Listening has become almost a lost art. From earliest times when the tribe would sit around the campfire to hear a rousing adventure story to the days of riveting radio dramas like “The Shadow” and “Inner Sanctum,” people have let their minds create the pictures while their ears took in the words. Motion pictures and television changed all that. We are a visual generation whose listening skills have atrophied. Maybe that is why families cannot communicate and people often talk but seldom listen.
The ability to really listen is as vital today as it ever was. How else are we going to hear not only each other but the voice of God? Jesus had something crucial to say about hearing the Word of God in Matthew 4:1-20. Usually called “The Parable of the Sower,” it is really about different types of soil. The seed is the Word of God and the sower anyone who disseminates that Word. The point of the story is that the sower, sowing the same seed, obtains different results from different soils. Whenever God’s Word is communicated the results depend on the fertility of the hearer’s heart.
As there were four kinds of hearers of the Word in Jesus’ parable, so there are the same four kinds of hearers in this sanctuary today. Everyone within the sound of my voice will fall into one of these four categories. Which kind are you?
I. Hardened hearers immediately forget the message (Mark 4:1-15).
There were two methods of sowing seed in Jesus’ day. One was to balance a bag of seed on the back of a donkey, cut holes in either side of the bag and let the seed run out as the donkey walked over the ground. The other method was to broadcast the seed by hand. This latter method seems to be the picture Jesus had in mind.
The reason some seed “fell by the wayside” was that farmers left paths for travelers through their fields. This ground naturally would be hard-packed by the traffic. So birds would quickly eat the seed which fell there.
The hearts of some folks have become so hardened by the world’s traffic that the seed of the Word cannot penetrate it. They have heard too many false advertisements, bought too many lemons from fast-talking used car salesmen, been jilted by too many fickle lovers. Having been burned in the past, they are bitter and cynical. People are no good; they are all liars and hypocrites. The preacher’s sermon is just one more sales pitch and the preacher just another con artist.
With such people the message goes in one ear and out the other. Nothing can get through the protective shell they have built around themselves. As a result, they will have forgotten the sermon before they make it out the front door.
If these pew-warmers soon forget the pulpit message …
II. Shallow hearers quickly drop out (Mark 4:5-17)
Galilee is underlaid with limestone rock. In some places this rock is covered only by a thin layer of soil. The early spring sun would warm this rock, which in turn kept the soil warm. Seed which feel on this soil would germinate quickly. But this warm soil contained little moisture and the young plants, being rooted only in shallow soil, had no subsoil supply of water to draw upon. Therefore, the hot, midday sun dried up and killed those fledgling sprouts.
Jesus remarked that God’s Word cannot take root in shallow hearts. Some people eagerly embrace the Christian Faith the first time they hear the gospel message. They join the church on their first visit, coming forward on the first note of the invitation hymn. But it soon becomes obvious that they listened very superficially to the preaching of the Word, for they failed to count the cost of discipleship. They liked the church’s programs and ministries. They did not hesitate to take advantage of the nursery or to steer their youth into the recreational activities.
Then someone asked them to serve on a committee or to teach a Sunday School class or to tithe their income. Their unchurched friends mocked their newfound faith. It became a chore to get up on Sunday mornings. Suddenly these easily-won converts dropped out of sight as though they were in the FBI’s witness protection program! As Jesus said, “they are offended” when they find out it isn’t all a bed of roses; there are a few thorns too. They reject the faith as fast as they had accepted it, proving that their profession was never genuine. These are fairweather Christians, sunshine disciples who run for cover as soon as it starts to rain hardship.
III. Distracted hearers promptly bog down (Mark 4:7, Mark 4:18-19)
William Barclay notes that some Palestinian farmers were lazy. They did not bother to rid the soil of foreign growth. Thorns, weeds and other wild plants grew alongside the sown seed. A given amount of soil can nourish only so many plants. So the wild growth strangled the good plants, depriving them of nutrients, water, space and sunlight.
God’s Word cannot thrive in cluttered hearts. These hearers truly receive the message but never grow into mature disciples. (Only a mature organism can bear fruit and reproduce itself.) Just as the thorns of Jesus’ parable stunted the growth of the farmer’s seed, preventing it from bearing fruit, so frivolous concerns sap the Christian’s strength. Anxiety, ambition and an appetite for worldly amusements drain off limited resources that could be better channeled into making us more productive disciples.
Each of us has only so much time, money and energy. We can spend these fretting about material things, scrambling for success or pursuing ease, pleasure and cheap thrills. Or we can invest them in doing the will of God and becoming more Christ-like. The choice is ours.
What is it that is choking the life out of your spiritual walk? What thorns have a stranglehold on your soul? Are you a distracted hearer whose life has bogged down in the mire of vain concerns? If you would pull out of your spiritual morass you must become the fourth type of hearer.
IV. Responsive hearers readily bear fruit (Mark 4:8, Mark 4:20).
Even in the good soil the harvest varied, depending on how good it was. A hundredfold may seem like a bumper crop but ancient records show that in some cases such was possible.
Not all Christians have the same gifts, abilities or potential. Some produce more fruit than others, though all believers are commanded to bear some fruit. “Fruit” may refer to good works or to souls won to Christ. Since we are to do both we do not need to decide which Jesus meant. The point is that we are to bear as much fruit as we can with our individual talents. This happens as we move from being merely hearers of the Word to doers of it as well (see James 1:22). For that is the mark of a responsive hearer. As Jesus cautioned, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9).

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