Hearing the Code of the Kingdom
It is so good to see you. I feel like it’s been forever since I’ve been live here. I’ve preached a couple of times on the screen, which is really weird, but it is so good to see you. And happy Valentine’s Day, everybody. We went ahead and put red chairs in today because we wanted to decorate. Let’s turn to Mark 4, Mark chapter 4.
Lynn Olson’s New York Times best-selling book is slow at times, but still a good read. It’s called “Madam Fourcade’s Secret War.” In 1941 Marie-Madeleine Fourcade became the leader of the largest French spy network. Fourcade was only 31, yet she would lead over 3000 agents in the French resistance network known as Alliance. Alliance worked closely with the British MI6, funneling valuable intelligence to the Allies during the German occupation of France. Let me give you just one example of the kind of work they did. They produced a 55 foot long map of the beaches of Normandy, complete with German army units, gun placements, fortifications that made D-Day possible. Yet this kind of intelligence came at a price. Hundreds of Fourcade’s agents were captured, tortured, sent to concentration camps, executed.
Fourcade herself was a human code in this sense. The Germans could not imagine that a woman, a former French socialite, was leading the largest resistance spy network. So, they never knew to look for her. Now she constantly was on the move. She constantly changed her documents, her name, her hair color, her location. She even had a dental prosthetic made that made her look different. She was caught many times and would pretend to be a bumbling person, ignorant of everything that was going on. But she lived with daily fear of being caught. She was a chain smoker, dangerously thin, which ended up saving her life.
One time when she was caught, she was placed in army barracks waiting for the Gestapo interrogator to arrive. She knew as soon as the Gestapo interrogator figured out who she actually was, she would be tortured and executed. She had a cyanide pill she carried with her, considered taking that, but was concerned about her other agents and needing to warn them. She remembered when she was a little girl growing up, her family moved temporarily to China. She remembered her father telling her about the robbers who would grease their bodies, slide through the rails, and steal stuff. So, in the middle of the night, 3:00 a.m., she took off all her clothes. She found a rail (there was no glass on the window) that was a little wider than the other rails. She put a thin summer dress in her teeth and squeezed her head through the rail (practically ripping her ears off), got her entire body out of that cell, escaped to a cemetery, hid in a crypt, and then waded upriver so that the dogs the next day couldn’t follow her.
She was extremely creative. She had code names for all her agents. Most of them were animals or birds. The Gestapo eventually called them “Noah’s Ark.” They had radio transmitters placed all throughout the occupied territory, and they were known as “The Orchestra” — each transmitter was a different instrument. All their communication was coded in order to do two things: to conceal from some people and to reveal to other people. Conceal and reveal.
In Mark 4, what Jesus is doing is he is revealing the codes of the kingdom to his disciples. And he calls these codes parables. Look at verse 11.
“And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.’”
Of course, Jesus is not talking about typical military codes, but he is describing stories that reveal to some and conceal to others. Parables are intended to veil and unveil, to enable seers to see more clearly, to enable non-seers to know they can’t see. To enable hearers to hear more accurately and non-hearers to know they are deaf. This is really important, especially in a culture that is Christianized — where we can hear enough of the words of Jesus to be deceived but not enough to be delivered. So, Jesus here is discipling the ears of his followers to hear the code of the kingdom. Notice the emphasis in this passage. And when I say this passage, think of this week and next week as really one message (verses 1-33). Look at the emphasis on hearing. Verse 3 – “listen.” Verse 9 – “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Verse 12 – “and may indeed hear but not understand.” Verse 15 – “they hear.” Verse 16 – “they hear.” Verse 18 – “they are those who hear.” Verse 20 – “who hear.” Verse 23 – if anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” Verse 33 – “[For] many such parables he spoke to them, as they were able to hear.” So, Jesus is leading the largest resistance network in history, and he is training us to hear. Will we?
Look at the structure of the parable. The scene is described in verses 1 and 2, and then we have what is often called a Markan Sandwich. Mark loves sandwiches, and they’re all throughout the gospel of Mark. This is a mini sandwich. You’ll notice in verses 3-9, the content of the parable. And then he breaks out in 10-12 off into the purposes of parables in general. Then he comes back to the meaning of this particular parable. Why did he divide those? He does this repeatedly to emphasize the meat of the sandwich.
Now let’s walk through that. First of all, the scene, verses 1 and 2. Jesus is in a boat speaking to a crowd. They’re on the land. They are somewhere near Capernaum at what is often called today, “The Bay of Parables” or “The Cove of the Sower,” which may have been where Jesus taught. It is a natural amphitorium. Scientists have run tests where you can be in a boat speaking without amplification, and thousands of people on the land can hear you. The acoustics are naturally good.
Verse 3, look at the content of the parable. That’s the scene, here’s the content of the parable. Verse 3, listen! “Behold.” Listen, look, engage your senses, pay attention. “Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed [verse 4], some seed fell along the path [the hard trampled soil], and the birds came and devoured it. [Verse 5] Other seed fell on rocky ground.” And by rocky ground, he means, there’s the thin layer of soil and beneath that a layer of limestone so that the roots can go down, the seed germinates and shoots up, but the roots can’t go any further. And so, it withers away. Verse 7, “Other seed fell among thorns.” And in that day, many of the farmers burned their fields that were taken over by thorns, and that would kill all the thorns you could see. But some thorns would still, roots would still be under the ground, so when you sow the seed, the good seed grows, and the thorn roots grow and strangle the good seed, and it yields no grain. Verse 8, “Other seed fell into good soil and produced grain” yielding 30, 60, 100-fold. Verse 9, “He said, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” And that word “hear” is the same verb that he began with in verse 3 — listen. The point is clear.
And then he steps away – the purpose of the parables in verses 10-12. And Mark takes us backstage behind the scene.
“When he was alone [verse 10], those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret [the mystery] of the kingdom of God [the code of the kingdom of God], but for those outside everything is in parables, so that [and now he quotes Isaiah 6] ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, they may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”
Now, the point of this is not, God wants to keep the message unintelligible just in case someone were to hear, repent, and he has to save them. That’s not the point. How do we know that? Well, he keeps pleading with people to listen. If you have ears, use them. So, the point is not, he is not trying to deceive. What he’s doing through parables is, the parable is to the hearer like a test is to a student, a good test. You can look like a student. You can have a backpack and a No. 2 pencil and be in a classroom and not hear a word that is being said. Right? Good tests reveal whether you truly are a student, truly listening. And what parables are doing is, you can be Christianized but not be truly listening.
So, the purpose of the parable is to expose those who are not truly hearing and help those who are hearing to hear more, to truly understand. It’s similar to what Jesus said in John 9:39. “For judgment I came into this world,” that those who do not see may see, so that those who think they are seeing, who know they are blind, can actually see, and that those who think they can see may become blind. So, parables expose fake seers and reveal truth so that we can see our true condition. How does this happen? Look at the third section, the meaning of the parable, verse 13. Notice this parable is a key to all parables. Jesus is saying, “If you can’t understand this, you’re not going to understand the rest, because this parable reveals how things are revealed.” If you don’t get this, you’re not going to get that. And he explains with four kinds of hearers.
The first kind of hearer we could call the defensive hearer. Verse 15, represented by the hard soil on the path. The birds represent Satan’s strategy to remove the Word’s influence before it can have a good effect. Think Genesis 3. “Did God actually say?” That’s Satan’s strategy. Get the Word off the heart before it can take root and bring about change — the defensive hearer.
Second, you could call this hearer the discouraged hearer. Verse 16, “when they hear the Word, immediately they receive it with joy.” This is what I’m looking for! And it even produces certain advantageous effects. My marriage has a spark again. I’m using my money much more wisely. I’m a harder worker. It might produce a good outer effect. But what Jesus is saying is, because (verse 17) has no “root in themselves” … In other words, the root is meeting a rock, so the Word is not permitted to penetrate to our true selves. There might be outward joy. There might even be some superficial change. There might be an outward experience. You might come forward in an emotional decision. But when it comes to what I truly love, what I truly delight in, what I value, there is a rock of defense. The Word is only allowed to go so far, no further. And so, the change is superficial. Therefore, verse 17, this kind of hearer “endures for a while,” appears to be following Christ for a while, but “when tribulation” (and that’s just a general word for pressure), when the pressure starts squeezing … And then the next word, “persecution” is a very specific word for opposition to your faith. When persecution and pressure start squeezing, there’s no root system to keep you alive, and so you fall away.
Third kind of hearer could be called the distracted hearer. Verse 18, the “one sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word.” Notice, all four hear, but this one hears, “but the cares of the world…” That word cares, merimna, is a word that has to do with anxiety. And it comes from a root verb, merizo, which is “to divide.” Do you ever feel pulled in a bunch of different directions, like you’re being quartered? That’s this, the distractions of this age. “The deceitfulness of riches,” lies that money tells us. If I could just get more of it, if I could just have that, or if I could just achieve this amount, I would be secure. I would be happy. I would be satisfied. Lies, the deceptions of wealth. “And then the desires for other things,” which is the cravings, the lust, for other things enter in and choke the Word.
The fourth kind of hearer Jesus describes we could call the dynamic hearer. Verse 20, the good soil. There are three participles used to communicate an ongoing lifestyle of hearing, receiving, bearing fruit, 30-60-100 fold.
Before we focus in on that fourth, I think it would be helpful for us to think about what kind of hearer do I tend to be apart from the grace of God? What kind of hearer am I wired to be? First, am I a defensive hearer, like the soil on the path? I am naturally skeptical. I despise the thought of being gullible. I question. I analyze almost everything. Commitment is difficult until I know more. Therefore, you can hear a sermon, but because of hardness from past hurts, hardness from present resentment or persistent questions, the Word bounces off, and the enemy snatches it away — the defensive hearer.
Or are you more like the discouraged hearer, like the soil on the rocky ground? You’ve seen God do amazing things. I embrace so much of what the Bible says, but I get tired of struggling. God’s promises always seem around the next corner. Why is life so hard? Following Jesus is not what I thought it would be, or at least what it was at the beginning. You know what it’s like to taste the joy of the Spirit. You’ve experienced the exhilaration of times of worship. But your roots don’t go deep. And so, when the pressure comes, the joy evaporates. Your faith is thin. It’s an emotional faith.
Or are you more like the distracted hearer, like the soil among the thorns? I intend to follow Jesus every day, but my mind is all over the place. When I pray, I think about everything but God. Sometimes I wonder, how can I be a Christian and think the kinds of things I think? Even in a sermon on listening my brain can be all over the place. Hello? John Tyson, a pastor from New York, gives a few examples of the kind of things we face. He said,
“Travel sports on weekends that rob us of local and religious connection, Season 3 of _____ on Netflix that takes time away from listening to our neighbors, relentlessly checking social media, which cultivates envy and erodes compassion. These things subtly seduce us and distort our vision of life. They take up the space required for the gospel to thrive.”
So, which of these three — look at those three for a second — which of these three do you tend toward, apart from the grace of God? And what’s interesting to me is how different each one of these are in some ways. The first one tends toward those of you who are more intellectual, analytical. The second one, those of you who are more emotional. And the third, those of you who are more practical — doers, busy, get it done. Don’t confuse me with talking about it.
And it’s just interesting to me how the enemy customizes the temptation for the personality and the wiring. And Jesus is warning us of that. Be aware where you’re vulnerable. The thing I hate about these three is, I’m all three of those. I can be super analytical and hear a sermon or read a passage, and all I think of are questions and push back. I can be emotional. Throw a little isolation and COVID in there, and you can go down fast. I’m number three. Period. My brain is all over the place, super distracted.
And so the point of Jesus’s parable is not to send us all out there terrified that, “Oh no, I’m not a real hearer.” The point is to honestly expose the temptation to be a fake hearer, identify that point of weakness or weaknesses. And then what Jesus is doing, and you’ll hear it all throughout this section, he’s inviting us into a lifestyle of listening. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. My sheep hear. They know how to listen. It’s one of the definitions of being a follower of Jesus.
So, let’s drill down in that last one so that we can truly hear what Jesus wants us to hear. What is the dynamic hearer? What do I mean by dynamic? It just means active and ongoing. And we’re not going to be able to cover all this because what the parable Jesus is telling right in 1-20 is inseparably linked (as he says in verse 13) to the next three parables. So, let me show you where we’re going to go. Don’t worry about writing all this down, because we’ll come back next week and hit the next three. But he’s going to train us in dynamic hearing.
Dynamic hearing is first of all, as we’re going to look at today, relational. It’s found in a person. In a person, Jesus (1-20). It is expandable. Dynamic hearing is expandable. It increases with usage. That’s that second parable in 21-25. It is humble. It knows that it doesn’t know (26-29). And it is insightful. It sees what will be, not just what is (30-32). So, don’t worry about all that. We’re going to come back to that.
Let’s focus on the first one. Dynamic hearing is relational. What do we mean by that? The code of the kingdom is the King of the kingdom. You find the code by knowing the King. This isn’t just a math formula or a problem to solve. It’s a person to know and follow and live with and experience his life. In an obviously much lesser way, it’s kind of like Madam Fourcade. She was the personification of the code of Alliance. The Germans never cracked it. Jesus, in obviously an infinitely greater way, is the code of his Kingdom. Look what Cranfield writes.
“It is the secret that the kingdom of God has come in the person and words and works of Jesus. That is a secret because God has chosen to reveal himself indirectly and in a veiled way. The Incarnate Word is not obvious. Only faith could recognize the Son of God in the lowly figure of Jesus of Nazareth. The secret of the kingdom of God is the secret of the person of Jesus.”
Dynamic hearing, first and foremost, is a relationship with Jesus Christ. This is vital because the Gospel of Mark did not arrive in Rome in a vacuum. There was a war going on. Rome was attacking Palestine. As Witherington points out, when the Gospel of Mark was written, it entered into a social context that was “dark and dangerous.” Why? Because there were a ton of voices screaming contradictory messages. The zealots in Palestine were screaming, “Rise up and take back our country.” Christians in Rome would have been connected by Rome to that Jewish movement. They were longing for a nationalistic messiah. The loyalists were screaming, “Long live Emperor Nero.” The hedonists were crying out, “Find pleasure in the moment.” The legalists, as we’ve seen the last couple of weeks here in Mark, were attempting to find, build the kingdom through the keeping of the Law.
And Jesus said, “If you have ears to hear … hear.” He’s revealing who he is and what he’s doing, which is very different than any of these other groups. In the midst of this cacophony of voices, will you hear my voice? Everyone in that day and in our day, you’ll notice, tries to recruit Jesus to build their kingdom. And Jesus said, “Wait, listen. Listen.” And he’s revealing the code of his Kingdom, not your kingdom, not my kingdom. John 15:5, he says something similar with a similar fruit-bearing analogy.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I and him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
So, whatever it means to know the code of the Kingdom, it can’t come apart from the King of the Kingdom. And that means that this dynamic hearing is not certain things as much as it is relational. It is not an achievement. As if I could work hard enough to be less defensive, less discouraged, less distracted and somehow achieve that. As if I could crack the code of the kingdom through performance or effort or sincerity. No, look at verse 11. “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God.” You can’t do it. You can’t figure it out. You can’t accomplish it in and of yourself. We’re talking about entering into a relationship.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
So, it’s not an achievement. It’s also not an event. This comes out in a fascinating way in in the word choice, don’t miss this. Four times in verses 15-20 Jesus uses the word “hear.” The first three kinds of hearers, he uses what’s called the aorist tense in the Greek, to communicate how they are hearing. What is the aorist tense? It just simply means the action that is occurring is definite, it occurs in a definite or unextended period of time. It’s punctiliar. Think, dot. The action is like a dot. It occurs as an event. The fourth word for “hear” in verse 20 is in the present tense in the original. The present simply means that the action extends beyond a particular point of time, it is ongoing. Think line, not dot.
So, dynamic hearing is relational, meaning you’re entering into an ongoing relationship with the King of the Kingdom that is not merely having an event-oriented mindset. At one point of time, I did something, accomplished something, experienced something, although we have those. But we enter into this lifestyle of listening.
I have a sister-in-law, many sisters-in-law, but one in particular I’m talking about now, who lives in a really hard place with her husband (one of my brothers) and their kids. And I’ve noticed over the years that when we’re zooming or facetiming or they’re visiting here, that in the middle of a conversation, very naturally … we’re talking about a struggle or something in general, and she’ll quote something. “You remember when Ryan was preaching in Nehemiah, and he said this?” Or, “Have you been thinking about that verse you mentioned when we were in Genesis ten years ago?” And “God really spoke to me in our Revelation series.” And I don’t want to misrepresent this because she’s not flaunting anything, it’s not academic to her. She’s sharing what God did in her heart through his Word and sometimes many years ago. This has happened so many times. And she is so busy. She’s a wife, a mom of a bunch of kids, she along with her husband, they run nine cafes in one of the most difficult places in the world. She’s got a pastry business over there. They’re growing coffee for farmers in multiple countries. How do you have time to hear anything, nevertheless, to remember it?
And so a couple of weeks ago, I put her on the spot. I shot her a message and said, “Can you help me understand how you hear, how you listen in a way that actually … Sometimes I can’t remember what I preached the week before, and I preached it. And you’re quoting things that God spoke to you about from the Word years later. And she was very gracious to take time. She sent me a 2-page email. And in case she hears this, I’ll have to whisper. But I’m going to try to pressure her to write a book on listening. Two pages, pure gold. And let me just give you a few snippets of the kind of things she’s thinking about as she’s … whether it’s watching livestream. They’re in a country right now where they’re not allowed to gather, so she’s watching livestream with us. This is her sending church.
A couple snippets. She said, first of all, I try to be really aware of my, our human tendencies to funnel things back to ourselves, to make it about us rather than God, to be distracted. She talked about looking in the mirror, the glass, and walking away unchanged. She talked about our warped grid. How when we hear God’s Word, we tend to warp what he’s saying into our cultural assumptions. That’s huge. You’re coming to the Word aware of how much help we need merely to hear effectively.
The second thing she pointed out was having a posture to receive. Look at her prayer.
“God, what do you want to talk about to me? And what are the gifts that we both want me to have, that you are waiting on my changing, to give me?”
Now, imagine coming into a service with that mindset. God is in a posture of giving. He is ready to just pour out gifts on his children. Am I in a place where I’m saying, “Lord, my hands are open”? I want what you want me to have, not just what I think I need. But I want you to give me what you know I need. And I’m ready to receive it.
She pointed out that when Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” it is implying that he’s calling us to make an attempt, by his grace, to have ears that are hearable. And when I was reading that, I was thinking about what one preacher, Sandy Wilson, talked about. He said when his kids were little, his wife would have them actually … I think they, I couldn’t see. I was listening to this, but it seemed like he was saying they actually reach into their pockets, get their ears, and they put them on. You can just see the mom talking to the kids. “Ok, right now I have something to say to you. It’s obvious you’re not listening. I want you to get your ears and I want you to put your ears on.” Jesus is saying something like that. “I know you’re in church. I know you look like you’re hearing but put your ears on.” Posture yourself in a place where you’re actually hearing.
And then she goes on to give a number of examples. We don’t tend to walk through them all. I just want to, I’ll throw out a few. But I want us to be careful, because this is not a formula. Each of us knows how the Lord has wired us to hear his voice, to be in a posture of receiving, but also what will be helpful in the days, weeks, months, years to follow so that we do not allow that precious gift that God has given us in our gathered time to disappear.
So, for her, she talks about things like embracing community as a gift and being ready to confess. She journals. You know I’ve talked about that. In one sense, I hate journaling, because I always want to get on to the next thing. I’ve got lots to do. I don’t have time to journal. And the Spirit is saying, “Whoa, slow down. You want me to keep speaking to you, you haven’t even done anything with what I’ve already told you.” That’s what journaling does for me. Slow down, give thanks. Let it sink in.
So, if you think you can hear a message like this, walk out into the busyness of what all of us are going to walk out into, and automatically remember, you’re deceived. What she’s talking about is actually … She has a journaling app. She takes pictures of slides, quotes and keeps a file of those and reviews so that we’re going back, and we’re saying, “God, thank you for speaking. Thank you for what you’ve taught me.” Whatever it takes to pay attention, that’s what Jesus is calling us to. Whatever it takes.
I’ll never forget the first time I taught Romans in this room. It was late at night. It was three hours every night. It’s exhausting. Some of you may remember this. Janiece Robinson was in the class. And if you know Janiece, by 9:00 p.m. She’s done. She’s in bed, gone. And the class went to 9:30 or 10 p.m. I’ll never forget, I’m up here teaching, and she’s in the back pacing with her notebook, bouncing around so that she will stay alert and hear what God has for her. Okay, extreme example. Some of you will need to be bouncing around. The point is, whatever it takes, God, to hear what you want me to hear, I want to do that. That’s how seriously I’m committed to listen. My sister-in-law ends this way.
“In the past four years I’m realizing the discomfort of not belonging in ____. [And she mentions the country. Which, by the way, the country has less than 1% Christian — 0.66% Christian. You’re not going to feel like you belong.] … of not belonging in [this country] has taught me the gift/skill of intentionally listening as ‘one who doesn’t belong.’ … Too often I sit in church ‘belonging’ and turn inward. I listen to the speaker, almost grading him … to see where he lines up with me, ready to give my ‘amen.’ I’m too comfortable belonging, and I’m actually being lulled to sleep. So, I’m learning to sit, scanning for the strange words … [Now, if you were here a few weeks ago, remember Walter’s message on the strange words of Jesus? If Jesus’ words never sound strange to you, then either you’re not listening, or you’re trying to make Jesus into your own image.] … scanning for the strange words my heart doesn’t fully embrace yet. And I’m praying for God to work that strangeness into something that feels at home in my heart.”
That is so different from what I naturally do. I naturally want to take Jesus’ words and make them fit my agenda. What she’s talking about is, “God, let me hear the strangeness, the kingdom code, that is not natural to my heart or to our culture and not squish it into my image, but be transformed into your image.” That’s when we’re listening.
Let’s pray. Father, you are speaking to us about listening. And you have pointed out how easily I, we can be defensive and discouraged and distracted. So, we’re asking, please, turn us into dynamic hearers because we’re living in relationship with you, because you have spoken life into us, because we’re on this journey to follow you not just today, not just in church — every day, our whole lives. Soften the soil of our hearts. Break up the rocky assumptions, the bitterness, and bear your fruit of love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control. Bear much fruit as we hear your Word. In Jesus’ name, amen.