The Harvest

John and Betty Stam, a young American couple, were married in 1933, and began their life together in China. Two happy, unpretentious missionaries at the start of a lifetime of service. They were unreservedly dedicated to their call. They were also aware of how much they had to learn, ready for the hardships and setbacks of Christian work in a foreign land. Their aim was simple: to "talk about [Jesus] to everybody, and live so closely with Him and in Him, that others may see that there really is such a person as Jesus." We shall come back to their experience shortly. No doubt they were very familiar with the passage from Matthew's Gospel that we heard earlier - and in particular with the four verses that I would like to focus on this morning, that is: Matthew 9.35-38. Now I want to look at these verses in three parts: first, v35, which is about the Ministry of Jesus; then v36 which speaks of the Compassion of Jesus; and then vv36-37, which relate to the Mission of Jesus. You will see those headings on the sermon outline that's on the back of the yellow notice sheet. If you wanted to give someone an idea of what Jesus was like, this would not be a bad place to start. It is one of those periodic summary passages in Matthew which distil what Jesus was about. So, first of all: THE MINISTRY OF JESUS: BRINING THE KINGDOM NEAR. Look at v35:

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.

The Jewish historian Josephus, writing about a generation after Christ, said that there were over 200 towns and villages in the region of Galilee, all with a population of least 15,000. Even allowing for some inaccuracy, that is a lot of people and a lot of towns to visit. How did Jesus use the time that was available to him? He did three things: teaching; preaching; and healing. He taught in the synagogues. There is an example of him doing just that in Luke's Gospel, 4.14 -30, which takes place in Jesus' home town of Nazareth. What he did in his teaching in that synagogue was to apply to himself the Old Testament Scriptures about the messiah - God's anointed King who would come to rescue and rule the world. He quoted Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor." Then when he finished reading he sat down. Everybody was staring at him, wondering what he would say next. And he said to them: "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." That is the heart of Jesus' teaching from the Bible. He says that all the promises of the Scriptures point towards him. He is the long-awaited, God-appointed King. As well as teaching in the synagogues, Matthew says, Jesus went about "preaching the good news of the kingdom." Back in 4.17 there is another summary verse which says: "From that time on [that is, from the beginning of his public ministry] Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." That is the good news of the kingdom. The kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is God's rule, gathering his people from all the nations, destroying all that wants to destroy them, and restoring them to a right relationship with him - a relationship of obedience and trust and love. Why is the kingdom of God near? Because the Jesus is the King of the kingdom, and the King has arrived to begin his reign. Where Jesus is, there is the kingdom of God. Jesus says the kingdom is near. But the kingdom has not yet fully and finally arrived, for two reasons. First, Jesus at this stage has not yet fought the decisive battle. He has not yet won the decisive victory that will bring in the kingdom. That lies ahead of him, at Calvary. It is in his death and resurrection that the forces of the kingdom of darkness are defeated once for all. But here in Matthew 9 that great battle still lies ahead. Secondly, the mopping up of the kingdom of darkness is still going on. It will not finish until Jesus returns on the Last Day. Sin and Satan and death itself were mortally wounded at the cross. Today they are in their long drawn out death throes. They still lash out but their days are strictly numbered. When Jesus returns, then the kingdom of darkness will be utterly and finally destroyed. The good news is that we can enter the kingdom of God today. Our experience of it is still partial, but our citizenship is secured. If we recognise the King who has come among us, and shift our allegiance to him, then he will forgive our rebellion and welcome us among his people. That is repentance and faith. That is what it means to be a Christian. As the apostle Paul says in Colossians 1.13-14, if you have repented, then God our Father has "rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in who we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." So Jesus, the King of the kingdom, went through all the towns and villages, "preaching the good news of the kingdom", and calling people to repent, and believe, and enter the kingdom, and submit their lives to him as King. What else was Jesus doing? He was "healing every kind of disease and sickness". Why did he do that? Well, because he had compassion for people, and also the power to help them. So he used it. But there was more to it than that. After all, even then not everybody was healed, and those that were eventually fell ill again and died. None of them is around today. But, for a short time, there was the King physically present in his world, come to invite people into his kingdom, and to open the way for them to enter. So he gives a foretaste and a visual aid of what life will be like when the kingdom comes in its fullness. No more sin. No more evil. No more death. No more disease. That is the prospect that awaits the citizens of the kingdom. "Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness." That was what he did. What then was in his heart? That is what v36 makes clear, and this is my second heading: THE COMPASSION OF JESUS: SHEPHERDING LOST SHEEP. Verse 36:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harrassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

This is a powerful, gut-wrenching reaction that is being described. He could have been aloof and indifferent. He was not. He could with justice have been condemnatory and dismissive. He was not. He could have made excuses for people and down-played their sin. He did not. In Matthew 7.11 his one word description of the state of heart of the crowd is "evil". He could have despised the crowd, caught up in all their petty absurdities. He could have hated the crowd, which would soon turn on him and tear him down. But instead, his heart went out to them. He sees that they - and perhaps it is time that we included ourselves among them: he sees that without him we - wander around like stupid lost sheep.We follow whoever happens to be in front even though they have no idea where they are going. We get ourselves into deeper and deeper trouble, torn apart by predators and worn down by fear, with not the slightest hope of ever extricating ourselves from the valley of death that we have got ourselves trapped into. "Harrassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." It is a graphic metaphor. But there is more to it than meets the biblically untrained eye. Because when Jesus says that, he is latching onto a powerful strand of prophetic teaching. In the Old Testament the shepherd is used as a picture of the leadership of God's people. And they have failed. God through his spokesmen is devastating in his criticism of them. They have oppressed, they have killed, they have done everything for themselves and nothing for those in their care. But God promises to put things right. He will be their shepherd. And he will send them a good shepherd. Ezekiel 34.11:

For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them I will rescue them ...

And then v23:

I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David [meaning the messiah], and he will tend them

But God had also said through his prophet Zechariah that this good shepherd would pay a price for his compassion. Jesus quoted that very prophecy to his disciples just before his death (Matthew 26.31):

Then Jesus told them, "This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.'"

"When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harrassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." The compassion of Christ lead him to the cross. John and Betty Stam had their hearts touched by the compassion of Jesus. They were lead to give their lives in the service of the lost millions of China. For them, too, compassion lead to suffering. Quite unexpectedly they found themselves caught up in the advance of the Communists, who overran the town where they were living. They were taken captive, along with their baby daughter. The Communists threatened to bayonet their child. A local man, who they did not know, protested. The Communist leader said "Then it's your life for hers!" The man replied, "I am willing." He was beheaded. John and Betty Stam were taken on a forced march. Someone recognised them and asked them "Where are you going?" "We don't know where they are going," replied John, "but we are going to heaven." They were brought before a crowd on a hillside, and the Communist leader poured scorn on their faith as a lesson to those who were listening. In the crowd was a Mr Chang, a nominal Christian who up to then had been reluctant to take a stand for his faith. But he was emboldened by the witness of the Stams, and pleaded for their lives. He was pushed away and asked "Are you a Christian then?" "Yes" he replied, and he was dragged away and killed. Then first John and then Betty were beheaded. A local evangelist whose work had until then been indifferent and half-hearted found out what had happened. He searched out the Stam's young daughter Helen and escaped with her through Communist held territory. He became a courageous preacher of the gospel. Now Peter and Elspeth may be glad to know that we are not all called to martyrdom! But that does not mean that the rest of us will have an easy time of it. Sometimes the compassion of Jesus leads us into struggles is of a different sort. I read the other day an account of missionary work in a remote area of Peru. Gene and Marie Scott went there in 1958 to tell the local people about Christ crucified and to translate the Bible so they could read about him for themselves. It took them years to learn the language, never mind translating the Scriptures. For 25 years they saw no real spiritual fruit. Many times they felt overwhelmed with discouragement. There was the struggle of trying to raise their four children; the fire that consumed all their work; the flood that washed away the village where they lived; long term illness; and periodic hostility from the local leader. Gene Scott recalls being asked one time: "Scotty, have you ever felt like quitting?" He answered, "Which time do you mean?" Twice he asked to be replaced, but nobody else volunteered to do the job, so he felt he had to see it through, and he prayed for strength to continue, which he knew he didn't have himself. But then in 1984 the Holy Spirit broke through into the lives of the villagers, and a period of spiritual awakening began. The result was that nearly all the locals began to gather in the evenings to study the Bible and to pray. Only five adults didn't participate. And these nightly gatherings went on for eight years, and transformed many lives. When he saw the crowds, [Jesus] had compassion on them, because they were harrassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. The compassion of Christ lead him to the cross. It also lead him to say to his disciples what comes next. Because, like the Scotts and the Stams and Mr Chang and us, they had a part to play in rescuing the lost sheep. So to my third heading: THE MISSION OF JESUS: SENDING OUT HARVEST WORKERS. Verses 37 and 38:

Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field."

The agricultural metaphor switches from sheep to harvest. This too is a biblical theme. However, 'the harvest' in the Bible usually refers to the end-time harvest - that is to say, the Day of Judgement. But here in 9.38 what Jesus means by the harvest is not the end-time harvest of judgement - but the harvest of salvation that is ready now, and that is taking place now as people hear the gospel, believe it, and are rescued from the kingdom of darkness and enter the kingdom of Christ. 11 years ago, 7 Christians here in Newcastle felt called by God to plant a church. Their aim was to make disciples of Jesus Christ among the Chinese community here on Tyneside. Today, 7 have become 100. But what has happened here is just a drop in the ocean. God's plan for the salvation of the Chinese who John and Betty Stam gave their lives for has seen an astonishing harvest in the last 50 years. In 1949 the missionaries in China were thrown out by the atheist Communist government, leaving about 5 million Chinese Christians, and seemingly closing the door to evangelism. But God knows what he is doing. Since 1970 there has been church growth in China unparalleled in world history. By 1992 the State Statistical Bureau in China was estimating that there were 75 million Christians in mainland China alone. It is this harvest of salvation which is the great work of the church in the interval between the first and second comings of Christ. And it is a work that needs workers. God uses people as the means of bringing other people to know him. Almost without exception, people come to Christ through the work and witness of Christians. Working in the harvest is by no means restricted to what we might call, for want of a better term, 'full-time Christian work'. All disciples of Christ have a role to play if they are faithful to their calling. But more full-time workers are most definitely needed. Where will all these harvest workers come from? God will call them, and equip them, and send them. Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to China in the last century said: "Depend upon it, God's work done in God's way will never lack for supplies." And that is true. So where do we come in? First, we are to pray for them. As Hudson Taylor well knew, God wants us to ask God to send workers, as well as the supplies they need. And God will hear and respond. Do you want to see the harvest of salvation increase? Then pray for workers. As I speak, the new 9:38 Conference is going on. It is named after this verse. Two hundred men and women are spending a couple of days considering the call of God on their lives. Our student team are among them. Pray for them. Pray that God would call them, and many others, to work in the fields which are ripe for harvest. We are to pray. But, secondly, we can respond to the need in another way too. We can become part of the answer to our own prayers. We each need to ask ourselves, as Peter and Elspeth have been asking, "What does my heavenly Father want me to be doing to get the harvest in? Which field should I be working in? What tools do I have at my disposal? How can I be most effective in bringing in the harvest?" There is always more harvesting to be done than there are harvesters to do it. Let's be praying - but not from a safe and comfortable vantage point away from action. Rather, let's be praying from in the fields. That's the best place to be if we are going to be aware of how great the need is for more workers. There is nothing like being engaged in the work yourself to motivate you to ask for more workers. Then it is not a matter of "Send them - it's not for me." Rather, it is a case of "We need help with this harvest. It's hard work and we are not getting it all done. Lord, please send some more to join us." So pray, and get stuck into the harvest. We have been rescued through the ministry of Jesus in bringing the kingdom near. We need to be touched by the compassion of Jesus, so that our hearts go out to the lost crowds around us, harrassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. We need to get involved long term with the mission of Jesus, praying for more harvest workers, and getting on with the harvest ourselves.

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