(Isaiah 52:13-53:1; Romans 15:14-33)
“Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of the gates of hell.” So said the great missionary C. T. Studd, and he lived it. After graduating from Cambridge in 1883, he went to serve with Hudson Taylor on the China Inland Mission. From there he went to southern India—to Ootacamund, actually, where Carolyn Dann is now teaching; he pastored a church there from 1900-1906. He returned to Britain after that, but he didn’t stay; concern for Africa led him to travel to the Sudan and the Congo. That began the Heart of Africa Mission, which Studd expanded several years later into the Worldwide Evangelisation Crusade, sending workers into South America, Central Asia and the Arab world as well as central Africa.
This is a man who could say in all sincerity, “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.” Paul would have understood him well, for he was energized by the same thing—being on the front lines of God’s work in the world. Indeed, Paul appeals to that in verses 15-16. He’s written in quite strong terms to a church he didn’t plant, and he acknowledges that, but he justifies it on the grounds of the grace he was given by God to be a minister to the Gentiles. Maybe he’s never served in Rome, but he still has flag rank, if you will, and not in some staff position back at headquarters, either. He’s been in the heat of the battle for a couple decades now, at God’s specific and express appointment; he has earned the right to speak with authority.
Indeed, to say that Paul served in the heat of the battle is to understate the point; in the spread of the church across the Roman world, he was the tip of the spear, practically a one-man revival, and that’s the role he felt strongly called to play. You can see it in verse 23—it’s almost plaintive: “I no longer have any room to work in these regions.” It’s not as if there were churches all over the place in the eastern Mediterranean; but there were enough that Paul felt he was being squeezed out. You may remember the story of Daniel Boone, who thought that if he could stand in his yard and see smoke from a neighbor’s chimney, the place was getting too crowded and it was time to move; that was about Paul’s attitude. If there were other Christians around who were ready to lead the church, then it was time for him to head off someplace where that wasn’t true.
Now, most of us, if you were to ask where the front lines are for the church today, would think of Wycliffe, of missionaries to the Muslim world, and people like that; and certainly, that’s true. What we don’t rightly see is that even more, the front lines run right through Western culture. Look at Europe, look at Canada; look at New England, or the West Coast. Look to the mountains—where I last served, I think our best guess was that 9% of the population was in church any given Sunday, and many among that 9% weren’t there for God. Look to those places, because that’s the direction in which this community is moving—it’s just slower here. Even here, the front lines between the church and the world begin right at the doorstep.
You might be thinking at this point that you do see this—but the problem isn’t that we don’t see anything, it’s that we don’t see rightly. One of the greatest lies the Enemy has ever pitched has been to get the church to see spiritual battles in worldly terms, and especially political terms. He’s gotten us to identify our goals in terms of biblical moral behavior backed by legislation, and in terms of economic results to be achieved by political means. For some, it’s left-wing concepts of moral behavior and economic fairness, while others hold up right-wing understandings of the same—either way, I assure you, the Devil’s just as happy, because he’s gotten us to identify the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of man, and at that point we’re no longer a threat. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter what our political ideas are, I’m not saying the laws don’t matter, but I am saying, unless God calls us specifically to that work, all that is secondary.
We need to understand, from the front of our consciousness to the pit of our stomach, that we are on the front lines every bit as much as missionaries in hostile countries; and we need to understand two things about that. One, our goals and our enemies are not physical but spiritual. Political parties are not the enemy, and better laws are not the goal. Our goal is that “those who have never been told of Christ”—or worse, who have been told lies about him—“will see, and those who have never heard will understand”; and that those who do know him will be filled with his love and grace and with the desire to know him better, that we may all be able to teach one another. Everything we do should be all about the gospel of Jesus Christ, nothing else; and nothing else will heal our community or our nation.
Two, we will suffer; and though our enemy is entirely spiritual, our suffering won’t be. We will be attacked spiritually, yes, but also emotionally, financially, legally, politically, reputationally, and ultimately physically. We will hurt, and we will bleed. We cannot make the mistake of identifying success as the people of God with good circumstances, financial security, and the absence of conflict; in truth, that was always a mistake, but in times when looking Christian was part of the cultural expectation, that mistake was easier to get away with. Now, “the times, they are a-changin’,” and that’s a confusion we simply cannot afford. We need to commit to following Jesus Christ with the full understanding that following him may leave us bankrupt, despised, wounded, and maybe even imprisoned—just like Jeremiah, Paul, Jesus . . .
I say this as one to whom wisdom has come late. I’ve been praying since my early teens that God would bring revival, and that he would use me in part to do it. I’ve prayed that the Holy Spirit would work through me to win battles for the kingdom of God. At the same time, I’ve complained every time I got hurt and asked God to make life easier. He was very gentle with me—it’s only the last few years that I’ve realized that these two sets of prayers are incompatible. You can have a relatively easy life, far from the front lines, where nothing is really at stake; but if you want to win real victories, you must go to the battle, risking all. That means—that inevitably means—struggle and strife and hardship and pain; those are part of the necessary price of victory. As the Duke of Wellington said, “Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.”
I’m going to do something now, I want you to follow me carefully. Today of course is Veterans’ Day; all of you who are veterans of the American armed services, please stand. We honor you for your service, and rightly so, for it is an honorable service for those who serve with honor—and as the depressing news about General Petraeus reminds us, the hardest thing of all is to serve with honor all the way to the very end.
And in that, we profit from your example, and the reminder of your presence. You are veterans in a particular way, in a particular service to which God called you, of which the risks and the struggles show especially clearly; as such, you provide a model for us in our own service, and we need that. We need the example of Paul, who could write at the end of his life, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith”; but we need the example of those in our own day who have fought the good fight to the end, to help us do the same.
As Christians, even above our allegiance to this nation, we have a higher allegiance, for we are citizens of the kingdom of God, and we are all on active duty; we are all soldiers against the darkness. Would you all then please stand. You are all soldiers in the army of the Lord of Hosts; your battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers and authorities and rulers of the evil of this present age. You go forth not in your own strength, but in the power of the Spirit of God who is in you, to set free those who are enslaved to sin and deliver them from the hand of death, that they too may be raised up by the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus Christ our Lord. The fight will at times be fierce, but you do not fight alone, for we all go forth together; and though there will be losses, yet the victory is certain, for Christ has already won it. Let’s pray.