The hearts of the hearers


Scripture: Luke 8:1-21
Speaker: John Johnstone


When we’re all gathered in church and the Minister is preaching, there’s a lot more going on than that which our eyes can see. In fact, there’s huge drama taking place every week. It’s invisible. The drama takes place in our hearts. Often a congregation will leave church, and in the car or walking home, someone might say: ‘That was interesting’ or ‘That was too long and a bit boring’ or ‘I didn’t learn anything new’ or ‘I liked his illustrations today’ or ‘It was better than last week’. Some have even said ‘I don’t think I’ll come out if he is preaching here again’. In other words, often the focus is on the performance of the preacher, assessing how he got on.

One of the many things I love about this passage is that Jesus puts the focus on a much more important place – the hearts of the hearers. Verse 18 : ‘… consider carefully how you listen.’ Some people are good listeners, and others are less so. Most of us value a good listener. Many tend to talk too much about themselves and fail to listen to others, even though we have one mouth and two ears. However, much more important than listening to one another is listening to God, as he speaks in the Bible. So, as you come to church, week by week, do you listen casually, not taking it too seriously, or do you listen carefully, taking notes, talking about it afterwards, and thinking and praying about what has been said through the week?

How can we listen casually to God? Shouldn’t we come prepared, armed with a notebook, and having prayed that God would bless the preacher, and that God would plough up our own hearts, and that we would have good soil which receives the seed? Yes, we should. Perhaps Saturday night is a good time to begin praying for our hearts. That was the old way. Many of us have heard this parable hundreds of times. I hope we can still read it and say, ‘Wow, I am in this parable!’

Think back to the last few months of being in church; which kind of soil represents your heart? Is it hard, or rocky, or full of weeds, or is it good soil? Is God’s Word bearing fruit in your life? How do you know? Such drama! Each time we gather Christ is here, and Satan is also at work, and as I scatter the seed before you, some of it will bounce off you having no impact whatsoever; for others it will appear to excite you, but only in a shallow and short-lived sense, and in others it will make you fruitful in an eternally significant way! Which one are you? As the minister preaches, different things are happening to different people in different ways. This is serious stuff. Verse 12 tells us that many hear sermon after sermon but their hearts are hard, and they do not believe, and because they do not believe they are not saved. How we listen in church affects our eternal destinies.

Sometimes we say to our children: ‘Are you listening to me?’
‘What have you to do then?’
‘What do you mean?’, they reply.

Jesus is saying here – are you listening to me? Of course, three of the four kinds of listening are negative in the parable, and only one is positive. There are those who make no response, those who seem to respond but it is only a superficial, spurious response. And those who truly respond, for whom God’s Word brings real transformation. This is sobering stuff – there are always those in church who seem to be listening, but aren’t really. As our God, our Creator and designer, God is saying to us today, ‘Are you listening to me, carefully?

In the parable, the sower is Jesus in the first instance, but includes all who share the good news of Jesus. The seed is the word of God. And the four types of soil are four kinds of human hearts. I love the way God’s Word is likened to a seed, because seeds are bursting with the potential for life. Within every seed in the natural world, there is the huge potential for life. How much more with the seed of God’s Word, which has huge potential for eternal life. There is no greater kind of seed.

Why does Jesus speak in parables (verse 10)? I like this quote from Kent Hughes: ‘The parables were full of truth, but for truth rejecting people, they became increasingly inscrutable.’ What Hughes is getting at is that for those, like the Pharisees, who had already heard and rejected the Word of Jesus, the parables were a judgment from God, as meaning was hidden from them. There is a principle here of the danger of rejecting God’s Word: those who accept God’s Word in faith are given more of the same, but those who keep rejecting it are blinded all the more, and the truth is taken away from them. Rejecting what God says in the Bible, then, is a very serious business.

Let’s zoom in on the 4 different kinds of heart that Jesus outlines for us.

1. The careless heart
This is the hard heart. Verse 12: ‘Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.’ This is tragic- people are in church, or listening to the Bible at family worship or somewhere else, but the seed doesn’t sink in at all. Luke focuses on the supernatural work of the devil, even whilst a church service is on, or perhaps even especially during a church service. We tend to forget about Satan because he is invisible. But he doesn’t forget about us. He wants to distract us from what the preacher is saying. He wants us to stare out the window, or turn up to church overly tired, hung over, or sleepy. He wants us to find the sermons dull and boring. He wants us to be unprepared.

Why is Satan so interested in the church service? Because it is a matter of eternal life! Verse 12: He ‘…takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.’ We have examples of this kind of listening in the Bible. Herod loved to listen to John the Baptist, but the message bore no fruit in his life. Likewise, Felix (Acts 26) would often call for Paul. These hard-hearted men liked to listen to preaching, but it made no difference to them. 2 Corinthians 4:4: ‘The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.’

People can come to church for all kinds of reasons: out of habit, tradition, for company, or some other social reason. The seed is sown, but if their hearts are hard, it does not come to life. Perhaps we need to respond to this with prayer and more prayer, pleading with the Lord to plough up the hard-hearted soil.

2. The shallow heart
This is the stony ground. Stony ground does not mean ground full of stones, but is actually a thin layer of soil, only a few inches thick, but under this thin layer is bedrock. So, the seed seems to be growing well, but in reality, the roots have no where to go, and it dies, and the main thing is this: no fruit was borne, meaning the faith was never real in the first place.

This is tough to hear. This is people who come to church for a time, and seem enthusiastic, and might even become members, (verse 13): ‘… but in the time of testing they fall away.’ Perhaps friends start to laugh at them, or start to exclude them from social things, and they just can’t bear being missed out. Perhaps family life become dysfunctional, and not what they thought it would be. Perhaps work isn’t going well. Perhaps their health begins to go downhill. It might even be the death of a loved one which is the final straw and they become angry with God. For those of genuine faith, testing actually refines them, matures them and brings fruitfulness.

‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers 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)

When I first began to light fires as a kid, I’d have paper and logs, and that was it. No kindling or medium sized sticks. You know what happened- the paper and cardboard quickly burned up but the logs didn’t take, and there was no real fire. That’s a bit like what is going on spiritually here. There’s a spurt of growth, but the faith isn’t genuine faith, and it too is fruitless.

3. The distracted heart
Verse 14: ‘The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.’

We all know what weeds can do to our plants in the garden. Whether it’s nettles, dandelions, or chickweed, the saying: ‘One year’s seeds, seven years weeds’ is all too true. These weeds crowd in amongst the plants, not giving them space to grow, and the results are devastating- our plants are choked. Spiritually, once again Jesus’ words are serious because the seed dies without bearing any fruit. It has no true spiritual life. Let’s focus for a few moments on the 3 weeds Jesus identifies.

The weed of worry: many of us are worriers; we worry about our health, our children, our parents, our money, about friendships, about having enough. Worry is serious as it shows our lack of trust in our heavenly Father, who has promised us our daily bread. We get so distracted by all kinds of things we think are urgent, and miss out on what is truly urgent in our lives – listening to the voice of God. I can’t read my Bible because of I’ve too much to do. Martha is the classic example of this in the Bible; as she rushes around preparing a meal for Jesus and is exasperated with her sister Mary, Jesus says that Mary has chosen what is best. We must be like Mary, and not let our jobs strip us of time with God in public and private worship.

The weed of riches. ‘Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.’ (1 Timothy 6:9-10) Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. If your focus is on money and not God, it is a spiritual disaster. In the short term, you might well enjoy having more material possessions, but the ‘big picture’ which is an eternal picture, is that what good is it to inherit the whole world, and forfeit your soul.

The weed of pleasure. This is a massive weed in 2021. We say we are too busy for the prayer meeting, and church and spending time with God, and yet we make sure we have time to watch our favourite programmes, and make time for sports, gardening, cooking, and holidaying. In other words, our focus is not on nurturing our relationship with God, but on our own pleasure, and the consequence is spiritual fruitlessness. There’s no end to it. The more money we have the more we want. The more pleasure we have, the more we want. That’s what’s so insidious about it all- it doesn’t happen overnight, but as the days, weeks, and months roll on, the weeds get thicker and thicker.

JC Ryle: ‘Thousands of things, which in themselves are innocent, become, when followed to excess, little better than soul-poisons, and helps to hell. Open sin is not the only thing than ruins souls.’

4. The good soil
Verse 15: ‘But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.’

This is the kind of heart we want to pray for every day. This is the man, woman, boy or girl who listens to God’s Word, believes it, and acts upon it. We believe the promises. We repent from sin. We hold onto this Word in life’s storms. And it produces real and eternal fruit in our lives. This ought to thrill us, that if we prayerfully and humbly interact with God’s Word, wonderful fruit will grow. The fruit of the Spirit. ‘For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.’ (1 Peter 1:23)

‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.’ (John 15:7-8 ) This is the person who doesn’t squeeze out God’s Word. We fit other things around church and family worship, and not the other way around.

Darrell Bock: ‘The only use of God’s Word that bears fruit is one that clings to it with patient steadfastness and a solid heart – a heart that says the most urgent tsk is to walk through life with all its traumas clinging tightly to God’s hand and his Word.’

Christopher Ash: Listen Up: ‘Pray often for yourself, that by his Spirit, God will grow in you a heartfelt expectation that God himself will speak to you as his Word is preached’.

Jesus says: ‘Be careful how you hear’. Which kind of soil are you?