A Parable of Endurance from the Mission Field

Article
07.17.2018

Tell you a little story and it won’t take long,
‘bout a lazy farmer who wouldn’t hoe his corn.
The reason why I never could tell
But that young man was always well.
He planted his corn in the month of June.
By July it was up to his eyes.
Come September, came a big frost.
And all the young man’s corn was lost.

These lines are from the old bluegrass standard, “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn,” a cautionary tale about a lazy farmer. I come from a long line of farmers. Among them were quite a few fiddlers and banjo-pickers for whom this song provided a good laugh because every real farmer knows farming is hard work. Farming methods have improved over the past century, but it’s still a life of plodding, patient labor while battling weeds and weather. Yet it’s the prospect of the harvest that drives the day-in-day-out, get-out-of-bed, get-to-the-field kind of life.

FUTURE HOPE AND PRESENT FAITHFULNESS

Future hope fuels present faithfulness. That’s one of the truths found in Jesus’ parable in Mark 4:26–29. Here, the King tells us something of what his kingdom is like:

And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

The “seed” is the Word of God, the life-giving message of the gospel. Even though the farmer can’t make the seed grow, he still has a vital part to play in planting abundantly. He must have the initiative to get up and work, and the confidence to continue in hope day and night for weeks and months as he anticipates a harvest. Several veteran missionaries in gospel-destitute regions have told me that this parable is their go-to passage for perspective and endurance day by day, providing encouragement as they and their families labor over hard ground. But what is it in this parable that offers such staying power?

First of all, the King values the unglamorous drudgeries of faithful farming—getting out of bed and going to work. “He sleeps and rises night and day.” Gospel work, especially when it is compounded with the wear and tear of cross-cultural ministry in a hostile context, is accomplished because of hard things not despite them. For example, learning a new language and a new script is hard work. There’s nothing glamorous after months of study and practice to finally speak on the level of a local toddler! But shortcuts in serious language acquisition (as well as low expectations by sending churches and sending organizations) contribute to ineffectiveness, frustration, fear, and often an early departure from the field.

But there’s another key to endurance in this kingdom parable. The farmer does his part, but it’s not enough. Life takes hold. First, beneath the surface, but then bit by bit the brown ground becomes green! How does this happen? Not even the farmer knows. He did his part, but something else had to happen. In gospel terms, it is indeed “something else,” for “it is the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16) that brings new, lasting life. The Lord of the harvest is sending laborers to every corner of the harvest-field. Those servants plant, water, and weed—but they can’t give life. God can—and God does: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4–5).

PICTURES OF ENDURANCE

Samuel Zwemer, a pioneer missionary to Arabia, loved to point to the resurrection as the power behind the endurance, the confidence beneath the courage, and the Spirit with the witness. More than a century ago Zwemer wrote:

Because our Commander-in-chief is not absent but with us, the impossible becomes not only practical but imperative. Charles Spurgeon, preaching from the text, “All power is given unto Me. . . . Lo I am with you always,” used these words: “You have a factor here that is absolutely infinite, and what does it matter as to what other factors may be. ‘I will do as much as I can,’ says one. Any fool can do that. He that believes in Christ does what he can not do, attempts the impossible and performs it.”1

Recently, I’ve had conversations with two veteran gospel risk-takers. One is a former Muslim who is planting a church in a 100% Hezbollah-controlled city in the Middle East. His ministry is characterized by acts of compassion, clear gospel witness, and the accompanying death threats. The other is a single woman who has labored as a missionary for 23 years, loving, serving, and winning the hard-to-reach women in a remote, mountainous region of Albania. I asked them both about endurance—what keeps them there demanding year after demanding year. Mohammed said, “Because Jesus is real. He is not a fairy tale or just a Sunday School lesson. He is alive!” For Theresa, endurance is seasoned with joy, for she loves his appearing (2 Timothy 4:8). Whether she’s called up by death or by his return, she will forever be with the Lord. The prospect of seeing Jesus adds eagerness and urgency to her daily service, quickening her pace as she climbs the steep switchbacks of Tropoja.

There’s a hint in this parable that the farmer is always a little surprised when the crop comes in. Even though he sees it happen year after year, it never grows old. He accepts his limited partnership in the final results with gratitude, full of secret satisfaction and quiet amazement over something that’s bigger than he is—actually Someone who’s bigger than he is. Our King continues to do the unexpected because he’s not limited by our limitations. He’s the God of salvation and sovereign surprises.

AN UNEXPECTED HARVEST

A friend who has served for years in Indonesia among an unreached people group shared this story with me from one of his co-workers:

Several years ago a friend of mine who served in Indonesia shared with me that when they first arrived in Indonesia their vision was to reach an unreached people group. They lived among them and for years continued in faithful practices. Yet there was no fruit that they could see.

They were preparing to return to the States for their first home assignment and just before they left, their house helper, a Muslim lady who helped them cook and clean, believed in Jesus! Obviously they were thrilled about this, that someone had believed. But at the same time they were also a bit discouraged to go back and have to say, “We’ve been here for this many years and only one person has believed.”

They finished their time in the States and returned to Indonesia. When they arrived back at their home, they were met by their house helper. She had a very concerned look on her face. “Sir, while you were gone, I have done something.” My friend was nervous, wondering what he might be about to hear. She continued, “While you were away, I led 30 of my Muslim friends and family to Jesus and we have been using your house to meet for Bible study.”

The missionary’s surprise over this unexpected harvest is just a tiny foretaste of the stunning joy that will be ours when the full harvest is gathered from “every tribe and language and people and nation.” Our future hope—anchored in the cross and the empty tomb—fuels present-day endurance in every corner of every field where the King’s servants faithfully put their hands to the plow.

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1. Samuel M. Zwemer, The Unoccupied Mission Fields of Africa and Asia (New York: Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, 1911), 220.