ďThe HarvestĒ††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††November 23, 2014
Itís been my custom to preach on a Thanksgiving theme this Sunday.
†† That usually means taking a break from the current sermon series
†† and picking a passage that has to do with thankfulness or contentment.
But there is a Thanksgiving theme in John 4 that I want us to consideró
†† itís the theme of the harvest.
Thanksgiving is a harvest holiday.† Remember the Pilgrims feasting with Indians.
We opened the service with Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.
†† Itís all about the harvest.†
Well, thereís a harvest theme in John 4.†
Weíre just going to read a few verses.† Remember the setting.
Jesusí disciples had left him at the well to go into the Samaritan town to buy food.
†† While they were gone, he had famous conversation with the Samaritan woman.
When the disciples came back, they found him talking to the woman and
†† were surprised and didnít know what to say.†
But after she left, they tried to get him to eat something.†
†† He said, No, I have food to eat that you know nothing about.
†† So they said to each other, Did someone else bring him food?
Verse 34 and following gives us Jesusí response and what happened next.
INTRO:† One afternoon I helped Connie Jacobs pick strawberries at her parentsí
†† farm.† The plants were covered with fruit and they were so ripe
†† and so sweet that just a day or two longer and it would have been too late.
Connie told me to put only the perfect ones in the baskets.
†† If they had a bad spot on them or a hole poked in them from a bug or bird,
†† not to put those in the baskets for sale.
But, she said, you can eat those.† They are perfectly good to eat.
†† So thatís what I did.† I picked the perfect ones and put in baskets.
†† And I ate the others until I thought I was going to pop.
The Lord Jesus had just shared the Gospel with the Samaritan woman.
†† The Holy Spirit opened her heart to the words of Christ.
She believed he was the Messiah.† She believed he could satisfy the thirst in her
†† soul with living water so she would never be thirsty again.
She ran to town and told everybody:
†† ďCome and meet the man who told me everything I ever did.Ē
In just a short time the whole town would come out to see Jesus
†† and a great many would believe.†
While Jesus was waiting for that to happen, he turned to his disciples and said:
†† Open your eyes and look at the fields.† They are ripe for harvest.
Then he talked about the abundance of the harvest.
†† How they get to reap what they have not sown, because somebody else has
†† done the hard work of sowing, but the reaper and sower will be glad together.
Thatís a reference to the prophecy in Amos 9.
Jesus was telling his disciples:† Open your spiritual eyes.† Look around you.
†† This is the beginning of the age the Old Testament prophets spoke about.
All the nations of the world will come streaming into the kingdom of God.
†† There will be a great harvest.† Things are going to grow and ripen so fast,
†† and so many people will believe, that the harvesters will catch up with sowers.
In other words, just as fast as people hear the Gospel, they will be ready to believe.
†† I donít even have time to stop and eat this food youíve brought.
†† This wheat ready to be harvested.† These strawberries ready to be picked today.†
This isnít the only place Jesus spoke like this.† When sent out 72 he said:
†† The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.
When he preached in his home town, in Nazareth, on Isaiah 61, he said,
†† Today this text fulfilled in your hearing.† Whatís Isaiah 61 about?
Itís about the year of the Lordís favor, the wealth of nations coming into the church.
†† Itís a passage at prophesies the great expansion of Godís kingdom through Christ.
†† And there are other places as well.
†† Paul tells Corinthians that the fulfillment of the ages has come.
In the New Testament is this theme:† When Christ came the harvest began.
†† The fields are so ripe that we canít even take time to stop and eat because there
†† are so many people just waiting to hear the Gospel and be brought to faith.
And right at the beginning of Jesusí ministry is a demonstration of the ripe harvest.
†† A most unlikely person, a Samaritan woman, believes.† And then a whole town.
The way Jesus talks to his disciples, itís as if he wants them to expect things
†† to be this way throughout the Gospel Age.
But thereís a problem.† The problem is this is not our experience.
†† We donít see Godís kingdom advancing in spectacular ways.
We donít often see unlikely people coming to faith
†† and whole families and cities and nations turning to Christ in vast numbers.
They Lord says the fields are ripe unto harvest,
†† but they donít seem to be ripe unto harvest.
So these words of Christ are hard to interpret.
But we need to try.†
Itís very important for us to understand the Lordís teaching about the harvest
†† if we are going to understand the Christian life in this Gospel Age.
So three headings for you note-takers.
1.† The ordinary advance of Godís kingdom
2.† The extraordinary seasons of the Spiritís power
3.† The command of Christ to look at the ripe fields.
MP#1† The ordinary advance of Godís kingdom
Itís football season, so let me start with a football analogy.
Alabamians understand how teams can go through periods of ascendancy and
†† advance and then they reach a plateau and then they go through periods of
†† decline.† And then the cycle repeats itself.†
We understand how unexpected things can happen in the midst of these cycles.
Iím an Alabama fan but Will is an Auburn fan.
Thatís because Auburn beat Alabama six years in a row when he was a boy.
†† Little boys like winners.† I tried to explain to him that this streak would not last.
†† That Alabama would rise again and that he ought to pull for the Crimson Tide.
I was right.† Heís had to endure Alabamaís ascendancy these past years.
†† And things donít look good for Auburn this weekó
†† but he has the good memories of 2010 and 2013 and anything is possible.
And, of course, Alabama fans know what itís like to go through cycles of decline
†† and then hope is reborn and once again the Tide is where it should be
†† as a national championship contender.†
Thatís an analogy of the ordinary advance of Godís kingdom in this world.
It advances.† It reaches plateau.† It recedes, sometimes drastically.
†† It may languish in spiritual darkness for a long time. †And then it is restored
†† and starts to grow again.† These cycles can stretch over hundreds of years.
The Bible makes no effort to hide this.
We have these statements by Christ about the fields ripe unto harvest,
†† and we have the prophecies about the nations pouring into the kingdom
†† of God like the waves of the sea.† Yes, we have those sorts of passages.
But on the other hand, there are plenty of passages
† †that let us know itís not always going to be like that.†
There are long periods of plateau and decline where the fields are not ripe
†† unto harvest and the church itself falls into corruption and darkness.†
The church just hangs on and doesnít even keep all its covenant children.
Compare the history of the church in the Old Testament era
†† with the church in the New Testament era, and there is not really much difference.
There were times, like the days of Joshua or the days of David,
†† when faith was strong and Godís kingdom was advancing.
†† There was a commitment to public worship, Jerusalem packed for feasts.†
But those were relatively short times.†
And then there were long plateaus and even longer declinesó
†† the time of the judges, the division of the kingdom.
†† Worship declined, idolatry was rampant, children left faith, few committed.
The prophets called people back to the Lord.
†† Some people believed, most didnít.† But there were bright spots.
Hezekiah, then later Nehemiahóled Godís people in times of restoration.
†† All of these cycles happening over hundreds of years.
My point is that the New Testament church is no different.†
†† For the past 2,000 years since Pentecost, there have been cycles.†
The situation in medieval Christianity before the Reformation was as bad
†† as it was in the days of Jeremiah.
The church in Europe then had the very same sorts of problems.
†† Corrupt leaders, false teaching, ignorant church members.
And the situation of Christianity in Europe today might be worse
†† than it was in the days of Jeremiah.† There is just a tiny remnant.†
Charles Spurgeon put it this way:
ďChurches have summers, like our gardens, and then all things are full; but then come their winters, and, alas, what emptyings are seen! †Have we not all seen the flood when the tide has come up far upon the beach, and have we not all marked the ebb when every wave has seemed to fall short of that which preceded it? †Such ebbs and floods there are in the history of the kingdom of Christ.Ē
We canít predict the future, but Christianity in America is in decline.
†† Iím not just talking about the implosion of liberal, mainline denominations
†† Theyíve been hemorrhaging members for decades.
But even the growth of conservative denominations has slowed or plateaued.
†† Itís harder and harder for us to grow.† The fields arenít ripe.
Thatís true of our own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America.
†† Itís not for lack of laborers.† We have many missionaries, campus ministers.
†† We have many fine churches. †When I go to Presbytery and General Assembly,
†† Iím amazed at the caliber of our ministers, their gifts and commitment.
Growth in focused areas, transfer growth.† But overall, growth is about 1%.
The Southern Baptist Convention has reported the same.†
†† Itís a concern.† Itís a challenge.† Itís also not unprecedented.
†† This is the ordinary way of Godís kingdom in this age.
†† Sometimes the fields just arenít ripe.† So we do all we can just to tread water.
But there is another side to this story.† And that brings us to the second point . . ..
MP#2† The extraordinary seasons of the Spiritís power
The kingdom of God advances ordinarily through the long, slow cycles that we just
†† talked aboutóseasons growth, plateaus, downturns, restoration and new growth.
†† Planting and waiting and planting again maybe seeing only a little harvest.
And then, there are extraordinary seasons
†† in which the kingdom of God makes great leaps forward.
There are extraordinary seasons of the Spiritís power
†† when multitudes of people fall under the spell of Gospel.†
The progress of salvation is sped up.
†† Spiritual changes that usually take generations happen very quickly.
What is this?† We often use the term revival.†
†† A revival implies the renewal of life that was already there.
†† And thatís what sometimes happens.†
There is an extraordinary re-awakening among people
†† who already know something of the Bible and Jesus and the Gospel.
It has happened several times in America.
†† It happened in New England in the 1740s, Great Awakening, Edwards.
It happened at Yale University in 1802.
†† We imagine that in the early 1800s everybody was a Christian.† Not at all.
†† Yale was more hostile to Christianity then, than it is today.
When Timothy Dwight became President in 1795 there was not a single
†† professing Christian in the entire senior class.† But in 1802 there was an
†† extraordinary season of the Spiritís power and 1/3 of student body converted.
It happened again at Yale 100 years later.† Very little Christian influence,
†† but a freshman named William Borden arrived in 1905.†
†† He started a Bible study in his dorm with other freshmen.
When he graduated in 1909, out of 1300 students, 1000 were in weekly Bible study.
†† A great many of those Yalies went to the ministry and mission field.
You all know that I often cite Dr. Robert Rayburn, pastor of Faith Pres, Tacoma.
I was reading one of his sermons this week and he told how his church started
†† in 1970s by a number of people who came to Christ through the Jesus Movement.†
The Jesus Movement was a revival among hippies and others in 60s counter culture.
†† A great many very unlikely people came to faith before that revival ended.
†† The reason we have contemporary worship song, influence of Jesus Movement.
So there are revivals.† But then there is another sort of extraordinary season.
†† Those very special times when the Gospel comes with power to a nation
†† or society that has never heard the name of Jesus, and multitudes believe.
Itís not a revival, because there is no church to revive.
†† Itís a new manifestation of the Spiritís power.†
†† The Holy Spirit still works this way.† Iíll give you an example in a moment.
When Jesus told the disciples that the fields were ripe for harvest,
†† he was referring in general to the Old Testament prophecies of the Messianic age.
But he was also specifically referring to that field, to that town in Samaria,
†† to those particular people at that particular time.†
That field was ripe.† And as a result a great many of those people believed.
When Jesus and his disciples passed through this town of Sychar,†
†† Samaria had been a place of spiritual darkness for almost a thousand years
But there was a sudden and extraordinary awakening.
†† And it didnít stop when they left.† A few years later, the book of Acts tells
†† how Philip went to the city of Samariaóthe capital city of the region.
And the Holy Spirit was still at work and an even greater number came to Christ,
†† so many that Acts says:† There was great joy in the city.
Samaria had a Christian presence for hundreds of years.†
†† Then it was conquered by the Muslims, now itís part of Israel.
Itís been a very, very long time since those fields have been ripe for harvest.
†† But you see, the fact that before Jesus came there, Samaria had been for centuries
†† in darkness and unbelief, is proof it could happen again.
Whenever God wants it to happen, the harvest is ripe.
†† He sends his Holy Spirit and nothing will stop the advance of the Gospel.
So we have in the Bible these two messages side by side,
†† two ways of understanding life in this age of grace.
The triumphant and extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit in those special
†† times and places of his choosing . . .
And, the long, difficult, halting, sporadic progress of the church toward
†† that great and wonderful day of the Lord.
Now, what are we to do with this?†
Well, what did Jesus tell his disciples to do?† That brings us to our third point.
MP#3† The command of Christ
He told his disciples:
†† I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields!† They are ripe for harvest.
Now, what do we make of that command?
Obviously, if someone in charge tells you to look at a ripe field,
†† thatís a polite way of telling you to get busy and start harvesting.
If your dad says on Saturday morning, the grass sure needs mowing.
†† He doesnít want you to agree with him.† He wants you to mow the grass.
Thatís clear.† Jesus wanted to motivate them to be active in sharing faith,
†† because here were all these Samaritans coming toward them.
And we too ought to be busy.
†† Even if the fields arenít ripe, we need to be spreading the seed.
First in our homes, with our children.† We have to instill in them love for kingdom.††
†† Also in our conversations, in our friendships, we must be talking about the Lord
†† and making him known to people.
They might not respond.† The time might not be ripe.† But they might.
Once I read a few Bible verses to a man I had just met and he bowed his head and
†† prayed to receive Christ just like that.† Never seen anything like it before or since.†
Later I found out one of his cousins had been praying for him for 30 years.†
†† She sowed.† She did the hard work.† I got to reap.†
†† We need to remember that.† Perhaps we are sowing for a great day of reaping.
So clearly Christís command to look means to get busy.
But I think it also means just look.
†† When you see extraordinary seasons of the Spiritís power unfolding in your time,
†† when you see fields ripe, even if they arenít your fields, look and worship.
It stirs your soul as a Christian.† It encourages you in big ways.
†† It lifts you for a moment above the little cares and concerns of your life,
†† to give you a sense of this big thing you are a part of by Godís graceó
†† the kingdom of his Son in this world.
Last week I ran across an extraordinary article on the internet.
It was published November 7 in the Financial Times of London.
†† The Financial Times is the British equivalent of the Wall Street Journal.
It was a thoroughly researched, five page article titled:
†† ďThe rise of Christianity in ChinaĒ
Now this is a topic that Iíve shared in sermons many times before.
But it was remarkable to me to see it addressed in a prestigious secular publication.
†† It describes a great field, over a billion people, ripe for harvest.
Let me hit the highlights.
The article starts on April 28 of this year in Wenzhou, China with a dozen
†† bulldozers smashing a church building into a pile of rubbleóa huge church
†† buildingóthere was a picture of it in the article.† It looked like a cathedral.
It was the Sanjiang Church of Wenzhou and it has a membership of 8,000.
The article went on to explain that even though this church was registered with
†† the government, and even though authorities allowed it to be built six years ago,
†† the Communist Party ordered its destruction as the opening salvo of a new
†† policy of anti-Christian repression.
And all this is because the Communist leadership is alarmed at the growth of
†† Christianity.† There are 80 million members of the Communist Party.
†† There are now 100 million Chinese Christians growing at a rate of 10% annually.
†† (And the article says those are conservative numbers.)
The Communist Party is especially bothered by the fact that Christianity used to be
†† mostly found among rural and working class people, but the explosion of
†† growth has been among professionals, city-dwellers, and college students.
They know they canít stop it, but want to slow it down if possible.†
†† All this carefully documented in this Financial Times article.
The article went on to give a brief history lesson.†
Protestant missionaries came to China 200 years ago, Robert Morrison 1807.
†† After a century of labor, there were 100,000 Protestant Christians.†
Fifty years later, when Communists took over there were 800,000.
†† The Communists tried for 30 years to destroy Christianity.
†† But when the Cultural Revolution ended in 1978, the church was still there.
And it has been in the past 35 years the church has exploded to 100 million plus.
How long will this extraordinary season of the Spiritís power last?
†† God only knows.† But itís happening now and Jesus says, Look!
So on this Thanksgiving Sunday,
†† here is something to be thankful foróthe harvest.†
Are you thankful for the harvest?†
†† Not just the harvest of material blessings, food and clothing and home.
But this greater harvest, the harvest of people happing throughout this Gospel Age.
Thank you, Father, that our souls were ripened by your Spirit
†† and harvested in your time.†
Thank you, Lord Jesus, Lord of the harvest, that by your death and resurrection
†† you have made it possible for us to be harvesters with you.
And even if all we get to do is sow seed, and even if we barely reap in our time,
†† and even if all we get to do is look from afar, and see ripe fields on the other
†† side of the world, thank you for your word which tells usó
The days are coming when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman
†† and the planter by the one treading grapes.†
New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills.