Check Your Soil
A Sermon Based on Mark 4:1-25
In the book called Radical by David Platt , the author recounts the difference between his preaching in China and his preaching in the United States.
He said in the US people sit comfortably and listen to the sermon. But while in China, the congregation seemed to almost absorb it. In fact, in the US, he could look out and see people’s faces, smiling, nodding, and acknowledging what he said. But it China he mostly saw the tops of people’s heads. Not because they had gone to sleep, but rather because the complete opposite was true. They looked down and concentrated intently, taking in each thought, and preparing detailed notes.
Platt wanted to know why? So he did some research to determine what the difference and found that in America, primarily, we listen for ourselves.
When polled, he found that in America people came to church with basically selfish motives. How does this apply to me? How will this better me? What did I GET from the message.
In America we see ourselves quite often as essentially the end of the chain.
Not so in China. Information (read: the truth) is often hard to come by.
So in China everyone in the congregation planned, in advance, to tell others any new things they learned. They planned to tell friends and their family and anyone else who would listen.
So in China, listeners considered themselves a link in a much longer chain. They would say, “You learn from one, you teach to another.”
They had become accustomed to the truth being government sanctioned, and filter and edited. So the only way to get around that is to listen carefully, takes notes for yourself mentally and otherwise, and pass it along.
And another reason they took notes was so they could investigate further. They didn’t have the luxury to always take what was said at face value. After all much of the information they would get in a day was not necessarily the whole truth.
But with their notes, and the notes of others, they could compare what they heard, with what someone else heard, and so on, and get down to the facts of the matter.
As a result, Mr. Platt concluded that much of what goes into the preparation and presentation of sermons and bible teachings in America is therefore wasted.
He said we would gain much more if we did like the Chinese. Prepare to capture, take note of and inwardly ingest the material for later use. If we planned to study the material further and share it with others. If we intentionally took efforts to not just LISTEN to the message for ourselves, but have it planted in us to carry forward.
In the fourth chapter of Mark, we hear Jesus say the famous words. “For those who have ears to hear.”
It’s not that Jesus expects most of his audience to be deaf. He knows that most will be able to physically hear the words he says. He expects most to have working ears. But he also know that what he says will only be taken to heart by those who bring those ears planning in advance to take in what they here.
And this chapter is a turning point in a way for the earthly ministry of Christ.
Up to this point, His teachings have been very clear and to the point. But after about a year and a half of teaching that way and performing miracles, the people by in large still had not repented, had still not really understood or accepted his teaching. Even some of the disciples has not really grasped what Jesus was talking about.
He did have some pretty big crowds following him, but they were primarily interested in His miracles but not in spiritual truth.
They came for what they could get for themselves, but were largely missing the whole point.
And it’s something people can do even today with church. We come for the show; to get something for ourselves, to have a good time, and feel better, but don’t really taking anything away that really matters.
Jesus went from town to town but his message wasn’t sinking in. Yes, people were coming and listening, and then going home and nothing had changed.
So about 18 months into his mission, Jesus changes tactics and starts to use parables. And the bible says from this point on he never taught on any occasion without using them.
The word “parable” means “to cast alongside of”. Someone has defined a parable as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” In a parable truth is cast alongside life and life interprets the truth. In other words, a parable takes the common, everyday events of life and uses them to illustrate the deep things of God.
And so parables became one of three ways that from this point on Jesus taught each message, and it’s a model that many preachers have used to this day.
First, Jesus would start out by just making his point straight out. That what he did almost exclusively in the beginning parts of His earthly ministry. He would just say it directly, straight from the mouth of the Father.
And some people got it immediately. But others sat there looking puzzled? Or argued. Or asked questions.
So as time went on, and this happened, Jesus would then use an illustration, a parable, or a story that might be more easily understood by the people. And today’s parable is the first one we come to in the book of Mark.
But even after the parables, some people STILL looked puzzled.
So then we see Jesus using His third teaching type.
Exposition. He explains the parable.
And Mark 4 is a classic example of him doing those three teaching types.
It’s the parable of the soils and it’s a teaching that has changed the hearts of many people over the centuries.
But we wouldn’t have it, if people hadn’t taken notes. Jesus did not write any of the bible with his own hands. All of the words of Jesus that we have documented in the bible are a result of people in the crowd paying special attention, taking his words to heart, writing them down and sharing them with others.
When Mark completed his gospel, he most certainly had NOT been a first hand witness to all the events and teachings. But someone had, and they took note, and passed it along, and the next one took note, and passed it along, and so on.
And that’s why we even have the written bible today. Because those inspired by God listened not just for themselves but so they could share with others.
Paul said in Rom. 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation, to everyone who believes, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”
He wanted to share the truth. So he didn’t just sit there thinking, I’m sure glad I’ve trusted Christ and I know the truth. He thought….this truth is for everyone. And I have to be prepared to share it with those who have ears to hear.
Now some will embrace it, some will not, but the problem, we should be certain, is not with Jesus or His Gospel, but with the soil in peoples hearts.
Mark 4:1-25 [From the NLT – New Living Translation]
1 Once again Jesus began teaching by the lakeshore. There was such a large crowd along the shore that he got into a boat and sat down and spoke from there.
2 He began to teach the people by telling many stories such as this one:
3 “Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seed.
4 As he scattered it across his field, some seed fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate it.
5 Other seed fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The plant sprang up quickly,
6 but it soon wilted beneath the hot sun and died because the roots had no nourishment in the shallow soil.
7 Other seed fell among thorns that shot up and choked out the tender blades so that it produced no grain.
8 Still other seed fell on fertile soil and produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted.” Then he said,
9 “Anyone who is willing to hear should listen and understand!”
10 Later, when Jesus was alone with the twelve disciples and with the others who were gathered around, they asked him, “What do your stories mean?”
11 He replied, “You are permitted to understand the secret about the Kingdom of God. But I am using these stories to conceal everything about it from outsiders,
12 so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled: ‘They see what I do, but they don’t perceive its meaning. They hear my words, but they don’t understand. So they will not turn from their sins and be forgiven.’
13 “But if you can’t understand this story, how will you understand all the others I am going to tell?
14 The farmer I talked about is the one who brings God’s message to others.
15 The seed that fell on the hard path represents those who hear the message, but then Satan comes at once and takes it away from them.
16 The rocky soil represents those who hear the message and receive it with joy.
17 But like young plants in such soil, their roots don’t go very deep. At first they get along fine, but they wilt as soon as they have problems or are persecuted because they believe the word.
18 The thorny ground represents those who hear and accept the Good News,
19 but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the cares of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for nice things, so no crop is produced.
20 But the good soil represents those who hear and accept God’s message and produce a huge harvest — thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted.”
21 Then Jesus asked them, “Would anyone light a lamp and then put it under a basket or under a bed to shut out the light? Of course not! A lamp is placed on a stand, where its light will shine.
22 “Everything that is now hidden or secret will eventually be brought to light.
23 Anyone who is willing to hear should listen and understand!
24 And be sure to pay attention to what you hear. The more you do this, the more you will understand — and even more, besides.
25 To those who are open to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But to those who are not listening, even what they have will be taken away from them.”
So Jesus tells this simple story which many could identify with. A farmer goes out to sow some seed.
And he uses a number of different methods, with a number of different soils. And most of them are ineffective, but one works well.
And we should listen very carefully because this is an important message from our Lord.
How do we know?
Well, of course, the whole bible is important. But Jesus makes a special point to get people to pay attention. He says in v.9, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
The NLT rendered it, “Anyone who is willing to hear should listen and understand!”
I don’t care for that as much as it really doesn’t speak as much to the hearers inner state. It’s not so much that we are often unwilling the hear, it’s that we close our ears and hearts off to the parts we don’t like.
If I come to a meeting without “ears to hear”, I have already made my mind up about everything, and no one will change my mind. I have no “ears to hear”. Has anyone here every tried to share the Gospel with someone with no ears to hear?
Of course, but we also have to check ourselves. When we hear or read God’s Word do we only listen to the sounds of the words, or do we really have “ears to hear them” and a heart to take them in.
That is the truth behind the soils. It was good seed being scattered. There was never a question about the seed being bad. Jesus’ gospel is the good seed. But it just didn’t sink in to certain types of soil. It couldn’t take root.
I. SOME HAVE A HARDENED HEART
A. In v.4 Jesus said, “And it happened, as he sowed, that some seed fell by the wayside….”
Farming land in Palestine was split into long narrow strips; between the strips there were paths which were common ground “rights of way.” Kind of like when you crawl through a garden for weeding, there is that place you’ve been crawling and it gets all packed down and hard. Luke describes this area as a place that was “trodden under foot.” Seed simply could not sprout because it just sat of top of the hard path.
The gospel just sits there because hearts are too hard to take it in.
And then what does Jesus tell us happens?
When the ground is hard, and the seed cannot penetrate the soil “Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts.”
From a practical sense, we could say for them, the Word of God goes in one ear and out the other. With a hard heart they pay little or no attention to the Word of God. And just sitting there on the hard soil, the devil has easy work of removing it completely.
Some of us here this morning may still have a heart hardened to gospel.
But today is a new day. Hosea 10: 12 reads ” Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of unfailing love, and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to seek the LORD, until he comes and showers righteousness on you.”
II. SOME HAVE A SHALLOW HEART
In v.4 Jesus said, “Some fell on stony ground, where it did not have much earth; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of earth.”
It was typical in Palestine that a considerable portion of its tillable soil is found on top of layers of rock. This kind of sounds like Sprague River doesn’t it. Dig down about 6 inches and much the time you’re all out of usable soil.
Like I said, Jesus had large crowds who came to hear Him and see the miracles that He performed. They apparently were attentive. And some had given a very positive initial response to his message.
In fact, Jesus said in v.16 that they “immediately receive it with gladness.” They were all too happy and excited and emotional at first, like a small child would be with a new toy, but after the fireworks, nothing.
Dr. J. Vernon McGee said, “These are what I call Alka-Seltzer Christians. [At first] There is a lot of fizz in them …[but they] burn out Roman candles …
It’s perfectly usual that when Jesus saves your soul, & comes into your heart, you will have great emotion. Many will experience a joy like they’ve never known.
But Dr. McGee points us to scripture when he says all that fizzing is only real ” if it can endure testing.” Jesus said in the last of v.17, “Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake, immediately they stumble.”
Paul says in Romans 5:3-4, we know “that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
The one who is all fizzy with shallow soul often has no perseverance. With the first trial, they fall away.
Jesus tells us that just as the shallow soil causes a plant to quickly wither, it’s the same with even professed believers who only have a shallow commitment to the Lord.
And although Dr. McGee called them Alka-Seltzer Christains, I’ve often heard them referred to as “Sunny side up Christians.”
The sunny side of following Jesus attracts them very much, so they are sunny side up. But scramble them, or hard boil them, or even flip them over easy, and they are out of here.
It’s something that is very curious with church life and not uncommon. Often people are all the midst of every church service and potluck and event when things are going well, but if a relationship problems come like a divorce, or illness, or financial problems, or problems with kids, etc, suddenly they are no where to be found, keeping themselves distanced until these issues are resolved. Then they will come back to church.
That’s an extremely shallow view of church. Done right, church is family, and you need family most in times of crisis.
Likewise, Christ doesn’t just want us to come to him when things are all sunny side up. Life gets scrambled and for our faith to be real, we stick with Christ in thick or thin, just like Christ sticks with us.
But some of us may have shallow soil this mornin g yet Isaiah 40:31 says: ” but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
III. SOME HAVE A CROWDED HEART
In the parable, Jesus said in v.7, “And some seed fell among thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop.”
Luke adds that the processes of fruit bearing may have started, but is not brought to completion “and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.”
This happens when Christ is not first and supreme in our lives. A person simply cannot serve two master’s and if we fill our hearts and lives with that worldly concerns, we squeeze Jesus out of it.
Paul said in 2 Tim. 4:10, “Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world.” So the love the world, and the things of the world, caused Demos to become unfruitful.
A long time ago I planted some tomatoes in a corner of a garden in a place where we already had swiss chard, and cucumbers, squash and onions planted. We got these tomato plants really late in the season, and didn’t really have a place for them, so I just stuck them in the middle of all these other plants.
It was a good area in one way. Good soil, and plenty of water, and the tomato plants did grow. But we waited and waited and they never had any tomatoes. All the water and nutrients were being sucked up by all the other plants, and they would put on blossom, but never any fruit.
That’s the same in our lives. Too much worldly stuff, makes our hearts too crowded to keep Jesus first, and all this other stuff can kill off our love of Jesus and God’s Word will simply not take root.
So what kind of soil do we need.
Well this is very much again similar to our Sprague River situation. How many here have just gone out sometime during the year and stuck a seed in the ground and waited?
How did that work out?
To make things grow here you have to prepare the soil. It need to go from the hard, or shallow, or crowded soil it is, and it must be converted.
SO WE MUST HAVE A CONVERTED HEART
Around here the soil by itself isn’t much good for growing on it’s own, so we add things like fertilizer and nutrients.
It’s the same with our hearts for Jesus.
To be fruitful we have to condition the soil in which Jesus exists in our hearts to that it will “yield a crop that sprang up, increased and produced: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred.”
How is this good soil created?
A. In v.20 Jesus said, “But these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word….” In order to follow Christ, and grow as a Christian, and bear fruit we have to hear the Word of God.
B. Receive It and Hold to It – Just to hear the words is not enough. We have to do as the Chinese congregation did I spoke of at the beginning. We need to take it to heart and believe it, and learn it, and hold not just for us, but with the intention of passing along.
We not only ask God to help us condition our own soil, but we work to cultivate and convert the soil of others.
And bear fruit.
James said “faith without works is dead”. He’s not saying you are not saved if your faith does not bear fruit. But he is saying, your faith is like the withered fig tree that was of no use to Jesus.
So….Those who have ears to hear, may you hear. And those who are the hearer of the Word WILL become doers of the Word.
So this parable of Jesus is really a question for all of us. What type of soil do you have?
Jesus says “Everything that is now hidden or secret will eventually be brought to light.”
So if the gospel of Jesus is not taking root in our lives, it is not the fault of Jesus or his gospel, but rather the fault lies in the condition of our hearts.
Now, do not fear. Jesus can soften even the hardest of hearts for Him, if we let Him.
Jesus can deepen even the shallowest of experiences of Him, if we let Him
Jesus can make a place in even the most crowded of lives, if we let Him.
He’s ready. Are you? Are you ready to let Him cultivate, convert, and transform even your weakest soil.
If so…..”He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”
(c)2013 Timothy Henry