This morning, our little Presbyterian church (www.LakeBaldwinChurch.com) had the honor of hearing from an internationally known guest speaker, Gordon MacDonald. Many of you will have no idea of who he is, but he is the author of Ordering Your Private World, which I read while in college, and many other books. He was also at one time the national president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the campus ministry I was a member of at UCF. Some of his many other roles are seminary chancellor, Christian magazine editor, and pastor of over 40 years.
I didn’t know what the sermon would be about when I came, and even the church bulletin didn’t have a title for it. I figured I would find out as I listened. And, indeed, that’s what it was about: listening. It is my habit to take very detailed notes of sermons, since that is about the only way my ADD mind can focus on listening. I’d like to share a few thoughts from my notes since his message this morning was, as I expected, both a blessing and a challenge to me. Besides, recapping information in a blog post is another way to sink it deeper into the mind.
Why are people still so interested in the Titanic, one hundred years later? Back in 1912, a sense of optimism pervaded society, with hopes of world peace, prosperity and prosperity. The supposedly unsinkable Titanic represented security and success. When it sank, in many ways, that hope sank with it. So did 1,500 passengers. World War I came shortly after that, shattering any illusion of peace on earth. What does this have to do with listening? Apparently, there were three certain people on board who were not listening very well. One, the owner of the Titanic, was extremely proud of his ship, and had ignored a telegram warning him of icebergs. The second, the captain, was about to retire. He had a lifetime of experience and confidence, but didn’t even send out a distress signal until 15 minutes after the Titanic struck the iceberg. Third, the radio operator had been repeatedly warned by other ships about icebergs, but apparently told them to shut up because he was busy listening to a race on the radio. This is what happens when people full of their own plans, distractions, and confidence refuse to listen and respond.
In Matthew 13, Jesus, halfway through his earthly ministry, boarded a boat (a wee bit smaller than the Titanic!) so he could speak to the crowd gathered on shore, with the water serving as a natural amplifier. He spoke in parables, of which the story of the sower, the seed, and the soil is one of the most well known. In those days, many kind of rabbis roamed around teaching. Some were revolutionaries, who wanted to overthrow the Romans. Jesus’ disciple Simon the Zealot may have originally been one of their followers. Other rabbis were more philosophical and intellectual, such as the Sadducees. Still others preached a more formal, institutionalized method.
Jesus uniquely focused on the hearts of the people. He was not impressed with appearances, wealth, or social connections. He is the explorer of inner space, our hearts. And what if that inner space is as large as outer space? That’s an intriguing thought. Our souls are much deeper than we think.
Beneath the cheerful surface many of us wear to church on Sunday mornings, our actual mood often doesn’t match. Some don’t want to be there, some are heartbroken by crises and conflicts, some had a tough week and are fearful about the days ahead. Yet Jesus knows what is going on. He also knows if we are listening to him or not. Let’s look at the parable of the seeds and the soil in Matthew 13 and think about how well we listen.
1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “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. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.” … 18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. 22 The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. 23 But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
What about the four kinds of soil?
The soil on the path is so hard that the seeds which fall on it are snatched by the birds before they even have chance to take root. This soil represents those who allow failure, bitterness, and apathy to make them cold toward what God has to say. They just don’t want to hear it.
The rocky soil is so shallow that even though the seeds sprout quickly, there is no place for the roots to go. The scorching sun and lack of moisture wither the plant. Easy come, easy go. This soil is like people who experience God’s message only at an emotional level. They are enthused and revved, but the novelty fades when trouble comes along. They aren’t willing to devote their lives. They don’t count the cost of discipleship. They are like the crowd in John 2 who wanted to make Jesus their king. Jesus didn’t trust them because he knew what was in their hearts: hype and not commitment.
The thorny soil chokes out the seeds that take root there, just like people who get distracted by wealth and worldly amusements and end up with no time or energy left for God. The rich young ruler refused give up his stuff to follow Jesus and missed out on the true treasure. Yet nothing should compete with the claim that the gospel, the good news of salvation and redemption, lays on our lives.
Yes, there is finally some good soil: beautifully prepared, nurtured by nutrients and water, plowed up. This soil represents the person who knows how to listen to God, who takes the time to pay attention. Growth doesn’t just happen. It is cultivated intentionally.
Rev. MacDonald noted that he used to think of this parable as only referring to what happens when a person initially hears and responds (or not) to the gospel. Yet he reminded us that we can be like any of these soils on any given day of our lives. There are times when, even after being Christian believers for decades (as I have) that we wander into apathy, distraction, temptation, bitterness or confusion -- and we just stop paying attention. We don’t go deep. It is a good practice to evaluate our own hearts each day, asking, “Which of these soils represents my heart right now? What condition am I in? How well am I listening?” We can pray along with the Psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).
I could try to write more of my own thoughts, but instead I’ll leave you with links to two of my poems about seeds, one about quieting our hearts to listen, one about God's grace leading us home even through the trials of life, and one about sticking with God's word over the long haul.
- Between the Seed and the Tree
- A Mother's Seeds
- Invitation to Stillness
- Grace Will Lead Me Home
You may also be interested in a few of the articles that Rev. MacDonald has written for the Leadership Journal, where he as been editor-at-large.
- Unexpected Sanctuary: Even mundane places can be filled with God's beauty and love.
- Ministry's Sweet Spot: on building into people, rather than organizations
- Cut and Sharpen: One of God's underused gifts is time to sharpen.
- Choosing Well: Discernment comes from aligning memory, imagination, and will.
This weekend I am grateful for the opportunity to listen and learn. I know I need to take some extended time soon just to be still and hear from God. How about you?
For grace and growth,