Topic: A Strong Life in Christ Scripture: Mark 4:1–4:20
Self-awareness is a really valuable quality. To be able to identify limitations and aptitude can serve all of us well. The basic ability to know what you’re good at and what other people are better at can help everyone. For instance, I enjoy this - speaking in front of you all. Preaching is something I feel called to do and while I have plenty of room for improvement, I believe it’s something God has given me the ability to do well. Singing, on the other hand, is not one of those things. Tyler and I both know full well that the attendance of the worship service will be dependent on whether he makes sure my mic is muted while we’re singing together.
We all have things we’re good at, whether they’re quirky talents or professional skills, we all have our areas of expertise/subjects we could talk about for hours. But most of us are also smart enough to admit our blind spots, the areas in which we are not gifted. For me, one of those areas is gardening and lawn care. Now, I can push a mower, but that’s about it. I became aware of just how lost I am in terms of landscaping around my house because my next door neighbor is awesome at it. His lawn is meticulous. He fertilizes it, treats it, and runs it over with a pointy looking steam roller thing. He gets a small patch of brown, and the next day that patch is covered in straw, and some slathered coating of what I can only guess is a miracle grow paste. And then, boom, green grass.
Meanwhile, my grass seems to grow about as effectively as the hair on my head. Dandelions and clover? I’ve got that covered. But I just don’t know how to work the soil or what the best practices are. If someone told me sprinkling powdered sugar on my lawn would help, I’d fall for it.
Even for those of you who are gifted at landscaping know that it’s difficult work. I see the folks who tend the gardens and green spaces right outside our walls here, and I can appreciate the hours of labor spent doing that work, sometimes tricky work. Everything from weather to wildlife can impact the efforts put into trying to foster and sustain the growth and beauty of that creation. And that doesn’t even take into account the needs and conditions of the ground itself, the soil.
My next door neighbor and our fantastic gardening team here at the church aren’t the only people who have an interest in fostering and understanding how things grow. Jesus had an affinity for that imagery, that example, and he used it as a means to offer his first public teaching in the book of Mark.
Up until this point, Jesus had given lessons and shared truth, but it was always in response to something else, often the grumbling or contrary remarks of the religious leaders at that time. Our text this morning is the first time we were told that Jesus looked out on a crowd and “taught them many things” and He began with a story about shifting soil. We’re in Mark 4:1-20.
This is the first parable in the gospel of Mark. Parables are stories that impart wisdom. Jesus was a gifted communicator and could inspire a crowd. The Sermon on the Mount is a great example of that. But Jesus seemed to favor the use of story when seeking to share truth. His use of stories shows us that Jesus was in touch with the culture around him. Narrative and story was a popular and deeply ingrained part of memory and history at that time. Even before we get into the specifics of the story itself, Jesus is already speaking the language of the people. And this parable specifically - is a significant one. It is one of the few parables that appear in all three gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And virtually all biblical scholars agree that it seems the accounts in Matthew and Luke used the Mark version as their source material.
In this parable about seeds and soil, we are given an opportunity to explore one of the most personal and pressing questions of faith that Christians confront. That question comes in many forms from many different voices and spaces but revolves around the speculation of why certain people appear to embrace a faith in Christ and thrive, while others seem to struggle so much and sometimes even appear to desert their faith for a time or all together. Some of us have wondered about this from a hypothetical or conversational place. And some of us have wrestled with it while our hearts and minds are fixed on the life of a person we care for deeply.
There is a tendency to associate the seeds with people, assuming each seed represents the personal faith journey of an individual. But in Mark’s gospel that isn’t the case. The seeds are called the word of God. We can certainly associate that with Scripture, but more specifically, the word of God in this parable is the truth found in Jesus Christ. Jesus is describing how his work and teachings will fall onto the ears and hearts of those who hear. So the seeds are the truth of Christ. Christ is the farmer doing the sowing. That leaves us as the hearers to be the soil. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.
Jokes aside, Jesus shares a story that helps us explore why the truth and wonder of our Savior is heard and flourishes into abundant life with some and seems never to take a strong root in others. In the first example, the seed fell along the path and was gobbled by the birds. Jesus elaborates and says that Satan takes the word away - this is very reminiscent of what occurred in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve heard the voice of God and were shown the love of their Creator, but the great deceiver, the cunning serpent, twists and manipulates the minds of the first couple and convinces them that they don’t need God. If they would just take the forbidden fruit, then they would be like God. It is hubris and ignorance. And that is what is portrayed in this part of Christ’s story. Jesus is describing the person who has been swayed by the lies of this world, that the truth of Christ is not unique, relevant or the single source of life. The truth of Christ is unable to break through into their hearts and take root, and so it falls prey to being swiftly plucked by the deceptive voices around them.
The next is a shallow, rocky soil that has the seed of Christ’s truth fall upon it. Unlike the seed on the path, this soil does allow roots to grow. But they don’t grow deeply, and because of that, faith doesn’t blossom in a way that lasts and inspires. It might sprout quickly, perhaps even with some beauty, but it withers and fades. This was always my fear when I served in student ministry. I always worried that my students would have an incredible moment or experience of faith but that it wouldn’t serve to transform their lives. Statistics of the abandoned faith of many college students confirm this isn’t merely a youth pastors’ apprehension but a troubling trend. And it’s just as true for adults in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and beyond - as it is in teens and young adults. It is easier to create a single moment of inspiration than it is to foster a lifetime of discipleship. The trouble is, our God doesn’t desire a faith that flashes but rather one that burns consistent and sure.
The third instance that Jesus describes is the seed that falls into the soil that looks sufficient but turns out to be too crowded to foster growth and fruit. This soil isn’t plagued by being shallow or hard. In fact, it might look like great soil. But the questions is, what else is in the soil? This “seed” is a person who accepts the truth of Jesus when they hear it, but their life is filled with other things, and other concerns than what our Savior offers cannot thrive. I shared this in a message in the past. Jesus doesn’t want to be the top of your priority list. He wants to be the paper the list is written on. Everything about who we are is supposed to be influenced, changed, and defined by our identity as a Christ follower. If anything else in life, noble or harmless as it may seem, takes priority over our faith, it threatens to choke out the only thing that can give us lasting life. Again, I’m not merely talking about things like addictions or vices. Careers, relationships, parenting, sports, academics, wealth, intelligence…anything can become the idol that draws our eyes away from the true prize. Remember, the real enemy of great is not bad/evil. The enemy of great is good; the lesser things that distract us from Christ.
And the final example in Jesus’ parable is the good soil that receives the truth of Christ, nurtures that new faith with all the conditions it needs to grow, and then sees it bear fruit and yield an incredible change in this world. And that fruit is important. Throughout the New Testament, we’re told as followers of Jesus, we would be known by our fruit, by what comes out of our time and energy - by who we are.
This parable is a compelling one, and it’s easy to get lost in it when we try and use it as a litmus test for our own faith or try and hold it up against the experiences of someone we care about. But here’s the deal, I truly believe that all of us can be all of these examples. We exist as shifting soil. Yes, we all want to be the rich and deep soil, and we want to be that all the time. But we all have moments where our focus blurs and we become too fixated on something else in this life. We endure dark chapters of pain and anxiety that rob us of hope. Faith is made to waver, but it is not meant to break. Sometimes we have stretches where we feel so close to God, and then there are other spans where we feel far from God. We are shifting soil, but friends here is the good news. This parable is not about the inconsistency of the soil, of you and me; it’s about the faithfulness and the goodness of the sower.
Christ is the one who shares Himself openly and generously with each of us. And though this parable might give that impression, it is not a "one and done" type of sharing. Jesus knows that our hearts are prone to wander, and still He holds us close. Our Gardener is vigilant, skilled, and tender. Jesus desires for us to grow and produce fruit and to change this world. And to do so, He doesn’t mind working with “Shifting Soil”.