Missions Within the Greatest Story

Welcome, once again, to Grace Church’s annual missions week. Let’s take a moment to thank the entire missions team for working so hard to put this together for us. And let’s take a moment to thank Kyle in particular for the countless hours of prayer and leadership that he put in to make this week happen.

Missions, as we understand it, is crossing a significant cultural barrier to make disciples because of our love for God and people. In other words, it is an intentional attempt to glorify God by calling people from different cultural contexts to follow Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The missions team asked me to open missions week by preaching on the necessity of doing this (of doing missions) out of a clear understanding of the overall story of God. If we are to rightly engage in missions, then, we must be clear on the importance and nature of the Greatest Story.

To that end, therefore, I hope to do three things for you this morning. First, I want to help you see that we all live out of a story whether we realize it or not. Second, I want to help you to understand the key elements of God’s story, the Greatest Story. And third, I want to help you to see several implications of all this for missions. Please pray with me that as a result of these things, we would more eagerly give ourselves to supporting the discipleship of the world.

We all live our lives in light of the story that we tell ourselves. That is, every one of us has a set of beliefs that determine how we understand the world around us. Our story is the sum of our answers to questions like:

  • Who am I?
  • Why am I here?
  • What is valuable?
  • What is good?
  • What is fair?
  • What is owed to me?
  • What do I owe the people around me?
  • Is this world all that exists?

It is impossible to function without answers to these questions; without a driving story.

For instance, if, as has been the case in many cultures throughout history, your story includes the belief that the point of raising boys is to produce warriors capable of conquering and defending, then that will shape virtually everything about your parenting—food, clothing, housing, friendships, education, even the ways in which you show affection.

Likewise, if you believe the purpose of child rearing is to give kids the most comfortable life possible, that too will determine what you feed them, how you cloth them, where you shelter them, who you encourage them to hang out with, what you teach them, and how you communicate love to them.

The warrior parent will not be able to make sense of the comfort parent’s decision to put their kids in a climate-controlled classroom, listening to lectures all day in the middle of the suburbs, while the comfort parent will likely be appalled by the warrior parent’s decision to train their 5 year old to fight and survive off of things they can gather and kill in the wilderness.

Both parents are merely living out of the story they believe and their decisions make perfect sense (but only make sense) within their story.

If, in your story, heaven is only accessible on the back of a comet, that belief will spread throughout your entire life. Because of that story you’ll give yourself to astronomy, view yourself as courageous for not being like the rest of the sheep, and own a lot of tin foil. Those things will make perfect sense to you, but not to people who believe a different story.

If your story includes the belief that people are basically good, that too will affect everything about you. Among many other things, you’ll be a more trusting person, you’ll vote for less military spending, and you’ll see prisons as corrective rather than punitive institutions.

If you believe that the government is inherently corrupt and diabolical, you’ll live further off the grid, be skeptical of its programs, and spend more time taking in alternative media sources.

If your story, like mine was as a kid, is driven by the belief that video games and candy are the root of all good, then you’ll eagerly give your money and health over to those things.

If you believe that everything in nature is better than everything in the lab, you’ll eat organic.

It was Noah’s story that led him to build an arc in the desert—that God can be trusted for everything.

It was Saul’s story that drove him to attempt to kill David—that power was his to wield.

It was Daniel’s story that caused him to refuse to eat the king’s food—that death was preferable to disobedience.

It was Stephen’s story that made him prefer to be stoned rather than faithless—that Jesus is supreme.

And it is your story that causes you to overspend or over eat. What is it?

It’s your story that drives you to be mean to your brother or sister and disobedient to your parents. What is it?

It’s your story that makes you want to be generous with your neighbor and helpful to the person broken down on the side of the road. What is it?

It is your story that caused you to chose the friends and the job and the house you chose. What is it?

And it’s your story that led you to come here this morning. What is it?

The examples and questions are, of course, endless, but this is how mankind has always functioned. Living out of a story is hardwired into our very natures. It is a part of our God-given ontology.

Throughout history there have been a number of stories that have gained mass appeal and longevity. In general, the most wide-spread and enduring world views have been religions (like Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and, of course, Christianity) and secular philosophies (like Communism, Marxism, Naturalism, Humanism, and Darwinian Evolution).

Most people today, however (in my experience at least), tend not to be very concerned with living in light of a single, consistent story. That is, most people that I encounter like to start with one main story that seems to best suit them, borrow appealing bits and pieces from other stories, mix everything without much awareness of or concern for inconsistencies, and then continue to adapt as desired. We are (unfortunately) largely a proudly syncretistic people.

My simple point is this: Almost everything that everyone does, thinks, and feels is rooted in a story they’ve come to believe. Therefore, it is absolutely critical for us to consider what our driving story is and where it came from.

In light of the things I just shared, I imagine that it’s easy for you to see that there are billions of stories driving the world today. Everyone’s story is at least slightly different from everyone else’s story. There is great value in understanding that and seeking to listen to people as they share theirs.

However, what the world needs most (in spite of what it might believe) is not for us to validate their versions of realty. Instead, what the world needs most is for us to help them conform their stories to the one true story; to the Greatest Story; to God’s story. When we do that locally, we call it ministry. When we do that across a significant cultural barrier, we call it missions.

Let’s take a few moments, then, to consider God’s grand story (before concluding with a few specific implications of this for missions). One helpful way of summarizing it is with four key words: creation, fall, redemption, restoration.

(I start each section with a quote from Trevin Wax’s book, “Counterfeit Gospels,” since he captures so well and so succinctly the essence of each point.)

Creation (Genesis 1-2)
“One Hebrew word sums up the picture of Genesis 1 and 2: shalom. Peace. Earth was full of God’s shalom, the kind of peace in which everything works according to God’s intention. The world was made for human flourishing, there we could live in joy in the presence of our Maker, worshiping God by loving Him and one another forever.”

Warden and Wolf King
God made all that exists (people and places and institutions) and he made them very good. Everything, as Wax wrote and as Peterson tried to capture, originally functioned just as it was intended, in perfect efficiency, fruitfulness, and joy. There was no death and no discouragement, no barrenness and no disease, no tension and no pain, there was no want and no lack. Everything was as it was supposed to be. In perfect wisdom and love and power God ruled over his creation, and in perfect trust, love, and satisfaction, his creation submitted to and delighted in God’s rule.

Fall (Genesis 3)
“Adam and Eve rejected God’s rule over them. We refer to their rebellious choice as ‘the fall,’ and because the represented all of humanity, their action affects us too. We have—through our attitudes and actions—declared ourselves to be God’s enemies. This rebellion results in physical and spiritual death.”

In forsaking God, Adam and Eve brought a curse down upon all of creation. This is the reason why life can be so hard. This is why it is so difficult to know what’s right, to want what’s right, and to do what’s right. This is the reason for every unfulfilled desire you’ve ever had. This is the cause of all pain, sickness, and suffering. This is the cause of every broken relationship and institution. Most significantly, it is the cause of our enmity with God and his wrath for us.

Redemption (John 3:16)
“Thankfully the loving Creator who rightly shows Himself to be wrathful toward our sin is determined to turn the evil and suffering we have caused into good that will be to His ultimate glory. So the next movement shows God implementing a master plan for redeeming His world and rescuing fallen sinners. In the Person of Jesus Christ, God Himself comes to renew the world and restore His people. The grand narrative of Scripture climaxes with the death and resurrection of Jesus.”

Oh, what mercy, what grace, what glory! The Victim of our treason became the Victor of our salvation. The Judge pronounced the verdict and then stepped in to take the punishment. The Forsook became the Forsaken on our behalf. The Just became the Justifier. And all of that is to be received not based on our merit, but God’s grace. Our access to the atoning work of Jesus is not ours through works, but faith. What a story.

Restoration (Revelation 21)
“The story doesn’t end with redemption. God has promised to renew the whole world, and the Bible gives us a peak into this glorious future. The restoration of all things will take place in two ways. Christ will return to judge sin and evil, and He will usher in righteousness and peace. God will purge this world of evil once and for all.”

The final chapter of the Greatest Story is not a clean slate (though we get that). It is not even reconciliation with God in our wounded state (though we get that too in this life). The final chapter is one of complete restoration. Not only are our sins forgiven and communion with God reestablished, but every effect of the fall will be undone. Every disease will be cured and every wound healed. Every weakness will be strengthened and every longing fulfilled. We will, once again, walk in joy with God, all things will be for our flourishing, and we will worship God by loving him and one another forever!

That is God’s simple, yet all encompassing story, our place in it, and the eternal hope it offers. It is a story that can and must shape every single decision of our lives. It is the only true story. It is the only story that we can safely and rightly build our lives upon. It is the only story of supreme glory and joy. It is the only story that truly contains all that we were made for and need. Conversely, every slight alteration or significant alternative, is a lie and can only lead to frustration and death. Whenever we live out of any other story we will live in a manner that is inconsistent with the world around us and who we really are.

And so Grace, please hear this: this story is not only for you and I. It is the only hope of the nations. It is the only story that allows any of us (regardless of tribe, tongue, or nation) to really make sense of the world, ourselves, and God. This story is critical, therefore, for our lives and for missions.

Indeed, as Bruce Ashford put it, “In order to build a biblical-theological framework for understanding God’s mission, the church’s mission, and the church’s mission to the nations, one must first understand the unified biblical narrative, including its four major plot movements–creation, fall, redemption, and restoration” (Theology and Practice of Mission, 6).

I’d like to close, then, by offering three missionary implications of living out of God’s story.

Implication #1: Missionaries Must Frame the Gospel within the Greatest Story
Many of the unreached parts of the world do not (or no longer) understand themselves in light of the creation, fall, redemption, restoration storyline. What we generally (though decreasingly) assume, cannot be assumed elsewhere. That is a significant problem because only within this story can the gospel be properly framed.

Just as the warrior parent cannot truly understand the comfort parent’s suburban inclinations apart from understanding his larger story, neither can the nations truly make sense of the gospel apart from grasping its place within the larger story of God.

“If the story line of creation, fall, redemption, and [restoration] fails to frame every aspect of our lives…we are prone, like the Israelites of old, to chase after other story lines, and ultimately, after other gods” (Timothy Paul Jones, Family Ministry: Living in the Right Story).

Such is the burden and charge of missionaries, therefore: to help the nations understand the gospel within its proper context. Only then will they be able to see it as beautiful, good, and true. Of course apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit all the things of God will all remain folly, and yet, only in light of the Greatest Story does the gospel shine brightest.

The first implication of all of this for missions is that we (those who would train and send and support and go as missionaries) must know and love and send/take this story along with the gospel if we want to rightly frame the gospel and its significance.

Implication #2: The Greatest Story Necessitates Missions
The second implication of God’s story for missions is that it necessitates missions. It logically necessitates missions. Within the Greatest Story missions is the only thing that makes sense. Until restoration is complete, the Greatest Story, rightly understood, compels us to go to the nations. Since, from this story we know that mankind is fallen and condemned by nature, that God only rescues through faith in the gospel, and that God has determined his people to be the primary communicators of the gospel, the story compels us to share the good news with the world. We simply cannot truly believe God’s story as God’s word communicates it and not give ourselves to missions any more than we can believe that a house is on fire and not flee from it.

The Greatest Story emotionally necessitates missions. Truly living in light of it necessarily means that God has filled with His love for hostile strangers such that staying isn’t even an option. The Greatest Story is one in which we love, radically love, because God first loved us. And what could love mean if not bringing the Greatest News.

And the Greatest Story commandily necessitates missions. Living within it means living under the Lordship of Jesus. And as Lord, with all authority on heaven and earth, Jesus commanded us to make disciples of all nations—to engage in missions. Within the Greatest Story Jesus’ commands are not only compelling, but sweet.

We must send, therefore, within this story, knowing that it might end in suffering and death. We must send, therefore, with shocking generosity. We must send, therefore, even our kids should God call them. We must send, therefore, with the aim of doing everything possible to provide everything necessary (spiritually, financially, prayerfully, logistically, emotionally, etc.) to keep our missionaries free to joyfully focus on the discipleship of the nations. And we must send, therefore, according to this story, in astonishing love.

What’s more, this story necessitates that all of us not only send, but also that we consider whether God has called us to go. The Greatest Story necessitates missions, which means that necessarily God has called some of us (many of us?) to go. As has been said, if you have never seriously questioned whether or not you’ve been called, you probably don’t really understand your place within the story of God.

Only within this story is missions not only reasonable, but necessary.

Implication #3: The Greatest Story Makes Every Missionary Sacrifice Gain
Only within this story is every missionary sacrifice gain. Consider what this has meant for missionaries in history and in our church.

  • Consider the apostle Paul, missionary to the known world – “imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times… received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times … beaten with rods. Once … stoned. Three times … shipwrecked; a night and a day … adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from [his] own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there [was] the daily pressure …of anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28). And yet he is the one who said “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
  • Consider Jim Elliot, missionary to the Waodani tribe in Ecuador – Murdered by the spears of those he left everything to reach. And yet he is the one who said “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose”.
  • Consider John Paton, missionary to a cannibal people – Spent a night in a tree as the cannibals he’d come to reach sought to murder him. And yet he said, “If I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms.”
  • Consider William Carey, missionary to India – Saw no conversions for years and watched as his wife’s health deteriorated rapidly. And yet he wrote, “This is indeed the valley of the shadow of death to me, but I rejoice that I am here notwithstanding; and God is here.”
  • Consider CT Studd, famous cricket player turned missionary to China, Africa, and India – Gave up a comfortable, celebrity life to eventually die on the mission field separated from his family. And yet just before he died he wrote, “As I believe I am now nearing my departure from this world, I have but a few things to rejoice in; they are these: 1) That God called me to China and I went in spite of utmost opposition from all my loved ones, 2) That I joyfully acted as Christ told that rich young man to act, 3) That I deliberately at the call of God, when alone on the Bibby liner in 1910, gave up my life for this work, which was to be henceforth not for the Sudan only, but for the whole unevangelized World.”

And consider the missionaries of our church.

  • Consider Arvid and Nancy, missionaries to much of the world as bible translators – Spent a great deal of time apart from their family, in difficult conditions (guerilla fighters), without much income, and well past the time when many of their peers are on the golf course.
  • Consider Nate and Cristina, missionaries to South and Central America – Gave up the American dream, have had to switch missions agencies and countries, have been ripped off by locals, and recently took a nail through the foot and had to travel for hours and hours for adequate medical care.
  • Consider Jen Blevens, missionary to Haiti– Our happiest missionary but still carries the constant burden of working hard to maintain sufficient support and minister in conditions of extreme poverty.
  • Consider Lauri Ringel, missionary to Spain – Labored alone as a single woman for years without a team.
  • Consider Marty and Selena, missionaries to East Asia – Left every known comfort, moved to a part of the world where deportation and persecution are likely at any moment, live in an area where their kids have few friends and places to play, and have to spend much of their time just working to stay in country.
  • Consider Kari Gustafson, missionary in Thailand – Endured countless health struggles and difficult living conditions, and ministered for years in an area with very little Christian fellowship.
  • Consider Brian and Tara Smith, missionaries within the 10/40 window – Were forced to flee their home and sneak back to get their belongings at the threat of their lives.

How and why would all of these missionaries (and countless others) eagerly endure such difficulties? Only because they truly believe and live within the Greatest Story; within God’s story. Having received redemption and while awaiting the promised and certain restoration, these missionaries have joined the apostle Paul in counting all afflictions as momentary and light compared to the eternal weight of glory.

This is the only story that can rightly do that. It is the only story that can genuinely contain such sacrifice and service, such love and labor. It is the only story where all missionary suffering really is for good and death really is truly gain.

Grace, we all live out of a story. There is, however, only one true story. There is only one Greatest Story. There is only one story authored by God: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration.

The missionary implications of that Great Story are enormous. 1) Only in that story does the gospel make sense and so missionaries must bring the gospel’s context along with the gospel. 2) Only in that story is taking the gospel to the ends of the earth rational and necessary. And 3) only in that story is all missionary suffering (even death) gain!

And so, Grace Church, let us continue to learn and live within that story. Let’s continue to teach it to ourselves and our kids. Let us and worship for the God and Author of that story. And let’s increasingly give ourselves to all it means for missions. Let’s pray with earnestness appropriate to this story, give with appropriate sacrifice, train with appropriate thoroughness, send with appropriate gladness, go with appropriate courage, do the work of the mission with appropriate confidence, and support with appropriate partnership. All because we know how the story ends! Thanks be to God. Amen.