The Christ who sends - Matthew 9:35 - 10:15
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
I don't know how many of you have seen the film The American President starring Michael Douglas. But there is one scene in which the presidential advisor makes a speech highlighting the search for purpose in our world today and this is what he says: The people want leadership. Theyre so thirsty for it theyll crawl the desert towards a mirage and when they discover there is no water, theyll drink the sand. And of course he is right. We do yearn for some sort of spiritual water to satisfy that deep seated thirst inside-that longing for meaning and purpose. What is more we look to all sorts of self-proclaimed leaders to provide it. It used to be the political idealism of socialism, capitalism, marxism - much of which has simply evaporated into the mists of history. Now what is offered both politically and religiously is an appeal to short term personal gain - whatever will make us feel good. But as the thunder of war is heard once more around the globe, it is very difficult to find that much conviction around that our world leaders have the answer for a long term solution. Am I that far off the mark when I say that I detect more than a strong odour of cynicism in the air today?
Well, a similar atmosphere was engulfing Palestine some 2000 years ago. This too was populated by a people who had had more than their fair share of trouble and disillusionment. They too had heard the rhetoric of a new world order which was to come and they were not short of fiery personalities who were ready to proclaim a holy war to that end. But all they had to show for it was the tyranny of an occupying force-the Romans. They also had a law and order problems -Jesus parable of the man who was attacked by bandits on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho had some basis in fact. They too knew of the fear of terrorism, especially the groups called the Sicarii- the daggers- their favoured means of assassination and their rivals the Zealots. And added to all of this was the heavy burden of religion, a crippling system of dos and don'ts which instilled more fear than joy-the religion of the Pharisees. And so in the midst of all this confusion, uncertainty, moral and spiritual emptiness was there anyone the people could trust, who would deliver the goods and quench the thirst and longing in so many of their hearts? Well, yes there was and his name is Jesus of Nazareth. And in the section we are looking at this morning in Matthew 9:35-10:15, we discover three things which are as relevant to us today as they were to the people living then; a divine identity, a daunting commission and a divided response.
First of all a divine identity -9:35-36. You see, this leader is not one who makes idealistic pronouncements from the safety of a political platform at some seaside resort. He actually gets out amongst the people and rubs shoulders with them- He went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues. Do you realise what a tremendous feat that was? Before the days of mass communication and chauffeur driven cars more or less everything took place on foot and by word of mouth. At the time of Jesus in Galilee there were some 204 cities and villages, each with no fewer than 15,000 people. That means that if Jesus were to speak in 2 villages or towns a day ,it would take about 4 months to cover the lot. Apart from the shear physical energy to do that, add the emotional energy of people pressing in to hear him to be healed and you have a crushing itinerary that would exhaust even a young Billy Graham . But Jesus did it. And why did he do it? What motivated him to keep on going on when the rest of us would have been pushing for a three week holiday in the middle with weekends off? We are told in v 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Do you see who Jesus was concerned for? -people - not politics The word translated compassion is literally a gut reaction- he was moved to the very depths of his being. Why? They werent particularly starving, this was no Ethiopia with a commentary from Michael Buerk. However, what Jesus saw, which no one else saw, was simply heartbreaking. We are told that he saw them as sheep without a shepherd- that is, leaderless . What is more they were harassed and helpless, literally- torn down and thrown down beaten and bruised. What is all that about? Well, the background to this picture is to be found in the Old Testament, and especially the prophet Ezekiel and chapter 34 where we read these words in which God is speaking: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves. Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not bought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for wild animals. This is exactly what Jesus sees as he looks around him. Where are the leaders who should be caring for these people? Looking after number one back in Jerusalem thats where. Instead of offering hope, they peddle despair with Herod selling out to Roman rule for a peaceful life. And the religious leaders were no better, teaching that God is only concerned with the morally upright-so tough if you dont belong to the holy club. What he sees through compassionate eyes is men, women boys and girls starving for want of spiritual food, desperate for a word from God- a word of hope. That is why he spent so much of his time teaching. And while both the political and religious leaders were storing up their cash as people became more and more poor, Jesus reached out and healed- giving dignity once again. And the same is true today isn't it? When you look out on the queues of young people lining up outside Luckies on a Friday night, or the Asylum seekers gathering in town on a Saturday morning or the thousands of students converging on our universities- what do you see? More to the point :How do you feel? Well for whatever the short term feel good factor many are clinging on to, scratch a little beneath the surface and you will find the same anxieties, hurts and fears we all have-perhaps even more so now amongst our young especially , as job security is now a thing of the past, where family break-up is becoming endemic, where love is reduced to sex and the pressure is on to conform, where one can be lonely in a crowd. Like these people we are sheep bereft of the leadership which cares and provides.
So what is the answer? Again that prophecy from Ezekiel tells us: This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search out for my sheep and look after them...I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will shepherd the flock with justice.. I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David. And here he is doing just that in Jesus, King Davids greater son. That is what he has been doing these four months- preaching good news, that the kingdom of heaven is near-that is Gods saving rule. The shepherd they have been looking for has arrived. God himself has come to his people in the person of his Son. He has literally been healing the sick of course, the miracles attesting to his divine claims. This is God as man we are talking about. He has been providing the most wonderful teaching they have ever heard-not the teaching of the Pharisees, work hard, be good enough and God might accept you, but rather come to me just as you are battered and broken and I will embrace you. While the political leaders are only out to fleece the sheep, this shepherd is walking their streets ready to feed the sheep.
And perhaps you are here this morning and to be frank you feel battered and bruised, terribly let down-someone has betrayed your trust and the result is that you are hurting badly, afraid to trust anyone again. Maybe your parents, your spouse, even the church has failed you. The problem of course is that all of these are too human, irretrievably flawed by sin and self. You need someone who really does care, whose heart reaches out to you and can offer you some good news. Well, that someone is Jesus. His kingdom, his reign is an eternal one. It breaks into the here and now, and as when we surrender our lives to him we discover the one for whom we were made, and why we were made-to love him and be loved by him, and as we shall see in a moment, live lives of service to him. But it is also good news about the kingdom of heaven .There is much more to our existence than this life, there is also a life to come- heaven, and we need to be preparing for that, sure that that is our final destination and in order to get there we are going to need a guide, a shepherd no less who will protect us from the wild animals which would try and destroy us, the false teachers-even within the church-who would try and poison our minds with lies. Well, look no further. The divine identity of Jesus is clear- God says I will tender my sheep Jesus says I am the good shepherd.
But Jesus uses means to ensure that people come to know his saving love hence the daunting commission -vv 37- 10:10. Now let me ask: are you a glass half full or a glass half empty person? There are those who look at a situation and see nothing but a problem. There are others who look at the same situation and see nothing but potential. How do you think the disciples felt having been out on the road with Jesus all those months and still the crowds were coming? A holy groan might have been heard emanating form their lips dont you think? But what does Jesus say: What a fantastic harvest - the potential. But the workers are few- the problem. Pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into the field. - the solution..
Jesus recognises that even he cannot keep this up-more workers are required. God does not just wave a magic wand to achieve his aims, he uses human agents like you and me. And Jesus gets the balance between divine sovereignty and human responsibility just right. He says to his disciples, you pray- ask the Lord of the harvest to send workers into the harvest field. He is still the Lord of the harvest, and that is why we can pray with confidence. But do we? Without doubt as I travel around the country and hear what is happening, the most neglected meeting of all is still the prayer meeting-even neglected by elders and PCC members who are supposed to be leaders and setting an example. We complain that we dont have enough people going forward for the ministry or the mission field. We bemoan that fact that our Sunday schools are not as they used to be. But should we be so surprised if we are not turning up to pray for them?
But notice what happens. Presumably the disciples do pray to the Lord of the harvest to send workers into the field and straight away they are the ones who are sent by Jesus-which means that he has the authority of the Lord of the harvest, he is God - 10:1. We must be prepared to be the answer to our own prayers. You know so often we unconsciously twist the prayer of Isaiah. Instead of saying Here I am Lord, send me. We pray Here I am Lord ,send him. We might be happy for other peoples children to give up a lucrative career in banking to go out to Kenya or the Yemen, but when it comes to our own children we strongly advise against or promote the short term-well why not have a gap year, and then we can say they have done their bit. Maybe that is why some of us are reluctant to pray this prayer because we might be the ones who have to get up and do it.
But we say I am not the type God couldnt use someone like me. The amazing thing about this list in vv 2-4 is that they were not the type either. You could not get a more mixed bunch than this. If you were to do a personality profile on this lot the only one who would come out on top as having drive, political savvy and ambition was Judas. You see, Jesus is not looking for a certain type, he is ,however, looking for a certain attitude- a beatitude attitude- the humility to be used of God as we are. All that he asks of us is to do his work ,his way. And just what that is we see in the instructions which follow.
Now we have to bear in mind that this is a provisional arrangement Jesus is talking about, specifically for these disciples at this time. After the resurrection, things will change radically. But nonetheless there are principles which still apply today.
In the first place there is a priority vv5-6, the disciples are only to go to the lost sheep of Israel, not the Samaritans or Gentiles. The reason is obvious- at this early stage in Jesus ministry, you begin with those most likely to be receptive-the Jews. It is going to take something pretty amazing, like a resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit, before the lifelong opponents of the Jews, the Samaritans can be included as well as non-Jews. And that is not a bad strategy-begin with warm contacts, those who have some background and understanding in what you are hoping to share. That way you increase your support base and the number of workers who can help out.
Secondly, the whole of the Gospel is concerned with the whole of the person- v7. Yes, we must preach first and foremost the message of how we can be made friends with God through trusting in his Son Jesus, for our eternal destiny depends on that-no Christian no heaven. But that is not to be done to the exclusion of other concerns and needs. And that view is integral to Project Newland- we want buildings designed in such a way that we can minister to the whole person-hence ramps and space for wheelchairs and the like. But we also want rooms in which to do counselling, have after school clubs, providing breakfasts for kids before school if they dont get them at home-the potential is endless. But that is all in line with Jesus method here-the whole Gospel for the whole person.
Thirdly, we need to travel light vv 9-10. Could it be that one of the reasons why the church is so ineffective today is that it is encumbered with clutter, holding on to things that don't really matter and which hamper its mission? Maybe it does need to strip back, becoming lean and mean so that more money can be freed up to support needy Gospel workers rather than other things- preserving church buildings as museum pieces for English Heritage for example. We need that greater sense of dependence on God to supply Gospel needs through the generosity of his people- the worker is worthy of his keep. Lets free up more workers-many of our own who are living on a shoe string like our parish assistants who are trying to live on £ 5000 a year, releasing money so they can do the job God has called them to do.
But finally, we should not think any of this is going to be easy. Even though the harvest field is ripe, not everyone will welcome the Gospel with open arms-there will always be a divided response which is what -vv 11-15 are all about. Just look at vv14-15 (read). Do you know what Jesus is doing here? He is confronting us with the final judgement. Gang rape, murder, absolute godlessness, that is what marked Sodom and Gomorra in the OT. And God gave their inhabitants time to repent. They didnt and they were destroyed. Now according to Jesus, there is something far more wicked than any of these things. Do you know what that is-worse than murder, rape, lawlessness- it is rejecting Christian ministers and their ministry. And the reason why it is so terrible a crime is because it is tantamount to slapping God in the face, the very one who offers out to us the only hope we have of forgiveness and eternal life-by trusting in his Son. And the reason why it will be more tolerable for a city like Sodom and Gomorra than it will be for a city like York or Hull, is that we can have no excuse at all. At least the people of Sodom and Gomorra might claim that they didn't know any better-we have had the Gospel in this land for over a 1,000 years with a Gospel church within travelling distance of everyone. God has been so kind to us. And he still is. It is not too late. For Jesus looks upon the crowd here this morning and his heart goes out to us in compassion and he calls each one of us to stop being harassed and come to him, the one who said I am the Good shepherd. I lay down my life for my sheep.
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