World Mission Sunday 2020
Rev. Doug Floyd
Isaiah 49:1–7, Psalm 67, Acts 1:1–8, Matthew 9:35–38
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” – Matthew 9:37-38
When I hear today’s Gospel reading, my mind often drifts back to my youth and the general sense of guilt I felt when hearing this passage. We read, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few,” but what I would hear is that I’m failing as a soul-winner. Of course, I took pains to correct this again and again. When I was in High School, I went to a soul-winning class at the church. I was the only teenager in the class. This training was guaranteed to teach us how to “close the deal,” to win souls, to fill our Bibles with names of the people we personally converted.
We not only learned the Romans road, we learned the tips of salvation salesmanship like nodding our head yes when we ask, “Do you want to go to heaven?” Like many evangelicals, I was exposed to a whole range of soul-winning techniques in my High School and College years. The spiritual survey, the four laws, the door to door direct sales, Jack Chick tracts, and street evangelism. I was also exposed to the less appealing, “You’re sliding down a greasepole to hell” technique.
I used to meet a friend at the Baptist Student Union to pray and then go out street witnessing. He would be praying and leading people to the Lord while I was standing talking to one person about the problem of pain and suffering in the world. Inevitably, all my encounters turned into the long conversations with no names to write in the front of my Bible.
One of my favorite door-to-door encounters happened on the streets of a small town in Michigan. An elderly lady invited me and my partner into her house. We gave our presentation and she listened politely, then she told us how much she loved the Lord. She was a sweet woman. Before we left, she pointed to a picture of Jesus as shepherd hanging on the wall. She said, “See that staff in his hand.” Then she pointed to a cane in the corner. “That’s it!” The more I think about it, the more I think she was right. Nothing prevents Jesus from caring for the needs of his people in every age.
This brings me to our Gospel reading where we see a picture of Jesus entering into the needs of people. If we back up slightly before the harvest passage, we read, ”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.” (Matthew 9:35). In some ways, this verse might be seen as a summary of Jesus ministry from the point of his baptism.
Matthew 3 records the event of his baptism. John the Baptist is proclaiming, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” After his baptism, Jesus goes forth with message and revelation of the Kingdom. In Matthew 4, he goes into the wilderness. Just as Adam and Eve faced the serpent in the garden, Jesus will face the tempter in the wilderness because the garden is now a wilderness spoiled by sin and death. Unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus stands and does not fall under the tempter’s seductive web.
Then Jesus takes the message of the Kingdom to the people. He gathers disciples. He proclaims the Good News. He heals the sick. Delivers the oppressed. In Matthew 5, he leads a few disciples up a mountainside. The crowds follow. He teaches the way of the Lord just Moses taught the way of the Lord from Mt Sinai. The crowds are astonished by His words and His authority. In Matthew 8, he comes down the mountain, heals a leper, heals the servant of a Roman Centurion, heals Peter’s mother-in-law, and heals crowds of people, calms a storm, casts out demons. In Matthew 9, he forgives a man’s sins who is promptly healed, he gathers more disciples, he raises a dead girl to life, he heals blinds eye, delivers a mute man, and faces opposition from the Pharisees.
Then we hear the words of today’s Gospel: “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.” (Matthew 9:35). In one sense, Jesus is the Kingdom even as he proclaims the kingdom. He himself embodies the rule of the kingdom and he is reordering disordered lives. Sadly, most of these people are His own people, the Children of Israel. The people raised up to be a blessing, to reveal the goodness of God in the world. But they are sick, blind, oppressed, and broken under the power of the evil one.
Today’s Gospel says, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36) As Jesus looks over the crowds pressing in on the mountaintop, following him from town to town, coming to him for healing and deliverance, he sees people who are harassed and helpless. The prophet Ezekiel, helps us to see what Jesus saw.
“Ah shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; 6 they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” (Ezekiel 34)
The shepherds have failed the sheep. The people are scattered throughout Israel, throughout the empire, throughout the world. They are weak, lost, injured, suffering alone with none to search or seek for them. The sheep have become a prey and food for all the wild beasts.
But the Lord has not abandoned them. He will come to the people, the sheep who wander far from home. Ezekiel writes, 11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.” (Ezekiel 34)
In the Gospel of Matthew, we see the shepherd coming to his scattered, broken and bleeding sheep. Jesus is beholding his broken people with compassion. We must not let our familiarity with the word compassion to dampen the impact of this response. This is a story of God drawing near to the anguish and pain of His people; God in Christ bears their heartbreak and sorrow. As Isaiah teaches us, He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He carries the anguish of broken and damaged human lives in his heart, his body, his emotions. His world mission is an expression that compassionate love.
Today I included an icon from Georges Rouault in our bulletin. Rouault focused on paintings of clowns, prostitutes, and Jesus. For Rouault, we are the crowns and prostitutes who are disfigured and broken. In his art, Jesus takes on our broken forms. He is not distant but has descended into human pain and suffering. During the years of World War 1 and World 11, Rouault created a series of prints focused on this theme. He called them Miserere or “Have Mercy.” (See the Miserere Series.)
His art helps me to understand today’s gospel and the call to world mission. Instead of guilt, we are moved by love. If we are ever to understand mission or evangelism or Gospel proclamation, we must enter into the compassion of Jesus Christ. We begin by heeding the deep, deep love of God. Christ calls us. Gathers us in our brokenness to Himself; He heals us; Adopts us into his family of love. He invites us into the mission of His kingdom, his mercy, his compassion for the harassed and helpless sheep.
Christ Himself can lead us into the lament, the grief, the brokenness of our community, our nations, and our nations. Christ looks at these very places of lament, loss, sin, and death, and he sees fields white unto harvest. So we pray for His eyes, His heart, His love. And for workers, including ourselves, who will carry the Good News, the healing power, and delivering grace of His kingdom into our homes, our communities, our world.