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"The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest."
Pray to the Lord of the Harvest
Jesus had been busy in ministry. We broke into Mt.9 half way through but the whole chapter shows Jesus at work. He was healing sick people, calling sinners to follow him or teaching all who would listen what they needed to learn. Matthew summarised this activity in v.35 showing us clearly what the priorities were in Jesus’ ministry at this time:
"And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction."
There were always people in need when Jesus walked on the earth and not much has changed on that front over the intervening centuries. The way in which human needs make themselves known may have a changed a bit but human needs have certainly not gone away. While our health services may have improved with the progress in medical science and the development of the NHS our deepest, most fundamental human need of being made right with God remains the same as it ever was.
And so Jesus had come and he went about doing good. He had come into the world having been sent into the world by his Compassionate Heavenly Father:
In exercising his ministry Jesus would demonstrate the same loving compassion of the Father who had sent him. Indeed Jesus understood himself as doing the works of the Father, works that the Father had given him to do and works which called for faith and trust. This work wasn’t done in a cold, harsh or unfeeling manner rather he saw the sorry condition of men and women and had pity on them.
Now it is not too difficult to recognise some of the problems that cause distress to men and women. Problems of sickness, paralysis and even of demon-
What was it that excited Jesus’ compassion?
Compassion is a response to the suffering or misfortunes of others. Specifically we are told that Jesus here was full of compassion because of the state of the people. Not that they were sick or afflicted with disease but because he knew them to be:
Harassed and helpless
Sheep without a shepherd
I don’t know whether the crowds that flocked to Jesus would have described themselves in quite that way. Many folk are actually offended when they are told something similar about themselves. Our proud human hearts don’t like to be told that sort of thing and we’d far rather be told what we have to do to save ourselves. But until we realise the truthfulness of Jesus’ analysis and personally accept it we will not benefit more than superficially from him.
How do you see yourself this morning?
Jesus looked out on the men and women of his day and saw them as being in profound spiritual danger: they were exposed and had no protection and no-
Have you come to him?
Jesus also saw the people as "sheep without a shepherd". Now sheep are not the world’s most intelligent animals: without help they will get themselves into a right mess. Sheep, for example, can gorge themselves on food that is bad for them and this can lead them to fall over with no possibility of getting themselves up again – they need guidance and direction, they need to be led to where there is good food, they need to be taken to where there are supplies of water, they need to be taken to places that are safe for them. And Jesus when he sees men and women considers them to be in a similar condition.
But more is meant here too.
The language is OT language. Hundreds of years earlier the prophets referred to God’s people as sheep who were disastrously led by their failing leaders. The prophet Ezekiel declared that God himself would provide the necessary shepherd for his flock: this was a prophecy concerning the coming of the Messiah.
And now here was Jesus on the scene meeting the needs of the flock – the Messiah had come and his coming would change everything.
Jesus shares this understanding with his followers:
Seeing crowds of people flocking to Jesus all the time and now hearing Jesus describe the people as sheep without a shepherd the disciples may well have been tempted to be discouraged. The world it seemed was full of problems and difficulties. It is easy to be overwhelmed when confronted with seemingly limitless need.
Jesus did not react that way at all and spoke to his disciples so that they would not be tempted to give way to despair but that they might rise to the challenge and seize the opportunities for opportunity is just what Jesus understood the situation to be full of!
And what makes me say that?
v.37 "The harvest is plentiful."
In speaking of a harvest Jesus changed the picture: he was referring to bringing people into the Kingdom of God. A harvest brings about significant change – it is monumental and life transforming. This language tells us that we are not automatically already in the Kingdom we must be "harvested", "gathered", or "collected". Jesus had begun to do this as he went around preaching, teaching and calling men to discipleship. What he tells his followers here is that the work is going to proceed and be successful for the "harvest is plentiful". Not could be or might be but will assuredly be!
But Jesus didn’t tell his disciples this merely for them to sit back and think to themselves: "That’s nice" or something similar. He immediately went on to tell them that they had a part to play and a role to fulfil in gathering this harvest.
In the ensuing chapter, Mt.10, Jesus would send his 12 apostles out on a mission. He would equip them and tell them what they were to do but it was they who would have to go and do it. They were to be labourers in the harvest field as they went to proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. A short time later Jesus would select a second and larger group of his followers (some 70/72 of them) and send them on mission too. Part of what it means to be a disciple and a follower of Jesus Christ is to be a labourer in the harvest fields telling others the good news of Jesus. Indeed just as the Father had sent the Son so the Son, Jesus, was to send his disciples into the world:
Jn.17:18 "As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world."
Jesus was also certain that their mission would prove successful and he included in his prayers those who would believe as a result of his disciples preaching:
Jn.17:20 "I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word,"
But before Jesus sent his apostles on mission he told them that there was something else he wanted them to do. And when he sent out the 70/72 he proceeded in exactly the same manner.
Practical response to the certain harvest
The Lord of the harvest
The needs were great. There number was so small. The task – that Jesus would later define in terms of going and making disciples of all nations – was enormous. How could it be done? The disciples were not to rely on their own resources – they were to pray and to pray earnestly. Nor were they to regard this as futile because they were to address their prayers to the One who is Lord of the Harvest – this was to be the way forward. No other solution was to be envisaged and trusted – God must be invoked and involved.
Last Sunday morning we thought about how Jesus taught his followers to pray to the Father. Here we find God described as the Lord of the Harvest and this is a significant description. It means:
He owns the harvest
He rules over the harvest determining its certainty and its extent
What an incentive to pray and what an encouragement to pray. Prayer to such a One cannot be futile or a waste of time. Prayer to such a One will never just be about our wishful thinking – it is all about his settled purpose and plan and in that plan he has determined that there will be a plentiful harvest! As he is sovereign Lord of the whole world there are no no-
In 1967 Albania declared itself to be the first atheist state as men railed against religion and banned all religious practice. It didn’t last long. In 1991 with the fall of state communism religious practices were resumed. There are some 200 evangelical congregations in Albania today as the church grows.
In the early 1950s the government in China took the decision to expel all foreign missionaries from Chinese soil. There were many fears expressed at the time that the cause of Christ was about to suffer greatly perhaps even being eradicated entirely from China.
Wind the clock on a few decades and what do we find?
China is estimated to have the third largest number of Christians of any nation in the world and, according to a report in 2013, had the second fastest growing Christian population in the world. The list of the top twenty such countries makes for interesting reading: it is topped by Nepal and 11 others are muslim majority countries!
The gospel spreads and spreads because God is Lord of the Harvest and because Jesus has promised to prosper his church. When I read such stats it makes me think of verses like
Lk.1:37 "For there is nothing that God cannot do."
Mk.10:27 "This is impossible for human beings, but not for God; everything is possible for God."
But Jesus told his followers that there was a role for them and others to play in this harvesting process. It pleases our gracious Father to use human beings like us as his means to bring people into the Kingdom. So we are to pray; we are to pray for labourers, those who will work hard and determinedly for the Kingdom and we are to be ready to become labourers ourselves.
Sometimes you will hear people say that God needs us and that he doesn’t have any hands but ours but that is not what it is all about. It is that God has chosen to use us – to be involved in his work is not a chore but an immense privilege. If God has chosen to work in this way by using means let us remember that it remains him and him alone by his Spirit who can breathe new life into a lifeless, lost soul.
When we look out on our world we are not meant to throw up our hands in horror and imagine that it is all beyond us because we are not alone! It is God’s work and Jesus has told his followers that the harvest will not be puny but plentiful.
So let us join in prayer as Christians have done down through the ages to pray earnestly that the Lord thrust out labourers into his harvest fields.
Those harvest fields include the UK where many churches languish for want of a pastor; where there is a real need of gifted evangelists as well as a great need for ordinary Christians to be mobilised by the Lord for active service. There is need in just about every country under the sun: whether those labourers be missionaries called to leave our country to go to another or whether it be national Christian raised up for service in their own lands, or whether it be for Christians to be sent our from one foreign country to another or even our own.
We haven’t been told about all the details of who should go where but we have simply been told to pray! We leave the other details to him. But as we pray for workers we should also pray that the finances that are needed should be forthcoming. It may well be that as we pray more earnestly we’ll have the joy of seeing answers to our prayers and want to maintain our involvement in praying for those who have been sent out.
And to God be the glory.