Doors of Growth

Original Date: 
Sunday, October 14, 2012

Isaiah 54:1-3; Mark 4:30-32 Open Doors: Doors of Growth

The “Deathless” Sermon
William Carey was a shoe cobbler in England in the late 18th Century. He was born into a poor family and had few opportunities for education. But he was brilliant, and he loved Jesus. So through a lot of self-education he became minister of a Baptist Church in Leicester.

This was a period of time when British imperialism was going full steam, particularly in India. As Carey studied his Bible and also studied the world, he had a great burden for those in India who did not know Jesus.

At the time, the Christian church in Europe had no formal missionary movement. Pastors would sometimes travel with the merchants or army, but their purpose was primarily to minister to the Europeans, not the people of foreign lands. Carey felt someone should go to India for the explicit purpose of sharing Jesus with the Indians.

So Carey went to a Baptist Association meeting—a gathering of pastors—and proposed the idea for discussion. Instead of the other pastors agreeing with him, though, he was told by an older colleague: “Sit down, young man! When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your help or mine!”

You see, the Christians in England at the time were under the influence of something known today as “hyper-Calvinism.” They believed that God alone is sovereign in salvation. That only God can decide who belongs to Jesus and who doesn’t. This is a conviction I agree with. But they took this belief to such a logical extreme that they decided that God had no use for them in sharing the message of salvation. God alone can save, and so if there were people on the other side of the globe who didn’t know Jesus that was too bad, but it was something God would have to take care of Himself. They didn’t see how it affected them.

Carey disagreed. He agreed that God was sovereign over salvation; but as he read his Bible he was convinced that one of the primary ways—THE primary way—God intends to bring salvation to the lost is through those who already believe. Carey saw it as a sacred duty of the church to be doing all it could to preach the good news to all who had not heard it.

So he waited, until one day he was asked to preach the sermon at a meeting of the Northamptonshire Baptist Association in May, 1792. It has become one of the most famous, important and influential sermons ever preached in English. It’s known as the “Deathless” Sermon (I’m not quite sure why) and was based on Isaiah 54:2.

Here’s the text:

2 “Enlarge the place of your tent,
stretch your tent curtains wide,
do not hold back;
lengthen your cords,
strengthen your stakes.

Carey argued that God was about to do a great work and wanted His people to be ready. He saw the command to expand the tents and lengthen the guide ropes as a call to get busy inviting new people into the kingdom. He argued that God wanted to enlarge His people, throwing the doors open, if you will, bringing them in from all corners of the globe.

Carey closed his sermon with a battlecry. He said: “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.” It is precisely because God is a great God, and in control of every aspect of salvation, that Christians should be emboldened to go out and share His good news freely. Carey said our faith in God’s power should give us confidence to do precisely what the Bible commissions us to do.

Carey didn’t win over all his colleagues, but he won over enough. A missionary society was formed and in January 1793 Carey set sail for India as the first overseas missionary of the modern era. Over the next forty years, he translated the Bible into forty different dialects, successfully campaigned for the abolition of the Hindu custom of burning widows, and saw many converts for Christ. Today there are 60 million Indian Christians, a wonderful testimony to the work of this great man.

More than that, William Carey is known today as the father of the modern missionary movement. The battlecry for missions, as well as the example he set, led to the formation of many more missionary societies and an understanding of the importance of being available to serve God.

I tell you that story for a couple of reasons. One is because Isaiah 54 is the passage I’ve chosen as my text today. And the other is because Carey’s famous slogan is going to be our main point and outline for this morning.

Expect Great Things
So, first, let’s consider the idea that we should expect great things from God. Biblically, we need to understand that God has great plans for expanding His kingdom.

The text, as I said, is Isaiah 54. We’ll look at verses 1-3:

“Sing, O barren woman,
you who never bore a child;
burst into song, shout for joy,
you who were never in labor;
because more are the children of the desolate woman
than of her who has a husband,”
says the LORD.
2 “Enlarge the place of your tent,
stretch your tent curtains wide,
do not hold back;
lengthen your cords,
strengthen your stakes.
3 For you will spread out to the right and to the left;
your descendants will dispossess nations
and settle in their desolate cities.

Here’s the context: the second half of Isaiah, from about chapter 40 on, is addressed to Israel in exile. The Babylonians have come and smashed Jerusalem, the temple has been destroyed, and the leading citizens have been carried off into captivity.

The dominant metaphor in chapter 54 then, is of a wife who has been sent away by her husband. In verse 5, God calls himself Israel’s husband. The exile, then, is like a separation. God became “angry” and “abandoned” His wife; but He hasn’t given up on the marriage. He’s going to “bring [her] back” and “have compassion on [her].” (vss 5-8).

But in exile, Israel is like a barren woman. The image of the “barren” or “desolate” woman is a sad one. The Bible often uses childlessness as a way of conveying helplessness and hopelessness. In that culture for a woman to be childless was about the same as being cursed. Without children a woman had few prospects for the future. In exile, that was Israel’s plight. It looked like the nation had no future.

This passage is not one of despair, however, but of hope. The message is that the barren woman will have children. Lots of children.

In fact, God’s instructions in verse 2 are to start building a bigger tent. Stretch out the curtains and strengthen the tent pegs. Get some extra canvass, add on some square footage, because it’s going to take a much bigger home to house all these kids.

In other words, God has big plans for Israel yet. Plans for growth. Plans for influence.

In the book of Galatians, the Apostle Paul quotes from this passage and applies it to the church. (Gal. 4:27) One way this prophecy is fulfilled is in the huge number of spiritual children—Gentiles--who have come to God through Jesus.

The point is that God has plans to do great things for His people. Even though they are small and weak at the moment, His intention is for them to multiply and prosper.

Just this week there was rather big news about a new religious study released by the Pew Forum. For the first time in American history, this survey said, Protestant Christians are not in the majority. There are also more people than ever before who identify themselves as non-religious. Thirty-three million Americans—that’s 1 out of every 5—chose “none” when asked for their religious affiliation.

Like I said, it was kind of big news. I caught it in the Des Moines register, and saw something on CNN as well as several internet outlets. Apparently there’s a lot less stigma to being non-religious than in the past. People just don’t feel the need to go to church. The article implied that Christianity is dying.

I couldn’t help but notice the parallels to Isaiah 54. In some ways, it feels like the plight of the American church is similar to Israel in exile. Our situation is nowhere near as dire, and yet, it feels like Christianity is losing influence. It feels like the church is becoming irrelevant. Pastors don’t get near the respect they used to (which I take kind of personally). It’s easy to feel kind of barren.

And yet, there’s God, telling us to lengthen the tent cords and strengthen the stakes. God says you’re gonna need a bigger house. God is still sovereign, and He still has big plans.

The Tiny Seed
Or, again, let me take you to another passage. This one in the New Testament. Mark 4:30-32. This is Jesus talking:

30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.”

You see the parallels, I hope. The kingdom of God starts small. Just a tiny mustard seed. It’s not the smallest seed in creation, but of the plants that were regularly grown in the gardens of that day, it was the smallest seed. Barely a speck on a man’s fingertip. But put it in the ground and it becomes the largest of all garden plants.

The good gardener knew that if you were going to grow mustard, you needed to plant it on the edge of your plot because it would grow up into a big, leafy bush with tiny yellow flowers. Big enough, even, that birds could come and perch in its shade.

And the point, again, is that God has great plans for His people to grow. Even though at the time the kingdom consisted of Jesus and a ragtag band of followers, Jesus was predicting that it would grow and multiply in a way that was entirely disproportionate to its modest beginnings.

You see what these passages are getting at: God’s plans are for His kingdom to multiply and grow until it covers every corner of the earth (i.e Hab. 2:14). He means for His kingdom to be expanding. Regardless of the relative strength of Christianity at any particular time. As Jesus says elsewhere, the gates of Hell are not going to prevail against it. (Matt. 16:18)

The question is: are you an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to the future of Christianity? Just before his first London crusade, Billy Graham was asked by a newspaper reporter, "Are you an optimist or a pessimist?" Billy said without hesitation, "I’m an optimist! I know God and I have read the end of the Bible and it assures me that we who are in Christ have the victory."

God tells the barren woman to expand her tent. Jesus says that the tiny mustard seed will become a giant plant. Expect great things.

Attempt Great Things
Now, let’s take the second half of Carey’s battlecry. If we expect great things from God, he said, then we should be willing to attempt great things for God. It should be our conviction about God’s power and strength—combined with an understanding of what the Bible calls us to do—that should lead us to dream big dreams and mount big efforts for the sake of the kingdom.

This is why we’ve been doing long-range planning as a leadership team. Our goal is not to force God’s hand, but rather to be prepared for what He has already said in His Word that He wants to do. We know He wants His kingdom to expand, we know He wants more people to come to faith in Him, we know He wants to reverse the trend of Christianity’s decline—and we want to be a part of what He is doing. In our little corner of His Kingdom—what we call Hope Church in Spencer, Ia—we want to join Him in growing the number of people who believe in Him.

So let me take you back to the vision statement that lies at the heart of our capital campaign. We’re in the midst of a $1.2 million campaign that we believe will “open doors for Jesus in Spencer, NW Iowa, and around the world.”

Last week I talked about the Spencer portion of that vision, how each of us needs to be a missionary right where we are. Next week I’ll talk about the around the world part. But today I want to say a little bit about the Northwest Iowa part. Our regional vision.

In some ways, this is the least specific part of this vision. But in a lot of ways, it is the part I’m most excited about.

Essentially, what we are saying is that we believe God wants to expand His kingdom in our region. And we believe we have a role to play in that.

And so, in our vision we talk about partnering with other regional ministries. We believe that we are a church that has resources and knowledge to share with other churches and outreaches here in Northwest Iowa.

So, for example, Cherish Center is a ministry up in the lakes that works with young people. Their primary ministry is a maternity home for crisis pregnancies, but they serve the community in a number of other ways. One is the “No Apologies” abstinence rally that draws about 1000 kids every year. For the past 3 or 4 years, our youth pastor, Jay Van Gelder, has taken a leadership role in organizing and planning that event. Jay gets to be a part of a team of youth pastors that talks about how to connect with kids and share Jesus in an effective way. Jay is building relationships with other youth groups and finding ways to partner together for the sake of the kingdom.

Or, another example. Crossroads Church in Estherville is a church that many in this congregation helped to start about 10 years ago. Over the years we’ve helped them remodel their building, shared library materials, and worked with them on their Vacation Bible School. Right now, they’re between pastors and I have the opportunity to coach them as they make plans for their next step as a church.

These are the kinds of things we have in mind when we talk about partnerships. Being available to resource and help other churches and ministries expand the kingdom in our area. It means participating in the work of our denomination, supporting the camp at Inspiration Hills, and partnering with ministries like “The Bridge” in Storm Lake and “The Center of Hope” in Sioux Falls. (And yes, I know Sioux Falls isn’t technically in Northwest Iowa, but it seems to still fit within the concept of our “region.”)

Then, the other part of our vision for this region is to parent at least one new congregation in the next five years.

Being part of God’s multiplying work means helping to form new congregations. The great missiologist C. Peter Wagner has said “Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.”

True kingdom growth takes place in relation to strong local congregations. New congregations give people an opportunity to get in on the “groundfloor” of something God is doing. They provide the framework of ongoing discipleship and accountability that new Christians need.

The communities in our region are seeing some radical changes. Our small towns have fewer and fewer long term residents, and yet most of our established churches have little ability to connect to new people. There aren’t a whole lot of people looking to start new congregations in small towns. I’m hoping we can be part of changing that.

This congregation is here in part because the First Reformed Church of Everly—a church that no longer exists but whose legacy we carry--helped support it when it began. Hope Church also received help from other churches in the denomination—churches in Sheldon and Orange City and so on.

In more recent years, Hope Church has participated in the planting of a couple of new churches. I mentioned Crossroads in Estherville. And before that this congregation was a part of the birth of Good News up in the Lakes. In the next five years, hopefully we can be a part of parenting at least one new church.

Now, I’ll be honest, this is the part where we don’t have a lot of specifics. We don’t know what town we should be starting a church in, we don’t know if this is something we’ll do in partnership with the denomination or on our own, we don’t even know how we’ll go about starting a new church. But, just as we saw last week when we talked about sharing our faith with our friends, we know that if we aren’t looking for the opportunities, they’ll never come. And so, as a leadership board, we wanted to state our intention.

The point is: we believe God has great plans for His kingdom in this area, and we believe that we need to be ready to attempt great things to be a part of it.

Are You Ready to Do Your Part?
So, essentially, this sermon is asking you two questions: What do you believe God is capable of? And do you want to be a part of it?

As you read your Bible and get a sense for what God means to do in building His kingdom, just how big do you think He intends to grow the mustard plant? How big a tent do you think He means to have? Do you see His intention to draw people to Himself? Do you see His plans to multiply His kingdom?

And if so, do you want to be a part of it? Because you know that God will accomplish all that He wants, are you ready to invest yourself in something that cannot fail?

You know, if you were to ask me what my goal is for this campaign, I’d say it is this: I want to see as many of us as possible take a step of faith to join God in what He is doing.

The amount of money pledged is important, to be sure. I’d love to see us reach our goal of $1.2 million or even more. But more important to me than the amount of money pledged is going to be the number of people who make a pledge. Because I would love to see all of us taking that step of faith that says: God is up to something big. God is growing His kingdom. And because I know He can’t fail, I want to be a part of it.

Expect great things. Attempt great things.

This vision for Hope Church represents our effort to attempt great things for God. To expand our influence for His kingdom locally, regionally and globally. Are you ready to join us?