Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church
Christian Stewardship----To Give And To Care
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 30th December 2007 by Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Genesis 1:26-31 and Luke 12:22-34.
Today is Stewardship Sunday. In Christian understanding, stewardship is the way time, talents, material possessions or wealth are used or given for the service of God.
In Genesis chapter one, it has clearly described an orderly and mysterious creation of God. But the world that we live in now, however, is very much distorted. Wars and violence, environmental pollution that jeopardize our planet earth, poverty and the enormous wealth gap between the rich and the poor have destroyed the beauty of God’s creation. People are alienated from God, from other people, from ourselves and from Nature. In view of the original creation and creative order of God, we being identified as people of God, disciples of God, children of God, have to rethink our role to serve our Lord and the world.
In Genesis 1:26-31, it stated that we human beings who are created in God’s holy image are given important roles and duties to take care of the world and nurture all creatures in the entire nature. The essence of Christian stewardship is to give and care. We need to give the gifts given by God and used them to care for God’s creation.
How can we become a good steward of God, a faithful servant of our Lord?
Today, I have taken Luke 12:22-34 to draw out some insights for the above question.
“This passage is a call not to be anxious about daily needs. Life is more than concern about food and clothes, as seen in the lessons from God’s care of creation. Jesus’ exhortation is based on the value of people in creation. Anxiety is useless; it reveals lack of faith. God knows one’s needs. So seek his kingdom and one’s daily needs will be met. God gives the kingdom to his children. Seeking his kingdom includes caring for others, so there is a call to sell possessions and be generous. In short, look at priorities. Where one’s treasure is, there one’s heart is.”
Jesus in the passage underlines the importance of trusting God. The one who fears God and build up treasure for him has nothing to fear. When we have the utter trust of God’s care for us, we will be free to do meaningful things for God and other creatures that God loves.
Let me share a personal experience. In the year of 2002, it was my 6th year of teaching social work at the Polytechnic University. By that time I was thinking to make a change as I felt that my service in the University was no longer satisfying and meaningful. I prayed for God to lead my way. After a while, I had an idea of quitting the job at Polytechnic University and to rethink of my future career. Meanwhile, there was a call to take some courses in biblical and theology studies in order to equip myself for better service for God and the church. It was quite a struggle for me at the time. Teaching in a university is quite a decent job with stable income and many attractive welfare benefits. If I left the post, I would never be able to return on the same terms because the staff policies were changing to be much less favorable for newly joined staff.
Another struggle for such a change was, would I do well in a course of theology? What would I do after all these courses? What would be my future? Should I change my career from teaching to church ministry? Am I suitable to take up this vocation? The uncertainty made me feel very unsettled and worried.
While I was struggling, the passage in Luke 12:22-34 inspired me and gave me the courage to move on. In verse 12:31, ‘to seek his kingdom first and these things will be given to you.’ The promise of God’s care helped me to change the focus of thinking. I began to think more of my gifts from God and focus on God’s provision and not on the inadequacy and insecurity. I began to identify more of the gifts I possess and the favorable conditions that supported me to make a change. First of all, my husband was very supportive to my study in theology. His relatively stable job and secured income reduced my financial burden and met the family needs. Secondly, my training background and experience in social work enhanced my services in the church ministry because I was trained to be concerned with social issues, sensitive to people’s needs and problems, able to identify community resources and communication skills etc. All these are the gifts given by God with his grace. Focusing on this provision of God facilitated my work and service as a good steward.
Each of us our situation is not the same of course. However, no matter how different of our life experiences and situation, it is sure that God give us everyone the gifts in a unique way. I would invite you to think of your gifts given by God who is the source of power as God is the creator of everything. When we shift our focus from our inadequacy and insecurity to focus on the provision of God that gives us many gifts, we will then stay away from anxieties or transform ourselves to encounter the fear positively with confidence and courage.
Too often we intend to pay attention to anxiety, worries and problems. This attitude and perspective always defeat our motivation and will to do the right things for God. In the biblical text today, God helps us to think more of our gifts which reflect the providence of God.
If you want to become a good steward to serve God more effectively, what is the change that you may have to encounter? Do not focus on the negative factors that generate your anxieties, but think of the gifts that you have and trust that God will give you the necessary strength to face it.
Our trust in God is grounded in providence of God. In psalm 24:1, it said ‘the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, and the world, and those who live in it.’ In 1 Chronicles 29:14, King David in his offering prayer has praised the greatness of God. “For all things come from you, and your own have we given you.”
God’s Love and care to the people and all creatures is another ground for our trust in God. God creates everything and in his eyes all are good. (Genesis 1:26-31)The needs of raven and lilies are met by God, why not human beings? (Luke 12:24-27) In addition, Jesus ensures us that we are taken care of by God. God is pleased to give us the kingdom, (Luke 12:32) to be present in our life and support us during time of struggles. The tenderness of reassurance is expressed in the address to the disciples as ‘little flock’, it is in the Old Testament figure for God’s fragile yet cared for people. (Psalm 23:1; Isaiah 40:11) The naming of ‘little flock’ suggests that people are fragile and indeed we are. We should be humble but at the same time admit it courageously. The good thing is, we are protected and being taken care of by God with his steadfast love. In Psalm 23: 1, it said “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.” In Isaiah 40:11, it said “he will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lamb’s in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” God illustrates his gracious care in his words and so we should rest in his hands without fear. Given God’s promise and assurance, we have every reason to be courageous to encounter all difficult situations, and to take risk to serve God.
When we are free from anxieties of deprivation of needs and being protected from all dangers by God, then we can be generous with what God has given us. Jesus calls for the selling of possessions and being generous by giving to the poor. God honors such generosity: he gives us the ‘treasure in heaven’. Such treasure involves God’s commendation and reward for service that pleases him. Selling of possession is a representation of disciples being able to share what we have to those in need. It could be materials, money, time and talents. Once our anxiety is removed, we have more capacity and freedom to work for God’s will and mission
Christian stewardship is the grateful and responsible use of God's gifts in the light of God's purpose as revealed in Jesus Christ. Christian stewards, empowered by the Holy Spirit, commit ourselves to conscious and purposeful decisions.
Stewardship is lived out in seeking God’s kingdom of justice, peace, and the integrity of creation in an interdependent universe. Christians as stewards are wisely employing God-given human resources, abilities, relationships; and of course sharing material possessions we hold and giving them in service, justice, and compassion; providing for future generations, sharing in the life, worship, and responsible stewardship of the Church and of its mission.
Stewardship is a joyful act for the sake of God's world, both for the individual and for the community.
I would like to end my sermon by sharing with you a Stewardship Prayer
Almighty and ever-faithful Lord,
We are gratefully acknowledging Your mercy
and humbly admitting our need,
we pledge our trust in You and each other.
Filled with desire, we respond to Your call for discipleship
by shaping our lives in imitation of Christ.
We profess that the call requires us
to be stewards of Your gifts.
As stewards, we receive Your gifts gratefully,
cherish and tend them in a responsible manner,
share them in practice and love with others,
and return them with increase to the Lord.
Almighty and ever-faithful God,
it is our fervent hope and prayer
that You who have begun this good work in us
will bring it to fulfillment in Jesus Christ,
our Lord. Amen.
Let It Happen To Me As You Have Said. (Luke 1:38)
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 23rd December 2007 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 40:25-31 and Luke 1:26-28.
To-day is the fourth Sunday in Advent. Advent is a season of preparation. We prepare for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our preparation will not and must not be confined to putting up Christmas decorations and the arrangement of various kinds of celebrations in Church and at home. Rather we have to prepare in our thinking: to reorient our mindset. That is why in these four Sundays we read Isaiah chapter 40. That is why we have this particular series of Advent sermons.
In the first Sunday in Advent, we reflected on the fact that we must be born again, not from our mother’s womb, but from above. Simply put, we must reconnect with God. In our daily life, we often neglect our relationship with other people, our colleagues, our friends and our loved ones; especially we do not treasure our relationship with God. Our life is marked by broken relationships. Therefore, we must try to restore these broken relationships.
The second Sunday was Bible Sunday. The Bible is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. However, we must not just pick a few verses or select the passage we like and treat them as the whole message of the Bible. No, the whole Bible is about God’s order – how God works in history; as well as about human disorder. Finally, it is also about how God came to us through Jesus Christ. So we have to treat the Gospels seriously. But at the same time, we should not neglect the Old Testament as well as other writings in the New Testament. My faculty advisor at Yale University Divinity School, Professor B. Davie Napier, a world famous Biblical scholar, used to say that we must treat the Bible as a whole: The Old Testament has preaching value in the same way as the New Testament.
Last Sunday, the third Sunday was about John the Baptist. We remember particularly his humility. Oftentimes, in human history, humble service would bring about wonders. Only through his utter humility could John the Baptist be the genuine fore-runner of our Lord Jesus Christ. Without clearing his way by John, Jesus would have an even more hard time to start his ministry.
This Sunday, the fourth Sunday, the Advent candle is pink. It represents Mary, the Holy Mother of Jesus.
To the Roman Catholics, Mary has a very special place in their doctrine and liturgical life. Our daughter was a student at Maryknoll Convent School (MCS). During the school morning assemblies, students at MCS would have to say the Lord’s Prayer as well as the “Hail Mary”.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, The Lord is with you”.
According to the traditional Roman Catholics, Mary is not only the mother of Jesus, she was revered as the Mother of God!
Naturally conservative Christians find this very offensive. This is why up to this day many Baptists still think Roman Catholicism is heretical. That explains also why the Chinese authorities have long considered Roman Catholism and Protestantism as two different religions.
Forty years ago, Chung Chi College of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a Christian college, wanted to sponsor a religious week. So Chaplains Walton Tonge and Franklin Woo decided to have a series of sermons delivered in the college special morning assemblies during the week. A Roman Catholic priest, an Anglican priest, a Methodist minister, a Baptist pastor and myself, a minister from the Church of Christ in China were invited to lunch at the YMCA to discuss the details. After the introductions, the Baptist pastor asked Franklin if he could talk with him in private, outside the dining room. After a few minutes, only Franklin came back. He told us that the Baptist pastor could not appear with a Roman Catholic in the same function. How sad!
According to all the modern English Bible, Matthew 1:23 quoting Is. 7:14 reads,
“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”
Though according to the Septuagint or the Greek Bible it says, “Jesus was born of a woman”.
From the Early Church on, for 2,000 years, the Church, both the Byzantine Church and the Latin Church insist that Jesus was born of Virgin Mary.
The Nicene Creed, the Creed which we recite during Communion Service says, “… and was Incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary...”. Or the Apostles’ Creed which we recite during ordinary services says, “… who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of Virgin Mary.”
Why is it so important that Jesus was born of a virgin?
The early Church believed that Jesus was God incarnate, that is, God became a human being in the person of Jesus. This was absolutely unique and special. In order to demonstrate this extra-ordinary event, Jesus was not born in the usual way like any human being does. Jesus was born in a way beyond any human understanding. The human understanding is that a woman cannot conceive unless a sperm of a man is fused with one of her eggs.
In the modern times, we have gotten used to see things only in scientific or technological, or cause and effect manner. Four years ago, the first Chinese astronaut, Yeung Lee Wai visited Hong Kong. He was received as a great hero. But a learned friend told me the real heroes were the Chinese scientists who laboured very hard for years to devise this highly complicated space venture. Then for three years. Mr. Yeung would practice every manouever repeatedly day after day. As long as he followed every minute move designed by the scientists and followed them to the dot, the danger of an accident in the space would be minimal.
Contemporary human beings have become very mechanical. Most of the white-collar workers in Hong Kong are accustomed to ride the faster MTR rather than the slower buses. For long I notice there is a marked difference. The passengers on the MTR are very wooden and show little emotions in their faces. The passengers on buses are usually more interested – they would look around and some even enjoy the scenes from outside the bus.
The birth of Jesus was outside any scientific law. It is beyond time and space and hence beyond human understanding. It is a matter of faith. Indeed the Christian faith is a living faith. As Matthew asserted God is the God of the living (Mt 22:32), implying that God is a living God and is beyond our human comprehension. This is what a famous Tallis Ordinal of the 17th Century says in the last verse:
“Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan His work in vain,
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.”
Jesus came to us as the extra-ordinary. He was God became man. So he had to be born in the most unusual way, born of a virgin.
Jesus’ mother was also extra-ordinary. Originally, it was not her own will to bear a baby without first gotten married. It would be catastrophic in an extremely conservative society and a traditional culture some 2,000 years ago to bear a baby without a husband. Undoubtedly it would bring great shame to her and her finance Joseph. As a matter of fact without the intervention of an angel, Joseph would have annulled his engagement with Mary (Mt 1:19).
So when the angel came to Mary to pronounce that she would conceive in her womb and bear a son to be named Jesus (Lk 1:30-31), Mary’s first reaction was: “How can this be, since I have no husband”. (Lk 1:34a).
The angel then said to her,
“The Holy Spirit will come to you,
And the power of the Most High will over shadow you;
Therefore the child to be called Holy,
The Son of God.”
Out of her faith in God – that “with God nothing is impossible”, so affirmed her cousin Elizabeth – the mother of John the Baptist, Mary finally succumbed to the will of God.
“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be according to Your word.” (Lk 1:38 NRSV)
“Let is happen to me as you have said.” (Lk 1:38, NJB)
“I am the Lord’s servant; may it happen to me as you have said.” (Lk 1:38 TEV)
Because of Mary’s Absolute Obedience to God, God was able to carry out His plan.
John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus. I am sure Jesus learned from John about his zest to preach about the Kingdom of God; his audacity to confront the powers and principalities as represented by Herod as well as his utter humility. Likewise, Jesus was greatly influenced by his mother, particularly about her absolute obedience to God. This was Jesus final struggle in the garden of Gethsemane:
“Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it.” (Mt 26:39// Mk 14:36// Lk 22:42).
Later, in a hymn of praise to Christ, it has this description,
“Jesus humbled himself
and became obedient unto death
even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:8)
Other than we remember that because of her absolute obedience to God, Mary became the Holy Mother, the mother of Jesus; we also remember her song of praise, or the Magnificat as found in Luke 1:47-56. Let me read part of this beautiful song to you,
“My soul proclaims the greatness of God…
He has routed the arrogant heart,
He has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly.
He has filled the starving with good things, sent the rich away empty..”
As we look around in our world now, mishaps and tragic events happen by the second. Invariably, the poor and the powerless are the victims. Why? Is it because people, ourselves included, are prone to obey the will of the rich and the powerful? For the sake of protecting ourselves, or worse still, for the enhancement of our own benefits, oftentimes we decide to be responsible to the authorities, rather than to God. No, like Mary, we must turn around and decide to be responsible only to God and thus respond to the cries of the weak and the young whom God cares especially.
Let our soul magnify God and our mind refocus on God. Only in doing so, again like Mary, can we have compassion on the less fortunate.
Glory be to God the Creator, to our Lord and Souvior Jesus Christ, and to the Holy Spirit our comforter; as it was in the beginning, is now and even shall be, world without end. Amen.
I Am Not Good Enough Even To Untie His Sandals (Luke 3:16)
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 16th December 2007 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 40:18-24 and Luke 3:1-22.
To-day is the third Sunday in Advent. Advent means coming. In this season, the Church prepares for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. In doing so this year, we reflect on II Isaiah’s words: Those who wait or hope or trust in the Lord shall renew their strength (Is 40:31).
How do we hope, trust or wait for the Lord? On the First Sunday, from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, it was suggested that we must be born from above or we must make every effort to find ways to reconnect with God. Last Sunday was Bible Sunday. It was suggested that we must listen to the Word of God – for this Word is the Lamp to guide us and the Light on our path. This Sunday is John the Baptist Sunday. This is his message and plea: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand” (Mt. 3:2). “Repent” means to turn away from sin, from self-centredress, from separation and alienation with self, with others and with God and turn back to God – to be in communion with God. On this Sunday, we are very happy that Angela has made this decision. We have just witnessed her baptism.
John the Baptist was the pioneer for Jesus. When I was a student at Queen’s College in the 1950’s, my only recollection was that the Governor of Hong Kong came to our graduation exercises every year in November. I was most impressed by the police inspector whose motorcycle with a British flag always went in front of the Governor’s Rolls Royce. According to what I have been told, his major function was not only ceremonial – to make the Rolls Royce behind his looked more dignified; but more importantly to clear the way in case there was heavy traffic so that the governor would always arrive on time. In other words it was the inspector who ensured the punctuality of the Governor which was known as the Governor’s time!
Likewise, John the Baptist cleared the way for Jesus.
“Look, I am going to send my messenger in front of you to prepare your way before you. (Mk 1:2).
John the Baptist was the messenger of God who went before Jesus.
“A voice of one that cries in the desert: Prepare a way for the Lord, Make his paths straight.” (Mk 1:3 quoting Is 40:3).
The main duty of John the Baptist was to prepare the way for Jesus and make straight his paths.
John the Baptist was the first evangelist. He brought forth Jesus Christ – who was and is the “evangel”. His preaching and his work was recorded somewhat in detail in Lk 3:1-22 which was read this morning. It may be also found in Mt 3:1-12; Mk 1:1-8 and Jn 1:15-42.
John’s preaching was simple and clear. Repent: Turn back from Ego-centric to Theo-centric; from always thinking of our own benefit to caring for others. “If you have two shirts give one to the person who has none; and share the food you have with the hungry.” (3:11).
In those days, tax collectors and the Roman soldiers were disliked by people. This was the advice of John the Baptist for them respectively: “Don’t collect more than is legal” (3:13); “Don’t take money from anyone by force or accuse anyone falsely” (3:14).
In answering questions raised by tax collectors and soldiers, John the Baptist reminded all of us do not fall into the pit of always caring for our own benefits at the expense of other people.
When people’s hopes began to rise at the work of John the Baptist, he denied categorically that he was the Messiah. He pointed out that the Messiah would come in the person of Jesus Christ. “I baptist you with water, but someone is coming who is much greater than I am. I am not good enough to untie his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:16).
How humble was John the Baptist! He claimed that he was not even worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals. In those days, only slaves would untie the shoes or sandals of their masters or the guests of their masters.
How many of us would not mind to be a second fiddler in our Church? As James and John, two of closest disciples of Jesus, we want to sit on high places or important positions. Not too long ago, there was a dinner for church leaders all over the world hosted by the Christian Conference of Asia in Hong Kong. A Church leader from Hong Kong was placed in table number 5, rather than the head table or table no. 2. He had a look on the situation and excused himself saying that he had another dinner to attend! We all are very ego-centric and are extremely difficult to be humble.
But John the Baptist humbled himself. I wonder to what extent Jesus learned from him. As we all know throughout his life Jesus served those in need humbly – even to the extent of giving up his own life. As Paul observed, “although Jesus was rich. He became poor for our sake, so that we would become rich through his poverty.” (II Cor. 8:9). Later, Paul described Jesus’ utter humble service by emptying himself in one of the Christological hymns in Phil. 2:6-11.
Eventually, John the Baptist met his fate of being executed by King or rather Governor Herod. Luke alluded it in 3:19. But Mark gave us a detail account of this extra-judicial killing in chapter 6 (vss 14-29) and Matthew also gave us a less detail account in chapter 14 (vss 3-12). However Luke did give us the reason or reasons why John the Baptist was beheaded.
First according to Luke, “John in many different ways preached the good news and urged them to change their ways” (vs 18). Generally speaking, people like to maintain the status quo. Only very few people would like to accept radical changes in their life.
Second, “John reprimanded Herod, the governor, the ruler of Galilee, because he had married Herodias, his brother’s wife, and had done many other evil things” (vs 19). In verse 20, it says, “Then Herod did an even worse thing by putting John in prison”. The woman Herodias hated John’s guts. Mark filled us in with the details after John was put into prison.
At Herod’s birthday party, Herodias’ daughter danced to the great delight of Herod and all his guests. So Herod told her he would give her whatever she wanted. She consulted her mother who suggested the head of John the Baptist. Herod was sad, but he could not refuse, especially in front of his guests. So John was beheaded.
John met his fate simply because he decided to tell the truth! It is always difficult to tell the truth in front of the authorities, particularly if the truth is against the powerful. It is a rule that the people in authority, like governor Herod, do not like to hear the truth because oftentimes they do according to their likes and dislikes and rule according to a pack of lies.
In 1999, because of the influx of people from the mainland who wanted to come to join their families in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong government decided to ask the Court of Final Appeal (CFA) to rule on the article in the Basic Law regarding who have the right to reside in Hong Kong. The CFA ruled against the Hong Kong government for trying to limit the number. So the government launched a publicity campaign by saying that if Hong Kong followed CFA’s ruling, more than 2.6 million mainlanders would flood Hong Kong. Basing on this scare tactics of lies, the general public in Hong Kong did not object that the Hong Kong government requested the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to rule in its favour.
The decision makers often used lies or cover-ups to justify their decision. Worse, the Church could not live up to the standard of John the Baptist by always telling the truth, especially in critical moments.
The message of the Church like John the Baptist or Jesus Christ is “Repent and believe in the Gospel”. Before we preach the Gospel of repentance, we must repent first, not just once but continuously.
In looking at how the Church in Hong Kong remained Silent in the 1990s and especially in recent years, I was somewhat heartened in my last years working in the Hong Kong Christian Institute. In 2000, Pope John Paul II issued a statement to usher in a new millennium by calling his Church to repent on all the wrong doings in the past. Earlier on the French Bishops’ Conference had issued the statement on “Silence is Sin” (alluding especially to the Silence of the Roman Catholic Church during the Nazi purge of the Jews). About the same time, the Bishops’ Conference in the Philippines asked the people’s forgiveness for the Church’s support of Ferdinand Marcos.
John the Baptist as Jesus’ Pioneer lost his life as a result of truth-telling. We can understand a lot better why the Jewish leaders wanted to put Jesus on a cross as well. (c.f. Mk 3:6 and 11:18)!
Besides a physician Luke was also a historian. He always put his messages in historical context. This is the beginning of the Gospel, he wrote, “I do (or I write) this so that you will know the full truth about everything you have been taught.” (1:4). To introduce John the Baptist, he wrote, “It was the fifteen year of the rule of the Emperor Tiberius; Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod was ruler of Galilee…” (3:1ff).
Luke gave some detail about John’s family. John came from a very pious family: his father Zechariah was a priest and mother Elizabeth was a devout woman. “They both lived good lives in God’s sight and obeyed fully all the Lord’s laws and commandments.” (1:6). Hence Zechariah was able to turn his doubt and fear: how can we have a son? I am an old man and so was my wife (3:18) into a song of praise (the Benedictus; 1:67-79). So was Elizabeth. She turned her shame (being too old for a baby, 1:25) into a statement of trust (1:39ff).
John the Baptist and his father Zechariah and mother Elizabeth ushered in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. They were all humble to admit that they were not the ONE to come, But only with their generous, unselfish and humble service to God could God’s plan be fulfilled. Like them, we too, have to play our part, no matter how small, in God’s saving activities on earth.
The utter humility of John was no accident. Luke reported that in order to prepare his service to God, he decided to live in a desert (Lk 1:80). Mark added “John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Mk 1:6). John lived a simple life. Indeed it is this simple life style which enabled John to be humble and accomplished great things.
This was how Jesus summed up John’s life of humble service.
“A prophet? Yes indeed, but you saw much more than a prophet. For John is the one whom the scripture says, ‘God said, I will send my messenger ahead of you to open the way for you!’ I tell you, John is greater than any man who has ever lived.” (Lk 7:26-28).
Let us pray:
O God, your truth is hidden from the wise and pendent, and revealed only to the humble: Grant us pure and humble hearts, that being inspired by the Holy Spirit we may know to follow your path of salvation in this world. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
God’s Word Is A Light On My Path (Psalm 119:105)
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 9th December 2007 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 40:10-17 and John 5:30-40.
The second candle in Advent has just been lit. This reminds us that we are now in the 2nd Sunday in Advent. Advent means coming. This is the season for us to prepare for the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The birth of Jesus happened about 2,000 years ago. It was history. But the meaning of this historic event is ever new and relevant to all of us. Certainly, we need to celebrate Christmas or to commemorate the birth of Jesus every year; but more importantly, through this celebration of an historical event, we must internalize the true meaning of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is only through this that our life will be revitalized and be more purposeful.
The Christmas decorations went up as early as mid-November. In a highly consumerized society such as Hong Kong, the well-to-do people have begun to go Christmas shopping and make preparations for Christmas parties. The religious meaning or rather the real life meaning of Christmas has long been forgotten. Christians do not fare any better. In order to revert this trend, one of the things we must do is to once again take Advent seriously. The Advent season and particularly the four Sundays in Advent provide us golden opportunities to prepare in our minds as well as in our hearts the historic, yet forever existential and relevant meaning of Christmas.
The theme for the first Sunday in Advent which was last Sunday was “We must be born from above”. The theme for the Second Sunday in Advent is the Bible. The Bible is a key witness to God’s Acts in history, especially His Incarnation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Bible is the widest circulated book in all human history. It is the best of the best sellers. According to the Bible Society, three billion copies of the Bible have been printed. It has been translated into 300 odd languages.
Our Bible contains two sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament.
The Old Testament written in Hebrew is the Hebrew Bible. It has 24 books. It may be classified into three categories, namely Torah (or the five books attributed to Moses); Neviim (the Prophets) and Ketuvim (the writings or literature); according to Jeremiah (18:18) or Luke (24:44). However, in our Bible 12 “minor” prophets are considered as 12 books; and the longer books were split into two, such as Ezra-Nehemiah; Kings, Chronicles and Samuel; thus making it 39 books. These 24 books were canonized in the year 91 A.D. when the leaders met in Jamnia. The Hebrew Bible was first translated into Greek in the first century B.C.E. This Greek Bible or the Septuagint was translated into Latin around the 3rd and the 4th centuries. The Latin Bible or the Vulgate finally was translated into English and German in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The New Testament consists of 27 books: 7 Pauline letters; The Synoptic Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles; the Paulinist letters and the General letters as well as the Johannie Writings (the Gospel of John, 3 letters of John and the Revelations). These 27 books were canonized only in 397 A.D. in the Church Council at Carthage.
Basically, our Bible contains the faith documents of two faith communities, namely, the Isralites or the Jewish people between 1040 B.C.E. to 100 A.D.; and the followers of Jesus or the Early Church between 49 A.D. to 110 A.D.
The Bible primarily is a book for worship. It provides the Jewish and especially the Christian communities abundant resources in hymns, prayers, preaching and creeds or faith statements. Some books or parts of them in the Bible were written exclusively for liturgical purposes. In the Old Testament, for instance, the five little scrolls were written for and to be read in the five main Jewish festivals: Songs of Songs in Passover; Ruth in Pentecost; The Lamentations in Ab – the day when the Jews commemorated the Fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.; Ecclesiastes in the Feast of the Tabernacle and finally Esther in Purim. Likewise in the New Testament, several books were written for use in public worship for the Early Church. Matthew, Ephesians and Colossians were such examples.
Psalms were written to be sung in public worship. Unfortunately, the music for the psalms have long been lost. There are many other hymns in the Old Testament. The most famous are the Song of Moses (Ex 15:1-8) and a Song by David (II Sam ch.22).
In the New Testament, there are at least six hymns for Christ, viz. Col 1:15-20; Phil 2:6-11; I Tim 3:16; I Peter 3:18-22 (1:20); Hebrews 1:1-4 and the Prologue in John (1:1-14). Another example: In the first two chapters of the Gospel according to Luke alone, there are five hymns of praise or doxologies: Song of Mary or the Magnificat (1:46-55); Song of Zechariah or the Benedictus (1:68-79); the angels sang praises to God after the birth of Jesus (2:14); the song by Simeon or the Nunc Dimitties (2:29-32) and the praise of prophetess Anna (2:38).
There are countless important prayers in the Old Testament: temple prayer in Nehemiah (9:5-31); Hannah’s prayer (I Sam 2:1-10); David’s prayer (II Sam 7:18-29) Jonah’s prayer (2:2-9); and Prophet Habakkuk’s prayer (3:2-19), etc. The most famous prayer in the New Testament of course is the Lord’s Prayer, which we use in worship every Sunday.
The Bible contains countless faith statements. The recitals found in Deuteronomy 6 (vss 21-25) and 26 (vss 5-9) and in Joshua 24 (vss 2-13) are prime examples.
The Bible does not only contain rich resources for preaching, it contains good examples of sermons delivered by Apostle Peter (Acts 2, 3, 4, 5 and 10) and Apostle Paul (Acts 13) as well.
Finally, the Bible provides us with valuable guides regarding the order of worship: for example, in the Call of Prophet Isaiah:
Praise (Is 6:2-3)
Confession (Is 6:4-7)
Commission (Is 6:8-13)
Nehemiah 9 gives us the form of the Jewish worship in the Temple.
The Bible as a book of worship enables us to focus on God rather than on our own life; to help us to understand God and our relationship to God. As the Prophet Hosea says, “God is God and not human. God is the Holy One in our midst (meaning God is the infinite Creator and not a finite created being). (Hosea11:9).
Regarding God’s relationship to humans, Prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel in quoting Deuteronomy asserted, “God is our God and we are God’s people” (Deut. 29:13; Jer 30:22, 31:1, 31:33; 32:38; Eze 11:20, 26:28, 37:27, etc.). In knowing God, we know who we are. As Proverbs says, “To have reverence to God is the beginning of our wisdom (or knowledge) (1:7).
The Bible also aims to educate the faithful. Besides a look of worship, assisting us to have reverence to God, thus knowing who we are, the Bible is also a book to teach us how to live a life in relationship to God. Thus every Sunday, before we read the Bible, our response, taking from Psalm 119:105 is, “Your Word (the Bible) is a lamp for my feet, a light to my path.”
Apostle Paul had this to say about the Bible, “Everything written in the Scriptures was written to teach us, in order that we might have hope through the patience and encouragement which the Scriptures give us” (Rom 15:4) or in, the Second Letter to Timothy, “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living”. (3:16-17).
In fact, all letters written by Paul are “concrete” letters, Paul wrote to the faithful with the purpose to answer their concrete concern or problems in their daily living. For example in his first letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul tried to clarify some concrete questions about marriage (ch. 7); about food offered to idols (ch. 8); about Holy Communion (ch. 11); about Church Unity (ch. 12); about the gift of love (ch. 13); about resurrection (ch.15) and so on.
When we study carefully the letters written by Paul and other apostles, we can easily detect that without exception every letter is divided into two parts: first part is about theological exposition and the second part about how Christians should live their life. That is why sometimes, the Bible in general and the letters in the New Testament in particular is labelled as a book concerning theo-ethics – Christian behaviour based on their understanding of their relationship to God and God’s demand. Another good example is in the Gospel according to Matthew. Matthew consists of mainly five teaching blocks by Jesus, namely chs 5-7 (Sermon on the Mount); ch. 10 (the missionary nature of disciples). Ch. 13 (the parables of God’s Kingdom); ch. 18 (the caring nature of the Church) and chs 24-25 (the final judgment). All these teachings are about God’s Kingdom or rather how human beings should live in relation to God. In final analysis, all Biblical teachings are about life, the life as God intended for all of us. This is what John observed in his deep thoughts, “You study the Scriptures, because in them you can find eternal life.” (5:39). To put it in another way, the Scriptures are the source of life because they transmit to us God’s Word, which is the Word of life.
How do we read the Bible?
First of all, we have to realize that the Bible is a highly complicated compilation of writings written in between 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. The Old Testament basically was Jewish in nature. The New Testament also originated from the Jewish culture and religion, but later influenced by the Greeco-Roman world. Now, we live in a completely different age and culture. It is natural that there are many and varied interpretations regarding the message of the Bible. But we must never select a certain passage to judge and to condemn people or their behaviour. For example, in the past several years, some fundamental Christians have used Leviticus 18 and Romans 1:26-27 to condemn homosexuality. This was highly inappropriate.
We should not only read the words of the Bible. As Paul put it, “written letters kill, but the spirit gives life” (II Cor 3:6). Biblicism or Literalism can be extremely dangerous and can easily lead us go astray – away from the Love of God.
We must understand the meaning of the Bible in totality. The Bible uncovers for us what is life – i.e. the life ultimately in relationship to God. The Bible does not merely inform us about the faith of the Jewish people and the faith of the Early Church; but more importantly, the Bible inspires us: It strengthens our faith in God. It is only in this faith that we can experience the rich meaning and purpose in our life, which is the abundant life or eternal life and which is promised by our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let us pray:
O God, you have commanded the light of Your Word to shine through darkness. Nurture us with this Word and let this Light shine into our hearts and minds, that we may know how to follow the path of righteousness. Amen.
You Must Be Born From Above (John 3:7)
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 2nd December 2007 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 40:1-9 and John 3:1-21.
To-day is the first Sunday in Advent. According to tradition, it marks the beginning of a new Christian year. It is just like September 1 is the beginning of a school year in Hong Kong and April 1 is the beginning of a financial year for the Hong Kong government.
Every social grouping on this planet earth has its calendar. Every school has its own calendar. Every social work agency has its own yearly plan. So is the Church. The Church has a Christian calendar. The purpose of having a calendar for any organisation is to let its members know what to do: when to work, when to rest and when to celebrate. The Ecclesiasticus of the Apocrypha has these words in its 33rd chapter, verses 7-9:
“Why is one day better than another,
though the sun gives the same daylight
throughout the year?
They have been differentiated in the mind of the Lord,
who has differentiated the seasons and the feasts;
Some he has made more important and has hallowed,
others he made ordinary days.”
Broadly speaking, the Christian calendar is divided pretty evenly into two halves: the first half is the Year of the Lord. In it, the Church celebrates the life of our Lord Jesus Christ: from his birth, his ministry, his death and resurrection to his ascension. The second half is the year of the Church. In this Church year, the Church moves from commemoration and celebration of the life of our Lord, to re-enact his ministry – his words and his deeds. This is the year when the Church goes to work.
You must have noticed the change of the liturgical colours: from green to purple. Green represents the earth. The Church goes out to work on this earth. Purple or what we sometimes call the royal purple represents the presence of the King. Purple also represents our repentance. We confess that we have turned away from our Lord. Now we need to turn back to him.
In this Advent, I propose we read chapter 40 of Isaiah in our morning worship, a portion each Sunday. This chapter marks the beginning of II Isaiah. In this chapter the prophet prophesied the eventual return or salvation of God’s chosen people. It is one of the most moving chapters in the Hebrew Bible.
I have also chosen the very last verse, viz. 40:31 as the theme of my Advent series of sermons. It reads,
“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (NRSV)
Those who wait for the Lord. This is from the NRSV of the Bible. The NJB reads “those who hope for the Lord” and the Bible in our pews reads, “those who trust in the Lord”. Whether wait, hope or trust carries the same proactive meaning. It does not mean we do nothing. But rather we need to refocus our life.
According to some church traditions, the four Sundays in Advent are attributed to Rebirth or Born again from Above; the Bible; John the Baptist and Mary. So I would like to preach on how those themes help us to do the refocusing: Born from Above, listening to the Word of God; humble service and absolute obedience.
The theme for the first Sunday is Rebirth. I have chosen Jn 3:1-21 as the basis for our reflections.
Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night and engaged Jesus in a very serious conversation. Through this conversation, the Gospel writer of John introduced one of the two main themes of the whole Gospel: God is Love. The other was in chapter four – through Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman, the Gospel purported that God is Spirit.
Who was Nicodemus? He was a Jewish leader, most likely a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the ruling body which took care of all social, cultural and religious affairs in the Jewish society in Palestine. Because of his high position, he felt more comfortable to come to see Jesus at night. He was also a Jewish teacher – a man of wisdom. He knew from Jesus’ teaching that Jesus was sent from God; and that because the miracles or the signs Jesus performed, God must be with him.
What was Nicodemus’s concern? We do not know directly. But from what Jesus said, we know that Nicodemus’ concern was about the Kingdom of God.
First in verse 3, Jesus said, I am telling you the truth, nobody can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.
“How can a grown man be born again? He certainly cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time.” Nicodemus asked a very pertinent question. Like many of us, Nicodemus could not go beyond what is physical in his thinking. That explains why in many versions of the Bible, instead of the words “born again”, “born above” were used. “Born above” signified special or extraordinary birth. In line with the same thinking, the Early Church insisted that Jesus was born of Virgin Mary. In fact since the fourth century, “Jesus born of Virgin Mary” has become a part of the Christian dogma.
In modern times, the term “born again Christians” was popularized since the 1960s in the southern part of the United States of American which was called the Bible Belt. When a Christian was born again, he would give up certain things. Oftentimes, before that person was born again, he would engage in several of the social ills, like drugs, womanizing, alcohol, gambling and so on. After he was born again, he would give up all these things. He would even quit smoking and dancing.
Some fifty years ago, a Sunday school classmate of mine went to Blue Mountain College, a Baptist college to further her studies. She was socially very active. One of the first letters she wrote was about how hard it was for her to be in this fundamental college. There were a lot of rules which she had to follow. One of those was that Dancing was forbidden. She was often asked whether she was saved, alluding that she had not been born again. Even up to this day, many born-again Christians still think that they are worldly better than others. They are not only dogmatic but rigid, exclusive and dominating as well. A typical case is the U.S. President, George W. Bush. He admitted that he was a wayward youth; but after he was born again, he was a different person. He thought whoever was not for him were his enemies. So North Korea, Iraq and Iran are the axis of evil.
Second, in verse 5 Jesus took Nicodumus a bit further, “No one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” “Born of water” alludes to the ritual of Baptism. Jesus himself was baptised in River Jordan by his forerunner John the baptizer. Water used in the ritual has the cleaning effect. In the ritual of baptism the old self of a person is washed away. He is a new person. The old person exists in the state of sin as recorded in Genesis 3-11. This is the state of disobedience, rebellions, ingratitude and arrogance; in a word separated for God. The new person is in the state of Genesis 1 and 2. It is a state in full communion with God.
A new person is born out of water; but at the same time into the Spirit.
Anyone born into the Spirit becomes a free person: free from the bondage of sin or limitation. A person with the Spirit is a person not bound by rules and regulations; not bound by the value system of this world – fame, power, status, wealth, success, numbers, achievement etc. But instead, he/she is free and able to respond, especially respond to the needs of other people.
Third, beginning from verse 11, Jesus moved from the explanation of the Kingdom of God to the King. Jesus was the King. He was born from above. Therefore he was able to show us the special love relationship in the Kingdom of God. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only son…” (vs. 15). Because of this love, Jesus was willing to give up his life so that all kinds of broken relationships relating to God and human beings may be restored. A life in full communion with God and in appropriate relationship with each other is eternal life. The only way to experience this eternal life is to believe in Jesus Christ.
What does it mean to believe in Jesus Christ? Jesus gave the typology as recorded in Numbers 21:4-9 of the Old Testament. When the Israelites were wandering in the Sinai wilderness, many were bitten by poisonous snakes and died. So their leader Moses prayed to God. God asked that a bronze snake be made and that Moses would put it on a pole, so that anyone who had been bitten would look at the bronze snake and be healed.
Likewise Jesus would be hung on a cross later and all those who believed in him would have eternal life (Jn 3:16).
This typology highlighted how God through Moses saved the Israelites in the Old Testament; and through Jesus saved all humanity. In comparison, we know Moses used a bronze snake; but Jesus used his own life as the medium of God’s saving act. People’s required responses are necessarily different too! In the time of Moses, all those who wanted to be healed would only require to look at the bronze snake. But in our time, all who wanted to be saved and experience eternal life would have to believe in Jesus. “Believe in” implies total commitment. It entails like Jesus, our total obedience to God and again like Jesus live a sacrificial life, to be “a person for others”.
For indeed, this is what Jesus commanded all his disciples or followers: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mk 8:34// Mt 16:24// Lk 9:23).
To be born again or to be born from above is to decide to turn back to God; i.e. to be in communion with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. This is to say we decide to become like Jesus. This is the only way not only to have a glimpse of eternal life in the Kingdom of God; but also to enter it as well.
Glory be to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. Amen.
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