Thursday, December 3, 2009

We're on a mission from God, really!

When people think of missions from a worldly perspective, often their thoughts leap to one or two of a dozen assumptions, most often based on ideas they have seen in the media, ranging in scope from soup kitchens in a local community to feeding starving children in Africa right out to blazing a trail through dense jungle to find and convert uncivilized tribes of people to Christianity. Often the media, especially television, paints a picture of Christian missionaries in a negatively humourous light, the exception being the wonderful Christian television stations and production companies who devote their lives to bring rich, truthful programming to the airwaves. In truth, what is often lacking in the world’s understanding of missions is the reason why missions are so widespread. What is it that makes mission a way of life for some people? What is at the root? Why, the root of mission is God himself. Yes, he is love. Yes, he is peace. However, as a result, he is also justice, and in pursuit of justice do the missionaries venture forth.

In the days of the Garden of Eden, when Adam and his wife served God and were in right relationship with him, God set before them a twofold task: to be fruitful and increase in number, and then to fill and subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28, NIV). God had created a world for them to live in that was in God’s eyes “very good” (Genesis 1:31, NIV), and as such set it before them to be stewards of creation, caring for it, nurturing it, and subsequently each other. Even in paradise, God had work for humanity to do. The aspect of God’s character that is prevalent here is his goodness. He is not wasteful, nor careless, but is committed to caring for his created things, including people, all people, everywhere. He does this through his creation, which was provided for his people, and through his people, which were provided one for the other.

As the story of creation unfolds, we find we cannot remain there, but must move inevitably to the scene of the Fall of Man, where Adam sins against God by disobediently eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 3:6, NIV) and then compounds the sin by blaming it all on Eve. In expelling Man’s forbears from the Garden (Genesis 3:22-24), God shows yet another aspect of himself, and this forms a beginning of a more outward-focused basis for missions throughout history: mercy. Though some of a fleshlier bent might say that an angry God was cruel and vindictive in casting the original sinners from the Garden, the Christ-follower must conclude unequivocally that it was mercy and love guiding his decision, because although humans were created to live forever, it was to be forever in perfection. Living eternally under the influence and effect of sin would have been too much for the frail human, and an abomination before God. An abomination to God is not just something that displeases him because he is stubborn childlike in wanting things to unfold his way, but quite the contrary. It is something that displeases him by doing some kind of harm, physical, emotional or spiritual, to something that he loves.

After the destruction of the first peoples of the earth by the Great Flood in Genesis 6, (also an act of mercy, which shall not be elaborated upon in this text) God allows humankind to grow over a significantly long time, then scatters them in Genesis 11 when they begin once again to become prideful, and attempt to build a tower that reached the heavens. God illustrates his commitment to protect his people, even from themselves, by confusing their speech.[1] It is from here that the saving work of God in mission really begins to show itself. In Chapter 12, God appoints Abram, of the line of Noah, to go forth and become a great nation (Genesis 12:2, NIV). Imagine the faith it took to leave family and familiar surroundings, and waltz into a land to which he had never before travelled, all at the call of God, and based on a promise at that! This is the call of missionaries today, to step out in faith based on the call and promise of God.

Through many trials comes Abram, then, even one that calls upon him to kill his beloved son, Isaac, and he demonstrates the heart for God’s mission. He proves he has what it takes to be on mission for God, and God uses him, giving him the new name Abraham, which means, “father of many,” in Hebrew (Genesis 17:5). Further, God fulfills the covenant he made with Abram by making a great nation, Israel, out of his descendants, thus demonstrating another of his traits: faithfulness.

Fast-forward to a time almost 5 hundred years later, and consider the call of Moses, an Israelite by birth who was saved from death as an infant by a Pharaoh's daughter, and who by “chance” got to be a prince of the mighty nation of Egypt (Exodus 1). Nonetheless he finds his heart turning towards his own people and leaves Egypt after killing someone for beating a Hebrew (Exodus 2:12). The call to mission here comes many years later when Moses is established as a shepherd in Midian, east of the Red Sea. God comes to him in the form of a burning bush, and calls upon Moses to go back to Egypt and lead them out of slavery (Exodus 3:10-12), promising to be with him the whole way. Moses begins to protest, not thinking he is capable, but God does not call the qualified; he qualifies the called.[2] This is the call of missionaries today, to go and lead God’s people out of slavery, and to know that he is with them as they attend to his work.

God’s mission is simply this: to gather all of his children back into his family, to soothe their hurts and dry their tears and bring them home to their rightful place in the Kingdom of Heaven. Every last one. His desire is to reconcile them to him, removing all their sin and its destructive effects, redeeming his children and inviting them to be a part of a larger story than the one into which they were born, and finally giving the redeemed eternal life, a return to the perfection of creation when he makes all things new. To do this, God has been calling upon people of faith who trust in him to go out and be the instruments of his plan.

All through the Old Testament, there are examples of mission activity initiated by God. Prophet after prophet and missionary after missionary are sent out to help, feed, clothe, protect, admonish, discipline and teach the needy and oppressed children of Israel. Consider Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, who began his career as a young man who didn’t know how to proclaim the Word of God, yet God gave him the words and Jeremiah trusted in him. Throughout the book, God’s punishment upon Israel is laid out and all seems grim, yet there is redemption to be had: “’Do not fear, O Jacob, my servant, for I am with you,’ declares the Lord. ‘Though I completely destroy all the nations among which I scatter you, I will not completely destroy you. I will discipline you, but only with justice; I will not let you go totally unpunished’” (Jeremiah 46:28, NIV). Even in the midst of Israel’s rebellion, God is ever faithful as a father, disciplining but not destroying, ever mindful of justice. Teaching Israel justice must have been a painful process for God, who loves with a love beyond human understanding. Good fathers discipline their children, even when it means that the children must be made quite uncomfortable in the process. Learning, after all, is hard. As hard on Israel as the process was, it certainly was harder on their father in heaven.

The prophet Amos brings a message of justice as well. Amos was a simple shepherd with no known ministry credentials. He only had a word from God, yet out he went to represent God to his people as an agent for the poor. As Israel’s people become increasingly religious in their recaptured prosperity, God uses Amos to steer them straight into the face of ever-present social injustice and urges them to adopt true and pure righteousness as their way of life, instead of the imagined righteousness of ritual and doctrine. God says: "I can't stand your religious meetings. I'm fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I'm sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I've had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That's what I want. That's all I want” (Amos 5:21-24, The Message). God expects justice for all, not just the wealthy, those who are seemingly more blessed than the poorer members of society, seemingly more righteous than their pagan neighbours. All. All through the history of the Jewish people, God’s underlying theme has been: “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Leviticus 26:12, NIV).

In the New Testament, God sees that the human race needs to be lovingly brought back into his grace from four hundred years of his silence. He knows the only way to do this is to come to Earth himself, in the flesh as one of his children, in order that humanity could relate to him, could identify with him, and could see that God absolutely understands the depth of human hurt. God understands that the Law he gave to his people, in order that they might be holy, must of necessity be fulfilled. Not one of the Israelites is capable, and God knows that he must save them or let them plummet into hell. God’s compassion for his people is summed up in the life of one man. Enter the Christ: Jesus of Nazareth.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1, NIV). “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14, NIV). God’s theme continues even hundreds of years later. The Messiah has come! But early in his ministry, Jesus demonstrates that he is here for a very radical reason. He has not come to bring in God’s Kingdom by force. He has not come to destroy Israel’s enemies. He has not come to reward the ‘righteous.’ He has come to save the world. But how? Jesus exhibited another of God’s traits that sometimes baffles the self-righteous: compassion. The word “compassion” comes from two Latin words, pati, and cum, meaning essentially to “suffer with.” God saw that his people were suffering, and knew he had to take action. He came among us, to suffer with us, because of his eternal love for us. It is important for us also to understand, in our limited capacity, what the word “eternal” means. Dr. Pat Morley, founder of Man in the Mirror Ministries, said at a recent Promise Keepers conference:

Let’s look at what ‘forever’ really means. Let’s pretend there’s a one hundred foot by one hundred foot by one hundred foot block of granite. Now pretend that once every ten thousand years, a small bird comes along and sharpens its beak on this rock. Now, the amount of time it would take for this cycle to repeat enough times to wear the granite block down to dust, is but the very first blink of eternity’s eye...[3]

All people, not just law-keeping Jews, were targets for Jesus’ love and sense of mercy. The compassion of Christ is evident in the story of the man with leprosy (Mark 1:40-45, NIV), when Jesus steps outside the societal norm to touch a man who had not felt the touch of another human in a long time. Jesus, tired from a long day of healing and journeying, on the same day as he received the news that John the Baptist, his cousin and forerunner, has been beheaded by King Herod, still has compassion upon a large group of people he sees as “sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34, NIV). Everywhere he went, his compassion touched lives. When he healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:30-31, NIV); when he saved the adulteress from stoning (John 8:1-11); when he wept at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:32-36), not because Lazarus was dead, of course, but because of the profound pain of Mary and Martha, Jesus demonstrates time and again that God’s compassion knows no limit. When he tells us to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39, NIV), it is because God himself loves us, his children, so much as this.

The ultimate compassion is shown, though, when Jesus is condemned to death upon a cross and as the nails are going into his hands and feet, he cries out to God: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34, NIV). Can anyone love us so much as to pray for us while we are torturing and killing him? God’s own compassion for us is eternal. It meant that he would have to die on a cross to rescue the world from sin and death.

It also means that we, his people, are called to carry out Jesus’ mission in his absence until the day of his return. Following his resurrection, the apostles were sent out to proclaim the good news of the gospel. They obeyed. Paul, particularly, is one such example. Here is a man who was a highly motivated persecutor of the early church, a Jew who was so offended by the beliefs of Jesus’ followers that he took it upon himself to torture and kill them wherever and whenever he could. Then came the fateful day on the road to Damascus, when he was met by the risen Christ in all his glory. Ever after, his life was changed. He dedicated his life to the service of Christ and to preach the gospel far and wide among the Gentiles, people who were not Jews, and according to the Jewish leaders, not eligible recipients of God’s blessings. His journeys took him to a great many places and he was tortured, imprisoned, and eventually executed for his faith, but his work drew a great many people to Christ and planted many, many churches along the way.

Drawing people to Christ is how God’s compassion plays out to save the world. Drawing them to believe in Jesus is how God reaches out to the lost, the broken and the rebellious. It is not religious proselytizing or persecution in Jesus’ name, but simply God using his people in his son’s stead to reach out to the orphan, the widow, the needy, the leper, the images of Christ himself, for as Jesus said, The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:40, NIV). This means that simple belief is not enough. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27, NIV).

In his book, Fields of the Fatherless: Discover the Joy of Compassionate Living, Tom Davis, President of Children’s Hope Chest charities, says,

It’s obvious that one of the reasons God calls His people to reach out to the defenseless is because they are the most needy. Without our help, they will die early deaths, they will be swept into lives of poverty, they will make bad decisions and end up in jail. The love of God’s people can help them not end up as statistics. We can show them they have a chance to make it in life. We can be a turning point for them by making an effort to express the Father’s love in simple ways that make eternal differences. (2008, p.122)

Tom Davis spends much of his time travelling to places like Russia and Africa in order to rescue children from poverty, prostitution and the widespread epidemic of AIDS. He says that if only 7% of all Christians would sponsor or adopt a child, there wouldn’t be any more hungry children. What this means on an even more practical level is that if children aren’t hungry, they are less likely to be enticed with promises of food and shelter, and even love, that enticed the more than ten million children that have been sold into the sex trade as slaves. What this also means is that if God’s people feed starving widows and orphans, “the least of these brothers of mine,” then they are in turn making disciples in accordance with the Great Commission. Not only disciples made from the widows and orphans, but from the world at large, who will bear witness to God’s work through his people.

Again, God’s people are called to fight against abomination, which is anything that brings harm to God’s children, which are every single man, woman and child on the planet. The trick is that we are fighting on several fronts. Poverty, disease, the ever more lucrative sex trade and the insanity of homelessness and abandoned children are a few of the most visible ones, but there are scores of others. Are not greed, the various lusts, self-righteousness, and the other hallmarks of today’s standards of success, in fact, reasons for mission as well? Phil Wagler, Lead Pastor of Kingsfield, a growing community of believers in Huron County, Ontario, says,

God loved the world. The entire motivation for God’s invasion of enemy territory[4] was love of a fallen, sin-scarred, warring, broken, indifferent, idolatrous, messy world. It was while we were yet his enemies that the Father sent the Son to reconcile us to himself and restore peace (Romans 5:1-8). The goal of this divine invasion was the movement of people, God’s precious possession, from a life that is perishing into a life that is eternal. In sending the Christ, God essentially came to rescue his enemies from the losing side. This eternal life is not some “other side of the grave” escapism. Rather, it is a here and now and forevermore assurances of a kingdom come on earth as it is and will be in heaven. (2009, p.21)

Mr. Wagler is a man whose feet are firmly planted in the truth of Scripture and whose heart is devoted to seeing all of God’s people out on mission together, fighting the Lord’s battle, winning the hearts of the needy as well as the greedy over to the one who was sent among us to minister to the needs of all and bring all of the prodigal children back into the passionate embrace of their loving Father.

No one ever said this would be an easy task. Cross-cultural missionaries face a more daunting task than ever before. Hostile governments and radically violent and militant religious groups threaten Jesus mission at every turn. Countless missionaries are tortured and executed. Churches in a host of foreign countries are persecuted just for belief in and surrender to the will of God. The apostle Peter says,

Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.’ But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:13-17).

What Peter meant is that God’s people are to set an example of grace, mercy, goodness, kindness and respect for others to see the effect of having Christ as the centre of their lives. In order for these traits to be worth anything, they have to hold up under harsh conditions, like persecution. Remember that compassion means to “suffer with.” As God’s children suffer with the poor and needy, the widows and orphans, the homeless and the diseased, the power-hungry and the sexually immoral, the rich and the prideful, so it is that they suffer along with Christ; not a bad place to start, for it is God from whom all blessings flow. Missions are the blessing from God to those who are in need of blessing.

Therefore it is our God, the Alpha and the Omega, the Trinity, maker of the entire universe, who is the true basis for missions, both local and abroad. Where there is hopelessness, he brings hope, in the form of Christians reaching out. Where there is pain, God sends Christians to soothe it. Where there is sin, God sends Christians to fight it. Wherever God’s people need him, he is there, in the form of us. We are all God’s people. May we hearken to his call.

[1] The confusion of speech and diversity of the many languages throughout the Earth is symbolic that the curse continues to affect us today as new languages continue to be generated, even fictional ones like Klingon and Elvish!

[2] This is a common saying in Christianity nowadays, and not originally my idea, though I am unsure of its origins. It is, however, very appropriate to the context of world missions.

[3] I attended this conference, which was entitled, “Forever,” on Nov. 13 and 14, 2009, at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, Ontario.

[4] This is C.S. Lewis’ interpretation of the incarnation in his book Mere Christianity.

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