Almost everywhere Jesus went, crowds gathered to hear him or to receive his touch. And when he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. On one of these occasions he turned and said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest" (Matthew 9:36–37).
A Great Harvest of Hurting Sheep
One of the remarkable facts of our time is the massive migration of people—like sheep without a shepherd—into the larger cities all over the world. They come trying to find a better life. North Africans to Paris, Vietnamese to Hong Kong, Salvadoreans to Los Angeles. Refugees from wars, victims of racism, rural poverty, or natural disasters. Sometimes political exiles and sometimes just exiles from hope—trying to escape disease, famine, violence, poverty, loneliness.
Combine this with the ever-growing throng of children (the lambs without a shepherd)—orphans, runaways, throwaways, impoverished—many of them victimized by thriving child pornography and prostitution rackets.
Then add the reality that for most of them (the sheep and the lambs) the city doesn't bring hope, but rather homelessness, crime, alcoholism, drug addiction, unemployment, and miseries beyond description.
Add to this the fact that not all the harassed and helpless sheep without a shepherd come to the cities, but live in millions of rural villages where there is no witness to Christ.
These realities pose a very serious question for us who sit here in comfort surrounded by technological benefits (lighting, heat, refrigeration, transportation, medicine, schools, radio and television, literature, computers, food, sports). The question is this: What is life for in this age before Jesus comes? What should we do with our lives? Does the misery and lostness of most of the world mean that we can just go on our way with goals for comfort and security? Do we look upon the misery of the nations with disgust and blame, or do we see them as Jesus did, like sheep without a shepherd, and say, "The harvest is great but the laborers are few"?
An Age of Misery and Lostness
In Afghanistan the life expectancy of men is 36 years. In Guinea 38, Ethiopia 39, Mozambique and Congo 44, Nigeria 46. In America it is 72 and Japan 75.
There are 825,000,000 adults in the world today who are illiterate—they can't read—can't read the Bible, can't read a tract, can't read the instructions on a can of soup. The number is increasing, not decreasing. Between 1960 and 1980 the number of illiterate men grew by 20 million and women by 74 million.
In the world today, one out of every three deaths is the death of a child under five. 125,000 children die every week from malnutrition and simple infections that we control with inexpensive vaccinations.
In America there are 546,000 doctors, 133,000 dentists, and 1.5 million nurses. In India, with three and a half times the number of people, there are half the number of doctors, 90% fewer nurses, and 93% fewer dentists.
In the entire country of Mozambique where Quintin and Debbie Reece are going, with 16 million people, there are only 279 doctors, 96 dentists and 2,600 nurses. In Guinea where our Maninka team is heading, with almost seven million people there are 300 doctors, 21 dentists, and 1,600 nurses.
David Barrett, the world's leading authority on missions statistics, points out in this year's statistical table (International Bulletin of Missionary Research, vol. 14, no. 1, Jan. 1991) that 23% of the world is totally ignorant of Christianity, Christ, and the gospel. That's 1.2 billion people in thousands of unreached people groups after 2,000 years under the standing orders of King Jesus to go and make disciples of all nations.
Less than 9% of all Christian missionaries are targeting the ethnic groups that these people are in. Less than 1% of the income of the Christian world is spent on reaching the unreached peoples.
What Are We to Do with Our Lives?
The question this raises is: What is our life for in this age of misery and lostness until Jesus come? What are we to do with our lives? What are we here for?
Last Sunday night Bill Waldrop gave a powerful message on "The Glory of God and You." He quoted some of Jesus' final words to his Father from John 17:4. Jesus said to his Father, "I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work which you gave me to do."
Waldrop said, "I want to be able to say that same thing when my death draws near." "I have glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work you gave me to do." That hit me with tremendous power. And my heart said, "Yes, Lord, that's what I want to say too." I want to live my life in this age of massive misery and lostness so that when I die, I can look up from my bed, not with any pretense of perfection, not with any illusions of my indispensability, but with faith and hope in Jesus my Savior, and say, "I have glorified you, Father, on earth, having accomplished the work you gave me to do."
From Success to Significance
Waldrop said that he has spent a lot of time in his career working with men. He said that he has noticed that somewhere around the age of 50 the question men ask starts to change. The question stops being so much one of success and becomes more and more one of significance. Men start to realize that, as the end of their lives approaches, the question, "Have I been a success?" starts to seem unimportant compared to the question, "Has my life been significant?" "Have I spent my time on the things that matter most?" One of my goals this morning is to get you to ask that question long before you turn 50, or for some of you, long after you turned 50.
This is not an easy question. I don't think God means for it to be easy. I think God means for us to be on our faces before him presenting our bodies—our lives—as living sacrifices, for him to use in any way, anywhere, anytime he pleases for the greatest good of the world and the greatest glory of his name.
He means for children, as soon as they know Christ as Lord and Savior, to be praying: "Jesus, I will go anywhere and do anything anytime you say. Just show me and help me. I want my life to count for you in the midst of all the spiritual and physical poverty of the world."
He means for adults, in every vocation, to pray, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. I am willing to stay in this job for your glory. And I am willing to be deployed in a totally new frontier for your glory. But whatever you do, Lord, don't let me waste my life on insignificant pursuits. Don't let me live for luxury while millions live without Christ and without hope. Let me accomplish the work that you gave me to do for your glory."
Life is very short. James says, "What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes" (James 4:14). And eternity is very long. Are you living your life as though it were a breath of vapor just before everlasting joy? Or are you living your life as though it were the only chance you will have to be comfortable, the only chance you will have to buy fun things, the only chance to have a home to get away from it all, the only chance to buy your dream cottage, the only chance to play games?
Our Need for Stillness and Reflection
One of the reasons we invest our lives in some insignificant ways is that we never become still enough to let the great realities hit us. We are always on the move. Always in a hurry. Or when we do stop, we flip on the radio or the TV and let somebody else's hurry fill our minds.
Psalm 46:10 says, "Be still [or cease striving, cease hurrying, be still, be quiet] and know that I am God. I am [or: will be, it's probably a promise] exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!"
What that text says is that the life-revolutionizing impact of God's supremacy in the world and his inevitable triumph over the nations, and the coming of his glorious kingdom of righteousness and peace—the impact of this awesome reality doesn't hit us and hold us and shape us unless we become still, and quiet before God. GOD hits home in the stillness. If you want your life to be significant, you've got to stop running, and stop scurrying about, and turn off the TV and the radio, and get alone, and be quiet, and let the mammoth realities of human lostness and eternal judgment and never-ending joy and God's universal triumph take hold of you and change your life.
Stillness and Quietness, Seven Miles Above the Earth
The great, significant realities in life grip us in moments of quietness before the Lord. This happens to me when I leave home and I am alone, especially flying on an airplane. Friday night I flew in from Boston. So I had about two and a half hours, seven miles above the earth in the dark night sky, to think about my life and my family and my ministry. Minneapolis looked very small and the sky above looked very big. And I felt again the overwhelming emotion that in a vapor's breath I will be in the presence of Jesus. I will give an account to God for my life. And my remaining years seemed so short.
I had just spent the day on Thursday visiting Northampton, MA, where Jonathan Edwards preached for 23 years; and Stockbridge where he ministered to the Indians for eight years and wrote The Freedom of the Will and Original Sin and The End for Which God Created the World; and South Windsor, CT, where he was born. I saw a huge oak tree in the church yard where his father was pastor and I knew it had to be as old as the early 1700s, and that Jonathan Edwards had probably climbed in it as a boy.
And in the plane it was a profound thought that Edwards is gone but that his life was really significant. He knew how to be still and know that God is God. Scarcely anyone in American history has known better that God is God. He left behind a tremendous legacy of God-exalting faithfulness.
In the stillness of those moments in the plane (and some more like them yesterday) some things became very clear. I only mention this because I hope it might stir you up to take stock here at the end of Missions Fest to see if God is willing a mid-course correction in your life's trajectory.
What came clear in the stillness was at least this much: I want to leave behind four God-centered sons; I want to leave behind a loved and honored and cherished wife; I want to leave behind a strong, biblically grounded, Christ-exalting, radically obedient, God-enjoying church; and I want to leave behind a written testimony to the truth of God, and the supremacy of God, and the beauty of God, and the worth of God in all of life. And to that end I want to keep my life free from the love of money, and the praise of men, and the power of position, and any impurity that would dull my delight in God.
If you let yourself be still this morning and know that God is God, that he will be exalted among the nations, that his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, that your life here is very short, then you will see what your life is supposed to be. God will make your unique significance plain.
God Is Your Refuge and Strength
And you will follow his lead if you believe that he is your refuge and strength, which is what verse 1 says: "God is our refuge and strength." People turn away from the risks of significance and choose the brief security of success because they don't really believe this—that God is their strength, and God is refuge, and God is their defender and their refreshment.
But I want you to believe it. Look at the connection between verses 2–3 and verse 6. "Though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam . . . " The words for "shake" and "roar" are the same Hebrew words used in verse 6: "The nations rage [roar] and the kingdoms totter [shake]."
The point of using these same words like this is to show that whether the threat to us is from nature (with earthquakes and floods and storms, verses 1–3) or from political upheaval and wars (verse 6)—whether our world is shaking from nature or from the nations, God is our refuge.
And not just a refuge but an active counter force and a source of peace and refreshment. Verse 6b says that God's response to the raging nations is this: "He utters his voice and the earth melts." His response to dangerous seas that roar and foam is to become for us (note verse 4) another kind of water—river (not a tumultuous sea)—a river whose streams make glad the city of God.
This is the secret this morning to whether you will choose significance or mere success: The risks of significance turn out to be no risk at all if you believe that God is your refuge and strength and defender and refreshment. I pray that you will believe it and that God will make plain the path of significance.