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The Harvest Truly is Great...

F. Earle Fox

1/10/09 Trinity 16
Is. 52:7-10; Ps. 96; 2 Tim. 4:5-15; Lk. 10:1-7

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus is sending His disciples out ahead of His own approaching visits to the cities and places to which He will himself come. The disciples were to be the forerunners for Jesus, perhaps to find out where there might or might not be a spiritual openness to the Gospel. It was training for the disciples themselves to experience the hardships and the excitement of such a mission. It probably was not anticipated by them, but they would do many of the same things that Jesus had done: “Lord! Even the demons are subject to us in Your name!” they reported on their return.

It must have had an effect throughout the cosmos, because Jesus replied to their report, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” The kingdom of Satan was being undermined by the work of Jesus and the disciples. They were a significant part of that undermining. And we can be likewise.

Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem for what He knew would be his last time. He was using this occasion to prepare the local people they passed by to understand the very meaning of life itself, both life and death. He was on His way to confront the establishment head to head, and was preparing the people themselves for that event. The events, both with the teams of disciples and with Jesus Himself, would force the the people to deal with the meaning of their own lives and deaths. We must come to the point where death no longer makes cowards of us all.

One of the spiritual principles at stake is that if you do not know what is important enough to die for, you will not know what is important enough to live for. We can live well and deeply only if we are willing to die for what we believe.

That might seem like a contradiction. What good is true belief if death swallows up our believing lives?

But if we are not willing to die for what we believe to be important, then either God or the devil will put us right in that place to force the choice – God to grow us up to perceive the truth, Satan to destroy us by locking us ever more deeply into our shallowness. There is no middle ground. We will be forced to choose, in the end, between the way of God and the way of the fallen world.

If we have no ultimate loyalties, if we are just skittering around on the face of the earth, looking for the next bargain, then we will not have the stability to deal with, to dig into, the deep realities of life. We will skitter our lives away and die, probably never even knowing what we had missed.

The 12 disciples were sent along with 70 others, we are told. That made 82 persons, 41 pairs, going throughout the region. If each pair visited just one town, that would have a profound effect on the people. If more than one, it would have been a very widespread outreach. All on the way to death by crucifixion at Jerusalem.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is not so much about life after death, but rather life through death. Death is inseparable from the Good News. The good news is that death does not have the last word. We all will die, yet that is not the end of the road. But, in order to find that new life, we must die to self. The Way of the Cross is the living of that life through death.

   

Isaiah gives us those wonderful words, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings and publishes peace, who brings good tidings of good, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, your God reigns!” What might you have thought and felt if, as an exile for 70 years, you had heard those words?

A goodly number of the exiles knew that a new day had come, that God was restoring them to their homeland, that the Temple would be rebuilt, and their Temple worship restored. The presence of God, the Shekinah Glory of God, which had left the Temple some 70 years earlier, was now returning, leading them home. And they brought with them their new synagogue system with Torah Scrolls locally placed, giving them local, and therefore much more effective, access to teaching and spiritual formation.

The synagogues and Torah scrolls revolutionized Hebrew religion, forming the basis of what we now know as Judaism. They helped turn Judaism into an evangelistic religion, leading to about 10% of the Roman empire being either Jewish or God fearers by the time the Apostles were going out to convert Rome. That is an astonishing accomplishment by a small Palestinian culture with a radically different religion.

How beautiful are the feet of him who brings good tidings, who publishes peace and salvation, who says, your God reigns!

These words were not about evangelism, they were about the return of those who had lost their faith but are being restored by God to their former status before Him. The beautiful feet bring equally good and wonderful news for first-time evangelism or for restoration of one’s faith.

But the very next words after our Isaiah passage begin the 4th Suffering Servant poem. Jews see the passage applying to Israel, and that is true in the sense that Jesus summed up all that Israel stood for. And it is the feet of Jesus – who indeed brings us the good tidings, who publishes peace and salvation. No one else has ever done that.

    

Paul is writing to Timothy from Rome, the center of the mightiest empire to that time, and the main target of the growing Christian evangelism. He was the recipient of the blessings of the earlier Jewish evangelists who had settled in most of the cities. Paul was probably the most well educated of the Christian evangelists, and did not hesitate to put his great learning to work in building the theology of the expanding Church. Putting his theology into writing ensured that it carried on into the next generations. The Church began to identify his work as central to explaining the Good News, why it was so good.

Paul encourages Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist...,” for he himself is on the point of being sacrificed – giving his life for the faith which he has preached. Timothy is being asked to carry on from where Paul must now leave off.

We are not told the details of why he is still in prison, whether it is the old charges from the Jews at Jerusalem, or new charges because of expressing his Christian faith in Rome itself. It could be that some of the Jews in Rome brought charges as did those in Jerusalem. But by this time he had done much to both bolster the work of previous missionaries and to start new churches.

Paul reflects on the faithfulness of some and on the faithlessness of others. “Only Luke is with me,” he says.

    

In his Gospel, Luke’s ministry is only tangentially related to his being a doctor. We are not told how much he practiced his medicine, whether he prayed for people who then got healed, or whether he combined prayer with medicine in his ministry. We know of Luke mostly as a historian, one who was careful about recording events, and knew that such a record was important for the life of the Church. It may have been coming more clear to Luke that such records would be important if Christ was not to return soon.

Being a historian is not a small part of the Christian faith and walk. There is no other religion outside the Bible which takes history seriously as a setting where God reveals Himself. One’s relation with God is an historical event.  That is not true of any other religion. The god of Islam reveals himself in a historical setting, but then that historicity is damaged by compromising any appeal to historical research to verify the validity of the Koran or the nature of Allah. One does not investigate to verity, one submits, no questions asked.

For the Bible, accurate history is of the essence. A God who reveals Himself in historical relationship to His people has to be understood with historically accurate teachings -- as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 15. If Christ be not raised from the dead, we cannot preach that as our message.

Creeds contain mostly abstract doctrines. But the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds both note that Jesus was crucified, an historical event, and “under Pontius Pilate”. That dates His death. Other than Christianity and Judaism, no religion takes history seriously.

We will be praying in the Collect for St. Luke’s Day, “Almighty God, who didst inspire thy servant Saint Luke the Physician, to set forth in the Gospel the love and healing power of thy Son; Manifest in thy Church the like power and love to the healing of our bodies and our souls...”

Christians have tended to concentrate more on forgiveness of sin rather than healing of brokenness. But the two necessarily go together. A broken soul is more likely to get into sin, and a sinful soul is more like to get broken. And a soul constricted by demonic powers is more likely to be both more sinful and broken.

We have learned to give over our healing to our now secularized medical profession. And, indeed, medicine, as with St. Luke, has its place.  But a considerable amount of both physical and emotional healing can be fostered, it has been shown, by growing toward spiritual maturity.  A spiritually healthy person will almost always tend to stay more healthy, both physically and emotionally, than a spiritually ignorant or rebellious person.

    

So, what do these passages tell us about our present situation here in Santa Ana, California?

Evangelism is often misunderstood as being the task of professionals, those specifically trained to go out among the people. But most evangelism does not take place by those sent on a special mission. That kind of work is very important, especially in breaking new ground in difficult or hostile areas. Nevertheless, most persons are converted by family and personal acquaintances and drawn into an already existing community.

So the primary evangelism training most of us will get is the kind of life we live in our homes and in our local church families. I grew up in a family which went dutifully to church every Sunday, but never, with only two exceptions, among ourselves ever talked about church or religion. So it has been a struggle for me to reach out to my friends with the Good News – which I can do now much more easily. I am losing my embarrassment in saying the name of Jesus out loud. We can do that to the degree that we receive our two basic identities and stabilities from God Himself, no longer from our parents, no longer from our friends, only from God Himself – our personal and moral stabilities.

That basic training is not something you can learn for the most part in a class, it is learned as one lives one’s life, learning that I really can be a secure human being, no longer dependent upon those human beings who may be so close to me, parents, spouse, children, etc., but upon God alone. That is what sets us free – learning that I do not need the approval of the persons in the room with me to express what I believe. I need only, and already have, the approval of God to be myself. Knowing Him-Who-Is, who gives me my true being and moral direction, is what sets us free. That is our salvation.

So, none of us has an exemption from evangelism, we can all be praying about it, thinking about it, and working toward it. And we all have a story to tell – if we can get over thinking, “O well. My story isn’t much...” It is something. We do not leap into sharing our faith, we grow into it, often, like myself, s l o w l y. I still have a long way to go, but I am now coming out (spontaneously!) with things I would never have said, even through most of my adulthood. So, just keep growing, trusting, and obeying.

It was not an easy task for those 82 persons Jesus had chosen. Just shortly before they had heard Jesus tell them, again, that He would be “delivered into the hands of men,” meaning that He would be crucified. Jesus warned, “behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves...” Stern warning. They could not have been unaware of the growing hostility toward Jesus from Jewish leadership.

But they came back elated and joyful. They had seen the power of God at work – through them.

    

Most importantly, Jesus said to the disciples about to go out, “The harvest truly is great...” Jesus knew that there were many, many persons who would respond to a clear presentation of the Good News which He brought. And yes,  there would be some who would fight it tooth and toe-nail.

There were many caught in the blindness of the world, who had all, but maybe not quite, given up on anything better. So far as many could see, there was no such thing as ultimate good news. And what you might scrape up for yourself was fragile and often the target of the greed and control of other persons. You had to struggle just to keep afloat.

Nothing much has changed. But the harvest truly is great – and waiting.

   

I see my task here among you at St. Luke’s in primarily three ways:
(1) to lead the congregation in worship -- we must come into the presence of God and know His presence sustaining our own inner being;
(2) to teach how to understand, for yourselves and for your ability to share with others, how gracefully to express the Good News of Jesus Christ in a way which cannot be contradicted logically or factually; and,
(3) to help you live that life productively for yourselves so that it can be productive for others.

So, first, worship is the key. We must come before God and receive His presence into our lives, or none of the rest will bear fruit. We must be grafted into the Vine and become obedient so that our fruit will blossom, grow, and endure.

Secondly, teaching how to express the truth of the Gospel in terms that people can understand it and be challenged by it means learning how to present the logical and factual evidence. "Logical and factual" will to some sound overly academic, but it is just common sense.  Many Christians have managed to avoid common sense, and thought that they were being “spiritual”. But they only earned for ourselves a bad reputation which got passed on to God Himself. God cannot be happy about that. It need not stay that way. We begin with clarifying our own understanding so that we can convey it to others.

And thirdly, we must learn how to live in the Light of this Gospel which we preach and teach and share with others. Nothing attracts others more than a life lived with spiritual integrity. Nothing attracts others more than a community which is unified in spirit and in truth. That is the unity for which Jesus prayed in John 17 – so that the world might know that He came from the Father.   They will know that He came from the Father because the world, on its own, cannot produce that unity and mutual love. 

There is a great harvest out there, not a small one. There are many, many persons in our own families and neighborhoods who are looking for something better than they have. They try this and they try that. But in the end, nothing will satisfy other than what God is offering – the Best of All Possible worlds.

We can describe that Best of All Possible, not in theological abstractions, but in ordinary personal relationship language... and ask if they can think of anything better, and if not, whether they might be interested in, with Jesus and us, pursuing that gift of life in the midst of a world which tears life apart. Just maybe they would want to be a part of such a message, such a community, and such a life.

So that we can one day say with St. Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course..., I have kept the faith....” and as Paul exhorts Timothy, let us each in our own way, and as a united body, “do the work of an evangelist”.

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Date Posted - 10/16/2011   -   Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012