William Carey always had one eye on the horizon. Even as a boy, he was always dreaming of lands beyond him home in England. Growing up in the 1700’s, he loved to read about Captain Cook’s adventures and sit at the feet of his uncle for hours and listen to his stories about sailing on the seas and across the world. His nickname growing up was “Columbus,” after Christopher Columbus, his hero. But William Carey was destined for more than voyages for gold and glory at any cost. Before his life was over, his purpose was to be so much greater.
But that purpose would have to wait. For as a young man, he found himself involved in a business that was much more pedantic. Literally. Carey was a cobbler. He made and fixed shoes. Or more specifically, he was a cobbler’s apprentice. He helped other people make and fix shoes. You can’t get much more pedantic than that.
But one day, one of his fellow apprentices invited him to a Baptist meeting where he heard a preacher, and it changed his life forever. No longer did he want to be a cobbler, but he wanted to become a preacher. But he had no training or no experience as a preacher. Instead, he continued to work day by day at the cobbler’s bench, dreaming of a life that seemed out of reach. He was baptized by a preacher named John Ryland, who wrote a note in his journal for that day, “baptized today poor journeyman shoe cobbler.” Again, yet another example of the unextraordinary life of William Carey.
Finally got his chance and was given the opportunity to preach. He started to preach at Baptist meetings, but here’s the problem. He was a really bad preacher. He was short, prematurely bald, wore a cheap red wig that was a couple of sizes too small, and his sermons were so bad, one listener once described his words: “as weak and crude as anything ever called a sermon.” But that did not stop him. He kept trying and eventually talked his congregation into ordaining him as a minister. And William Carey continued to wade through the stagnant waters of mediocrity.
Thankfully, he didn’t quit his day job. But while he continued to make shoes, he became more interested in something that he was pretty good at – languages. He had an incredible ability to read and study and learn languages, and he consumed this knowledge while he worked. Imagine him there with a cobbler’s apron on, book propped up against a pile of shoes while he worked. He learned Greek, Hebrew, Dutch, French, Latin, and several other languages.
Again, it wasn’t long before he had one eye on the horizon once more. And as he learned about these other languages and the peoples of the earth that spoke them, he began to have a heart for sharing the Good News of Christ with them. He told the members of his church about the people who spoke these languages. He told them that someone needed to go and tell these people about Jesus. They were unimpressed. Rev. Ryland, Sr., the father of the man who baptized him, once told him, “sit down, young man…. When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without consulting you or me.”
The other Baptists there in England had no desire to look to the horizon with Carey, but he did not give up. He disagreed with the leadership of the Ryland and the Baptist association. The more Carey read about the plight of those in need in other countries, the more he wanted to go and help. He was specifically concerned with the untouchables of India, those members of the lowest of the bottom caste, who had no power, no money, no rights, and no self-worth. Carey believed that they, too, were children of God, and deserved to hear a message of hope. But how could he convince Ryland and the others in the association that they were to be God’s hands and feet. That God would work to bring a word of hope to those in India, because they were faithful and shared that word to those desperately wanting to hear it.
In 1792, he made an impassioned plea to the association for them to fund someone to share the Gospel. He stood to preach, and doubtless, many eyes rolled. But he straightened his ill-fitting wig, and preached what is likely one of the most influential Baptist sermons of all time. Based on Isaiah 54.2, it had only two points:
Expect great things from God and attempt great things for God.
And his emotional plea turned the tide. The pedantic cooper had changed the minds of the Baptists, and changed the course of Baptist history. For at that meeting, the Baptists created what became known as the Baptist Missionary Society, and the Baptist missionary movement had begun. Carey had convinced the Baptists in England that for God to work in the world, it required God’s people to be faithful and responsive to their calling. It required them to attempt great things for God.
So here we are in 2015. It is no longer 1792. It’s not even 1992. Or 2002. Yet, the words of Carey ring truer than they ever have. Carey’s call of expectation and attempt is core to the faith that Christ has called us to. It is the same call that Paul named 1700 years before Carey.
“…work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
Like Carey, Paul says two things are simultaneously true:
1. God is at work in you.
2. So your job is to work out of that work.
In other words, God’s action in us and our response to that action happen simultaneously, and responsively. But like any polarity, there is a danger of trying to oversimplify, and thus fall to one side or the other.
On one side of this polarity is the isolationism of the Rev. Ryland Sr.’s of the world: “Sit down, sir. It’s not up to you to save anyone. God can do that himself, thank you very much.” And the logical conclusion is inaction and isolationism. Take care of yourself and your own needs and your own house and let the rest figure it out for themselves. But Carey – and Paul – disagreed. Paul said “work out your own salvation.” We have a responsibility. But it is important to note that the Greek is plural here. He said, in effect, “work out y’all’s salvation.” You are in this together, and you can’t be an isolationist here. You can’t be an individualist and follow the way of Christ.
Run your eyes up the page and you’ll see at the beginning of the chapter a passage about how Christ came to earth, even though he didn’t have to. How Christ didn’t stay in heaven and live an isolated and holy life. He could have. He could have followed the Ryland Manifesto: “sit down, sir. It’s not up to you to save anyone. Let them figure it out for themselves.” But he didn’t. He came slumming with humanity. And in that action, in that incarnation, he vaulted and raised the value of humanity itself. So if Jesus can move beyond individualism and isolationism, then it seems like we should be able to. If Jesus can have his eye on the horizon and look for those in need, it seems like that is our task, as well.
Furthermore, if you run your eyes down the page and you’ll see that Paul continues on this theme, explaining to the church in Philippi how they are to interact with one another. It takes unity, not criticism. It takes service and sacrifice and not selfishness. We have to avoid the pitfall of isolationism and look beyond ourselves as we work out our own salvation. Like Paul said, “work out y’all’s salvation” – we’re in this together.
But, again, it is a thin line.
Because on the other side of that line is a danger just as great: the expectation of the Rev. Ryland, Jr.’s of the world: “baptized poor journeyman shoe cobbler today.” Expecting the unextraordinary, we see the unextraordinary. We have some unrealistic expectation that we have to do all this amazing stuff for our lives to be considered worthwhile.
And many of us instead get caught in the “poor journeyman shoe cobbler” trap. Maybe we don’t fix shoes for a living, but how many of us look at our daily lives and wonder if we are making a difference? We look at our jobs or our vocations and we wonder if we aren’t a disappointment, either to others or at least to ourselves. Especially this time of year, when the cold, dark days don’t offer much in the way of excitement, we slide into a depression about how unextraordinary our lives really are. Or if not depression, we swing the other way to panic and anxiety, putting pressure on ourselves to live these lives of significance and greatness.
Social media doesn’t help. We think that everyone else is living these amazing lives, because that is what they post to Facebook. In comparison, it seems like our lives and our families and our faith is so pedantic.
Sometimes, New Year’s Resolutions can be a part of the problem. It sets us up for failure at an annual rate. How many of us failed at at least one of our New Year’s Resolutions from 2014? How many of us failed those resolutions so long ago, we don’t even remember what they were? It’s tough living up to unattainable expectations. That trap of expectation and shame and comparison worthlessness leads us to conclude with Rev. Ryland: “today I baptized a guy…but he doesn’t really matter.”
But look again at what Paul said: “God works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” God is at work in you and that work is extraordinary! That’s why Paul said “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” The better translation would probably be “awe” or “reverence.” It’s not all up to you. With humility and patience, realize that God is doing great things with your seemingly pedantic life.
We don’t all have to be adventurous travelers seeking fortune and fame.
We don’t all have to be silver-tongued preachers who amaze people with their words and wisdom.
Sometimes, we just prop our books up against our pile of shoes and we translate a few words.
And in the process, we open a world of grace and peace and justice to those who had not received that grace before. Which is exactly what Carey did. After that famous sermon, and the creation of the Baptist Missionary Society, not surprisingly, one of its first missionaries was Carey himself. And so, this cobbler with his eyes on the horizon travelled to India, where he met and spent time and learned the culture and language and became one of history’s most renown Bible translators. By 1812, twenty years later, he had translated portions of the Bible into 18 different languages. And those who had been born into a life of depravity, from which they could not ever imagine a way out, read in their own language and dialect that God had sent his son for them, too. That God loved them, too. That they, too, could inherit life that was eternal.
All because of a cobber in the middle of nowhere England, who kept one eye on the horizon.
William Carey avoided the pitfall of isolationism of Rev. Ryland, Senior.
He avoided the expectations and shame of Rev. Ryland, Junior.
And he became an instrument of God’s grace and peace and justice.
Today, I invite you to walk that line with Carey.
And realize that you, too, can be an instrument of God’s grace and peace and justice.
That you, too, can work out your own salvation as God works in you.
That you, too, can expect great things from God, and attempt great things for God.