READ : Matthew 9:36-38
Nowadays Christians who want to convert others to our faith are often thought to be rude or offensive. But the idea of saving the world isn’t ours. We got it from Jesus.
When I think about my title for today, I think, “Boy, that sounds grandiose!” and it does. Yet anybody who really cares about people has to be concerned about this. The generation of people now living are the only ones who will ever really be able to help. So, how? How can we save this generation? How can the massive, multiple needs of the world be met? How can history be molded for the better in these days in which we live?
If I were to ask you what one person can do for the help and healing of the whole world, you’d probably shake your head and say, “Not much.” Perhaps you reason this way, “If I were the leader of a powerful nation, or if I could discover a cure for cancer, of if I could talk on world-wide TV to everyone, then I might be able to do some good. But what can ordinary people do in their small circle of influence? Why, even if I were the Pope, or Secretary-General of the United Nations, I could conceivably affect only a fraction of the world’s peoples. As it is, I can influence scarcely a handful.
What can you do, what can I do, to save this generation, to have redemptive effects on this present age? That would be a grandiose question and absurdly self-important if we raised it on our own. But it is a question which the Christian faith encourages, even compels us to ask. Listen to these words of Jesus Christ:
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Matthew 9:36-38, rsv
Here, from Jesus, the One who has altered human history more profoundly than any other, is a plan for reaching the world, for saving this generation. It is God’s plan, his vision of how it can happen. Three things are apparently required of us if we are to participate, if we’re to be a part of God’s worldwide program. First, we need to share Christ’s outlook on people. Second, we need to pray for the Lord to send out compassionate workers. And third, we need to make ourselves available for him to send us as he will. What if all who name the name of Jesus Christ would put this program of his to the test? What a marvelous difference it would make! We have his word for that.
SHARE CHRIST’S VISION
The first step is to see our generation, the people living in our world, as Jesus sees them, to share his vision. “When he saw the multitudes, he had compassion on them.” Just earlier, he had gone “about all the cities and villages teaching in their synagogues aud preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity” (Matt. 9:35). Then, as he looked out over multitudes still uncared for, his heart was deeply moved again.
What about us? How do we tend to look on people in crowds? I suppose that political aspirants see the multitudes as so many potential voters. Maybe advertisers see them mainly as consumers, so many people to “sell.” To a ruthless dictator, they’re only pawns to be manipulated. For most of us, crowds seem to be just a nuisance. We find them annoying. They get in the way; they hamper our freedom of movement; they disturb our peace. We’d be happy to leave them all behind.
But Jesus saw them with “compassion.” That word expresses powerful emotion. In the Greek language, it has to do with the visceral organs. The compassion of which the gospel writers speak is strenuous, heart-wrenching. Do you know how we sometimes quip about someone, “He couldn’t care less”? The word compassion, if anything, means, “He couldn’t care more!”
What did Jesus see in the masses that stirred him so? He saw, of course, not statistics but faces. They were persons to him, not ciphers. Sometimes it was their sickness that touched him, their infirmities of body and mind. Then he would spend himself in healing them. Sometimes it was their hunger. Do you remember how often he fed a multitude of people? Sometimes their stubborn waywardness broke his heart; recall his anguished weeping over Jerusalem.
In the passage we’re looking at today, Jesus saw people like “sheep without a shepherd.” That phrase is used several times in the Old Testament for a nation without a king, or a people without a spiritual leader. Further, he saw them “harassed,” like a flock driven into confusion, hounded by wild beasts, in desperate peril. He saw them “helpless” – vulnerable, exhausted, too weak to move. These crowds of people had no sense of direction and no one to teach them. They were leaderless. They were lost. Jesus saw them through the eyes and with the heart of a shepherd. He wanted to go out after them – more and more of them. He spoke of “other sheep,” not of Israel’s fold, whom he felt compelled to bring. So moved was he by their need that he showed himself ready to lay down his life on their behalf.
Do I ever see people with even a hint of such compassion -people in crowds? On a number of occasions, I’ve been in the midst of a hundred thousand people in a football stadium. Did I look on them with compassion? I’m afraid not. The most recent census in China has confirmed the fact that over a billion people live in that vast land. Can you picture how many that is? Suppose four Chinese are walking abreast in rows six feet apart, marching through the gates of the Forbidden City. If they kept up a normal walking pace, it would take all the now-living Chinese over ten years to walk through those gates! And, of course, by that time, there would be many millions more. These days a new Chinese baby is born into the world every two seconds. Now if we were watching that endless parade of people, what would my reaction be? What would yours be?
Some have shared the Lord’s vision: Paul, Francis of Assissi, David Livingstone in Africa’s heart, Frank Laubach seeing illiterates all over the world “with their heads down.” We have known them in tireless evangelists like Billy Graham and angels of mercy like Mother Teresa.
How does it happen that anyone comes to share Jesus’ vision? Only as the first disciples did – through daily fellowship with Jesus, following him, listening eagerly to what he says, watching him at ministry, and partaking of his Spirit. To see the world as Jesus saw it, we need to receive him, keep our eyes on him, hang on his words, walk in his companionship, and then turn as those transformed by him to look at others – at our nearest neighbors and the whole world. Have you done that? Have you welcomed Jesus Christ as your Savior? Have you let him meet your need? That’s how compassionate vision is born in us.
PRAY FOR LABORERS
Now let’s suppose that we’ve begun to partake of his outlook, to feel somehow his pain of caring. What then? He says, “Pray to the Lord of the harvest, that he may send out laborers.” After Jesus had viewed these crowds in need, he said, “The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few.” So many needy lives; so many seemingly ripe to respond; a vast waiting harvest. But the laborers, the gatherers, those with a will and passion to seek for lost sheep – those, according to Jesus, are relatively few.
Strange that he would say that. Wasn’t Israel full of rabbis, scribes, experts in the law? Oh, yes, there were religious and moral guides on every street corner. But apparently the real shepherds, the genuinely caring ones, were in short supply. And perhaps that is still true today. Perhaps, in spite of all the professing believers in our generation, not many are devoted laborers.
Now ponder for a moment just how Jesus assessed the situation. According to him, the primary need was for shepherd-hearted people. He must have also seen that strategy, method, and financing were all involved. But he chose to focus on the importance of persons. And note this: in order to find such laborers, God must send them out. To Jesus that’s what it takes to produce a compassionate laborer, a ministering person – the compelling call of God.
One of the humbling lessons I learned while trying to teach preaching in seminary was along this line. I discovered rather quickly that we professors did not produce preachers. We could help them, perhaps, to develop the gifts they had, to get over some bad habits, and to see what a glorious privilege it is to preach. But we couldn’t make preachers of them. Only God could do that. The heart to proclaim the gospel, the passionate urgency that others should know Christ, the love for people that wants to share with them the greatest of treasures, only God by his Spirit produces such a heart.
Here’s the strategy. Since the harvest is great and the laborers are few, since only God can thrust out more, the central mandate is to pray. Imagine that! We’re wanting to know how to save this generation, but instead of a plan of action, we are urged to pray! That’s right. According to Jesus, that is the way it is. And by prayer he doesn’t mean reciting a few common prayers by rote. He calls for insistent pleading with God to raise up ministers, missionaries, merciful people in every walk of life.
From God’s perspective, how crucially significant such praying must be! The Lord hasn’t told us many specific requests that we should bring before God, but here’s one. Here is one on which the missionary advance of the church and the ministering power of God’s people depends. If we really believed that, would we ever look out on the world’s need again without crying from the heart, “Lord, send laborers!”
When we do pray, he sends, as surely as darkness gives way to dawn. I’ve seen it happen again and again. Let a church, a group of believers, begin to pray earnestly for laborers to be sent forth, and they are. Out of the most unlikely situations, caring people emerge. Some don’t seem at first to be very splendidly gifted, but they turn out to be effective, large-hearted workers. I’ve seen from one congregation after another a stream of people go out into the world, warm with the love of Christ, eager to do good. Those people, friends, in the Lord’s hands, are the world’s hope.
MAKE YOURSELF AVAILABLE
But there’s one more stage in the plan. The very ones whom Jesus calls to pray, he later sends. In the chapter that immediately follows this one, Matthew records “these twelve Jesus sent out.” So, friends, if you share his vision, if you care about people, if you pray for laborers, get ready. You may be one of the first answers to your own prayer!
Sometimes God works in strange ways. When I was in seminary, I used to meet regularly with a group of friends to pray for the country of Japan. Several of us asked God day by day for a great spiritual awakening in that land, for the empowering of missionaries and the sending forth of new laborers. My wife Helen and I were planning at the time to go there, to combine evangelism in Japan with seminary teaching. We went off to graduate school to prepare for that kind of ministry. Our plans had to be changed, though, when our son Billy was crippled with encephalitis and my wife Helen contracted rheumatic fever. But some time later, to our delight, my sister and brother-in-law felt God’s call to go to Japan as missionaries. Imagine this – they labored there alongside some of the same friends with whom I had prayed for Japan many years before!
Now the moral of that story is not, “You pray and God will send your sister!” But God, as we pray, has mysterious ways of working in our lives, our families, our congregations, for the fulfillment of his great purpose. So, when you see an unreached tribe, an unevangelized subculture, a group of people with aching needs, pray that God will raise up compassionate ones to serve among them. And as you pray, remember to make your gifts and your own life available. Offer yourself as a possible candidate and keep listening. Who knows? The Lord of the harvest, through people like you, may yet save this generation!