Mark 4:1-20 “Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parable, and in his teaching said: ‘Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.’ Then Jesus said, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’
“When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!”‘
“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop – thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.'”
This familiar teaching of the Lord Jesus will always be known as the parable of the sower. It has been called the parable of the soils, but the old title is the best. It was given early on in the ministry of Jesus to a multitude of curious people. The Lord Jesus was teaching by the side of the lake and the crowds were so large that he decided to get into a boat and go out a little way from the bank with the people standing or sitting on the sloping shore. The water acted as a sounding board and he was able to be heard by thousands of men and women. Now some people today could be disappointed that our Lord didn’t say on this occasion, “Behold a fisherman went forth to fish.” They can see the possibilities here for a bit of drama or miming. Jesus could have got up in the boat and acted out a fisherman casting his net, and then pretend to be pulling in different catches, and so on. Those disappointed people are the failed actors. They’d probably bring actual nets into the pulpit with them. They think congregations consist of ignorant people, so defective in their powers of imagination that they cannot follow the bare spoken word of Christ. But Lord Jesus as he sat there in the boat made no reference to the lake or to fishing. Quite the opposite, he said to them, “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed.” I have not brought a packet of seeds to show to you, nor am I asking any farmers in the congregation at this juncture to stand up.
At this time in his ministry the Lord Jesus needed to explain to the people what he was doing and where he was going in the world. His concern was that his hearers should grasp the progress of the Kingdom of Heaven, and an explanation of this was required because the crowds were misunderstanding what it was to be a Kingdom follower of Christ. Their own religious leaders had become fiercely opposed to Jesus. They said quite openly that he was an emissary from hell. His own family were a bit kinder in their muddled way, thinking he was having a temporary bout of insanity. His herald and family member, John the Baptist, was lying in prison even as Jesus spoke and the Lord was doing nothing to release him. What sort of King was this? It would have been all too easy then, and in the months ahead, to have misunderstood his life and teaching as the Lord advanced closer and closer to Golgotha’s cross. There seemed to be little growth, and few successes at all. The nation was not rallying around him; most people despised and rejected him. In fact we know that our Lord Jesus faced two major defections in his ministry, one recorded in John 6 and the other in Luke 14, when masses of people deserted him, so much so that he turned to the disciples and asked them were they also thinking of jumping ship. The Lord Jesus felt this abandonment keenly – as any of us do when people leave us. There was an erosion of support, and a sense of disappointment in the minds of many people who once were enthusiastic about him. Finally came the last week in his short life, and one of his twelve, who had been the recipient of such exquisite pastoral care, actually sold him to his enemies for thirty silver coins. The enthusiasm of what is called Palm Sunday was ultimately followed by the mockery and crucifixion of Good Friday.
“Kingdom? This is the Kingdom? A King?” He wasn’t Israel’s idea of a King. “Progress? Success?” It wasn’t at all what they had in mind. Words like these, ‘Kingdom,’ ‘success,’ ‘progress,’ wouldn’t be their description of three years of poverty and rejection ending in that death. That bunch of defeated men on the Saturday after Good Friday were a shattered, fearful, disillusioned group. They had given up everything and now all they had was a load of memories and a leader who was dead and buried. “What might have been? But Jesus seemed to throw it all away. What a mess!”
So as we come to this scene of Jesus preaching from this boat, all the Galilieean opposition he was facing which his disciples were observing made it essential for Jesus to preach this particular parable of the Sower. Controversy was hardening with the teachers of the law, and it was vital to explain to his disciples something of the true nature of the progress of the Kingdom of God.
1. THE LORD JESUS SPOKE IN PARABLES.
Our Lord varied his style of teaching. His Sermon on the Mount was long and extremely logical. His discourses in the upper room and also the prayer with which they ended as recorded by the evangelist John were different again, quite dense and profound. Jesus also spoke in aphorisms, one line sayings of memorable power. In the synagogues he read from the Scriptures and taught their meaning, scroll in hand like a scholar. Facing the crowds he preached like an evangelist calling on the people to repent and believe the gospel. But he also used parables when he spoke to them. This chapter has three of Jesus’ parables and there is one more in Mark’s gospel. There are rather more in Matthew and Luke.
Parables are like the dreams of the Old Testament, vivid unforgettable stories requiring an interpretation. If you know the symbols you will understand the purpose of the parable. Jesus’ purpose in speaking to the crowds in parables was that the pictures would lodge in their minds and lie dormant for a while. Their meaning wouldn’t be clear to them until they believed on him as their Lord and Saviour, that is, until after he rose from the dead and poured out his Spirit. So Jesus’ desire for secrecy is his motive in choosing the medium of parables to describe his kingdom. When he interprets the parable to his disciples he tells them: “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those outside everything is said in parables.” (v.11). Jesus wasn’t giving the world access to the secret yet. The world couldn’t bear it, while those who hated him and were accusing him of being in league with Beelzebub were being judged by Jesus by having to puzzle over perplexing parables, that “they may be ever seeing [Jesus] but never perceiving [Jesus], and ever hearing [Jesus] but never understanding [Jesus]; otherwise they might turn [to Jesus] and be forgiven!” [by Jesus] (v.12). But the disciples are told the meaning of this parable.
Didn’t Jesus want the common people to understand? Yes, one day he would make it clear. He would send his disciples again to Jerusalem and all Judea with the full gospel, but at this time in his early ministry the people were so confused as to what the Messiah would do, and what the Kingdom of God would be like that it wasn’t possible for him to be straightforward. For example, what response would Herod’s spies or Pilate’s officers get if they reported to their masters, “There’s a man calling himself a king setting up a kingdom in Galilee”? “Arrest him! Throw him in prison,” those men would say. And if the common people understood that Jesus’ kingdom was one of rejection and sacrifice, they wouldn’t listen to him at all. But Jesus had to train the twelve and teach the word of God widely for a few more years, breaking up the fallow ground of Israel before pouring out his Spirit on them. So he keeps their interest, and tells his mysterious parables, and one day it would become clear to those who believed.
Think of Warfield’s picture of the Old Testament just by itself, like a dimly lit room full of shapes and dark corners and gloom. Then read the same 39 books with the light of the New Testament shining on it. Nothing changes except you’ve filled it with the light of the Lord Jesus, and the Lamb of God, and the cross and the resurrection, but you’ve illuminated everything. Nothing has been added or removed, but the light of Christ is shining on the whole Old Testament. It is virtually the same with the parables. We can read them today in the light of the reign of the Lord Christ in glory and the spread of the church and they make sense to us. They are the same parables that Jesus once spoke from the boat to the crowds, but now Christ has been declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead. Pentecost has happened, and the gospel has gone out into the whole world, and we’ve been regenerated and taught by the Father.
What does this careful concern of Jesus in explaining his kingdom in parables to his first hearers have to say to us today? One lesson would be that Jesus Christ sends us out as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves, as he himself was. This is how young Thomas Bilney first brought the gospel to the priest Hugh Latimer. They were dangerous days to be evangelical Christians. You could lose your life for biblical beliefs, and so what Tom Bilney did was to go to a confessional and he confessed at length to Latimer all those ideas he was getting from studying the New Testament. He succeeded in planting many truths in Latimer’s mind so that when the Holy Spirit began to work in Latimer the Spirit had all that material to use that Bilney had planted in Latimer’s mind – in the confessional. He was as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove.
What then is the message of this first of all parables, and the longest that Jesus ever told?
2. THE PROGRESS OF CHRIST’S KINGDOM IS THE PROGRESS OF HIS WORD.
This seed that Jesus is speaking about is the word, isn’t it? “The farmer sows the word” (v.14). We are being confronted here with something that is the source of all authority and energy and dynamism in our world – the word of God. When Jesus says that the farmer is sowing the word then his disciples, who had been instructed in Old Testament Scripture, would know their minds locking into what they’d been taught about the word of God, that Jehovah had done so many things by his word in past times. By his word the heavens were made, the earth too and all that it contains. It was by the breath of his mouth that all things that exist were created. Jesus was focusing their minds on the mighty word of God. Jehovah spoke, and it was done: he commanded and all things stood fast. That is what we are talking about, that creative and life-giving word – “Let there be . . . and it was so” – the breath and speech of God that brings into being the very creation of God itself. By his word the Lord calls into existence things that are not.
Of course, not only in the creation is God’s word mighty but as the Lord sets up the machinery of redemption and starts to rectify the falleness that has entered it by the sin of man. The God of glory appeared unto Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees in the patriarch’s primitive idolatry, darkness and old age. Abraham began to hear the word of the living God and was empowered to obey. It is by his word that the Lord meets with his people; he will convict them by his word, and he will restore them by the same word as he comforts his people. It is that very word that Jesus tells us is in the farmer’s hand. It is God’s speech, the God-breathed word, that is being scattered by the farmer, that which brings things into existence, that creates organic life which grows and fructifies in the world. It is the wonder-working speech of God we are talking about here.
The Times printed an obituary last week of a minister called Bertram Hardy who died aged 94. He was one of eight children, the son of a quarryman from a village near Wells in Somerset. During the first World War as a lad of 8 he came across a funeral service in his village. He looked intently at the scene, the widow was weeping bitterly and he followed her to the church. There the minister began to read great truths from the word of God. Very quickly a change came over the woman; her grief ended and the words she heard transformed her bearing. Young Bert drank it all in, the truth of the words and the metamorphosis in the grief-stricken woman at the entrance of God’s word. It was the beginning of grace for him. Later on he became an evangelist and Christian colporteur, cycling vast distances over Wales and Scotland selling Christian literature. The word of God wrought the change.
So in the parable of the sower we are being lifted to a different awareness of the power of the kingdom. The Bible which God has given to the church is a miraculous book. It comes from another world. To its jots and tittles it is inspired. It says exactly what God wants it to say. It comes from another world, and yet, however long we’ve been in the Christian life, there’s always a temptation for the church to think of the work of God in terms of the engineering of man, that it’s something men do, that we can control and direct. This parable creates a very different mentality. The word does things to men; they don’t do things to the word. Peter says, “You have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (I Pet. 1:23). It changes us, and it rebukes us, and it corrects us, again and again. How can we drift into mean and beggarly attitudes when we are engaged in a work in which God always has the first word and the last word, a work in which we are utterly impotent to achieve anything without the Lord? “Without me ye can do nothing.” Then let me be obedient to God and do things God’s way, because that must be the best way.
That word has come to fulness in God’s last spoken word in his Son, because in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Throughout the whole period of the Old Testament, through the law and prophets, God was working by that energetic and dynamic Word. But the word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. In this man Christ Jesus, this real man, who is sitting in this boat and speaking to them there with such authority; God’s word is among men in a way it had never been before nor since. His life, and progress, and spirit will be the source of the progress of the kingdom.
The seed is the word and the Farmer is Jesus Christ. He is broadcasting the word. In other words, we are looking at what Jesus himself is doing in the world. It is not the skilful communicator, not the professional organisation, not the beautifully produced literature, not the course of meetings, not the earnest friend, not the super church and all of its activities that brings men from death to life. The farmer who sows the word is Jesus Christ alone. No one is with him. What do we have in our Sunday services that can save men? All we have is Jesus Christ teaching the word, reproving, correcting, instructing in righteousness, putting the truth in the heart and mind, germinating it, watering it and nourishing it until it is fruitful. I can’t do that. I don’t have the power nor does any man, and if Christ is not here sowing the word we have nothing. We cannot say, “Well, if he’s not here we can still fall back on an orator, or a singing group, or an organist, or beautiful people.” Without Christ working we have nothing. He has to build his church. He is going forth conquering and to conquer. You see him walking through the book of Acts sowing abundantly in Samaria, and in Antioch, and Asia Minor, and Greece, and finally Rome. Christ strides like a colossus across Europe with his word, scattering it wherever he goes, and leaving fruitful growth behind him, and ever since then he has done the same. Today he is still the Sower walking across the nations of the earth, and at this very moment he is sowing his word in every continent. We have that seed, and we have that Sower in our congregation every Lord’s day, don’t we, even if only two or three are gathered together in his name? Are you convinced that the highlight for you each week is to receive that seed from that Sower Sunday after Sunday? If not, you’ll have no desire to convince others that they should sit here will you? But if you are persuaded that you have the seed of the word of God how involved you will be in broadcasting it abroad!
Let me contrast two Christian men who made a lot of money in the construction business. One man was Bernard Coffindaffer of Craigsville, West Virginia. In September 1984 he began to use his fortune to erect clusters of crosses on hilltops all across the USA, and in Zambia and the Philippines. He had them made out of telegraph poles ten metres high, in clusters of three, painted in pastel colours. He set up an organisation ‘Crosses Across America, Inc.’ to further this work and maintain them. He had set up 2000 sets of them before he died in October 1993. He believed he was doing “the greatest work since the calling of the apostle Paul.” Those were his actual words. The other Christian man also in the construction business was Ernie Reisinger of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and he chose to use his money to buy the seed of the word of God, that is, to give away thousands and thousands of Christian books. He distributed them to friends, and to people he bumped into, and to theological students and pastors. Today in his mid-eighties he is still giving away thousands of books.
Which is the most God-honouring enterprise of those two businessmen? It cannot be Bernard Coffindaffer’s because the New Testament does not simply tell us to remind people of the fact that the Lord Jesus died on a cross between two other crosses. Christianity is not a statement of certain facts that occurred in history, that “Christ died and was buried and was raised”, as basic to our faith as such facts might be. There is no gospel in those uninterpreted facts. “Jesus died – how sad!” There has to be the essential New Testament interpretation of those facts: “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world . . . Christ died for our sins . . . he loved me and gave himself for me . . . he had by himself purged our sins . . .” That is the gospel, not just acquaintance with the fact that the Son of God died on a cross, but that we explain the meaning of the death of the Son of God, and we do that in words, officially from the pulpit and privately in conversation and written in literature; we spell out the consequences. The achievement of Christ which was fresh and new 2000 years ago is not antiquated today. Its message is not found in crosses on hillsides, or in stained glass windows, or in the Quaker’s silence, or in the chant of plainsong, or in symbols, but it is in speaking the New Testament word, both privately and publicly, that the message comes. So the word always has to be central, but the power of it is utterly dependent upon Jesus working by his Spirit.
We long for popular, contemporary, humble messengers that explain and apply the word of God so that people are changed. We want the masses to understand it and be drawn to it. Every minister used by God over the centuries has had that kind of popular ministry. Let us thank God for those gifts; they all have their place: we won’t deny that. But, men and women, we are not looking to those things by themselves to do anything effectively in men and women. They may grab the attention of people, but they cannot feed or keep a single person. Such gifts may gain a reputation for men being ‘communicators’, but the best of speakers is only a man, and a man has no power to change people. That is God’s grand prerogative. Such popular sensible ministries are all good and proper in their place, but all is vain without the Lord Jesus sowing the word. As an old hymn says:
“All is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One come down.
Brethren pray, and holy manna will be showered all around.”
That is what we are looking for, for Jesus to arise and broadcast his word all over Wales as he has in the past. We are looking to him to bless that message, and water the seed that is sown, because all proclamation without his intervention is desolation. But when he plants his seed in a heart he has prepared there is life and love and joy and peace and assurance. Without that we are left with the words of men; with it men will say, “What they are preaching is the word of the true and living God.” We expect nothing of any consequence without a divine work. But we do not labour in hope because he has sent us forth with that word, and he has promised growth, that the word will not return void. Success will be enjoyed.
Yet we are never sound judges of what he is doing in the world. There is a mystery to it all. There was a mystery surrounding the effectiveness of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, and indeed to his three years’ public ministry – if it were that long. Would we have said, reading it all in the gospels, that Christ would have gathered by the end of it 500 people? Doesn’t it seem largely a ministry of rejection? Yet five hundred are trusting in him. Imagine that! That is a very effective awakening ministry. 500 people converted in only three years. I don’t know any ministry like that in my lifetime. Yet as we look at his ministry as described to us in the gospels, we might have thought, “Lord who has believed your suffering servant’s report? Was Jesus any better than the earlier prophets?” Judge nothing before the time. And one of the times to judge the fruit of Jesus’ earthly ministry was on the hill of ascension when he manifested himself to his own, and there were 500 souls gathered there, each one acknowledged by him. Another time to judge his powerful achievement was Pentecost where the seed scattered by Peter produced a great harvest. So the progress of the Son of Man is the progress of his word.
3. THE PROGRESS OF JESUS’ WORD IS CARRIED ON IN THE FACE OF MUCH FAILURE.
That is the bluntest way it can be said because this parable comes with that kind of message. The picture, of course, is of a farmer sowing his seed, and when he sows he recognises that some of the seed which he sows is going to meet with failure as far as the ultimate crop is concerned. Our Lord, with such audacity, is saying about his own work in the world that it too is going to meet with rejection. This initial Galilean hostility is merely a foretaste of what lies before them all in the work of the kingdom. They must shake their heads in sad amazement when multitudes will leave him, when the apostles will all forsake him and flee; even Peter is going to deny him and Judas is going to betray him. There will be villages where Jesus will not do his wonderful works because of the mockery of disdainful and contemptuous unbelief.
All such failure is not due to his lack of power. It is not any impotence in the seed itself, but rather in that seed being confronted with the fallenness and fickleness of men in sin and under the power of the devil. We sow and publish and broadcast the word of God in enemy-occupied territory, given over to the god of this world. While the devil has been judged, and is a muzzled cur dragging his chains behind him, he yet labours unwearyingly in malignant spite against any work of God. Jesus says that as soon as some hear the word, “Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them” (v.15). So there is the power of darkness, and there is also the hardness of man’s hearts and because of this we meet with difficulties and failure. When we are engaged in any kind of Christian activity – praying, evangelising, counselling, pastoring, giving – inevitably we’re going to meet with failure. If you d on’t appreciate that reality then one day you are going to have a rude awakening. You’re going to be jarred alert, gasping, “What in the world is happening? I didn’t think the Christian life was like this.” You’d been ignoring the devil and underestimating the power of sin in men’s hearts. The Lord Jesus in this parable informs the church that failure is always going to be a feature of the ongoing work of the kingdom.
It is a varied failure. There’s a range of responses to the mightiest preaching of the word of God. The Lord warns the church of a threefold sterility.
i] Sometimes our witness simply comes to nothing. The word lies dormant on the surface of men’s lives. There is no penetration at all, no roots. It lies on the path where it leaves no mark at all. It’s food for the birds, and that’s all – birdseed (v.4). We see nothing as a result of sowing that seed. There was no human response at all. Teenagers and unconverted husbands look blankly back at the sower year after year. The only thing we can look forward to in regard to such failure is the commendation of our Saviour, “Well done.” We have been the savour of death in such a case. We often know that.
ii] Sometimes our witness accomplishes a momentary change of emotion; there is a temporary joyful response to our message. Isn’t that true? Sometimes seed falls on rocky shallow soil and it springs up quickly They “hear the word and at once receive it with joy” (v.16). Then the first hint of difficulty comes, when “trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away” (v.17). Alexander Maclaren even said that any time a person’s initial reception was one of joy, then it would be a spurious conversion. Now that is a bit extreme, but it seems to be the case in many who profess faith. Surely, if there is no thought, no conviction of sin, no godly sorrow for the past, no humbleness, no consciousness of our great weakness what is there of Christianity? What do we have in the case of a person who doesn’t even feel he’s a sinner? The Lord Jesus has come only for sinners, not for the righteousness. Here are people who hear the word for the first time and quickly and joyfully receive it. “Yes!” they say triumphantly, and yet a little later when they are faced with the requirements of credible godliness, the cost of walking step by step with Jesus, the teasing they are meeting, the sheer inconvenience of being a 24/7 Christian then what happens? John Bunyan says, “they give God the slip.” Don’t we all know it? Haven’t we seen it in new ‘converts’? Don’t we find ourselves think to ourselves at baptismal services, “Time and the devil will tell” and yet praying that they will shine for the Lord Jesus?
iii] Sometimes our witness produces a more lasting change. It puts down some roots in a person’s life, but as the word grows so too weeds are allowed to grow alongside it (v.7). Don’t you know that those weeds are competing for the same light and energy and food your life needs? What is going to win? They are growing side by side, week after week, month after month, and Christians looking on get concerned. You can’t see them as distinctively Christian as you’d hoped they’d be. They had started so well, but why aren’t they nailing their colours up? The salt seems to be losing its savour. Why are they allowing all those weeds to grow around them. Is the word going to destroy the weeds, or are the weeds going to destroy the word? It’s got to be life for one of them and death for the other. Which is it going to be? O Christian, the Holy Spirit is a wonderful weed killer. Why don’t you use the weed killer? What are these weeds? The Lord tells us that they are very ordinary sins, “the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in” (v.19). Nothing spectacular there at all. They are indeed just samples of the kind of sins that grow up like weeds but they strangle the word of the gospel. That trio is a pretty comprehensive list – worry, the itch for more ‘stuff’, and lust. They are three merciless giants who’ve killed their thousands, and if you’re not David with a sling and a stone then Goliath and his brothers are going to slay you too. Every single Christian has got to kill remaining sin by the power of the Spirit, or sin will kill him.
Failures in particular circumstances don’t mean the failure of the kingdom. Our Lord is faithfully warning us from the beginning that we are going to meet with a variety of failure and that that is always going to pain us. One thing we must never do and that is to turn every failure onto ourselves and say, if only we as a church had been a more loving, and a more holy and a more evangelistic congregation then there’d have been no failures. The minister too must resist personalising the loss of every one who turns back, and blaming himself: “If only I were a more powerful preacher and more hardworking pastor then there would be no falling away.” Of course, let’s all seek to be more holy and loving and evangelistic, and let’s be steadfast and unmoveable and always abounding in the work of the Lord, but don’t get crushed down into sinful lethargy because some you know and love have given up the faith. Keep going, keep sowing, keep farming! We carry the weight of such disappointments for the rest of our lives, and we go over all the circumstances too much so, but they must drive us to God not to despair. There is a work to be done and a harvest to be reaped.
4. THE PROGRESS OF THE KINGDOM IS YET ASSURED BY THE POWER OF THE WORD AND THE PURPOSE OF THE KING.
The kingdom of God shall be fruitful. That is the message of the gospel. The kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ. Many are going to come from north, south, east and west to the marriage feast in heaven. They are a company more than any man can number. They will be like the sands on the seashore. Christ shall bring his family before his Father and shall cry out with joy, “Behold I and the children which thou hast given me!” We know that from this parable of the sower. Some seed falls on the path, and some on stony ground, and some amidst the thorns, but much of the seed “fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times” (v.8). Think of this one man Jesus, and he falls into the ground and dies and what fruit comes from his life. Think of the twelve apostles, and how they spend themselves living and dying for Christ and how in one sermon Peter draws 3,000 men to Christ. We think of the 500 on the Mount of Ascension and how within twenty years Paul can say that the gospel has gone from them into the whole world. We think of the millions of Christians today in every part of the world who all go back and back to the 500 or the 12 or the One.
The seed that goes out from the Lord does not return to him a mere husk. Surely failure is always going to characterise the work of the church; heart-breaking and mouth-drying apostasy will occur, but also there will be places of great fruitfulness, 30-fold, 60-fold and 100-fold. The kingdom of God will see wonderful days of great prosperity and blessing until Christ comes. Can we believe that God can bless this Principality again? Yes we can. We ourselves are a microcosm of that. We are still here, and if we ourselves then why not thousands of other congregations just like us? His kingdom shall progress because God is determined to give honour and glory to his Son in this world. The Lord of glory who reigns will from time to time roll up his sleeves and make bare his arm and deliver many.
But that progress itself will be marked by much variety. God always does a new thing in the earth. There was a revival of religion in Wales a hundred years ago, and mission halls and the Apostolic church came out of it, but twenty years later God did something new, and he raised up a man in London who had no contact with the leaders of that revival and God used him to bring life and leadership to Wales. I am saying that great awakenings never follow historical patterns, they always follow biblical patterns, in terms of the truth preached and the methods the church uses. God’s works are marked by variety and diversity, and even in times of blessing the increase is going to be thirty here, and sixty there and a hundred somewhere else. Variety will mark it, but there will be no life and no growth without the word, and without it being sown.
What does it all mean, this progress of the kingdom? It means that God’s work is going to be fruitful all over the world. “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11). We have to trust the one who made that promise and keep sowing the seed of the word, in our own lives, in the lives of our families, and in the lives of our congregations. There can be no growth without that. God will ever use that word for his own ends. We have faithfully to go on in this work.
Yet the Lord Jesus is providing the great rationale in this parable for those common heart-aches which all involved in gospel labours meet. John Flavel once said that Christian work is a killing work. Other labourers can leave their task on the bench and come back to it the next day and find it exactly as they left it. The farmer can return to the field and the hedger will be just where it was when he switched off the engine and put on the brake, and he can continue the hedging, But we return and we find that the devil has unravelled and disturbed all the work that we’ve done.
What are we to do? We carry on. There is no alternative. The washing line has broken and the sheets are lying over the garden. “What can I do?” It’s no mystery; we have to wash them again. Someone came to the door while the food was in the oven and it got burned to a cinder while we talked. “What can I do?” You have to cook another dinner. Someone stole the disc with all the thesis on it – it was a couple of years’ work. Or there was a meltdown on our computer before we made the backing discs. “What can I do?” You have to sit down and write it all again. It happens in a church, and sometimes we ourselves are the ones who have caused the trouble, and five years’ work has been dismantled in a month. As Rudyard Kipling wrote:
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life for broken,
And stoop to build ’em up with worn-out tools;
Then that’s the way to be a man, my son. There are no short cuts. God’s servants can go off at a tangent and we who had such hopes of their doing much good shake our heads at that folly. What a costly way to learn that the old wine and the old paths are best. The Lord has given us the very best seed. Honour his seed! It’s a tiny seed, the smallest in the town, but what good things can come from it. Remember, mighty trees come from a mustard seed.
Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean
And the pleasant land.
Don’t sow weeds. They are only good when they’re dead and lying on the compost heap. Don’t be carried away by novelties. There are those things that seem voguish and hip now, but they lack the integrity of the word. Be steadfast and do the work of the Lord, and you shall reap, for none of those who trust the word of the Lord and the Lord of the word will be put to shame. No barrenness at all if the seed is honoured. Christ’s fruit will be found – God has made up his mind about that. The day will declare men’s work, of what sort it is. Behold a sower went out to sow!
13th April 2003 GEOFF THOMAS