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January 22nd, 2012

All dirt is not the same.

Mark 4:1-9; 13-20

January 22, 2012

Unsuitable soil

The wrong dirt can be costly.   On August 10, 2011, I received an e-mail from our building contractor that started out like this –

Approximately two weeks ago, Froehling & Robertson, Inc. (F&R) discovered that a significant portion of the soils on the Corinth campus was unsuitable to be used on the site.  Neill Grading has conferred with F&R to gain an understanding of the scope and magnitude of the existing earth that would be required to be replaced with adequate off-site fill materials.  Neill Grading’s best estimate yields an approximate additional cost of $100,000 +/- to provide and place the suitable soils needed to meet the project requirements. 

Are you kidding me?  $100,000 to get the right dirt?  We saved a lot of that money by exchanging our own dirt in the front lawn with the “unsuitable soil” rather than importing “off-site fill materials.” 

I knew that dirt isn’t just dirt when it comes to gardening.  And it makes some sense to me that before you build a building you have to make sure the dirt you build on is solid.  Jesus told a story about building your house on rock instead of sand.  (I was a little surprised that we had to dig down 17’ for one of our footers under.) 

But a parking lot can only be built on dirt that is “suitable”?  Who knew?  Regardless what use you’re talking about, there’s good dirt and bad dirt. 

What it’s not

Jesus told a story about dirt.  The parable is probably familiar to you.  A planter scatters seed rather indiscriminately, or so it seems when you first hear or read the story.  Seed that falls along the path sits on top and becomes bird seed.  Seed that falls on a thin layer of top soil covering a limestone underlayer cannot develop a root system deep enough to survive under the hot sun.  Seed that falls where dormant roots of thorny plants have a head start can’t compete for moisture and nutrients.  They may grow, but they won’t produce a crop.  But seed that falls on fertile, deep, weedless soil will multiply exponentially the yield of the original seed.

When I say this parable is about dirt, I mean it is not about some other things that people read into it.

First and foremost, this parable is not about the sower.  You have my permission to do in your Bible or even the pew Bible what I did in mine:  cross out (literally) the title if it says, “Parable of the Sower.” Strike the word “Sower” and write in “Dirt” – or, if you prefer, “Soils.”  The fact that this farmer seems careless as he scatters the seed in places it has no chance to grow is irrelevant.

The parable is also not about sowing – either in a literal or figurative sense.  It’s not about choosing effective evangelistic techniques.  A contemporary mindset on the parable can easily turn this story into a lecture on targeting your message to a receptive audience.  Political strategists make sure that candidates tailor their stump speech to fit the state they’re in.  Sales people know how to find a point of connection with their potential customers.  I’m not saying that is wrong.  But this parable is not about the process of sowing.

This parable is not about the seed.  In Jesus’ explanation of the parable, he will tell us that the seed is the word.  That would clearly have been understood by Jesus’ audience as the Word of God – the message Jesus himself is teaching.  But the word is simply assumed in Jesus’ teaching as being true and effective.  This parable doesn’t expound on the word – it assumes God’s word is what is being spread.

This parable is not about numbers.  Jesus isn’t teaching that one in four of those who hear God’s word will respond.  Nor are the thirty, sixty, or hundred-fold increases in verse 20 – except that they indicate a very successful harvest.

This parable is not about the climate.  The sun comes into the story briefly and negatively.  (6).  Much essential to farming isn’t mentioned at all – rain, season, temperature.  Producing a crop is about much more than just the dirt. 

But this parable is about the dirt.

Descriptive

Why is it so important to say what the parable is not about?  A parable is designed to teach one main point.  If you are distracted by the wrong details, you’ll miss the one main point.  Don’t miss the one main point.

Here is the one main point:  all dirt is not the same.    You know that if you’re an engineer pouring a foundation or paving a parking lot.  You know it if you’re a Mom trying to get that stain out of your little boy’s shirt.  You know it if you’re a rock climber looking for a foothold.  You know it if you’re a planter growing a crop.  All dirt is not the same.  Some dirt is “suitable” and some is “unsuitable.”

The significance of that one main point is two-fold.  The first is descriptive.  Jesus wants his disciples to understand why not everyone is jumping on his bandwagon.

Jesus told most of his parables during a time of his ministry when opposition to him was intensifying.  At the same time enthusiastic crowds were growing (Mark 3:8) and an inner circle of twelve apostles had been named and commissioned (3:14), the religious teachers were accusing Jesus of teaming up with the devil (3:22). 

I would imagine the disciples were confused.  “If this man is who we think he is, why is there such a varied response?  If his healings are genuine, his teaching is from God, and he is God’s Son as we heard at his baptism (1:11), why is the one group who knows God’s word best increasingly antagonistic?”

Jesus answers, “It’s not about the sower.  It’s not about the sowing.  It’s not about the seed.  It’s not about the climate.  It’s about the dirt.”  All dirt is not the same.

As chapter 4 opens, Jesus is teaching by the lake when once again a large crowd gathers (1).  He had trained his disciples to have a boat ready for such occasions (3:9).  This enables him to push away from the shore a brief distance and use the boat as a pulpit.  When I was at the Sea of Galilee last fall, I was amazed by how a calm sea will amplifies one’s voice.  Jesus is using a primitive P.A. system so his audience can hear.

Depending on the time of year Jesus tells this story, there is quite possibly off in the distance a farmer who has his leather pouch slung around his neck sowing his fall crop.  It’s toward the end of the dry season.  Jesus’ listeners have walked on well-worn paths through those plowed fields.  They know about the layer of limestone – common along the Syrian-African rift – often under a thin layer of topsoil.  They know about the thorny plants that lie dormant during the dry season, almost impossible to detect and remove.  But they also know about fertile soil that produces a bumper crop.  The four kinds of dirt represent four kinds of people.

The first kind of person is impenetrable.  Some people, Jesus says in 4:15, are like a trampled path.  You can’t break through.  Because the message isn’t received, the enemy (Satan) snatches it.  They hear the same word everyone else hears, but you can even tell on the outside by their facial expressions and body language they’re just not into hearing the word.  They came to hear out of curiosity, cynicism, or obligation.    They have life figured out, and they think it’s working for them on some level.  They are uninterested in being changed.

As a pastor, I encounter people who are like a hard path.  So do teachers who have students with no interest in learning, or doctors who know certain patients will not change their lifestyle even if it means they die young.  In my case, it’s often people filled with resentment toward God or others.  It feels less painful to blame a spouse, a boss, or the government than to risk opening their heart to change.

The second kind of person is impulsive.  Jesus says this person will “hear the word and at once receive it with joy.”  Here’s the scary part.  Enthusiasm often masks shallowness.  I can think of many people through my years here at Corinth that were very excited about God or the church or the music or the preaching – too excited, really.

What’s wrong with being too enthusiastic?  There’s no depth.  When things get tough, they give up.  They didn’t sign up for what Jesus calls “trouble and persecution” (17).  This is very much what’s wrong with marriage in our culture.  In a society that’s about self-fulfillment, who isn’t actualized when you fall in love?  “This is so exciting and fulfilling.  I’ve never felt like this before.”  But when marriage gets tough (and every marriage gets tough) and doesn’t yield the same hormonally-based rewards, they’re out of there. 

Some people do the same with their relationship to the Lord or their church.  They begin the life of faith with great expectations, and everyone around them knows it.  Sometimes they can even be re-energized by an emotional sermon or a retreat.  But it never lasts.  When their expectations aren’t met or they hit a rough patch or people disappoint them or they are criticized they disappear.

The third kind of person is distracted.   Jesus identifies three distractions in verse 19: “the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things.”

There’s nothing wrong with life, or wealth, or things.  What trips us up are the worries of this life, the deceitfulness or wealth, and the desires for other things.  Jesus compares those distractions to thorny weeds in Palestine – weeds that die out in the hot summer to the point of being undetectable to the planter.  Only the root systems are intact.  The planter scatters the seed, and it sprouts.  But the weeds have a head start on grabbing nutrients and water.  The seed may grow, but it will not bear grain.

Those who are constantly stressed, people for whom making or keeping money is an obsession, or for whom enjoying themselves for self’s sake is their highest goal – they may receive God’s word.  But it will never be able to compete with what they really love because those priorities are well-established in their lives.  Those roots are deep.

Fortunately, the impenetrable, impulsive, and distracted people are not the whole story. 

The fourth kind of person is responsive (20).  This person accepts God’s word and produces a crop.  When they hear God’s word, they are looking for ways to apply it.  It doesn’t matter how advanced they already feel they are in the Christian life.  They are humble about their progress and realize there is more to learn, and more to apply.  They don’t fall away; they persevere.  They don’t get distracted; they prioritize.

Jesus’ first reason for telling a story about dirt is descriptive.  This is the way things are.  When the word of God is spread, not everybody will respond the same way.

The descriptive purpose of the story about dirt help if (a) you get discouraged about the 80-20 rule at church and think we must be doing something wrong, (b) you sometimes wonder why people you consider smart or spiritual don’t buy into Jesus, or (c) you tend to overanalyze your own success or failure in sharing Jesus with others.  All dirt is not the same.

Prescriptive

Jesus also has a prescriptive reason for this story about dirt.  He wants you to ask, “Which kind of dirt am I?”  That’s the right question.

Can dirt change?  Obviously dirt can’t change itself, but dirt is only the metaphor.  Can people change the way they hear?  In theological terms, is listening to the Word a matter of free will or predestination?

I won’t resolve that issue today, but the way Jesus tells this parable, he certainly places responsibility on the hearers – the “dirt.”  This parable is about listening, from the moment Jesus pushes back from the shore so the crowd can hear him better.  He begins the parable in verse 3 by saying, “Listen!” In verse 9, he reiterates, “The one who has ears to hear, let him hear!”  With every description in the explanation section of the parable, Jesus wants you asking, “Is that the way I hear God’s word?”

Jim Samson shared his own story of how this parable penetrated his heart.  He didn’t want to be an impenetrable hearer or an impulsive hearer or a distracted hearer.  He wanted to be a responsive hearer.  He chose to become a different kind of dirt.  He heard the message that Christ died for him and wanted his life in return. How do you change the way you hear?

First, test your hearing.  Claire Adams had the quote of the week in my Wednesday midday Bible study.  When I asked the group, “Have you had your hearing checked,” Claire answered, “Had my what checked?”

About a year and a half ago, I had my first hearing test as part of my annual physical at Dr. Parker’s office.  The nurse placed an instrument in my ear and played several different pitches at various volumes.  I was to tell her when I could hear a noise.

As I took the test, I was quite proud of myself.  Even sounds that were very faint I could hear.  I thought I passed with flying colors.  After the test was over she told me in so many words that I flunked.  Those faint sounds were not really that faint. 

How do you test your spiritual hearing?  You list those four kinds of people and do some honest assessment.  Am I impenetrable – proud, resistant, always making excuses or blaming someone else for the sins that separate me from God and others?  Have I steeled my will against change?  Am I impulsive – do I rise and fall spiritually based on whether someone has moved me lately?  Am I distracted – do worries and riches and desires keep getting in the way?  Or am I responsive – always looking for some new way God wants to speak his word to me, ready to get back on track?

Like my hearing test, though, you probably need some measure other than your subjective sense.  You don’t even know what you’re not hearing.  Write down those four words and show them to your spouse, your best friend, your mentor, your pastor.  List characteristics of each hearer and ask which one you are.

Second, replace your input.  We found at Corinth that the unsuitable soil had to be removed and exchanged.  It was radical and risky; it caused frustration and delay.  But it was the only way to proceed.

If you are not hearing God’s word aright, you’re probably listening to too many wrong sources of input.  What are you reading or watching, and who are you tuning into that you know is pulling you away from your life in Christ? 

Third, take action.  A parable is told to move you to immediate action.  What do you do when you really decide you need to make a change in your life?  Maybe it’s diet or exercise.  Maybe it’s changing vocations.  Maybe it’s improving your marriage.  Maybe it’s dealing with an addiction.  Perhaps you’ve had a crisis – or maybe you have realized you don’t want to wait for a crisis.

What do you do? You make the decision.  You create a plan.  You find someone who will hold you accountable.  You exchange short term pain for long term gain.

The same is true of hearing God’s word with a responsive heart.  If your heart is impenetrable, impulsive, or distracted, do something about it.  Now.  Today.  Make the decision to let God’s word change you.  Write down new ways you will expose yourself to the word – worship attendance, Bible study, Sunday School, reading, media, the right kinds of friends.  Then find someone who will hold you accountable for that plan.  If you need help finding that person, let me know.  I’ll help you.

Jesus Christ came into the world to claim you as his own.  The starting point is to trust that he died for your sins, that he created a bridge from you to God.  But that’s only the starting point.  A life of faith follows, one of constant attentiveness to how he’s speaking to you and changing you into his likeness.  You can become better dirt.  Amen.

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