Sunday Morning talk given by Paul Wintle on .
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[02:40] Mark 4:1–34
[10:36] The parable of the sower
[16:13] The parable of the light on a stand
[17:00] The other two parables
[18:52] What about us?
Well I was really encouraged when somebody came through the door this morning and said, “I’m really looking forward to you preaching this morning.” And I thought, ‘Oh what else are they going to say? That’s really, really encouraging.’ “Well we pay you for something, don’t we?” they said. Well everybody likes a story; everybody likes a story — films, TV programmes tell us stories, because we’re nosy people.
I don’t know about you, if I’ve got an afternoon off I like watching Escape to the Country, just so you can see somebody else’s house and have a nose round and think, ‘I wouldn’t have the house painted like that’, or, ‘oh, that’s lovely, I’d love to move to the country.’ Oh, I have!
Maybe you like Through the Keyhole, where a famous person’s house is opened and you can look through the eyes of a millionaire just for a few moments. Perhaps you’re a fan of films? Perhaps you like a film and you get so engrossed in the hero and are compelled to watch the film until the very, very end.
I’m learning a bit about the story of ‘Main Street’, Andrew very kindly has put together a timeline as to the key points of the history of our Church here and so stories become history. History is made up of stories; your story, my story, God’s story. And so historians have put together bits of history, which become part of our heritage, part of our common ancestry.
Children love stories; they love being lied to don’t they? Now I haven’t got it with me but when I was a school chaplain I used to take my teddy bear, called Bernard, into school. And Bernard would tell a story, or I would tell the story, with Bernard just kind of sitting here. And the children, particularly at one primary school that I went into, every time I walked into the school for one reason or another, the children would say, “You’re the man with the teddy bear.” … they would know.
How exciting it is that stories connect; stories connect us. And Jesus uses them to connect with crowds to who come to listen to him. And so if they are important for him to use they are important for us to learn from. And so we’re going to read from Mark, Chapter 4; it’s a very familiar passage to many of us. It’s Mark, Chapter 4 and I’m going to read probably the first thirty-four verses, which sounds actually quite a lot but I’m not going into the last bit because that’s coming in next week, so come along for that. So it’s Mark, Chapter 4: ‘The Parable of the Sower’ as it starts:
Mark 4:1–17: The parable of the sower
Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered round 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.’
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the 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!” ’
Then Jesus said to them, ‘Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word. 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. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they only last a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 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. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop — thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times what was sown.’
Mark 4:18–25: A lamp on a stand
He said to them, ‘Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.’
‘Consider carefully what you hear,’ he continued. ‘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 he has will be taken from them.’
We’re getting towards the end now.
Mark 4:26–29: The parable of the growing seed
He also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces corn — first the stalk, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.
Mark 4:30–34: The parable of the mustard seed
Again he said, ‘What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.’
With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.
[Based on New International Version — UK (NIVUK)]
And so here we are, confronted with a collection of stories in the form of parables; parables that Jesus teaches to his listeners, which have a particular understanding to those who are able to hear what he really means — to enhance the Kingdom of God. And in Mark everything is about this Kingdom of God.
But the clever thing about a parable is that they also stop others hearing from what he is saying. In this chapter of Mark, Mark, Chapter 4, we have Jesus what he does best, revealing himself as the Son of God, but also concealing this truth from those who won’t believe he is who his teaching and his miracles prove he is. Jesus connects with different people in different ways throughout this portion of scripture; sometimes in a positive way for those who have ears to hear. But for those who refuse to accept Jesus as the chosen one of God, well their ears are closed.
And so imagine if you will Jesus sat in a bobbing about boat on a nice warm day, with just a hint of a breeze, we can’t even imagine that can’t we at the moment, teaching the crowds on the shore of the lake. This popular teacher has been followed around by lots and lots of people who want to hear him again, but also challenged by the Jewish authorities who want to do him harm.
It’s important that Jesus has his followers. He wants to have people who understand and see that the Kingdom of God is here in his presence. For them to recognize that he’s not just any old rabbi, any old teacher, but that he comes with power and authority; those miracles of healing and teaching with authority, which both excites and challenges those onlookers, show that God’s rule is here on earth in Jesus. And that God is not just for those who religiously keep the rules but those who hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness here, right now.
And so the parables with which we are presented here, are mainly about kingdom growth, the joy of the kingdom and its growth; everything Jesus says and does points to the Kingdom of God. And this clutch of parables, the parable of the sower, the lamp, the mustard seed and the seeds introduces both the disciples and us to another way of learning about the reality of God’s Kingdom, where everything promotes wholeness.
Each of Matthew, Mark and Luke have a collection of parables, but they are not necessarily the way that Jesus taught them, as they are the way that the Gospel writer presented them — a bit confusing that. Because we don’t know the context, we don’t know why Jesus chose those particular parables at that particular time and some of the Gospel writers use them in different times as well — a bit confusing.
In Mark, Jesus introduces a simple parable, that of the sower using an example of everyday first century life. Everybody had to sow seeds and hope that the harvest would be plentiful. Everybody would be aware of the frivolousness of the way that a farmer might just throw his seed onto the ground. It’s not just kind of dibbing a little hole and putting a seed in it. It was just throwing seed out, just like this. For us in an Evangelical Church looking back we know how to respond to this particular parable. That the seed is the word of God and for us to thrive we need to be planted in good, rich soil. And that’s the simple central part of this particular parable.
Many of us probably remember it from Sunday School and so it needs no real introduction. But those poor disciples, they didn’t go to Sunday School, they didn’t understand and so they came to Jesus after the lesson in the boat. The parable had done its job for them; it provoked a reflection, a thought — to take things further; that’s what parables are meant to do. They have a central point and it challenges us to take things further; perhaps even to put something learnt into action. And so Jesus needed his followers to understand these simple parables because they both revealed his Kingdom to those who got it and concealed it from those who outright refused to believe the word of God.
He needed his disciples to be on the inside. This secret of the Kingdom, which Jesus spoke of, literally translated from the Greek is ‘mysterion’ — our word mysterious probably comes from that. And so in New Testament language mystery is a truth once hidden now being revealed to God’s people. And I suppose this means to those who aren’t God’s people the mystery still stands; as Jesus explained that God is the sower and he liberally throws his word out to anyone and everyone. Some people accept it, others give it a go, whilst others still don’t let the word in at all — and so this parable is about both seed and soil.
How the Pharisees were meant to know I really don’t know. Perhaps they got this story and then decided that Jesus was becoming a problem to be dealt with. This Kingdom of God stuff was not at all in line with their understanding. They didn’t have ears to hear. Their ears were blocked. And what a difficult problem that is.
Now I don’t want to go into too much detail but I’ve only had hearing loss once or twice but I know there’s an amazing audiologist chap called Alan, in Nantwich. When I was on my way a few years ago to camp up in Nefyn in North Wales I stopped in my little hideaway in Sandbach and I developed some kind of hearing loss so I stuffed things down into it and got the — all that kind of stuff — cotton buds and all that kind of stuff, but to no avail. On a walk around Nantwich I stepped in to visit Alan, the audiologist, to enquire what might be happening in my ears? So he inspected them and declared that I had a large amount of earwax that had to be removed. After the simple procedure … I could hear again, every single thing, in stereo; it was amazing. So for weeks I was wandering around not hearing everything and within moments I could hear.
For the Pharisees they were so insistent that Jesus really wasn’t the Messiah that their ears weren’t open. They refused point blank to hear. They couldn’t listen to this rabbi who was preaching such ludicrous things. Indeed, as Martin explored last week, they started spreading rumours that he was a madman. They didn’t even recognize the Son of God, the miracle worker, standing right in front of them. Oh the pity that Jesus must have had for them. Not being able to release them from their deaf ears. They wouldn’t put on their spiritual hearing aids, they refused to change the batteries.
Throughout this passage Jesus tells them in earshot, “If you have ears to hear, let them hear.” “Consider carefully what you hear.” For Mark, it seems that these parables aren’t very clear and so the disciples need extra support, extra teaching in understanding their real meanings. It wasn’t like they were disbelieving, like the teachers of the law, they just didn’t get it.
And to further illustrate the point that he was the Messiah, Jesus tells the parable of the lamp on a stand. If Jesus is light then he can’t be hidden. Perhaps this parable, which seems a little out of place between parables about growth, is a warning to those who don’t see Jesus as the light of the world.
That’s what parables do; they challenge us. They make us think again. They point out the obvious that wasn’t obvious before. Parables are designed to force us to think again about God, about who he is, about who we think he is and as a result to re-frame our understanding of him.
Finally, the two parables of the seed and the mustard seed, which some commentators see as a further explanation of the parable of the sower. Once seed has grown, despite the fact that it happens either when we expect it to or when we don’t, there is harvest. There is the bearing of much fruit. Whilst we might be ignorant of how it happens, the truth is — it just does. I don’t get how you just plant a seed in the ground and you just water it and a few weeks or months later something happens.
These parables, these extended comparisons, are about what the Kingdom of God is like. They illustrate aspects of the Kingdom of God; small but large, quietly there but invisible, unknown to be aware but always growing. And once this harvest has been harvested, reaps great fruit. And so to summarize this well-known passage, despite its confusions, very simply the word is to be heard. The light is to give light. The seed is to grow. The parables can be a challenge for those who don’t get them, but to those who hear will be life-changing and will be able to understand the mysteries of the Kingdom.
And so what about us today? What’s your story? Are you listening? Are you connecting with God today? Which part of the story are you? Perhaps you’re on the edge of the water, listening to Jesus, interested in what he has to say. Maybe you’re like a sower who has done an awful lot of work for the Kingdom of God over many years. Perhaps you have mixed feelings as to how your ministry has succeeded; some positive, some not so. Maybe you’re a bit skeptical and feel a bit like one of the teachers of the law, just not interested? Well, I’m especially pleased that you’ve come here today; perhaps because a little of something new about how much Jesus loves you and cares for you has sunk into your soul. Or maybe you are hiding your light under a bushel; feeling that others are worth so much more in the Kingdom of God because they’ve had visible ministry? Perhaps life hasn’t gone the way that you had expected or hoped or planned? But yet God is still God. He still wants you to shine like a star — like the star he knows you are.
And I guess we’re all a bit like the disciples aren’t we? Needing to come to Jesus to understand more about him; more about his teaching and more about what it means to follow him and love him today. Perhaps we’re reminded to take things, as Sue was saying to us earlier, take things more slowly. To see those Kingdom shoots grow and be blessed that the Kingdom grows and be grateful that we can see it moving on.
The thing about these parables are that they have a single piece of truth in each of them. They convey something of the reality of the Kingdom of God and it’s my prayer today that each of us receives something new about the light and the word that is Jesus and that today he will plant a seed afresh in each one of us — whatever that means for each one of us now. So that it will be watered and it will be grown, even if ever so quietly that nobody sees it for a while, and that God’s Kingdom will come into your life and mine and in that of our Church and our town as it is in heaven.
And so today, this moment, what’s your story? Are you connected to God? Are you listening?
Let’s bow our heads for a moment of silence.
In the small things, Father, in the big things of life, would you please speak to us? Would you please grant us that opportunity to slow down and to see where your Kingdom is being built? Would you please help us to draw near to you and ask you what on earth is happening when we don’t understand? Would you please draw us to yourself? Would you please excite us by not just reading of your word but by hearing it and putting it into action?
Father God, as we come to you, as we listen to you, as we hear from you, would you please help us to be obedient to you? And pray that you please bless us as we go into this week, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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