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The Parable of the Four Soils | A Sermon from Mark 4:1-20

Jesus describes the mystery of the Kingdom of God by telling the parable of the Sower and the Four Soils in Mark 4:1-20. This sermon asks: How can we cultivate the promise of God and be good soil?

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Today is the day we’ve all been waiting for. I know that you have had your countdown timers set since Rally Day, anxiously awaiting this moment. Today is the day that we look at the passage that started it all.

OK, that was pretty dramatic, and there are probably only two people who know or care about what I’m talking about. That would be me and Pastor Mark. But, the truth is that our theme for this year was chosen because of this passage.

Look at our theme logo. The theme is Cultivate: Making Room for God’s Promise. Do you see what’s going on inside the big letters? Those are the four soils of this parable in Mark 4:1-20. We sat down at the beginning of last summer and knew that we would be framing this entire year in the Gospel of Mark. So, we asked, what is a defining feature of Mark that connects with what we believe God is doing right here at Grace?

The answer was this passage. We want to be good soil. We want to be the kind of people in which the word of God can take root and grow and multiply to a hundred fold, right?


So the big question for today is: How can we cultivate our lives to make room for God’s promise to grow. How can we be good soil?


The simple and straightforward answer is this: Practice the 7 Habits of Effective Disciples. We talk about them all the time because they are the DNA. They are the bread and butter of the Christian Life. They are the tilling tools and the fertilizer for good soil.

Let’s say them together: Worship, Prayer, Bible Study, Giving, Serving, Vital Relationships, Sharing My Faith.

There you have it. Now do it.

That’s what I thought I was going to preach coming into this week. But then, a funny thing happened to me on the way to this sermon.

Bible Study and Prayer are key habits, and they become especially important for me as I approach a text that I’m called to preach. Thursday morning I was preparing to go for my walk. Walking, for me, is a form of prayer and meditation. So, I reread the passage just before I headed out the door to upload it into my immediate consciousness. Then, as I was walking, a series of images and an idea for a simple animation unfolded in my mind. It was a rare day where I had no meeting scheduled during the office hours, so I decided to go for it. I picked up my iPad, drew some pictures, fired up the video editor, and a few hours later this version of the Gospel reading emerged.


Now, let me address the big question again. How can we cultivate the promise of God in our lives? I see four things in this passage.


First, we must be open.

Look in verse 20. Jesus gives us the two characteristics of good soil. They hear the word and they accept it.

Good soil listens and is open to new ideas.

How does Jesus describe the first soil? They are hard packed. They are resistant. This is the person whose first response to a new idea is, “NO! I already know what I know, talk to the hand.”

Good soil is loose, and open, and has space within itself to take in the seed. That’s what accept means. It doesn’t mean completely understand, be able to explain, and then own it like intellectual property. It means to be open to let this new reality do something inside you, like seed in fertile soil.

Now, this leads us to a crucial point. What is it exactly that we are supposed to hear and accept?

Jesus explains that the seed is the word. OK. What is the word?

The word is the secret of the Kingdom of God. That’s what he says in verse 11.


This is where we must be reminded that the key verse to understanding the entire Gospel of Mark is from last week’s sermon. In Mark 1:15, Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God has come near (or is at hand). Repent and believe the Gospel (the good news).”

That is the seed that is being sown into the field of Israel and is now, in our lives, being sewn in our lives.

We need to unpack this for a moment. The Kingdom of God is not a place we go when we die. Being a Christian is not about biding time until God wipes out this sinful world and lets us float around on clouds and walk on streets of gold.

Each week we pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done…” Where? “On earth, as it is in Heaven.”

To repent is not to stop doing bad things and start doing good things so that God will let you into Heaven. The Greek word is metanoia. To repent is to change the way you think about reality. The Kingdom of God is at hand. It is a way of being in this world that follows the way of Jesus. It is right now, and we can live in it, if we believe and trust that this is the reality.
Like Pastor Mark said last week, God is on the loose and is constantly changing things up and inviting us to co-create a good and trustworthy world.

But if we say, “NO!” Then the seed bounces right off of us, the birds snatch it away, and we remain hardened and unchanged, just like most of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.

If we want to be good soil, we must be open. We must listen and be accepting of what new thing God is doing in the world.


Second, we must sow generously.
Here’s an interesting thing about this parable. Jesus has a rare moment and actually explains the meaning of the different pieces. He tells us that the seed is the Word. He tells us what each soils represents. But, what he doesn’t tell us is who the sower is supposed to represent.

Is the sower God, or is the sower the disciples. Are we sowers, or are we soil?

The answer? Yes.

That’s the beauty of parables. They are open-ended stories that prompt us to think deeply, not to acquire clear answers.

Here’s what we do know about this sower. He was generous with the seed. He threw it everywhere. Don’t you think he knew that the hard soil, the rocky soil, and the good soil wouldn’t reap a harvest?


Here’s the thing about the soils. They weren’t sectioned off like my drawings. The soil in Israel is really rocky. The path was probably the footpath that wove through the fields so the farmers could easily walk around.

The sower wanted to make sure that the maximum amount of seed got to good soil, so he threw it everywhere.

If God is the sower, then this reflects the graciousness of God. God loves all people and does not withhold from anyone.

As we look at this parable, I think we should see ourselves as both the soil and the sower. As followers of Jesus, we are called to “make disciples of all nations.” We are called to sow the seed to everyone, everywhere, all the time. Our job is not to judge whether a person will receive it or resist it and thus waste our time. We just be the Kingdom of God, generously.

That leads us to our third point.


Third, we must expect failure.
Have you ever been disappointed in your spiritual life? Have you ever looked around and thought, “If Jesus came to bring peace on earth, good will to all people, it doesn’t seem like its working.”

I have been sowing the seeds of God’s kingdom for decades, and I have to tell you, I have had my fair share of experience with all four of these soils.

Lots of people are resistant. Slammed doors. I get that. They’re not ready.

Lots of people allow fear of rejection and persecution to squelch the kingdom. That makes sense. Who wants to suffer, right?

The one that really gets me, and the one that is the biggest challenge in our suburban culture, is the soil that allows money, fame, and self-indulgence to pull people away from God’s Kingdom.

However, there is something that grieves my heart and discourages me even more than that. The truth is that I have been, and continue to be all four of these soils at different times in my life. Sometimes at different times of my day.

That’s the thing about cultivation. It is an ongoing process.

We must join with the apostle Paul when he says, “we must press on. We must not become weary in well-doing, but in the proper time, God will reap a harvest.”

That’s what brings us to our final point.


Fourth, we must be patient.

Here’s the thing about good soil. It must be open. It must listen and be accepting of the seed. But, it cannot make the seed grow.

This is the mystery of the Kingdom of God. This is the mystery of life. God is the power that makes things grow in us and through us.

And…it takes time. Sometimes a very long time.


So, I speak to you as soil.
Cultivate your soil. Practice the habits so that you can stay listening to God and open to what God is doing, right now.

And, I speak to you as sowers. Sow generously. Give to anyone and everyone without judgment. And be patient. God will do God’s work. And in the proper time, the harvest will come.

That is the Promise, and that is how we cultivate it.

Amen.

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