We’re learning in this series that we are not in control of our lives, but in all things God works.
This Sunday we look at an obscure parable Jesus told. I’ve never heard this parable taught. I’ve never taught it myself. We will learn about a man who scatters seed on the ground. It’s his story, but he’s not controlling the outcome. He’s not manufacturing the growth. He probably doesn’t even understand it. The growth is happening, regardless of what he’s doing. The same is true for you and me.
Full Sermon Script:
I want to say good morning to everyone here and those who are joining us online. I’m so glad you decided to join us today.
We’re in a series called, “In All Things… God Works.”
This series is rooted in the statement Paul made to the church in Rome — one of the most famous statements in the Bible.
I’ve asked you to memorize it so that we can just live with this truth.
It’s a fairly short statement, so we should all have it memorized by now.
It’s Romans 8:28.
Why don’t you all say it out loud together.
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
I’ll put it up on the screen.
It has a few blanks, so at least we have to work at it. Let’s say it together.
And we that in things God for the of those who him.
Keep working on that because this is such a incredible truth, and we want to be able to carry it with us.
In all the things that go on in life, as followers of Christ, the idea is not that we have better things happening to us.
It’s that in all the things that happen, all the circumstances of life, God is at work. And he’s doing good to build good character in us.
This brings us to today’s subject, which is — God is at work to bring growth.
To grow is such a fabulous thing as a human being.
Spiritual growth, to grow in character, is the most important of all.
But there’s something humbling about it.
Everyone I know, at some point in their lives, will experience some kind of disappointed with spiritual growth.
Have you experienced disappointment with your spiritual growth?
Maybe you thought you would be growing more spiritually than you are at this point.
Maybe you thought by now you would be praying better… or more regularly… or without your mind wandering all over the place… or that you would pray with more faith.
Maybe you find that you’re more anxious about the future and less trusting of God than you thought you would be.
Maybe you’re a little disappointed because by now you thought you would be beyond certain temptations. They still trouble you, and you still fall.
Maybe you thought by now you would be better with finances.
Maybe you thought you would be more generous, making a bigger difference in the lives of people who don’t have very much.
Maybe you thought you would be a better family person, a better spouse, a better parent (there’s some pain in that one), or a better brother or sister, or a better friend.
Maybe you thought you would be sharing your faith in a bold way and having a bigger impact on people around you.
Maybe you thought you would have more self-control with the things you say. You still lose your temper or get angry or say stupid things. You don’t talk when you should, or you do talk when you shouldn’t.
Maybe you thought you would just know God better than you do right now.
Sometimes, when we do a mass confession, I’ll ask people to raise their hands in a lighthearted way, and that can be a good thing, but this is a little heavier, so I’m going to ask if you’ve ever experienced disappointment in your spiritual growth, if that has ever been true for you, would you just stand up right now?
That’s what I thought. Look around the room. I’m standing too. This is our condition.
You can be seated.
We’re going to talk about this mystery by looking at a parable Jesus told that’s actually kind of obscure.
I’ve never preached on this parable before. I’ve never heard it preached on before.
It only occurs in the gospel of Mark.
This is what Jesus said:
This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.
All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come. Mark 4:26-29
Growth is such an incredible, miraculous thing.
This is a story about a man who scatters seed on the ground. It’s his story, but he’s not controlling the outcome. He’s not manufacturing the growth. He probably doesn’t even understand it.
The growth is happening, regardless of what he’s doing.
The truth is, spiritual growth — the change in character that happens in a human being — is the most important process going on in the world today.
Galaxies come and go, empires rise and fall — they’re trivial in comparison.
In quiet, private moments, we all know this to be true.
For a person to move toward God or away from God
to move toward becoming loving or becoming hateful
to live in confident hope or to live in despair
to become truthful with people or to live a lie
to be liberated or addicted
to move toward heaven or to move toward hell
This is the most important thing going on in the world.
I’ve spent a large part of my education formally and my study as a pastor — in theology and psychology — on what makes growth happen? And why it’s so difficult?
And as I was preparing for this message, I was getting a little frustrated thinking about people inside the church and people outside the church, and about myself.
Here are some questions I have:
Why are there some people who believe in God, or say they do, and they’re in the church. Year after year, they attend church services, but they have no joy, and they don’t love very well, and their kids can’t stand them, and no one wants to be around them, and they’re judgmental.
Then there are people outside the church. They don’t even believe in God, yet they seem to have joy, and they seem to be honest, and they seem to be generous.
Why is it that some followers of Christ can be such norrow-minded, judgmental, unloving people? And some unbelievers can be such great people?
I don’t know.
Why is it that it seems like some people right out of the womb are just set up to struggle with anxiety or depression, or they’re going to be fearful or shy, or they’re just going to be socially awkward around other people. Relationships are going to be difficult for them their whole life long. They’re just going to struggle.
Then there are other people who seem to just be born with these fabulous personalities and a high level of resilience. They’re cheerful and emotionally intelligent. They’re just going to lead fulfilling lives, and it seems to starts right out of the womb. They’re just prewired that way. Why is that?
I don’t know.
Why is it that some parents work so hard? They read all the books. They go to the seminars. They pray for their kids. They get them involved in church, and their kids just break their hearts?
Then there are other parents who are train wrecks. Their lives are train wrecks. Their marriages are train wrecks. They do everything wrong, and their kids grow up to be fabulous people.
I don’t know.
Why is it that the formula for spiritual growth seems to be so elusive?
Someone can read the Bible regularly, and it’s like they just gets ennobled by it. It’s like God becomes a reality to them. I think, “Man, I would love to live like that.”
Someone else can read the Bible a lot, and it just makes them more judgmental and puffed up and superior and arrogant. They just use it to try to win arguments.
I don’t know.
Why is it that some people can learn about and become experts on spiritual growth, spiritual formation, yet no one wants to be around them. No one wants to be like them.
It’s like they’re not living the stuff they actually think they believe.
I don’t know.
Some of you are wondering by now, “Why is this church paying this guy to give a message about so many things he doesn’t know?”
I don’t know. I’m glad it is, but I don’t know why.
It’s just this strange thing.
We all wrestle with this. We all look around, and we all wonder, “Why is it so difficult?”
Sometimes, inside people, sometimes in quiet places where no one talks about it much, people kind of ask, “Is it worth it? Really? Going to church, reading the Bible, trying to connect with God. Is it worth it? Does growth ever really happen?”
Well, I’m here to tell you today — it happens. God is at work to bring growth. I’ve seen it.
I’ve seen a guy who was enslaved by his sex addiction. He was going to be destroyed morally and just go down a path that would be infinitely sad.
He met Jesus, and Jesus changed him.
He’s now part of a little community where they work through steps to surrender their lives and wills to God.
And I don’t know how else to describe it, but it’s like he became a new person.
God is at work to bring growth. It’s happening.
I know of a family where the mom had betrayed the family in about every way you can imagine. Well, God got a hold of her heart, and she began to grow spiritually and learn about truthfulness and fidelity and love. That family went from absolute hell to life.
God is at work to bring growth.
Don’t give up.
I want to give you some “I believe” statements — 4 creedal “I believe” statements about growth that I’m banking my life and my work on.
Maybe you will too.
I believe spiritual growth is worth my full devotion.
We all want to flourish. We all want to thrive. We all want to succeed in life.
There is no picture, there is no opportunity, there is no offer like the one Jesus gave to the human race when he said, “Follow me.”
For centuries now, when people do that, they discover, “If I lose everything the world has to offer but find this treasure Jesus gave, losing all of it doesn’t matter.
“If I get everything I want but lose God and lose becoming the right kind of person, none of it is worth it.”
In Jesus’ day, when people would see this, they would say, “I will sacrifice anything to follow this man, and I’ll do it with joy.”
Jesus would tell stories often to try to communicate this truth to people. He would often use quite surprising pictures that would captivate people when they saw what he offered.
He said one time:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Matthew 13:44
That’s kind of a sneaky thing to do. Jesus is not recommending sneaky real estate practices. He’s showing what the strong desire for life in the kingdom of God looks like.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. Matthew 13:45-46
That line about selling everything you have… People didn’t do that feeling like, “Oh, this is so hard. I’m a martyr.”
They did it feeling like, “This is the best thing I’ve ever found. Whatever it takes, I have to have it.”
To know Jesus, to love Jesus, to follow Jesus, to serve Jesus, to be aligned with Jesus, to be changed by Jesus — that’s worth every ounce of devotion you can bring.
I know. I know. I get it. I know where we live. I know to talk about devotion in our day is not something most people are going to want to hear. I know. I get it.
What will happen with a message like this is there will be a thought that will occur to a lot of people in this room, and that is —
You mean to tell me I’m supposed to sacrifice my time and my effort and my pride and my achievements and my energies?
You mean I’m supposed to give up career accomplishments for the sake of my family?
I’m supposed to alter my lifestyle for the sake of the poor?
I’m supposed to read the Bible when I could be watching TV?
I’m supposed to be praying when my mind wanders all over the place, and it’s kind of difficult… and I don’t even know if it’s going to do any good anyway?
I’m supposed to confess my secret temptations and my embarrassing struggles when that would be humiliating to me… and I don’t really have to do it?
I’m supposed to go to other people when I’ve hurt them or done something wrong and actually make it right when it would be costly, and I would rather not do it?
I’m supposed to ask God to discipline my thought life from one moment to the next?
I’m supposed to ask God to change my verbal behavior?
I’m supposed to surrender my will, give up my autonomy, say to God, “Not my will but yours be done,” moment by moment, hour by hour, every day, every week, every month, every year of my life?”
Yep, that’s what I mean. That’s what I’m saying. That’s actually exactly right.
If you’re not giving your whole devotion to that, what are you giving it to? What else is worth it?
I want to ask everyone today, are you following Jesus with all of your devotion — all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength — or is there some area, some relationship, some habit, some secret, something you’re holding back?
This is from the book of Proverbs.
A life devoted to things is a dead life, a stump; a God-shaped life is a flourishing tree. Proverbs 11:28 (The Message)
A life devoted to things…
Everyone in the Bay Area ought to have this verse on their desk.
A life devoted to things is a dead life, a stump; a God-shaped life is a flourishing tree.
That’s a great image — the contrast of a flourishing tree and a stump.
A tree can’t make itself grow. Growth is a gift.
But a tree can put down roots.
We don’t manufacture growth. And that’s a good thing. We’re not in control.
There’s no room for pride around it, but to grow, to flourish, to thrive in our spirit, in our character, in our relationship with God is worth all we’ve got.
So our job is to put down roots.
There will be certain practices we engage in that we receive grace and power from that will allow growth to happen.
And that’s worth our full devotion.
I believe full devotion to spiritual growth should be normal in a church.
It shouldn’t look heroic. It shouldn’t look extraordinary. It ought to just be what we call each other to.
Because why wouldn’t we?
It’s like in Alcoholics Anonymous — it’s not a contest to follow the steps. It’s not competitive. People aren’t comparing themselves with one another.
There’s just life… and the alternative is death.
This is what Paul wrote:
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.
Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Here’s the deal — the Evil One will want us to stay vague and fuzzy on this one.
There’s a huge difference between saying, “I’m fully devoted to something,” and actually being fully devoted to it.
When I got married to Kathy 23 years ago, I said, “I’m fully devoted to having an egalitarian marriage, to us being equals in partnering, in serving, in working together. I believe in that. I believe the writers of scripture teach that. I talk about that. I teach that. I’m fully in on that one.”
Then we got married. Then we began to have children. Then we had three children.
And I have my work to do.
Kathy asked, “Are you really fully devoted to having an equal marriage where we’re partners together, where division of labor, shared work together, working around the house, owning it, understanding it, not waiting to ask to be helped, washing the dishes, doing laundry, taking out the garbage, doing chores around the house, making sure stuff gets fixed, keeping track of doctor appointments… Are you really fully devoted to this?”
In my mind, my thought was, “Is there another option on the table? Because I would be open to another option.”
There’s a big difference between being fully devoted and just saying I’m fully devoted.
I’ve noticed this odd thing in the church. Again, I know I’m pushing. I know I am. I think it’s worth it.
This is from a book written centuries ago. The language is a little archaic, but it’s very powerful writing on the role of devotion in the spiritual life.
“The disciple of Jesus does not ask what is allowable and pardonable but what is commendable and praise-worthy.”
The one who is following isn’t asking, “What can I get away with?” but, “What will get me there?”
I’ve done a lot of job interviews. I’ve never done a job interview with someone who asks, “What’s the least amount I can do and get this job?”
I’ve done a lot of weddings. I’ve never done one where the couple stands at the altar, and their vow is, “What’s the least amount of fidelity I can offer and stay married?”
If someone is following Jesus, if someone gets the vision of life in the kingdom of God, they’re not asking:
How much of my money can I keep before God gets mad at me?
How much lust am I allowed to indulge before God won’t forgive me?
How much bitterness or self-righteousness or judgmentalism can I nurse in my heart before my spot in heaven is at risk?
See, the issue isn’t, “What will God allow?”
The issue is, “What does God want? What does God offer? What does God call me to?”
It’s not because God is severe or because devotion is this big, heroic thing. It’s because that’s life. What else would I give myself to pursuing?
I believe spiritual growth requires community.
It’s not a solo deal. I can’t pursue it on my own.
Jesus said this. This is a remarkable claim when you think about Jesus’ identity. He said:
For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. Matthew 18:20
We get into relationships with each other, and we tell the truth to each other, and we encourage each other, and we admonish each other.
We don’t grow without this.
I have this odd pattern inside me — when someone is speaking into my life, if they compliment me, I’m ready to hear that. If they tell me things that make me feel good, I kind of enjoy it.
But if they’re going to say something that’s difficult or confrontational or something about my character, or about my need for growth, I would prefer they soften what they say. I’m not sure I actually want to hear it.
A guy travels to Europe. He calls his wife and asks how everything is going.
She said, “Well, the cat died.”
He said, “Did you have to put that so bluntly? You just ruined my whole trip.”
She said, “Well, how else would you want me to say it?”
He said, “Well, you could have broken it to me much more gently.”
“When I called in from Paris, you could have said, ‘The cat was on the roof, and it fell off, and it’s not doing too well.’
“Then when I got to London, you could have said, ‘I had to take the cat to the vet.’
“Then when I made it to New York, you could have said, ‘The cat is not doing well at all.’
“Then when I got home, you could have told me the cat died. That would have been a lot better.”
His wife said, “Okay. Sorry.”
Then he asked, “How’s Mom doing?”
“She’s on the roof.”
See, there’s this weird thing — I’d really much prefer to have the truth softened, if you don’t mind. I’d rather not hear the whole deal.
The writer of Proverbs puts it like this:
Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses. Proverbs 27:6
An enemy is someone who tells me what I want to hear all the time.
Especially for people who achieve a certain level of connection or power or resources or something, you get the kisses of an enemy all the time, and you think, “Man, this is really good. Man, I’m doing well. Man, this feels good.”
You see, that’s your enemy. Your enemy is someone who doesn’t love you enough to risk difficulty or pain enough to tell you the truth you need to hear to become your best self.
Wounds from a friend can be trusted.
That’s why to be part of a community together is so important.
If you come here and worship but are not in a community, you don’t have a relationship like that, I’ll just tell you — if you want to follow Jesus, you need that.
You need relationships where like Aristotle said, “Friendship is training in virtue.”
In the early church, they just loved that idea — we help each other grow.
That’s why Small Groups are so important to help people get into relationships like that.
I want to say one other thing, particularly to parents and young people.
We live in an area where for young people to be able to do really well is so hard. They have so much pressure on them all the time.
That relentless weight of — “Have to achieve. Have to do better. How is your GPA? What school are you getting into?” — is just crushing them.
A friend of mine was at a prayer meeting and he told me someone prayed, “God, forgive me for being more concerned about getting my kid into Harvard than getting them into heaven.”
Yeah, that’s where we live.
We have to break that.
Just to be real clear, I thought I would give you four reasons why getting your kid into heaven is better than getting your kid into Harvard.
1. It costs less to get in. Jesus already paid that price. Heaven is a lot less expensive than Harvard or Stanford or wherever.
2. It has better housing. Jesus is already working on this. He said, “I have gone to prepare a place for you.” There are going to be much better accommodations.
3. It has a much more diverse population. Every tribe and tongue and people and nation. It’s going to be an incredible community in heaven.
4. It has a much better administration.
We ought to be concerned about spiritual growth for our kids.
Here’s a pattern that has to stop.
We have this strange thing that happens — it’s been going on for a number of years — where in the beginning of the school year, when the school year is kicking off, we’ll have a lot of young people who will get involved in our middle school ministry and our high school ministry… so they can get to know God and get in relationships with each other and have a place where they don’t have to perform. That’s so important.
Then, as the year goes on, and there are tests, and there’s homework, and there are pressures, and there are activities, and there are sports, and there are teams.
They start to feel the weight of all of that, and it gets heavier and heavier.
At the time when they need spiritual community the most, they experience it the least. That’s what gets dropped.
Parents, you’re the parents. Give your kids wisdom and direction on this.
Help them to understand how to prioritize their time and say, “You want to learn to arrange your time in life so it flows to what matters most, not what puts the pressure on you.”
“And to make time for God… and people who can know you and love you… and spiritual community, to learn and worship together.”
Those of you who are teenagers or college age in the room — I just want to challenge you in this.
I know we live in a place that is just insane, and it will put a weight on you and try to get you to run on the achievement treadmill and climb an achievement ladder that will just crush you.
Put a stake in the ground and say, “I’m not going to do that. I’m going to make a commitment with my time. All through the year, I’m going to trust that God is going to care for me, and I will make spiritual community a priority — to learn about God, to worship God, to be with people who love me, to just have the time to be a kid where I don’t have to try to justify my existence to the world.”
We want to be that kind of community. I just want to challenge us around spiritual community. Let’s put that stake in the ground.
I believe every moment is an opportunity for spiritual growth.
I love what Dallas Willard wrote on this. This is so rich.
“We must accept the circumstances we constantly find ourselves in as the place of God’s kingdom and blessing. God has yet to bless anyone except where they actually are…”
“…and if we faithlessly discard situation after situation, moment after moment, as not being ‘right’ we will simply have no place to receive his kingdom into our life. For those situations and moments are our lives.
“Our life presents itself to us as a series of tasks.
That’s every day now.
“In biblical language, they are trials or tribulations.
“Just listen to how people carry on. For some of us, the first tribulation of the day is just getting up. Then there’s caring for ourselves. Then the commute. Then work. And other people. But knowledge of the kingdom puts us in position to welcome all of these.”
Now, this will change your life.
“You will find in your life circumstances come every day from when you wake up…”
This will happen today. It will happen tomorrow.
“…that provide you the opportunity, the place to be with God, to grow precisely where you need to grow.
“If you wrestle with money, if you need to grow financially in your generosity or in not being so anxious, you will face financial challenges that will help you grow there.
“If you need to grow in patience…” Does anyone here need to grow in patience? “…you will find yourself in frustrating circumstances where you can meet God and grow in patience.
“If you find yourself not being as loving as you want to be…” Is anybody here not as loving as you would like to be? “…you will find God sends unlovable people into your life.”
If that’s not happening, we can assign you someone. We have a whole list of them. They’ll be an opportunity for you to grow in love.
When the writers of Scripture talk about welcoming trials and temptations, they’re not these giant, horrible diagnoses or once a year things.
It’s all the time, every day — “I have this problem. I have this challenge. What do I do?”
This is exactly why James says:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. James 1:2-4
This week, when you look at a stack of bills, say, “I consider you an opportunity for joy.”
When you’re on the freeway, and there’s a huge traffic jam, look at those cars and say, “I consider you an opportunity for joy.”
When an difficult person comes into your life… maybe they’re sitting next to you right now. Turn to them and say, “I consider you an opportunity for joy.”
What matters is not that you grow up all at once.
Paul puts it like this:
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Galatians 6:9
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time…
Not today. Not tomorrow. At the proper time.
…we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
What matters is not perfection; what matters is just don’t give up. The growth will happen.
God is at work to bring growth.
So I want to ask you — are you all in?
When it comes to following Jesus, to giving your full devotion to growing into the man or woman God intended you to be — are you all in?
Years ago, I decided I wanted to grow stronger. I wanted to lift weights and get bigger muscles.
There was a guy at the gym, a great guy. He looked like the Hulk. I figured he could help me with my goal.
I asked him, “Would you work out with me?” He did, and it was unbelievable. He was unbelievable.
My wife actually asked me one day, “Could I come watch you guys work out?”
I said, “No, I can’t make it today.” She said, “That would be okay. Can I still come?”
I eventually told this guy, “I want to look like you.” He said, “Well, are you all in?” I said, “What do you mean?”
He said, “No one just drifts into a body like this. You’ve go tot be all in.”
He said, “I will lift weights until I am so sore, it feels like my muscles are on fire. There will be times when the next morning, after a really hard work out, I can barely get out of bed. Then I will go and do it again.
“I will monitor every calorie. I will sometimes set the alarm and wake up in the middle of the night to eat protein.
“Mostly, I’m talking about pain, the ability to tolerate mind-numbing levels of pain. Are you willing to do that? Are you all in?”
I said, “Yes.”
And that’s why I look the way I do today.
You see, when it came to growing muscle, I was an admirer, not a follower. I would admire guys who had the discipline to eat right and train and be all in.
I would like to look the way they look. But I’m not going to do what they do.
Jesus is looking for followers.
It’s good to admire Jesus. That’s how it would always start. When Jesus was around, people would admire him. “Wow, great teaching. Wow, great principles for living. Wow, Jesus is pretty remarkable.”
You might be in that category.
Jesus is looking for followers.
I have to tell you — to die to all of the things and the money and the reputation and the office and the house and possessions that you cannot keep, to pursue a noble character and an eternity in relationship with Jesus, it’s worth it all.
Here’s what’s at stake. A friend of Jesus, an admirer who became a follower put it like this.
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him. 1 John 3:2
Are you all in?
Would you bow your heads and close your eyes?
I want to give you a moment right now to simply respond to God.
If there’s any area in your life — this is between you and God — this is a real good time to be real honest.
Part of what the Evil One will do is make us think in foggy, vague ways.
If there’s any area — money, sexuality, anger, bitterness toward someone, relationship, pride — that’s keeping you from full devotion to Jesus Christ, would you just confess it and repent right now?
Would you tell him, “I want to go from being an admirer to a follower”?
Jesus, you know how much help we need with this from one moment to the next, so would you provide the help we need. I pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.