How Dirty Are You?
Scripture Text: Mark 4:1-20
People love a good story. Watch children and adults perk up when someone says, “Let me tell you a story.” I am one who is often captivated by a well-told story, unfortunately I am not one who can tell one very well, but I like to hear them. Many of us probably tell the best-known parts of the Bible as stories: Noah and the ark, Jonah and the “whale” (although we really know it was a great fish), David and Goliath, Jesus in the manger. Calling them stories is not to say that those events were untrue, it is that they are often remembered and told in a way that is very memorable, in a story format. People remember and respond to these beloved stories in the Bible. In addition to these stories of history, people tend to remember those grand stories told by Jesus, His parables, such as the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, or this passage.
Parables are stories based on real life or real life situations from which moral or spiritual truths are taught. Jesus was a master storyteller and used them to communicate truth and teach important lessons. Jesus’ words and illustrations were familiar to the culture: He spoke of everyday people and common things that would be recognized by his audience – fathers, sons, seeds, vineyards, feasts, coins, sheep, birds, tenants, and weddings. Jesus used these common images to weave a story that revealed surprising truths about the Kingdom of God that challenged His audience to submit themselves to God. Sometimes, the parables surprise us, such as the Parable of the Laborers from Matthew 20:1–16, when the “eleventh hour” workers receive as much compensation for the few hours they worked as those who had worked all day. Jesus did not explain most of His parables, but He did explain today’s parable.
Parable of the Soils
The parable from today’s passage is about a sower, some seed, and some soil. Some people call this parable the “Parable of the Sower” or the “Parable of the Sower and the Seed.” While this parable tells us about a sower and the seed he sows, it is really not about the sower or the seed, but about the different soils that are used. Thus, I think a better name for this passage is the “Parable of the Soils.” Mark mentioned that a great crowd gathered around Jesus and He began to teach them. He started with this parable. Jesus spoke to the people and answered the question as to why some reject Him and His kingdom. Why do people reject Jesus? Why do people not live their lives wholly devoted to Him? What holds them back? He answered this by describing four conditions of a person’s heart:
- The Hard Heart
- The Shallow Heart
- The Strangled Heart
- The Fruitful Heart
In this parable, the seed is the Word of God and the soil represents the human heart. Jesus described four types of people. He spoke of four types of heart conditions that impact how a person receives the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Hard Heart
The first place the sower sows the seed, the Word of God, is along the path. For those who farm or tend a garden, that might be an unusual place to plant seed, and it is. Imagine a path as a place that is well traveled. It is not like the field or a garden that has been prepared for growing something. The path has been walked on so much that the soil is hard and the seed cannot grow. Thus, the birds come and devour the seed before it can take root and grow. This represents a hard heart. This is a person who has become so callous to the truth of God’s Word that it cannot take root and change him. The most likely reason one’s hard is hardened is because of sin. This person prefers sin and things that are contrary to God’s Word. Paul called this truth suppression:
Romans 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
This Parable of the Soils is about the Kingdom of God, which is about God’s rule. The hard heart does not want to be ruled. The hard heart is opposed to God’s rule. It is in rebellion to God. This person will not be ruled by Him, just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. However, we should not overlook the role of the enemy in this condition. Jesus stated that when people with a hard heart hear the truth of God’s Word, Satan immediately comes and takes away the Word from them. According to Luke’s account, the result of the hardened heart is so bad that the person does not believe and thus is not saved. It is an eternally serious thing to be hardened to God’s Word.
The Shallow Heart
The second condition which Jesus described is the seed that fell on rocky soil. This is what I call the “Shallow Heart.” This is a person who hears the Word of God, responds to it initially with joy, but then something happens. Their faith is tested and they fall away. This sort of reminds me of revivals, youth camps, and Billy Graham crusades – not that I have anything against them. People will often hear a powerful message, have a positive experience, get excited about Jesus and the things of Jesus; but, as soon as they get back to their normal lives, they discover that living out their faith is harder than they imagined. I have seen youth at a summer camp get really stoked for God, be on fire for the things of Jesus, and then get back home and revert back to their formal selves. The change in their heart was momentary. Their faith was shallow because the Word of God did not take root in their lives.
But, this is not just a phenomenon at youth camps or revivals. This happens in the church, and probably has happened to a number of you. The one with the shallow heart gets excited about Jesus, or “plays” the Christian part at times, but when the rubber meets the road, when their faith is tested, when trouble enters their life, maybe friends and family ridicule them for their faith in Christ, they fall away. You have seen them. You might have been one of them. These people believe for a while but stumble in their faith walk when things gets difficult. Just showing up for church service on Sunday morning, saying the right things, even giving your tithes and offerings does not mean your heart is right with God. You may have a shallow heart. You may have rocky soil.
The Strangled Heart
The third condition of the heart which Jesus described was the seed which fell among the thorns. This represents a heart that is strangled by the cares of this world. You may have seen these people, too. They are those who believe in Christ for a while, or maybe they still profess faith in Him, but the cares of the world, the love for money and possessions, take precedence in their life. Jesus is moved to a small corner of their life. He becomes less important compared to the worldly pleasures and cares of this life. This is destructive to one’s faith and results in an unfruitful life. Paul wrote to Timothy:
1 Timothy 6:10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
The love for wealth and possessions is devastating to one’s faith. The love for it strangles the heart. The heart becomes imprisoned by it. And like weeds, riches do not choke a person all at once. Weeds grow gradually, until it takes over where it is growing. So it is with the cares of this life. It may not happen all at once. It may start with a little money (or lack of it) or some possession or some power and grow into something that you cannot live without. John Piper has a fairly popular saying, that is really a restatement of something Jonathan Edwards once said: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” We are not to find our purpose and satisfaction in the things of this world, that is temporary and fading away, but in the Almighty God Who gave us life and gives us abundant life through His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. God is most glorified in us when we desire Him more than anything else.
People are not the only ones who get choked by the “riches” of the world. The Church can be choked by it. People in the church can get focused on the wrong things, focused on money (what to do with it, how to spend it, or not spend it) and miss the whole purpose for being the Church. Now, I am not saying that we ought not to be concerned about these things, but our attitude about money and possessions and what to do with them will reveal what is most important to us as the Church. Ever since I got into the pulpit, I have consistently preached about the mission of the church – to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world. Can we look at our spending and our desires for this church and say that the mission of the Church is the most important thing to us? If Jesus were to look at how we use His resources, would He say that we are focused on reaching lost people for Him or focused on things that distract from that? Are we choked by the cares of this world?
The Fruitful Heart
The last condition of the heart that Jesus mentioned in this parable is the good soil. This is the heart that hears the Word of God, accepts the Word of God, and lives the Word of God. The ones who are the good soil do not just hear God’s Word, but they live it. They demonstrate their faith by good works. God’s Word makes a positive impact on their lives. Jesus said these people “bear fruit”, which is why I call this the “Fruitful Heart.” Only the good soil hears the Word of God, accepts it, obeys it, and bears fruit from it. These people will be reading and studying God’s Word, because they want to learn more about God. These people will be praying to God more because they want to have a more imitate relationship with Him. The will desire Him more than anything else. These people will be living out their faith in such a way that others know they are close to Jesus Christ. Good faith produces fruit.
Thus far we have mentioned the seed, which is the Word of God, and we have mentioned the four soils, the four types of hearts that hear the Word of God. But what about the sower? Who is he? Ultimately, the Sower is God. It is His seed which is being sown and He is the One Who cultivates the human heart. But, we all are sowers, too. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 3:6-7 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
We are each called to share the good news of Jesus Christ to the world. That is not the mission of the pastor. That is the mission of the Church. As we sow God’s Word in the world, we will find different conditions of people’s hearts – some hard, some rocky, some weedy, and some good. Only a portion of the seed bears fruit. In the Parable of the Soils, only a fourth of it fell on good soil. We are not responsible for the response to the gospel, only the distribution of it. As we sow the Word of God, we are being witnesses of Jesus Christ, for which God gives the growth. Preach the Word and leave the results to God.
One question I had as I read this parable was this: Can hearts of stone or hearts among weeds and thorns become receptive to the Word? Can the bad soil become good soil that bears fruit? As a farmer or gardener knows, bad soil can be cultivated and made to grow a crop. A farmer often must work the ground to make it capable of producing a harvest. Some soil may take more work than others, but it can be done. However, the soil can do nothing to make itself good. The hard soil, the rocky soil or the weedy soil can do nothing to make itself good soil, only the Divine Gardener can. Ezekiel wrote:
Ezekiel 36:24-27 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
While people have bad heart conditions, bad in the sense of responding to God’s Word, Jesus said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” (Luke 18:27) The Divine Sower can make bad soil good; He can turn a heart of stone into a heart of flesh. That person just needs to yield his heart to God and let Him cultivate the field.
The message of the Parable of the Soils provides an encouragement to the faithful but also piercing look at our own hearts. The parable brings encouragement to those who share God’s Word. When we are disappointed and discouraged as people reject the gospel or the teaching of God’s Word, we ought not blame ourselves for the lack of reception. The first disciples experienced this time and again as they obediently spread the news of Jesus Christ with the world. We experience that today as we expect to see positive change in the world and the church and wonder what we might be doing wrong. We know the power of the gospel. Why does it not bring the same success at each occasion? What holds people back from accepting it? Jesus gave us this reassuring reminder: the difference is not in the seed or the sower; the difference is in the soil that receives the seed. Sometimes the soil is too hard or strangled to receive the good news of Jesus Christ.
But, we are also pierced by the truth of this parable and cannot escape the inevitable question, “What kind of soil am I?” Is your heart hardened to the point that God’s Word does not reach you? Is your heart so shallow and shaken by trouble in your life that you have lost hope in it? Is your heart so crowded by the cares of this world that your faith does not produce good fruit, that God has been relegated to something less important in your life? If any of these conditions are true for you, I encourage you to turn to Jesus Christ, pray that He breaks that hold on your life that keeps you from living fully for Him. Pray that He softens your heart, that He removes the stones of sin and rejection, and that He pulls out the weeds of reliance on worldly cares so that you may produce much fruit. God is the Divine Gardener and He knows how to make bad soil into good soil that will bear much fruit. Amen!
This sermon was delivered at Good Hope Baptist Church in Wake Forest, NC. More information about Good Hope may be found at the following site: www.GoodHopeBC.org.