God designed you to grow. And, when you’re growing like you should, you’ll be producing seeds that can be planted in other people that will affect the way they see and interact with and think about the world around them. The question is: Are these Gospel seeds, or are they seeds for something less savory. As a community, God designed us to be a place where people grow in Christ. Read on to see what this means for us, what it can mean for you, and what we should to about it.
I don’t have any corn growing in my front yard. You can drive by my house any day of the week, any time of the day, and you won’t ever see any there. It’s the weirdest thing. It just isn’t there. I like corn. I love eating it. I love it when we buy a whole bunch at the store, strip it off the cob, freeze it, and pull it out months later to enjoy. Lisa is a wizard with those goodie freezer bags. But there just isn’t any in my front yard. There aren’t any green beans either. That’s really too bad too, because it’s the one vegetable we’ve managed to be able to get all three boys to eat without much in the way of complaint. I can’t tell you how convenient it would be to simply go out the front door and pick what we need rather than having to go to the store all the time for them. Alas, though, the yard is bereft of beans. And greens. Now, I’m not much of one for greens myself, but Lisa likes cabbage. You won’t find the first leaf of it in my front yard.
Do you know why? Because I haven’t planted any seeds for any of these. We grew some tomatoes and squash and zucchini, and cucumbers last summer over on the side of the house, but those all came from plants. None of them grew on their own. As a matter of fact, other than the very first plants God created in the early days of creation, no plant has ever come without some kind of a seed somehow first being planted. That’s just how the world works. Nothing grows without first being planted.
But, you know, that doesn’t just apply to the earth’s flora. It applies in the world of ideas as well. No idea is truly novel. Every single one of them has a context and a foundation without which the idea wouldn’t exist. When your kids come up with something that seems totally off the wall to you, it didn’t come out of nowhere. It came from something they’ve watched or something they’ve heard or something a friend did or even something you did but didn’t realize you did it (it’s awful when our kids give us a mirror into our own behavior). Bigger than that, the ideas of Communist Russia came out of the thought of Karl Marx who was influenced by the German philosopher Georg Hegel who was influenced by others before him. Hitler’s Nazism came out of the writings of men like Friedrich Nietzsche and Charles Darwin. More positively, the ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr.—we do celebrate his day tomorrow—came out of the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi which came mostly from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Everything comes from something else. If something—anything—is going to grow, it must first be planted.
Well, this morning we are in the second part of our conversation about who God has made us to be as a church. Now, if you are a visitor this morning, or in a place where you’re still really wondering whether or not this is the particular place God has for you to connect, you’ve picked a great time to be here. You’re getting an inside look at who we are and you are getting that look without any of the pressure that’s on the rest of us to do something about it. This series of conversations is like listening to a lecture the teacher of your next class is giving her current class and being able to come in even more ready to go because of it. We are so glad we are getting to share a bit deeper a picture of who we are than you might usually get. And who is that? Well, as I say to you every Sunday morning that I stand in this spot, we are a place where people can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. That is very simply who God designed us to be as a community of Jesus followers. It’s not something we’ve made up to sound hip. It’s not something we’ve grabbed out of thin air because we think we need a mission statement. It’s just…us.
Last week we took a closer look at what it means that God has created us to be a place where people can connect. After spending some time reflecting on the way Jesus connected with people and specifically a Samaritan woman who had lived a hard life, we concluded that Jesus connected with people just as they were and that we should do the same thing. Jesus connected with people just as they were; so should we. But, as we said then, connecting by itself, while absolutely necessary for human life and flourishing, isn’t enough. It’s not enough because Jesus didn’t call His church to simply connect with other people. He called us to make disciples. Well, like corn and communism, disciples don’t come out of nowhere either. They’re grown. And, as it just so happens, God has designed us to be a place where people can grow.
In order to get our minds around what this can and should look like, let me take you to some things Jesus said that I think lay a really important foundation for how we should be thinking about this as a group. You can find these in the Gospel of Mark.
Now Mark was not a disciple. Of the four Gospels, two were written by disciples—Matthew and John. One was written by Luke who carefully documented everything he could about the life of Jesus in order to give an orderly account of the whole thing. Then we have Mark, or John Mark as he appears in other places. He was one of Jesus’ followers who was there from the early days of the church. His whole family—or at least his mom—were active in the Jerusalem church. He actually traveled with Paul for a while on one of his missionary journeys, but at some point left them to return home. We don’t know the reason for that, but it was a big enough deal to Paul that he didn’t want to take him on the next one. His refusal actually caused a split with his mentor Barnabas who went off with Mark while Paul continued his journey with Silas. At some point Mark hooked up with Peter and ended up writing his Gospel as essentially Peter’s testimony of Jesus’ life and ministry. Mark is fast-paced and reads almost like a newspaper. He uses the word “immediately” over and over again—this happened and then immediately that happened. He skips over Jesus’ birth entirely and gets right down to business.
By the time we get to chapter 4, Jesus has been at it for a while and we’re into some of His big blocks of teaching that usually don’t appear until later in the other Gospels. This particular block of teaching comes, not as straight instruction like what Matthew recorded in the Sermon on the Mount, but in a series of parables. Now, parables are just made up stories that are intended to make a spiritual point. Jesus was a master at coming up with parables. Some of His parables—probably made up on the spot the first time He told them—have become among the most cherished stories across the last 2,000 years of human history. We’re going to look at three of them this morning.
If you’ve spent much time around the church or grew up going to Sunday school or Vacation Bible School, some of these might sound familiar to you. In the first one, recorded right at the beginning of the chapter, Jesus talked about a farmer who was out sowing seeds. As he worked, his seeds fell all over the place. Some of them fell along the path where birds quickly swooped in and ate them up. Some of them fell on some ground that was really rocky. Those seeds grew, but their roots couldn’t go very deep and the first time the sun shone on them at full strength the plants burnt up and withered away. Some of them fell into a briar patch. Like the ones before them, these grew, but the briars soon choked the life out of them and they didn’t produce anything. There were some seeds, though, that landed in good, rich soil where they grew tall and strong and had a yield that went well beyond what anyone would have guessed when they hit the dirt.
Now, we can pretty easily understand what Jesus was talking about here because we have the next eleven verses available to us. Jesus’ disciples didn’t and were just as confused as you or I might be reading this parable if we didn’t have that resource. As a result, when they had Jesus to themselves again a little later, they asked Him what He meant. After chiding them a bit for not understanding the first time, Jesus explained what He was talking about. The seeds represented the message of the Gospel of the coming kingdom of God. The various soils are the kinds of hearts in which that message can be planted. Some hearts never receive the message because Satan gobbles it up before it has a chance to penetrate their outer shell. Some folks receive it, but shallowly. They’re in it for the show, but not so much the substance. As soon as things start getting tough, or really even just a little inconvenient, they’re done. Have you ever known—or been—a rocky soil kind of believer? They look like they’re on fire for a while, but that fire seems to burn out rather quickly when it isn’t being continually stoked by the latest hype. Other folks receive the message well, but they have so many other things going on in their lives, they just can’t make room for it to grow to full maturity in their hearts. Ever been there? Are you there now? It’s an easy place to find ourselves if we’re not careful. That’s another sermon. The last set of seeds and hearts are the folks in whom the word finds a comfortable home where it grows and develops and eventually begins producing beautiful fruit that allows it to reproduce itself many times over.
The next parable runs along the same thematic lines as this last one. Listen to this starting in v. 26 now: “And he said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.’” The basic idea of this one is pretty plain: Seeds grow even though we don’t know how. I mean, yes, there are no doubt some plant biologists who can tell you in exacting details what happens with the seed’s physiology when it is put in the ground that results in a new plant being formed, but they can’t tell you why it happens. It just does. That’s the way life works. Our understanding only goes so far. And for most of us, we don’t know the biology behind it. We just know that when you put a seed in the right conditions, magic happens that results in tasty eats in a few months’ time.
Then Jesus tells one more after this. You’ve probably at least heard about this one. Mark 4:30: “And he said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’” That make sense? When even the tiniest Gospel seeds are planted and allowed to grow, they become something far larger than anyone could have imagined when seeing them being planted. Think about someone like Billy Graham. He was the son of a dairy farmer who grew up in the middle of nowhere. When a Gospel seed was planted in his heart, no one in the world could have imagined the fruit it would eventually produce.
So that’s what the three parables I wanted to look at with you are, and that’s basically what they mean. But, when a group of parables are all put together like this in the Gospels, the author usually did it on purpose. These aren’t stream-of-consciousness documents. They are intentionally written and crafted. In this case, there is a theme connecting these stories and it isn’t just their agrarian setting that would have connected well with their original audience. There’s a bigger picture here.
This bigger picture comes in two parts. First, kingdom growth happens because God makes it happen. That really comes out in that second parable. When the seeds of the Gospel message grow, it’s because God makes them grow. Growing things isn’t our business. It’s His. This points us toward the second theme: We’re the ones He expects to do the planting. While God certainly can plant His own seeds and sometimes does as in the case of guys like Paul, way more often, He gives the job of planting to us. In none of these parables is God pictured as the one doing the planting, only the growing. Planting is our job. And the thing is, like my front yard that’s bereft of beans, if nothing gets planted, nothing is going to grow. Growth won’t happen if seeds aren’t planted.
So…what does this mean? It means that we’ve got to be active in planting seeds. Growth won’t happen if seeds aren’t planted. Okay, but what does that look like for us? If we’re a place designed by God for people to grow in Christ—meaning that Gospel seeds have already been planted—how can we make sure that the seeds really are getting planted? I think there are two things we can do here; two things we have to do here. The second thing is to make certain we are being intentional in the things we are already doing.
We are an established church. There are two types of churches: New church plants and established churches. My family just missed it, but for most of you the Centennial Celebration is still reasonably fresh. If a church has been around for over 100 years, it’s established. What that means is that we are pretty well locked into the various programs we do as a community. Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t still make changes or even just tweaks as the situation demands, but we can run on autopilot in a way new church plants can’t. This makes some things easier for us. We don’t have to wonder as much what tomorrow is going to bring for our community. We hardly ever have to think about what we’re supposed to do next to keep our ministry functioning. Those things are already in place. If you have any questions, just look at last year. It’s probably going to be the same for this year. Now, as far as current church culture goes, that’s not very cool. We should be able to be spontaneous and regularly shake things up depending on the needs of our community. But there is a certainty to the things we do that a lot of other churches wish they had. When we get what’s good about being an established church right, we can actually give greater attention to Gospel advancing seed planting than many younger churches can precisely because so much of our day-to-day operations can run on autopilot.
But—and here’s that second thing again—it takes intentionality for this to be the case. Without being intentional about planting seeds in every facet of our ministry, we’ll just spin in our ruts and not go anywhere. Autopilot is only good when you’re using it to actually go somewhere. What this means, is that if you are someone who is involved at any level of our ministry here—from door greeter to Sunday school teacher—what you do matters. Your ministry, no matter what it is, is vital to the advance of our larger mission of creating a place where people can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. Sometimes we think that only positions like teacher or preacher really matter in a church. Nothing could be further from the truth.
My line of thought here goes like this: People will go to a church that doesn’t have a preacher. They won’t go to a church that has nasty toilets or where no one greets them when they walk in the door. From the parking lot to the invitation altar, every single person a guest engages with in our ministry has the opportunity to plant a Gospel seed in them. It may be that they are already-committed believers who are looking for a new place to connect for some reason. Gospel seeds in these folks look like warm invitations to be a part of what God is doing here so they can quickly get plugged in and become a part of our seed planting efforts. It may be that they’re on the fence about Jesus and are really just curious what the whole thing is about. Gospel seeds in these folks look like warm welcomes and thoughtfully loving efforts to help them experience genuine community. It may be that they are young people who are still asking big questions about the faith that they may not be willing to voice out loud. Gospel seeds in these folks look like invested teachers—of whom we have many, but need some extra help right now, particularly with the youth on Wednesday nights—who are willing to do the extra work necessary to not merely present the lessons they’re delivering, but to grab hold of the kids’ hearts and make sure they’re hearing the message. The fact is, there are lots and lots of ways to plant seeds. But if we aren’t intentional about it, nothing will happen. Growth won’t happen if seeds aren’t planted.
Now, if you’re a detail person like I am, you’re sitting there quietly freaking out about the fact that I told you there were two things we could do to make sure we are planting seeds and then started with the second one. If you have a copy of the manuscript, you’ve probably already read ahead to make sure I didn’t just forget about it. You can rest easy now: Let’s talk about the first thing we can be doing. Do you remember what I said about seeds way back at the beginning of the message? They all come from somewhere. To quote: “Other than the very first plants God created in the early days of creation, no plant has ever come without some kind of a seed somehow first being planted.” To put that more simply: Seeds come from plants. More specifically, they come from healthy plants. If a plant doesn’t produce seeds, it’s broken. It will die and that will be it. That’s not how God designed the world to work. On the third day of creation, Moses tells us that God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” Well, what applies to plants here applies to the church too.
Just like green bean seeds come from somewhere (and not just the hardware store), Gospel seeds come from somewhere too. If we’re going to be planting Gospel seeds, then we’ve got to make sure we’re producing Gospel seeds. Just like healthy plants produce seed according to their kinds, so do healthy followers of Jesus. So then, let’s ask the hard question here: Are you producing any seeds? If indeed we are going to be a place where people can grow in Christ, then that means we ourselves must be growing in Christ. If the Gospel is not rich and growing healthily in our own hearts, how will we ever help anyone else to do it? Are you with me?
Growth won’t happen if seeds aren’t planted, but we can’t plant what we don’t have to plant. I can want for corn to grow in my front yard all I want, but if I don’t have any corn seeds, I’m not going to not going to see any corn grow. We can want to see people grow in Christ all we want, but if we don’t have any Gospel seeds, we’re not going to see anyone grow. That means we have to be growing. That means we have to be healthy. That means we have to be bearing fruit. Again: We can’t plant what we don’t have. We can’t invest what we don’t produce. And if we aren’t planting, we’re being unfaithful to what Jesus called us to do. If we aren’t actively growing, then we’re dying. We’re the rocky soil or the thorny soil; or maybe the seed never got to our heart in the first place and we’ve just been faking it all along. Growth won’t happen if seeds aren’t planted.
So then…how do we make sure we’re growing? Let me give you some diagnostic questions you can be asking to bring some clarity to this question. First, have you intentionally embraced Jesus as your Savior and been baptized to proclaim as much to the world? If the Gospel has never really been planted, then it’s not going to grow in you. Second, are you engaging with the Scriptures on a daily basis? Are you ready both for breadth and depth? Are you memorizing and studying? Are you reading casually and lightly? If you’re not engaging with the Word, you’re not going to know well the God who spoke it. Third, are you engaging with the Lord in prayer on a regular basis? Are you seeking to lay your own heart before Him and listen well to His? Fourth, are you engaged regularly with a small community of believers for fellowship, encouragement, accountability, and growth? Followers of Jesus never develop well in isolation of one another. We can’t. Being in this room is important, but if you want to be sure you are growing so as to produce the kind of seeds that lead to expanding your Gospel impact, you’ve got to be actively engaged in a Sunday school group. Fifth and finally, are you putting your gifts to use in service to the kingdom through this body (or any body) of believers? As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, to put all the other pieces in place and not then activate them by doing something with them is a gigantic waste of time. It renders moot the rest of our efforts.
Listen: If you’re doing these things, you’re going to be growing. And if you’re growing, then the people around you are going to have seeds planted in them because healthy plants produce seeds that grow in new places. Not all of them do. Remember, the sower in Jesus’ first parable scattered lots of seeds that didn’t grow. But some of them will, and those seeds will produce fruit way beyond what it seems they should be able to do. More uncomfortably, though, if you’re not doing these things, you’re not going to be growing. Stay with me here: If you’re not growing, you’re not producing seeds. If you’re not producing seeds, you won’t be planting any seeds. And if you aren’t planting any seeds, then what are you doing? Because it’s not following Jesus. Growth won’t happen if seeds aren’t planted. Jesus made us a place where people can grow in Him—including the people who are already here. Let’s make certain we’re growing and planting and becoming more fully every day who God designed us as a body to be. Because, here’s the thing: There’s nothing like a garden that’s in full bloom with all the ripe produce you can pick. Everybody wants to be a part of that. And that’s who God made us to be. That’s what God is doing here. That’s who we are: A place where people can grow in Christ.