A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on 25th March 2007, Fifth Sunday in Lent, by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Joshua 24:14-24 and Gal 2:15-21.
The primary purpose of Christian worship is to glorify God, to magnify God’s mighty acts. Central to God’s concern is the relationship between God and people: God shall be our God and we shall be God’s people. The focus of our worship is God: to God and for God; rather than for ourselves.
However, in the process of worshipping God with spirit and truth, our lives will be greatly enriched.
First of all, in worshipping God, we turn our life from the focus on “me” to the focus on God. Our perspective will be changed and our outlook greatly widened. We see more and we experience much more. It is just like from hiding in a ditch to sailing out in the harbour. In other words, if we are only concerned about ourselves: only our wants and wishes as well as our own benefits, our lives will be extremely poor.
No person is an island. We may not be fully aware that we are actually defined and our lives are enriched by other people who are around us. For instance, I am a husband, only because I have a wife. I am a father because I have a daughter. I am a professor in practical theology because I have a score of students who care to take the course I offer every semester. Without a wife, I am no longer a husband; without a daughter I shall not be a father and when no students are willing to take my courses, I can no longer be a teacher. In the most profound way, my wife, my daughter and my students define who I am and what I do as a husband, father and teacher. They also greatly enrich my life. Can you imagine how poor I will become if one day I lose them? As a matter of fact, my life is consistently enriched by a host of other people, such as my relatives, friends and colleagues. They include of course a great many people whom I have never met. I think of road sweepers, garbage collectors, etc. in the village where my wife and I live, namely Mau Ping San Tsuen in Po Lo Che.
People are related to one another. A person is a bundle of relationships. How can we not care for one another?
Similarly, all people are created and defined by God. As a fourth century great theologian St. Augustine once said, and I paraphrase, people could not find meaning and purpose in their life until they found God.
In worship, we build or rebuild our relationship with God. When we have restored our relationship with God, we can then relate to other people in a brand new way and will be enriched by them.
Worship does not only transform our mindset, from “me” centered to God-centered; it also helps us improve our life attitudes. In Confession when we face ourselves as well as God, we will undoubtedly realize our frailties and limitations over God’s boundless love and mercy. We will then become more humble. When we receive the Word of God; which is the Word of comfort and strength, a sense of gratitude from the bottom of our heart will emerge. Finally with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we decide to rededicate ourselves to God. Humility, gratitude and dedication are the most important attitudes in life.
First, Humility. Humility helps us cut across our pride and self-righteousness; which in turn enables us to relate to other people genuinely.
Second, Gratitude. The sense of gratitude in our heart can perform wonders. Oftentimes, we tend to take things for granted. As a result, we waste a lot of golden opportunities. On the other hand, if we have consistently an attitude of being grateful in whatever we have, we can seize every opportunity and turn impossible situations to possibilities and opportunities of personal growth.
Third, Dedication. We are prone to procrastinate and avoid making decisions. Consequently, we live a life devoid of purpose and meaning. The sense of dedication can transform our life totally: from floating on the water to sailing towards a destination.
Humility, Gratitude and Dedication are vital ingredients to a meaningful life. Worship can help us generate these attitudes in our life.
In worship, we realize that we are human beings created and loved by God. At the same time, we recognize that we are disconnected with God, with other people and with nature. Our life is full of brokenness. Yet at the same time, through worship, we are made whole by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
I am sure that you are aware that central to Christianity is the CROSS. All Christian institutions and buildings have at least one cross as their mark, some big and others small. Many Christians love to wear a necklace with a cross or to have the cross as an ornament of some sort. Every bishop has a rather big ring with a cross on it. Our Church has a lovely cross in the front entrance and another at the back wall. Many Gothic churches or cathedrals were built in the shape of a cross: with the chancel facing East, the nave facing west and a couple chapels on both sides. In most of the traditional churches, there are pictures, icons or even statues symbolizing the 14 stations of Jesus on the way to be crucified (or the via Dolorosa). We do not have the 14 stations in this Church, though in Lent, Maggie has hung several banners pointing to Jesus’ crucifixion.
Kowloon Union Church is a Church belonging to the Reformed tradition of the 16th Century. The reformers at the time insist that the Church was where the Word of God was preached and the Sacraments rightly administered. The divided chancel of our Church fully reflects this idea. In your left side of the chancel is the Lectern. This is where the Bible (or the Ancient Word of God) is read. On your right hand side where I am now standing is the pulpit. This is where the contemporary Word of God is preached or interpreted. Right in the middle of the chancel is the Communion Table. It is so called rather than labelled it as Altar because according to our tradition, Jesus Christ has once and for all made the sacrifice for us (c.f. Hebrews 7:27). We no longer need to have any further sacrifice and offerings of any kind. The Table is where the Holy communion is celebrated. It reminds us most of all Jesus Christ’s sacrificial love for us. Jesus’ vicarious suffering has shown us the ultimate way of salvation. So every time we come to the sanctuary to worship God, we are reminded that we have been made whole by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as represented by the Cross. The only way to express our wholeness is to decide to follow Jesus, to empty our life for the sake of other people, especially those in need.
This road to the cross, the via Dolorosa, is never easy. But Jesus Christ has set an example for us. Moreover, he is also our enabler only if we are willing. Jesus has promised to be with us when we decide to walk on that road.
Indeed, God will never allow us to walk alone. In the middle of my desk there is a small plaque about the famous “Footprint” by an anonymous author. It says,
“One night I had a dream.
I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord and across the sky flashed scenes from my life. For each scene I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand, one belonged to me and the other to the Lord.
When the last scene of my life flashed before me, I looked back at the footprints in the sand. I noticed that many times along the path of my life, there was only one set of footprints. I also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest time in my life. This really bothered me and I questioned the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you would walk with me all the way, but I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life there is only one set of footprints.”
“I don’t understand why in times when I needed you most, you should leave me.”
The Lord replied, “My precious precious child, I love you and I would never never leave you during your times of trial and suffering.”
“When you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
Again in our Reformed Tradition, there are two sacraments, namely the Holy Communion and the Baptism. Sacraments are the visible signs of God’s grace. The bread and grape juice represent Jesus’ body sacrificed for us and the blood shed for us respectively. Likewise the water represents the total cleaning effect, so that after a person is baptised he/she will become a little Christ (I am paraphrasing Gal 2:20).
However, in the more traditional Churches, there are seven sacraments to symbolize God’s grace ever present throughout our life. First, Baptism: when a baby is born, the baby is baptised. The baby is accepted into God’s Church, being nurtured and brought up by the Christian community. Second, Confirmation: when the baby grows older, he/she is confirmed symbolizing he/she has reached adulthood. Third and fourth, Confessions and Eucharists. They are given and received weekly if not also daily. Then fifth and sixth, there are Marriage and Ordination (ordination symbolizes the people who have chosen to serve the Church full-time are married to the Church). Finally seventh, there is unction or oitment. This is the way to care for the sick; and for the people who are about to finish their life journey, the last rites. Whichever tradition Sacraments are a vital part of our worshipping life.
While there are a lot of spatial symbols in our Church centering around our Lord Jesus Christ and his crucifixion, reminding us about God’s unending love for us, we must not forget that the Church uses a great many symbols to indicate God’s grace is forever upon us. The Christian calendar we follow is a good illustration – Basically the Christian Year is divided into two halves. The first half is the Year of the Lord which begins with Advent and ends with Christ’s ascension. We celebrate the life of Jesus Christ and what he did for us with two centers: his birth (Christmas) and his crucifixion and resurrection (Easter). The second half of the year begins with Pentecost (10 days after the Ascension). This is the Year of the Church. After we commemorate and celebrate the life of Jesus Christ, we should then during the year of the Church duplicate what Jesus Christ did in this world. The Christian Year reminds us the time we have is also a tremendous gift from God. We should therefore try our best to use our time for God’s glory always.
Worship and worship setting are helpful pointers to us, guiding us how to live our life. We are encouraged to become like Jesus. This is the only way we can live an abundant life or a fulfilled life. It is not easy. Fortunately, we exist in a community called the Church where over the past hundreds of years, many of our foreparents have tried and succeeded. We are in full communion with these saints. This is one reason why we recite the ancient creeds, like the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed despite many of their symbols and words are archaic. In our church, we also encourage the congregation say the Lord’s prayer in our own language. All these remind us not only that many Christians have gone before us and indeed there are Christians all over the world, in Africa, in Asia, in Europe, in Oceana as well as the Americas. This universal and historic Church reflects the God we follow is the God of all history as well as the God of the oikoumene!
We come to worship God in spirit and in truth, i.e. to worship God with our whole life or total being. Therefore, the design of our worship is not only verbal: there are hymn singing and music. But more importantly there are periods of time for our silent reflection and meditation. These should provide each and everyone of us some personal space during worship. This space is precious, because it enables us to participate in worship in our own way.
So let us from now on come and worship God reverently and as frequently as possible in spirit and in truth. We worship God for God’s glory. But in doing so, our own life is greatly enriched.