Publication: Pastoral Letter, July 2006
Dear Friend in Christ:
My Dad was hearing impaired_all of his life. He was born with an inactive nerve in one ear. When he wanted to go to sleep, he simply turned his good ear to the pillow. But, I never knew him to be impaired in his spiritual hearing. He followed the Holy Spirit into missions and pastoral ministry for more than 60 years. I never knew anyone with better spiritual discernment.
Physical hearing is important; I learned that lesson early in life. I knew “Alec” when I was a boy. Alec worked at the service station. All of the boys liked Alec, but he died one foggy morning because he didn’t hear the train coming. Physical impairment can be deadly, but spiritual hearing impairment can have eternal consequences for us and others.
The Scriptures often remind us to listen and hear. Hearing impairment of the spiritual kind is a problem to children, students, patients, and all of us.
How can we know that someone is hearing? If they perceive or understand, and give some kind of response, we assume that they are hearing. A failure to respond is met with, “Did you hear me?” We could ask that question to the multitudes that came to hear Jesus, “Did you hear Him?” We could also ask that of the multitudes that attend church on a given Sunday.
I have been reading the Gospel of Mark and have noticed the intensity of the crowds that came to hear Jesus. Many thousands came from all of the regions around Israel. They were oppressed people, dominated in every area of life by Rome or religion. Taxes and tithes consumed much of their possessions but left little in return. Many of the people were spiritually oppressed as well. Sickness, hunger, and poverty were everywhere. Their journeys to Jesus were usually on foot via hot and dusty roads. Jesus healed, delivered, and encouraged many of them.
He did something else; He told them stories, often about agriculture. They understood those stories; they were an agrarian society. People love stories. I have discerned that when you begin a story, interest picks up.
I have often heard that Jesus told stories or parables to illustrate truth. In fact, He told parables to obscure the truth from those who lacked spiritual hearing. Mark 4:3-9 gives us the parable of the sower. He warns the people to hear. The casual, curious, or self-seeking didn’t “get” the message, only the story.
In our generation, one can be quite familiar with the story, but miss the meaning and give no real response. It happens all the time. “Post-moderns” love the stories; but be warned, the package is not the prize.
The story that Jesus told in Mark 4 is about a sower who went forth to sow. He sowed good seed. The seed fell on four kinds of soil: wayside, stony, thorny, and good soil which bore fruit. It was a simple story, but the multitude did not understand the spiritual meaning, nor did they have Mark 4 to read. They went away wondering what it meant.
Truth is often hidden in simplicity. You may learn truth from a simple Proverb or by watching the eagle fly high in the sky. Those that hear spiritually find the message but those that do not only hear the story.
Scripture tells us to study the ant, the grasshopper, the badger, and the serpent. The disciples were chosen to get the truth beyond the story (see Mark 4:11). Jesus chose them, and they chose to follow and seek the treasure. They did not get it at first, but He explained it to them because they followed on to know (see Mark 4:10, 34). We know that they eventually “got it” because in the end, they responded. While some are merely entertained, others seek and find, and respond.
The Kingdom is a mystery; it is not perceived with our natural senses. It must be spiritually revealed. Much of life is a parable about an eternal truth. The family itself is a natural parable about a spiritual truth (see Ephesians 5:22-33). We need the Holy Spirit to unlock the truth and help us respond.
Jesus was blunt with His disciples: “If you do not understand this, how will you understand the other parables?” You can be blunt with disciples, but not with the merely curious or self-seeking. Jesus makes it clear to His disciples that the truth of this story is vital and basic_Kingdom truth. It is foundational to other Kingdom truth (see Mark 4:13).
Our generation has become addicted to the quick and obvious. We have little time to listen very long or have patience for the hidden things. Our dress, speech, and personality have too often become vulgar and shallow. The subtle escapes people. The Kingdom is not apparent to our senses; nevertheless, it is the abiding and essential reality.
So, what was the story really about? Let’s look at it closely, because it carries great significance.
A sower went forth. The sower was Jesus, and can be anyone who “gets it.” By the way, sowers go forth. Sowing is done out in the field, not in the barn. Jesus went out into the field; He didn’t often sow in the synagogue.
The seed is the Word of God or whatever God is saying. The seed is alive and reproduces. Seeds are mysterious. They carry so much information and destiny. And they last a long time under favorable conditions. Seeds found sealed in jars for hundreds of years have been planted, watered, and bore fruit. The Word of God is like that_it is eternal and does not return empty or in vain. Words sealed in the Scripture for thousands of years are still multiplying in the lives of those who hear_when the truth is unsealed.
In the parable, the sower scattered seed broadly; he broadcast the seed. It fell on a variety of soils. Some fell on ground packed by traffic. The seed remained briefly on the surface. Then, birds got it. The birds represent the enemy who seeks to steal the words that the Lord has given us. They got it quickly_immediately.
Some who hear the words do not take it in and the enemy gets it quickly. The birds are at the front door of the church. In fact, the birds are in the building flying around the seed. Those who hear and hear and hear, but never open their hearts to act, are just feeding the birds.
Then Jesus says, some seed fell on stony ground. It was apparently good soil, but shallow. The seed came up quickly but withered in the heat because it had no root or depth. Some people are like that, quick to respond but when they consider the cost, they wither.
A long time ago, I prayed with a fellow pastor to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. He had a powerful experience. He laid on his face for five hours. But afterwards, as he faced the cost, he avoided me and would give no evidence of what had happened. I have seen similar examples numerous times.
Some seed fell among thorns_the cares and desires that choke out the truth. One leader told me with tears in his eyes, “I believe what you are saying is true, but if I do that it will cost me my job.” His desires choked out the Kingdom seed.
America is often thorny ground; we are extremely busy. We have numerous “time savers”, yet we have little time to see beyond the obvious.
But…some seed fell on good ground! It received the seed and brought forth fruit. It produced. The disciples were good ground. It took a while, but theirs was not a shallow commitment; the birds did not get the seed, nor was it choked out by other priorities. Jesus prepared them well. They listened with their hearts and got Jesus’ heart. They reproduced. The goal of seed is reproduction.
So, Where Are We?
Are we on the wayside, on stony ground, among thorns, or good soil? The answer to that has to be personal. All of these categories are about individuals in various conditions. My take is that most of the Church is in the first three categories. They like the story, but do not personally bear fruit. Real disciples bear fruit (see John 15) .
I cannot get away from the Word the Lord spoke to me early one morning in 1965: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give it you” (John 15:16). I heard it.
My great concern is the millions of churchgoers_multitudes who hear, love the story, get blessed and never grow up to produce. So, is hearing merely physically listening to an entertaining speaker? The apostle Paul tells us that natural eyes cannot see nor can natural ears hear what the Spirit says. The Word is Spirit to spirit (see 1 Corinthians 2:9, 10). And the Word produces if we are not hardened, shallow, or preoccupied. The unproductive are in one of those three categories.
It is time for the Church to hear what the Spirit is saying. We are being called to multiply the Word of God on a personal level (see Acts 19:20). Jesus was not satisfied to speak to multitudes of spiritually hearing-impaired people, who would only eventually meet a cruel fate. He did indeed speak to them, but went beyond that to call and train real disciples. We must do both. In the multitude, there are some who will eventually pursue the Word, its meaning, and take it to other fertile fields.
The power of what we have heard from God should be unquestioned. Its impact upon us can be replicated in the lives of others. True, some cannot hear, and others cannot produce, but there are many ready to hear; made ready by poverty, prison, loneliness, disease, or an empty life. The beautiful mystery is this: as we tell it, we will hear more. In the very moment of telling it, the Holy Spirit will speak more to us.
We do not have to be dull of hearing. We can gain or regain spiritual ears by merely telling what we have heard. We can practice on each other. Set aside a time to give your testimony to another Christian and hear theirs. You will be surprised to realize how alive the seed is.
May God move us from hearing impairment to real discipleship and reproduction. This is called “unwrapping the package.”
Scripture Reference: Mark, Ephesians, John, 1 Corinthians, Acts