This morning we continue in our study of the gospel of Mark, and if you’d like to follow along in your Bibles, we’ll be in Mark chapter 4.
The story of Jack and the Beanstalk has been a children’s favorite for many years. And you know how the story goes. Jack and his mother were starving to death. They were down to their last meal and, in desperation, his mother told Jack to take their only cow into town and trade it for food. But on the way, Jack met a man who convinced him to trade his cow for a handful of magic beans.
When Jack returned home with the beans, his mother was furious. She thought that Jack had been foolish and wasteful. Now they were both going to die. She threw the beans out the window and sent Jack to bed without any dinner.
The next morning, though, Jack woke up to find a beanstalk stretching all the way into the clouds. You remember what happened next. Jack climbed up the beanstalk, found a giant living in a castle, stole treasure from the giant, came back down, cut down the beanstalk and he and his mother lived happily ever after.
I suppose you could say that Mark chapter 4 is Christ’s version of Jack and the beanstalk. In this version, the disciples play the role of Jack. They are starving spiritually and they’re looking to trade whatever they have for something that will keep them alive. They meet a man on the road one day – by the name of Jesus — who tries to interest them in some magic seeds, seeds that will help them to find heavenly treasures, seeds that may not look like much but will grow eventually into great stalks reaching all the way up into the heavens.
Everyone else thinks the disciples are being foolish – the seeds cost too much (in fact, they gave up everything they had for these seeds) and they don’t seem to be worth much. Even the disciples sometimes questioned whether they were wise to trade their earthly cow for a handful of these seeds.
But of course, the seeds that Jesus offered them were magic seeds. They had power that exceeded anything they had ever seen. And they eventually learned that if those seeds are planted in the right soil, they can change the world. Though they may seem tiny and not look like much, they have the potential to become something truly magnificent.
Mark’s story of the ministry of Jesus to this point raises an interesting question. Why is it that Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, had such limited success making disciples? People from all over Palestine flocked to see him, but to this point Jesus has attracted very few people who are really his disciples. He doesn’t seem to be very effective at getting his message across.
As we saw last week, in chapter 3, Mark told us about four different groups of people who came in contact with Jesus. First of all, there were the crowds. Multitudes of people flocked to Jesus, but Mark tells us they weren’t really interested in following him. They were simply attracted to his miracles. Their interest didn’t go any deeper than that. They wanted to be healed, but they weren’t all that interested in anything else.
Jesus’ own family thought he was out of his mind, because he was so strange. He didn’t do the sorts of things that normal people do.
And then there were the Pharisees and the other religious leaders who thought that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy, someone who had no respect for God’s law, someone who was demon-possessed. And they rejected him completely.
The truth is there were very few people who were willing to listen to the message that Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God. Only a few people who were willing to make the necessary sacrifice to truly follow Jesus. And so, unfortunately, the number of Christ’s disciples was relatively low.
Think about it – Jesus taught for three and a half years, and when that time was up, we’re told that there were only 120 disciples in Acts 1. One hundred twenty men and women; that’s it! And I’m sure even they were beginning to question why Jesus didn’t make more disciples. Why wasn’t Jesus more successful? Why didn’t everyone respond to Jesus? Why couldn’t he make them listen and understand?
In Mark chapter 4, Jesus gives the answer to those questions. Mark records for us three of Jesus’ parables. All of these parables have something in common – they all have an agricultural theme as Jesus tells us about the magic seed, the kingdom seed, the word of God.
Last week, we looked at the first of these parables – the parable of the soils – and we saw that we have a responsibility to be good soil, to listen properly to the word of God so that the seed can germinate and grow in our hearts. The other two parables tell us that the kingdom seed is magic, it’s powerful, because it comes from God.
These parables are not just random stories that Jesus told. Mark has chosen these particular parables and included them at this particular point in his book for a specific reason. So, let’s take a look at these stories.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus used scenes from everyday farm life to illustrate his points about the gospel and the kingdom of God. And that shouldn’t be too surprising because most of Jesus’ listeners would have been farmers themselves or, at the very least, familiar with farming. It would have been easy for Jesus, as he was teaching, to point to a farmer in a field, or shepherds tending nearby flocks, or the numerous plants growing all around them, and make reference to the kingdom of God. The illustrations Jesus needed to make his points were literally all around him.
And, for a long time, these stories were effective. They didn’t require much thought or explanation, because our churches were filled with farmers. In fact, the reason churches started having worship services at 11:00 on Sunday morning was to give farmers enough time to take care of their morning chores, and then get to church.
But, over the years, more and more of us have moved to the cities. Fewer and fewer of us grew up on farms, and so, we miss a lot of the subtle points that Jesus is making in some of his stories. Jesus didn’t have to fill in all of the details because his listeners would have gotten it. But I’m not sure we do. So, let’s take a closer look at these three stories about the kingdom seeds.
Since we discussed the parable of the soils last week, I won’t spend much time with it this morning. But I do want us to be reminded of the basic point – how we listen to God makes all the difference in the world. In this parable, Jesus described four kinds of hearers:
Some people are like hard soil. They’re not interested in learning anything, and they reject the word of God completely.
Others are like rocky soil. Their faith is very shallow. They start out with a lot of enthusiasm, but they don’t have a commitment that helps them to stick with it, and eventually they fall away.
Still others are surrounded with weeds, and they allow their concern for the things of this world and their busy schedule to choke out their commitment to put Jesus first.
But fortunately, there are some who are good soil. They have good hearts that are willing to listen, who want to understand and obey the word of God.
One of the points of this parable is that if anyone chooses not to be a follower of Jesus Christ, the problem is not with the sower or with the seed. The problem is with the soil.
And so, the question of why so many people rejected Jesus and refused to follow him is found by looking at their hearts, because it is the soil that determines the outcome of the harvest. Good soil will always bear a crop, sometimes even a bumper crop. But Jesus tells us that we shouldn’t be surprised when the seed fails to bear fruit. There’s nothing wrong with the seed — the problem is with the soil, the heart of the hearer.
Jesus then turns his attention from the soil to the seed. From the responsibility of the hearer to the power that is in the seed itself. From the listener’s role to the role of God’s word.
Speaking as a preacher, I recognize that sometimes the task of teaching and preaching is overwhelming. I look around at people whose lives and beliefs are so different from what God wants them to be, and I sometimes wonder if there’s any way that we can possibly reach them. How many times have you talked with someone whose life is filled with immorality, whose language is filled with profanity, whose lifestyle is so ungodly, and you ask yourself, “Am I wasting my time talking with them about Jesus, because I just don’t see how it’s going to make any difference, I don’t understand how it will do any good.”?
But Jesus reminds us that we’re working with magic seed. And he knows that this seed has the ability to change lives.
I think Jesus would have appreciated the joke — Does anybody know how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb? The answer: Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.
This magic seed has the ability to change lives, if someone wants to change. And I think there are a lot of people around us who have a deep desire to have their lives changed. For starters, they want to look better and feel better. The power of advertising is that people want to change in some way or another, and the job of the advertiser is to convince them that his product or her service will bring about the change that people want.
But I think there are a lot of people who want more than that. They want to be changed on the inside, in a way that will help them to feel less guilty and more content, to experience more peace and joy. And there are a lot of programs, philosophies and religions that claim to be able to meet those needs. There are a lot of programs that can make people feel better about themselves, but they don’t have the power to change what really matters, and that is to make us right with God.
Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord said, “Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin? Can a leopard take away its spots? Neither can you start doing good, for you have always done evil.” (Jeremiah 13:23, NLT). God says you can no more change the lives of those who are used to doing evil, than a black man can change the color of his skin. Which is a pretty discouraging passage until you realize that what we don’t have the power to do, God’s Word does.
Jesus wants us to know that if you have a heart that wants to change, God’s word has the power to bring about some amazing changes in your life. But we need to always remember that the power to change people is not in us, it’s the seed. It’s in the Word of God.
As Paul said in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes….” The Greek word for power in that verse is the word “dunamis”, from which we get our English words “dynamo” and “dynamite”.
There’s power in the gospel message about Jesus Christ, and these next two parables focus on the word of God and show us the kind of power that word has when it comes in contact with good hearts.
The Parable of the Growing Seed
“Jesus also said, ‘The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, while he’s asleep or awake, the seed sprouts and grows, but he does not understand how it happens. The earth produces the crops on its own. First a leaf blade pushes through, then the heads of wheat are formed, and finally the grain ripens. And as soon as the grain is ready, the farmer comes and harvests it with a sickle, for the harvest time has come.” (Mark 4:26-29, NLT).
Jesus tells about this farmer who plants his seed in the soil. Then he goes about his ordinary life — sleeping, eating, working, etc. And while he’s busy doing all those other things, the combination of seed and soil and rain produces a crop. To sum up this parable in layman terms — “While that man is home in bed sleeping, that stuff is out in the field growing.”
Jesus’ point is this: we need to do our job – which is planting the seed, sharing our faith — but then we need to leave the process of growth to God. As Paul put it in I Corinthians 3, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (I Corinthians 3:6)
Our responsibility is to plant the seed. And then we’re responsible for watering the seed after we’ve planted it. But we are not responsible for making the seed sprout, grow and blossom. That’s God’s job.
And if we try to assume responsibility for the results of our teaching, then we take on a burden we were never meant to carry. I once heard someone refer to this parable as “the parable to end discouragement.”
Think about it. This farmer in Jesus’ parable could have stayed awake every night watching the field instead of sleeping, but the crops wouldn’t have grown any faster, and he would have lost a lot of sleep. He could have worried himself to death about whether the seeds would sprout, whether the rains would come, or whether the locusts would devour his crop. But, for all of his worrying, the end result would have been just the same.
Jesus’ point is this: let God do his job and trust him to take care of those things that you have no control over. The truth of the matter is, we can’t convert anybody; only the Word of God can convict and convert the lost. We can’t save anybody; only God can save the lost. The only thing we can do, and the thing we must do, is to share the Word of God with others, to point those who are lost to the one who can save them. When we’ve done that, we’ve done our job. God will do the rest.
As God said in Isaiah 55, “The rain and snow come down from the heavens and stay on the ground to water the earth. They cause the grain to grow, producing seed for the farmer and bread for the hungry. It is the same with my word. I send it out, and it always produces fruit. It will accomplish all I want it to, and it will prosper everywhere I send it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11, NLT)
So, don’t be discouraged if you plant the seed, but you don’t get to reap the harvest, if you’re not around to watch that seed sprout and grow. Don’t feel like you’re a failure if the person you’ve shared the gospel with doesn’t immediately decide to follow Christ. In fact, don’t be discouraged if you never see that person come to Christ in your lifetime. Because if that seed falls on fertile ground, it will grow. God will make sure of that.
Exactly how does that happen? I don’t know. Every now and then I’ll hear a story about a drug addict or a violent gang member converted to Christ and I wonder, How does that happen? How does a person undergo such a drastic change in his or her life? I don’t really understand.
But in the parable of the growing seed, the farmer doesn’t understand how a seed germinates and grows; all he has to do is to trust the process. If he plants the seed, something will come up. Because the power is not in him, the power is not in his ability to understand what’s going on — the power is in the seed.
In the same way, we don’t have to understand how hearts are converted for us to do our job of planting. Jesus assured us in John 16 that the Holy Spirit will convict the world. The Word of God is designed by God to do just that, so we don’t need to worry about whether or not it’s going to work effectively.
When placed in the heart of a good listener, the seed does some amazing stuff. All by itself, that seed sprouts and grows, it matures and bears fruit. The farmer may not understand how the seed works – all he can do is just sit back and watch and appreciate the magic. Because in the end, it is the seed which produces, not the sower. All we have to do is to trust the process.
On one occasion, the Sadducees tried to trap Jesus, and he rebuked them by saying, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God.” (Matthew 22:29). We need to be careful that we don’t limit what God can accomplish through his “magic seed”, the Word of God.
The power lies in the seed. It is the seed that knows how to grow. It is the seed that has the ability to change people’s lives.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
“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.’” (Mark 4:30-32).
Technically speaking, there are seeds smaller than the mustard seed. But the Jews accepted as proverbial that the mustard seed was the smallest of seeds, so Jesus speaks of it in that sense. It would be like me referring to somebody being “blind as a bat”. A bat’s not really blind, I realize that. But, it’s a part of our proverbial speech, and if I used that term, I don’t think anyone would claim I had said something that wasn’t true. That’s what’s going on here. It was proverbial to say that the mustard seed was the smallest of all seeds.
But it’s not just the smallness of the seed that Jesus points to. When that seed produced a plant, it became such a large shrub that birds would mistake it for a tree and build their nests in it. The point is this — what starts out as very small has the ability to grow very large.
If Jesus were teaching in this country, he might have used an acorn as an example instead. Have you ever considered that an acorn – which is so small that you can hold many of them in your hand at once – has within it the ability to produce a tree up to 100 feet tall with a trunk 30 feet in circumference, all contained in this one tiny little acorn?
So it is with the kingdom of God and God’s word. The word seems so tiny. Yet within that tiny seed lies the potential for greatness. That small start can give rise to something large in each one of us.
Both of these parables stress the power of the word of God. It grows all by itself from a small beginning into something that is very large and very strong. We don’t have to understand the process; we don’t have to chart and diagram how it works. But we do have to trust God.
Think about the disciples who first heard this message. Of all the people that we have met in Mark’s gospel so far, these are the only ones who have taken Christ seriously. And yet their faith is still weak and there’s a lot they don’t understand. How in the world can that faith and that understanding grow to the point where it needs to be?
What these parables teach them — and teach us — is that the smallness of a person’s faith is relevant as long as the soil of your heart is fertile. If you plant the seed of faith in your heart, no matter how small it may seem, it will bring forth fruit. Because the power is in the seed. All we have to do is to make sure that the soil is right.
I don’t know how many of you have seen the story about “The Daffodil Principle.” It’s a story that first appeared in print about 20 years ago about a woman who took her mother on a two-hour drive to Lake Arrowhead, California to see the daffodils. I’ll let the mother tell the story:
“After about 20 minutes, we turned onto a small gravel road and I saw a small church. On the far side of the church, there was a hand-lettered sign that read, “Daffodil Garden.” We got out of the car…and I followed Carolyn down the path. Then we turned a corner of the path, and I looked up and gasped. Before me lay the most glorious sight. It looked as though someone had taken a great vat of gold and poured it down over the mountain peak and slopes. The flowers were planted in majestic, swirling patterns – great ribbons and swaths of deep orange, white, lemon yellow, salmon pink, saffron and butter yellow. Each different-colored variety was planted as a group so that it swirled and flowed like its own river with its own unique hue. There were five acres of flowers.
“But who has done this?” I asked Carolyn.
“It’s just one woman,” Carolyn answered. “She lives on the property. That’s her home.” Carolyn pointed to a well-kept A-frame house that looked small and modest in the midst of all that glory. We walked up to the house. On the patio, we saw a poster.
“Answers to the Questions I Know You Are Asking” was the headline. The first answer was a simple one: “50,000 bulbs,” it read. The second answer was, “One at a time, by one woman. Two hands, two feet and very little brain.” The third answer was, “Began in 1958.”
“There it was. The Daffodil Principle. For me, that moment was a life-changing experience. I thought of this woman whom I had never met, who, more than 40 years before, had begun – one bulb at a time – to bring her vision of beauty and joy to an obscure mountaintop. Still, just planting one bulb at a time, year after year, had changed the world. This unknown woman had forever changed the world in which she lived.”
I think that story fits in so well with the parables we’ve been looking at. It reminds us that our job is to just continue to be faithful. Plant the seed (or the bulb). One at a time. Share your faith in Christ. Not all hearts will receive it. But in those hearts that are fertile soil, God will turn your meager efforts into something wonderful. Because the power is in the seed, the magic seed, God’s Word.