A sermon on Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20 by Nathan Nettleton, 8 July 1995
As small as our missions may seem, they have cosmic significance in Christ's mission.
If I sit down to watch the news on the telly, or to read the newspaper, it is usually with the intention of becoming better informed. But it sometimes has the unfortunate side effect of inducing a feeling of helplessness before the pressing crises of the world. Some of you perhaps have a similar reaction. What are some of the events that you react similarly too, and what are the feelings that come up???
One of the things I often say is that we are all involved in Christ's mission of renewing the world, of bringing hatred and injustice to an end, and of establishing God's reign of love and peace. But in the face of the real problems of the world we often feel that our efforts are like spitting in the ocean.
Does what we do really make any difference? In the cosmic struggle between the love of Christ and the tides of evil, are our efforts at faithfulness and mission of any significance at all? Does God see us as important players on the team? These are the questions we bring to God today as we worship.
A few details about the reading from Luke are perhaps worth noting before we go on to see what the passage means for us as a whole. They help us to understand what it meant for the people it was first written for, and can therefore help us see what it can mean for us.
Firstly, the number of disciples Jesus appoints and sends out. Our translation said seventy, some others say seventy two. This is because there are variations in the available early manuscripts. And in this case it is a helpful variation because it gives us a clue as to the symbolism of the number. In the book of Genesis, there is a table of nations in chapter ten. In the Hebrew Bible there are 70 nations in it, but in the Greek translation that was commonly used in the first century, there was 72. So for the gospel writer to say that Jesus was sending seventy preachers, the hearers of that time would recognise the image of sending out to every nation, and those operating out of the other Bible just amended it to 72 to keep the symbolism. The message: the worldwide scope of the harvest into which Jesus sends the labourers.
Now, the equipment they were or weren't to take with them. No purse, no bag, no sandals, no chatting with friends along the road. I used to always earn the frown of the principal at college because I turned up to class most of the year in bare feet. And when he expressed his disapproval I used to joke that the Bible said that disciples on mission weren't allowed to take any sandals. But, the message here is one of urgency. It is backed up by the harvest imagery. As country folk know, when the harvest is ready, you get it in quickly. Miss your chance and the crop can be ruined. Jesus is saying, This is urgent, you've got a task to do, no messing around, no time for trying to sort out your baggage limits, no time for shopping, no time for social chats along the road. Go to it. The Kingdom of God is near now, so now is the time to respond.
Finally, the shaking the dust off the feet. The Jews of the first century had a custom that if they went onto foreign land, they would shake the foreign dust of their feet when they returned to Israel. It was a sign of their feelings of the holiness of the land of Israel. They didn't want to contaminate it by mixing its soil with the soil of pagan lands. So Jesus is saying there is a new criteria. Those places whose inhabitants welcome the sign of God's presence among them are sacred places, regardless of whether or not they are in Israel. Those places that reject the message of the presence of God's kingdom and the signs of healing and goodness, are pagan places, and should be told so.
But notice something else. It is the same message for those who respond and for those who don't. To those who welcome you, say The kingdom of God has come near to you. To those who refuse to welcome you, say Yet know this, the kingdom of God has come near. Why? Because if the kingdom of God has come near, then you stand judged by your own response. Neither God nor anyone else needs to add anything. Either you jumped on the bandwagon when it came your way or you didn't. You heard the message of love and acceptance. You saw the signs of healing and welcome. You made your choice when you had your opportunity. The kingdom of God has come near to you. Enough said.
The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Many people are feeling that the way their lives have been going is pretty terminal. The message of the gospel is that things can be made new. But where are the messengers? Many people are feeling that they are struggling to stay afloat and keep their heads up. The message of the gospel is that you can be saved. But where are the messengers? Many people feel trapped in cycles of evil and abuse that humiliate and degrade them. The message of the gospel is that you can be set free. But where are the messengers? Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.
Now I want to have a go at kicking down a common misconception. You see the usual response of the Baptist Union or similar bodies in other churches to a statement like that from Jesus is to say we need more ordained clergy. We need to attract and train more people for the pastoral ministry. But I want to argue that that is wrong. Pastors are not supposed to be the messengers of the gospel to the world. I am not the labourer you should be praying into the harvest. And neither is Ron. If we spend too much of our time out there ministering among non-Christian people, we are neglecting our calling, wasting our time and failing to do our jobs.
The task is too big and too important for me and Ron to being trying to do it. It's your job. You are called by Jesus Christ to be his labourers out there in the harvest field. You are called to gossip the message of God's love and goodness among those who need to hear it. You don't need any particular expertise or training to be able to love other people and show to others the welcome and acceptance and mercy that God has shown you. You don't need a uni degree to be able to talk about what has happened to you and how it is bringing healing and hope into your life. And it doesn't take any great prophetic gift to be able to recognise people who reckon there is something stuffed up about their lives.
You are the people that Christ is sending out, like lambs among wolves to share the peace of Christ, to eat and drink with people, to respond in mercy to sickness and brokenness, and to talk about the nearness of God and of God's reign in the world. That is Christ's commission to the whole church. You are all ministers and priests. The New Testament words for minister and priest are never used of church leaders - they are used to describe the whole people of God. You are a royal priesthood, it says. You will minister in my name to the ends of the earth.
So why do I say that Ron and I are not supposed to be doing that? It is because we have been called by God and by the church and set apart to do something else. We have been gifted and called to nurture and equip you so that you can reach out and make an impact on the world around us. The equipping of the saints, it's called in the Bible. Teaching, preaching, encouraging, pastoring, guiding. So that you might grow into the fullness of Christ and embrace the mission to which Christ has called you all.
In the great arena of the world, when the our team of love and life and hope takes on the forces of evil and war and greed, you are the people who are supposed to take the field. My job is like the coach. I am supposed to spend a lot of time with you away from the conflict, training and equipping you so that when the whistle blows you're able to take the speckies and kick the goals. If I find myself unable to control the urge to star on the field and get out where everyone will see me, then the rest of the team will probably be in disarray. I have to do my best as coach and then let you take to the field and do it.
And because it's your job to take to the field, just like I would be failing in my job if I spent too much time out there, you'd be failing in yours if you spend too much time in here. No one should feel obliged to support things we do here just because we do them. If a church activity is not going to help you grow in your relationship with Christ in in your ability to represent Christ in the real world, then for Christ's sake don't come to it. Get on with your life and mission. If you are the sales manager for a company, you don't go to the training sessions for the warehouse staff just because they're on. You go to the training sessions for the sales staff and when the sessions are on for the warehouse staff you get on with your job. You are the ministers of Christ, the light of the world, a sign of the kingdom.
I want to put up a board in the church one day with a sign at the top that says The ministers of this church, and put every bodies photo on it with a brief caption identifying their ministries. Person 1 - helps in youth centre, ministers among frail elderly people helping with household chores. Person 2 - helps run rehabilitation group for people with head injuries, raises two children, works with Amnesty International. Person 3 - leads worship services, works for justice through a law firm, coaches junior basketball team.
Now I reckon that a lot of the times that we want to retreat back into the church it is because we can't see any significance in what we manage to do in the world. We feel so inadequate as ministers of Christ, because the harvest is so large and our little patch seems a very little return for a lot of effort. Sure we might help in a kids club or coach junior basketball, but the numbers of disaffected and delinquent kids don't seem to get any less. Sure we might see the occasional bloke who was locked into systems of greed and ambition and stress and heart attack set free and become a healthier more balanced generous creative human being. But average work hours are still rising and the rates of suicide and terminal illness among Australian executives are still rising. Sure our local Amnesty group may have run the most successful publicity campaign ever, but the Indonesian army is still trampling the resistance in East Timor. We're out there, we're doing our best, but it all seems so insignificant.
But what does Jesus say when we report back. I was watching Satan falling from heaven like a flash of lightening. What, all we did was have a games night for some local kids. I was watching Satan falling from heaven like a flash of lightening. What, all we did was offer a holiday to a struggling family. I was watching Satan falling from heaven like a flash of lightening. What, all we did was paint an old lady's kitchen. I was watching Satan falling from heaven like a flash of lightening.
It might all seem very mundane when you're one of the seventy sent out with no sandals to say Peace to this house. But Jesus can see the whole game plan. Jesus sees the demonic structures that begin to topple and fall as we do our little bit of chipping away at the bottom. The demonic structure that was holding that family in highly stressed conflict till they were snarling and tearing one another apart. And your offer of a holiday didn't solve all their problems but it broke the cycle just enough to allow the pathway through to be glimpsed. I was watching Satan falling from heaven like a flash of lightening.
The demonic structure that had those drab stained kitchen walls screaming at that old lady that she was no good and unlovable till she was nearly ready to stick her head in the oven. And your little group who painted her kitchen didn't solve all her problems but it silenced the voices in the walls and showed her enough care to kindle a spark of hope that might be fanned into a flame. I was watching Satan falling from heaven like a flash of lightening.
The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few. Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. The kingdom of God has come near, and you might not be able to see the full significance of your little part of it, but through you and many others God's tide of love and truth is pushing back the currents of corruption and brutality. Your little drop in the ocean might not seem like much, but when the tide turns every drop is in it together and nothing can stand in your way.