Sunday, 29 June 2014

Two ways to die (Phil 1:12-26)

Paul is crazy

Paul is crazy. This guy is either out of his mind or he is fooling himself into thinking that it’s better to die - and be with Christ, so he says - than to be freed from prison. People are making fun of him - no surprise why. And what is his reaction?

“I don’t care.”

Who are you kidding, Paul? Do you seriously expect us to believe it doesn’t bother you that pastors are preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ with selfish ambition in their hearts?

Seriously?

Friends, I don’t mean to be disrespectful. But I want to be honest about our reaction to Paul. I know we’ve all heard that sermon by John Piper; the one where he says, “To die is… gain!” All of us went, “Yes!” … in the comfort of our living rooms in front of our laptop screens.

A friend of mine has months to live. With each day he gets weaker. With each day the pain gets worse. Let me tell you: Death is grim, not gain. And, let’s be honest: We don’t know what it’s like to be in prison. We don’t know what it means to face death.

But here’s the thing. Paul wants us to know. He says, in verse 12:

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.
Philippians 1:12

Because of my chains

He says, “It’s become clear - it’s become obvious - that I am in chains for Christ.” Because of these chains, non-Christians are paying attention to this gospel. Because of these chains, Christians are opening their mouths to speak this gospel.

Paul wants us to know: that God uses chains - God uses suffering - to advance the gospel. But verse 15 tells us: Not everyone sees it this way.

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry... (verse 17) They preach Christ out of selfish ambition, supposing they can stir up trouble for me (Literally, it says, ‘Supposing they can add to my chains’).
Philippians 1:15-17

Do you know why Paul is in prison when he wrote this letter? Acts 26, verse 32; King Agrippa says, “This man could have been set free if he hadn’t appealed to Caesar.” Meaning: If he’d kept his big mouth shut he wouldn’t be in situation. It’s his own fault!

What started out as a small incident in Jerusalem was now a big court case in Rome, it was threatening to affect the rest of us law-abiding, peace-loving Christians. “Thank you, Mr Apostle. Thanks, for nothing.” That’s what these guys were saying.

What Paul is saying is:, “Thank God. Thank God that you are finally talking about Jesus with your friends.” Verse 18:  “...whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

It doesn’t mean Paul wasn’t hurt by their comments. It means he sees the big picture. God uses suffering. God uses chains. God uses critical Christians to advance the gospel.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice

Verse 19:

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.
Philippians 1:19

Is he saying, “Thank you for praying. I think I’ve got a good chance of getting out”? Is that what he’s saying? No, it’s actually the opposite. It’s a quote from Job 13, “Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him… Indeed, this will turn out for my deliverance.” Even if this court condemns me to death, I will appear before a heavenly court, before a heavenly Judge. And He will vindicate me to life.

Verse 20:

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage (meaning: This is not easy) so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:20-21

I assume you’ve heard of something called Two Ways To Live; A way of telling people the gospel: You live God’s way or you live your own way. There are Two Ways To Live.

Today I am going to tell you Two Ways To Die. Brand new. You heard it first here at TEAM. Two Ways To Die. Get Rico Tice on the phone.

Two ways to Die

Two Ways to Die. It goes like this: It’s the day you die.

You are surrounded by people you love. You’ve lived a good life. You’ve been faithful, loving. You are a sinner. But you trust in Christ’s righteousness, not your own. And on this last day you say goodbye. You close your eyes and wake up to see Jesus embracing you into his kingdom. That’s a good way to die.

But there is another way. You die in prison. You die in agony and worse of all, you die alone. You know there are those who love you with a fierce love. But you also know there are those who hate your guts.

And your concern is for those you are leaving behind. If you had one more day, you would write one more email, one more text. You would say, “Hang on to Jesus. Keep on trusting in Jesus.”

But day has come when the silver cord is cut. You wake up and see Jesus. And something inside you says, “Gain.”

Gain.

Now, both ways are good - good ways to die - if you’re a Christian. (If you’re not a Christian, we need to talk after this.) But Paul wants us to know that this second way is not a bad way to go. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be ashamed of this second way. God has given us a Saviour worth living and dying for.

What are you going to do after TEAM? Here we are learning to preach the gospel. What are you going to do with this knowledge? Join another course? What is the most risky - I’m not saying, foolish - but what’s the most risky thing you could do with your life - if you weren’t worried about comfort or approval or death? Where could you go? What could you do?

Paul says: It is my eager expectation and hope that I will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body. Whether by life or by death.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Killing Jesus (Mark 14:1-11)

Killing Jesus was going to be difficult. Not only was he popular with the crowds but the Passover was just two days away. Meaning: Over 150 thousand people would gather in Jerusalem for the bank holiday weekend. Hence, verse 1:  “The chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him.”

“But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.” The plan was to wait for the right time to kill Jesus.

Mark Chapter 14 is one of the darkest chapters in the bible. There is the betrayal of a friend; the abuse of power; the murder of the Son of God. Yet what we see at the heart of today’s passage is love. What we see shining through that darkness is the gospel.

While he (meaning, Jesus) was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard.
Mark 14:3

The point of the alabaster jar is to say: Even the container was rare and expensive. What this woman did was break open the container in order to pour out its precious contents - an expensive perfume - on Jesus’ head. John’s gospel tells us that the whole house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume (John 12:3). Everyone could see, or at least, smell, what she had just done.

But their reaction was less than positive.

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.”
Mark 14:4-5

These guys knew exactly how much that jar cost. “More than three hundred denarii,” according to the footnotes in the NIV. These are the kind of guys who, unfortunately, make great church accountants. They are good with money. They are great at balancing the books. And not one of them could in good conscience approve of this woman’s foolish extravagance. “What a waste,” they said. “That money should have gone to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly, verse 5 says. 

“Silly girl.” 

Three hundred denarii in today’s money is twenty thousand pounds. You could run TEAM for two years with twenty thousand pounds. In some countries, you could send the pastor to seminary - build a new church building, even - for twenty thousand pounds.

What you would not do with twenty thousand pounds is spend it on one bottle of Chanel Number 5  only to pour it out on your pastor’s head while he’s having lunch at McDonald’s. But that’s what this woman did. Not just a few drops, mind you. She poured everything out on Jesus’ head.

According to Jesus, this woman did something beautiful.

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.”
Mark 14:6-7

Jesus is defending the woman. “Why are you bothering her?” We get that. Jesus is speaking up against the bullies in her defence. What we struggle to understand is the basis of that defence. He says, “The poor you’ll always have with you but you won’t always have me.” Is Jesus seriously saying he is more important than helping the poor?

What he is doing is quoting from the Old Testament. Deuteronomy Chapter 15 reads, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, be open-handed.” God is commanding Israel to be open-handed. To be generous with the poor.

The interesting thing is how that same passage begins with these words: “There should be no poor among you... in the land. He will richly bless you.” (Deuteronomy 15:4) Now, hold on. God says, “There should be no poor people in the land,” only to say, “There will always be poor people in the land”!

The problem is not the land. It’s not because the economy is in recession or that there’s been a famine. For Israel, poverty had nothing to with the land. It had everything to do with the heart. It’s not enough to have enough. God’s knows our hearts. It was not enough for God to simply bless Israel. He has to command Israel to be generous with their wealth; to be loving with their wealth.

So when Jesus quotes this verse from Deuteronomy, he’s not saying, “You shouldn’t help the poor.” He is saying, “You haven’t been helping the poor.” 

Verse 7: “You can help them any time you want.” “But that’s the problem. You don’t want to.” Jesus is speaking at the level of our desires. We think: If only I were Bill Gates, I’d give millions to the poor. “You are kidding yourselves,” Jesus is saying.

What we lack is motivation, not money. This woman was reckless in doing what she did. She held nothing back. If we’re honest, that scares us. We give out of excess; out of what we can afford; out of the leftovers. This woman poured out everything she had.

She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my funeral. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.
Mark 14:8-9

Now what Jesus says here has special significance for us here at TEAM learning to preach the gospel. Do you realise what Jesus is doing? He is giving us a sermon illustration. “Wherever the gospel is preached, what she has done will also be told.”

It’s important to see that this isn’t an illustration on giving - though there are applications for that. It’s an illustration for the gospel. Jesus says in verse 8, “She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.” He knows what the religious leaders are planning. He knows what Judas will do. And he talks about his body being “prepared for burial”. The cross is not a surprise; it’s a certainty. And he is saying to us, “Do you realise what this woman has done? Do you see what makes her offering so precious? She has made my death look good.” 

Friends, when we preach the gospel, that’s what we are called to do: We are to make his death look good. Paul calls this the fragrance - or the aroma - of Christ (in 2 Corinthians Chapter 2). To some, the gospel smells like death. To others, it will smell like life. But the point is, preaching the gospel means pointing people to the cross. The gospel is good news that emanates from Jesus’ death.

Again, this means that some people are going to be put off by the gospel. It’s a stench! But to others, it’s a fragrance. And this fragrance is precisely what is going to draw them to Jesus. It’s his sacrifice. His beauty.

Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.
Mark 14:10-11

It turns out that killing Jesus wasn’t that difficult after all. The religious leaders were so worried about Jesus’ popularity but here comes Judas, one of the inner circle, offering to betray Jesus into their hands. They were worried about the Passover. “Wait,” they said. But Mark 14 ends with Jesus arrested that very night of the Passover. 

Everything was going according to plan.

What happened? The cross was never a surprise for Jesus, but a certainty. Jesus Christ had to be betrayed. Jesus Christ had to die. And all this was God’s plan to save the world through the death of his Son.

2 Corinthians 8, verse 9 says:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
2 Corinthians 8:9

Jesus Christ became poor so that we might become rich. It’s not talking about wealth but something more important than wealth. It’s salvation. Isn’t that interesting? Jesus Christ was the ultimate poor man - that’s what it’s saying.

If you remember, Jesus himself used this illustration when he said, “The poor you will always have with you… but you won’t always have me.” To our ears, that sounded so offensive! Because Jesus seems to be implying that helping the poor is not as important as helping him. But you see, here is the ultimate poor man - Jesus Christ - come to help us. The only way that Jesus Christ could save us from our sins was not by coming into this world in power, prestige and splendour; no, but by coming as a slave. He came to serve us. He came as a lamb to the slaughter. He submitted himself unto death.

The religious accountants couldn’t understand this that but this woman did. I don’t know how, but she did. She poured out her life savings on Jesus - 300 denarii; 20K - and Jesus said, “She did a beautiful thing,” yes. But what else did Jesus say in verse 8? “She did what she could.” Meaning: If she had more, she would give more. This woman knew that no amount of money compared to having Jesus.

I want you to understand that coming to Jesus means more than giving him your money. You and offering him your life. You are saying to him, “Jesus, my PhD is nothing compared to you.” “Jesus my career is nothing compared to you.” 

Because it is through his poverty that God makes us rich. It is through his death that we receive eternal life.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

2 Corinthians 8:9

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.”