This sermon was delivered at the First Presbyterian Churches in Dunbar and Nebraska City, Nebraska on Sunday, January 17, 2016. The scriptural reference is: Mark 4:1-34. A recording of the sermon is available here.
A common request in my car these days is this: “Three Lion Guards, and then a Happy. Please, Mommy.” To the outsider this might sound a bit odd, but to the Mommy with the special playlist on her iPhone, I know exactly what this means. Allow me to translate: “Mommy, could we please listen to the theme from the Lion Guard three times in a row, and then follow it with Happy from Despicable Me? And then maybe Lilly would like to hear a song from Elsa or Anna if time allows. Thank you, Mommy Disc Jockey.” Car trips can be treacherous without this particular playlist. I don’t leave home without it, y’all.
In reading through these verses for today’s sermon I was immediately struck by the repeated use of two words: “listen” and “hear.” Intrigued by their use, I embarked on a highly scientific study – I re-read the verses and counted them, carefully making a mark under the word on a piece of paper each time I ran across it in the readings. The results: “listen” is used 4 times and “hear” is used 7 times. There is very easily a +/-1 margin of error in this study. Maybe even +/-2. For a set of parables about seeds, growth, light, and more seeds, there is a lot of talk about listening and hearing.
Mark’s gospel doesn’t play around with the importance of the Word. The Good News makes its first appearance in Chapter 1, verse 1 and Mark doesn’t waste any time on the birth or childhood narratives of Christ. Mark jumps straight into the ministry and mission of Jesus from the very start. Which is precisely why it shouldn’t be surprising that a series of parables about seeds, growing, light and more seeds is not really a parable about seeds, growing, light and more seeds at all. Soil is soil, seeds are seeds – these stories are not about them at all. These parables are about the one who is preaching the story and proclaims the Kingdom. Christ offers these parables to his disciples and the gathered crowds to teach them about the character of God. The harvest will happen, as God is responsible for the harvest, but the seed planting will only take place where the soil is receptive. The farmer must prepare the soil and let God handle the harvest.
Thus far in the gospel, we’ve heard the teaching of John the Baptist, and seen Jesus manifesting himself the healing and calling stories, so today we arrive at the teaching stories. In these parables, Mark makes the Good News alive through Jesus Christ making the Word center in the world. As familiar as we think we are with the parables of the sower and the mustard seed, we must remember that they are about the character of God, so they probably don’t mean what we think they mean. These stories really only make sense in light of the cross and the resurrection. Mark’s stories have to be read in retrospect and through the lens of the resurrection of the Messiah. A much as Jesus explains the message of his ministry to his disciples, they are still confounded because they have yet to experience the resurrected Christ.
Listen! Christ brackets and frequently punctuates the parables with this command. In the midst of sharing stories, he’s doing the work of urging his disciples and the crowds to be prepared for what is to come. Jesus wants us to be reception vessels for the seed planting. We need to prepare the garden so that the word may take root, and in order to do so, we have to listen and give heed to the words we have ears to hear from Christ himself. Listen! Perhaps, when we listen, we may just hear Jesus’ insistence on auditory reception!
Steven Yamaguchi notes the popularity of our traditions to emphasize speaking and talking (or sharing) more than listening and hearing. Noting that a high value is placed on preaching and teaching, Yamaguchi says, “Speaking the Word is a primary instrument for God’s revelation to humanity. So we speak, and we labor to speak faithfully.” Maybe this is precisely why Jesus insists that we listen before we preach the word. Genesis tells us that God spoke creation into being. John 1 reminds us that God spoke and the Word was present with God, and the Word was God. God reveals Gods-self, Christ, and the Holy Spirit to us through speaking. When will we stop to listen?
The aforementioned Lion Guard that my children demand is their generation’s version of The Lion King. If you remember the Lion King, then you’ll remember a particularly dark scene in which Scar, the evil uncle of Simba, and his evil hyena disciples sing their narrative, “Be Prepared.” The song speaks to his planned assassination of King Mufasa, but I’m going out on a limb here and saying that it’s got a few loose parallels to the message that Christ is urging us to hear in these parables – something big is coming and you need to be ready for it. For a moment forget that an evil character speaks these words and imagine they are the words of a Messiah in light of his resurrection:
I know that your powers of retention
Are as wet as a warthog’s backside
But thick as you are, pay attention
My words are a matter of pride
It’s clear from your vacant expressions
The lights are not all on upstairs
But we’re talking kings and successions
Even you can’t be caught unawares
So prepare for a chance of a lifetime
Be prepared for sensational news
A shining new era is tiptoeing nearer
And where do we feature?
Just listen to teacher
I know it sounds sordid but you’ll be rewarded
When at last I am given my dues!
And injustice deliciously squared
So prepare for the coup of the century
Be prepared for the murkiest scam
Meticulous planning, tenacity spanning
Decades of denial is simply why I’ll
Be king undisputed, respected, saluted
And seen for the wonder I am
As Lent approaches in a mere few weeks, we begin to look to the cross and eventually the resurrection. We start to think of the time when Christ was disrespected, ignored, abused, and sacrificed. In Lent we acknowledge our sinfulness and need for God’s mercy. Lent is a time when we turn our focus away from the celebration of life through the birth of Christ toward the penitent, self-examining, waiting for hope of life anew through the resurrected Christ. During these weeks we will have time to ruminate – to prayerfully and attentively listen to the Word. It’s a time for us to examine the thorns that might choke our wheat seedlings attempting to grow and prune the vines.
Let anyone with ears to hear listen! The four types of ground mentioned are the types of reception vessels. First the path with the bird, meaning that the vessel heard the Word but allows it to be snatched away immediately. The second is the rocky ground with the quick bud and no roots, meaning the vessel held onto the Word until trouble arose and the Word no longer held bearing. The third ground was the choking thorns, where the vessel allowed the lures of the world to choke out the permanence of the Word. Finally, the fourth ground was good soil that produced a plethora and increasing abundance of grain, meaning the vessel bore the fruit of the Word and spread it around for continued growth. Listen!
Life is a journey and if we’re not prepared, the Word will get lost among the baggage we carry with us. Seven times Christ told us to hear – the number of perfection. Hearing allows us to be prepared properly for what we must learn as a disciple of Christ. Hearing is more than listening (which he said only 4 times), for it involves allowing the Word to be planted and take root, rather than letting the seeds to blow past us and find good soil elsewhere. Really hearing requires enabling the Word to be made perfect in and through us for God’s glory.
After Jesus focuses on aural attention, he moves to visual attention. Yamaguchi notes, “Earlier, when Jesus introduced the parable of the Sower, he focused on auditory attention. The telling of the parable was opened and closed with the imperative ‘Listen!’ while the parable itself distinguished four types of hearing. That auditory focus is now joined by a visual focus. ‘See! Look! Pay attention!’ The disciples are given light to see everything clearly. It is a gift of illumination that comes from God.” In verse 24, after lots of insisting, Jesus gives the big command: “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you.” Yamaguchi translates this as “Look to what you hear!” Moving from hearing to seeing is important because of the emphasis on illumination – those without light cannot see, but those without light can hear. In order for the disciples to be fully prepared for what is to come, they must both hear and see what they are being told. They must look, watch, see, hear, listen, and pay attention – blepo – all of the above so that they can be witnesses to what God is doing.
I’ve heard rather frequently lately about youth groups, and even individuals at home, putting together blessing bags for homeless neighbors they may come across in daily encounters. In fact, Lincoln teenager Riley Ewing pledged to make 100 such bags on his own from his income at a local fast food restaurant. Blessing bags typically include packed with a bottle of water, toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant, Chap Stick, mittens, a granola bar, a $5 bill, feminine products, and a flashlight. Light is something we take for granted. In a power outage, we frantically search for our flashlights, or candles and matches. A flashlight means that a person without a permanent home will be able to see at night wherever he or she might be resting his or her head. Light means being able to see. Light means knowing where you’re going and being able to look at what’s around you. Light means comfort and peace of mind.
Illumination is a privilege that so many in our world don’t have – once the sun sets for the evening, or freedom to learn about Christ without persecution. Christ demands the oil lamp be placed on a lampstand for all to see and experience a bit of comfort in the light. “For there is nothing hidden except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” To whom much is given, much is expected. With the light, the disciples must share it for all to partake. “With the deeper insight into God’s reign that Christ shared, a greater gift of opportunity and responsibility was also placed on the disciples: to work for the fruit of the harvest.”
“To disciples who receive the gift of illumination, who pay attention well and receive the light, more will be given to them.” We are Christ’s disciples, journeying with him toward Gethsemane. The point of our journey is bearing fruit and multiplying light. God is in the multiplying business. What starts as a small group following Jesus, or a small mustard seed in the farmer’s hand, becomes something magnificent that only God can create and grow. Our role is to prepare ourselves – to open our ears and not just listen but hear that which Christ tells us, and uncover our eyes to watch what only God can do and what the Spirit is actively doing. Once we prepare, we multiply and illuminate for all to see. We have great responsibility. God’s work will be done – the gospel will thrive and the kingdom will flourish. Christ has already made himself known in healing and calling, and now he’s teaching so that all will know that the Word of God is central in the world.
Do you have on your listening ears?
Are your eyes opened?
“We’re talking kings and successions
Even you can’t be caught unawares
So prepare for a chance of a lifetime
Be prepared for sensational news
A shining new era is tiptoeing nearer”
In the name of God the Word Speaker, Christ the Word Lived, and the Holy Spirit the Word Breathed, Amen and Amen.
 Steven Toshio Yamaguchi, “Pastoral Perspective on Mark 4:1-9” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, ed. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 112.
 Ibid, 112.
 LION KING – Be Prepared Lyrics | MetroLyrics
 Steven Toshio Yamaguchi, “Pastoral Perspective on Mark 4:21-25” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, ed. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 122.
 Ibid, 126.