Sermon 06-18-2023: “Our Most Important Task”

Scripture: Matthew 9:35-10:10

In today’s scripture I want to make three points: One, Jesus is more compassionate than we often think. Two, we are less compassionate than we often think. And three, our lack of compassion isn’t the problem, but our lack of prayer might be!

But Point Number One, Jesus is more compassionate than we often think…

Let’s get started by talking about something I read last week in the Mockingbird magazine…

Mockingbird Ministries is a Christian ministry run by a dear friend and brother named David Zahl. The focus of their ministry is on grace, and how it plays out—or more often fails to play out—in everyday life—not to mention how desperately we all need grace. They publish a magazine, which includes what seems like an old-fashioned advice column—like “Dear Abby”—except it’s called “Dear Gracie.” Gracie, in this case, is Sarah Condon, an Episcopal minister and writer. 

In the most recent issue of the Mockingbird magazine, someone wrote the following to “Gracie”:

Dear Gracie,

Sometimes I feel so off kil­ter: dizzy, brain fog, achy, and exhausted. Like lots of people, I go to Google with my symptoms. This has sent me down rabbit holes that turn into abysses, all before having a doctor’s diagnosis. This happens, in part, be­cause of the internet, but also because so many of my friends’ real conditions have gone undetected by doc­tors, and because I live in a very small town where it’s hard to see specialists. But I don’t like how much anx­iety the unknown stirs up in me. Help?

Internet Doctor 1

Sarah—or “Gracie”—responded first by saying that when she turned 40 recently, she experienced pain in her tailbone… for no apparent reason. She said, “I have now experienced that same pain for two months and, while I have not seen a doctor, I am convinced I have spinal cancer.”

In other words, this was Sarah’s way of saying that when it comes to worrying needlessly about potential medical problems, she’s hardly one to give advice. Some advice columnist, huh? She goes on:

Your anxiously looking up symptoms on the internet is not going to keep you healthy. But pregaming worry is the human condition. So I really cannot advise you on that.

“Pregaming worry” means “worrying in advance about things that very likely won’t happen to you anyway.” Then she said:

But I can tell you this: If you just called a friend to talk about what really ails all of us—sadness about how life has worked out, powerlessness to control ourselves or those around us, fear about death—then that might bring you more comfort. Because that blood test is 100% sickness for everyone.

“Sadness about how life has worked out, powerlessness to control ourselves or those around us, fear about death”… Is she right? Do these things represent “100 percent sickness for everyone”? 

Close enough, I’d say! We need Jesus to heal us of this sickness!

And please notice: Sarah is writing as a Christian to a fellow Christian. I suppose Sarah could have said, “Oh you of little faith! Have more faith! Trust in God. He’ll take care of you!” But this is who we are. This is the human condition. And as the Bible clearly teaches, our old, sinful human nature doesn’t magically disappear when we are born again.

We are, every single one of us, a hot mess. And we won’t entirely cease being a hot mess until we reach heaven, or until Christ comes again.

We don’t need to pretend in the meantime, by the way, that we’re not a hot mess.

And isn’t this why Jesus’ words in verse 36 are so comforting. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Harassed and helpless. Like that ad campaign from earlier this year said, “He gets us.” Jesus gets us. He understands us, including all of our foibles, all of our failures, and all of our sins. He understands, too, the extent to which we are all harassed by the devil, harmed by spiritual warfare, harmed by the sins of others, not to mention our own sinful choices. Jesus has compassion for us! “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses…” 2 Hebrews 4:15.

Please notice also from today’s scripture: our many sins and weaknesses do not move Jesus to anger, or disappointment in us, or rejection of us. In fact, Jesus says in John 6:37 some reassuring words that we Christians often have a hard time believing—because they almost seem too good to be true: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” I will never cast out. 

Author and pastor Dane Ortlund, in his best-selling book Gentle & Lowly, says that John Bunyan, the 17th-century pastor and author of Pilgrim’s Progress, wrote an entire book on this one verse. In it, Bunyan imagines a conversation between himself and Jesus after he spoke these words, “I will never cast you out.” Bunyan has a hard time believing it:

“No wait”—he says, cautiously approaching Jesus—“you don’t understand. I’ve really messed up, in all kinds of ways.”

I know, [Christ] responds.

“You know most of it, sure. Certainly more than what others see. But there’s perversity down inside me that is hidden from everyone.”

I know it all [Christ says].

“Well—the thing is, it isn’t just my past. It’s my present too.”

I understand.

“But I don’t know if I can break free of this any time soon.”

That’s the only kind of person I’m here to help.

“The burden is heavy—and heavier all the time.”

Then let me carry it.

“It’s too much to bear.”

Not for me.

“You don’t get it. My offenses aren’t directed toward others. They’re against you.”

Then I am the one most suited to forgive them.

“But the more of the ugliness in me you discover, the sooner you’ll get fed up with me.” And to this, Christ says, 

Whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 3

I’ll bet I’m talking to some Christians right now who, like Bunyan, have a hard time believing this is true. I am likely talking to people who are afraid to pray, afraid to approach God with boldness, afraid to ask God—in prayer—to do bold things for them—heck, who are afraid to ask God to do much of anything for them—because you don’t feel worthy to do so. You think, “Why should God do anything for me?I know my heart. I know I’m a terrible sinner. While I know I’m saved because of what Jesus did for me on the cross, why should I expect God to do more than that for me—by showing me his favor and by answering my prayer?”

Maybe this describes you… If so, I invite you to think about the prayer we pray in here every Sunday: the Lord’s Prayer. 

What are the first words we say? We say, Our Father

We call God “Our Father” first. And then we ask God to glorify his name, to rein over us as king, to see to it that we and others do his will. And then Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”This is the part of the prayer in which we ask our Father to give us things; to give us anything we need; to do things for us. 

And only after we’ve asked all these things from God, Jesus says, do we ask God to forgive us for whatever sins we’ve committed since the last time we prayed.

That order is important: we are not earning our Father’s love and acceptance on the basis of whether or to what extent we have behaved well since last time we prayed. We’re not groveling before God, or buttering God up, or asking him to forgive our sins first—so that only then will God possibly grant us what we pray for! By no means! Listen: the very order of the Lord’s Prayer implies that nothing we’ve done, no sin we’ve committed since last time we prayed, has changed the fundamental relationship we enjoy with God: he is our Father!

In other words, this prayer assumes that we disciples are already a mess! That’s why we ask for forgiveness each time we pray. Jesus doesn’t assume we’ll come to God without having sinned since last time we prayed and received forgiveness! 

We’re a mess, Jesus says, but our messiness—our sin—doesn’t change our relationship with our Father. Our messiness shouldn’t prevent us from praying boldly and confidently with the expectation that God will answer and give us what we need—in spite of our sins!

This is why the author of Hebrews, in Hebrews 4:16, tells us, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

And that’s Point Number One: Christ is more compassionate than we often think.

Point Number Two: We are less compassionate than we often think.

When I was talking about Jesus’ compassion for us in verse 36, I was talking about the compassion Jesus has for those of us who have already come to him, who have already become God’s children through faith, who have already received eternal life, whose sins are already forgiven. But people who are already disciples aren’t mostly the people whom Jesus sees among the crowd in verse 36, the people for whom he feels such compassion

When Jesus sees the crowd, he mostly sees people who are currently lost sheep—or “sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus’ compassion for these “lost sheep” is the starting point of his doing what

Sending out his disciples—his “laborers”—into the “harvest fields” of verse 38.

And this is why today’s scripture is often considered a classic “mission text”—preachers like me use it to inspire us to fulfill the Great Commission: “the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.” 

And at this point, I suspect that some of you anticipate what I’m about to say… You expect me to say something like this: “Are we—like Jesus—compassionate enough toward the lost sheep of Toccoa—toward people who are being harassed by Satan, toward people who are helpless to save themselves from their sins, toward people who need the loving embrace of Christ our Good Shepherd, toward people who risk being eternally separated from God unless they repent and believe in Jesus—do we have enough compassion toward them to ‘go into the harvest fields’ and proclaim the gospel, et cetera?”

Because, make no mistake, nothing less than heaven and hell hang in the balance of our church’s ability to go into those harvest fields, to proclaim the gospel, to save people. Eternal life with Christ or eternal separation from God in hell… I’ve said it a hundred times… That’s what’s ultimately at stake even in our church’s mission.

You know who had compassion for the lost? The apostle Paul! Listen to what Paul says in Romans chapter 9, when talking about his own people, his own blood relatives, his fellow Jews who haven’t yet received Christ… he says, in Romans 9, verses 2 and 3:

My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them.

Do you get what Paul is saying here? He’s saying, “If it were possible—granted, it’s not possible, but hypothetically, if it were possible—I would lay down not merely my life… but I would lay down my very soul to save my family and my people… I would be willing to be damned… if by doing so, my people, these people whom I love so dearly, could be saved.”

That’s compassion! That’s exactly the kind of compassion that Jesus feels when he looks at the crowds in today’s scripture! Paul has that compassion.

But if I were able to be perfectly blunt with Paul—when he says, “I would be willing to be damned… if by doing so, my people could be saved,” I would surely tell him: “Not me, brother! Not by a long shot! I would not be willing to sacrifice my gift of eternal life for anyone!” I mean, it’s all hypothetical, as Paul well knows… Every person must choose for himself whether to receive God’s gift of eternal life. We can’t do anything to make people believe!

But the truth is, I simply don’t possess that kind of compassion for lost people. I can’t muster that kind of compassion. My own commitment to saving the lost waxes and wanes. My own commitment to fulfilling the Great Commission wavers. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone? 

I wish I felt the same “compassion for the lost” that Jesus feels, or that Paul feels in Romans chapter 9, in which case witnessing would come very easily to me. If I felt that kind of compassion, then surely I couldn’t help but tell others about Jesus… frequently!

So as much as I want to ask, “Are we compassionate enough to go into the harvest fields,” I already know the answer… And for most of us, at least… the answer is no.

And I don’t say this to shame us or make us feel guilty, I promise. It shouldn’t surprise us that we’re not nearly as compassionate as Jesus. We are, as I’ve said many times already, a hot mess! We are still sinners, and like Jesus’ own disciples we are still people of “little faith.”

Besides, if it makes us feel any better, compassion also doesn’t come easy even for more advanced disciples of Jesus. I’m talking about disciples who lived and worked alongside Jesus for a few years, who were eyewitnesses to many miracles—disciples who’d witnessed the dead being raised to life, who’d witnessed Jesus walking on water and calming the storm, who’d witnessed Jesus healing hundreds of people, who’d witnessed Jesus feeding the multitudes with a few loaves and fish, who’d even witnessed Jesus being transfigured before their eyes… Even for these very close disciples of Jesus, who’d sacrificed everything to follow him, Christ-like compassion did not come easily… even for them! 

To show you what I mean, I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles to Luke 9, verses 51 to 54. Jesus and his disciples are passing through a Samaritan village. Samaritans and Jews, remember, were hated enemies of one another. And this particular Samaritan village, Luke tells us, refuses to offer hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. And when they see how badly the Samaritans treat them, the brothers James and John, the sons of Zebedee, ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 4 And Jesus, of course, rebukes them.

So I need you to get the picture: James and John are so “compassionate toward the lost” that they want to destroy lost people with fire from heaven! And this, by the way, took place after the events of today’s scripture: We know this because the beginning of Luke chapter 9—before James and John ask this impertinent question—corresponds to Matthew chapter 10, when Jesus sent James and John and the other disciples out to preach the gospel and miraculously heal people. Which means Jesus sent James and John on their mission before they had the same compassion for the lost that Jesus had!

And look… When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, and said in chapter 9 that he would be willing, if possible, to exchange his salvation for that of his fellow Jews, he had been a Christian for 25 years! A lot of sanctification had already taken place before then. Perhaps a younger version of Paul wouldn’t have had enough compassion to say that!

So again… here’s the good news: Jesus isn’t waiting for his disciples to become “compassionate enough” before he sends them out into these harvest fields. He’s sending them even though they are still a hot mess—just like most of us.

So, now, Point Number Three: So when it comes to fulfilling the Great Commission, our main problem is not a lack of compassion, but it might just be a lack of prayer!

In fact, look at verses 37 and 38 of today’s scripture… Not only is Jesus not waiting for his disciples to become “compassionate enough” before he sends them into the harvest fields, he isn’t technically even sending them… not yet at least. 

I can hardly stress how important it is that we comprehend what Jesus is saying in these two verses: Because here’s what we expect Jesus to say: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore…” Therefore what?

We expect Jesus to say, “Therefore… roll up your sleeves and go out in those fields… Therefore bring in the harvest… Therefore get to work!”

Is that what Jesus says? Nope. What does he say instead?

He says, “Therefore pray earnestly.” Pray earnestly that the Lord himself will send. Isn’t that a strange and amazing thing to say?

It amazes me because, well… for too much of my life I’ve been taught to believe that prayer isn’t really “doing” anything. Even in church work! Even in church committee meetings!

How many times, for example, have I prayed some pro forma prayer, just going through the motions, without even thinking about the One to whom I’m speaking, how many times have I spoken words of prayer in order to impress the people who are listening, how many times have I treated prayer as if it were the maraschino cherry on top of the church sundae—just a little garnish that you quickly set aside before getting down to the real business of eating the sundae?

Most of us don’t even eat the maraschino cherry, because, after all, they are disgusting!

How many times do I feel anxious about some problem—I feel helpless, I feel stuck, I feel afraid—all the while forgetting that I have all the power I could ask for to solve any problem I’m facing, but I don’t even bother asking… because, after all, I feel as if it’s all up to me… the weight of the world is on my shoulders… if I don’t solve this problem, who else will?… If I take time to pray, other people will think I’m lazy!

Because prayer isn’t really doing anything…

Indeed, when I look over my shoulder at other, more outwardly successful pastors than I am, and I compare myself to them, I often think, “If only I had what they have!”… All the while I’m forgetting that I do have what they have—or at least I have the only thing I need to be successful in our church’s mission—which is the power of God himself, God the Holy Spirit, living within me, and operating within the church.

All the power I need is available for the asking, but how often do I fail to ask?

The worst is when I get so busy sometimes that I almost resent that God expects me to pray. Like, “Ugh! I don’t have time for prayer, Lord! I’ve got to get to work.” I should instead say, “I’m so busy and stressed out and frantic that I don’t have time not to pray!” But I never say that! 

Why am I like this? I’m such a mess! All I can figure is, too often, I simply don’t believe my prayers will do anything. 

I read a prayer that someone wrote that went something like this: “God, you’re far more willing to answer my prayers than I am to believe that you will answer my prayers.” 

God is far more willing to answer our prayers than we are to believe that he will answer our prayers! 

I relate to whoever said that!

And I’m not alone. There’s a funny scene in Acts chapter 12. Peter has been arrested and he is facing execution because he is boldly preaching the gospel. Herod has just killed John’s brother James, and Peter is surely next. But we’re told that the church is gathered together in someone’s house praying for Peter. And you might know the story: That night an angel comes and rescues Peter, enabling his escape from prison. Peter shows up at the house where the church is gathered in prayer. Peter knocks at the gate. A servant girl named Rhoda goes and tells the others, “Peter is here! He’s outside!”

And what does this church—who is at this very moment praying for Peter—say to Rhoda? “You are out of your mind.” Acts 12:15.

So these faithful disciples—gathered at that moment in prayer for Peter’s safe deliverance from King Herod’s clutches—find it easier to believe that Rhoda, their sister in Christ, has lost her mind than to believe that God actually answered the prayers they had just been praying!

What is wrong with us? We are a hot mess!

But thank the Lord that he is so compassionate! He can answer our prayers even when we don’t believe or expect him too! That’s some amazing grace right there!

The point is, we need to pray anyway! In spite of how little faith we have!

See, we might say that a disciples’ most important task is to fulfill the Great Commission

To which I say, maybe… That’s pretty good. I would nuance that a little bit… A disciple’s most important task is to glorify God. One important way we do that, of course, is through fulfilling the Great Commission. 

So I’d put it like this: A disciple’s most important task, aside from glorifying God through worship, is to glorify God through fulfilling the Great Commission. And the most important way we fulfill the Great Commission is through prayer.

Our main mission work is to pray. So even if you say, “I can’t fulfill our Great Commission. I don’t know how to witness!”—Pastor April and I hear that a lot. “Okay, even if you think you can’t fulfill the Great Commission, you can praythat the Lord of the harvest will send people into the harvest fields who can fulfill it!” 

Pray that prayer, and who knows? Maybe a few of us will realize that actually, the Lord is calling us to go.

But even the going, Jesus says, is less important than the praying!

Do we believe it?

Prayer is not “doing nothing.” Prayer is the most important thing that we do!

God, give us the grace to do it! Even when our faith falters and we don’t believe prayer does anything, give us the grace to pray anyway. And answer our prayers. Amen!

  1.  Sarah Condon, “Help! How Do I Balance Love and Tough Love,” 14 June 2023, Accessed 15 June 2023.
  2.  Hebrews 4:15a
  3.  Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 63-4.
  4.  Luke 9:54 ESV

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