Jesus told a story about a farmer sowing seeds that left everyone scratching their heads until he explained it. His explanation was both very encouraging and very challenging, depending on whether you were looking at it as a sower or a soil. I know…it sounds like a lesson in agronomy, and you’re thinking, “Why should I care about that?” (Or you might be thinking, “What is agronomy*?”) Here’s why you should care: Jesus was talking about you!
We are hosting the Global Leadership Summit on August 9-10. It is two days of world-class teaching that will inspire you to use your influence for God. I love the Summit—every year I come away enriched and inspired—and I think, “This is awesome! Why isn’t the room packed?” It’s that good! The regular registration is $209, but because we are a host site, you get a deeply discounted rate of $89. That rate goes up to $119 on Tuesday, July 10—so go to lifecenter.net/leadershipsummit and use the code that is in your handout to get the best discount. I hope to see you there!
One more thing about the Summit. The founder of the Leadership Summit, Bill Hybels, is facing multiple allegations of sexual indiscretion. This has been heartbreaking for many people and for me personally—Bill has been one of my leadership mentors. The situation was made worse by the leaders at Willow Creek who have not handled it well. Thankfully, they have realized that and are taking steps to correct those errors. Bill has stepped down from his role as lead pastor of Willow Creek Church in Chicago; he has also stepped down from the board of the Global Leadership Summit, and will not be hosting or speaking at the Summit as he has in the past. The Summit is going forward without him.
I’ve been asked by a few people if we should host the Summit this year, as we have for the past dozen years, or if we should withdraw in a show of support for the women hurt by Bill’s behavior. We’ve decided to host again, because the Summit is much bigger than one man, and will still be a great benefit to many people. We believe this is the best way to stand in solidarity with the women who’ve been hurt. Meanwhile, I’ve been praying fervently that the Lord will redeem everyone involved in this sad mess, and I hope you’ll pray with me.
It’s interesting that today we read a passage in Luke that starts with Jesus championing women. It’s found in Luke 8:1-15 (p. 888). Jesus tells one of his most famous stories, but before that, Luke tells us about Jesus’ travels with His band of disciples.
1 After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
Let’s pause there and talk about our first point.
1. Jesus championed women. v. 1-3
Look at verse 1. Jesus traveled from town to village proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. Who traveled with Him? The Twelve—the 12 men He had called to be apostles. But it wasn’t just the 12. There were also some women. This was highly unusual. Most Jewish rabbis refused to even teach women; they believed they were inferior and unable to learn like men. Obviously, these rabbis had no female disciples, only men. And they certainly had no women who traveled with them. This was scandalous! It just wasn’t done—except Jesus did it. Jesus was inclusive where others were exclusive.
Jesus championed women. It is hard for us to picture how revolutionary this was! In a paternalistic, male-dominated culture that excluded women, Jesus included them and championed them. In a culture that oppressed them, Jesus lifted women up and included them in His circle of fellowship. The inclusivity of Jesus is one of Luke’s themes: Jesus included women, Gentiles and outcasts. Jesus is for everyone.
The inclusivity of Jesus is also seen in who these women were. Luke names three of them. First, Mary Magdalene—so named because she came from Magdala, a village on Lake Galilee—from whom seven demons had come out. Many have thought Mary was a prostitute, but the Bible doesn’t say that. It says that she was oppressed, not that she was immoral. The fact that she had seven demons suggests that she was completely oppressed—she was in a bad way when Jesus found her and freed her. Mary shows up in the gospels more than any other woman. It seems that Mary’s devotion to Jesus was as great as her oppression had been. Much forgiveness, much love; big deliverance, big love! When Jesus changes you, you can’t help but love him a lot! That’s Mary Magdalene.
Second, there was Joanna, the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household. This Herod is King Herod who arrested and executed John the Baptist. Chuza managed the king’s financial interests; he was one of his most trusted and important officials. It’s amazing that we have Mary with her dark past side by side with Joanna, a lady of the king’s court. Jesus is for everyone! Mary and Joanna show up together again in Luke 24:9-10 (p. 909) as the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection—another scandalous thing. Women weren’t even allowed to serve as witnesses in a court of law, but God chose them to be the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection! That’s Mary Magdalene and Joanna.
Third, there’s Susanna. We don’t have a picture and know nothing else about her, other than she has a famous song that was written about her, “O Susanna.” Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna—“and many others” it says. So there were a number of female disciples who not only followed Jesus, but “were helping to support them out of their own means.” These were ladies with money—and they used it to support Jesus and the 12 as they traveled spreading the good news! What made all these women willing to give their money to support the ministry of Jesus? They all had this in common: (v. 2) they had been “cured of evil spirits and diseases.” Each of these women had been healed by Jesus; their lives had been changed. Great change produces great love, and great love results in generosity.
Offering here. (Do you like how I did that?) Seriously, if Jesus has changed your life, it’s a good thing to generously support the spread of His message with your money!
Jesus championed women—and still does. Jesus champions men too. We believe that in Christ there is neither male nor female—we are all equal before God. Men and women are equal partners in ministry and leadership in Jesus’ Kingdom.
2. Jesus is the key to understanding. v. 4-10
4 While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: 5 “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. 6 Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”
9 His disciples asked him what this parable meant. 10 He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,
“ ‘though seeing, they may not see;
though hearing, they may not understand.’
Jesus tells this story about a farmer who sows seed and it lands everywhere: on the path, on shallow soil, on weedy soil, and on good soil. Only the seed that lands on the good soil bears a crop—but it’s a bumper crop, 100 times what was sown. A yield of 100-fold would have been miraculous! That’s the story.
What does it mean? Now, many of you have already read Jesus’ explanation—and we’ll read it in a moment. But before we do, imagine you were just hearing this story for the first time, and this is all you’ve heard—just the story, with no explanation from Jesus. What does it mean? If you only had the parable, and not the explanation, what would you conclude? What is Jesus saying? What do you think?
Not all seed that is sown results in a crop.
There are different kinds of soils, and it is best to sow seed in good soil, or to manage bad soil until it becomes good.
The farmer was extravagant or wasteful with his seed.
There are many obstacles to successful farming: birds, rocks, sun, lack of moisture, weeds.
Don’t be discouraged by the failures; the good soil brings big success!
Basically, my conclusions would be lessons about farming, not about God. You might wonder, “Why is Jesus telling a Captain Obvious story about farming?” Or you might shrug your shoulders and think, “I don’t get it.” That’s what most everyone did.
But there is one other thing you could do—what is it? If I told you a story and you didn’t get it, what would you do? Ask me! “Joe, what did you mean by that?” And that’s what the disciples did. They asked Jesus what the story meant. Jesus explained it—and we’ll read that explanation in a moment and spend the rest of our time on it—but first Jesus said something puzzling. V. 10 He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, “ ‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’
It sounds like Jesus told parables to keep people from understanding His message—and that makes no sense at all. Usually we tell a story to illustrate a truth, not obscure it. Here’s what I think is going on. Jesus is the key to understanding. Jesus wants followers who come to Him, who are in relationship with Him, not just a crowd of miracle-seekers, or celebrity-stalkers or fault-finders. So Jesus tells a story, and the only way to understand it is to come to Him and ask. And to those who ask, He gives “the knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom of God.”
Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9 (p. 591)—we read it this week in our Bible reading plan. This is the call of Isaiah. He sees a great vision of God and is called to take God’s message to Israel. Here’s the start of the message: Isaiah 6:9–10 He said, “Go and tell this people: “ ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ 10 Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
In other words, God calls Isaiah to be His prophet and the first thing God tells him is that people won’t listen. Their hearts are calloused; their ears are dull; their eyes are closed. But God sends Isaiah anyway.
Jesus quotes this to explain why He uses parables. He knows that most of the people He is speaking to are celebrity-stalkers and miracle-seekers and fault-finders. They are not interested in Jesus and His message of the Kingdom. So He tells stories—stories that will make the hungry, the curious, the seeking come to Him and ask, “What does that mean?” Stories that will make the others go home shaking their heads. The parables conceal and reveal at the same time—it all depends on your heart. Do you really want to know? Come to Jesus and you will. Jesus is the key to understanding. He’s not hiding the truth from you; He’s holding it out—you just need to come to Him to receive it. It’s all about Jesus and having a relationship with Him—that’s when the light comes on.
Let’s finish with Jesus’ explanation of the story.
3. Jesus encourages and challenges. v. 11-15
11 “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. 12 Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. 14 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. 15 But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.
Jesus’ explanation of the story is both encouraging and challenging. It has been understood at least 3 ways, depending on whether you focus on the sower, the soils or the seed.
A. Sowers: keep sowing for a bumper crop!
How many sowers are in the room? Every Christian is called to be a sower, to scatter God’s word, the gospel, everywhere.
My little 2 year-old grandson Paxton is one of the most out-going little guys ever! He was recently with his dad, Michael in the Dollar Store. In the check out line, he was singing the ABC song and invited everyone in the line to sing along. They did. The cashier complimented him on his singing, and he said, “Do you know Jesus?” She hemmed and hawed and said yes. Paxton said, “The Holy Spirit is in your heart!” Everyone in line heard the gospel! Scripture says, “And a little child shall lead them.”
Every Christian is a sower! You are Jesus’ ambassadors; you represent Him and spread His good news by word and deed wherever you go. So how many sowers are in the room?
What does this story say to a sower? It is incredibly encouraging. It says that even though much of what you sow doesn’t bear fruit, don’t get discouraged and give up. Keep sowing! Some of your seed will land on good soil, and it will bear a bumper crop! Remember, that 100-fold increase was unheard of—it would have been a miraculous harvest! Jesus is reminding all of us sowers that He can do bigger things with our small efforts than we ever imagined.
There are so many stories we could tell here.
Many of you know that our own Josh Schiel came to the Lord because of a friend named Paul Mauk. (You are never too old to play with Legos!) Over a long period of time, Paul loved Josh and sowed the seed of the gospel by word and deed. I’m sure there were times when Paul wondered, “Am I wasting my time? Is Josh bad dirt?” Paul invited Josh to a Bible study and Josh came for a couple months. One night, Paul asked Josh if he wanted to accept Jesus. Josh said no. Paul asked again, and put some pressure on Josh: “Come on, you know you want to do; just do it.” Josh said no. It was an awkward car ride home. It was a couple years later when Josh finally said yes to Jesus and prayed with Paul. Paul baptized Josh here at Life Center. Through it all, Paul didn’t give up, he stuck with it and kept sowing and trusting the Lord, and it bore a crop—a bumper crop! Although there is still some work to be done…just saying.
So for all you sowers out there, don’t get discouraged. Keep sowing. Keep sharing Jesus in word and deed, and trust God for a harvest.
Galatians 6:9 (p. 1005) Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
Let’s see the hands of all the sowers! Keep sowing the word! Don’t give up! Don’t become weary! We will reap a harvest—a bumper crop!
B. Soils: what kind of soil are you?
How many of you are not just sowers, but you’re soils too? Every person is a soil—a receiver of the seed of God’s word. What kind of soil are you?
The variable in the story is the soils. Same sower, same seed, but different kinds of soils. Three soils don’t produce; one does. Which one are you? That’s the question that begs to be asked! And that’s the challenge in the story! How do you respond to God’s word, to the message of Jesus? What kind of soil are you? When I read this story, I like to do my own soil samples—test my own soil. What kind of soil am I?
Am I hardpan, the beaten path, that no seed can penetrate? Is my heart hardened by pride, so that I won’t hear God’s word to me? There is a spiritual battle going on—the devil loves to feed our pride, keep our hearts hard, knowing that it will keep us from God. Who is feeding your pride? Does the word of God fall on deaf ears; do I refuse to hear it and consider it? Do I hear about Jesus and remain unmoved, not interested, unphased? That’s the beaten path: I don’t want to be that soil.
Or am I shallow soil—a thin layer of topsoil over a bed of rock? Do I respond to God’s word with enthusiasm at first but lack deep roots that will sustain me? How do I do when trouble comes? Is my faith in Jesus deep and able to sustain me through the heat? Or do I wilt because my faith is shallow and weak? Do I fall away in the time of testing? That’s the shallow soil: I don’t want to be that soil.
Or am I weedy soil—lots of weeds that are choking out the good seed? Am I consistently distracted from God’s word by other things? Does God’s word and work get crowded out of my life because I’m so busy or so consumed with other things? Are life’s worries, riches and pleasures squeezing God out of my life? Choking, choking, choking. That’s the weedy soil: I don’t want to be that soil.
Or am I good soil—rich and fertile where God’s word can take root and grow and bear fruit? Jesus said that the good soil “stands for those with a noble and good heart.” Being a good soil starts in the heart—having a good and honest heart that is open, soft and receptive to God’s word. This good heart does three things: It hears the word, retains it (holds it fast) and perseveres (bears up under hardship) until it bears a crop. That’s the good soil: that’s what I want to be.
Here’s an assignment for you: before you leave the building, or on your way home, have a conversation about this. What kind of soil are you? What can you to manage your soil—to change it?
You know we can do that! How many of you garden? What do you do to improve your soil? Rototill. Pick out the rocks. Fertilize. Mulch. Water. Weed. Did you know you can improve the soil of your heart?
Hosea 10:12 (p. 778) Sow righteousness for yourselves, reap the fruit of unfailing love, and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, until he comes and showers his righteousness on you.
Break up your unplowed ground. Rototill your hard heart! And if you can do that, you can dig up the rocks, pull out the weeds, and water the seed.
What kind of soil are you? And what are you going to do to become good soil that bears a bumper crop?
C. Seeds: the power is in the Word.
One last thing: the seed. What is the seed? Look at v. 11. “The seed is the word of God.” The seed is the gospel, the good news, the message of Jesus. It is a powerful seed.
1 Peter 1:23 (p. 1047) For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.
The seed, the word of God is powerful. It is living and enduring. It causes you to be born again—it gives you new life. And it is imperishable. When Paxton shared with that cashier, she’s going to remember that. The seed is imperishable and one day, sooner or later, that seed may sprout and bear a crop.
I’ve always loved the story of Barry McGuire, who’s song Eve of Destruction was a #1 hit in 1965. Barry was walking down Sunset Strip in LA one day and someone stopped him and asked, “Are you ready for Jesus?” Barry said, “I’m not even ready for you, man,” and walked away. But he couldn’t get the name of Jesus out of his head. He heard it everywhere. A guy slammed the car hood on his thumb: “Jesus Christ.” Barry wondered, “Why Jesus? Why not, ‘O Buddha?’ Or ‘Hare Krishna’?” Barry went to a friend’s house to smoke dope, and he saw a book on his coffee table. It said “Good News for Modern Man.” Barry thought, “I’m a modern man,” and started to pen it. His friend came in and said, “Barry, that’s a Bible.” Barry threw it down, and said, “Oh man, they’re disguising the Bible!” But it sat and stared at him—and Barry took it home and started reading. A couple weeks later, he was at a party of celebrities; everyone was having a good time, but Barry was miserable, curled up in a ball under the dining room table. A friend asked him, “Are you ok?” Barry said, “No, I’m not. Neither are you. None of us are.” His friend said, “Bummer,” and walked away. In his misery, Barry finally cried out to God from under the table. “God if you’re there, show me. I want to know you.” And Barry said, “Every cell of my body vibrated with the knowledge that God was there.” Barry became a Christian. And it all started with what? One person who said the name of Jesus. That’s the power of the word—the imperishable seed.
That is why the apostle Paul said in Romans 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.