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"Expect great things from God"

It's been a rough couple of years, and yet there are beautiful moments of hope and strength intermixed with the difficulty. I've blogged before ( on earlier challenges and now we are in a time of significant new ones, with a childhood cancer diagnosis for my daughter.

A dear friend encouraged me through the first round of trials with Psalm 18, which starts, "I love you, Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold." Later on, verse 19 says, "He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me." I was looking for a spacious place, a place to have the freedom to live out what God has created me to do. I couldn't be hemmed in any longer, because I had for too long lived under a level of stress and oppression that was no longer sustainable. In many ways, it was the typical plight of many faculty and administrators in higher education today, although I'd say a little on the worse end of things.

Reading Isaiah 54, I see a bookend to this particular journey. Having moved to the spacious place (literally and figuratively: I have moved away from the city and toward the country, with the largest yard I've had to-date!), and now Isaiah 54:2-3 is resonating with me:

Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left...

Isaiah 54 is clearly spoken to Israel and, in the Christian view, to the people of God broadly. Yet Spurgeon and others have found this passage to be a precious one when viewed as God speaking directly to themselves. Elsewhere (for example: I've complained about hyper-individualism in American Christianity, and it's certainly something to be wary of. But, there is a long Christian tradition of personalizing Bible passages and seeing them anew in our present circumstances. We see this approach start in the New Testament, which repurposes and reinterprets Old Testament passages in light of the New Covenant.

For example, Isaiah 54 is quoted in Galatians 4:27 in reference to the old and new covenants, represented by Hagar and Sarah. Christians are the sons of the promise, like Isaac, and the context of the passage is freedom in Christ, culminating in this awesome verse that starts the next section, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free."

Moving back to the source text in Isaiah 54, the imagery includes a barren woman, a desolate woman, a husband-less woman, and a widow....Isaiah is pulling out all the stops to depict the various degrees of disenfranchisement, shame, loneliness, and economic hardship tied to women in each of these circumstances and liken that to what Israel experienced during its hard times. The passage emphasizes the joy that is coming because the hardship is ending and restoration is at hand. The women are told to enlarge their tents--instead of hiding and shrinking back, they are to take up more space! They are to spread out and assume the place secured for them.

Spurgeon said, of this chapter,

Try and suck all the sweetness that you can out of this chapter while we read it. The personal application of a promise to the heart by the Holy Spirit is that which is wanted. The honey in Jonathan’s wood never enlightened his eyes until he dipped the point of his rod into it and tasted it. Try and do the same. This chapter is the wood wherein every bough drips with virgin honey. Sip, taste and be satisfied.

He continues,

The beauty and wonderful promises God gives to his people Israel and us today speak hope beyond the place we find ourselves. And quite possibly we have found ourselves where we are by our own choices. This was the case for Israel. Yet for us, through the redemption of Jesus new life and bolder callings are given. Cling to these hopes and yes, enlarge your tent toward the greater things God wants to do...
“Enlarge your tent,” He says...I’ve always loved this statement here because it is God speaking of greater things to come. Greater movements of Him that would house all who dwelt in the tent. It speaks of faith! It is the absolute stepping out in faith on some matter and believing not only does God have a plan He has an ability! All would come back to the Lord of Hosts, which is His name. Lovely! His desire is to comfort and strengthen His people reminding them of how true redemption is only found in Him! It is He who restores!
When God chooses to do new works in our lives we must allow it. Even if we step into such a place with distraught and hardship that has brought us there, He still speaks of hope. The Lord of Hosts, Jesus the Christ, who calls us by name wants us to extend our tent of safety and make our life large for His name sake.

I love his take on this so much! When I feel abandoned or discouraged, these are the very words of encouragement needed. I know for certain that both spiritual and very human forces have harmed me in the past and tried to hold me back from what I was called to do. The same is likely for you who are reading this blog. If anything is true about what we've learned of the spiritual realm (Ephesians 6:12 "Our fight is not against flesh and blood..."), we are constantly being thwarted through problems of our own making (as Spurgeon refers to) and the negative efforts of others, but the primary problems are caused by things we cannot see that nonetheless have a great impact upon our physical world.

And yet, we are called to freedom! To a spacious place! To enlarged tents! Whatever the past, whatever the frustration, these are the words given to us by God Himself.

These words have great power. In what has been called "The Deathless Sermon," William Carey preached from Isaiah 54 in a sermon credited as the kick-starter for modern missions. A humble cobbler, Carey converted Christianity and promptly started teaching himself Greek so that he could read the Greek New Testament. A transcription of "The Deathless Sermon" doesn't exist, and it was apparently a pretty short sermon given to a conference of Baptists, with the "enlarge your tents" section as the point of emphasis. Carey passionately applied this passage to advocate for evangelistic efforts worldwide The first reaction was that of indifference. Carey persevered and tried again at a meeting held in Widow Wallis' back parlor. How wonderfully ironic that a widow was instrumental in these efforts when the very passage talks about a widow enlarging her tents and being important to the Lord! Out of this meeting came the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society--founded with a mere 14 people. The words of the original sermon are no longer with us, except for this phrase:

Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.

Sometimes I think one of the primary modern Christian sins is actually that of cowardice. I believe I have good Biblical evidence that cowardice is always a sin to be on guard against. One of the most damning is Revelation 21:8, "But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” Gulp! We somehow recognize all the other sins in this list, but the very first one is often glossed over.

Throughout Scripture, God tells us to not be afraid, and He does so again in Isaiah 54, right after the "enlarge tents" section,

Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated...For the Lord your Maker is your husband--the Lord Almighty is his name--the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer--he is called the God of all the earth.

Cowardice shows a lack of faith in our Redeemer, that He isn't strong enough to have our backs. If we truly had faith, we wouldn't be as concerned with what others think. This has been said before by many, many people, but I say it again as I write this really to myself. Sometimes what holds us back the most from enlarging our tents is concerns about the reactions of others. Just like the Apostle Paul, we can pair Isaiah 54 with Galatians 4 & 5 and emphasize that "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free." We are not set free so that we can live pleasant lives identical to those who are not set free. We are not set free to a life of drudgery. Later on in Galatians 5, Paul gives us the key to living in freedom: "live by the Spirit." The passage culminates in the famous "fruit of the spirit" section. If everyone lived lives marked with "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness..." we would absolutely have a free and joyous existence. This is what all things are moving toward ultimately. Our invitation is to start joining in now, by enlarging our tents and moving into what we are called to do.

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