The harvest is plentiful—but the laborers are few

Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful—but the laborers are few.”

Today is harvest Sunday. We’re here to thank and praise God for the harvest He has provided for our farmers. And one of the things that continually amazes me about God is how He uses the ordinary things of this world to teach us important lessons.

It’s been a long and challenging harvest season. But it appears that most of the crops are out of the field—and any that are still out there will eventually be harvested. Because farmers don’t give up when conditions aren’t good. You’ve invested a lot of time and money in those fields and you do whatever you have to do to bring in the harvest.

Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful—but the laborers are few.”

It seems that we in the church are much less committed when it comes to harvesting lost souls.

Or maybe it’s not so much that we’re less committed as it is that we just don’t understand how to go about it. We read in the book of Acts and throughout the New Testament how lives were being changed continually as Jesus’ disciples and others went about preaching the gospel. Peter preaches one sermon on Pentecost and three thousand souls were added to their number. The church that has 120 members in the morning had 3000 more by the end of the day.

It sounds so easy—and we wonder why it’s not easy for us. We wonder why the church in this country today, and even our church right here, so often seems to be ineffective. We have the same Holy Spirit that Peter had—why aren’t we continually seeing lives be changed around us?

When we compare our efforts in the church to the efforts of our farmers, I think we begin to see the problem. Farmers know exactly what they need to do to arrive at the point of harvest—they know that there will be no harvest without planting. They know that harvest is affected by how well the ground is prepared before planting. They know that while they can control a lot of things, the biggest thing, the weather, is completely beyond their control. So they control the things that they can control and leave the rest up to God.

They also know that there’s a right way and a wrong way to manage the things they can control. They can decide whether to plant corn or soybeans in a given field, but they know that to mix a bunch of corn and soybean seeds together and then plant them all in the same field would probably not work out very well.

I think it would be hard to be a farmer and not recognize just how much they are not in control.

The church is the Body of Christ, and God is just as much in control here as He is in the business of farming. But I think we often forget that—we think we’re in control. We think that as long as we’re doing things that seem good to us, we can expect God to bless our efforts.

We’re running our churches a lot more according to the theology of Frank Sinatra than we are according to God’s Word—according to the specific instructions given by Jesus. We want to do it our way. The culture we live in tells us that we should do it our way.

Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful—but the laborers are few.”

The disciples understood two important things that we forget—or maybe just ignore. The first is that timing matters, and that God is in charge of timing. And the second has to do with spiritual gifts. God gives us gifting for the job that He calls us to do—and those jobs are specific.

It’s a lot more important for us to understand the job that we’re called to than it is to be sure we know what our spiritual gifts are. Because whatever job God’s called us to is the job that He’s gifted us for.

Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful—but the laborers are few.”

God works according to His timing—our ability to plan ahead is really quite limited. God, however, can see down the centuries. The whole thing about farming, for example, was a part of God’s plan from the very beginning of Creation. And He didn’t just plan the whole process of growing and harvesting crops so that we would have food to eat—He planned the whole process of growing and harvesting crops so that we could learn more about God. So that Jesus could use farming as an illustration. So that the church could better understand the importance of timing.

Think about your life—and about how God has been at work in you. I can look back and see how God was speaking into my life from childhood, how He was preparing me long before I ever even recognized that He was at work in me. He had a specific plan for me.

I had specific plans for me, too—somehow God managed to change them all. During the years that I was raising my children, He had me teaching Sunday School, serving in various leadership positions in the church, leading Vacation Bible School. And when sexuality and then Called to Common Mission became issues in the church, He had me searching Scripture to discover what God had to say about these things.

At the second or third LCMC Annual Gathering, Denny and I went to a breakout session that talked about a new way to educate pastors and about a new seminary that was putting this into practice, a seminary called The Master’s Institute. We went because we knew the presenter, and when we left I remember saying to Denny, “That was kind of a waste of time. Somebody should have told me that it was just about training pastors.”

A year or two later when God suddenly called me to be a pastor, I was telling Him all the reasons I could never do that: “Do you see a seminary anywhere around here, Lord?” “I can’t move somewhere for three years to go to school.” In the midst of all this, I got a newsletter in the mail from The Master’s Institute—and God said, “This is where you will go.”

Pam, and all of you who’ve worked for the Post Office: I wonder if you’ve ever stopped to think that sometimes that mail you’re delivering includes messages from God.

 Then when my argument was that even if I didn’t have to move, even if I only had to be away two nights a week, I’d still need a place to stay, God pointed out that my newly married daughter Kristine and her husband Mark were now living five minutes away from the seminary—I could stay with them.

All of these different pieces that just seemed to fall into place were things that God had been arranging for years. Not me—I had no idea that any of it was going to happen. God had been arranging my seminary housing when he led Mark to buy a house in St. Paul before he ever knew he was going to marry my daughter. He’d been arranging it when he brought Mark to graduate school at the University of Minnesota so he could meet my daughter. He arranged for all this to happen as soon as my youngest daughter was happily beginning her second year of college in a new school—the school where almost immediately God introduced her to the young man who would become her future husband.

This is the way God works. He has a plan, He has the timing—all we need to do is listen and obey. When we look at the effectiveness of the early church, we see that the church listened. Listened and obeyed.

Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful—but the laborers are few.”

In our gospel reading, Jesus calls twelve men to be His disciples. But His mission really began when He called His first disciples in 4:19—the very first act in His public ministry. Unlike the other gospels, Matthew doesn’t just say, “Follow me” He says, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” He tells them why He wants them to follow Him. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gives the Great Commission to His disciples—saying, essentially, “Now go and be fishers of men.”

And here in the middle of his gospel, Matthew reminds us that fishing for men, making disciples, is our task, too. It’s the task of every single member of the body of Christ.

Jesus tells us that His mission involves teaching the word, healing and caring for social needs and exhibiting His power. He says we should expect God to demonstrate His power among us. We should make teaching a priority. We should expect healings from time to time. And we should claim the power of Jesus over all the dark forces of the demonic.

We should expect these things to happen when we listen to Him and do what He tells us to do—even when it makes no sense. He has a plan for each one of us and His plan always involves His timing.

So … do we? Are we continually expecting God to show up and direct us?

In the very next verse in chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sends the twelve out, telling them to “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans.”  Why did He do this? it wasn’t that He didn’t care about the Gentiles and the Samaritans. He did—Jesus cares about everybody. But it was not the right time. Jesus had a very specific purpose in sending out the twelve. His purpose was not only about sharing the kingdom of God with others—it was also about what they would learn in the process. He gives detailed instructions, which we’ll talk more about in coming weeks.

We want to go out and make disciples—but we often go with only some kind of vague purpose. We think that it doesn’t really matter where we go or how we go—as long as we go.

Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful—but the laborers are few.”

We often think that as long as we’re doing something, we’re good. This is not at all what Scripture teaches. Later, in the book of Acts, we find Peter preaching the gospel to a centurion named Cornelius. He ends up baptizing not only Cornelius, but the whole household of Cornelius. But he’s there because he’s received a vision from God—a vision that he doesn’t understand until men show up to ask him to come to Cornelius. Cornelius, who has also received a vision from “an angel of God” telling him to send for Peter, telling him exactly where he’ll find Peter.

Peter goes because he knows that this is what God wants him to do at that particular time. The time is right and he’s where God wants him to be—and so the body grows.

In our reading from chapter 13 of the book of Acts, the church in Antioch had four “prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul” (Acts 13:1). “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnaba and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2-3).

They don’t sit around saying, “Let’s see … where would we like to go? And who should we send?”

If we had to decide, we might send Manaen, who was a lifelong friend of King Herod, thinking that he would have more influence. But after “worshiping the Lord and fasting,” the church hears the Holy Spirit tell them that it’s Barnabas and Saul who are to go. They go where God sends them—to the island of Cyprus, where there’s a magician named Bar-Jesus, who wants to turn the proconsul away from the faith. Paul, however, recognized the demon in the man and cast it out.

He did what Jesus told the Twelve to do: “Heal every disease and affliction. Cast out demons.”

And when they get to the island of Cyprus, “they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews.” But then they encounter a Jewish false prophet, a magician named Bar-Jesus. Paul proclaimed that the hand of the Lord would blind the man—and it did.

And not only did Jews believe, but also the proconsul (governor)—the head of the local government believed.

“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” (Matthew 9:35). He demonstrated what He wanted His followers to do—and that’s what Paul did. He preached the gospel of the kingdom and he healed Bar-Jesus, casting out the demon that was afflicting him.

Later, in Acts 16, we find that Paul was “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” But then Paul received a vision, in which he heard a Macedonian man say, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:6-9).

Paul went and met Lydia, who became a believer and then he and Silas converted the Philippian jailer and his entire family.

Bringing people into the kingdom can be easy when we let God lead us. But all too often, we decide what we think is a good thing—we decide by congregational or council vote. Without listening to God. And then we work and work and work and good results are either nonexistent or they’re very small.

When we have a big God—a God who we know from Scripture wants us to go out and make disciples, wants us to grow His kingdom.

Farmers, that’s not how you grow your crops. You don’t just decide on a date to plant and a date to harvest and then go ahead regardless of weather conditions. If you decide to plant on April 20, and we get a foot of snow on April 19, you don’t just say, “Well, today’s the day.”

Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful—but the laborers are few.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to get a lot more serious about prayer. We need to get a lot more serious about listen to God. As the Nominating Committee begins to prepare a new slate of officers, as we plan how to move forward with our daycare, as we think about how potential mission trips and benevolence support, as we do all the things that we do here—how might we be more effective if we really operated as if God is in charge. And not us. If we really took the time to listen, if we stopped putting up all kinds of qualifiers—anything except that, Lord. No, not that either.

We need to be praying individually about what God wants us to do—because His plan for you isn’t just that you do something. His plan is very specific.

Last week, as you know, things were really busy around here. I had a wedding and two funerals and I was really tired. I spoke to God and said, “Can’t you find somebody else to do some of this, Lord? It’s not like I wouldn’t do something—I could go downstairs and help in the kitchen if you could just call somebody else to write some of these sermons, to do some of this work.”

Have you ever heard God laugh?

He said, “No. This is what I’ve called you to do.”

If God’s plan for me is specific—don’t you think that His plan for you is specific, too? “Just do something” has never been God’s plan for any of us.

God doesn’t care if your husband or your wife doesn’t like the plan He has for you. He doesn’t care if it interferes with your plans for yourself. He doesn’t care if His plan will cause you to miss out on things that seem really important to you.

He cares about His relationship with you—He cares about growing your faith, He cares about growing your love for others. He cares about those lost souls that He has prepared to hear you proclaim the kingdom of God.

God has a plan for this congregation—and He’s given us everything we need to carry out that plan. The people, the resources—everything. When are we going to be willing to set aside our plans and begin to listen to His? When are we going to set aside our timetables and be willing to wait for God? When are we going to be willing to allow the Holy Spirit to really be at work in our lives and in our church?

When?

Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful—but the laborers are few.”

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