Sunday 2 April 2017

Ultimate Sunday School (Mark 4:1-34)

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered round 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.
Mark 4:1

My church in Singapore has eight hundred children. Can you imagine Sunday School with eight hundred kids? That’s a lot of lesson plans and toilet breaks.

Here, Jesus speaks to a crowd so large they almost crush him (according to Mark 3:9) so he gets into a boat and speaks to the crowd from the middle of a lake. And verse 2 says, “He taught them many things by parables.”

I call this Ultimate Sunday School. It’s Jesus plus a crowd by the lake and he’s teaching them parables. And verse 3 begins with Jesus telling them to listen.

‘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, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.’

Then Jesus said, ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.’
Mark 4:3-9

Notice, there are four soils. It’s the same seed but four different soils.

First, there’s the seed along the path. It’s like food you’ve dropped on the floor - the birds come and eat it up. Second, there’s the seed on rocky places, meaning, there’s a layer of rock underneath the soil. The plants spring up quickly but then dry up in the heat of the sun. Thirdly, there’s the seed amongst the thorns. The plants fight against the thorns for soil, for sustenance, but the thorns win. The fourth soil is good soil. It multiplies thirty, sixty and a hundred times, producing more seed than was sown in the first place.

It’s a parable about growth. We’ll see how every parable in Mark Chapter 4 talks about growth in God’s kingdom. How it grows slowly. How it grows surely. How God’s kingdom grows surprisingly.

1. Slow growth

Jesus explains in verse 14: “The farmer sows the word. 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.” The word. The word. The word. Jesus sows the word but Satan snatches the word from our hearts.

Verse 16: “Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy.” “But,” verse 17, “since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.” Notice, it comes because of the word. When trouble comes, will we hold on to the word or fall away?

Verse 18: ”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.” The number one excuse for missing church or coming late for bible study is, “I’m busy.” Jesus says the problem is deeper than that. We have given our hearts to other things - career, money, happiness - things which look more attractive than the bible. Things which choke our love for God’s word.

Verse 20: “Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop – some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.” Seeds that produce more seeds. That’s the mark of good soil. Believers who encourage growth in others, not just themselves.

The question is: Which soil are you? Jesus warns us: Three out of the four soils are bad. Not because there’s no growth. There’s lots of growth - of Satan, trouble and weeds - but there is zero growth in God’s word. When we are tempted to look at a megachurch and wish we were like them, remember, what makes the good soil good is maturity, not numbers. Seed producing more seed. It is long-term gospel growth of mature believers growing in Christ.

That takes time. It is no accident that Jesus uses plants in his parables. Growing in God’s word is slow. As he looks at the vast crowd before him, it is no accident he tells them a parable where most of the seed die, most of them fall away, most of them bear no fruit. It’s a warning to them and to us.

Even to his own disciples he says, “Don’t you understand?” Yet, there is a big difference between the disciples and the crowd. Verse 10: “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside, everything is said in parables.” He explains it to them, again and again. He keeps sowing the word.

Which soil are you?

2. Sure growth

Verse 21:

He said to them, ‘Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.
Mark 4:21-22

It sounds foolish. Like turning the TV backwards or microwaving ice-cream. But Jesus says we are that foolish when it comes to God’s word. When we ignore God’s word. The problem is not with the pastor or the PA system. The problem is we don’t like hearing God’s word preached to our ears.

‘Consider carefully what you hear,’ he continued. ‘With the measure you use, it will be measured to you – and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.’
Mark 4:24-25

Elsewhere, the bible condemns false teachers but here Jesus condemns false hearers. Remember the first parable? Jesus doesn’t say to the farmer, “Why are you throwing seed on the pavement, rocks and thorns?” Instead, he condemns the soils. “Consider carefully what you hear.”

To hear is to obey because in the bible we meet a speaking God. We meet God in his word. Hearing is a mark of obedience. When Jesus begins his parable with “Listen!” (Mark 4:3) it reminds us of Moses who said, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one,” (Deuteronomy 6:4) commonly known as the shema (Hebrew for “Listen!”). Jesus is saying: God will hold us account for the attitude in which we listen to his word.

He also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces corn – first the stalk, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. As soon as the corn is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.’
Mark 4:26-29

It’s the same parable this time from the perspective of the farmer. He wakes up, scatters the seed, then takes a nap, has lunch and watches TV. Yet all this while, the seed grows. Verse 28: “All by itself the soil produces corn.” Elsewhere, Paul writes, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God has been making it grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:6) I wonder if Paul was thinking of this parable. Paul did the easy bit - sowing the seed of the gospel. It’s God who causes the seed to grow and bear fruit.

If you are a Sunday School teacher, this means you can sleep! Even if you have to get up to teach eight hundred kids at Sunday School. Why? Because God gives the growth. Your job is to scatter the seed. It’s God’s job to grow his kingdom. What an encouragement to invest in this word!

3. Surprising growth

Verse 30:

Again he said, ‘What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?
Mark 4:30

Jesus goes, “Hmm, which parable should I use next?”

It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.’
Mark 4:31-32

It’s Mother’s Day today. What does growth look like to a mum? Suffering! You suffer today so your children will be happy tomorrow. You invest today for your children’s tomorrow.

Jesus points to the smallest of all seeds and says this is God’s chosen investment. He connects the smallest seed with the biggest result: The word of God with the Kingdom of God. “It grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants.” If God sent us a photograph of heaven, we would say, “That is what I want - the Kingdom of God!” Instead, God sends us his word and says to us, “This is what you need - my Word.”

God’s growth is surprising. Surprising not just because it will big and awesome in the future. Surprising because it looks so small today.

Jesus once said, “I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24) Jesus calls himself a seed (same word used here for mustard seed/grain) - a seed that dies so that there might be many seeds. Meaning: We come to him at the cross in order to be received by him in his kingdom. We come to him in his death in order to receive from him eternal life.

To many, this looks foolish, small, insignificant. But Jesus says this is God’s chosen investment.

Jesus’ Ultimate Sunday School

How does God’s kingdom grow? Slowly, surely and surprisingly.

It grows slowly - not through popularity or programmes - but through the preaching of God’s word. It grows surely. God gives the growth. Our job is to keep planting the seed.

It grows surprisingly. One day, we will see the results but today, what he hear is his word. 1 Corinthians 1:18 says, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Yes, it would be marvellous to have eight hundred children in Sunday School but can you imagine eight hundred children walking away from Christ? Friends, that’s what happened to Jesus. Everyone in the crowd that day left him at the cross.

But Jesus kept planting the word. Sowing the seed.

With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.
Mark 4:33-34

This was Jesus’ Ultimate Sunday School. A small bible study with his friends gathered around his word. “Alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.”

What about you? Which soil are you? The one that never gets it or the one that falls away or the one that bears no fruit? Or the one that receives the word, grows and encourages others to grow in the word of our Lord Jesus Christ?

“Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

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