I had the privilege a few days ago of teaching the Bible lesson to the children from Neighborhood Christian Center as they meet during the summertime in our church. And I asked the question, I started off the lesson of asking the question, “What is the most frequently mentioned animal in the Bible?” The first answer that came up was, “sheep.” And they were right. And actually, this morning as we read through the gospel of Mark, we read about a passage where it says that Jesus had compassion on the crowds – why? Because they were like “sheep without a shepherd.” Well, we hear those same words in our passage tonight. We’ll turn to Matthew chapter 9 if you would turn there with me. It’s found on page 814 in your pew Bibles. This passage is a summary of all that’s happened so far in Matthew’s gospel, but it’s also a bridge, or a transition, which is setting up the next section of his teaching about Jesus. And if you’re familiar with Matthew’s gospel, the words that we read here in these verses, Matthew 9:35 and following, are very similar to the words we read in Matthew chapter 4 verse 23. And back in 4:23 those words were setting up or introducing Jesus’ teaching that came next in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus was teaching the way of His kingdom, the way of God’s kingdom. Well here, we read those words again and Jesus is setting up His next section of teaching. It’s a teaching in which He focuses on the mission of the kingdom, kingdom mission, and He sends out His disciples for that mission.
So let’s pray again and then we’ll read these verses!
Our Father God, we give You thanks that You have spoken to us in Your Word, that You have given us Your Spirit to open our hearts and our ears, our minds, to receive Your Word. We pray that You would, by Your Spirit, help us tonight. Help us to receive the love of Christ that comes to us in the Bible and that we would be motivated, equipped, encouraged to go out and to make disciples for Your glory. We pray these things in Jesus’ name, amen.
Let’s read Matthew chapter 9, starting in verse 35:
“And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 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; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’”
The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever.
I want us to notice two points from these verses tonight. The first is a compassionate Shepherd for the harassed and the helpless. A compassionate Shepherd for the harassed and helpless. But secondly, I want us to see the gracious Lord of a plentiful harvest.
- A Compassionate Shepherd for the Harassed and Helpless
Let’s see first a compassionate Shepherd for the harassed and the helpless. We read in verse 35 that “Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages” of the area surrounding the Sea of Galilee. We know these places well, don’t we? If you even have a casual familiarity with the Bible, you know the names of these cities and villages. It’s Nazareth and Capernaum and Cana. We recognize these names, if you’ve been in church for a while, they’re as recognizable to us as Flora and Utica and Starr if you have been around Jackson for any number of years. But what are these cities and villages really like? Most likely there were more people there. They were more populous than we tend to think about them. Some estimates say that the cities and villages around the Sea of Galilee had a population between 200 and 400 thousand people. And it was spread out over an area roughly the size of Rhode Island. These were not little one-stoplight towns. They were bustling communities. They were active cities, active villages.
And so what we see is that as Jesus is going through these cities and villages He’s interacting with all sorts of people. He’s interacting with Jews and Gentiles, He’s engaging with the rich and the poor, with the slave and the free. He runs into people from all segments of the society. He comes in contact with fishermen, with scribes, with tax collectors, with Roman centurions, with mothers and fathers. He comes in contact with all sorts of people and we’re told that as Jesus went around in those cities and villages that “great multitudes came to him.” In this part of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus enjoys a certain level of popularity. The crowds are coming to Jesus, they hear His teaching, and they are astonished. They say, “He teaches with authority and not like the scribes.” They see His healing and they see His miracles and they marvel. They wonder at what Jesus is doing. They go and they spread the Word around. And so everywhere Jesus goes, He’s met by great crowds. And when Jesus saw the crowds, what did He see? He saw that they were harassed and helpless; they were like sheep without a shepherd. He saw their troubles. He saw their needs.
The Sheep’s Complete Dependence on the Shepherd
They were like sheep that had been let loose. They had been cast off and rejected and scattered to the rough environments of the wilderness. They had been scattered out to the risk of foxes and wolves and other predators. When we think about a sheep, a sheep is an animal that is completely dependent upon the shepherd. The sheep is completely dependent upon the shepherd for food and for drink and for protection. And sheep like to flock together. They like to huddle up close to one another when they sense danger and when they get too far away from the rest of the sheep, they become agitated. They become stressed. One writer says that “sheep are so unintelligent and they are so prone to wander that they will have a hard time finding the sheepfold, even when it’s within sight.” That’s the way sheep are. And so when we read about the crowds that are harassed and helpless, they are like sheep without a shepherd, the picture that we see here is like sheep that have been wandering and wandering and wandering and they’re looking for food, they’re looking for drink. They’re fleeing from predators and they’ve come to the point where they are so exhausted and worn out that they just lie down and give up. They succumb to the elements and to the predators who are coming after them. It’s a picture of distress. It’s a picture of helplessness and of anguish.
And I was reminded of this sort of helplessness, this heartbreaking helplessness in an article I read recently. It was about a woman who was hiking on the Appalachian Trail and she died after she got lost on the trail. The article said that Geraldine Largay disappeared from the trail on July 22, 2013. And she sent a text to her husband. It said, “In some trouble. Got off the trail. Now lost.” It was a text message that was never received. And one volunteer who kind of goes around and helps to maintain the trails works in that area, he says that that area is so rough that you can get off the trail twenty to fifty feet and turn around and you can’t see where it was. And if you don’t know the direction of the trail that you could walk around in circles for hours without finding it. Well, Mrs. Largay survived for almost a month, waiting for help that never came. It’s hard to imagine the sense of stress and the vulnerability that she would have felt.
Sheep Without a Shepherd
It’s that stress and vulnerability that sheep have when they are harassed and helpless. And so when we see that, that Jesus sees the crowds that they are harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd, that’s the experience that they were going through. And we see that the crowds when Jesus went among the crowds, who did He see? He saw and came in contact with lepers and paralytics and with those who were blind. He came in contact with those who were mourning and who were in grief, who were suffering from spiritual torment. Matthew tells us about the way they came to Jesus and they pleaded out to Him for help. They were desperate!
And not only that, we see that there were burdens and oppressions that were placed on them by their political and spiritual leaders. We know about the ways that the Pharisees operated with the people. They tied up heavy burdens and placed them on the shoulders of the people, adding rule after rule after rule to their code of conduct. It was impossible to keep up with. It was impossible to live out. The Scripture tells us that they devoured widows’ houses and they used the people. They used the people to build up their own reputation, to boost their own status. And not only that but the rulers of the land, they cheated and manipulated the people. You think about the tax collectors. They stole from the people. Think about Herod and the way that he ruled over the people of this area. He ruled with violence and corruption. And so Jesus is going throughout these cities and villages, He’s looking out on the crowds, He sees concerns of every sort, and what does He see? He sees that the people were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Really anytime you come into a contact with a gathering, a large gathering of people, similar to the one we have here tonight, there will be those who are hurting. We could narrow that down and take one pew. There will be someone on your pew or several people on your pew who are hurting tonight. There are those who are lonely and mourning. They are grieving the loss of a spouse, the widows, and the widowers. There are those who are battling serious health conditions. Some people are in a new place for the first time and are going through a major transition in their life and the future is uncertain. Others are gripped by depression or anxiety. They are gripped by a certain sin or doubt. What about if we leave this place? We look around our neighborhoods, we look in our city; we look in the hospitals and in the prisons. We see deep problems, systemic problems – poverty and violence, hunger and disease. There are some who have said that the generation that’s being raised right now is a fatherless generation. There are broken families. There are orphans who are in need of a home. They’re lost. They’re hardened. There are people who are confused and rebellious. Many people are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. It’s a scary place to be. It’s a dangerous place to be.
And sometimes when you’re surrounded by a large number of people, even when you’re surrounded in the church, in a larger church, you can feel anonymous. You feel like your hurt may go unnoticed. Or maybe you look around and you see, “Well that person’s problem is so much bigger than mine that mine doesn’t seem all that significant anymore.” There’s a quote that’s been attributed to Joseph Stalin where he says that “The death of one person is a tragedy. The death of one million is a statistic.” And we know his motivations there, but what he’s saying is that problems can tend to get lost in a crowd of problems.
The Compassion of Jesus
What do we see with Jesus? What we see in this passage in Matthew chapter 9 is that Jesus saw the crowds; He didn’t see a statistic. He had compassion on them. If you know the King James Version how it translates this verse in Matthew 9 it says that “Jesus was moved with compassion for the crowds.” There is a deep emotion in the heart of Jesus for these people. The word for “compassion” is the same word that we use, where we get our word, “spleen.” It means, “inner parts.” This is a love and pity that Jesus has for the people that comes from deep within His soul. One commentator says that it was a “gut reaction” to the crowd. As a parent, you know the sort of love you have for your children that sometimes you say, “I love them so much that it hurts.” And if they’re going through any kind of sickness or suffering you feel it intensely yourself. It’s heart wrenching. And you want to take that sickness, you want to take that suffering and take it in their place and bear it for them. Well, when Jesus looks at the crowds and He sees their pains, He’s moved with this heartfelt sympathy and compassion for them. He looks at them and He loves them like a parent loves a child. That’s the sort of compassion that Jesus feels for these crowds.
That should blow us away! That should overwhelm us because you think about your own needs. You think about your personal needs or just the needs in your immediate family, not to mention the headlines that shock us every day. We start to understand what psychologists call is, “compassion fatigue” – being burned out with sympathizing. One psychologist says that the more we hear about events and sufferings and trauma that pull at our heartstrings, the more likely we are to just withdraw and feel like we don’t have any more motivation to help. They say that some of the people that are most prone to feeling compassion fatigue are doctors and nurses and police officers and counselors and caregivers and parents and service industry workers – on and on. We could say, everybody, right? Everybody has a tendency to feel compassion fatigue, of feeling like you, just have nothing left to give, nothing left to feel. And yet what do we read about Jesus here? Jesus is full of compassion. His affection for the people flows from infinite springs of love. His mercy never runs out. His compassions never come to an end.
And so it’s with that sort of compassion that Jesus goes out. And what we read here in verse 35 is that out of compassion Jesus was teaching in their synagogues. He was proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom. He was healing every disease and every affliction. What we see from Jesus and what we see from His compassion is that it was the compassion of Jesus that moved Him toward the people. It moved Him toward the crowds. He went to the people in the places where they lived. He went to them where they worked. And He took upon Himself the taxing work of traveling from place to place with aching feet on dusty roads. He went with His disciples in boats and endured severe storms, all out of His love for them. You see, that’s the grace of Jesus. That’s the grace of our Lord Jesus – a grace that pursues people. He goes after the brokenhearted and it’s a grace that does not discriminate. There is no condition or no qualification which the people must meet before Jesus will come to them. They must only recognize that they have a need for them. And so He pursues them. He goes to the people. He goes after people out of His compassion.
Compassion in Teaching and Preaching
And not only that, He demonstrates His compassion both in His teaching or His preaching and in His healing. Now we can recognize, can’t we, that there is great mercy in the work of relieving pain. You know as Jesus restores life and health to the sick and to the dying, that is great compassion. It’s very obvious to us. But notice what this passage tells us. It’s that there is tremendous love from Jesus in that He preaches good news to the people. Jesus went to the synagogues and He taught them. What did He teach them? He taught them Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Isaiah. He taught them that there is no greater way to say, “I love you,” than a lecture on a minor prophet. That’s true! God’s Word is there to teach that He loves them, and Jesus did that by teaching and preaching. He proclaimed the good news of the kingdom, that God reigns and that God forgives sin. He brings life and joy and hope to His people in Christ. He taught truth to those who had been taught lies. He revealed light to those who were in darkness. You see, the teaching and preaching of Jesus, as well as the healing of Jesus, demonstrated His authority. And when the people saw His authority, they said, “What sort of man is this?” And they asked that question because what sort of man is this that has this great of authority and yet comes with such compassion and love?
You see, when we’re told that Jesus had compassion on the crowds, we’re not just hearing about an emotion of Jesus, about His emotions. We’re being told that this one with this authority and with this compassion is the Messiah, He is the Christ. He is the one who has been promised throughout the whole Old Testament. He is the one who brings the love of God to a sinful and broken creation. He comes to gather the lost and to shepherd His people as their Lord and their God. Back in Ezekiel chapter 34 and 37, Ezekiel is prophesying. He’s bringing God’s Word and he’s pointing out the way that the people who had been charged to guide God’s people had actually been leading them astray. They had failed in their task. But Ezekiel’s also showing God’s promise to rescue them. This is what he says in Ezekiel 34. He says, “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep and I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered.” He says, “They will lie down on good land and feed on rich pasture.” He also says, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.” And in chapter 37 verse 24 it says, “My servant David shall be king over them and they shall all have one shepherd.” Jesus is that one Shepherd. He is the son of David and the son of God. He is the King and the Shepherd.
Compassion in Healing
And when we look back in Matthew chapter 28, we read the words that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy that He took on our illnesses and He bore our diseases. So what we’re seeing about Jesus and the depth of His compassion is that He has such compassion for the sheep and for the people that He died for them, that He went to the cross to pay for our sin, to remove the curse that our sin deserves. Isaiah says it all. “We like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way, but the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Jesus, out of His compassion for the sheep, laid down His life for the sheep. And by His resurrection from the grave, He overcame sin and death, He defeated sin and death for His sheep to give us life. That kind of compassion can only come from God Himself. And only Jesus is the type of Shepherd, He is the only Shepherd that the harassed and the helpless need.
Several years ago, a man wrote a book. He was born in East Africa and he spent several years as an actual shepherd; that was his occupation. And so he wrote this book to really reflect on his time as a shepherd and compare it to the 23rd Psalm. And in his description of his time as a shepherd, he said that sheep really flourish best in dry and arid conditions. They’re not as susceptible to harm, to hazards to their health; they’re not as susceptible to parasites. And so he says that green pastures don’t just happen by accident. Green pastures require tremendous labor. It requires time and skill. Then he says this in his writing. He says that “No sight so satisfies the sheep owner as to see his flock well and quietly fed on rich, green forage, able to lie down to rest, ruminate and grow.” You see, that’s what sheep need. They need new pasture; they need rich pasture. And Jesus and Jesus alone provides new and rich pasture for His sheep.
And so if you’re here tonight and you feel like the crowds, harassed and helpless, weary and scattered, if you don’t trust in Jesus then you are harassed and helpless. But even tonight as you hear God’s Word, Jesus comes to you in boundless compassion; He comes to you in grace. And no matter how far you’ve wandered, no matter how far astray you’ve gone, if you trust in Jesus and rest in His grace and in His mercy, you will find blessing and the protection of life in Him, the Good Shepherd, and He will lead you to good pastures. Maybe you’re just struggling; maybe you’re struggling with worry. Maybe you doubt your salvation. As we read this passage tonight, remember the depth of Jesus’ compassion for you. He loves you with an everlasting love. He will not give you up; He will not let you go. Be encouraged. He will not lose any of His sheep. And no matter how bad you may be struggling, isn’t it comforting to know that the love of Christ has defeated sin and death and because He has done that He will heal all of your afflictions, all of your diseases, one day. And it’s comforting that as we sit here and we hear God’s Word, we are comforted and enjoy Christ’s mercy to us by reading the Bible. As we sit here and hear the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, that is an experiencing of God’s love and compassion for us. Be comforted. God loves you. He speaks to you in comfort and grace and compassion, even tonight. He is a compassionate Shepherd for the harassed and the helpless. He moved to those who were hurting. He demonstrates His compassion by His teaching and by His healing. And as the true Shepherd, as the Messiah, it drives Him all the way to the cross to lay down His life for His sheep.
- The Gracious Lord of a Plentiful Harvest
And that leads us really to the second point that we see tonight. It is that we see the gracious Lord of a plentiful harvest. We see that the compassion of Jesus moves Him also to send out His disciples for kingdom mission. After verse 36, moving into verse 37, the metaphor changes, doesn’t it? It changes from a sheep and shepherd, it changes to that of laborers working in a harvest field. If you look back at verse 37, Jesus says that “the harvest is plentiful.” The harvest is plentiful. Think about what that says about the perspective of Jesus. As He looks out at the needs of the people, He doesn’t see a parched and a scorched landscape. He doesn’t see a field that’s been devastated by locusts and by disease.
I remember several years ago I was in Peru and walking around with Alonzo Ramirez in this little village called YACA Nora. And if you know Alonzo, Alonzo is a pastor in Peru, he has a Ph.D. in Theology; he also has a Ph.D. in agricultural science. And we were walking through this small town in Peru and on these dirt roads and the only traffic you bumped into were a couple of cows. And we walked past this house in a field, and these men were working in the field, and Alonzo took one glance at the field and he said, “Those plants are diseased.” And it was heartbreaking to think about these men who were working so hard and that was their sustenance and Alonzo could look out and see just with a glance, that the crops were diseased.
That’s not what Jesus sees. Jesus looks out at the fields, He sees an abundant crop. He sees row after row after row of abundant produce, ready to be gathered in. It’s what we know from driving through the Mississippi Delta and everywhere you eye looks, everywhere you see are farm fields, ready to be gathered in. Jesus sees the crowds, He sees the paralytic, He sees the demon-possessed, He sees the sick and the dying. He doesn’t see problems; He sees opportunities. He sees opportunities for the spread of the kingdom. He sees opportunities for the salvation of sinners and for the glory of God. He doesn’t look out in judgment or scorn or despair, but He looks out in love and concern. He looks out with a mission.
Pray Earnestly for Laborers
And so Jesus charges His disciples there in verse 38, “Pray earnestly for God to send laborers into his harvest. Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” And the word that Jesus uses there for “pray” is not the usual word we find for “pray.” It’s one that has the sense of begging and pleading. There’s an urgency in this prayer. It’s similar to the parable that we know Jesus tells about a friend in the middle of the night. He gets up and he goes and knocks on his neighbor’s door until he comes to help him. There’s an urgent pleading that Jesus is calling for and praying earnestly for laborers to go out into the harvest. There’s an intensity in His prayer that needs to match the magnitude of the task. There is great need and there are great blessings to come in the kingdom of God. And so Jesus is calling for an earnest prayer, an eager prayer. It’s a prayer that must come from a heart that has the same kind of compassion for the crowds that Jesus has for the crowds. It may not be the same unlimited and abundant compassion, but the same kind of compassion is what Jesus is calling for. It’s a prayer that comes from someone who loves God and who loves people, loves his neighbor, and who recognizes that such a great mission requires great prayer. It’s the kind of prayer that Jesus calls for. He teaches His disciples to pray, doesn’t He, in the Lord’s Prayer? He says to pray, “Thy kingdom come.” When Jesus tells us and teaches us to pray, “Thy kingdom come,” He’s teaching us to pray for laborers to go into the harvest and He’s teaching us to pray earnestly and eagerly to do that, that that would happen.
But the interesting thing is when we go to the very next chapter in the book of Matthew, and we notice that the ones that Jesus has commanded to pray earnestly for laborers for the harvest are the same ones that Jesus sends out to labor in the harvest. You see what that shows us? It shows us that to be a follower of Jesus is to be a worker for Jesus; that to be a disciple of Jesus is to be a disciple-maker. How could it be any other way? If Jesus’ disciples are filled with love for Him, if Jesus’ disciples have great compassion on the crowds and if they spend their time praying eagerly and earnestly for the work of the kingdom, how can they not also be moved to go out themselves and to work for God’s kingdom, to be laborers in the harvest? You see, those who pray earnestly are those who go.
Laborers Must be Sent
And there are two very important things that we see here about those who go, who go as laborers into the harvest. One is that those who go are sent. Look back at verse 38. It says, “Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.” The Lord sends out the laborers. That means that the Lord of the harvest is the one that equips His laborers for the work that they are to do. He equips them with the Holy Spirit. He meets their needs. He sustains them in hard times to do hard things. He gives them the words to say. He provides the resources that they need in order to be successful. The Lord of the harvest is the one who sends out the laborers.
Laborers Must Acknowledge That the Harvests Belong to God
And not only that, but the laborers go into His harvest. It’s God’s harvest. You see that? “Send out laborers into his harvest.” Ultimately, it is God who provides the opportunities. It is God who opens the eyes and the ears and the hearts of the lost. He gives the success to the mission and to the work and He is the one who gets all the glory and the praise from its success. You see, it’s not about the disciples and their slick strategies. It’s not about eloquent speech that comes from them. It’s about the sovereign Lord’s power and faithfulness to spread His kingdom and to accomplish His purposes.
So as we close, we ask two questions. Will you pray earnestly for the mission of Christ and for His Church? Will you pray earnestly, eagerly? And that may mean first we need to confess that our affection for Christ has been lagging and that we need to grow in our love for Him. We may need to repent of judgmental attitudes and a lack of compassion for our neighbor. But will we then pray earnestly for them? For God to send out laborers into His harvest? And the second question is, are you ready to go? Are you ready to go into the harvest? We all know someone in need. It could be someone in your family. It could be a neighbor. Maybe somebody in the next office over from you or in the same classroom as you are. You know someone who needs to be shown mercy and kindness. You know someone who needs to have the Good News spoken to them, that the problem of sin has been overcome by the grace of God, by the death and resurrection of Christ, and that there is new life, eternal life in Christ Jesus. That is the Good News that everyone needs and you know someone that needs that. And what this passage is teaching us is that to be a disciple is to be a disciple-maker. That’s not an optional category, an optional calling for disciples of Christ. It’s not a different category of believer. It’s for everyone. And it’s also a call for the entire life of the disciple. As long as we follow Jesus, we are called to be disciple-makers, which means as long as we live. Now that can be intimidating. It may be demanding, but there is great freedom in knowing that God equips us for the task. God provides fruit from the labor and He is the one who receives the glory for it.
Think about it. Think about the harvest that we read about throughout history. Think about the harvest that we read about in Israel. What about the harvest at the beginning of our country and the pilgrims coming over? When the harvest was plentiful and the workers went out and gathered in the crops and they came back, what happened? There was joy. There was celebration. There was a banquet. That’s the joy that we enjoy as we go out as laborers into the harvest, that Christ calls us to enjoy. That’s the blessing of going out as His laborers into a plentiful harvest and bringing in fruit for His glory. There is great joy in following Jesus. He is the compassionate Shepherd for the harassed and the helpless. He is the gracious Lord of a plentiful harvest. Let’s pray to Him.
Our Father, we give You thanks for Your Word. We give You thanks for the challenge and for the call and for the privilege of being Your disciples and of going out to bring others into Your kingdom and to bringing You glory for all eternity. We look forward to that great joy and ask that You would equip us, strengthen us, use us by Your grace and by the work of Your Spirit. We pray all of these things in Jesus’ name, amen.
©2016 First Presbyterian Church.
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