Dear ISI Family,
By now, colleagues and friends of ISI are familiar with the first few verses in Isaiah 54 and their pertinence to where we are today as a ministry. Over the past couple of years and at the height of the pandemic, God saw fit to deposit in us several key promises from His Word, including those from Isaiah 54, which we received with awestruck wonder but also, truth be told, in fear and trembling.
The year 2022 will be a litmus test for our ministry as we begin the rollout of ministry priorities and initiatives stemming from the vision God has laid on our hearts. It is worth recalling what precisely it was that He downloaded to us. To that end, I’ve been reflecting on Isaiah 54:1-5. Let’s take it one verse at a time.
Singing in Our Barrenness
“‘Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,’ says the LORD” (Isaiah 54:1). When has ISI been a “barren woman”? Perhaps during the pandemic when we saw numbers in every category—students introduced, cultivated, salvation decisions, discipling relationships, reproducers—plunging precipitously? In ancient Biblical times, an unmarried woman or widow without children had to deal with fear, shame, disgrace, and humiliation. If ISI were a childless widow, if God were equating us with a barren woman, how terribly depraved our condition must have been!
And yet God’s word here is that ISI is to sing, to burst into song, despite our barrenness! To sing is to say “Yes!” to His promises, and so we shall, we must, sing in anticipation of the fulfillment of His promises. And what is promised the barren and desolate woman? More children than she who has a husband! But just like for soon-to-be parents preparing for new additions to their family, a larger home may be necessary, or the sedan or coupe may need to be traded in for a minivan. Likewise, God tells us to get ready for an imminent influx of souls from the nations, the magnitude of which we have previously never envisioned nor encountered, into His Kingdom:
Expanding Our Tent
“Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes” (Isaiah 54:2). This is precisely what our new ministry plan with its suite of priorities—Prayer, Collaboration, Communities, Churches, Global Reach & Returnees, Innovation, and Equipping & Mentoring—is designed to accomplish. Recall the two huge catches of fish the disciples made, first in Luke 5 and secondly in John 21. In the first instance, Jesus told Simon to put out to deep water and let down the net, and Simon obeyed despite not having caught anything the night before. He and his pals ended up with such a humongous haul that it tore their net and threatened to sink their boats (Luke 5:6-7)! In the second instance, a resurrected Jesus told his friends to let down their net on the right side of their boat. They ended up with another huge catch, except this time their net did not tear (John 21:11).
God’s instruction to enlarge our tent, it seems to me, is to ensure the growth of the ISI ministry without imperiling it. Success can be a two-edged sword; if an organization is not ready for expansion, it may end up imploding, like the weight of the catch tearing Simon’s net (in Luke 5). But if we do as God has instructed us—widen our tent flaps, lengthen its cords, and strengthen the pegs and stakes—we will not only flourish in the short run but enjoy continued success and sustainability over the long run!
Dispossessing and Settling
“For you will spread out to the right and to the left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities” (Isaiah 54:3). Imagine an army of students and returnees “sent out” from ISI (and other international student ministries) to engage in the “spiritual takeover” of nations and the repopulating of cities around the world with Christ-followers dedicated to reproducing the life of Christ in others! Granted, that’s already happening, but imagine it taking place at a magnitude and momentum far greater than anything we have hitherto known.
But what might it take for us to realize that vision? Recently I was meditating on Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22, and I came upon the following verses: “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you [Abraham] have done this and have not withheld your son [Isaac], your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me” (Genesis 22:16-18).
This is the same promise given in Isaiah 54:3! But its fulfilment hinged on Abraham’s obedience to God concerning the sacrifice of his son. What might be the “test of obedience” to which God may be calling us, as individuals and/or as a ministry? Is it something seemingly “unreasonable” and “outrageous” in terms of what God may ask of us to give up? Admittedly, I write these words with a heavy heart when I recall the burdens many ISI colleagues have borne over the past year: the loss of loved ones, dealing with health crises, etc. And yet Jesus said, “Not my will but Yours be done!” (Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42; John 6:38).
Is the God whom we worship and serve a tyrant who cares little for His own, saddling them with impossibly heavy yokes? Nope, zip, zilch, nada! The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin (Exodus 34:6-7). He offers rest to the weary and burdened and the exchange of their heavy loads with His easy yoke and light burden (Matthew 11:28-30)! And that’s why there is provision for the promise issued in the next verse.
Bearing No Shame
“Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood” (Isaiah 54:4). We may feel disturbed and embarrassed by our barrenness, weakness, nakedness, and doubts. Yet God says to us: don’t be fearful or embarrassed or humiliated over the lack of ministry, the fruitlessness during the pandemic, the uncertainty, doubt, and the worry we may feel over the “great test” that could come our way, because….
The LORD Is Our Husband
“For 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” (Isaiah 54:5). God is calling us and offering Himself to us afresh and anew! He’s inviting us to regard Him as our Husband and Redeemer, for He is Lord Almighty and the Holy One of Israel, the God of all the earth and of the nations to which we are called to minister. What the widow needs to overcome her barrenness, humiliation, and insecurity is a husband who will provide her with children, identity, and security. It isn’t enough for God to relate with us only as our Maker and Master; He wants to bind us inextricably to Himself by husbanding and caring for us as His bride. This is the extraordinary level of commitment and devotion to which He has shown and will continue to show to us!
Showing Us the Way
When his commanders told him it was impossible to cross the Alps by elephant, Hannibal, the general of Carthage who fought against Rome in the third century B.C., reportedly replied, “I will either find a way or make one!” But the divine vision given us in Isaiah 54:1-5 is not ours to realize by our own devices or on our own dime. God’s word to us is that He is the One who will make a way in the wilderness (Isaiah 43:19). He will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths He will guide us, and make the rough places smooth (Isaiah 42:16). And He will supply us the requisite resources to get the job done (Philippians 4:19).
Dearly beloved, let’s fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, and let’s run with perseverance the race marked out for us in 2022!
Together in Christ,