Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church
Peace and Joy at Christmas
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 28th December 2008 by the Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 60:1-3; 19-22 and Luke 2:1-20.
According to the Tradition of the West, Christmas has 12 days, from December 25 to January 5. I think many of you are familiar with the song: “The 12 days of Christmas” with the beginning, “on the first day of Christmas, my true love gave me, a partridge on a pear tree…”. However, most of the Churches belonging to the Western Tradition celebrate Christmas already in early December as if they can’t wait. But I wonder whether how many Christians really know and feel the message of Peace and Joy at Christmas?
Let me tell you what happened in some of the Christmases I have encountered during my life time.
On Christmas night of 1953, the whole squatter hut area in Shek Kip Mei where my first parish was, was burnt to the ground in a matter of hours. 50,000 people, young and old, children and woman, mostly refugees from the mainland became homeless and their meagre belongings lost.
The Christmas of 2003 brought millions of citizens in Hong Kong to a state of shock and helplessness and their government a state of panic and incapability. Because it was at the peak of SARS.
Then on Boxing day of Christmas in 2004, a tsunami hit South East Asia and Sub-Asia, causing half million people lost their lives and millions lost their loved ones and/ or their homes as well.
This Christmas, the world is experiencing a financial tsunami, never so serious in the human history. The rich have lost a good part of their wealth. Many bread earners are afraid to lose their jobs and will remain unemployed for a long while. All over the world unemployment soars and the economy is going downhill. Many predicted that it will take months, if not also years to recover.
I have been going to the gym and swimming almost on a daily basis for exactly 23 years as of today. I come to know a few familiar faces, though unfortunately not by name. Days ago, I saw one who arrived at the gym an hour later and stayed there even after I have left. For two decades, this very polite gentleman has been going to the same gym Mondays to Fridays, from 6:30-8.00 a.m. He would leave very punctually at 8 and went to work as a senior sales representative of a European-made trucks manufacturer. Since on that day at about 9 he was still around, I enquired whether he was on vacation. He apologetically told me he was laid off as a result of the economic downturn. In the days to come, though he has finished his exercise I saw him still loitering around at the gym and looked depressed.
A retired minister who has been a dear friend for 4 decades told Dorothy a week ago that half of her savings were gone. Her story was that she had been very careful of putting her savings on fixed deposits in a bank. But months ago, a bank manager persuaded her that since the interests were so low that she’d better put her savings in an investment product which was supposed to be safe. Well, it turned out that no investment product can be safe because of this world-wide tsunami! Perhaps millions of people throughout the world are in the state this Christmas.
Deep down in their hearts where is Joy and Peace at Christmas?
In our midst, there are 12 African brothers who are asylum seekers. I feel your anguish in waiting, not knowing where future lies. Do you feel the joy and peace which Christmas supposed to bring?
In our midst, there are just as many domestic helpers from the Philippines who like our African brothers are separated from your loved ones at home. You have been making significant contributions to the Hong Kong society as a whole but sometimes you have been treated unfairly. Hong Kong needs the Bethune House next door to remind all of us about this harsh reality.
Does Christmas bring to this world peace and joy? Don’t forget the daily violent occurrence in the holy land and at Bethlehem where baby Jesus was born! Don’t rationalize all those tragedies by saying that out of destructions and tragedies, there comes new life. For example: the Shek Kip Mei fire, yes; but, out of it came the massive re-housing project for 40% of the people in Hong Kong. SARS in Hong Kong in 2003 causing 2,000 lives yes, but, it has caused the people in Hong Kong more humble and caring (through this was very short-lived).
What is the joy and peace at Christmas? If there is, it looks like very superficial and cannot last. Just as the beautiful Christmas decorations go up by the end of November and come down at the end of December.
Christians like to play up the joyful mood in every Christmas; but forget the pain and suffering of the fathers and mothers whose babies were killed by King Herod in and around Bethlehem. We play up the majestic scene of three Wisemen who came to worship baby Jesus as recorded in Matthew but ignore totally the violence which the first Christian brought, also recorded by the same Gospel.
Yes, not just at Christmases, but throughout the year, indeed throughout the ages, life is full of tragedies, pain and suffering. Some of these were caused by Nature; but many more by human greed, pride, jealously and hate.
However, Christmases, in fact every Christmas, do remind us about these human situations. That is why God has to intervene in the ancient days through prophets and finally He himself in the person of Jesus Christ. The Christmas message is crystal clear. In the midst of human situation of all conditions, God cares and that we may experience Peace and Joy. This peace is simple, yet profound. As Apostle Paul would put it, “the peace which passes all understanding” and because of this, Paul was able to advise us,” always be joyful, then, in the Lord: I repeat, be joyful” (Phil.4:4-7).
We are unhappy because we are disconnected with God who gives us the life which we have now. The sages in the old have this experience of being in communion with God who is the root of human existence and who gives meaning and purpose in our life.
Let me share with you once again the story about Job in the Old Testament. There was once a man in the land of Uz called Job: a sound and honest man who feared God and shunned evil. He was extremely wealthy with a lovely wife, seven sons and three daughters. But for no good reason, one day, he lost everything. Instead of blaming God and other people, this is the summary of what he said,
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked I shall return again. The Lord gave, The Lord has taken back. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:18)
How many can say what Job said. Stoically, we may say, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return”. For this is a fact of life which we all experience. We may also claim that the Lord gave, but very difficult to say the Lord has taken away the things we have been enjoying. Probably, none of us would say “blessed be the name of the Lord” when we are down and under! But out of this faith in God, Job could. Job has experienced the peace and joy which passes all understanding.
The context for to-day’s Old Testament lesson is as follows: the Israelites were scattered; many were forced to be in exile in Babylon. Their holy city and especially their temple were destroyed. But in the midst of inordinate darkness this is what Prophet Isaiah said,
“Arise, shine out, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen on you. Look! Though night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples, on you the Lord is rising and over you his glory can be seen. The nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning brightness.” (Is 60:1-3).
This is the spirit and ultimate meaning of Christmas. Behind all human conditions, there is always Peace and Joy because Emmanuel, God is with us!
We often fail to see this important state of life because we are overcrowded, jammed and besieged with many preconceived ideas such as wealth, status, fame, popularity, success… We are so preoccupied with our security and benefit, and care only the “self” that we forget God who is the centre or Ground of our Being and forget people especially our loved ones, our friends, our colleagues who are around us.
Christmas is not about beautiful decorations, parties, exchange of gifts. These are pagan and they do cover up the deeper meaning of Christmas. Christmas goes beyond all superficialities. It is about our deep relationship with God.
The Christmas message is very simple. God came to us in Person, to show us in the most concrete way that He loves us and cares for each one of us: though not in our own way and according to our wishes. In our faith to God, we can experience the fact that “all things work for good for those who love the Lord (in return) (Rom.8:28). This indeed is the basis of the Christian faith.
Let us not complicate Christmas with all the superficial trimmings. The ultimate meaning of Christmas is deep and yet simple and even very humble. This is how Luke viewed the birth of Jesus. Baby Jesus was born in a manger. How simple and humble can that be? Yet the meaning of Jesus’ birth is very profound. The birth of Jesus has changed the course of human history.
In order to emphasize the simplicity and humility of Jesus’ birth, Luke also gave us the story that the good tidings about Jesus’ birth was first given to the shepherds, the simple folks at all time. Was it because the kings and nobles, academics and professionals were too sophisticated that they would not be able to accept such a simple message?
So this is the real meaning of Christmas. Christmas brings Joy and Peace to all people in the midst of all human situations. We experience Peace and Joy as long as we have a personal relationship with Jesus, the Incarnate God.
2008 Christmas will soon be over. A New Year is at our footsteps. This is the last Sunday in 2008. Next Sunday will be the first Sunday in 2009. The old will soon be gone and the new will soon arrive.
This is about the time when we would like to review our life for the past year and make some decisions for the coming year. Instead of simply wish how 2009 may bring us, let us decide, come what may, how we should live our life, itself a precious gift form God. Let us decide in the year to come our life be always connected to God. For it is only in this way we can fill our hearts with Peace and Joy.
Peace and Joy be with you and your loved ones, now and evermore. Amen.
Christmas Presents and God’s Presence
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Christmas Day 25th December 2008 by the Rev. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 52:7-10 and John 1:1-18.
Christmas presents are now so much a part of Christmas, in this consumer world, it sometimes seems that the purpose of Christmas is to help stimulate the economy. But today, let us reflect on the true meaning of Christmas.
As we celebrate the birth of baby Jesus, my memory flashed back to the day I gave birth to my daughter, our first born child. After the delivery, I was extremely exhausted and because of the caesarian operation, I felt great pain in my belly. The first time when I saw my mother visiting me in the hospital, I could not help crying. I did not articulate why my tears roll across my face nonstop. At the time, I just felt that my mother was the one person so close to me. My life was so closely connected with her. Just as I gave birth to my daughter, it was my mother who gave birth to me. May be it was this bond of motherhood that touched my heart and trigger my emotions.
Our parents, our mothers and fathers, gave us an earthly life, a biological body. Our God, gives us the spiritual life, the Christ Body. Through Jesus Christ, we are given the spiritual life of eternity.
I don’t know if you have received any Christmas present so far this year. But by remembering the life your parents have given you. You will know you have already been given the gift. This is the gift of LIFE. Life is a precious present from God. For the God is the source of life.
When we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, I never forget the death of Jesus.
The purpose of Jesus’ coming into the world, of the "Word made flesh" and dwelling among us, is to reveal God and His grace to the world through Jesus’ life and teaching, but also through his suffering, death, and resurrection.
Therefore, when we face life’s difficulties and suffer in some ways, we may take comfort from Jesus’ perspective of life and death, despair and hope, oppression and liberation. The more we are in a situation of vulnerability, the more we experience the peace, grace, and love of God because of God’s full presence. You may think that I am crazy and too optimistic. I would like to share with you one of my life experience.
On the 31st of August in 2003, I was excited to prepare myself for a new page of life to study full time in the Chung Chi Divinity School; then in the middle of the night, my preparation was totally shattered when my eldest sister called and told me that my younger brother was seriously injured in a motor bike accident. Within two days, my younger brother was dead. I was very confused at the time and very upset. Why did God take away the life of my brother? He was so young. He was just 33 when he passed away. Up till now, I still cannot comprehend the mystery of God. But what I confirmed is the presence of God and his grace that fell upon me and my family. I had a deep reflection of life. One of the reflections was that we must ‘seize the day, and live in the present 活於此時此刻 ’. When we are young and strong we think that we have a lot time and energy. It is too easy for us to procrastinate on the things that we should be doing. My brother’s unpredictable death has reminded me to do the urgent and important thing everyday in order not to have regrets if it comes the time for me to go to my heavenly home.
After the death of my brother, my whole family experienced a very painful moment and yet we all experienced the grace of God in different ways. One of the amazing grace that we commonly experienced is the peace of God. The death of my brother has also helped to bond our relationship closer. Moreover, five of my sisters have since declared their faith in Jesus Christ through baptism and committed their lives to God’s service. I witness many of their positive changes in life. Somehow, this painful experience in life was a kind of present from God to help us to learn and grow in his full loving presence.
Last Sunday, my mother was baptized at the age of 82. She is given a renewed life by God in Christ. My mother was very upset at the death of my brother who was the youngest one in our family. There were times when our mother would ask us where our brother was as if he was still alive. I guessed that she was not able to accept the fact that her son had gone. Last month when I visited her in Yuen Long I brought her to see her old friend. In that visit, my mother told her good friend that my brother had gone. I found this disclosure was significant to my mother. It is because after 5 years since my brother passed away she is finally able to accept the death of her son by saying it openly. I think that she has been struggling with this horrible reality for years. But now she can let it go. Very often we have some traumatic experience in life that we cannot let go. The spirit of Christmas for Jesus’ birth helps us to accept the reality that there are things in life that is out of our control and we have to learn to accept and let go. Think about Mary, Jesus’ mother who bore the son Jesus in a most unusual and unpredictable way. She even had to bear the great sorrow to see her son die in such a painful and inhumane way. Only by the faith of God, that we are able to find an answer and realize the truth and grace in Jesus Christ.
God has given us such a wonderful Christmas present, how do we as God’s children who believe him respond?
Last Sunday, Rev. Kwok has preached about the gospel of John. The essence of the gospel is love, the love that deeply engages in Jesus Christ, follows his words and deed, to lead a life of giving and sacrifice. It looks difficult and yet we are all able to do it. Remember Jesus told his disciples that when we give cold water to the little brother, we are already serving God. In Matthew 25, Jesus also said that if we serve according to the need of people, give clothes to the naked, give food to the hungry, visit the sick, welcome strangers and so on, we are already serving our Lord.
The most important thing when serving others is to be sensitive to their needs and act accordingly. Therefore, when all people in our church, young and old lend a helping hand to clean up the rubbish after they have eaten and tidy up the room after Sunday School, you have already given a great present to Auntie Hing for she is the one to clean and tidy up the church. Your cooperation will lessen her burden. In addition, the church is God’s church, to keep the church decent and tidy, it is a present to God too.
I always remember our brother Abraham’s sharing to the students in the local churches and schools when we conducted our outreach program to the young people to share the gospel of love, peace and justice to the local community. Abraham has shared that when people smiles to him, a black person, it is a great acceptance to him in a foreign land where he has no family, after being forced to leave his home country. The friendly smile will bring him warmth in the days of coldness and darkness when he is seeking asylum in Hong Kong.
Last night the Bethune House organized a party for the domestic helpers to celebrate the Christmas in our playground in the late evening after the Christmas Eve Service. I was touched by their joy and happiness. While the migrant workers stay away from their loved one at home, but to work overseas to support their families, during the Christmas season, the migrant workers could join the celebration and share moments of love and joy, it is beautiful. I am happy that our church can support and serve them by providing the space that they need.
Christmas reminds us once again the love of God through Jesus Christ. Christmas is time to share with others especially those in needs of what we have. When we have love and compassion on others in our heart, we will then know what to do or at least we are motivated to learn and act.
God has revealed his grace to each one of us in our life in different ways. The love of God falls upon us through different people and different experiences. If we take them as presents we will then realize how much God loves us and embraces us.
Yesterday is a history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift, that’s why we call it present. The best Christmas present today is the full presence of God in Christ, full of love and grace. God has given precious presents to us, how we lead our life to glorify God is our presents to God in return.
May God keep our faith in Christ and guide us in his truth and light. Amen.
The Christian Gospel Revisited - John: The Gospel of incarnation
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 21st December 2008 by the Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 139:1-6, 23-24 and John 1:1-18.
The Gospel according to John is generally labelled the Fourth Gospel. It is so called mainly because it is quite different from the first three Gospels of MK, MT and LK, the so-called “Synoptics”. In the Synoptic Gospels, they narrated Jesus’ ministry according to chronological order, first in Galilee and then finally in and around Jerusalem. Of course, this also has some theological meaning, Jesus’ ministry started at the fringe of the Jewish society and ended in its centre. Does it mean what Jesus did eventually was to challenge the inadequacy of the Jewish faith and interpretation?
John used quite a different method to introduce the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the second generation of Christians. John wanted to emphasize that Jesus Christ was the Incarnation of God, i.e. God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. Or to put it in another way, God reveals to us who He is through Jesus Christ.
John used a very unique and ingenious way to introduce to us who Jesus is. For example by giving us the miracle about Jesus “feeding the 5000”, (ch.6) John introduced to us Jesus Christ is the bread of life (6:34); by connecting Jesus’ healing of the blind (ch.9) to Jesus Christ as the light of the world (8:12); and in raising Lazarus to life (ch.11), John told us that Jesus Christ is the Resurrection and the life, (11:25), etc.
Like the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John also emphasized the fact that Jesus has brought forth a completely new covenant between God and His creation. In doing so, in the beginning of the Gospel, John gave us Jesus’ miracle of changing water into wine at Cana (2:1-11). Water represents something old, which is already present. Wine represents something new, which is made or transformed from other substances. Early in the Gospel John also gave us the story about Jesus cleansing the temple (2:13-22). Again, temple represents the old. People went to the temple to worship – to communicate with God through confession, thanksgiving and dedication or rededication. Jesus is the new. In scarifying himself, Jesus has reconciled us to God!
Just as the Synoptics, John did not disregard the Jewish religion and tradition. John liked to connect what Jesus did and said with a Jewish festival. For example, Jesus cleaned the temple in the festival of passover (2:13-17). In “another festival”, Jesus cured a person who had been sick for 38 years (5:2-18). In the feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, Jesus taught his disciples that he and God are one (10:22). In the last supper with his disciples where he gave his disciples the example of humble service (by washing his disciples’ feet) it was during the passover feast (13:1-20). Moreover, all these happened in Jerusalem – the centre of the Jewish religion!
Moses, one of the heroes in the Old Testament had a place in John. But John considered Jesus was even more important than Moses. Moses cured those who were bitten by snakes by lifting up a bronze serpent (Numbers 22:4-9). But Jesus saves all of us by sacrificing his life. Moses gave people the Law (Ex. 20:1-21// Deut. 5:1-21); but Jesus gives us the New Law of God’s Grace and Love.
All Christians are familiar with the golden verse of John’s Gospel, “For this is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (3:16). Indeed this is the core message of John’s Gospel: “anyone who believes in Jesus may have eternal life”. This phrase appears five times in the whole gospel (3:15, 16, 35; 6:40 and 47).
According to John, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about LIFE. “I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full” so says Jesus (10:10). In the two important dialogues Jesus with Nicodemus, an important Jewish leader (ch.3) and an ordinary Samaritan woman (ch.4), this question of eternal life or life to the full was introduced.
What then is eternal life? Does it mean people never die? Most people are afraid to die because death is unknown to them. So people try their best to keep on living, the longer the better. The first Emperor in the T’sin Dynasty in China sought all his life to keep his life last forever but in vain. So in the very last he built his very elaborate tomb and the terracotta, the symbols of his power. These do last until to-day in Sian!
The pyramids in Egypt and in Mexico, the Taj Mahaj in Accra, India, the Ming Tombs outside Beijing all showed that human lives cannot possibly last forever.
Two years ago, a tomb was unearthed in the mainland. There was a woman mummy. But what surprised people is that there were hundreds of expensive chinaware, enough to hold a feast for hundreds of people. To me it merely shows but human mortality. However powerful, however rich, one still has to die.
Traditionally, the Church taught us that there is a life after this earthly life. That is why in most of the ancient creeds, these words are included: “I believe the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” (Apostles’ Creed); “I look for the resurrections of the dead, and the life of the world to come” (Nicene Creed).
In other words, eternal life is in the future. It is another life after this earthly life.
But John gave us a very different interpretation about eternal life. In 5:24, we read, “In all truth I tell you, whoever listens to my words, and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life.”
First, according to John, eternal life is not in the future; it is not an extension of our earthly life. We can experience eternal life now as long as we listen to Jesus and believe in God.
All Christians believe that as long as they believe in Jesus, they will have eternal life. The question is what is the meaning of believing in Jesus?
In the Hebrew tradition, belief is more than an intellectual activity. Belief in God is to be faithful to God. That means we follow straightly what God wants us to do. Abraham was often quoted as the father of the faithful people of Israel. When God told him, “to leave your country, your kindred, and your father’s home for a country which I shall show you” Abraham immediately did what he was told (Gen.12). When God tested him and told him to offer his only son Isaac as a living sacrifice, Abraham did not question but followed (Gen.22). Many sages after Abraham lived and gave us the examples of living by their faith in God (Hebrew ch.11). To have faith in God is to follow God’s will rather than our own wishes.
John wrote the gospel with a very clear and precise purpose: “These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name.” (Jn.20:31).
As in other gospels, John’s gospel is centred around the person of Jesus Christ. It particularly included seven the so-called “I am” statements to richly describe the person of Jesus: “My father is at work and I am at work too” (5:17); “I am the Bread of Life” (6:35, 48); “I am the Light of the world” (8:12); “I am the Good Shepherd” (10:11); “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (11:25); “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (14:6); “I am the True Vine” (15:1). In order to further demonstrate the work of Jesus, John particularly included seven signs: change water into wine (2:1-11); cure the son of a Roman official (4:46-54); cure a sick man who had been sick for 38 years (5:1-18); cure a blind man (9:1-41); and raise Lazarus from death (11:1-46).
In a word, John wanted to show us that Jesus and God are one. Jesus was able to do all these miracles and had the claim that He was the Son of God because Jesus was always in full communion with God.
The structure of John’s Gospel is quite simple. Chapter 1 is the Prologue. It is in the form of a hymn – a Hymn to Christ. It sets out Christ is the self-revelation of God. Chapter 2-11 is about how God’s mighty works through Jesus Christ and reveals himself that He is Love (ch.3) and He is Spirit (ch.4). In chapter 13, Jesus gave an example of humble service to his disciples and gave them the new commandment of love. Chapters 14-16 is Jesus’ farewell discourse with his disciples. The new commandment is repeated; the promise of the Holy Spirit is given, not once, but five times. Chapter 17 is Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his disciples and for the world. Chapters 18-21: Jesus’ mission is accomplished through his sacrifice and resurrection.
For John, Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection unveil the mystery of the Gospel about LIFE. In Living a sacrificial life for others we really live our life. Eternal life is not about the future. It is about the present. This was what Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless a wheat grain falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest. Anyone who loves his life loses it; anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (12:24-25). [here the word “hates” means not for self-preservation only].
The Christian Gospel is also an altar call. It calls us to become like Jesus. Jesus as God incarnate is in full communion with God; but just as important, Jesus is always involved in human activities. Jesus has compassion on people who suffer. In seeing how sorrowful were Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus died, Jesus wept (11:35). This is the shortest verse in the whole Bible, but it says it all. Jesus had compassion: together with Martha and Mary he suffered the loss of a loved one. Because of his compassion Jesus took the action of raising Lazarus to life.
According to John, the core of the Christian Gospel in Love. Jesus has shown us the ultimate meaning of love, “No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.” (15:13).
Let us live by this Gospel of Love. Amen.
The Christian Gospel Revisited - Luke: The Gospel for the Poor and the Marginalized
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 14th December 2008 by the Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 42:1-9 and Luke 4:16-21.
Most Churches and Christians to-day consider evangelizing or preaching the gospel to the not-yet-believers is their most important task. In other words, evangelization or to be exact proselytization has become synonymous with church growth in members. We no longer care as much whether the Christian Gospel is rightly understood and preached.
Hence in the series of sermons for this Advent Season, we shall re-examine what on earth is the Christian Gospel through the eyes of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.
This Sunday we are on the Gospel according to Luke.
Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels are similar in that they followed straightly the chronological order of Mark: first, they recorded Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, then the ministry on the way to Jerusalem, and finally in and around Jerusalem. That is why these three gospels are titled the Synoptics i.e. looking at Jesus’ ministry from the same perspective.
Undoubtedly, the earliest Gospel of Mark served as the backbone to both Matthew and Luke. More than half of the contents of Mark are found in Luke and about 90% of Mark are in Matthew. In recording Jesus’ teaching both Matthew and Mark used the “Q” source (“Q” or Quelle in German means source). Other than these two sources. Matthew had its own source titled “M”. And Luke had its own source titled “L”.
But Matthew and Luke differ in many other ways. Matthew was written mainly for Jewish Christians; Luke was written for Non-Jewish Christians. That is why in giving us Jesus’ ancestry, Matthew emphasized on Jesus was the Son of Abraham and David; two of the most important Jewish fathers, while Jesus’ genealogy in Luke traced back to Adam who was the first man in general God created.
Matthew described Jesus as the “Messiah” as prophesized by the ancient prophets; while Luke chose the word “Kurios”, a very general term for non-Jews, for Jesus.
So Luke was known as the Universal Gospel, the Gospel for everyone. However, if it stays that way, it can easily become abstract and hollow. In Peanuts: one time Lucy told Charlie Brown, “I love everyone in the world, except you”. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone, at the same time it is especially for the marginalized, the people who are being excluded, neglected, suppressed, discriminated against, and forgotten. Thus, when Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, according to Luke, Jesus specifically opened the Bible in the synagme and read from Isaiah 61:1-2:
“The spirit of the Lord is on me, for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Indeed Jesus came for the poor, for the people in bondage, for people who cannot see and for the people who are oppressed. In Luke’s central section, i.e. 9:51 to 18:14, we see clearly how Jesus looked after the poor, the marginalized and the less fortunate.
First the women. In the Eastern world, especially the Jewish society, women had little or even no social status. During the census as recorded in Numbers, only men were counted (1:1-2). Even Paul admonished women to cover their head when they preached and prayed (I Cor 11:2-16). It is difficult to recognize a person when her head is fully covered. To me, this is a symbol of degrading a woman to a non-person. In Luke we see the important role women played. In the first chapter of Luke, the stars were two women, Elizabeth, John the Baptizer’s mother and Mary, the holy mother of Jesus. Both of them had accomplished great things and changed the course of human history.
According to Luke, Jesus especially cared for the women in need. For example, he restored the son of a widow of Nain to life (7:11-17); he raised Jairus’ daughter to life (8:49-56); healed a woman with a hemorrhage (8:43-48); cured a crippled woman on Sabbath (13:10-17). After Jesus’ resurrection, he first appeared to his woman followers (24:10, 24). Moreover, Jesus often used women as examples to his followers. For instance, Mary and Martha as the prime examples of serving God and serving people (10:38-42); the two parables of a woman’s persistence to find her lost coin (15:8-10); and the persistence of an importunate woman in asking for what she needed (18:1-8); as well as the widow’s mite offering (21:1-4) as examples of the Christian behavior.
Second, the Samaritans or the non-Jews. The Jews were extremely hostile to the Samaritans since the days they conquered the land of Canaan. In fact the Jews considered them as God’s chosen or the Holy people that they did not think highly of the gentiles or the non-Jews. But Jesus, though a devout Jew, had none of this. In fact he often lifted the point that the Jews should learn from the Samaritans. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:35-37), not the priest, nor the Levite, but a Samaritan who took great care of the one who fell into the bandits’ hands. Jesus had this to say when he finished the parable, “go and do the same yourself” (10:37b). It was a Samaritan, a person despised by the Jews who proved to be a “neighbour” to the man in dire need.
When Jesus cured ten persons with skin-disease, only one who came back to thank Jesus (17:11-19), he was a Samaritan! When Jesus and his disciples found a Samaritan village inhospitable to them, two of Jesus’ disciples, John and James asked Jesus to call down fire from heaven and burn down the village, Jesus rebuked them (9:51-56).
Third, the sinners and the tax-collectors. The Jews despised also people who sinned, or who did not follow the law and their traditions and customs as well as the tax-collectors who worked for the Roman government. But Jesus tried to correct this attitude. In calling a tax collector, Levi, to be his disciple, he said, “I have come to call not to the upright but sinners to repentance.” (5:27-32). Jesus accepted Zacchaeus, a senior tax collector and stayed in his home (19:1-10). After Jesus cured a woman who was a sinner, lifted up the fact that the sins of this woman were forgiven because though sinful she was, she has shown such great love (7:36-50). In the parables of the lost sleep, lost coin and the prodigal son (15:1-32), Jesus concretely demonstrated to us that God is merciful and does not want to lose anyone. Even on the cross, Jesus forgave the repentant robber (23:39-43). In his teaching, Jesus pointed out the fact that the hypocritical Pharisee was less righteous than the repentant tax-collector (18:9-14).
Luke particularly used Peter as an illustration about how Jesus looked upon the sinners. Peter knew that he was a sinner (“Lord, leave me, I am a sinner”, said Peter, 5:8); but Jesus called him to be the first disciple. After Jesus was arrested, Peter denied he had anything to do with Jesus (22:54-64), but Jesus forgave Peter. Peter was the first to encounter Jesus among Jesus’ disciples after Jesus’ resurrection. Indeed everyone of us is a sinner. But as Martin Luther suggested, we are all forgiven sinners.
Fourth, the Poor. In Mary’s magnificat, it is stated, “He has filled the starving with good things, sent the rich away empty” (1:53). Jesus did not despise the rich, but he merely pointed out the danger of being rich. Riches can blind us, just like the parable of the rich fool in 12:16-21, the rich man thought that all he needed was to store his possessions instead of planning how to use them. Jesus taught his disciples that “life does not consist in possession, even when someone has more than he needs” (12:15). That explains why later, Jesus had this to say, “How hard it is for those who have riches to make their way into the Kingdom of God.” (18:24-25). Therefore Jesus admonished them to “sell your possessions and give to those in need”. (12:33). Later Jesus also taught his followers to be concerned for the poor. “when you give a lunch or dinner, invite the poor” (14:13 and 21) . Finally in the parable of a rich man and another poor man called Lazarus (16:19-31), in the judgment Lazarus was looked upon more favorably than the rich man, because the rich man cared only for himself in has earthly life.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone, especially for the poor, the weak and the socially marginalized. Who are these people in Hong Kong to-day? How can we preach the Gospel to them?
Like other gospels, Luke also gave his perspective on the meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Luke’s Gospel is about the “connectedness” of Life. First, Luke took great pain to show that Jesus fully identified with the socially marginalized and deprived, hoping that these people who were neglected or even rejected would once again be accepted by society.
Second, as Luke was presumably a physician, he emphasized a great deal on Jesus’ healing stories, a total of 16 (5 of them are not found in other gospels). These 5, included the healing of centurion’s son, 7:2-10; raising to life a widow’s son in Nain, 7:11-17; healing a crippled woman on Sabbath, 13:10-17; healing a dropsical man on another Sabbath, 14:1-6; and healing 10 lepers, 17:11-19).
Sickness breaks down life. Sickness signifies a deviation from the wholeness of life, personally as well as socially. Sickness had prevented Peter’s mother-in-law to attend to Jesus. In Jesus’ time, lepers had to live outside the city.
Thirdly, according to Luke, Jesus did not only connect people physically and socially; but more importantly, spiritually – i.e. with God as well. That explains why in all the 4 gospels, Luke was the one which emphasized on people’s focus on God by praising God. Just in the first 2 chapters of Luke, we found angels praising God during the annunciation about Jesus’ birth (1:31-33); Elizabeth’s praise in her visitation to Mary (1:42-45), Mary’s song or the magnificat (1:46-55); Zechariah’s praise after John the Baptist was born (1:67-79); angels’ praise, “Gloria in Excelsis” at the birth of Jesus (2:13-14); Simeon’s praise or Nunc Dimittis (2:29-32) as well as prophetess Anna’s praise (2:38) when they have witnessed to Jesus’ birth: a total of seven “praise to God” or “Te Deum”.
These people who offered their praise had one thing in common. They confessed humbly God was their God.
Humility is one attitude which is essential to our faith in God. Luke particularly gave us the account that Jesus was born in a manger and that the simple folks of shepherds were the first to receive the good news about Jesus’ birth. (2:1-14).
Human beings are not God. We are finite beings. In order to live meaningfully and purposefully, we must recognize and accept personally that we have to rely on God, or to be precise, God’s Spirit or the Holy Spirit. Again, in the first two chapters of Luke, it was related especially Elizabeth and Zechariah as well as Mary and Joseph did the humanely impossible thing because of God’s Spirit. Throughout Jesus’ life, God’s Spirit was with him (1:14). In the final commission of his disciples. Jesus promised to them the power of the Holy Spirit.
In receiving the Holy Spirit, all we need is to pray to God. When we pray, God will give us the Holy Spirit (11:13). Prayer had a very important place in Luke.
Jesus was connected with God because he prayed incessantly. Therefore he had the power to preach the Gospel, to teach and to perform miracles. In facing mounting pressure, Jesus withdrew to the wilderness to pray (5:16); before he chose his disciples, Jesus prayed (6:12); when his disciples confessed who he was, Jesus was praying (9:18); in his transfiguration on a mountain, Jesus was praying (9:28); before he physically left his disciples, Jesus prayed for them (22:31-34); when he had to decide on his fate, Jesus was praying in Gethsemane (22: 39-42). It was in his final agony in facing the cross Jesus revealed to us the real meaning of prayer, “Not mine, but your will be done.” (22:41ff).
When we pray, how often do we just ask or even demand God to follow our selfish wishes. But true prayer is not like this. The real meaning and purpose of prayer lies in Jesus’ prayer. We pray in order that we can and will follow God’s will!
So according to Luke, this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is neither a gospel for only the self nor is it exclusively for only a segment of people, the rich, the powerful and the privileged. Rather it is the Gospel for everyone. Also this Gospel is about the relationship between me and others as well as between me-others and God. May we live by this Gospel – the Gospel truly of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Christian Gospel Revisited - Matthew: The Gospel About God’s Kingdom
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 7th December 2008 by the Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Deuteronomy 29:2-13 and Matthew 13:3-9; 17-23.
To-day almost all Christians believe their primary responsibility is to preach the gospel. Woe to us, if we do not engage in evangelization or to be precise, to bring people to church. So even if we do not engage in evangelization ourselves, at least we should support or even demand our church to do so. Or if our church does not engage in evangelistic work directly, at least it should support organizations which does that. That explains why in Hong Kong nowadays there are more than 200 para church organizations; and the majority of them, maybe even up to 70 or 80 percent specialize in evangelistic work, many work with particular groups, like students, patients, workers, or professional groups, such as nurses, police, business people, etc.
So we are all eager to preach the Gospel, to evangelize people. But have we ever asked, what on earth is the Christian Gospel?
In this year’s Sundays in Advent, I propose we spend time to re-examine what is the Gospel we believe in and preach? So the four Sundays before Christmas I shall walk through with you the four Gospels as handed down to us, namely Mark, Matthew, Luke and John and see what do they say to us about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This Sunday, we are on the Gospel according to Matthew.
Matthew is not the earliest; Mark is. The Early Church gave it the primacy or Number One status for 2 reasons: (i) it is the only gospel which recorded clearly Jesus had said that he would build his church on Peter, the rock (c.f. 16:17-18). This had helped to establish the authority of the Church hierarchy, namely Peter and his successors. (ii) Matthew was a book which served as a manual for the liturgical life as well as teaching of the early church.
Indeed, Matthew emphasized a great deal on Jesus’ teaching. The backbone of the whole gospel is five teaching blocks, namely, the Sermon on the Mount (chs. 5-7); the mission of the disciples (ch.10); the parables of the Kingdom of Heaven (ch.13); the manual for the pastoral responsibility of the Church (ch.18) and the last judgment (chs.24-25). Even in Jesus’ final commission to his disciples before his ascension, Matthew had zeroed in on Jesus’ teaching mission, “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. And look, I am with you always: yes, to the end of time.” (28:19-20). Jesus’ command was crystal clear: “make disciples and teach them!”
The centre of Matthew’s Gospel is Jesus Christ. Matthew described in particular Jesus is the Messiah as prophesized so often in the Hebrew Bible. That explains why in the first four chapters, after each important event, Matthew would add these words: “this is to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the Prophets”. For instance about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (1:22 quoting Is. 7:14); the flight to Egypt (2:15, quoting Hosea 11:1); the massacre of male children under 2 (2:18 quoting Jer 31:15); John the Baptizer as Jesus’ pioneer (3:3 quoting Is 40:3); Jesus’ started his ministry in Galilee (4:4 quoting Is. 8:23), etc.
In order to further demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah, Matthew from the very beginning of the Gospel stated clearly that Jesus was the son of Abraham and the Son of David (1:1), two of the most important persons in Israel. This was to be followed by the genealogy of Jesus (1:1-17).
Undoubtedly, Matthew composed the Gospel for the Jewish Christians. Matthew took pain to describe Jesus was a devout Jew. He was very familiar with the Law and the Prophets. For example, during the three temptations in the dessert, each time Jesus quoted Deuteronomy (viz 8:3, 6:16 and 6:13). In answering the query by the Scribes and the Pharisees about the greatest commandment, Jesus quoted the Shema (Deut 6:4-5) as well as the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26) and summed up the commandment of loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves. There are altogether 61 quotes from the Old Testament in Matthew.
Jesus was not a rabbi (or teacher of law) in the traditional sense, but like any rabbi, he was familiar with the Law. Further he made the Law alive through his own interpretation. That’s why after Jesus’ teaching on the Mount (chs 5-7), Matthew specifically mentioned, “his teaching made a deep impression on the people because he taught them with authority, unlike their own scribes” (7:28-29). Jesus was a rabbi of the rabbis, according to Matthew.
Certainly Jesus did not come to start a new religion. This was what Jesus told the crowds, “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them.” (5:17). Jesus came to make the Jewish law and the Prophets more complete, more relevant to people’s well being. That was why Matthew specifically mentioned that in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reinterpreted the Law six times, namely about the Brother (5:21-26); about the Woman (5:27-30); about truthfulness (5:33-37); about revenge (5:38-42) and about the enemy (5:43-38).
Matthew emphasized that Jesus as the Messiah came for the salvation of the humankind. In fact, this is the theme of all four gospels. The salvation of the humankind lies in the fact that people realize that they are not God. They exist in God’s Kingdom – i.e. the absolute sovereignty of God. The human sin is our separation with God or we decide to live away from God’s Kingdom. This is what John the baptizer as well as what Jesus preached, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (3:2; 4:17). The pronouncement about the Kingdom of Heaven or God’s Kingdom was central to the ministry of Jesus. That is how Matthew summed up Jesus’ ministry, “He went around the whole of Galilee teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing all kinds of disease and illness among the people” (4:23; c.f. 9:35).
The Gospel according to Matthew is the Gospel about God’s Kingdom (Since Matthew was a good Jew, he tried to stay away in using God’s name. So he would use the Kingdom of Haven.) “The Kingdom of Heaven” is used in no less than 35 times in Matthew. What then is the Kingdom of Heaven?
According to the Judeo-Christian thought, the Kingdom of Heaven is the ultimately reality. The Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom on earth are not two contrasting entities. The Kingdom of Heaven covers or superimposes the Kingdom on earth. The Kingdom of heaven represents the realm which belongs to God. The Old Testament tried to articulate it in the following way:
“I (God) will be your God, and you shall be my people.” (Lev.26:12, Deut.29:13, Jer.31-32 and Eze.34, etc.)
It is a pity that this harmonious and radical relationship between God and us is severed by the human pride and arrogance. The Kingdom of Heaven is distorted or covered up by this human sin. Matthew did not define what is the Kingdom of Heaven as such. But it expected the Early Church to manifest this God-human relationship seriously and clearly. That is why Matthew admonished them to “set your hearts on his kingdom first, and God’s saving justice, and all these other things will be given to you as well.” (6:33).
The Kingdom of Heaven is not paradise high up in heaven. It represents the harmonious relationship between God and people. According to the Jewish tradition, the Lord God chose the Israelites to manifest this God-people relationship to the whole world. Unfortunately, the chosen people failed. They turned inwards. That was why God had to send his own son to this world to do the job. Jesus came to demonstrate not only what was God’s Kingdom, but also how we could and should live in it, i.e. to live a life which is obedient to God and in service to God’s creation. Jesus also gathered 12 disciples (symbolizing the 12 tribes of the chosen people of Israel) and expected them to continue what he set out to do. The community which Jesus formed was later labeled as the First church. This church, and indeed all churches following were and are supposed to be signs of God’s Kingdom on earth. It is never easy to follow a lifestyle of God’s Kingdom. It is because people are so used to follow only their own way. That is why Matthew emphasized so much on Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom. It is to help people elevate from living only for the “self” to living in and for God’s Kingdom. Thus, the Five blocks of teaching in Matthew’s Gospel.
First, the sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7. It provided some fundamental ethical considerations in God’s Kingdom.
The ethics of God’s Kingdom are way above the ethics which people follow. People generally follow the so-called fair principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. But in God’s Kingdom, “if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well; if someone wishes to go to law with you to get your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone requires you to go one mile, go two miles with him…” (5:38-42). Or people accept “love only their neighbour but hate their enemy”; but in God’s Kingdom, “You have to love your enemies and pray for them.” (5:43-48)… and so on. In God’s Kingdom, the consideration as is not only one’s relationship with others; but especially the human relationship with God. Because God loves us; so we must love each other; because God forgives us unconditionally, so we must also forgive and embrace the people who have wronged us. This has become the basis of Christian ethics. Ordinary ethics mainly concerns with how people should treat people. But Christian ethics is Theo-ethics. It concerns primarily with how we should respond to God’s demands on the way we treat people.
Second, the mission of the disciples (ch.10). All disciples of Jesus must live by what God’s Kingdom says. As Jesus’ disciples, we also have the responsibility to enable others to do so as well. This mission is not only difficult but also dangerous too. Hence in order to do that, we should not carry excess baggage such as security for the self, wealth, status, popularity, success… and so on.
The third teaching block in chapter 13 consists of 3 sets of parables, namely a) the parable of the sower (vss 3-9; 17-23) and the parable of the darnel (24-30; 36-42); b) the parable of the mustard seed (31-32) and the parable of the yeast (33-35); c) the parable of the treasure and of the pearl (44-46) and the parable of the dragnet (47-50). These parables set out the mysterious Nature of God’s Kingdom as well as the attitudes of the preachers and the various conditions of the listeners or receivers.
The fourth teaching block in ch. 18 is about the pastoral relationship within the Church, or God’s Kingdom on earth. Caring for the weak and the young and forgiveness are the two most important elements.
The fifth and final teaching block is in chapter 24 and 25. This teaching is about the final and full realization of the Kingdom of God on earth and the last judgment. It is about the future as much as it is about our present behavior. While we wait for the future, we have to work hard now as well. In the 3 parables of the conscientious steward (24:45-51); the ten wedding attendants (25:1-13) and the talents (25:14-30); they lay out the clear message that God does give us different talents and gifts. But in final analysis, all it counts is our attitude, whether we use whatever God has given us to the fullest. In the parable of the last judgment (25:31-46), it is stated in no uncertain terms that we will be judged not so much by how many great things we have done, but rather by whether we have tried our best to serve those in need, such as the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, people without clothes, people who are sick, people who are in prison. Jesus fully identified with these people. He even made the point that “whoever did this to one of the least brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.” (25:40).
The Gospel of Matthew is extremely rich and valuable as a book of teaching for the Church of all times. Yet, its message is very simple and clear. Jesus had brought forth the gospel about God’s Kingdom which says God is the Lord of all people. Yet God is not high above us. He is with us and cares for each and everyone of us. That’s why in Matthew, Jesus is called “Emmanuel”, God with us. (1:33). Our life is meaningful and purposeful if and only if we accept the fact that God is our God and we are God’s people. The Church is a glimpse of God’s Kingdom on earth. As members of the Church, we do not only live by the gospel of God’s Kingdom, i.e. in full communion with God; but also we must try our best to help others to do the same. This is what it means to preach the Gospel. This is what Jesus expects his Church to do. Are we prepared to accept this call and this challenge?
Glory be to God, the Father, son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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