A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 22nd April 2007 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Micah 5:2-7 and Matthew 4:23-25.
Two Sundays ago, we celebrated the resurrection of the crucified Christ. According to the Christian calendar, there are 40 days in the Easter Season. The Church uses this rather long period of Eastertide to reflect on the meaning of Christ’s resurrection, which is the core of the Christian faith. This is to be followed by Christ’s ascension 10 days later; and yet another 10 days later, the Pentecost. Pentecost marked the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Christian Church.
As Christians we need to learn from Jesus Christ and follow his footsteps. In the next five Sundays, I suggest we concentrate to reflect on not only the life and work of Jesus; but also on how we can become like Jesus. So I title this series of sermon: “Become Like Jesus.” The subtitles are: Who was Jesus? What was Jesus’ Gospel? How did Jesus heal? Which side was Jesus on? And why must Jesus come?
Who was Jesus? The Bible, not only the New Testament, but the Old Testament as well gives us ample information about who was Jesus Christ. From these Biblical materials, most Christians, to-day and yesterday, liberals and conservatives, conclude that Jesus is our Saviour and Lord (Lk 2:11). But in reality, regarding the life of Jesus, all four Gospels only provide us a lot of information about Jesus’ ministry, but surprisingly little about the life of Jesus prior to his ministry in Galilee.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Joseph was his father and Mary, his mother. Only Matthew and Luke told the story of Jesus’ birth. However, they are remarkably different. While Luke emphasized on Jesus’ humility (he was born in a manger; and shepherds were the first witnesses), Matthew described Jesus as King (2:6 quoting Micah 5:2). Three learned men from the East came all the way to worship him. King Herod was terribly upset about it. So he ordered the slaughter of all babies under the age of two in and around Bethlehem. Baby Jesus escaped because his parents had brought him to Egypt. This was in line with what Hosea of the 8th century BCE prophesied: “out of Egypt I called my son”. To the Jewish people, Egypt was the place where they all started. While in Egypt they were oppressed and exploited. They were slaves and had no identity of themselves. They believed that out of mercy, God sent Moses to lead them out of Egypt – the land of bondage. This then became a symbol of God’s salvation. This was not only the faith of the Jewish people, but the faith of us Christians too! We believe God always delivers us, in God’s own way, from our difficult situations. Yes, we constantly face harsh realities, but there is always a ‘beyond”.
Jesus was a carpenter’s son (Mt 13:55// Mk 6:3). Only Luke related one episode of Jesus’ youth in 2:41-52. His parents had brought him to the temple in Jerusalem to worship. Jesus stayed behind and used the occasion to debate intelligently with a group of Jewish teachers. His parents got worried for they had lost touch with him for three days. They were amazed not only to find out that Jesus was so versatile about the Jewish Law and the Prophets, but were even more perplexed when Jesus answered them, “why did you look for me? Don’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” (2:49). Luke inserted the following after the Temple episode: “Jesus grew both in body and in wisdom, gaining favour with God and men.” (2:52). Jesus is a role model for young people to-day!
Jesus was a Jew, a very pious and learned Jew. Later, both Mark and Matthew described Jesus’ teaching had made a deep impression on the people “because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority (Mk 1:22; Mt 7:28).
Jesus was the Messiah. This was to fulfill the Old Testament prophesies by all major prophets about God’s Messianic promise (such as Micah 5:2, Is 9:6, etc.). In order to confirm that Jesus was the Messiah, the Gospel of John especially gave Jesus seven titles with Messianic overtones, namely: John the Baptist called Jesus “the Lamb of God” (1:29); Andrew called him “the Messiah” (1:41); Nathaniel: The Son of God and the King of Israel (1:49) as well as “the Son of Man” (1:51); the Samaritan woman, “the Savour of the world” (4:42) and finally from two blind persons, “Lord” (6:68; 9:38).
All four Gospels told the story of Jesus baptism. The Synoptics especially stated that after John the baptizer baptised Jesus, there was a voice from Heaven, saying, “This is my beloved son of whom I am pleased.” (Mk 1:11; Mt 3:17; Lk 3:22). This verse has both the overtone of Ps. 2, a royal psalm; as well as the first servant song in II Isaiah (Is. 42:1-4). Jesus came as God’s “chosen servant”. This was the form and style of the Messiah, a big contrast to the expectations of the Jewish people at the time. For these people had hoped all along that the Messiah was to deliver them from the rigid rule of the Romans.
The Gospel of Matthew described Jesus as a rabbi of the rabbis. As a teacher of the Law, Jesus came to make the Law more complete in its meaning and implications. This was what Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to do away with the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets. I have not come to do away with them, but to make their teachings come true.” (Mt 5:17).
In reality, Jesus came to reinterpret the Law and the prophets. As we all know the main job of the Jewish rabbis was to explain the Law and the Jewish cannon to the common people. But oftentimes in order to assert their authority they would reinforce the literal interpretation of a particular law rather than dealing with the spirit and deeper meaning of the law. For example, most of the rabbis expected the Jewish people to stop work of all kinds on Sabbath. These included to get something to eat in the fields or to heal the sick. This is what the stories as recorded in Mk 2:23-3:5 all about. But here Jesus emphasized on the spirit rather than the letter of the law. He did not think allowing his hungry disciples to get something to eat from the field or his own healing of the sick on Sabbath violated the 4th commandment, i.e. to observe the Sabbath (Ex 20:8-11). This was how Jesus re-interpreted the 4th commandment: “The Sabbath was made for the good of man; man was not made for the Sabbath. Moreover, the son of Man is the Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mk 3:27-28). In this re-interpretation, Jesus liberated people from any bondage, even the Law, rather than allow people be bound by legalism.
Yes, in Matthew, Jesus’ teaching in ethics was considered to be extremely radical. Through his teaching about the Brother (5:21-26); the Woman (5:27-30; 31-32); on truthfulness (5:33-37); on revenge (5:38-42); and on the enemy (5:43-48), Jesus demanded the absolute: “anyone who looks at a woman and wants to possess her is guilty of committing adultery with her in his heart” 5:28)…; “if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too” (5:39)…” etc. Jesus demanded all this for a simple reason; for “you must be perfect – just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (5:48). We are all too concerned with maintaining good relationships with other people; but Jesus asked us to be concerned first of all our relationship with God; for only when we are connected to God can we have meaningful relationship with other people. In other words, all ethics should be built on theo-ethics. Only when ethics is built on a solid foundation can it be more meaningful and long lasting.
Matthew liked to use the following as a summary statement about Jesus’ ministry, “Jesus went all over Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, preaching the good news about the Kingdom, and healing people who had all kinds of disease and sickness (4:23, also 9:35). From these verses, we know that Jesus was extremely busy. Yet his business was not because he wanted to build up his career or “his ministry”. He did nothing of the sort for his benefit. Rather, Jesus did all this to help the people who are in need, physically, mentally and spiritually. Thus Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most prominent theologians of the last century labelled Jesus as “a man for others.”
Thus far, what have we learned about Jesus?
Jesus Christ our Lord is not an abstract idea. Jesus came to this world as a Jew. He had high regard of Judaism, his own cultural and religious roots. Yet he was never a traditionist. But out of his respect for traditions, he was able to transform them. Furthermore, building on the traditional core values, in his teaching and his entire ministry, he was able to serve the whole humankind.
Likewise, all of us have to learn how to treasure our heritage. At Kowloon Union Church, we are truly an international community. We are from Africa, Asia, Oceana, Europe and North America respectively. The question is how can we share our rich cultural gifts with others? For instance I am a Chinese. Chinese are characterized by their filial piety and the respect of their elders. It was from all this that I learned how to honour and worship God.
When I was a theological student at Yale, I came to know a Nigerian student real well. His name is Mudope Oduyaye. He was a scholar. He was also a very good drummer. He told me that Africans were very good in drums and dances. As a result they were well-versed with the rhythms of life. Every culture has tremendous gifts. What is yours to contribute?
Talk about religious heritage. We are Christians. Yet from our narrow-mindedness and outlook, it doesn’t seem like that the God we follow is the God of all history as well as the God of the oikoumene. Indeed one of the biggest problems for Christians to-day is that we have defined God in the way we want God to be. J.B. Philip’s book “Your God Is Too Small” is an apt description of our state of mind. We are rigid, dominant and exclusive. Many Christians today still consider people who follow other living faiths as evil. That explains why Christians all over the world are so eager to engage in “evangelism” which is defined as to convert people into Christians. Many Christians are even prepared to fight a “religious” war in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the same manner, many of us would undertake vicious attacks on our fellow Christians whose beliefs and practice are slightly different from ours. Do we really believe the God we follow is the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob (Ex 3:17), i.e. the Lord of all history; and God is also the God of all humankind. This is what the ancient psalmists acclaimed, “The world and all that is in it belong to Lord God; the earth and all who live on it are God’s.” (Ps. 24:1).
Over the centuries, Christians have launched many wars on the Jews. Anti-Semitism was not just the making of Hitler and the Nazis. It was in the blood of many leading European Christians. The Roman Catholic Church admitted that they were wrong in their teachings regarding the Jews only a decade ago.
We inherit rich religious thoughts from Judaism. The Jewish sages had taught us all about Monotheism and the absolute relationship between God and human beings. God is our God and we are God’s people. This indeed was one of the greatest gems of the classical prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc. as well as the ancient Holiness Code as found in Leviticus 17-26.
Coming back to Jesus. Jesus did not come from a rich and well-educated background. In fact, he encountered hardships all his life: from the time he was a baby to the time when he was hung on a cross. But because of his love and persistence, he was able to overcome every “mishap”. Likewise, all the problems we had in the past have made us the people we are; and whatever the situations we face now, we can defeat them if we have faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus once said, “Everything is possible for one who has faith” (Mk 9:24) “because for God everything is possible” (Mk 10:27). So let us decide once again to follow Jesus and learn from him. For this is the only way to go forward and live a life full of meaning and purpose.