The Parable of the Sower – Mark 4:1-20
Good morning! If you can grab a Bible, I invite you to turn to the Gospel according to Mark. We are continuing in our sermon series on Mark, looking at Mark 4:1-20.
When I was looking ahead to what I was going to be preaching on, this morning, in Mark, I was amazed at how God orchestrated this. This morning, we are going to be looking at Jesus’ parable of the sower, which is a very well-known parable of Jesus, but what is amazing to me is that we are going to be looking at this parable, today, on Rural Missions Outreach Sunday.
Today is the day when we highlight the rural ministry of Village Missions. If you were not aware that this was a Village Missions church, this is a Village Missions church. Village Missions exists to glorify Jesus Christ by developing spiritually vital country churches in rural North America through the placement of pastors. The reason Helena and I are here is because of Village Missions.
Helena and I joined Village Missions around the same time that this church joined Village Missions, so it seemed fitting to put the two together. And we are so glad that we have had the opportunity, these three years, to be part of this body of believers.
This church is what is called a self-supporting Village Missions church, which means that this church is able to financially support us without the help of Village Missions. There are Village Missions churches in Canada and the United States, who need the help of Village Missions to financially support their Village Missionary. Your giving to this church means that Village Missions is able to continue ministering in rural areas all across the country.
And so, we just want to thank you as a church for your continued support of Village Missions, but we also want to let you know of the opportunity you have to give to this amazing ministry, today.
You should have a brochure that tells you how you can help and an offering envelope that you can fill out and mail to the Village Missions Canada head office, if you feel led to give.
All proceeds will be going towards the Canadian Helping Fund, which helps pay for unforeseen medical expenses for Village Missionaries. I know that the Helping Fund has been a huge help to a number of Village Missionaries as medical expenses have arisen.
So, we would just ask that you prayerfully consider giving to Village Missions. And if you have any questions about Village Missions, I would be more than willing to talk with you after the service.
The passage that we are about to look at, by God’s providence, ties in well with Rural Missions Outreach Sunday. So, if you have your Bibles opened to Mark 4, I’m just going to read the passage, and then we will dive in. Mark 4, beginning in verse 1: “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. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 ‘Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 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. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.’ 9 And he said, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’
“10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 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, 12 so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”’
“13 And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 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. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 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. 18 And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 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. 20 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.’”
For the first few chapters of Mark’s Gospel, we have seen Jesus proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom of God—the good news that God has visited mankind in the Person of Jesus Christ—and we have seen Jesus demonstrating what it looks like when the kingdom of God invades earth, by healing the sick and casting out demons.
And all of this has drawn a very large crowd. People are coming from all over the place to see this Jesus. Some are excited about what Jesus is saying and doing. Some are curious about what Jesus is going to say or do next. And some hate Jesus, because He’s infringing on their traditions.
And so, Jesus takes this opportunity, as He is in front of this large crowd of people, to tell them a series of parables. Now, if you aren’t familiar with parables, a parable is a story about earthly things that reveals a heavenly message. So, in the parable of the sower, and the parables that follow, Jesus is using earthly things to reveal something about the kingdom of God. Jesus is saying, “This is what the kingdom of God is like.”
But even though parables are about earthly things, they are very difficult to understand and interpret. In fact, if you look down at verse 11, after Jesus tells this parable of the sower, He takes His disciples aside privately, and says to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.”
In other words, the only reason the disciples know what the parable is about is because Jesus tells them what it’s about. If you only read the parable without the explanation of the parable, the only thing you would be wondering about is why the farmer isn’t more careful about where he scatters his seed. Right?
The parable itself doesn’t make any sense to us. It’s just a farmer sowing seed on different kinds of ground. What we need is Jesus to help us understand what this parable is saying. Apart from Jesus, we are left completely in the dark.
And that’s what Jesus has just finished saying, back in 3:31-35, that those who believe that Jesus is Lord and obey what He says are on the inside, but those who don’t believe that He is Lord and, instead, misrepresent Jesus are on the outside.
One commentator said that “parables are like stained glass windows in a cathedral, dull and lifeless from the outside but brilliant and radiant from within.”
By teaching this crowd of people in parables, Jesus is confirming the state of people’s hearts. If they are people who have hearts to hear what Jesus is saying, they will be given understanding of the mystery of the kingdom of God, but if their hearts are opposed to Jesus, they will remain on the outside due to their unbelief.
It’s why Jesus begins His parable by saying, “Listen!” and why He draws His parable to a close by saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” because He wants people whose hearts are going to be receptive to His teaching.
And so, my hope for us, this morning, is that we would be attentive, as we sit at the feet of Jesus and hear Him teach.
The parable speaks of a sower who scatters seed on the ground. Some seed falls along the path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns, and some on good soil.
And if you don’t understand what Jesus is saying in this parable, that’s alright, the disciples didn’t understand it, either. Verse 10 says, “And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.”
And you have to love Jesus’ gentle rebuke, in verse 13. He says to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?”
In other words, Jesus is saying, “If you don’t understand this one, well then, what hope do you have of understanding any of the parables?” And that’s the point. We are hopeless without Jesus turning on the light switch and letting us see what's in front of us. And by His grace, Jesus turns on the light switch and explains the parable to His disciples and to us.
Look at verse 14. “The sower sows the word.” Alright, so we now know what Jesus is saying the seed is that is being sown. It’s the Word, it’s the gospel, it’s the good news that the King of the kingdom of God has come in the Person of Jesus Christ.
Now, what does that make the sower? The sower is the one who preaches this Word. In this case, the sower is Jesus. Jesus is the One preaching this Word to all kinds of people. We’ve seen this all throughout Mark’s Gospel. This is what Jesus came to do. Mark 1:14-15 says that Jesus came to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom of God.
And if you look at Mark 4:1, this is exactly what Jesus is doing. He is in a boat on the sea and the people are on the land. Jesus is preaching, He’s scattering the seed of the gospel, and the people on the land are hearing it. But Jesus says there are going to be four responses to the hearing of this Word.
1. First, there are those who hear the Word, whose hearts are like the path.
Verse 15: “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.”
I have read this parable numerous times in my life, but this week, I became aware of what this response to the hearing of the Word means. How terrifying is it to know that Satan or, at the very least, some of Satan’s demons are walking around this sanctuary, trying desperately to snatch away the Word from us? How much more terrifying a thought is it to know that they might actually succeed?
It might be something as simple as a distraction. “I wonder what I am going to have for lunch. I wonder what the score of the football game is. I wonder when this sermon will be over. I have to get the laundry done. I have to get assignments marked for school tomorrow. I have to get the crops off the field. I have so much to do.” And all the while, Satan is using distraction as a means of snatching the Word from our hearts.
One of the most chilling books I have read is The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. The Screwtape Letters is a collection of letters written from the perspective of a mentoring demon, Screwtape, to his incompetent nephew, Wormwood, on how to draw their patients—human beings—closer to hell.
And in one of his letters to his nephew, Screwtape writes about how his patient’s train of thought was going in the wrong direction, but how he made the suggestion to him that it was just about time he had some lunch. And with a few more distractions, Screwtape says that he got into his patient an unalterable conviction that what he was thinking about just couldn’t be true.
Make no mistake, Satan will use whatever he can to take away the seed of the gospel from us. We can listen to sermon after sermon, but if our mind is caught up thinking about other things, we will go away from those sermons knowing no more than we did before we listened to them. And that’s terrifying. That’s the first response to the hearing of the Word.
2. Secondly, there are those who hear the Word, whose hearts are like the rocky ground.
Verse 16: “And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 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.”
What made me initially want to go to Bible College was when I went on a youth retreat as a chaperone for our church’s Youth Group. While we were at this youth retreat, God got a hold of me. I was captivated by the music and the preaching and the atmosphere. I was on this spiritual high, and I knew that this was where God was wanting me to go.
I came back from that youth retreat with what I thought was a renewed love for God. But it wasn’t long before I fell back into many of the wrong things that I had previously done, and I found myself in no better position than I was before, because I had tried to maintain that spiritual high instead of putting down roots.
These are those who receive the Word with joy, but who have no lasting effect. It’s like a spiritual high. You’re excited about Jesus and you’re telling people about Jesus. But sooner or later, you come down from your spiritual high, and if you don’t have spiritual roots, then all you have is a kind of surface Christianity. There’s an appreciation for the Word, but no real work of conversion.
At Nipawin Bible College, there is what’s called Missions Conference, which is a weekend during the school year for different missionaries to come and present their mission organizations to the students. It’s a very formative time for many of the students, in helping them decide what they want to do after Bible College.
But throughout the weekend, there are these sessions where a speaker from a mission organization will preach to the students and staff and faculty and anyone else who wants to attend the weekend.
And I remember this one guy, I don’t know what organization he was from, but he was an excellent speaker. And at the end of his last session, he gave this appeal to each one of the students. He gave each one of us a card and asked us, if we were willing to go anywhere in the world at any time, to put our name and phone number on that card and walk up to the front and put it in this box, and for us to know that we might get a call to be part of some kind of missions trip.
Now, normally, I don’t respond to those kinds of appeals, and I already kind of knew what I wanted to do by that time, so I really had no interest in filling out that card and putting it in the box at the front, which is fine, the guy wasn’t expecting every student to do this, he just wanted to open it up to anyone who did.
But as I looked around and saw who was all putting their cards in the box, I became very self-conscious. I suddenly thought that this was something that I needed to do, since almost everyone else was doing it, which is a terrible reason by the way. So, I filled out a card and walked up to the front and put it in the box.
I had no intention of going on a mission trip with this particular organization, and I never did get a call from them, but it made me realize something about making a decision in the moment.
Because here’s the tension: We want people to make an immediate decision to follow Jesus, but we don’t want people to think that all they need to do is say a prayer and they're good for the rest of their lives. We don’t want people thinking that they have fire insurance and that they can still live their lives how they want.
That’s not the Christian life. That’s someone whose root system is non-existent, so that when they go through some kind of tribulation or persecution, they immediately fall away, because it’s not what they signed up for. They didn’t sign up for a hard life; they signed up for their same old life but with Jesus on the side.
And Jesus is going, “It doesn’t matter how joyful you were to receive the Word, if you’re not with Me on the way to the cross, then you clearly don’t want the Word and you clearly don’t want Me.” That’s the second response to the Word.
3. Thirdly, there are those who hear the Word, whose hearts are like the thorny ground.
Verse 18: “And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 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.”
This past week, Helena and I watched a documentary called American Gospel: Christ Alone. The documentary examines how the prosperity gospel has distorted the gospel message. And as I was watching this, I found myself becoming both angry and sad at the same time.
People are being told that if they want the American dream, all they need to do is give their money to the Lord’s work, and pray hard enough, and do enough good things in their lives, and they will earn the favour of God and will receive all the desires of their heart.
That’s being preached as the gospel and it’s sick. That’s not the gospel. That’s exactly what we’re seeing here in this soil. There are those who hear the Word, but who are caught up with riches and desires for other things. And what Jesus is saying is that the Word will be choked out of these people when they don’t get what they want.
In Mark 10, Jesus is going to confront a rich young man, who says that he has kept all of the commandments since he was a boy, but who wants to know what he still needs to do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus’ response to him is for him to sell all that he has and give it to the poor. And it says that the man went away sad, because “he had great possessions.”
This was a man who had the Word choked out of him. Jesus is saying that unless the Word takes root in our lives, the “cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things” will choke us, because we want Jesus plus all these other things. That’s not the gospel.
4. And this leads us to the fourth and final response to the Word, and that is, there are those who hear the Word, whose hearts are like the good soil.
Verse 20: “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.”
This is what true Christianity is like. Though we might not all be at the same place in our walk with Jesus, we can know that those who hear the Word and accept it will bear fruit. There will be visible repentance in their lives. There will be mourning over their sin. Jesus says, in Matthew 5:20, “You will recognize them by their fruits.”
But listen to me: This is only by the grace of God. We aren’t naturally going to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. This is not something that we can look at in our lives and go, “Look at what I was able to do.” No, we are dead in our sin. We are completely incapable of doing the good we ought to do. The only way our hearts can respond to the Word like the good soil is because of Jesus.
Thanks be to God. He saved us, not as a result of our works, but according to His grace and mercy. Because Jesus lived the perfect life, and died the death we deserved to die, and conquered our enemies of sin and death, we can bear fruit.
Jesus gives us four different responses to the Word being preached. The question we need to ask ourselves is: What soil are we? What kind of hearer are we? With what kind of hearts do we hear the word?
If you find yourself, this morning, responding like the first three soils, then maybe ask God to prepare your heart to receive His Word. Say to Him, “Lord, make me receptive to your Word. Keep Satan away from me so that your Word can take root. Cause spiritual roots to sink down deep so that I can have lasting joy in you. Guard me from the desire for other things. Create a harvest in me.”
But know that once you take that step in asking God to do a work in your heart, the process might be painful. As God tills the soil of your heart, it might expose some things in you that won’t be pretty and might hurt as God removes them.
But once the gospel takes root and God gives the growth, you will begin to bear the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
But this doesn’t happen if we don’t listen. This doesn’t happen if our hearts are not receptive to the Word. When Satan is tempting us to despair, we need to listen to Jesus. When we are facing trials and temptations, we need to listen to Jesus. When we are faced with the desire of wanting Jesus plus works plus prosperity plus good health, we need to listen to Jesus. We need to go to the Word and sit at the feet of Jesus as He ministers to our heart.
That’s the first point of application that I want to leave us with, this morning. The second point of application is that we have been called to take this message of the gospel to the nations. We become the sower of the seed, scattering on all kinds of soil.
And this is where we again find ourselves incapable, because we know that there is little we can do to produce a harvest of “thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” But that also isn’t our responsibility. We don’t give the growth. We have simply been called to go and preach the gospel. It’s God who gives the growth and it’s God who works through us to sow the Word in people’s hearts, regardless of how they will respond.
But then, we read this good news in Isaiah 55:10-11: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
Are there going to be challenges and setbacks and obstacles to preaching the gospel? Yes. Look at Jesus. He is preaching to a crowd of people, and some of that seed is falling on the path, some is falling on the rocky ground, some is falling among thorns, but some of that seed is falling on the good soil. And according to Jesus, it’s worth it.
We will encounter frustration in sharing the gospel, but the good news is that God will open the hearts and minds of those like the good soil, and He will cause them to understand the mystery of the kingdom of God, and He will produce a harvest beyond what we can even imagine. We have simply been called to preach.
Church, this is what Village Missions is all about. They go into the rural areas and they keep the gospel presence alive and thriving in these communities. Preach the Word and love the people. That’s the motto of Village Missions.
But this is not just for Helena and me. This is for all of us. Are we preaching the Word and are we loving people enough to tell them the good news—that there is a God who loved the world so much, that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
That’s the Word that Jesus proclaimed and that’s the Word that we proclaim. The question is: What kind of response is this Word going to have in our heart and our mind, today? Let’s pray…