This morning we are to look at the Parable of the Sower as it's known, though it might just as well be called the Parable of the Soils, because its focus is a range of different kinds of ground, and how productive they are when you sow exactly the same kind of seed in each one. But, as Jesus spells out, this is not an Alan Titchmarsh Gardener's World master class in how to win the Gold rosette at the village show with your monster leeks. Mind you, if anyone's got a few tips you can see me afterwards. I'm always wanting to know how to improve the veg crop on our allotment. No, this is about people not parsnips. It's about us.
Of course, in the hot dry world of first century Palestine, as in many parts of the world today, the question of the success of the crop is not about prize rosettes, nor even about improved profit margins. It is a matter of physical life and death. Not enough crop equals not enough food. Not enough food equals famine. Famine equals death for some.
In Jesus' teaching in this parable, the issue is even more serious than physical survival. What is at stake is not physical life, it is eternal life. Unproductive soil is equivalent to hell-bound people. Productive soil is heaven-bound people who are bringing others with them.
The seed being sown, says Jesus in verse 19, is "the message about the Kingdom", that is to say, the Kingdom of God. And since Jesus is the King of the Kingdom, that means the seed stands for the good news that Jesus has come to claim his Kingdom. And that includes the whole of your life and the whole of mine.
Now you might think that the coming of the King would be universally acknowledged and acclaimed. But that is not the way it is, is it? The reality that we see around us is that the message about King Jesus generates a wide range of responses, many of them unfavourable. What Jesus does in this parable is to help us to see what's happening as the message about him is spread around the place.
So what I want to do is to ask three questions, and find the answers to them in this parable of the soils and the seed: How do people react to the Word of God? Why do they react in the way that they do? How should we react to this parable?
First:HOW DO PEOPLE REACT TO THE WORD OF GOD?
In the coming weeks, we're going to be telling people about Jesus in all kinds of ways and not least during the mission week. And each of us is going to be hearing a lot about him. We are praying for many opportunities to tell people that Jesus is the King who died so that our rebellion could be forgiven and who was raised to rule our lives for the glory of God and for our own good.
What Jesus is telling us here is that we can expect basically three different reactions to the message. Some will say "No!". Some will say "Yes, but …!". And others will say "Yes, yes, yes!". To be sure, there are four different kinds of soil in the parable, each of them representing a different kind of reaction to the Word. But two of them fall into the "Yes, but …!" category.
Talking to those who say "No!" is like sowing seed on a much trampled and compacted pathway. It gets nowhere. This is anyone who "hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it …" (verse 19). It's not that they don't hear. These are people who are told about Jesus. And their ears work fine. They get the message. But it goes in one ear and out the other.
If they are polite and courteous types they might even say to you "I understand what you're saying …" But you will immediately know that they mean the very opposite. They don't get it at all. Because if you do get it about Jesus, your life is never the same again. And these people just don't budge an inch. They are impervious. In fact you can gently keep reminding them about the Kingdom year after year after year, but it makes no difference. Some even come to church week in week out. But they don't change.
It is as if, Star Wars style, they have an invisible deflector shield like a bubble around them which protects them from being affected by the invitation of Jesus to come to him. They hear, but they are deaf. Do you know these kinds of people? If you love them dearly, their reaction, or rather non-reaction, can be very hard to take. Or maybe your own defences are beginning to slip, and you are glimpsing the fact that you have been like that up 'til now. It's never too late to change. Both the rocky places without much soil, and also the thorn covered ground, are the "Yes, but …!" types. Verse 20:
What was sown on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time.
What was sown among thorns is the man who hears the word, but …
They take Jesus on board. They respond positively to him – even with great enthusiasm. They change. If you have been praying for them, then you are tremendously encouraged to see their growing faith in Christ. For a while. But in time – short or long – it all begins to go wrong. Like an old romance that came to nothing, Jesus eventually becomes just a phase that was passed long ago. Other things take over. I wonder if you have said "Yes!" to Jesus in the past, and there is a "But …" just beginning to form in your mind and taking shape on your lips.
The good soil stands for those who say "Yes!" to Jesus, and who keep on saying "Yes!". Verse 23:
But what was sown on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.
For such people faith in Christ is not a curious if interesting mental aberration, slightly to be pitied. Nor is it a passing phase that will be consigned to the fading photos of the family album, fondly remembered maybe, but definitely not around any longer, like an old college friend who you somehow still think of as a friend, but who you havn't been in touch with for years and years. No, for people who are good soil, faith in Christ is life and health and peace. It is Jesus who is there in the driving seat of their lives. And they wouldn't have it any other way. Who is driving you? So, how do people react to the Word of God? Either with a "No!", or with a "Yes, but …!", or with "Yes, yes, yes!" So says Jesus.
Second question: WHY DO THEY REACT IN THE WAY THAT THEY DO?
Jesus says that each response to the message about him has a different underlying reason. People say "No!" because of sin and Satan. They say "Yes, but …" because of sin and the world. They say "Yes, yes, yes!" because of God. Jesus talks about why people respond as they do in his explanation to the disciples of the meaning of this parable, in verses 18 to 23. But he also talks about it in his explanation of his use of parables in general, which is in verses 10 to 17. We need to listen to both bits of teaching together. The one helps us to understand the other.
What about those who say "No!"? Verse 19:
When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.
So there are two factors. The failure to understand is reinforced by the work of the evil one, in other words, the devil. Why the 'in one ear out the other' syndrome? Jesus quotes what God says throught the prophet Isaiah. Verse 15:
For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.
They are deaf and blind to the truth about Jesus. That is what they have chosen to be. It is also something they are powerless to change. At the root of it all is a "calloused" heart – a heart that has been so cooled by the chill winds of rejection of Jesus that is has frozen hard against him. It is a heart that no longer feels his love nor fears God's anger. That is what sin is all about. It is a frighteningly dangerous condition to be in.
And the freezing process is greatly accelerated by the evil activity of Satan. He hates Jesus. He hates people. He lies continuously and very plausibly. Like the evil flock of birds so graphically portrayed in the classic film by Alfred Hitcock, he swoops down and snatches the life-giving Word of God out of people's minds, because he wants them dead for all eternity.
So much rejection of Jesus in our society is cloaked with politeness and tolerance. But according to Jesus, underneath that pleasant front lies frozen hearts and supernatural evil. We must not be under illusions. Telling people about Jesus is spiritual warfare. Many people are deeply dug in, heavily defended, and with strong air support from the powers of evil.
What about those who say: "Yes, but …!"? There are two sorts. Both responses are caused partly by the same kind of callousing of the heart that we've already seen. Both are also partly caused by the impact of the world on fledgling faith. But the pressure that the world applies takes two different forms. One is represented by the rocky places. The other by the thorny ground.
What was sown on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.
When you come under pressure because of your faith, there is one sure fire way of relieving that pressure. Give up your faith. For many around the world this a matter of facing physical hardship and suffering. Millions of Christians around the world can bring about a major improvement in their physical safety and economic welfare, and that of their families, if they just soften or drop their allegiance to Christ. Many do. Their response to Jesus was only ever shallow. The burning sun comes up and they can't take the heat. We are in no position of superiority.
The pressures on us are more subtle. They are less frightening. But we, the church in this country, have for decades backed off and backed off whenever the world has advanced towards us. "How can you believe that? How can you think that?" has been the taunt. And far too often we have said to the world "Oh, well then, we don't want any aggro. We'll quietly amend what Jesus has taught us. We'll gently relegate him to the sidelines. We'll go along with you." And before you know it, robust biblical faith in Christ has withered and died in too many hearts.
What is more, the world's attack on Christian faith is on two fronts. Trouble or persecution as a direct result of faithfulness to the gospel is one. The other is what Jesus pictures as the thorns. Verse 22:
What was sown among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.
This is not direct pressure on our Christian faith. This is simply becoming so preoccupied with our earthly lives that we lose all eternal perspective.
We had a wedding here yesterday. It's as if a bridegroom the day before his wedding had to drive up a long way from his bachelor home. And he decides to take a break at a motorway service station. And he looks in the shop and he settles into the Burger King and he rather likes it, so he decides to book into the Travelodge and continue on the next morning.
But when he wakes he is preoccupied with finding a good breakfast, and then the sun comes out and there's some nice walking nearby so he goes for a stroll. And he forgets all about his wedding that day, and he heads off back to his bachelor pad. There is just a little nagging doubt in his mind that maybe he should be somewhere else. But there's a big deadline coming up at the office, so he dismisses such thoughts and gets back to work.
Ridiculous? Yes. Impossible? Christians do the equivalent all the time. All our earthly preoccupations so fill our minds and our time and our energy that we end up forgetting where we are heading. We turn back. And as far as the kingdom of God is concerned, our lives come to nothing. That is worse than ridiculous. So let's not forget. Don't let worries or wealth choke the living faith out of you. What, then, does Jesus say about those who say a consistent "Yes!" to him and his Word? Why do people do that? Verse 22:
But what was sown on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it.
Why do such people take the message on board? Is it some virtue in them? Some disposition to be religious? Some inherent goodness? Absolutely not. Left to ourselves, we all choose to turn our backs on Jesus. We all have calloused and unresponsive hearts. But God works a miracle. Look at what Jesus says to his disciples in verse 11:
"The knowledge of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them."
Consistent faith is God's gift. It is the result of his life-transforming grace at work in our hearts. He overcomes our sinful and rebellious nature and makes our hearts warm towards him. He defeats all the efforts of Satan to destroy our faith. He strengthens us to withstand the pressures and preoccupations that the world puts in our path.
And when God works like that, what is the result? Fruitful lives. Lives that count for the kingdom. Verse 23:
"He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown."
Is Jesus exaggerating the impact that consistent faith can have on those around us? I cannot resist a little visual aid here. Something that I took from our allotment yesterday. [Sunflower head produced in the pulpit.] Six months ago I planted one small seed. Since then it has grown to a plant nine feet tall. This flower head is packed tight with new seeds. I have tried to calculate how many. My estimate is that there are around 1800 seeds there. And you know who did that, don't you? God.
Last year none of our sunflowers got more than about three inches high before they died or got eaten. The ground was bad. This year, the ground was good. You can see the result. [Hold up sunflower] Now we are not all the spiritual equivalent of sunflowers, and that's fine. What God wants is the crop we are designed for. But when Jesus speaks of a crop of up to a hundred times what was sown, that is no exaggeration.
That is how God works. A century is one long life time. Twenty lifetimes ago there was one small band of disciples in the whole world. Today there are hundreds and hundreds millions. And the crop is increasing all the time. Such is the power of the transforming grace of God in our lives.
Final question, then: HOW SHOULD WE REACT TO THIS PARABLEl?
Here are four things we can do.
One. Understand other people's reactions to the gospel. We need to have an optimistic realism about the effect of telling others about Jesus. Jesus himself warns us that there will be many "No's" and many "Yes, but's". But there will be also be the "Yes's", and through them the kingdom will multiply and multiply and nothing will be able to stop it.
Two. Identify your own reactions to Jesus. How are you behaving towards him in your life at the moment? Never mind what you have done in the past. More important is what you do from now on.
Three. Ask God for his transforming grace. If you really want it, then that is a sign that the Spirit is at work within you. Ask for more. And keep on and on asking that your life will be good ground in which the Word can flourish and bear fruit.
Four. Keep on listening to and telling the message about the kingdom. We need to be fertile, weed free ground. But we also have a place as God's farm labourers. We are to sow the seed of the gospel wherever and whenever we can. The coming months hold many opportunities. We need to be praying for the boldness and the grace to take them.