For several Sundays in a row we have had occasion to quote one or both of the places where Jesus commands us to spread the Gospel wherever we go. One place, of course, is what we call “The Great Commission,” found at the end of Matthew’s Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (28:19, 20). The other is immediately before His Ascension, where Jesus says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 9 and 10 gives us a context for understanding why this work of evangelism and mission was so important to Jesus. We read in chapter 9: “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.’”
Who were these “distressed and dispirited” persons? Were they even aware of being “sheep without a shepherd?” Frankly I’m inclined to think that they were very little different from the people of today. They were primarily Jewish people with an occasional Gentile thrown in just to demonstrate Jesus’ impartiality and the fact that faith was rewarded wherever it was found. They were feeling the weight of oppression from the Roman government that thwarted their every effort to assert independence; yet, as usual, things could have been much worse. They were allowed a degree of self-government through their Sanhedrin, and they were ruled by rather lenient proconsuls or governors. They enjoyed far greater religious freedom than was to be found anywhere else in the entire Roman world. They lived in a reasonably stable economic environment with very little fear of the relentless warfare that has plagued the Middle East throughout much of its history, past and present.
There are interesting parallels with Americans in the 21st century. We live in freedom and remarkable economic prosperity, with little fear of war with any nearby enemy despite our shrinking world and our perceived threats from faraway places such as North Korea or Iran or, less plausibly, from a slightly contentious but chronically weak Russia. And yet it’s perfectly obvious to anyone who reads the news, watches television, follows social media or talks to other people around us that we’re living in a society heavily populated by distressed and dispirited persons who seem to be sheep without a shepherd. If you read and believe the Bible, you might be inclined to say that we live in a world that desperately needs Jesus, that great Shepherd of the Sheep, the one Who called Himself the Good Shepherd and the Door of the Sheep. Our world needs Him just as much as first century Palestine needed Him, whether we know it or not.
This reminded me of Jesus’ words regarding His coming again. He compared the way it will be to the way it was in the time of Noah, once again reminding us, as Solomon said in Ecclesiastes, that “there is nothing new under the sun.” We often hear it said that history repeats itself, and that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “As it was in the days of Noah, so will it be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the Flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the Ark. And they were oblivious, until the flood came and swept them all away. So will it be at the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:37-39, Berean Study Bible).
Someone in Chicago Master Singers recently posted an article of musical interest on our private Facebook site. Wishing to read and copy the article, I inadvertently clicked in the wrong place on my email and, instead of going to the CMS page, I ended up on the singer’s personal page. I glanced down the page just to see what sorts of things had been posted. What I found was one article after another relentlessly decrying the state of 21st century America and expressing nothing more than the bleakest despair over our current plight and our dismal future. Other than a few pleasant family photos everything else reeked of despair. I couldn’t avoid concluding that this prosperous and highly successful person with a contagious public smile must surely underneath it all be a “distressed and dispirited” person in deepest need of a shepherd or, more precisely, of The Shepherd.
We often hear people saying words to the effect that it’s all about context. Again, I think that in first-century Palestine, Jesus was addressing a societal context that in many fundamental respects was just like that of 21st century America. What’s the constant factor that makes us alike? It’s simply that left to our own devices, as we often are, we humans too often tend to gravitate towards despair and hopelessness, even if we have fleeting periods of carefully guarded optimism. Euphoria over a newly elected leader is short-lived, while the despair over that very same leader takes on a protracted life of its own where it’s claimed that tomorrow promises only “devastation.” The thrill of a World Series championship team in Chicago soon turns to despair when the same team loses 5 or 6 games in a row in the new season. And that’s just politics and baseball!
What’s the underlying problem? What is it that unites such seemingly disparate cultures in the same emotional and spiritual crises? It’s simply that the focus is so fundamentally wrong that all the sought-after escape routes ultimately lead from one level of despair to another or, at best, from a time of great optimism to the crushing reality that a good time may be doomed to be short-lived. Our answers are sought in the realms of social status, financial gain, personal gratification or professional accomplishment, when the answers lie entirely in the spiritual realm that Jesus had in mind when He characterized His own contemporaries as distressed and dispirited persons in need of a shepherd.
There is a single word in the Bible for the base problem itself, one of the most unpopular words of our day not only in secular society but in religious circles as well. It’s a simple three-letter word that I call one the three greatest levelers in all of human existence. And no, it’s not death or taxes, or even traffic lights. It’s sin. Sin is the human condition that Jesus observed wherever He went, even among those who were the spiritual gurus of His day. It’s the condition that Jesus came to address and remedy. It’s the condition that causes people to be dispirited and distressed. It’s the condition that leaves people aimlessly wandering through life as sheep needing a shepherd.
As Isaiah put it, “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). And Paul, quoting from Psalm 14, wrote, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God.” Then he adds, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:10, 11, 23).
Our Gospel reading began by saying that “Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.” He knew that His time was short and that He was hardly equal to the task of doing all the work Himself. This is why He gathered His disciples together and told them to go first of all to the lost sheep of Israel.
Here He makes it explicit that even His own people were in need of shepherding. He uses an analogy every one of them knew very well. Even in our day a visit to the Holy Land presents vivid and unforgettable images of sheep and shepherds everywhere. You can observe sheep behavior wherever you go. You also can observe sheep misbehavior everywhere. That was how Jesus saw spiritually needy people in His day: persons whose lives were polluted by sin and who needed a shepherd.
After commissioning His disciples to do the work He wanted them to share, He changed the metaphor and said to them: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” Now it’s the disciples who are the sheep, and the sin-sick persons to whom they must minister are characterized not as wandering sheep but as wolves. And staying with the nature analogies, Jesus makes His famous statement that those who do His work must be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”
I’m not personally acquainted with the ways of serpents and am perfectly willing simply to accept that if Jesus thinks they’re wise, they must be. But I happen to know a lot about doves, as they occupy our back yard every single day. When it comes to “harmless,” doves must be near the top of the list. They will not compete with any other bird for food, even if they have a decided size advantage and sharper beaks. They simply fly off to some nearby tree and wait until the coast is clear before they return to eat whatever has been left behind or knocked to the ground.
What does this tell us about how we should be? “Wise” definitely does not mean that to be witnesses for Christ we need to have a PhD. In fact, those who are wise are almost always to be preferred over those who are simply knowledgeable. I had one of my periodic lunches with a pastor friend this past week, and he’s a paragon of wisdom and harmlessness. I love the moments when I’m sitting quietly eating my lunch and he’s talking about his various one-on-one ministries to young pastors or students needing mentoring or parishioners in various crises. I know that if I were having a crisis of my own, he’s probably the first pastor to whom I would go. He has no PhD, but he’s very wise. He’s not a charismatic firebrand, but he is as harmless as a dove. He’s a true disciple of Jesus. There are many foolish and contentious Christians who walk this planet doing serious damage to the cause of Christ. “Wise” and “harmless” are characteristics we all would do well to cultivate on a daily basis. Jesus Himself said so.
Before I close, I want to go full circle back to where I started. Jesus said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” Several years ago, when I was first starting out on my circuitous path towards ordination, I wrote a soul-baring letter to our beloved Bishop (who will be with us next week). I quoted these words of Jesus and applied them to the mission field that’s ours in northern Illinois. I gave him statistics about population centers, the sorts of ministers who occupy our pulpits, numbers of churches that proclaim the faith of Jesus Christ, and my conclusion that even here in northern Cook and Lake Counties of Illinois, the harvest was plentiful but the laborers were few. I asked for his support in bringing me to where we are today, and he gave his support unstintingly.
But there are times when I feel a bit like Jesus. We’re doing the work we believe He has called us to do, but we need others who will say, “Here am I, send me.” This is a task for all of us. Everyone in this room, given a few minutes of silence, could easily think of persons in your immediate circle of acquaintances, family members and close friends, who could be characterized as “distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.” I’m going to ask you to take a moment to think of just one: just one person you know well who needs to receive the Good Shepherd as Savior. Then I want you to pray that you will have the compassion of Jesus for that person. Take a moment to do that. (Pause)
It’s our job both individually and collectively to address these needs with which we’re surrounded, needs of persons into whose faces we look every week, persons who are longing for something more but have no idea where to find it. This definitely was not what Jesus had in mind. For Jesus, the Gospel message was one that was to be carried forward by all who name His Name, “even to the ends of the world.” Northern Illinois is not “the end of the world” by any means, but it decidedly is a place where there are sheep without a shepherd. We just happen to know that “great Shepherd of the sheep” Who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” We know Him, but we keep Him to ourselves.
If Jesus, “seeing the people, felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd; and then said to His disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few,’” we need to share in the sacred heart of Jesus. Then, despite His dire warnings of the possible costs even in family relationships, we must be faithful to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He warned us of the likelihood that we might be hated by all because of His Name. But to us is entrusted the knowledge that He is the Lamb of God “Who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and that His is “the only Name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
And if by any chance you’re hiding behind that often heard excuse, “I have no idea what to say,” listen to these words of our Lord Jesus Christ from today’s Gospel: “Do not worry about how or what you are to say; for it will be given you in that hour what you are to say. For it’s not you who speak, but it’s the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.”
We just have to get started, while it’s still today.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen