Third Sunday After Pentecost
TEXTS: Exodus 19:2-8; Matthew 9:35—10:10
“Now therefore … you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6a)
Imagine how the Israelites must have felt hearing those words. Against all odds—and even against their own expectations—God had rescued these downtrodden people from slavery in Egypt. More than that, he had saved them from Pharaoh’s powerful army, and then had kept them alive and united as a community through their perilous desert journey. Now, here they were, at the foot of Mount Sinai, hearing through Moses the unbelievable words from God himself, assuring them that they were chosen and precious in his sight.
For decades now, psychologists have been telling us that words of praise are important; that encouragement is vital to our self-esteem. Smart managers realize how true this is. They know that in the workplace it is necessary to tell people when they’re doing a good job, to give them a pat on the back, to provide reinforcement so that productivity stays at a high level. And let’s face it—we all like to hear those good words. Even if they don’t come as often as we think they should—whether at church or at work or at home or at school—we all like to hear words of affirmation. We all like to know that we are appreciated and accepted, and that we belong.
But of course, there’s a flip side to this process, because the expectation is that we will continue to do the things that caused those wonderful words to be spoken. In order to hear them again, something more is expected of us.
This was certainly true of the Israelites. In today’s passage from the Book of Exodus, we read that, even as they heard the Lord telling them how treasured they were in his sight, they also heard the other half of the story: “if you obey my voice and keep my covenant.” They were called and they were chosen. But they were also expected to walk the road of discipleship along with Moses. They were chosen to be God’s people, but they were also called to act the part—to not simply give lip service to the commandments of God, but to live according to those commandments.
Throughout Scripture, this message is repeated. Prophets—and then later the rabbis—all had bands of followers or disciples, those who would sit at their feet and learn from the master. Then, when they had earned the confidence of their teacher, they would be sent out themselves to share the knowledge they had gained—to assist the rabbi by going about the countryside and sharing in the teaching. All of them, down through the ages, began as followers. They were chosen for their eagerness to study and learn, and perhaps many of them would have been content to stay in that role of sitting and listening and learning. But at some point in their discipleship, it was required of them that they take that extra step of being sent out to share their knowledge with others.
So it was with Jesus and his disciples. Now—quite differently from any of those who had gone before—the disciples of Jesus were not scholars, nor were they particularly religious. In truth, we know them to have been a rag-tag bunch of rather rough characters—not men one would expect to find as part of a rabbi’s ministry. But Jesus of Nazareth was an unusual rabbi. His was not a ministry after the traditional rabbinic model. He did not just sit under a tree and teach—at least, not often. He took his disciples on a long march from Galilee to Jerusalem and back again, through all the villages and towns—wherever he perceived that there was a need for healing and restoration.
He taught them, to be sure—but his words were accompanied by bold actions, such as raising the dead and healing every manner of affliction. And the more he did—and the further he went, with his disciples right beside him—it became apparent that there was just too much to do! And so today we hear Jesus ask his disciples to pray for more help:
“The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.”(Matt. 9:37b-38)
You’ve all heard the saying, “be careful what you pray for.” I’m sure the disciples—inexperienced and new to this ministry business as they were—had no illusions about their capabilities. They probably would have been perfectly content to continue as they were—just to be with Jesus, to see what he did, to talk to him and to have him talk to them, to walk with him and to pray with him.
But it didn’t work out quite that way. Because, you see, they did what Jesus said: they prayed for more labourers to go into the harvest. And their prayers were answered. They became the labourers! They became the ministers—and not assistant ministers either, but ministers just like Jesus. He gave them power to do all the things that he did. Just like him, they were to proclaim that the heavenly kingdom had come near—and then they were to back up that claim by healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, and casting out demons.
And just like Jesus, they were to give away these new gifts and this new power, to give it away as freely as it had been given to them. That’s why Jesus didn’t want them to take anything with them; no extra clothes or shoes or spending money—none of the world’s baggage that might distract them. They were simply to present themselves just as they were—poor in possessions and dependent on others for food and hospitality, but rich in the knowledge and love of God and eager to use the gifts that had been given to them. Asking no more of them than he did of himself, Jesus sent them forth to demonstrate the unconditional grace of kingdom love, freely received and freely given. Like the Israelites at Sinai, they had been both chosen and called—chosen to be ministers, and then called upon to act.
Presbyterian minister Bruce Larson told the story of a member of his congregation who had come from another country. “Her faith sparkled,” Larson said, “and the living water of the spirit flowed out of her soul to all around her.” *
He invited her to go with him to a seminar on evangelism. The presenters had set up tables filled with all sorts of pamphlets and strategy documents and demographic studies—all aimed at reaching the unchurched. At some point during the program, the leaders asked this woman to share some of the things that made the church so important and so vital in her home country. At first she was a bit intimidated by the crowded room, but finally she did speak.
She said, “Well, we never gave pamphlets to people because we never had any. We just showed people by our life and example what it is like to be a Christian, and when they can see for themselves, then they want to be a Christian, too.”
The people that woman was describing—like the Israelites at Sinai, and like the disciples of Jesus—were both chosen and called. Chosen by God to be a community of ministers, they were then called to bring the message to others.
It happens again and again. First God chooses, and then God calls. For many of us, God’s choice of us seems to predate our memory of any such thing. Born into the Christian community, we were brought to baptism by our parents, when we were still infants. We have grown up knowing—maybe even taking for granted—the fact that we belong to God. For others of us, God’s choice of us was something we became aware of gradually. For still others, it was a sudden realization, following a conscious decision.
But however we became aware of God’s choice of us, if we have cared about that choice—if we have cherished it, if we have been grateful for it, if we have allowed God’s gracious choice to matter to us—we have found ourselves changed by it. Changed into people who are not merely chosen, but also called.
After we hear the welcome words of affirmation, after we hear God saying that we are his treasured possessions—after that sinks in—then we hear something more. We are called to go forth to bring the Good News to others. In this place and time, we are the labourers called to go into the harvest field. Is it scary to contemplate? Of course it is. Should we, therefore, shrink from it? How can we?
We have listened to the words of the Gospel and heard of God’s mighty acts of healing and forgiveness and restoration. As we gather together in community—in large groups or small—we are clothed with power from on high. And then we go forth in the name of Christ and in the power of the Spirit to be the Church. We need nothing else. We have been chosen and we are being called.
May God grant us ears to hear his voice, and hearts to keep his covenant. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
* Larson, Bruce. Ask Me to Dance: A Guide to Becoming More Than You Are [ISBN: 0849941075]