IIT UBF - University Bible Fellowship at IIT




The Heart of the Matter

Date: Jun. 30, 2019

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Mark 4:1-20

Key Verse: Mark 4:20

Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.

Have you ever felt like you’ve heard something over and over and over again? Of course, you have; you have parents. Parents are always repeating themselves to their children. I don’t know how many times I’ve told my kids to eat their food or clean up their mess. I’ve lost count and I am pretty sure that they don’t want to hear it any more. Sometimes, it is a story that we have heard a number of times. In fact, there are certain people that tell the same handful of stories over and over again, and you get tired of it. Like a comedian that tells the same jokes, it gets old and the punchline isn’t funny anymore. Even the best stories can lose their appeal upon tired repetition. Even in the church, especially in the church, we can hear the same sermons from the same passages from the same people. Certain passages are so well known that you can predict what a messenger is going to say. Today’s passage is one of those passages. It is the Parable of the Sower, and I actually gave a sermon from the version in Matthew’s Gospel a little over three years ago. There is a danger that I can say the same thing over and over again. In our humanity, we fall into patterns and have a tendency to gravitate to the things we already know and understand, but the beauty of God’s word is that it is far deeper and more complex than we will ever know in our lifetime. We can read and hear the same passages over and over, but each time we can come away with something new, sometimes it is something small and other times it is a completely new way at looking at the passage. I challenge you today to take this passage that you may have heard a thousand times and to see it in a new light.

In the past few weeks, we have seen the religious leaders begin to challenge Jesus in his knowledge and his power and his authority. Jesus took the time to appoint twelve apostles, who would become the foundation for his church once he returns to heaven. With challenges and death threats, it was time to lay that foundation. Then his family became concerned with him and wanted to take him home, and the religious leaders from Jerusalem tried to attribute his power to the devil. He was facing opposition on many sides, but he reminded those who were with him that it is those who do the will of God who are his family. No one who opposes God’s will could ever be considered to be near God, no matter who they are.

With all this negativity around Jesus, he could have stopped to take a break, but instead, he didn’t. Our passage begins, “Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge.” (1) In light of the negativity and opposition, Jesus doubled down on one of his main missions, to teach the people. Now, the author of this gospel, Mark, was not known for keeping chronology. He put events together to make a point. Here, we have this juxtaposition of his family demanding that he come home with a seeming response of going out to teach again. And, again, there was a crowd forming around him. It was the crowds that concerned his family, but Jesus doubled down on teaching the crowds. To accommodate the crowds of people, Jesus stepped into a boat, pulled out into the water a bit, anchored the boat and began to teach. This wasn’t just a means to get away from the people, it was a way for all the people to hear him. The sound of his voice would carry over the water for all to hear.

Now, the passage says that Jesus taught the crowd many things by parables. Parables are stories that are nice to hear, but have a profound and deeper meaning, a lesson to be learned, if you will. Before this point, Jesus’ teachings were pretty straightforward, but here, Jesus chooses to obscure his teaching with parables. Jesus’ first recorded parable begins, “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed.” (3) Jesus’ first parable recorded in Mark’s Gospel was about farming and a farmer sowing his seed. Honestly, it must have been a marked difference from his other teachings. The full story is, “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” (3-8) What is your first impression when you hear the story? Mine was, “My goodness, that is not a very good farmer. He is wasting so much of his seed.” Nowadays, farmers have machines to aid in planting, so the crops are planted in nice, neat rows and are only planted where they are supposed to be planted. In Jesus’ time, farming was different. A farmer would broadcast the seed before plowing it under. They didn’t make a little hole and cover it up after planting the seed. The farmer would hold all the seed in an apron and hold the apron in one hand while tossing the seed with the other. Using this method, it was inevitable that some seed would fall on unwanted places. The path mentioned here is not the road, but a hardened path that existed in the field that a farmer would use to navigate his field without trampling the crops. The stones and thorns are apparently prevalent even today in the region. It is not like farming in Illinois, where there are large fields with rich and abundant soil that can be easily worked.

Obviously, everywhere where the seed landing had a different outcome. The seed planted on the path, never had a chance. The farmer would never plow the seed into the ground on the path, because it wouldn’t be a path. Here the seed was just gobbled up by the birds. It was easy pickings for them. The seed that fell on the rocky, shallow soil had a different outcome. It took root, but it couldn’t get very deep roots because of the stones. They started out great, but when the sun came out, the plants withered and died because they were parched in the hot sun and there was no moisture in the shallow soil. The third area was the soil where there were thorns. These thorns are a flowering plant that has of prickles on the leaves or stem. It is very much considered to be like a weed, but it was particularly difficult to remove. So, the seed that fell among the thorns, were like a crop that was planted in a particularly weedy area. Eventually, the weeds would crowd out the crop and choke it. The last area was the seed that fell on good soil. Here the seed produced and abundant crop. In fact, the crop that Jesus refers to is down right miraculous. Using the farming methods of the time, a farmer would expect the seed to return a harvest of around seven or eight times the seed sown, and a great harvest would yield ten times what was sown. Jesus’ claim of thirty or sixty or even a hundred times sown was unheard of and would likely be seen as an exaggeration or fanciful. Now, there is a reason to why Jesus used such numbers, which we will get to, soon, but it may have caught the attention of his listeners.

After Jesus told the story, he said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” This is an interesting thing to say. It is a call for people to understand the parable that Jesus just spoke. Remember, a parable has a deeper meaning and Jesus wanted the people to go deeper. When Jesus was alone with the core believers, they wondered about the parables. Jesus had obscured his teaching and put it behind a parable and his disciples wanted to know why Jesus decided to use parables. “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 so that, “‘“they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!”’” (11-12) Jesus spoke in parables because a number of people were opposed to his ministry and their hearts were closed to his word. Those who heard the parables and their hearts were closed would never understand what he said, but those who were truly seeking would seek the deeper meaning.

Jesus, then pressed his disciples, “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?’” (13) Jesus recognized that his disciples didn’t understand the parable he told them, so he began to tell them. “The farmer sows the word.” (14) The seed that the farmer sows is the word, or more specifically, God’s word, and where the word lands represent the different type of people who hear the word and their reactions. “Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.”  (15) When sharing God’s word, like Jesus did a variety of people would hear it. As much as I commented on the farmer’s planting habits, when we speak, we can’t choose who hears. It is spread over anyone who has ears. Some people, when they hear it are like the seed that fell on the path. The seed hits, but Satan steals it away. These are the type of people that we would say it is like talking to a wall or it goes in one ear and out the other. These are the people who have no desire to hear the word of God and don’t care to understand it.

Jesus continues, “Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.” (16-17) The second group of people are like the seed sown on rocky soil. They hear the word and are enthused to accept the word. They love the word of God and lap it up, but as soon as there is trouble or persecution, they quickly disappear. They hear the word of God and are enthusiastic to share it with other, but they might receive ridicule for their new beliefs, and grow silent. Or times get tough and they no longer have time for God because they need to focus on the studies or their own lives.

Again, Jesus continues, “Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (18-19) Here the people are like plants in thorny areas. It’s like living among the weeds. They hear the word and start growing, but the worries of life and desires for the things of the world choke the word, making it unfruitful. Honestly, I think that it is pretty self-explanatory here. The last type is the people who hear the word and produce a bountiful harvest, a miraculous harvest of thirty, sixty or a hundred times what was sown. These are the people who truly hear and understand the word and use it to serve God and produce a harvest.

In times past, we have had a tendency to look at the four types of soil and are called to look at ourselves and wonder what type of soil your own heart may be. Which bucket do we fall in? But here is where the challenge comes in. This parable is not called the Parable of the Soils or the Parable of the Seed. It is the Parable of the Sower. Jesus is not wanting his disciples to be introspective about their own hearts, but the parable is one to help his disciples as they go and share the word. He is preparing them for becoming the farmer. Like I mentioned earlier, the author Mark doesn’t really put things in chronological order, but he puts things together for a purpose. In the past few passages, he chose his core group of twelve who would be his disciples. Jesus would send them out and this parable is to help prepare them for what they will see. Also, in light of the opposition he saw in the previous passage, Jesus really wants for the Twelve to be ready for what the world will throw at them.

We have been called to share God’s word with others, but it can be discouraging to find out that not everyone will respond favorably to that word. We can pour out our hearts, only to see people leave for one reason or another. Some people never receive anything from what we may say. Other people will love it, but just disappear one day because of some trouble. Others will hear and grow, but they produce no fruit because they are being choked out because of the worries and desires of this world. But then there are some that hear, grow and produce fruit, a harvest that is just miraculous. This parable is meant to be an encouragement to those who will be sent to share God’s word.

We’ve been serving this campus with worship for over twelve years, since 2007. There have been so many people who have come to worship here. You can look back at old photos and see a lot of different people. There are many that I recognize their face but have forgotten their name. The churn can be discouraging, but Jesus shows us that it is expected. People will come and go, and some will seem like they are doing great until one day they disappear. We shouldn’t get discouraged by such events, but we should be living our life in the Lord, knowing what will happen. Not everyone will fully accept God’s word. We don’t know who it is going to be.

When I started Bible study nearly 20 years ago, I doubt anybody expected for me to accept God’s word and produce any fruit. I didn’t come by my own accord. I made my girlfriend at the time late for Bible study and she invited me to study afterwards. I am not sure what I thought of the studies, but I heard that my Bible teacher would lament that he didn’t know if I was getting anything from Bible study. He would talk and I would give very simple and short answers without much emotion. I was straight-faced, like how my youngest son is straight-faced most of the time. My Bible teacher didn’t know why I kept coming back week after week. He hoped that one week I just wouldn’t show up. But I was too honor-bound. I couldn’t go back on my decision, but when I graduated with my undergraduate degrees, I was looking to get a job and looking forward to not having Bible study anymore. Yet, God’s plan was different. I couldn’t find a job, so I decided to go to get my master’s degree and was not able to get out of Bible study because of being honor-bound, but that first year of grad school was when the word finally started to take root in my heart. It took a lot of careful and patient cultivating, but I was among the least likely to bear fruit.

We don’t know where the fruit will come from. One of my Bible students was Ison Hong. He was a student here, but after he graduated, he wanted to get away from us, so he took a job in Springfield. Little did he know that the ministry would follow him. Two other people from the larger ministry, one from the Lincoln Park ministry and one from Champaign also moved to Springfield and the three of them started a new chapter in Springfield. Eventually Ison would move on and return to his home in Malaysia, but there he felt the calling to create a chapter in Malaysia, where he is currently helping to lead. I don’t think that we expected any of this, but that is the fruit that is borne.

Just like the farmer does not lament the loss of the seed in the bad places, we cannot be devastated by the fact that not everyone who hears the word will produce a crop. Instead, we must tend to those with good soil, and tend to all until we know the true nature. We should never become discouraged because people keep coming and going. There are certain people that we don’t see for a very long time. There are people that we have no idea why they are here, but we should never lose hope or become jaded. We have to stand firm. The apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58) Serving God, when it is in God, is never in vain. Now, when we serve to seek recognition or power, that is in vain. But when we labor in the Lord, our work will never be in vain. God’s word never comes back empty. His word has power. God used his word to create the heavens and the earth. The word that we spread has the exact same power, but unfortunately, we might not see the fullness of the fruit.

If you remember back in our study of Genesis, Abraham, Issac and Jacob all received a promise from God, but they never saw the promise fulfilled. Their faith in God was not in vain, because God’s word always comes to pass. When we plant the word of God, we might not see the harvest. We don’t know if it will start growing or if it will get choked out or if it will produce a harvest, but we can be encouraged that it will have an effect, we just don’t know the details. The fruit might show up in the most unexpected places, but we should not lose heart. The harvest that is coming is far greater than you could ever imagine.

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