Hearing and obeying

…the seeds that fell on the good soil represent honest, good-hearted people who hear God’s word, cling to it, and patiently produce a huge harvest.
“No one lights a lamp and then covers it with a bowl or hides it under a bed. A lamp is placed on a stand, where its light can be seen by all who enter the house. For all that is secret will eventually be brought into the open, and everything that is concealed will be brought to light and made known to all.
“So pay attention to how you hear. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what they think they understand will be taken away from them.”
Then Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they couldn’t get to him because of the crowd. Someone told Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, and they want to see you.” Jesus replied, “My mother and my brothers are all those who hear God’s word and obey it.” Luke 8:15-21 NLT

Jesus’ teaching makes it clear that he wanted his followers to “bear fruit.” The parable of the farmer scattering the seed is all about the obstacles to bearing fruit. Jesus explains what we should avoid, what to resist, what to be on the lookout for. But his teaching about a fruitful life does not end there, with what we should not do. In the paragraphs that follow he goes on to explain the other side of the task: what we should do, what behaviours we should embrace, if we are to see a harvest. He gives us four keys to a fruitful life: clinging to the word, shining the light, listening, and obeying. They could be called “the four habits of highly fruitful people.”

Clinging to the word

…the seeds that fell on the good soil represent honest, good-hearted people who hear God’s word, cling to it, and patiently produce a huge harvest.

After hearing God’s word, that is hearing Jesus speak his life giving message to us, the first thing to do is to “cling” to it. Different translations of the Bible use different words to describe this habit: the NIV uses the word “retain,” The ASV and ESV say “hold it fast,” the KJV says simply, “keep it.” How easy it is to be tempted by other voices, to get distracted from the amazing message of Jesus by other promises of happiness and success. In an age of information overload, how easy it is for the Internet, the TV, the radio, even newspaper, magazines and books, to occupy hours of our time every day while God’s word contracts to only minutes, or even disappears completely in the barrage of words that enter our minds. How easy it is, as life goes on, to be overwhelmed by the cares and responsibilities of life, and to forget what Jesus has said, to look to other sources for guidance and comfort, or simply distraction.

Jesus, speaking about the gospel, the good news, knows that each one of us faces these obstacles, and he says simply, “cling to” God’s word, keep it in your mind, hold on to it, retain it. Don’t forget it. There is no doubt that the key to the Christian life is the “word of God.” We need to hear God’s voice, and we need to get it into our hearts and keep it there. That is the key to knowing how to live, what to do, how to speak, how to think. Every day, as the business of life crowds in, we need to come back to God’s word, remind ourselves of the wonder of what he says to us, and ask his Spirit to speak to us afresh.

There is no better way of doing this, than to read the Bible. There is so much talk these days of God speaking in different ways: through impressions in our minds, through dreams and visions, through circumstances, or the words of others. I do not doubt that God speaks to us in many and various ways. But the yardstick to use to decide if the messages we receive every day are the voice of Jesus or not is the Bible. Unless we have the words of this book well and truly embedded in our consciousness, we have nothing by which to judge the many other impressions that come to us, nothing to enable us to decide whether those voices are God speaking or something else.

Cling to the word we must. If we have laid the Bible aside in the midst of the cacophony of voices clamoring for our attention, we need to pick it back up and start reading and meditating on it again.

Shining the light

A lamp is placed on a stand, where its light can be seen by all who enter the house.

The second key to a fruitful life is to “shine the light.” This is such a well known image, and I like to think of it as Jesus’ challenge for “public Christianity.” It is particularly timely in the post Christian Western world of which many of us are a part. There is increasing pressure on Christians to remain silent in a multi-cultural and multi-religious world. Christians in many countries feel brow beaten by secular society to keep their knowledge of Jesus and his words to themselves. Religion, the secularists say, is a private thing, not to be talked about openly. Growing numbers of voices blame religion for the problems of the world, making it the latest scapegoat for the mess of human society we increasingly see around us. In a world that pays lip service to freedom of speech, and freedom of religion, Christians especially are singled out as troublemakers for speaking out what they believe, and for trying to convince others that the words of Jesus hold the key to life.

But Jesus says we should be constantly speaking his words into the public arena. We need to understand how his words, what he taught, apply to the world we live in, and shine that light in the darkness. But what does that mean? Are we talking about preaching, about evangelistic campaigns? There is no doubt a place for such activities, but we are not all preachers. Most often shining the light means simply letting God’s words speak to others through the actions and attitudes of our lives and “always being ready to give an account of the hope that is within us,” (as Paul the apostle later put it).

Shine the light we must. If the word of God in us has been progressively pushed aside and hidden by the academic or politically correct “wisdom” of the world, then it is time for us to reveal this wonderful resource again to the world, and let its light push away the darkness that is enveloping us. We need to become “public Christians.”

Listening

To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given.

Jesus says that we should be careful how we hear. If we hear without listening, our understanding will be taken away. We need to focus, we need to ponder, we need to nut it out. The words of Jesus need to be our daily meditation. But so often that habit, which is of such comfort and joy to us when we first encounter Jesus, dies as the years pass. Do the words of Jesus lose their power, their brilliance, their relevance? Surely not. But our ears become jaded, we feel we have heard it all before, we go looking for new “wisdom” from other sources, we are drawn away by other voices. We start to live as if reading the news on the Internet, or articles linked to our social media, will be more helpful to us in surviving the struggles of life than the timeless words of Jesus.

But there is a consequence to this, Jesus says. The less we listen to Jesus, the less relevant he will seem to be. We need to make an effort. It is like marriage, or parenting, or cultivating an orchard, it doesn’t just happen. We need to tune in, we need to take notice. Sure our efforts may not save us, but they will make a difference in our bearing fruit. We must be careful how we hear, and listen with all our hearts and minds. Otherwise even the little we thought we understood will be taken away from us.

Obeying the word

Jesus replied, “My mother and my brothers are all those who hear God’s word and obey it.”

The fourth key that Jesus gives to bearing fruit is simply this: obey the word of God. Often we lament the fact that we don’t hear God speaking to us – through the Bible or any other way. We say we long to hear his voice. We long for that thrill we felt once when we first met Jesus, when he never seemed to stop speaking to us. We wonder what happened, what went wrong, what changed; almost without us realizing it he seems to have become silent.

I suspect that this little passage holds the key to this unfortunate phenomenon. Somewhere along the line we stopped obeying the still small voice of Jesus. Jesus words are not just philosophies on the meaning of life; they contain within them instructions on how to live, how to speak, how to think. Instructions are to be followed, but we so easily ignore them, especially when they are uncomfortable (“love your enemies,” for example!).  However, I suspect that when we stop obeying, Jesus badgers us for awhile, but finally gives up and stops speaking.

If we obey, on the other hand, we experience the joy of becoming family. We enter into the purposes of God for the world. We join his mission, we become part of his message of hope and healing, we begin to bear fruit. We become, as Jesus explains so succinctly, part of his family, taking on his identity, developing a family likeness. That fills him with joy, and results in fruit being produced.

The harvest

So Jesus has taught us what we need to do – and what we need to avoid – if we are to bear fruit. But what exactly is the fruit that Jesus speaks of? This little teaching of Jesus says much about that too, but the fruit he speaks of is not necessarily what we think of when we think of “a huge harvest.” We have a tendency to focus on numbers: people converted, churches built, people groups reached. But I think that the harvest Jesus speaks of is much more than that, and his words provide a clue to that.

First, and perhaps the greatest fruit of clinging to the words of Jesus, is that our relationship with God continues, rather than withering away. It would appear that God’s intention in creating humanity was for friendship with him, and so if that friendship grows and thrives we are living as God intended. The result is joy, deep joy, and a peace that passes all understanding. We become the honest, good hearted people, that Jesus speaks of. This is the fruit of holding fast to God.

The second fruit is light shining in the darkness, and this too is something to be celebrated in a world messed up by human pride, self-centredness and corruption. Since the time of Jesus his teachings and his presence in peoples’ lives have been making a profound difference to the dark world we live in. This is as true on a personal level, in the little circles of our individual lives, as it is on a societal, national, even international level. We are called to shine the light in our families, in our workplace, in our communities. The light of Jesus in us makes the lives of the people around us better, as much as it improves our own. There are times when it seems evil – the darkness – is winning in the world. Those are times to hold fast to Jesus and his words, to steadfastly obey his radical commands, as hard as that might be, for then the darkness is pushed back.

But there is more to be had from this life of faith: a third fruit of clinging to the words of Jesus is that our understanding and wisdom grow. For me as a doctor I realize that much of my understanding of people and illness and the nature of things comes not from my medical textbooks and the wisdom of man, but from the words of Jesus in me, accumulated from years of listening to him. For this I am forever thankful, and I believe it makes me a better doctor.

Finally, but not least, as we follow Jesus, diligently listening and bravely obeying, doggedly living out the life he shows us, we gain a sense of belonging, satisfying one of the most foundational human needs. We belong to Jesus, we belong to his family. We gain identity, purpose and meaning. This too brings great joy.

So the harvest that Jesus speaks of is not just about growing the church, extending the kingdom to every people group on the planet. It is also very much for us: a growing relationship with our Creator and our fellow humans, a peace that passes understanding, a growing wisdom and deepening joy, the experience of living in the light.

Many years after Jesus spoke these words one of his most well known followers wrote a letter in which he unpacked this whole concept of the fruit that comes from knowing and following Jesus. He called this “life in the Spirit,” and it worthwhile reading his exposition. His name was Paul, and the letter he wrote was to Jesus followers in Galatia, a region of the ancient world. He summarized the “harvest” as follows:

The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

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