Summary: The Church is called by Christ to be ON a mission. There is one reason that underlies the entirety of the mission--the crowds. This message explores the reasons Jesus called the Church to be on a mission.
We began Mission: Possible last week with a serious look at the call for the church, in general, and disciples in particular to be ON a mission from God. It isn’t enough to see ourselves as being IN missions, but rather on a continuing mission. To be sure, being engaged in mission work is part of what we’re called to as the body of Christ in the world, but there is an overarching mission that encompasses all that we do. It might best be said that being engaged IN mission work is the living out of THE mission of the church. We explored the “call” to the mission that Christ extends to us, but underlying the call is the “cause”—the why of the mission. The “WHY” of the mission is the focus of this message.
There really is an easy answer to the question of “why” the church is on a mission—the crowds. Matthew tells us, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (v. 36—NIV).” “When he saw the crowds…” People are the reason for the mission. The “crowds” are the object of his ministry, and they are the motivating force of his mission. Jesus saw the crowds and was moved with compassion. When Jesus saw the crowds, he hurt in the pit of his stomach. The word Matthew uses to describe what Jesus felt literally means a gnawing in the stomach. He saw them (the NIV says) as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Sheep and shepherd is an image that goes deep into Israel’s history. It was King David who said, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” and it was Jesus himself, who in John’s Gospel said, “I am the Good shepherd; I know my sheep…” Even further back in Israel’s history, Joshua was the “shepherd” of God’s people in Numbers 27: 17 after Moses died, so that “the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” Yet, Jesus looked out over the crowds, and they were like sheep without that shepherd. They were, in a word, lost.
Let’s take a look at those people Jesus saw. They were the nation of Israel. Think about all that Jesus saw as he surveyed the national landscape of Israel. He saw the common, ordinary people who were beat up religiously. Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel to this point, has had a number of run-ins with the Pharisees. As near as a few verses back in chapter nine, Jesus has called Matthew, the tax collector, to be a disciple. Matthew invites Jesus to supper with a few of Matthew’s friends. The Pharisees see Jesus eating with the dregs of society (scum they’re called), and he simply responds, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.” The Jewish religious leaders, who should have been giving the “crowds” strength to live, were bewildering them with subtle arguments about the Law, which had no help and comfort in them. When they should have been helping the “crowds” to stand upright, they were bowing them down under the intolerable weight of the Scribal Law. They were offering the “crowds” a religion which was a handicap instead of a support. We must always remember that Christianity exists, not to discourage, but to encourage; not to weigh people down with burdens, but to lift them up with wings. The people were broken religiously. Jesus saw it, even if the people didn’t.
I’ll also mention, but only briefly, that the “crowds” were under political oppression, too. The Romans occupied Israel, and the call of Matthew (who was an agent of the Roman government) is meant to give hope that Christ can even overcome that oppression. Also, images from Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount give evidence of this oppression. That “turning the other cheek,” and “going the extra mile” are images that involved conscripted service to the Roman solider. Pilate’s presence as governor in Jerusalem was a daily reminder to the people that they were under the hand of a government who thought none too kindly toward them. They were broken politically, and they knew it, even if they didn’t know what they could do about it.
Not only were the “crowds” broken religiously and politically, but they were broken personally. See, the crowds came to Jesus, not for religious or political reasons, but for personal reasons. They came for the healing of their diseases and the casting out of demons. Jesus has been busy in Matthew’s Gospel raising the dead and calming stormy seas. The “crowds” came for miracles in their own lives because death, disease and demons were real to them. The evil they faced was not only religious and political…or even primarily religious or political…but, it was personal.