Good News to the Poor

Unfolding Bethlehem's Fresh Initiative #5

Our mission and Spiritual Dynamic declare that the all-satisfying supremacy of God shines most brightly through sacrificial deeds of joyful love. The cry of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our people is for a fresh, decisive emphasis on relationships of love.

Therefore we eagerly embrace God's call for new, visible manifestations of love toward each other, our guests, and our neighbors. With a fresh openness and outgoing spirit to each other and to all new people, we henceforth put understanding above accusation, forbearance above faultfinding, and biblical unity above the demand for uniformity.

Fresh Initiative 5. Good news to the poor. We will develop new strategies for proclaiming the all-satisfying supremacy of God's love and justice to the poor through 1) personal involvement; 2) a more welcoming atmosphere; 3) local missionary strategies of urban disciple making; and 4) equipping missionaries for unreached urban peoples.

Introduction: Spreading a Passion . . .

This morning we continue our unfolding of the Fresh Initiatives of the Bethlehem Mission and Vision Statement. Keep in mind why we exist: we exist "to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples." I wonder if it has hit you that the word "spread" defines us as a people on a mission for others. We used to define Bethlehem by saying: "Bethlehem is a vision of God and we exist to savor that vision in worship and strengthen that vision in nurture and spread that vision in evangelism and world missions." Notice the new priority given to the word "spread." We exist "to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples."

You may ask, "What about savoring the vision of God. What has become of that priority?" Answer: It's in the word "passion"—"passion for the supremacy of God." The supremacy of God is the vision we have of him. And our passion for this is our savoring of him and the vision we have of him. What we have, then, in our new mission statement is a declaration of God's supremacy over all things magnified and savored in the word "passion," rocketed off of this launching pad with the word "spread." In other words, the lead word "spread" signals a fresh commitment—not that we value "savoring" and "strengthening" the vision of the supremacy of God less than we used to—but that we value it so much we WILL NOT keep it to ourselves.

Savoring the supremacy of God as an end in himself—being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus—is so good that we cannot keep it to ourselves. Or: The supremacy of God that we savor in worship is the very supremacy that he exerts in saving my neighbor. And if I have a passion to see and savor that supremacy of God—as an end in itself—I must speak it and show it to my neighbor. Hence the preeminence of the word "spread."

There is a new way to say the mission of Bethlehem, because God is creating new passions in our hearts.

Bethlehem and the Reality of Poverty

This new preeminence given to "spreading" our passion for the supremacy of God leads us to Fresh Initiative #5:

We will develop new strategies for proclaiming the all-satisfying supremacy of God's love and justice to the poor through 1) personal involvement; 2) a more welcoming atmosphere; 3) local missionary strategies of urban disciple making; and 4) equipping missionaries for unreached urban peoples.

What is behind this Initiative? Why does it rank among the six fresh priorities on page three of the mission/vision statement booklet?

First some facts from the world and then some facts from the Word.

Facts from the World

Poverty is a problem out of control in a world that now has the highest standard of living of any time in history.

  • 800,000,000 people live in absolute poverty.
  • 70,000,000 are on the threshold of starvation, every day.
  • Another 400,000,000 consume less than the "minimum critical diet."
  • The infant mortality rate is 14% in the poorest third of the world as compared with 1% in the richest third of the world.
  • Half of the children of the absolute poor do not live to be 5.
  • There are 125,000,000 infant deaths a week, most preventable with simple medical care or hygiene.
  • The poor who survive the first few years will, on average, die before the age of 47, while in our third of the world we will live an average of 26 years longer.
  • 13% of the poorest third of the world will learn to read as compared with 90% of our society.
  • The average person in the poorest third of the world will earn about $300.00 this year, while the average person in the richest third of the world will earn about $18,000.00.
  • Half of the least developed countries are also the least evangelized countries. The other half have very few Christians.

One study of poverty and spiritual need expressed this observation:

The most dominant impression one gains from looking at the world in this way is that the poor are the lost and the lost are the poor. Whether one approaches the data from a desire to learn where the Good News needs to be heard, or a desire to find the poorest of the poor, the answer is the same. 

What Is Our Response to These Global Realities?

You need to know that one of the effects that these realities has on me is to incline me away from finery and the symbols of wealth. I try to keep the destitution and suffering of the world before me. I keep records of these things. I ponder them and hold them before my mind. Because I fear the inoculating effects of wealth and of fine culture on me. In other words, for me, the more I take the lost and desperate condition of the world seriously, the more uncomfortable I feel with the symbols of wealth and refinement that tend to distance me from the poor—including 195,000,000 Christian brothers and sisters in the least developed countries. I say this simply to let you know that those impulses are at work in me, and have an impact on my life and the way I feel called to do church.

Don't conclude from this that I naïvely think that the solution to poverty is for all of us to toss out our refrigerators and computers, take the bus, and close down the universities. Nobody is going to be helped by us turning our backs on the refined achievements of modern technology. In fact these things need to be used with big hearts and big discernment for the sake of the poor. But I do believe that if we could all spend a year in Dhaka, Bangladesh, or Calcutta, India, the way we think and feel about finery would be profoundly affected. I urge you to keep these realities in the circle of your awareness, lest you become anesthetized by American abundance and affluence.

Poverty Close to Home

And, of course, poverty is not just a distant thing. And, even though its a relative thing, it is close to home. Take Philips neighborhood for example. In 1990, 17,000 people lived there, where I live. The median household income was $12,254. The percent of the population living in poverty was 48.9%. In 1992 slightly more than half the children in Minneapolis (not just Philips) were receiving economic assistance. And 75% of those were living in "female headed families." Which tells us one thing about the value for kids of durable marriages. I only mention these few statistics to let you know that there are realities of poverty staring us in the face close to home as well as in the underdeveloped countries of the world.

Implications for Ministry

If our mission is to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in the salvation of the lost, what does the staggering reality of poverty imply? The study quoted above concluded like this:

If [globally speaking] the lost are the poor, and the poor are the lost, then a holistic ministry, one in which compassion, social transformation, and proclamation are inseparably related, would seem to be the strategy for this time in human history. If incarnation is the model practiced by the One who ministered to such as these, then holistic practitioners, people whose lives are eloquent concerning the values and worth of the Gospel, would seem to be the messengers of the hour.

This is the conviction behind Fresh Initiative #5—proclaiming good news to the poor. And, like most of the other Initiatives, this train is already moving. God has not waited for us to get it all together here. He is changing us in this incarnational direction, and he has burdened many of you to live and minister among the poor. Many of our missionaries work among the poor. Jim and Raquel Bloom have moved into the Gate House on a mission of discipling among the urban poor at 2910 Bloomington Ave. And the evangelistic cell-group in this connection just divided into two. Not to mention the ministries of Masterworks and involvement at Elliot Twins and Marie Sandvig and others.

The train is already moving. And one of the clearest signs that God is in this is that he is "doing the vision" before we do any pushing.

What I would like to do, then, is simply awaken you to the biblical pattern of care about the poor, with the prayer that God would make it a priority in our Christian living and ministry.

Remember the Poor

In Galatians 2:9–10 Paul tells us about the time he and Barnabas met with Peter, James, and John to come to terms about the gospel. The upshot of that meeting was unity of purpose and different missions. Here's the way Paul recorded it:

James and Cephas and John . . . gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we might go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. (10) They only asked us to remember the poor—the very thing I also was eager to do.

Isn't it remarkable that out all the things Paul could have chosen to highlight, the one he chose was that both major apostolic bands—the Paul circle and the Peter circle—ended their summit meeting with the agreement that in all their work remembering the poor would have an essential place? That says to me: make this ministry essential.

God Chose the Poor of This World 

Why is that? Well there are some evidences that God himself has a special merciful blessing for the poor. For example, in James 2:2–5 James is tackling the problem of partisanship toward the rich in the church. One of the reasons he gives why this is so wrong is that God's orientation to the poor is very different:

For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, 3 and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, "You sit here in a good place," and you say to the poor man, "You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool," 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? 5 Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?

So it appears that God intends to turn our natural bent upside down by bringing poor people to faith. They don't give as much to your church, and they don't make a splash in the media. And so they don't gratify the lust of the flesh and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). So God calls them.

Invite the Poor, Crippled, Blind, and Lame 

And Jesus told us to call them. In Luke 14 he said,

Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and crippled and blind and lame . . . When you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous (Luke 14:21; 14:13–14).

Incarnational Ministry 

And this command fit in with his whole ministry—which is what Christmas is all about too—namely, his incarnation. He moved from infinite wealth to poverty and finally destitution for the sake of our salvation. 2 Corinthians 8:9 puts it like this:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.

And when Paul pondered how that should affect his own ministry strategy, he chose a lean, wartime, missionary way of life. In 2 Corinthians 6:10 he describes himself, "poor, yet making many rich" (just like Jesus). In other words he chose to do what Jesus did in coming to earth.

The fact that Jesus was born to a poor couple in a cow stall tells us something about the way God meant to reach the world.

And when he entered his ministry he did two things: he declared with his mouth that he was sent to the poor; and he declared with his life that he would be among the poor. In Luke 4:18 he said, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor." And in Matthew 8:20 he said, "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head."

Conclusion 

There are many more texts—literally hundreds more in the Bible—that make an incarnational proclamation of the gospel to the poor a high priority. But these are enough this morning to shed God's light on Fresh Initiative #5. We will do it, God helping us, by

  1. personal involvement;
  2. a more welcoming atmosphere;
  3. local missionary strategies of urban disciple making; and
  4. equipping missionaries for unreached urban peoples

May God give us a mind to dream and a heart to love—so that we spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples—especially the poor.

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