Simple-earthy; Divine-heavenly. That’s how Pastor John described the parables of Jesus–simple, earthy stories to illustrate divine, heavenly principles. I love the word “earthy”; probably because I am a lover of the natural world, and when the weather is nice, it’s hard to keep me contained inside. I’m also a lover of Jesus, and I see him everywhere I look. He’s in the earthy, and I love that about him. He’s also in the divine, and I love that about him too.
After taking a little break, Pastor John has taken us back to the book of Mark. We picked up in chapter 4, verse 1. As a refresher, chapters 1-3 introduce us to Jesus and his message that the Kingdom of heaven is right here, right now, in our midst. God is not far away–he’s here. Jesus demonstrated that truth through authoritative teaching, miracles of many kinds, and the forgiveness of sins, showing that the Kingdom is here and available to everyone. Everyone. No one is excluded.
In chapter four, Jesus begins to teach in parables. Pastor John reminded us that parables are meant to be heard, not read–a challenge in today’s world. If you can, take the time to listen to Mark 4:1-9–read it out loud or press the audio feature on a Bible app. Listen without analyzing or thinking, “I already know this one.” There’s always more to see, more to learn, fresh revelation through the Holy Spirit.
The Message version of the Bible goes like this:
He (Jesus) went back to teaching by the sea. A crowd built up to such a great size that he had to get into an offshore boat, using the boat as a pulpit as the people pushed to the water’s edge. He taught by using stories, many stories.
“Listen. What do you make of this? A farmer planted seed. As he scattered the seed, some of it fell on the road and birds ate it. Some fell in the gravel; it sprouted quickly but didn’t put down roots, so when the sun came up it withered just as quickly. Some fell in the weeds; as it came up, it was strangled among the weeds and nothing came of it. Some fell on good earth and came up with a flourish, producing a harvest exceeding his wildest dreams.
“Are you listening to this? Really listening?”
Are we listening? Really listening? One of the things that I love about scripture is that there are always deeper layers to mine. We were reminded that this particular parable is often interpreted with the emphasis on the type of “soil” we should evangelize in. Or it is used as a way to judge the hearts of others. Or it is referring to the harvest at the end of time. Which interpretation is correct? Could it be all of them? What if we’ve emphasized the minor points? What if the emphasis of Jesus’ teaching is not about soil but about sowing seed?
A farmer (he’s the main character in the parable)–planted seed. He scattered the seed… What!? He didn’t dig little troughs and plant his seeds 1/4 inch deep, 6 inches apart in nice little rows? Hmmm.
He scattered seed. That’s the point. He sowed seed generously. That’s the point. Seeds were sown everywhere. That’s the point.
Is the sown seed about a one time encounter? Is it about salvation? Or could it be something more?
Think about your walk with God–your relationship with him. Is he still sowing seed in your life? If your answer is yes, are there times when that seed is carried off by birds almost immediately? Are there times when you’ve had a spiritual encounter that lit a fire in you, but it’s not sustained and withers quickly? Have you had seed sown that could grow, but the circumstances surrounding you choke out its potential? Have you had seed grow that matures and you share with others? I believe we’ve all had those experiences. I have, and in my own life–not one seed has been wasted, no matter what state my heart was in.
I grew up in a family that was in church Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night–all my formative years. Church attendance was not an option. Sunday School was not an option. Youth group attendance was not an option. Church attendance was not an option.
As a young child, I loved going to church. I had some wonderful teachers, I loved making arts and crafts projects, I loved being with my friends. I’m old enough to remember flannelgraph and loved the colorful figures that were placed on the board. If you asked me to come up with a particular Sunday school lesson that was my favorite, I wouldn’t be able to. There is not one particular Sunday that stands out as spectacular. My memories are of the overall experience. My parents were consistent in loving God. They modeled love for all people, read us books like “Little Visits With God”, prayed with us, taught us to pray, and taught us to know that God is here and loves us very much. Lots of seeds were being sown generously into my life. What kind of fruit were they bearing? I don’t know. I do know that even as a child I loved people and reached out to new kids, defended my Jewish friend on the playground when other children were unkind to her and had friends of all colors at my house (or I went to their houses) after school.
As an adolescent and teenager, I loathed going to church. I was angry at God. I sat in the back of the sanctuary, played tic tac toe with friends, paid no attention to what was going on, and was most likely a distraction to anyone sitting near me. By all appearances, I was not taking in anything during those years–it would have appeared the soil was rocky, and birds were snatching away any seed that was being scattered. But is that true? Forgive me for being so graphic, but we’re going “earthy” here. Sometimes seed eaten by birds passes through their systems and gets scattered elsewhere. There are entire islands whose lush vegetation began from seeds that came through the digestive tracts of birds. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that no heavenly seed scattered in my life was wasted. Some of those seeds have borne fruit years later in locations far from where they were sown. Seed snatched by birds still has potential.
Part of my youth group experience included summer mission trips. Each summer, my heart was made tender toward God on those trips. Each summer, when I returned to church, I tearfully made my way to the altar at the end of the service and recommitted my life to Jesus. Every. Summer. Then school would start, and I would be back in my rebellious and self-destructive behavior almost immediately. It would appear that those summer seeds grew quickly and died quickly. Were they wasted seeds? No. My recommitment-Every. Single. Summer. -was genuine in the moment. My encounters with God were real. And every single summer, God welcomed me with open arms, no condemnation. I experienced his unconditional love over, and over, and over again. It’s possible that church people rolled their eyes and thought “there she goes again”, but what God was sowing in me, teaching me, was his consistency in love, and his willingness to embrace this prodigal daughter over and over and over and over. His love was sowing seeds that I was unaware of at the time, but today are seeds that I sow into the lives of those who think they’ve blown it and think that God couldn’t possibly still love them. I know that he does, because of that season of seemingly wasted, but not wasted seed in my own life.
As a young adult who was still struggling with anger, still resisting my upbringing, no longer attending church, “partying”, self-destructing–living among weeds– (I could have been identified by outsiders as a weed myself) –seeds were not wasted. I have a particular very clear memory from that season: One night when I was with a group of friends and we were drinking pretty heavily, the conversation turned to God. That moment lasted a couple of hours. I shared about God’s unconditional love with my friends. I shared about some of my personal encounters with him, how I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he loved me and them. None of that was my usual method of doing things. Most of those friends had no idea I had any knowledge of God, much less a relationship with him. I was in a season in which I wasn’t even sure of that truth myself, but God was using me as a spokesperson of his truth in that moment. The Holy Spirit was speaking to my friends and to me through me-even as we were partying. What happened? Was that conversation the result of seeds that had been sown but lain dormant in me for years? Was I a weed or a seed? Was I sowing among weeds? Was that a bad thing to do? Are we not supposed to sow among weeds?
Does Jesus’ parable tell us that it is wrong for seed to be scattered on rocky roads, shallow soil, among weeds? No. The farmer scattered seed. It landed everywhere. That’s the point. Who are we to determine which seed will bear fruit and which won’t? We can’t determine that. We don’t know. Even in our organized modern-day agriculture, we can’t make seeds germinate and grow. Seeds are sown. We can try to create environments in which they can grow, but we can’t make them grow. Each seed grows or doesn’t individually. That includes seeds sown in you and me. Are they growing? Are they bearing fruit? Each seed which germinates and grows has the potential to multiply many times over. That’s the beauty of a seed.
I’ll ask again, are we sowing seed generously? (BTW- I don’t think that means our modern-day understanding of “evangelizing”) Does our seed sowing include creating environments where people feel loved and accepted right where they are and as they are? Think of the fruit of the Spirit–are we sowing seeds of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control? (Gal. 5:22). Are we letting those fruits “go to seed”? Each year, I let some of my lettuce “go to seed”. The following spring, new lettuce appears, some of it in the raised bed where my previous lettuce crop was, some of it appears on my garden path, some of it in sidewalk cracks. and some of it nowhere near the original lettuce location. No matter where it grows, it’s lettuce and we eat it. The lettuce that has been allowed to “go to seed” produces an unplanned crop. It’s a natural process, a result of sown seed. Sow. Sow generously. Sow everywhere. Sow.
And as you sow, don’t neglect the ongoing seed being sown into you. Let them grow. Sow, grow, sow, grow– this is the earthy, divine manner in which the Kingdom of heaven expands on earth.
I love what Luanne wrote, the way she was able to identify seasons in her own life during which seed was sown in all four types of soil that Jesus talked about in his parable. I love it because it reminds us all of what is true in our own lives, too. But what I love most about her examples is they clearly show that none of the seed that was scattered in her and around her was wasted. None of it. Every seed scattered served (and is still serving) a purpose, and our God who sows generously really doesn’t care if it looks like foolishness to us. He doesn’t live inside our boxes of limited understanding and formulas. His Kingdom cannot be contained within our rules and our traditions. His thoughts are not our thoughts, and his ways are not our ways.
Aren’t you grateful that’s true?
As people, we grasp for understanding as a way to control the chaos in and around us. But there are some things that we will never fully understand. There are parts of God that will always be mysterious to us… and that’s how it’s supposed to be.
But sometimes, God pulls us in. He takes us a little deeper and reveals more of himself and his ways…
Scattering seeds everywhere might look like throwing caution to the wind–until things start growing. Human wisdom would never get behind tossing seeds into the air and letting them land where they may… that feels a little bit like swinging at a pinata while blindfolded.
When Luanne and I decided to go hiking on Monday, we had no idea how God would bring this message to life for us. We hiked a trail that never disappoints–it’s always full of reasons to gasp with wonder, beautiful gifts that surprise and delight. Monday felt especially enchanted. This place that captures our hearts afresh every time we are there had some things to show us, illustrations of this parable that are now seared into memories I won’t soon forget.
We saw wildflowers everywhere–I can’t remember a time I’ve seen so many blooming at once. All varieties, all colors, some not yet budding and some whose petals are withering as they complete their life cycle. No one planted these flowers in specific places–they grow where their seeds fall. And they are growing everywhere… We saw color cascading down hillsides, among the grass and weeds and trees. Some line the path, some are growing in the middle of the path. I can’t count the times we saw flowers, ferns, and even trees, growing out of the sides of rocks. I saw one growing on a rock in the middle of a creek. I’m still baffled by that one–I have no idea where its roots are attached, but it is growing nonetheless. This trail boasts several different types of soil–the wildflowers explode in all of it. Some of the flowers and plants are more prevalent in the sand, some in the rocks, some among the grasses and weeds, and some closer to the water. But they are all stunningly beautiful. Even the weeds dazzled us with blossoms so beautiful, it was hard to distinguish the weeds from the flowers. In this environment, the weeds and the flowers complement one another’s beauty. The bees and the butterflies move among them without preference, and they grow together–there is room for all of them.
But which soil on this trail is the fertile soil?
All of it. The path… the rocks… the sand… the grassy hills… the loose dirt where dead, fallen trees disintegrate and enrich the soil around them… the streams… the cliffs–gorgeous, fruitful life is being grown and sustained in all of these. The environment is healthy, and growth explodes everywhere your eyes land.
On Sunday, we had the opportunity during our “mission moment” to hear from Earlene about a beautiful ministry that she heads up in our community. At one point she said, “I don’t remember how it exploded as it did,” and then something to the effect of, “You sow the seeds–God grows it beyond imagining.”
When seeds are sown generously–everywhere–explosions of growth result. And there really is no explanation other than, “God grows it beyond imagining.”
When Earlene shared those words, I immediately thought of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians from the third chapter of that book. I thought of it again many times as we hiked on Monday. This is how the Amplified Bible phrases verses 16-21:
May He grant you out of the riches of His glory, to be strengthened and spiritually energized with power through His Spirit in your inner self, [indwelling your innermost being and personality], so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through your faith. And may you, having been [deeply] rooted and [securely] grounded in love, be fully capable of comprehending with all the saints (God’s people) the width and length and height and depth of His love [fully experiencing that amazing, endless love]; and [that you may come] to know [practically, through personal experience] the love of Christ which far surpasses [mere] knowledge [without experience], that you may be filled up [throughout your being] to all the fullness of God [so that you may have the richest experience of God’s presence in your lives, completely filled and flooded with God Himself]. Now to Him who is able to [carry out His purpose and] do superabundantly more than all that we dare ask or think [infinitely beyond our greatest prayers, hopes, or dreams], according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever. Amen.
Growth might look neat and orderly in meticulously manicured gardens (though, even there, seeds are carried off by birds and redistributed elsewhere, and things pop up in places other than where they were planted), but growth in individual people and in the kingdom is anything but nice and tidy. Humanity is messy. Kingdom work is messy. Trying to control and regulate the sowing of seeds into one type of soil in a certain environment will not lead to kingdom growth. The kingdom grows when seeds are sown generously in environments that are healthy enough to support variety and diversity. The most beautiful parts of the trail, the places that really took our breath away, were the parts that produced a wide variety of life that exploded into a kaleidoscope of color. Not because someone had studied which colors would go well together in that landscape. But because seed had been scattered generously, and what could be called wild, reckless, haphazard sowing has resulted in a breathtaking landscape where each life supports and sustains the next, and beauty expands.
The glorious beauty of the creation that surrounded and embraced us on Monday gave me a picture of what the kingdom is supposed to look like when we do it God’s way. If we dare to sow generously, without judgement, and trust God to do the growing, there are explosions of growth. And the God who lovingly fills and floods us with his very life will do superabundantly more than we could ever imagine–in us, around us, and through us. It’s the way of the kingdom. And it works.