Mk 4.1-34 - “Dirt”
When Jesus was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. He said to them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those outside, everything is in parables, so that although they look they may look but not see, and although they hear they may hear but not understand, so they may not repent and be forgiven.”
He said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? Then how will you understand any parable? The sower sows the word.”
I am going to ask you to make a decision tonight. Jesus has some strong words for us, and they force us to a decision.
I rode the bus for the first year and a half of high school. Pretty early on my freshman year, I became good friends with a high school girl who also rode my bus. We both lived out in the sticks, so we’d be on the bus together at least a good forty-five minutes. We both liked to read the same science-fiction and fantasy books, so we’d talk about the books we read while we bounced down the dust, washboard roads. The beginning of sophomore year, we were still both riding the bus, and still really good friends. Or, I thought we were just good friends. She had secretly been considering other ideas. One day she worked up the courage to tell me that she really liked me, and not just as a friend. “Do you want to go out, Josh?” she asked. Here I am, blindsided by this confession (I was kinda an oblivious teenager!). What am I to do? Do I pretend I misheard? Do I ignore her? Do I say yes and figure out the consequences later? I am forced to do something. After a few minutes mumbling and backpedaling, I worked up the courage to tell her that I just wasn’t really ready to date anyone yet, and we got back to being good friends.
This is the way it is with Jesus’ message about God’s kingdom. It’s like he shows up and says, “I, uh, really like you.” Really, it’s more like he’s the guy who runs into the store yelling, “There’s a bomb! The door’s over here! Everyone get out while you still can!” These sort of things, a confession of love, a bomb warning, they force us to respond. Do we bolt toward the exit sign, to escape, to safety? Or are we the sort of people who get distracted by the fashion display or the Dollar Spot on our way to the door? Do I date my friend, do I let her down gently, or do I pretend she never said anything? Whatever we do we are responding.
We’ve heard and seen and got “wrapped up in” in three parables tonight. What is a parable? Some people assume that it’s all about symbolism and secret meanings. Other people go to the other extreme and just look for some sort of moral or feel-good principle. But these stories aren’t really either of those things. A bit closer is to call a parable a riddle, but the most useful definition of a parable I’ve heard is “a story with a point.” So what is the point of the parables we’ve heard tonight?
This is exactly what the Jesus followers are asking their leader in the passage we just read. And how does Jesus respond to them? He says, The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. We’re always hearing Jesus give us these strange answers. We ask him one thing, and he immediately starts off down some tangent. He says we’ve been given some secret, but if we have it seems it’s a secret to us. We’re still in the dark. At least for the moment.
Jesus continues, But to those outside, everything is given in parables--maybe “riddles” fits better here--so that, he continues, quoting the prophet Isaiah, although they look they may look but not see, and although they hear they may hear but not understand, so they may not repent and be forgiven. These are actually some very frightening words, and they point out how important understanding this “secret” is. Jesus pauses, and then, Don’t you understand this parable? Then how will you understand any parable?
So what have these three parables had in common? We find seeds in all of them: the sower sows seeds, the farmer plants seed, the mustard seed is a seed. Jesus offers an interpretation of the first parable. He begins, The sower sows the word. So can assume that, at least for these three parables that Mark has recorded all together, the seed is the word. It’s the message Jesus first preached about God coming to set the world right in his kingdom. What is the secret that we’ve been given? It’s this message about that God is just about to show up, to establish Jesus as our good ruler, to cast out the evil, to heal the broken, to welcome the lonely into a new family, to make fair decisions to bless those who follow him and punish those who rebel against God.
We have the secret, and all these parables--these riddles, these stories with a point, a punch line--they all talk about this same thing. We’ve been let in on what God’s doing. You might not catch this at first, but another way of saying this is that we’ve been shown who Jesus really is--“You are my beloved Son,” remember? Jesus is the one who now has the authority to begin claiming back human lives and the human world from Satan; Jesus is the one who has God’s blessing to be the leader. And these three stories--in fact, all the stories in Mark--show us more and more what God’s ruling in the world through Jesus looks like.
We have the secret. Now comes the demand for a decision.
Jesus says, “What you don’t understand this first parable I told you? If you don’t get this one, how are you going to comprehend anything I have to say about God’s kingdom and the way in which it is going to show up?” Then he launches into his explanation of the first parable. The seed that was sown is the gospel message. The types of ground that it falls on represent four sorts of responses that people give to the message when they hear it.
First is the hard, exposed ground by the path. When seed falls there, the birds come and eat it up right away, before it has time to sprout. Sometimes people never even get a chance to drink in the gospel. Satan has them running so wrapped up in evil systems that the gospel has no place to sink into their lives. It could be the evil structures that keep people in extreme poverty--it’s hard to consider Jesus when it takes all you got to find food for today or to keep roaches from crawling on the baby or to find a safe place to spend the night. Or it can be a more personal form of evil that Satan has us tied in--addiction to alcohol, to pornography, to things that occupy our minds like an invading army and ravage our lives. Or it can be simple self-satisfaction, like the religious leaders Jesus probably has most directly in mind here. How can they hear the gospel over all the noise of patting themselves on the back for how “godly” they are.
Second Jesus talks about the seed that falls on the stony ground, that sprouts up for a second and then withers under the hot, oppressive sun. Some people hear the message, get all excited, maybe at a retreat or maybe when they fall in love with a Jesus-follower. But when the gospel message starts to make things uncomfortable, they walk away. Jesus mentions “persecution” here. It takes a deep commitment to stick with Jesus when family members and longtime friends start criticizing you for your religious extremism. Even more, in Mark’s context two thousand years ago, when Christians were publicly slandered, fired from their jobs, accused as criminals before courts, beat up, driven out of their homes, killed. The gospel message needs roots. People who only flirt with Jesus because he makes them feel good won’t be around long.
Third Jesus talks about people who hear the gospel and then get distracted by other things. He says this is like a seed that sprouts up but then is choked about by thistles and weeds. Following Jesus demands that we do things that don’t make sense, relationally, financially, occupationally. The kingdom of God follows a kind of backward logic where the more you face material need, the richer you are, the more you take on menial jobs, the more respected you are, the more you find yourself dying, the more you find yourself living. This doesn’t make sense in a world where we need to pay off student loans, where we want our kids to have good opportunities, where we want to feel comfortable and safe and warm and not hungry when we’re at home. So people worry about money, they want a little more time to do what they want to do, they want to own a nice house instead of renting. And suddenly Jesus’ revolutionary message is replace by the comfortable and secure religion of the Pharisees.
But Jesus talks about a fourth scenario: These were the ones sown on good soil: They hear the word and receive it and bear fruit, one thirty times as much, one sixty, and one a hundred! Some people hear the gospel message and start to live like God’s kingdom really is coming. And it takes over their lives. That’s what the parable about the mustard bush is about. The kingdom message starts out as this little dinky seed, but then it sprouts up and takes over the whole garden as a mustard bush, a pesky weed that can grow over three feet high. Jesus even talks about birds taking shelter in the shade of the mustard bush’s big leaves. Once the gospel finds good soil, it sinks down its roots and takes over our world.
And what does it mean to bear fruit? We bear fruit when the gospel so infests our lives that we inevitably draw other people into God’s kingdom. Jesus’ kingdom--our Jesus’ following--doesn’t only take over our lives, it is on its way to taking over the entire world we live in. And it will, when Jesus returns to finally and decisively set things right. Come, Lord Jesus!
So what is the decision? The decision we each must make tonight--and your own life and the life of this community depend on how you answer this--the decision we must make is, “What type of dirt am I going to be?” In other words, “Will I receive the message that Jesus proclaims?”
This isn’t an easy decision. We’ve only just begun to discover what this world where Jesus rules looks like. We’ve only begun to get to know Jesus. And we haven’t even talked about the shocking, the horrifying way in which this kingdom is going to come. You might be a lot better off, in the short run, siding with the religious leaders or, at least, worrying your life away about your checkbook, children, true love, and whether this country will pull out of the recession. But in the long run, God kingdom is coming, and, when the time is ripe, God is going to judge us on the basis of how we respond to Jesus message. That’s the second parable, When the grain is ripe, he sends in the sickle because the harvest has come. That’s judgment language.
Jesus’ message forces us to choose. After explaining the parable, in verses 21 through 23, Jesus says to his followers, A lamp isn’t brought to be put under a basket or under a bed, is it? Isn’t it to be placed on a lampstand? For nothing is hidden except to be revealed, and nothing concealed except to be brought to light. If anyone has ears to hear, he had better listen! This message doesn’t come into our life so we can ignore it. Jesus doesn’t come preaching good news so we can file it under the Sunday morning paper or push it to the bottom of our purse. This message is to give us light, to illumine the places we walk, to expose the way things really are. “You think this world is doing well, all things considered?” it asks. “No way! This world is a full of evil, death and sickness and loneliness and hunger, of addictions, of sexual abuse, of hate and petty jealousy filling up your hearts! These wars and earthquakes, murders, rapes, drunken Saturday nights and hungover Sunday mornings, those tears you cry because you miss friends, family, those words that explode out of your mouth when you get frustrated or stuck in traffic--This is not what God’s kingdom looks like. This is evil.” The question is, are you going to stay in it or are you going to follow Jesus?
Jesus continues: Take care about what you hear. The measure you use will be the measure you receive, and more will be added to you. For whoever has will be given more, but whoever does not have, even what he has will be take from him. A measure was something like a measuring cup people in Jesus’ day used to buy things like grain at the market. Jesus is using the “measure” as a metaphor for how we understand his message. Today, we might say something like, “It all depends on how you size up this message. If you get it right, then you’ll understand more and more about it as you live it out. But if you get it wrong, then all your false delusions are going to be shattered when you see what the real kingdom is like at the Judgment.” We’re all forced into an all-or-nothing gamble. Everything’s on the line.
So how do we respond to Jesus message the right way? How do we size it up correctly? Last weekend Cindy and I were up at a conference in Minneapolis called the Common Root ’09. We met a lot of really interesting people, heard some astounding lecture, and came back utterly exhausted. The conference was at a little Mennonite church in the not-so-well-to-do part of town, and one of the things that stuck out to me as I sat on the rickety metal folding chairs was that when people talked about following Jesus and embracing his gospel, they usually talked about changing the way we live. Jesus comes preaching in the beginning of Mark telling us to “Repent and believe the gospel.” Most of the time we locate those actions up here, in our heads, or, maybe, in the warm fuzzy feelings of our hearts. Intellect and emotions are important, but how often do we see those as words addressed to our credit cards. How often do we hear Jesus to be saying, “Why don’t you invite that awkward person from work over for dinner?” or “How about turning off the tv tonight and calling up your brother?” “Repent, believe.”
Maybe this would all make more sense if we pay more attention to Jesus words to Andrew and Peter and James and John and Levi: “Come follow me.” We receive the gospel by following Jesus. And following Jesus isn’t only an intellectual thing; it’s not only an emotional thing; it’s not even only a spiritual thing. It’s a whole life thing, something that needs to spread out like a mustard weed and get us tangled up like toilet paper. After all, Jesus commands us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength and to love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12.32-33).
This Wednesday we begin Lent, the time to prepare ourselves for Jesus’ resurrection on Easter. But in between us and resurrection stands a long road to the cross, a road that Mark tells us is all about learning to become disciples, learning to come and follow Jesus. We’re going to talk a lot more about what discipleship looks like in the coming weeks, but before we get worried about roadmaps and rest stops, we need to each decide to start this trip. So here’s the question that you need to answer: “What kind of dirt are you? How will you respond to the gospel? Will you follow Jesus?”