Isaiah 6:9-10; Matthew 13:1-8; 18-23
January 13, 2019 • Download this sermon (PDF)
Dear Congregation of Christ: In 1992, Guy Kawasaki, an Apple employee who made the Macintosh line of computers a huge success, said in his book Selling the Dream, “Evangelism is selling a dream.” He popularized “evangelism marketing” and “technology evangelism.” Kathie Lee Gifford, famous as an NBC Today’s host, once said, “There were no bigger stars in the new evangelism than the Bakkers.” She was referring to televangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker who embezzled millions of their ministries’ funds by living in luxury. Jim Bakker was convicted of fraud and conspiracy in 1989. They were truly big, black stars in televangelism.
“Evangelism” and “evangelical” are popular words in current Christian discussions. But what does “evangelism” mean? It comes from a combined Greek word which literally means “good news,” which was translated as “gospel” in Old English. In the early church, the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John came to be known as the “Gospels,” because the gospel is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Our text today, popularly known as the Parable of the Sower, is used mostly as a picture of evangelism or telling the good news to unbelievers. However, there are three misconceptions about evangelism. The first is that evangelism depends on methods, and this is why “contemporary worship” or “relevant preaching” was invented beginning in the 1960s, to attract the hippie generation. So with every passing generation – boomers, busters (GenX), millennials (GenY), and postmillennials (GenZ) – preaching and worship is adjusted, tuned and refined to that particular generation. The result is that true gospel and true worship have all but disappeared in most churches.
A second misconception about evangelism is that it is the pastor’s duty alone. This idea puts a lot of pressure on the pastor, as some people say, “If our pastor can just be more humorous” or “If our pastor can preach shorter sermons or pick better songs.” But these thoughts belittle the work of the Word and Spirit. A third misconception is related to the second, and that is, the work of evangelism is neglected by individual Christians. We are often too timid and too intimidated because we don’t want to be rejected or embarrassed by a negative reaction or ridicule.
A fourth and last misconception about evangelism is this saying, “Christians don’t need the gospel. They already know it.” But often, Christians don’t even know what the gospel is. Also, many Christians think the gospel is always the work of evangelism. No, the gospel is Christ and him crucified, as Paul says, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you” (1 Cor 15:1). In all of Paul’s letters, he reminded Christians about the importance of preserving the true gospel (Gal 2:5), and our “manner of life worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27).
In the Parable of the Soils – a better title – the emphasis is not on the sower, but on the soils. Having said that he has brought the kingdom of heaven with him, he focused on those who belong to the kingdom. The soils are the hearers, and some of the hearers are kingdom people. God is the sower, and the seeds are the gospel, as Jesus explains later. But before he explains what the parable means, he first explains to his disciples why he uses parables in his preaching. Most often, we hear that Jesus uses parables to make his preaching more understandable by using illustrations from everyday life, especially from agriculture because first-century Palestine was an agricultural economy. Since Jesus used illustrations, why can’t pastors use illustrations? But the problem with illustrations is that they almost always end up being humorous anecdotes and worse, funny jokes.
Because his disciples found the parables hard to understand, they asked Jesus, “Why do you speak to them [unbelievers] in parables?” (verse 10). In answering his disciples, Jesus divided his audience into two groups: those to whom God has revealed the secret of the kingdom of God; and those to whom everything remains as unintelligible parables.
The first group are those whom God has chosen to reveal the “secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (verse 11). What is this secret? It is the mystery, hidden for ages, that God will preach the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles (Eph 3:4-9). The second group is the unbelievers to whom the secrets of the kingdom will forever be hidden, because they are spiritually blind (1 Cor 2:14). So at the end of this parable, Jesus calls out, “He who has ears, let him hear” (verse 9). But God does not give “outsiders” ears to hear, eyes to see, and minds that understand, quoting Isaiah 6:9-10, in order that they would not repent. Therefore, Jesus used parables as a two-edged sword: to reveal his kingdom to believers, and to hide it from unbelievers.
But let us now go to the Parable of the Soils itself.
Deaf and Dead
The method of the sower is somewhat odd to us. We usually think of sowing seeds after plowing the soil. But in the ancient Near Eastern world, farmers often scatter the seeds before they till the soil. The seeds, also probably typical, fell into four types of soil: (1) hard path; (2) rocky soil; (3) thorny soil; and (4) good soil.
Why would there be a path in the field? These are well-worn paths that the sower himself walked on to take care of the field, or paths travelers took to take a shortcut. The seeds here never made it below into the soil, so birds quickly plucked them up. Jesus explains that the birds represent the devil who snatches the gospel away by keeping their ears deaf and hearts dead. Therefore, they will never understand and receive the gospel (verses 19-20).
Many people think they know and understand the gospel, but in reality, they do not. Why? Because the Spirit, as Isaiah says, does not open their minds and hearts. It is only by the grace and mercy of God that a person will understand and then accept the gospel. Do you often wonder why a family member or a friend or a neighbor reject the truths in the Bible about creation, signs and wonders and miracles, sin, abortion and homosexuality, even if you explain it to them a hundred times? Even after they have read the Bible, they still say, “If God would only speak to me.” Without the Spirit opening deaf ears and reviving dead hearts, unbelievers will always reject the gospel. Without the Spirit, the blinders that Satan has put on them will never be removed. So as soon as they hear the gospel, Satan snatches it away. As a result, their eyes remain blind and their hearts remain dead, which is their natural sinful state.
Shallow and Skin-Deep
Do you know someone who was very excited and enthusiastic when they heard the gospel of Christ? Someone who told you, “That’s the best news I’ve heard in my whole life”? Or someone who visited your church and praised the pastor, “Pastor, I’ve never heard a sermon like that, and I was blessed”? Then as quickly as a passing fancy, you never hear him talk about his faith, or never see him in church again.
We all know many people who belong to this category of the second soil: soil that is full of rocks that roots do not grow as deep as they should. So the seeds sprout, but the plants do not take root and quickly die. Jesus explains who this is, “This is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (verse 20-21).
These are those whose enthusiasm are easily overcome by false beliefs taught by false teachers; or by the trials and sufferings in this world. They are taught by televangelists that Christian life will give them health and wealth, and they are quickly discouraged because this teaching is always false. Jesus did not promise a life of wine and roses, but a blessed life of sufferings and persecutions on his account (Matt 5:11-12). So when the heat of sufferings beat down on them, they quickly and easily wither away. They become bitter and then blame Christ, the Bible, the church and everything about the Christian faith for their difficulties. Jesus says they quickly “fall away.”
The word for “fall away” in Greek is often translated in noun form as an “offense.” For example, in Romans 9:33, Paul says that Jesus is a “rock of offense” or a “rock that makes them fall.” The gospel becomes an offense when unexpected difficulties come. This is a scary word because it is also used in Matthew 24:10 to refer to people who completely and finally reject Christ in the last days because of persecution, “many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another.”
Depraved and Decadent
How about those seeds of whom Jesus says, “Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them” (verse 7)? Who is the thorny soil? Jesus explains, “this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (verse 22). These are the ones who respond positively to the gospel. But unlike the rocky soil, these ones remain faithful for a time, even maybe through sufferings and persecutions. But then, finally, they also fall away. What overcame them? It was thorns.
When I searched for destructive thorns, I found a vine called kudzu. It was introduced to America from Japan in the 1880s as an ornamental plant, and later promoted for soil conservation. But by the 1950s, the government found something was wrong: kudzu grows very fast in most conditions and can destroy a whole forest quickly. Their leaves encompass tree trunks, branches and even uproot trees to destroy a forest.
Jesus tells us that there are two kudzus surrounding us that choke and destroy our faith. The first are the cares of this world. Thorns, weeds, vines and other destructive plants are sometimes difficult to see until it is too late. Sometimes we allow the cares of life to fester, not knowing that they slowly eat our faith out. Our families, friends, careers, games, or even hobbies replace church worship, Bible studies and church life. We are like a frog in the kettle that gets used to the boiling pot until our faith is cooked dead, and we do not want to hear God’s Word anymore.
The second destructive kudzu vine encompassing our lives, according to Jesus, is the deceitfulness of riches. Here again, we may value our moneymaking jobs or hobbies more than the Lord’s Day. We spend more than we make, so we work a lot of overtimes to the neglect also of our families, and our Bible reading and prayer time. The love of money is a root of all evil, including decadent lives enjoying the ungodly pleasures of this world.
How can we then weed out these thorns and vines slowly choking our faith? It is only through consistent, conscientious attention to God’s Word, Holy Communion and prayer in church. In addition, in the privacy of our homes, our roots are nourished by the Word and Spirit of God. It is through the careful, attentive weeding out, fertilizing and pruning our soil that thorns and vines are contained and prevented from surrounding our lives. Rather than allowing thorns to surround his good plants, our Great Sower plants other good plants around them. These are our brothers and sisters who surround us with their comfort, encouragement and wisdom from the Spirit.
Fertile and Fruitful
Jesus now turns to the fourth and last kind of soil: good soil that produced grain, some a hundred, some sixty, and some thirty times what was sown. Then in verse 23, he explains that the good soil is “the one who hears the word and understands it.” Out of the four soils, only one is good. It bears good grain or fruit. This does not mean that only a fourth of the hearers in the whole world will be saved. But this does mean that believers will be a small minority in the world. Only a few enter the narrow gate of salvation, but many enter the wide gate of destruction (Matt 7:13-14).
Why were they good soil? Because the Spirit transformed their hard, rocky and thorny minds and hearts to soft, fertile and pure topsoil, so that upon hearing the gospel, they understood it and believed. This is a work that only God can do. No entertainment, gimmicks and innovations can make a heart fertile and fruitful. Previously in Matthew 12, Jesus spoke about good trees bearing good fruits. This parable is an expansion of that saying.
In Luke’s witness of this parable, Jesus says, “As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15). Their conversion is a continuing process in an honest and good heart: they hear the Word, they hold it fast, and bear fruit with patience. In them, God has accomplished what his Word had purposed (Isa 55:11). Here we find a warning and an encouragement. The good soil will bear fruit in an honest and good heart, but it will be a struggle so that they have to be steadfast in what they have heard, understood and believed. But with patience through the choking thorns and vines of our earthly life, God has promised that we will surely bear fruit.
Some of us will bear much fruit, some not as much, some just enough to evidence our faith. Pastors and missionaries sometimes get discouraged because their patient work does not seem to bear much fruit. Sometimes their plants start producing much grain only after they leave their work. Individually, we sometimes lose patience because our family, friend or neighbor never seems to hear the gospel and believe. But the Apostle Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth… only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:6-7). He knew from his personal encounter with our Lord that only God was able to change his rock-hard, hateful and murderous heart.
Dear friends, the question today – the theme of this sermon – is, “Which soil are you?” All Christians experience all four kinds of soils or reactions to the gospel. You cannot be good soils all the time after God transforms your hearts. Sometimes, the Word of God seems to be disconnected from your realities, so your reaction is, “God, you must be kidding. Is this what you promised?” Therefore, as soon as you hear it, Satan snatches it away. Other times, the gospel seems to be really good news because life is good, and all your dreams are coming true. But when our desires are not quickly met, you stumble, because the Word of God has not taken root in your hearts. Still other times, the Word of God takes root for a while. But then life is so good that you become surrounded by the cares of life, especially when success and prosperity come. Life is so good, God must be blessing us, so you forget about his warning that there will be sufferings and persecutions.
But the good soil bears fruit through Satan’s temptations, through sufferings and through persecutions. The Word of God continues to till and fertilize the soil and to prune the fruit-bearing plants. The gospel pollinates the plants, so they multiply all over the field. Jesus pronounces a blessing on the good soil, “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (verse 16). We are more privileged and blessed than the prophets of old because we have heard the gospel from the lips of the Son of God, the Messiah himself. We are more blessed because God has given us ears to hear and eyes to see so we may understand the good news that Jesus died on the cross to save sinners like us from our sins (verse 17).
As God’s transformed seeds in this church, God encourages us in 1 Peter 1:22–23 to love one another in unity, “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.”
I leave you with this beautiful exhortation from Lane Keister, a Presbyterian pastor:
The most wonderful thing about God’s grace is that God is the gardener who can change your heart-soil. He can take out the hard heart, the shallow heart, the choked heart, and give you a first-rate topsoil heart, infused with the fertilizing energy of the Holy Spirit, the watering efficacy of the blood of Christ, the sun of the Father’s powerfully enlightening Word, all of which together plow the tough soil, remove the underlying rock layers, and weed out the distractions.