The Seed Ain’t the Problem (Mark 4)

IMG_1150Over the years of growing gardens, I’ve become disappointed often with the results. Sometimes I am amazed at how much did grow, but many other times I’ve found myself saying, “That’s it? That’s all I’m getting out of this effort?”

Some of the problem here in Maryland is the soil where I have more recently had the garden, though it is far from terrible (even if it’s not New Jersey soil!). More of it has had to do with the location that is too shaded too much of the day.

But one thing I know I can’t do, and that is to blame the seed. There is nothing wrong with that; it is a soil condition and location issue that has thwarted more recent efforts. Or failure to nurture and water appropriately.

In the parable we have been looking at in Mark 4, the seed speaks of God’s Word, and there is nothing wrong with that. Where there was no fruit, the past three days we have detailed the soil conditions that contributed to the absence. And now today, even with fruit being produced, there is a variety to the amount of yield. Jesus told the story like this …

Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”

Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

In the later interpretation in verse 20, Christ said …

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.”

It was 40 years ago that I remember a sermon on this passage being preached in my home church by a new assistant pastor, a man who came into ministry out of being a regular attender in the pews of the church. He introduced it by saying that, in his early months of serving and working with the congregants he often asked our older, long-term pastor why it was that some people seemed to “get it” and move ahead, while others heard all of the same stuff but never appeared to be impacted. And our senior pastor would just answer, “Read the parable of the sower and the seed.”

It is so true, and I’ve lived to see it now over the past 40 years of ministry. Some people come and look interested for a time, but they’re gone almost as quickly as they came … something else caught their attention. Others hang around longer before some life event, good or bad, drives them away. And others produce fruit for a while, even good fruit, but they don’t sustain it over the years and the thought that changing their garden location will make all the difference leads them up the road or down the road … often over and over.

But there are people, lots of them, who are what I called in this week of soul conditions the “producers,” who regularly bring to fruition a good yield in the life of ministry and service. Yet even here, there is room for us to ask if we are producing at the level we should, given the gifts and skills the Lord gives to each individually.

So be a producer, don’t settle for tasting, dabbling and seasonally treating church and faith like a hobby.

And we conclude this theme by asking, “How is your heart? How is your soul?”  What can you do to become a producer, or to produce at a higher level?

Treating Faith as a Mere Hobby (Mark 4)

IMG_1148Weeds are a curse. I mean really, they are. In the first breath of God’s curse upon man because of Adam’s sin, God said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.” (Genesis 3:17-18)

I’ve often when pulling weeds in a garden said aloud into the air, “Oh Adam, how could you do this to us?”  Of course, I’ve heard that women in childbirth have had some choice words for Eve as well!

The third type of soil that Jesus spoke of in his parable was that filled with weed seed as well as good seed. From Mark 4:7 …

Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 

Dealing with weeds growing with grain is a persistent agricultural problem as can be seen everywhere in grain fields right now. As in the picture, we can see the tire tracks of the device called a “high boy sprayer” – those tractors with the giant, thin wheels and long arms … spraying both weed killer and fertilizer. I often think sadly about all the grain that is smashed, though I’m assured that the net positives outweigh that negative.

But really, just think about how much more of a difficulty dealing with weeds must have been in the first century world of Jesus and the disciples, a time without chemical treatments.

Jesus gave this interpretation of the third soil (and hence the third type of soul) in verses 18 and 19 … IMG_1151

18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 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. 

This third type of soul is what I have called “the hobbyist.”  I have had lots of seasons of life where I had varied hobbies. At the time I was into them, I would have told you that these were interests that I would have and carry for a lifetime. But many have come and gone. I was into muzzle-loading antique, historic guns for a while and even built a replica. I have not had it out of the closet in 20+ years. I was very into woodworking, and our home is filled with things I built years ago. Now, doing anything like that is a terrible chore.

Other interests I’ve stuck with throughout life … like baseball, family, pursuit of Scriptural knowledge applied to life, writing. What you really value will stay with you and inform your life.

And so it should be about the Word of God. It should not be something that is a seasonal interest or hobby, not something to think about only in terms of if it serves you well at this stage of life.

If we have not been guilty of this ourselves, we have all seen the person who gets very excited about the Lord and his Word, like after some sort of retreat or conference. But over time, the enthusiasm does not stick with them. Other events or people come along to crowd their attention.

Some of the “cares of the world” that take us away from God may be good things in their proper place, but be also out of an appropriate line of priorities. And they can become those things that consume us rather than us consuming them.

Jesus speaks of three items in the passage …

  • “The worries of this life” – making a go of it, financially and relationally. This can become consuming.
  • “the deceitfulness of wealth” – I know that we all find ourselves believing that if we only just had a nice chunk more of financial resources our lives would be so much easier. I’ve often told you about the one little season of my life of living with the wealthy in Texas. And I can report that they really weren’t happier, and they had to spend so much of their time worrying about what to do with it and how to protect it from a dozen dangers.
  • “the desire for other things” – we all have stuff we find interesting that we’re going to get someday or do someday. Diana and I, on the whole, are rather boring people; but we have this interest in returning to Europe to see more of that continent. But we never get around to it, though we could make it the defining thing of our lives, dropping everything else.

Don’t make faith a hobby, merely something you do or use when you really need it like a tool in the garage, or a car you take for a Sunday ride. Being a person of faith, and doing faith with other people (called the church) is a way of life, not a hobby.

But I have seen decades of hobbyists in my various churches, people for whom life is going pretty well right now. Some previous crises have resolved, and coming in and enjoying what goes on around here fits their schedule nicely. Their evaluation of a church – be it this one, or any other one where they’ve given some time here and there – is honestly by the criteria of “what do I get from it, and how does it serve my interests and needs right now?”  The issue is honestly not “how can I serve God here?”

So don’t just be a hobbyist about faith. Don’t just make it a seasonal convenience that can get trumped by other interests … like the summer. Like the old song goes, “Will I see you in September, or lose you to the summer moon above?”

A Little Dab’ll Do Ya Sort of Faith (Mark 4)

Warning here: Unless you are pretty close to my age (Randy writing), you might be lost in this opening illustration.

I remember a particular men’s hair product being advertised frequently on black and white TV when I was a kid. It was for something called “Brylcreem.” You put this stuff in your hair – just a dab of it, mind you – and it would make everything unruly come perfectly together. The jingle went like this: “Brylcreem — A Little Dab’ll Do Ya! Brylcreem — You’ll look so debonaire. Brylcreem — The gals’ll all pursue ya; they’ll love to run their fingers through your hair!”

A lot of folks are into “a little dab’ll do ya” sort of faith. You just expose yourself to a little bit of it here and there, and wow, it goes a long, long way.

In our passage in Mark 4, Jesus spoke of this kind of perspective with the second of the four soils he would mention in his parable…

 Some seed 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. 

The shallow nature of soil can sometimes be seen even in a person’s lawn. I have two of these conditions in my own large yard.

Being rather far into the country, we have a septic system rather than sewer connections. There is a main distribution box made of concrete that is in the back yard, rather shallow under the surface. I was worried when we built the house that I may not be able to find it if I needed to, but there’s no concern about that. Except in very wet and cool conditions, the square outline of the box location is often obvious, as the heat of the sun burns away the grass above it due to the shallow roots.

As well in my yard, I have the common Western Maryland condition of limestone rock outcroppings. A few places they stick clearly out of the ground, and I need to be careful that my mower does not experience intimate fellowship with the rock. But other places are only minimally covered by the soil, and in dry periods I am reminded of the stone just under the surface.

Again as Jesus returned later to tell the disciples of the meaning of the parable, he said this …

16 Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. 17 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.

The meaning here is that certain people start out quickly in faith. They have a joyful experience, perhaps at a retreat, a concert, a conference, or even a church service attended. It is fresh and exciting, though it lasts about as long as a green banana before it turns rather quickly to yellow, and then to brown.

I call this sort of person a “dabbler” in faith. So what makes people only dabble in a relationship with God?

The text tells us the two main things that happen: troubles in life, and persecution. Both are inevitable in this world, a spiritual sort of “death and taxes” thing.

Troubles – We live in a fallen world with broken bodies that are falling apart.  Beyond that we live here with everyone else who is as broken as we are. Nothing is more discouraging than the physical stuff that wears on us in a chronic way, or the relational stuff gone awry.

Persecution – Jesus said it would happen, saying that as the world persecuted him, it would persecute his followers. The Scriptures say that all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. The world hates truth and the God of truth.

But if all you have is a dab of faith to rely upon when trials or persecutions find their way to your address, it aint’ agonna do ya.

Dabblers are not against church, they actually like it for the most part … that is, when they get there because there wasn’t anything else to do that week. They have hopes of coming regularly, but honestly, something else always come up. They want to be regular in Scripture reading and some sort of enrichment, but they never get started or make the arrangement to do it.

You don’t dabble into food once a month or so. You don’t brush your teeth every couple of weeks, just to get by. You don’t change the oil in your car once every other year. So why would dabbling in faith work out?

Pesky Birds (Mark 4)

My father was never interested in fishing until I came along. After three daughters and at age 46, he adopted me. I guess he thought he would be an irresponsible father if he did not take his son fishing. It’s an OK hobby I suppose, but it always hit me as a bit passive for my tastes. It would have been much more interesting to me if there was a competitive element to it … like if the fish could fight back and jump out of the water and drag you in if you weren’t looking, or something like that. Dad fished for years after I was gone from home, though I never much kept up with it.

We actually did more salt water fishing than anything else, as being from New Jersey we went to “the shore” quite a lot. A major memory, be it fishing on the beach or from a pier, was the need for constant vigilance – being ever on guard that sea gulls would not swoop down while you weren’t looking or close enough to the bait, and snatch it up and fly away with a giant hunk of squid or whatever.

Birds can be a real pain that way. I remember when planting my first lawn of 1.5 acres of grass seed at the home we built in New Jersey… I spread the seed widely over the expanse of the property and covered it as best I could with dozens of bales of straw. I remember doing this in the fall of 1983 and listening to the Orioles/Phillies World Series while I spent several days on guard duty chasing away the birds that showed up to eat all of the seed I had spread.

The parable that Jesus told of the farmer planting his seed would picture much the same sort of planting technique of widely throwing grain seed over a large area. The portion of the field that annually grew a crop would likely be somewhat tilled and permeable. But on the edges of the field, or along pathways through or around the field, the ground was more hardened. And thus the seed was more exposed to ever-watching eye of the local fowls.

Jesus portrayed the scene with these words from Mark 4:3,4:

“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. 

Later in the passage, as Jesus gave the interpretation of this first of four soils, it says in Mark 4:13-15 …

13 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? 14 The farmer sows the word.15 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. 

Something I have attempted to avoid in life, though not always successfully, is that situation in a grocery store where there is an employee giving a taste test of some cheese or spread that they want to sell. When I see that, I make a circle around it … though sometimes I have had to “experience” it just to be polite. There is no way I’m going to buy it, no matter how good it is. In the words of the first George Bush, “Not gonna do it, wouldn’t be prudent.”  Frankly, I’m just hardened to being hit up that way. I’m not saying this is good or commendable; I’m just being honest about it. The fact is that my heart in hardened toward it.

And that is the way a lot of people are about God’s Word. Their heart – their soul – is simply hardened from years of resistance, and the good seed of the Word does not penetrate. Along comes the bird, Satan, and eats it before there is a chance for it to germinate in the soul.

We might call the person with this sort of soul soil “the taster.”  That is about as far as their experience with the Word of God goes. We have them in church with us every week. The seeds are landing all around them on a Sunday morning. But the heart is hard, and thoughts of a dozen other things to happen later in the day or the week ahead, or the phone speaks to them, or some other mental priority grabs their attention away. And in comes the Evil Bird and snatches the seed away.

Chances are pretty high that if you are reading this devotional, you are beyond this description. But we are never beyond the possibility of our heart being hard, our souls being distracted, to the extent that the truths of the Word around us do not penetrate. So don’t be a hard-heart, compacted soil hearer of God’s Word.

Some questions and thoughts for further discussion

  • What makes people lose the seed to Satan?
  • How have you seen a hard heart in yourself or others?
  • Why is Satan intent upon snatching the seed of the Word away?
  • How can you actively prevent this from happening in your life of the lives of others near you?

Seeds, Soils, and Souls (Mark 4)

How is your heart? How is your soul? How is the Word of God taking root inside of you? How is that evident by the fruit of your life?

These are among the most vital questions that may be asked.

The scene in our Scripture for analysis and comment this week – in Mark chapter 4 – features Jesus telling a parable from a boat, speaking to the pressing crowds upon the shore. As most of them were subsistence farming, the story Jesus told was a familiar mental picture – that of a farmer sowing his crop by flinging the seeds in a field.

In this parable we will see four distinct soil conditions, or applicationally, four distinct soul conditions. And the challenge for all of us in today’s culture, is to move beyond merely seeing Christianity as a component of life rather than the source of life itself. We need to see our faith be more than a hobby … something that can lose appeal once religion ceases to be fashionable.

Any of you who have ever tried gardening know that the quality of your soil is everything. It needs to be great just like it is in New Jersey, where the soil most everywhere is amazing. It is, after all, the Garden State.

There was a particularly fertile region in northern NJ where I grew up named Great Meadows – a place with totally black soil that was fantastically fertile. And so when we moved to Texas and went to buy our first house, I did so out of the encouragement of the soil I noticed in the cotton field across the street – a dark, black soil. But when I went to plant my first garden and put the shovel into the ground, that soil stuck to it in a terribly gooey and messy way. The locals told me it was called black gumbo. The only way to get it to grow much was to mix in a lot of other organic material.

Again, the quality of the soil is everything in terms of fruitful agriculture. And again, the quality of the “soil of your soul” is everything in terms of the quality of your life in living fruitfully and meaningfully for God.

We are going to take one day each this week to look at the four soil/soul conditions. A nice feature of this parable is that it includes both the simple facts of the story as Jesus told them from the boat, and then he later gives the interpretation privately to the disciples. But first, let’s jump in by reading the entire passage as a whole …

4:1 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, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”

Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

10 When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around they 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!” << quoting from Isaiah 6:9,10 >>

13 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? 14 The farmer sows the word.15 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. 

16 Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. 17 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. 

18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 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. 

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.”

Some questions and thoughts for further discussion…

  • Take a vote among your family or group and see how many think this passage would be better called “The parable of the sower and the seed,” or, “The parable of the sower and the soils.”
  • If you were among the crowd that day hearing Jesus’ teaching, do you think you would need to have the meaning explained to you at a later time?

Receiving the Word EXCLUSIVELY (Mark 4:18-20)

In the parable of the sower, Jesus explains the final two types of soil.  Take a moment to read Mark 4:18-20:

 18 And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 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.” (Mark 4:18-20)

Though it doesn’t actually produce fruit, the seed among thorns is the only type to flourish and grow.  The problem is that its growth is quickly halted by “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things.”  We might say that personal growth depends on the object of our worship.  Why is it so tempting to allow things like career, relationships, etc. to have an influence in our lives?

Our world often speaks a conflicting message.  On the one hand, we’re told that personal “growth” is about being “true to yourself.”   On the other hand, we’re constantly bombarded by the message of self-improvement.  But authenticity can never thrive in a world that pushes us not to find ourselves, but to create ourselves by buying the “right” products, having the “right” job, or working on better relationships.  The result?  True growth becomes stifled, because the standards of measuring our growth are constantly-moving targets.

The gospel says that we can be authentic by recognizing the magnitude of our sin before God, but embracing the magnitude of his love in return.  Yes, consumerism brings an immediacy—we feel better after a little “retail therapy,” or if we can experience the temporary satisfaction of a relationship.

God’s way is different, and it is far from immediate.  You don’t need to be a farmer to recognize that a crop yield of “a hundredfold” is a staggering crop yield.  What was Jesus saying?  That to receive the word EXCLUSIVELY means flourishing and fruitfulness—but it doesn’t happen all at once.

Jesus’ kingdom—that is, the rule and reign of God on earth—is both a present reality as well as a future hope.  Yes, today seems difficult.  But tomorrow looks beautiful.  The struggles we endure here are temporary; God’s kingdom will be eternal.  And so we serve God’s kingdom as it is presently expressed in Christian community and witness, and we wait for Christ’s return when God’s kingdom will be permanently established for all time.

Yes, the world seems a bleak place.  But God’s kingdom shines all the brighter.  In a recent blog post, my friend Jared Wilson speaks of the persecution and hardship that Christians are experiencing around the globe.  “Cheer up,” he reminds us.  “The worse they can do is kill us.  And we all know what God does with dead stuff.”




Receiving the Word Deeply (Mark 4:16-17)

Today we continue our exploration of Jesus’ parable of the four soils.  The seed along the path heard the gospel, but failed to immediately respond, thus allowing Satan to snatch it away.  Now Jesus turns his attention to the seed “on rocky ground:”

16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 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. (Mark 4:16-17)

Jesus contrasts a person’s initial emotional experience (“receive it with joy”) and later persecution.  What might this indicate regarding the basis of one’s faith? The problem here is one of rootedness—“they have no root,” Jesus tells us.  If you pardon the mixed metaphor, the lack of root points to an insecure foundation.  We might say two things:

  • Experience alone cannot sustain faith. When I think of this example, I think of the youth group kids who go away on a youth retreat or a missions trip, and return with a rekindled passion for serving others.   They speak of having a “heart for God” or being “on fire.”  And we rightly applaud them—after all, should we not throw gasoline on this fire?  The tragedy, of course, is that when someone young—or at least young in their faith—does not develop a deeply rooted faith, they lack the stability to persevere.  Instead they are condemned to chase after renewed experiences.  Tragedy doesn’t begin when someone loses their faith; it begins when they get bored with it.  When this happens, they are forced to chase after the next spiritual “high”—the latest worship CD, the latest Christian book, the latest Podcast, the latest religious project.  But without that root, their faith cannot stand the test of persecution.
  • Persecution uproots shallow faith.   Don’t neglect the fact that Jesus specifies that the persecution is “on account of the word.”  Mark was writing in a season when early Christians were experiencing rampant persecution.  They knew what it was like to look to their right and left and see faithful neighbors quickly backpedal when their faith put them at odds with the Romans.  What about us?  Savvy readers keep sending me articles that all cite a recent study from the Pew Research center.  The study reports that a growing number of people are more likely to define themselves as religiously “unaffiliated”—that is, “not religious” rather than Christian.  But this might be a good thing.  Why?  Because previously, people were more likely to define themselves as “Christian” because it was the socially acceptable thing to do.  They’d been raised in church, or their family held a membership at the local Baptist Church down the block or something.  But Christianity is no longer viewed as socially acceptable.  Thus many are abandoning their claims to Christianity in the face of social pressure.  Jesus was right.  When our faith is built on emotional experience or social acceptance, this shallow faith is quickly torn up by the winds of social change.

The alternative, of course, is to receive the Word DEEPLY.  To press oneself into the character of God so that our faith could run more deeply than the fleeting highs of religious experience, but rest on the secure character of God.

Receiving the Word Immediately (Mark 4:13-15)

As we mentioned on Sunday, we’re approaching our writing schedule a bit differently this summer.  During the week, we’re aiming at shorter devotionals, primarily in a question-and-answer style format.  The goal is simple: this summer, don’t take a vacation from God.  As much as we like to have you physically with us on Sunday mornings, we also recognize that this season brings increased opportunity for vacations, picnics, sports practices, etc.  So while you’re physically away, we want you to stay spiritually connected—to continue being the church during this summer season.  To that end, here’s today’s post:

Take a moment to read Mark 4:13-15:

13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 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.  (Mark 4:13-15)

Jesus had been teaching publicly, but he now unpacks his parable privately.  Each of the soils he’d mentioned in the parable represent different responses to the gospel.  This also means each represents a unique challenge to those of us that receive the gospel.  In contrast to the seed along the path, we are challenged to receive God’s Word IMMEDIATELY—with no hesitation, lest it fail to take root in our lives.  Stop and think—and maybe discuss as a family—what are some reasons people may have for not allowing the gospel to take root immediately?

We might begin to answer this by pointing out that Jesus doesn’t seem to be drawing tidy categories about who is “saved” or “unsaved.”  But he is saying that the way we receive the word tells us a great deal about our experience of life in the kingdom.

So—to respond to today’s question—what might be some reasons that some fail to allow the gospel to take root in their lives?

  • First, some may not understand the radical nature of the gospel, instead confusing its message for one of morality or self-improvement. Who needs that?  After all, don’t we often think of ourselves as “basically a good person?”  And are there not many ways to self-improvement?  Why bother with religion at all?
  • Secondly, some might see Christianity as something quite positive—but see it as a goal to be reserved for the future. “When the time is right,” we might say, “I’ll get more involved with my church.”  Maybe this means when you have kids, or when the kids are older—it’s usually parents trying to make sure their kids “grow up right.”  But pretty soon we’re swept along the path and life has its way of moving us from the essential nature of the gospel to a thousand other things that demand our attention.
  • Third, there might be some who fail to act on what they hear because they fear social pressures. It’s not exactly a positive thing to be a “born again Christian.”  No one likes a fanatic, so why not keep God in my life, just not be all, you know, “religious” about the whole thing.  And of course this reduces God to a hobby or a nutritional supplement—not a way of life.  It’s no wonder that spirituality then gets packed away along with last year’s athletic equipment.

There may indeed be other examples, but Jesus challenges us to recognize that yes, there are those in our life that do not receive his message with immediacy, and as a result they seem to fall away.  May we be in prayer for them, as well as for ourselves—that we might respond to God’s grace and God’s Word without hesitation.

Kingdom of Scars (Mark 4:1-12)

While every story is different, there are some themes that repeat themselves in multiple narratives.  Themes like redemption.  Themes like hope.  In the musical Les Miserables, the people sing a song of freedom, the hope of a revolution:

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drum
There is a life about to start when tomorrow comes.

Though separated by both time and geography, we might imagine this same song on the lips of Jesus’ earliest followers.  They yearned for a king.  They yearned for an end to the tyranny of Roman imperialism.  What they got was a traveling teacher who spoke of his kingdom through a series of cryptic stories we call “parables.”  The word “parable” literally means “to throw alongside of.”  If you were an engineering major, you might recognize the word as related to the term “parabola”—the arc formed when you throw a ball or launch some sort of projectile.  The idea, of course, is that truth gets tossed out not in some direct way, but rather it gets communicated a bit differently—a bit more subtly.

Because ancient biographers didn’t care about chronological sequence, it’s hard to pin down an exact order to the parables Jesus told.  But the parable of the sower seems to offer some key to the interpretation of the rest:

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. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 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.6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:1-9)

Now, these types of agrarian images weren’t uncommon for either the Jews or the Greeks.  But Jesus is apparently using them to communicate the truth about his kingdom:

10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 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, 12 so that

“they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.” (Mark 4:10-12)

It’s a little strange, isn’t it?  To obscure the truth seems counterproductive—unless your kingdom isn’t meant to come by force.  Pastor and author Tim Keller once noted that while yes, there were certain things that Jesus said that are easy to understand, but Jesus said many things that we might liken to hard candy.  Try and bite into them, and you chip your teeth.  But savor them for a while, and you will taste their sweetness.  That’s what many of Jesus’ parables do for us.  We’ll spend the rest of the week unpacking the parable itself, but for now we can spend some time wrapping our heads around the nature of “the kingdom.”

Most people have no trouble knowing whose kingdom they belong to.  Most kingdoms come through force—or at least through power and compulsion.  For example, tax season or jury duty can serve as a simple reminder that your citizenship to the United States comes with certain responsibilities.  But though his followers yearned for revolution, Jesus’ kingdom—that is, the rule and reign of God—came not through power but through weakness.

In Edward Shellitto’s 19th-Century poem “Jesus of the Scars,” he uses the final verse to contrast the ways of worldly (or even religious) kingdoms with the kingdom of God:

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

Vulnerability precedes victory.  To follow Jesus is to step into a world of both thoughtfulness and obscurity, a world where a crown of thorns precedes a crown of glory.  Each of Jesus’ parables reveals something about God’s kingdom—the great story of God told in the short stories of Jesus’ parables.  And he invites you and I to journey with him as we learn our place in this greater story.