A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 24th February 2008 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Amos 5:21-25 and Ephesians 3:1-6; 4:1-6.
Let us pray:
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen (Ps. 19:14)
Our series of sermons for Lent and Eastertide this year is on “Our Faith in God”. Last Sunday, we concentrated to examine our life: as human beings, our life is full of limitations. It is because we are not God. Sadly oftentimes, we like to play God. Hence we fall into the abyss of being separated from God – that is, alienated from our ground, or our reason of existence. Thus, it is high time and imperative that we re-examine our faith in God.
Socrates, the father of classical Greek philosophy once said, “an unexamined life is not worth living.” So is our faith. We need to take time to examine and perhaps re-examine our faith constantly. How does our faith relate to our life? How can it give meaning to our life and empower our life?
There seems to be an upsurge of the number of Christians in Hong Kong in recent years. But for many Christians, their faith is just like a fad. The Christian faith does not really affect their life. Worse still, to many Christians, their faith and life do not seem to fit or match.
Not too long ago, I was invited to lunch after I delivered a sermon in a Methodist Church. I understood it was a regular social occasion for five or six couples after the Sunday service. On that particular Sunday, one couple arrived late. Obviously they were not in Church either. On their arrival, not fully aware that I was present, the gentleman asked one of elders who sat across the big round table from me, “How were your little horses last night?”. Fairly embarrassed, instead of answering the question, he introduced me to the couple, “This is Rev. Kwok, our guest preacher this morning.” I think what this group of Christians believed was that they could talk about horse racing and betting all they wanted, but not in front of a pastor. In other words, they could do whatever they wanted during the week; but not on Sundays. There are plenty of worshippers on Sundays in the 1400 Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches in Hong Kong. Most Christians go to church on Sundays, though some will only go on important festivals like Christmas and Easter. In a local church I served in the 1960s, we had more worshippers on the first Sundays of the month which were Communion Sundays.
During my over four decades of ministry, I notice that people tend to turn to God when they face crises or turmoil in their life. I began to realize this some 45 years ago when the 35th President of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. The following Sunday, I was in the Yale Chapel. It was packed with worshippers not only inside, but also outside around that huge chapel. I read from newspapers the day after the tragic event that almost all citizens in America went to church of some sort on that Sunday.
Thirty years ago, during the crisis of the Precious Blood Golden Jubilee School which eventually led to its closure, first-ever in Hong Kong, I was told that the Director of Education was found praying in St. John’s Cathedral every morning before he went back to his office.
But does the Christian faith really help us?
During the Second World War, a United States army chaplain John O’Conner reported that a great many young soldiers who claimed they were Christians since birth were scared to death when they went to the battlefield. He concluded that their Christian Faith never went beyond the Sunday School Bible stories. In other words, they have not really internalized their faith so that it could help them to manage their life and overcome their fear and anxiety. So upon his return Rev. O’Conner started a church in Washington, D.C. He stipulated that anyone who wanted to join that church must go through a two-year training. Then they had to sign a pledge indicating that they had to offer a-tenth of their income and a-tenth of their time for the work of the church.
The Christian faith is never about the faith in any ideology; not in persons in authority or power; and not even in ourselves. It is always about our faith in God. The God we believe in or we have faith in is not an idea or a concept for theologians to investigate. This God is not a supreme being high above us and intervenes the world’s goingonness at his whims: blesses some and punishes others. No, not all this. The God we believe in is the God who acts in history and in this world inceasingly. God cares for all humankind and each and every one of us.
When we affirm that God is the God who made heaven and earth, God is the God of all creation, we do not only experience meaning and purpose in our life, but also we are willing to help others to realize the same. This is the basis of the Christian faith.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the greatest German Christians and theologians advocated a religionless Christianity. Basically what he said was that the Christian faith is not a religion. For in a religion people worship a god or a being which is high above so that they can be blessed by him. In other words, religion is for satisfying the needs of human beings. But the Christian faith basically is for the well being of others. Bonhoeffer concluded that Jesus Christ was a “man for others”. As Christians, we must follow the example of our Lord. We must strive for the well being of other people.
Increasingly, humanity is impacted by materialism and market economy. Globalization has caused a general feeling of insecurity. There is a tendency of mistrust among people which include sometimes friends and the closed ones. “Everybody for themselves” is the predominant midset. Subconsciously, we believe our wants and desires are more important than the needs of other people. Our opinions and our views are superior to yours. Consequently the Christian faith has also been privatized – in the sense that only if I believe in God, I shall be O.K.
That explains the fact that in Hong Kong immediately after the Second World World, there were only less than 100 local churches. But because Christian churches responded to the needs of the influx of refugees from the mainland of China by providing them with the much needed relief in rice, noodles and all kinds of canned goods, many recipients eventually became Christians. They were labeled as “rice Christians”. Consequently, in 1980, by one count there were 900 local churches and parishes. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s churches in Hong Kong responded to the call of the government. They began to build schools and social welfare centres. Many students, teachers and social workers became Christians as well. This marked the second surge in the increase of Christians. According to some statistics in 2005, there were 1400 plus local churches. Many argued that with the increase in numbers, the quality will follow. That did not turn out to be the case. On the whole Christians to-day are more self-centered than those in the 1960s.
I wrote a book about the interpretation or reinterpretation of the Christian Gospel. I used the thinking of Apostle Paul which was labeled as the “Cross Theology” and one of his followers who compiled the Gospel of Mark and argued that the Christian Gospel is basically the Gospel of Renunciation. A very senior Baptist theologian reviewed my book. His final conclusion was “This is too heavy. Is there a lighter way to interpret the Christian Gospel?”
Indeed only when the Gospel is the Gospel of Heaven and not the Gospel of the Cross can the Christian Church attract people to join! But the truth is only the Gospel of Renunciation or the Gospel about the Cross is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God is never just the God of my own life. God is the God of all human beings, indeed of His whole creation.
In the 1960s, there was a very popular book written by J.B. Philips entitled “Your God Is Too Small.” The name of the book itself is rather explosive. What Philips asserted was that in a rapid changing world, many people not only failed to cope, but they created a faith which they felt comfortable and a God which gave them a false sense of security. To them, God exists only in the Bible and in their mind.
But No to all this. God is very Real. God is the God of the whole world and of our life. As the letter to the Ephesians affirmed, “There is One God. He is the Father of us all, above all, through all and in all.” (4:6). If we truly believe in God, we have to first of all eliminate our narrow-mindedness. We have to embrace all people disregarding of their beliefs, race and life styles.
Sadly it is a fact that Christians generally accept only likeminded people, but tend to marginalize the people whom we disagree with, whether in thought or in their behaviour.
Christians also tend to worship God in the sanctuary as if God is only the God of the sanctuary; but neglect totally that God is the God also outside the sanctuary, indeed in the entire world. We simply cannot ignore to serve God and God’s creation in the world.
Let us hear once more God’s Word through Amos, an 8th century B.C.E. prophet in Israel,
“I hate, I scorn your festivals.
I take no pleasure in your solemn assemblies
When you bring your burnt offerings…
Your oblations, I do not accept them
And I do not look at your communion sacrifices of fat cattle.
Spare me the din of your chanting,
let me hear none of your strumming on lyres,
but let justice flow like water,
and uprightness like a never-failing stream.”
And God’s Word through Hosea, another prophet contemporary of Amos:
“Faithful love is what pleases me, not sacrifice;
knowledge of God, not burnt offerings.”
We all know that a boat, any kind of boat, is built not to be stored in a shipyard or put inside a harbour. Rather a boat is built to sail out into the open sea. Likewise when we say we have faith in God, we must venture out into the world, and especially reach out to those who need our help and encouragement. Our faith in God invariably drives us to share our life with the people within and outside the Church, especially to the less fortunate.
Glory be to the triune God: God the Creator, Jesus Christ our Redeemer and the Holy Spirit our Sustainer. Amen.
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 17th February 2008 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 8 and Hebrews 2:5-13.
There are five Sundays in Lent. Following Lent is the Holy Week – from Palm Sunday, Good Friday to Easter Sunday. It is to be followed by Eastertide. The Easter season has altogether six Sundays.
The Lenten season began with Ash Wednesday, which was on February 6 this year. By the way “ash” is a symbol of mortality. We are reminded that we are all mortal human beings. Lent is a season of preparation: In Lent, the Church prepares for the highest point of Jesus’ ministry, his crucifixion and resurrection.
In many church traditions, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, Lent is a season of repentance and fasting. In the abstinence from food or certain things we enjoy, we can often eliminate our negative thinking, habit and style.
According to tradition, the Lenten season has 40 days. This is also to commemorate Jesus’ preparation of his earthly ministry – 40 days of fasting in the wilderness. This is also in line with the ancient Israelites who spent 40 years in the Sinai wilderness to be nurtured as a people who eventually went into Canaan, the Promised Land.
Eastertide is a season when the Church proclaims the good news that our Lord Jesus had suffered, died on the cross and in the third day God raised him from the dead.
So from the beginning of Lent to the end of Eastertide, there are altogether 12 Sundays. Rev. Judy Chan preached the sermon on the first Sunday in Lent; Phyllis Wong, our Assistant Minister, the Palm Sunday; Dr. Jochen Teuffel preached on Easter Sunday; Maggie Tang, a field work student, preached on the first Sunday after Easter; and I will preach in the remaining nine Sundays. I would like to use this important occasion to meditate and reflect with all of you about Our Christian Faith. We believe in God. This is what we profess every Sunday. Perhaps this is also what we tell our colleagues, our friends and the people we encounter. “We believe in God” or “We have faith in God”. But what does it mean?
First when we confess we believe in God, we are saying we do not believe in any ideologies, in persons with authority or even in ourselves. We only have faith in God. The Christian God or the God we believe in is the Triune God or God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. These basic beliefs form the three basic articles of the ancient Creeds – the Apostles’ and the Nicene. If we wish to expound a little bit further, in relation to God’s work we will address God the Creator, God the Redeemer and God the Sustainer. Or if we wish to describe God’s nature, we may want to expound on God’s transcendence, incarnation and imminence.
But as God is primarily the God of our life, when we have faith in God, we are saying that we believe that our life is God-given. If our life is given by God, we cannot escape from our life. Moreover we should treasure our life, not some other life, and not the life of our wish, but the life we have now.
Yes, our life is full of mishaps and limitations. In fact, one of the most important Biblical scholars of the 20th Century, Rudolf Bultmann in one of his famous articles, “the Crisis of Faith” described that all human beings experienced limitations. Further more, we are often driven to realize those limitations. For example, Bultmann suggested, we are all anxious about to-morrow. So many of us work exceptionally hard to make money and save it for the morrow.
Do you know that in Hong Kong in average, every citizen has at least HK$30,000 in the bank? However, the sad thing is that no matter how much we put away in the bank, we can never be sure of a safe future. Just as the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12; the rich man was a fool because he thought after he had stored up all he needed for years to come he would have nothing to worry about.
We can never get rid of all our anxieties simply because we are not God, but rather we are finite human beings. We can never be in full control of everything.
When I started to work in a slum area in Hong Kong in mid-1960’s, I thought I had a lot to offer. I went there with qualifications second to none: with degrees from Hong Kong University and Yale University. Soon, I discovered that was not the case. At the request of one of the parishioners, I spent two hours in trying to persuade her elderly mother to go to hospital because she was seriously ill, but to no avail. In those days many elderly Chinese believed if they died, they had to die at home! I witnessed helplessly a drug-addict whom I had helped selling his 17-years old daughter to a dance hall. One day I received a phone call from a psychiatrist saying that he could no longer help one of his patients and asked if I could visit her in hospital. I did. After two visits, I thought she was getting better. Then I had to leave town for a meeting overseas. Upon my return, I was told that the beautiful lady had committed suicide! So in all these trials and tribulations, I learned that I was not a saviour. I came to realize my limitations despite I was one of the best trained pastors in Hong Kong.
A principal and a Form 3 student who was suffering from cancer in the nymph glands were in conversation about how the student should cope with her studies in her covalensce. But three weeks later, she died. An office staff came to see the same principal informing the principal that her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The principal tried to work out a work schedule for her so that she could spend more time with her husband. But only days later, her husband suddenly dropped dead. Nobody can control his or her life completely. We simply cannot play God.
Many people throughout the world tried to strive for perfection in the arts or in sciences, but soon discovered that they could just do so little. We look for good companion or true friendship, but in the end we may be driven to loneliness and solitude. We try to chase after things of eternity; but even when we experience the best of time in our life, there is no way we can ask it to linger a little bit longer.
Sooner or later, we would discover that we cannot control even very minute things. Because we are not God.
We are often driven by our Greed. In order to satisfy our wants and desires we are ruthless towards other people. Hitler and his Nazi party within a decade between 1934-44 murdered reportedly 6 million Jews. The Khmer Rouge’s rule in Kampuchea turned their own country into killing fields and put 1.7 million civilians to torture and death between 1975-79. A few persons’ greed and dominance could cause suffering of millions in such magnitude. This is sheer human madness.
No matter how rich or how poor, how powerful or powerless, nobody in the world is exempted from the limits he/she experiences day after day. Indeed everyday we are driven by our brokenness and guilt. We are not God. Nobody is self-created. God is the sole creator. We are created or called into existence by God.
However, as part of God’s creation, we are linked to God, the Creator. As some of the old Jewish sages purported, “In God, we live and move, and have our being; for we are all God’s children” (Acts 17:28, NRSV). Only in God shall we find our meaning and purpose of life.
All of us are finite human beings. But as God’s children, no matter in what situation and condition, our life propensities can be without limits.
The Creator and creation cannot be separated. When human beings are separated from God, their life will invariably be chaotic and meaningless.
The Christian Gospel or the good news affirms that God will not leave us uncared for. As the Anglican Collect (or short prayer) for Ash Wednesday says, “God hates nothing that He has made”. God will never leave us. This is what the Psalmists of old believed,
“The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger for ever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor requite us according to our iniquities,
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
As far as the east is from west,
so far does He remove our transgressions from us.
As a father pities his children
so the Lord pities those who fear him.
For He knows our frame;
He remembers that we are dust”.
The Israelites, as God’s chosen servants, time and again turned away from God. God should have punished them. Yet He did not. This was what Hosea, an Israelite prophet in the 8th century B.C.E. recapitulated:
“How can I give you up, O Ephraim!
How can I hand you over, O Israel!
How can I make you like ‘Admah’!
How can I treat you like Zeboiim!
My heart recoils within me,
My compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger,
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God not man,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come to destroy.
says the Lord God.”
Martin Buber, one of the greatest Jewish sages of the 20th century suggested that the whole human history is a history of “God seeking people”. Gerhard von Rad, the noted Old Testament scholar of the last century also suggested that the Old Testament history is Salvation History or “Heilsgeschite”.
As Christians we believe that God always treasures His own creation, especially us human beings. Indeed God created human beings according to His likeness. So we all have God’s image (Imago Dei). Psalm 8, the Psalm which we read this morning was a creation hymn, in praising God and God’s creation. Let me repeat what it says about the high status of human beings within God’s entire creation:
“I look up at your heavens, shaped by your fingers,
at the moon and the stars you set firm –
what are human beings that you spare a thought for them,
or the child of Adam that you care for him?
Yet you have made him little less than a god,
you have crowned him with glory and beauty,
make him lord of the works of your hands,
put all things under his feet.”
The glory and the dignity of human beings lie in the fact that though finite we are, we are connected to God. We trust God is our God and as one of the Psalmists recites,
“In peace I lie down and at once fall asleep, for it is none other, Yahweh, who make me rest secure.” (Psalm 4:8)
Let us pray:
Almighty God, increase our faith in you. Grant us to know in our daily life something more of the faith which pleases you: the faith that removes mountains, the faith that overcomes the world; the faith that works through love; the faith that makes all things possible. So may we prove more fully your own faithfulness and receive the blessings which you have promised to those who trust in you. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.