The subject for this morning is 'A Harvest for the Poor'. What I would like to do is to look very briefly at what the Bible says about providing for the poor, and then to consider some of the practical issues involved in responding to this.
The whole Bible has a great deal to say about the poor, and we can't even scratch the surface in one morning. We know that providing food for the poor was an important part of the life of the early Church - Acts 6:1-6 - and about a century later one Roman opponent of Christianity was horrified to note that these Christians not only fed their own poor, but "ours as well!"
This emphasis on caring for the poor was not an invention of the early Church. It was based firmly on two things: the teaching and example of Jesus, and on the consistent teaching of the Old Testament.
Much of Jesus' ministry can be seen as a consistent strategy of bringing to the poor the blessings that only the spiritual elite of His day were supposed to enjoy. As Jesus announced in Luke 4:18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor."
I would love to spend the whole morning on this point. Jesus came with a message of grace - a message for everyone, but a message that was particularly welcomed by and relevant to the poor. In fact, His message was uniquely aimed at people who either were poor, or who considered themselves to be poor. This is why in Luke's version of the Beatitudes it says "blessed are the poor", and in Matthew's version it says "blessed are the poor in spirit." Both are true.
God does not accept you because you are good, strong, handsome or clever. He does not accept you because you have resources or gifts to be used. He accepts you because He loves you, because Jesus has already paid the price for everything you have done, everything you will do wrong. You cannot earn or deserve God's favour, you can only receive it as a free gift. It is a message that offends the strong, capable, good, powerful people - they do not like to hear that everything they can do, all put together, is worth absolutely nothing. But it is a message that the poor respond to - they know they can offer nothing and deserve nothing, so they start with a real advantage when it comes to receiving grace.
This emphasis on the poor in Jesus ministry is a development of, but also a direct continuation of the consistent teaching and examples we find in the Old Testament. Remember how Ruth - Ruth 2:3 - goes out to glean in the field. She could gather food for herself and Naomi because Boaz was keeping the law given through Moses in Leviticus 19:9-10 and Deuteronomy 24:19-22.
[Read these two passages and comment briefly on them.]
So built into the farming system itself was a set of rules and principles that provided food for the poor, the alien, widows and orphans. People who could not care for themselves.
But God's provision goes far beyond this simple set of measures. You know all about the Sabbath mentioned in the Ten Commandments, but do you know of the other two Sabbaths in the Old Testament?
In Leviticus 25, we discover that as well as a Sabbath of days, there is to be a Sabbath of years. The people are to rest one day in seven, but the land itself is to rest one year in seven - there is to be no sewing seed, no systematic harvesting. For a whole year, everyone is to live as the poor, gathering what the land has produced without their planning, effort and intervention. Isn't that an astonishing way to ensure that everyone has a proper level of sympathy for the poor?
The equivalent today would be to say that you can only work in your job for six years out of seven. The seventh year, you have to queue in line with everyone else in the DSS, and struggle with the bureaucracy and idiotic paper work. The politicians and top civil servants would be forced to use the systems they have devised. Can you imagine what a difference this would make to the quality of service given to the poor?
And, even more astonishingly, there is also a Sabbath of Sabbath years - a super-Sabbath, called the 'Year of Jubilee' - when much (but not all) of the wealth in the land gets re-distributed fairly. The people who, years ago, had to sell the family farm to pay off their debts, get it given back to them. The slaves are set free. In other words, the workers are given the means of production - Karl Marx didn't invent anything: it is all there in Leviticus 25.
In a society following these rules, you could not have extremes of wealth and poverty such as we experience today. You could not have a poor underclass where people are disadvantaged from birth due to the laziness or stupidity of their ancestors, nor could you have rich people who don't need to work because of the strength and industry of their ancestors.
It is clear from these passages and many others that the God we worship, the God we serve, the God we follow - He cares for the poor. He does not just care in the sense of feeling sorry for them. He does not just tell us to be generous, remembering that we, too, were once slaves, once strangers in a foreign land.
He cares enough to build into the fabric of His society systems and rules that enable the poor to be fed and cared for in a humane way, systems that enable hard work to be rewarded while avoiding the evils that come from pure capitalism.
These are political issues, and I know that traditionally the evangelical church has avoided politics, but if we serve a God Who cares so deeply about these things, then somehow, as His people, we must get involved.
My own belief is that we must do this though membership of the existing political parties - I will explain why afterwards if you are interested. Let us swim against the tide of our culture. The major political parties are having problems with recruitment - think what a difference it would make if we joined and all expressed our desire to see Christian values expressed in the manifestos and policies of the various parties.
If that prospect does not work for you, let me turn it around. Look at the moral mess that each of the parties are in, in their own individual ways. I don't need to spell it out for you - you all know that much of political life stinks of hypocrisy and self-service. That is what happens when God's people refuse to act as salt and light in the world. Things will never be perfect, but they can be a great deal better than they are today if we will only get involved and speak out for what we believe in.
Before I get too carried away by this aspect of our response to God's word, let us try to put how we respond into context.
I would guess that some of you, like me, were taught the acronym 'J-O-Y' in Sunday School. It is a reminder of how you can experience joy by getting your priorities right: Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last. I have been a Christian around 30 years. I have lost count of the number of people Sue and I have talked with and counselled over the years, and I have to tell you this: it doesn't work.
If you consistently try to put Jesus first, others second and yourself last, you will not experience joy. You are guaranteed to experience misery, and if you work really hard at it, you will probably experience a nervous breakdown.
There is nothing wrong with putting Jesus first. In fact, Jesus can go first, second and third. Everything we do should be done as an act of worship to Jesus. Everything - whether it is building a car engine or washing the dishes, catching up on the filing at the office or going shopping, watching TV or making love, if it is not being done in a way that puts Jesus first, you have serious problems in your Christian life.
But if you consistently put your needs behind those of other people, you will fall to pieces. The needs of other people will swamp you. You won't have time to eat or sleep. Their griefs and frustrations and petty concerns will drive you insane.
The Bible does not tell us to put others first. It tells us to "seek first the kingdom of God." Yes, we are called to a sacrificial lifestyle. Jesus gave everything for us, and we are called to give everything in response to Him. Yes, that means sacrificial use of our time and money, but not sacrificial in a stupid way. It means sacrificial in a Spirit-filled, balanced way, like Jesus. In perfectly following His Father's will, there was time for rest and sustenance.
In following Jesus, we do have duties and obligations. I have a greater duty to care for my family than to address the problem of third world debt, a greater duty to bless the people in my church than to solve the problems of the NHS. This doesn't mean I spend no time on third world debt and the NHS - it is all a question of balance, of getting the priorities where God wants them to be.
Christians tend to fall into two groups: the lazy ones, and the frantic ones. The lazy ones look at the frantic ones, and think, "I don't want to be like that!" - and they rarely do anything that has even the potential for producing spiritual fruit.
The frantic ones tend to do all the jobs and sit on all the committees. They see - well, let's be honest - we see all kind of needs, and "If I don't do it, it's not going to get done" so we add job after job, responsibility after responsibility, until we at breaking point, and then we can feel justified in not taking on any more.
You're probably ahead of me on this point. Neither approach properly glorifies God. Remember the instructions in Leviticus. When you go to work, harvesting in a field, don't harvest right to the edges. There are some needs you simply have to ignore. Don't try to do everything. Leave some wasted bits of space in your life - don't commit yourself up to the limit. You may be surprised by the opportunities God sends your way if you only give Him room.
And in the work you do, if you miss something, you don't always have to go back for it. Sometimes, just let it lie there for someone else. Don't attempt to do a complete and perfect job - make room for other people to come along and fill in the bits you missed. You don't have to be perfect!
Many Christians struggle with this. We are quite happy to be saved by grace, to receive eternal life as a free gift bought for us by Jesus' death on the cross. But now we are saved, God deserves only the very best, and we beat ourselves up for not giving it.
But, just as God took me as I was, very very imperfect, and turned my into a child of God, so He takes the very imperfect service I offer Him, and uses it for His glory. He takes my imperfect prayers and responds to them. He takes my imperfect sermons and touches peoples' hearts through them. He takes my imperfect life, and, in some miraculous way, allows people to see something of Himself through it.
Grace is not just about the way we become Christians - it is the nature of the Christian life from that point onwards. You will never be good enough to deserve to be used by God, but He wants to work through you, to bless others through you anyway.
We worship and serve a God Who cares for the poor, and I firmly believe that He wants His people to be involved in all kinds of ways in caring for the poor, in helping the weak, feeding the hungry, reaching out and loving the loveless.
But He wants us to be doing these things as an expression of His love operating through grace. Instead of looking at the needs and allowing yourself to feel guilty about not meeting them, seek first the Kingdom of God, and get involved in doing the things that He has uniquely called you to be doing as your act of spiritual worship.