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MARK 4:1-20
Series:  The Good News of Jesus Christ - Part Twelve

Pastor Stephen Muncherian
April 22, 2018

This morning we are beginning Mark 4 - Mark’s account of the good news of Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ being the good news.  Verse 1 is the setting for what we’re coming to this morning. 


Again He began to teach beside the sea.  And a very large crowd gathered about Him so that He got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land.


This a picture of the Bay of Parables.  Which is a cove on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Which is where tradition says that Jesus taught these very large crowds of people by the sea.  What is being described for us here in verse 1.


We can imagine how this would have looked.  The crowd sitting on the slope of the hill facing down to Jesus in a boat right at the shore.  What is a natural amphitheater.


I ran across this recording on the net and this really cool.  Down by the tree - about where Jesus would have been - is a man who’s talking.  And the man sitting down up at the top has a microphone.  So let’s listen.


(Bay of Parables - audio) 


Isn’t that cool?  That’s what’s being described for us here in verse 1.


What we’re going to look at this morning is Jesus’ teaching.  What comes in two parts.  Part one is The Parable and part two is The Explanation of the parable.  And of course The Processing All That part which we’ll get to.


Let me pray for us as we come before Jesus and His teaching.


Part one is The Parable.  This is a pretty familiar teaching.  So, let’s read it out loud together and make sure it’s fresh in our minds.


And He was teaching them many things in parables, and in His teaching He said to them:  “Listen!  A sower went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.  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.  Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.  And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”  And He said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”


A parable is a story that’s designed to illustrate a truth using familiar images or experiences in order to open up to us what is less familiar.


One reason why this passage is familiar to us is because the images are pretty common to what goes around us and so they stick in our minds.  Same would have been true of those listening to Jesus - sitting on that hill overlooking the sea.

Jesus - while He’s teaching - He could have been pointing off to maybe something that was going on nearby - something the people could have seen or at least been familiar with - a sower sowing seeds.


The way that farmers planted back then was different than what happens around us.  If we go out in the fields here we’d see plowed fields with neat rows - furrows - strategically laid out and planted using GPS tech - along with well thought out irrigation systems.


Back in Jesus’ day farmers didn’t plant wheat or other grain crops in rows.  They’d break up the ground and soften the soil with a wooden plow and then they scattered the seed by hand.  A farmer would have a bag tied around their waist and sling the seed out into the softened field.


Which meant that sometimes - on the edges of the field - that seed would end up on unplowed ground or a foot path - whatever was bordering the field.  No matter how hard you try there’s always the possibility of some seed landing where it won’t grow.  Even happens today.


Jesus is describing what happens to the seed that gets sown.  Four familiar fates.  Fate #1:  The seed on the path gets devoured by the birds.  Fate #2:  The seed on the rocky ground springs up and it get toasted by the sun.  Fate #3:  The seed falls in the weeds that end up choking it.  Fate #4:  The seed falls on good softened soil and produces lots and lots of grain.


Which is the point of the sowing.  Farming being an investment.  There’s an expectation of a return on that investment.


Which is what a farmer would expect - in the fertile fields of Galilee watered with rain - a return on his investment of sown seed.  Thirty, sixty, a hundred fold - being a good rate of return. 


Parables use the familiar to get us thinking about the unfamiliar - the truth which is the point of the illustration. 


Jesus told parables - not just because they were memorable illustrations - something like Christian versions of Aesop’s fables. 


Jesus told parables because He wanted to get people to think about themselves and the kingdom of God.  To ask questions like “What does He mean by that?”  “What does that have to do with the kingdom of God?”  “How does this relate to me?”


Notice - in verse 3 - that Jesus begins His parable with the command to “Listen!”  Then in verse 9 - Jesus ends with this declaration:  “He who has ears to hear, let Him hear.”  Which isn’t some corny pun on Jesus’ part.  Jesus talking about seeds and grains.


In verse 3 - some translations - in order to translate the command “Listen!” - some translations use the older English word “Hearken”. Which sounds strange in today’s English.  But it’s a better translation.  The meaning is more like “Hear this!”


The verb translated here as “Listen” and “hear” - down in verse 9 - are actually the same verb:  “akouo”  Let’s say that together:  “akouo”


“Akouo” has the idea not only of listening audibly but of how we respond to what we’re listening to.  Meaning to “akouo” is to critically analyze and to try to understand what we’re listening to and then to obey the teaching we’re listening to.  Which is why “hearing” is a better translation.


Listening is done with the ears.  Hearing is done with the heart.


We’re hearing Jesus when we’re not just listening to someone teach but we’re questioning and asking and processing what’s being taught and how that relates to us and what we’re going to do in response.  Heart level hearing.  Heart level change.  Which is the purpose of the parable.


There are lots of people - many who attend church services and Bible studies - decade after decade - who can quote chapter and verse on lot’s of what’s in the Bible - they’ve been listening to sermons since they were enrolled in the nursey - people who are really good at listening to things.  But they’re not hearing.


We’ve been following this large and growing crowd for 3 chapters as the crowd has been following Jesus. 


There was a crowd at the Jordan when Jesus was baptized - listening to the voice of God the Father and seeing God the Holy Spirit descend like a dove - at the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry God’s declaration of Who Jesus is - fully God - fully man - the long waited for Messiah.


There’s been a crowd following Jesus ever since - watching miracles and healings and exorcisms.  Listening in as Jesus took on the Pharisees and the Scribes.  Listening to Jesus teach.  Just like they’re on that slope by the sea on this day.  Listening.  Yes.  But are they hearing?


So the question for us - as we’re reading through this familiar parable is are we just listening to something familiar to us or are we hearing Jesus?  Do we have our ears on?


Verses 10 to 20 are The Explanation.  Jesus explaining the parable to His inner circle of disciples.


Would you read with me verses 10 to 13:


And when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parables.


And He said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘They may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”


The first part of that explanation begins with a contrast between the crowd - those outside - and those that are alone with Jesus - the Twelve disciples and those gathered around Jesus.


When they get away from the crowd those with Jesus start asking Jesus about the parables.   Which was one reason why Jesus was telling parables.  To get people to ask questions.

That the disciples are asking questions clues us in to where the disciples are at.  They’re not getting what Jesus is getting at and so they’re asking questions because they want to get what Jesus is getting at.  Meaning their hearts are open to hearing Jesus. 


Jesus answers them:  “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God…” 


A “secret” is something that’s hidden.  It’s a mystery to those who don’t know what it is.  There are number of these “secrets” or “mysteries” referred to in the Bible that are the inside information on what God is doing and why.  What Jesus is teaching about - the parable - is the inside information about the kingdom of God.  What Jesus wants His disciples to heart level hear and respond to. 


So the disciples ask questions and we’re going to see Jesus then give them an explanation.  Contrast to those outside - the crowd - the Pharisees - the Scribes - they all get parables without the explanation. 


The reason Jesus gives for who gets an explanation and who doesn’t is the quote from Isaiah that Jesus gives them - and us - in verse 12.  “So that - reason being - They may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”


Which seems harsh.  Doesn’t it?  How can Jesus - Who is our kind and merciful Savior - Who is constantly extending gracious and loving invitations - take such great pains to prevent people from understanding the truth about God’s kingdom?  That Jesus would actually go out of His way to keep people from turning to God and be forgiven?

We need to understand the quote.  Isaiah 6:9,10. 


How many times - reading through the Old Testament - have we said to ourselves, “I’ve heard this before”?  The reason we’re saying to ourselves, “I’ve heard this before” is because we’ve heard this before.


So much of the Old Testament is God speaking to His people - and speaking to His people - and speaking and speaking and speaking - and warning them over and over and over again - God pleading with them turn back to Me.  Turn back to Me.  Turn back to Me.


The reason God does that is not because God is really really old and getting kind of forgetful.  But because God really does want His people to turn back to Him.  He loves them.  He desires what’s best for them.


And God’s people are listening.  But they’re not hearing.  They don’t have their ears on.


Isaiah was God’s prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah during the days when God used the Assyrians to haul the northern kingdom of Israel into captivity.  God warned Judah that He was going to do the same thing to them if they didn’t turn back to Him.  But it seems like the louder Isaiah cries out the less the people would listen and the worse things became.


Through Isaiah God warned His rebellious people that both the declaration of His word and the grace of repentance in response to it were in the hands of the sovereign God.  Meaning that this hardening judgment that Jesus is quoting was pronounced after centuries of God speaking and God’s people listening but not hearing God’s word.


Coming back to Jesus and the crowd outside.  When Jesus began His public ministry - in a synagogue in Nazareth - He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah to read.  Jesus read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor.  He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:16-19 NASB)


Jesus speaks to a deaf man and he hears.  Commands a paralyzed man to get and he gets up and walks.  Jesus commands and a dead man walks alive out of a tomb.  The blind see.  A woman bleeding for 12 years stops hemorrhaging.  A leper is cleansed.  How much more would God do in their hearts.  Release to the captives - setting free the oppressed.  


God is once again pleading with His people:  “Just turn to Me and I’ll heal your hearts.  I’ll heal you at the depths of who you are.  I’ll heal your deepest wounds.  I’ll bring healing to our relationship.  Don’t turn from Me again.  You’re going to miss all that I have for you.”


In the book of Revelation - Jesus - warning the seven churches in Revelation.  Jesus - over and over - warns the Church:  “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”


Eyes and ears are the gateway to the heart - the deepest part of who we are.  He who has ears to hear” is all about the heart of a disciple - the condition of our heart before God.  Our openness to the work of the Holy Spirit.  Our willingness to act on what we hear - to repent - to change - to grow.  To allow God to move us - transform us - conform us - according to His sovereign will.  Those who are spiritually alive and seeking the Kingdom will hear what Jesus is saying.


God once again because He is loving and merciful and gracious - God has given these people - the crowd - the religious leadership - a wonderful opportunity.  They’re seeing the kingdom lived out in front of them in the flesh and blood of Jesus - they’re listening to His teaching - but they’re not perceiving it. They’re not seeing it.  They’re not getting it because they’re not hearing.


God’s pleading with His people to get this.  The sad reality is that many choose not to hear.  And God honors that choice. Their choice of their heart response that God honors - God will not soften their hearts against their will - and so judgment will come on them as well.


Thinking about the great lengths that God has gone to to communicate to us.  God revealing Himself to us in His creation - all of which testifies of who He is.  The inspiration and preservation of the Bible so we have it today - for us.  Jesus who is God’s word in the flesh - wrapped up in the easier to understand packaging of where we live our lives - speaking directly to us.


The bottom line is that God is continually seeking to communicate to us - to explain His word - the depths of His heart to us - what it means to live within His Kingdom - within His sovereignty. 


Jesus to His disciples who are seeking to hear Jesus:  “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God”


May we be like the disciples. 


The next part of Jesus’ explanation is His explanation of the parable.


Then verse 13:  And He said to them, “Do you not understand this parable?”  How then will you understand all the parables? 


Meaning, if you don’t get the meaning of this parable you’re not going to understand anything else I’m teaching you.  This is bottom line foundational to understanding the good news and everything we need to know about responding to God and living in obedience to Him and in His blessings and promises.


So, here it is:  The sower sows the word.  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.


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.


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 I proves unfruitful.


But 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.” 


This is pretty familiar.  Yes?  So let’s briefly walk through Jesus’ explanation and make sure we’re together with Jesus.


Verse 14 - The sower is Jesus.  The word is the good news of the kingdom that we need to respond to.  Everything we need to do to live in obedience to God - to live in the promises and blessings of God.


So Jesus sows the good news of God’s kingdom and we need to hear carefully and respond appropriately.


Starting in verse 15 there are Four examples of what happens as God’s word is sown in the hearts of mankind.  How people hear and respond. 


First example - Unresponsive Hearts - verse 15:  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.


This is like trying to sow seeds on asphalt.  The word of God never penetrates.

These people so busy with the daily things of life that thoughts about God don’t have a chance
to take root.  There’s just too much else competing for attention.  Satan makes sure of that with the way he orchestrates busyness in our lives.


There’s a danger in that for us.  Because there are a trillion and one really good things going on in life that all demand out attention.


We come to church because it’s what we do before we do the other things we have lined up on Sunday.  Been there - done that - next item.  But - have we heard God? 


Second example - Impulsive Hearts - verse 16:  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.


These are the app addicts who are always downloading and installing the latest whatever.  They respond enthusiastically to everything - new tools - the latest games- whatever’s trending.  Their devices are filled with gigabytes of useless stuff from yesterday’s tapping.  When they hear the word of God - some new truth - teaching or understanding - they embrace it - joyfully.  That’s the answer they're looking for!


Take a plant - put it into a shallow pot - and the roots do what?  Quickly fill up the pot.  So all the “growth” energy goes into the upper part of the plant.  And the plant does what?  This huge beautiful plant dies because it never developed the root system it needed for life.

What Jesus is suggesting is that God’s word can be received - the teaching and truths of it - can enter our hearts and take root and bring joy in our lives.  The word of God contains great promise and great hope.  But the word of God is not some quick fix remedy for the real issues of our lives.


Without true sorrow or shame for our sin - without repentance - all that rooting is superficial.  It’s just growth built on rocky ground that ultimately is going to resist any real and lasting life changing impact and maturing coming from God’s word.  So when they come up against the hardships and choices of real discipleship - of following Jesus - they’re going to fall away by looking for the next click bait quick fix.

Third example - Burdened Hearts - verse 18:  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 I proves unfruitful.


Jesus talks about three types of burdens - thorns that can snag our hearts.


First, “the cares of the world.”  They ask, When?  Where?  How?  They’re worried about every situation they face.  They can’t rest or leave things in God’s hands.  They’re constantly trying to work things out for themselves.


Second, they’re burdened with “the deceitfulness of riches” - the pursuit of wealth - their own pleasure.


Third, they’re burdened with “the desires for other things” - whatever those things are.  They don’t know.  But they do know that this isn’t it.  They drift from one unsatisfying experience to another - never satisfied with what God has blessed them with.


These are people are moving sideways through life.  They’ve always got a plan for where they’re going.  But they never get there.


Jesus is saying that all those burdens are like weeds.  The word of God doesn’t have a chance.  It gets choked by all these other “burdens” that are a greater priority.  That keep them back from what it really means to follow God through life.


Fourth example - Receptive Hearts - what happens to God’s word as its sown in the hearts of mankind - verse 20:  But 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.” 


Weeding and plowing are done with an expectation of harvest.  The seed is received with an expectation of growth.  Then the seed takes root and produces fruit in great abundance.


“accept” translates a Greek word that has the idea of welcoming something like it’s our own.  Being “totally in” embracing something.


Receptive heart people - who are responding to God’s word  - they receive the word - even if they don’t totally understand it.  They accept it as God’s word for them.  They welcome it into their hearts with the expectation of God produced - there’s gonna be a harvest - fruit.

Receptive heart people ask questions and seek out answers.  They look forward to understanding and maturing in what God has for them.


That’s moving beyond listening with our ears to hearing with our heart.


Processing all that..


Looking at these four examples of four different types of hearts, its helpful for us to see that that what Jesus is describing is not necessarily four different types of people.  But, four possible conditions of our own hearts.


The obvious goal is to have a heart receptive to the word of God.  But, there are hinderances to that that we struggle with.


So how do we go there?  How do we clear out the rocks and weed out the weeds and plow the field of our heart and accept God’s word in our hearts.  How do we get the wax out of our ears so we’re hearing God and not just listening.


One word:  Fertilizer


Fertilizer - fertilizing our hearts - is like removing wax from our ears.  It opens the channel to our hearts so we can start hearing God.


The concrete we call soil here in Merced needs fertilizer to prepare it for planting.  So do our hearts.  To fertilize takes planning - when to fertilize - what type of fertilizer - how to apply it.  The same is true of our hearts.


Three take away suggestions out of many that we could share.  These are just coming out of some of what God has been teaching me.


Our hearts need the fertilizer of time.


A while back someone shared with me that they got up every morning at 5:00 a.m. - before anything else was going on - so that they were able to get time alone with God.


At the time - being at that time a night person and not a morning person - at the time I thought they were nuts.  No way that was going to be me.


God being God…  These days, most mornings I’m up about 5:30 a.m. in order to go through my morning routine which includes time reading the Bible and praying.  Just has to be that way because it’s the only way to consistently have time to get before God’s word and spend time with God in prayer.


That takes planning.  Going to bed at reasonable time the night before.  Setting the alarm.  Actually getting up.


Which is what God has led me into.  What works for you is what works for you.  But our hearts need time with God.  That’s fertilizer.


The question is:  These days what does time with God look like for you?


Another fertilizer is study. 


There are about 10 people in the congregation that have taken up the challenge to read through the Bible this year - Genesis to Revelation.  Today that puts them at about Isaiah 25 to 27.  That takes planning.  Discipline.  That God blesses and uses to open up our hearts towards Him.


Reading through the Bible God helps us to see more clearly the big picture of what God is doing.  The smaller details begin to fit into the bigger picture like puzzle pieces and the bigger picture gets clearer.


And that raises questions.  Moves us to find resources.  To study with other believers.  To seek out explanations and a deeper understanding of God’s truth and how desires to apply His truth to our lives. 


So many Christians are constantly moving from church to church and Bible study to Bible study and they’re following someone’s devotional thoughts about the Bible or some inspiring posting.  Which may all have its place.  God may use that.


But ultimately they’re only skimming the surface of our faith.  Not plowing deeper.  They’re missing so much of what God has for us.


There is no substitute for sitting down with Bible - opening it up - reading through it - and studying it for ourselves and consistently exploring with fellow believers what we’re seeing there.


God uses the systematic reading and our prayerful pondering over the truths of the Bible to open our hearts up to Him.


Question:  These days what does the study of God’s word look like for you?


Another fertilizer is silence.  Just being silent - in stillness before God.


The people who study these things tells us that it takes approximately 3 hours to wind down enough to actually be in a place mentally - spiritually - with everything else put aside and have our hearts open - to stop talking at God and actually be open to what He has to say to us.


In the US - the average person spends 5 hour a day on social media.  9 hours if you’re a teenager.  That works out to 5 years and 4 months of the average life span spent on social media.


In the US - the average person spends 5 hours per day watching TV.  Less if you’re younger.  More if you’re older like some of us.  That works out to about 7½ years of the average life.


The point here is not to trash social media or TV.  But to suggest that just maybe some of that might be distracting us from quality time with God.


We need to learn the discipline of being silent before God - learning to hear His voice and how He speaks to us and what it means to rest in Him and in His presence - because there are a whole lot of other voices out there that are screaming at us.  And, some of those voices are inside us coming from our wounds and issues and addictions and guilt and other stuff we carry around with us.


All that noise can distract us from being in silence before God.


As God gives me opportunity I try to squeeze in a DAWG day - a Day Alone With God.  Doesn’t happen often enough.  Sometimes it works out as a DAWG morning.  But God has been teaching me that I need to get alone with God to read and pray and just open up my heart to God and just be still and silent before Him.


Question:  These days what does it look like for you to be silent and still before God?


Maybe you’re thinking even a DAWG minute would be a stretch.  What that looks like in your life is between you and God.  But ask Him for it and start planning on it.


Jesus is trying to communicate to a crowd - and Pharisees and Scribes - that are so focused on everything else that they’re completely missing the message.  They’re listening to Jesus.  But they’re not hearing Him.


God wants to share with us from the depths of His heart - to connect with us on a heart to heart level.


Question:  Are you hearing God?



Series references:

Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark (Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016).

Charles R. Swindoll, Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary, Volume 2:  Insights on Mark (Carol Stream, IL, Tyndale House Publishers, 2016).


Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®  (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.