We here at Stand Firm are normally not a sermon site. But numbers can be such an issue among Anglicans, I think I should make an exception and post the sermon on “small numbers” that I preached yesterday at Providence Reformed Episcopal Church, Corpus Christi.
Most Anglican parishes are small and might be prone to discouragement. Other Anglicans have put too much emphasis on numerical church growth and have taken short cuts that should not be taken. That was particularly in the early years of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), and we are suffering the consequences of that. So I think most of us could use a reminder that God works through many or through few.
Sermon for Trinity 3 Morning Prayer
Last Sunday, we looked at the judgement of the great Flood and the judgement of Sodom. And we saw that instead of being supposedly cruel and merciless, God is patient and merciful even when He judges and punishes. He allows ample time for repentance even if man’s sin grows worse and worse and prevails more and more. And when he finally does judge, he delivers the faithful who trust in Him.
Some people still take offense at the justice of God, but really the patient mercy of God should be what causes scandal if anything. Of course, nothing that God is and nothing that God does should scandalize us. All he is and does is worthy of worship and praise. But time and again in Scripture, people are frustrated with God’s mercy.
Perhaps the most famous — and humorous — example of that is Jonah. I love it near the end of the Book of Jonah, when the prophet is so upset when God relents from destroying Ninevah.
Now to be fair to Jonah, Ninevah was the capital of Assyria; and the Assyrians were not nice people. They were notorious for their brutal treatment of conquered people, such as the northern kingdom of Israel. So I can understand Jonah’s frustration at Ninevah not getting what was coming to them.
I love Jonah’s prayer of frustration — and prayer is what the scripture calls it, which itself is humorous. When Jonah sees that God has relented and will not overthrow Ninevah, the beginning of chapter 4 says this:
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.
So Jonah, in prayer, complains that God is merciful! “Oh God, you are so gracious and merciful . . . and it vexes me greatly.” I love Jonah . . . and sometimes when I read the news I can really relate to him. God is surely more merciful and patient than Jonah and certainly more than me!
And in the Psalms, there are a number of times when you can tell that the psalmist wishes the Lord would be just a bit quicker about judging those evildoers who are causing so much trouble.
So let’s not be too hard on the Pharisees in our second lesson from Matthew who are annoyed that Jesus was so welcoming and forgiving toward sinners. These Pharisees are far from alone in being annoyed by the mercy of God.
And not only is Jesus forgiving towards sinners, he calls sinners to follow Him! He calls them into his service! He even called Matthew, a tax collector, to be one of the twelve apostles!
Now if I were recruiting people for church leadership, the IRS is not the first place I would look. Jesus’ choice of Matthew, a tax collector, is rather counterintuitive to say the least. But what grace that the Lord not only forgives sinners and changes them but also calls them into his service. And that includes us sinners.
But there is something else here in Jesus’ choice of leaders that is counterintuitive that deserves more attention than it gets. He only chose twelve apostles. His choice of twelve apostles is one of the many instances in which God has chosen to work through small numbers.
Now God often works through large numbers as well. We know from Scripture and from church history that he has chosen a great multitude for his kingdom and for his service. In Revelation 7:9 St. John sees “a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne” of God. Part of God’s marvelous grace is that he has called and will call a great multitude to serve and worship Him.
But there are also times, many times, when the Lord chooses to work through small numbers. Jesus choosing only twelve apostles is only one instance. Another is Gideon’s army.
The Lord told Gideon that his army of 32,000 assembled to attack the oppressing Midianites had a problem — it was too large. Now one might think that would be a nice problem to have. But God said that with a such a large army, Israel might become boastful and think their large numbers delivered them instead of God delivering them.
So God has Gideon proclaim, “Whoever is afraid and trembling, let him return and depart.” 22,000 did depart, leaving 10,000. But God said that was still too many. So He had the army come to a river to drink and only those who drank a certain way from their hand, could remain. Well, only 300 remained. Yet through just those 300 men, God rather creatively defeated Midian. You can read Judges, ch. 7 for the details.
Last week, we saw that God used Noah and his family to preserve mankind through the Flood along with any number of animal species.
God can and does work his purposes through many or few. But there are times when small numbers of faithful people work better than large numbers.
God sometimes works with small numbers to teach us to depend on Him and glorify Him instead of our own strength as was the case with Gideon’s army.
Sometimes, small numbers are a necessity because larger numbers have failed. We see that with Noah and his family as virtually everyone else had given themselves over to evil. And we saw last Sunday that the time may come again when the faithful are few. Remember that Jesus asked that difficult question, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8) Already, most large denominations are either apostate or headed toward apostasy. The time may come that being faithful will also mean being few.
But few is sometimes better. Times of oppression and persecution are among those situations. Small churches and groups can then work more effectively than large churches because they are smaller targets and less noticeable. Small churches and groups are more likely to avoid the eyes of oppressors.
The Communist government of China has long insisted on control of church institutions, and they have succeeded in controlling all mainline churches. So almost from the beginning of Communist rule, the faithful church went underground, meeting mostly in people’s houses. Beginning in the 1970’s, the growth of numbers involved in these house churches exploded although most individual house churches remained small. God used small things to confound the oppressive behemoth of the Communist Party of China and to bring millions upon millions of Chinese into the Kingdom of God.
This afternoon, as we read Rod Dreher’s Live Not by Lies, we will read of Father Tomislav Kolakovic. He was an activist against the Nazis during World War II but he saw that the Communists also were not to be trusted. He foresaw that the Communists would gain control of Czechoslovakia at the end of the War and then gain control of church institutions. So Kolakovic formed a network of small cells of Christians for prayer, study, and fellowship. These kept the underground faithful church strong during severe persecution. And the underground church eventually played a major role in peacefully bringing down the Communist government in what became the Velvet Revolution of 1988.
An oppressive government can easily take over church institutions. Controlling a myriad of small groups of faithful Christians who are willing to suffer for their faith is quite another matter and not easy at all.
Of course, the ultimate God-designed small group is the Christian family. Rod Dreher also writes of the Benda family and the influence they had in resisting Communism in Czechoslovakia.
There is a reason that totalitarians almost always try to undermine families and insist that the state, not parents, educate children. A society in which parents teach their children well is difficult for tyrants to control. A society in which the state indoctrinates children is only a generation or two from totalitarian darkness.
And, yes, I do have our American society in mind when I say that (although I recognize that some good public schools remain here and there for now). And it is not a coincidence that lately the Washington Post, PBS, MSNBC, CNN, The New Republic and more have been running attacks on homeschooling and on classical schools.
Christian families are the ultimate resistance cells to totalitarian tyranny. And the totalitarians know it. So take courage and lead and teach well your children and little brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces. If you are faithful and diligent in so doing, you have no idea how God may use that to put down tyrants and to grow His Kingdom.
And education as a whole is usually best done in small groups. Yes, there is a place for large universities; they can do things small schools cannot. But do you know what is the core method of teaching at the University of Oxford? The tutorial system, in which typically one or two students meet with a tutor once a week. By the way, C. S. Lewis was notorious as a challenging tutor to have at Oxford. You could not get much past him!
I could say much more about education and the importance of small groups and institutions in education. So if you dare, talk to me afterwards and I’ll talk your ears off.
Jesus knew the importance of teaching in small numbers. Yes, he taught huge crowds, but, other than being utterly worthy of faith and then sending the Holy Spirit, his core method of spreading the faith was intensely teaching and leading twelve men. And look what a great multitude is already in His Holy Church, both triumphant and militant, starting with the teaching of Jesus and the Twelve.
So small numbers are another way the Lord works in ways we might not expect. And, yes, I’ve seen God use this small church in ways one might not expect from our numbers. While we should invite people and seek to grow, we should not be discouraged by our small numbers but instead take courage and follow the good examples of many faithful in the past whom God greatly used even though they were few for a time.
Indeed let us take courage. Are we sinners? Yes, but sinners are exactly whom Jesus seeks to save and change and use for His good purposes. Are we small? Yes, but look how God has marvelously used small numbers through the ages.
So let us take courage and trust in Christ. For He delights in using those who trust in Him for great things, no matter how small they may be, no matter how few.
Let us pray.
O LORD, we beseech thee mercifully to hear us; and grant that we, to whom thou hast given an hearty desire to pray, may by thy mighty aid be defended and comforted in all dangers and adversities; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.