For the past few weeks, we have been talking about the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the Apostles and in our own lives. We have come to understand that having the power of the Holy Spirit evidences and sustains our faith journey with Jesus. The presence of the Holy Spirit comforts us and provides us with an understanding of the blessings we have in received.
As we discussed last week, the Holy Spirit also equips us to be salt and light in the world. As the salt, we are to bring a touch of God, a bit of heaven, wherever we go. As light, we are to shine before others so that people will know that our works, or deeds, are from God.
This week, I would like us to focus on a final element of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and that is the harvest.
The days of harvest, in Jesus’ time of public ministry, was understood by everyone. It was understood because failure to bring in the harvest, for whatever reason, could mean starvation and death. When crops reached their fullness and ripeness, there was a limited amount of time to gather those precious crops and get them safely into use or storage. There was an urgency to bringing in the food before it spoiled or was eaten by insects or scavenging animals.
Jesus spoke about the harvest in our New Testament reading today. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read, “35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field’” (Matthew 9:35-38).
At this moment, Jesus was in Galilee walking from town to town sharing the gospel message among the Jews. Jesus was attracting a significant following of people as he preached and healed everyone who came to him. Jesus’ behavior was a teaching behavior for his apostles. The first behavior mentioned was that Jesus preached the good news to those who had a desire to know God. Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom to people in the synagogues.
In writing, especially ancient writing, the most important person, or the most important thing is mentioned first. The first thing mentioned was proclaiming the word of God to those seeking God.
The second behavior cited was that Jesus healed those who were ill. Healing was an act of mercy and was used to authenticate the messenger and the message of the kingdom. Matthew placed healing the body as second to proclaiming the good news.
The third behavior cited was that Jesus had compassion on the crowd. The sense of compassion here expressed a deep feeling in the heart that stirred affection. What caused Jesus to be so affected? Matthew said it was because Jesus saw the people as harassed and helpless. Jesus felt deeply for these people because they were seeking the genuine God of peace and only found a religion that heaped upon them unbearable guilt and the weight of man-made rules so large as to make them faint trying to carry them.
Out of compassion, Jesus would later say, “28 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Being with God was not supposed to result in the fatigue of the seeker.
Jesus’ behaviors served as a testimony and teaching for his apostles in the conduct of the mission. First and foremost, proclaim the good news. Second, offer healing consistent with gifts given to you. And third, have compassion on those seeking God. Keep the focus on leading them toward God and not toward religious enslavement.
Having demonstrated the way of the mission, Jesus saw the need to minister to the crowds growing ever hungrier for God’s word. The time to act with urgency had arrived. “37 Then he [Jesus] said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’ Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness…5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6 Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons’” (Matthew 9:37-39; 10:1, 5-8a).
When we read Matthew’s gospel without chapter breaks, we realize Jesus was inviting the apostles to begin a period of prayer and commissioning for the mission of building the kingdom of God. Jesus could sense that harvest, the acceptance of a personal relationship with God, was ripe. People were seeking and ready. At that moment of readiness, there is urgency to act quickly. To delay the action would likely result in the opportunity being spoiled or for some an enemy to snatch away the harvest. Time was of the essence.
After the invitation to prayer, Jesus commissioned the apostles to begin their work among the people seeking God and gave them as the first order of business, proclaim the good news. Jesus gave them a seven-word sermon: “The kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 10:7).
Proclaim the good news. There it is again. The foremost responsibility of the Apostles was to share the good news. The Apostles never forgot that teaching from Jesus. We read in the Book of Acts, Chapter 6, “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables” (Acts 6:1-2). As important as it was to feed people, the Apostles knew it was second to proclaiming God’s Word.
Since proclaiming the good news is given priority in the mission, it must be the essential task of the harvest but not the only task. Having proclaimed the good news, Jesus gave his Apostles the authority to heal. The power to heal is the power to immediately restore to health all illnesses and disease. This power was given to the Apostles to authentic the message and the messengers. Jesus said you have received this power freely and therefore you are to give it freely.
Proclaim the good news and authenticate that message with healing. Those were the two behaviors Jesus practiced and the behaviors he taught his disciples to follow and to do so without becoming a burden to anyone.
Finally, Jesus told the Apostles, “12 As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you” (Matthew 10:12-13). Jesus was calling upon his Apostles to have compassion on those they met by granting peace to those who would receive them. I can think of nothing more compassionate to offer another person than to help create for them a sense of inner peace.
One of the most beautiful examples of inner peace is the 23rd Psalm. At every step, whether a blessing or a challenge, the psalmist expresses an inner peace because God is present not as a distant demand but as a constant companion, a friend. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. 3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever” (Psalm 23-NKJV).
This is the sense of God that Jesus desired out of compassion to share with the crowds and wanted his disciples to share with them as well. It is a compassion that leads to peace.
We have seen in these passages what was going on, how God was being revealed, and how the people responded to the revelation of God through Jesus Christ. When then are we to do with these passages?
I think there are three things that shape our understanding and application of this Scripture.
First, Jesus’ did not come to call us into a religion. If anything, Jesus came to call us from religion. Jesus preached that there can be only one ultimate loyalty and that the living God is the only worthy object of such loyalty. Jesus’ call toward God was a sharp distinction.
Think about the impact to your life of making this statement: “My first and ultimate loyalty is to God.” Allow yourself a moment to take that statement in. Yes, family is important as is work, my home, and my possessions, but eventually we will lose every one of those things. There are no exceptions.
Job said, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart” (Job 1:21a). When someone loses all those things and does not have God, then they have nothing but a total eternal emptiness and hopelessness. I think that is hell.
On the other hand, Jesus said, if you have God and his kingdom, you are always and eternally filled and hopeful. Not only that, but as things like family, work, and possessions get added, life in this world only becomes sweeter. And when we lose those things, yes, we grieve, but we have not lost eternity. We are not empty because God remains.
The Apostle Paul said, “38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Though everything may be lost, or will be lost, I have not been separated from God.
Jesus saw a harvest of people seeking something to end the emptiness and hopelessness of life that they could not fill with religion. Jesus wanted them to know God and be filled.
Look around you on any day and you will see countless people living full lives and yet feel empty. They have placed their faith in themselves or in human idealism and they are beginning to discover that no matter how much they wish otherwise people will disappoint us. In that discovery, they are finding that if they have nothing more fundamental upon which to depend than the goodness of their friends and family, they are bound to end in a mood of futility and emptiness. The fields are ripe for the harvest.
The second thing we learn from our passage today is that there is an order, a sequence, to bringing people to know God. There are three sequential steps to it: share the word, bring healing, and express compassion. In our modern manifestation of church, we are more apt to express sympathy, demonstrate charity, and then if we ever get around to it, then express something about religion or church.
Now do not get me wrong. We should do all we can to alleviate suffering by caring for those who have physical, emotional, or psychological needs that we can fill. Doing all those things is a vital way of displaying Jesus’ compassion but it cannot be all we do. We must share the word of God, the goodness of God, the filling nature of God, and heal and express compassion.
Our belief in God as our first and ultimate loyalty must compel us to see all life created in His image as sacred. In that belief, we must be filled with a powerful love that likewise compels us to want to break the chains which bind others in emptiness and hopelessness by sharing God’s message of love, by healing what God equips us to heal, and to demonstrate Jesus’ compassion.
Third, we must be recognize that the mission of the church is a divine mission. You and I are called by God to the mission of the harvest. We should let that sink in as well.
Jesus wrote a simple mission statement for the church. He said, “7 As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 10:7).
To sustains us on this journey, Jesus gave us a reminder from the harvest. Jesus took bread the byproduct of the grain harvest and wine a byproduct of the grape harvest and he used them to remind his disciples, including you and me, that he was part of this journey with us. Jesus said take, eat, and drink in remembrance of Him.
Remember that he invited us out of religion and into the purity of life with God. Remember that he sent us into the world, that as we are going through life, share that the kingdom is near, heal where you can, and have compassion on those who have need.
Let us then prepare ourselves to come to that table of remembrance where we will share from the harvest and commit again our first and ultimate loyalty to God and remember to share, heal, and have compassion in Jesus Name. Amen.