Stories that Stick: The Gospel from the Ground Up

Sermon by Gabe Fluhrer on November 9, 2015

Mark 4:10-20

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As you’re being seated, please turn with me in your Bibles to the gospel of Mark in the fourth chapter. It’s on page 839 in your pew Bibles. As we begin a series, as Wiley kindly mentioned, on the parables this evening, we begin with what we know as the Parable of the Sower.  And we’ll be looking at the latter half of that parable in Mark 4:10-20 where Jesus gives the explanation. And the parable may or may not be familiar to you, but He’s got these three different soils He describes and then comes with this last one which is the only one that bears fruit. And then He begins to explain it to His disciples. And that’s where we’ll pick it up this evening. Let’s go to the Lord in prayer.


Speak, O Lord, that Your majestic authority might be seen, not in the eloquent words of man’s wisdom for we have none, nor in a magnification of the one who speaks, but only through Your holy Word, mediated to us, given to us, opened and unfolded to us by Your Holy Spirit. Would You do that for us this evening? We want to know you. We want to be those who hear well. Would You plow up the soil of our hearts for the glory of Your great name? And we ask it all through our great High Priest, Jesus. Amen.


Mark 4, beginning at verse 10. This is the inerrant Word of God:


“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? 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.’”


The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of our God shall stand forever. Amen.


The first time he preached the sermon, his congregation filed in quietly, listened somewhat attentively, and filed out afterwards without saying a thing to him. He was a busy pastor, so when a congregation a few miles away asked if he would preach for them he decided to preach the same sermon he had preached to his own congregation only two weeks earlier. And when he ascended the pulpit, in Enfield, Connecticut on July 8, 1741, Jonathan Edwards fixed his eyes on the back of the church and read from his manuscript, Sinners In the Hands of An Angry God. And as he began the sermon and began to unfold the doctrine of everlasting punishment, he all of a sudden noticed he had to stop because of the shrieks coming up from the congregation. They were crying out! He had to do that five times before he finished the sermon. And at the end, it’s largely recognized as probably the greatest sermon ever preached in America. The same sermon, two different, very different results. The question for us is, “Why?” And I think the differing reactions to Edwards’ sermon illustrate the principle before us tonight. The problem is not so much with the sower; it’s the ground to which the sower sows the seed that’s the problem. And that’s what Jesus explains for us tonight and He wants our hearts to be that good soil and that’s why He speaks to us as He does.


Just a brief outline of Mark, where we find ourselves this evening. Mark 1 through 8 is basically an unfolding of who Jesus is, and Mark 8 through 16 really answers the question, “What did He come to do?” So we’re in that original section here – who Jesus is. And we come to the beginning of the parables, the parallel is in Matthew chapter 13, and we can do no better than one of the early writers who summarized the parables this way, “An earthly story with heavenly meaning.” Or as we’ve titled this series; “Stories that stick with us long after they’re told.” You see, parables, the way our Lord uses them, and He was not the only one to use them! Other teachers used parables, but Jesus is the only one to have used them this way. And they simultaneously conceal the truth for some, and then reveal it for others. They have a duel function that way. They conceal and they reveal. And this parable, as our Lord told us in verse 13, really acts as a gateway for the rest of the parables that we’ll study. And I want to look at this text with you under two headings this evening. In verses 10 through 12, the sovereignty of God in revealing the truth! The sovereignty of God in revealing the truth! And then in verses 13 to 20; the responsibility of man in responding to the truth! The responsibility of man in responding to the truth!


I.The Sovereignty of God in Revealing the Truth


First of all then, the sovereignty of God in revealing the truth! Jesus begins this way, “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.” “To you,” He says, to the Twelve, to those whom He has handpicked and a group of followers that surround Him. We know reading from the book of Acts that there was likely those beyond the Twelve who were part of the original disciples. The Twelve were called as apostles. And He brings them around Himself and says to them, “It’s to you that I’m going to reveal this secret.” And what He’s doing here, and what a major theme in this Gospel is, is very simply this. There are those who are outsiders and those who are insiders, and anyone can become an insider but the insiders don’t often look like the insiders. If that sounds horribly philosophical, let me explain! It simply means this. There are those who everybody thought would be insiders, like the religious authorities, those who studied the Word all the time, and they end up being the outsiders who crucify our Lord. And then there are those like the twelve fishermen, one of them a revolutionary, Simon the Zealot. And these are the ones Jesus chooses and brings close to Himself.


And you see, what God is doing here is illustrating that principle Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 1 when he says to us, “It’s not the mighty of this world who are called but those whom the world overlooks. That’s who God chooses to reveal the truth to! Those who look like outsiders; prostitutes, tax collectors, those who the world forgets! Those are the ones that Jesus calls and brings near to Himself and shares the truth with. That’s the beauty of grace, my friends, isn’t it? Fishermen become insiders while those who had spent their lives studying this book became outsiders. And you see the Gospel very simply is this, if you’re not a Christian here this evening – only those who see their need will become insiders because it’s only those who have been awakened to their need that will come to Jesus. The rest will remain outsiders. If you don’t think you need grace! if you don’t think you need Jesus! that means you’re an outsider. As long as you keep Him at arm’s length in pride, that indicates, according to Jesus, that you are an outsider.


But then He says this. “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for the rest, the outside, everything is in parables.” Notice what He says. “To you has been given.” And what He’s saying to them is, “I’m bringing you close to know Me.” You see, it’s not enough just to know about Jesus. There are plenty of people who know about Him who don’t know Him! What He’s saying to this group He’s drawing close to Himself, and that includes us listening tonight, is saying, “I want you to know Me in a relationship!” That’s what He’s getting at! And then He speaks words that cause commentators to trip up. I probably read and saw and didn’t read at least another fifty pages about what this word, “lest,” means there in verse 12. What is Jesus saying? He’s quoting from Isaiah chapter 6, and this is a hard teaching as I mentioned. And what happens in Isaiah chapter 6, (and that’s going to help us understand what’s going on here) is that the religious leaders in Jerusalem, back at that time, refused to listen to Isaiah’s preaching. And as they refused to listen, they became more and more hardened in their unbelief against the prophet. And Jesus says, “If you want a picture of what’s going to happen in My ministry, look back to Isaiah. That’s what’s going to happen in my own ministry. It’s going to be a hardening ministry for some. There’s going to be those I choose to bring close to Myself and there’s going to be those who I passed by.” Now that, again, is hard for us to hear.


But let me use an Old Testament picture I hope to help you understand that. Think about the pillar of fire in the book of Exodus. What did it do? It brought light to the children of God, to the people of Israel. It guided them through the darkness. But what did it do for the Egyptians? It concealed the people of God from them. It brought nothing but darkness to them. And Jesus is saying the Word preached like the sower sowing will provide light for those who come to Jesus in humble faith but Jesus and His words will remain dark to you if you do not come to Him in faith. So there’s a process here. There’s an initial hardening, perhaps, by the hearer or by God’s sovereign appointment. And then that only grows as people turn away from Him in pride and in arrogance and in unbelief. And we tend to think that this is simply not fair. I hear that objection. It lands. We live in America. We choose our leaders. God does not run a democracy though! He’s sovereign over everything! And let me say to you that the worst news in the world tonight, the worst news would be if God dealt with sinners fairly. The worst news would be if we got what’s fair. The best news in the world that Jesus is going to unfold for us is we don’t get what’s fair. We ought never come to God and say, “Please give me what I deserve. Please be fair to me.” Because the only thing every one of us deserves since the fall of Adam is the everlasting wrath of God, not His grace. In short, all of us deserve to be passed by. There’s no good reason for any of us to be here tonight apart from the sovereign, amazing, death-killing, Christ-exalting grace of God! That’s what Jesus is saying! And Paul makes it clear again to the Corinthians. He says, “If you have anything, anything at all, don’t boast. It’s all a sheer gift of grace.” Everything you and I have. What do you have? From your heartbeat, to the ability to see and hear, to sitting here tonight, what do we have beloved, that we did not receive? That’s Paul’s point. That’s what Jesus is after. So we see the sovereignty of God in revealing the truth and then we see the responsibility of man in responding to the truth.


II. The Responsibility of Man in Responding to the Truth


Sown Along the Path

Jesus explains, beginning at verse 14, “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.” That’s the first soil we come across. It’s hard soil. It’s a well-worn trail. If you like to do any hiking and you’ve been in places where they’ve done a good job making the trails clear, its hard-packed ground. That’s the image Jesus has here in mind and He uses that image to illustrate the condition of a heart. And it’s not so much a heart that is hardened in that sense, but a heart that is careless, a heart that hears and hears and hears and comes with studied, persistent opposition. Maybe that’s you tonight! You are not going to let some preacher, especially in a bowtie, knock you off your game. That’s not going to be you! You’re not going to hear that! Maybe you come here week after week to hear that. Maybe you say, “I’m not going to be the one to bow the knee! Christianity is for weak people! It’s a crutch!” That’s you. Jesus has just described you. You’re not going to be won over; you’re coming here in opposition to the Word of God. And my friends, that is so much of the society around us in an increasing measure. “Don’t talk to me about that stuff!”


Sown On Rocky Ground

Soil number two Jesus talks about in verse 16, “The ones sown on rocky ground are 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.” This represents the people who have a temporary, shallow faith in Christ. We’ve seen that in churches, haven’t we? Somebody can teach the Word, they can preach the Word, they can be on fire for Jesus, and then Jesus says something happens. He uses two words there. Did you see those? “Tribulation or persecution.” That word for tribulation really encompasses all the disappointments, the disasters, the hardships all of us face in life. And when they come to this kind of a hearer who may have been, again, very strong in the faith and very much on fire for Jesus, when those kind of daily hardships and disappointments come home to this hearer, do you know what he or she says? “I’ve had enough. This is not for me. I thought following Jesus was ‘my best life now.’ This isn’t what I bargained for.” Or, persecutions come. And you see here in the West persecution for us means somebody maybe not inviting us to a social event, somebody maybe not speaking to us near the water cooler. Opposition to be sure, but then we read about people being killed and maimed and hurled into dungeons for their faith. But any kind of persecution shows up, this hearer goes, again, “I don’t want this. This is not the Jesus I want to follow. I want health; I want wealth. I want everything my way, right away. Give me a Burger King religion rather than this.” And they fall away.


Sown Among Thorns

Soil three. Then Jesus says, “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.” What are these kinds of people? Don’t you love how contemporary Jesus is? He speaks right to our hearts in the 21st century or in the 1st century. He’s already covered a lot of ground, no pun intended. And then He comes to think and He says its people who even back then worried more about bills and bank account and kids and job and vacation and treasure and all that stuff than listening to and following the incarnate Son of God. Worries, wealth, and everything else is what chokes out the Word. That ought to land with all of us here tonight, my friends. How often have you said this week?  (and the only reason I’m putting it in these terms is because I’ve said it) how often have we said, “You know, I’ll get to prayer, but this to-do list is killing me! I’ve got to get it done! I’m crazy busy!” Don’t we all say that? “The fall has been crazy! Love to get together, would love to pray, would love to read the Bible more but it’s crazy for me right now!” And that doesn’t mean we’re one of these kinds of hearers, but it does alert us to the fact that this is exactly what Jesus is talking about. It’s when those things become more important. Those things choke out the Word from bearing fruit, from it going down and sinking deep into our hearts and really affecting change in our lives. It’s worries, wealth, and everything else that act as thorns with this Word that Jesus sows.


The Good Soil

Then there’s finally the good soil. Isn’t that wonderful? 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.” Two things to note about this soil; first, Jesus teaches us that this soil produces fruit in different ways and in different quantities; different ways and in different quantities. Therefore, here’s the takeaway with that. That’s why He’s putting it in these terms. “Be patient with those who may not be as far along in this Christian walk as you are.” That’s hard for us in the venerable, reformed world because we like to use words that sometimes we think everybody knows and we think everybody’s along the same place we are, and especially if you’re someone who God is making – and notice again, God is doing it. If He’s making you one of those hundred-fold hearers, it’s very easy to be impatient with a thirty-fold hearer. But Jesus’ whole accent, the entirety of His teaching here, falls on the fact that it’s God doing it, not us, first and foremost. Therefore, be patient. That’s His point. And ask Him to make you a hundredfold hearer. This is not a divine pass to go, “Well I’m not bearing much fruit so I’ll just be happy to be thirty-fold and kind of slip into heaven with my coat getting stuck in the door.” That’s not what Jesus is saying. He’s saying, “Here’s how it’s going to work out in real life.” And again, my friends, if you’ve been a Christian at all, doesn’t this ring true? Haven’t you seen people in churches where you see the person who becomes a Christian and it just is an explosion of growth? And then you see this person who just for years doesn’t seem to make any progress. Maybe that’s you! Maybe there’s just some sin in your life and you go! “I feel no different today than I did ten years ago!” And Jesus says, “Be patient!”


Hearing God’s Word and Bearing Fruit

Second, Jesus tells us here how to bear fruit. “They hear the word, they accept it, and bear fruit.” Three things; they hear the Word! That is why this is so important coming here tonight and Sunday mornings. We hear the Word! Our confession puts it this way. “The Spirit makes the reading,” this is fascinating, “but especially the preaching of the Word an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners.” That’s how important preaching is. And in this Gospel Jesus is going to say crazy things like, “I’m not going to go to this town to heal right now because I need to go to another town and preach because this is why I came forth, to preach!” First and foremost, hearing the Word!


Then He says the second thing is this. They are the ones who hear it and it doesn’t just fall on deaf ears; they accept it. The Greek word there actually means they welcome it. Have you ever been welcomed home? You know, right before we moved here, I will never forget pulling into where I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, and my mom was waiting at the door and we’d been through moving, which is never going to be good, and it was just one of those weeks and the best thing in the world was to be welcomed home. And Jesus says to us that’s the kind of heart we have to have with the Word being preached. You’re welcoming it! Your arms are open; you say, “Thank You for giving it to me, Jesus!” That’s welcoming the Word.


And then what do they do? They accept it and bear fruit. Here, my friends, is what Christianity 101 is. You hear, you welcome, and you put it into practice! Simple, but not easy! Not at all easy, because most of the time if we’re honest with ourselves, when we come in this place week by week we’re weighed down with the cares of the world. We’re tired. Kids are doing things that we wonder where it comes from. Spouses may have had harsh words. Work is tanking. And the last thing we want to do is hear, accept, and put into practice the Word of God. But Jesus says everything depends upon it. Are you putting it into practice? That’s the question He asks all of us. That’s why it’s a wonderful thing to be a Christian, of the many wonderful reasons to be a Christian, is we don’t have these elaborate rituals and things to ascend that you perform to make yourself more acceptable to God. No, it’s a religion of the ear that leads to a religion of the feet and the hands as it were. We hear, we welcome, and we put into practice.


Jesus Empowers Believers to Bear Fruit

Let me say a couple things here in closing about all this. First of all what Jesus shows us here is the beauty of grace, and the need for humility. The beauty of grace and the need for humility! Don’t miss the fact that, again, it’s only by God’s sovereign grace that the good soil is in fact good soil. And don’t miss this equally important point. If you’ve experienced God’s amazing grace, if that is you, if you go, “Yes, I’ve come to Him. I am a Christian,” the equally important point is this. If you’ve come to Him, if you know Him, if you’ve experienced that grace you will not fail to bear fruit. It will begin to happen. As surely as a seed planted in good soil that has the sun and the water of the Word falling upon it, it will begin to bear fruit, some more than others. You will not fail to bear fruit. Maybe that resonates with you and you say, “I want to bear fruit but I don’t see much. I’ve tried, I’ve given up, I’ve tried again and it’s just not happening for me.” If you come to Jesus, here’s one thing you’re going to find about Him again and again and again and again. He is your ally in the fruit-bearing fight, if we could put it that way. So the thing for you to do tonight if you say to yourself; “I don’t know! I want to bear fruit! That rings true with me! I want that!” Jesus says then, “Come! Bring your disobedience, bring your sin, bring your failure, lay it down at My feet and cry out to Him, ‘Help me! Fix this mess that is my life!’” That’s what we do when we fail to bear fruit. We come to Him and say, “Please help me! Please fix it!” He’s the only farmer in history who can walk out on barren soil and make it bear fruit. No other farmer can do that.


The Gospel: Exclusive and Inclusive

And the last thing is this. Do you feel like an outsider tonight? Maybe you are. Maybe you’re one of those rocky ground hearers and you’re just ready to be done and home and everything else. Thank you for being here tonight. Thank you for sticking with it this long. But let me say this to you. You might be an outsider, and the only way to become an insider is to come to Jesus. But maybe you are somebody who says, “I am a Christian.” And let me ask you this. Do you feel dried up spiritually? Do you feel like the days just go by in kind of a gray haze? Like Jesus is a really good idea but He’s not a living person? And you begin to feel like an outsider, like this gospel has been telling us in this passage. Here’s the wonderful thing about the Gospel of the many. The paradox is this. The Gospel is totally exclusive; totally exclusive! And people don’t want to hear that today. It is totally exclusive! There’s no other way to the Father but through Him, but through Jesus. That’s it! All paths do in fact lead to God, my friends, but only one leads to Him in grace and it’s through the cross of Jesus Christ! But, the Gospel’s totally inclusive as well, because anybody who comes to Jesus in simple faith is accepted. That’s how you become an insider.


So what are you waiting for? What is stopping you tonight from bearing fruit? He’ll reveal the secrets of the kingdom to you. He delights to do that. He wants us to be in His inner circle. He’s not a spiritual elitist. He delights in making people like us who should be outsiders, He delights in making us insiders who begin to lead lives of goodness and beauty and truth and things that are wonderful to behold in the world around us. In short, when you come to Him, He begins to plow up the soil of your hearts, my friends, and He begins to plant that seed and He begins to grow it and He begins to make you bear fruit for His glory and it’s beyond words to behold and it’s a witness our world desperately needs. And He says He’ll do it for us. So here’s the choice before us tonight, all of us, all of us. Keep going in your own strength, dried up, worn out, shell-like. Don’t we feel like a shell when we’re not close to the Lord Christ, living in a gray haze of more activity, more business, and less and less humanity. That’s choice one. That’s the first three soil option. Or, or, praise God for a Gospel or! You can admit your need, come to Jesus, and become fully human, maybe for the first time have your sins forgiven, have His righteousness given to you, standing before God that can never be taken away, and you can really live for the first time in your life. That’s the last soil option and my friends. The only thing it costs you is you! Let’s pray.


Our great God in heaven, thank You that You sow the Word into the soil, that You prepare it, that You are the God who does this from start to finish. We cry out for any here tonight who do not know You that You would open their hearts, let them see their need, and come to Jesus. Thank You for giving us Your Word. Bless the hearing of it now and the preaching of it to the glory of King Jesus. We pray in His name, amen.

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