Mark 4:1-20

THU 11 JAN 01



I wonder when you last had your ears syringed.  Perhaps you never have.  Perhaps, like me, you just favour a cotton bud every now and again.  I don’t know.  But whatever you do, I’m sure you do something to make sure your hearing isn’t worse than it needs to be.  Just think what would happen if you never did clean them out – life would be even more full of “what?”, “pardon?”, and “sorry?” than it already is.  Worse, the misunderstandings would get more and more serious until eventually you stopped listening to what was being said.  You’d just pretend to listen, nodding your head at regular intervals the way you used to during double maths when you were actually thinking about what was on TV that night.  Outwardly listening, inwardly switched off.


Well perhaps that’s the way we can get with the Bible.  Perhaps our hearing isn’t as good as it could be.  Perhaps we’re getting deaf.  Let’s have a look at the passage.


It’s a parable.  So far, so familiar.  But it’s more than a parable.  If it just stopped at the end of verse 9, it would be, well, a parable.  But it goes on.  In fact, the parts of this passage are so distinct that some translations break it down into three parts – verses 1-9 being the parable, verses 13-20 being its explanation and verses 10-12 being a separate chunk.  I think both ways of splitting it have their merits.  Because that part at the centre of the passage (verses 9-13) really is the heart of the passage and helps us to understand not just the parable, but its explanation and indeed other parables too.


In verse12, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6.  Isaiah’s being commissioned by God to tell the people that they won’t understand what they hear or see.  That they won’t understand what’s going to be said.  And he’s to tell them that this is because if they did hear, then they would be healed, which is a word the Bible uses for being forgiven, made right before God.  So Isaiah’s basically being told to say to the people that they’re not going to understand and that they’re not going to be forgiven.  The one glimmer of hope is that there will be a few who will understand and who will be saved.  And these ideas are what Jesus picks up on when he’s explaining the purpose of the parables.


In verses 9-12 He’s saying that those who hear and understand the parables will be in with a chance of turning and being forgiven.  So what both Isaiah and Jesus are saying is.  That it is difficult to understand what is being said (in the parables and elsewhere) but that the prize is well worth the struggle.  Because if you do understand what’s being said you’ll be that much closer to God.


Now, we need to take a slight detour here and look at the word “understand”.  In the Bible, this means more than we usually mean in everyday language.  In Biblical terms, understanding something doesn’t stop at mere intellectual knowledge of how something works.  No, because what we read in the Bible is of ultimate importance, understanding something of it will surely change our attitudes and actions too.  If we really understand what we read and really believe that the Bible is speaking the Truth to us, we’ll do something about it.  It’s the difference between understanding that gas is flammable and understanding that gas is flammable when you’re in a room with a gas leak and you’re about to strike a match.  Suddenly it’s not just intellectual knowledge and it radically changes your actions.  Or else!


So how well do we understand the Bible?  Well, that’s a fairly big subject, so let’s cut it down to a manageable chunk.  This morning’s passage for instance.  How well do we understand this parable?  Well, you say, better than any other.  Let’s face it Jesus has made the meaning pretty clear in verses 14-20.  How can we not understand it?  Well, that’s just the point we’ve been making about understanding.  We’re so used to thinking that the tricky part is in deciphering parables – turning them from images into their real meaning – that we think we’ve finished when we’ve done that.


Isn’t that the case? That we work out what a parable means in English and then sink back into our seats exhausted without taking it further?  Well, let’s have a look at the parable of the sower.  In verse 13, Jesus says that if we don’t understand this one then we’ve got no hope of understanding the others.  Is this because this one’s particularly easy?  No, I don’t think so.  I think it’s because if we haven’t grasped what Jesus is saying in this parable then we haven’t got the key to unlocking this or indeed any other parable.  In this parable, Jesus takes us through what it is to hear but not understand.  He takes us through the various responses to the Word, starting with no real understanding and ending up with total understanding, measured not by what people have heard but by how it affects their lives.  Hearing and understanding this passage gives us tools that will be vital in understanding other passages.




Rather than covering the same ground umpteen times, I think it will be helpful to apply the passage as we go along, because it is a very practical passage.  So we’ll look now at verses 14-20.


Firstly, there is the seed that falls on the path and is snatched away by birds before it takes root.  This, says Jesus, is like those who hear the Word and forget it just as quickly.  Now what does this mean in real life?  Well, it means that when you approach the Bible in your Quiet Time or during a sermon that you’re bored with the Bible or aren’t paying attention or you’ve got your mind on other things.  Is that where you are now?


OK, so how do you deal with that?  Well, I can think of two very straightforward ways and I’m sure you can think of more.  Many people take notes during sermons just to keep them focused on what’s being said, and some even find those notes useful to refer back to later on.  Another way is to discuss it with others after the service, which works doubly.  Firstly you’ll be encouraged to listen during the sermon so that you can contribute to the discussion.  Secondly, if you have indeed ended up using the sermon to catch up on some sleep, your friends will be able to fill you in on the plot.


Maybe you’re already doing that.  Great, let’s move on to the second group Jesus talks about.  The seed is sown on rocky ground.  Then (verses 16-17) people receive the Word with joy but the slightest thing stops it taking a firm hold.  Well, have you been there?  I have.  I’ve heard some really “great” and “challenging” sermons.  I’ve agreed with the concept.  And I’ve gone off and done absolutely nothing about it.


Well, when you hear a sermon like that, don’t just enthuse to people afterwards.  Actively discuss it with your spouse or your prayer triplet or some close friends.  Discuss what you’re going to do about it.  If that actually turns out to be nothing, then that’s what Jesus is talking about here!  If, on the other hand, you’ve made a decision to do something or stop doing something, keep each other accountable on progress.  By the way, application can be of attitude as well as practical, but it’s got to be at least one of those.


When you’ve got as far as that, there comes the third hurdle, which Jesus identifies in verses 18 and 19.  You’ve listened carefully, drawn up a plan of action, everything’s been going well but gradually things have started to get tricky and the weeds and thorns are becoming a little more evident.  Suddenly there’s an uncompromisable clash between taking that promotion at work (which you so richly deserve) and spending more time helping your children read the Bible.


Well, you can’t get rid of the difficult choices, but you can stop them being sudden.  Think early on what the weeds will be.  You probably do that anyway but file it under “h” for “hope it’ll just go away”.  For instance, you’ve just been challenged to serve the church family.  You’ve discussed it with your friends.  And you’ve decided with that uncomfortable cocktail of joy and apprehension to babysit every Wednesday to allow your friends to go to a Bible study group.  Good for you!  But think now whether that’s going to conflict with a critical Premiership match in three months’ time when you’d rather be in a house that has Sky.  Decide now, carefully, and above all, openly, which is more important.  And, in that particular case, I don’t know.  It may be that football is for you the key way you relax.  Then be aware of the issue.  Don’t commit to something that you won’t be able to do.  Do commit to things that will be tricky but which you will be able to do.  Think carefully about what the cost will be.  And decide now to accept the cost.  And if you find that you’re always having trouble prioritising Jesus’ work, then you’re in the situation described in verses 18-19.


Finally, if you get through all that, when you get through all that, you’re going to be several steps closer to verse 20 and will be producing fruit!




Well, all that seems to have been of particular relevance to Christians.  But it applies equally to those who aren’t Christians.  Let’s go through the steps again.  It’s pretty much the same message so Christians have no excuse for switching off now!


If you’re a non-Christian, why aren’t you bearing fruit?  It’s brilliant to see you here and wonderful that you’re listening to what God has to say to you… or are you?


Are you – like the people in verse 15 – turning up because you like the singing or the company, but you’re switching off to what God has to say to you or dismissing it out of hand?  If so, start listening and discussing it.  Bring an open and questioning mind.  Take in what you hear.  Wrestle with it with Christians and non-Christians alike.


Or maybe you’ve been coming a while and like what you’re hearing and get a real buzz from hearing the Bible explained.  And yet… - like the people in verses 16 and 17 – when you leave church today full of positive thoughts and the occasional good intention, you go back home or back to work and the sink needs unblocking or you’re having to cover for a colleague who’s off sick and Sunday morning suddenly seems very far away.  Well, don’t let it!  Easier said than done, I know.  But keep bringing to mind what you know of God and what you hear on Sundays especially at those times and try to understand life’s ups and downs in the context of God.  Let’s face it, God is the ultimate context.


Well perhaps you’ve been coming for a while.  You like the sound of it.  You’ve resolved to give it a go for real and now you’re coming up against all sorts of problems.  You’ve been able to do your job and be a Christian so far.  But now your company wants you to lie to boost sales.  Or you decided to give some money regularly to church but now your friends are booking that holiday you’ve always taken together and you can’t afford to do both.  Difficult decisions.  And it’s not just big decisions, there’s all sorts of little ones.  You’re enjoying a bit of banter in the pub but the conversation gradually turns to a mutual acquaintance and they’re slagging him or her off.  Do you join in?  Issues like this are the weeds and thorns of the Christian life which are hard to resist and – let’s get real – which we’re always going to struggle with this side of glory.  It’s important to be up front about these when you’re starting out as a Christian.


But start sorting these out and you’ll start to bear fruit.


Now maybe you’re there right now.  You’ve heard the word, discussed it, understood it, started to count the cost.  You’ve worked out some of the more obvious things that will have to change in your life.  That’s great.  Or maybe you’re not in that position.  You’re either a Christian or a non-Christian and you’re struggling to put the weedkiller down in your spiritual garden.  Or perhaps the ground’s rocky and you’re forgetting the sermon fifty yards down the road from church.  Or you’ve even got to the stage where you switch off during the sermon and just smile and nod when it seems appropriate.  We’ve all been there.


Well to all of us in all of those situations, who want to be like the people in verse twenty, Jesus has two things to say.  One.  “It isn’t easy (take parables for example)”.  Two.  “I’m here to help.”  And of course Jesus has helped.  In the most extravagant way on the Cross for starters.  But He will also help us this morning if we simply ask Him.  So if you’d like to commit or recommit yourself to Jesus then please do this morning either in the quiet of your own hearts or by having a word with Christian friends or the minister or me.


Just before we finish, I should make it clear that this is not the only application of this passage.  Of course it has huge implications for the response we should expect from people when we tell them about Jesus.  Of course it encourages us not to get downheartened when we’ve gone blue in the face telling a friend the gospel and they’re just as bored as ever.  And of course when one of our friends becomes a Christian, it encourages us to be humble!


But we will understand the applications to our friends that much better if we first understand the applications to ourselves.  If we put it into practice ourselves.


It is a hallmark of Jesus’ parables, that He says “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”.  We’ve seen in this morning’s passage just how involved and important hearing really is.  Only if we listen, understand, count the cost, and act on what we hear will we be closer to bearing fruit.  And we’ll need Jesus help and each other’s help to do that.  Start this morning, after the service.  Discuss what you’ve heard.  And do something about it.