A Plentiful Harvest

2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Genesis 18: 1 – 15, Psalm 116: 1 – 2, 11 – 18, Romans 5: 1 – 11, Matthew 9: 35 – 10: 8


We are offered three wonderfully rich readings to delve into this morning. Each one is worthy of a sermon on its own, and certainly spending more time on than we can possibly have in a twelve minute sermon slot. Take the service booklet home, get a cup of coffee, a quiet place and a pen and underline words that catch your imagination, jot down ideas that flow from the reading – and then take time to sit with it all. You may be surprised at just how much God says to you.

This morning I am not going to spend time on that lovely story of Abraham’s hospitality to the three strangers, one of whom appears to be God, and the ongoing thread of promise, first found in Genesis 12, that Abraham will be the ancestor of a great nation. Nor am I going to spend time on St Paul’s rich and dense words in Romans 5 – beyond noting that some of the most significant words and concepts that Paul uses when talking about God’s love for sinners, and Jesus’s self-giving on the cross, are found in these verses. Another time, another coffee and the pen will see words like justified, faith, peace, hope and glory jump out of the text. Let your mind and heart be soaked in them.

What I would like to do is take a closer look at the Gospel reading from Matthew 9, beginning at verse 35. And I will do so under four headings, and then add a post-script. The headings are these: Context, Compassion, Harvest and Commission.

First – Context

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, as we heard on Ascension Day, Jesus commissions his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations (See Matthew 28: 16 – 20). The context of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole is in the setting of making disciples. This passage is often referred to as the Great Commission – and has inspired generations of missionaries and preachers and ordinary men and women to share the Gospel, the Good News of God’s love for all in Jesus Christ. Sadly it has often also been interpreted as a sort of formula for getting ‘bums on seats’ and forgetting the all-important idea of ‘making disciples’.

At the start of today’s Gospel reading we are drawn to the context of Jesus’s own ministry. His is one of travelling about from village to village teaching, preaching and healing. Everything else that follows – the commissioning of the disciples to go out on their own – is set in the context of this teaching, preaching, healing ministry of Jesus. This sets the scene for the task Jesus will give to the disciples. It will be their example and, by extension, should become our example.

Second – Compassion

Jesus had compassion for the people in the cities and villages he went to, they were like sheep without a shepherd. This idea of sheep without a shepherd is one that appears on a number of times in the Old Testament, especially in times of political chaos and lack of leadership. It suggests people wandering around in bewilderment, wondering what to do next, who to listen to, where to go. These people are the object of Christ’s compassion, of the divine love of God.

Political and civil chaos and lack of leadership is something all too common in our day. Just think of the recent awful news reports, which have been commented on in sermons and been the subject of our prayers, particularly on Wednesday evenings – the terrorist bombings, attacks on bridges, pubs and crowded places, and, this week, that terrible apartment fire.

The idea of Jesus’s compassion finds a strong connection with the writing of Paul in Romans where he goes to great lengths to point out that all are in need of God’s saving healing love, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Third – Harvest

There are two surprises in this section. First, instead of being overwhelmed by the lostness of the people, that sense of despair which is all too common when faced with crisis, Jesus sees opportunity. He names it as a plentiful harvest – ripe with opportunity. It is precisely into this context of lost sheep, bewilderment and crisis, that strong leadership, the message that all is not lost, and that there is someone who cares, is able to be heard.

The second surprise is in who the labourers for this harvest are to be. Not highly trained, well-skilled professionals, but a pretty rag-tag bunch of men whom Jesus gathered around him. Lest these men, they are named as disciples in the Gospels, begin to think this is their mission and that they are the important ones, Jesus reminds them to ‘ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers…’ It is, first and foremost and always, God’s mission – not that of the disciples.

There is a message for us here. We live in a world and country which is increasingly hostile to the Gospel and anything to do with Christianity. There are some good reasons for this – among them the perceived, perhaps real, hypocrisy of those of us in leadership within the church, and the abuse of power which has left untold damage on those abused as children, as women, as vulnerable people. Congregations across the denominations are generally diminishing and churches are, at best, only half full, with people struggling to pay the costs of heating, restoration of organs and conservation of beautiful, but expensive, church buildings. There are great swathes of the general population missing from our congregations. Where previously people sought out the church in times of trouble and for those life changing moments – baptisms, weddings and funerals – now we have fewer and fewer requests to perform these services.

In his first written communication to the Diocese Archbishop Geoff Smith has called on us all to pray – not a bad thing for Christians to do, and it certainly follows the example of Jesus. His is a call to pray for growth, to become more positively outward looking, genuinely upbeat because we have found renewed confidence in God. Become a praying people, people who are very clear that it is God’s mission, God’s harvest.

Fourth – Commission

Jesus took twelve very ordinary men and gave them an extraordinary commission. Their names appear in the 2nd paragraph of today’s Gospel reading. Apart from the first four well-known names of Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, there are three names of especial interest. Matthew the tax collector – one seen as a government quizzling and stooge, a betrayer of his own people. Simon the Zealot – perhaps today we might call him a freedom fighter, or even, certainly from the government’s point of view, a terrorist. Neither of these offers the best of pedigrees for the work of the Gospel. But it is the third name, the last in the list, which should really interest us: Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Jesus. His inclusion is a sobering reminder that even in the hand-picked bunch of people charged with bringing in the harvest, preaching the Gospel and making disciples of all nations, there is the potential for internal sabotage and opposition to the very Christ who commissions them all.

Notice that this motley crew of twelve are charged with doing exactly as Jesus did – they have authority over unclean spirits, and they can heal the sick. These twelve are sent out to teach, preach and heal following the example of Jesus Christ. Notice too that, at least initially, they are not sent to the whole world – but to those of their own kind, the so-called ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’. Begin, says Jesus, with those who already have some knowledge of God and God’s love.

Finally – a post script 

We’ve not read it this morning but, as you read on in Matthew 10, you will see that the Twelve are sent into a hostile world – like sheep among wolves (Matthew 10: 16). There is a cost to this commission by Jesus to teach, preach and heal. Perhaps reflecting the early persecutions of Christians that were being experienced by the time Matthew’s Gospel came to be written, the Twelve are warned that ‘they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues…’. Hostility, opposition, rejection – these things will come yourway. But remember, says Jesus, you will be given the words to defend yourselves, the ‘Spirit of your Father will be speaking through you’. Once again, Jesus issues a reminder not only that the task is God’s, but that God does not and will not abandon those whom God calls.

Let me end this sermon by reading to you the initial thoughts for a Diocesan Prayer offered us by Archbishop Geoff. In his own words it is rough and needs more work, but does capture the essence of his call to the Diocese to pray for growth – particularly topical given today’s reflection on the harvest waiting for labourers.

Living God, we thank you for your vision for the whole creation

and that you call us to share in your mission.

We pray that you grow your church:

     Bring more people to faith in Jesus.

     Deepen our trust in you and knowledge of you.

     Help us to serve and bless our community,

     And strengthen us to be generous with the money you give us to look after.

May we grow as disciples of Jesus and make disciples of others for the blessing of the world you love. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.