A wise man from Greenbow, Alabama once said, “Mama always told me, life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
In 1933, a motivational speaker told his audience, “Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised.”
We want to know, don’t we? When it comes right down to it, we don’t really like surprises. Now, I am not talking about surprise parties. Most people love those. Walking in to a room full of people who have shown up to express their love for you? Who wouldn’t love that? (Hint, hint: My birthday is in May. Wink wink, Just kidding. Not really)
But when it comes to the trajectory of our lives, or the lives of our most loved ones, we would be happiest if everything would just stick to the plan, right? I am curious, how many of you can look back and say that it all went according to your plan? That everything happened EXACTLY the way you thought it would or should?
If there is anyone, you and I – we need to meet for coffee because I need to know how you managed that because my life is three states over from where it was supposed to be!)
Well, the Israelites were like that, too, right? They had hundreds of years of waiting, of exile and return, of silence even, to be thinking about and forming their expectations of what their freedom from oppression would look like. Prophets had told them a King was coming who would rule forever, and foretold the destruction of Israel’s enemies. They had been promised protection and restoration. And you can imagine amid the oppression of Rome that a change in their physical, sociopolitical circumstances would be pretty high on their list of priorities for the coming king.
In our passage today, Mark chapter 4, verses 1-35, the author wants to show us that we are fallen people who just might miss the king. He wants us to see that for those who have ears to hear, expect the unexpected because the Kingdom of God has come, and it is not what we thought it would be.
Ears to Hear
We start in verse 1 with a return to the crowd.
Again, he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and ca hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Can you imagine being part of that crowd? Especially if you have been following along a bit, and you are a disciple. Jesus has been teaching and healing, and then he lays this story on you.
If you are like me, you probably lean over to your buddy, and are like “Umm, okay. What in the world is he talking about? Are we going to start throwing seeds out as we walk? I don’t want to ask him, you ask him! No, don’t do it now! What if we are the only ones who don’t understand. Just wait till later and we can ask when there’s fewer people around. Sheesh! I can’t take you anywhere!”
And then you wait until the big crowd is gone, and your oh- so-braver-than-you friend asks the question. The dialogue may have been different, but this is what happened, right? Jesus told this parable. Obviously, it was meant to teach something, but no one, it seems, understood it. Look at verse 10:
And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that
“‘they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”
And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?
I have to wonder if they didn’t look at him the same way I looked at my algebra teachers. (Or even my husband, the former math teacher as he helps our son with his precalculus.)
Yeah, I hear words. I see the exponents and the numbers 4 and 2. I don’t understand what you are trying to tell me.
Or like Marlin in Finding Nemo? “It’s like he’s trying to speak to me, I know it! You know you’re really cute, but I don’t know what you’re saying! Say the first part again.”
They weren’t getting it. And Jesus quotes from Isaiah as a warning to them about the hardness of heart and its ability to keep them from hearing the truth. He is quoting Isaiah here, and Isaiah was taking about the hard-heartedness of Israel even then. To the ones who don’t hear, who don’t understand, do not harden your hearts even further. Don’t stay confused. Lest you never turn and be forgiven. It is a strong warning, similar to the blasphemy we saw last week, that a heart that is soft and willing to seek Jesus is better than any prideful, stubborn response you might be tempted to have. It is as if he is both praising them for asking because it shows a softness of heart, but at the same time warning them to not lose that softness.
And he warns us the same thing.
Do not grow complacent or lose your soft-heartedness because you have been here, or at church on Sunday under great teaching, and don’t stop seeking to understand God’s word for yourself. Be hungry! And in those times when your hunger seems to fade, pray! Pray the Holy Spirit would renew your hunger and thirst for the Word of God.
Jesus continues by explaining what the parable meant.
The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
His explanation reveals that you are meant to consider what kind of soil are YOU? Are you hard-hearted like the path – been walked on and packed down hard so that nothing gets in?
Or are you like the rocky soil? You hear the word and you are inspired, on fire, and swept away by the truth, but when hard times come – and they come for all of us, don’t they? Death, disease, broken relationship, parenting. When those times come, do you have a root that will withstand the pressures, or will you fall away?
Or maybe you are the thorny soil. You hear it, you believe it, but you are allowing the word to be choked out by the pressures and desires of the world around you. It may grow, but it cannot bear fruit in these conditions. Are you surviving, but not thriving?
Or are you the good soil? You heard the word, you accepted it, and now you are growing, bearing fruit, and flourishing?
We saw in our homework that Jesus wanted to provoke a response. So, how will you respond? Will you be honest, and admit that you are a kind of soil that needs some tending? Are you a little rocky, and need the Holy Spirit to dig you out, overturn you a little so you are ready to better receive the word? Or are you a thorny patch that needs to be cleared so the sunshine can get in and you can produce fruit?
We all want to be the good soil, right? But apart from Jesus and his work on the cross on our behalf, we can’t be! But because he has taken our punishment and given us his righteousness, we can be good soil!
We can have ears to hear.
And when we have ears to hear, we need to expect the unexpected. Because the Kingdom of God has come, and it is not what we thought it would be.
Expect the Unexpected
We move into our last three parables and we see even more that Jesus is turning the status quo on its head. Let’s consider the parable of the lamp:
21 And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
Have you ever walked out into the kitchen in the middle of the night to get a drink of water and turned on the light? It hurts, right? But it is serving its purpose – we turn on the light so we can see. For them, Jesus’ original audience, they didn’t have a light switch to flip, but they knew better than we do that when you bring the lamp in, it is because you need its light! There was no ambient light at night to navigate the hallways with. No streetlights sending subtle, non-eye-hurting light to guide your way. You brought it in SO THAT it would shine! Hiding it under a basket or a bed is not only dumb, but dangerous! (Their lamps were fire, y’all!)
The lamp is the proclamation, the revelation of the kingdom of God through Jesus. But what do we see when we examine our lives by the light of the revelation of the Kingdom of God?
Ugh. Not so great, right? There’s the stain from that sin there, and the schmutz on the floor over there from the harsh words at dinner last week. But that is the point. The kingdom has come in the person of Jesus Christ, so that we might see that the life we have lived is nothing compared to the perfect life Jesus lived. He has come to usher in a new covenant, making manifest the ways that, apart from him, we sit under judgement because of the law. Not to keep our dirty hearts covered so that he can conquer political foes, because as Adrienne pointed out a few weeks ago – our sin is our biggest problem, and he is the one who will solve it for us.
Just a side note here. There are some who would take this passage, particularly the last bit, and twist it into a prosperity gospel. This is not a promise of health and wealth. This is a promise that for those who believe, they will be given more – and that more is Jesus, and life eternal with him! And for those who don’t believe, they will lose everything in the end. We just want to be clear with that.
And then the next two parables are about seeds.
And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Do you garden? Do you farm? I know some of you do, and you do it well. Let me ask you, how do you make your plants grow? Ha! It’s a trick question! Like the farmer in the first seed parable, it’s not you who makes the plant grow, it is God. But this parable is not here to give us farming tips – it’s not saying, trust the Lord for your harvest – I mean, yes, that is what you should do, but that is not what he is saying here. No, this is continuing to point out the slow, staged growth of the kingdom.
It is continuing to show that the kingdom is not going to be realized the way Israel expected.
It was not going to be because they did anything, and it was not going to happen all at once. But they were going to need the patience and trust of a farmer to watch and wait for God to accomplish his work.
And then the mustard seed. One of my favorite experiments with my kids for science is dissecting a seed. We had to use lima beans because they are big enough for small hands to work with. It always amazes me to consider that all of the necessary information and building blocks for this vine and bean bearing plant is contained within this little seed. How much more would the Israelites have marveled at Jesus’ claim that the Kingdom would start out as small as a mustard seed, but grow to amazing, unexpected, and unfathomable size and influence – especially when you see how it starts!
The kingdom of God had come in the person of Jesus – starting out as a baby in a manger, no less, but it is going to amaze even us, 2000 years later, as we continue to see it grow and flourish.
Do you see it? Do you look for evidences of the growth of God’s kingdom in the world around you? What are the evidences you look for? Stories from the mission field are always encouraging! I love when supported workers come and give their reports. There aren’t always conversion stories, but there is evidence even in the faithfulness of the workers to continue to share the gospel.
What about in your neighborhoods? In your schools? Is it hard to see? Are we so hardened to the ways the world is different from us that we forget to look for evidence of grace around us?
Does it surprise you? That God would do the unexpected? Jesus has been showing his disciples over and over again that what they thought was off, and he had come to make it right. It shouldn’t surprise you too much, especially when you consider that even your salvation was achieved in a most unexpected way.
After Adam and Eve sinned, and were cast from the garden because of their rebellion, God continued to pursue an unfaithful people, to the point of sending his own, perfectly obedient and sinless son to die in our place. He did this so that we might respond – this is the word the Sower sowed, the gospel of Jesus Christ. What is the response of the good soil? Repent. Believe. Follow.
If you are not sure what this would look like for you, talk to the women at your table, or come talk to any of the group leaders or teachers. We want to help you explore this more. There is no more important decision in your life than how you will respond to the question, “Who is Jesus?”
Unexpected circumstances are hard. We want to control what happens in our lives, don’t we? No one gets sick, no one loses a job, no one gets their heart broken. We want to spare ourselves and our loved ones from the hurts that up-end our lives the most. Because we love them, right? We want our plans to work out.
If we are honest, they rarely do. But praise Jesus, we serve a God who has it all under control, and everything is going perfectly according to his plan.
For those who have ears to hear, expect the unexpected. Because the Kingdom of God has come, and it is not what we thought it would be.