Sermons, Uncategorized

Jesus Sees; Jesus Calls; Jesus Sends

“Ordaining of the Apostles” by James Tissot

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“When [Jesus] 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; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest’” (Matthew 9:35–38).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Seeing. Calling. Sending. That is the movement in the Gospel reading for today. It is also the movement of Jesus’ response to those who are harassed and helpless, of God’s interaction with His fractured and fallen creation, and of the sanctified Christian life as it lives by the Spirit of Jesus.

Jesus sees. Jesus calls. Jesus sends.

As He goes throughout the cities and villages, Jesus sees. This is not a minor detail. Many people go through life wondering if anyone sees, anyone notices. If you listen closely, that is at the heart of many of our current social conflicts. A significant number of people are wondering: Does anyone see? Does anyone notice? Does anyone care? Will anyone do anything to help?

The crowds Jesus sees are “helpless and harassed.” The first word literally means “thrown down and helpless,” like exhausted spent, sheep. It is often used with reference to corpses lying scattered on the ground. The second word means “having been flayed,” or somewhat milder, “having skin torn,” as this happens to sheep wandering among brambles or sharp rocks. Both words are made vivid by the comparison: “like sheep without a shepherd.” Having neither protector nor provider, they soon look miserable, torn, and exhausted, a sight to break the heart of any shepherd with even an ounce of compassion.

Jesus does not name the source of the peoples’ harassment, but it is not hard to imagine. Simply look around today. Some are tossed about by injustice, grief, or the abuse of authority. Others are flayed by disease, economic strain, or isolation. Everyone is harassed by a sinful inclination to respond with unrighteous anger, fear, and self-righteousness.

Jesus seems to be thinking particularly of the spiritual condition of the people and the neglect of their supposed spiritual leaders. With the coming of Jesus and the initial course of His ministry, the people’s need for a shepherd has become even more apparent. Israel’s leaders should be nurturing the people and guiding them to follow Jesus, but instead those leaders are blaspheming Jesus, declaring Him to be in league with Satan (Matthew 9:3, 34). At the hands of such false shepherds, the people are helpless and in great need. The souls entrusted to their care receive no wholesome spiritual food and care, for, as far as that is concerned, they are left to fend for themselves.

Material and physical destitution moves our humanitarian age deeply. We organize food banks and disaster relief agencies to help in times of physical distress. But who cares for or even sees spiritual distress? The problem, in part, is many people do not see. Perhaps they cannot, having never put themselves in the position to see. Maybe they don’t know how, having never been taught to see. Perhaps they will not, refusing to look outside their own lives and their own bubbles. Maybe they are just too tired of all the conflict and it’s just easier to pretend it doesn’t exist rather than putting forth the physical and emotional energy it takes for actually dealing with it.

Contrast them (us) with Jesus. Jesus sees. He sees the crowds in the text. He sees their helplessness. He sees those who are harassing them, and He does not look away. This is not surprising, for He is the Son of the One who sees all things—good, bad, and ugly.

Truly seeing others and their plight is a necessary beginning. But if being seen is not accompanied by being helped, it doesn’t do much good. Having seen the crowds, Jesus has compassion. The verb splagcnizomai means to have the viscera moved, lungs, heart, and liver, which were considered to be the seat of emotions, such as love, pity, etc. We might say, “His heart was stirred.” Of the three words translated “being compassionate,” this is the strongest, for it indicates not only a pained feeling at the sight of suffering, but in addition a strong desire to relieve and remove the suffering.

Jesus has compassion on these people, that is, He suffers with them. In this sense, the suffering of Jesus is not limited to the events of Holy Week. It encompasses His entire ministry (even His entire incarnation). Jesus comes among us to suffer with us before He suffers on Golgotha for us.   

Jesus has compassion. Jesus suffers with us. We, on the other hand, are not good at suffering with others. Luther’s explanations to the fifth and eighth commandments come to mind. We are to fear and love God by helping and supporting our neighbors in every bodily need. We are to defend them, speak well of them, and put the best construction on everything they do. We often fall short, which must not be excused even though it is true. But Jesus does not. He protects and provides for His people as the Good Shepherd they have been missing.

We see how the compassion of Jesus at once manifests itself in action. Jesus speaks to the larger group of His disciples and bids them to pray to the Father. Jesus uses the metaphor of a great harvest that is approaching. In the fields where the crop is growing ready for harvest, there is urgent need for workers to help gather the harvest. With this figurative language, Jesus communicates to His disciples the urgency of the times, an urgency that continues for the Church to this day. The harvest is ripe! Pray for God to send laborers!

Immediately, the prayer that the disciples are to offer to the Father is answered by Jesus Himself. From the unnamed larger circle of His “disciples,” Jesus now chooses a small number of “apostles,” literally, “sent ones,” whom Jesus will send out to extend His gracious kingdom. They are named individually and given His authority, demonstrating Jesus’ personal care for each of them.

These twelve are hardly men who could normally be expected to change the world. For the most part, they are uneducated, unsophisticated, weak in faith, and slow to learn. They can accomplish their mission only through the authority and power of their Lord. It is the Gospel message, which the Holy Spirit will use to produce saving faith in the hearts of people who hear it.

Jesus sends the apostles to do what He came to do. Through them, Jesus sees, Jesus calls, Jesus sends. Seeing, calling, sending. That is the continuing movement. Jesus continues to send His people to see others (especially the widow, the orphan, and all who suffer injustice) as human beings and fellow creatures of a loving God. Jesus sends His people to have compassion on those who are helpless and harassed; to suffer with them and help them bear their burdens. He continues to send His people to speak words of life and forgiveness that not only create saving faith in the hearts of individuals, but also gather them together for life as His Body. And He continues to send His people to others until all have heard and believed and come together in His name (See Romans 10:14-17).

Jesus asks His disciples, and He also asks us, to share in His compassion, and He tells us the first thing He wants us to do to show such compassion. “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” It is the Lord’s harvest field, and He will see to it that the necessary workers bring the harvest in. He assures us that none of His elect will perish. All His sheep will be gathered into His fold.

Jesus will accomplish this either with us or without us. He doesn’t need us, but He wants to use us. He graciously wants to give us the privilege of being involved in this all-important work, work with blessed results that will last into eternity. And the first thing He asks us to do is exceedingly simple and will cost us nothing but a little of our time. He tells us to pray for laborers for His harvest field. In response to our prayers, He will provide them.

As we sincerely offer such prayers to our heavenly Father, we surely are willing to let Him make us the answers to our own prayers as well. Our Lord will use us in some way or other in this most blessed work, for this work is the privilege of all believers in Christ. Satan wants us to regard it as a grievous burden that we ought to avoid. But it is not a burden, rather a blessing. It is a privilege to pray for this work, to support this work, and to do this work personally.

When we pray for the heathen, for the suffering, for the afflicted, and for our enemies, we want the Lord to use us to alleviate suffering, to spread the Good News of the kingdom of God, and to win over our enemies through kindness. When we pray for missions, we are not only asking the Lord to open the hearts and the hands of others Christians to support mission work; we are also expressing our own willingness to bring our generous offerings for the work of Christ’s Church. Otherwise our prayers are hypocritical and better left unspoken.

Last week, the Gospel reading came from Matthew 28. We call it the Great Commission or Sending. In a sense, this week’s reading gives us the background, the motivation, method, and means for that Sending.

Jesus sees. Jesus calls. Jesus sends.

Even before creation, the Lord looked with compassion and saw our need for His mercy, forgiveness, and grace. God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. Christ died for the sins of the world—every single sin of thought, word, and deed. Every sin of commission and omission. Risen and ascended, Christ rules heaven and earth for the good of His Body, the Church. In love and mercy, He continues to call men to serve in the Office of  Holy Ministry. In answer to prayers, the Lord of the Harvest sends laborers into the harvest of souls. In His Church, through the means of grace, Christ continues His work of salvation and brings forgiveness and life.

Through the waters of Holy Baptism, God has called you by name and made you one of His dear children. In His Holy Supper, He feeds you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Through His powerful Word, He delivers forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Fully forgiven and equipped for service, He sends you out with the message of God’s love and compassion for a world of lost sinners, Shepherdless sheep.

Go in the peace of the Lord. Serve your neighbor with joy. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sermons, Uncategorized

The Mystery of the Sown Seed

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“And [Jesus] said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come’” (Mark 4:26-29).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Look around you. Right here. Here is the kingdom of God! It may not look like much. Then again, it may be a lot more than you think. To begin with, it sure doesn’t look like a kingdom. Not you. Not me. Surely not a kingdom worthy of God. Well, that’s the way it is. The kingdom of God can be quite a letdown.

We know that we live in God’s kingdom. But when we look around, what do we see? Empty seats. (Empty seats tending to be concentrated in the front pews!) And to make matters worse, when we look at the seats that aren’t empty, or the man standing in the pulpit, what do we see? Sinners! Poor, miserable sinners, who are by nature sinful and unclean, who have daily sinned against God in thought, word, and deed and who justly deserve His temporal and eternal punishment.

We see people who aren’t as active in the church as we think they ought to be. People who don’t always treat us or one another as kindly as we think they should. People who struggle with the lusts and weakness of their own sinful flesh. People who are quick to anger and slow to forgive. People whose lives outside the church don’t always rise to the standards we might set for them. And if we take an honest look at ourselves, each of us would have to admit they we, too, seem altogether out of place in the kingdom of God. Yes, we know that the kingdom of God is among us. But sometimes it’s hard to believe. It just doesn’t look like we think the kingdom of God ought to look.

Well, we aren’t alone in feeling this way. In fact, Jesus’ first followers felt the same frustration—but even more so! They had been waiting… and waiting… and waiting… for the promised Messiah. At last, there were signs that He had come! The sick were being made well! Evil spirits were being cast out! The blind were being made to see, the deaf to hear, and the lame to walk! He turned water into wine and gave bread to a crowd of thousands! He calmed the storm with just a word! And this man taught with authority like no other.

But, somehow, the pieces didn’t all seem to fit. Rome still had Israel under its thumb. The corrupt house of Herod still cast a dark shadow over their land. And the One to whom they were looking for deliverance seemed in no hurry to take up a crown or raise an army. If Immanuel had at last come, why wasn’t He doing more to ransom captive Israel?

To top it off, this man was associating with all the wrong people and breaking the sacred traditions of the Pharisees. Time and time again, He did what was unlawful on the Sabbath! He ate and drank with the sinners! Tax collectors and women of ill repute were among His closest friends.

It just didn’t seem to fit. On the one hand, this clearly was no ordinary man. On the other hand, this sure wasn’t what people thought the kingdom of God ought to look like. It was so common, so ordinary, so disappointing.

Jesus knew what they were thinking—and He knows that our fallen, sinful minds just can’t wrap themselves around the mystery of His kingdom. So Jesus tells us a parable:

The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come (Mark 4:26-29).

Jesus focuses on the seed. Not the soil. Not the sower. The seed is the primary actor in this parable. Although a farmer plays an important role in the cultivation of his field—after all, he sows the seed—its growth occurs apart from his efforts, even as he sleeps. He doesn’t understand how it happens. Not really. Oh, he understands you need a certain combination of seed, soil, water, nutrients, and sunshine, but no one—not even the most advanced horticulturist—know all the chemical and biological processes that are necessary to make a seed sprout, grow, and produce grain for the harvest. It’s a mystery. But that’s okay. It doesn’t really matter how it grows, but just to know that it does grow. The power is in the seed.

So it is with the Gospel. It is sown. It sprouts. It matures. It is harvested. Christ’s parable echoes Isaiah 55:11: “So shall My Word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

The harvest Jesus speaks about includes the final harvest at the end of the world, when all mankind will see the marvelous crop the Lord has produced through His Word in this world of sin. But the harvest is also reaped here and now in the life of every child of God in whose heart the Word has taken root and grown and whose faith God uses time and again to bring that same Word to others.

Still, the harvest isn’t the believer’s doing, but God’s. Paul later put it this way in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”

Notice that in this parable, Jesus doesn’t explain the mystery of His kingdom. It’s not the kind of mystery that can be explained. It can only be accepted by faith. But Jesus does offer comfort and hope by telling us how this mystery ends. The seed that’s been sown will produce a crop. And when the grain is ripe, the harvest will come!

We don’t need to rush out every day and anxiously examine the grain to see if it’s harvest time. When a field has been planted, the farmer doesn’t need to worry and fret every day about when the harvest will come. The harvest will come in its own time. The same is true in the kingdom of God.

In this parable, Jesus gives us the comforting assurance that responsibility for the kingdom’s growth does not rest on our shoulders. The seed has been sown and growth will come by itself—not as the product of our efforts or ingenuity. The Lord of the harvest is in control. There’s no need to worry.

So what does this mean for you? Well, first of all, it tells you how you were brought into the kingdom of God. The seed of God’s word was sown in your heart. By processes we cannot fully understand, it sprouted, took root, and has grown.

For most of you, this first happened in your Baptism. Nobody could see it; it looked like three splashes of plain water, but in that water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word, the seed of the kingdom was sown into your heart. Your Baptism works forgiveness of sin, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to you and all who believe this.

And that seed continues to grow and produce new life. As the seed of the Word—God’s Law and Gospel—is continuously sown in you, your Old Adam is drowned by daily contrition and repentance and dies with all sins and evil desires, so that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Imperceptibly, bit by bit, you are being conformed to the image of Christ.

The seed of the Word is also sown in you in the Lord’s Supper. In, with, and under the bread and the wine you receive the very body and blood of your Savior Jesus Christ given and shed on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given you through the words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

The second thing that this means for you is that God has invited you to be part of the process of sowing the precious, mysterious seed of His kingdom, even as you carry out your everyday vocations.

It might seem like a small thing, too insignificant for the effort it takes to have devotions with your family at the end of the day, but think about what’s happening: you’re sowing the seed of the kingdom, trusting God’s promise that that Word will take root, grow, and produce a harvest of faith.

Or how about the next-door neighbor who is going through a rough patch? You probably didn’t even think about, but in praying with her, you were not just bringing her needs before the throne of God, you were sowing the seed of God’s Word. Who knows? That simple seed might take root and grow almost immediately, or it may lay dormant for a while until someone else comes along and waters it. That’s okay. You’re not responsible for the growth, only the faithfulness of sowing the seed.

And that Bible story you shared with your grandchild? You thought you were only having a good time and entertaining them for a few minutes. It turns out you were sowing the seed of faith!

Such is the mystery of the sown seed. The Gospel, like seed, generates spiritual life and causes spiritual growth not only in a way that in incomprehensible to man. Just as plants pass from one stage to another in ways that cause us to marvel, so is the growth which the Gospel produces. God’s kingdom grows mysteriously of itself, at its own pace, and through the power of the Word.

This reality often causes frustration among those who seek a quick fix or eagerly long for a rapid expansion of the kingdom, and all the more as we only have a short-term view of things. But God’s kingdom grows according to His plan and timetable. And it is a great blessing that thing ultimately depend on Him and not on us, for only He is able to bring home a great harvest for life eternal.

So, just go out and sow the seed of God’s Word. Witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus faithfully, without worry, and in all patience, knowing it is all in the Lord’s powerful hand. Trust that it will bring results in and others. And remember, no matter your past failures or present state, God’s life-giving Word is at work in your life, too, producing faith, forgiveness, and eternal life. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.