Last week, we heard “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God:” that the kingdom of God is near! We saw in Mark 1 how Jesus not only proclaimed this good news, but put it into effect: Jesus cast out demons and cured diseases, clearing out the powers of sin and death in order to make room to establish his reign on earth. In this morning’s passage, Jesus teaches the crowds about this kingdom, and even more, about the character of the king. This morning, we join the crowds as we gather to Jesus, and listen for the good news of his kingdom. Let us listen to the voice of Jesus for what God is saying to Emmanuel Reformed Church, and to us individually.
Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around 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. 2 He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: 3 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”
9 Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
10 When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. 11 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 12 so that,
“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
13 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? 14 The farmer sows the word. 15 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. 16 Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. 17 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 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. 20 Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”
There are layers to this morning’s text: 1. Jesus teaching the crowds, and his disciples, about the kingdom; and 2. The farmer sowing seeds. The layers overlap. The farmer is Jesus, the seeds sown are the parables, and the soils are the crowds. If we consider the first layer, the story of the gospel, then we see that, though Jesus is telling this parable to all of them, not all of them receive it the same way.
The Soils Sown
Some among that crowd are hardened by life, tired from being constantly trampled on by kings and governors, tax collectors and soldiers, so that they are unable to receive the kingdom message that Jesus is preaching.
Some are eager enthusiasts, following the fad of the day to hear this up-and-coming rabbi Jesus’ teachings; but they have no foundation, no root-room for his teachings to germinate and grow, and the parable stirs their imagination only for a moment, but evaporates before it makes any lasting difference in their lives.
A third group in the crowds were listening to Jesus for dear life, needing to hear about this wonderful kingdom of God: in which the last are to be first; in which the mourners are to be comforted; in which the poor are to inherit the earth. But after they hear this impossible good news, they are immediately reminded that this world does not work like that: the first fight and kill and grasp to stay first at any cost; the mourners continue to mourn, often alone and forgotten in their grief; the poor receive nothing, while the rich gain more than they know what to do with.
And then there are those among the crowd, those blessed ones, who hear Jesus’ words, receive in them the message of the kingdom, and gradually but surely begin to grow and change and show the evidence of a changed life, in accordance to the message they have taken to heart. And the impossible, in-breaking kingdom of heaven takes root on earth in them.
The Incompetent Farmer
Jesus tells this parable, like all his parables, as a lesson about his kingdom, to explain further what this new reign, this new way of living, will look like. For us to hear this lesson, we need to listen again to the second layer, the story of the farmer, and listen specifically for how this strange story about an incompetent farmer can teach us about God’s incredible kingdom, and about God as our king.
The story is a simple one. Most of Jesus’ parables were simple, short, easy to remember. They were meant to stick in the hearer’s memory, to sound and resound there, pricking the imagination until it affected some kind of change, some important realization. The story of the farmer is no different. A farmer goes out to sow his seed. We aren’t told what season it is, how large his field is, whether he’s done any preparation, like tilling or weeding or clearing. A farmer goes out to sow his seed, and apparently has no idea what he’s doing. The picture we get is of a man with a bag of seed throwing it everywhere, without regard for where it lands. Some lands on the road, some on the rocks, some in the ditch with the thorns, and only some makes it where it’s supposed to go. If you saw your neighbor planting his corn like this, you would shake your head and laugh, and probably feel compelled to cross the road and explain to him how farming works.
The same is true back then. I’m sure farming looked very different 2000 years ago, but any sensible farmer would have known what soil was good soil, ready for the seed, and sure to produce a harvest. This farmer seems totally unconcerned with this, but sows abundantly, generously, prodigally. And then the farmer considers his work finished: no fertilizing, no cultivating, no watering, no weeding. The farmer trusts that the seeds will grow without supervision.
But if we consider that Jesus is teaching the crowds about himself, that Jesus is the farmer, this makes a bit more sense: Jesus continues to teach everywhere, to everyone, whether they are prepared to listen and respond or not, whether they are hostile to his message or accepting. Jesus is the farmer, sowing the message of the kingdom without regard for the condition of his audience. And Jesus doesn’t follow up with anyone, nervously micromanaging the gospel. Jesus trusts that the message will work by God’s power to change the hearts of those with ears to hear.
But this parable is about more than how the good news spreads. This parable is ultimately about the character of the king, and his kingdom. Recklessly scattering seed is foolish in a farmer, but Jesus uses that image to teach us about the prodigal abundance of our king. Our King is sowing his kingdom at all times, wildly, recklessly, abundantly, so that every moment is laden with seed-like potential to bear the kingdom, if only the seed takes root and bears fruit.
And this is the key of the parable. This is the point that the story hinges on as it turns from simple story to kingdom announcement. Jesus asks at the end of his story: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” Jesus calls those of us who are able to listen, to make room for the seed of the kingdom to take root and grow and bear the fruit of the kingdom in the world. Jesus knows the different “soils” of this world, then and today. Some are hardened, some are eager but fickle, some are desperate but distracted, and only some are truly ready to hear. We come to Jesus to hear the good news, here in worship each week, or in our personal devotions, but we are often unable to really listen and really receive what he says as good news. The reality of our lives, the harshness of our worlds, or the distractions around us, resist and drown out the message of God as King come to earth.
And still, the good news for us in this parable is the image of a farmer sowing seed everywhere, indiscriminately. Every moment, even those moments choked with thorns and laden with stones are moments in which the kingdom is being sown, stretching its roots, and bursting forth. We may think it foolish to sow without a guarantee of a harvest, but that is the foolishness of our God and King. God sends his kingdom, and his own Son, Jesus Christ, into the world who turned from their Creator and King for their own futile kingdoms, and no longer recognize him. Into the unprepared and unyielding world, God’s kingdom comes, and it seems to take no hold. The world continues as it will, thorns and rocks and roads in tact. The kingdom seeds fall on all kinds of soil, and still our King, Jesus Christ, reigns in absolute confidence.
Soils Become Seeds, Seeds Become Sowers
And the message still resounds: “The kingdom of God is near!” Even though the message of the king falls on such unyielding, un-accepting ears, the kingdom of God grows in secret, takes root in season, and sprouts up in surprising places. The kingdom of God is made near, when even a single the kingdom seed takes root, grows, and produces a harvest. This is how the Church has persisted for thousands of years in a world that either hates and resists it, or tempts it away from its true purpose. This is how the kingdom is revealed in our midst, when even the most unyielding of people, the rockiest, thorniest heart, discovers within it the seed of the good news, that a new kingdom has come to earth, accepts that seed, and allows it to bear its fruit in his or her life. That’s the power of the seed: a slow, gradual, hidden power to grow, and to produce a harvest.
As Jesus is explaining the parable to his disciples afterward, he tells them that the seeds are the word. We hear this, and I think we often take it to mean that we are the soils. And that’s certainly part of this story. But it struck me as I was reading this this week that as Jesus explains the soils, he doesn’t say that some people are like the path, or like the rocks, or like the thorns. Jesus says that people are like the seed. At first, I do think we are the soil, hearing the message and receiving it. But the call to soil is to sit there. Jesus can’t call soil to clear itself, to move its own stones, to burn its own thorns, or to become good. Dirt is dirt. Dirt is static, it’s passive, it cannot act.
But Jesus says we are like seeds. The seeds of the kingdom are planted in us, and then we become the kingdom seeds in our world. And so the call to his disciples, to those who hear the parable, the Word, and understand it, and take it to heart, is to be seeds. Seeds cannot choose where they are sown. They cannot pick themselves up and put themselves in better soil. Seeds have a pretty straightforward itinerary. At the beginning, they are to enter and be immersed in the soil where they are sown, to become buried and hidden in that soil. And then they are to wait attentively, to respond to the soil and the season and the inner compulsion it senses to burst open and take root. And as the seed draws in its nutrients from the soil in secret, it begins to put forth it stalk, reaching up and out during the growing season. And then, in the fullness of time, the seed-come-plant bears it fruit until harvest.
We who have received the good news have been placed in our soils by the hand of God; we don’t have much control over our families, or personalities, or even maybe where we live or work. And yet the call to us is not to simply sit there. The work of a seed is not extravagant, or explosive, or extraordinary. The work of a seed is to grow in secret, to germinate in season, to become rooted in the place where we are planted. We are called to grow up, as well: to grow into maturity and strength, and to bear good fruit in season.
We were talking about this last week in our sermon discussion class, that the Christian’s life is one of service and activity, but in seasons. The colors here in front of church are teaching tools help us see and sense these seasons. It’s been white up here for the last several weeks: white is the color of celebration, of joy and victory. We see white here on our major holidays: Christmas, Easter, All Saints’ Day. Before that we saw purple: purple is the color of preparation and repentance; we see purple during Advent and Lent. This morning we see green: green reminds us to grow and bear fruit of good works and service for the kingdom. There’s a pattern to our seasons: purple, white, green. Repent, Celebrate, Grow and serve. These are a tool to help us sense the seasons in which we are to dig deeper into the soil, to rest and get ready, and to grow.
This is the parable, not of the soils, but of the Sower, and of his seeds. God in Christ came not only to die for our sins and save us for eternal life – the gospel is not less than that, but there is more! The gospel of God the Sower is that he came in Christ to establish his reign on earth, to begin the kingdom work on earth. This kingdom didn’t begin with war and ruin and conquest, totally demolishing what was in order to build what will be. No, Jesus says our King is like a farmer, sowing the seeds of his kingdom into the mess of the world, abundantly, foolishly, confidently, because he trusts that seeds will do what seeds are called to do: take root, grow, and bear fruit. As God’s kingdom takes root in us, it takes root in the world around us. This is how “the Kingdom of God is near.”
Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear this good news.