Is anybody listening?

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Blogging can be a frustrating activity.  I can spend days mulling over a good idea, hours finely crafting my prose, and finally release my most earth-shattering blog onto the internet, only to be met by the deafening sound of silence.  No comments.  No shares.  Not even a like.  Nothing.  It’s deflating.

Just like that deflating feeling most mission workers know when asked by some innocent church member back home “How many people have you baptised this year?”.  Most of us know the embarrassment of squirming a bit, thinking of some excuses (“that’s not really my role”) before reluctantly admitting the truth – none.  And for many of us, it was none last year, or the year before.

Our sending churches seem to expect a vast harvest, or at least a regular crop, of souls for the Lord.  When did mission become subject to arbitrary productivity statistics more fitting to a factory?  And why are these standards not applied to those working on the home front?

The reality is that western mission workers seldom produce significant numbers of ‘converts’.  We sow a lot of seed but seldom see the harvest, even though we continue to hope for a harvest.  Unlike Isaiah, who was told by God at the start of his long ministry that he would see no fruit.  We often hear sermons on the powerful call of Isaiah, his vision of the Lord in his temple, his enthusiastic response, but we seldom hear sermons on the passage which immediately follows:

Then the LORD told me to go and speak this message to the people:

You will listen and listen, but never understand.

You will look and look, but never see.

The LORD also said: Make these people stubborn!

Make them stop up their ears, cover their eyes, and fail to understand.

Don’t let them turn to me and be healed.

 

Would you have gone into the mission field if you’d known that was your mission?  Small wonder that within minutes of his enthusiastic “Here I am, send me!”, Isaiah’s response was “How long do I have to do that?”  No prophet wants people to ignore his message, as no mission worker wants her words to fall on deaf ears.

I am sure many of us can identify with this frustration.  We have spent years, sometimes decades, working hard in the mission field, with little harvest to show for it.  But we are not called to be successful.  We are called to be faithful to him who sent us and to the work he has called us to do, and we are called to bear fruit in our lives.  The obedient mission worker, persevering in adversity, has far more in common with Isaiah than with Jonah, who preached and an entire city repented immediately (Jonah 3:10), or the rare contemporary outbreaks of revival we hear about, but seldom experience in our own ministries.

So, if you have reaped little harvest, take courage.  Jesus told his disciples “Others have laboured so that you can reap.” (John 4:38)  Perhaps it is your role to plant the seed.  In impacting the culture, demonstrating the gospel by your lifestyle, encouraging and equipping local believers, softening a harsh spiritual environment through your prayer, and being a faithful witness, you are planting an immense crop for others to reap.  In many of the places we are called to, mission is a long-term, multi-generational enterprise.  Like a worker on a production line, you may weld the chassis but never see the car roll out of the factory.  But the car wouldn’t be any good without your humble and unlauded work.

He who has ears, let him hear.

Prepare the way of the Lord

Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness,

Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.

Let every valley be lifted up

and every mountain and hill made low.

Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,

and everyone will see it”

(Isaiah 40: 3-5)

During advent it is customary to prepare for Christmas by reflecting on the various parts of the gospels which tell the stories taking place prior to the nativity.  John the Baptist becomes involved in this, because he was born not long before Jesus, and all four gospel writers use this quote from Isaiah to place him in context – preparing the way for the Messiah.  These words are frequently quoted in Christmas services and sung in performances of Handel’s Messiah, but what do they really mean?

John is calling for a motorway to be built!  He wants a smooth road like the Romans built, not a rocky Hebrew path.  He wants one that goes straight to its destination, not meandering through the clefts and wadis and up and down mountains.  And he wants one that’s elevated.  The Hebrew word used by Isaiah for ‘highway’ literally means a raised embankment – so that it’s not susceptible to flooding.  Modern civil engineering in the 8th century BC!

We have a love/hate relationship with motorways.  We don’t like millions of tons of concrete being poured on pristine landscape, or thousands of cars and lorries pumping out greenhouse gases (see last week’s blog), but when we want to get from A to B quickly and conveniently we’d much rather get in a car and drive along the motorway than hike along a tortuous mountain route.

But how does this prepare the way of the Lord?  John prepared people to meet Jesus.  He fomented an atmosphere of religious revival into which Jesus could step.  He got people talking about what God was doing.  He created the idea of entry into God’s kingdom not by birth but by choice, a choice which involved a change of heart about our attitudes and behaviour.  He saw himself in the role of Isaiah’s precursor to the suffering servant.  In this way he creates a context into which Jesus steps.  John is essential his warm-up act.

This Christmas, as we have an opportunity once again to present the new-born Christ to millions of people who do not yet know him, let us reflect on whether our attitudes and behaviour act like a motorway, bringing him swiftly and effectively into the lives of the lost, or like a religious roadblock.