Automatic Soil Action

Text: Mark 4:26-34

St. Paul wrote in our Epistle reading, “In this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened…we walk by faith, not by sight.[1] Paul lived in a time where the Word of God was spreading rapidly, but it was also a difficult time. The Christian Church faced persecution from without and within. The threats of physical injury or death for our confession of faith were real. Backsliding and abandonment of one’s faith were a thing. As much as Paul wanted God’s Kingdom to expand on earth, meaning that, as much as Paul desired the spread of the Gospel of Christ, it wasn’t matching up with what he saw. He described our lives as Christians as ones of groaning and burden. But even in that, Paul says, we walk by faith and not by sight.

Like Paul we live in a temporal world full of change and disappointment. So often it seems like we work and work and work, and nothing becomes of our endeavors to share the faith of Jesus Christ with a sinful world. We long to put off this perishable tent and put on the imperishable, our eternal home in the heavens. It’s difficult because we live in a transitional time as we await the return of Christ. We are born from above, we have eternal life here and now…but we’re not there yet. We are exhorted by Paul to continue walking by faith and not by sight.

Jesus tells a parable in Mark 4 that is sometimes called, “The Automatic Action of the Soil.” In it a man goes out to scatter some seed on the ground. Then he goes about his business. Without any further action of the man, the ground produces fruit by itself. When the grain is ripe, the harvest comes. In this parable those who hear the Word of God preached are the soil. The man is Jesus, who preaches His Word. The seed is His Word that takes root in those who hear it and causes fruit to come forth, but not all at once. Despite appearances, which sometimes cause us to groan, God’s Word causes fruit to come forth until it’s time for harvest.

I.

The parable Jesus gives goes like this. “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”[2] Last week and this we’ve gone from having almost no Mark to jumping right into the thick of it, especially considering that we’ve jumped and landed in some parables. The way parables were explained to me as a child, a way that’s stuck with me, is that parables are earthly stories with heavenly meanings. They use various figures of speech and forms of imagery to explain a greater or higher concept.

Our text this week follows one parable that probably everyone knows or is aware of: the Parable of the Sower. Our text shares some elements, but uses them in some different ways. In the Parable of the Sower a man goes out to sow some seed. He sows the seed just about everywhere, and it falls on different types of soil. Here the sower is Jesus, the seed is His Word, and the different types of soil are us. It’s important to not try and figure which type of soil you are, but to recognize that at various times, we’re all four. The Parable of the Sower shows us that when God’s Word is preached and falls on good soil, it bears fruit beyond all comparison.

Likewise, in our parable today, a man goes out to sow some seed. The principal man is Jesus, if we carry His interpretation of the Sower here. The seed is His Word. During His ministry on earth Jesus preached the Word and the seed fell on the soil, those who heard His Word. Today Christ sows the seed of His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins through pastors and faithful Christians. The one type of soil in our parable is representative of those in whom the Word of God takes root, those who hear the Word of God, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit, keep it. Without any further action, the seed takes root, and comes forth bearing fruit by itself.

II.

The man in the parable sleeps and rises after spreading the seed, and, by itself, it “sprouts and grows…The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.”[3] I think this is a sobering and realistic truth – we don’t see growth all at once. Sometimes the candle burns really bright, like when you’re baptized, or when you work up the courage to go to Bible study, or you mention Jesus to your friend at work. Other times, it burns not so bright. What fruit are you producing when you sit at home and watch TV all evening? What fruit are you bearing for Christ when you put your boat in the water at church time on Sunday morning?

We’re told by the world and our own consciences that, if we want to be good Christians, we gotta put in the work. We have to do the studying, we have to do the discipling, we have to do the following. And if we do all these at the right time, in the right place, in the right order, and with the right enthusiasm – then we’re gonna bear fruit. Visible, tangible, measurable fruit. If you’re not bearing fruit, or if you see that someone else isn’t, we’ve found the reason why. By thinking this way we steal the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word and make it our own.

But Jesus isn’t using this parable to condemn; He’s using it to comfort us. When we look around and find our lives lacking the fruit of the Spirit, when we go weeks and months without a visitor in church, when we tell someone about the forgiveness of sins and they never mention Jesus again, this is our comfort: all by itself the seed sprouts. Without our work, God’s Word takes root and bears fruit. We may not always see it, but God’s Word works. It takes root and bears fruit thirtyfold, sixtyfold, even a hundredfold. This reflects the work of Jesus on the cross. By His death for our sins He has reconciled the world to God, which He promised in John 12: “When I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself.”[4] For those in whom the Word takes root, Jesus promises, “I will raise him up on the last day.”[5]

 III.

So a man goes out to sow some seed. The seed lands on the soil, takes root, and grows. All this while the man goes to sleep and wakes up every day. He doesn’t make the seed sprout, and he doesn’t see it grow all at once. It just does. The man in the parable represents Jesus, and like Jesus we spread the seed of His Word. It takes root and grows even when we don’t see it, and sometimes in ways and places that we don’t expect. Scripture says that God’s Word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword that pierces the heart. God says as much in Isaiah 55, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”[6]

St. Paul wrote in the Epistle that we groan while we are in this tent, meaning that life isn’t always how we’d hoped it would be. As Christians we find ourselves lacking in our fruit bearing. We see others and maybe even ourselves refusing to listen to God’s Word. We live in this world as heirs of eternal life in heaven, but we’re not there yet. Jesus told this parable of the soil as a word of Comfort to us, that even when we don’t see it, God’s Word takes root and works, even until the harvest. At the harvest Jesus will return and takes us and all believers to be with Him forever.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), 2 Cor. 5.

[2] Mk. 4:26–29.

[3] Mk. 4:27–28.

[4] Jn. 12:32.

[5] Jn. 6:44.

[6] Is. 55:10–11.

The Holy Spirit, the Comforter

Therefore God has been gracious to us and has given us a Comforter to counteract this spirit of terror—a Comforter, who, as God Himself, is much stronger with His comfort than the devil is with his terror. And now when the devil also comes along with God’s Law, advances against your works and your life, and shatters these so thoroughly that even your good works appear to be evil and condemned—an art in which he is a master and an excellent theologian—the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, will come and whisper consolingly to your heart: “Be of good cheer and unafraid. Go, preach, do what you have been commanded to do; and do not fear the terrors of sin, death, or the devil, even if these terrors present themselves in the name of God.

God does not want to be angry with you, nor does He want to reject you; for Christ, God’s Son, died for you. He paid for your sins; and if you believe in Him, these will not be imputed to you, no matter how great they are. Because of your faith your works are pleasing to God; they are adjudged good and well done even though weakness does creep in. Why do you let your sins be falsely magnified? Christ, your Righteousness, is greater than your sins and those of the whole world; His life and His consolation are stronger and mightier than your death and hell.”

Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 24: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 14-16, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 24 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 291–292.