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The seed and the gift of understanding… Matthew 13:1-23

December 12, 2010

big things start small I wonder, if like me, you don’t sometimes get a bit downhearted, a bit depressed because no-one you know, no one you’ve loved, no one you’ve finally managed to speak to has, it seems, actually come any closer to knowing God as a result. I wonder if you’ve been plugging away for years now and, well frankly you just haven’t seen any results, and its starting to depress you. If that’s’ you, then Matthew 13 is meant to come as a blessed relief. It’s the cold water if you like, which not only refreshes you, but also shocks you back to reality.

I’m currently reading a book called, ‘Cycling Home From Siberia‘. It’s a book about a Christian guy, named Rob who, as the title suggests, cycles home from Siberia. Starting from Eastern Russia, he cycles south, and on his way cycles through, Japan, China, Papa New Guinea and Australia, before catching a boat to Singapore. That’s about as far as I’ve got, and clearly Rob’s not home yet. It’s a great book and an exciting adventure, and he’s doing it all with the minimum of equipment and money. He carries with him, a letter written in the language of each of the countries he is cycling though explaining, that he is an Englishman, who is cycling to raise money for a charity that helps street children and the letter asks for advice as to cheap places to stay, and help with directions. Rob called it the magic letter, because after working on it, and perfecting it he had it just right.

Its been amazing to read how some people have helped him, particularly in the poorer countries he has visited, sharing their food and homes, some which are no more than shacks, with this slightly eccentric Englishman. But the response, as you might imagine, hasn’t always been positive. Rob, has shown his letter, to many different people, and had many different responses. Some have barely looked at it, have barely given it a reading, before saying ‘Sorry I don’t understand’. Others have rather quietly said ‘I’d love to help but I’m a bit afraid of what the neighbours would think, I’ve got me reputation to keep in tact you see, so I can’t help sorry.’ Others have smiled and said ‘I’d love to help, but I’m just far to busy, I’ve got this to do, and there is that other thing which I need to get down, so I’m sorry. What you’re doing seems great, I’d love to help, normally I would but not now.’

As you can imagine, if you are regularly turned down, like this you’d get a bit dishearted, particularly if like Rob the alternative is sleeping in a tent, in places were at one point it got down to -40 degrees C. Even in our cold snap, that’s not something I can begin to imagine. It wasn’t that Rob had 2 letters one which always worked, and another which fell short. It’s not that the letter, it’s not that the message changed, it was the same guy with the same piece of paper, asking for the same things. No, the only thing different, was the person reading the letter, that is what determined the response. And as Jesus speaks, first to the crowds and later to His disciples, I think he is saying something similar to us.

Now as we come to Matthew 13, Jesus is in His usual teaching mode, except this time, rather than teaching in the Synagogues, He is teaching on the beach. Surrounded by the crowds, perhaps some whom have come for His teaching, others because of the miracles, and others out of curiosity, and deciding that He’ll be able to teach better from a boat, Jesus stands up and begins to teach in parables. It seems that Jesus, speaks with many different parables, perhaps some of those following todays passage, and perhaps ones which simply aren’t recorded, and somewhere in them, He includes the Parable of the Sower, which we’ll look at in a minute. But it seems like some of the crowd just aren’t understanding the parables, because His disciples come to him in v10, and ask why is he teaching in this way? You can imagine them saying, ‘Look Jesus’ some of the crowd aren’t following your stories, can’t you make the simpler, your losing them and their attention’. This question gives Jesus the opportunity to teach his disciples.

THE REASON FOR THE DIFFERENT RESPONSES

Jesus knows that crowd’s are fickle, He knows that many who are there are not going to follow Him, and He knows that there will be two quite different responses to His teaching. There will be those who understand who Jesus is, and there are those who won’t. Those who understand He is the Messiah the chosen king, and will come to accept that this Messiah comes not as a conqueror but as a suffering servant, and those who find this far too much to accept. And the difference between the one group and the other, isn’t brains, it isn’t academic qualifications, and it certainly isn’t about being good enough. No the difference is firstly being given help from God, and secondly in honestly seeking the truth. These are, if you like, two sides of the same coin. The one side is seen from God’s perspective and is in verse 11:

‘Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them’

Jesus makes it very clearly here doesn’t He, God has given them the ability to understand, God has given them the secrets of the kingdom, they will know who Jesus is, that He is the Messiah, and they will be able to understand the full meaning of the parables. We see more of this later in Chapter 16, Peter is asked by Jesus who he thinks Jesus is and:

‘Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.”’

The ability to understand the great spiritual truths, the ability to understand what the scriptures mean, and who and what Jesus is, is not something which we can grasp on our own, we need divine help.

But if that’s one side of the coin, then the other is that we need to earnestly seek the truth. Jesus condemning much of Israel in the words of Isaiah says in verse 15:

‘For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.’

The people deliberately close their eyes and stop up their ears, because:

‘Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,  understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

Understanding is also a choice. The question is do we truly want to know the truth with all the challenge and the change to life which such understanding will bring? And so says Jesus, this is why I speak in parables, because it is only for those who are truly seeking, it is only for those who God has given the ability to understand.

The parables are, if you like, a code, which only His disciples will be able to truly understand. Like the codes my sister and I used to write each other as kids but which my parents could never understand, so the parables are only for those who are Jesus’ followers. Lets just think about that for a minute, Jesus is claiming to know, and to teach the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is claiming to have the answers which the world seeks, and He says that you need God’s help to understand them and you need to earnestly seek the truth.

How much of the world around us, wants the truth on their own terms? They don’t need God’s help thanks very much, and they certainly don’t need to listen to Jesus’ teaching. Jesus here condemns such people, as people who don’t really want healing, who don’t want to know the truth, and who are thus condemning themselves to loosing everything verse 12:

‘Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.’

For those who won’t listen to Jesus and won’t seek His truth, they will loose everything, but those who seek and understand, even understand the smallest amount, it is they who will be given more! Whilst this is bad news for many, what amazing news this is for those of us who love Jesus. We may have only the tiniest flame of faith, we may feel that it’s about to be blown out at any moment, but Jesus promises us that He will give us so much more, in faith, in understanding and in the blessing that comes with it.

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT RESPONSES

So now that we know what parables are, that they are a code to be understood only by those truly seeking God, and those which have received divine help, lets look at the Parable of the Sower, and see if we can work out what is going on.

The first thing we should notice is actually, really and truly, there is only two responses, those who understand and those who don’t. The difference in the three types who fall away, is how long it takes us to realise they don’t understand, and what cause them to fall away, i.e. what part of the Gospel they’ve not really understood.

The first group, mentioned in verse 4, and explained in verse 19, is the seed which fell on the path.Verse 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 their heart. This is the seed sown along the path.’

Now that we have understood verses 10-17, we know that this isn’t people who are really trying to understand, but just can’t manage it. These are not people who are seeking God, but are struggling with the explanation, and if Jesus just explained in a simpler way would fall down and worship Him. No these are people who don’t want to understand, like the people encountered by Rob, our cycling adventurer, who simply pretended not to understand his letter. No the people who are like the path, are just not interested, they don’t want to hear anything of the truth, and instead pretend its all just noise which they can’t understand. I’m sure we’ve all met people like this, the moment faith is mentioned they change the subject. They may say occasionally that Christianity makes no sense, they may smile at the Richard Dawkins’ programmes, before turning to you and say explain that, but the moment you start to explain, they can’t handle it.

They’ll happily turn up and the Christmas Nativity service with their kids, but don’t ask them to think about the true meaning of Christmas, they don’t want to know. The message is the same, there is no difference between them, and the person of equal intelligence and social standing sitting next them, the difference is they don’t want to understand.

The second group is the rocky ground, the one mentioned in verse 5 and explained in verse 20:

‘The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.’

These are the people who responded to Rob our cyclist, by smiling saying they would love to help, but look over their shoulder, and say they can’t as the neighbours might not like it. These are people who love the sound of the gospel, they think a God of love who will take care of them is great, what they don’t understand is that being a Christian means carrying your cross. Perhaps they expect an easy life, perhaps they think following Jesus brings, wealth, health and prosperity, so when persecution comes they’re off. They only take the gospel in at skin level, there is not root, no depth to their faith, they haven’t taken the gospel to heart, they haven’t truly sought God. There is no study the scriptures so they can get to know Him better, there is no time spent with fellow Christians, sharing lives and troubles, no praying together and sharing each others pains. No for them Christianity is a hobby and when it gets too difficult, like the gym membership when exercise gets to hard, or the fine weather golfer when the winter sets in, they’re off, looking for a church which makes things a little easier, or a religion where you can have God on your own terms. Such people fall away because they don’t understand the true Gospel and the sacrifice which comes with it.

The third group are those who are like soil filled with thorns, introduced in verse 7 and explained in verse 22:

‘The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.’

Like the people who said they would love to offer Rob the cyclist a bed but not today, hey, today is just a bit too busy. This group is like the last, in that they start off well, they accept the Gospel and look like they understand it. But when life gets busy, they drop their faith. You hear the usual excuses, Sunday is just too busy it’s too much hard work to get to church. ‘Oh’ they say ‘I’ve got a promotion can’t come to Bible study anymore too much overtime you see’. Other things are just more important, money just becomes too attractive. Clearly these people, haven’t understood the Gospel correctly, they haven’t understood that the Gospel is the pearl of great price which you would sell everything you have in order to buy. They’ve not understood,so they fall away.

I think as we get to this point, I can probably guess what you’re thinking. You’re probably thinking, well yeah, thanks Mike, if its going to be this hard, if people are going to respond in these ways, why bother. We can say the right things, we can act in the right way but, basically what you’re saying is it’s all rather pointless. And of course you’d be right, if it wasn’t for the fourth and final response because in God’s grace there are those who respond. There are of course those to whom God gives the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, those who seek God and find Him. There are those like the disciples, whom Jesus calls to be His, there are many of us here to today, those who are good soil, who respond with good fruit.

If you’ve been worrying about your friends and neighbours, worrying that you can’t seem to talk to them about your faith, or that they are nowhere closer to knowing Jesus, well you can be pretty sure that’s you.

WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

But what can we do about those we love, those we know don’t know Jesus? Well if we are doing are part, if we are trying are best to live lives which reflect who God is, and when given the chance saying something, about the hope that we have in Jesus, then Jesus is telling us in Matthew 13, that we can relax a little that we can leave the results up to Him.

Ours is not to convert people, ours is but to plant the seed, and if that seed grows then to water it, and encourage it. What we can do though is pray, pray for those who we spend time with, pray for our non-christian family members, pray for our work colleagues, our friends and acquaintances. Pray and ask, that God would give them the secrets of the kingdom, pray that God would send His Spirit to soften their hearts, and open their ears and open their eyes. Pray too that they would seek God, that they would come to truly want to know Him and love Him, and then we can continue to live good lives in front of them, continue to speak when given the opportunity, and leave the rest up to God.

We are called to be the cyclist riding through Siberia, asking for someone to hear the story, to read the letter which we carry, to live lives which make people curious, and to pray that God would use our lives, to open the eyes of others. This is not asking God anything He doesn’t yearn to do anyway, after all we have a God who did not spare His only Son, so pray and trust God, and lets not get downcast, lets not get depressed and give up, for surely God has many who have yet to come to Him, many seeds to sow, and many good soils waiting to take them.

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