A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 27 July 2008 by Ms Jelita Pandjaitan. The scripture readings that day were Genesis 29: 15-28, Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52 and Romans 8: 26-39.
My family in Christ, good morning!
Let us come before God in prayer. Gracious God, Open our ears and our hearts to understand your Word to us today. Guide us to insight and action. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be holy and acceptable to you O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Last week, Maggie told a great story about a gardener with two buckets – I wasn’t here to hear it live, but I enjoyed reading it from Maggie’s sermon notes. She also mentioned that this is the agricultural section of the lectionary – with many stories of farming, planting, growing and harvesting in the Bible passages we have been hearing recently. This is the third week of such parables and also we see such activities in the story of Jacob in Genesis.
Indeed, as I read the passages from Genesis and Matthew for today, I reflected that there are many events and stories in the Bible from which we are to learn more about God, but which are far removed from our daily experience. I have never worked on a farm or ploughed land or watered sheep – although I have sat with my grandmother while she spun the wool from my uncle’s goats. I have never seen a mustard bush or baked a loaf of bread – except in a bread maker. What a sheltered life!
And yet all these experiences must have been so real and immediate to the Jewish families who passed on the story of Jacob, Leah and Rachel from generation to generation and to the Jewish followers of Jesus. Indeed, they might also be much more familiar to many of you than they are to me. What can we understand from these passages today and apply in our modern Hong Kong lives of offices, schools, motorised transport and internet banking?
In reflecting on these passages, I am taking comfort from a short parable which I have never noticed before, but which is included in the parables today at the end of the reading from Matthew’s gospel: “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a household who brings of his treasure what is new and what is old.” So, in understanding Scripture, we have both the Old and New Testaments and also the old and new contexts in which God’s Word can bring meaning and life.
Let’s begin with the story of Jacob. It’s an entertaining passage isn’t it! In the part of Genesis before the section we read today, Jacob arrives at a well and sees people gathering to water their sheep but they are waiting for someone to roll away the stone from the well. Then Rachel arrives with her father Laban’s sheep and Jacob rolls away the stone to allow her to water them. He discovers that Rachel is his relative through his mother’s side – the very family he had been travelling to find after running from his brother Esau. He is so moved to find her that he begins weeping.
We can imagine after the tough journey Jacob has been on and the fear and awe he has experienced since leaving his home to save his own life, and his encounter with God in the desert that we heard about last week, that it must have been a relief to find family again. Some of us who have travelled a long way from home and family to be in Hong Kong – some by choice and others not – might have that same feeling of relief when they reach a church family where they feel at home. I know that is how I felt when I joined KUC a few years ago. It was like coming home again.
Jacob decides to stay with Laban’s family for the time being and he offers to work seven years for Laban to earn the hand of Rachel in marriage, because he loves her. Laban agrees and Jacob does the work. Seven is of course a special number in the Bible. It signifies perfection and completeness. God created the world in six days and appointed the seventh day for rest – the sabbath, which comes from the Hebrew for seven - sheva. There is also in the Old Testament a sabbath appointed for the land and for slaves. For example, every field should be left fallow and not sown or harvested one season in seven. This allows the ground to rest and recover so that it is more productive in the other seasons. So Jacob offered and paid the perfect price for Rachel.
But he was tricked! He received Leah on the wedding night. I always find this part of the story a bit amusing. How could he spend seven years living in Rachel and Leah’s house and not know which one he married!? There is also some irony here in that it is the same kind of trick as Jacob played on Isaac his father when he took Esau’s birthright by wearing animal skins. Isaac thought he was eating food brought by Esau and was tricked into blessing Jacob. Just as Isaac can’t take back his blessing mistakenly given to Jacob, Jacob can’t give back Leah to Laban now that she has become his wife. So he agrees to work another seven years for Rachel – although in fairness, Laban lets Jacob marry Rachel at the beginning of the seven years instead of the end.
The problem of free things
We often think that Laban is pretty mean in this story. First, he obtains a very high price for Rachel and then he tricks Jacob into paying it twice! It may be that Laban played Jacob unfairly, but we can see that he was also thinking of his own family and preserving their security. Laban thought Jacob was the best hope for his daughters to have a good life so he did what he could to make sure Leah was looked after as well.
But there is another important aspect to Jacob’s service for Laban. Jacob’s seven years of service teach him to value Rachel. If Laban had simply given Rachel to Jacob, he might have been delighted but then later treated her badly when his initial enthusiasm wore off. Instead, Jacob serves Laban diligently, without resentment (even, so it seems, in the second seven years) because he believes Rachel is worth it. If you have time to read the passages that follow the story we heard today, you will discover that Jacob’s commitment to Rachel extends to many years of marriage during which, in spite of Jacob and Rachel’s love, it takes them a very long time to have a child together.
So, in a way, Laban was smart and by making Jacob earn Rachel, he ensured that Jacob would value her for a lifetime instead of just in the beginning of their relationship.
It is not easy to value something which is free, something we have not paid for or earned. I am getting rid of some furniture from my apartment at the moment and I am happy to give it away for free, but I thought about putting a price on the furniture, even 100 or 200 dollars just so people would think the furniture is valuable. It sounds funny, but I think if people have to pay for something they value it more than when it is free.
There is a fundamental paradox like this in our relationship with God and in our life of faith. Our redemption by God and God’s forgiveness for our sin is free. We know that we cannot buy God’s love – even if we wanted to pay for it. We cannot earn it by working hard or doing good. It is already ours. As we read in Paul’s letter to the Romans today, God has chosen us, justified us and even glorifies us by his action in the life and death of Christ, not by our action.
So how do we know what the value of salvation is? How do we know how much the freedom and life we have received is worth? Even these questions are strange ones, aren’t they? We don’t often think about the cost of redemption in terms of a price we would pay, because we know that the price we owe has been paid by Christ in his death. We are so long-schooled that we are saved by grace. Which is true. Our restoration to a relationship with God through forgiveness, is free.
Why we pay a price for salvation
I believe we do pay a price for being disciples of Christ. I believe we do bear a cost for our faith in God and in making God’s love a serious part of our lives. But I also believe that, just as Jacob learned the true value of Rachel by his years of labour with Laban’s flocks of sheep, we should welcome the costliness of our faith and our salvation, because in it we learn the true value of God’s grace. In serving God, and in paying whatever price that calls for from us, we learn to affirm three things:
1. That we would give anything for God.
2. That we need God.
3. That God is greater than anything we must face.
What is the price we pay for our faith?
There is probably very little I need to say to remind us that we do pay a price for our faith in Christ. Each person here will have their own story, their own memory, of a time when it has been costly or hard to keep their faith or to be counted as a Christian.
The apostle Paul writes many times about the persecution and rejection that can be faced by followers of Christ. There are many ways we might experience such social costs. Of course the disciples and Paul faced actual violence or imprisonment for their faith. And as we know, in some parts of the world, perhaps not far from where we are now, some people must still give up even their lives or liberty for their faith. But we might face milder forms of rejection.
People may treat us differently, exclude us socially, or reject our faith as foolishness. There are many prejudices held by the world about Christians. As Christians we are also called to stand in solidarity with those who are rejected, marginalised or discarded. We must seek to identify with such people and reach out to them in love. This is not easy – we might face rejection for trying to stand with the marginalised and even rejection from those we are reaching out to. These are costs we bear for maintaining our belief and affirmation of God’s grace to us and for all people.
Financially we might pay a price because we are called to have priorities for our lives and our money which would be different if we did not need to think about how God wants the world to be and where God’s concern lies in the needs of the world.
If we take seriously our commitment to live out the life God is calling us to, we might have to leave people or places we care about and take risks or face danger to go to where God wants us to serve and minister.
And even within ourselves we might wrestle with choices, with doubts about our faith, we might struggle between what we want and what we believe God wants for us. These too are part of the price we pay for our commitment to the way of Christ.
Is it worth it?
Sometimes, when we feel discouraged, we might ask ourselves, is it worth it? Is the life of faith and our relationship with God and the gift of salvation for us and for the world worth the price we are asked to pay? Rather than avoid this question or fear it, I am suggesting that it is great to ask ourselves and I suggest even that God might want us to ask this question – so that we can answer again and again with our whole heart – YES!
Unless we are able to consider the price for something, we have difficulty knowing how valuable it is to us. If I tell you that you can have a lifetime supply of chocolate or your favourite food for $5 - you will probably agree. If I tell you it is $5 million you will probably decline (although it depends how much you like chocolate). Until you have to weigh the benefit against the cost, you don’t know how much you really like chocolate.
In the Gospel reading from Matthew 13 today, we heard two parables about value. One about the person who sold everything they owned to buy a field where a treasure was buried. The other about a merchant who found the perfect pearl – the text says “a pearl of great value” – and he sold all he had in order to buy the pearl. These two people knew value when they found it. And they knew the price they were prepared to pay.
The challenge to us is to know the value of God’s grace and redemption and, when we discover the price, to be willing to pay it, to pay anything, because we know that our faith – the God in whom we believe – is worth more than anything else to us. We often think of price in terms of money – to sell all our possessions. But as I mentioned earlier, there are many kinds of costs we might face for our faith in Christ Jesus as our Saviour.
When we ask ourselves – is it worth it? – this is a chance not just to count the cost, but more importantly to remind ourselves of the blessings of God, of the joy and freedom we have experience in God’s love and of the light that Christ has brought to the world. What are we prepared to pay for that?
Our dependence on God
There is a second lesson in the experience of costly discipleship. We learn that, although we may be prepared to give anything, we need God to sustain us in our commitment to the way of Jesus and the hope we have in Him. In the passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome we heard today, there is the encouragement that the Spirit helps us in our weakness and is interceding for us with God. It is a wonderful description – the Spirit prays on our behalf in “sighs too deep for words”. If you have ever experienced great sadness or depression, you will know that there are times when words are totally inadequate for the sorrow, pain and devastation in your heart.
When we do not know what to pray for, perhaps even when we do not know we need to pray, the Holy Spirit is communing with God about what is in our heart – searching us and knowing our needs which we cannot even speak. It is important to note that Paul says the Spirit prays according to the will of God. We know that we do not always pray for what God wants for us, but for what we want. In the path of continuing to give our all for God and God’s kingdom on earth, the Spirit is with us and keeps seeking and asking for God’s will in our lives and that we will have what strength and faith we need to continue to serve Him.
Paul’s letter to the Romans also mentions that Christ who died and was raised for us also intercedes for us with God. Christ justifies us with God and stands up for us. This is another important reminder for us as we face the costs of discipleship – we know that Christ has already gone before us. We know that Christ has given his life for us, he knows what it is to pay the ultimate price and so he knows what we are going through. His death and resurrection remind us that although there may be a price for standing with Christ and taking on His mission of love and justice, the most important part of our salvation has already been accomplished by Jesus. As Paul says “Who will accuse God’s chosen people? God himself declares them not guilty! Who will condemn them?”.
That God is with us and will bless us
This passage from Romans is full of such victorious language. Paul reminds us that whatever we face, in living for Christ, we will be sustained and we will overcome the challenges that we meet. Paul says “we are more than conquerors” even when it seems we are facing insurmountable obstacles. This does mean that our lives of faith will be easy, they will still be costly. But we can keep our eyes on the big picture, that we have already received the gift of God’s grace, that the Spirit is praying for us and that Christ Jesus has gone before us to face the worst that can be faced.
The Gospel of Matthew also brings us two parables today which can encourage us when we feel our efforts in service and ministry for God are not meeting with the success or having the impact we had hoped. Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God as being like a mustard seed which is so small when first planted but grows to be a tree of great size and supports other life, such as nesting birds. Our contribution and service in the work of God can be like this mustard seed. We do not always know what might be the result of our giving and our commitment. Perhaps we may not even have the chance to see how it looks when it has grown to full size.
But whatever we do for God adds to the bringing of God’s kingdom on earth, the transformation of our society and the blessing of one another with God’s grace and love. The small life we plant may grow in ways we do not expect and may support other forms of life, like the birds, which we did not even have in mind when we started. These things are all in God’s hands. It is the same with the yeast, which, though a small part in the ingredients for the loaf of bread, is essential to bringing the bread to full size so that it can feed others. In what ways can we be the yeast in the life and mission of our church?
Finally, Paul’s letter to the Romans points us to the most wonderful understanding we can gain from experiencing a life of costly discipleship and faith. Each time we come through difficulties, each time we pay a price for our faith; each time, by depending on the Spirit to pray for us and God to sustain us we are more than conquerors; each time we experience these things and we perservere in playing our part, however small it may seem, we learn the truth of what Paul says to the Romans: that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus.
It is one thing for us to hear what Paul says and choose to believe it. It is another to be able to say, as Paul does: I am certain. If we accept that there is a cost to our faith (not a price to pay to buy salvation, but a cost for choosing to live out God’s calling and to serve in His mission of love for the world); if we so value such a life and our relationship with God that we will face and make what sacrifices are needed, then the great revelation to us is that we are more than conquerors in these things. That nothing we have faced or will face can or has ever been able to separate us from the thing we value most, the thing for which we would pay any price, whether life or death, financial or spiritual, none of these things will keep us from the love of God which has already been promised and guaranteed to us through Christ Jesus our Lord. As Jacob did for Rachel, may we find ourselves able to serve God willingly in faith and feel that the price we pay is little compared to the blessings we receive.
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 13th July 2008 by Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Matthew 13: 1-9; 18-23; Psalm 65:1-13.
Triune God, we ask for a prayerful heart to hear and understand the words of God. We humbly ask for your presence and guidance through the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In Matthew 13, Jesus delivered his message to the crowd about the words of kingdom in parables. By the use of symbols and images, Jesus challenged the people of his time to reflect themselves and seek to penetrate more deeply into the understanding of the kingdom of God.
Today, we read the parable of the sower. The parable of the sower is very familiar to many of you I guess. This parable was recorded as the first one amongst all others in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. For this parable, the emphasis is “seeds fall in good soil bear fruits and yields”. The key for this parable is as stated in Matthew 13:23, I paraphrase as “for those who hear the words and understand the words indeed bear fruits and yields”. The significance of it is related to the importance of hearing and understanding the words of the kingdom of God.
Hear and understand are the core elements to bear fruits for the kingdom of God. Today, I will focus on these two words ‘hear’ and ‘understand’.
Hear, begins with a H, and then ‘ear’, we need to use the biological function of our ear to receive the sound, but more importantly, to hear the message, we need to take the H right at the beginning. H stands for heart. An ear to hear with a heart is a kind of empathetic listening, that is able to carry powerful impact to make positive changes, and to bear much spiritual fruits as describe in Galatians 5:22. Here I quote, :spiritual fruits are love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The other key factor for people to be able to bear fruits and yield is ‘to understand’
Understand is made up of two little words “under and stand”, what kind of stand do we under? When we talk about the words of kingdom, a stand should be to God and for God. Since God has revealed himself through Jesus Christ, therefore, we as Christ followers should stand in line with Jesus.
In Luke 4:18, Jesus had made it clear of his mission and stand.
“The Spirit of Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captive, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”
If we hear without a proper stand in Jesus Christ, we will not be able to fully understand the Kingdom of God in terms of serving the weak, the vulnerable and the oppressed.
I would like to share with you here my experience of setting up the first rape crisis centre in Hong Kong, namely RainLily in the year of 1998-2000. RainLily was initiated by four founders. I was one of them.
All founders take a very firm stand that sexual victims should be taken care of by our society. There should be comprehensive and quality services provided for them. In addition, victims who were sexually harassed should be treated with dignity and their whole well being should be preserved. With this stand and firm belief to serve the best for the victims, we are able to set up the first one-stop rape crisis centre in Hong Kong. We started from nothing, all we had by that time was our passion and each of the founder donated HK$1,000 to start the organization Association Concerning Sexual Violence against Women in 1997. The fruits that we bored were amazing. These were the fruits of love, patience, kindness and faithfulness. (Galatians 5:22) All these fruits were very much driven from a strong heart for the victims because we had heard and had the empathetic understanding of their plights and needs.
Just now I have shared about ‘hearing and understanding’ on a level of community service. In this section, I would like to share it at a deeper personal level.
Recently I have an encounter with my son that helped me to reflect on the importance of hearing and understanding.
There is a TV series in the Jade Channel called ‘World Trekking’. (向世界出發) One night when I was watching this program, and that particular episode was about India and Mother Teresa’s faithfulness to God by serving the people who were dying and deprived of basic food and shelter.
I seldom watch TV. But I am really interested in this particular program series. I tried to keep my concentration while watching. It was very annoying to me when my son who is ten years old kept asking me questions times and again while I was watching. I stopped his questioning and told him to ask me later after the program or at the commercial break. My son was not cooperative and I was angry about that.
When the program was over, my son shared with me. Mum, you told me not to disturb you while you are watching TV. But in the past, when I watched my cartoon program, you always interrupted me by asking questions like whether if I had completed my homework or whether if I had finished my physical exercises etc. If I did not reply to you because I was too preoccupied with the program, you would just simply switch off the television. While he was sharing his heartfelt feeling, I saw tears in his eyes.
With his frank and bold sharing, I realized how awful I was. I recalled what he shared. Yes, there were times in the past I did what he had accused me of. I felt ashamed and embarrassed at that moment and I realized I had been emotionally violent to him and too dominating in our relationship. I thanked God that I was not at all defensive but tried to confess my wrong doings at that moment. When I tried to hear my son with a heart of empathetic listening, I was enlightened to understand my son more. In the name of love and “for your own sake”, I tried to impose my expectations upon him. And too often, I used my standards to measure him. Although he sometimes resisted, yet my power has always overwhelmed him. With this episode, I realized that although I tried to impose my expectations with a high hand on him for his own sake, I paid a great price. I was not aware that with such a dominating attitude and order being imposed on him, I had hurt his feeling and pride. By hearing his sharing of how I requested his full obedience to me while I did not care for his feeling and not being understood, I felt sorry for leaving him such a scar of not being respect by his mother. I apologized to him. Now I am aware of and am sensitive to what my son is doing. I focus not only on my own needs, but his needs and the current condition. Such an understanding has helped to improve our relationship. In these few days since that TV program, when my son is watching TV program, I will ask if I can talk or when I can talk to him. When he gained my respect like this, he responded to me positively by giving me a hug and was willing to give me attention.
Empathetic listening and understanding is important to build up relationship. Without the empathy and respect of other people, even though we listen we may not really hear and understand. It is because if we focus on ourselves but not on others, it would be too easy for us to defend ourselves and find excuses to justify our needs and desires, rather than the other way round.
This empathetic listening and understanding is based on love and letting go of our own ego, including our self-righteousness. My son may do wrong, but I may not always be right either. If I am able to hear my son from his point of view and make a stand for treating a child with the same dignity and respect, the relationship that is fostered could be tremendously different. With a stand of loving the little ones without manipulation of power and dominance, we are able to produce the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22) In a world of adult and powerful dominance, it is a great lesson for us to learn. May we ask for God’s mercy to inspire us and give us courage to act.
Perhaps people will agree the importance of hearing and understanding, and yet when it comes to a situation that we encounter great challenges and difficulties that require us to pay great costs. Are we as Christ’s followers, willing to insist in God’s will and bear the responsibility for Gods sake? In my example, my relationship with my son is still far from perfect, and I often feel progress is painfully slow with steps going forwards and backwards. It will never be plain sailing and all relationships need constant nurturing love and efforts.
The same goes for RainLily, since its inception, it faced acute crisis and was at the brink of closing down due to discontinuation of support from a Trust Fund. But with perseverance and hard work, the crisis was resolved and the centre became even stronger financially at the end.
In Psalm 65 that we have read this morning, the scripture reminds us once again, God creates the whole world and all fruits we gain are from him. God is our source of hope. All we are and all we have are from God. Therefore, we have to transform our life from focusing on humans to God. As God has promised to his people, seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:33)
In addition, whenever we encounter tremendous difficulties, never give up. Remember that God is the one who hear us and understand us. God always hears the cry of his people and understands their suffering. God of deliverance in the old testament and our redeemer Jesus Christ in the New testament have given us this promise, right?. Therefore, it is our faith to trust in God that we will not be abandoned. God is always there to help and strengthen us. He is the creator and redeemer, out of his power and grace, he is the one to make fruit bearing possible. By focusing our life as ‘God-centered and follow Christ’s good deeds’, we do our best, and let God do the rest”.
Dear God, help us to develop a heart to hear and a firm stand grounded in the love and justice of Jesus, to understand and serve your Kingdom in this world. Lord, grant us strength and persistence to live in your words so that we are able to bear fruits for your glory. In Christ name we ask, amen.