A Sermon By:
David D. McDonald
Text: Matthew 9: 35-38
June 14, 2020
NRSV Psalm 113:1-9
1Praise the LORD!
Praise, O servants of the LORD;
praise the name of the LORD.
2Blessed be the name of the LORD
from this time on and forevermore.
3From the rising of the sun to its setting
the name of the LORD is to be praised.
4The LORD is high above all nations,
and his glory above the heavens.
5Who is like the LORD our God,
who is seated on high,
6who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
7He raises the poor from the dust,
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
8to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.
9He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the LORD!
NRSV Matthew 9:35-38
35Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."
Listen closely to verse 35 again:
"Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness." (9:35).
Verse 35 is a summary of the chapters that precede it. It is a cue that a new chapter is about to begin. The disciples are about to be sent out on a mission trip. As the story will soon tell in chapter 10, there was plenty of disease and illness for the disciples to cure when he sent them out as his missionaries.
As readers and hearers of the Word, what we learn about the nature of Jesus is this:
"When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd" (9:36)
Those words of Jesus, which Matthew records, bring to mind some of the great passages of the Old Testament. In Numbers 27 the story is told of how the Lord called Moses to the mountain and told him to look over into the promised land that he might see it though he would not enter it. Moses was about to die and the Lord told Moses:
"Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd." (27:17)
In other words, the Lord was telling Moses not to worry. He had carried the burden of leadership for many years and now it was time to pass the baton on to someone else. The Lord would keep His promise to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all their descendents. The people would be well cared for, and now Moses could see the fulfillment of his dreams without bearing the burden of battle.
Subsequently, Joshua, son of Nun, was appointed by the instruction of the Lord to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land. They did not perish in the face of adversity and warfare, but instead they thrived and grew strong.
In I Kings 22 we have the story of King Jehoshaphat conspiring with King Ahab to go to war with the Arameans. The temple priests were encouraging the war. To a man they praised the king's decision to go to war. Jehoshaphat asks the prophets:
"Is there no other prophet of the Lord here of whom we may inquire?" (22:17)
The prophets reply that there is only one other, Micaiah, and he always has something sinister to say. The king decides to call in Micaiah and ask him what he thinks of the battle plan. Micaiah, at first proclaims what the king wants to hear:
"'Go up and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king." But the king said to him, 'How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?' Then Micaiah said, ' I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd;...." (22: 15-16)
In spite, of Micaiah’s dire prophecy, Jehoshaphat and Ahab elect to go with the majority, and disaster ensued. Ahab was slain in the battle. The troops retreated in disarray. The tale is repeated by the chronicler in II Chronicles 18. With such a dark chapter written in Israel's history, one would assume that Judah would take note and seek first Yaweh and his will before making defense pacts with neighboring nations. Unfortunately, those who do not know history and learn its lessons are doomed to repeat it.
In chapter 23 of Jeremiah, the prophet declares: "Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!" (23: 1) Jeremiah declares their doom, but declares the promises of the Lord to the people: "I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing." (23:4)
With all the poignancy and power of Hebrew verse, Ezekiel records the trials and tribulations of the nation as she goes into captivity. He writes:
"Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals." (34: 2-5) Ezekiel goes on to prophesy that the Lord himself will seek out the sheep and rescue them. He will seek and search for them. He will save them from the days of darkness and feed them on good pasture and bring them to the watercourses.
Against this backdrop the words of Jesus are proclaimed. There is a clear and certain consistency between this image from the Old Testament and the work and ministry of Jesus. Our Lord was not so much proclaiming a new code of behavior as he was calling the people to reclaim their heritage. Jesus came not to destroy the Law and the prophets, but to fulfill them. The image of "Good Shepherd" was a perfect description of the life and ministry of Jesus. Moreover, it was an example which he would teach his disciples. They would go into all the world, "making disciples of all nations and baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded.....And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age." (28:19-20)
As Jesus observes the crowds and notices their lack of leadership, instruction, and direction; he concludes that this is the moment of opportunity. Rather than mourn the poor shepherds who have lead them to this place of dereliction. A new day is dawning. Jesus declares that this is the moment of the harvest. All is not lost; rather, this is the moment in which God's salvation will shine through the darkness.
However, there is one important and significant matter to be noted: "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;..." (9:38) For Jesus, the time is short. The cross is already on the horizon and the day of his crucifixion is at hand. There is, but a precious little time left to recruit and train his disciples. The crowds are all around him; who will he chose? The list contains names of men who at least on the face of things seem rather ordinary;
A Tax Collector
Jesus needed help to carry on the Mission. Like Moses he saw the fulfillment of the promise, but it would be for others to carry on the ministry. The simple fact of the matter is that Jesus chooses them. They did not apply for the job. They were picked by Jesus. There seems to be a rather pointed reminder here that God's ways are not ours. God will choose whom he will. The hour was at hand and the Lord used those who were available and would work for the kingdom. The apostles were identified by the work to which they were commissioned not the privileged place which they held in history. The churches of today are in that same position. The Christian faith moves forward by means of all kinds of people.
I reread a story this week entitled "An Inch of Kindness" (Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul, pps. 300-304). It is the story about a Sunday service two days after Christmas. The congregation had gathered and on a pew, mid way up the aisle was a form enshrouded in a blanket, asleep. Everyone assumed that it was one of the homeless of the city who had wandered into the church somehow, on Saturday night, having too much to drink, perhaps. The pastor began the service and took the opportunity to talk about the less privileged and how love and charity begins right in our own neighborhoods. Folks began to feel uncomfortable when he asserted that the homeless were in special need of their attention.
Mrs. Scupp thought about an encounter she had several days earlier with a dingy faced man who asked her for money. She became so rattled that she dropped her packages, fumbled around and gave him a couple of dollars. He helped her pick things up, but she was scared to death.
Joe Walden thought about the wandering minstrels that had showed up in front of his store and tried to make a few bucks entertaining on the street. He suspected that they actually drove away business. He thought to himself, "Yeah, sure. Show these people an inch of kindness and they'll ruin your business."
Margaret had encountered several ragged men in the grocery parking lot. She hated the thought of even going shopping. She was so afraid of what might happen.
Al was in law enforcement. It was his job to round up those who disturbed the peace and made nuisances of themselves. Every night he was called to some location and he kept thinking about the same old line he used, "move on." He wondered if there wasn't something more that he or anyone could do. He crossed his arms and tried to focus on the sermon.
It was about that time that the figure under the blanket began to snore. Its volume increased and soon several little girls began to snicker and giggle. Soon eyes began to notice that each time the chord was struck the blanket began to move and vibrate. A little girl whispered:
"Do you think he had a nice Christmas, too, Mommie?" She was quieted by hugs and kisses.
"God loves him too, doesn't he?" This time her father sprung into action and placed a finger gently on her lips.
The pastor was in his final prayer by this time and the little girl said, "Daddy, can't we share Christmas with him? Can I have some money? I won't wake him up. Promise."
There was a quiet rustling and soon the congregation was dropping money on this blanketed form. The congregation left. The pastor went back into the sanctuary after closing up the church office intending to wake the man and send him on his way. To the surprise of both men, Chris Gregory the fireman, sat up and slid out from under the blanket. It seemed that he had been to three fires and at the last call he had to rescue a homeless girl who was pregnant and about to deliver a baby. She had sought the warmth of a fire and it went out of control. He had taken her to the hospital and by the time he went off duty he was exhausted and he had laid down on the church pew which was near the station before he tried to drive home. He talked with the pastor and they agreed that the $600 or so which was all around him would be divided between the soup kitchen and this young girl who had another mouth to feed.
Chris Gregory was a fireman doing his job. Yet, somehow in the mystery of God's timing and his grace led by a little girl the harvest took place. Consider your calling. Where is the Lord calling you to serve? Let us pray to the Lord of the harvest for the laborers are few. May the Lord show us how to go about His business as we live our lives.