The Parable of the Sower

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1. Are you a good listener?

Good morning! Please take a seat. Let me ask you a question. Are you a good listener? In one sense, listening is a skill you learn.

When I studied French and German at school, out of the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing, I always found the listening the hardest! Sitting, listening, concentrating, processing… very difficult! This is the challenge which some of our international student friends here this morning are facing. English is not your first language. But you have to listen to English all day! Lectures, tutorials, seminars, sermons… so tiring!

But in another sense, listening is not only a skill you learn - but an attitude you choose towards the person speaking. Let me explain what I mean…

Did you listen to your parents at the airport before you left home? Did you listen to the health & safety briefing on the plane to the UK?! Did you listen to your first university induction? Your second induction? Your third induction? Your seventeenth induction?! Did you listen to your first week of lectures? If you are honest with me, I'm sure you'll admit that you listened very carefully on some occasions to some people and not so carefully on other occasions. That's because listening is not just a skill – it's also an attitude. Whether we really listen to a lecturer, or our parents, or our friends depends on whether or not we think it's important to listen to them and their message.

So what about me here this morning?! Is it worth listening to me – and my message? Well, what I'm actually doing this morning is telling you about Jesus – and his message from Matthew 13. You'll need to decide whether or not you think it's worth listening to. But before we start, I'm going to ask for God's help. 'Father God, please help us to listen to Jesus' words carefully. Help us to understand them. Help us to believe them. And help us to live our lives following them. In Jesus' name, Amen.'

2. Jesus gives a lecture to a large crowd (Matthew 13.1-9)

"That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables."

So Jesus is sitting by the shore and massive crowds of people come to see him. The crowds are so big that he has to move further back to teach them. So he sits down in a boat on the edge of a lake and gives a lecture – the Sermon on the Boat. Look at verses 3 to 9:

"A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured [ate] them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up [the plant shoot grew up quickly], since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched [the moisture evaporated]. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear[listen]."

This is a farming story. You have a farmer sowing seed. But here he's not carefully planting one seed at a time in pots in a greenhouse. He's just throwing seed out over the land, like children throwing bread to ducks by a lake. The same seed is sown everywhere. But the results are different, depending on where the seed lands. That's it! End of lecture! End of sermon! Thanks for listening!

3. Jesus gives a tutorial to a small group (Matthew 13.10-17)

But hold on a moment! There's a question we need to answer. Why is Jesus teaching using parables? That's the question Jesus' followers were asking. Look at verse 10:

"Then the disciples came and said to him, 'Why do you speak to them [the crowd] in parables?'"

So Jesus them gives an on-the-spot tutorial in verses 11 to 13:

"And he answered them, 'To you [the disciples] it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them [the crowd] it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.'"

Why does Jesus teach using these parable stories? He does so to divide his listeners into two groups. To you… those on the inside – the disciples. To them… those on the outside – the crowd. Do you see what Jesus gives to those on the inside? In verse 11 he gives them understanding of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. He helps them to understand who God's King is – and why he came – and to follow. In verse 12 he will give them more and more understanding as they listen to his teaching. That's God's kindness to those on the inside.
But what does Jesus give to those on the outside? In verse 11 they will not understand the parables. In verse 13 they will hear the parables as stories, but will not understand their spiritual meaning. This is the warning of God's judgement to the outsiders.

So Jesus does not teach in parables to make spiritual truths easier to understand to the country people he was speaking to! No! Jesus teaches in parables to communicate truth about God's Kingdom to those on the inside and hide truth from those on the outside. He teaches in parables to divide the crowd between those who will listen to him – and those who won't.

What does this mean for us here today? Firstly, if you are trusting in Jesus already, thank God for opening your eyes to Jesus' words. Jesus' words to his disciples in verses 16 to 17 are for you too:

"But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it."

If you're Christian, take time today to thank God that he has opened your eyes and ears to the gospel. Have you ever wondered why you have responded and others haven't? It's not because you are more intelligent or more religious than others. No – God has been kind to you. So keep listening to Jesus! Read your Bible each day. Discuss what you are learning with others. Put it into practice day by day. Don't drift away from Jesus. If you're not yet Christian here this morning, thank God that he has brought you here this morning to hear more. And pray that he would bring you into the full light of the truth – so you move spiritually from the outside to the inside. Pray that he would save you from the horrible situation of being deaf to his voice – and heading for his judgement.

4. Jesus gives an examination of each heart (Matthew 13.18-23)

After explaining why he teaches using parables, Jesus then explains to his disciples in verses 18 to 23 the meaning of this parable of the sower. In verse 19, we see that the seed in this parable is the word of the Kingdom. God's words which Jesus is teaching. And the soils in the parable represent different human hearts which respond differently to God's Word. There are four different responses (and as we'll see, ultimately just two). I've seen these responses in the lives of different students. And you too will see them if you are trying to tell other people about Jesus.

So the first response is the hard-hearted response in verses 18 to 19:

"Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path."

These are people who hear about Jesus, don't understand and have no interest to find out more, because Satan, the evil one, takes away the seed. On our JPC Internationals weekend away a few years back, we had a group of new students who joined us. They were like this. Somehow they had misunderstood the whole purpose of our weekend away and thought it was a tourist trip to the Lake District! So they were very shocked when my colleague Ramzi gave a Bible Overview to them after supper on Friday! They knocked on my door at midnight to say they didn't want to hear any more. Some of them left the morning after. Some stayed on but didn't come to the Bible talks. They heard about Jesus – but they didn't want to know more about Jesus. A hard-hearted response.

The second response is the superficial response in verses 20 to 21:

"As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation [difficulties] or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away."

These are people who hear about Jesus and seem to believe in him. They even have joy in their hearts for a while. But when they face trials or persecution because of their allegiance to Jesus, they turn away from him, because they have no roots. I studied modern languages at university and while I was on my year abroad in Paris, a friend of mine decided to believe in Jesus. He was transformed. He started telling everyone about Jesus. But then when he returned to UK, shortly afterwards, he wrote me a letter saying he had given up being a Christian, because he didn't want to be 'intolerant'. He didn't want to be in a position where he would have to say that Jesus was the only way to know God the Father – and that other religions couldn't bring peace with God.

I was heartbroken. But I listened more carefully to Jesus' teaching and I came to understand that we should expect this superficial response from some people. Can real Christians fall away? My answer is: don't! If you're really a Christian, God will use passages like this to warn you and keep you from falling away – or to bring you back.

The third response is the distracted response in verse 22:

"As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness [false promises] of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful."

Maybe it's your first time here in church at this international welcome service and you want to know more about Jesus. Let's say you come back next week. Let's say you come to JPC Internationals for six weeks – but then as university life gets busier, you are now too busy to think about Jesus. There's always something stopping you: a big assignment, group projects, a birthday party, researching summer internships, a day trip to Edinburgh, another day trip to York, another day trip to Gateshead…. and you forget about listening to Jesus. Because he just doesn't seem so relevant to life in the UK anymore.

Or maybe this distraction happens when you're back home. You keep listening to Jesus while you are in Newcastle, because you have Christian friends and you enjoy Bible study – and you don't have too many responsibilities. You even come to a commitment to follow Jesus… But then you return home – and a heavy weight of anxiety suddenly falls on your shoulders. "I need a job!" "I need a house!" "I need a wife!" Your relatives are putting pressure on you. Your friends are ahead of you. And so you follow their goals: a secure job, nice house, stable family. And Jesus? Well, you don't have any Christian friends now. And the church which Ben suggested you to join is over an hour away by metro. So Jesus just gets squeezed out of your busy life like thorns choking a plant. It's been a depressing picture so far – three negative responses – but there's hope!

The fourth response is the fruitful response in verse 23:

"As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty."

These are the people who hear about Jesus, believe in him. They face persecution and difficulties for their faith. They face distractions and temptations too. Yet they remain faithful to Jesus and bear lots of spiritual fruit for him – different amounts of fruit – but lots of fruit. I think of one student from Singapore came to a Bible study group which I helped to lead in Exeter. I remember her well, because she always made fun of me for leading bad Bible studies! (Her comments have since helped me greatly to persevere in church ministry!) She was close to becoming a Christian in the UK, but then it was time to go back to busy Singapore. But did she lose interest in Jesus back in busy Singapore? No! She found a good church. She became Christian. Last I heard she was growing in her faith.

I think of one Swiss lady I know who came to Cambridge as au-pair. She had never really read the Bible at all. But she was really keen to listen to Jesus. She came to church. She went to our internationals Bible studies. She did a one-to-one Bible study with one of the team. She then decided to follow Jesus. Her Roman Catholic family were suspicious and hostile to her new faith. But what happened when she returned home? Did she fall away under persecution? No! She brought her whole family to the local evangelical church. Her whole family believed in Jesus. And they all started telling others about Jesus! What fruit! All from the seed of the Bible's message about Jesus.

5. Conclusion

So those are the four types of responses we can expect as we share the good news of Jesus… hard-hearted, superficial, distracted, fruitful. So will you listen to what Jesus says? We must remember this parable as we tell others about Jesus… Because if we don't really listen to what Jesus is saying here, we will just give up telling others about Jesus – or we will change the message we are sharing. And we will discourage each other in our evangelism. "It's so discouraging! No-one seems interested! It's not worth it! There's no point!" And that's exactly what the devil wants us all at JPC to think, particularly before our Identity Mission in October.

But if we do understand this parable, if we listen to Jesus, we will persevere in spreading the Gospel even when many people ignore or reject the message. And in time, we will see fruit. And if we listen to this parable, we'll be encouraging each other in our evangelism as a church. We will say: 'Sharing the gospel is hard. There are many disappointments. There is opposition. But there's fruit too! Don't give up telling people about Jesus.' Let me pray. 'Father, help us to welcome Jesus' words into our hearts and help us to keep going in the task of spreading the good news of Jesus around the world. In Jesus' name, Amen.'

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