Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Thirsting After God In The Desert

Sermon audio may be downloaded from CDPC website

We are continuing a series of sermons based on the book of Psalms. The great thing about these ancient hymns is they express the whole range of human emotions as we come before God. They express overflowing joy, lamentations of grief, passion and even righteous anger… The passage of Scripture today expresses desire, longing and thirsting after God in a spiritual desert.

Psalm 63: Thirsting For God in the Spiritual Wasteland
A psalm of David. When he was in the Desert of Judah.
1 O God, you are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you,
my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.
2 I have seen you in the sanctuary
and beheld your power and your glory.
3 Because your love is better than life,
my lips will glorify you.
4 I will praise you as long as I live,
and in your name I will lift up my hands.
5 My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods;
with singing lips my mouth will praise you.
6 On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
7 Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
8 My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
9 They who seek my life will be destroyed;
they will go down to the depths of the earth.
10 They will be given over to the sword
and become food for jackals.
11 But the king will rejoice in God;
all who swear by God's name will praise him,
while the mouths of liars will be silenced.

Introduction: Tomorrow is my first wedding anniversary. How time flies! Almost exactly one year ago, I married Grace… we stood in this church and exchanged our marriage vows. So I plan to bring her out to a special dinner (the restaurant name is Cheapo) to celebrate our first year of marriage and look forward to many more years to come. But I won’t be giving her flowers because she thinks it’s a waste of money. But suppose I did…

Suppose that at the dinner I say: “Dear, here is a bouquet of flowers just for you." And instead of complaining about the cost, she replied: “Oh, for me? Thank you so much”…

Now imagine if I were to say to her: “Oh, don’t mention it. It is just my duty as a husband. As a responsible person, it is my obligation to give you flowers on our anniversary. So here you go”… Would she be very happy about that? Why not? Isn’t duty a noble thing to do?

You find it weird or funny if I say that because Grace is not honored by joyless duty. It’s as if I give her flowers because I have to, and not because I want to.

Imagine again a different scenario at the dinner, I gave my wife flowers and she said: “Oh for me? Why so many roses?” And this time I replied: “Dear, because it is my pleasure to give you gifts. I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather spend this evening with than with you.” Ah… is that much better? Why?

Because Grace’s worth as a person is magnified and honored when I delight in her character, her worth, her virtues, her beauty etc. And in case you still want to eat lunch later, I better stop these mushy mushy stuffs. But there is a point to this mental experiment. (This analogy is adapted from John Piper’s poem Then Let Me All My Pleasures Tell)

Many a times we relate to God in terms of rules and regulations, a list of do’s and don’ts, of duties and obligations. Of course, there is right and wrong and holy commandments that God has given us to keep. But God’s worth, beauty and manifold excellencies are not glorified by joyless duty, but by our joyful, willing and obedient delight in all that He is. We obey and serve Him because we want to, because we desire to honor and please Him. Not because we grudgingly have to. God loves a cheerful giver and a cheerful worshipper. To put it another, our duty is to delight in God. (Psalm 37:4)

And the passage of scripture today from Psalm 63 has a lot to teach us about this intimate desiring, intense longing, thirsting and hungering for God. In the life of the early church, it was highly regarded and prescribed for daily public prayers. It was a psalm of King David, whom the Bible described as “a man after God’s heart”. From humble beginnings as a shepherd boy, he was anointed by the prophet Samuel as king. He soon proved himself to be a brilliant warrior with an artistic heart; he plays the harp and composes psalms. As a king, he secured Israel’s borders and established a royal dynasty from which the Messiah the Anointed One would one day come forth. Despite all his achievements, the bible is also brutally honest to tell us that king David has also committed serious sins, not least adultery and murder. He was literally in political wilderness at least twice in his life. The first time, he was pursued by King Saul (1 Samuel 23). And the second time, he was pursued by his own son Absalom who wanted to take over his throne (2 Sam 15). It seems that this psalm was written while David escaped to the desert of Judah, fleeing from his own son. So his life was in danger. He was hiding in a desert where there is no life or water. And that is the context in which Psalm 63 was written.

In spite of many dangers and burning heat in the desert, King David still seeks after God with intense passion:

O God, you are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you,
my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.

I’d like to structure today’s message by asking three questions:
1) How do we thirst after God and be people who pursues after God’s heart? How do we seek God in a dry and weary land?

In Malaysia, we may not live in a "dry and weary land" physically, but we do live in a spiritual wasteland. In our urban and prosperous society, we are constantly bombarded with advertising from all over the place telling us that our life is not complete unless we live in a bigger house and drive a fancier car and invest in that blue chip company. Our sense of identity is tied to the things we buy, consume or own. Our slogan today is: “I shop till I drop. Or I shop therefore I am”. And all of us have to struggle daily against the omnipresent sales pitch telling us that "bigger, newer and faster are better!" It’s about “me, myself and I”. Oh, we all know that "money cannot buy happiness" but we still want more stuff that this world can offer. City folks like us have a "standard of living" to maintain. So we are always chasing that elusive fulfillment that the next purchase may bring.

Yet we strangely find many urban people are living lives of quiet desperation. People yearn for meaning and purpose in life and try to satisfy this longing with ‘stuffs’.

Herbert Schlossberg said this: (paraphrase) All true needs, such as food, drink, and companionship, are satiable. They can be satisfied but illegitimate wants - pride, envy, greed - are insatiable. By their very nature they cannot be satisfied. In that sense, materialism is the opium of the people. It’s like drugs/dadah that for a moment dulls the sense of emptiness inside. Enough is never enough. Greater quantities are required for satisfaction and each increment proves inadequate the next time." We cannot be satisfied by materialism.

It seems like we human beings have this infinitely huge hole in our hearts and we try our best to fill it up with things, sex, music, success, health, football, religion, you name it… but it leaves us empty as before. Many people think they will be really happy when something happens to them… Hit lottery… Retire… Make a million dollar… Marry this person… “I think I’d be truly happy when I’m a rich and famous superstar”.

But even celebrities are often the most unhappy people around. Because they work so hard to get to the top, thinking that they will be happy when they get there but they are utterly disappointed to find that they are still the same when they do reach the top.

Interview with Thom of Radiohead about what are his ambitions after achieving so much success in the music scene:

“Ambitious for what? What for? I thought when I got to where I wanted to be everything would be different. I’d be somewhere else. I thought it’d be all white fluffy clouds. And the nI got there. And I’m still here.”

Then why are you still making music?

“It’s filling the hole. That’s all anyone does”.

Interviewer: “What happens to the hole?”
Pause… It’s still there. (From Christianity Explored, Rico Tice)

In the movie The Matrix, Neo the main character works as a respectable programmer by day and a computer hacker by night. He lives and thinks that the world he lives in is real but it is actually an illusion, a virtual reality (called the Matrix) created to imprison his mind while his body is used as a battery to generate energy feeding the Machines. But he is blissfully unaware of it…

One day, a guy named Morpheus entered the Matrix to rescue him and leads Neo to himself:
“Let me tell you why you are here. It’s because you know something. What you know you can’t explain but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life. There is something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind driving you mad.”

Perhaps you too have this splinter in your mind. Perhaps you have thought about the big questions of life: Where do we come from? Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? There’s got to be more to life than this. Something is radically wrong with this world. It’s not supposed to be like this.

But if there is no God and everything is just ‘survival of the fittest’ in a dog eat dog world, then this world is exactly what you would expect it to be. It’s natural. “Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless” (Bertrand Russell)

But we instinctively know it is not right. It’s not supposed to be this way. What’s wrong?

It’s the question that drives us. Like a hole in our hearts or splinter in our mind.

According to C.S. Lewis, "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it… Probably, earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing." These longings are clues that point us to the God who truly satisfies.

You may say: “Just because I feel the desire for char koay teow doesn’t mean that I will get it.”

But doesn’t the appetite for food in us mean that food exists somewhere? Isn’t it true that innate desires correspond to real objects that can satisfy them, such as sexual desire (corresponding to sex), physical hunger (corresponding to food), tiredness (corresponds to sleep) and relational desires (corresponding to friendship)? We have a longing that no amount or quality of food, sex, friendship or success in this world can fulfill. (Reasons for God, Tim Keller)

That is a clue that the hole in our hearts is God-shaped, only a relationship with the infinite God can make it whole again. We are made for another world.

And King David knows that! For him God is not some distant Supreme Being or impersonal Force faraway, not involved with the world. He cries out: “O God, You are my God”. This God is personal, not an “It”, He can have a covenant relationship with us.

And if we long and desire for God, then we need to seek him actively and earnestly. To be earnest is to be serious and determined. It’s not a hobby you do when you got nothing else better to do. Do we eagerly seek God with all our emotion, intellect and will? How serious are we in growing our relationship with God?
We are sometimes like the little boy who plays with dirty mud by the drain (longkang), and Mommy comes along and says, “Come, Ah Boy, don’t play in the mud. Come, Mommy bring you play at Sunway Lagoon instead.” And the boy refuses (I don’t want, I want to play by the longkang) because he cannot imagine how wonderful playing by the sea or Sunway Lagoon is like. The problem is not that his desire is too strong, but it is too weak. He settled for far too little.

Some people think of God as a cosmic policeman who frowns every time people have fun and goes around making sure that people never enjoys themselves.

But that is far from the truth. Think about all the promises in the Bible. Jesus says I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:34-36). At God’s right hand are pleasures forevermore. Those who lose their life shall find it. Crown of glory… Eternal life…

CS Lewis says: “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at sea. We are far too easily pleased.” We settle for too little…

Do we have a covenant relationship with God today? Are we too easily pleased by the temporal pleasure of this world? Or do we thirst for the infinite joy of knowing the Creator God himself? Only Christ alone can satisfy the deepest longing for meaning and love in our hearts.

Saint Augustine said, "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee."

2) What can we do when we experience spiritual dryness and we don’t feel any passion for God?

When we don’t feel any passion for studying the scriptures, coming to church, pray or witness, does that mean that we don’t need to do these things because God is not honored by joyless duty. Do we stop doing our duty because we have no desire? What can we do then?

The answer is: No, don’t just sit and wait for the passion for God to come. We do what we need to do out of obedience anyway. But doesn’t that make us a hypocrite – I don’t want to do it but do it because I have to?

John Piper has this advice: “No, you will not be a hypocrite, if you know that joy is your duty, and repent that you don’t have it, and ask God earnestly to restore the joy even as you do good deeds. That is not the way a hypocrite thinks. That is the way a true Christian thinks in the fight for joy.” (When I Don’t Desire God: How To Fight For Joy)

That means we still do them but do so with a heart of repentance, asking God to restore our joy in Him. Because the value (preciousness) of water is not only glorified when we drink it and are satisfied. The importance of water is also glorified when we thirst and long for it when we don’t have it yet. In the same way, we honor God when we yearn for Him (even though not fully satisfied yet).

Some of us have been Christians for some time already but somehow we still don’t feel satisfied in God. What could be wrong? And we all experience seasons of spiritual dryness when we don’t feel like doing what we know we should. Very often, it could be due to willful sins in our lives or idols in our hearts. We need to turn away from them.

Sometimes before lunchtime, I have the habit of eating tid-bits or junkfood lying around the office. While waiting for the clock to hit 12 pm, my hand gets itchy and can’t resist grabbing that candy bar or munch on Pringles. So when it comes to having the proper meal, you have already lost appetite for real, nourishing food. You cant eat what you really need to eat because you are already stuffed on junkfood.

In the same way, satisfaction will never come if we claim to trust in God, but then quench our souls on the short-lived, inadequate pleasures of this world. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God said, "My people have exchanged their glory for that which does not profit… For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water" (Jer. 2:13)

If we do not feel a hunger/thirst to know God more (not just know about Him but a deeper personal encounter with Him) could it be because we have lost appetite by eating too much junk food? Maybe we need to go on a fast of TV, shopping, bak kut teh or whatever substitute or idol we may have in our hearts that hinder our relationship with God (Bulan Ramadhan) Something about desert is that there’s almost nothing there. There you have no one to turn to but God. Maybe we need to make a trip to the desert.

Sometimes, a season of spiritual dryness may not due to any particular sin. Some mystics call it ‘the dark night of the soul’. For example, you go for prayers and God touched you and you fell down on the floor. Wow, a wonderful spiritual experience. But then we can give too much attention on that experience, the drama of it, the pleasing sensations rather than focusing on the Savior. When we do not feel God’s presence, sometimes it may be a work of the Holy Spirit. When you feel God is far away but actually He is near you, He is weaning us away from our attachment to the pleasing, spiritual experiences so that we can love God for who He is, not for what He can give.

In the darkness of night, when he can’t sleep, King David remembers God… “On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night.” He actively recalls the spiritual encounters he had in the past… “I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory.” These memories at the temple kindle in his heart a desire and longing for God.

Why do you come to church? Is it out of habit? Because my parents bring me here? Out of obedience to Bible’s teaching? Because you like the cool music and songs? Because of the sermons? For fellowship with friends?

When it comes right down to it, there is only one reason for coming to church. It is the reason of the psalmist. We come to church, first and foremost, to be in God’s presence and seek His face. We come to church, first and foremost, to meet with God. God speaks and meets with us through our worship together, the sacraments, the preaching of the Word, prayers and the fellowship we will have later over lunch. To behold his power and glory. It’s not about us. It’s all about God.

Tun Mahathir always say “Melayu mudah lupa”. Sometimes Christians also can be quite forgetful. We also “mudah lupa”. When we experience God’s mercy or grace or answered prayers, do we store them up in our memory? Can we look back at these precious moments and when things are difficult, we can say to ourselves, “God has been faithful… God is good… He has done great things”? Do you remember?

Like King David, we need to come into God’s sanctuary with a focus to behold His power and glory and remember His grace and mercy and goodness during long seasons of darkness and loneliness.

3) How can we praise and glorify God even in a spiritual desert?

King David’s spirituality is not a form of escapism from the real world but the very essence of practical living. His situation was one of conflict and danger, enemies are bent on killing him. But this passion for God kept him going. He is assured that God is able to protect and vindicate him. He is confident his enemies will ultimately be destroyed by the sword and the mouths of liars will be silenced.

King David decided to praise God no matter what happens. Even while in danger and in the desert, there is mutual commitment: My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

Despite the circumstances around him, he says: “with singing lips my mouth will praise you”, “I will praise you as long as I live, in your name I will lift up my hands”, “My lips will glorify you” and so on.

But how can He praise God when his life is in danger and his throne taken over by force?

If you ask him why? He would say: “Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you.”, “My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods with singing lips my mouth will praise you”, “Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings, My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.”

In short, praise is the overflow of someone who is satisfied in God. All enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise. Those of us who watch football will know this. Sometimes we watch champion’s league football at 3 am in the morning, and when our favorite team scores an exciting goal, we want to shout out: Goal! We want to sing “Glory Glory Man United!” Or “You’d never walk alone” We want to praise the scorer, turn to our friends: That was a wonderful pass from Rooney or Gerard. That is overflow of our enjoyment of the game. Imagine if you watch the game alone and you don’t dare to shout because you dun want to wake up your parents/wife. Something is missing… No umph… The joy is not complete… it didn’t lead to its climax.

So praise is the natural and joyful response of someone secure in God’s protection and satisfied in His greatness.

Our delight in someone or something is brought to completion by praise. When we see a very beautiful sunset or scenery, we just naturally feel like wanting to shout “Wow, that’s so amazing!” That praise completes our joy…

C. S. Lewis said: “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.” When we praise the one we love, we are completing our joy.

So when God calls us to worship and praise Him, it is not out of selfishness or pride or insecurity as if He needs our praise. God forbid. Rather, the act of God seeking His own praise is the ultimate loving act. Precisely because He loves us so, He relentlessly commands us to pursue the praises of His name in our hearts. It completes our joy in Him. Think of what we would be missing if God did not insist that we worship Him. We would never know the source of ultimate satisfaction.

Jonathan Edwards commented, "The enjoyment of (God) is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied…. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends are but shadows, but enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams, but God is the fountain. These are but drops, but God is the ocean."

All the pleasures and miracles of life – good food, beautiful friendship, the colors of sunset, the gentleness of a mother or a lover, glorious music – all these are good gifts from God that we enjoy, but even they are ultimately clues to a greater satisfaction found in God alone.

Let us pray:

“King David knew what it meant to love God with all his heart, soul and mind, to be a person who goes after God’s heart.

Are you thirsting and longing for God today? When we come to His sanctuary, do we come to meet with God and behold His power and glory?

Are our souls satisfied in all that He is or are we too easily pleased with substitutes that do not last?

Do you remember God and think about Him continually?
Do you recognize His care for you in difficult situations?
Are we following hard after Him?
Can we say, “O God, you are my God?”
Are we thirsting for God the way we should?

Jesus says: I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:34-36)”

How Does The Church Handle Sin And Sickness?

James 5:13-20

13 Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.
14 Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.
15And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.
16Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
17Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years.
18Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
19My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, 20remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

We have come to the last passage in the letter of James. Its message is challenging, very practical, and action packed. I wonder as we listen to this series of sermons on the book of James, which message particularly struck you? Do you recall some lessons that are especially relevant for you?

Do not be listeners of the word only but also be doers of the word as well, to walk the talk, to demonstrate our faith by our works etc. It was a letter written to a church of poor and suffering people under intense pressure to give up and walk out of their faith, so James want to encourage them to be patient in this time of trial and testing. To rally the troops to press on in doing good.

To step back a bit, let us look again at what Pastor Caleb has preached on last Sunday: James encouraged his readers to be patient in suffering and press on till the finishing line, don’t lose sight of the Big Picture. Verse 8: “Be patient and stand firm because the Lord's coming is near… The Judge is standing at the door!” (verse 8, 9) Dun give up, Christ will return and put things right. There will be justice. He will reward those who persevere till the very end and judge those who do wickedness. To some of us, (comfortable, middle class folks in the city) the idea that God is a judge who punishes people sounds very harsh and cruel, but to people who are suffering unjustly under oppression and persecution, the news that God will finally bring justice and punish the wicked is like a drink of cool water on a very hot day. It brings hope and courage.

So now as James is wrapping up, he reminds us that there will be a glorious day when there is no more sin, no more suffering and no more sickness. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and bring his healing justice in a new heaven and a new earth. The effects of sin will be reversed. Our decaying bodies will be resurrected into immortal, imperishable bodies that will not experience disease.

But that day is not yet come. In this side of heaven, we are not promised sinless perfection or perfect health. In the meantime, followers of Jesus (the community of faith, that we call the church) still struggle with sin and sickness.

So while waiting for that glorious day, how do we deal with them? How do we deal with sick and sickness? That’s the question I’d like to ask as we come to today’s text.

1) Verse 13: Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.

“In Trouble? Pray. Happy? Praise.”

Sounds easy? Simple? But how many times have we caught ourselves doing just the opposite. When things go well and the sky is blue, we say: “God is good all the time, and all the time God is good. Hallelujah! Praise the lord! I could sing of your love forever…” But when trouble comes, instead of praying, we complain and grumble: “This is just not fair. How can God let this happen to me? I don’t deserve this. God doesn’t really care for us.”

Or the other side of the coin, only when difficult times come and the storm clouds gather, we rush to God begging for help. Sometimes I look back on my college days and see the ‘most spiritual’ times of my student life (when I spend the most time praying and praying hard) usually happen to be the day before exams or assignment deadlines!

But when exams over or assignment passed up, when things are going well, it is business as usual… We live just like everybody else, as if God does not exist at all. In theory, we are theists (believers in God) but in action, we are practically atheists.

Both lifestyles – complaining against God when things go bad, ignoring Him when things are well – may just show that deep down, we are really more interested in what God can give to us, His blessings of help in trouble and giving us good exam results or good job or a good husband/wife etc we are more interested in His gifts than we are in the Giver himself.

No, that’s not how we should live. This is using God. There is no communion or personal relationship or intimacy.

So how shall we then as a church handle sin and sickness?

Scripture seems to tell us this: Let bad times drive us to our knees and pray, to recognize our desperate need for God’s grace. As Thomas Merton put it, “Prayer is an expression of who we are. . . . We are a living incompleteness. We are a gap, an emptiness that calls for fulfillment.”

And let good times be an occasion for us to be thankful for His goodness in providing for us and praise Him. Give Him glory. At all times, live before the face of God as if he’s our only spectator.

That means, in good times or bad times, all of life is to be lived before the face of God. It’s like we are living in front of the audience of ONE. Do we pray to just get things from God, or do we pray out of the sheer delight in who God is? To give him pleasure and glory because we see his worth and beauty…

2) Secondly, we come to the interesting question on sickness and prayer for healing.

If we are sick, we are encouraged to different kinds of prayer
- Personal: let him pray (v13)
- From Leaders: call the pastors/elders to pray over him (v 14)
- Corporate: pray for each other so that you may be healed (5:16)

So all believers are given the privilege to pray, not just for pastors or elders. If everyone calls the pastors when got flu or headache, he will be very busy indeed. Doctors will be out of business.

Living in this modern world, with advances in medical science, it does affect how we look about prayer and healing. As Philip Yancey says: “In former days when a child fell ill the parents cried out to God; now they call for an ambulance or phone the doctor.” Some Christians believe that miracles are only for special times in history like in the ministry of Moses, Elijah, Jesus and the apostles as signs that confirm God’s revelation. Now we have the Bible, God’s full revelation, so miraculous signs are not needed today.

I believe that James is clear that we are to ask for prayer for healing. This instruction is for the ongoing life of the church, for elders, for all of us, not just for apostles/prophets. (Verse16) “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” can be discouraging to us. We have all screwed up so many times, God will never answer my prayer. But “righteous” here doesn’t mean “sinless perfection”… James made a comparison to Elijah (v. 17- 18) (Wah! Super prophet! In a time of national apostasy, when the state of Israel led by a bad king and queen turn away from God, Elijah almost single handedly challenged them and brought Israel back.) But no, the point that James want to underline is the fact that this ministry of praying for healing is not for super healers. It's for regular folks. Elijah is just like us, he has his moments of courage and can fall into depression. One moment, he is bold and the next moment, he fled. He has his failures too, but his trust is in God and his faith is active in good work, he is counted as righteous by God’s grace and mercy.

On the other hand, there will be those who tell you that if you have enough faith, you can ask God and He will heal directly. You do not even need medical help. Medical help is only for those whose faith is not strong enough. If your prayer is not answered, it must be due to sins.

But we know this is not true. Last week, we saw the example of Job who suffered person tragedy and loss of health and wealth, and it is not caused by any particular sin that he has done. So we must be sensitive and not jump to conclusions. At the same time, there could be sickness that is caused by sin. (Verse 15: “If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”)

In CDPC, if you’ve been around for some time, you’d see how our pastors have applied this biblical teaching in the community life. When there are some serious illnesses, the pastors will pray over the church member and anoint the person with oil in the hospital or in church. And thank God, there have been testimonies of healing. God’s kingdom power has broken into history in the person of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It would seem that God wants us to pray expectantly for healing in that reality.

But at the same time, miraculous healing is not always forthcoming. We still live in a fallen world.
I have also prayed for a friend’s mother who battled with cancer and she does not get healed, and now in the presence of God.

We have to hold in tension these two truths (we should pray in faith for healing and trust in His sovereign wisdom). There is no simple formula that works for all cases because life is messy. On our part, we pray in faith and ultimately the result is up to God’s wisdom and sovereignty.

Clearly the bible does not convey a picture of instant healing on demand. In 1Timothy 5:23 Paul tells Timothy to take a little wine with his water because of his stomach ailments. He did not instruct Timothy to claim healing for his stomach and ignore sound medical practice. Another example, Paul left Trophimus sick at Miletus (2Timothy 4:20).

So we should not see God at work only in dramatic, miraculous healings. If a person is healed through medical science, it is only because a merciful God is behind the laws that make science works. Should we not praise the God whose natural laws allow medicine to do its healing work and the skills of doctors whom he created?

There is an interesting mention about applying oil on the sick. There is no magical power in the oil. It is “the prayer offered in faith” that God responds to. It is a tangible symbol of God’s presence and the Holy Spirit’s anointing coming on the sick person.

It is also interesting to note that oil is very commonly used for medicinal purposes in ancient times. (See Isaiah 1:6 and Luke 10:34) If this is what James has in mind, then it would be very interesting that here we have both prayer and medicine being used together for healing the sick.

Why does God choose prayer – seemingly weak, ineffective?

First, God wants us to do it this way so our hearts lose their self-sufficiency. If God’s blessings just came upon us without a lot of prayer, we would be proud, assuming that a good and comfortable life is simply our right.

Second, God wants us to do it so our hearts will be prepared to rejoice in him as the author of all blessings. If God’s blessings just came upon us without a lot of prayer, we would not perceive him as the source of everything we need. In short, it is very dangerous to give us good things unless we are prepared through much prayer.

Third, when we do prevailing prayer corporately then the attainment of blessing creates community, knitting our hearts together.

3) The Community As Means Of Grace To Keep And Correct Us.

“16 Confess your sins to one another and pray for each other… 19My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, 20 Remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”

This implies that there is such a thing as truth. If there is truth, there is also error. Truth is not ice cream, it is insulin to the diabetic. It’s not just a personal preference, truth is a matter of life and death.

Also implies a safe space where we can be vulnerable and open and trusting. Confessing our sins to another person can be scary and not a common spiritual practice, especially in evangelical churches.

But we are created and saved for community. We are not isolated, individual, independent believers. James envisions the whole church as a safe place where we help each other to deal with sin and grow in holiness. It’s a community project and a journey we walk together.

Opening up to another person is a risk. It leaves us exposed, vulnerable, open to hurt. End result is we hide and struggle alone. Eventually, some just drop out or drift away.

We must remember however that we are all sinners together. God is not finished with us yet. All of us have weaknesses, insecurities, habits to overcome and the Holy Spirit is sanctifying us and giving different people gifts, skills and wisdom to help each other.

When we share our stories, we invite others into a part of ourselves that cannot be entered without permission. It’s a big honor and privilege. Those who listen sense a welcome to delve into their own stories, to make themselves open, to trust others with their pain. This results in a purer, more authentic fellowship of people who know and love and understand each other’s needs, anxieties, temptations and sins. In this act of mutual confession, mutual forgiveness, mutual help and prayer we release power that brings inner healing.

“The great mystery of our faith is that we get closest to God when we are willing to be vulnerable, when we are willing to say ‘I need somebody else’.”—Henri Nouwen

Testimonies of victory and triumph… Weddings… We rejoice with those who rejoice, we grieve with those who grieve. If all we get are stories of victory, some may get discouraged “what’s wrong with me?” I feel a profound sense of belonging in CDPC when stories are shared about struggles that are still ongoing, how they are trusting in God in tat unresolved situation, need for healing, for an answer… These are real people facing real issues.

But how do we apply this in our lives? Maybe some suggestions from how I’ve seen some people in our church are doing it.

-Intentionally cultivate friendships of trust and openness. Maybe it could be small group. Give permission to trusted friends to ask tough questions.
-Confidentiality must be maintained, except when it endangers someone.
-I know of guys who travel a lot for work and live out of the suitcase. One day, you could be in Amsterdam or Brazil or Bangkok. They would have this agreement. Call someone when tempted especially for guys
-As a general rule, brother to brother or sister to sister confession as in some ‘emotionally charged’ situations.

So how do we deal with sin and sickness this side of heaven?

We live in a fallen world that has been corrupted by sin and we cannot escape the realities of this fallen world. But at the same time we also live in a new reality that has already begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But it is a reality that will be only be seen in its fullness when Jesus comes again. In the meantime, we live by faith and prayer and in communion with each other before the face of God.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Merdeka Sermon

Independence Day sermon on 31 August 2008. Audio download will be available here soon.

Selamat Hari Merdeka! Today we celebrate 51 years of independence. Are you feeling patriotic today? There are many things we could be thankful for and achievements that are worth celebrating.

For example, in just about 50 years, we have transformed from an agricultural economy to an industrialized nation with a fast-growing urban middle class. You can see signs of modern progress everywhere with high-tech buildings like Twin Towers, KL Tower, KLIA and so on. By and large, we have also lived in peace together in a culturally diverse society. We live amongst Malays, Chinese, Indians, Kadazans, Ibans, Sikhs dan lain-lain. And except for that infamous 1969 riot, we have been spared from the communal violence that happened in other nearby places like Indonesia or Southern Thailand.

Having said that, there are also many weaknesses that we need to overcome if we really want to be a developed country by 2020. Before we get to that, let us turn to the passage of Scripture for today

Psalm 93
1 The LORD reigns, he is robed in majesty;
the LORD is robed in majesty
and is armed with strength.
The world is firmly established;
it cannot be moved.
2 Your throne was established long ago;
you are from all eternity.
3 The seas have lifted up, O LORD,
the seas have lifted up their voice;
the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
4 Mightier than the thunder of the great waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea—
the LORD on high is mighty.
5 Your statutes stand firm;
holiness adorns your house
for endless days, O LORD.

We Malaysians are living in very, very interesting times. Our newspaper headlines these days are so full of suspense and intrigue that they make even Obama look so boring in comparison. Almost every week, we have shocking revelations of sex, lies and videotapes… statutory declarations flying here and there with allegations of political conspiracies, cover-ups, spies, murder, sodomy and C4 explosives! I think someone should make a movie out of all these drama and sure can make a lot of money. Who knows? Maybe can even win an Oscar!

But seriously, I think our nation is at a crucial crossroads of sorts… winds of change are blowing and powerful opposing forces are shaping where Malaysia will be for the next 50 years. So the theme for church camp this year “For Such A Time As This” and the message of Esther is especially timely and relevant.

The last general election on March 8th (so called political tsunami) raised some interesting questions: Could we be seeing the beginning of a two-party democracy in Malaysia? Like in US, they have Republicans and Democrats. The morning after, we woke up to find ourselves living in a state ruled by Pakatan Rakyat.

Are we beginning to see that finally Malaysians have matured enough to go beyond racial politics? In the past, Chinese only vote for ‘Chinese’ parties like DAP or MCA, Malays only vote for PAS or UMNO, Indians only vote for MIC or MIC… But now we have Makkal Sakti?! This time around, we see a mood for change among Malay, Chinese and Indian communities.

But there are also fears that in this desperate moment of transition that communal violence may flare up once again. We have different ethnic and religious communities living side by side with each other but with precious little contact and understanding in between. On the night of March 8, many of us get SMS to stay at home and be careful for fear of violence.

While all these things are happening, petrol and food prices are going up. A globalizing economy is getting more competitive.

The Malays have this saying “Gajah sama gajah berjuang, pelanduk mati di tengah”. As Malaysian Christians, we watch much of the drama and sandiwara like the kancil (mousedeer) caught between two fighting elephants. We have no political power. Just a small minority. I wonder what are your feelings at this time of uncertainty?

Some of us may feel
Fed-up or ‘Jelak’: “Look at how dirty and corrupt politic is. Christians should never get involved in it.”
Cynical: “Aiya… What difference can small fries like us make la? We have been like this for 50 years, we will remain like that for another hundred years. Migrate better.”
Hopeful: “I think things are changing for the better. If So and So becomes Prime Minister, then our country’s problems will be solved.”
Confused: “Where is God in all this? What does God want the church to do?”

The passage of Scripture today from Psalm 93 points us to the throne of our sovereign God. “The LORD reigns, he is robed in majesty; and is armed with strength.”

Although we are weak and needy people, God is mighty and strong. Where is God in the midst of all these events? He is on His throne. His throne was established from eternity and will last forever. He created the entire universe, the galaxies, solar systems and everything in it out of nothing. And He sustains the whole creation and set up physical laws that keep them from falling apart.

Isaiah 40 describes God’s power in poetic terms: He measured the seas in the hollow of his hand and mark off the sky with his hand, he weighs the mountains on scales and the nations are like a drop of water in a bucket… That’s how awesome and great is our God.

Psalm 93 is an enthronement psalm that worshipfully celebrates the fact that God is the ultimate ruler in the nation of Israel. In the other surrounding nations, the king is also considered divine and their power is absolute. But for Israel, though they have a human king, but the king is ultimately answerable to the divine King and the ‘constitution’ of the nation, that is, the covenant the Lord made with Israel. No one is above the rule of law, not even the king (Deuteronomy 17:18-20)

Our human rulers like Yang Dipertuan Agong and Prime Minister and Cabinet members, state governments are ultimately God’s servants/ministers to bring justice and order in society (whether they know it or not). So our default position is to obey their authority and laws of the land and pray for them. But their authority is not absolute, there is a higher law/King that even our rulers must answer to. If the state acts and speaks as if it is god, demanding our ultimate loyalty and obedience, then it has become an idol and we have the freedom and responsibility to disobey unjust laws.

If our vision of God is too small, we’d be too impressed or depressed by men or what’s happening in this world. But if we see how awesome God really is… how majestic His rule is over our national affairs… We can still be aware of what’s happening in the world but we’d be more impressed with God. And whoever becomes Prime Minister on Sept 16 or 4 years from now… no matter how things turn out… we are reminded that God is still on the throne and His rule is everlasting. No one can frustrate his plan and purpose.

Like we saw in the story of Esther, the invisible hand of God (His providence) is quietly working behind the scenes, putting the right people at the right place to do the right things at the right time. Even the sinful actions of men, God can use it and turn it around for his own purpose. Like Haman who set up a trap for Mordecai and the Jews but it ended up as a trap that ironically backfired.

Psalm 93 also gives us a picture of chaotic, tsunami-like waves that represent all the threats and upheavals against the rule of God. But the Lord on high is mightier than all of them.
3 The seas have lifted up, O LORD,
the seas have lifted up their voice;
the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
4 Mightier than the thunder of the great waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea—
the LORD on high is mighty.
So our trust and confidence are anchored on solid Rock. We can take comfort that God is big enough to protect and carry us through.

Remember this scene from the movie: “The Lord of the Rings”?

Frodo, the small innocent hobbit who was given the dangerous task of carrying a powerful ring to the Enemy’s stronghold, said: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.

We may wish for the good old days when things are more stable… economy is growing… yet sometimes, it’s not up to us to choose or decide. But we can choose what to do with the kairos moment that is given to us, discern what God wants us to do in this small window of opportunity available today.

The sovereignty of God is not an excuse for laziness though: “Since God in control, I dun need to bother doing anything la”. No, the truth that God is sovereign sets us free from cynicism. Let me explain… For a long time, many young people are disillusioned and feel disempowered: “We are only small fries, what can we do? We can’t change anything” So they felt helpless and “tidak apathy”. They will complain and rant at the government at the mamak but they are not interested to be part of the solution.

But if our God is awesome and sovereign, and he s ultimately in control of our affairs, then no matter how difficult the problem in our country is, it’s not a problem for Him… and that should be a powerful motivation for us to action: To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with Him. While we do these things, we await the day when Jesus will usher in his kingdom of peace and healing righteousness. So while life won’t be perfect on this side of heaven, we can work to improve it so that our church and society starts to look something like the future Kingdom of God today. It can be like a movie preview or foretaste of things to come.

In light of God’s sovereignty, how then shall we live? What can we do in this time of change and contribute to nation building? (3 applications)

1) This may sound very basic but the obvious things are usually the most important. If God is all powerful and rules over all and we are weak and powerless, the most obvious thing we can do is to humble ourselves and pray.

“And my people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chro 7:14)
We need to pray for God’s Kingdom, God’s rule to come and His will be done here on earth as it is in heaven. If we do a stock take on our prayer life. What do we pray for most of the time? If our prayers are only limited to our own personal needs, it may show that we are too inward looking. We need to expand our horizon.

For example, NECF 40 days fast and prayer theme this year: “The Lord Revives: Transforming the nation through the local church”. Christians are called to pray our personal revival, then move outward to pray for the church, then the community (empower the community to work toward social justice and good governance) and government (a reformed police force that is corrupt free, impartial, competent and effective in upholding public order and peace). That’s the kind of world embracing prayer we need.

2) Abraham Kuyper: There is no sphere of life that is not subject to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.

If Jesus is the King and Lord over all of our life, then we cannot divide our lives into neat little boxes like ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’. I don’t mean that we should form a political party called “Christian action Force” (Chrisaf) and try to make this country a Christian state. The church is called to bear the cross, not to pick up the sword. While Christian individuals could actively participate in political party, the church as the body of Christ should maintain a prophetic distance from partisanship and not be used as a tool by politicians.

What I mean is we cannot isolate the gospel from making an influence in the wider society.
We cannot say “OK religion is for Sundays and quiet time, but when it comes to my business decisions from Monday to Saturday, that’s secular stuffs so I play by different rules”…

If I’m a Christian lawyer, I can’t say: “Ok Christianity is what I believe when in church, but when it comes to the 1988 judicial crisis (In Malaysia we have the best justice that money can buy), I dun really bother”.

We can’t because God is not just interested in so called religious activities but how we conduct our lives in the marketplace. He is Lord of Sunday and the other six days also.

For example, He is interested in integrity and transparency in business practice and justice in the government:

Proverbs 11:1 “The Lord hates dishonest scales but accurate weights are his delight”.
Proverbs 29:4 “By justice a king gives a country stability, but one who is greedy for bribes tears it down.”

God has given us each one with unique abilities, skills, talents and resources. As we study in college/university or work, we begin to discover what our passion and super-powers are. These are things I like to do… These are things I am good at doing…

Spiderman said: With great power comes great responsibility. Our responsibility to redeem that sphere of life for Christ… It’s not easy, every industry has its unique challenges and opportunities.

If you are a salesperson, you are an “ordained salesperson”. You have been summoned by God to serve Him in that specific sphere of activity.
Or, if you are an “ordained lawyer”, you are called to prayerfully explore how your discipline shows signs of rebellion against or submission to Christ’s Lordship.
An “ordained environmentalist” ought to read the Scripture not just devotionally, but actively apply the biblical mandate for creation care in his work.

Whatever our calling is, we need to learn to think and live “Christianly” in areas specific to what we do – media, education, politics, business or the arts.

In humility and boldness, we should creatively integrate our faith with our vocation.

Laypeople in every facet of life – media, politics, business, education and others – should be enabled to challenge the prevailing assumptions of society in light of the gospel. Theology should not be reserved for pastors and scholars only! (Newbigin)

The biggest impact you can make for the kingdom is by being faithful to your calling and gifts that God has given you in the marketplace.

3) If God is the God of this city, Lord of this nation, King of all people groups as we have sung today, then we should work towards racial reconciliation.

The issue of race is sensitive and potentially explosive topic in Malaysia. Raja Muda of Perak, Raja Dr Nazrin Shah said this at a Student Leaders Summit 2007:

“To ensure sustained success at nation-building, Malaysians of all races, religions, and geographic locations need to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have a place under the Malaysian sun. Only when each citizen believes that he or she has a common home, is presented common opportunities, given due recognition and is working towards a common destiny, will he or she make the sacrifices needed for the long haul.”

His vision for Malaysia is consistent with what many Christians have labored for in history: Martin Luther King a pastor and civil rights activist who worked to end racial segregation and discrimination in US through non violent civil disobedience: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

So how can we be a community of peace makers? How can we ensure there is a place for everyone under the Malaysian sun? When Jesus lay out how Kingdom living looks like in the Sermon on the Mount, He says: Blessed are the peace makers for they will be called sons of God.

Here is a short and by no means exhaustive list of simple things we can do

1) Intentionally cultivate friendship with people who are different from us: The people we work and play with, the friendships we make, must never be limited by race. Prejudice and misunderstanding can be removed if we interact personally with others of a different ethnic group or religion -- even if it is just one teacher, one colleague or one schoolmate.

2) Free ourselves from racism in our language. We may not say it in polite company but do we enjoy that racist joke that our friends tell or we read in forwarded mails? People are made in the image of God so they are precious and have dignity. People are people, they are not ‘babi’.

3) Help the weak and poor from other races. I think many people in CDPC are already doing it and if you like to join in, do let the pastors know. In the orang asli ministry in sg buloh and kg batu, the church helps a marginalized community through education to break the cycle of poverty. Other CDPC members are also working to resolve communal conflicts and giving tuition class to the multiracial groups of children in Subang.

4) Be informed and speak up: As Daniel Khoo who works for the Edge advised us: Read from both sides of the fence, both mainstream and not so mainstream media. Kairos magazine this month has very good articles on Merdeka and post general election analysis.

Yes, we thank God for people like Tricia Yeoh (Center Public Policy Studies), Kian Ming who writes for Malaysiakini or KJ John (OHMSI) who works for integrity and transparency in public governance, speaking sensibly on public issues. But what about ‘ordinary’ people like us? What can we do?
The media has become more open and independent these days. With the internet, blogs, TV debates and radio talk shows becoming more independent, we have opportunities to write or call in to voice our views also.

There are many issues that affect Christians today like the ban on the word Allah in our Malay language Bibles that would affect our bumiputra brothers and sisters in East Malaysia… and the famous Lina Joy case and yes, we need to speak up on such issues. But if we only get worked up over ‘Christian’ issues are involved and remain silent when it affects those who are not Christians, then we could be guilty of ‘tribalism’, we just care about people from our ‘tribe’. Or do we also care and speak up for fellow Malaysians who are not Christians? (Proverb 31)

I think we can and should. Here is one example of how this can happen.

Remember Revathi? Born Siti Fatimah to Muslim convert parents, she was called Revathi Masoosai by the grandmother who raised her. She married the man she loves Suresh in 2004 according to Hindu rites and has a 18-month-old daughter. In January last year, Revathi was detained at the Syariah Court and held at a rehab camp for six months. The authorities seized her daughter from her husband and handed the child to Revathi's Muslim mother.

The NECF together with other religious bodies organized a candlelight vigil outside Dataran Merdeka in solidarity with a fellow Malaysian whose fundamental liberties have been denied her.

A certain Irish scholar Peter Rowan wrote a good article called The Malaysian Dilemma that everyone in church should read: “Since reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel, and since the gospel transcends the barriers of race, ethnicity and culture, and since the church is the most inclusive community on earth, the local church is a community of hope in a fragmented world. In Malaysia, the church has the task of not only proclaiming the message of reconciliation to all Malaysians, but of embodying the concrete implications of that message in its community life, so that Malaysians of all races can look at a local church community and see the gospel fleshed out in a racially reconciled group of people who can work, worship and witness together.”

Won’t you like to be part of a community like that? Wouldn’t you like to celebrate diversity of races and cultures in CDPC when we gather to worship, work and witness together?

In conclusion, we live in a very interesting time in our country’s history. There’s a window of opportunity for us to get involved in transforming our nation. We need to be confident in the fact that God is on the throne, and live out His lordship in prayer, in the marketplace and in being a covenant community of diverse culture and race.