Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42)

I am coming home

Life was hard for 30-year old Wang Yongqiang. His mother committed suicide after a painful struggle with illness. His father suffers from a back injury preventing him from walking properly. Last year, Wang left his village in Hebei, China to work as a construction worker in Singapore. The money he gets helps to pay for his father’s medical bills and his daughter’s school fees.

But now that the one-year contract was over, Wang was finally coming home. He called his wife and asked her what she wanted from Singapore. “Anything,” she said. Wang surprised her by buying a ring for 1,800 yuan - a month’s paycheck in their village.

Wang knew his wife had lost her wedding ring while he was away. “If you didn’t lose it,” he said, “how can I buy something else for you?” He was so excited about the ring that he sent a photo to her mobile phone: The ring was gold with a decorative flower in a red box. Very Asian.

One week later, Wang took a five-hour bus-ride from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Before midnight on March 8th, 2014, Wang Yongqiang boarded Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. Today marks day thirty-six since the plane went missing.

His last words were, “Tell all our relatives I am coming home.”

Prayer is hard

When you are faced with a sudden tragedy and dealing with tremendous loss, the hardest thing you can do is pray. And yet, the most honest thing you can do is pray.

Prayer is hard when you’re hurt. When you’re angry and you’re frustrated, prayer is just hard. At the same time, prayer is honest. Everything inside you says, “Help me, please. Help me.”

In our passage today, Jesus prays this kind of prayer. In verse 34, Jesus says, “My soul is overwhelmed to the point of death.” He falls to the ground and he prays.

I want us to see three things in today’s passage. I want us to see (1) Jesus praying with fear; (2) Jesus praying with friends; and (3) Jesus praying with faith.

Praying with fear

We begin with verse 32.

They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”
Mark 14:32-34

Jesus prays with fear in his heart. But how can Jesus be afraid of anything? He has faced demons. He has faced the devil. In a few moments, he knows he is going to face Judas and says, “Let’s go and meet my betrayer!” Jesus is fearless throughout Mark’s gospel.

But not here. Jesus is a broken man. Here, in a garden called Gethsemane, moments away from the cross, Jesus does not want to die. Let me say that again: Jesus does not want to die. And Jesus prays that he will not have to die.

Look at verse 35:

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Mark 14:35-36

Essentially, Jesus is saying: Is there is any other way? Is there any other way for God to save without him being sacrificed. Any other way for us to be forgiven and for him not to be forsaken. Jesus is praying with fear.

The movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” released ten years ago, opens with this scene of Jesus praying in Gethsemane. If you watched it, you will remember how violent was the portrayal of Jesus’ torture leading up to the cross. The flesh being ripped from his back. The blood staining his entire body. The nails driven into his hands. The movie displayed how painful and how horrific it was for Jesus to go to the cross.

But the movie begins here - in the garden - because Jesus’ prayer here tells us why he died. Not just how he died but why he died. Not just how painful but how fearful it was. The cross was God’s will to condemn his son.

“Abba, Father,” Jesus says.

Doesn’t Jesus teach us to call God, “Our Father”? “Which of you,” Jesus says, “if his son asks for bread will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him.” (Matthew 7:9-11)

Yet here, we find Jesus asking but not receiving. “Take this cup from me,” Jesus asks. “Let this hour pass from me,” he begs. “I do not want to die.”

The answer was no.

The cup which Jesus asks to be taken away is a picture of God's judgement over sin. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah described it as the cup of God's anger - all of his punishment for all of sin condensed into a single drink. It is interesting that a few verses earlier, Jesus gave thanks for the cup, shared the cup with his friends, saying, "This is the blood of the covenant poured out for many." Christians celebrate this in communion today.

Jesus understood that his death would mean our forgiveness. But Jesus also understood that his death would mean taking our judgement. On the cross, Jesus would be separated from his Father, crying out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" That's the bible's definition of death: To be forsaken - abandoned - by God. Knowing that, Jesus prayed that if possible, the cup would be taken away. He prayed that if possible, he wouldn't have to die.

Friends, when you find it hard to pray because prayer is just too difficult - just too painful - you are in good company. Jesus prayed with tears in his eyes and pain in his heart. But still, he prayed.

To pray is to ask God. I know a lot of people say, “Praying is just like talking to God.” That is not true. To pray is to ask God. And even though we might ask for wrong things with wrong motives - even though that’s true and the bible does warn us about that - the real problem is: many of us don’t ask. We do not pray.

Prayer is hard but prayer is also honest. “Please heal me. I do not want to die.” In a few moments, we will see what it means to pray with friends; which is what we usually do here in the Chinese Church. There is a crisis; we organise a prayer meeting; get all our friends together; and someone stands up to pray for our comfort, another one stands up to pray for our healing. But I am talking about how you deal with your pain when no one else is in the room. And I’m telling you: You can pray. Your sorrow and your pain should lead to pray not away from it. It should bring you to your knees.

Because Jesus prayed knowing the answer to his prayer was not the one he was looking for. Because Jesus prayed when no-one else was praying for him.

Praying with friends

Verse 37:

Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”
Mark 14:37-38

Three years ago, I was preached on this passage and after the sermon someone came up to me to apologise. He said, “Do you the part where you said, ‘Are you asleep?’ Well, I was asleep. During your sermon.”

It is possible to read this verse and think Jesus wanted them to feel bad. They were supposed to pray but they fell asleep - three times! But Jesus doesn’t say that. “Watch and pray for my sake.” No, Jesus says, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” Jesus was worried about them.

They thought Jesus was being paranoid. In verse 27, when Jesus says, “You will all fall away,” Peter replies, “Even if all fall away, I will not.” “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” Big words. “You can count on me, Jesus. I’ll be there.” That’s why Jesus says to him, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour?”

The reason we don’t pray is the reason we do not listen. It’s pride. It’s not that you’re busy or lazy or you don’t know how. It’s because you’re proud. “I can deal with that problem myself.” Even when God says, “No, you can’t,” you think, “He’s talking about someone else because I’m OK.”

Get this: Jesus is not asking them to pray for him. He is saying: they need to pray for themselves. At the end of Rock bible study when we go round and share our prayer requests, and you say, “Don’t trouble yourself.” You think you’re being humble. You’re being stupid.

Verse 39:

Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him.
Mark 14:39-40

Meaning: They had no excuse. They had a big dinner. It was late. You know how it is. Jesus caught them sleeping and they were embarrassed, that’s all.

But I think the reason why Mark tells us, “They did not know what to say,” is: they knew they messed up. Even if they didn’t understand what was going on, “The Son of Man will be betrayed” - “What did he mean by that?”; even if it had been a long day; even if they thought Jesus was crazy; they could see him falling to the ground; hear him calling out, “Father! Father!” If your friend comes to you and says, “This is killing me,” and you ignore him? You are a lousy friend.

But the amazing thing is, Jesus loves his lousy friends.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32)

Three times, they fall asleep. Three times, Simon denies Jesus. Three times, Jesus prays and reminds them to pray. It’s not a coincidence. Jesus is faithful even when we’re faithless.

I know that the easiest way to embarrass a roomful of Christians is to ask them, “How is your prayer life?” Many of us practice “horizontal” prayer times - those last five seconds in bed before you fall asleep. But I also know, Jesus is not guilting his friends into doing quiet time. He is worried for them. He is saying, “You don’t pray - you’re not prepared. Not for temptation. Not for suffering. If you don’t pray, you are standing on shaky ground.”

1 John 2:1 says that when we sin, we have an advocate with the Father - Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. Do you know what an advocate means? When you mess up big time, Jesus is praying for your forgiveness. He is saying to God, “Father, forgive them.” Even when we’re faithless, he is faithful.

I met a friend recently and asked him, “What’s new?” He said, “I have six months to live.” How do you respond to something like that? For what it’s worth, I said,  “Thank you for being honest with me. I am so sorry to hear that.” We talked about God. We talked about what the next six months would be like. But really, all he wanted to talk about was his family: how his mum took the news; how his kids would deal with the funeral.

Jesus is hours away from the cross and he is concerned for his friends. He prays for them, he prays with them; he reminds them to pray.

Praying with faith

Verse 41:

Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
Mark 14:41-42

Jesus is betrayed, arrested and condemned. Good Friday - which is this Friday - reminds us that all this happened. So, the question is: How could Jesus have prayed with faith if God did not save him from death?

The bible tells us - this is Hebrews Chapter 5, verse 7 - “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”

God heard his prayer and God answered his prayer. How can that be? He asked not to die but he died. He asked not to suffer but he was crucified. How could God have heard his prayer?

Because Jesus asked for God’s will to be done. And on the cross, God’s will was done.

What does it mean to pray with faith? Health and wealth and blessing? I was once in a church where the pastor prayed for a Mercedes Benz. “I have faith that God will give me that car.” Nonsense. If you understand Gethsemane, praying with faith means saying, “Not my will but yours.” It means trusting in God and entrusting yourself to God. It is seeking after God’s glory and not your glory.

Friends, prayer is not some kind of technique to get God to do what you want: Say the right words, use the right technique, God will bless you. Prayer is a reflection of your relationship with God. What we see in Jesus’ prayer is how much he loved his Father. What we see in Jesus’ prayer is how much he submitted himself to his Father. Prayer is a reflection of your relationship with God. What would your prayer life say about your relationship with God? Jesus’ prayer showed how much he loved his Father.

But if you are not a Christian here today, I want you to see how much God loves you. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” God loved you so much he gave his only Son.

If there was any other way, would God have sacrificed his Son? If you could be saved another way - by following Mohammed, by following Buddha - would God have sent Jesus to the cross? When Christians say Jesus is the only way, the only truth, the only life - people think that’s arrogant. But if you understand Jesus’ prayer, that is the most loving thing God could ever do for you. Because the only way God could forgive your sin was by sending his Son to die for your sin.

Jesus prayed with fear - because death is fearful. Jesus prayed with friends - not because he needed their prayers but because they needed his. Jesus prayed with faith - asking that God’s will be done, through the cross, through his death and through his resurrection - so that God would be glorified and that we could be justified.

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
Romans 8:32

Heavenly Father,
Thank you for giving us your Son,
The Lord Jesus Christ.
As a sacrifice for our sin.

For the sake of your Son,
forgive us and change us.
And by your Holy Spirit,
enable us to live a life pleasing to you.

Not my will but yours be done.

In Jesus’ name we pray,

Amen.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

God's mission - 2013 annual review

International

Most within the Chinese Church know us as the English Ministry. Some refer to our gatherings - quite rightly - as the youth ministry, with all their potential and zeal. But a friend recently asked me, “How is the international ministry at the Chinese Church?”

That really encouraged me - for us to be known as an international ministry of the Chinese Church - not because we’ve had hoards of people come to our gatherings (our average attendance is twenty!) but because (1) we’ve tried to be as welcoming as possible to newcomers (remembering Jesus’ words in Matt 25:38) and (2) we are part of God’s bigger plan to reach not simply the Chinese but all the nations of the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The biblical word for this is, of course, mission. As I reflect on the happenings of 2013, I present them under three missional headings: (1) God’s mission in his word, (2) God’s mission in his world, and (3) God’s mission for his church.

1. God’s mission in his word


At the centre of all our gatherings has been the preaching of the bible as the Word of God. We began the year finishing the book of Galatians in a series entitled, “Unnatural”; looking at how unnatural our lives appear to an unbelieving world, how supernatural God’s work is in sustaining the believer’s faith and how spiritual fruit results in people living not for themselves but for Jesus Christ.

We spent most of the year covering Acts 1 to 14, beginning with the ascension of Christ, moving on to Pentecost and the birth of the church, quickly leading to intense persecution of believers, scattering the Christians across the Gentile world. We saw how God’s way is not necessarily our way when it comes to accomplishing his mission. God is able to use difficult circumstances, like persecution; even difficult people, like Saul, to bring many to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Finally, we saw the birth of international missions: Paul and Barnabas sent out from a church they had planted in Antioch, which was incidentally, the first internationally-led church.

Our year-end series, “One-to-one”, was based on personal conversations with Jesus Christ as recorded in the first five chapters of John’s gospel. Each week, we heard Jesus speaking directly to individuals - to his friends, to his mum, to a theology professor, to a woman with a shameful past - different people with different circumstances; each time dealing with their presumptions and prejudices, each time revealing who he really is and what he came to do on the cross. In listening to Jesus speaking to them, my prayer was for God to enable us to hear Jesus speaking to us today.

2. God’s mission in his world


The Cambridge International Outreach (CIO) is a mission held each summer to reach language students. For two weeks, Winnie, Judy, Howai and Calvin joined a team of thirty Christians (who had also come from other parts of the world) to run language cafes and build friendships with internationals. It was a wonderful opportunity to work alongside brothers and sisters from other parts of the world in mission, to engage in meaningful conversations about Jesus with people who have genuine questions about the Christian faith and to be deeply encouraged hearing the gospel again and again for ourselves.

3. God’s mission for his church


Rock Fellowship had not just one, nor two, but THREE major retreats this year! Beginning with Word Alive in April, we took three cars up to Wales where we spent five days soaking in clear and inspiring teaching from the bible.

A couple of months later, we had our very first SOLID//ROCK Summer Weekend Away at Letton Hall, a majestic manor located in the beautiful English countryside of Norfolk. Bartow Wylie walked us through the entire book of Philippians to help us see what God sees when he looks at our lives in Christ.

We were back again in December for our Winter Weekend Away. This time, James Poole reminded us the reasons “Why we need the gospel” from the book of Romans - because of our sin, because of God’s anger over our sin and because of God’s solution to our sin through the cross of Jesus Christ.

With regards to mission, the purpose of these retreats was never to get us to do something but to rejoice in what God has already done. God’s mission is fulfilled in the church; and these gatherings - not least the meetings we have each Sunday, and each Wednesday night at Rock Fellowship - are reminders of that endpoint to his mission: that the world might look at the church and marvel at God’s handiwork in bringing sinful men and women together into his kingdom through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 3:10).

Heavenly Father,
Thank you for the work
That you finished
Through Jesus’ death on the cross

Forgive us when we forget that
It is your mission
and not ours;
Your glory that matters,
and not ours

Please give us the strength and courage
The faithfulness and the joy
To speak about Jesus
and to carry out his mission
To our friends, to our family,
And to the ends of the earth

In Jesus name we pray,

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Forsaken

[Transcript of talk given at the 2014 CUCDS production, "The perfect conductor".]

It’s The End

Many years ago I was a teacher in a school called ITE - the Institute of Technical Education. ITE was a fancy name for a fancy school - nice buildings, air-conditioned classrooms. My students had another name for ITE. They called it “It’s The End.” ITE. The reason is: You went to this school if you couldn’t get into any other school. You went to this school if you dropped out of every other school.

So one student would turn up late; and his excuse was: “I had to report to the police station.” (I didn’t ask why). One teenage girl was a pregnant. Every week she got bigger and bigger until  - no, she did not give birth in class - but she did have to drop out of school, and that was sad. The best student I had by far was a guy named R who was much older than everyone else in class - including me. He was a tank driving instructor in the army. We made him class monitor. Everyone listened to him!

Because I spent twenty hours a week with my students, I knew them pretty well. I knew their parents were telling them, “School is a waste of time. Get a job.” I knew their friends were calling them stupid (“You’re still wearing a school uniform?”). It was sad seeing kids so young go through so much.

What does that have to do with tonight’s play? Well, notice, there is no villain, no bad guy. No one is sneaking into St John’s May Ball (ask the Malaysians if you didn’t get it). And yet I see in tonight’s play the same struggles I saw in ITE. Did you know that 46% of Cambridge students have depression? (53% if you are from Trinity College). The problems in Cambridge are unique, yes - instead of the failure, you struggle with success - but the effects are the same: People give up on life. People give up on God.

Good news

And the one thing I want say is: God is not the teacher who walks into class and says: This is how you fix your life. A lot of people think that’s what Christianity is - “Do this; do that and God will bless you.” They think the bible gives us good advice when it’s actually gives us good news.

The difference is: Good advice tells you what you need to do. But good news tells you what God has done. Big difference. What we need to do; what God has done for us.

My God, my God

I want to read you a quote from Jesus Christ. It’s not, “I am the way, the truth and the life” - not one of the famous ones. It’s the one where Jesus says, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me.”

Listen to this:

In the same way, the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” In the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

And here comes the quote:

From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?” - which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
(Matthew 27:41-46)

Forsaken

Jesus - when he says this - is not responding to pressure. People are trying to kill him - he’s doesn’t say to them, “Why are you doing this to me?” In fact, he does not say anything at all. The bible tells us that he was silent as they tortured him - as they drove the nails into his arms - Jesus was silent to the very end when he turns to God and says, “Why have you forsaken me?”

To be forsaken is to be abandoned. And the worse kind is abandonment is by someone you love. A husband abandoning his wife. A mother abandoning her child. Friends, Jesus Christ was abandoned by God.

If you don’t believe in God, then godforsaken - and pardon my language, goddamn - are things you say when you’re upset. But this is Jesus Christ. Of all people to claim that he was godforsaken... these are not empty angry words.

There’s a story of a group of prisoners doing bible study. (Gives new meaning to “cell-group”). Anyways, they were looking at this passage in the bible and the question was, “Who killed Jesus?” “The crowds!” said one guy. “The leaders - they betrayed him.” One big man - who understood the gospel for the first time - would not even lift his face. He said, “I killed Jesus.”

Now, at some level all those answers are true. But the real answer is: God killed Jesus. The cross was God’s will for Jesus to suffer and die. Jesus, knowing it was God’s will for him to suffer and die, says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Knowing God’s will for your life will not make it easier or pain-free. Let me say this again: Knowing God’s will for your life will not make it easier. Or pain-free. But it will save you.

For us

What do I mean? Jesus was forsaken for us. He was forsaken not for something he did, but for something we did. He was forsaken for us.

Remember what the crowds said: “Save yourself if your are the Son of God! Prove yourself to us, then we will believe in you.” What were they saying? “You are not my God. You will never be my God.” The bible calls that sin. When we say to God, “Stay away from me, keep away from me, Don’t come near me.” What we’re doing is forsaking God. We are abandoning God.

And God should respond by forsaking us.

Instead he pours out his judgement on Jesus. On the cross, God treats Jesus the way he should treat us. All the things we said, all the things we did, God treats Jesus as if, “You did all those things. You said all those things.”

God looks at Jesus and sees our sin. But then, you see, God looks at us and sees his Son.

The bible says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that, in him we might be the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) An exchange happens on the cross. Martin Luther calls it the great exchange: Jesus takes our sin. We receive his righteousness.

Earlier I said: Knowing God’s won’t make life easier or pain free but it will save you. What did I mean by that? This good news is good for bad people. When it’s a sunny outside, as it is today, and you’ve got the grades, you’ve got the job, you’ve got the girl and you say to yourself, “Wow, God must love me very much!” You haven’t understood the gospel. Not yet.

But when you’ve messed up big-time. When you’re in ITE, when you’re in trouble, when you’re sick, when you wonder, “Is God punishing me? Is this why this is happening to me? Has God forsaken me?” And you look to the cross and you realise the answer is, “No!” If Jesus has taken all my sin, all my guilt, then all that is left is his love, his mercy, his grace. If he was forsaken, it means I have been forgiven. That’s the gospel.

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might be the righteousness of God.

With us

Just this afternoon, I was at a party celebrating the wedding of two close friends in church. They got married in Hong Kong and wanted to share their joy with friends here in the Cambridge. The amazing thing was: they spent half an hour telling us all the things that went wrong at their wedding! I mean: they crashed a car (a Mercedes Benz); the bride took the tube in her wedding dress; the groom arrived at the church with no one there - there was a massive traffic jam so all the helpers were late. He was the only one in church and had to show guests to the their seats and hand out programmes!

And yet they were smiling. They were rejoicing in God’s goodness. Why? Because they went through it together.

When your plans goes wrong, sometimes you need to ask: What’s the plan? I’m sure J and L did not plan for things to go wrong on their wedding day, but what was the plan? To get married. More important than having the dream wedding, it was to be married as husband and wife. Christians promise one another in marriage to love one another - “for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part”.

Friends, God’s plan for your life and my life is for us to be united with him.

The very last words of this gospel - Matthew’s gospel - the same one where Jesus says, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” - after Jesus dies, after he is buried, after he rises from the dead and appears to his friends. The last words of this gospel have Jesus saying to his friends, “I am with you to the very end of the age.”

One day, Christians believe that Jesus will come and remove all pain. He will remove all death and all suffering. But until that day, Jesus promises he is with us today. He is with us to the very end. Because he was forsaken, we know will never ever be forsaken. He is with us to the very end.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

First world problems (Ecclesiastes 3)

“I wanted to go out, but my phone isn’t charged.”
“I have to blow dry my hair now I can’t hear my music.”
“Someone on the Internet disagrees with me.”

They are called ‘First world problems’. A photo depicts a woman breaking down in tears, overlayed with a caption that says something like, “I accidentally clicked on Internet Explorer.” These are problems that are funny, that make fun of people who don’t have problems. These are problems that are familiar because many of us (reading this) live in the first world.

In today’s passage from the bible, we read these words, “That each may eat and drink and find satisfaction in their toil - this is the gift of God.” (Ecclesiastes 3:13) It’s a complaint that there is nothing more to life than to eat and to drink - he sounds Chinese - and to write a really good essay. Sounds like a Cambridge student.

Are you surprised to hear the bible saying this? Eat, drink and be satisfied with your toil. You don’t need to be a Christian to know that; it’s common sense. But why is this is a gift from God? Because it’s possible to have the best opportunities and to waste it, the best of life and to throw it down the drain.

I want us to see three things from today’s passage - (1) What life is like; (2) What life is for; and (3) How life will end.

1. What life is like

I’ll begin with verse 1:

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-3

He goes on - “A time for this, and a time for that…” - fourteen times, to tell us that life has its ups and downs. Some days you win; some days you lose.

You don’t need to be at Cambridge to know that. I remember an uncle who used to say, “I didn’t go to university, but I went to the school of ‘hard-knocks’.” He was not a Christian and every day for two weeks my uncle tried to convince me not to be a Christian. I learned a lot for those conversations because my uncle was speaking from experience; he had “eaten more salt than I had eaten rice.”

“Been there, done that.” Or for those of you who remember Tan Ah Teck, played by Moses Lim on the Singapore TV Series “Under One Roof,” - “Long before your time, in the southern province of China...”

We roll our eyes when we hear words like that - that speak to us as if we little kids. But what they are saying to us is, “I been through this before.” Been there, done that. You learn about life by living life - not by studying - but by going through it. And that’s why they tell us stories about their childhood, their experiences.

The bible is saying the same thing. Life is not static. God has put into motion times and seasons when you will experience both pain and laughter, joy and sadness. The big question is this: Are you prepared for those times?

This week, Facebook launched a gimmick to celebrate its 10 year anniversary. Each user got a personalised movie of their life. “A look back,” is what they call it. In a way, that’s what this poem does - it looks back at your life - the happiest of days and the saddest of days - saying: This is your life. The question is: How should you handle the good and the bad moments in your life?

And he offers a suggestion: this Uncle (I’ll call him that), he says - Enjoy it while you can. That’s the surprising answer we see in our second point - What life is for. It is for enjoyment.

2. What life is for

Verse 12:

I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.
Ecclesiastes 3:12-13

That’s surprising because Uncle is saying something very unChristian. He sounds atheist: Live each day for today. No higher purpose; no grand scheme. Get what you can get today: get pleasure, get happiness, get success. Don’t wait for tomorrow. He sounds atheist. Or he sounds Buddhist. “A time for to be born; a time to die” Very Lion King; very circle of life.

And yet, you can’t get away from the fact that Uncle keeps referring to God. Verse 10:

I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He (meaning, God) has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
Ecclesiastes 3:10-11

Why does this Uncle tell us: Make the most of today! Seize the Day! Because God has put eternity in our hearts. Inside all of us is an internal itch put there by an external God. You can’t reach inside to scratch it yourself. You are not supposed to. God has put that restlessness in our hearts to make us think of something bigger than ourselves.

You might say, “I don’t care about that. The second advice about enjoying life - that makes sense; that I’ll follow.” But you see, the two parts are connected because all of us worry about tomorrow. What job am I going to get? Who am I going to marry? All of us worry about tomorrow and that keeps us from enjoying today.

The secret is knowing God. You see, if God is God, then today is just today. Jesus taught us to pray by saying, “Give us this day our daily bread.” If you trust God for today - for today’s bread, you can enjoy today’s bread. But some of us, even as we were enjoying something better than bread - hot pot dinner - we were worrying about tomorrow’s lunch. Why? Because we want the moment to last. We a want guarantee it’s going to be just as tasty, just as enjoyable, but in doing so, we stop ourselves from enjoying the meal right in front of us.

Know anyone like that? Who has the wealth, the looks, the smarts yet the more he has, the more it crushes him. The problem isn’t that he has too much money. The problem is he is trying to fill that void, that vortex inside of him with money and it just doesn’t work. Someone named Augustine once said, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

You see, if God is God, then food is just food. Work is just work. You can enjoy your food; you can enjoy your work, you might even begin enjoying God. But some of us turn food and our work into God - we worship it, sacrifice to it - and it’s never enough. God has made us for himself, and our hearts are going to be restless until they find their rest in him.

3. The end of life

Finally, the end of life. Something prompts Uncle to think about the end of life and it’s not death. I want you to see that. Rather, it’s wickedness. Look at verse 16.

And I saw something else under the sun:
In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
in the place of justice—wickedness was there.
Ecclesiastes 3:16

Earlier on, we said that life is a mix of good and bad but that’s not the full story, is it? Wickedness tips the balance towards the bad. People get away with evil things all the time.

And you guys - because of all the doors that will open to you when you flash that degree from Cambridge University - you guys will have a front row seat to wickedness. Because it’s in the very places of power, privilege and influence where you will find wicked people doing wicked things.

When that happens, you need to remember what Harvey Dent said in the Batman movie (the second one with Heath Ledger as the Joker). Harvey Dent said, “You either die the hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” That’s just a movie, of course, but consider what he is saying: You either try to be the hero - and die trying. Or, God forbid, you end up becoming wicked yourself.

If ever there was a first world problem, it is this: Wickedness. “In the place of justice, wickedness was there.” People who have the resources to do help others but exploit others to help themselves.

It is at this point, the bible says: Don’t lose sight of God. Verse 17: “I said to myself, ‘God will bring into judgement both the righteous and the wicked.’” Adding these lines, “For there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed.” Remember that song we began with: “A time for everything… A time to be born, a time to die…”? Well, here’s the last line of that song - A time to judge every deed. Life ends with God’s appointed time of judgement.

If only for this life

A quick recap: (1) What is life like? Ups and downs, good and bad. (2) What is life for? Enjoyment: Enjoy each day is a gift from God. (3) How will life end? With judgement. God will call us to account for all we’ve done in life. The conclusion to all this is to eat, to drink and enjoy every second of your time here in Cambridge.

Except there is a place where the bible also says this: “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’” The same passage reads, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:32 & 15:19)

What’s it saying? If being a Christian is only for this life, then don’t be a Christian. Why? Because Christians get cancer, because Christians still die. In fact, if being a Christian is just for this life, then like my uncle in Malaysia, I should be discouraging you from being a Christian, not encouraging you.

So why should you become a Christian? For one simple reason: Jesus Christ rose from the dead. And if Jesus really rose from the dead, it means, firstly, that God can raise the dead. Secondly, it means God can use our death, the way he used Jesus’ death and Jesus’ suffering to bring life, to show his love. God is not just God of good things, he is God over everything. Most importantly, if Jesus rose from the dead, it means God has taken your death. Jesus Christ died so that you would not die, he took your sin so you could receive his righteousness. If you are a Christian, judgement is not something far ahead, into the future, judgement happened on the cross. And the resurrection of Jesus Christ is there to show you there is no more judgement for sin. You are free.

Valentine’s Day is happening this week. Imagine on Valentine’s Day getting a card that said, “Today is going to be a fantastic day. We are going to enjoy ourselves, have a nice meal, have a good time… because tomorrow, we might break up. Tomorrow, I might find someone better-looking than you.” Friends, you can’t build any meaningful relationship if you’re only in it for the good times. “For better for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health” - that’s a promise that Christians make in marriage, that’s a promise that Christians receive from God. He is God over everything.

God has made us for himself and our hearts are restless and they will continue to be restless until they find their rest in him. And Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Vision (Ezekiel 1)

1. The people of God

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month - it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin - the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the Lord was upon him.
Ezekiel 1:1-3

God’s word comes to Ezekiel in exile. To be exiled means to be kicked out of your home, with little or no hope of returning home. Ezekiel lived “among the exiles” (verse 1), meaning this vision came to him when he was far from home, longing for home and unable to return to his home country, Israel. He and his fellow Israelites have been forcibly removed and transported to the “land of the Babylonians” (verse 2), where they now lived under the oppressive rule of their enemies. Even their own King Jehoiachin was but a guest in the enemy’s land. “By the rivers of Babylon,” Psalm 137 begins, “we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”

Yet here in this foreign country, God appears to Ezekiel in a manner that is unexpectedly and unmistakably real. “The heavens were opened and I saw visions of God” (verse 1). “There,” verse 2 tells us; there, in the land of the Babylonians, so far away from the temple, so far away from God’s presence, it would have seemed, “the hand of the Lord was upon him.”

Ezekiel did not seek this vision. Ezekiel did not expect these “visions of God”. But God chose to reveal himself to Ezekiel through these visions calling Ezekiel to serve not merely as priest in the tabernacle, but as a prophet, speaking God’s word to God’s people.

The book of Ezekiel is therefore God’s word to exiles - to people far away from God; to people who do not expect to meet with the living God. It reminds us that God sovereignly chooses whom he speaks to, and when he does, we will have no doubt whatsoever who we are dealing with. This is the God of glory, of judgement and of salvation. This is the God who reveals himself through his word to his people.

But the book of Ezekiel is especially relevant for us today as Christians for the apostle Peter writes to believers in his first letter addressing them as “elect exiles of the Dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1). This world is not our home. Christians are strangers in a foreign land. We are exiles, longing for our true home - what Peter calls the “home of righteousness,” the new heavens and the new earth (in 2 Peter 3:13). And what we need most today, more than anything else, is not to try make ourselves as comfortable as possible in this world but to hear God’s voice speaking to us in this foreign land; what we need is to be reminded afresh that God is still God and that we are still his chosen people.

2. The vision of God

I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north - an immense cloud, with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The centre of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was that of a man, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had the hands of a man. All four of them had faces and wings, and their wings touched one another. Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved.
Ezekiel 1:4-9

The vision is filled with terrifying descriptions of fire, of four strange living creatures each with four wings and four faces, of wheels with eyes all round its rims. The visions are gruesome at times, confusing at times, repetitive and scary at times - so much so, that these words might put you off reading Ezekiel altogether. Jewish rabbis have a tradition of not letting students under the age of thirty study Ezekiel; thinking it too discouraging for young readers. There is even a story of student who found a copy of Ezekiel left open on his rabbi’s desk. He read it, meditating on verse 27 - the description of God appearing like “glowing metal” - only to have fire pour out of those very words, engulfing the poor student and burning him up on the spot!

It is worth noticing how Ezekiel himself struggles to describe what he saw. He says, “It looked like this…” or that “it had the form of that”, struggling to find the words or illustrations to describe what he saw. The vision was overwhelmingly awesome and frightening to Ezekiel.

Yet at the same time, he uses language that is familiar at least to bible readers. Ezekiel’s vision is divided up into four stages - the windstorm, the creatures, the eyes and the throne - and at each stage, Ezekiel uses language found elsewhere in the Old Testament to bring across a picture of God’s glory. Meaning: we are not so much meant to sketch these images as a single architectural diagram (you can have fun looking these up on Google) as much as we are to recall other parts of the bible where these different descriptions recur and echo through Scripture as snapshots of God’s character - his holiness, his power, his omniscience. Ezekiel struggles to communicate what he sees, yes, but writes down what he sees using picture words from the bible.

To begin with, Ezekiel opens with language found in Exodus. The windstorm - of thick cloud and fire - are evocative of God’s presence on Mount Sinai, symbolising God’s holiness and judgement. (Indeed, the tornado of wind and flame may even be evocative of the pillar of cloud and fire accompanying Israel through the desert in the Exodus.) The windstorm comes out of the north (verse 4), the direction of Israel’s enemies. God has, in fact, sanctioned what has happened to Israel, the attack of its enemies leading to the nation’s destruction and exile.

In the middle of this storm, verse 4, “in the centre of the fire,” we meet the four living creatures, each with four faces and four wings.

Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. Their wings were spread out upwards; each had two wings, one touching the wing of another creature on either side, and two wings covering its body. Each one went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, without turning as they went. The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it. The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning.
Ezekiel 1:10-14

Ezekiel later identifies these creatures as cherubim (Ezekiel 10:1) or angelic beings. Their orientation - each facing away in four different directions - especially, with regard to their wings; verse 11: “each had two wings, one touching the wing of another creature on either side,” are evocative of the cherubim found on the ark of the covenant, facing away from each other with wings touching at the tips. The ark of the covenant represented God’s presence. It was kept in the temple, in the most restricted room of the temple in fact, called the Holy of Holies, accessible by the High Priest only once a year. The ark was God’s throne ruling over his people from the temple in Jerusalem.

Except, remember that Ezekiel receives this vision nowhere near Jerusalem. He is in enemy territory: Babylon. That’s the significance: God’s presence is not restricted to the temple. The ark was just a box; a symbol of God’s presence. This vision was the real thing; this vision was alive! The creatures with their wings and four faces and their appearance of fire: This was God’s living throne!

Additionally, this was God’s mobile throne, for Ezekiel says: this throne had wheels!

As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like chrysolite, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not turn about as the creatures went. Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.

When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When the creatures moved, they also moved; when the creatures stood still, they also stood still; and when the creatures rose from the ground, the wheels rose along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.
Ezekiel 1:15-21

Ezekiel did not seek God, God sought Ezekiel. Ezekiel did not come near to God, God came near to him; and this is how: The wheels. God’s throne has wheels. It moves. The spirit of the living creatures is in the wheels, Ezekiel says that twice in verses 20 and 21. “Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.”

Also, these wheels have eyes - how strange is that? Verse 18: “All four rims were fulls of eyes all around.” The eyes represent God’s all-knowing character; he sees all and knows all. Similarly, the living creatures facing all four corners, looking in all four directions indicate the same thing - that God sees everything in his creation. Nothing is hidden from his sight.

Together, these images represent God’s presence coming in judgement over his people. Ezekiel sees heaven open; a tornado of wind and flame descends, and in the middle of that flame, the throne of God, moving towards his people. Unlike the ark in Jerusalem, this throne of God is alive. This throne is mobile! Ezekiel struggles to convey all that he has seen into words that we can understand. He says, “It looks like this,” or “It appears like that.” The visions are awesome and terrifying. Each description grows more and more overwhelming until he gets to the throne itself, because when Ezekiel looks up and finally sees the throne of God, he doesn’t simply record what he sees; Ezekiel, the prophet, tells us what he hears.

Spread out above the heads of the living creatures was what looked like an expanse, sparkling like ice, and awesome. Under the expanse their wings were stretched out one towards the other, and each had two wings covering its body. When the creatures moved, I heard the sound of their wings, like the roar of rushing waters, like the voice of the Almighty, like the tumult of an army. When they stood still, they lowered their wings.
Ezekiel 1:22-24

All this to say, that as Ezekiel’s gaze turned upwards, above the living creatures which were causing a huge racket as they moved - “like the roar of rushing waters” - suddenly, everything came to a standstill. The living creatures lowered their wings, the throne stopped moving and all became silent, because now God was about to speak. As if to say, all this - the vision of the throne, the living creatures, the tornado of wind and fire was just the opening act. The visions prepare us for the voice.

3. The voice of God

Then there came a voice from above the expanse over their heads as they stood with lowered wings. Above the expanse over their heads was what looked like a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.
Ezekiel 1:25-28

It becomes harder and harder for Ezekiel to describe what he saw. Now, every sentence is shrouded with uncertainty - “what looked like… sapphire,” “a figure like that of a man,” “he looked like metal,” “as if full of fire” - Ezekiel is struggling even more to convey what he saw. Like Isaiah who sees God in the temple, only to realise that all he has seen are God's socks; Ezekiel’s description of God himself is vague, except to tell us that God is covered in light and fire. But he also tells us in verse 28, “Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.” He is describing God’s beauty. The rainbow that comes after a storm - that’s God’s glory. If you remember the story of Noah and the flood, the rainbow is a reminder of God’s forgiveness after judgement. It’s a promise that every storm will eventually end.

This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. When I saw it, I fell face down, and I heard the voice of one speaking.
Ezekiel 1:28b

The vision gives way to a voice. God reveals himself ultimately though his word. Like Moses who first encountered the burning bush; like Isaiah who sees a vision of God in the temple; Ezekiel bows down in worship when he encounters the glory of God only to hear the voice of God, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you” (Ezekiel 2:1). There, God reveals his plan. There, God sends his Spirit into Ezekiel enabling him to understand; empowering him to speak.

This was Ezekiel's vision of God - of God's holiness, his glory, his judgement, his beauty and his radiance. But the vision of God gave way to the voice of God. “Son of Man, stand up... and I will speak to you.”

What is our vision here as the Chinese Church? When you pray and ask for God’s guidance - in your job, where you are going to live, who you will marry - what exactly do you ask for? A sign? Perhaps God could organise a series of occurrences and coincidences, something we can point to and say, “Now I know God has opened this door for me to walk through”?

We want God’s vision but sometimes… sometimes at the cost of ignoring God’s voice. To cry out to God on our knees, saying, “Show yourself,” but to do so with the bible closed on the floor, is at best foolish; is at worst, disobedient. I’m not saying God can’t give you a vision - he did with Ezekiel - but the reason he gave that vision was so that Ezekiel would hear his voice; so that Ezekiel would speak his word. God warns him: some will listen, others will not. But the whole purpose of the vision to Ezekiel the prophet is so that God’s voice might be heard.

It is saying: At the heart of God’s revelation of himself is a relationship. Yes, we do need a bigger vision - not of our aspirations as the Chinese Church - but a clearer vision of God in his glory, because often times our view of God is too small. We think he is there to serve us. We forget that we were made to serve him. But more than a vision, as important as that is, what we need is to hear God’s voice speaking to us - because what we want is the relationship with him. It is hearing the voice of our heavenly Father. It is trusting in the promise of his Son dying on the cross for our sin, made known to us through the word of the gospel.

Even the angels lower their wings in anticipation of his voice. “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” That’s our expectation each time we gather - that’s our vision - each time we open this book and each time we hear the gospel: all of heaven gathering here in the Chinese Church each Sunday, waiting for God’s word to be spoken; eager for God’s voice to be heard.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Life in the Son (John 5:16-30)

The purpose of the Sabbath

So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him. Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working. For this reason the Jews tried to all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
John 5:16-18

     “These things” that Jesus was doing on the Sabbath (verse 16) build on the event of the miraculous healing at the pool of Bethesda (verses 1 to 15). The phrase indicates that the healing of the paralysed man was not an isolated event. Jesus had developed a pattern of healing - and as the religious authorities understood it, a pattern of ‘working’ - on the Sabbath day. Because of this, the religious leaders set out to persecute Jesus (verse 16), even to the extent of plotting to kill him (verse 18).
     This latter section of John 5 forms an extended defence Jesus presents against the charge of breaking the Sabbath law. “Jesus answered them” (verse 17 in the ESV, not merely “said to them” in the NIV; once again in verse 19: “Jesus therefore answered them.” Greek: apekrinato) Jesus is giving a direct, point-by-point defence of his ‘work’ on the Sabbath, answering his critics amongst the religious leadership of the Jews.

     The main thesis of Jesus’ defence is the working relationship he shares with his Father. “My Father is always at work to this very day, and I, too, am working.”
     It is worth noticing that Jesus does not appeal to any loopholes in the Sabbath law, such as he does in Matthew Chapter 12.

He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:11-12)

In healing the paralysed man, Jesus was “doing good in the Sabbath”, something that was permissible according to the religious leaders’ own understanding and practice of the law. Yet, Jesus does not appeal to this legal loophole.

     Rather, Jesus presents a picture of God’s continuing, never-ceasing work in sustaining the created order. “My Father is always at work… to this very day.” This statement introduces a dilemma: for God himself commands his people to rest on the Sabbath, citing his own example of creating the universe in six days and then resting on the seventh. In other words, the call is to imitate God’s pattern of work and rest.

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8)

     Yet, here Jesus claims to be truly imitating his Father, not in resting on the Sabbath, but by working. How can this be? In truth, the text does not tell us. It may be that Jesus is appealing to the Jewish scholar’s own prevailing understanding of God’s continuing work in sustaining the created order, without which, all life was cease to exist.
     Rather than breaking the Sabbath law (as the Jews understood Jesus’ actions to be doing - verse 18), it seems evident from Jesus’ own position that he is fulfilling the Sabbath law. In the same way that the very first Sabbath was a culmination of God’s masterpiece in creating the heavens and the earth, so subsequent Sabbath markers - the pattern of rest instituted by the Decalogue; the entry into the Promised Land; the hint yet another form of God’s rest found in Psalm 95 - point us forward to a greater accomplishment - one seen not in the present created order but in a renewed creation.
     Elsewhere, Jesus declares himself the Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8). Here we learn that Jesus is not simply one who stands over the regulations of the Sabbath as its Lord, but the one who works to bring about a new Sabbath; a new conclusion to God’s plan in redemption and salvation. It is in this sense that Jewish leaders are right in sensing that he was “making himself equal with God.” (verse 18) Jesus was equating his work - of preaching, teaching, healing; ultimately in his dying on the cross - to God’s work in creation, though readers of John’s gospel know that it was through the co-eternal Word that this creation came to being in the first place (John 1:3)!

The love of the Father

Jesus gave them this answer: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.
John 6:19

     Verses 19 to 23 present four statements, each beginning with the word “for” (Greek: gar).
Verse 19: For whatever the Father does the Son also does.
Verse 20: For the Father loves the Son...
Verse 21: For just as the Father raises the dead… even so the Son gives life.
Verse 22: For indeed the Father judges no-one, but has entrusted all judgement to the Son.

     In these four statements, Jesus is presenting four implications of his Sabbath work. Remembering that the theme of the Sabbath is the end-goal of the God’s work in creation, so these four statements point us towards God’s purpose for his new creation to be accomplished through Jesus.
     More importantly, these four statements reveal an intimacy that Jesus shares with his Father - his working relationship, if you like. They give us a glimpse into the eternal fellowship shared between God the Father and God the Son, in terms of headship and submission; in terms of glory and self-denial.

     In the first purpose statement, Jesus reveals his complete and utter dependence on his Father. “For whatever the Father does the Son also does.” The Son can do nothing by himself, he is completely and willingly dependent on his Father. In so doing, Jesus is revealing the Father to us. John 1:18 - “No-one has ever seen God, but God the one and only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” He says to Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” (John 14:9) elaborating still, “It is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” (John 14:10)

     In the second purpose statement, Jesus reveals his Father’s love for him. I might even call this, the Father’s passion for his Son. I say that because this is a love that God wants us to take notice of; especially to Jesus’ critics, God would have them bow down in amazement before such love.

For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these.
John 5:20

     God the Father’s initiative in revealing his plan to Jesus is a measure of his love for his Son. The picture is that of a father sharing his trade skills with son, passing on his experience and knowledge to his son, handing over, as it were, the family business to his firstborn.
     What this looks like in terms of the role and responsibilities that the Son will inherit from his Father is seen in the following two purpose statements.

For just as the Father raises the dead and give them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.
John 5:21

     The third purpose statement deals with the theme of final resurrection. This is God’s power to raise the dead to life again, something the Jews understood as God’s sole prerogative to be exercised at the end of the age. Jesus says the the Father has handed over this role to the Son, such that the Son is able to “give life to whom he is pleased to give it.”
     To the paralysed man by the pool of Bethesda, Jesus doesn’t merely say to him, “Be healed!” Rather the actual command that issues from Jesus’ lips is “Rise up!” - an indicator of Jesus’ authority not simply to heal a disease but to bring life out of the dead.
     The fact that Jesus performs this miracle on the Sabbath - on the seventh and last day - is precisely meant to sharpen this expectation. His words will be heard on the last day; these are words that call forth obedience from both the living and the dead.

Moreover, the Father judges no-one, but has entrusted all judgement to the Son, that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father.
John 5:22-23

     The fourth and final purpose clause deal with God’s final judgement, which God the Father has fully entrusted to the Son. “The Father judges no-one,” Jesus says, “but has entrusted all judgement to the Son.”
     Notice the reason why: That all may honour the Son as they honour the Father. Our response to Jesus today is linked to Jesus’ response to us on that final judgement day. Indeed, our response to Jesus reveals our true inner heartfelt response to God the Father. “He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father.”
     Now John 3:17 makes it clear that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Jesus was not sent to bring final condemnation. He was sent by God the Father to bring salvation.
     And yet, John 3:18 is equally clear that our response to Jesus is a sure indicator of that final verdict - “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
     God has entrusted all judgement to the Son so that all may honour the Son as they honour the Father.

     Jesus presents four purpose statements outlining four implications of his Sabbath work. (1) He is completely dependant on his Father; doing only what the Father does, and nothing else. (2) He is completely loved by his Father, receiving the rights and the responsibilities of the ‘family’ business. (3) He has the right to raise the dead to life; a prerogative reserved for God alone at the end-time. (4) Jesus will stand as God’s chosen judge over the living and the dead. All will stand before his judgement throne on that final day.
     These four purpose statements form the end-goal of his Father’s work in salvation and redemption. They point us to a new Sabbath rest: when all glory will go to Jesus; when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord.

     From the importance of heeding his work, Jesus now turns to the importance of hearing his word. He brings forward that final day to say to us: Listen! Hear and respond to his salvation today!

The voice of the Son

I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.
John 5:24

     Jesus is calling for a response. He has just presented us with his answers to our objections: He really is God’s beloved Son. He really has the power to raise the dead to life. But here he says to us: Will you therefore listen to my voice?
     “Whoever hears my word and believes in him who sent me,” Jesus says, “has eternal life.” Now, these are not two responses but one. Jesus is not saying (1) Hear what I’m saying; and (2) Believe in God who sent me. No, the two statements form one single response. Meaning this: To hear Jesus’ words equates to believing God. To hear Jesus voice means you are hearing God’s voice speaking to you. It is one and the same. What is Jesus saying? Pay attention!

     What is at stake is no less than eternal life: “he will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” That is the language of conversion. Becoming a Christian means crossing over from death to life, and Jesus is saying, it’s not something that might or might not happen in the future; he says, “If you hear my word, that’s done!” His word causes the dead to come to life!
     The amazing thing about these verses - that would have shocked his hearers at the time - is how Jesus brings forward to the present day a reality the Jewish leaders expected to happen only at the end of time. Jesus says, “A time is coming and has now come…”

I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.
John 5:25-26

     The power that Jesus exercises in raising the dead to life, according to these verses, is seen - not in the future - it is seen today in believers who hear his voice and receive life from the Son. All that Jesus was talking before about the culmination of the work of God in the bringing glory to his Son - that’s happening right now. The dead will hear his voice and those who hear, Jesus says, will live.
     When we open the bible each week here at the Chinese Church, we are asking Jesus to make this happen: To bring the dead to life! Only his word can do this. No amount of counselling, no amount of singing, no amount of cooking can bring dead people to life. But Jesus says his words can raise the dead to eternal life.

     But what kind of life is this? Verse 26 tells us the Father has life in himself, that is, God is the source of all life. He has life in and of himself. He is the author and sustainer of life; whilst we receive life from him. He sustains us in our very being, he gives us every breath, he holds the universe together by his will. God alone is the author and sustainer of all life. That much makes sense, doesn’t it?
     Why then does verse 26 go on to say, “so he has granted the Son to have life in himself”? Either the Son is like God - he has life in himself. Or the Son is unlike God - and has to be granted/given life. Which is it?
     I think this, admittedly confusing, statement on life from God is there to help us to understand what it means when Jesus says offers us “eternal” life. It is life that is not independent of God. It’s not the permission to carry on living our life away from God, to do whatever we want with our lives. The life that Jesus has is the life that he shares with his Father, in the same way, that your life is not an independent measure of time you’ve spent on earth but a fullness derived from your relationship with God and the people around you. Jesus has life in and of himself (he isn’t a created being and has the ability to grant life) but at the same time, his is a life lived in complete love and unity and co-existence with the Father. That’s the life he offers us through his word.
     The question is: Will you respond to this offer of life today? The alternative is that final day when all will hear his voice and rise to face Jesus, not to receive salvation and life, but rather, to face judgement and even, death.

And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out - those who have done good will rise to life, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.
John 5:27-30

     When Jesus commands the paralysed man to rise up (Greek: egeire), pick up his mat and walk, it is a glimpse into a future certainty when Jesus will say to each one of us “Rise up!” “Do not be surprised at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice.” Both good and bad, Jesus tells us, will respond to that call, some to life, others to condemnation. On that day, it will no longer be a question of faith or repentance, but obedience and accountability to the judge of all the living and the dead.
     Verse 27 calls Jesus the Son of Man, probably an allusion to the Son of Man in Daniel Chapter 7 who receives all authority and power from the Ancient of Days. God hands over the keys to Jesus. Jesus has the final word on salvation and condemnation.
     His judgement is completely fair. “My judgement is just,” Jesus says in verse 30, “for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.”
     And Jesus prefaces this picture of the final judgement with these words, “Do not be amazed at this,” as a way of saying, “You should have seen this coming.” From the account of the healing of the paralysed man. From the hearing of the gospel. Don’t be amazed.
     But also, Jesus seems to be saying, Don’t use this as an excuse.
     We put off thinking seriously about who Jesus is and how we should respond to him. Either we respond to his word today - a word that speaks forgiveness and life - or, we foolishly wait till that final day. “Do not be amazed,” Jesus says, when that final day comes.

     I have been preaching in the Chinese Church three years now. This is my last sermon to you as a council member. Each week, I have tried to make this book - the bible - the centre of all we do and who we are. Not the food. Not the music. Not the fellowship and events. This book. These are the words of eternal life, friends, and my intention in opening to the scriptures each and every time we meet is so that we - you and I together - can hear Jesus speaking to us. It is so that he can speak life into our dead hearts. It is so that he can reveal his Father to us, each time we hear these words read. Each time we take heed and obey his instruction. It is so that you and I can hear our the voice of our Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ - and have life in the Son.

     Jesus says, and I will close with his words, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my words and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.”