Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Sower, the Soil, and the Seed

Plain of Gennesaret, Sea of Galilee /
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. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: "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, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times." Then Jesus said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."  (Mark 4: 1-9).

The day that Jesus told The Story of the Sower (Mark 4), he was near Capernaum, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, the home town of Peter. I imagine it to be a cloudless spring day… not only because the crowds were comfortably listening to the teacher from Nazareth, but because Jesus was able to teach from Peter’s fishing boat as it floated just off shore. We can’t say exactly where Jesus spoke but there is a natural amphitheater half way between Capernaum and Tabgha to the south where the land slopes down to a beautiful bay that matches Mark’s description. Israeli scientists have verified that the “Bay of Parables” can transmit a human voice effortlessly to several thousand people on shore (see James Edwards, The Gospel of Mark, p. 126).

Now the reason why Jesus tells this Story is two-fold: first, Jesus was proclaiming that in him the kingdom (rule & reign) of God had come near, and second, there was a mixed response to his message and ministry. Some skeptics asked why, if the kingdom had come near in Jesus, was the world still in such a mess? Granted, Jesus was doing some amazing miracles and was a profound teacher, but it hardly seemed that Satan was “out for the count!” Take John the Baptist who had just been put in jail by King Herod. He sent messengers to ask Jesus: “Are you the One…or should we wait for another?” This was not the Kingdom of God he was expecting (Matt. 11. 2-3)! Surely the Kingdom of God would overthrow corrupt people like King Herod?!  A skeptic used to say to me, “God doesn’t do anything, so why should I believe in him?” There are still people starving from malnutrition, there are still people dying from deadly diseases, there are still people suffering under corrupt dictators and unjust laws. If Jesus came to bring the Kingdom near… where is it?  In the Parable of the Sower, and some of Jesus’ other seed parables, Jesus addresses these kinds of doubts by revealing the power of a seed…

Because the mystery of the kingdom is that God’s rule and reign grows through the Messiah Jesus like a seed that is sown (Mark 4: 1-9). I imagine that as Jesus was teaching he had a good view of the green fields and fertile plains of Gennesaret - soil so rich and welcoming to every kind of crop that rabbis called it, “the garden of God". As Jesus spoke he described the most familiar scene imaginable: the peasant farmer who could often be seen sowing seed in the rich volcanic soil beside the lake – walking up and down his field with a bag hanging from his neck he would dip his hand into the seed and scatter it evenly across the field. Jesus' simple message was this: “The sower sows the seed, and when that seed takes root in good soil, it yields a spectacular harvest.” He emphasized to his disciples -- and I think the crowds understood as well -- that this parable was not just about the garden of God (their backyard) – it was about the kingdom of God (see 4. 11-12).

Now it’s often said that this story is teaching us to be good soil, good listeners, and receptive to God’s word. But first and foremost it is a Parable about the Sower, not the Soils. “When you think of my ministry, and the coming Kingdom, think of a Sower going out to sow!"  Listen up! Jesus was saying something truly revolutionary here! As I said, many people had trouble understanding why the Kingdom of God was not moving faster, why there was still evil in the world! Yes, there were signs and wonders, but why were the basic social and political problems not instantly changed if Jesus was truly the Messiah? It was a common assumption, shared by Jesus’ own disciples, that the kingdom of God’s arrival meant an immediate harvest, judgment, and consummation. But Jesus consistently taught that the kingdom enters into the world gradually through the sowing of his words and works…and that after a delay, it will yield a great harvest, and then the consummation (see Mark 4. 26-32).

This was a revolutionary picture of the Kingdom of God. A sower went out to sow! Sowing is pretty unimpressive and ordinary. On the other hand, sowing seed is the beginning of something of the greatest importance.  Take Svalbard for example.  Half way between the North Pole and the coast of Norway, on the remote arctic island of Svalbard, you will find a 390 foot tunnel that leads to an underground vault where there are three huge concrete chambers built to withstand natural disasters or nuclear catastrophes for thousands of years. Why? Its purpose is to safely protect up to 3.5 million seed samples from around the world – thus safeguarding the world’s food and agricultural resources in case of disaster (2009, Seeds look unimpressive and ordinary, but the ability to sow seed is essential to life. Jesus’ message is clear: “Like a seed that is sown, my ministry may seem painfully slow, apparently weak, and unimpressive, but it’s the beginning of a revolution that is bringing salvation and new life to God’s world!”

Jesus is giving us a new picture of God’s rule and reign and how it breaks into the world – gradually, deliberately, by word of mouth, one person at a time…but how can we be part of this kingdom revolution? The parable contains three mandates for those who want to be part of his seed sowing revolution (Mark 4: 10-20):

The first mandate of the kingdom: gather around the kingdom Sower (Mark 4: 10-14). Notice that the first thing Jesus says is in this story is, “Listen!” And the last thing, “Let anyone who has ears to hear, listen!” Hearing and listening are the most important words in this story, because the kingdom comes through Jesus’ words. We know some people got the message because “when he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables” (10). They left the large crowd beside the lake, and met with him in private. The key to growth in God’s kingdom, is to listen to the King among the crowds, but then to gather around him later…to find time alone with Jesus; yes privately but also with a few others, to ask questions, listen to his words; and put them into practice. I can’t say enough how important it is to not only worship in the larger gathering on Sunday – to be part of the crowd, so to speak – but then to gather around Jesus in close-knit fellowship, in a small group where you can listen to his words and put them into practice.

Last week I had the privilege of hearing Dr. F. Dale Bruner teach on John’s gospel at a conference for Presbyterian pastors in Santa Cruz.  Each time he recited the passage (translating it from the Greek text by memory!) I was powerfully moved to tears. What I noticed is that every time he speaks, pastors gather around him after his lecture to talk and ask questions.  We instintively want to be close to those who inspire us and challenge us. Now when the disciples asked Jesus about this story in private, he answered them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables….” That is, to YOU, those who gather around me, who seek to know me personally and to follow me, the secret of the kingdom will be revealed. And what is that secret? That in Jesus himself, the Kingdom had arrived and is transforming human experience. That those who respond in faith, gathering around him as his disciples…will know that he is the King of the kingdom and will come to understand “all things” (4:34); while those who respond in unbelief and skepticism, will hear only riddles, and unintelligible parables (4:11).

The second mandate of the kingdom: seek to be good kingdom soil (Mark 4: 15-20a). As the Word of the Kingdom is sown, there are a variety of responses which Jesus describes… the hard soil, the rocky soil, the thorny soil and the good soil. Some of you are feeling hard as you read this, like soil that is dry and impenetrable. You’ve gotten into patterns of sin that you can’t seem to break free of or even want to break free of. Your conscience has become callous, you don’t care if others are hurt or if you are hurting yourself. God’s word is difficult to hear…and even speaking Jesus’ name is difficult.

Some of you know your faith is shallow…like a thin layer of soil over a bunch of rocks. You hate to admit it…but you’re in it for the good feelings, for the weekly inspiration, for the fire insurance. You want the blessings, but you avoid the responsibility of being numbered among his disciples. You want to believe that Jesus is always fun and affirming …never dangerous or demanding.

Still others of you know that your faith is being choked by weeds and thorns. You want to follow Jesus, but the cares of this world, the desire for wealth, power, success, and pleasure are like a drug, an addiction you can’t seem to get free of. They are literally strangling your life with stress and worry. How do I know this…because my soul has been there too: hard, shallow, filled with weeds. 

Yet here you are, because in your heart you want more. You (and I) have a prayer in mind, “Lord make me like the good soil – that rich, dark, volcanic soil that Jesus was describing; the good earth that stains the hands black, ploughed and ready to receive the seed of God’s word … to hear it, accept it, and to bear much fruit." 

Friends, Jesus knows how much we need God’s help, so he invites us to do more than pray that the soil of our hearts is changed; he invites us to trust in the power of the seed (Mark 4: 20b; 26-29), the third mandate of the kingdom from this story.  Remember Jesus’ promise? “Those who hear my words, accept them and put them into action will bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundred fold? The middle eastern farmer expected a harvest of 7-10 times what was sown at best. But a harvest of thirty, sixty, and a hundred fold? That kind of harvest would be amazing by any standard…a harvest that is truly supernatural!  The point is that not even the best of soils could be expected to yield this kind of harvest. Thank God, there is something more at work here than good soil. There is the power of the seed itself. Let me tell you one more seed story…

Forty years ago, archaeologists discovered a treasure at the cliff side fortress of Masada where hundreds of Jews killed themselves to avoid capture by Roman invaders. What they uncovered were human remains…and something else, a cluster of seeds from a 2000 year old date palm. Did they come from the plain of Gennesaret where dates were grown that were so desireable they were actually banned from Jerusalem during feast days -- banned because religious leaders feared that travellers would come only for the fruit? Of course, we can’t say for sure where these date seeds came from, but they found their final resting place on the mountain of Masada. Once discovered, these seeds were stored in a drawer for four decades, assumed to be lifeless. But two years ago, they were turned over to plant specialists who hoped to provide the conditions in which these seeds could germinate. The result? A species of this now extinct date palm tree – which flourished around the time Jesus told this story, sprouted back to life after 2000 years! The tree now stands four feet high which they’ve nicknamed “Methusalah” – after the oldest person in the Bible because it’s the oldest tree seed that has ever been sprouted. And that’s not all: the new date plant may have healing properties too. These dates were used for all kinds of things: pulmonary problems, tuberculosis, dysentery, cancer (Source:

The point of this story: never underestimate the power of a seed!  Never underestimate the power of the seed that is planted when you teach your child to pray and love God’s word.  Never underestimate the power of the seed that is planted when you respond in compassion to those in need.  Never underestimate the power of the seed that is planted when you make a commitment and keep it for Christ’s sake.  Never underestimate the power of the seed that is planted when you bless, encourage, challenge and love someone in the name of the Savior.  Never underestimate the power of the seed that is planted when you share your faith with someone who does not know the Savior…Because the seed of faith that was sown in you… a seed that may have laid dormant and apparently dead for years can be reborn today and bear much fruit. And in the same way, the seeds of the kingdom that you sow in others will not be sown in vain!

So gather around the Sower, ask him to make you rich and fertile soil for his word, and trust in the power of his seed to bring a supernatural harvest in your life and in this world…to the glory of God and for the good of humankind.

Gracious Lord, thank you for sowing the seed of your Word, the Word of the Messiah Jesus that is bringing your rule and reign to this world…one life at a time. Give us the gift of patience as your kingdom seed does its miracle working power. Forgive us for our resistance to your will. No longer do we want to be hardened by unbelief and enticed by evil; isolated from spiritual community and easily uprooted by the fear of trouble or persecution for your name’s sake. No longer do we want to be choked by the cares of this world and our silly self-centered goals. Make us rich and fertile soil as we hear, accept, and act upon your commands. Let the seed of your Word and Spirit take root in us and bear a supernatural harvest…thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold, for the sake of your kingdom and the good of this world. Amen!

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