallow, just on the surface.

The thorny people’s understanding was choked out by other concerns. Rather than developing their understanding, they concentrate on the other things of life – worrying about life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things. Their understanding gets choked out by other, more pressing things.

We’ve seen so far that Jesus calls us to hear, and to understand. Now we see that Jesus calls us to do. The group of people that are commended in the parable are those like the good soil. Having heard and understood (or accepted it, as we read in verse 20), they produce a crop. The word is powerful in the hearts and lives of these people.

As Gareth has said earlier, tonight is my last service with you in Magheralin. I’ve enjoyed my time here over the past year and a half, sharing in your lives as we share in God’s word together. The parable of the sower also reminds us that the word of God does the work of God – that God’s purposes are accomplished by the preaching of his word. That is certainly what I have found in this place – that you are a people committed to the Bible, and are gospel people. It has been a privilege to be involved here and I want to thank Gareth especially, and you all, for your encouragement, support and prayers over my time here.

God’s purpose is accomplished by God’s word. We’re reminded of this in Isaiah 55 – ‘As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

We find this emphasised in the parable of the sower. God’s word achieves the bumper crop – thirty, sixty, one hundred-fold in the good soil. Jesus calls us to hear, to understand, and to do. If you’ll allow me to mix parables for a moment, we see the same principles in the parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:

‘Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.’ (Matthew 7:24-25). Do you see the emphasis on hearing Jesus’ words and putting them into practice?

To return to our passage again, I want to ask you - are you that good soil tonight? Are you hearing, understanding and producing?

Jesus says: ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’

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