It used to be that every other conference, presentation, meeting, or church article was on rethinking something. Often evangelism, church growth, or missions was the thing that needed rethinking. So this sermon could be titled “Rethinking Rethought Missions” or maybe, going out on a limb somewhat, “Rethinking Missionaries.”
Whose harvest is it anyway? You’ve heard a barnburner of a sermon where the pastor is detailing how many people are dying without Jesus, how many are going to hell right this very minute, and usually how it all depends on you doing something now. One thing I’ve learned is that whether by phone, email, snail mail, or in-person a scammer insists that you act now. Now before it’s too late. Now before more damage is done. Now before you face more serious consequences.
In the matter of souls, who owns them? Who said, “I’ve not come to be served but to give My life as a ransom”? Who was the atoning sacrifice for not only our sins but the sins of the world? Who carried away the sins of the world? Do you spend your hard-earned money in order to buy something and then let another claim it? Who is the Lord of the Harvest that Jesus directs us to? Me? An Evangelism Committee? A Mission Developer? Off Immanuel Church Road there once were large corn fields. I use to talk to a vegetable farmer from North Zulch who also knew of these great expanses of corn. I’d say it seemed like every year it would be green, ripe, ready for harvest, and the farmer did nothing and the crop burned up in the middle summer sun. He’d say with a laugh, “Why don’t you knock on his door and ask him what’s he doing? Or tell him what to do.” He knew and you know too how that would go.
Before we get to what Jesus says to do in the face of a plentiful harvest, we have to ask is that still true? Frankly, I don’t know. I only know that when Jesus speaks of the Last Day or heaven it’s like we sing: “From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,” (TLH, 464:8). The Lord knows them that are His and not one can be lost. Therefore, I think it’s always like Elijah. There were 7,000 times as many faithful left than Elijah thought.
So what does Jesus tell us to do about plentiful harvest and few workers? Recruit workers. Train workers. I know. Compromise standards to get more workers? Nope, He says, “Therefore, ask” (Literally, “you must be moved to beg’) the Lord of the Harvest to cast out workers into His harvest.” Though the fields are overgrown with fruit, there’s no panic. No command to act now. Do something now. Instead, it’s be moved to pray, to beg the Lord. There is one hymn in the mission section of TLH that gets this right. As it looks at the whitening fields it sings, “Louder rings the Master’s word: Pray for reapers, Pray for reapers” (TLH 502:1). Only 1 of the 4 latest confessional Lutheran hymnals has retained this hymn.
In our text, they don’t even get a chance to pray, to beg the Lord of the harvest before He answers their unspoken words. My mom’s favorite Bible verse was Is. 65:24. “’Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear,’ says the Lord.” And He doesn’t simply send workers as you send someone here or there. He commissions them. He sends them with purpose, authority. Let’s rethink whom He commissions because, probably no news to you, but they aren’t the cream of the crop. There’s a Rock that is going to crumple when it really counts. There’s two Sons of Thunder that want to light up those who reject Jesus. Then there’s doubting Thomas, a hated tax collector, and Simon the Zealot. O, I forgot, you also have Judas the betrayer. This is how Matthew puts it: “And Judas the Iscariot who also betrayed Him.” He’s last. Simon the Zealot right before.
Think about what normally happened when a Zealot and a Tax Collector were put in the same room. The first were for the violent overthrow of Rome. The second worked for them. Josephus tell us that in 1st century Judea there were 4 prominent groups: Pharisees, Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots. The most politically minded were the Zealots. No one hated tax collectors more than the Zealots. They frequently attacked them and even targeted them for assassination. So Jesus brings a pro government toady and a poltical extremist into His harvest. These were sworn enemies, but Jesus called them to become brothers working side by side. And you think the political divisions in the church today are bad?
Here I originally had a lengthy endnote. I’ve rethought it, and I’m including it in the sermon so all will can hear it. Josephus says this about some Zealots. Their “inclination to plunder was insatiable, as was their zeal in searching the houses of the rich; and for the murdering of the men, and abusing of the women, it was sport to them. They also…indulged themselves in feminine wantonness,…; while their faces looked like the faces of women, they killed with their right hands; and while their gait was effeminate, they presently attacked men, and became warriors…” (Wars of the Jews, IV.9.10). It’s quoted on the internet in defense of LGBTQ things. You see Jesus accepted them as part of His world; you should too. But Josephus is talking about a certain group of Zealots who opposed a Simon bar-Giora.
But the question remains: how on earth did they get along, work together, not kill each other? I honestly don’t know, but it had nothing to do with what was on earth but with the One who came from heaven to earth into the womb of a virgin. Paul details in Eph. 2:14-18 how Jesus Himself made peace between Jew and Gentile “by destroying the wall of hostility that divided them when He abolished the law of commandments and regulations in His flesh. He did this to create in Himself one new person out of the two, in this way making peace.” We can’t think Jesus endorsed the violent overthrow of government any more than He endorsed tax collectors gouging people. But somehow in His Body and Blood, in His one Baptism, in the only Word of forgiveness these 2 were 1. That’s where Paul ‘goes’ in Ephesians 4: “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in the one hope of your calling. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in us all” (Eph. 4:3-5).
To whom do they go? In a land overrun by gentiles, they weren’t to go to them. Jesus uses the form of command: “Don’t even think about, don’t you dare even start, going to the Gentiles or entering any town of the Samaritans?” What about the Good Samaritan? What about the woman at the well? What about the whole Samaritan town of Sychar that believed Jesus was the Messiah in His first year of ministry? Salvation starts with the Jews. That’s what Jesus says in Jn. 4:22. They’re the children at the table. They’re the ones with the oracles, the promises, the Scriptures. From them the Second Adam descended. That’s why ‘salvation is of the Jews.’ Humanly speaking the Promised Seed came into this world through them. So when the Canaanite Woman asks for help for her daughter, Jesus responds bluntly: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 15:24).
Once Jesus fulfilled the Law that was given to Israel specifically and Gentiles had written on their consciences, it was game on. The risen Jesus, then the ascending Jesus commissioned His Workers to go to all nations. That word ‘nations’ is the same word that can be and is translated gentiles. Now into the whole world, now with no distinction between Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, now all can be regarded as one in Christ (Gal. 3:28). As all fell in the First Adam’s sin with no distinction as to less, more, greater, so all were redeemed by Jesus without distinction. The Gospel goes out without exceptions. No one’s sins were left off of the back of Christ. His blood didn’t run around anyone’s sins. He is not willing that anyone perishes, i.e. He doesn’t want anyone to go to hell, but all to come to repent of their sins and to faith in Him as their Savior.
The message goes out to all now, and these commissioned ones go out as heralds. Heralds bring the Word of the King and only that. They don’t dress it up; they don’t put themselves in it. Listen to how Paul describes himself to the Corinthians: “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not in wise and persuasive words, but in a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.” Jesus’ herald’s message is clear: the Kingdom is here because Jesus the King is. And we have objective, real places to point people to. Yes, He dwells in every Christian’s heart, body, soul, but that means nothing to anyone else. But Jesus in Baptismal Water can be touched. Jesus’ Body and Blood in Bread and Wine is tangible. Jesus in Absolution vibrates ear drums. But if you herald Jesus, even a saving, forgiving, sin-covering, sin-bearing One without heralding the Means of Grace, you really preach despair. People have to have a place for faith to hold on to. Otherwise, you only have faith in faith. I have Jesus – all His forgiveness, redemption, peace – in those waters of Baptism, in this Bread and Wine, in these Words.
Whenever you rethink missions, almost always it is lay people who come out on the short end. Even as no one gives enough time, talent, or treasurer to the Lord no one is equal to the task of missions. O there are pastors who think they are. To Paul’s rhetorical question: Who is sufficient for these things? Other translations of 2 Cor. 2:16 are ‘good enough’, ‘qualified’, ‘adequate’, ‘has what it takes’, ‘competent’, some pastors answer, “I am.” The answer that hangs in the air of this rhetorical question by Paul is, “No one is.” The original 7th century Collect for today prayed, “give us an increase of faith, hope, and love…that we may deserve to obtain what you have promised.” Lutherans in 1549 removed the word ‘deserve’ because they knew the only thing we deserve is judgement. Like the harvest itself only the Lord can increase our faith, hope, and love for missions. And even then we don’t deserve what He has promised, but we get it. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (20230625); Matthew 9:35-10:8