February 25, 2007
It must have been about twenty-two years ago that our family attended a week-long Bible conference at a Christian conference center near North Platte, Nebraska. A family in the church I pastored in Garland, Texas paid for all our expenses so we could make the trip. I don’t recall much about those days in Nebraska except that we had a missionary speaker who challenged us each day with the needs of the world. On the last day of the conference, as he came to the end of his message, the missionary asked us to bow our heads in prayer. Then he talked about the importance of parents offering their children as missionaries if that were the Lord’s will for them. He pointed out that many parents fight against the idea of their children being missionaries because it means long periods of separation from children and grandchildren. Then he asked those of us who were willing for God to call our children to be missionaries to stand. As I think about back upon it, I don’t think there was any music playing and no sense of emotional pressure. Just a simple and profound call for parents to offer their children for missionary service in the distant fields of the world, if the Lord willed it so. I recall an enormous internal battle in my heart. At the time our sons were seven, five and two so it would be a long time before they would make career choices. Still I fought with the Lord about it. The thought of being separated from my sons, with them in some distant land, seemed too much to bear. But finally we stood up. I will tell you honestly that I didn’t want to do it, that I fought against it, and that in a sense, I didn’t even mean it. But Marlene and I stood up anyway.
That was twenty-two years ago. I didn’t think about it again until this week. Later on I’m going to tell you why I think the Lord brought it to my mind after all these years.
A Dangerous Prayer
I want to begin and end my sermon by suggesting a simple prayer that will help us and challenge us and stretch us. It’s a prayer that I learned from my friend Ramesh Richard, a professor at Dallas Seminary. Shortly after the tsunami disaster that devastated the coastline of the Indian Ocean, he sent out an email that contained what he called a “dangerous” prayer. It’s only one sentence long, but when I saw it, I knew it was a prayer I needed to pray. It goes like this: “Lord, do things we’re not used to.”
And definitely dangerous. If God ever truly begins to do things we’re not used to, the world as we know it will be turned upside down. It’s a good thing–and a frightening thing–to ask God to blast us out of our comfort zone, to pull us away from the status quo, and to do with us things that make us very uncomfortable.
Jesus specialized in making people feel uncomfortable. He told the rich young ruler to sell all that he had, give it to the poor, and then come follow him (Matthew 19:21) Not long ago I sat in the home of the pastor of one of America’s megachurches. He preaches to thousands every Sunday, yet he lives in a home that would be called middle-class at best. And he said to me, “I want a congregation of people who actually believe what Jesus said. People who know that Jesus really meant it when he said, ’Give all that you have to the poor.’” That shook me up a little bit. But I’m sure he was close to the true spirit of our Lord.
The God of the Bible is not the God of the status quo. First he shakes us up, and then he uses us to shake our world. That’s always been God’s method. When God wanted to change the world, he told Noah to do something he had never done before (build an ark) to prepare for something he’d never seen before (rain). When God wanted to bring forth a great nation, he called a successful, middle-aged businessman named Abram and told him to leave Ur of the Chaldees. When God wanted to deliver his people, he found a man slow of speech named Moses and sent him to talk to the Pharaoh. When the Lord needed someone to hide the spies in Jericho, he found a prostitute named Rahab. When God needed someone to defeat Goliath, he chose a shepherd boy named David. What God wanted to deliver his people from destruction, he chose a young girl named Esther. When Christ wanted some men in his inner circle, he chose fisherman and tax collectors, a loud mouth named Peter and two brothers called the “sons of thunder,” and told them to drop everything and follow him. Talk about doing things you’re not used to. I repeat. He’s not a God of the Status Quo.
No One Wants Change
Last march a very wise friend summed up the truth this way: “Everyone wants progress. No one wants change.” That one statement summarizes the problem facing almost every church in America. We all want progress. No one wants change. We all say we want to make progress in reaching the world, but no one wants things to change.
Change propels us out of our comfort zone.
Change forces us out of our ruts.
Change destabilizes our routine.
Change challenges our priorities.
Change disrupts our plans.
Change causes us to ask new questions and seek new answers to old questions.
Change introduces us to whole new set of problems.
Change opens the door to exciting opportunities.
Change stretches us in ways we don’t want to be stretched.
Change upsets the apple cart.
Change kicks us out of the recliner.
Change rearranges our daily schedule.
Not long ago I was watching a certain speaker on TV when he uttered words that seem profoundly true to me: “If you want what you’ve never had, you’ve got to do what you’ve never done.” Most of us know that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for different results. Sometimes God looks down from heaven and says, “It’s time for a change.”
And so the Father sent his Son into the world. He came unto his own and his own received him not. In him was light, and the light was the life of men. In him all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth. For God so loved the world that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. Our Lord did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. And here is the truth. Men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil. But God demonstrates his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. He has made him who knew no sin to become sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. And he has brought you to life who were dead in your trespasses and sins. For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, lest any man should boast. Having made us new creations in Christ, he has appointed us as ministers of reconciliation that we might say to the world, “Be reconciled to God.” And he said to us, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” Then he gave us his standing orders. Go into all the world and make disciples of every nation. This is the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let me repeat what I said a moment ago. Our God is not the God of the status quo. First he shakes us up, and then he uses us to shake the world. That’s always been God’s method. If the world is going to be changed, the church must be changed. If the church is going to be changed, we must be changed because we are the church.
We desperately need to be …
Shaken out of our complacency,
Moved out of our materialism,
Awakened from our slumber,
Convicted of our indifference,
Shocked out of our lethargy,
that we might become what God wants us to be. May God grant that it might happen in our midst. Certain inevitable first steps must take place if God is going to do things we’re not used to. They must happen to you and to me.
We take our cue from the pattern of the Lord Jesus Christ. My text today is very familiar to most of us. It comes at a strategic point in the gospel of Matthew. In chapters 5-7 Jesus lays out the principles of his kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount. Then he displays his power in chapters 8-9. Here is what he does …
Cleanses a leper … heals a centurion’s son … heals Peter’s mother-in-law … calms the sea … casts demons into swine … heals a paralytic … heals a woman … raises the dead … gives sight to the blind … gives speech to a man who was mute.
That’s the background of the general statement in verse 35. Everywhere he went, he healed people and the crowds flocked to him. If you go to chapter 10, he calls his disciples and sends them out. Something happened at the end of chapter 9 that turned the disciples from spectators into missionaries. The same thing has to happen to you and me.
I. A Neglected Flock
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (v. 36).
1) Seeing the crowds. It all starts with seeing. It is quite possible to look at something and see nothing at all. I recall years ago having a discussion with the director of children’s ministry at our church in Oak Park. One day she said she was going to walk down to Starbucks and get a cup of coffee. “There’s no Starbucks around here,” I said. “Yes, there is. It’s right by the Lake Street Theater,” she replied. “I don’t think so. I’ve driven past there a hundred times and I’ve never a Starbucks.” “Well, it’s there,” she said. I didn’t believe her. So the next time I drove down Lake Street, I looked off to my right, just past the travel agency and just before the Lake Street Theater, and there it was. Starbucks! She was right and I was wrong. But how had I missed it? I drove past it almost every day. The answer was simple. I don’t drink coffee. Therefore, I wasn’t looking for Starbucks, and since I wasn’t looking for it, I didn’t see it, and since I didn’t see it, I assumed it wasn’t there.
Jesus saw the multitudes. That’s hard to do. In the last year, I’ve been traveling a lot, preaching in different places. I’ve been in and out of so many airports that they all look the same to me now. It’s easy to sit and daydream while the crowds pass you by. Crowds make us tired, nervous, irritable. It’s hard to wait in line at the concession stand, and it’s harder to drive on a crowded freeway during rush hour. When the crowds come, it’s easy to say, “Leave me alone. I’ve seen enough people.” Jesus had been busy for days. The text says he had been preaching in every village and town. Non-stop itinerant ministry wears you down physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. It’s easy to tune people out because you are so worn out.
To see the crowds of the world requires something inside. It means redefining my view of humanity. All of us gravitate toward PLU—People Like Us, whether it be at the country club, the grocery store, the local school, or in our own churches. By nature we tend to hang around people who look like us, talk like us, act like us and think like us. Our kids marry their kids. We raise our children to fit into the social order. And that’s not wrong.
Have you ever had this happen? You’re in a crowd, feeling alone and overwhelmed, when suddenly you spot a friend you know. You focus in and block everyone else out. We train ourselves to do it.
But if we are ever going to see the crowds as Jesus did, we must open our eyes and break the mold. Jesus saw something the disciples didn’t see. Were they blind? No but they didn’t see what he saw. Even so we may live our whole lives bombarded by the call of God … and see nothing … and feel nothing.
The world is full of people who are not like us. The first step is see them!
2) Feeling compassion. The word means to feel it in your bowels. When we talk about feeling something deeply, we talk about the heart, but in the first-century, they meant something much deeper and lower. Sometimes we talk about having a feeling in our gut about something. It means to be emotionally moved by what we see around us.
For the last two weeks, whenever we’ve turned on the television, we’ve been bombarded by news surrounding the death of Anna Nicole Smith. It’s been all Anna, all the time. I confess not to having thought much about her before her untimely death, but you really can’t help it after seeing all the strange reports from Florida and the Bahamas, the continuing fight about where to bury her decomposing body, and all the men stepping forward claiming to be the father of her five-month-old daughter. And why not? The baby may be the heir to as much as 500 million dollars. No wonder the prospective fathers are lining up. Let me just add this. The more you hear about Anna Nicole Smith, the sadder her story becomes. In every way it is possible to be lost, she was a truly lost soul. In her last televised interview, given just a couple of weeks ago, she commented that she can’t trust anyone because everyone wants something from her. If you want to know what it means to be lost, look at her life. And by the way, how much money does it take to be truly happy and to find peace in your heart? I don’t know, but the answer is, more than a half-billion dollars.
3) Knowing their true condition. Jesus said the people were like sheep without a shepherd. He uses two particular words to describe the people of the world. First, they are harassed. It’s a graphic word that means to skin, mangle, flay and strip the flesh. The people were like sheep that had been ripped and skinned alive. They had been harassed and victimized by those who used them and tossed them aside. Second, they are helpless. Literally, to be cast down from a mortal wound. They were wounded and left for dead.
Please understand what Jesus is saying. Here are the first steps … Seeing … Feeling … Knowing
Until you see, you will not feel.
Until you feel, you will not know.
Until you know, you will not care.
Until you care, you will not pray.
Until you pray, you will not go.
The world is full of people who are wounded, bruised, mangled, cast down, bleeding, slowly dying. As long as you close your eyes, you’ll never see what Jesus saw. So we must pray, “Lord, open our eyes that we may see the world through your eyes.”
II. A Wasted Harvest
“Then he said to his disciples, ’The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.’ Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (vv. 37-38).
Do you see the key word in verse 37? It’s the little word then. He saw … he felt … he knew . . and then he called his disciples to action.
A) A Surprising Opportunity. “The harvest is plentiful.” Here is an encouraging truth. Farmers understand this better than city folk. Harvest time is what it’s all about. That’s the goal of the whole season. Last Tuesday I heard one man say to another, “How are your onions doing?” “I won’t know until late April or early May.” That’s when the onion harvest begins. Everything a farmer does, he does for the harvest. He plants, he waters, he weeds, he waits. Down in Mississippi we have a lot of cotton. Out in Kansas they have wheat. But it’s the same in both places. Harvest doesn’t last forever. There is a window of time to harvest the wheat or the cotton. If you don’t get there in time, it rots. When harvest time comes, you have to be ready to go the fields.
What did Jesus mean? He meant there were many people ready to be harvested for the Kingdom. All around us there are broken, bleeding, hurting people, ripped apart and left to die, they are ready to be reached if only someone will go to the harvest fields.
Here is the application. The fields are always white unto harvest. There are lost people all around us ready to be saved if only someone will tell them about Jesus. Where are the harvest fields today? Let me name a few. El Salvador . . Jordan … Sri Lanka … Korea … the Philippines … Argentina … Liberia … Morocco … Mongolia … Afghanistan . . India … Kenya.
And let me name one more. How about China? There is no greater miracle happening on the face of the earth than what is happening in China today. It defies all human explanation. The greatest movement of God’s Spirit in the last hundred years is happening in China. I have a personal interest in this because in the last three years God has seen fit to call all three of our sons to serve as English teachers in China. First he called our oldest son Josh. Then Nick went over. Then Mark went over. Josh came back to the US, got married, and now and he and Leah hope to return to China in August. Nick is studying Chinese in college. And Mark is in his second year in China where he met Vanessa. After they get married this summer, they hope to return to China eventually. All of this has come about by God’s sovereign plan. About three years ago, he reached down from heaven and rearranged our family’s personal agenda and dropped China right into the middle of everything. By the way, I have discovered that if God wants to put a country of the world on your heart, there are many ways he can do it, but there is one infallible way. All he has to do is put your children in a particular country and suddenly you’ll be thinking about that country day and night. That’s what happened to us. We weren’t praying about China, but God had it on his heart to send our boys there. I had a long conversation with Mark a few months ago. There has been a recent awakening in a certain province that led to a number of people coming to Christ, a fact that makes some people in high places uncomfortable. In talking about all this, Mark pointed me to Habakkuk 2:14 as the ultimate truth. “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” My son earnestly reminded me of what I already knew. “When the Communists came to power in China in 1949, they expelled all the foreign missionaries. Back then there were 700,000 Christians. For decades no one knew what was happening to the church or if it even survived. But by 1980 there were at least 10 million Christians in China. Today there may be as many as 100 million.” Then he quoted Habakkuk 2:14 with its vision of the knowledge of the Lord spreading across the earth as the waters cover the sea.” “It’s already happening,” he said. “Nothing can stop it. There is no power, no policy, and there are no pundits that can reverse what God is doing.”
The harvest is plentiful all over the world. That’s the good news. But the harvest needs workers. That’s the bad news.
B) A Somber Observation. “The laborers are few.” Harvest works demands harvest workers. Why are there so few laborers? Working in the fields isn’t very glamorous. It’s hot, hard, slow work. If we are going to become laborers in the harvest, it will require a major rearrangement of our priorities. Listen to the words of Steven Cole:
I want to challenge all of us, but especially those who are young: Don’t throw away your life to achieve the American dream of financial security, early retirement, and a motor home, so you can spend your final years driving around to capture the National Parks on videotape. Spend your life for the only purpose that lasts: to see the nations glorify God for his great mercy in Christ (Romans 15:9-12).
Welsh poet David Whyte said it this way: “I don’t want to have written on my tombstone, when finally people struggle through the weeds, pull back the moss, and read the inscription there: ’He made his car payments.’”
There are some questions we need to ask at this point:
1) What vision is God birthing in your heart?
2) How will you be remembered?
3) How much are you willing to invest?
3) A Solemn Obligation. “Pray to the Lord of the harvest.” This is unexpected. We would think Jesus would say, the harvest is plentiful, the laborers are few, therefore …
Let the pastors preach dynamic sermons.
Let committees meet and make great plans.
Let the people read books and attend conferences.
Jesus does not mention any of those worthy things. The church’s primary response to the needs of the world can be summed up in one word. Pray. The church is to ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest fields. We plead and pray and earnestly beseech the Lord of heaven to stir his people to become workers in the fields.
First we pray. Then we meet.
First we pray. Then we sing.
First we pray. Then we preach.
First we pray. Then we give.
First we pray. Then we organize.
First we pray. Then we go.
We pray to the Lord of the harvest because all things are by him and through him and from him and for him.
He knows where the seed is planted.
He knows when harvest has come.
He knows how many workers are needed.
And how are we to pray? Jesus said we are to ask the Lord of the harvest to “send forth” workers. The underlying Greek word conveys a very powerful image. The word is ekballo. The ek part means “out” and the ballo part means, “to throw” (like throwing a ball). It comes into English as the word “ballistic,” which refers to the explosion that occurs when the hammer of a pistol hits a bullet, propelling it out of the gun. We are to pray that God will light a fire inside the church that will ignite a movement inside many hearts that will result in people being “thrust out” of the church into the harvest fields of the world. We need to pray that God will throw some people out of the church.
“Lord, throw them all the way to Vietnam.”
“Lord, throw them all the way to Egypt.”
“Lord, throw them all the way to Finland.”
“Lord, throw them all the way to Liberia.”
“Lord, take your people gathered in comfort in this beautiful sanctuary and blast them out of this place and into the distant corners of the world.”
And we ought to pray that when God lights a fire, he won’t deal from the bottom of the deck. We should pray that God would thrust out the best and the brightest for the sake of the Kingdom.
When J. Hudson Taylor, pioneer missionary to China, spoke about the need for additional workers on the field, he put the matter this way:
The great need is not for more elaborate pleas for help. If we are to meet the needs of the world, two things must happen. First, there must be earnest prayer to the Lord of the harvest. Second, there must be a deepening of the spiritual life of the church so that men will be unable to stay home.
He is exactly right. We must pray and then deepen our own walk with God so that when God calls, we will …
Care more than some think is wise,
Risk more than some think is safe,
Dream more than some think is practical,
Expect more than some think is possible.
It’s a good thing when Christians get interested in prayer. It means harvest time is coming! It means God is getting ready to move his people. Therefore, if your heart is stirred up, that’s a sign that God is at work in your life. He’s getting ready to do something!
And when we begin to pray, an unusual thing happens. As God begins to answer that prayer, he often begins with us. The people who go to their knees to beg God for workers are often the very people God uses to answer their own prayers. In the early 1940s a young woman named Eva Lodgaard began attending the church in Oak Park during her student days at Moody Bible Institute. She told me that back she was part of a prayer group called the “Go Ye Prayer Fellowship.” She said they had to keep restarting it because the Lord kept calling people from the group to the mission field. Eva Lodgaard graduated from Moody in 1945. The church in Oak Park sent her out as a missionary, and 62 years later she is still serving the Lord in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky.
When Eugene Peterson wrote The Message, he offered this version of Jesus’ words in Matthew 9:37-38.
“What a huge harvest!” he said to his disciples.
“How few workers! On your knees and pray for harvest hands!”
That seems to me to perfectly capture the spirit of Jesus’ words.
Who knows what God will do in the world once you and I begin to pray?
Who knows what God will do in this church once we begin to pray?
Who knows what God will do in us and through us once we begin to pray?
And that brings me back to the conference in Nebraska when at the end of the week, the speaker asked us to stand if we were willing for our children to become missionaries. As I have said, I stood because I felt like I had to stand, not because I wanted to but out of a sense of obligation. But it wasn’t something I felt happy about. I don’t suppose I had thought about that moment for over twenty years until this week. And while thinking about “ballistic Christianity,” I recall standing and saying, “Lord, take my children if you want them to be missionaries.” I honestly think it was the Lord that brought that moment back to my mind. Even though I wasn’t very spiritual in my response, God honored it anyway. He took me at my word, and he has thrust forth our three sons to China. All I can say is, I didn’t see it coming. But God knew what he was doing. He knew it twenty-two yeas ago, and he knows what he’s doing now. That thought gives me great comfort as I look into the future and wonder what it will hold for me and my family. I don’t know but God does, and I thank him for answering a prayer I didn’t really want to pray twenty-two years ago.
I began this sermon by mentioning the prayer I got from Ramesh Richard, “Lord, do things we’re not used to.” I urge you to pray that prayer this week. Open up your life and say, “Lord, come in and rearrange it so that I will be of maximum benefit for your Kingdom.”
Don’t be afraid.
We serve a God of grace.
He never cheats his own children.
He won’t take advantage of you.
But he won’t accept the status quo either.
“Lord, do things we’re not used to.” Pray that prayer this week and see what God will do.
Lord of the harvest, we confess how comfortable it is to come to church to worship with your people. We are so richly blessed. Yet, Lord, we are so poor.
We have eyes but do not see.
We have ears but do not hear.
We have lips but do not speak.
We have feet but do not go.
We thank you for loving the world. We know that you take no pleasure in the death of the wicked. You desire that no one should perish but that all should come to repentance. Thank you for inviting us to join you in bringing your message to the world.
Lord, take our children and our grandchildren and thrust them forth to the ends of the earth. We offer your our best and our brightest in the service of the King of Kings. Not just our young but also those in the middle years and those who are seniors. Blast us out of our complacency. Lord, while you are sending others, send us also.
O God, do things we’ve not used to. Do things that would baffle and amaze us if we knew them in advance. Send us forth as ballistic Christians to India, Nepal, Jordan, Sri Lanka, China, Uzbekistan, Spain, Angola, Romania, Ecuador, Grenada, and to the remotest ends of the earth.
Now we ask you to ignite a fire in our hearts. Thrust us out from this place to the very ends of the earth. Give us your heart and make us willing to go. Send us. O Lord, send me. Raise up a new generation of workers for your harvest field. Amen.