Mark 4:1-34 – Sermon Manuscript

-Have you ever been hanging out with a group of people that’s new to you that have what feels like a different language that they speak?

-One of the things I’ve noticed since as my family has expanded by adding in-laws is that we have to take time to bring the new family members up to speed. We’ve got inside jokes, family stories, favorite movie quotes that unless you’re on the “in” just go right over the in-laws heads!

-When I first got here, Pastor Jeramy and I would often speak in movie quotes to each other! Heather and Tami didn’t even try to keep up.

-One of my favorite TV shows has an iconic line: “I love inside jokes” 

-Inside jokes are great when you’re inside! But what about when you’re on the outside looking in?

-In today’s passage, Jesus is going to use stories to train those who are “in” and confuse those who are “out.”


  1. A Sower (1-20)

-Does anyone remember the primary focus of Jesus’ ministry yet? Teaching! So guess what Jesus does again here? Teaches! Once again, the crowd has discovered Him, and once again it’s a HUGE crowd, so he leaves the land to get into a boat.

-Every author of the Gospels has a specific point to their writing, including Mark. None of them are trying to include every single story about Jesus, or provide a biography in the way we think of them today. (John 21:25 “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”)

-Matthew, Mark & Luke all have this exact same story, and Mark actually tells us why we need to understand this story, as we’ll see in vs. 13, which also means we’ll be spending most of our time today in these first 20 verses, because Jesus says we need to understand this parable to able to understand the rest of them!

-Jesus tells a story about a farmer who goes out to plant his seed. As the farmer goes about his work, the seed is scattered across 4 different types of soils that all lead to different outcomes for the seed. 

-1 – The Path. As the field wasn’t used for a few months, paths would have been worn by people walking through the field. If you’ve ever gone to college you’ve seen this! Colleges should never begin with any sidewalks, because over time the students will show you where the sidewalks should be placed! At my alma mater, there were sidewalks running in (what looked like) all these crazy directions because the students refused to be bound by things like cement! Eventually the administration figured that out. But if seed were to be planted on one of those paths, how successful would it be? I guess if you’re trying to feed birds, this was the best one! But if you’re hoping to get a harvest and plant these seeds into the ground you’ve got a terrible success rate, because Jesus says these seed all become bird food! There goes that group of seeds. Let’s look at the next one:

-2 – Rocky ground. When I grew up in North Dakota, by best friend’s dad was a farmer, and do you know what the boys got to do when they were growing up? Rock picking! If you drive by fields look and see, many of them have a huge rock pile somewhere nearby in order to make sure they don’t break the plow or interfere with the growth of the seeds. The issue with trying to plant seeds in rocky ground is it’s deceptive. Until you actually start doing some work on the field, it looks like it’s good soil, so you’d be tempted to double down on that area and plant a bunch of seeds there! Unfortunately, it’s shallow soil. Initially it would probably look like that will be the most fertile area, but as soon as the heat of the summer sun comes (which should give life to plants who have a good base to build from), the plants die, leaving the farmer with 0 for 2 on his sowing!

-3 – Thorns. This one is tricky just like the rocky ground, because you once again can’t tell that there’s going to be a problem! In fact, this may look even better than the good soil initially, because weeds just don’t give up, and as seedlings you can’t tell much of a difference between the weed and the what you’re trying to go (at least when you’re as good at planting as I am!). Just like the previous 3 soils, this seed dies because of the competition from the thorns, so I’m not liking this farmers shooting average so far! He’s at a solid 0%! Thankfully, there’s 1 more:

-4 – Good soil. Now we’re at the good stuff! The place where he should have been sowing the whole time! This is literally the entire purpose of planting seeds, to get a harvest, to help the seed to flourish, and these seeds make up for the deficiency of the others, giving 30, 60, 100 times the return!

-This would have been a well understood story to the people of the day. An agrarian society would have seen farmers going to work every year, the effort it takes to take care of the seeds, the plowing of the fields. To those listening it would have been common sense! Obviously, that’s how sowing works! It’s a basic as being told today: invest in the stock market, ride out the highs and lows, you’ll get a solid return if you keep your money there!

-There is something unique about the way this sowing takes place: the farmer sows the seed before plowing. Generally you plow the field first in order to rip out the thorns and pull out the rocks, but not this one. This has led some people to argue that this is normal Palestinian planting method: sow seed first, then plow after. Others argue that’s only one of the methods. The point remains: Sower sows indiscriminately! And once we get to Jesus’ explanation of the parable, I think you’ll see that there’s a reason why Jesus doesn’t talk about the plowing

-At some point after the teaching, the 12 needed to ask Jesus what in the world He was talking about! No one had any idea what Jesus was talking about, including those were closest to Jesus. But don’t worry, Jesus will explain it to them! And the purpose is so that there can be a distinction between those who are Jesus’ disciples, and those who are not. 

-Essentially, those who are “in” will be able to understand and apply the parables, those who are outside are left in the dark. It’s not enough just to know what Jesus meant, you need to believe and apply the truths Jesus is saying. Why is this? It’s the fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah 6.

-All of this is meant to confirm for those who are believers what their lives should look like, and until someone repents of their sin (180 turn), they won’t be forgiven and able to understand and apply God’s message. This tells us there’s only 2 way to live: either for Jesus, or opposed to Him, there is no in between when it comes to Jesus! If someone were to turn away from opposition to Jesus and put their hope and faith in Him, they would begin to understand these parables! 

-So let’s look at the meaning of this parable:

-Sower has 1 job: sow the seed, which means the Word! Church: don’t miss this! A disciple of Jesus is someone who is marked by faithful sowing of the Word. This is why Paul talks about the need to preach the Word “in season and out of season” (that is when people are for the message or when they’re against the message) Here are some of the responses you’re going to get:

-Path is a hard heart, this is someone who refuses to acknowledge what is true and are thus taken away by Satan. Has no time to germinate, no time to plant roots, it’s in one ear and out the other as quickly as possible. 

-Rocky ground is someone who looks like they’re all in! But as soon as something difficult happens, they blame God, who does and will allow testing to come! If you’ve heard the phrase “God won’t let you be tempted beyond what you are able” just tell that person to stop lying! God will absolutely let you be tested beyond what you’re able so that you realize the only think that will last is Him! 

-Story of someone who was saved, dog died the next week and he quit following Jesus. Or a friend I have who used to be a pastor, and then realized that the world wouldn’t judge him by the same standards as the church, so he’d rather use someone else’s standards, and last time I talked to him, he wasn’t any happier than he was before he gave up following Christ!

-Thorns is someone who hears, looks like they respond, but then they also want to add in other things to their faith (care of the world, riches, desire for things not from God)

-This is where you’ll often see Christian “social media influencers” (I feel like I dunk of social media a lot, it’s not all bad, but it’s definitely not all good either) Jesus tells us that the world will hate us, just like it hated him, why would we want recognition from the things that are going to pass away at some point? I feel like you see examples of this all over! Musicians who now claim to be agnostic, “pastors” who have shipwrecked their faith, you don’t have to look far to see this lived out today!

-Good soil are those who respond in faith and trust in God, and “bear fruit,” that is the multiplication that comes about from being in Christ.

-Let’s take all this back to the beginning: we need to be actively sowing the word if we’re disciples of Jesus, so as we sow, we should be paying attention to:

-How and where is this person’s heart? Where are you sowing the seed? (The need to sow doesn’t change! Did you notice that! Even those who are good soil will regularly need more seed added to help continue bearing fruit)

-A helpful way of summarizing where people at (continuing with the arrow that I used for our ‘Demystifying Discipleship’ series back in Nov/Dec.) is with 4 Es:

-Engage: this is someone who’s heart is the rocky soil. They’re not yet ready to be given an explicit gospel message and invitation to turn to Jesus, they just need a Christian to reach out to them and befriend them. Then as the Spirit works in them, they’ll slowly move to:

-Evangelize: this would be that moment where now they’re ready to be given more explicit calls of the Word, and more intentional sowing then you may have been doing up until that point. After someone hears the message and responds by putting their faith, hope, and confidence in Jesus, then we need to help them become:

-Established: this is help them learn, grow, and understand what it means to follow Jesus so their hearts don’t become either rocky soil or thorny soil. If you work with someone to help them understand where the thorns or rocks are in their life, they’ll be able to grow seed there instead of fall away.

-Finally, those who have weathered storms, been tempted by the cares of this world and endured, they’ll need help being equipped (think of Eph. 4:12), more intentionally and carefully trained so that we can have multiplication happening instead of just addition. The Christian faith isn’t a spectator sport, everyone has a job to do and a necessary role to play, otherwise God would take you somewhere else!

-There’s also the caution to be careful how you’re receiving the Word. Which soil is your heart?

-Even for those of us who are in Christ, we need to ensure we’re bearing fruit as we read, study, and apply the full breadth of God’s Word. As Micah reminded us in the NCC devotional this past week, we must submit ourselves to the full way God has revealed Himself to us through His Word. Where is your heart?

-Lastly, we need to acknowledge that the softening of the soil is the job of the Holy Spirit. Remember I said early that I think Jesus intentionally left the plowing out? That’s because it’s not our job! We sow the seed wherever and whenever we can, but it’s the job of the Holy Spirit to have been plowing the soil of someone’s heart to make them receptive to the seed! And that’s true of our hearts too: pray for the softening of your heart!

  • A Mystery (21-29)

-Jesus asked His disciples in vs. 13 why they couldn’t understand that first parable, because if they don’t get that one, none of the others will make sense. We don’t see Mark going back to the boat, but can be understood that these are examples of the kinds of parables Jesus would have used to teach the crowd. So view this as a cut scene back to Jesus teaching from the boat!

-The next parable relates to a lamp. What is the point of a lamp? To bring light. It would be a waste of time (and money) to buy a lamp and stick it under a basket or under a bed. (Hate to say it, but kind of like the superfluous pillows that get added around the house, ESPECIALLY to beds)

-The point is that Jesus is the light of the world, He has come to reveal the truths of who God is and what it means to be in relationship with Him, or what the kingdom of God is like. It’s like a light that shines into the darkness of the world, drawing people in, and exposing the darkness for what it really is 

-This is an idea that I’ve really been captivated by over the past few months: Jesus, and thus Christianity, provides the ultimate answer to every longing in the human heart. Jesus is both the source and end to every desire people have. Think of your favorite food (nice medium rare steak with all the fixings, if it’s anything more than medium just get a hamburger!) Did you know that when Jesus comes back, He’s planning a feast with us? Think of taste buds that haven’t been ruined by age or sin! And that’s just a small piece! The eating of your favorite food is meant to serve to remind you who gave you those tastebuds in the first place. Food isn’t meant to be an end in and of itself. 

-We have a tendency to view God as some cosmic killjoy who sits in heaven looking down at us frowning. No! God wants what’s best for us AND wants us to be in relationship with Him forever! Not to belittle or demean us, but to provide for us everything we need, and then some! It’s not a coincidence that He refers to Himself as our Father (not to say those who have strained relationship with their fathers should get over it)

-The next parable Jesus tells (24-25) means we need to pay careful attention to Jesus’ message! To those who pay careful attention to Jesus’ message, and obey it, they will get even more of that message! And if their hearts remain like the hardened soil, they’ll have nothing left.

-Jesus then adds another parable of sowing seeds. Think of the seeming insignificance of a seed! I remember one summer my parents decided to plant a big garden. My sister and I were each given a little portion to plant whatever we wanted, and I excited got my bag of seeds, opened the bag, and was super disappointed because they’re TINY! How in the world am I supposed to take care of these? But miraculously, they turned out! And it was exactly as Jesus described it here: I stuck it in the ground, watered it, and out came the corn, cucumbers, and peas that I had planted! It was a miracle! And then at the end of the summer we got to eat our food!

-How does seed work? At some level it is a mystery! (especially when you’re not good at taking care of plants!) I remember in science class in elementary school planting seeds and then being amazed as the roots would always go down, and the leaves would always go up, even changing direction as you moved the cup! 

-How does the gospel work? At some level, it’s a mystery! I remember being an 8 year old kid meeting some neighbors and asking them why they didn’t go to church. Guess who showed up at church the next week! See our job is to be faithfully sowing, then watch in amazement as we see fruit being born from ordinary people like you and me.

-The outcome of the planting is bearing a harvest. It seems like a miracle, and it is from our perspective, because it’s completely a work of God. The kingdom of God is like that: seems little, seems like such a basic ordinary thing, but what comes out of it is nothing short of a miracle.

  • The Smallest Seed (30-34)

-That brings us to our final parable, that of a mustard seed.

-Once again, no small amount of ink has been spilled on this issue! Mostly related to mustard seeds definitely NOT being the smallest in the world, and it’s not SO big that a bird can plant itself in it! 

-Mustard seed is representing the smallest seed in the world. It looks so insignificant when you think about the size of the plant it becomes. Some mustard plants can grow as high as 20-30 feet! No small plant! Birds could easily find a safe place to nest in a group of these!

-Like that seemingly insignificant seed, the kingdom of God begins by looking like something that is tiny and insignificant (a baby being born in a manger), but eventually will grow to the point of encompassing everything in the world!

-One of the commentators I read this week summarized Jesus’ point helpfully by saying: “The paradox of the gospel—indeed, the scandal of the Incarnation—is disguised in such commonplaces.” (James Edwards, Pillar)

-Think about that: the way God’s kingdom works is by using things that appear trivial, like you could throw it away and it wouldn’t matter at all, but then over time it slowly grows and grows to the point that it literally casts its shadow over everything else that exists. Do you want to know what that looks like? Look at our world today! I talked in Sermon Scraps last week about all the ways the world tries to say Christians are backwards, bigots, opposed to progress, yet they don’t realize that every advancement of human rights is connected directly to Christian ethics and a Christian worldview. This little message that Jesus shared 2,000 years ago has literally changed the entire course of human civilization. I was just listening to a podcast yesterday on just war theory, which has profoundly influenced the way the Western world has generally approached war. Do you know where that comes from? The Bible! Do you want to know the places in the world that have the most rights for women in the world today? Look to the places that had 19th Century Protestant missionaries! Jesus’ message has shaped everything we live on today, and it’s only because of Jesus that we have any hope for a more blessed future.

-These parables were meant to help Jesus’ followers understand and believe in the truths of what He says! The kingdom of God can’t be summarized in a few word descriptions, it will never be fully understood (until Jesus returns), but it is like a tiny seed that seems trivial until it’s planted in someone’s life and takes root. And once it’s taken root, there’s no turning back! If you let it, it will literally transform you from the inside out. So as we saw in the first parable: what kind of soil do you have? Is your heart letting the kingdom of God grow in you? Are you on Jesus’ side, or are you opposed to Him? 

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