I encountered Jesus on a trip to a mercy ministry in Bangalore.
The people at this particular place were a mix of old, disabled, infirm and insane. But in some pairs of eyes, I could see what Mother Teresa talked about: Jesus in his most distressing disguise. I sat by a woman who was skin and bones. Half-naked and not fully conscious, she had been laid out on a concrete slab with her back side — full of bed sores and covered in flies — exposed to the sun. I don’t know how she was still alive and suspect she didn’t last long after I left. The direct sun seemed an unmerciful place for someone so fragile, but no one moved this woman and she was certainly not able to move herself. I asked about a place in the shade and was told she needed to stay where she was. I asked about food and was told she couldn’t eat.
What to do, then, when there is nothing to be done? I stood there, helpless in the face of such poverty, and wondered: as a follower of Jesus, what is my responsibility to this woman who seems to have been forgotten by the world? Do I demand justice? Throw her over my shoulder and haul her out of there? Or helplessly move on?
I decided that if nothing else, perhaps I could honor her life by noticing it, so I sat down by her side and waved flies from her face (they’d filled her nostrils). I looked at her. Really looked. This was real poverty, real suffering.
I would have suspected in a moment like this that the Word of God would dissolve in the face of such a reality. But to the contrary, it was the only thing that seemed to make sense. In fact, a word from Isaiah 49 came to mind and I spoke that word over her life: “The Lord called you from the womb. From the body of your mother he named your name … You are honored in the eyes of the Lord. God will be your strength.” Far from being irrelevant, it seemed the one thing I might want if I were in her place. I think I’d want to know I wasn’t invisible, that I mattered, that in my final moments, the truth would blanket me.
You are not forgotten. The Lord knows your name. Your life even now has value. The world has failed to treasure your life, but God has not forgotten you.
In order for that word to be true for this woman, and I absolutely believe it was, my comprehension of the Kingdom of God had to expand exponentially. Very quickly, it had to become much bigger than my middle-class existence had come to accept. And my righteous response to the Kingdom also had to expand. To be bigger. To be great.
That prophetic word spoken over the people of Israel resonates still. It is a rich and varied word, spoken first to reveal the heart of the Messiah, but also to reveal the heart of a fickle and self-centered people. Finally, it comes to speak over the heart of God’s people today. It calls us to a holy response that is bigger than our comforts will often allow.
We read from Isaiah 49:1-6:
Listen to me, you islands;
hear this, you distant nations:
Before I was born the Lord called me;
from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.
He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me into a polished arrow
and concealed me in his quiver.
He said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
and my reward is with my God.”
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,
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord
and my God has been my strength—
“It is too light 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 my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
In this passage, we discover three truths about God, ourselves, and the call on every life.
God creates purpose (and God creates on purpose)
As the old saying goes, God made me, and God doesn’t make mistakes. Isaiah 49, verses one and five, remind us of this truth. He calls us from the womb. Before we are born, he names us by name. We are honored in his eyes.
A few days after our trip to the mercy ministry where I encountered the woman described above, we visited another ministry, a place called Daughters of Hope. Founded by a young couple impassioned by the concept of business as missions, Daughters of Hope is committed to bringing hope to deeply impoverished women. Most of them come to “Daughters” from a place of despair. Many have alcoholic husbands; all of them are the primary providers for their home. Most would be unemployable in Bangalore due to lack of education, lack of opportunity or lack of language skills. I found myself again speaking this word from Isaiah over the 60 women employed at Daughters of Hope, as I shared with them from the Word. I got to tell them that they are not forgotten; that they are treasured, valued, remembered. And then I told them about the story Jesus tells about treasures. He once said (Matthew 13:44) that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he had and bought it. I told them that they are the treasure in this field called India, which God has purchased with the blood of Jesus Christ. He bought that field so he might have them as his own daughters.
That word is for us, too. We also are treasures, planted in this field where we live. And God has purchased our land, also, with the blood of Jesus Christ so that he might have us as his own sons and daughters. How does it change your understanding of your own worth to remember that you are a treasure, that you are honored in the eyes of the Lord?
While in India, our group stayed with a missionary who has established a home in which she and a team have raised 46 children. She told me the story of a social worker responsible for rescuing several of her kids and bring them to her home. This social worker is truly a treasure hidden in the field called India. She is quietly, faithfully following Jesus where few others would go.
The social worker once traveled into a rural area to serve a tribal community. When she got there, the people of the village made sure she knew not to go near a certain tree that grew in their midst. They told her it was cursed, a notion proven by several deaths related to the tree. Some people had hanged themselves on this tree. Others had walked under it and then experienced bad luck. The combined encounters convinced the entire village that this tree was bad news, and that anyone who passed under or near it, especially after dark, would die. The social worker knew this tree didn’t have that kind of power, but no amount of talking could convince the villagers of that fact. Finally, she announced to those who had shared this news that she would sleep under the tree that very night. By herself. She would prove by her own experience that the tree had no power. The village leaders were mortified by this announcement and begged her not to follow through with her plan. They warned her of what would surely happen if she went near this tree, but she refused to listen. That night, the social worker went out and made a bed under this cursed tree, then laid down and proceeded to have a peaceful sleep. The next morning, the social worker awoke at dawn, to find herself surrounded by the entire village – plus a few from neighboring villages! They’d come to see if she was still alive, which indeed she was. Seeing the crowd, she stood up beneath that tree and shared the great news about Jesus Christ and the power of God Almighty. In one day, half the village became followers of Jesus.
The fact is, there are cursed trees in the world. Jesus met one. Once, on his way into Jerusalem, Jesus discovered a fig tree that bore no figs, and he cursed it because it bore no fruit. Evidently, in the Kingdom of Heaven, that is the ultimate curse. To be designed for fruit-bearing but to refuse to bear fruit. Let me say that again. In the Kingdom of God, the ultimate curse is to know, but do nothing about it.
Why? Because we were not created for nothing. We are not mistakes. Our lives matter. God made us with a purpose in mind. This is how God creates. He creates purpose, and we are designed with a destiny in mind. Do you know your destiny? Have you tapped into God’s purpose for your life? Have you explored the passions he has placed within you?
God creates salvation (but we create opportunity)
A prophet speaks for God and brings clarity around the purposes of God. When Isaiah speaks, his message first of all is a word about the coming Messiah, who will be the light of the world. But it is also about the Israelite people. God has every intention of using them — like a treasure planted in a field — to build his Kingdom on earth.
Paul reaches back into this very passage in Isaiah 49 when he and Barnabas begin preaching to Gentiles. He is battling the incessant complaints of religious people who are anxious over the mixing of races and the evangelization of foreigners. Paul’s response to them is an ancient one. He draws from Isaiah’s word to the Israelites, reminding them that truth is not a private affair. “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 13:47).
Paul takes this word to the people of God in Israel and makes it clear that this prophecy is not just for the Messiah or just for some special group but for all of us who follow Jesus. God has made all who worship him into partners — to be a light, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth. Because nothing is ever lost in God’s economy, he will even use those consigned to exile and the stuff that enslaves us to build his Kingdom. Before we were born, he called us by name. He gave us a purpose, and he is using us to take his salvation to the ends of the earth.
God creates greatness (and we bear it to the world)
In Isaiah 49:6 we read, “He says, ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” This word strikes deeply at our self-centered, individualistic worldview.
We are content, most of us, to work out our own salvation, but we neglect to cultivate a hunger for the whole world. And yet, Isaiah teaches, it is too small a thing that we should care for our own salvation only. It is too light a thing, Isaiah says, that we should serve only our own people and to keep feeding the ones who have already been preserved. It is too light a thing to think only about local missions, to go only as far as our comforts take us.
We have been called to be a light to the nations, that God’s salvation might reach to the end of the earth. That is the end toward which we are headed. One day, every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. And God has chosen to write that story in partnership with his people. After all, we were not created for comfort. We were created for greatness.
And that became the second half of my message to those women who work at Daughters of Hope. Most of them have come out of a Hindu worldview, where gods are small enough to fit on dashboards and hang from rearview mirrors – a worldview that emphasizes personal growth through reincarnation — a works-based mentality that assumes your hard times are your own fault and not my responsibility. And yet these women have experienced the grace of Christ through a mission effort that empowers them, that lifts them out of poverty and makes them — truly — daughters of hope. Isaiah reminds these women that this gift they’ve been given is not for them alone. It is too light a thing for them to care only for their own salvation and their own households. God has planted them into this field called India for a purpose — to bear Christ to this field, that the salvation of God might be known among every tribe and tongue of India. And I absolutely believe it will come in just that way — through hidden treasures like poor women learning to sew and social workers preaching the good news under cursed trees. Treasures hidden in this field. Greatness. A holy response bigger than our comforts will allow.
My daughter says I can trace every sermon point back to a scene from “Joe vs. The Volcano.” I don’t know if that’s true, but there is one scene in “Joe vs. The Volcano” that resonates. It comes after the title character has survived a typhoon and a shipwreck and is now stranded on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He’s been through so much and now Joe is as close to death as it gets.
And that’s when he remembers.
He is on his raft, facing the moon as it rises over the horizon of the water. It is huge and just there before him, almost as if it could be touched. Joe is delirious, and for him this moon is something supernatural — perhaps even God himself. As the moon rises, Joe sinks slowly to his knees, places both arms in the air and says, “thank you. Thank you for my life. I forgot …how…BIG …”
How easy it is, in the midst of ministry, to forget how big. All the hoops we jump through and all the personalities we juggle can sap the joy out of us, and leave us in survival mode. We pull ourselves in, and become concerned about us and ours. We forget the power of God and the call to be great. Before we know it, we’ve forgotten just what it is we signed on for, and just how big our God is.
I won’t accuse you of this, but I am so very aware of my own tendencies. I am embarrassed to admit that I probably spend more time worrying about the life of my computer battery than I do about the eternal life of my Muslim friends. Maybe you can relate? I forget how big. How all-sufficient is our El Shaddai, how great is our God. I forget that he has made me for a purpose bigger than finding a great parking spot. He has formed us in his image and breathed into us the breath of life. It is the very power of God — the same power that created me and made me for a purpose — that saves me from selfishness and gives me courage enough to cast out demons, cure diseases, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick. It is the power of God that calls out greatness in me.
This is what it means to follow Jesus. And as we follow, we find ourselves more and more in the company of the brokenhearted, the blind, the poor, the prisoners, even those oppressed by demonic forces: people who are hungry for healing and who need spiritual leaders who have a heart for healing — not because we’re big-hearted, but because God is that big.
Have you forgotten how big the Kingdom of Heaven is? Have you forgotten how big your response to that Kingdom? I wonder how it might change the spiritual atmosphere of your home, your church, your ministry if you stopped where you are, right now, and put your hands in the air to confess: “God, I forgot how big!” He has created you for a grand purpose, he has created opportunities all around you for sharing the salvation story, and he calls you to bear the greatness of God’s Kingdom to the world.