Every Sunday morning, they perch among us. Listen closely and you can hear their wings flapping overhead. Singing voices have quieted, the preacher mounts his summit, the book is laid open. As the people fidget in the pew, readying to hear God speak through a man, the crows and ravens stir in anticipation. Caws and muffled croaks murmur in the rafters. Some sound eerily like a chuckle.
Jesus heard them as he got up to preach.
Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. (Mark 4:3–4)
As the preacher begins to scatter the good seed of God’s word about the congregation, it meets the path — the hard and trampled, unploughed and unhumbled heart. Disinterest, distraction, carelessness, laziness, ignorance all keep the seed out. The truth of Christ, of sin, of salvation goes into this person’s ear, rests atop the heart — never to enter it. Hearing, they do not hear. Seeing, they do not see. They never hear the word enough to turn or be forgiven.
Yet, the seed does not remain atop the hardened path — Jesus watches it get eaten by birds.
They watch from above. Heads jerk up-down-left-right-tilt. Eyes scour below, looking for seed uncovered, defenseless. There. A kernel rests for a few moments, exposed. Swoop — a dark flash falls as lightning from heaven — the seed disappears. The word about the dying God, the word of life, the word of warning, gone. Devoured. Perhaps a feather is left in its place.
The picture Jesus gives within the parable of the sower unsettles. What could the birds refer to? We eavesdrop on what he said to his disciples:
The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. (Mark 4:14–15)
Who devours the rejected seed from sermon-hearers then and now? Satan. He and his legions perch overhead. He pecks at the soil of our hearts. His crooked beak steals away the miracle seed. His twitchy eyes shift to and fro looking for gospel truth to devour.
This is a horrible revelation: Demon birds hover overhead — keen, surveying — looking down upon your congregation for ignored gospel words, hungry. We can imagine our discomfort if physical birds lofted above us during the sermon. How agitated we would feel if every time Jesus was mentioned they swooped down and came pecking at our ears. But Jesus reveals something more alarming, more disturbing to his disciples: these ravens feed with malice upon words that would save sinner’s souls.
Most Regular Church Attender
Many of us do not think of Satan much; yet he thinks much of us. You might imagine him among the murderous, adulterous, and false religionists on a Sunday morning — not the church. Yet behold one of his great objects of villainy every Sunday: to rob hearts of truth-filled, Christ-exalting sermons.
“You and I might miss a Sunday sermon — Satan doesn’t. You and I might neglect feasting upon the word — he won’t.”
You and I might miss a Sunday sermon — he doesn’t. You and I might neglect feasting upon the word — he won’t. The devil is the most regular and most attentive church attender.
He does not feast for nourishment; he feasts so you won’t, that sinners might not find or continue with Christ. Luke’s account has it, “the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12). Paul calls it, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Jesus would have us hear and through hearing with faith see his glory. “Listen! Behold!” he began his sermon. “Dismiss! Ignore!” is what the birds shriek.
But how do they do it?
How They Devour
How do demons steal the word from hearts? How do these birds devour the word? And while they do so decisively and finally with the unregenerate and dismissive sermon-hearer, my assumption and sad experience is that he has stolen ignored, half-heard sermons from God’s children’s mouths as well — though he cannot finally starve them into hell.
C.S. Lewis gives us an answer at the beginning of The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape, a senior demon, counsels his nephew, Wormwood, to stop employing argument to secure his patient’s unbelief. Rather, simply give him jargon, he counsels. To illustrate, he tells a story of one of his humans who wandered off into dangerous thoughts (Christian thoughts) while at the British museum.
Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years’ work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defense by argument I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. (3)
Sunday afternoon lunch. How many profitable sermon words has the contemplation of the after-service meal stolen from believer and unbeliever alike? Simple suggestions from the enemy — about lunch, that annoying mannerism of the preacher, the volcanic warmth in the sanctuary, Mr. Jones’s glaring bald spot staring from the pew ahead, Mrs. Jones’s unavoidable perfume — anything and everything but the word.
Pecking at the Mind
But can Satan really distract us by placing thoughts into our minds? He can and does.
Satan distracts, suggests, and lies in order to steal the word from us. Satan incited David to sin and take a census of Israel (1 Chronicles 21:2). The devil filled Ananias’s heart to lie to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3). Satan “put it into the heart of Judas” to betray Christ (John 13:2). Paul warns us not to be deceived and have our thoughts led astray from a pure devotion to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3). Satan lies to us, and when he does, he speaks out of his character as the father of lies (John 8:44). He captures people to do his will by untruths. His stratagems against us haven’t changed since the garden. Our enemy brings thoughts to our mind that are not wholly ours.
Commenting on this text, John Piper highlights threes ways Satan steals the seed: through inattention, ill-will, and ignorance. Commenting on inattention, he writes,
Satan works overtime to keep people from giving serious attention to the word of God. He may keep you up late Saturday night so that you can’t stay awake during the sermon or Sunday School. He may put a dozen different distractions around you in the service to take your mind away from the message. He may send thoughts into your mind about tomorrow’s meeting with your supervisor. If he can only distract you so that the sounds coming out of the preacher’s mouth go in one ear and out the other, he will have successfully taken away the word of God and made it ineffectual for you. Inattention is his game.
“When we long for a distraction, Satan will provide it.”
Now see Satan hovering above you, suggesting trifles, mocking, and bringing endless distractions to your mind to keep the truth from germinating. When the good word meets hard soil — or good but unprepared soil — he strikes to steal. When we long for a distraction, Satan will provide it. How many well-timed daydreams about the football game or this week’s plans have stolen serious contemplations about Christ from our own hearts Sunday after Sunday?
To Those Who Hear Sermons
Dear Christian reader, the pew is a battleground. Every week, either we will feast on the word or Satan will. He sees the significance of the word preached weekly to us — do we?
He visits your church. “That malicious spirit is unwearied in his efforts to do us harm,” J.C. Ryle assures.
He is ever watching for our halting, and seeking occasion to destroy our souls. But nowhere perhaps is the devil so active as in a congregation of Gospel-hearers. Nowhere does he labor so hard to stop the progress of that which is good, and to prevent men and women being saved. From him come wandering thoughts and roving imaginations — listless minds and dull memories — sleepy eyes and fidgety nerves — weary ears and distracted attention. In all these things Satan has a great hand. People wonder where they come from, and marvel how it is that they find sermons so dull, and remember them so badly! They forget the parable of the sower. They forget the devil. (Expository Thoughts on Luke, 158)
Is it not the case that sometimes we do not even make it to the parking lot before it is as though we never even heard a sermon? Let us remember Satan on Sunday mornings. Not out of paralysis — “for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4) — but out of preparation — “put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11).
And unconcerned sermon hearer, may I plead with you in closing? A man may refuse to leave his jail cell for the promise of freedom that Christ offers, but he might reconsider if he knew a tiger is in his cage. You are not alone in your unbelief; Satan is with you. He abets your pretense of atheism and lays siege on your attention and blinds you from the glory of Christ. Before you get to that parking lot bereft of what you just heard, Satan has visited you and ate what you would not.
Let us all, then, heed Jesus’s warning to be more careful how we hear (Luke 8:18).