Hearing without lasting

The second type of ground that Jesus talks about is rocky ground. The seed fares better than it did on the hard ground of the path. This time no one tramples it and the birds don’t snatch it away. Growth actually starts to take place. The problem with rocky ground is that it doesn’t allow what grows to access sufficient moisture. So as the shoots of growth start to appear, there is nowhere for the roots to grow. For lack of depth and lack of moisture, whatever growth there was simply withers away.

Jesus explains what kind of people he has in mind in this picture:

And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. (Luke 8:13)

These are people who hear, who appear to respond positively to what they hear, but whose lack of rootedness means that there is nothing for the long term.

This week I spoke at a university Christian Union. They had asked me to speak on the question of what I can do for God. They wanted me to address some of the issues around discovering and developing our spiritual gifts. The next day someone asked me about the response. I said we would really only know in thirty years. Some of them may have enjoyed the talk – some said they found it helpful – but the evidence of its impact can begin to be measured when they have lived long enough to show that they allowed what they heard to become part of shaping their lives.

I lived near the north coast of Northern Ireland for a few years while I pastored a church that had a large influx of weekenders and holiday makers. The numbers attending services in our church used to increase significantly during the summer. There is also a buzz in terms of special activities with significant Bible conferences and special events for children. Crowds flock, with many people anxious for a spiritual recharge. There is a great sense of excitement from being in a crowd. The music is stirring, the speakers are stellar and the atmosphere is electric. And the seed of the word of God is scattered.

But Jesus says that unless we cultivate deep roots, there is the danger that we will hear, but that our response will not last.

Notice three things about the way Jesus describes the response of this second group of hearers.

Their response is joyful. There is excitement and an enthusiastic response to what they hear. In the immediate context of Jesus’ ministry, the message was good news that the Kingdom of God was coming. God was on the throne. That meant the prospect of peace, joy and hope. People began to realise that those promises from the Old Testament that some of them may have begun to think would never be fulfilled had not been forgotten.

Gospel means good news. It is good news to know that God is on the throne and that a time is coming when peace and justice will reign. It is good news – surprising good news – to discover that God’s anointed king has not come to bring this kingdom by means of military conquest, but by living as a servant and giving his life as a sacrifice for our sin. Imagine: a king who would die for his subjects. It is good news to know that Jesus has overcome death and that there is a hope that goes beyond ourselves.

I am writing this in the week that Steve Jobs died. Tributes have been paid by leaders from various fields. Some people have described him as a man who changed the world. His impact was huge (for example, I am typing this on an Apple MacBook) and his vision and creative genius indisputed.

A few years before he died, Steve Jobs spoke to a group of American students about death and dying. “Death,” he said, “is the destination we all share.” He described death as “life’s change agent.” The old has to make way for the new. And we call get old. Our time is too short to be wasted living someone else’s life, so we should refuse to be trapped by the results of other people’s thinking.

In other words, we should aim to be our unique selves. That is how to face the reality of the inevitable destination that awaits us.

In one sense there is nothing wrong with that. Steve Jobs was surely right when he urged those students to grab the moment and not waste their lives. But the good news that Jesus brings is good news that encourages us to find hope, not within ourselves, but outside and beyond ourselves.

Good news should be received (and shared) with joy, but the problem with the way these people respond to the word is in the second aspect of their response: it is superficial.

There are no roots. They respond enthusiastically and superficially to the initial excitement and  promises of the good news. But the message never gets to go deep into their being. It never goes deep enough to bring about lasting change.

That meant that their response is, third, temporary. It didn’t last. Once the going gets tough and their commitment is put to the test, they abandon ship. There is no depth and there are no roots. Once the initial enthusiasm gets dried up by the heat of trial, there is nothing left.

In the book, Living above the Level of Mediocrity, Charles Swindoll tells a story from the days when the Church was persecuted under communism in the Soviet Union.

On Sunday, believers arrived at a house church in the Soviet Union in small groups throughout the day so as not to arouse the suspicion of KGB informers. They began by singing a hymn quietly. Suddenly, in walked two soldiers with loaded weapons at the ready. One shouted, “If you wish to renounce your commitment to Jesus Christ, leave now!”

Two or three quickly left, then another. After a few more seconds, two more.

“This is your last chance. Either turn against your faith in Christ,” he ordered, “or stay and suffer the consequences.”

Two more slipped out into the night. No one else moved. Parents with children trembling beside them looked down reassuringly, fully expecting to be gunned down or imprisoned.

The other soldier closed the door, looked back at those who stood against the wall and said, “Keep your hands up – but this time in praise to our Lord Jesus Christ. We, too, are Christians. We were sent to another house church several weeks ago to arrest a group of believers …. ”

The other soldier interrupted, “But, instead, we were converted! We have learned by experience, however, that unless people are willing to die for their faith, they cannot be fully trusted.”

We would all agree that this was an extreme test. But it was their ability to withstand the test that demonstrated the reality of these believers’ faith. What they had once heard had taken deep root in their lives.

What does your faith look like in times of testing? What does your commitment to follow Jesus look like when the initial enthusiasm has diminished and, instead of standing with a crowd at an amazing Christian event, you are called to stand against the crowd?

If our hearts are shallow, and our response lacks roots, we may turn out to be people who hear but don’t last.

Part one.

Part two.

Next: Hearing without producing.

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