Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.
The reason our missions week comes to a climax today under the theme, “Is anything too hard for God?” is that Urban Ministries and Muslim Missions have this in common: They are hard. It is hard to persevere in ministry to the blatant and repulsive miseries of the city. And it is hard to break through the barriers of religious tradition in Muslim communities. The growing metropolis and the growing mosque are hard places to plow and sow and water and reap.
This question that God asks Abraham in Genesis 18:14 is a crucial missionary question: “Is anything too hard for God?”
Inspired by Dr. Conn’s reference to Henry Martyn last Sunday evening, I have spent some hours this week searching his letters and journals for evidence that this is in fact true—that in Henry Martyn’s case the question, “Is anything too hard for God?” was a critical one. I found myself moved to tears and to worship as I read this young man’s struggles, and how the greatness of God’s power sustained him again and again.
What I would like to do is tell you a little about Henry Martyn by way of introduction, then look at the biblical development of this question, “Is anything too hard for God?” and then return to Martyn’s life to illustrate how the answer to this question served his needs as a missionary and as a Christian.
Too Hard for Henry Martyn
Henry Martyn was born February 18, 1781 (206 years ago) in England. His father was well-to-do and sent his son to a fine grammar school—as they called them in those days—and then to Cambridge in 1797, when he was 16. Four years later he took highest honors in mathematics, and the year after that first prize in Latin prose composition.
He had turned his back on God as a youth, but during these days of academic achievement he became disillusioned with his dream. “I obtained my highest wishes, but was surprised to find that I had grasped only a shadow.” The death of his father, the prayers of his sister, the counsel of a godly minister and the Life and Diary of David Brainerd brought him to his knees in submission to God. And in 1802, at the age of 21, he resolved to forsake a life of academic prestige and become a missionary.
He became the assistant of Charles Simeon, the great evangelical preacher at Trinity Church in Cambridge, until his departure to India on July 17, 1805. His ministry was to be a chaplain with the East India Company. He arrived in Calcutta May 16, 1806 and the first day ashore found William Carey.
Martyn was an evangelical Anglican; Carey was a Baptist. And there was some tension over the use of liturgy. But Carey wrote that year, “A young clergyman, Mr. Martyn, is lately arrived, who is possessed of a truly missionary spirit…We take sweet counsel together, and go to the house of God as friends.”
Alongside his chaplain’s duties Martyn’s main work became translation. Carey had focused on Sanskrit and related languages of the Hindu world. Martyn decided to work in Arabic, Persian and Hindustani, the three major languages of the Muslim world. Within two years, by March, 1808, he had translated part of the Book of Common Prayer, a commentary on the parables, and the entire New Testament into Hindustani.
He was then assigned to supervise the Persian version of the New Testament. It was not so well received as the other, and his health gave way in the process. So he decided to return to England for recovery, but to go by land through Persia in the hope of revising his translation on the way.
He became so sick with tuberculosis that he could barely press on. He died among strangers in the city of Tocat in Asiatic Turkey, October 16, 1812. He was 31 years old.
What you can’t see in this overview of Martyn’s life is the inner fights and plunges of spirit that make his achievement so real and so helpful to real people. I’m persuaded that the reason David Brainerd’s Life and Diary and Henry Martyn’s Journal and Letters have had such an abiding and deep power for the cause of missions is that they portray the life of the missionary (which we all look up to) as a life of constant warfare in the soul, not a life of uninterrupted calm.
Listen to him on the boat on the way to India:
I found it hard (NOTE the word “hard”—our text is a relevant missionary text!) to realize divine things. I was more tired with desires after the world, than for two years past…The sea-sickness, and the smell of the ship, made me feel very miserable, and the prospect of leaving all the comforts and communion of saints in England, to go forth to an unknown land, to endure such illness and misery with ungodly men for so many months, weighed heavy on my spirits. My heart was almost ready to break. (Journal and Letters, p. 212)
On top of this there is a love story to tell. Martyn loved Lydia Grenfell. He didn’t feel right taking her along to India at first without going before her and proving his own reliance on God alone. But two months after he arrived in India on July 30, 1806 he wrote and proposed and asked her to come.
He waited 15 months for the reply. His journal entry on October 24, 1807 reads:
An unhappy day; received at last a letter from Lydia, in which she refuses to come, because her mother will not consent to it. Grief and disappointment threw my soul into confusion at first; but gradually, as my disorder subsided, my eyes were opened, and reason resumed its office. I could not but agree with her, that it would not be for the glory of God, nor could we expect his blessing, if she acted in disobedience to her mother. (p. 395)
He took up his pen and wrote that same day:
My dear Lydia,
Though my heart is bursting with grief and disappointment, I write not to blame you. The rectitude of all your conduct secures you from censure…Alas my rebellious heart—what a tempest agitates me! I knew not that I had made so little progress in a spirit of resignation to the Divine will. (p. 395f).
For five years he held out hope that things might change. A steady stream of letters covered the thousands of miles between India and England. “My dear Lydia” became “My dearest Lydia.” The last known letter written two months before his death (August 28, 1812) was addressed to her. It closed:
Soon we shall have occasion for pen and ink no more; but I trust I shall shortly see thee face to face. Love to all the saints.
Believe me to be yours ever,
most faithfully and affectionately,
H. Martyn (p. 466)
It was hard. But was anything too hard for God? We will return to Henry Martyn’s testimony at the end. But first let’s go to the Bible and see how this question serves the people of God.
The Impossibility of a People of God
God’s great plan of redemption—his plan to gain a people for his name from all the nations and tribes and languages, a people who trust him and love him and follow him—that plan took a decisive turn with the calling of Abraham and the great promise in Genesis 12:2, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
How was this to happen? Genesis 17 gives us part of the answer. God made a covenant with Abraham and promised to be God—a saving, blessing God—to him and his descendants. Verse 7 says, “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations.” But how are the nations to be included in this covenant of blessing? In verse 4 it says, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.” I take this to mean that the way the nations will be blessed in Abraham (as Genesis 12:3 says they will) is by becoming Abraham’s offspring by having Abraham as their father. Somehow the blessings of the covenant will reach all the nations, and yet the blessings will come only to Abraham’s seed, or offspring. Somehow Abraham is going to become the father of people from all the nations.
How can this be? The first answer is negative: it will not happen by the powers of the flesh—that is, by the powers that we humans have by nature. This is made crystal clear in the Hagar affair. Abraham sees that he has no offspring, but the promise of God (in Genesis 15:5) is that his descendants will be like the stars of heaven. So Abraham takes matters into his own hands and sleeps with Hagar, his wife’s maid.
Now he has a son, Ishmael, and God can get on with his redemptive program! A child of the flesh—a child produced with powers Abraham had by nature. And in Genesis 17:19 God said No! “But Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.”
Why? Why did God wait so long to give the promised child? Genesis 18:11 gives the answer, “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.”
According to Genesis 11:30 Sarah had always been barren, even during her childbearing years. Now she was beyond the childbearing years. Therefore now, and only now, is it time for the covenant child to be born. When all human resources are exhausted, when Abraham and Sarah are reduced to laughter at the sheer incredibility of it all—now God gives the promise, unlike all human promises—a promise that carries the power of his own fulfillment (18:14): “At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.”
God waits until it is humanly impossible for the child of the covenant to be born in order to show that it is not by human effort that the covenant people will be created. It is a work of divine and sovereign grace. The formation of a people of God for the sake of his name from all the families of the earth is not a human creation. That is why Ishmael would not qualify as the covenant child. Symbolically he stood for the work of the flesh, the product of Abraham’s presumption and unbelief.
So the question, “Is anything too hard for God?” is a question about God’s ability to create for himself a covenant people against impossible human odds. It is the great missionary question! And the answer of this story is, Yes he can, and, Yes he will. He glorifies his freedom and power by calling into being things that are not, as though they were (Romans 4:17; 1 Corinthians 1:28).
The Impossibility of a Promised Seed
But how, we ask, can all the families of the earth become part of the blessing promised to Abraham and to his seed? The New Testament answers that Jesus Christ is the seed of Abraham, and that if you are in Christ by faith, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:16, 26-29).
Is this our own doing? Have we Gentiles become Abraham’s offspring by our own power? It is not our own doing, and the New Testament makes this clear by picking up this very truth from Genesis 18:14—that nothing is too hard for God—and by applying it to the birth of Jesus, the great child of promise, and to the new birth of all his disciples.
In Luke 1:31 Gabriel tells the virgin Mary (just like God told the barren Sarah), “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” Mary asks, “How can this be, since I have no husband?” The angel answers in verse 37, “With God nothing will be impossible.”
And so again God chose a time and a person where it is humanly impossible to bring forth a child of promise. Why? To show that the creation of a covenant people does not lie in the power of man. It is God’s work, and nothing is impossible with God.
The Impossibility of Personal Salvation
But is it not our work that we are joined to Christ, and so become heirs of the promise? Does God really create covenant people at every point? Are we all aged and barren Sarahs? Are all young virgin Marys? Does not the power lie within us, without a supernatural work of God, to give up our love for this world, and join ourselves to Christ, and become part of the covenant people, and be saved?
Well, we are commended to believe, to forsake sin, to love Christ. But once more the truth of Genesis 18:14 is applied to answer this question, this time by Jesus himself (in Mark 10:27). After the rich young man had turned away from Jesus, unwilling to give up his love for the world, Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven” (v. 25). The disciples were staggered by this and said, “Then who can be saved?” To this Jesus gives the answer of Genesis 18:14, “With men (with Abrahams and Sarahs) it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God” (v. 27).
All Things Are Possible with God
What then shall we say? God’s purpose in redemptive history is to save a people for his name, to bless all the families of the earth, to gather a covenant people from all the nations and tribes and tongues, and to glorify his omnipotence and freedom by doing it where it is humanly impossible.
Can a Muslim be brought to recognize and worship the glory of Jesus Christ the God-man, crucified for sinners and risen as Lord of lords and King of kings? Can the miseries of city-dwellers be reversed and human wrecks become the children of God?
Did God bring forth the child of the covenant from fertile Hagar or barren Sarah? Did God bring forth Jesus from married Elizabeth or virgin Mary? Did he save you from unbelief by your own power or his? Is anything too hard for God?
God's Might for Henry Martyn
I said it is the great missionary question because at every turn in Scripture the point is: God intends to create a covenant people for himself against impossible human odds. So it’s not surprising this truth served the great missionary Henry Martyn. It served him in three ways: in his quest for holiness, in his ministry to the hardhearted, and in his dying.
Ten days after arriving in India he wrote,
Why cannot I be like Fletcher and Brainerd and those great men of modern times? Is anything too hard for the Lord? Cannot my stupid stony heart be made to flame with love and zeal? (p.333)
In other words, Martyn fought the fight for holiness with the truth that nothing was too hard for God, not even his own sanctification. This is our only hope.
Second, how did Martyn fight for the conversion of the hardhearted? On the boat on the way to India he would lead worship services for the ship’s passengers and crew. There was one man in particular called B. that opposed him constantly. Martyn wrote,
Heard that B. generally began to swear after divine service, at my keeping them so long. I have scarcely seen one more determinately set against holiness. Yet even this man may be the first to melt, when God puts forth his hand. (p. 218)
That was Martyn’s hope in the face of stony hearts.
Then near the end of his life, again on the boat, this time sailing for Persia, he said,
As for the Asiatics, they are in language, customs, and religion, as far removed from us, as if they were inhabitants of another planet. I speak a little Arabic sometimes to the sailors; but their contempt of the gospel, and attachment to their own superstition, make their conversion appear impossible. How stupendous that power, which can make these people followers of the Lamb, when they so nearly resemble Satan in pride and wickedness! (p. 435)
In other words, Martyn took his hope and courage and persevering strength from the truth of Genesis 18:14, Nothing is too hard for God! “How stupendous that power, which can make these people the followers of the Lamb!” He can raise up from stones children to Abraham (Matthew 3:9).
Finally, in his last illness, as he struggled to complete his translation he wrote,
If I live to complete the Persian New Testament, my life after that will be of less importance. But whether life or death be mine, may Christ be magnified in me! If he has work for me to do, I cannot die.
In other words, because nothing is too hard for God, you are immortal until the work he has for you to do is done.
Is anything too hard for God? No! No urban ministry. No Muslim mission. No sorrow over the loss of Lydia. Therefore, let us take up our calling whatever it is and say with the apostle Paul, “I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).