The Soil of the Heart

Mark 4:1-20

In Mark 4, Jesus begins the parable of the sower with the word, “Listen!”  Something we don’t tend to do very well. Two farmers were chatting in front of the bank.  "I hear you made $60,000 in alfalfa," said the first.  Not wishing to be impolite his friend replied, "Well, that isn't quite right.  It wasn't me, it was my brother, it wasn't alfalfa, but wheat; not $60,000 but $6000; and he didn't make it, he lost it."

We hear but we don’t listen.

Jesus knew the conditions farmers face, and so many times he wove their unique struggles into the fabric of his parables and teachings.  And he also knew the condition of the human heart, in so many ways, paralleled the conditions of farming.  The sower, the seed, the soils – each a variable in the natural process of planting and harvesting a crop.  The sower, the seed, the soils – each a variable in the supernatural process of planting and reaping a harvest of faith and spiritual fruit in the life of a man or woman.

I can just picture Jesus teaching by the shore of Galilee – at the height of his popularity – literally being crushed by the crowds that were pressing forward to hear, to touch, to be near him.  And because of the crush of the crowds, he gets into a boat and has the owner push out a little ways from the shore.

It had to be a frustrating time for Jesus.  The vastness of the multitudes who came to hear, but he knew the hearts of people.  Many came to listen for the novelty of it – to hear a great prophet, to experience the excitement of this great miracle worker.  But so few real disciples were being made.

Three times within just the discourses of this fourth chapter of Mark, Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear let him hear.”  They were hearing the words, but the message was not penetrating their hearts.

This isn’t just information to be stored away and pondered in an intellectual leisure moment.  There is an urgency and an immediacy to the need to act.  That’s why, as Jesus begins this parable, his first word is “Listen!”  You have to hear what I’m about to say.  “Listen!” What I’m going to say can make all the difference in the world.  Will you go away with a heart untouched by the word, or will your life be transformed by its incredible power for growth?

Jesus begins the parable: Listen! 

“Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.” Then Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”   

The farmer sows the word. 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. 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. 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. 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 4:3-8, 14-20)

This parable really challenges us on two fronts:  First, it challenges us to examine our own hearts.  Which soil describes the condition of my heart?

Is my heart the path, worn hard and rutted by the traffic which rushes along?  Too busy, too preoccupied, always on the move?  Hardened by being hurt too many times, hardened by cynicism and disappointment?

You can see the heart of the path person in his eyes – the steely gaze, the business-like attitude, the emotionless logical response.  Not hurt by the world, but not easily touched by the message of the gospel, either.  Some of our hearts have become paths.  Traffic and hustle and bustle are often considered growth and success, but they are deceptive substitutes.  They often mask the truest and deepest needs in our lives.

From first impressions, you would give a bit more hope for the seed on the rocky ground.  A thin layer of soil disguises the rock underneath.   The seed sets root, but finds no depth, and as soon as the heat of the sun dries the soil, the seed withers and its growth is stunted.

Does a thin layer of enthusiasm and eagerness for something new hide the uninhabitable rocky ground beneath?  This is the person that wants a faith that is frying pan shallow, and then is frustrated because that’s exactly what she gets.  She wants to be satisfied with a little spiritual reform, adding a few Christian virtues, a weekly dose of exciting Christian worship, and a church that caters to her “needs,” but makes no demands.

And the growth of the seed upward matches the shallowness of the soil underneath.  They are spiritual midgets.

Some of the seed is cast on ground that is also sown with weeds.  It starts out good – strong growth, great potential.  But up come the weeds and the thorns – the other demands, the higher priorities, the selfish pride, the love of possessions – those things that squeeze Jesus right out of our lives.  Whatever it is that you have not put to death and left behind will at that point try to reclaim control in your life.  And the word can’t compete – it won’t compete.  It withers and dies.

Jesus ends with the good soil.  I hope he is describing you, characterizing a heart that is yielded and anxious for growth.  That’s where the gospel demonstrates its power in a person’s life.  It not only reproduces itself, it multiplies its blessings 30, 60, 100 times over what was originally planted.  Jesus describes the man or woman who not only hears the word, but does what it says.

Where are you?  What is your heart?  Has the seed found root and growing in your life?

I said that this parable challenges us on two fronts:  first it challenges us to examine our own hearts, and honestly confront the growth of the word in our life, and the depth of our relationship with Jesus.  The second front is the challenge of our role as the sower of the seed.

This parable is not merely the agricultural statistics of the kingdom.  God is putting us to work – sowing the seed.  That is the one purpose, the one job that he gave uniquely to you and to me.  We are to be sharing the word of God, sharing our faith, planting the seed.

Who is the last person you mentioned Jesus to?  Who was the last person you invited to come to church with you?  The more important question is, “Who is the next?”

It was just after Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well.  Jesus’ disciples had returned from the town with food.  And moments later back in town, the woman begins to tell the townspeople about Jesus:  “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did.  Could this be the Christ?”  And they came out of the town and made their way toward him.  And Jesus said to his disciples, “Open your eyes and look at the fields!  They are ripe for harvest.”  (John 4:35)

He was talking about people whose hearts are prepared and ready to hear the life-giving message of the gospel.

In our parable this morning, the sower casts the seed everywhere – on the path, on the rocky soil, among the weeds, and yes, in the good soil.  Notice, he didn’t try to determine beforehand what soil would be receptive and what wouldn’t.  He didn’t take soil samples, and make production estimates, he just spread the seed – casting it as he walked.

The point is that we are not in the heart-judging business, we are in the seed-sowing business.  Who around you have you decided wouldn’t be receptive to the gospel?  Who would you have written off as an unlikely candidate for an invitation to follow Jesus?  Saul the Pharisee?  The Gerasene demoniac?  A tax collector named Zacchaeus?  That Roman jailer in Philippi?  Rock hard exteriors, forbidding personalities, questionable pasts – but soft, pliable hearts hidden underneath the surface.

You cannot know the heart of a person, you cannot know what God has been doing beneath the surface and behind the scenes.  You sow the seed and let God take care of the growth. 

There are opportunities today – God has been working in people’s lives, preparing their hearts, getting them ready for your invitation.

It used to be that when a new building was built, a cornerstone was laid, and in that cornerstone a time capsule was placed with memorabilia and letters and documents for some future generation.  A church in the Midwest had been built a century earlier and had at one time been a vibrant place where lives were changed and where the gospel went out into the community and across the world.  But generations had come and gone and it had lost its zeal and enthusiasm for serving the Lord and their numbers had dwindled to the point where the life was gone from the church.  The few remaining members sold the property to become a parking lot.  The sad, but inevitable day came when the building was torn down, and the members gathered as the last of the walls came down, exposing the cornerstone.  They lifted the lid and peered inside… only to find it empty.  No message no dreams, no future.

I know some folks with hearts like that – characterized by their religiousness, but when you crack them open, there is nothing there.  They are empty shells – no message, no dreams, no future.  The Word might have been there at one time, their faith might have been growing.  But the bugs got in, the thorns grew up, their hearts went neglected.  No crop, no fruit.

The most tragic verse in the Bible is found on Jeremiah’s lips as he considers the condition of God’s people who had abandoned their first priority:  “The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved”  (Jer. 8:20).

In John 15, Jesus speaks to his disciples very bluntly and candidly.  He is not threatening them or guilt-tripping them, he is merely speaking about the truth of the relationship we have with him and God’s hopes and expectations for that relationship – John 15:1-8

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. 

 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

There is some very scary language in there about fruitlessness, but I want you to focus on what he hopes and promises about our relationship with him:

First, God is the gardener.  He is intimately involved with his vineyard – he cares for it, he nurtures it, he wants every branch to be living and fruitful.  And you can be sure that he will do everything within his power to help those branches to grow strong and mature.  He is the master gardener and he will not give up without doing everything he can to see growth and fruit.  That last sentence in vs. 8  reveals God’s greatest desire for you – “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

He will go on in vs. 11 – “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”  If you think God is setting you up for failure and delights in your misery and can’t wait to send you to hell you have terribly, tragically misunderstood God.  His greatest delight is to see you healthy, strong and fruitful.  And he knows that your greatest joy will be found in being fruitful in him. 

Everything he does, he does out of his tremendous love for us.  And because he loves us, he is going to prune us to cut away all of those things that will keep us from being healthy and strong and fruit bearing.  I used to think cutting off branches damaged the plant.  It looked so severe and seemed so counter-intuitive – if you wanted a plant to grow, just let it have its way and grow.  But I learned that that isn’t what a plant needs.  When you prune away the sucker shoots and the unhealthy branches it paves the way for even greater growth. 

And if we are going to be spiritually healthy and fruitful there are some things God needs to prune from our lives – unhealthy habits, wrong priorities, sinful practices.  They keep us from the fullness of the relationship God wants us to have with him, and he knows they have to go.

Second, a branch can only grow strong and be fruitful when it is attached to the vine and drawing nourishment from the roots.  Now that sounds kind of obvious, but I’m amazed at how many people try to go it on their own and then wonder why they feel so spiritually anemic.  They cut themselves off from Jesus, from the Word, from the body and then just kind of wither away inside.

If you want to be spiritually healthy and bearing fruit, stay connected to the source of life – Jesus.  Listen again to vs. 5 – “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

The last thing – relax and let God be in control of your life.  You don’t see trees stressing out about bearing fruit – they simply do what God created them to do.  He promises that if you are connected to the vine, fruit will come.  You just make sure you remain in Jesus, connected to the source, drawing your life from him. 

A few chapters earlier in John, Jesus said this:  “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  God wants you to have the happiest, fullest, most fruitful life – let him be your source.