Somewhere in the crowd sat a sower. There was likely a carpenter there. We know that there were religious leaders. There may have been an older woman who had spent her girlhood helping her father in the fields. Perhaps, there was a boy of ten years old or so, whose young tender skin was already deeply bronzed by the midday sun, his back hurting from the hours of work in the fields (and, maybe, hours of running through the rows with a dog). They were all there. They were sitting on the ground: look there, you might see a young man of twenty or so looking across the informal assembly to a maiden; the pretty Hebrew girl is graciously gathered beside her mother, who is with child. Some must have been standing: perhaps, a little boy straddling the bowed neck of his bewhiskered dad, and an old man is helped to the ground by his aging wife, mumbling something about his back, the flies, and the loose dogs moving through the crowds. And in the borrowed boat, his pulpit on the lake, the young Rabbi speaks and they all listen. But only some will hear. And that is the point.
This is the inerrant and infallible Word of the living God.
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears,[a] let him hear.”
18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.[a] 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
There is a difference between listening and hearing.
In a reflective little volume author and educator Parker J. Palmer reflected on listening and hearing when he wrote,
“Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I like it to be about . . .I sometimes lead retreats, and from time to time participants show me the notes they are taking as the retreat unfolds. The pattern is nearly universal: people take copious notes on what the retreat leader says, and they sometimes take notes on the words of certain wise people in the group, but rarely, if ever, do they take notes on what they themselves say. We listen for guidance everywhere except from within.”
The older I get the more I trust the wisdom of sanctified intuition. It really is just the conscience that has been shaped by my Aunt Eva as a child, my life in Christ (including mistakes, as well as better days of following Him), and the truths that have been impressed upon my very soul by the Holy Spirit. I can be wrong, of course. My conscience, and the intuitive impulses of guidance that it sends out, must always be tested by the Word of the Lord, and, often, by the wisdom of others, too. Yet, Parker Palmer is on to something deeply spiritual. For there is a difference between listening and hearing. I am talking about a hearing, not with the intricate physiological miracle of the auditory system, but with the pulsating metaphysical miracle of one’s own spirit. To hear with your spirit is to get the point of Jesus’ teaching for your own life. Divine truth is, thus, inscribed upon your “inner man.” And it is, then, that one can take notes on the message of Jesus in you.
There is a difference between listening and hearing.
In Matthew chapter thirteen, our Lord Jesus leaves the house where he was staying and strolls to the beach. There, he is teaching from a boat to a crowd that is gathered to hear him. When you hear crowd, think thousands. This was, of course, the crowd that would be miraculously fed from five loaves and two fishes. If they would have had iPads or Android phones or even Day-Timer’s, they might have taken notes, too. But, the message that Jesus is giving them is a powerful way to tell a story. He will tell seven parables in this chapter, four to the public, three for the disciples only. Each parable relates to the Church, the Kingdom of God that is now being unleashed throughout the world. Communicating through parables is both simple and complex. The parable is a story with a meaning, usually one essential point to be made. Jesus gave thirty-seven parables in the New Testament (because some interpreters take a simile or other type of story to be a parable, the number can climb to forty or diminish to thirty-four). Only two of those parables were interpreted by the Lord. The Parable of the Sower is one of those, as is the Parable of the Weeds. And these two provide the right interpretative framework for hearing the parable with your soul, which means applying the parable to yourself.
The setting for the parable is both familiar and simple, something that people could relate to—like a farmer going out to sow seed and dropping some on the ground. The story of what happens to those seeds is as common as cornbread. Yet, the parable is a mystery that must be deciphered by the listener or, in our case, the reader. The challenges are both mysterious, hidden within the sovereign design of God, only slightly revealed, and quite simple: we do not want to hear.
The challenge before us today is no different. To quote Jesus who is quoting Isaiah, we want to “understand with [our] heart, and turn,” then, Jesus will heal us” (13:15). So, let us look carefully with our hearts and our heads.
The parable is here to be understood by careful hearing, understanding with our hearts, and, then, there will be a healing of the human condition. Perhaps, there will be healing tonight.
The point of this parable is to demonstrate how God’s garden grows. That is, the parable is a story about common things that disclose heavenly realities about God’s Kingdom in the world. The parable is explained. And the preacher might ask, Well, what do I have to preach on if Jesus has already unpacked it?” The preacher, as well as the hearer, must understand with his heart to be healed of himself. The passage that shows how God’s garden grows requires both preacher and People to humble themselves before the Lord, to take a seat on the bank of the Sea of Galilee, wherever they are, and ask God to speak to their deepest selves, beyond the preconceptions, beyond the distractions, beyond the many faces we assume.
How, indeed, does God grow His Kingdom garden? The answers are both plain and piercing. We see four answers to the question about God’s Kingdom, about how He grows His garden.
To begin with, we must admit the most obvious:
1. God grows His garden through Sowers.
The work of the sower is captivating. He is intentional about his sowing, for he “went out to sow.” As he sows, the seeds go all over the place. To be precise the seeds fell in four places: along the path where he trod, on rocky ground, amidst a thorny patch, and, it seems he managed to hit the mark at least once! For some fell on good ground. The parable is predictable at this point. That which fell on the foot-traffic-packed and pounded pathway could not go into the ground (verse 4). The birds came and feasted (4). The seeds that fell on rocky ground (5), likewise, had no opportunity to grow, for there was no depth of soil, and they were victims of the sun’s consuming heat. Others fell among thorns (verse 7). These grew, but were choked out by the thorns. Finally, the sower hits the good ground and its growth is astonishing: “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (8).
There are many questions we could put about the sower. Is this just the way sowing seeds goes? You hit some and you miss some. The Sower is only one for three. It is a poor batting average. Yet, the congregation on the shoreline, many of them—likely, most of them—were farmers. They probably forgave the Sower for losing the valuable seed a few times; but three out of four? Is the Sower to be indicted for his sloppy work? On the other hand, he missed a lot, but the one he hit was a gold mine of crops! A hundred-fold? “Surely Jesus is pouring it on,” they might think.
There are many stained-glass windows in throughout the Church that depict this famous parable in intricate design and swirling colors. One of those more modest versions was being installed at a country church. The pastor came up two little boys sizing up the new window. One boy said to the other as he gazed upward, “Boy, that man in that window sure looks sad.” The other boy, more Biblically astute, replied, “You’d be sad, too, if you lost that much seed! He must have got in big trouble.”
I, too, have known some sad sowers in my time. I have been one, too. The Sower is, in fact, not dealt with by Jesus. He is anonymous because he is every Christian. Yet, in telling about the way God’s garden grows, we know that Jesus says, “when anyone hears the Word of the Kingdom . . .” (verse 18).
I have had those days when I delivered a Biblical sermon, but felt that the message was off, the structure was not sturdy, the resulting material seemed to me to be “all over the place.” Exactly. And someone inevitable came to me to say, “that message was from God and for me. Thank you.” It is then that sowers learn that the sowing is not about them. It is about the sovereignty of God and the condition of the one who receives that Word.
In a similar way, parents grieve as children wander from the faith they so devoutly taught them. This has been one of the most common themes in my counseling ministry. Often, the parents “beat themselves up” over their parenting. Yet, after their hand-wringing, I must remind them: “You did sow the seed. You did your part. Even, if some fell by the wayside, you have done your work. Leave it, now, to the Lord of the sun and the soil.”
The challenge for the Church is that we might not even go out to sow. We might just stay and mend the machines, figure out better ways to grow the numbers, often at the expense of the soul. We must remember that, behind the sowers, is the Sower: our Lord. The Holy Spirit is directing our ways.
“Let your beauty be upon us and establish the work of our hands for us, yes, establish the work of our hands” (Psalm 90:17).
Gardens grow by going out to sow. So, let us sow. Leave the results with God. Just sow.
2. God grows His garden through Seeds.
The seed, according to Jesus is “the word of the Kingdom.” This is the word about Jesus Himself. This is the Gospel that diagnoses humanities situation and treats it with the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. “Repent, therefore, and believe. Come and follow. Turn to Christ today.” These are the words of the Kingdom. Yet, the extraordinary thing here is, well, the astonishing extravagance of seed-sowing. The sower is throwing a lot of seed around. The seed is potent and will bring forth harvest in the right soil, at the right time, with the right conditions. Yet, seed is literally everywhere in the Parable.
I wonder if, sometimes, we just play it too safe with sowing the seed? We might be tempted to say, “Let’s carefully plant the seed where we know it will grow.” But this is not the prerogative of the sower. The seed goes everywhere.
It is interesting that this is being told to these people. Yet, according to the prophecy of Isaiah, many would not believe. Jesus is seed-sowing with some pretty shady characters he calls disciples. Indeed, one has greed unto betrayal brewing in his heart, even then. Another is a bull-headed fellow, who is quick to speak, and slow to think. “Maybe they didn’t deserve the seed,” a ministry consultant might have whispered to Jesus. Save the seed to use on those who have good ground.
I wonder if, sometime, we play it too safe with sowing the seed? We might be tempted to say, “Let’s carefully plant the seed where we know it will grow.” But this is not the prerogative of the sower. The seed must go everywhere.
My beloved, the mystery of the Kingdom of God is among us and is inside of you. For were you and I such cultivated ground that we were ready for the seed at every phase of our lives? Are you listening? Or hearing?
And then there is this:
3. God grows His garden through Soil.
There are three soils that won’t grow the seed of the Word of the Kingdom. There is one that will. Jesus is describing precisely what we see in the rest of Scripture. Indeed, there is no more dynamic account of this Kingdom truth that the account of St. Paul at the Areopagus. After he preached, Dr. Luke records, “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this’” And Luke adds, “But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius . . .” That Dionysius is identified as the Dionysius who became the first pastoral leader, or bishop, of Athens.
Isaiah, dealing with the same issues of how that seed can bring forth fruit, assured us, “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (ESV).
Chalmers Memorial ARP Church in Charlotte was a very humble congregation in 1924. But they were sure proud of their Beginner’s Class. The teacher took a photograph of the nine little graduates: four girls dressed in white academic robes with cap on the lower steps of the church, and five boys dressed in black robes and cap behind them on the next step. But if you look at that photograph, which was published in the Charlotte Observer just a few years ago, you can see one little boy off to himself. Look closely. It appears that he is not really thrilled about being there or even being dressed up in that outfit. I wonder what that teacher thought about that little farmer’s boy? “Well, I spent a whole year trying to get through to him, but that child’s head is as hard as the brick wall in this church.” You see that is the thing about soil. It can be amended. You can keep adding nutrients to it and, then, miraculously, it becomes good soil. Oh, that little boy was Billy Graham, a case of bad soil amended by the Holy Spirit, a case of soil that produced a hundred-fold.
Some of you who reared your children, taught them the Word, and now wonder why or even how they could be living the life of a “prodigal son” or “daughter:” please remember this. God’s love is greater than all our sins. As I wrote of my own life, “What God Starts, God Completes.”
Indeed, that leads us to the final thought in the parable:
Do not fear:
4. God’s Garden Grows unto Success.
Like Babe Ruth, three out of four misses. But, the one hit is big. Really big. Indeed, Jesus says the seed that landed in good ground grew one hundred-fold. In another case sixty-fold. In yet another the seed produced fruit thirtyfold. It was a huge harvest.
That is the story of the Kingdom of God. It was so in Asia Minor and Europe. It was so in America. It is so, now, in the Global South and the Global East. The prophecy of Isaiah is certain:
“So, shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11 ESV).
God’s garden grows and is still growing through sowers, seeds, soil, and always through it all to ultimate success.
But this leaves us with the other part of the Parable: what do you hear? Is it that you are called to sow seeds of God’s Kingdom? Is it that you have not trusted in the power of the seed, the Word of God? It is that you don’t believe that soil can change? Is it that the realities of evil in the world have become like the thorns, choking out hope. Jesus draws us into His presence tonight to be comforted: despite all the odds against it, you must be assured: God’s garden will grow. It is growing tonight. And who knows the full harvest of fruit that will be there from your confession of faith, when Jesus comes again?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Crossway Books., Esv: Study Bible : English Standard Version, ESV text ed. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2007).
 Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak : Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).
 See, e.g., Jean Calvin et al., A Harmony of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 1972).
 For a listing of the parables, see, e.g., Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 172.
 On mysteries about seed-sowing, consider Carman, Augustine S. “The New Testament Use of the Greek Mysteries.” Bibliotheca Sacra 50, no. 200 (1893): 613–639.
 Eusebius, William Wright, and Norman McLean, The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius in Syriac (Cambridge,: University Press, 1898).
 See David, Maria. “The Church That Helped Raise Billy Graham.” Charlotteobserver.com. April 16, 2016. Accessed July 16, 2017. http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/retro-charlotte/article69512727.html.
 Michael A. Milton, What God Starts, God Completes : Gospel Hope for Hurting People, Third ed. (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications).
Blomberg, Craig L. Interpreting the Parables. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012.
Calvin, Jean, A. W. Morrison, David W. Torrance, Thomas F. Torrance, and T. H. L. Parker. A Harmony of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. 3 vols. Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 1972.
Crossway Books. Esv: Study Bible : English Standard Version. ESV text ed. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2007.
Eusebius, William Wright, and Norman McLean. The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius in Syriac. Cambridge,: University Press, 1898.
Milton, Michael A. What God Starts, God Completes : Gospel Hope for Hurting People. Third ed. Scotland: Christian Focus Publications.
Palmer, Parker J. Let Your Life Speak : Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.
Snodgrass, Klyne. Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2008.