December 20, 2014

Reconsider Jesus – The Seed and the Soil

MichaelSpencerThe following is a small excerpt from Michael Spencer’s upcoming book: Reconsider Jesus – A fresh look at Jesus from the Gospel of Mark.  Michael Spencer’s thoughts on Mark Chapter 4 are edited by Scott Lencke. Check out his excellent blog! If you would like to be contacted when Michael Spencer’s book is available for purchase, drop us a note at michaelspencersnewbook@gmail.com.

The Seed and the Soil

Mark 4:1-8

1 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. 2 He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: 3 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” – NIV

I preached my first sermon at age 15. No one gave me any instructions or guidance. I simply tried to follow the pattern of good preachers that I knew. I soon found that imitation is not exactly flattering – at least when done by a 15 year old, preacher-boy! I did learn that at least half of a good sermon is selecting a good text. (That’s one reason I am a Baptist who likes the lectionary.)

My first text was the parable of the sower. And that sermon was better than many I have preached, since this is mainly a great sermon on its own. It captures the greatness of its preacher – Jesus of Nazareth – and the greatness of the Kingdom message he brought…

… The setting of the parable is agricultural. Many of the rabbinic parables of the day dealt with royal families, relations between kings and subjects and such. Common, “ignorant” people were often overlooked in popular storytelling. It is interesting that Jesus told some parables about kings and “important people,” but most of his parables focused on the life of the poor and the agricultural environment of his audience. There is a lesson here for any communicator. Illustrative material can be found in the common experiences of any person. Those of us who teach and proclaim the Gospel should imitate Jesus by using familiar experiences that relate the Gospel to the lives people actually live. Our communication shouldn’t be a Christian version of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

Everyone who heard Jesus would be able to relate to the familiar scene of a sower walking on a path through the field spreading seed. The diverse kinds of soils one might find in a field were well-known to the audience. And, of course, everyone knew the hope that a crop would return many more seeds than were planted. A hundredfold return would have been especially abundant, though not necessarily miraculous. The various fates of a seed was the sort of thing even a child could understand. If it fell on hard soil, the birds would eat it. If it took root in shallow soil, the sun would cause it to demand more moisture than it could reach, and it would wither and die. If it fell among hostile weeds, it could be choked out by the more aggressive plants. But if the seed fell on good soil, a return would be likely, though the size of that return was unknown to the farmer until the harvest. All of this would have been extremely familiar to Jesus’ audience. In fact, this parable lacks the sort of “twist” or “surprise” that is often part of parables – an unusual turn that catches the hearer and creates interest.

But behind the common is the uncommon. In the small we find the big. And in the simple planting of seeds, there is Kingdom truth and spiritual reality. This is, for me, one of the most important lessons of the parable. God’s truth is illustrated, and actually present, in all the common things of life. When we learn to look at life with eyes open for the work and truth of God, we will receive glimpses and revelations of grace and power. Even the most common action can become filled with the presence of God as we see his truth illustrated and alive in all of life. God is so gracious as to make himself known to even the simplest in the “book of life,” i.e., life’s common experiences can become an avenue of truth and teaching when we are alive to what God is saying. Scripture is, of course, our anchor in truth and all truth must conform ultimately to the truth of God in scripture. Still, we should look for God to speak in the ordinary and not just in the extraordinary. Jesus’ use of parables certainly shows us that he saw his Father at work in everything and related all of life to the presence of the Kingdom of God.

When Charles Spurgeon began what is now called Spurgeon’s college, he required his students to take natural sciences and not simply theology and Bible. As he reveals in Lectures To My Students, Spurgeon felt the world of nature was full of illustrative material, and he wanted his students to learn to think in this way. Spurgeon’s method has been long cast aside, as it has now become somehow “spiritual” for some to be ignorant of anything other than “Christian” subjects. The result, in my opinion, is that we increasingly communicate only within our own cultural ghetto and fail to see God present and at work in the wider world. In the end, our communication is hampered, and we sound less and less “real” to the world to which we speak…

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I would like us to focus on Michael Spencer’s last few sentences here.  Has communicating “only within our own cultural ghetto” been something that you have observed as well?  Do we “fail to see God present and at work in the wider world?”  Do we “sound less and less real to the world to which we speak?”  If this is the case, what implications does this have for our sowing of seed?  What factors do you see pulling us towards a ghetto?  What can or should we be doing to be more engaged with the world around us?

Comments

  1. In Evangelical Christianity, I would say that we most definitely have created a cultural ghetto, where we speak our language, cooperate and communicate only within certain circles, and taught that anything “secular”, or even not of our own denomination, is inherently evil. This does make us appear to be artificial. I have a great friend, who is really a well-meaning, sincere person, but every time I talk to him, he begins the conversation with “Tell me about your walk with the Lord.” I love the Lord, but sometimes I would just like to talk to him about the Braves, or our kids, our vacations, our favorite beers, or to even tell stories about classic moments in flatulence that we’ve experienced!

    This is a really nice guy, knowledgeable about Jesus, and he does legitimately care about people. He just can’t turn off the Jesus switch long enough to talk to anyone about the world they can see in front of their noses. The implication is this…If I, as a Christian, can’t effectively communicate with non-believers about what they can see, how will I ever build enough rapport with them to convince them of what they can’t see?

    Another side effect is that we fear the world outside of our Christian circles. We don’t trust lost people. We don’t associate with the old crowd. We don’t go places they go. We don’t listen to the music they listen to. We can’t relate, because we don’t want to relate. I once spoke at assembly at a local Christian school, and was shocked to hear the students recite the pledge to their school, which included the words, “I commit to having no contact with the secular world…” Isn’t that kind of saying, “Somebody else needs to go get that lost sheep, because I’m not leaving the comfort and security of the 99 over here…”?

    So what do we do? We meet people where they are. I’ve advised a couple of young pastors over the years to look at the demographics of churches they’re serving at, especially making note of what type of work is prevalent in the community they’re called to serve. Is it an agricultural area? An area where the big occupation is factory work, or construction? Is the most successful business in the area the local coffee shop? Wherever people are, get a part-time job (or even full-time), and be where they are. Know their successes and failures and trials, because you’ve experienced them personally. Isn’t that what Christ did for us? “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…” If Christ had come with flowing robes and the attitude of the Pharisees, I don’t thing the movement would have taken off with quite the same passion; yet we often hold ourselves as a separate people, much like the Pharisees did.

    Okay, I’m rambling, but I’ll close with this…”In the small we find the big. And in the simple planting of seeds, there is Kingdom truth and spiritual reality. This is, for me, one of the most important lessons of the parable. God’s truth is illustrated, and actually present, in all the common things of life. When we learn to look at life with eyes open for the work and truth of God, we will receive glimpses and revelations of grace and power. Even the most common action can become filled with the presence of God as we see his truth illustrated and alive in all of life. God is so gracious as to make himself known to even the simplest in the “book of life,” i.e., life’s common experiences can become an avenue of truth and teaching when we are alive to what God is saying. ”

    Brother Lawrence called this idea “Practicing the Presence of God”. Lady Julian of Norwich referred to it “Full Homely Divinity”. All of life is holy, everything we do is sacramental in nature, and we should treat it as such. When treat work, play, our families, and even the mundane, everyday acts we normally drudge and gripe through as holy, the world will take notice.

    • Wow, that was long. Maybe I should have written a blog post on my own site this morning. Sorry, y’all…

    • Very insightful, Lee. I think you’re absolutely right. When I was in the mission field I was several times asked by parents how their college-aged children ought to prepare for missions. “We’ve wondered about the Peace Corps as a way of getting overseas experience,” I heard more than once, “but I’m really not comfortable with my child working with unbelievers.” Um, what? You’d think that the first thing they’d notice about the mission field is the necessary presence of unbelievers. However, many evangelical Christians want to belong to the cozy club of holy ex-pats and only interact with the locals who have been carefully admitted into the clubhouse. I wrote an article for Evangelical Missions Quarterly when I was overseas, criticizing the “compound mentality” — oddly enough, the mission agency we worked for asked us to leave shortly afterward . . .

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        And “compound mentality” plus overseas missions has had a serious Dark Side. I don’t like it when the Race Card gets played, but in Overseas Missions it often has been. Godly White Missionaries converting those brown/black Heathen, and mission field becomes a White Colonial caste system. Just like the French in Vietnam had their compounds posted “No Dogs or Vietnamese Allowed” and the descendants of New England Calvinist Missionaries became the plantation owners in Hawaii.

        • Yup. But the modern missionary is more likely to be saying, “Bless their hearts, these people are just so precious!” in a condescending tone and then getting on an airplane for a semiannual conference in a more comfortable country in order to avoid having to spend too much time with them.

          Sorry for the sarcasm. I have seen too much of what I describe, but I’ve also seen excellent examples of humble, sensitive service. We humans are a mixed bag in any endeavor we try.

    • Steve Newell says:

      St. Paul has given an example of how to engage the culture. Paul was very knowledgeable about the Greek culture (Acts 17:16-33) since he could speak about Greek religion and poets. In his letter to Titus, he referred to a Cretan prophet in describing the Cretans.

      As Christians, we are to be knowledgeable about the culture that God has placed us in. We called to in the world but not of the world.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      This is a really nice guy, knowledgeable about Jesus, and he does legitimately care about people. He just can’t turn off the Jesus switch long enough to talk to anyone about the world they can see in front of their noses.

      That’s not a “really nice guy”, that’s a walking Jesus Juke.
      http://www.jonacuff.com/stuffchristianslike/2010/11/the-jesus-juke/

    • +1

  2. Lee, your last paragraph especially got my attention. ALL of life is holy, or it is made profane–which is the holy misused.

    I’m also coming to appreciated MS’s comment about the lectionary.

    • Tom, it definitely keeps pastors from the dreaded “sermon series”. Actually, I guess going by the lectionary would represent the ultimate in sermon series…You cover the Bible in three years. Somebody actually had a pretty good idea.

  3. John Meunier (johnmeunier.wordpress.com) has posted an excellent video presentation by Billy Abraham entitled “Engaging a Changing Culture”. All 51 minutes are packed with stuff to “take home with you”.

  4. It’s words like these that have led me to appreciate the heart of Michael Spencer: But behind the common is the uncommon. In the small we find the big. And in the simple planting of seeds, there is Kingdom truth and spiritual reality.

    Some do need to be encouraged that God is still contributing the miraculous today, post-first century – in the prophetic, healings, miracles, etc. But there are even those who don’t really have any expectation of these miraculous realities but still look for the BIG to be really God. But it’s reminding them that God is involved very much in the common, the normal, the small that we need to be stirred towards – brushing our teeth, mowing our grass, taking a meal to a sick neighbour, etc. These see the kingdom rule of God on earth as it is in heaven.