This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Heart of Christ". See series.
In the stories of Jesus' ministry, he's giving us a preview of the kingdom of God. What would it look like on this broken planet full of broken bodies, broken hearts, and broken lives if the Creator were to fully reign and re-create? Jesus gives us a preview of that.
Jesus' ministry is a preview of God's kingdom.
There's a day when Jesus is teaching in Capernaum, and the house is full. Outside, there are four guys who have heard that Jesus has done some healings, so they decide to bring their paralyzed buddy to Jesus. The problem is that they can't even get into the house where Jesus is. These guys end up climbing up the stairs on the outside of the house and clawing a hole in the roof. Inside, Jesus is teaching, and all of a sudden, bits of dust and clay start falling, then there's a shaft of light, then he sees this paralyzed man being lowered into the house to him.
Jesus looks at the guy and says, "Your sins are forgiven." There are some religious leaders in the group inside the house who belong to a sect called the Pharisees, and they think to themselves: "You have the authority to forgive? Who do you think you are? God??" Jesus responds, "'But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins'—he then said to the paralytic—'Rise, pick up your bed and go home.'" And the man gets up and walks.
Jesus is giving a preview. Do you want to know what the kingdom of God is like? Jesus gives us a snapshot, a trailer. Sins are forgiven; dancing is restored. This is what will happen when the Creator of the world works his re-creation.
But understand that at the time when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, there are other kingdoms in existence. If you lived in Israel, you were under the kingdom of Herod, and more broadly, you were under the kingdom of Rome. Your king would be whoever the current emperor was—Caesar Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero. That was your king and the kingdom in which you lived, and you were reminded that you were part of the kingdom of Rome every time you traveled down the Via Maris and you hit the tax collectors' booths where you paid Roman taxes. The kingdom of Rome had its boot on your neck and made sure you remembered that.
Right outside of the city of Capernaum was a tax collection booth where Matthew worked. And Jesus said to Matthew, "Follow me." That was very unexpected, since the tax collectors were considered unclean by the rest of Jewish society. Matthew got to his feet and followed Jesus, becoming one of Jesus' twelve disciples. And the story gets weirder. That evening, Matthew has a party at his house to celebrate his departure, and he invites his tax collecting cronies to hang out with Jesus. When the Pharisees see this going on, they treat it like a scandal. Why is Jesus eating with a bunch of sinners? Jesus responds saying, "It is the sick people who are in need of a physician." That's a snapshot of the kingdom of God. Some people who are on the outside get invited to the inside, and some people who think they're on the inside because of their moral cleanliness find themselves on the outside. As you watch the calling of Matthew, the party, the confrontation, and the response, you see that Jesus is giving you a preview of the kingdom of God.
There was another day in Capernaum when Jesus is in a boat, and when he docks, the leader of the synagogue approaches him. He kneels before Jesus and pleads with him: "Please help me! My 12-year-old daughter is dying!" I don't know what this Jewish leader thought of Jesus prior to this, but he sure needed him now. Jesus says that he will go and see the man's daughter. They leave the beach and funnel into one of the crowded, narrow streets of Capernaum. All the people crowd around Jesus.
There is a woman in the crowd who suffered from perpetual feminine bleeding. It had been 12 years, and still nothing could stop it. She thinks, If I can just touch Jesus, I will be healed. She reaches up and touches his cloak. Jesus stops in the middle of the street, turns around, and says, "Who touched me?" The text says that he felt energy go out of him. The woman confesses that it was she and tells him the whole truth.
Can you think of anybody who might be a little impatient at this point? Perhaps the father of the dying 12-year-old? Jesus listens to this woman's whole story and finally, when the girl's father has given up hope, comes to the man's house. The daughter is dead, but Jesus says, "No, the girl is not dead but sleeping." He takes her by the hand, and she arises.
These stories probably sound outlandish to you. They should! But think about it: If there is a Creator out there, and if this Creator decided to come to the planet in the person of Jesus, and if Jesus' mission was to give a preview of what God's reign in a broken world would look like, I'd expect some death evictions! I'd expect some lame people walking! I'd expect some people who are on the outside invited inside. With each of these stories—these previews—Jesus basically says, "Is this something you think you might want to see? Is this a storyline you want to commit to?" He teaches his disciples to pray, "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
People's reactions to what Jesus was doing in Capernaum were mixed. Some became diehard fanatical followers; others said Jesus was a fraud and he needed to be exposed. The more Jesus' popularity escalated, the more pressure there was for the Pharisees to give a press release on what their group opinion of Jesus was. The press release is found in Matthew 9:34: "The Pharisees said, 'He casts out demons by the prince of demons.'" They cannot deny the fact that Jesus has power. They can, however, debate the source of that power, so they claim that he gets it from the dark side.
I submit to you that when this statement is made by the Pharisees, there is a transition in the ministry of Jesus. So what happens next? If lifeless religion and spiritual hypocrisy have ever troubled you, you will be very interested in what happens next. In our passage today, we're going to learn not only what Jesus did, but how he felt about what he did.
What happens next is a road trip. Jesus goes on tour with his disciples. This part of the story kicks in at verse 35: "Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom." What if the Creator were to re-create? That is what Jesus proclaims. And he continues to heal "every disease and every affliction." Now, there were about 200 villages in Galilee, and it says that Jesus went through all of them. Imagine the oppressive need he encounters over and over again. And what was the opinion of the people he encountered? I'm sure it was all over the map. I'm sure there were people who showed up with theological, philosophical questions and listened to what he said. I'm sure there were people who didn't care a thing for his teaching. And Jesus just keeps traveling—to town after town after town. What's he feeling?
People are like sheep without a shepherd.
We see what Jesus is feeling and experiencing through two agrarian crises. Crisis number one had to do with livestock. Crisis number two had to do with grain. Jesus uses the imagery of livestock and then the image of grain to explain how his journey affected him. Verse 36 says, "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." Something deep within Jesus' spirit is stirred, and he views the crowds of people as sheep—helpless and harassed. The shepherd's job is to get the sheep from where they are to where they are supposed to be without their getting maimed and eaten along the way. Animals in the animal kingdom all have different defense mechanisms. But what do sheep do? They baah. They have no speed, no shell, no stink by which to repel predators. That's why sheep need shepherds.
The people Jesus encountered had plenty of people telling them what to do. They had the Pharisees giving them rules of how to live. But the Pharisees offered religion without mercy, rule without grace. Theirs was a lifeless religion.
This analogy of sheep and shepherd is found elsewhere in Scripture—way back in the Book of Ezekiel:
The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them (Ezekiel 34:4-6).
That's the indictment of the prophet Ezekiel on the Jewish leaders of Israel. Jesus is using language that is already well known in that culture. He likens the Pharisees to the leaders that Ezekiel rebuked. I have to wonder if Christ feels the same about us today when he sees us floundering, governed by lifeless rules, chasing after those things that will never fulfill.
People are like ripe crops that need to be harvested.
The second agricultural crisis Jesus describes is in verse 36: "Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.'" There's a window when a grain is ripe but not overripe, and in that window workers must gather the grain. But Jesus is saying that there are no workers. There's a sense of urgency in his words. Crops left to stand become food for locusts. Hail can sweep in and knock the crops down. They can spoil on the stalk. Where are the harvesters for these crops?
We might expect Jesus to commission the twelve disciples—to say, "Get on your feet and harvest the ripe grain." But instead he tells them to get on their knees: "Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." Jesus tells them to pray.
This brings us back to John Dixon, who we heard from last week. John met Jesus through a woman named Glenda who taught his Scripture class in school. Glenda invited John and his classmates into her home every week to teach them about Jesus. Not only did she teach them through her words, but she showed them with her actions that no matter what they had done or how bad they had been, she loved them even still. Here is the next part of John's story:
I started to call myself a Christian sometime in that first year of meeting with Glenda. She wasn't very pushy about the name Christian. She knew we'd all come from non-Christian homes, so she just wanted us to know that Jesus was Lord and that he had died on the cross and risen again for our sins. That was a good approach, especially for us. But about six or eight months into it, about five of us became Christians—we really surrendered to Christ's lordship and accepted his mercy.
We decided to go to church, so Glenda took us to her church. We would go to her house for lunch afterwards; she was always hosting us and others from the church. Without fail, she would ask one of us from school to get up and share our coming to faith story and what Jesus meant to us. She confided in us years later that she was deliberately training us to stand up for the gospel no matter what. Three of us from that one Scripture class are now full-time evangelists and pastors.
We also learned many years later that prior to our class, Glenda had taught Scripture at my school for about ten years with little observable fruit. She was faithful week by week, every Wednesday morning, but there certainly hadn't been anything like the fruit that we experienced in our year. Years later, as I was starting out in my own ministry and trying to experiment and explore new modes of ministry and reaching people, I thought, I'll go to Glenda and ask her what her secret was. Since several of us had become Christians through her influence, I figured she must have had some strategy. I went to her fully expecting her to tell me about some program she implemented or some particular way she had of sharing the gospel. Without batting an eye, she said, "Prayer." I was really disappointed. For a guy who loves creativity and innovative thinking, "prayer" sounded boring to me. But she said, "That year a bunch of us who taught Scripture decided to make it a year of prayer—just to plead the Lord of the harvest to do something special. And we did. By the end of the year, there you all were, confessing Jesus." For an activist like me, that was a poignant lesson: that in the end, the harvest is God's. It's not mine—it's not my creativity, it's not my skill—it's God's. We just have to bring our ministry to God and cry out to him to give us success.
Glenda and the other Scripture teachers did exactly what Jesus tells his disciples to do here in Matthew 9: Pray to the Lord of the harvest.
There are two words I need you to notice at the beginning of Matthew 10. First, look at verse 1: "He called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction." Now notice a difference in verse 2: "The names of the twelve apostles are these …." In verse 1, Jesus uses the word "disciples," and in verse 2, he calls them "apostles." The word disciple means learner—student. The word apostle means one who is sent. The students of Jesus are now being sent out with a message. We come and soak in and learn in order to go and imitate the heart of Christ.
The heart of Christ brings energy, urgency, and expectation.
As I've been swimming in this material on the heart of Christ, and as I've been reading these stories, I feel something in me budging—something is being ignited. I'm trying to isolate what that movement might be, and the closest I've come is finding these three words: energy, urgency, and expectation. If your heart starts to beat with the heart of Christ, and you start to experience some movement, perhaps you maybe experience these three things as well.
First, there's new energy. I find that when I'm doing something mundane like watching TV, all of a sudden a friend comes to mind—someone who's going through some major trouble. I find myself getting up, turning the TV off, and giving him a phone call. There's a new energy to displace something normal and mundane with something much more important. I'm eager to do things that require giving of myself to others. It's not out of guilt or obligation but an eagerness. If people are like sheep without a shepherd, and there's a harvest without harvesters, and this reality starts to sink into you, maybe you'll experience this new kind of energy.
The second word is urgency—a realization that the stakes are high. God wants to involve us in something that he's about. You've been sitting on the bench, and Jesus wants to put you in the game. Involve yourself seriously; don't just go with the flow. Be in awe that God wants to involve you in something so much bigger than yourself, and let that sense of urgency develop in you.
The last word is expectation. What if God and Jesus are not just in the past? What if God works now? What if Christ has compassion for people now? Expect God's movement here and now. What will God be pleased to do here? Perhaps the next Great Awakening will happen beginning with this group of 250 people. When our hearts are beating with Christ's, we will have a heightened sense of expectation that God is on the move.
I hope whatever is happening in my heart doesn't rub off soon. My hope is that this heart of Christ catches you, too—that it captures you and doesn't let you go.
Jeff Manion is the senior pastor of Ada Bible Church in West Michigan, where he has served for over 30 years.