Not a Big Enough Job
Text: Isaiah 49:1-6
The classis church planning and development committee sat around a table, notebooks and papers before them. Five pastors and a layperson had worked together on a new vision statement for the classis. In just six words, the two-prong mission of the classis was made crystal clear: “Growing healthy churches, planting new congregations.” Further, they agreed, “Our goal is a classis of healthy churches that plant new congregations. Our health will be demonstrated by each church being either a church parent or a church growth partner.” The connection with the wider church was also made: “Following Christ in mission, in a lost and broken world so loved by God” (RCA Mission Statement).
This is an actual example of a group of church leaders discovering and applying to their constituency the double mission of the church of the twenty-first century: to be revitalized by the Spirit of God, and then to embrace Christ’s mission in the world beyond the church as we know it, locally and globally.
Many centuries ago the prophet Isaiah, moved the Spirit of God, discovered the same double mission. Struggling with his own sense of failure in being able to effect the kind of change needed to restore Israel, Isaiah seeks God’s help. And God responds by widening Isaiah’s circle of influence and broadening the scope of his mission:
And now the Lord says–
“He who formed me in the womb to be his servant
To bring Jacob back to him
And gather Israel to himself…
It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
To restore the tribes of Jacob
And bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
That you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (49:6)
The reward, it would seem, for the prophet’s faithful, if not fruitful labors in seeking to “bring Israel back” to God is to give him an even more impossible mission: “bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
Churches are struggling today with changes in worship style and even content. They are often dealing with conflict between staff members, between staff and board members, between members, and among groups within the congregations. They also struggle with abuse: churches abusing pastors, pastors abusing churches, and churches abusing other churches. It goes on and on. Almost every day we see in the papers or hear on the news something about the church, and it usually isn’t good. We are striving earnestly for healthier churches, churches imbued with the Spirit of God, passionate about their love for the Lord and his people…and even beyond that about people who have not yet personally experienced the transforming power of God in their life. Church leaders today seek a restoration of the church similar to the restoration that was the prophet Isaiah’s heart’s desire: “to bring Jacob (the church) back to him and gather Israel (the new Israel – the church) to himself.”
Listen to Eugene Peterson’s translation of this same passage:
And now, God says…”But that’s not a big enough job for my servant–just to recover the tribes of Jacob,
Merely to round up the strays of Israel.
I’m setting you up as a light for the nations
So that my salvation becomes global.”
This was a humungous shift in Israel’s conception of their faith and their future.
It is too small a thing that we should just be healthy. Our churches need to be not only healthy but fruitful. The mark of health is fruitfulness. And in the eyes of God, the fruit, the harvest, is people who at this point are unaware of his love for them. The way God has chosen to communicate the depth of his love for them is through the church. In this way our society is similar to that of the first century: each is characterized by unbelief or disbelief, and its members are in a position to hear and respond to the good news.
All this is taking place at a time when the church seems preoccupied with its own “issues.” We keep saying we’ve got to get healthy first, and then we will tackle outreach, mission projects, the community needs around us. But will we ever get there? I know of churches that for decades have missed their calling because they’re preoccupied with their own self-interest. Actually, the way to health is through mission! In being driven by mission we will find ourselves getting healthier.
That is exactly why the classis committee mentioned earlier is working on a mission and vision statement: it will serve as a constant reminder that the people of God exist in order to be “a light to the nations.” In today’s world–our multicultural, multi-ethnic, multinational, patchwork quilt society–global mission can take place within our own zip code.
How are we responding to that call of God?
Isaiah, and Israel as a whole for that matter, had plenty to do “in-house.” Corruption, syncretism, and idolatry all took their toll on the moral and spiritual fiber of the country. Leaders were rare. Clean leaders even more so. Yet in the middle of that mess God’s vision was calling them to a challenge that was incomprehensible. That’s the way it always is with God. If we’re busy doing something we can fix, mend or improve upon, then it’s “our thing.” But if we are actually able to risk and hopefully achieve something far beyond all that we can ask or think, then it’s clearly a “God thing.”
Further along, as recounted in chapter fifty, Isaiah illustrates the new vision and mission for the people of Israel, just in case they’re having a hard time visualizing its global scope:
Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree”…And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant–these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer (vv. 3, 6-7a).
Who are the people whom our church may be excluding but whom God is including? What do the eyes of God see in our community that we do not see? How can we behold the face of Christ in every face? What does God expect us to do that hasn’t even been on our radar screen, personally and as a church?
We may say honestly, “I just can’t see it.” But God does see it. And he can and will make it happen, in our church, in our community; through us, and through our church. It’s in the book!
- Look at your church bulletin in light of the double mission of Israel. Does your bulletin reflect a balance of church health and mission?
- Where in your life together is God calling your congregation to focus on mission beyond your own church “issues”–on mission that addresses the needs in your sphere of influence?
- In what ways are you and your church carrying out God’s purpose for communicating his grace and love to those in your community who are not involved in the life a faith community?
- In what new way can you and your church reach out to those in your own zip code to sincerely welcome people different from yourselves?