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Defined by a cause

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Isaiah 54.1-3

The young preacher was shouted down. He had dared to suggest that the ministers in Nottingham, England discuss “The Duty of Christians to Attempt the Spread of the Gospel Among Heathen Nations.” The moderator of the meeting was greatly agitated: “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine.”

But William Carey would not be quieted. On May 31, 1792, at a Baptist ministers’ meeting in England, he preached the most famous missions sermon of all time. Taking today’s text as his, his message was titled “Expect Great Things From God; Attempt Great Things For God”.

Within five months, on October 2, 1792, twelve of those who heard him that day had formed the Baptist Missionary Society of England. They began work to send Carey to India. And thus began the Modern Missions Movement which has circled the globe with the good news that our Creator loves us all.

We want our lives to matter. And so we engrave our initials on tree trunks and our children’s initials in wet cement. We affix our names to plaques on walls and buildings. We name streets and cities and stadiums for each other. We want to outlive ourselves. We want to leave a legacy, to be significant. Each of us wants to believe that this tiny planet and our brief lives on it are not all there is, that there is something more, something permanent, something eternal. We want our lives to be defined by a cause which matters.

All this month we are learning how to live for that cause. Today we’ll learn from a short, squat English cobbler whose faith and faithfulness changed the world.

Join the battle (v. 1)

I bring you shocking news today: “One month after their gay wedding shocked the world: Saddam and Osama adopt shaved ape baby.” The Weekly World News for November 4 says it’s true. And it adds this story: “Found: Hair from God’s beard! DNA tests prove it’s for real.” I didn’t bother reading the article, so that’s all I can tell you.

You are no less incredulous than the readers of our text today. Such news is no less outlandish, farfetched, and ridiculous. Here is Judah enslaved in the deserts of Babylon, Iraq to us. Their temple is rubble, their traditions shredded, their homeland ruined, they, themselves, captives to cursed pagans.

They are “barren,” unable to conceive a child. Worse, it is as though they “never bore a child.” Still worse, they are “desolate,” with no husband and no hope for one.

And so they have no child and no ability to conceive one. They can give birth to no future. Their hopes will die with them. They can have no tomorrow, no dawn on the horizon, no morning to the nightmare from which they cannot awake.

Theirs is a land without spiritual hope, a place of desolation lost to the love of God. And yet they are to “burst into song” and “shout for joy” because theirs will be more “children” than those who have husbands. In a place with no future, theirs is the brightest future of all.

Many still call Texas the “buckle of the Bible belt.” Why must we be concerned with missions in such a place? Because if such a belt ever existed, and if we ever served to anchor it in place, it is no longer so. We now live and serve in a spiritual Babylon.

8.5 million of our 17 million residents are spiritually lost. This is a number greater than the total population of 42 states in America and 52 foreign countries. Only 15 percent of our Texas Baptist churches are growing, and 85 percent of that growth is from our own children or other churches. Less than 1 percent of our churches are growing primarily through evangelism.

How many spiritual children have you borne this year? To what degree is your soul “barren” and “desolate”?

Look from our state to our globe. See a line stretching around it thirty times, spanning some 750,000 miles, growing 20 miles every day. It is the lost of our world, standing side by side.

We are called to them. We are called to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” of each person in that line. We are called to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, to be his ambassadors to our neighbors and the nations.

Tuesday is Veterans’ Day. This week we remember with undying gratitude those men and women who have served each of us as they served all of us. As they fought for us, sacrificed family and future, plans and dreams for the greater cause of freedom. They know what it is for their decisions and lives to be defined by a cause.

In the spiritual warfare raging in our homes, our communities, our nation, our world, how many of us are veterans? How many of us are defined by this cause?

Attempt great things for God (vs. 1b-2)

We have heard the bad news: the world is lost in the darkness of sin, and each of us is responsible for bearing the light to that darkness. Here’s the good news: when we attempt great things for God, we can expect great things from God. Our lives can matter. Our work can achieve significance. Our days can affect eternity. Our gifts and abilities can change souls forever. The “desolate woman” can have more children than she “who has a husband” (v. 1b). There is hope—great hope. What are we to do?

Give generously: “Enlarge the place of your tent.” Make it bigger, and broader, and higher, and longer, so more can come in. Such enlarging takes material, substance, money. It costs to do this. And so we give what is required, sacrificially and generously.

On January 9, 1793, the Baptist Missionary Society took its first offering, in William Carey’s snuff box, to send Carey to India. It was not much, but it was enough to get him across the ocean and to the need. Without that offering, no missions movement could have been possible, then or now.

Today we give for exactly the same reason. Our unified missions offering supports 10,688 full-time missionaries, and multiplied thousands more in other roles. It helps to get the gospel to more than 120 countries. Last year alone, it supported ministries which led 451,030 people to Jesus.

But missions takes money, more than ever before. So we give generously. What will you give this year?

Love greatly: “Stretch your tent curtains wide.” Open your tent to let others inside. Bring others with you to your Lord. Love them to your God.

The ministers of Nottingham in 1791 considered the heathen to be God’s problem. Their concern was not the souls of others, but the status of their own churches. They wanted not to give to others, but to themselves. They had nothing of God’s love for the world. So the world knew nothing about his love.

Not so with William Carey. He braved swamps swarming with alligators, tigers which threatened to eat him alive, poisonous cobras, malaria, dysentery, and cholera. He went to the world, because he had the love of God on his heart.

We will give and pray and go to the degree that we love. Who will know God’s love because of you this week?

Go sacrificially: “Do not hold back.”

Following God to India cost William Carey the death of his five-year-old son, Peter, from dysentery in their first year. His wife Dorothy never recovered from the blow, and suffered depression and mental illness to the day of her death. His missionary partner, John Thomas, deserted him. His supporters in England began to question his integrity. His son, Felix, died in the years to come, as did his second wife. But through it all, he committed himself sacrificially to God’s call to his field, his mission.

What has it cost you to share God’s love with yours?

Serve expectantly: “Lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes.”

Carey said to his fledgling mission society: “Yonder in India is a gold mine. I will descend and dig, but you at home must hold the ropes.” And they did, expecting that God would use them together to change the world.

Lengthen the cords, because more are coming. Strengthen the stakes, because more are at hand. Believe God will use your life beyond your ability to predict or measure. What are you hoping God will do with you this week?

Expect great things from God (v. 3)

In other words, expect great things from God: “You will spread out to the right and to the left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities” (v. 3). We will take the world. We’ll take the hope of Christ to all those who are spiritually “desolate,” until they know our God. When you attempt great things for God, then and only then can you expect great things from him.

When Carey arrived in India, he found women sacrificing their children to the Ganges River which they worshipped. Widows were burned along with the bodies of their dead husbands. Lepers were murdered. The nation knew nothing of the love of Jesus and the light of heaven.

The English cobbler translated the entire Bible into six languages and parts of Scripture into 29 others. He founded a mission in India which continues today, and a college which enrolls more than 2,500 students. He brought about reforms of great significance in their society. And God used him to begin a missions movement which continues today and has done more to reach the world than any such movement in all of Christian history.

Within 12 years of the founding of William Carey’s Baptist Missionary Society, five other such societies began. In 1814 the Baptists of America began what is today the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Today 40,000 career Protestant missionaries go to every part of the globe. And more than 48,000 missionaries come from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Historians trace the Modern Missions Movement to one English shoe cobbler and his sermon from our text.

Today 3,500 new churches are born every week around the globe. Some 28,000 persons convert to Christianity every day in Communist China. As many Africans come to Christ each day. South Korea is 30% Christian; Indonesia, officially a Muslim country, is 25% Christian. Missionaries are going where missionaries have never gone in history. God is continuing the “great things” he began in a new way with William Carey. You can “expect great things” from God.

But only if you will “attempt great things” for him. Jeff Lewis challenged us last week to understand that God has called each of us to minister to the nations, starting where we are with those we know. Where will you begin? Where is your India?

Conclusion

It was my privilege to preach recently at the centennial meeting of the Dallas Baptist Association alongside my friend, Dr. Mac Brunson, the pastor of First Baptist Church in our city. In his message, Dr. Brunson made this penetrating statement: “The greatest problem in our churches is not the sin of omission, or the sin of commission, but the sin of no mission.” Don’t commit that sin today.

Where is your mission? What is your field? Who is your India? What great things will you attempt to take Christ there?

I was privileged to preach the Word again in Cuba a week ago. When our team left the farm outside Camaguey where our pastors’ conference was concluding, I witnessed a scene I will never forget. As we drove away in our air-conditioned Mercedes van, open-bed diesel trucks began to arrive. They had boards on the sides, and no seats. I watched as pastors helped their wives and luggage onto those trucks, so they could ride standing up in the diesel fumes, the dust of their dirt roads, the 90-degree heat and humidity, for four or five or six hours to go to their fields of service.

What will you do to go to yours?