Each year as I prepare for Reload I go though a process of thinking through where we're at and what God is doing among us and what we need to hear at this particular time… I'm sure it's good for me, I'm sure it's good to stop and reflect year on year, but it's heavy - I find it hard to produce a timely word year on year. It's not always clear to me what we should be thinking about. But this year I've been convicted that we need a word of encouragement and I've been thinking a lot of the verse that you've got on your tables there – John 4.35 where Jesus says:
'I tell you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are ripe for harvest.'
Lift up your eyes, he says. This is a word of encouragement to disciples who were often lost in the details or overwhelmed in their tasks, from the Master who sees the big picture, who's never lost in the detail and never overwhelmed.
The whole passage is worth our attention, so let me read the surrounding verses to you. Jesus has been talking to a Samaritan woman at a well outside of town, while the disciples went for food. As they speak the woman goes back into town to tell the town 'come see a man who told me everything I ever did – could this be the Messiah' and soon a great crowd of them will come out to put their faith in Jesus.
Meanwhile Jesus says to his disciples:
""My food," said Jesus, "is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Do you not say,'Four months more and then the harvest'? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying 'One sows and another reaps' is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labour.""
Sadly we don't have time for a full examination of this passage tonight, but I just want to draw your attention briefly to a 7 observations from this passage:
1. Jesus calls doing God's will his food – serving God, according to Jesus is uniquely satisfying, even sustaining, like food – even if it is at the same time exhausting. Jesus was often overcome with exhaustion, but he carried on the work because it was life to him, his purpose, his sustenance, his food. The things that we think we need in order to give us strength to endure are very often the exact opposite of what we really need – we think we need calm, peace, holiday rest; but God sends things that are truly good for us, including hardship, conflict, suffering –things that throw us back on reliance upon him instead of ourselves.
2. Jesus is on mission and that is his life, his joy, his food, his satisfaction. God will is not arbitrary but strongly focused – God sent him to seek and to save the lost, the good shepherd rescuing the lost sheep, the good doctor working among the sick. Jesus comes to bring hope, to bring life and light and joy and peace and every good thing. It's a wonderful mission, an immense privilege; and it's also dangerous and thankless. For Jesus it will eventually mean finishing his work on the cross – as Jesus gave up his spirit he cried: 'it is finished'. He was rejected, betrayed, flogged, spat on, beaten, ridiculed and killed – he bore the weight of sin and God's wrath against it – and it was through those very things that he triumphed, that he defeated our enemies and opened the way for us to be saved. Through suffering came glory.
3. Jesus makes us workers with him in his good work. He moves seamlessly from his good work of obedience to the Father, to the disciples' good work of reaping the gospel harvest of forgiven sinners. Jesus' mission passes on to his disciples from that time until now, it is our mission today. Just like Jesus our mission is a wonderful mission, an immense privilege; and it's also dangerous and thankless. We don't expect crucifixion, but we do expect hardship, persecution and rejection – that is how the world receives Jesus and his gospel, if we are not experiencing it we are not sticking closely enough to Jesus and his gospel. But those things don't mean that we're losing – even as they didn't mean that Jesus was losing, they are the means through which God works to give bite to our testimony to Jesus and his gospel, God works through those hard things to bring glory to his name and good for us.
4. Jesus tells us to lift our eyes and to see the harvest field ripe for picking – the opportunities abound for doing God's will and doing fruitful labour in his harvest field, but we must lift our eyes to see them: we should not be so consumed with ourselves and our situation that we fail to see what God is doing around us, what he is calling us to, the opportunities that he has given us. Like the disciples we may be surprised by what God brings, it might not be what were expecting, but it will be what is appropriate for us now. If you were at church in the evening last week you will have heard Ian Garret talking about this, if not jump on our website and have a listen when you can.
5. Harvest is a double edged metaphor – from our distance away from rural life harvest sounds like a straightforward good – you go out and you bring in the results of your labour… like cashing the pay cheque. But it's not quite like that – there is joy in the harvest because it means provision, a return on our labour; but it's not like going to the hole in the wall and collecting cash money. The harvest is itself back breaking labour. And it's extremely time-critical, you can't harvest too soon, the crops won't be ripe, but leave it too late and they'll be over-ripe. And as long as the crop remains in the field it can be attacked by bugs, or ruined by rain or taken away from you by any number of blights and disasters. So it's round the clock, all hands on deck, get in extra workers do whatever it takes stuff. When the harvest comes you can't be distracted by anything else, you have to get it into the barn before it's lost. So the harvest image reveals a lot about the work – we can't expect life in God's service to be all glamour and no labour – Moses didn't part the red sea until the Israelites had been enslaved 400 years, David didn't ascend to the throne without years of being pursued by Saul and the whole military resources of the nation for years, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah – just about the whole role call of God's prophets were rejected and suffered for their ministry, so did Peter, Paul, James and John and all of the disciples who followed Jesus. They did the hard yards, they laboured in God's harvest field under the hot sun through long hours of back breaking work – and it was worth it to bring the harvest in.
6. God's work is to bring people to salvation – it is not to bring in the good life now, not to relax and enjoy the spoils of the harvest, but to get into the field and work for it. Relaxing and chilling and kicking back – however much we may long for it and dream of it, isn't for now, but for the life to come; God's work now is to fill the kingdom with people who trust in Jesus – disciples making new disciples, disciple making disciples – this is the commission of the church, to make disciples.
7. The sower and the reaper will rejoice together – some get to be there at the end when the fruit comes in, as were the disciples in this instance, others do the hard kingdom work of sowing the seed, without ever getting to see it grow and flourish – but in the end we will all rejoice together, whatever our part in making God's kingdom grow, whether big or small, seen or unseen, at the glamour end or completely off the radar, unseen and unrecognised – we will all rejoice in the end when Jesus is revealed – because there is nothing greater than sharing heaven with the people we have loved and prayed for.
How does this apply to us? Some thoughts:
1. I'm often told that we're tired, we're doing too much, we're risking burn out. I feel it too! It's the kids work that's killing us – we have 31 babies on our crèche register, last month I counted 36 families with pre-school kids – those early days with little sleep and the kids still in the house are hard. Of course we can't do all the things we used to do while we've got small kids. Well 36 families fall into that category – that's 72 adults who're tired and sleep deprived and can't operate at church at full capacity. That's just a fact of life for us at the moment, we don't all have little kids, but there are enough of us to affect the whole life of the church. We just can't do all things we used to – but that doesn't mean that we can't still work in the harvest field.
2. Many of us therefore are doing really well to be serving in church – so thank you for your labour in God's harvest field. Remember that God's harvest field includes the children in Sunday School and crèche and mums and babies and mums and toddlers. We might not be able to do all the things we want, but let's do a great job of looking after those kids, rejoicing that God has counted us worthy of working in his harvest field in this way for this season.
3. Many of us are tired with small children, but that doesn't last forever. As the kids get older it gets slightly less difficult! And many of us face changes in the next couple of years. I don't know all your plans, but it looks to me like as many as 13 families will take their youngest child to school in the next 2 or 3 years, and as many as 5 will see their youngest graduate from school in the next 2 or 3 years – that pretty much doubles our number of families with no kids at school. Those are big moments when mum and dad suddenly see their time and responsibilities changing – we can expect more free time in the next few years. How will you use it? Are you looking to invest your time and energy in things that will build the Kingdom? I really hope you are – invest in things that will last, invest in the food that brings true satisfaction – doing God's will; invest in the labour that will lead to rejoicing, put your blood and sweat and tears in his service.
4. When you're tired the temptation is to pull back from doing the very things that sustain us – things like getting to church, getting to home group, reading the bible and praying. Over the years I've spoken to so many people who've said how tired and disconnected they feel, and how hard they find it to do the things that help. If that's where you're at, don't disconnect, lean in: look for things you can do that will draw you closer in relationship to God and his people. If you're always in the back rooms serving in the mornings, come to the evening service, it might be hard to get out in the evening, but it's a lovely service and you need to hear God's word taught. Are you struggling to get to your home group, do you come home too tired to go out again? I feel that way too, but I'm always glad I went – you need it more than you think. Maybe the blunt facts of your life mean you just can't get to a regular group or programme – but could you meet a friend to pray and read the bible? Could you make a phone call to encourage someone? Can you pray, even while you do the washing up or mow the law or drive the car – can you build prayer into the things you're already doing? When we're tired everything looks worse than it is and seems harder than it is, and we can easily fail to see the benefits we get from faithful service. But God promises that we will rejoice in time if we put our efforts into his harvest.
5. I want to ask you to lift your eyes and see the harvest that God has put us in the middle of, to help you do that I want you to imagine with me what God might do here in the next 5 years:
- With so many kids hearing about Jesus now, how many mini missionaries will we sent out into schools across Gateshead?
- With the big glut of kids starting to grow into high school what could God do with a vibrant HTG Youth that's several times bigger than it is now?
- With so many families engaged in local schools and so interconnected with hundreds of other families how might our outreach grow and expand?
- With the servant hearted HTG Youth growing into adulthood how many parish assistants and church workers might we be seeing committing their lives to serving God?
- With a church committed to making disciples and so many faithful servants who have pushed through the hard years without faltering how might we be blessed when the hard early years give way to more time and more energy to serve?
- With new churches continuing to open in Gateshead every couple of years how many more of our neighbours and friends might have many contacts telling them about Jesus?
- With five years more of you praying and talking to them, how many of your friends might have put their trust in Jesus?
- With a commitment to growing in Jesus and serving him how might you have changed to better reflect Jesus likeness and more closely follow in his steps?
I'm told that most people over-estimate what can be achieved in one year and under-estimate what can be achieved in five years. But God is at work among us, lift up your eyes and see the harvest.
6. I want to ask you to keep imagining that with me and to pray and ask God to bring fruit from our labours. You've all got one of these 'Lift up your eyes' cards. Take it home. Stick it on the fridge. And when you see it let it be a reminder to you that God has given you a glorious and wonderful privilege to be his, to join with him in his harvest field and to do the work that the Father has given – to do the Father's will, to labour in the harvest field to make disciples of Jesus. When you're tired, remember that the harvest is hard work, but it leads to rejoicing. When you're not seeing results, remember that Jesus promises that there will be rejoicing, even if our task now is to sow seed that someone else will gather in. When you're tempted to think it's not worth it, remember that nothing will produce rejoicing like the day we stand and see the harvest gathered in full. And when you're frustrated remember to lift up your eyes to the one who is Lord of the harvest.