What is the gospel?

This time last week my morning Bible reading included the following verse

I have called you back from the ends of the earth, saying, ‘You are my servant.’ For I have chosen you and will not throw you away. – Isaiah 41:9 NLT

It spoke to me personally but really spoke later in the day when I led the staff prayer time at Tearfund. The theme was ‘children at risk’ and we heard reports of unspeakable abuse and poverty among children alongside deep stories of sacrifice, prayer, professionalism and commitment by those working with them. As we came to prayer we remembered that whatever humans do to each other, God doesn’t throw anyone away. That is why we can travel with hope through dark situations. Powerful stuff.

A week later and I am in Thailand teaching at a conference of 2000 pioneer missionaries- and that verse is still speaking.

Last night I went with some friends for a meal in the centre of town. We were in the tourist area and I was browsing the market for some gifts to take home. As I walked by one of the many massage parlours a young woman called out to me ‘You want a massage?’ Her clothes, body language and expression made it clear that she was selling more than a massage. I smiled with perfect English embarrassment, shook my head and walked on by. But God doesn’t walk on by.

It reminded me of a time about six years ago in the same city when I was walking with a friend down a similar street not far from the one I was in last night. A girl I later discovered to be 14 walked up to me and asked me if I wanted to have sex. Her opening price was £7. I shudder to think what price she would have settled at had I decided to barter. I declined politely and kept walking. She could not walk away because her ‘owner’ kept her working that street. But God does not walk on by.

For I have chosen you and will not throw you away.

The girl at the massage parlour has haunted me today. She looked to be in her late teens or early twenties. How did she get to be sitting in a street offering sex to older men for money? What is her story? Her hopes, fears, dreams? What has the gospel got to say to her?

And hers is the face that I will have in mind as I teach this conference of pioneer missionaries. Because  all too often we have made the gospel too small.

Yes she needs to hear that Christ died for her and accepts her and washes her clean and gives her a fresh start.

Yes she needs to hear that He can heal the pain and the wounds that she has suffered.

And yes, she needs to hear that Jesus can deliver her from the choices that she has made or that     have been made for her.

But that is not enough.

Christ came to set the captives free not to see them continue in slavery. What does the good news look like for her?

Yes it is all the things that I have just said – but it is more:

It’s got to include safety from the men and women who control her.

It must mean different opportunities for earning a living.

And it needs to include a welcoming community of grace and acceptance where she can know that she belongs and is intrinsically valued. That she is more than a pimps commodity or a church’s  project.

In Matthew 11, John the Baptist asked Jesus if he was the real thing. Jesus didn’t answer him directly but told John’s friends to report to John what they saw Jesus doing: the lame, blind and poor were being blessed. The physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs of disadvantaged people were being met. And in recording this encounter Matthew shows us how we can recognise authentic Christian mission.

When the gospel is being proclaimed the last, the least, and the lost are blessed.

We can be confident that real Christian mission is taking place when the poor receive good news. This is how we know what is orthodox, what is authentic, what is Christ’s work. Good news for the hungry has got to include food. Good news for the lonely has got to include community. And good news for a young woman in a massage parlour has got to include more than the four spiritual laws and a prayer of commitment. The good news of Jesus applies all the reality of God to the entire reality of our experience.

That girl will be at her massage parlour again tonight and I have spent part of the day reaching out to ministries that work in that area. But where are the last, least and lost in your world today? Who is excluded, disadvantaged, bullied, put down and shut out? What does the good news of Jesus look like for them? And will we be and will we bring that good news to them today?