Please turn in your Bibles to Isaiah 54, and I will be reading the first three verses. These three verses give three marvelous images of the nature of faith. We have focused for two Sundays on the first image.
Is. 54:1 “Sing, O barren, You who have not borne! Break forth into singing, and cry aloud, You who have not labored with child! For more are the children of the desolate Than the children of the married woman,” says the LORD. Is. 54:2 “Enlarge the place of your tent, And let them stretch out the curtains of your dwellings; Do not spare; Lengthen your cords, And strengthen your stakes. Is. 54:3 For you shall expand to the right and to the left, And your descendants will inherit the nations, And make the desolate cities inhabited.
In the previous two communion meditations we looked at how faith is so focused upon the certainty of God's promises that it can rejoice in the fulfillment long before that fulfillment is seen. It can rejoice in the face of impossibilities. The image used was God's promise that barren aged Sarah would conceive. And the apostle Paul applies that to the importance of the church always living by faith and living in the realm of the Holy Spirit.
Verse 2 continues that theme using another image - the expansion of a tent that will become too crowded. But as John Oswalt's commentary points out, the command to expand the tent to accomodate many more people occurs while the woman is still barren. And God calls for quick action before there are children. As the commentary says, "... the insistence of the essentially repetitious commands connotes an urgency and an exuberance that will brook no hesitation. God will do what he says. A wider space must be found where a bigger tent with necessarily longer cords and stronger pegs can be stretched out." This passage indicates that it is the very nature of faith to do this. What does it mean?
Well, let's look at each phrase in verse 2. God says, "Enlarge the place of your tent..." And remember that Paul by inspiration applies this to the church. Why does the church need to be commanded to prepare for growth? Perhaps because the status quo feels more comfortable. Some people find change very uncomfortable. Perhaps because growth will cause messiness and more work. Perhaps because of the inconvenience. We are not told, but it is certainly true to life. Without this command to extend the geographic boundaries from Jerusalem to Samaria and outward from there, the church would likely not do it. Apart from an agressive faith, there is a tendency for the church to degenerate into a holy huddle.
The next imperative is "And let them stretch out the curtains of your dwellings;" Commentators point out that the word used is not pulling stretchy material, but adding material to the tent. And notice that the command is "let them..." There are people willing to stretch out the curtains and others who aren't so keen. Who wants their tent inconvienced by workers who are lifting it up and sewing on it? So he says, "Let them stretch out the curtains of your dwellings." Let them do it. There are always people in every church who drag their feet when the first few start to reach out and bring people in. Bringing in crowds spoils the nice clique that they have enjoyed. But God says, "let them do it." "...let them stretch out the curtains of your dwellings..." The whole body needs to gain God's vision for missions and outreach. And keep in mind that this preparing for new people occurs before the new people arrive. It is developing an attitude or culture of expectation, and culture of receiving the blessing of new people.
The next imperative verb is, "Do not spare;" Don't be stingy. Don't hold back with whatever skins, needle, thread, effort, money, and time is needed to prepare for New Covenant growth. God's will is for sterile, barren, desolate congregations to have children - to grow, to have diapers, and immature new believers coming into their midsts. It isn't supposed to be a club for specialists. Everyone should pitch in and reach out. Do not spare. This is what the New Covenant commits us to.
Gary Smith points out that God wants the church to have a wild optimism for growth during New Covenant times. He says,
The initial imperatives encourage the listener to be optimistic in the expansion of the tent. “Make it wide” and “stretch it out” encourage the woman to not be shortsighted or pessimistic about how many children will be added and how much space will be needed. She is not to hold back her imagination in dreaming just how big the tent might need to be.
The fourth and fifth imperatives deal with preserving what is about to be expanded. It says, "Lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes." Once every provision for growth has been made, there will be the opposition of winds and storms that have the potential of blowing the tent down and reversing the progress made. Church growth can be messy, and many a church has fallen apart after rapid growth. Since there is more fabric to catch the wind, the potential for the tent collapsing increases. And the same is true in the realm of the church - with more people come more potential problems. So God commands the church to make preparation to make sure that we anticipate the winds of adversity and to not be surprised by them. Strong cords of love need to be added and stronger stakes that anchor us in Christ and in His grace need to be pounded into the ground if the new growth and the expanded tent are to last.
And what is remarkable about this is that all of it is to be done while the woman is still barren. It is a call to faith that God can do what seems impossible, and that it is God's will to do this for the church. As we come to the Lord's Table, let's come with a faith that reaches out and anticipates that barren DCC will give birth to spiritual babies. May it be so Lord Jesus. Amen
During that first Passover meal when Israel was still in Egypt, they were commanded to be clothed, with sandals on their feet, and a staff in their hand - ready for action. They were eating in faith that as they left Egypt God would do what He had promised. And this is God's way with us. The paralytic obeyed Christ's command to stretch forth his hand even though it had been impossible to ever stretch forth his hand before. He didn't wait for the miracle to happen before taking the steps of faith. And this passage calls us to take the steps of faith to be a receptive and outreaching congregation. Let's make that commitment as we come to the table.