The Enigma of Jesus Mark 4:1-20

'Jesus is being given a revolutionary new image' in an Easter advertising campaign launched this week by the Churches Advertising Network - brought to you by the same people who created the Britvic Tango adverts over Christmas.

The poster shows Jesus looking very much like Che Guevara. The aim, it is claimed, is to challenge stereotypes. "The traditional Jesus has been seen as this meek and mild, almost ineffectual figure" said a spokesman. Admitting the poster is provocative, he said "We are not saying Jesus was a communist. We are saying Jesus was a revolutionary." 50,000 brochures are being sent to churches across Britain inviting them to buy and use the poster. Watch this space. What is your view of Jesus? On what is it based? The original or a counterfeit?
That's why these Sunday mornings we are returning to consider the life and teaching of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Mark - for there is nothing more important than forming our opinion of Jesus on the historical facts as recorded by his contemporaries and eye witnesses. There we see Jesus is indeed a revolutionary, none more so in his use of vivid, provocative stories. As one of P.G. Woodhouse's characters complains, 'A parable is one of those stories in the Bible which sounds at first like a pleasant yarn, but keeps something up its sleeve which suddenly pops up and knocks you flat.' That is especially so in this story of the sower. Three observations as we begin:

Sowing is Universal

The image of the sower scattering the seed far and wide prefigures the conclusion of Mark's gospel when the Apostles are sent out to preach the gospel to every creature. The fashionable term at the moment is 'unreached people groups.' In every country, every city, every small community there are unreached people for whom we are responsible. Intellectuals, for instance may be hard soil, the socialites and entertainers may be shallow soil, and those in business or who have private means may have the thorns of wealth and power to choke them. Should any be neglected because they are tough, shallow or divided? Of course not. Our only obligation is to sow the seed universally, as widely as possible in Virginia Water, in as many ways and means possible, and leave the harvest to God.

Growing is Individual

The response to the Gospel is not to be stereotyped or prejudged. Different people respond differently, depending on their readiness to receive the Gospel. Patiently the master teacher makes room for the resistant, the shallow and the divided minds as well as those eager, ready and able to learn. On the surface it is often if not always impossible to tell the difference.Sowing is Universal. Growing is individual.

Reaping is Selective

Each kind of soil, representative of different kinds of hearers, carries its own judgement within its nature, scavenging birds, the scorching sun and choking thorns bring judgement on hardened soil, shallow roots and mixed shoots.The seed is sown, the plants grow, but the harvest is lost, or is it? The fertile soil produces crops that astound the imagination. Let me give you an example. How many of the Jesus videos given away are watched? How many of the Bibles, Gospels, evangelistic booklets, leaflets and literature we give away are ever read? We worked out that for every 200 videos given away, if just one family came to faith and joined Christ Church, if they tithed their income, their giving to the Lord's work would pay for the next 200 videos in a year. Sowing must be universal, because growing is individual and reaping will be selective but very impressive. I don't know how many people have come to faith in Jesus Christ through out witness as a church this past year. I do know though that much seed has been sown and average attendance is up 20% on last year. Let us pray that this is fruit that will last. That's an overview. Now lets look at the parable in a little more detail. Read Mark 4:1-2. Somebody once said, "This parable doesn't really need explanation, just application." Jesus not only told this proverb but he also explained its meaning as well. The sower who is God and the seed which is the good news of Jesus do not vary. It is the soil that determines whether the seed bears fruit. Lets consider them one at a time.

1. The Hard Path: Not Understanding the Good News about Jesus 4:15
Read verse. How often have you been listening to someone and yet you haven't heard a word they said? You can tell when someone is doing it to you.
Their eyes glaze over, they focus on some distant object as if they are looking right through you, they are miles away. Jesus said "hearing they hear not". We would say it went in one ear and came out the other without passing through the brain. They hear the message but they are hard on the surface. It washes off. It cannot penetrate. What makes people hard? Things like cynicism, indifference and pride act like asphalt or concrete and the good news just bounces off. You'll here someone say "Its too simple - Church is OK for children but not for me..." There are at least two ways in which we can unintentionally sow seed on a hard path.

1.1 We can get in the way of Jesus
Ever seen a loud tie or a provocative dress? They distract, they draw attention. We can distract people in the same way. When you hear some one go on about "I did this" or "I want that" its like wearing a loud tie, it draws attention to ourselves and people will switch off. Its like standing on the seed and crushing it before it has a chance to germinate. People won't hear Jesus if we are too loud talking about ourselves. Instead lets put Jesus first in our lifestyles as well as our conversations.The opposite mistake is that...

1.2 We don't get into the way of Jesus at all
People will switch off if they detect we are just saying the words because we think we ought to. They will realise Jesus is not naturally central in our lives. Truth must be pressed through experience. Like a cheese grater. That's what we are to be like. Cheese graters. Taking the seed truth of God and pressing it through our experience, grating it for people to taste. Lets use the JVP, the special literature in the corridor designed for people in need, suffering, bereavement. The literature about the our church. Lets share the excitement of knowing Jesus Christ with others. Personal illustrations of what God is doing in our lives are also attractive. People will connect with our personal testimony. Its easier to relate to a person than it is with an abstract truth. That's why Jesus told so many stories that people could identify with.
If we don't want people to respond like the hard path, be careful not to stand in the way of Jesus but make sure Jesus is Lord of your life so that its his life story people will see in us. Our drive way is made of asphalt. Its hard and the seeds that fall on it get washed away. But if you take a look at it sometime you'll notice the asphalt is breaking up. Seeds that fall on it may not be able to get through, but amazingly some seeds already in the soil below are breaking through. Its incredible to see the power of a seed, a plant, a root able to break through even asphalt. So don't be discouraged. The Hard Path represent those who do not understand about Jesus. They may be hardened to the good news of Jesus but through you God's power can break through misunderstanding, pride and indifference. I know, because it did for me.

2. The Stony Ground : A Shallow Understanding of Jesus 4:16-17
Read verses. These are the impressionable ones who hear the word and have an instant and positive response. They join all the groups, buy all the books, come to all the courses. A great beginning but no finish. Shallowness.
When the heat of adversity comes along they wither. The problem here is the lack of depth to enable roots to grow down deep and draw up nourishment. How can we avoid shallowness in our lives? Why do we meet on Sundays?
2.1 Life Long Learning
Some people think that Sunday School is just for children. That shows shallow thinking. One of the primary reasons we come together on Sundays is to learn. To put our roots down into the Scriptures and learn how to draw strength from Jesus when we face difficulties. Let me ask you, are you reading the bible daily? The word 'Disciple' actually means a learner. One of the first things I did as a young Christian was to make a list of questions I had about the Christian faith. I lots of questions and I kept asking them until I got answers. Its not a sign of immaturity to have questions - its a sign that you are alive and growing. Example of the Aitken's and Communion. Here's another one - how do you feel about making notes during the sermon? I'd rather you do that than fall asleep. What ever will help you become a workman who can accurately handle the word of truth - do it. We also learn from God through the school of life. At Sunday school, Monday school, Tuesday school... Life is an exciting adventure learning from Jesus every day. One of the best prayers to pray is "Lord, teach me new things today" A Christian is someone who always wears "L" plates. Never be embarrassed to wear yours. L.L.L.
2.2 Genuine Meaningful Friendship
There's another reason we meet on Sundays. Its to deepen our relationships so we can support one another and look after each another.
Ears of corn won't survive on their own, they grow together in fields.
That is why our social times together are as important as our spiritual times. The service doesn't end with the blessing.
It continues into the hall and over the coffee hatch, back to your meal tables, into your afternoon teas, onto the 7:30 train tomorrow morning.
The Hard Path stands for those who do not understand the good news about Jesus but are deceived. The Stony Path, stands for those with a shallow faith that easily dries up in adversity. Don't be content with a shallow faith, see Christ Church as a family, a place for learning and friendship.

3. The Thorny Ground : Choked by Worries and Distractions 4:18-19
Read verses. Then there are the people who hear the word gladly.
They are sincere, and they make a solid beginning in the life of faith. God begins to bless them. They have children, grandchildren. They succeed in their jobs, promotion brings a pay rise but also additional responsibilities.
They must be away more often. There's the second home to keep up, the club membership privileges to take up. And the first thing you know, all these good things choke out their primary commitment, their first love for Jesus. You cannot serve God and money said Jesus. Choose before there is no more choosing. Why do weeds grow in your garden? Because there are a lot of weed seeds sown in the soil already. Its part of nature, human nature.
3.1 Natural
Can you think of weeds that grow in our lives? Jealousy is one, greed is another. Worry is another. When Emily our dog was much younger, we used to use a choke lead to try to get her to walk beside us. When she would wonder off it would tighten around her neck and she'd soon realise she needed to come back our way. We gave up using it because it didn't work. She just choked a lot. She still likes chasing cats or eating sweet wrappers.
I've learnt not to leave the bread for the communion service within her reach. The other week she ate that too and the plastic bag. Its in her nature. Jealousy or greed or worry are things that can distract us, take our mind off trusting Jesus. Sometimes we can choke the faith of others.
Christ Church is a wonderful family and we feel it is a privilege to be part of your life. But I have a priority this year. One thing I want us to root out from Christ Church in 1999 is anonymous, destructive, negative criticism.
It may be part of our human nature but it has no place within the Christian family. It starts with something like 'I hear people are saying...' Or 'some people feel very strongly...' Every time I hear that its like putting a drop of sulphuric acid on the arm. Eventually it will fall off. Jesus says, in Matt. 18:15,

"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that `every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan..." Then in Matthew 5:23 Jesus also says,

"Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift."
It is therefore our responsibility to act whether we have something against our brother or if we know our brother has something against us. We must deal with unresolved issues personally and quickly, not start a verbal petition of Chinese chain of whispers. As James warns the tongue is like a consuming fire, a restless evil full of deadly poison. So lets ban anonymous destructive gossip. Next time you hear the phrase 'some people' ask 'which people?' Or when you are told "I hear..." Ask 'from whom?' Then invite the gossip to go back and encourage the individual concerned to deal with it directly. I don't listen to anonymous comments. I ignore them as you should. Negative gossip can choke the faith of others. There's another reason weeds grow in our gardens.

3.2 Laziness
Every gardener knows that a pretty, weed free garden doesn't happen by accident. It takes a lot of hard work to remove the weeds that would choke the vegetables and flowers. Gardeners know they must be ruthless with weeds. The weeds must be pulled up and burnt. How can you tell a lazy Christian?
He doesn't pray regularly. We need to pray against the weeds that creep into our lives, pray for the harvest, for God's blessing. Prayer is just as hard as keeping weeds out of the garden, and just as effective when we pray regularly.
The Hard Path, an indifferent faith that's easily deceived.
The Stony Path, a shallow faith that easily dries up.
The Thorny Path, a lazy cluttered faith that's easily distracted.

4. The Good Soil : Bearing Much Fruit 4:20
Read verse. What a difference when the seed is sown on good soil! What a difference hearing and understanding God's truth makes. This is a seed. When you hold a seed in your hand, it looks dead. Have you ever seen a seed move? No, and yet God has given this seed life, its actually living, active, with an intricate blueprint hidden inside of what it can become. All it needs is good soft soil, free from stones and weeds and watch it grow. From little seeds like this God is growing giant trees, 50, 60, even a hundred feet high, 4, 5 even six feet wide. We actually have two Millennium Projects at Christ Church. The second less well known will involve planting a baby Yew tree in our church yard. Every church is being offered one by the Millennium Commission. We will have to choose its location very carefully because it will grow only a few inches every decade. It is likely to stand for many hundreds and hundreds of years. Likewise, it may take a long, long time but the plans God has for your life and that of your children and grandchildren are contained here in the word of God. It doesn't look very alive. It can't move in your hand, yet it is a kind of seed. When we listen to God speaking through it, when we understand what he is saying and open our heart to him, the seed enters and begins to change us and those wee influence. The effect of becoming like Jesus may take time in fact it takes all our lives, but it is no less dramatic on our generation and future generations. The fruit of the Spirit's presence is there for all to taste and enjoy. And God's fruit of love and joy and peace in us produces more fruit in other people who taste and see that the Lord is good. And so the seed of God's word goes on reproducing itself through more and more people. If you think its a miracle that God can make a giant tree out of a little seed like this, then realise what a greater miracle God is doing in and through you as you hear, as you understand, as you retain, and as you share his good news with others.