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Mission Impossible

November 26, 2006

Acts 1:8; Matthew 28:19-20

Just before Jesus went back into heaven in that event we know as the Ascension, he gave his disciples their marching orders, orders known as the Great Commission. The Scriptures record these orders for us twice. The first appears in the gospel of Matthew, Matthew 28:19-20: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” The second account, which is slightly different, comes from the pen of Luke: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

I have had the privilege of standing at the very spot where we believe Jesus ascended into heaven. That place is on the top of a mountain that affords a view of the whole city of Jerusalem. From that mountain, you can see land in all directions. I can imagine that Jesus swept his arm as he instructed his disciples, “Go as far as the eye can see and even further and take the message you have received. You are going to be my witnesses, not just in the city of Jerusalem.” For these eleven disciples, that task would have been daunting enough; but Jesus adds that they are not to travel just throughout Judea, the old southern kingdom, and not just in Samaria, the old northern kingdom. They are also to go to the uttermost parts of the earth. I imagine the disciples felt overwhelmed. They had followed their master, their teacher, for three years. They had witnessed his cruel death and miraculous resurrection, received a tremendous directive, and now experienced this improbable ascension into the sky. After his departure, the disciples may have asked, “How in the world can we accomplish what he asked us to do?” It must have seemed like a mission impossible for those eleven. These disciples, after all, were just ordinary people. Four were fishermen, and one was a previous tax collector. Jesus had entrusted them with this enormous task. What confidence! What optimism!

Only after a few days did they realize how they might accomplish the enormous task. They were together in an upper room, and the Scripture says that the Spirit of God came upon them and empowered them. Peter, a fisherman from Galilee, stood and preached in that distinct Galilean accent. People in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost heard the gospel in their own language. The Scripture says that on that single day, 3,000 people from all over the world were converted. As we read what happened to those disciples, we can understand the ancient traditions of the church. Thomas, the doubter, went all the way to India. Andrew, the quiet one, went to Greece and perhaps the area we know as Russia. Simon Peter traveled to Rome, Italy, to the capital of the whole world, carrying this gospel. Paul, an apostle-come-lately, traveled to Turkey, Macedonia, Greece, and Italy. He even intended to go to Spain. Phillip, one of the first deacons, encountered an Ethiopian near Gaza. Through Phillip’s testimony, this Ethiopian accepted Christ and took the message of Jesus on to the continent of Africa. In just that first generation of early Christians, the gospel of Jesus Christ made tremendous advances into the entire world.

The Great Commission was not intended just for those first disciples. They only partially fulfilled the job. Jesus is speaking to all Christians of all times. He is speaking to the people of Morningside. He expects us, those of us who are here right now, to accept this Commission seriously. He expects us to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the uttermost parts of the earth. We must keep this vision before us, remembering that we gather here week after week for this singular purpose. Our task is to understand the Commission, accept it, and do all we can to see it fulfilled.

We have occasions during the year when we remember this mission imperative. Today, we begin our emphasis on international missions. We receive the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. One little boy asked, “Are we still trying to raise money for that old woman?” Yes, we are still trying to raise money for that old woman, Lottie Moon. Perhaps you know the story of Charlotte Moon, who was from Richmond, Virginia. God called her to serve as a missionary to the country of China. There she spent the remainder of her life, taking the message of Jesus Christ to the Chinese people. She was so devoted, she sometimes even refused to take a furlough. Lottie frequently wrote letters back home, encouraging Christians in churches across the South to give money to support this effort. When famine China experienced a famine, Lottie Moon gave all of her own food to feed the hungry Chinese people. Eventually, malnutrition weakened her. Ordered to return to the Unites States, she boarded a boat where she died on Christmas Eve. We named the offering received for international missions the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering in memory of her sacrifice and passion for missions, as well as her insistence that churches support missions.

Being a mission-minded church is not something that has happened just since I came as pastor. Morningside has a long tradition of involvement in missions. Morningside has a heart for missions. We are designated as a global mission church, which simply means that we not only have a heart for missions, but we also do something about it. We have adopted countries with whom we have collaborated for three years at a time. We do not have permission to mention by name one of those countries in Southeast Asia. More recently, we have adopted the country of Poland. Just a few weeks ago, Gustaw Cieslar told us about his work there. For a time, we had a partnership with Romania through one of our own members, Vio Musteata. Morningside members have gone on several mission trips to that country, particularly to the area around the city of Gheorgheni, where we purchased land on which to build a church. Morningsiders have taken numerous construction trips to Brazil to build several churches. When Dr. and Mrs. Jeffords arrived in Venezuela on a medical trip, they found that they could not take medicine into the country. Their mission then became evangelistic in nature. We have taken mission trips to the Ukraine and to many other parts of the world. One of our young people went to Israel on a trip just last summer. Over the years, our members have gone to Chile, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Gaza, Jordan, South Africa, Thailand, India, Tibet, Hungary, Egypt, the Czech Republic, and Russia. The Great Commission may seem like Mission Impossible, but even this church has reached far into the uttermost parts of the earth.

One of the ways we have expressed our concern for the world is by designating the tithe from the fund called Growing Together for God. One-tenth of the money given to that fund goes to help ministries in other parts of the world. It is an effective way of reaching the world. We have used that tithe to build four churches in that unnamed Southeast Asia country, four in Brazil, one in each of the countries of Romania, Russia, Libya, and Lebanon. We have used that tithe to build seminary chapels in Poland and Lebanon. We have assisted with developing thirty-two programs depicting the life of Jesus. These programs, recorded in the Arabic language, are broadcast by satellite into Islamic countries. Through the tithe from Growing Together for God, this church has helped many churches in our own county, in the Southeast, and in other parts of the United States. We have become sponsors for the Spartanburg Community Church; for a church in Crofton, Maryland; a church in Southbend, Indiana; a church in Carey, North Carolina; and two African-American churches, one in Greenville and one in Clover, South Carolina. This year, I have asked the Budget and Finance Committee to consider setting apart some money so that we might sponsor another African-American church, the New Day Baptist Church that has been meeting in our buildings. You will hear more about that opportunity.

Our Missions Committee recently met to consider designating all of the Lottie Moon Offering to our partnership with Poland. In their wisdom and with input from others in the church, the committee decided to continue with our Lottie Moon Offering as usual. Our goal is $23,000. The money given to the Lottie Moon Offering will all go to the International Mission Board, but you have the opportunity to designate money for this work in Poland.

We have accepted the Great Commission. As good as this may make us feel though, we still have much work to do. That black flag is one of the most important symbols of what we have yet to do as a church. We must never give up in accepting this Great Commission, though at times it may seem an impossible mission.

In 1962, I was seventeen years old. I had just graduated from high school, and I had to the opportunity to travel to the other side of the world. I saw parts of Switzerland, Greece, Kenya, the Sudan, Egypt, Italy, and England on my way to and from a two-month stay in Southern Rhodesia where my aunt and uncle, Jackie and Herbert Neely, were serving as missionaries. One of the first sites we visited was old ruins that are a great mystery. No one knows exactly who built this tremendous fortress constructed out of large stones with no mortar. Some speculate that perhaps Portuguese slave traders built it, but the natives believe Africans built it themselves. The ruins are at a place called Zimbabwe, which is now the name for the country.

During my trip, I had an opportunity to observe missionaries at work. I used to think that being called by God to serve as a pastor was fine, but being called to serve as a missionary was a notch higher on the hierarchy. I also thought that being called to serve as a medical missionary was near the top of the ladder. That is not true. Missionaries are ordinary people, trying to rear their children under difficult circumstances. Their daily life is very much like our daily lives.

Some odd stories certainly come out of these mission assignments. For example, a six-foot-long King Cobra was killed in my aunt and uncle’s backyard. That kind of story will keep your attention when a missionary speaks to you. One time I went kudu hunting with Gene Phillips, a missionary from Woodruff who was serving in Southern Rhodesia. A kudu is an antelope that looks like a cross between a camel and a billy goat. I did not kill a kudu, but I killed a snake, one just as deadly as a King Cobra. On one occasion, a lion actually came out of the bush and charged the Volkswagen van in which I was a passenger. I went to Victoria Falls, a tremendous waterfall, which has a perpetual rainbow. I took a launch up the Zambezi River and saw crocodiles, hippopotami, giraffe, and elephants drinking at the edge of the water.

One night in Hwange Game Reserve, I was sleeping under my mosquito net in a little hut with a thatch roof. In the middle of the night, dogs began barking and the two priests housed in the next hut began talking excitedly in the German language. Not knowing what was happening, I jumped got out from under my net and went outside. A leopard had been on the roof of my hut. It did not hurt me, but a mosquito did. I contracted malaria from that bite.

The most significant event that happened to me on this mission trip occurred at a Baptist hospital in a place called Sayatwe. Two doctors served there, Dr. Sam Kanota and Dr. Frances Greenway. A little African boy coughed in Dr. Kanota’s face, and he got a terrible eye infection and had to return to the United States. He actually lost the sight in his eye. Dr. Greenway, left as the only physician in that very remote place, was a remarkable woman, devoted Christian, and skilled surgeon. Because I had an interest in going to medical school, she allowed me to scrub for surgery and stand beside her as she performed operations. It was an incredible experience.

One morning, every patient in the hospital had a high fever recorded on their chart as 103 degrees or higher. Dr. Greenway quickly made her rounds and determined that the patients did not seem to be much sicker than they had the day before. She began investigating and found that a new nurse on duty during the night had meticulously taken the temperature of every patient. In an attempt to read the thermometer carefully, she had held it next to a kerosene lantern. Of course, the thermometer registered the temperature of the lantern.

Africans make a beer that smells horrible and looks like pig slop with all kinds of fermenting mash. When the beer is about ready, the natives skim that mash off and drink the liquid out of a bucket. The African chief’s son drank his fill of that beer. Deciding he was a water buffalo, he charged headlong into a rock wall, breaking his neck and severing his spinal cord. Of course, Dr. Greenway could not help him much now as a quadriplegic, but she tried to prepare his family for the life this young man would have ahead of him. One morning early, a nurse went into this young man’s room, only to find that he was a bloody mess. A witchdoctor, who had come during the night to administer his kind of treatment, had made cuts all over this young man paralyzed from his neck down to his toes. African people had the idea that scars somehow brought healing. Wherever a person had a problem on his body, others in the community would make several cuts next to area and rub cow dung in the cut so that the skin would scar. Of course, the young man did not get better from the witchdoctor’s treatment. Over the course of time, Dr. Greenway was able to lead him to Christ. Eventually, she led his father, the chief of the village, to Christ. After the chief became a Christian, many others in the village accepted Christ.

How does God’s Spirit empower us to complete a mission that seems impossible? The Spirit empowers us through a process of multiplication. One person leads another person to Christ and then another. Those two lead two more. Those two lead two more. That process continues. As Christians accept the Great Commission, more people accept Christ. The Great Commission is fulfilled in this manner. How can you be involved? First, take the guide you received when you entered the Sanctuary, and pray for our missionaries. Pray about what God would have you do. Second, give generously to our mission offerings: the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and the Poland offering. Make sure your giving is over and above your regular giving to the church. Third, consider whether God wants you to go on a mission trip. The best way to learn about missions is to take part in missions. That is why we have a youth mission trip. It is the reason we sponsor adult mission trips. You learn about missions by going on mission. I encourage you to be a part of that great opportunity. We all have a ministry. For some of us, it is right here in Spartanburg. Some cannot go on a long-distance trip, but you can certainly be involved in the ministry to which God calls you in this place and in this community. Every single one of us has a responsibility to accept the Great Commission because “God so loved the world that He gave His Son” (John 3:16). Our responsibility is to love the same world that God loves.

Are you a Christian? Have you accepted Christ as your Savior? If you have not, I invite you to make that decision. Some here today have known for some time that God has led you to Morningside. He wants you to belong here, to be a part of His family here. Would you make that decision today? Others may have other decisions to make. Perhaps God is calling someone into fulltime mission work. If that is the case, do not delay. Respond to God’s invitation as we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “Here Am I, Send Me.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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