“It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Ancient population numbers are difficult to estimate. Records from the time are notoriously unreliable and greatly overestimate the numbers, while modern estimates are far removed from the reality of the time and can tend to underestimate the numbers. It seems that great academic debates occur regarding these varied estimates. In any case, with almost no sense of accuracy, it may be said that Israel was a small kingdom, but not altogether insignificant. In Jesus’s day, it may have been as large as 0.5% of the world population and close to 3% of the population of the Roman Empire. Again, not very large, but also not totally insignificant. The Jewish population outside of Israel was probably as large as the population within or as much as double. So, a decidedly geographic religion, the Temple in Jerusalem was the center, could have accounted for 1% to 1.5% of the world population and 6% to 9% of the Roman Empire. Small, but not insignificant.
Today, adherents of Judaism represent roughly 0.2% of the world population. Christianity has grown from its inception out of the Jewish tradition to about 31% of the world population with Catholicism representing nearly 17%. The vast majority of nations, languages, and people groups have at least some adherents to Christianity, and many to Catholicism. Although, as I have mentioned previously, we are facing a great challenge in the United States from the reality of those who are choosing to leave the church (the growth of the “unaffiliated”), the Church continues to grow, especially in Africa and Asia. Beginning in Jerusalem, the Church has spread to the ends of the earth.
Numbers are, of course, numbers. What they represent are human hearts open to the message of God’s love and responsive to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. God had big plans for a small, though not totally insignificant, people. He wasn’t just concerned with a few tribes or a small nation, but with the whole world. He planted a seed that began to grow. A constricted horizon based on national self interest gave way to an infinite horizon encompassing every human heart. For a small people, it was a big vision. It is the same dynamic, however, within each of our own lives. God constantly expands our horizons. From my own personal well being, to that of my family, to those in my community, to the needy and hurting, to the far flung seeking and searching, God moves us out of ourselves. Every person is significant to God. Every person becomes significant to us. God’s vision for us, here and now, is not small. It encompasses everything.
The kingdom always starts small and grows, like a mustard seed. It starts in our own hearts and minds. Is our understanding of God too small? Is our view of our own potential too small? Are the possibilities of what we can accomplish as a community too small? Is my heart too small? Is our vision too small? God has planted something in us that will grow. Are we ready for something large? For everything? For God? David Crowder, a Christian musician, has some lyrics that get at this idea:
“I'm so bored of little gods
While standing on the edge of something large
While standing here, so close to You
We could be consumed”