A Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma (Mark 4:1-20)

A Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma (Mark 4:1-20)

December 13, 2020

Mark 4:1-20

A Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma

Preached by Pastor Jeff Hamling


Many of you have favorite Christmas movies you enjoy watching in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Perhaps one of the most popular is the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story, where the main character, Ralph, fanaticizes about getting a Red Ryder air rifle.

In one iconic scene, Ralph receives a “secret decoder ring” in the mail. One side of the rings has numbers on it; the other side has letters. At the end of his favorite radio program, a secret code is given. He now gets to use his new ring to decipher the code.

He writes down the code, runs excitedly into the bathroom for privacy, and, with sweaty hands, he quickly deciphers the secret code. To his dismay, the message reads, “Drink Your Ovaltine.” He can’t believe that his entire mission ends up being a crummy commercial!

Today’s passage in mark is about a parable: the parable of the sower. In many ways, it is a secret code. A mysterious message with a hidden meaning.

I want to show you how Jesus, in this passage, gives us the decoder ring to understand the parable. And the message of the parable, far from being a crummy commercial, contains the secret to living an abundant life.

Two questions:

  • What is a parable?
  • What is the message of this parable?

What is a parable?

Here are three things you need to know about parables:

  1. 1. Parables are stories with a hidden message.

Some define a parable as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” This definition indicates that parables teach complex spiritual truths that are difficult to grasp and so Jesus uses illustrations from everyday life to help us better understand.

But that’s not completely true. Instead of calling a parable, “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning,” a better definition is that parables are “earthly stories with a hidden meaning.”

In other words, one of the primary purposes of a parable is to give a message in secret code. A parable is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

This is why in v.10, after Jesus tells the parable of the sower, the disciples and the crowd have no idea what in the word he’s talking about.

Let me share with you a helpful analogy.

Stanley Kubric is considered by some to be one of the most brilliant and greatest filmmakers in history. His films include, Spartacus, 2001: A Space Odessy, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and many more.

One of the things Kubric is known for, especially in his later films, is his ability to tell two stories in one movie. One story is obvious and immediately accessible to everyone watching. But underneath that story, he would simultaneously tell another secret, subversive narrative through symbols and unnoticed dialogue. People watch his movies again and again, looking for hidden clues. There are endless documentaries, essays, and YouTube posts pointing out the hidden messages in some of his films. Once you see the hidden message, you think, “That’s so brilliant and amazing—how did I not notice it at first?”

Parables work the same way. There is an apparent, accessible, and obvious story, but underneath that story is an encoded, secret message.

  1. 2. Parables reveal Jesus’ message to some people and conceal Jesus’ message to other people.

The disciples and some others from the crowd hear the story of a farmer sowing seed. And they have no idea what he’s talking about. So they ask Jesus about his parables.

In v.11-12 Jesus says this: …“The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!

Notice, on the one hand, through these parables, the secret of the kingdom has been given to Jesus’ disciples. God’s secret message of the kingdom is revealed. But, on the other hand, to outsiders—those who are unwilling to believe Jesus’ message—they don’t see, they don’t hear. Everything remains hidden and concealed.

Here’s another example of how this works: In the early centuries of Christianity, Christians were persecuted and killed. So they developed a secret sign. It was the symbol of the fish. They sometimes put the Greek word for fish (Ichthys) inside the symbol. It served as an acronym: Jesus Christ God’s Son Savior. Today, if someone puts a Christian fish on their back bumper or business card, it’s a way of letting everyone know that you are a Christian. But the original Christian fish was a secret sign. It would mark the secret meeting places of Christians and it was sometimes used as a way to identify another Christian. If you met a person on the road, you would draw one side of the arch. If they drew the other side of the arch, thus forming a fish, you knew they were a Christian. The fish revealed something to those on the inside. But to those on the outside who wanted to destroy and hurt Christians—the fish concealed the message.

Parables worked the same way. To those on the inside, who were really interested in hearing the message of the kingdom—these stories revealed hidden truths. But to those on the outside, who weren’t interested, or worse, wanted to bring harm to Jesus and his followers—the parables concealed the message of the kingdom.

  1. 3. The message of a parable is revealed by God alone

In v.10, Jesus says, “the secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you.” And then in v.13-20 he proceeds to reveal to them the meaning of the parable.

Jesus point is that one cannot understand the hidden meaning of a parable apart from God. It’s not dependent on your intellect. Your education. Or how good you are at solving riddles or mysteries. Illumination and understanding of its meaning come from God alone. Jesus say, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you.” It’s a gift of God’s grace.

To summarize:

Parables are stories with a hidden message

The message of the parable is revealed to some but concealed to others

The message is revealed by God as a gift

These three points are extremely important to understand because, interestingly, once you understand how parables work, you’ll better understand the meaning of this parable.

What is the Message of this Parable?

In v.1-8 Jesus tells the parable of the sower. A farmer sows seed. Some seed falls on a path and birds take it away; some seed falls on rocky places and it withers in the sun because it has no root; some seed falls among the thorns and it grows quickly but is choked by the thorns and produces no fruit. And finally, some seed falls on good soil. Some of the seed produces a group of 30-fold, some 60-fold, and some 100-fold.

Then, in v.13-20, Jesus explains the meaning of the parable. He says that the seed represents the Word of God. The soils represent different people. The first three kinds of people ultimately don’t really hear God’s Word. They may hear it superficially, but for one reason or another, it goes in one ear and out the other. Only the last kind of person represented by good soil—really hears God’s word, accepts it, and produces fruit in their lives.

Now, we might hear that explanation and think: “Okay, the moral of the story is to make sure you really pay attention to God’s Word when it’s read and preached. Pray that the word of God would produce fruit in your life.” That’s certainly true, but Jesus is saying more than that. He is, in fact, telling a parable about himself.

Let me give you two reasons why we know this is the case.

  1. 1. In the Old Testament God describes himself as a Sower, a farmer who plants seed.
  • Jer 31:27-28: 27 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will plant the kingdoms of Israel and Judah…. 28 Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down…so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the Lord.
  • Ezek 36:9 I am concerned for you and will look on you with favor; you will be plowed and sown,
  • Hos 2:23 I will plant her for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’”

Even though Israel would be attacked and carried away into exile as a form of punishment for turning their backs on God, God promised to bring them back. To restore them. To make all things new! This event will lead to a transformation of the world—as all nations, not just Israel, come to worship God. And the language he uses to describe this event is that of a sower.

[In fact, in a famous passage in Isaiah 55:10-11, God says, As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.]

This is the promise that God’s Word will go out and make all things new.

In telling this parable, Jesus is saying: “These promises are being fulfilled in this very moment. The End-Time Sower is sowing his Word right now—before you very eyes. I am the Sower. I am making all things new. Do you have the eyes to see it and the ears to hear it?”

  1. 2. The Parable of the Sower describes how people respond to Jesus himself

On one level, the Parable of the Sower, gives a very accurate description of how people respond to the Word of God in general. On any given Sunday, during a sermon—God’s is snatched up by Satan, it is received with joy and then fades, or it’s choked out and not really heard because people are focusing on things they consider to be more important. Some hear God’s word and put it into practice. That’s all very true.

But at a more fundamental level, Jesus is telling this parable about his ministry. When I started this sermon series on Mark, I said, Mark is about two things: 1) Who Jesus is and 2) How people respond to him.

So far in Mark, we’ve seen that some people respond to him like the seed that falls on the path, where the birds who symbolize Satan snatch it away. The religious leaders respond this way. The want to destroy and kill Jesus. They say he’s working for Satan.

Other people in Mark’s Gospel are like the seeds sown on rocky ground. They are excited at first, but when trouble comes—they fall away. The disciples are like this. At first, they are excited about Jesus and leave their nets. But then, in the Garden of Gethsemane, they desert him. Peter denies knowing him. Only later do they come around.

Other people are like seeds sown among the thorns which represent desires for security and riches. In Mark 10, Jesus says to the rich young ruler, “Sell everything…and follow me” (v.21). The man walks away choking with sadness from his wealth—he can’t do it. He produces no fruit.

All these people have one thing in common. They think that the Messiah was supposed to explode on the world stage in a blaze of glory. He would overthrow  Israel’s enemies with power and the sword. It was unthinkable, unimaginable, that God would accomplish this through humility, suffering, and death.

And this is the point: Just as a parable is a mystery which can only be grasped by God grace, so too the gospel itself is a mystery that can only be understood and received by God’s grace.

Only by God’s grace can you understand the parable. And only by God’s grace can you become like the seed that lands on good soil. Only by God’s grace can you see you are need of a dying Savior. Only by God’s grace can you see that Jesus is your dying Savior.

But that grace is yours for the asking: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you (Mt 7:7).

And in the Christmas season we celebrate that fact that this message—this Word, this message of good news that is sown in the soil—becomes a baby in Bethlehem. John 1:14: And the Word became flesh. The incarnation—Mystery of mysteries!

The parable of the Sower really is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

It’s a riddle…about the glorious mystery of the Gospel message, and the indescribable, glorious enigma of the incarnation.