A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on 25th February 2007, First Sunday in Lent, by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Deuteronomy 6:1-15 and Matthew 4:1-11.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of your hearts be pleasing to you, O Lord Our God. Amen.
According to the Christian Calendar, last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday. It marked the end of the season of epiphany; and the beginning of the Lenten Season. There are 40 days in Lent. It is a season of preparation. In the ancient times, the Israelites who left Egypt, the land of bondage, spent 40 years in the Sinai wilderness. It was believed that God used this period of time to prepare his chosen people to go into Canaan or Palestine, the promised land. More importantly, Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness to seriously prepare for the beginning of his ministry.
So likewise Lent is a period of preparation for the Church and all Christians. We prepare ourselves for the ultimate salvation acts of Jesus, his crucifixion and resurrection through serious study and reflection. In some church traditions, the Lenten season is a season of fasting. In others, Christians are encouraged to give up something which they do ordinarily, such as not going to the movies, or no candies, etc.
In the five Sundays in Lent this year, I want us to reflect on “Christian Worship”.
Whenever Christians gather, the first thing we do is to worship God. Indeed worshipping God is the most important activity of any Church. The Church of Jesus Christ is primarily a worshipping community.
We worship God together every Sunday. But when was the last time we pause and reflect on the meaning of Christian worship? Without constant reflection, what we do may easily become shallow and void of meaning. Only when we are in touch with the deeps of worship, can worship help us change our life radically: from the “me-centered” life to a life in close relationship with God.
To-day, worship in local churches has become routine. Oftentimes we treat worship as purely a human activity, which may give us a pleasing feeling. We do whatever we like; and however is convenient to us. In fact, we do it so causally that we may have lost a sense of holiness; consequently our strength and power in our vocation and mission are greatly weakened. It is therefore high time that we have a thorough examination of our worshipping life in the next five Sundays in Lent. The overall theme for these 5 Sundays is: To worship God in Spirit and in Truth. To-day we will reflect on the only focus of Christian worship which is God: God alone must we worship. Next Sunday: What is Christian worship all about: Worship is a drama. The content of this drama is God’s mighty acts. The third Sunday, is worshipping God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind inside the sanctuary sufficient? I suggest it is far from enough. We must worship God or glorify God in the entire world as well. The fourth Sunday, how worship can drive the Church to engage in God’s mission in this world. Finally in the fifth Sunday, how does worshipping God reverently enrich our own life?
This morning, we will reflect on “God alone must we worship”. This is taken from Deut. 6:13, a key verse in the summary of the Jewish Law.
We live in an impersonal rather than a personal world to-day. Human relationships are not treasured. In their place are more tangible things, such as money and all sorts of material goods. We can blame on urbanization or rather our human failure to cope with urbanization.
Less than half-a-century ago, most of the world’s population live in rural areas. No longer now. In China, for instance, 80% of its people lived in villages in the 1970s. Since then, the mobility of people towards city-centres has been rampant. Villagers left their homes to work in cities by the millions. That explains why every year two weeks before the Chinese New Year, hundreds and thousands of them scrambled in the railway stations all over the country, trying to get a train ticket to go home for family reunion in this important festival.
In Hong Kong, only four decades ago, Shatin was only a small town where people from the Hong Kong island or Kowloon would go there for a picnic or for some tofu made from the clear water from the streams. Also when I was growing up, my Sunday School teacher would often take us to a retreat at the Ho Fuk Tung Centre where it was located in San Hui (or New Market) in Tuen Mun. The sceneries there were gorgeous. There was a lovely restaurant in a big garden with a lake in the middle. We could also go to the Castle Peak hiking. Now because of the so-called “urban development”, the Shatin Valley has 700,000 residents and Tuen Mun has another half-a-million.
The rural living style is drastically different than that in the urban areas. The pace of living is slow in the village. People know one another and care for each other. I recall very vividly about a year ago, the executive staff of the Christian Conference of Asia held a retreat at a small village 40 miles away from Chiangmai. I was asked to lead the retreat. In both of the early mornings when I was there, I took a walk in the market place of that village where villagers gathered to buy and sell. There was nothing much, but I was most impressed about the hospitality and the friendliness of the villagers.
You do not find this anywhere in Hong Kong. Most of us live in concrete jungles. We hardly know our next door neighbours. The pace in the urban life is so fast that we can hardly afford to stop and get to know one another. Moreover, when there are so many people around, keen competition is the order of the day. This is true in our schools, in work or even at home. As a result, people have become very self-protective and self-centred. We used to make fun of Imelda Marcos, the former first lady in the Philippines. She was famous for her luxurious living style. She came to Hong Kong periodically to shop. Reportedly she had hundreds and hundreds pairs of shoes, not to say other clothing items. A Filipino friend once told me jokingly that Mr. Marcos was in the “mining business”, meaning literally whenever she saw something profitable or beautiful she would try to get hold of them. So she used to claim that San Miguel Beer is mine, the cultural centre is mine, the whole metro Manila is mine… Of course, we are no Mrs. Marcos. But like her, do we also put too much emphasis on “me”: my own benefit, my own will and my own well being? As a result of this, we are disconnected with other people, and more importantly with God.
Our disconnectedness was compounded by the whole process of “Secularization”, also a distinct feature of the last century.
The 20th Century was marked by great scientific and technological developments. I recall before the summer break in 1965, a Yale physics professor who was also a Nobel Laureate gave an open lecture. I did not understand most of what he said. But there was one thing he said which caught my attention. According to him, scientific developments for the 20 years since the second world war, i.e. from 1945-1965, were a lot greater than those in the past 2,000 years. How much more so after 1965? In 1968, Chris Barnard of South Africa performed the first heart transplant. In 1969, Neil Armstrong of the U.S.A. took the first step on the moon.
The fantastic scientific and technological developments in the past three or four decades have driven more and more people in believing that human beings can also create and even control the ongoingness in the universe. So we do not need God. Oftentimes we have even become our own demi-gods or idols.
Indeed sciences and technologies can create many idols for us. These include, progress, fame, status, wealth, success, etc. The biggest of these is materialism. This was how an American educator described the dream or the value system of the youngsters nowadays. They all want a beautiful wife or a handsome husband; two lovely children; a three-room apartment (preferably with enclosed full baths and walk-in closets); two four-wheeled cars; and a five-figure monthly salary… We cannot blame our younger generation with numbers as their idols. Do we fall into the same pit too? Even our human services, such as education, social work, medical and health, treat their clients as numbers. The human element has been totally neglected. In its place is cost-effectiveness in terms of numbers, or dollars and cents. Indeed, we are all cut-off from other human beings, sometimes including our loved ones and also ourselves by the many idols or false gods we have been led subconsciously to worship.
No! God alone must we worship. This was how Jesus conquered the third temptation. Jesus could have all “the kingdoms of the world” if the he should only kneel down and worship the Devil (Mt. 4:8-10). But he refused to worship the Devil.
Yes! God alone must we worship. It is because it is God who calls each and everyone of us into being. For it is only in God, the ground of our being, can we find our meaning of existence. God is the only ultimate reality in this planet earth. Thus Jesus pronounced “Heaven and earth will pass away, but God’s words will never pass away” (Mt 24:35). This is how apostle Paul dared to proclaim, “In God we live, we move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Without a close relationship with God, the only true God, our life will become chaotic and confused.
Worship in Church is a reminder that we should worship God and God only. Only if we take our Sunday worship seriously can we turn our whole life to God and are able to resist all kinds of temptations to follow the numerous idols which are around us.
I hope Sunday worship in this church can help us to build a closer relationship with God. Indeed this is one of the purposes of worship. In the Orthodox tradition, worship or divine liturgy is considered the most important activity of the Church. For according to it, through worship, our human life is transformed: We shall become like God or Theosis.
Glory be to God, to Jesus Christ and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 4th February 2007 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Genesis 1:26-31 and Matthew 25:14-20.
To-day is the Stewardship Sunday at Kowloon Union Church. I was told that KUC usually holds such a Sunday in the beginning of a new year. The purpose is to remind all of us to support KUC’s operation through planned financial contributions as well as to be generous about our time and talent in participating in the work of KUC. All these are vital. These measures can assist the Council especially the honorary treasurer to do some planning for the year. However, it is far more important that we use this occasion to reflect on the meaning and purpose of our life as Christians.
The New Testament lesson we just heard is about a parable in the fifth teaching block in the Gospel of Matthew. This teaching block is generally considered as Jesus’ teaching about the Last Judgment. Many presume the Last Judgment is about our future. But in reality, it is not. It is about our present. It is about the ethics of God’s Kingdom; or if you like, it is about how we, as members of God’s Kingdom or the Church, should behave in this world.
Simply put, this parable is about three servants. Their master went abroad and so used the opportunity to test the talents of his three servants. He gave them 5,000, 2,000 and 1,000 silver coins respectively, hoping that they would make use of whatever was given to them wisely, hopefully to make some profits for him.
The one who received 5,000 silver coins worked hard, took the risk and earned 5,000. Likewise the one who received 2,000 earned 2,000. But the one who received 1,000 was afraid to take the risk and thus decided to dig a hole in the ground and hide the money he received. Upon the return of their master, the two who worked hard and took the risk in investment and doubled what they had been given were commended: “Well done, good and trustworthy servant! You have shown you are trustworthy in small things. I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness!”
But the one who did not work hard and took risk was scolded by his master, “You wicked and lazy servant. If you are so afraid to lose the money I give you, you should deposit it into a bank and earned some interests.” So the master threw the third servant into the darkness outside, leaving him weeping and grinding his teeth.
I hope you will get it right. This parable is not about encouraging you to invest your money in high risks stocks so that in no time you can double what you have. The moral of this parable is about “stewardship”. It is about the servants who are also acting as stewards being faithful or not faithful to their masters. As stewards, they must use whatever their masters give them to further the interests of their masters.
Likewise, Jesus, as our master expects all his followers to make full use of any gifts we have been given, not so much to increase our benefits; but more importantly to further God’s Kingdom, which means for the well being of all of humanity, especially those in dire need.
Superficially, some people may receive more than others. But in reality we all have some gifts. The question is whether we decide to make full use of whatever has been given to us. Helen Keller had many physical disabilities. But she used her heart to the full and thus became one of the most important educators in the 20th Century. Stephen Hawking makes full use of his brain and thus has become one of the greatest scientists of our time. We all have gifts. But the greatest gift God has given us is our life. How do we live our life for God’s glory is the question we should ponder all the time.
We are never alone. We are related to God. Apostle Paul put this God- human relationship in these words, “In God we live, move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). This close God – people relationship was stated in the Jewish Holiness Code (as found in Leviticus 17-26). “I shall be your God and you shall be my people” (Lev. 26:12). This important insight was further elaborated by the 6th Century B.C.E. prophet Jeremiah and a host of other Jewish sages.
According to these sages, God is the only Creator. God owns the entire creation. As the Psalmists of old wrote, “The world and all that is in it belong to the Lord; the earth and all who live on it are his” (Ps. 24:1). They believed further that God does not only create human beings, it is also his will that human beings take care of the earth and all that is in it. This is what the Old Testament lesson (Gen. 1:26-31) for this morning is all about.
So straightly speaking, human beings do not own anything in this world. Everything is a gift from God, so acknowledged King David (I Chron. 29:14). That is why the Christian faith finds it more meaningful to talk about “stewardship” rather than “ownership”.
The Biblical tradition went one step further: as people of faith, we are called to be servants of God. Hence our responsibility is to use whatever we are given to serve God and God alone. We find plenty examples in the Old Testament. God called the Levites as priests to serve in God’s altar; God called David to be the King to serve God’s commandments (I Kings 11:34); God called the prophets in every age to serve God’s Word (hence many times the classical prophets in the Old Testament times often began their oracles by saying, “The Lord says….” Finally God called his servants Israel to be “a light to all nations” (Is. 42:7; 49:6) and so on.
We are God’s servants in God’s world. God has entrusted us with the responsibility not only to take care of His Creation, or to be more specific the whole environment, the whole planet earth, and even the whole universe; but also of each other (Gen. 2:15). Thus as the second fall story in Gen. 4:1-15 indicates, we are the keepers of our brothers and sisters.
Yet, as Jesus told us, we are not ordinary servants, for ordinary servants do not know what their master is doing. We know what God is doing and what He wants us to do (Jn.15:15). For God has revealed to us in and through Jesus about God’s love and plan for oll humanity. Let me quote Jn. 3:16: “For this is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
As God’s servants, we must all participate in God’s saving plan with “all our heart, all our soul and all our mind.” (Mt. 22:37).
The Jewish forefathers institutionalized this idea of stewardship by introducing the idea of “tithing”, i.e. all Jews had to give a-tenth of what they made for charity and for upkeep of their religious enterprises. To-day the Mormons and most of the fundamental Christians still practice or even enforce this idea of “tithing”. I know, for instance, a famous Church in Washington D.C. called Church of the Saviour. If people want to join that Church as members, they had to first of all go through a two-year course. Then when they joined, they had to pledge to donate a tenth of their total income to the church and to give a tenth of their time, i.e. 16½ hours a week for the work of the church. Since its inception 50 years ago, this Church has a membership of around 80 only, very similar to the size of KUC.
In general, when Churches teach stewardship, they concentrate to encourage their members to give ---- to give generously their money, time and talent to the Church they belong; the more in quantity, the better.
But “stewardship” has little or nothing to do with the question “how much”. But rather it is about the attitude we have in giving. Remember the story about in widow’s offering as recorded in Mk. 12:41-44 and Lk. 21:1-4)? It is about how much Jesus was impressed with the widow’s offering of two little copper coins. Jesus told his disciples, “most people offered what they had to spare of their riches, but this widow offered part or whole of what she had to live on”.
To-day, most people, Christians included, consider whatever we possess materially is of utmost importance. We consider the possessions or wealth we have as a yardstick of success. We also believe these worldly possessions can provide us with a sense of security. But Jesus used the parable of the “rich fool” (Lk. 12:13-21) to teach us otherwise. In fact, riches or all kinds of material things or possessions, like fame, status, riches, etc. can only give us a false sense of security at its best.
Our monastic fathers have taught us another important lesson. One of the vows all monks and nuns had to take was “Poverty”. According to them, poverty has nothing to do with possessions or no possessions. It had everything to do with our attitude towards possessions. Poverty means detachment. When a person, whether materially rich or poor, has taken the vow of poverty, he has taken a different attitude towards all he has. He is detached from all his possessions. Thus he becomes a free person. This implies that as long as we have to have, say a million dollars to live on, we are attached to it and cannot be free. In other words, only when we are detached from the “we have to have” mindset, can we be truly free.
There was a sage in the Old Testament named Job. He worshipped God and was faithful to God. He was able to see through all this.
According to the Scriptures, Job was the richest man in the East, “He had seven sons and three daughters, and owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, one thousand head of cattle, and five hundred donkeys. He also had a large number of servants.” (Job. 1:1ff).
One day his home was destroyed. He lost everything. Yet this was what he said,
“I was born with nothing, and I will die nothing. The Lord gave, and now he has taken away. May his name be praised.” (Job. 1:21)
Can we be so detached and nonchalant about our possessions? It is only when we reach this stage can we be a free person and use whatever we have for God’s glory. Only then can we find our life fulfilled; and that we are a happier person.
Our life is a tremendous gift of God. Whatever other gifts and possessions we may have are secondary. We must make full use of our life.
One of the most famous writers in Taiwan was Liu Xia (劉俠). Her pen-name was 杏林子. Out of her 60 years of life, she lived 48 of them often in great pain. Since she was 12, she had been suffering from chronic rheumatism. Since then, she was wheel chair bound. But all this could not stop her from writing, mostly about her unpleasant life experiences and how she learned to cope with them. Her writings have influenced many people in Taiwan and beyond. Through her writings, she has given hope to a great number of people who have lost hope and meaning of their life.
In one of her novels she wrote, “one day when I leave this world, I know that I have lived fully.”
As Christians, we must have the conviction that whatever we have or do not have; however our state, smooth sailing in rough waters, God has a purpose for us. So let us live our life to the full. Let us use whatever we have been given for the betterment of this world.