Reading – Matthew 9: 35- 10:8
This is a pivotal passage in Matthew’s Gospel. Up until now it has all been about Jesus’ ministry, travelling around Galilee teaching, preaching and demonstrating who He is, by miracles of healing diseases, and casting out demons.
Wouldn’t it have been an amazing experience to have heard and seen this. We would no doubt have been among the many voices who Matthew says exclaimed “Nothing like this has ever happened in Israel” (9:33 NLT). That is really what you’d call an understatement. But now there is a turning point in the first three verses of the passage, when Jesus moves from His own mission to commissioning His disciples, and us, to become part of it.
If we are to fulfil His commission to us, it is essential that we understand the central purpose of our Lord’s mission. He uses the metaphor of “harvest” to describe the nature of it, and He leaves us in no doubt about the detail.
One day, as He passed through the town of Jericho, He encountered the local chief tax collector named Zacchaeus. We are grateful to Luke for the record of this meeting, and Jesus words to those around Him, making clear the central truth and purpose of His mission. We have it in Luke 19 verse 10 “The Son of Man came to seek and to save those who are lost”. And the meaning of that is also clear from His words that salvation came to the home of Zacchaeus that day. (19 verse 9)
In today’s Gospel passage, the meaning is made complete. Matthew says that “When Jesus saw the crowds, He had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” This shows the utterly helpless and hopeless condition of those who the Bible describes as lost in sin, and without Jesus as their Good Shepherd. (John 8:24; Ephesians 2:12-13 NLT)
The author Phillip Keller, in his popular book “A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23” describes how sheep can get turned over on their backs, and not be able to get up by themselves again. Such sheep are called “cast” or “cast down” sheep. These sheep flail at the air with their legs, but they can’t get back on their feet without the help of the shepherd. Left in this condition, helpless and vulnerable to their enemies, they will die after a few hours or days. What a picture of people apart from the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ.
As we reflect on the future after covid-19, and really on a new beginning, this is a timely passage to remind us where the central purpose of our life as God’s people lies. It must be the same central purpose as Jesus’ mission, for we cannot forget His prayer for us in what is often called His “High Priestly Prayer”, recorded in John chapter 17.
We may not realise that our Lord prayed to His Father there for each of us. But this wonderful prayer specifically includes each of us as He prayed: “I am praying not only for these disciples, but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message” (verse 20 NLT)
And here is the prayer for us today: “Just as you have sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world” (verse 18 NLT).
Now there are at least two things from today’s Gospel passage we should notice:
(1) The Condition of the Crowds, and the Compassion of Jesus.
When He looked at the crowds, it wasn’t just a superficial glance, and an assessment of individuals from how they looked. He saw beyond appearance to the spiritual need of their lives, and verse 36 says He had “compassion”on them “…because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (NLT)
That word “compassion” is used in the Gospels only to describe Jesus, it means “stirred to the deepest level”. His amazing Easter love looks at every person, and sees beyond appearance to the greatest need of their lives.
When we look at the people we encounter each day, do we only see the colour of their hair, the tattoos on their body, their words and expressions, or any other outward picture?
Our calling as God’s people to mission should change that, to see every person as the compassion of Jesus does, as those who need Him to save them from eternal lostness and to transform their lives. And then, we will want to offer any word of witness we can.
William Booth founded the Salvation Army in 1878. But what led him to do that? One night he couldn’t sleep and went for a walk through the slums of London. That night it was raining heavily on the derelicts asleep on the street, and it broke his heart. He went home and when his wife asked where he had been, he replied, “I’ve been to hell.” He saw the homeless as more than just drunks and losers, and remembered they were once somebody’s baby, and used to be loved, and rather than blame them for their condition and keep walking, he decided that night to do something about it, and give them another chance to make something of their lives. His organization was started with the idea of giving the homeless a hand up, not just a handout. In 1890 he published a book titled “Darkest England and the way out”. In the introduction he wrote: “My only hope for the permanent deliverance of mankind from misery, either in this world or the next, is the regeneration or the remaking of the individual by the power of the Holy Ghost through Jesus Christ”. Some may turn around and return to their old ways, but it was compassion for Jesus sake, that made a way for many to be saved, and their lives to be changed.
(2) The Commission we have as God’s People
In His teaching, Jesus used a number of different illustrations to make His message clear.
Now he moves from the sheep to the field and the harvest.
The sheep in this passage picture the lostness of people who do not know Jesus as their Shepherd. The field and the harvest picture the commission to us as God’s people to be working to introduce them to Him.
He used that same picture on another occasion recorded in John chapter 4, to teach the disciples about His mission in the world, and there He said: “wake up and look around, the fields are already ripe for harvest” and He said: “….the fruit they harvest is people brought to eternal life” (verse 36) The mission is clear, but the time is short.
Three weeks before President John F Kennedy was assassinated, he said, “Almost all presidents leave office feeling that their work is unfinished. I have a lot to do, and so little time to do it.”
As followers of Jesus, we have much work to do and little time to do it. We must give ourselves to it. The times we live in demand faithfullness in our mission . We are reminded that the Gospel is only good news, if it arrives in time. We may feel inadequate for this commission, but that is not how our Lord sees it. Pentecost assures us that He gives us all we need, our part is to be faithful.
And we notice in the last two verses of Matthew chapter 9, that we are also called to prayer for more to join in this call to mission. “The harvest is great but the workers are few”.
I’m sure all of us look forward to the time we can come together again in worship and fellowship. There is something special about meeting together, growing together in faith and love, singing the great hymns of faith, and encouraging each other. Someone has described this as getting spiritual calories and biblical carbs, that we are supposed to take in, and then burn up in service. Its worth thinking about.
But when we think about today’s Gospel, and the priority and focus of our calling to Jesus’ mission to seek and save the lost, we should be quick to affirm our commitment, as we recall His amazing grace to us, and for all He has given us for life and eternity. That is our witness, that is the good news we have to share.
It is so well expressed in a popular song written in 2001 by two British song writers. This song was chosen to be sung at the enthronement of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. It is called “In Christ Alone”. It was recently released in a special covid-19 cappella performance, by a 48 member choir, but in an extraordinary way. The 48 singers did it from 14 different countries in a combined recording. The song has been called “The Gospel message in a Nutshell”.
I have added the youtube link to the written version of this sermon, and would like to invite all of us to watch it, and reflect on its words with our own thanksgiving. I’d like to finish with the words of verse 1.
In Christ alone my hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This Cornerstone, this solid Ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My Comforter, my All in All,
Here in the love of Christ I stand.
Lord, may your word live in us and bear much fruit for your glory. Amen.