Trusting in the Seed

Chatswood Baptist Church

Mark 4:1-34

Small and irrelevant?

In the midst of everything that’s going on right now, I wonder if you’ve had the feeling that whatever God is doing in the world through Jesus, it seems kind of small and irrelevant. It seems easy to miss. As Philip said last week, the current coronavirus pandemic is just the latest disaster to grip our national attention! With years of drought, devastating bushfires, the broader, looming problem of climate change, and now a virus that is spreading so fast the number of infections double every 4 days at least… with all this, Christianity, Jesus, the gospel… it all seems a little small and insignificant. Is God really doing much in the world through Jesus? Is this really the plan?

And for some of us, we don’t need to be in the midst of a global health crisis to feel like this. If you’re not a Christian, maybe you struggle to see why some of your friends and family make such a big deal about Jesus. And even if you are a Christian, it can be hard to keep holding on to Jesus as the answer to your greatest needs and the needs of the world around you. It can be easy to write Jesus off or give up on him and turn to more concrete and obvious solutions.

But you know what? Jesus understands all this.

In today’s passage from Mark’s gospel, Jesus wants us to appreciate that the kingdom God is revealing and establishing though him is like a seed cast onto the ground – easy to disregard, but destined to grow into something very different. Jesus is encouraging us to remember that what we’re seeing is just the seed, and we need to remember that the harvest can only come from the seed. This is God’s plan in the face of our very real and profound needs, and our job is to see the seed for what it is, and to stick with the seed, trusting it to do its work.


Kingdom Parables: The kingdom of God is like a seed, sown on the ground…

If you’ve got a Bible there with you, I encourage you to open it up to Mark Chapter 4. Now this passage, Mark 4:1-34, it’s the only large block of teaching from Jesus in Mark’s whole gospel other than his speech in Chapter 13 regarding the coming of ‘the end’. And what we have here is a sample of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of God.

As Mark says in verse 1, he was teaching by the lake, in a boat by the shore because the crowd was so large!, and he taught them ‘many things by parables’. And at the end of our section, in verse 33, Mark comments that Jesus spoke the word to them ‘with many similar parables’. And the parables that Jesus tells here are all about the Kingdom of God – the hope of God intervening in the world to establish justice and peace and save his people from the effects of sin in the world. It’s the kingdom Jesus has been saying has drawn near with him.

Now, it’s hard to give an exact definition of a parable, but they are basically stories or illustrations, typically from everyday life, that are designed to teach us about something deeper. As Jesus says in verse 30, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?” A parable about one thing teaches about or describes another thing by drawing attention to key similarities.

But they are not mere illustrations or explanations. Jesus is not like a maths or physics teacher trying to give a concrete example to make something easier to understand. Through these parables, Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of God, saying things about the kingdom, that cannot be said simply by speaking plainly about the kingdom. They communicate truths in a way that affects people differently than by simply stating the facts plainly.

Through these parables, Jesus is saying things about the kingdom of God as it is revealed and established in and through him. And the common teaching point of these parables is that the kingdom of God is like seed sown into the ground. He is saying different things through each of the parables, which we will consider shortly, but in all of them, he’s saying, ‘the kingdom that is being established through me is like seed cast on to the ground. It’s small, it’s insignificant, it’s easy to miss and it will look to many like it comes to nothing… but from this seed will come a harvest that will fill the earth.’ The parables are ultimately about him, about what God is doing through him, and particularly what God will do through him.


Lamps and Measures; Secrets and Explanations…

But you might be thinking, ‘But what about the section from verse 21? What’s all this stuff about lamps, beds, baskets and measures? How does this fit into the whole ‘the kingdom is like a seed’ idea??

Well that section is certainly different, and frankly, it’s pretty confusing! But I don’t think what Jesus says there was part of the parables he taught publicly by the shore of the lake. I think what he says in verses 21-25 is part of the explanation and commentary he gives to his disciples when they come to him later asking about the meaning of the parables.

In verse 10, you can see, When he (Jesus) was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. 11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that,

             “ ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,

                    and ever hearing but never understanding;

             otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”


Now if ever there was an explanation that made things more confusing, surely this is it! What on earth is Jesus talking about?? I’m guessing some of you, ever since this Bible passage was read out for us, haven’t really heard much of what I’ve said, because you’re sitting there thinking, ‘What on earth is Jesus saying?? Is he really speaking in parables to deliberately make it hard for people to understand what he’s saying? Is he saying he doesn’t want people to repent and be forgiven?? Cause that’s what it sounds like! What’s the deal!?’

So, let’s think about what Jesus says here, and make some sense of it. Then see how the stuff about lamps and beds and measures relates to it. And then finally, reflect on what the different parables actually say to us.


Why speak in Parables?

So why does Jesus speak in parables? What purpose do they serve? It’s all about people’s relationship to Jesus and what they are able to hear – what they are ready to hear from him about what God is doing throughhim.

I think the simplest way to put is like this. Jesus is saying to his disciples:

‘You guys get me – you trust me, even if you don’t fully understand; so I can speak plainly to you. But they – the crowds and the leaders – they don’t get me. If I speak plainly to them about God’s kingdom and how God is establishing it through me, it would just drive them further away.’


For those on the outside

Jesus makes it clear that the parables are for those on the outside. He explains to his disciples, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables…” And likewise, at the end, in Mark’s summary, he explains, “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.”

There’s a clear distinction isn’t there?


Because of Hard Hearts (not heads)

And what’s important to appreciate is that this distinction is about a difference in hearts, not heads. He didn’t speak the parables to the outsiders because they weren’t smart enough to understand the explanations, or they needed the parables to understand (like the physics teacher giving illustrations). We all know the disciples weren’t necessarily the smartest bunch anyway! No, Jesus speaks in parables to the outsiders because they’re not ready to hear directly what Jesus is saying about himself and God’s kingdom.

Verse 33 in the NIV (and most translations) makes it sound like it’s a matter of ‘understanding’. But that phrase would be much better translated ‘just as they were able to hear.’ It’s the same word in the repeated phrase ‘whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.’

You see the primary purpose of the parables is not to make it easier to understand what Jesus wants to communicate about the Kingdom, although for those who do trust him, they do in fact help us understand. But the primary purpose of the parables is to make it possible for people on the outside to hear what Jesus has to say about himself and the kingdom, and perhaps to come to an understanding of what he’s really saying.

The parables allowed Jesus to communicate about himself and how God was establishing his kingdom through him in an indirect way. He could say these profound things about the kingdom, and if you had ears to hear you would have a sense of what Jesus was saying and come to him to learn more – to understand fully. But even if you didn’t, you wouldn’t necessarily be pushed away. You’d just stay in ignorance.


Your relationship to Jesus is the key

Your relationship to Jesus is the key. It’s only when you’re willing to see that the promised kingdom really is arriving in this humble man – Jesus of Nazareth – that you’re ready to hear more than parables. And it’s only when you’re willing to see that the promised kingdom is being established through Jesus (this is how God is doing it!) – it’s only then, that you can really understand how the parables actually speak of the kingdom. (Cause that’s what they’re all about!)

And if you’re not willing – if you really didn’t have ears to hear, you’d ultimately be confirmed in your unbelief. You’d be confirmed in your rejection of Jesus as God’s revelation.

That’s what’s really going on with verse 12, which seems so bizarre and confusing at first. Jesus is quoting from a passage in the prophet Isaiah, which is about the people of Israel having such hard hearts they were never going to listen and respond to the message God gives them through Isaiah. And Jesus sees the words of Isaiah being fulfilled ultimately in his own day, it the way people are reacting to him as God’s final revelation. So many amongst the crowds and the religious leaders are ‘ever seeing but never perceiving’, ‘ever hearing but never understanding’… never turning and finding forgiveness.

And so Jesus speaks to them in parables, on the one hand confirming people in their unbelief, highlighting how un-ready they are to hear what God has to say to them. The parables allow people to remain in ignorance and unbelief. They highlight the connection between Jesus’ audience and Isaiah’s audience. But on the other hand, Jesus speaks in parables, because of their unbelief, in order that they might ultimately believe. They are an act of grace that gives people room to reflect and respond to what Jesus is saying and perhaps to accept God’s word through him.


Listen up and see the light!

So how does all this relate to what Jesus says from verses 21-25 about lamps and baskets and measures? Well, because Jesus is saying that the parables are ultimately meant to be understood, just as he is ultimately going to be revealed for who he really is. Basically, Jesus is saying, ‘It won’t always be a mystery, I won’t always speak in parables. But now’s the time to hear what I’m saying and get on board. Now’s the time to listen carefully and understand, because it’s those who get it now who will benefit from what God is doing through me.’

Jesus himself is the lamp, and he’s saying that even though he’s a bit of mystery to people now – he speaks in parables and his glory is veiled – his light won’t always be hidden. It will shine clearly one day. Verse 21 literally reads ‘The lamp doesn’t come in order to be put under a bowl.’ It’s not about you shining your light. It’s about Jesus and the fact that his glory will shine openly one day. “For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.” One day, what Jesus is saying about himself and the kingdom will become open and clear to all.


Those who ‘get’ Jesus will get the Kingdom

What this passage does say to us and about us is that how we hear Jesus now has big implications. “If you’ve got ears to hear, then use them! Listen up!” says Jesus in verse 23. And he goes on to reinforce and elaborate: “Consider carefully what you hear.”

Why? Because getting it now will get you a lot more in the long run.

Jesus says two things here, in verses 24 and 25, which seem kind of odd, but they basically say that those who listen, who draw near, who seek understanding, who get Jesus – they are the ones who will reap the benefits when everything is brought out into the open. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you – and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” These sayings are both emphasising that what you grab hold of now regarding Jesus will be multiplied in the future. ‘You get me now, you’ll get even more of me then. You don’t get me now, you’ll have even less later. So stick around and listen carefully.’


The Kingdom has come, will it take root in your life?

So, coming back to the main parable in this passage, the parable of the sower, or the farmer, scattering seeds on the path and the different soils, we can see how this parable actually tells the story of Jesus himself coming, revealing and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and the different ways people have responded to it. And as we see this primary meaning of the parable, we see how it applies to us.

Jesus explains, some have outright rejected him, like the religious leaders. Like a bird swooping in to swallow the seed as soon as it lands on the path, Satan has snatched the word away. They never seriously consider the claim that God’s great future has arrived in this man before them. Others, like many in the crowds, have seemed really excited by Jesus and what he can do for them – excited that this could be what they’ve been waiting for. But there’s no substance to their relationship to Jesus – no root. As soon as there’s a hint of trouble or persecution because of their association with Jesus, they fall away, withering in the heat of the sun.

Others, Jesus explains, hear the word. They have ears to hear, they grasp something of what God is doing in Jesus, but there’s a problem. They don’t loosen their grip on the concerns of this life, so that they can grab hold of what God is doing through Jesus. “The worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful”. These people are not just opportunistic drifters in the crowd. They appear to be disciples. The draw in to learn more. But they don’t last or bear any fruit, because their hearts are not won over to Jesus and the kingdom he is proclaiming. Like seed sown amongst weeds and thorns, they grow, but ultimately fail to bear any fruit.

But then, there are some who hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop – some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown. There are some who see Jesus for who he is. They see that God’s kingdom has arrived in him, and they have left behind other allegiances and masters to follow him. They see that what God is doing through Jesus is like a seed that will become something very different one day, and so the word takes root in their lives and bears fruit. And here Jesus points out that it is through his disciples that the word will go on to spread and take root in other people’s lives – ultimately all over the world. His disciples will carry on his mission of sowing seeds and establishing God’s kingdom.

Like the parables to follow, the overarching point is that the kingdom has come in the present like seed scattered on the ground, not as most would have expected – not like a train bearing down on us… but that in the end it will take root and bring about an abundant harvest. But in this first parable, Jesus is particularly drawing attention to the fact that many will not hear the word and accept it. Already Jesus has seen how many, for various different reasons, have not accepted or understood that God’s kingdom promises are being fulfilled through him. For different reasons, like the different soils, many will ultimately just see Jesus as a mystery – a strange parable – and won’t grasp that through him God’s great future for this world is arriving and will ultimately come in fullness.

And, of course, the point for us is to be aware of how and why we might end up ignoring Jesus or giving up on him, and instead grab hold of him as God’s answer for this world. You don’t have to be like seed on the path, or seed sown on rocky places, or seed sown among thorns. If you have ears to hear, you can sit up and pay attention. You can draw near to Jesus and accept the word. You can consciously and deliberately loosen your grip on the worries and pleasures of this world so that you can grab hold of Jesus and not give up. You can embrace that God’s good future comes through a man who will ultimately give his life for the sin of the world, rising to new life so that forgiveness might be proclaimed in his name. You can produce a crop by seeing that the gospel is not just an insignificant seed in the face of the problems around us – it’s a seed that when it takes root in people’s lives brings transformation and will ultimately be a glorious harvest.

This is what Jesus hopes some of the outsiders might come to grasp in time through his parables, and it’s what he wants to encourage his disciples with.


From little things, big things grow

The final two, shorter parables, from verse 26, then build on this main parable of the sower, reinforcing the key idea that what appears insignificant now will bring about God’s glorious kingdom in the end.


A hidden work with a certain outcome (26-29)

First, in verses 26-29, Jesus emphasises the certainty of the outcome – the seed of the gospel, the seed of Jesus himself, will bring about the fullness of God’s plans for his world and his people.

Jesus pictures a man scattering seed on the ground which just grows! Night and day, all by itself, not because he makes it happen, the seed germinates, grows, and finally the harvest comes. The parable emphasises the inevitability of the harvest from the seed regardless of human activity. After the drought we’ve had, I can imagine most farmers objecting to the harvest being inevitable! But Jesus isn’t saying crops will never fail. He’s saying, the seed and the soil just do their thing. It will happen.

For those on the outside, the parable challenges their perceptions about the kingdom. God works in hidden, unexpected ways to bring about what he has promised. It invites people to consider that God might be working through Jesus in ways they can’t see or control.

For those on the inside, Jesus is encouraging us to trust that what God has begun through him, what he will do through his life, death and resurrection… what he’s doing through the ministry and preaching of the church in the name of Jesus… he will bring to fruition. You don’t need to know how or when God is working to bring growth or when it will blossom into the fullness of harvest, you just need to know it is happening and it will happen. Jesus is God’s plan to bring justice and peace to this world. The seed has been sown, and it will come to pass.


Smallness to Glory (30-32)

Then finally, Jesus explains that the kingdom is ‘like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.’

This is the most basic truth Jesus is communicating about the kingdom established through him. It doesn’t turn up in the present like a steam train, smashing obstacles in its path. It comes in obscurity and smallness to begin with. A baby born in a stable. A man raised in simplicity in a small town. A preacher of repentance. A man rejected and ultimately crucified. A claim that he has risen. A message about forgiveness shared in his name. A church that gathers to read his word and wait for his return. But it’s through this seed that the kingdom will come. It’s this seed that will grow and be revealed as the glory of God, giving shelter to God’s good creation.

If we’re tempted to think that Christianity and the gospel seem insignificant in light of the world’s problems – in the face of the stuff we’re going through right now; remember that the smallest of seeds when planted grows to become the largest of all the garden plants.

Remember that what we’re seeing is just the seed sown into the ground, and that the harvest will come, and it can only come from the seed. Will you trust in the seed of Jesus and his gospel?

Do you have ears to hear? Then hear what Jesus is saying.