God’s Partners in God’s Mission

While I am certain that we should see ourselves as working for God, I’m amazed and humbled by apostle Paul’s insistence that we work with God, more as a partner than an employee or even a slave. In one place, Paul will assert that he is among “God’s fellow workers” and that those benefiting from his and other’s ministry are “God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3.9).

In another place, Paul will talk about how his ministry is not based on his competency but on a kind of competency that comes from God (2 Cor. 3.5). Even more, Paul will root Christian ministry in sharing or participating in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Thus any suffering we might experience in ministry is like Christ’s own giving of his life for the sake of others (see 2 Cor. 4.7-12).

Therefore, in partnership with God, Christian ministry is a participation in the mission of God. God’s mission is nothing short of inviting people into a relationship with God that will shape them into a distinct people who live their lives for the sake of others.

Another way to frame God’s mission is that God seeks all people to become re-connected with or reconciled to him. God then recreates us in the image of Jesus to become agents of reconciliation and healing. This is based not on our competency—since even we needed help to become reconciled.

However, once reunited with God, we are initiated into God’s own project of healing the world. Paul calls us “Christ ’s ambassadors.” This is fitting language as we now belong to God’s kingdom but we have been called to serve as God’s delegates to bring Good News to the world.

Churches, then, should function something like embassies. Churches are God’s embassies in a foreign land to support the interests of God’s kingdom. However, an embassy also functions to help foreigners find out more about the embassy’s country and even help people who would like to enter that country to find out how to do that.

As representatives of God’s kingdom, therefore, we speak for our King. As Paul said, we implore on Christ’s behalf—as though God were making his appeal through us. Our appeal or petition is that people would become reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5.20) and that is truly the mission of God

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Matthew’s Christmas: For the Sake of the World

Imagine that we had a chance to hear the old tax collector-turned apostle Matthew tell his story.

As we knocked on the door, we would have waited as the old man moved his fragile body to the door. We would have been warmly received, as Matthew was well known for giving the best parties back in the day.

As we entered the house, we would have noticed the pictures hanging in the entryway. These pictures honored the ancestors who had paved the way for God’s mission to the world. Among the pictures were those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, David, Solomon, Zerubbabel, and lesser-known personalities, like Akim, Matthan, and finally a Joseph.

The few women among the pictures were somehow out-of-place: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and then one picture simply read: “Formerly Uriah’s wife.” Next to the picture of Joseph was that of very young woman named “Mary.” Had we the courage to ask Matthew about this very small but odd collection of women, Matthew might have reminded us that in God’s story there is always room for the outsider.

Once we finally entered Matthew’s living room and after he stoked the fire to make sure we were all comfortable, he would begin his tale. Unexpectedly, we would be jarred by the Christmas story beginning in a bit of a scandal. Joseph actually wanted to divorce Mary because she was pregnant—maybe the women in the collection have more in common than previously thought.

Matthew would regale us with the story of the “magi,” stargazers from a far away land who came to worship Jesus. Again Matthew reminds us, there is always room for outsiders. Against the backdrop of this story, Matthew would tell us about Herod’s deceitful plan to “worship” Jesus and how Herod’s envy set in motion the incident in Bethlehem.

Matthew himself is visibly shaken as he recalls the events the day Herod sent troops to exterminate the baby boys of Bethlehem to ensure there would be no contenders for his throne, not now, not ever. Not exactly what one expects to hear as part of the Christmas story.

Now we are visibly shaken—not understanding why God would let this happen and why God did not intervene. Matthew responds to our uneasiness. “Don’t you see God entered our world just as it is.”

* If you found this take on Matthew’s version of the nativity intriguing, you might enjoy this: http://www.wineskins.org/filter.asp?SID=2&co_key=1962.

So That — Outcomes of God’s Mission

Almost any place you look in the Bible, you can find God’s mission to form a distinct people. In the Old Testament, God formed the nation of Israel to bear witness to God’s continuing creative work in the world.

In the New Testament, in the ministry of Jesus and later the ministry of the church, the mission of God remains central. God’s purpose remains forming a distinct people to live a God-shaped life for the sake of the world. The mission of God stands out even in the little letter called 1 John.

Emphasizing that God’s love has been lavished on beleaguered believers, the apostle John points at several outcomes, or “so thats” that result from God’s active mission. These “so thats” are somewhat veiled in English translation, so I would like to draw these out for you.

God’s Mission through Jesus was so that:

  • We should be called the children of God (1 John 3:1)
  • Jesus might take away our sins (3:5)
  • Jesus might destroy the work of the devil (3:8)
  • We might believe in his name (3:23)
  • We might love one another (3:11, 23)

That God, the God of the universe, should invite us into a relationship is amazing. Not only is God willing to claim us as his children but we increasingly become to look like our Father. As God’s children we have the same inheritance as his rightful Son. The apostle here promises that we will see Jesus because we will become like him (3:2).

Part of the process of getting us to the place where we look like Jesus is that God must deal with sin. The NIV adds “our” before the word sin, but this is not in the original. It is not just personal sin that God must remove but even cosmic sin, so to speak. Sin can also be seen as a force at work in our world; sometimes we call it evil.

Sin is the Bible’s word for that power at work in our world that causes things to fall apart. Thus, John aptly asserts that Jesus came to destroy the work of the devil. While people today may not easily buy into a real devil and may even scoff at the notion of sin: they know the effect of this evil, whether personal or diabolical—relationships that don’t work, innocent people suffering, countries vying for power by diminishing others, loneliness, drug addictions, and this list could go on.

Yet, because God has acted, we believe in the name of Jesus—that for Jesus sake, new possibilities can emerge. Thoughtful Christians are not oblivious to the fact that we live in a world that appears hopelessly broken. It is precisely against this brokenness that Jesus makes sense.

And in the midst of this brokenness, you still find groups of Jesus-followers who love one another. This, perhaps, is the greatest testimony that God is completing the mission he started.

Jesus: On a Mission from God

After Jesus’ baptism and temptation, according to the Gospel of Luke (4:14-30), he returned to his hometown Nazareth “in the power of the Spirit.” As a Torah (law) observant Jew, he customarily attended synagogue services and even took part in the services. One day the synagogue attendant handed the scroll of Isaiah to him and he unrolled it to the place we today call Isaiah 61:1-2 which reads:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
(as cited in Luke)

After returning the scroll to the attendant and then sitting down, he announced, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” At first the audience was amazed by Jesus’ gracious words, but then they begin to think out the implications.

Wait a minute! Isn’t this Joseph’s son? Did he just apply that scripture to himself? We know this boy’s family. Who does he think he is? Now worked up, Jesus’ own friends and family are ready to throw him over a cliff.

Jesus understood that it was hard to do ministry in one’s hometown, so he reminded the people of their story. Back in the days of Elijah and Elisha, it was not the people of Israel who were blessed by the ministry of these two hometown boys, but a Phoenician widow and a Syrian commander, both foreigners.

Jesus understood the mission of God to be a mission for the sake of others, the outsiders, those marginalized and who do not belong. When Jesus wanted to highlight his mission, he chose the text from Isaiah.

Therefore, as Jesus’ followers, it would seem that the Isaiah text could point us in the right direction regarding the mission of God. The mission, based on this text, begins with God’s empowerment: the Spirit of the Lord is on us.

However, the presence of the Spirit is not primarily to fill the spiritual emptiness within us, but to send us to bless others, namely, the poor, prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. To these we announce that now is the year of the Lord’s favor. We are faithful to the mission of God when we do this.

Isaiah: When You See God’s Mission

The call of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-13) into God’s mission takes a shape similar to that of Moses. In the calling of Moses we noticed several elements of the call narrative: the revelation of God, the motive of God expressed, the commission of God, the objections of Moses, God’s reassurance, and God’s signs. Notice these same following elements in the call of Isaiah.

Revelation. Dated to the year that King Uzziah died (ca. 742 BC), Isaiah has a visionary experience that brings him into the very presence of God.

In vivid detail, the text paints the visions for us: the throne, God’s robe filling the temple, doorposts and thresholds quaking, smoke filling the temple and multi-winged angelic beings, calling to one another in antiphonal worship:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

Objections. To this revelation of God, Isaiah can only respond that he is doomed; in contrast to God’s holiness, Isaiah can only confess that he has unclean lips and that he lives among unclean people.

Reassurance. In response to this confession, one of the angelic beings takes a coal from the altar and touches Isaiah’s lips to symbolize that God had taken away his sin, thus qualifying him to accept God’s mission.

Commission and Motive. Here the Lord asks, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” To which Isaiah, cleansed, can now say, “Here am I. Send me!” His mission is to preach to a people whom Isaiah knows will not listen to him. They will not repent, but God will send Isaiah anyway as a sign that God has not given up on his people.

Signs. While there are signs associated with Isaiah’s mission (see Isaiah 7), I think it is fair to say that for the people of Judah, Isaiah is the sign. Isaiah is to preach to a people who will not listen and he is to do it until God says otherwise (see Isaiah 6.11-13).

Isaiah was to serve during a time of pruning … until there is nothing left but a “holy seed” left as a “stump” in a wasteland. What starts out as an amazing revelation of God concludes in Isaiah being given a very difficult job

While Isaiah cannot make the people come to God, his mission serves a signpost pointing the way back to God. Sometimes, our ministry is just like this. The successes seem far apart and the defeats come more often than we think they should. Yet, in the midst of that we assent: “Here am I! Send me!”

David: Anointed for God’s Mission

David is one of the most beloved characters in the Bible and that is as it should be, since his name in Hebrew is “beloved.” While David is a heroic character, his life began in a rather lackluster way: he was the youngest child in a family of shepherds.

When the prophet Samuel came to anoint David as the next king of Israel, David did not know he was suppose to be at the meeting. Samuel looked over seven of David’s older brothers. God chose none of them.

Finally, the prophet asked if there were any other sons, and there was, but he was only a boy and he was in the field taking care of sheep. Once David arrived, Samuel anointed him with oil.

This practice of anointing grew out of the practice of anointing a priest on his new appointment. Samuel continued this practice as a way to appoint kings. A more important association: to be anointed with oil became a way of participating with God in anointing the new king with God’s Holy Spirit (See 1 Samuel 16:13).

God’s Spirit empowered David his whole life, but God’s presence did not exempt him from the hard realities of living. David would spend his early years as the anointed king running from his previous mentor and current king Saul. Once David became king, it would take him years to consolidate his kingdom. David’s life was full of challenges with the women he loved, the children he had, and political enemies both within and without.

Out of these lived realities come many of the most moving psalms in the Bible.

Yet none of these ongoing challenges could separate David from the love of God. However, his own action nearly did. One day, when he should have been leading, he saw her. He called for her. He slept with her. He killed her husband to cover his own sin. It felt as if God had left him.

During this time he wrote, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.”

There are certainly times in our life when we need to pray for the same.

Deborah: A Mother on God’s Mission

Against the myth that God only wants men in leadership roles stands the story of Deborah, the prophetess-judge-leader of ancient Israel. Some interpreters will assert that the story of Deborah is a criticism of men who would not rise to the occasion. This is partially true. When Barak refuses to go to the battlefield without Deborah, she declares that the victory will belong to a woman (Judges 4:8-10)—but Deborah does not get this honor. Still, to see the whole story as a mere critique of weak-willed men misses the respect the biblical narrator—and even Barak—had for Deborah.

Before being a “judge,” Deborah was a prophetess, a role which meant she was a preacher and teacher. To get this recognition, Deborah would have had to show that God had truly called her (see Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and 18:17-22 for some of the tests). In addition to her full-time job, she was a wife (4.4) and mother (5.7).

The English translation of “judge” does not do justice to the role; she did far more than just hold court. The NIV is correct in saying she “was leading” Israel, as that is really what “judging” implies in the Book of Judges. Judging, therefore, involved both settling disputes among the people (4.5) but also commanding military leaders into action (4.6-7). There is no doubt that Deborah is Barak’s superior officer.

For example, Deborah will send Barak into the battle while remaining behind to observe the action (4.14)—the traditional posture of a supreme commander, like a king.

The narrator of Judges has preserved for us the victory song known as the “Song of Deborah” (chapter 5). This is a military poem from a woman’s point of view: Deborah is praised for her leadership, Jael, who killed the enemy commander Sisera, for her ingenuity and bravery, and even Sisera’s mother is remembered because her son will not be coming home.

If God so called a woman to serve him as Deborah did under the old covenant, how much more, then, will God use women under the new covenant where now there is neither “male nor female” (Gal 3:28)! Deborah’s story is a good place to acknowledge that God’s Mission is larger than our stereotypes.