Cities of Ruthless Nations Will Revere Thee
O Lord, Thou art my God; I will exalt Thee, I will give thanks to Thy name; for Thou hast worked wonders, plans formed long ago, with perfect faithfulness. For Thou hast made a city into a heap, a fortified city into in ruin; a palace of strangers is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt. Therefore a strong people will glorify Thee; cities of ruthless nations will revere Thee. For Thou hast been a defense for the helpless, a defense for the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shade from the heat; for the breath of the ruthless is like a rain storm against a wall. Like a heat in drought, Thou dost subdue the uproar of aliens; like heat by the shadow of a cloud, the song of the ruthless is silenced. And the Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain; a banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, and refined, aged wine. And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples, even the veil which is stretched over all nations. He will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, and He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken.
We have always believed at Bethlehem that a great and indispensable motivation in world missions is HOPE. By hope I mean the confidence that we are engaged in a cause that will triumph in the end. No life laid down in the cause of world evangelization is laid down in vain. No dollar given is in vain. No sermon preached is in vain. No prayer offered is in vain. No candle of gospel light is ever lit in vain. Our energy and sacrifice and focus is sustained by HOPE—the confidence that God's kingdom will triumph in the world.
This passage in Isaiah is a picture of that hope. Don't worry that you can't answer all the timing questions and all the detail questions about how the triumph of God will eventually come. This text doesn't answer all our questions about the end. What Old Testament prophets do again and again is give us a picture of the final day of victory—from one angle and then from another angle. Each time the aim is that we take heart, give God the glory, and press on in hope-filled allegiance to Christ and hope-filled missions.
So what I want to do this morning is focus our attention for a few minutes on this picture of God's victory, then jump to the New Testament where the power of God begins to triumph in a particular Roman city, and then jump to Bethlehem as a support base for missions in this city and around the world.
Isaiah's Vision of God's Victory
First then, let's look at what Isaiah sees. What he sees stretches from eternity past to eternity future. It is a huge vision. Look first at verse 1: "O Lord, Thou art my God; I will exalt Thee, I will give thanks to Thy name; for Thou hast worked wonders, plans formed long ago, with perfect faithfulness." Here's where I get the idea that Isaiah's vision stretches into eternity past: God had made plans "long ago in perfect faithfulness." And now he is bringing his plans to pass in working wonders.
The God Who Plans
God is a planning God. He gives forethought to what he does. He is wise. And if you believe that he is all-knowing, then he is never playing catch-up ball. He takes all his knowledge into account in making all his plans. He is never caught off guard. If a football team wins with a 50 yard field goal in the last three seconds, you might call that a minor wonder. But in God's case, Isaiah says, his wonders are planned. If he wins in the last three seconds of the battle with an arrow shot on a venture, he planned it that way. God never "gets lucky." Isaiah likes to stress this (cf. 46:9–10). It gives God more glory than if his wonders had to fit into the random flow of history without plan.
Isaiah's Glimpse into Eternity Future
Then look at verses 6–8 to see Isaiah's glimpse into eternity future. Robert Burns the Scottish poet once said that he could never read these verses, especially verse 8, without tears. They are one of the most remarkable prophesies in all the Old Testament.
And the Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples [NOTE: all the peoples!] on this mountain; a banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, and refined, aged wine. 7 And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples, even the veil which is stretched over all nations [the veil represents sorrow and mourning, which is explained in the next verse]. 8 He will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, and He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken.
So Isaiah sees the day coming when all the nations—representatives from all the people groups—will no longer be at odds with Yahweh, the God of Israel and his Messiah, whom we know to be Jesus. They will no longer worship Bel or Nebo or Molech or Allah or Buddha or utopian social programs or capitalistic growth possibilities or ancestors or animistic spirits. Instead they will come in faith to the banquet on God's mountain. And they will have the veil of sorrow removed and death shall be swallowed up and the reproach of God's people will be removed and tears shall be gone forever.
Even the "Strong People" Will Worship God
That's the setting for understanding the vision of verse 3: "Therefore a strong people will glorify Thee; cities of ruthless nations will revere Thee." In other words God is stronger than the "strong people" and he is so powerful and so gracious that in the end he will turn ruthless nations to revere him. This is part of what verse 6 means when it says that God will prepare a banquet for "all peoples"—all peoples including the strong people and the ruthless nations that had opposed him and worshiped idols and fought against his people.
So the picture Isaiah gives us is one of all nations turned to God in worship, a great banquet for all the peoples, the removal of all suffering and grief and reproach from the nations who have become his people, and the final putting away of death forever. This triumph is sure because God is doing it. As verse 1 says, he planned it long ago and he is working wonders to bring it to pass. Therefore we can be certain of it. Not one life spent in the cause of world evangelization is spent in vain. Not one prayer or one dollar or one sermon or one letter of encouragement mailed or one little light shining in some dark place—nothing in the cause of the advancing kingdom is in vain. The triumph is sure.
What moved us to choose this picture of hope for Missions Fest '94 is the reference to cities in verse 3: "Cities of ruthless nations will revere thee." This seemed to be significant to the apostle Paul in his missionary strategy in the first century, and it is increasingly significant to us in a world where the nations are moving to the cities in unprecedented ways.
The New Testament: Paul's Missionary Strategy
So let's jump now to the New Testament. Paul's mission strategy was to go from city to city and plant the church. From the city the surrounding area was evangelized. For example in Acts 19:10 Luke says that because of Paul's two year investment in Ephesus "all Asia heard the word of the Lord."
Let's take one example and apply it to Bethlehem. When Paul was in Asia Minor (Turkey) in Troas, he saw the vision of the man saying, "Come over into Macedonia and help us" (Acts 16:9). Here's the way Luke describes Paul's strategy as he sailed across the 100 miles or so of the northern Agean Sea:
Setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace [a little island on the way], and the following day to Neapolis [the coastal city, but not the main city], and from there to Philippi, which is the leading city of the district of Macedonia, and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days.
And then Luke devotes a whole chapter, Acts 16, to what happened in this leading city and Roman colony of Macedonia.
It was a city on the Ignatian Way—the main highway across Macedonia between Asia and Italy. It was a city of nations. It was strategic politically and geographically. And it was without God. It was pagan and diverse. There was the imperial cult that deified the Caesar. There were the Greek gods with their temples and altars and Latin names: Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Mars. Artemis had her cult under the name Bendis. And there were sanctuaries to the gods of Egypt, especially Isis and Serapis, as well as the Phrygian Cybele known as the great mother-goddess. It was, to use the words of Isaiah, a city of ruthless nations that Paul wanted to see revere God.
So he focused his evangelistic effort there, and a church was planted. Paul wrote one of his most affectionate letters to them. From what he says they seemed to be the church that supported him financially better than any other (Philippians 4:15). And archaeological evidence shows that the church was there in the 2nd–4th centuries and two large basilicas have been uncovered from the 5th or 6th century. Many had come to revere the true God in this city of nations.
Bethlehem Baptist Church
Now to connect this city to Bethlehem, turn with me to 2 Corinthians 8:1–2. I wrote about this in the Star this week so as to give it a double impact. Let me explain the connection in my mind before I read it.
About two weeks ago I was praying about our financial situation at the church seeking some encouragement and assurance from the Lord that we could actually meet our total and mission commitments this year in view of the fact that we still need something less than $400,000 by year's end. This is the farthest behind we have ever been at this point in the year. The main reason is plain. We have lost a significant number of givers this year.
The Triumph of God's Grace Among the Poor Macedonians
I believe the Lord led me to this passage in 2 Corinthians because of a few remarkable parallels with our situation. These verses are a description of what the grace of God did in Macedonia, especially Philippi when Paul focused his evangelism on that city of pagan nations.
Now, brethren, we wish to make known to you the grace of God which has been given in the churches of Macedonia [i.e., Philippi!], 2 that in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality.
In other words Paul describes the triumph of God's grace (v. 1!) in this city in terms of how the new Christians became generous with their money in supporting Paul's mission, and especially his collection for Jerusalem.
Resulting in a Strange Kind of Math
As this city of ruthless nations comes under the powerful sway of God's grace, a very strange kind of math happens: It goes like this. You can see it in verse 2:
Great ordeal of affliction
+ Deep poverty
+ Abundance of Joy
= Wealth of liberality
Verse 2: "In a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality." This is strange: affliction plus poverty plus joy equals great generosity. The name of that math is supernatural "grace."
The Parallel with Our Situation
The parallel with our situation is striking: We have been through "a great ordeal of affliction." As a result there is a kind of "poverty"—numerous givers are gone. So we qualify for two of the three components of this math: affliction and (comparative) "poverty" (even though we are very wealthy by world standards!).
The big question is, will the third component in the equation take place this fall at Bethlehem—abundance of joy? Affliction + poverty + joy = generosity.
The Response of Our Staff
Here's the answer of the staff.
I told them two weeks ago that we need another $400,000 to meet our expenses this year (not counting the building fund). I explained that after subtracting the children and the departures from our regular giving units (= envelope boxes), there are about 500 left.
$400,000 divided by 500 = $800. That's what each giving unit at Bethlehem would need to give on average by the end of the year—not above what you already give, just total giving. I realize that $800 between now and the end of the year is like tithing on an annual salary of $48,000 (which most our units don't make). But my guess is that a lot of the 500 units have not been tithing during the year, and $800 would only catch them up to where they perhaps should have been. Others will go far beyond their tithe. Others will have to give less than $800 and God will see it as more (and treat it like loaves and fishes).
All this does not take into account the unpredictable gifts that come to us from outside the church. This is always one of God's wonderful wildcards.
I asked the staff to pray and make pledges for this year-end effort, and give it to me anonymously. I have 17 commitments in hand. The average is $1,069.70 per giving unit for the rest of the year (33% above the $800 needed). This includes pastors, assistants, receptionists, custodians.
I hope this remarkable commitment of the staff to the future of our church releases in you the crucial component of God's math called GRACE: abundance of joy. I hope you will join us in this strange and wonderful math.
Bethlehem Is a Mission by God's Grace
Bethlehem is not content to merely sustain a local ministry to each other, though we believe that is crucial. We are de facto a mission. We are a support base for people in at least 18 countries. We are a mission. Here are the numbers to demonstrate it.
The missions portion of our budget has grown from an actual disbursement in 1982 of $71,473 to $452,550 in 1993, more than a six-fold increase.
The missions percentage of the budget has risen from 22% in 1982 to 34% last year. These are actual numbers, not just projections.
But perhaps the most significant statistic is this one: While the percentage for missions has increased from 22% to 34% of the budget, the percentage for pastors' and staff compensation between 1982 and 1993 has decreased from 52% to 43%.
What this means is that the grace of God described in 2 Corinthians 8:1–2 has also been manifest in our midst. We are the beneficiaries of immense, undeserved blessing and power. God has graced us in spite of all our sin. He loves his mission.
Joyful and Confident in God
We have every reason to be confident in him and joyful in him. The staff are committed 133% to you and to this mission. We have put our money where our ministry is. We would like you to join us—first in the joy, then in the giving.
Great affliction + deep poverty + abundant joy = great generosity.
The key to this joy will be the vision of Isaiah 25: that the cause of God we are investing in cannot fail. All the nations will turn to God in worship. God will spread a great banquet for all the peoples. Cities of ruthless nations will revere him. He will remove all suffering and grief and reproach from his people; and he will put away death forever.
Therefore, when it comes to world missions not one life, not one prayer, or one dollar, or one sermon, or one letter of encouragement, or one little light shining in some dark place—nothing in the cause of God's advancing kingdom will ever be vain.