Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
This morning we begin a new three week sermon series on the topic of evangelism. Now, as soon as I say that word I suspect sure lots of images flash across your mind. Some of the positive and, likely, some of them not so positive.
Of course, lots of people in the church have different ideas about evangelism. Listen as a few “experts” give us the skinny on evangelism. (To see video, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxKGGven9_U)
“Evangelism” is a Greek word which, when used in the New Testament, simply means “the bearing of good news”. Has ever a more beautiful word been so tarnished, so loaded down with baggage, so co-opted by those with ulterior motives? An evangelist is simply one who bears good news.
A week ago Friday my daughter lost her iPhone. Somewhere between 2nd and 3rd period at school it just vanished. All her photos, all her messages, all her contacts, all her schedules, gone. For many of us, especially the younger ones among us, losing your smart phone is like losing your right arm. Needless to say, there was a lot of sadness in our house that weekend. Isabel was sad. We were sad for her.
Against all odds, however, on Monday morning, again between 2nd and 3rd periods, the phone reappeared. What was lost had been found and, though I wasn’t there, I have no doubt that in the moment of the finding there was great rejoicing. Knowing my daughter, she spent the rest of the day sharing the good news. Friends, teachers, perhaps even total strangers, heard the good news. When I got home that afternoon something happened that had not happened in many years. Like she did when she was a little girl, my 15-year-old daughter rushed down the hall to greet me. She couldn’t wait to tell me the good news. Isabel had become an evangelist, and a very eager one at that.
I’m going to ask you a question and as I do I want you to do your very best to set aside all the political and religious baggage that is going to immediately get in the way. In the purest sense of the word, are you an evangelist? Are you an evangelical? Again, I’m not asking about your political leanings or your theological perspectives. What I’m really asking is, are you a person who has good news to share? Do you like to share good news? Are you willing to share good news?
Of course you are. When you come across good news that you know will bring joy and happiness to those you love you become, by definition, an evangelist. The birth of a child, an engagement of marriage, a killer deal on a wireless plan, a movie that touched your soul, an honest mechanic, a to-die-for new Mexican restaurant. When you have good news, you love to share it with those you love and, in this sense, you are an evangelical.
Which then leads me to my next question. Are you evangelical about the best news? When it comes to the Gospel, a word which literally means “good news”, are you an evangelical? Are you eager, even willing, to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with those around you in the world who either have not heard it or have heard it but have not yet believed it?
Let me remind you, we have no better news to share than the news of the Gospel. The sovereign Creator of the universe has come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, his Son, and has, through his life, and death, and resurrection, forgiven our sin, conquered death, opened a way to eternal life, and has promised, in time, to make everything in the world that is wrong right again. And God has done all this for one simple reason, he loves us. Each of us. Unconditionally and more than we can ever begin to imagine. Anyone and everyone who trusts in Christ will find, in him, their deepest desires, hopes and longings fulfilled beyond our wildest dreams.
We may have lots of good news to share with others but I hope you agree that we have no good news that even comes close to being as good as this news. Amen?
Penn Jillette is the vocal half of the comedic illusionist duo Penn & Teller. He’s also an outspoken atheist. In a video blog he recently recounted the time one of his fans approached him after a show. This man was a Christian and simply wanted to present Penn with a copy of the Bible and a message of God’s love. Instead of being offended by the man’s gesture, Penn actually found himself deeply moved by the dignity and respect with which this man treated him. Though Penn by no means embraced the good news the man had to share, he did have this to say afterwards:
I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. If you believe these things [about God, about God’s love, about Jesus, about eternal life], and you think, “Well, it’s not really worth telling people this because it would make it socially awkward” – how much do you have to hate somebody not to proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?
Now, if an atheist can ask this question, shouldn’t we be asking it ourselves. If we really believe the Christian Gospel is true, how in the world can we keep it to ourselves? Do we bear a message of universal importance, or don’t we? Do we bear a message of eternal significance, or don’t we? Do we believe that everlasting and abundant life is freely offered to anyone and everyone who would receive it, or don’t we? If we do believe all this, and if we have any love or compassion for the people around us in this hurting word, how can we not, all of us, be, in the best sense of the word, evangelicals?
Of course, the question is how? Right? I hope most of us here agree that the news we have to share is so spectacularly good that it must be shared. Nevertheless, just as many of us may not be at all sure how this news should be shared. Part of the problem is that we have seen so many poor examples, even destructive examples, of Christian evangelism, and if evangelism is about knocking uninvited on doors, or preaching on the street corner, or forcing Jesus into conversations, or trying to win arguments about theology, or luring people into the church, or making friendships only for the purpose of converting people, if that’s what evangelism is then we’re not sure we want any part of evangelism.
If I accomplish nothing else in these three weeks I hope I can at least convince you that the evangelism to which Jesus calls us is nothing like any of this. In fact, I have very good news about how it is that Jesus wants to share the good news. To get at this good news about evangelism, we are going to spend three weeks in one passage of scripture. Luke 10:1-12, is the familiar account of the time Jesus sends out some of his followers to evangelize. I believe that it is here that we can learn what Jesus has in mind when he calls us to go and share good news with a world in desperate need of good news.
1After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.
2He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.
8“Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.” (Luke 10:1-12, NRSV)
Let me set the scene. At one point in his ministry Jesus gathered 70 of his followers, a number which probably included the 12 disciples, and sent them out into the countryside to all the neighboring towns and villages which he soon intended to visit. Jesus had a message for the people who lived in these places and he felt that many of them were ready to receive that message. So many, in fact, that Jesus compared their readiness to a great harvest, a harvest that was ripe for the picking.
As many of you know, this is a wonderful time of year to visit the NapaValley. It’s harvest time in the wine country. The grapes are almost ripe. In the coming weeks thousands and thousands of workers will head out into the vineyards to pick those grapes and bring them in to be crushed so that their sweet juice can be transformed into wine. Several years from now many of us will enjoy, literally, the fruit of their labor.
Of course, Jesus isn’t talking here about a harvest of grapes. He’s talking here about a harvest of souls. But the harvesting of souls, according to Jesus, is apparently a lot like the harvesting of grapes. As I reflected on what Jesus teaches here, I came across four ways that evangelism is a lot like harvesting crops.
First, at harvest time much of the work has already been done.
If you are a farmer, the harvest is the end of your crop season, not the beginning. A harvest, in other words, doesn’t just happen. The relatively short harvest season is preceded by a long season of plowing, and sowing, and tending, and pruning, and fertilizing, and weeding, and watering. The harvest is the end result of a great deal of work.
Jesus makes clear here that he is sending his disciples out into a harvest. He’s not sending them out to sow or plow or prune because all that work has been done. Jesus is sending us out into a field where a great deal of work has already been done, and not by us. God has already been out in the fields, at work in the lives of people long before we even show up, softening hearts, planting questions in minds, giving glimpses of himself, nudging towards heaven. And this fact alone ought to bring us great encouragement and humility when we think about evangelism. When Jesus sends you out into the world to bear good news, you are not responsible for making fruit ripe. You are only responsible for bringing ripe fruit back to the barn. When it comes to people finding salvation in Christ, God is the one who will do most of the work. That’s the first thing we learn.
Second, at harvest season when the fruit is ripe, time is of the essence.
Procrastinators do not make good farmers. When the crops are ripe the farmer cannot say to himself, “You know, I know it’s time for the harvest but I’m not really in a harvest mood. It can wait. Maybe I’ll get around to the harvest next week.” Farmers like this quickly lose the farm. Some crops, once they turn ripe, must literally be harvested within days or they will spoil right there on the vine. When the fruit is ripe, it’s time to harvest.
This is why Jesus speaks here with such urgency. For instance, he tells his followers to travel light and to not delay along the road. Time is of the essence.
Imagine I’m your doctor and I discover that the disease in your body you once thought was terminal has miraculously vanished. Would you want me keep that good news to myself until next week or next month? How about next year? Of course not! Good news is meant to be shared immediately, especially life-saving good news. I guarantee you that there are people in your circle of influence right now who God has made ready to receive the grace and love he is prepared to offer them. In hearing it and receiving it, everything in life will change for them. As many of you know personally, salvation in Christ is like stepping out of darkness and into light. Why would we make people wait for this? Jesus is clear, we must not. The harvest, after all, will not last forever. The harvest is now. Time is of the essence.
Third, at harvest time the work is too great for just a few. Many, many workers are required when it’s time to go and bring in the harvest.
It’s always a risk to mix metaphors but since Jesus did I’ll give it a shot. At another point in his teaching Jesus compared evangelism to fishing. In speaking to some fisherman who were about to become his disciples, Jesus said in Matthew 4:19, “Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people.” Now in those days, fishing was always a communal activity. In other words, Jesus is not painting an image here of the lone individual fly-fishing by the side of a mountain stream. No, this is the image of an entire village out fishing, often with two boats working in tandem and drag-netting fish in between them. When we go out, we are to go together.
Even here Jesus sends the disciples out two by two. He does this in part, I think, because it’s always easier to go out into new territory with friendly company. For many of us, sharing our faith with others is very new territory, which means that we will find it easier done together than alone. Mostly, however, I think Jesus sends us out together because the harvest is so great. At harvest time, no able farmhand sits back on the porch of the farmhouse while the others go out to work. All hands are needed. In the same way, there is no Christian in the church who is not needed when it comes to the proclamation of the Gospel to the whole world. You are called, along with me, to go.
Which brings me to the fourth and final way evangelism is a lot like a harvest of crops. At harvest time, the workers have to go out to the crops because the crops never come in to the workers.
There is a strategy for evangelism in the American church which has been popular for as long as I can remember. I call it the “Field of Dreams” strategy, after the movie of the same name where Kevin Costner plows under his Iowa cornfield and builds a baseball diamond because a mysterious voice tells him to “Build it and they will come.”
Many, many of us have been convinced that this is the best way to reach people with the good news of Jesus Christ. Build a wonderful church building and they will come. Build great programs, for youth, and singles, and families, and children and they will come. Build a captivating worship service with inspiring preaching and music and they will come. Build an innovative website and send out glossy promotional materials and they will come. Build a friendly community where people are immediately welcome when they step through the doors and they will come.
Can you agree with me that this is the way that many of us have come to think about evangelism? How can we get people to come to church so that we can share with them the good news we have to share? How do we make the barn as attractive and comfortable as possible so that the corn finds its way off the stalk and into the silo?
Do we want a beautiful building, and vibrant programs, and inspiring worship services, and inviting promotional materials, and a friendly, welcoming community? Of course we do. And will there be people who come because of those things? Yes, every week new people come into our church and others like it all across the city. And for the sake of Christ we better be ready to show them the very hospitality and grace that Christ himself shows them.
It’s true, some will come but many, maybe even most, will not come. Some will never come. And this is why Jesus says that we must go. Our calling is to go. Specifically, Jesus says that his disciples are to go “to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” Which begs the question, can you think of a place in this world where Jesus does not intend to go? Of course not. Jesus intends to go everywhere. This whole world belongs to him. Every person on this planet is of immeasurable value to him.
In the coming weeks we are going to talk very specifically and practically about the “how” and the “who” of our going and I think you are going to be pleasantly surprised at what Jesus teaches us. My guess is that Jesus’ methods of evangelism are very, very different from the methods most of us have witnessed and avoided.
But that’s for the next two weeks. Then we’ll talk about what Jesus wants us to do when we go. Today I simply want you to understand that Jesus calls us to go. You and I are called to go into our families and neighborhoods, into our schools and workplaces, wherever Christ leads us, to people who are ripe to hear the life-transforming message which Christ has given us to share.
I will go as far as to say that it is not our job to get people to come to this church. If and when they come, wonderful. We must bend over backwards to make a place for them, a place for them right alongside us in this family. But ultimately the harvest is not about people coming to Faith Presbyterian Church. The harvest is about people coming to Christ. This means that, “The best evangelists are not the attention getters, but the attention givers.” It is not our job to point people in our direction. It is our job to point people in the direction of Jesus.
One last thing.
It’s very interesting to me that Jesus tells his disciples here to “ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Now, it’s not surprising to me that Jesus tells us to pray. After all, how effective will we be as evangelists apart from prayer? If nothing else, prayer reminds us that the success of the harvest ultimately depends on the Lord of the harvest. The greatest work we have to do in the harvest is prayer.
What is surprising about Jesus’ command here is not that he tells us to pray but what it is he tell us to pray for. Most of my life I have assumed that prayers having to do with evangelism should be focused on those who need to be evangelized. Doesn’t Jesus want me to pray for my brother, my friend, my neighbor, my co-worker who does not yet know Christ? Shouldn’t I be praying for her heart to soften, for his eyes to be opened, for each of their lives to be changed?
I do still think that those are good things to pray for, but that’s not what Jesus here tells us to pray for. In fact, Jesus doesn’t tell us to pray for the harvest. He tells us to pray for workers who are willing to go into the harvest. In other words, from Jesus’ perspective it’s not the harvest that is lacking, but the workers which are few in number. Apparently, there are far more people out in the world who are ready to receive the good news of Jesus Christ than there are people in the church who are ready to go out and share it.
In speaking of what is most lacking when it comes to evangelism, the great evangelist and teacher Oswald Chambers once wrote, “The great dominant note is not the needs of men, but the commands of Jesus.” The harvest is ripe and plentiful; that’s not the issue. The workers are few; that is the issue. Are there enough workers willing to obey Jesus’ command to go?
There are people you already know in your life whom God is making ready to receive very, very good news. The best news! The question I want to leave you with today is whether or not you are willing to go and share it with them. If so, let’s come back next week and let Jesus teach us how. In the meantime, let’s pray for the very thing Jesus told us to pray for.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
When you hear the word “evangelism” what comes to mind? Positive or negative images?
What experiences, good or bad, have you had with evangelism?
Read Luke 10:1-12. What do you notice?
Jesus says the harvest is plentiful. Do you agree? Do you believe that there are many people out in the world today “ripe” to receive the Gospel? How about in the city of Sacramento?
Do you feel any sense of urgency when it comes to sharing the Gospel with others? Why or why not?
Jeff discouraged us from having a “build it and they will come” approach to sharing the Gospel. Do you agree?
Jesus does not tell us to pray for the harvest. He tells us to pray for workers to go into the harvest. What does this mean to you?
Do you believe that you personally have a call from God to go and share the good news of Christ with others? Why or why not?
 Great questions asked by Leonard Sweet in Nudge: Awakening Each Other to the God Who’s Already There, (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010) , p. 123.
 Sweet was helpful here, p. 127.
 Sweet, p. 50.
 Oswald Chambers has some brilliant words along these lines in the October 16th entry of his classic devotional My Utmost for His Highest. Read it at http://utmost.org/the-key-to-the-master%e2%80%99s-orders/