[Note: The following is the prepared text for a sermonette given to the Portland congregation of the United Church of God on Sabbath, May 20, 2023.]
As we approach the festival of Pentecost, it is worthwhile for us to ponder some aspects of the harvest season we are currently celebrating. One of the many great gulfs between the writing of the Bible and our own experience in our present age is that the Bible contains a great many references to agricultural activities and matters that are not at all common for us to know about, much less to be involved in ourselves. Not only does the Bible speak of farming and other agricultural matters directly in its contents, but numerous biblical writers and speakers–not least Jesus Christ Himself–used the common agricultural life of the world around them as the source for parables and other metaphorical uses. As it is difficult, if not impossible, to fully understand a metaphor unless we understand something about the original model for it, this presents us with difficulties in understanding what is meant by such figures of speech today.
Today I would like to take as my starting point a passage that takes place during this time of year and that offers us a chance to understand something of the importance of the harvest seasons and their deeper significance to Jesus Christ. It should go without saying, of course, that those things which were important to Jesus Christ ought to be important to us. Let us turn in our Bibles to Matthew 9:35-38. Matthew 9:35-38 reads: “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”
There are two aspects of this particular passage I would like to comment on today. The first of these relates to the labor and the second to the harvest. Jesus Christ saw the work that he was involved in–the work of teaching the Gospel, preaching about the Kingdom of God, and healing the sicknesses and diseases of the people around him–as laboring in the harvest. Anyone who has done any sort of farm work in their lives can well understand that this work is not easy, and as this passage indicates, it can be difficult to find people willing to engage in the work of the harvest, and so we need to pray that God will send out laborers into the harvest. There is a lot of work that needs to be done, and there have always been far fewer people who are willing and able to do that work. We think of this as a problem of the present age, but it has always been a problem, in that far more needed to get done than people were willing or able to do.
It should be understood that this use of agricultural or gardening language to discuss the work that is done by people in the ministry is not something that is limited to the Gospels. Paul used similar language in 1 Corinthians 3:5-9. 1 Corinthians 3:5-9 reads: “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building.”
Here we see an example from Paul’s writing that mirrors what Jesus said earlier in Matthew 9. Paul saw himself as having planted the church in Corinth–he was responsible for the initial preaching that led people to seek God’s ways as an evangelist, but it was Apollos who came to the congregation and watered, helping it to grow through his labor for the community of believers there. Paul modestly notes that it is God who provides the increase, and that what is important is not the identity of the people who perform one task or another within a congregation, but the fact that God brings about the increase and that the people who work labor together and are ultimately on the same team. Regardless of the functions that we may serve, based on our own situations or our own set of talents and abilities, those of us who labor together in any field do so as members of a team with the same goal in mind.
And what is that goal? The goal is to help maximize the harvest, to make that harvest the most productive that is possible. Let us now turn to the second aspect of Jesus’ statements, and that is what he viewed as the harvest. If we remember what Jesus said in Matthew 9, he was looking over a group of people who had been harassed by life, who were sheep without a shepherd, who were not being taken care of by those who were in authority over them. Like the ancient world, we live in a time and place full of incompetent leadership who serve their own selfish interests but care little about the well-being of the ordinary people they have a task to serve. The people that Jesus helped, who had been neglected by the institutions that were supposed to help them, were those whom Jesus Christ considered to be a bountiful harvest that only needed people able and willing to work to bring that harvest in.
And what is that harvest? Is it not helping people come to repentance from their dead works and living in faith and obedience towards God? Let us see what Jesus had to say about this harvest in another place, in John 4:35-41. John 4:35-41 takes place at the end of the incident where Jesus Christ met the Samaritan woman at the well, and it reads: “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! And he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. For in this the saying is true: ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors.” And many of the Samaritans of that city believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans had come to Him, they urged Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days. And many more believed because of His own word.”
Just like was in the case during the time of Jesus, we live in a day and age where people suffer a great deal because of the evils around us. There are a great many people who suffer physically from various maladies, or who suffer in their heart and spirit because of the evils that they have suffered from others. We often look around the world and see the problems that people suffer as being a barrier to the growth of God’s kingdom. Yet when Jesus Christ looked around Himself and saw the people harassed and oppressed and abused because of evil and incompetent rulers, such as we have all around us in this present world, He saw an opportunity for the needs of those people to be met through God’s power, and saw these people as part of the harvest that was ready to be gathered in. Do we feel the same? Do we look at those who have suffered in body and mind and spirit from what is wrong in his life and see them as a rich source of people longing for better ways than this world has to offer them? Do we see their suffering as the fuel of longing for a better world to come through entering into God’s family and joining us as part of the harvest of the firstfruits? Do we pray that God will send laborers to gather this harvest into his barns as Jesus Christ did? We should.