I met a missionary when I was studying at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary who told of ministering to a tribal people. One day he saw a young couple carrying a beautiful little girl, the age of a toddler. They were weeping as they walked with her and so he followed them. They eventually stopped at the edge of a cliff, overlooking a waterfall, and before he could do anything about it the couple threw the little girl to her death. The missionary later found out that the toddler had wandered into a taboo area and it was their belief that she had to be sacrificed to prevent the spirits from doing evil to the tribe.
I tell you that story to confront a widely held, but mistaken notion, that the noble savage lives a peaceful and even joyful life, being one with nature. They are naturally that way until Christian missionaries come along and spoil it all with their talk of sin and hell and the need to wear pants. The truth is that apart from Christ this is a world of bondage and it is only the message of the kingdom that can set men free.
Lest you think that I am exaggerating do a mental trip around the globe. There are 1 billion Chinese living under a godless dictatorship where closed circuit cameras tracks their every move and they have to earn enough good citizen points to be able to use public transport. This is a world of bondage. There are nations where girls are not allowed to be educated because an educated woman knows that she is equal to a man and will not settle for being treated as a second-class citizen. There are countries where finding fresh water and enough food to survive is the chief goal of every day. This is a world of bondage. There is an estimated 40.3 million people in slavery today, slavery that ranges from trafficking children to forced labor. This is a world of bondage and only the gospel of the kingdom can break that power. So yes, we still need Christian missionaries. In this Gospel account that we before us today Jesus not only focuses the apostles on the harvest but He gives them the message, the motive, the method and the manpower.
The message. “Jesus went throughout the cities and villages…proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom.” That is still the message today, the gospel of the kingdom. St. Paul said that he purposed to preach nothing but Christ and Him crucified. And when missionaries do any other than that they end up doing as much damage as good.
We see that in our own country. Rick Thurman, whose business takes him to a lot of evangelical churches, tells me that they are increasingly mixing conservative politics with the gospel and they wonder why their numbers are declining. And those of us who were in the Episcopal Church witnessed first hand how a beautiful denomination was devastated by liberal agendas that had little or nothing to do with the kingdom of God. Thus the Church needs to make her message clear and undiluted by any other message. Her message is the good news that the kingdom of God has come! It’s not a left message or a right message. Pastor and author Tony Evans said it best. “Jesus didn’t come to take sides, He came to take over.”
Please do not misunderstand me to be saying that you as an individual Christian should be apolitical. Nothing of the sort. In a nation where the government is of, by and for the people it is very bad stewardship if you do not let your voice be heard. You need to take a stand against injustice and be a prophetic voice to the powers that be. But the Church, and those who are sent out in her name, are required to keep the main thing the main thing and the main thing is Jesus’ message, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
The motive. “When He saw the crowds, He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” For God so LOVED the world…. That is the motive. And why were the people harassed and helpless like a sheep without a shepherd? It was because they had plenty of rules but no relationship with God. And so it was out of love that Jesus came to make that relationship a reality. He came to be so united with us that we could say along with Brennan Manning, “My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and that I have done nothing to deserve it.”
William Carey, who became the father of the 19thcentury mission movement, was in his early years a cobbler. It is said that he had a map of the world over his cobbler’s bench and he would weep at the thought of all those souls who did not know the love of Jesus. He subsequently left the cobblers bench and went to India after theological training. He spent the next 41 years laboring among that harvest. He translated the Bible into 6 different languages including Hindi and Sanskrit. In that era only Brahmans, who were the upper caste, could learn to read and write. So Cary, using his own money, opened a primary school that was open to all, including girls, which was unthinkable in his day. Love had him go above and beyond in service to the Indian people. Western guilt, or a sense of superiority, or racking up a good number of converts will not sustain a missionary for 41 years. But the love of God will.
The means. “Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.” The two key words there are “pray” and “send.” Any kind of missionary work, rather local or abroad, is not to be undertaken in our own power. It is first bathed in prayer. We see this pattern in the missionary work of St. Paul. He would pray and then go and sometimes he would pray and be told by the Holy Spirit not to go. But before he did anything else he prayed.
But once you have prayed you need to be ready to go when called. When we were raising money for a short-term mission trip to Honduras we had some questions about the wisdom of doing it. In fact these two questions seem to come up regularly regarding world missions in general. The first is “Why are we going overseas when there are so many needs here?” And second is “Isn’t it better stewardship to just send them money rather than spending the money on making the trip?”
The answer to the first question is that local versus foreign missions is never an either or proposition. The question is “How do we go about doing both?” Why? Because Jesus’ commission to the Church was to go into all the world. Not some of the world but all the world. He got even more specific when He said, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” We don’t ignore Jerusalem but we don’t stay there either. We are to go to the ends of the earth.
We also need to go because of how imbalanced our world is when it comes to the harvest. 75% of full time Christian workers are in areas that have already been reached by the Gospel. 0.3% are working with unreached people groups. When I was in seminary I read that in the US there was 1 full time Christian worker for every 100 people. Meanwhile there is only 1 full time Christian worker for every 60,000 tribal people and 1 for every 260,000 for Buddhists.
But isn’t it better stewardship just to send the money rather than spending the money on going there? No. Christianity is an incarnational religion. God came to us in the flesh. We need to do the same. When we were at that children’s home in Honduras I watched as the team played soccer with the kids and played music with the kids and prayed with the kids. Those kids experienced the love of Jesus through them. A check can’t play soccer, or sing or pray. A check can’t give a hug.
A little girl cries out frightened by a thunderstorm. Her daddy comes in the room and prays for her and assures her that Jesus is there with her. In no time at all she cries out again and her daddy returns to her room a little put out with her. “I told you that Jesus is here with you,” he says. “I know,” says the girl, “but sometimes you need someone with skin on them.” That is why we need to go.
The manpower. This is chapter 9 of Matthew’s Gospel and here Jesus introduces the idea to the apostles of praying that the Lord will send out laborers into His harvest. Note that the problem is not with the harvest. Jesus said that it is plentiful. The issue is that there are not enough laborers to take in the harvest so He calls on them to pray. But then what does He do in chapter 24 of Matthew’s Gospel? He sends them out into the harvest with what we call the Great Commission. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit….”So between chapter 9 and chapter 24 the disciples were actually praying for themselves, possibly without even knowing that is what they were doing. It’s like this. Jesus, “Somebody needs to fix this problem!” Apostles, “Yes somebody really does need to fix the problem!” Jesus, “You’re that somebody.”
And going out into the harvest did not stop with the apostles. Generation after generation has followed in their footsteps and the Name of Jesus is known around the globe. Still there is much work to do. The harvest is still plentiful and still the laborers are too few.
We can address that problem if we will embrace the truth that the Great Commission is to each one of us. We do not need to discern if we have a call to be missionaries. Jesus has already issued that call. The only thing we need to discern is our mission field. It may be to an unreached people group in a far off land or it may be as a home-schooler in Antioch Tennessee. We are all missionaries and so we need to strategize like missionaries, constantly looking to the leadership of the Holy Spirit, ready to proclaim the kingdom of God to the harassed and helpless among whom God has placed us.
A conference I went to suggested using your hobbies as your mission field. One guy that I met was an avid cyclist and so he joined the local cycle club with the intention of sharing the Gospel with his fellow members. This is a great idea but I want to go back to an earlier point and that is that our motive is to be love, the same compassion that Jesus felt when He saw the crowd. We are not collecting trophies here; we are growing the family of God.
I take great comfort that Jesus refers to the harvest as “his harvest” meaning the Lord’s harvest. And since He is the Lord of the harvest and it is His harvest I have to believe that He is not going to let me mess up the harvest. He is management and I am labor and I trust the boss. I simply need to follow His instructions and all will be well. That was Paul’s perspective. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. So pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest. Then get ready. Amen.