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The Sower, the Soils, and Our Attention Economy

January 31, 2021

Teacher: John McLeod
Scripture: Mark 4:1-20

Introduction

Listen! Look Here! He who has ears to hear, let him hear! “Pay attention to what you hear! (v. 24) These are the commands from the mouth of Jesus in our passage this morning. His listeners’ and our spiritual lives depend on our response to it.

Jesus goes on to warn his disciples that if they don’t understand this parable, they will have trouble understanding the rest of what he will tell them.

We would do well to pay special attention and heed this command this morning and in our daily lives.

We live in unprecedented times of an attention economy. Persons, causes, businesses competing for our eyes and ears and attention. Just consider how many “voices” you might hear in one day. How many emails do read before even going to work or maybe even getting out of bed in the morning? Then a little browsing news headlines during breakfast. Maybe a podcast on the commute to work or while you’re washing up the dishes. Then the rest of your day you’re in and out of work contexts, social media, music, streaming services, email, news updates, catching up on your favorite Youtube Creators. Hopefully, somewhere in there, you’re communicating with your spouse and your kids. You might read the newspaper before dinner or skim a few blog posts you couldn’t get to during the day. Your “conversations” with your friends are scattered over short, disconnected texts, an email or two, or following them on their social media feeds. Facebook, Twitter, and Google, some of the most powerful companies in the world, are researching and calculating how to command and keep your attention, with billions of dollars at their disposal. Political Parties and media companies are spending unthinkable sums of money to affect how you think about them—and your neighbor.

… but you did spend your 10 minutes in the Bible in the morning, right?

Which voices are really looming large in your mind in those few minutes you’re not filling it?

This frenzy of voices is affecting us—our attitudes, our emotional health, our relationships, our church unity, and most importantly, our spiritual vitality. This is clearly a stretch, but it reminds me of the demoniac in Mark 5 who proclaimed “My name is Legion, for we are many.”

So, let’s turn our attention to our text for today. It is about hearing and receiving the Word of God. The kind of hearing that merely places God’s word alongside all of these other voices is insufficient and will leave us hopeless, helpless, and eventually damned. We must hear and heed. We must listen intently, carefully, continually, and with faith so that God’s word will take root and bear fruit in our lives.

Reading

Mark 4:1–20 (ESV)

Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:

Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that “ ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’ ”

And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

Outline

This morning we will look at our passage in three sections:

  • The Sower
  • The Mystery
  • The Soils

Pastoral Prayer

  • Continued health and protection, especially for our first responders and health workers.
  • For God’s help in hearing and receiving God’s word.
  • Thank you for inspiring and preserving this Word that we might have a sure foundation to know right and wrong, truth and error, and that we might know You and Your Son, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, Amen.

I. The Sower (4:1-9)

Mark tells us the context of this teaching in 4:1. Jesus and the crowd were beside the Sea of Galilee. Matthew specifies in his account (in Matthew 13) that this happened later the same day as the events that preceded it, when Jesus’ family came looking for him. It is possible this is the same crowd that was following him earlier in Chapter 3.

It will be helpful to us in our text this morning to remember the kinds of people that were a part of this crowd in Chapter 3. It included the twelve, along with people from the north, south, east, and west, since people had traveled from all over to hear him and see him work miracles and heal. In 3:9, Jesus told his disciples to get a boat ready for him because the crowd was so large they were about to crush him. There were some in the crowd who had heard Jesus teach; others had heard about his miracle healing ministry. Scribes had come from Jerusalem accusing Jesus. Jesus’ own family was trying to get to him, concerned that he was losing his mind.

For all of the mentions of Jesus’ teaching in Mark, we haven’t heard much of it yet. In fact, there are not very many extended recordings of Jesus’ words in Mark. We know from Mark 1:14-15 that Jesus came proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Now, Jesus is actually in a boat, perhaps the one they prepared in Chapter 3, likely anchored near the shore, speaking to a very large crowd. Fun fact: there are amphitheater-like spots along the Sea of Galilee where one could speak to thousands of people with no extra amplification.

Mark tells us that Jesus was teaching the crowd in parables. Ben Garner did an excellent job a few weeks ago introducing us to some of Jesus’ parables later in this chapter.

This first parable is of special significance because Jesus himself tells his disciples that it is a “key” to understanding all of the parables (v. 13).

You’re likely familiar with the parable. It typically goes by the title, “The Parable of the Sower” though sometimes you might hear it as “The Parable of the Soils.” There is good reason for these distinctions. I found it interesting in my study that some commentaries make the point that this passage is very much about the Sower, while other commentaries make the point that it’s not really about the Sower at all, but merely about how the different soils respond. I don’t think we have to choose. For verses 3-9, we’ll mainly consider the Sower, and in vv. 14-20, we’ll focus on the types of Soil.

I do think it is helpful to keep this parable in the context of what we’ve already mentioned, that Jesus came preaching that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Along with the parables following our passage, this parable is also about the Kingdom of God. It is not merely telling us about the Sower (Jesus) or about his hearers; it is showing us truths about how the Kingdom of God works, and the fact that it will be successful.

The narrative of the parable is straightforward. A farmer or sower is sowing seed. This is something they would have been used to observing; it was part of their everyday life, but most of us are not farmers, and have perhaps never even planted a small garden, much less a field to raise the food we must live by. Most likely he would have been spreading seeds by hand from a leather pouch on his belt. The seeds fall on different kinds of soil and produce different results. Same seed, different soil, different results.

What about sowing to these bad soils?

What should we think of the sower sowing in not-pristine soil? Here are a few thoughts. First, it’s likely that in 1st Century Palestine, famers plowed the field after they sowed the seed. In other words, the farmer would go around spreading seed to the edge of the field, all the way up to the path. Then, he’d come back later and plow it under, possibly even including the walking path, which could have just been on the edge of the field. There could have been portions of the field which had limestone not far under the surface, so the soil would have been very shallow there. This doesn’t mean there were rocks all in it, merely that the topography made the soil shallow, which would warm more quickly in the sun, and even germinate seeds more quickly, though there was not enough soil to support a crop. It also would have been likely the farmer would have burned any thorns before sowing his new crop, but often the seeds of the thorns would still be in the soil and would grow up faster than the crop and cause problems.

I say all that to say the the sower is not necessarily doing anything wrong as a farmer according to the craft at the time.

However, I do think the way Mark is highlighting the Sower, it seems the sower is just throwing the seed out there, almost recklessly, regardless of the type of ground. He is being very free with the seed, not holding back, not being choosy about where it lands. And lo and behold, it produces a crop, some thirtyfold, some sixtyfold, and some a hundredfold (which would have a been a great yield). So, despite the seed that fell on bad soil, there is still a robust crop.

The reason I say Mark is showing the Sower as free or even reckless is just this. Jesus is the Sower, and he is doing the sowing as he is teaching. He is teaching a crowd that includes all types of soils. You get the feeling that he wishes his disciples would at least figure this much out.

Jesus finishes his parable with a reminder of where he started. He began with “Listen!” He ends in vs. 9 with “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

There it is. There is the parable. I hope you got all of the meaning out of it. But, if not, Jesus is going to explain it to us, thankfully, though he is first going to tell us why he speaks in parables.

II. The Mystery (4:10-13)

Mark 4:10–13 (ESV)

  • (10) And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.
  • (11) And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables,
  • (12) so that “ ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’ ”
  • (13) And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?

Mark lets us take a brief detour from the current scene. He’ll return back to Jesus teaching the crowd in v. 21. Until then, he takes us to a separate conversation in the back room (or somewhere more private) where Jesus explains the parable to his disciples.

I called Point #2 “The Mystery” because of vs. 11. He is explaining to them the mystery or “secret” of the Kingdom of God. Mark doesn’t tell us the specific question that the disciples asked Jesus; we only have his answer. We should also note who is with Jesus. We are no longer with the very large crowd, but we do have more than the Twelve. Verse 10 tells us that he was alone with “those around him” and the twelve. So, it’s some manageable number of individuals who are in a real sense followers of Jesus.

Before Jesus explains this particular parable to them—and it seems according to vs. 34 that he explained all of the parables to his disciples—before he explains it to them, he tells them why he is speaking to the crowd in parables.

These couple of verses can be a bit tricky. I get nervous when I read in a commentary something like, “This is one of the most difficult passages in all the New Testament…” We’ll let’s see.

First, Jesus divides his hearers into two groups—those who have been given the secret of the kingdom, and the outsiders. Then he quotes from Isaiah 6:9-10. We’ll look at Isaiah’s passage in a moment. First, the two groups.

Insiders and Outsiders

We’ve got insiders and outsiders. This is not a difficult concept for us to grasp. In whatever context we find ourselves, we are always trying to figure out if we’re an insider or an outsider. Sometimes if we’re an insider we don’t know it, since we’re typically more aware when we feel like an outsider.

We don’t know everything about the insiders and outsiders in Jesus’ crowd, but we do know this—the insiders are the ones asking Jesus the questions and getting explanations. They are the ones with Jesus. The Outsiders only receive Jesus’ teaching as parables. This is what he says in vv. 33-34:

Mark 4:33–34 (ESV) — With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them (Crowd/Outsiders) without a parable, but privately to his own disciples (insiders) he explained everything.

The Jews probably had their own categories of who they expected to be insiders and outsiders. They probably expected that the Pharisees, Scribes, Zealots, and perhaps the Sadducees were insiders along with other observant Jews. Other, not so observant Jews and Gentiles would then be the outsiders. But, Jesus doesn’t draw his lines this way.

Instead, his lines are drawn based on those who hear, believe, and bear fruit. It’s not class or party or previous religious commitments, but on those who find their fellowship IN JESUS. Only by being with Jesus can the mystery be revealed to them.

This is partially why I want to maintain the title as “The Parable of the Sower,” because Jesus as the Sower is key to their understanding of the Parable. Jesus is the one who can interpret them for us, and knowing Jesus is the key.

So, the insiders are the ones who are with Jesus. The crowds are hearing him speak, but they are not yet with him. Remember who is in this crowd? Those who are just there for the “magic show;” those who are merely curious of this traveling preacher; the religious leaders from Jerusalem who just accused Jesus of being a pawn for Satan. For them, they only get the parables. Perhaps this even includes his family who are accusing him of being out of his mind.

Isaiah 6:9-10

Now let’s take a brief look at how Mark uses Isaiah 6:9-10. It’s a somewhat shocking statement:

The end of vs. 11 says, “For those outside everything is in parables,

  • Mark 4:12 (ESV) — so that “ ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’ ”

In other words, Jesus is acknowledging that those who refuse to hear him in faith are under judgement.

God tells Isaiah that his ministry to Israel will be met with unhearing ears and unseeing eyes, because God has judgment to pour out on them for their disobedience.

Isaiah 6:9–10 (ESV) — And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “ ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

In a real sense, the mystery of the Kingdom of God is Jesus—who he is and what he will do to accomplish their salvation. Those who reject the person of Jesus cannot rightly understand his teachings.

So, Jesus uses the parables to confirm what is in people’s hearts. Do they hear with faith? Jesus will explain more? If not, they only get the parables and are left outside.

Also, you may wonder, how does one go from being an outsider to an insider. One must believe in Jesus. It’s not that no one can hear and believe who is in the crowd. It’s just a clear statement that true understanding must come by faith in Jesus himself, not merely through intellectual assent to his words.

There is a recognition of God’s sovereignty in our salvation in this passage.

Before we get to the explanation of the soils, I just want to mention verse 13. This must have been a low moment for the disciples.

  • Mark 4:13 (ESV) — And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?

They are going to have multiple low moments, but I imagine this being one of them. After all, they may feel like the whole movement is on shaky ground as it is. It’s been a rough day. Some significant religious leaders have just declared that their teacher is doing the work of Satan, and his own family came to tell him he was out of his mind. His teachings are hard to understand because he won’t speak plainly but only using parables which are difficult, and then he questions why they don’t get it.

Thankfully, Jesus is going to help them (and us) out by explaining the parable.

III. The Soils (4:14-20)

We are still hearing what Jesus taught the twelve and the others with them. We’re not back with the crowd yet.

The focus is going to turn here from the Sower’s sowing to the receptivity of the “soils.”

Jesus evidently has to spell it out for us that what he is talking about is sowing the Word.

Before we see each individual type of soil, let’s consider a few things about all the soils.

First, he makes it clear to them what that the “seed” in his parable are the Word, which could specifically refer to his teachings, or the gospel, or the Word of the Kingdom from Chapter 1. Remember, same seed; different soils.

Second, they all hear the word. Jesus is demonstrating this as he teaches the crowds. They all heard his words. You’ll find “hear” in each of the soils. This is part of the warning to us all. It’s not enough to merely hear the words. We all know what this is like when we are talking to a friend or spouse who is looking at their smartphone, or when we speak to our kids and they’re playing Minecraft. At some level they are listening, but not really.

Third, there is a progression. The soils are moving closer and closer to bearing fruit.

  • immediately taken away
  • endure for a short while
  • grow, but get choked out before bearing any fruit
  • grow and bear fruit

The Path

  • Mark 4:15 (ESV) — And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.

Before the farmer could plow the seed under so that it could take root, it is taken away by Satan. We could go back to telling your kids to do a chore while they’re playing Minecraft. It doesn’t take any time at all for your words to be snatched away and forgotten.

This was true for Jesus’ hearers as well. If they have already decided this man is a fraud, they are not really listening.

It’s really helpful to consider the fact that Satan does not want you to seriously consider God’s words. He will do all in his power to distract you so that even when you think you’ve heard them, you haven’t really. Think C.S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters. It’s not merely keeping someone out of church, but making them bored in church or halfhearted listening to the preacher, thinking of what’s for Sunday lunch. Satan is okay with you reading your Bible if Instagram is what really captures your attention.

The Rocky Ground

  • Mark 4:16–17 (ESV) — And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.

Jesus’ disciples would be facing this at this very moment in their discipleship. They are hearing Jesus’ words and seeking to follow him. But, the pressure is mounting. They are beginning to see that this journey could cost them. They don’t quite see it yet, but they will. They will eventually all turn away from Jesus after his arrest.

We know the significance of this. We know of the martyrdom in the early church. We’ve heard Jesus’ words that we must take up our cross and follow him. We must count the cost in order to be his disciple.

Difficult times will come for the Christian generally. And, it is quite likely that difficult times will come for Christians in America in our lifetime, perhaps even in the next few years.

When the pressure to reject biblical morality or allegiance to Jesus comes in your workplace, or in your government, will the seeds of God’s words have taken root in your heart?

Perhaps what is most concerning with the Rocky Ground is how joyfully they heard AND received the word initially. We must hear and keep on hearing. We must heed and keep on heeding.

The Ones Among Thorns

  • Mark 4:18–19 (ESV) — And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.

Now we get to the seeds which actually take root. They’ve heard; they are attempting to heed; but their eyes are turned away from the things of God. Not because of external pressures of tribulation or persecution, but because of internal fleshly desires.

Oh, church, how hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God. We are all in danger here. We must be vigilant; we must help one another where we are blind.

The cares of the world are real. We have people to care for, and mortgages to pay, and spouses to make happy. And we begin to tell ourselves we can have it all—the deceitfulness of riches. And then we begin to desire that which is unlawful for the Christian, saying things like, “no-one is perfect; all are sinners.”

If you feel yourself becoming callous to God’s word or sacrificial obedience, take a look at this area of your life.

The Good Soil

  • Mark 4:20 (ESV) — But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

We’re finally to the good soil. One difference you may not notice in English is the change in the verbs. All the other soils “heard” in the aorist tense (once at a definitive point in time), now they are hearing and accepting and bearing fruit in the Present tense (hearing and continuing to hear; accepting and continuing to accept; etc.).

And, they not only hear, but bear fruit. It’s helpful to notice that not all seed/soils bear the same harvest. We don’t need to be comparing ourselves to others. What we should remember is that God’s word will bear fruit. It will bring a harvest.

Conclusion / Application

Remember the Command at the start: “Hear!”

Don’t forget the Lord’s Prayer. Lead us not into temptation.

Practical Steps

  • Take some time to evaluate your love of scripture. Are you growing in your knowledge of and obedience to God’s Word. Do you delight in it?
  • Meditate on Psalm 1
  • Try reading through books of the Bible in one sitting.
  • Take an honest look at your media intake. What other voices are you listening to? I’m not suggesting they should all be Christian voices; I’m merely asking you to be purposeful. Change will require intentionality.
  • Know your weaknesses for distraction and actively work against them, especially to promote lingering and meditating on the Scripture.
    • don’t have your phone with you
    • use an old-fashioned bible
    • write out your thoughts or journal on paper
    • read a book about the distractedness of our culture. I recommend two books by Cal Newport: Deep Work or Digital Minimalism.
  • Ask close friends or family to give you feedback on your media consumption or social media participation.
  • Consider occasionally fasting from news or social media.
    • for particular times of day
    • on the Lord’s Day
    • one week or extended time per year
  • Consider altering your diet to read some good books instead of surfing the web.
  • All of this may sound beyond the scope of our immediate passage. I’m suggesting that hearing God’s word well requires the discipline of thinking deeply and responding rightly.

Possible listeners today

Faith-filled Disciples

  • Keep hearing. Keep bearing fruit.
  • Sow the seed of the gospel for others. Stop being so discriminate about who you share the gospel with. Share it freely. WE don’t know who has good soil. We don’t know where God is working to awaken hearts to his word.

Critics or Unbelievers

  • You don’t have to remain an outsider. Put your faith in Christ and look to him for salvation and to his word for truth.
  • Romans 10:13 (ESV) — For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

For the Christian who is dull of hearing

  • Pray for revival in your heart.
  • Read Psalm 119 until it affects you.

Will, you can bring up the Worship Team

Believers struggling with doubts or a lack of assurance of salvation

  • If you hear this passage or this sermon and begin wondering if the birds have stolen your seed, or if your roots are shallow, or if the cares of this world are choking out your faith, LOOK to Christ.

Some of you think you will come to peace by looking in to your own heart. Your eye is riveted there. You watch every change there. If you could only see a glimpse of light there, oh, what joy it would give you! If you could only see a melting of your stony heart, if you could only see your heart turning to God, if you could only see a glimpse of the image of Jesus in your heart, you would be at peace; but you cannot—all is dark within. Oh, dear souls, it is not there you will find peace! ... You must look to a declared Christ.

  • Robert Murray M'Cheyne, Sermon on 1 John 1:1-4
  • Continue in his word.
  • Romans 10:17 (ESV) — So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

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