Matthew 13v1-23: What about when people don't believe? - 7th September 2014 - Dave Walker

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What about when people don’t believe? How should we Christians respond when the masses of people in this country are just not interested in Jesus? Christianity is not very popular in Britain at the moment. Intellectuals think we’re naïve and backward; social reformers think we’re old fashioned and even oppressive; fun-seekers think we’re boring and straight laced; others think we’re divisive and harmful. There are parts of the world where people are flocking to church. There was a time when that was the case here in the UK. But it’s hardly true now, is it? Bluewater, Brent Cross, Highbury, White Hart Lane – that’s where you find the crowds on a Sunday now. In the UK these days the economy is growing, Islam is growing, sport is growing. But the church? What should we do?

Or what about when people stop believing? If you’ve been a Christian for long enough you’ll know people who’ve turned away from Jesus. I think of my friend Paul. He was a big influence on me in the days when I was starting out as a Christian. He was one of those guys who seemed to make being a Christian a fun thing, a cool thing. That helped me a lot as a teenager. But a few years ago Paul married a woman who wasn’t a Christian, the football and the cycling that were the other loves of his life took more and more of a hold. Now he’s nowhere with the Lord. In fact he’s turned away from all of his old Christian friends. That hurts. So much. You’ll know people like that if you’ve been a Christian. It happens. What should we do?

Is it that the gospel message doesn’t work? Is Jesus not enough? [I was listening to a programme on the Radio this week called “What’s the point of Methodism?” which was charting the decline of the Methodist church and asking the question of what could be done about it. The programme had a few suggestions. They suggested that Methodism needed to move with the times, update its song book so they don’t only sing Wesley hymns, find some new social causes to champion so that it can carry on being a voice for the underdog, use the internet better to connect with people. There was no mention of Jesus or the Bible in the suggestions for the future. The unspoken idea was that Jesus and the Bible belonged to the old days, a couple of centuries ago when Methodism was flourishing. But they won’t work today. Now they need something different. I don’t say that to have a go at Methodism – people say very similar things about the Church of England. We need to change or die. And by change they mean “change our message”. Move on. Not so much Bible and Jesus. Help people to connect with God where they are in their own way. Is that what we should do?]

Well this next few weeks we’re going to listen to Jesus’ teaching about this. Because these things are not new. The background to today’s reading is that Jesus has been facing a mixture of opposition and shallow success. On the one hand the intelligentsia, the religious and social elite, have been rejecting Jesus outright. Quite a lot of the regular folk have too, especially the people of his home area. But then on the other hand there is massive interest – crowds of people have turned up to see what he’s doing. But the vast majority of them would later turn away, when the going got tough. So how does Jesus deal with that? Let’s listen to him now, in Matthew 13:1-23.

Bible Reading: Matthew 13:1-23 (click here for text)

Look at that phrase in verse 11: “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you.” That’s what the next few weeks are about. These parables that we are going to encounter are razor-sharp teaching straight from the mouth of Jesus. And they are about the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. Now importantly, get this: the kingdom of heaven here is not a place, like the United Kingdom is a place. Jesus is not talking here about what it will be like after he comes again, the new heavens and the new earth where his people will live with him forever. He talks about that in other places, but not here. Here ‘kingdom of heaven’ means God’s rule, or government. Jesus is saying that God’s rule is breaking into this world. God’s new order, his government is breaking in, like some kind of uprising or insurrection. But it’s not guns blazing. It’s almost secret. It’s being revealed gradually, quietly but unstoppably. These parables describe how that is happening.

1. Don’t be caught out – Jesus’ teaching cuts both ways

Notice how double edged this is. Look at that verse 11 again: “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.’” Those are amazing verses, aren’t they? Do you see how incredibly high the stakes are here? Jesus is speaking the parables knowing full well that not everyone will get it. In fact more than that: he’s saying it like this because he knows that not everyone will get it. Those are the outcomes he has in mind: some will hear and understand and they will have an abundance. They will be blessed enormously as they become part of this kingdom of heaven. Look at verse 16: “Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.” Says Jesus to his disciples. To these hungry people the parables come as food; life-giving, life-shaping teaching: they will hear and live. They will live with Jesus now, and live with him for ever.

But others will not. They will not hear, they will not be interested. Jesus knows that. And to them the parables come not as good news, but as a word of God’s judgment. If you keep looking down through verses 14, 15, 16, you can see what I mean. Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah, who was describing the hard hearted people. “this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.” And because of that Jesus speaks parables to them. To the people who will not listen the parables are not food or life giving. They’re more like a hardening agent. Have you ever used Araldite? Other resin-based glues are available. When you use Araldite you take the resin, the gloopy glue, and you add to it a hardening agent. The hardening agent makes it set, so that it binds and holds.

By speaking the parables Jesus is setting people in their ways. His teaching becomes God’s judgment upon them. It’s an important principle in the Bible, and it’s the same here, that God’s judgment involves showing people up for what they really are, and it involves giving people what they really want. Jesus teaching here shows people up for what they are – they are people who don’t want to listen to him; they don’t want to know God, they are hard hearted. Jesus teaching shows that up – they hear, but it’s not for them. It just bounces off. They are God-rejecters. And because they don’t want to know God, Jesus teaching just sets them all the more in that direction; heading for ultimately eternal godlessness. Destruction. Jesus’ teaching shows up who the citizens of God’s kingdom are; they’re the ones who, like the disciples in verse 10, come to him wanting more. The ones who, in humility, listen carefully to what he says, and let it shape them. It also shows up who are the citizens of destruction.

So do you see how fantastically high Jesus sets the stakes for us as we encounter his teaching? It’s life and death, isn’t it? This could go either way. Jesus has quite deliberately made it like that. Chances are if you looked at parables in RE at school you were told something quite different: these are simple stories for simple people. As if the people were all sitting round saying “oo-arr, ‘e’s talkin’ bout crops now. Oh that’s alright. Oi gets it. Oi understaaands crops.” Apologies to any Joe Grundy sound-alikes among us. Maybe that’s left you with the impression that this is just basic stuff. Childish. No. This is razor sharp. Jesus cuts both ways. That’s how it was back then; that’s how it is now. The stakes are astronomically high.

So, says Jesus, the kingdom of heaven, God’s rule, his government is breaking into this world. But how is the kingdom breaking in? What is Jesus’ strategy?

2. Don’t be confused about Jesus’ mission

Jesus’ mission is actually amazingly simple, and this parable shows it very effectively.

What does the farmer do? Verse 3: “A farmer went out to sow his seed.” That’s it. That’s what he does. What does that mean? Well it’s not open to interpretation, Jesus explains quite clearly what it means. Verse 18: “Listen to what the parable of the sower means: when anyone hears the message of the kingdom and does not understand it..” And so on. Verse 20: “The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy but…” Verse 22: “The one who received the seed that fell among thorns is the man who hears the word but…” Verse 23: “But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it.”

It’s pretty clear isn’t it? What do they all have in common? They hear the word, the message of the kingdom. This is Jesus explaining what he’s doing, and explaining the mission that his disciples will take part in. It’s all about getting the message of the kingdom to people. The word of God; the gospel of Jesus; the Bible. That’s absolutely essential to God’s mission: helping as many people as we possibly can to hear the message of Jesus in the Bible. When that happens people will respond in different ways. Of course. But that mission needs to happen. Helping people to hear the message of Jesus in the Bible.

That’s Jesus’ strategy for growth. Tell people the message. That’s it. That’s what he’s doing among all the opposition; that’s what he’s doing among the superficial popularity. He’s speaking the word. He’s not discouraged when people reject him, or oppose him, or seem to start well and then give up. He just keeps on speaking the word, knowing that as he does so, God will bring a harvest. God will change people. There will be people who grow. God’s kingdom will keep moving forward. That’s what he does; that’s what he wants his disciples to be involved with.

Are you involved in this? Not just to yourself, making sure that you’re feeding on God’s word – although of course, yes, you must do that – but to others? Do you really believe this is Jesus’ strategy for growth? If so, who are you reading the Bible with? Or who are you recommending online talks to? Or passing good books to? Or talking to about Jesus? Or praying for with an intention to talk about Jesus with them? The strategy is to scatter as much seed as possible. Get God’s word to everybody. That’s it. That’s the point, the sharp end, of Christ Church. Of Christians. Now we have to be really clear about that, because all sorts of things get gathered under that heading ‘mission’. But at it’s heart mission is telling people the message of Jesus. That’s it. Anything that doesn’t do that is not mission, however noble it seems. Because Jesus’ strategy was not to be nice to people. Oh yes, of course he helped lots of people, he was loving to them in astonishing ways, and did all sorts of things to make their lives better. That’s really good. But his strategy, the one thing he was keen to do with everyone, was to scatter the seed of his word. It’s good to be good to people. Of course it is: we’re scattering seeds not lobbing grenades. So we need to do that in a loving way. But if we’re interested in people becoming part of God’s kingdom, well then there is no alternative but to make passing on his message the heart of what we do.

And as we do that, don’t be discouraged by the apparent waste. God is still on the throne. The kingdom is still breaking into the world. The message of Jesus is still the right thing to be telling people. In the parable there are four different responses, and three of them end in nothing. Expect disappointment. There will be people who just don’t want to know. There will be people who start well and give up. There will be people who just get bogged down by cares of the world until it chokes them. That’s been the case ever since Jesus’ time, and it won’t be any different here in North Finchley in 2014. We’re not the first generation, you know, to find that passing on the gospel is hard. We’re not the first ones to see people falling away. It’s not that there’s something wrong with Jesus and his message, as if we should redesign it to fit our times. Yes we should speak the message in a way that is relevant to the people around us, use the words they use, that sort of thing. There’s no point in being willfully obtuse. We need to try to pass on the message of Jesus as clearly as we can. But even when we do that, people will still be turned off by Jesus’ message. It’s not that the message of Jesus is wrong. It’s that it’s landing in the wrong sort of soil. And even then, as Jesus says so clearly, God is still in charge, judging rightly.

But it will land in the right soil too. Think about how much more that kingdom of God has broken into the world now than it had back in Jesus day. Back then there were just those superficially interested crowds and that little group of genuine disciples sitting round Jesus. Now there are disciples all over the world. Oh, sure, there are still crowds who are only superficially interested, but there’s been so much real growth too. This is God’s strategy. Stick at it.

One more thing. Let’s turn the attention for a minute not on how we are spreading the word, but how we’re responding to it.

3. Don’t be complacent – the possibility of falling away is all too real.

The stark warning of the parable is that it is very easy to be fruitless in here. Yes, there will be people out there who don’t want to know. But there will be others who do want to know, but only for a time.

Don’t assume you’re good soil. We all know that good soil is the right answer. Which one of these soils should we be? Good soil. We know that. But’s that’s not the same as actually being good soil. If we’re really going to be those genuine disciples who keep listening to and being shaped by the message of Jesus, who keep growing, we need to hear the warnings of this parable. So that we keep going.

Hear the warning of the shallow soil. Verse 20: “The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy.  21 But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.” It’s possible to start strong and turn back. You can look like the real deal, but give up. Jesus says that, doesn’t he? The heat of the day will burn you as a Christian. Trouble, persecution because of the word. That’s what he says. Notice that it’s because of the word: it’s the sort of pressure that would go away if you gave up on believing in Jesus, if you went soft on God’s word to blend in with the culture around. Are you ready for that? We’ve been seeing some horrible examples of that lately with the Christians of Iraq. There will be opposition from family and friends. If you’re going to be a genuine disciple of Jesus you will have to live in a culture of ‘you don’t believe that, do you?’ You’re going to feel really weird amongst your peers, because you believe some stuff that they think is unpleasant, and you will have priorities that they think are not just eccentric but foolish. Giving your time and money to people who won’t pay you back – how stupid. Thinking that sex is only for marriage between a man and a woman – nobody thinks that anymore do they? Believing that we need saving; that we can live with God forever if we’ve been forgiven by Jesus and become his followers – that’s just mad. Do you see what I mean? If you are not deeply rooted in Jesus you will wither and die. You’ll give up. A burst of enthusiasm alone is not enough. Feeling spiritual every now and again; occasional religious experience will not carry you through. That stuff evaporates. Put down deep roots in God’s word in the Bible. That’s why we have house groups. To keep each other growing for the long term by feeding on God’s word together. That’s why being here week by week, not just every now and then, to hear the Bible read and taught is so important. That’s why reading good books like those over there, and reading the Bible in a daily quiet time is life-giving to Christians. Put down roots in God’s word; don’t wither. 

Hear the warning of the thorny ground. Verse 22: “The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.” Even more an issue for us than the shallow soil. Not that we don’t want Jesus, but that we want a whole load of other stuff as well. Not just stuff that’s clearly sinful (obviously it includes that – holding on to sin will absolutely choke your fruitfulness) but just ordinary stuff about life. Wealth. Worries. And those things grow. Nothing seems to get less demanding over time – have you noticed that? The more you get into something, the more of your time it demands. Everything is like that. You cannot continue as a Christian unless you are constantly cutting down the weeds.

Wealth is deceitful, says Jesus – did you spot that? That means it can deceive you. We’re always keen to qualify ourselves here; we categorise ‘wealth’ in a way that doesn’t really apply to us – “oh I’m not wealthy, this is just talking about the people on the Bishop’s avenue.” We’re quick to say how wealth is ok as long as it is received with thanks, very Christianly. Yes, but it’s also deceitful. It will get hold of you and choke you unless you keep chopping it down. Are you actively chopping down your wealth? Sounds funny that, doesn’t it, because most of us aspire to more wealth, but as Christians we need to be rightly concerned about the dangers of it. Sacrificial giving – actually so that it causes pain, not just giving a little to ease your conscience – is a great way to do that.

Are you gardening your soul? Are you cutting down the weeds? The hobbies that take just too much time, that stop you from sitting under Jesus’ word and taking part in his mission? Are we doing that with each other? Are you worried that someone you know here is drifting away a bit – not simply turning their back, but drifting? Not loving the Lord like they used to. Have you told them? That’s not being a busy body, that’s loving. That’s being concerned not just for their body – how’s your bad leg getting on? That’s being concerned for their soul.

God’s kingdom is breaking in, as the message of Jesus reaches all sorts of people, who respond in different ways. And where people keep feeding on his word, that’s bringing everlasting growth. Have you got that? Let’s pray.