Praying for Helpers

Matthew 9:35-38 / Luke 10:1-2 (also John 4:34-38)

As we make our way through this preaching series, learning what we can about prayer from the life and teaching of Christ during his earthly ministry, we come to these three instances recorded in the gospels: Matt 9:35-38, Luke 10:1-2, and John 4:34-38. Though each of these passages come from different moments in his earthly life, they emphasize some common spiritual realities that, once recognized, should encourage us to pray for something that God greatly desires for his followers.

As we look at what this teaching tells us about prayer, we first need to understand some concepts that Christ explains before adds prayer to the discussion. So, to preview the message, we’ll learn two ways that Christ views the world, and to describe these two views, Christ will use two figures of speech:

  • The first example and figure of speech will be a simile. A simile (which sounds like similar) is a figure of speech that uses the word like to compare one thing to another, emphasizing some shared characteristic or quality between them.
  • The second is a metaphor, which resembles a simile but doesn’t use the word like to connect two concepts to each other. This figure of speech is more direct; it simply calls or describes one thing as being something else, also emphasizing (though perhaps with slightly more emphasis) a shared characteristic or quality between them.

If I say ‘cricket’ is like ‘baseball’ or a ‘ukelele’ is like a ‘guitar,’ I am using simile; but if I say, “My house is a zoo” or “her heart is gold,” I am using metaphor. So, we will see how Christ used a simile then a metaphor to explain two ways that he views the world around us.

Following these two figures of speech, then, we will then learn two ways we should respond to Christ’s description of the world around us, because Christ provided this viewpoint not only to inform but to inspire us to take certain actions. Knowing this, we can say that the main point of the message today is that if we see the world as Christ sees it, we will seek to bring about change in two distinct ways.

So, how did Christ see the world around him? And how did he urge us to bring about the change which is needed? Let’s answer those questions together.

Our world is like a flock of sheep in need of care.

This is how Christ describes to his followers the world as we know it today. In doing so, he highlights an urgent need that we may not easily or naturally feel. In other words, if Christ had not said this, then his followers (both those with him at the moment and any, including us to this present day) would not necessarily have the same view. We know this because (1) his immediate followers did not seem to share the same viewpoint and (2) we do not normally have this viewpoint, either.

As Christ traveled from town to town, performing miracles, healing people, and teaching the good news of God’s kingdom, Matthew says that he was “moved with compassion” Matt 9:36). To be “moved with compassion” is a translation of one Greek word. It portrays a deep, internal sensation, as when we say, “I have a knot in my stomach,” or, “I felt like my heart would burst.” Christ’s view of the people around him, wherever he went, did more than register thoughts in his brain; it prompted serious and strong feelings, too.

What made Christ feel so intensely inside? His ongoing experience of seeing crowd after crowd of people, from town to town, as though they were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36). In other words, he saw them as being like helpless sheep wandering about in the wilderness with no one caring for their needs and protecting them from dangers.

This is a remarkable description because the crowds did have people who supposedly cared for them. The rabbis – highly educated and trained men – taught them how to obey the Old Testament law and enforced obedience, both religious and social, through local supervision and the larger oversight of the Sanhedrin council in Jerusalem.

But Christ viewed the influence and leadership of these men as harmful rather than helpful. We know this because he described the people of Israel not as “healthy and well-cared-for” but as “weary and scattered.”

  • Weary means to be “weary, exhausted, and faint,” to be worn out or worn down.
  • Scattered may also be translated as “cast down, thrown down,” and may describe a sheep when it is “cast,” which is a sheep which has rolled over upside down onto its backside, unable to roll over and stand up.

Such a sheep is entirely helpless and vulnerable to predators. And we get the impression that this is how Christ viewed the rabbis and Pharisees. Such men who should have been providing them with spiritual care, teaching them how to have a real and vibrant relationship with God, but they were abusing and preying on the people instead.

This language of “sheep without a shepherd” resembles what Moses said about Israel before he assigned Joshua to lead them in his place (Num 27:17). Even more significantly, it seems that Christ is referring directly to the prophecy of Ezekiel when he denounced as false shepherds the leaders of Israel four centuries before at the close of the OT, announcing that he himself would be their shepherd (Ezk 34:1-31). So, the shepherd that people need caring for them is Christ. He is what they need!

When you see crowds of people at a concert or stadium, rioting in the streets, or crossing the border and when you read statistics about social groups and trends, what do you see and how do you feel? Do you see people who are in the way, being a nuisance, and creating problems? Do you feel frustrated or angry? Or do you see people who need to be introduced to Jesus? Do you feel strong inner feelings of compassion and love for them, realizing that they are spiritually helpless and hurting?

It is insightful to observe that our passage, Matt 9:35-38, records Christ’s viewpoint early in his 3-yr. teaching ministry. But near the end of his teaching ministry, in the days just prior to his crucifixion, as also recorded by Matthew (23:37-39), he continued to see and feel the same way about people, even the very people who would put him on the cross:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!

Unlike Christ, compassion is not our natural, normal response to people and their spiritual problems. We view life and people around us through a self-centered, me-first lens. In our earliest Therefore, it is easy for us to go about our lives unconcerned and unmoved, and if we are ever concerned or moved with compassion, such a feeling or view easily comes and goes and does not generally remain with us strongly over time.

May Christ’s teaching and example in this way challenge us to reflect on our own heart and viewpoint of people around us and to seek to become more like Christ in seeing people not as a nuisance but as sheep needing spiritual care and guidance.

Perhaps it would help if we wore a VR headset that provided us with “spiritual vision,” so that whenever we saw people through this headset, we would see superimposed images of worn-out sheep laying helplessly on their backs, vulnerable to predators and dying, uncared for and hurting. Would this help?

So, we see from the passages we’re looking at today that Christ not only viewed people around him as flocks of sheep in need of care, but he viewed them another way, too.

Our world is like a ripened harvest in need of workers.

This is the other way that Christ describes our world to his followers, and in doing so, he highlights not only an urgent need but a pressing opportunity. It is this viewpoint which the gospels record for us being expressed by Christ at least three different times during his three-year ministry. Also, he presents this viewpoint not as a similar (using like) but as a metaphor, which is a direct statement of comparison and correlation. This directness may underscore the spiritual reality and significance which Christ intends to convey.

As Christ traveled from town to town, introducing himself to people, meeting their needs, and preaching the good news of God’s kingdom, he viewed them as a ripened harvest. So, with a simple adjustment to the settings of our spiritual VR headset, we see the images of people around us transposed from flocks of weak and cast-down sheep to fields of peak ripened grain, full and ready for harvest.

  • In both Matt 9 and Luke 10, Christ describes the crowds as a harvest that is “great” or “plentiful,” which describes its scope, size, or volume. This contrasts with descriptions such as “small” or “sparse” and indicates that there are many people not few who may follow Christ if we would care for and connect with them for Christ.
  • In John 4, he further describes the crowds as a harvest that is “already white for harvest.” Already means “now rather than later.” And “white for harvest” was a common idiom or figure of speech which described a field of grain ready to be harvested, because when such grain has fully sprouted and matured, it presents a whitish color indicating that the window of time for harvesting it had begun.

So, while the “greatness” of the harvest indicates the abundance and size of the opportunity around us, the “whiteness to harvest” indicates the immediacy and urgency of the opportunity around us.

To strengthen the point of urgency, Christ added additional emphasis when he spoke about these things in John 4:35, another moment when he expressed the same viewpoint of people around him, answering a common response or excuse for why we hesitate or refrain from getting involved in people’s lives for the purpose of introducing them to Christ:

Do you not say, ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!

Can you see here how Christ emphasized the immediacy of the need? He neutralizes any feedback such as reasons to delay, to hesitate, or to put off involvement. He wants to make clear that the need is now, not later, because we may easily respond by saying (at least internally) that we see the need and intend to help, but not today – not right now, but later, because we have some other things we need to take care of first. We’ll explore this tendency to “put off” our involvement in just a moment, but first let’s review what we’ve learned so far.

Between these two figures of speech – the simile of people being helpless, hurting sheep and the metaphor of people being a ripened harvest – Christ teaches us that if we view the world around us – that is, the people in the world around us – as he sees them, then we will see both a serious need and a pressing opportunity. We will see a need which calls for help and an opportunity which calls for immediate involvement.

How do you see the crowds of people around us? How do you view people in your life, as having an urgent need or as being an inconvenient problem? As ready to follow Christ or as resistant to God?

As I mentioned to begin this message, if we see the world as Christ sees it, we will seek to bring about change in two distinct ways. So, what are the two distinct ways in which we should respond to this twofold way that Christ views the world?

We should each do our part.

This is the first response that Christ desires from us, if we will see the world as he sees it, as sheep having no shepherd and a field of ripened grain ready to be harvested.

Every year, in communities like ours, agricultural windows of opportunity open, such as: bailing hay or alfalfa when it’s mature, detasseling and then harvesting corn, or the ever-popular harvesting sugar beets. These opportunities are time-sensitive and must not be delayed. If they are delayed, then the plants in view will rot, inclement weather may set in, and money and resources will be lost forever.

When these opportunities present themselves, farmers recruit people to help them because no matter how much equipment they have or how sophisticated their equipment may be, they have more work to do than they can do by themselves. So, they hire teenagers, college students, relatives, neighbors, and whomever they can find to join them on the farm to help bring in the harvest. These times create special memories and are both personally and financially rewarding to all who participate.

This being said, to participate is not a vacation. It requires long hours, hard work, and a willingness to rise early and stay up late. It also requires people to set aside other efforts and normal activities so that they can get the harvest while they can.

And that’s what Christ does here. After seeing the urgent need of people in the world (as sheep without a shepherd) and the window of opportunity before us (as a ripened harvest), he presents two key responses for his followers. The first is to do our part. That is what the context of these passages reveals to us.

Immediately after Christ’s comments here in Matt 9:35-38, he sent out his twelve disciples to take the good news of God’s kingdom to surrounding towns. He did this because he, as one person, was unable to do so by himself. Like a farmer who owns vast acres of land, he describes people in the world who will follow Christ as “his harvest” (meaning they are God’s harvest). Yet, even so, he shows us that God intends to reap this harvest through the labor of his people. It is those who follow Christ whom he calls and recruits to bring in the harvest – which is introducing people to the good news of Christ, his salvation, and his kingdom.

Later on in his teaching ministry, Christ made similar remarks about the world being a “great harvest,” only this time he didn’t sent out his twelve disciples alone, but he sent out 70-72 followers in total. His recruitment of this larger group shows us that he did not limit his appeal for farm laborers to the twelve. Their efforts alone, though more effective than just his alone, would still be unable to meet the needs and match the size of the opportunity before them. There were simply too many hurting sheep and too much ripened grain, as it were, for he and his twelve closest disciples to minister to effectively.

But were 72 followers taking the opportunity seriously going to be enough? Would that then solve the problem? Apparently, not even this larger group would be sufficient, for Christ went on to say, “The harvest is great, but the laborers are few” (Matt 9:37). He said this after he recruited 72 additional people, which means that the opportunity was much larger than the number of people willing to participate help. In agricultural terms, there were more sugar beets to be harvest than there were people willing to harvest them.

The word laborer here means “someone who labors,” and “to labor” means “to do, to labor, to work.” To labor means to take action, to do what needs to be done, and entails stepping forward and getting involved. Anyone who has taken part in extended farm labor, whether bailing hay, detasseling corn, or harvesting sugar beets – for instance – understands what this means. So, Christ is equating the effort needed to meet the spiritual needs of people through the message and teaching of Christ as manual farm labor.

I know this is a simple and obvious observation, but it is an important one to make. The kingdom of God needs laborers. It needs people willing to do actual, real work. To be sure, this work includes the full-time efforts of men who serve as pastors and as others who serve as missionaries to faraway places. But this work also and especially includes the additional, sacrificial labor of every other member in the church, of everyone who claims to follow Christ by faith.

The apostle Paul taught us that Christ calls pastors to “equip of the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12). Paul uses the same word for work as Christ used for laborers in the passages we are looking at today. So, Paul is providing additional teaching that connects back to and is rooted in what Christ told his followers upfront about the need for laborers to meet the spiritual needs of people.

When we take this biblical teaching seriously, we realize that the prevailing mentality of believers (or at least professing believers) today is tremendously deficient and flawed. In our flawed perspective, we not only hesitate (or resist) taking on any significant gospel ministry commitments or responsibilities in which we serve.

If we’re not careful, we easily fall into a mentality and routine that views church as a center that provides spiritual services, such as worship gatherings we can attend, classes and programs we can come to (or bring our children to), counseling we can request when needed, or a venue through which we can contribute money to enable others to provide these services for us and others.

The need, though, remains greater than ever before. The number of people needing and seeking spiritual help is greater than the number of people who are willing to provide that help, who are willing to do actual, meaningful labor and work of a ministry nature. Consider Christ’s own mentality as the King of the Universe when he came into the world to live and die for us (Mark 10:45):

Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.

Some of us may hear this call and respond with a variety of reasons why, though we understand the need for people to get involved, we cannot do so now ourselves for particular reasons. In one way or another we want to help and feel like we should help, but we don’t believe we can or should at the moment, and some of these reasons seem to make a lot of sense to us. It is helpful to know that Christ was very much aware of these reasons when he called for more laborers from among his followers. Just before announcing the greatness and ripeness of the harvest around us and the incompatible number of followers willing to help, Christ first acknowledged in the preceding chapter the reasons why people hesitate to get involved (Matt 8:18-22; Luke 9:57-62):

Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, “Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Then He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God.” And another also said, “Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Matt 8:18-22)

From this, we see that Christ acknowledged how domestic and family duties and obligations can get in the way. In another place (Luke 14:16-24), Christ also acknowledged that caring for real estate we own, maintaining the animals (and machinery? vehicles?) we own, and tending to our marriages are all reasons people give, often well-meaning perhaps, to avoid committing themselves to doing the hard work of gospel ministry, too.

This is a challenging topic for pastors to preach because it touches on personal areas of our lives which though good and valid in so many respects easily and often unknowingly transform from valid responsibilities in balance to gods out of balance. If I ask the question, “What good goals, relationships, responsibilities, and pursuits in your life are comparable to the kind of things Christ mentions?” that is difficult ground for a pastor to tread, because to suggest anything is to touch upon things which are deeply personal and meaningful to you.

For that reason, let me simply ask whether you are allowing any – in any iteration or variety – goals, possessions, relationships, or responsibilities prevent you from responding to Christ’s view of people in the world around us. Have you become so focused upon and preoccupied with anything else that doing actual, regular, meaningful gospel ministry work and effort has become a minimal or nonexistent activity in your life.

The reality is that Christ rarely calls us to utterly abandon proper care of our possessions and relationships in life in order to serve him. What happens though, instead, is that we overinflate or exaggerate our view of what our material possessions and family relationships actually require. We know that we have allowed such real responsibilities and obligations to become idols in our live not when we take care of them as we should but when caring for these things as we should prevents us from actively, meaningfully, and seriously getting involved in serving the kingdom of God as well.

Serving Christ is not something to place on our bucket list of things to do when we finally have the time to do so, energy to do so, or financial freedom to do so. It is what we should do no matter what because the need is great, and the opportunity is now.

So, it’s one thing for us to see the world as Christ sees it – as hurting flocks of sheep who are uncared for and as ripened fields of grain ready to be harvested today. But if we don’t allow this enlightened viewpoint to affect us emotionally and internally, as Christ himself was deeply moved with compassion, and if we don’t allow this enlightened viewpoint to motivate me to take action, to get involved by introducing other people to Christ and by helping people take their next steps in following Christ, then am I really seeing the world as Christ sees it at all?

As I mentioned before, the central point of this message and teaching by Christ is that if we see the world as he sees it, we will seek to bring about change in two distinct ways. The first distinct way we should respond, then, is to each do our part. If we will not respond in this way, then to respond in the second way which I am about to mention is not actually possible, for to respond in the second way but not this first way is to be hypocritical. It is only to pretend that we are concerned when we are not.

So, let us ask ourselves the question, “What am I doing which may properly be described as ‘labor’ and ‘hard word’ (akin to farm labor at harvest time) to introduce people to Christ and to help them take their next steps in following him in his kingdom?” As Christ introduced through his teaching and as Paul and other apostles made clear through their teaching which followed, this ministry take place through groups of people God brings together as churches. And there are four specific steps to take towards “doing our part” to meet the spiritual needs of helpless, hurting people and to bring them to Christ.

  • Choose to become a faithful, serving member of your church. Take that step of faith and obedience to Christ of not merely attending or observing or receiving the ministries of a church but commit yourself to being an actual, supporting, and service-providing member of that church.
  • For a church like Brookdale (and so many others), the ministry and service needs and opportunities are more than those presently serving can meaningfully and properly handle. “The harvest is great but the laborers are few.” I am not just saying this for pragmatic reasons, as a way to recruit more help so that our church can “operate” more efficiently. I am saying this because it is true. It was true when Christ walked the earth, it was true when Paul wrote his letters to churches, and it is true today.

As a pastor of Brookdale, I can assure you that there are opportunities for you to serve. There are growing needs and opportunities for people to serve people through music, one-on-one Bible study, as future, prospective deacons in training, as greeters, and especially – right now – as youth workers, elementary Sunday School teachers, and nursery volunteers. We will also have soon need for people to volunteer for our annual summer VBS children’s outreach in June.

As your pastor, I know that there are many needs and responsibilities in our lives and there are many reasons why we often do not step forward to serve in regular, committed ways. The reasons are the same for why we don’t all help with sugar beet harvest! But when I read the teachings of Christ and pray over the clear, direct, convicting, and even emotional things he said about this and when I see the open opportunities of ministry even within and available to our church, I must be a faithful shepherd and encourage us all to take a serious, heartfelt look at getting involved.

In addition to becoming a committed, serving church member and to getting involved in meaningful, regular gospel ministry through the church, there are two additional ways to “each do our part.” And these two ways, unlike the previous two, are not for everyone.

  • Consider serving Christ as a pastor (also called an elder). This opportunity is a more “full-time” commitment, more so than teaching a Sunday School class for instance, but there are currently more needs for pastors in our nation than there are known and committed pastors available. Scripture assigns this opportunity specifically to men and such men must be spiritually and personally qualified, recognized as a pastor by the church they will shepherd, and must have a strong internal desire to serve in this way. But if this is something that you believe God may be calling you to do, I would encourage two things. First, become a committed member of a gospel-preaching, Bible-teaching church. Second, commit yourself to regular mentorship and ministry in that church. As you do these two things, then develop a close, mentoring relationship with the pastors/elders of that church as you seek to prepare for the possibility of becoming a pastor.
  • Consider serving Christ as a missionary to a foreign place. We are unable to develop this point thoroughly today, but when Christ selected 72 people to spread the message of his kingdom, that number was equivalent to the number of nations commonly believed to be in the world at that time. In this way, Christ was indicating the great need not only to serve the spiritual needs of people locally but also globally. But before anyone can take this kind of step seriously, they must be first committed and proven to be faithful in the first two points of application I’ve given.

Now that we have looked closely at the first way we should respond to Christ’s viewpoint of the world (as flocks of sheep needing care and as a field of ripened grain to be harvested), we should acknowledge the second way to respond, and that is to pray.
We should pray for others to help us.

For those who are actively and faithfully involved in bringing people to Christ and helping them take their next steps in following him, Christ gives an additional way to respond to the need of people around us – for those who get involved will find that one of the greatest and perhaps most surprising challenges we face in serving Christ is not in the world but among our own selves, and it is a lack of willing workers.

For this reason, we must do one thing more than get involved – and we should do this as we continue to be involved ourselves – we must pray for more laborers who hear and sense God calling them to get involved. We must pray for more willing volunteers to join us – which in our case means specifically to join us in our mission as members of our church and to get involved in meaningful, ongoing activities of service.

As a pastor, I am fulfilling my responsibility today by bringing you this message. I am raising your awareness of how Christ views people around us and how we should respond to his heightened and enlightened viewpoint – a viewpoint we easily fail to see and share with him. I am also reminding and urging you to get involved in real meaningful ways by joining with a church and serving in and through that church together. I am even putting out a call for more pastors and foreign missionaries.

But if this is all I do, then I am coming short of the response Christ desires. I must also pray that God will indeed put such a desire to join with and serve with us in the mission of helping people take their next steps in following Christ. I must ask God to place this desire into our hearts. I must also ask you to do the same.

As we have emphasized throughout this preaching series, prayer is “talking deliberately to God.” And from this teaching of Christ today, we see that one of the things we should talk deliberately about to God is the need to send more willing people into the work of gospel ministry.

Will you also pray with regularity for this to occur? You yourself know how challenging it is to make adjustments to your life goals and routines to get involved in regular spiritual, gospel-giving ministry. And it is equally challenging for everyone else to consider, too.

But if we see the world as Christ sees it, we will seek to bring about change in two distinct ways. Those two distinct ways are “doing you part” and then “praying for God to send more people to get involved in the work.”

In closing, let me point out one final observation about Christ’s teaching here. It is the word “to send” (Matt 9:38). This is not a mild word, something harmless like “sending an email.” Instead, it is a strong, forceful word more similar to “sending a rocket into space” or “sending a baseball to the upper deck” following a powerful homerun swing. It is the same word used elsewhere in Scripture for “casting out” demons (Matt 7:22, 17:19) and perhaps more stunningly, for when Christ “cast out” the money changers from the Temple (Matt 11:15), an act which he did with tremendous energy and forcefulness.

This word underscores the greatness of our need. It is not easy to get involved in the hard work of meaningful gospel ministry. We know it will require a sacrifice of effort and time. We know it will require modification at the very least of other material and earthly goals and priorities. But the kingdom of God is worth that sort of commitment. The gospel of Christ is worth that kind of change.

This is the kind of life that Christ is calling us to live – one that makes doing gospel ministry together as a church family a shared sacrificial effort. Like people gathering together for the hard work of sugar beet harvest, may we do our part and pray for others to do the same so that we can introduce people to Jesus and help them take their next steps in following him. This is how we can help those hurting sheep around us and reap the harvest that Christ tells us is ready to bring in.

Life Group Questions
  • How would you describe Jesus’ view of the world?
  • How is it different from our fleshly predisposition when viewing others?
  • What feelings do you have when you notice the world “wandering” and “cast down?”
    • What about when their problems inconvenience you?
  • How do our hearts become more like Christ’s in our compassion toward the world?
    • What does God use to change our hearts to be more like Christ’s?
  • How does our focus on self impact our heart toward others?
  • Since Christ is the shepherd that this world (including us) needs, how do we go about bringing people under his care?
  • What are things that detract, or take away, from the urgency of the spiritual needs around us?
  • What are the distinctions between the kind of person who labors in the "harvest" and the kind who does not?
  • How should we prioritize our other God-given obligations considering the need for laborers?
  • What kind of person personally feels the need for more laborers?

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