The Enigma of Jesus (Mark 4:1-20)

NGW_partners_logo_NLWToday marks the final day of the Royal Horticultural Society’s, National Gardening Week. It is a celebration of all things green. The aim of National Gardening Week is to encourage people to help keep their neighbourhoods, environments and shared spaces beautiful through gardening. The tagline is ‘Start Something Beautiful.’

My father was a gardener, although his would never have featured in National Gardening Week. Although he did grow flowers for the table, his was primarily a vegetable garden. Through the winter, autumn, spring and summer I would watch him patiently turn over the soil with his fork, manure it, weed it, water it and lovingly nurture seeds and seedlings into organic potatoes, shallots, carrots, parsnips, swedes, peas, runner beans, broad beans, onions, tomatoes, cabbages, cauliflowers, rhubarb, black currents and fat, juicy, strawberries.

Although he tried to pass on those green fingers, I have singularly failed to replicate them in Virginia Water. I blame it on the soil, on the deer, the squirrels and birds, but I know the answer lies deeper inside. Whether we love or hate gardening, the parable of the sower is probably the most well known story told by Jesus.

What is a parable? As one of P.G. Woodhouse’s characters complains, “A parable is one of those stories in the Bible which sounds at first like a pleasant yarn, but keeps something up its sleeve which suddenly pops up and knocks you flat.”

Lets find out how, in the parable of the sower.

The Context of the Parable 4:1-2, 10-12
The Meaning of the Parable 4:14-20
The Application of the Parable 4:9

  1. The Context of the Parable

 “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. He taught them many things by parables.” (Mark 4:1-2)

What do you read into the context of the parables which Mark describes? It depends on your perspective. Large crowds mean different things to different people. If you have been wired by God as a pastor, seeing a large crowd will energize you. Like Jesus you will be looking for the nearest boat to preach from. If you are a budding churchwarden however, you might be counting the available chairs. If you are a policeman you might be thinking about crowd control.

And if you have the makings of a despotic ruler then you will be worried about the possibility of revolution. Remember this is still in the first few months of Jesus’ public ministry.

He is already attracting large crowds and stirring controversy. Jesus therefore chose to speak in parables for two reasons:

  1. Because story is a more effective and memorable means of communicating truth than straight propositions. We remember and can retell stories easily but not speeches.
  2. Because story is a wise approach in a hostile environment. Jesus had come to die, but not yet. He would only reveal why he came when the people understood who he was.

The watershed of Mark’s gospel comes in Mark 8:29-31.

“Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.”   Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:29-31)

Mark 1-8 is answering one question “who Jesus is?” Mark 9-16 is answering one question “why did Jesus come?” Jesus is therefore careful not to agitate the crowds or give the authorities an excuse to arrest him before they understand why he came. This explains why Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6. Isaiah also met with hostility when delivering God’s message. God longs for people to repent and be forgiven. He is not willing that any should perish. But some people are resistant. Parables are therefore the most effective means but also most appropriate means of conveying God’s truth to a skeptical and hostile world. The context for the parable.

  1. The Meaning of the Parable

 This parable really doesn’t need explanation, just application. That’s because Jesus explains it’s meaning as well. The sower is God. The seed is the word of God – the gospel. The seed is cast everywhere. What happens to it depends on the soil.

2.1 The Hard Path: No Understanding of Jesus

 “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.” (Mark 4:15)

 You can tell when someone is not listening to you. Their eyes glaze over, as if they are looking right through you. They are miles away or they blank you out. Jesus said “hearing they hear not”. What makes people hard? Things like cynicism and pride act like concrete and the good news just bounces off. Our drive way is made of asphalt. It is hard and the seeds that fall on it get washed away.

But if you take a look at it sometime you’ll notice the asphalt is actually breaking up. Seeds that fall on it may not be able to get through. But amazingly some seeds already in the soil below are breaking through. It’s amazing to see the power of a seed, a plant or a root is able to break through even asphalt. So don’t be discouraged.

The hard ground represents those who do not really understand the person and work of Jesus. They may be hardened to the gospel but through you, through your love and your witness and your prayers, God’s power can break through. It can. God can break up misunderstanding, he can soften indifference he can crack open pride, and the seed of the gospel can bear fruit. I know, because God’s grace did for me. The hard ground.

2.2 The Stony Ground : A Shallow Understanding of Jesus

“Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. 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.” (Mark 4:16-17)

These are impressionable people who hear the word and make an emotional decision. They join all the groups, buy all the books, go on all the courses. But when they begin to experience the cynicism of relatives or the sarcasm of neighbours, their fervor dries up, their zeal becomes stunted.

The problem is the lack of depth to enable their roots to grow down deep and draw up nourishment. How can we avoid shallowness in our spiritual lives? On Easter Sunday we renewed our pledge to follow Christ and commitment to serve as members of Christ’s Church for the year ahead.

As I reminded you, 60 years ago, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York produced a leaflet called “A Short Guide to the Duties of Church Membership” By God’s Grace, and with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us, I will endeavor:

  • To follow the example of Christ in home and daily life, and to bear personal witness to Him.
  • To be regular in private prayer day by day.
  • To read the Bible carefully.
  • To come to Church every Sunday.
  • To receive the Holy Communion faithfully and regularly.
  • To give personal service to Church, neighbours, and community.
  • To give money for the work of parish and diocese and for the work of the Church at home and overseas.
  • To uphold the standard of marriage entrusted by Christ to His Church.
  • To care that children are brought up to love and serve the Lord.

These simple disciplines summarize how we can become fully devoted followers of Jesus – and ensure we have a depth of faith that can withstand persecution on the one hand and shallowness on the other. If you have never taken seriously what it means to be a member of Christ Church, or you want a reminder, pick up the Membership leaflet or go online to

So, the Hard Path stands for those who do not understand the good news about Jesus and are deceived. The Stony Path, stands for those with a shallow faith that easily dries up in adversity.

2.3 The Thorny Ground : A Choked Understanding of Jesus

“Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 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.” (Mark 4:18-19)

These are people who hear the word gladly. They are sincere, and they make a solid beginning in the life of faith. God begins to bless them. They have children, grandchildren. They succeed in their jobs, promotion brings a pay rise but also additional responsibilities. They must be away more often. There’s the second home to keep up, the club membership privileges to take up. And before long, these good things begin to choke out their first love for Jesus. “You cannot serve God and money” said Jesus. What is it that can choke your faith?

Jealousy or greed and worry can easily distract us, take our mind off trusting Jesus and choke our faith. There’s another reason weeds grow. Laziness. Every gardener knows that a weed free garden doesn’t happen by accident. It takes a lot of hard work to remove the weeds that would choke the vegetables and flowers. Gardeners know they must be ruthless with weeds. The weeds must be pulled up and burnt.

For six years we couldn’t understand why the apple trees in our garden had not grown an inch. Then Fiona Harrison explained that we had allowed grass to grow up to the trunk of the trees. Grass gives off a chemical that inhibits the growth of other plants. We’ve dug around the trunks and surprise, surprise, the trees are growing. Prayer is just as hard as keeping weeds out of the garden, and just as effective when we pray regularly. Use the monthly church prayer guide in your daily devotions to keep the weeds of worry, jealousy and greed at bay.

The Hard Path describes an indifferent faith that’s easily deceived.

The Stony Path, a shallow faith that quickly dries up.

The Thorny Path, a cluttered faith that becomes choked.

2.4 The Good Soil : A Biblical Understanding of Jesus

“Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop–thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.” (Mark 4:20)

What a difference when seed is sown on good soil! What a difference hearing, understanding and obeying God’s word makes. The Bible is the word of God. It is the seed Jesus is talking about here. When we share the word of God we can trust that people will come to faith in Jesus because it is the living active sword of the Spirit. People will only come to faith in Jesus Christ as the Scriptures about Him are proclaimed:

‘”Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?… “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news! … Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.’ (Romans 10:13-17)

The Apostle Peter adds: ‘For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.’ (1 Peter 1:23)

We’ve looked at the:

The Context of the Parable (Mark 4:1-2, 10-12)

The Meaning of the Parable (Mark 4:14-20)

  1. The Application of the Parable

‘Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear”’ (Mark 4:9)

Each one of us is somewhere in God’s field. What kind of soil do you identify with? Think about those you love. What kind of soil best reflects them at this moment? How can we help them not only come to faith in Jesus Christ but deepen our faith, grow to maturity and bear much fruit? Three ways:

3.1 Have Confidence in the Seed

“I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16)

The seed is the word of God. Get to know it and love it. Do not be ashamed to read it, to quote it, and to share it. Learn to handle is accurately and sow it widely.

3.2 Always be Sowing the Seed

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)

Look for opportunities to share Jesus with your friends and family, neighbours and colleagues.

3.3 Trust the Lord of the Harvest

“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Luke 10:2)

Pray for your church family (use the church directory in your daily prayers as we do as a staff team), pray for our mission partners – especially our mission of the month (on the back of the monthly prayer card), pray for those who need to hear the gospel (adopt a road and deliver Connection magazine and pray for each home as you deliver it). Remember that God is the Lord of the Harvest and the world is His Harvest Field. Have confidence in the seed. Always be sowing the seed. Pray to the Lord of the Harvest to bear fruit in you and through you, by his grace and for his glory.

Lets pray.