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.