Mark 4: On Growing
Sunday morning worship, April 29, 2018
Mark 4 contains 1 illustration & 3 parables in which Jesus talks about how we grow. In the first, our growth is dependent upon our “soil,” or we might say our character. In the second, our growth is dependent upon our ability to listen and respond to what Jesus speaks to us. In the third, our growth is a mystery, it happens simply because it happens. In the fourth, Jesus tells us our growth potential is unlimited. Let’s look together at how Jesus brings us to these understandings and then make some practical applications from these stories.
The first parable is the most detailed. In it a farmer is sowing his seed (4:3f). Jesus tells us in v14 the farmer represents the one who brings the word of God to various audiences. Some people immediately reject God’s offer of salvation. Some rejoice and gladly accept God’s initial offer of salvation, but when things don’t go the way either they wanted/hoped or because of the way the Word of God was presented to them was faulty and didn’t bring about the promised results they might as well of not heard the Word of God at all. Others accept the Word of God, but because of a flaw in their character they fail to allow the Word of God to heal, they, too, might as well have not heard the Word of God at all. This group ultimately turns away because they want what they determine is a better offer from the pleasures and experiences of this world. The fourth group is the only group that will actually grow in the way of following Jesus the Christ. This group, according to Jesus, “hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown” (4:20). In this parable the Word of God must be heard, understood, and internalized by the hearer. This internalization of the Word of God means it becomes the dynamic force in the healing of a person’s character. All of us have character flaws. All of us need some kind of healing. If we internalize and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, thus continuing the process of hearing the word of God and accepting it which means responding to the directing of the Holy Spirit in the way the Holy Spirit wants us to respond, then our healing will come as we actively engage our world. The fact that a healing character produces a crop means our healing and our growth don’t primarily come from reading books, trying harder, or exercising our wills. It means our healing and our growth/producing a crop comes from being involved with people of all sorts and our learning “to do what we see our Father doing” (John 5:19) in all of the various situations of life. God is always involved in the activities of our lives. Learning to see what God is doing in and around us and learning to respond as directed by the Holy Spirit is what fuels our growth processes. In this process our characters are more and more conformed to the character of Christ which defines our growth standard.
In the second story, an illustration, Jesus tells us all of our character strengths and flaws must be exposed to the light of Jesus, the Word of God, and brought out into the open if we are to grow. We can’t keep something hidden or secret and grow in that area. We have to own our character flaws as well as our character strengths if we are to grow. Jesus tells us to “consider carefully what you hear” and “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (4:24), because “Whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open” (4:22). James explains we are to “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you will be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (5:16). Most people want to put the sentence, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” with James’ statement “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up” (5:15). But the immediate context of the James’ statement on the power of prayer follows the command to confess our sins to each other. Protestants rebel against the Catholic idea of confession to a priest, but we should not ignore the concept entirely. Whether the person is a priest/pastor or not, we should find a “righteous person” we trust and allow that person to provide support, assurance, and even direction as we grow through bringing what is hidden in our lives out into the open. We shouldn’t stand up in church and tell everyone all our sin problems and shortcomings. The whole world doesn’t need to know. But we do need to be held accountable in some way. We do need the input of a few important and “righteous” others in our lives if we are to grow. The Bible has a lot of “one another” statements.
In the third story, Jesus’ second parable, Jesus says in the kingdom of God our farmer is back out sowing the Word of God again. Now listen closely: “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 grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come” (4:27-29). Please understand Jesus is not teaching science class; He is sharing God’s truth in parable form. No, the soil doesn’t do all the work. The seed needs water and warmth among other things. Yes, we now understand the growth process of a seed in more detail than Jesus’ audience did. But focus on the phrase, “whether he sleeps or gets up.” That is the key point. Jesus is telling us the Word of God in and of itself has the ability to change us and to direct our growth. It’s not all up to us. We can’t make ourselves change by trying harder or willing ourselves to change or by crying, repenting, feeling horrible, moping around, denying ourselves or even doing the opposite—laughing, enjoying life, making lots of friends, and doing all the right things. Christianity isn’t a self-help, 12-step process. We can slow our growth down or enable it, but only by cooperating with or refusing to cooperate with the Word of God and the directing of the Holy Spirit. True growth into Christ-likeness can only happen as the Word of God does its work in our lives as directed by the desire and will of our Heavenly Father. We can deal with our anger, pride, jealousy or any other negative emotion in a way that stops that kind of behavior. But the growth that changes us from the inside out is the independent work of the seed of the Holy Spirit planted within us as it grows in ways we cannot understand, control, direct, or will to happen. We, independently, can will ourselves not to behave in a certain way, but we cannot independently conform our character to the character of Christ in an eternal way. Only God can remake us in His image. This is the mystery of being united to Christ, the truth of the gospel.
In the final parable Jesus, once again not the science teacher, wants us to know that in Christ our growth potential is unlimited. From a tiny seed implanted in our hearts, minds, souls, and spirits, the Word of God grows within us to point that it provides all that we need to carry us from this life into what awaits us in eternity. John tells us, “Now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made know. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). The Kingdom Word of God within us, now growing, changing us from the inside out, when ultimately exposed to the Light which is Jesus Christ shall complete its process and make us “like Christ” and also impact others for Christ thereby growing God’s kingdom. “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” What is hidden—what we shall be in Christ—will be brought out into the open. If what we are has not been directed in its growth by the Word of God, by Jesus’ intercessory prayers, and the power of the Holy Spirit, then that, too, will be revealed by the Light of Jesus’ appearance for we will be shown not to be a child of God.
Consider again (1) our character—are we allowing who we are to be changed under the love, grace, mercy, and peace brought to us by the Holy Spirit? Consider again (2) are we willing to get involved in life, share our joys and even our unpleasant shortcomings with at least one or more “righteous” people so we can empower the Holy Spirit’s work by the coming together of two or more in His presence? Consider again (3) are we willing to simply follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives, somewhat blindly, trusting that God knows what we need to undertake when we are strong enough to undertake that challenge? Consider again (4) are we willing to let the Holy Spirit make the gigantic changes in our character that are necessary, either in or out of earth’s time and context, to ultimately conform us to the image of Christ Himself?
Again, there are things we can do to speed our growth and bring about the necessary changes in our lives. But we can’t control our growth. What God wants of us is to trust Him, to walk with Him, to do what He wants us to do when and how He wants us to do it. We can’t run ahead. We can’t say, “I don’t like this part of my character so I’m going to will it to change.” It won’t work. There may be preliminary work we have to accomplish first. We can’t build our houses without laying the foundation first. If our foundation is sand, our character won’t withstand the trials of this life. We also can’t lag behind the Holy Spirit. Every time we refuse to trust the Holy Spirit and step out in faith, we prolong or maybe ultimately frustrate the growth God would offer us. Life is full of opportunities. To get our dream job or the opportunity to make our dreams come true before we are prepared results in our ultimately losing or not enjoying what we were created to accomplish or enjoy. To not be prepared when our opportunity comes is to live with major regrets all our days. We have one time table; God has the proper one. “Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows.” Consider that truth above all. We can’t will into being what is not ours. But God is at work within us to prepare us for the day of harvest. Our job is to cooperate.