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“Unpacking Kingdom Secrets for a Screen Generation”

May 26/13 Lk.8:9-18


“This is a world that does not know how to do ‘human’; Jesus came to show us this, how to DO ‘human’.” That’s one of the insights Dr.Leonard Sweet shared with our denomination’s General Assembly earlier this month; I’d like to incorporate some of his ideas as we consider today how Jesus might be calling His people in the church to bear witness for Him in this present age. Culture is changing, and we need to understand what it’s listening to if we hope to gain an audience for the Good News about Jesus Christ.
    “This world does not know how to do ‘human’.” But let’s flip back a hundred years. My father tells how on a Friday night in the winter in rural Perth County they would hitch up the horses, hop in the sleigh and travel a few miles to the cousins’ place (yes people really did live that close back then). There Aunt “Mary F” would play the piano, great-uncle Norman would rosin his bow and offer up some tunes while the rest would dance around the whole house, from one room to another, all the way back around and so on. Or maybe they would play euchre and swap stories in between the hands. There wasn’t a single screen in the place: radio was in its infancy and stations were very few. Television wouldn’t be introduced for another 40 years.
    The last half of the 20th century posed a challenge for morals as TV programs gradually changed from wholesome fare like “Leave It to Beaver”, “Bonanza”, “Red Skelton” and “The Ed Sullivan Show” to reflect every kind of personal preference (deviant or otherwise) the market could cater to. Pastors preached warnings against programming that featured (in general) more secularism and more skin. Yet, until TVs proliferated, generally the whole family watched a single show at a time, together.
    But recently I walked into a home to observe another stage in this transition away from doing ‘human’. Yes, in one corner of the room the TV blathered. However not one of the several youngsters in the room was paying any attention to it. They each had their iPads and Blackberries on and were focusing on their own personal screens. So, the TV’s tyranny over the family consciousness which endured for decades has been ousted! This truly is the “Screen generation”. Everybody has their own screen: if I don’t want to watch what you’re watching, I’ll choose my own programming, thank you very much. So a family can be in the same room and not really be present to each other – we’re more absorbed in what cousin Sarah in the States or Audrey in Australia posted on their Facebook than in the inner world of the person next to us on the couch.
    Jesus commanded the church, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” (Mr 16:15) Preach to all nations and cultures; that assumes we first learn a culture’s language so we can communicate meaningfully to it. Leonard Sweet observes that this is a culture that speaks in stories and images NOT words. Missionaries learn the language of a culture; so we in the church need to learn how to communicate in stories and images instead of words. Sweet calls using stories and images “narrative” and “metaphor”, or (as he’s in the habit of combining and coining words) “narraphor”. He calls this screen generation we live in a TGIF culture: Twitter, Google, iPad, and Facebook. Social media and the digital age rely heavily on image, story, “what’s happenin’”. Can the church make the shift from the Gutenberg generation - which relied on using printed materials including the book called the Bible - to transmitting God’s story in a way that people in a digital era will hear connecting with their story?
    Sweet relates that when he visited Bill Bright near the end of the life of the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, Bright wondered aloud, “What has happened to the world so that my Four Spiritual Laws aren’t working any more?” The modern generation isn’t thinking in ‘laws’ and ‘principles’ any more. To repeat what we said earlier, this is a culture that thinks and speaks in stories and images NOT in words. By contrast, Sweet pointed out that the new pope seems to have understood the importance of communicating in story and image: media outlets featured the story (with photos!) of the pope washing the feet of a young female Muslim prisoner around Easter.
    The Bible wasn’t written in chapters and verses: those artificial divisions came over a thousand years after the early handwritten manuscripts. Yet we haven’t memorized the stories. We’re afflicted by what Sweet calls “versitis”: many at Assembly could quote John 3:16, but we couldn’t recall John 3:15 or 17. The church is caught in an identity crisis, Sweet says, because we have tried to base our identity on words rather than on a narrative (story). He maintains (and this might get a little testy considering our exposure to Del Tackett!) it’s not about “worldview” but life-story.
    Jesus, on the other hand, used stories and metaphors to change lives and change the world. We need to learn from Jesus how to tell the story. When He preached, He didn’t say, “Here is a list of the 7 key features of the Kingdom...” He told stories, parables. “The Kingdom of heaven is like” a lost coin, a lost sheep, a dysfunctional pair of sons. Culture is hungry for the stories of Jesus (rather than the verses or words).
    Today let’s take some time to look at one of Jesus’ most classic parables to see how He used story and image to connect THEIR story with His.


The beginning of Luke 8 describes Jesus travelling about “from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.” (8:1) 8:4 indicates “a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town...” How did He attract such an audience, in a remote location? He did not use PowerPoint and a dry lecture format! Matthew 13:34, “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.”
    V5 The parable this day featured “a farmer [who] went out to sow his seed.” Now here was something these agriculturally-based rural folk could RELATE to. Spiritual devotion, the faith-enterprise, like farming, is a RISK. A farmer has to make the painful decision to invest in seed and then bury it in the ground, totally at the mercy of the elements and ground conditions. Seed is good for other things, too – you could eat it, sell it - or bury it. You’re at least guaranteed some benefit with the first two options, but not the third. Yet you’ll never see a harvest unless you have faith, take the risk, and bury the seed beyond hope of reclamation.
    Becoming a Christian can be like that. To let your classmates know you follow Christ can be to “bet the farm” – to bet your popularity: they may pull back, fearing you’ll douse the enthusiasm of their partying. Your social network may feel a bit strained if your convictions prevent you from participating in what everybody else is doing. When you put your money in the offering plate you’re betting faithful giving is better than financial security thosee extra dollars might have afforded. And, to publicly confess Christ is to stake your ETERNITY on what you put your faith in. Those are high stakes!
    Verses 5-8 reveal a story of hopefulness against all odds. Some seed gets trampled on and eaten by birds; some falls on rock and withers in the heat; other seed gets choked out by competitive thorns. 3 down, 1 to go! This seed sure isn’t doing well at all. Is it going to make it?
    Suppose your team is down by one with minutes left in the third period of a game in the Stanley Cup playoffs. A biased ref calls a dubious penalty against your team. Yet, somehow, even though your team is shorthanded, they manage to score a goal! Then 27 minutes into overtime they manage to win the game! What a night!
    It’s that sort of optimism and hopefulness this story AS STORY exudes. Despite three groups of seed being trampled, withered, and choked, still other seed falls on good soil and yields more than was sown - a hundred times more! Against all odds, the seed in the good soil has overcome the forces arrayed against it.
    Imagine the points of contact between Jesus’ story and these first-century agrarian-based people of Roman-occupied Palestine way out there in the rural “outback”. Life is a constant struggle – scrambling to harvest food, health constantly at risk, taxation a heavy burden imposed by overlords, oppression rampant (remember the Romans could force you to carry their pack a mile anytime they wanted, and crucifixion of rebels was common). But Jesus’ narrative suggests there is HOPE!
    In v10 Jesus alludes to the purpose of parables: they are richer and more complex in meaning than simple propositions which have a clearly defined meaning like 2x3=6. Parables are capable of interpretation on multiple levels; they obscure understanding for some, but Jesus offers the key in revealing knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom of God for those who follow Him closest. V12 the devil takes away the word from some people’s hearts; v13 being sown on rock results in no roots; a time of testing (such as privation like many peasants faced regularly) could result in falling away. V14 the thorns are an opposite trial: the pressure or choking of life’s worries, riches, and pleasures – even wealth brings its own hardships! Yet v15 the seed on good soil points to believers with “noble and good heart” who retain the word, integrate it into their lives, PERSEVERE despite trials and so bear a good crop.


Jesus follows the parable with some other word-pictures that highlight the importance of getting the story out in a way that people can access and understand. V16 We’re to put a lamp on a stand so others can see the light, rather than hide it in a jar or stick it under the bed (where it might even catch fire!). Sweet noted many of us learned about the Gospel on a flannelboard at VBS; what’s the equivalent today? The Gospel in Lego? Instead of stained glass windows, what about the church picturing Bible stories in painted murals on walls of rented buildings? How do we build on culture’s desire to “play” - hold Christian soccer camps, or hockey for fun with genuine sportsmanship? When Blyth has its “StreetFest” this summer, what about doing some street dramas Covenant-Players style?
    V17 “For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” God wants to get the word or story out, to reveal and make Himself known not bottle the message up. How can we unpack the narrative about Jesus meaningfully, artistically in such a way that culture will give it a hearing? (E.g.Christian graffiti walls at Pitch & Praise)
    V18 “Therefore consider carefully how you listen.Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him.” What’s informing the story YOU have to tell? What are you listening to, giving your attention to in your spare time? Is it adding to or detracting from the richness of your relationship with Christ? What’s getting in the way, obscuring, choking, trampling, or diverting (like birds snatching the seeds) your concentration on what God is trying to show you?
    Jesus noted the seed that fell on rock, or shallow soil like some parts of this province where you have Canadian Shield close to the surface - such seed had no depth of soil so withered because it had no moisture. Are you carving out enough of your day to give your spiritual life some DEPTH or do you just grab a verse here and a song there? It takes time to develop roots; margins in order to patiently, quietly listen for and incorporate God’s whispers. Jesus warns if we DON’T “have” - perhaps if we’re spiritually anorexics - even what we suppose we have will be taken away.
    Here then is a caution against a SHALLOW life – such as watching vapid sitcoms all evening; a CLUTTERED life – preoccupation with materialist concerns (like always checking the stock market) can crowd out spiritual richness; and an UNSUPPORTED or too solitary life, only surrounded by unbelievers who (perhaps unintentionally) constantly pick apart your spiritual moorings. Find a supportive church / friend / small group that will reinforce you spiritually as you haltingly trace the Master’s footprints.
    Where does the story of Jesus intersect here? Jesus the Suffering Servant became trampled and beat-up, deprived, choked, strung-up for our salvation – look at the figure on the cross to see how far the Son of God went downward, being buried like a seed in the ground, that He might produce a bountiful harvest of blessings in the life of you and me, sinners.


“A farmer went out to sow his seed.” Leonard Sweet challenged us to adopt a new way to think about evangelism. We don’t “take Jesus” to anybody, he said: God is already at work in that person’s situation before we get there. The first step in evangelism is not “show and tell” but “shut up and listen”: draw out THEIR story rather than trying to lay on some external story. The second step is to then connect THEIR story to Jesus’ story. For instance, after they’ve shared some of what’s been happening in their life, perhaps a problem they’ve encountered, you might respond, “Wow, God’s really been up to something in your life!” or, “Seems to me Jesus has been messing with you big time.”
    And don’t forget – it’s not that you’ve “arrived” and they haven’t; we’re all ‘under construction’. Once during a snowstorm Sweet was following a big truck rather closely because of poor visibility. When it started to clear up a bit, he backed away – then he noticed lettering higher up on the back end of this truck: “Caution - construction vehicle - do not follow!” All of us have areas in our lives that are “under construction”. Our task is to make disciples of Jesus, followers of Him not ourselves, otherwise we might be reproducing our problem areas.
    Leonard Sweet closed referring to the words Ruth Bell Graham (Billy Graham’s now-deceased wife) chose for the epitaph on her tombstone. If you go today to her grave, this is what you’ll see written there: “End of construction – Thank you for your patience.” Let’s pray.