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Ben Fleming: Stories of Response, Matthew 13:1-58

March 4, 2024

Audio Recording

The condition of our hearts determines how we receive God’s Word. And regardless of past conditions or hardships, anyone’s heart can become fertile ground for faith to grow and flourish.

Westside Church Podcast
Westside Church Podcast
Ben Fleming: Stories of Response, Matthew 13:1-58

Sermon Transcript:

It. You're listening to a live recording from Westside Church in Bend, Oregon. Thanks for joining us.

This parable that we're talking through today is one of the more profound parables shared by Jesus. All of Matthew, chapter 13 is full of parables. It's worth your time to check out and read through. There's a lot of difficult lessons that it takes a while to understand, but it's, it's, again, worth your time. This is found in Matthew 13, mark four and Luke eight. We're going to look at it through the lens of Matthew, chapter 13 today, in which this is about a story about seeds and a sower. And those two things are the constant in the experiment. But the condition of our hearts and the condition of the soil is actually the variable in this experiment. All right, so Matthew chapter 13 and verse one says this as later that same day, Jesus left the house and sat beside the lake, and a large crowd soon gathered around him. And so he got into a boat and he sat there and taught. As the people stood on the shore, he told many stories in the form of parables such as this one. Listen. A farmer went out to plant some seeds. First of all, I like the imagery of Jesus just shouting, listen into a know, sometimes I think Jesus is kind of a showman, right? He goes, listen, everyone. And then, oh, come to attention. Oh, my gosh. He's about to say, I'm guessing that's not how it happened, but sometimes it's. Anyway, let's keep going. A farmer went out to plant some seeds. Verse four. As he scattered them across his field, some seeds fell on a footpath. The birds came and ate them, and other seeds fell on some shallow soil or fell on a footpath. Some other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock, and the seeds sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. But the plants soon wilted under the hot sun, and since they didn't have deep roots, they died. Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants. Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and so they produced a crop that was 30, 60, and even 100 times as much as had been planted. Anyone with ears, this is the important part right here. To hear, should listen and understand.

Now, we're fortunate with this parable, because Jesus doesn't do this with all of them, that we actually get a further explanation from Jesus as to what this means. A lot of times in scripture, Jesus is. He's a terrible preacher compared to, like, our western teaching, where we love to wrap everything up and it's kind of got this story, and we want you to leave here feeling really, really good about everything that you just learned. A lot of times, Jesus finishes up a story and he goes, yeah, this is a difficult lesson. You should go learn what this means.

Get out of here. Go figure it out. It's not really how we do things, but he does give further explanation. Then we'll go deeper into that right here. But it says in verse 16, but bless are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. I tell you the truth, many prophets of righteous people long to see what you see, but they didn't see it. And they longed to hear what you hear, but they didn't hear it. So now listen to the explanation of the parable about the farmer planting seeds. The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message about the kingdom and don't understand it. Then the evil one comes and snatches away the seed that was planted in their hearts. The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. But since they don't have deep roots, they don't last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God's word.

The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God's word, but all too quickly, the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth. And so no fruit is produced. The seed that fell on the worries that fell on the good soil represents those who truly hear and understand God's word and produce a harvest of 30, 60, or even 100 times as much as had been planted. What Jesus is trying to do, even within this story, is create an expansive understanding of the kingdom of God and how it can actually connect itself to our being, our psychological being, our physical, our mental and our spiritual being. All of us are called to be taken in under the kingdom of God, overwhelmed with the way of Jesus, and then to be living out that stance in every aspect of our life. But the trick is that this kingdom, unlike other kingdoms, comes by listening. Now, what would have happened in this day and age as a kingdom came and took over another area, another nation, another kingdom, is what you would have hoped for if you were the incoming king. You would have hoped for some kind of allegiance or people to shift their own allegiance from their historical nation onto yours. And, I mean, they would expect even sometimes, like blood pacts and pledges and things like this. Now, it doesn't happen that way in the kingdom of God, which is so frustrating, especially for the people at this time. But even for us now, who would look at the kingdom of Jesus and say, but why doesn't your kingdom work the right way?

Why doesn't it come and grab everything by force? Why doesn't the kingdom of God come in and snatch? And those who don't fall in line, it goes ahead and destroys them. So it can create this way of life that seems almost like Nirvana. As we follow after Jesus, why doesn't it go and just crush all of its enemies once it's decided who belongs to it? Jesus isn't interested in all these things. He even has people along the path come up to him and say, this is awesome. I want to follow after you and give my whole life. And I've been watching for a little while, and Jesus, he looks at him and he goes, look, foxes have dens and birds have nests. But the son of man doesn't have anywhere to lay his head. I'm not sure you understand what it means to follow after me.

So you should slow down.

Take great care. Be careful. And you should take time to listen.

Do we have listening ears?

Is Jesus'question.

This is counter to the building of other kingdoms. It's a choice to enter into the formation process with Jesus.

A receiving heart can receive the kingdom in suffering or in a religious setting. The thought can be that our stream or our church or our tradition is the only way. But when our hearts are conditioned to be humble and listening and understanding, we can receive a deeper understanding of who God is and his kingdom.

So let's go through these soils. I'm going to teach this in kind of a classic way. I want to introduce you to each of these soils. Take the illustration. A little bit deeper, even, and then we'll close, and we'll all go to brunch at Victorian Cafe together.

As if we could ever get a table quickly. Anyway, I love that food so much, and I'm willing to wait as long as it takes.

First soil is the hard soil. It says some seed fell on the path and was eaten by birds. This represents those whose hearts are hardened and unreceptive to God's word. They can hear the message, but it doesn't truly penetrate their hearts. And the evil one snatches it away. I was out in the central Oregon spring yesterday at my son's first baseball game of the year. And my daughter, who is seven. My son is nine. My daughter, who is seven, came along. Now we offered her the chance to stay home.

She should have taken it, but she wanted to come. And so we packed the central Oregon springtime kit, okay? It was a grocery bag that had oatmeal bars and fruit snacks and snow pants and hand warmers and extra blankets and all this stuff. And we show up, we sit down on the bleachers. The game hasn't even started yet. And Joby's like, I'm freezing. And I go, I know I tried to explain this to you. And so we put on the snow pants and we grab the snacks, and she puts on blankets and blankets and steals someone else's blanket and puts it on. And then she's basically got, like, headphones and is watching a phone underneath this pile of cloth and material.

And I finally stop hearing from her, and I go, I wonder if she can breathe. And so I touch her leg and nothing happens. And I kind of pat her leg again and again. Nothing happens, until finally I do it a fourth time. And I hear, no.

From inside this pile.

They go, hey, I'm just checking on you, making sure, like, the humidity from your own breath isn't suffocating you under there.

No, that's it. I finally found my spot. I found my comfort zone, and I don't need anybody trying to shake me out of it or have a conversation or whatever. I am just fine with me and my shows inside my cocoon of blankets at this cold, freezing baseball game. And this is what it's like to be hard hearted toward the message of the gospel.

Now, on one hand, I want to be kind of harsh and know those of you who are in the house today, which I believe that many of us, myself included, can identify with, this hard soil, this hard heart that's not receptive to the way of Jesus. I want to be hard on myself and those of you who are in the room who are that way and say, look, you just got to begin to peel the layers off here. You can't be unreceptive and unwilling to learn at all of these different places. You have to be able to open up and spread out and be more limber and understanding. But the thing is that our lives, a lot like my daughter's situation yesterday, the reason that the soil in our lives and our hearts in our lives have become hard is because of the situation and the circumstance around us that often pushes us into this place of sheer survival in our faith.

Things get too hard. The weather is too harsh. It's too hot, it's too cold. Life is too tragic. It's too difficult and painful.

And so instead of being receptive to this way of Jesus and potential, ways that I could grow and receive. It's much easier often in life to just say, that's it. No friends, no progress, no learning.

I'm going to cover myself in snow pants and blankets and grief and shame and cynicism and say, this is my own little kingdom that I'm going to live in. And it might not be perfect, but nobody can hurt me ever again.

I believe that God is sympathetic and graceful towards you today, if that is your experience now, hard soil. If you've ever gardened or you've ever landscaped or tended to ground at all, you will understand that if you've looked at hard ground long enough, you've worked with it. There's always a reason that it became that way. There's too much traffic, there's too much travel. The weather is harsh there. Rocks have been hitting it. Whatever the case might be, sometimes it's literally been tamped down on purpose. It's been meant to become hard, as if that was a solution. And I want to give you that grace and that mercy today. That God I know would extend to you that your circumstance may have created this hard, hard soil in your heart, but God wants to loosen that up, to create new life in a place where you were sure there never could be life.

That's the rocky soil. Or, excuse me, the hard soil. The rocky soil is next.

I'm having a hard time reading my own notes in this service. I don't know what's going on. Too much coffee between the rocky soil says other seed fell on rocky ground and sprang up quickly, but because it had no depth of soil, it withered away. This represents those who receive God's word with joy at first. But when troubles or persecution arise, they quickly fall away.

Those of us who have rocky soil, that receive with enthusiasm and then quickly run away, usually wanted a yes man as a savior and not a real messiah.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret of what happens in this band on Sundays. For those of you who aren't musicians, I drum a little bit. I've played on these a few times. And you stick these headphones as deep into your ear canal as you can.

And what happens on one of these iPads in here is the drummer hits the click track. Hits play on the click track. Now, what's a click track? It's literally just a sound that goes as loud as possible in your ears to set the tempo for the band.

Everybody has this in their ears, but the drummer has this in their ears, in the back of their brain, in their stomach. It has to be so loud because you're trying to keep everybody in the pocket. Right in the pocket. Yeah, of course. Everybody knows that phrase.


I remember one of the first times that I played it here. I hadn't played with the click a lot, but I had drummed basically my whole growing up life. And I got in there and I hit play on the click track, started playing with the band, and I kept going faster than the click.

And so the band would have stop, whatever, and I said, oh, I know the solution. I'll make the click track faster.

I know how the click track works. It should match me and the band. We tried it one time, and the band was like, this is ridiculous. This is not how the song goes. It's how the drummer goes. But this is not how the song goes. And so we had to bring the click track back. And so what had to change? Not the track. The drummer. The drummer had to change. I had to change.

And those who receive the gospel with such enthusiasm at the beginning and then quickly fall away after only the shallowest of roots have taken place are often those in the opinion of Jesus, are often those who want a savior to simply align with everywhere they are at in their lives instead of adjusting our lives and our discipleship to fit the way of our savior.

The click track was not meant to suit you, but instead it was the drummer that was supposed to go with the tempo. We are called this morning to find ourselves matching the tempo of our savior.

It takes discipline.

It takes sacrifice.

But ultimately, just like with the band, when you lock into that click track and everybody's on the same page, there's this orchestra of beauty and sound and continuity that creates something that's far more beautiful than simply what we can create on ourselves.

The way of Jesus is a better way. Now, does this mean that God will only meet us and find us and care for us when we become the perfect version of who we are? That's not the truth. That's not how grace works.

God meets us right where we're at in the darkest of dark nights, in the most difficult of situations and circumstances, and while we're making the worst decisions. But when we go to receive the kingdom of God in the middle of that grace, Jesus gives us an opportunity to live a better way.

And it's often, if not always, not exactly like our way.

Signs of rocky soil in our life can be regular feelings of betrayal. If you're someone that walks into relationships or into churches or a lot of these things in between, and you have a lot of enthusiasm for a couple of weeks, and then almost immediately, you feel like you were sold a bill of goods, that there was an inaccurate marketing involved, that those people didn't really love me, that person didn't really care. And you have a chronic cycle of this in your life.

You probably have rocky soil kind of faith and understanding of the kingdom of God.

We have to learn that we're not simply just trying to go our way and allow Jesus to be a part of it, but instead, the opposite is true. Okay, the thorny soil. I am running out of time.

Signs of thorny soil are always being one step away to still the other. Seed fell among thorns, which choked the plants. This represents those who hear God's word, but the cares and the distractions of life, such as wealth, worries, and pleasures, prevent it from bearing fruit. The worship of many things makes this person unsure about every passion and decision in their life. We're distracted to try to fill every single need in this world. You elbow somebody, don't do that. Don't do that. That feels like they need to fill every single need in this world. Instead of giving ourselves to God, we find ourselves divided. We know too much, but we simply can't go back.

This person that lives in this kind of soil is absolutely way more miserable than any of the other soils because the first one never really receives the word and just kind of continues going. They live with their blanket shell over the top of them. The second person starts off excited, but then abandons the whole thing and walks into a different way. The thorny soil, the one who is often so divided and is suspicious of every move that they make in their own lives, knows and has experienced and seen what it's like to truly give their lives to Jesus, but is constantly finding themselves taking half a step, a step back into these other old patterns and habits, trying to save the world instead of allowing themselves to simply be saved by God and finding rest and comfort and fruitfulness in being the person that God has made them to be.

Again, signs that you live in thorny soil or that you are always just one step away, you need the perfect conditions in order to grow in your faith in God.

Now, have you ever experienced this or heard yourself saying this? I find myself saying this to friends all the time. Look, we can hang out a lot. I got to get through this one thing. I got to get through little league season with my son. If I can just get Jovi to gymnastics, if my dog's leg can stop hurting. And then after, like, five years of this, I'm like, you know what? I think I might like this kind of busyness. Is it a mistake that it finds me right? Or am I finding it? I want to live in this distracted way of life so that I don't have to go into the depth that God is calling me into.

If you're waiting for the conditions to be exactly right, I promise you it will never happen. It will never come. Instead, we're called to press into the way of Jesus, even right in the middle of our struggle, our current day, and to go deep, deep, deep with him. And finally, there's the good soil. Some seed fell on good soil or produced a crop 160 or 30 times what was sown. This represents those who hear God's word, understand it, let it take root in their hearts, and it produces a fruitful life. And not only that, but this fruitfulness has a generational power.

I love that it says that there was 30 and 61 hundred times it produced this crop. That when we give ourselves over to God, we surrender to the way of Jesus and become that soft, good soil that's willing to receive the seed of the gospel in our heart. It changes our friends, it changes our families, it changes the next generations, our cities. This is how God chooses to change the world, not with an overwhelming army, but with a forest that grows from good soil.

So as we close, I want to share another illustration and one more little section of scripture, and then we'll take communion together.

Now, here's the thing. What I want you to do with this section of scripture is I want you to honestly curate your life and ask yourself, well, where do I find myself right now? Is my heart in the condition of good soil? Is it rocky soil, thorny soil, hard soil? What is it? Be honest with yourself. That can be a really difficult exercise, but be honest with yourself.

But after you're honest with yourself, I want you to find hope, no matter where you are, that there is good soil indeed in you, and maybe even in the most unlikely of places.

Now, I'm not a gardener, but, man, I have a lot of respect for gardeners, especially after just trying to get a few things to grow. I like green grass, but we have a couple of dogs, and so that's hard.

And then we have this little hill on the side of our property that I planted flowers and trees into and with mixed success. And there was this grouping of flowers that I was trying to get to grow this last year. Felt like they were kind of hanging on by a thread of, are they going to make it through the season? Are they not? Are they going to grow next year? And so I'm adjusting all the irrigation. I'm running lines just to them. I don't want to waste water, but I want to make sure they get enough. you know, sometimes I like, I'm going to sleep and I'm thinking about these things, just sad.

And I remember I had this really frustrating day. I felt like I finally got everything fixed. I turned the water on, and then I got another water leak in a different part of my irrigation that I hadn't even known was there, and it's shooting out of the ground like a geyser.

And I go. And I just turn off the irrigation system, and I walk out into the front of my house, angry, frustrated, discouraged. And I look down my driveway, and there's a flower coming up in between the cracks of my driveway.

And I'm going, no.

I bring the weed killer to the driveway. I had sprayed these cracks, like, a month ago. A full flower is here now, and I'm spending hours back here.

And here's the deal. I think a lot of times we think about good soil and we think about a well tilled garden, which is true, right? And some of you know what you're doing. You've got raised beds and you've got boxes and you've got fences in all the right places so that animals can't come and get them. And it's this perfectly churned and beautiful soil. And I think sometimes in our life it can be discouraging and feeling like, well, something that they know or that they were brought up in or that they understand has led them to this place of really good soil. But for me, I feel like it can't happen. I've been walked on too much.

The weather's been too harsh for me.

And so the best I can do is this little half baked faith that has gotten me a little ways down the road. And now I'll cover myself in the shame and guilt that I feel like I deserve from all the mistakes and the happenings in my life. Because good soil isn't here. I'll let everyone else have that in their own lives. And I would tell you that good soil will always receive the seed, even if it's in the middle of concrete, even if it's in places that other people would say, this doesn't belong. Growth can't happen here. Good things can't happen here. Good things can't happen in your family line and family name, in your city, in your house. And I would tell you today, that God would say, no, anywhere there is good soil, anywhere there is ears to hear, there is growth and faith building and a new time, a new life and a new day. I don't need the whole world to look at them and say, this is the good soil. I simply need the soil to be receptive and to understand that I have come to plant a new thing. And that is the gospel and the kingdom of God. And it is for everyone and everywhere, truly everywhere.

Now, I love the grace of that. I'm also frustrated by it.

Sometimes in my life I see churches or pastors or whatever, and people that for whatever reason I have drawn the conclusion that they are manipulative or they are wrong or they are taking advantage of people. And here's the crazy thing about the grace of God, is that I have seen so many times, even in those places, that I would deem dysfunctional, God has done miraculous things.

And just like walking out in my stinking driveway, I go, no, not for them, not there. That's disgusting. It's awful, it's wrong. God, how could you even. And the grace of Jesus goes beyond even wherever my fences or my guidelines or my markers of health are, because God so loved the world.

And here's a good illustration of this. This is the story of the one with the issue of blood. I'm not going to put it on the screen, so you'll just have to listen.

Basically, Jesus meets this guy who needs a healing and he begins to follow after, and there's this crowd that goes and follows Jesus on his way to perform this healing. And then it says, jesus went with him. All the people followed, crowding around him. But a woman in the crowd who had suffered for twelve years with constant bleeding. She had suffered a great deal from many doctors, and over the years she had spent everything she had to pay them. But she had gotten no better. In fact, she had gotten worse.

She had heard about Jesus. So she came up from behind him, through the crowd, touched his robe, for she thought to herself, if I can just touch his robe, I'll be healed. And immediately the bleeding stopped. She could feel in her body that she had been healed of her terrible condition. This woman would not have just been thought to be sick and untouchable at this time, but it would have been thought that she had been cursed by God, that she had gotten this condition because of something she or her parents had done and she deserved this.

And what happens in the middle of this crowd, in the middle of this chaos, in the middle of everything that's going on Jesus after this says, someone touched me and I love the disciples. The disciples are like, jesus. It's a crowd, dude.

There's so many. Everyone's touching everyone. I'm touching you right now and I'm not trying to.

And Jesus says, no, this was different.

There was faith in this touch. There was a desperation and a need in this touch.

Some of you in here today, I feel like, are desperate.

You need answers.

You need to know that God is real or true.

And I can't promise you that your answer or your understanding is going to happen exactly how you hope it will. But I believe that we call out to God in our desperation, that when we say, if I can just touch him for a second, that that is a place, a beautiful heart with good soil where the kingdom and the gospel of Jesus can grow. Amen. We need sustainability in this life, right in this garden that we're trying to grow and become part of. I love this quote from the prophet Audrey Hepburn.

If you don't get that joke, you're too young.

She says to plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.

This speaks to the process of growth and understanding that we're not a perfect and completed thing today, but instead we're giving ourselves over and surrender to God for a process that will last far beyond our today but go deep into tomorrow.

You know what soil doesn't do?

Now, this is going to be tough in light of this illustration. You know what soil doesn't do? The soil's job is not to remove the thorns and the rocks from itself.

The soil's job is to simply receive the seed that comes to it. It's the gardener's job to remove the rocks and the soil.

I was talking to a staff member recently, and I was, in my wisdom, thinking I was sharing a beautiful illustration about how to follow after Jesus. And I was like, it's like you come to this group of rapids and you have to cross the river.

And this person said, that sounds nice, but I think following after Jesus a little bit more like getting stuck right in the middle and then just floating and being carried by the current of Jesus wherever it possibly takes you. In this life where we try to push through so many things, there's this surrender to the gardener that Jesus is calling us into.