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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:The Parable of the Sower: A Call to Hear Rightly
Text:Mark 4:1-20 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Calling

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 95

Psalm 26:1-3

Psalm 1

Psalm 92:1,2,6,7

Hymn 9

Scripture reading: Isaiah 6

Text: Mark 4:1-20

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ Jesus,

This morning we’re looking at a well-known parable.  It’s probably one of the most familiar.  You know the cliché about familiarity, that familiarity breeds contempt.  We become so familiar with something that we turn off our minds and look down our noses at it.  However, in this case the parable itself demands a different response. 

There’ll be those in the congregation who might be hearing this parable and its explanation for the first time – here I think especially of our guests, newer members and our younger brothers and sisters.  But there’ll be others of you who’ve heard it before, perhaps even many times.  Maybe you think you know what it means.  Maybe you’re right.  Maybe you’re wrong.  Whatever the case may be, God’s Word calls us to listen with new ears, to see with new eyes and freshly listen again to our chief prophet and teacher Jesus.  We need to be reminded again of truths that matter for our eternal well-being.  And so I preach to you about the Parable of the Sower.  We’ll see that it’s a call to hear rightly

To begin with, we need to consider the context.  Mark gives us that to us in the first three verses.  He tells us how Jesus began to teach by the lake.  That hooks into the preceding passage where Christ the Rabbi was teaching in a house.  Here he’s continuing his teaching, this time by the Sea of Galilee.

And the people whom he’s teaching are also an important part of the setting.  It was a “crowd.”  But what kind of crowd?  Who were these people crowded around Jesus by the Sea of Galilee?  They weren’t just any people in the Roman Empire.  In fact, they were people a lot like us.  They were like us in that they were God’s covenant people.  The males among them had received the sign and seal of God’s covenant in circumcision, just like we’ve received it in baptism.  They were those to whom God’s Word had come.  They were those who’d heard both promises and warnings.  Jesus wasn’t addressing people who knew nothing about the Bible or about God who revealed himself in the Bible.  These were mostly, if not entirely, Jewish men, women and children.  This is a crucially important point which I’ll come back to. 

So it was a Jewish crowd and a large one at that.  So large, in fact, that Christ was crowded off the seashore and had to sit in a boat while he was teaching.  Back in Mark 3:9 we’re told that he kept a boat ready just in case something like this would happen. 

Verse 2 of chapter 4 tells us how he taught them many things in parables.  Parables were familiar to the people of God.  They’re found in the Old Testament.  Think of the parable the prophet Nathan told King David after the Bathsheba incident.  Many of the proverbs of Solomon were seen as parables.  So, it wasn’t unusual for a teacher to use this method of teaching. 

But what we find next, about how he began, that is unusual.  He said “Listen!”  Now remember again to whom he was speaking:  Jews.  The first Jewish confession of faith is found in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.”  In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the exact same word is used as what Jesus uses here in Mark, “Listen!”  When a Jewish audience heard that word from a rabbi, they expected to hear right afterwards, “O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.”  But that’s not what they hear.  Instead, they hear “A sower went out to sow.”  What?!  That’s not how it goes!  Doesn’t this rabbi know his Bible?  As it turns out, he knows it very well and what he does here with this surprise actually underscores his broader objective.  That objective was to radically challenge them. 

So when we look at this parable, we ought to remember its distinctly covenantal context.  We also need to remember that it comes to us at a certain point in Jesus’ ministry.  The animosity of the Jewish leaders towards him is beginning to boil over and threatens to destroy him.  Christ is on his way to the cross.

Keeping those things in mind, we come to the parable itself in verses 3 to 9.  It’s a simple story of a farmer going about his work of sowing seed, expecting and hoping to have a harvest.  The farmer scattered the seed everywhere – path, rocky places, among thorns, and then some on good soil.  If you’re familiar with farming, you might wonder about the competency of this farmer.  A good farmer would never sow his seed all over the place.  But in that area in that age, that’s exactly what was often done.  While it didn’t always happen like that, the farmer would often first sow his seed and then he would plough it under.  That’s different from farming practices today, where ploughing usually comes first and then sowing.   The result of the practice in Jesus’ day was that the seed would initially be sown indiscriminately all over the place. 

One of the places was the path running across the field.  People would take short cuts and walk across fields and the soil would be compacted and a nice path would eventually form.  Eventually that path would be plowed, but for now the seed falls there.  And on that nice flat surface the seeds are readily visible and the birds come along and snatch it away. 

Then there are other places that are rocky, not having a lot of soil depth.  Some of the seed falls there and it grows for a little while, but it doesn’t survive without the depth of soil.  It can’t live without water.

There were no herbicides in the Palestine of Jesus’ time, so there’d often be thorns in certain parts of the field.  Eventually they too would be ploughed under, but for now some of the seed falls there.  Predictably, the seed grows but is quickly choked out by the thorns and no grain was produced.

Then there’s other seed which finds dark, rich soil.  There the seed falls, takes root, grows and produces abundantly.  Some of the heads have 30 grains, others 60, and still others 100.  This would be what you would normally expect from seed falling on good soil.  

I want you to take note of what is similar and different in each instance.  What’s the same each time?  Well, it’s the seed, isn’t it?  The seed never changes.  It’s always the same kind of seed.  What’s different each time?  It’s the soil and the context in which it’s found. 

In verse 9, Jesus gives a summary of the parable with some mysterious words, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  What are they (and us) supposed to hear?  What’s this about?  Well, at this point all we can say is that this parable has something to do with hearing.  Only later do we get the full explanation from Jesus. 

Some time after these words were spoken, Christ was alone with the Twelve and some other disciples who were close to him.  They asked about the parables.  From the fact that they asked, obviously they didn’t understand.

The first thing he does is explain the key to understanding this parable and all parables.  He says it has to do with the secret or the mystery of the kingdom of God.  That secret or mystery has been given to those who eagerly sit at Jesus’ feet as his disciples, his apprentices.  That secret or mystery comes to those who are enrolled in Jesus’ school of discipleship.  But what is that secret or mystery?

Looking back to the Old Testament, secrets and mysteries were those things that could only come through God’s revelation.  Here the mystery involves the kingdom of God and the way it turns everything upside down.  The kingdom of God is completely the opposite of what we might expect.  The mystery of the kingdom is that it comes in things that seem to be totally absurd and inconsistent when considered from a worldly, earthly, this fleshly point of view.  Those enrolled in Jesus’ school of discipleship, those who humbly submit to his teaching, receive all these things in faith.  For instance, they say, “I don’t understand how it can be that the kingdom of God comes through the suffering and trials, but because my Lord Jesus tells me that it is so, I believe it, I believe him.”

Those on the outside are those who either refuse to hear the teaching of Christ or when they hear it, they mock it or ignore it.  The outsiders don’t sit properly in the school of our Lord Jesus.  If they happen to be in the classroom for some reason, they’re not listening with humility and they’re not interested in learning from him.  These are the ones to whom the parables are directed, according to verse 11.  Why?  Then comes the quote from Isaiah 6, “that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”  These are difficult words.  To those whose hearts are hard, Jesus says the parables will make their hearts harder.  The parables are an instrument of God’s judgment on his covenant people who won’t submit to the teaching of Christ.

This is where a lot of people run into problems.  We sometimes hear that parables are a good example of effective communication.  If you want to reach your audience and grab their attention, you need good illustrations.  Jesus gives great illustrations.  However, in his own words, the parables weren’t given for that purpose.  The first and primary purpose of the parables was as an instrument of God’s judgment, to make hard hearts even harder.  And this is where the context becomes important again.  These parables were first spoken to the Jews who lived during the time of Christ.  The hardening of their hearts served the redemptive purposes of God.  With hearts hardened, they didn’t think twice about crying out, “Crucify him, crucify him!”  With hearts hardened, they didn’t think twice about taking a murderer back into their community instead of releasing Jesus, the perfectly innocent Lamb of God.  You see, loved ones, as part of God’s perfect plan, the hardening caused by the parables served for our salvation.  The parables prepared the cross where Christ’s blood was shed for the forgiveness of your sins.  The parables prepared the tomb where Jesus was laid after he died for you.  It all fits together for your salvation.

So, while there’s judgment for some, there’s good news for believers in this passage.  That good news is also found in verse 13, “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Don’t you understand this parable?  How then will you understand all the parables?’”  There are people who love to tell riddles.  They love to stump others and see them squirm in their seats as they try to figure it all out.  But Jesus was not out to stump his disciples.  They just don’t get it.  Though they humbly submit to his teaching, the answer just doesn’t come to them.  Now notice what he does.  He doesn’t throw them away because of their dullness of mind.  He doesn’t reject them because they don’t get it.  He doesn’t go out and say, “I need to find brighter disciples who can understand my parables without an explanation.”  Instead, he gives them a gentle nudge and then he explains it for them. 

Now perhaps we too have a hard time understanding the mystery of the kingdom of God.  For instance, maybe we just can’t see at this moment how the way down is the way up.  Right now we can’t understand how taking up our cross daily is the way to glory.  Christ didn’t reject his disciples because they couldn’t get it, he won’t reject you either.  Like his Father in heaven, Jesus is patient with all his disciples, including us.  Yet the call remains for us to be disciples, to be humble students in his school.  If we say, “Lord, I don’t understand it, but I want to understand it, please teach me” – that’s a prayer he will hear and he will be patient with us as he continues to teach us.  Brothers and sisters, make sure you see the love and grace of your Saviour here.

Then in verse 14 he comes back to the Parable of the Sower and gives the explanation.  First he says, “The sower sows the word.”  Who is this farmer?  Jesus doesn’t directly tell us.  In the Old Testament, God was often the one sowing the seed among Israel.  In this immediate context, we can assume it’s Jesus himself who is sowing the word.  Elsewhere in the Bible, in 1 Corinthians 3, we find that Paul also sowed the seed.  So, it’s those who spread the word. 

That brings us to the next question:  what is the “word” here?  Well, naturally it’s what Jesus himself has been proclaiming:  the good news that the kingdom of God has come near in his person and work.  It’s the gospel that Jesus has come for salvation.  This is the message that Christ spread indiscriminately.  This is the message Paul and the other apostles preached, the message still preached today. 

Now we come to the explanation of what happens with the seed.  Some people are like this situation where the seed is sown along the path.  As soon as they hear it – and do note that they do hear it – as soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes it away.  No roots are sent down, nothing happens.  These kinds of people are the path.  These people are the path.  They’re hard, unfruitful soil.  Nothing happens when the gospel is spread among them and they hear it.  Again, note that they hear it.  Note too that when this parable was first told, it was told among God’s covenant people.  There are those, also today, who have received the sign and seal of God’s covenant and yet they remain dead in sin, lost in darkness.  They hear the Word, but nothing happens, nothing changes.

Let me be clear.  Christ didn’t give this parable so you can look around the church and figure out who fits where.  This isn’t a diagnostic tool for you to apply to the rest of the congregation.  If you’re tempted to do that, that’s the deceitfulness of your heart speaking, that’s snake-think, telling you to look to others instead of yourself.  Loved ones, our Lord Jesus gave this parable so you’d take a good hard look at yourself and make sure you’re not this kind of soil.  Make sure you’re not this barren, hard, unfruitful path. 

Then there are the rocky places.   They are those who hear the word and right away become enthusiastic.  They run on emotions, but good feelings can only get you so far.  A faith based on how you feel won’t persevere.  You’ll have no root and so you’ll only be around for a while.  Jesus says that when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, then these quickly fall away.  Think about that for yourself.  Would you still serve the Lord if you knew that doing so could have you arrested and put in prison?  Would you still say you’re a Christian if doing so could mean losing your job or other hardships?  Think about that.  Loved ones, take care that you’re not the rocky place where the seed can’t make deep roots that endure hard times and persecution.

Jesus then explains about the seed sown among the thorns.  These people too hear the Word.  They grow for a time.  But then they get choked.  What are the things that choke them?  What’s Christ warning us about here?

First of all, he speaks about the cares of the world, the worries of this life.  If you want to know what he means by that, go to the last verses of Matthew 6.  He says there not to worry about your life, what you will eat or drink or what you will wear.  Instead, trust your Father to provide you with all those things.  The cares of the world are just average everyday worries.  Worry about those things can choke out the seed and make it unfruitful. 

Second, he speaks about the deceitfulness of riches.  We need to pay careful attention to that phrase.  How are riches deceitful?  What are the lies that wealth often tells us?  That we’re self-sufficient, that we have made it for ourselves.  Wealth lies and tells us we’re pretty decent, it tells us we have good reason to be proud of ourselves.  Wealth also deceives us by telling us that if we only have a little bit more, then we’ll be truly happy.  Loved ones, contentedness isn’t found in addition but in subtraction.  Contentedness doesn’t come from getting more things, but from taking away from our evil desires for more things.  Wealth deceives us into thinking the other way around.  Wealth tells us that we’ll be happy if we’re rich and can have everything.  Yet 1 Timothy 6:10 tells us that those who want to be rich may very well pierce themselves with many sorrows.  Wealth lies to us and tells us we’ll be safe and secure with riches.  But the Bible teaches us that wealth is like honey – yes, it’s sweet to the taste, but it also attracts bees and wasps.  In the same way, the sweetness of prosperity invites the devil and temptation.  In this and so many other ways, the deceitfulness of wealth can choke out the seed and make it unfruitful.  Beware of the lies of prosperity!

Finally, there’s the catch-all thing that will choke out the seed, “desires for other things.”  In that category, we can mention all sorts of temptations.  Rather than give a list, we can see this along the same lines as the Tenth Commandment, wanting and longing for all sorts of other things instead of the one thing that truly matters, instead of the one person who truly matters:  Christ himself and the good news he preached.  That could be summarized with the question:  what’s the one driving passion of your life?  What or who do you desire above everything else?  If the answer is something else besides God, his glory, his gospel in Christ, the desires for other things are choking the seed in your life.  Someone once said, “What we hunger for most, we worship.”  True.  Beware of desires for other things that could choke out the Word in your life.

Then there’s the seed sown on good soil.  Like all the others, those too hear the Word.  And they accept it.  The word finds deep, rich soil in their hearts.  And it produces a crop – it produces fruit.  Some produce more than others, but they all produce.  We don’t know why some produce more than others and Jesus doesn’t say, but what’s most important is that they are good soil.  They’ve heard the word rightly, in the way intended by God. 

So, the message of this parable is:  be the good soil!  And you may think that if you have been one kind of soil in the past or present, that you can’t become the good soil now.  Wrong!  That would be stretching the parable to say something it doesn’t say.  Don’t be fatalistic about this.  Because your “soil type” isn’t like your blood type, that it can never be changed.  Christ himself teaches his disciples to be the good soil, to hear in humility what he has to say and follow him.  He calls you to be the good soil that hears the word, accepts it in faith and then goes forth and bears fruit.   And what does that good soil look like?  What does a good hearer of the Word look like?

Drawing from the parable, we can say that a good hearer always welcomes the Word immediately so Satan can’t snatch it away.  Even if we’ve heard it before hundreds or thousands of times, the good news is always music to our ears.  We welcome it right away.  The good hearer always welcomes it deeply so that when persecution comes, faith doesn’t wither and die.  We take it in our hearts.  The good hearer welcomes it exclusively so nothing else compares to the all-surpassing worth of knowing Christ and his gospel.  Immediately, deeply, exclusively – those are the ways to be the good soil that bears fruit to the glory of God.

We began by noting the cliché about familiarity breeding contempt.  I said that the parable itself demands the opposite response.  And so it does.  Rather than hearing the Word with contempt, sneering at it, we’re called to warmly welcome it each time we hear it.  Christ calls us, each and everyone, young and old, to be the good soil, to be good hearers of his word.  Let’s pray for the Holy Spirit to help us be such good hearers.  Let’s not have this parable stand in judgment over us.  AMEN. 


Father in heaven,

We acknowledge you as the one who has sown your word among us again this morning.  We thank you for that word and we pray that we would all be the good soil that welcomes the word immediately, deeply and exclusively.  Father, save us from the desires for other things.  Save us from the deceitfulness of wealth and the worries of this life.  Lord God, please have mercy on us and help us when we’re faced with persecution or trials of one sort or another.  We pray that the seed sown in us would persevere by your invincible grace and power. 


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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