Saturday, 14 January 2017

Coming home (Mark 2:1-12)

[Preached at the Chinese Church combined service on Sunday, 8 January 2017. Translated into Cantonese.]

When Jesus heals the man, he tells him to get up, take his mat and go home. Every day after work or after school when we pack our bags and go home. What is so special about this man? Why does the crowd go, “Wow! We have never seen anything like this.”

Because he cannot walk. Because, if this man wants to go home, he has to be carried home. The word for this is “stuck”. To be “stuck” means you want to go home, but you can’t. Like this Chinese New Year: You want to go home, but you are stuck at work. Or here in church, you want to go home but you are stuck because my sermon is too long-winded (cheung hei)!

But Jesus heals the man and he goes home! And everyone goes, “Hooray!” Yet, Jesus says: More important than going home is being welcomed home. More important than going home early or quickly is being loved in your own home.

Look with me to verse 1.

Jesus goes home
Verse 1: “The people heard that he (Jesus) had come home.” It’s like when Along comes home. Or when David comes home. Everyone says, “Let’s have tea in Wetherspoons!”

Jesus has just come home after travelling the villages. And everyone says “Let’s go and see Jesus!” Verse 2: “They gathered in such numbers, there was no room left.” “Not even outside the door.” So many came that some were standing outside next to the rubbish bins.

And Jesus “preached the word to them.” (verse 2) They wanted to see Jesus. Jesus wanted them to hear God’s word. Those standing outside couldn’t see him. But everyone could hear Jesus preaching God’s word to them.

Imagine your house full of people. That’s stressful! Is there enough food? Are there enough chairs? Imagine every Chinese person in Cambridge came to CCCC on Chinese New Year. Two thousand people! What should we do?

What we should do is preach God’s word. That was Jesus’ number priority. “That is why I have come,” Jesus says in Mark Chapter 1 (verse 38), “so that I can preach there also.”

Whether we go out to them or they come to us. We want to preach God’s word to our friends. That’s our number one priority.

Faithful friends

Some men came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.
Mark 2:3-4

These are good friends.Tam Wing-lun (Alan Tam) wrote a song about good friends. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUMA8g3-lnM)

Nei wai liu ngor / 你为了我 (You’re there for me)
Ngor wai liu nei / 我为了你 (I’m there for you)
Kung foo wan nan chuit mong lui
/ 共赴患難絕望里緊握你手
(In times of troubles to the end, I’ll hold your hand)
Kan nap nei sau
… Pang Yau!!! / 朋友 (My friends!)

Good friends will do anything for you especially in times of trouble. “We will get you to Jesus.” They climb up the roof. They dig a hole (in Jesus’ house). Everyone is looking at them but they don’t care. Like Tom Cruise on Mission Impossible, they lower their friend down from the ceiling.

Parents don’t approve of these kind of friends. So naughty! But these friends are the best friends because of their faith in Jesus Christ. Look at verse 5.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Mark 2:5

What did Jesus see? Their faith. Not: Oi, what are you doing to my roof? No, the bible says he saw their faith. They were trusting Jesus to help their sick friend. “Only you can help him, Jesus.”

When my father was sick, for a long time he didn’t want to see the doctor. One day, he friend drove an hour to the house, put my father in the car, drove him another hour to the hospital and admitted him. For every check-up, he drove my father. He drove four hours each time. Not to the restaurant or to sing Karaoke, but to hospital to get the help he needed. What do you call that? A good friend.

Jesus sees our faith. When you pray. When you share the gospel. When you pick people up to come to church. Don’t give up bringing your friends to Jesus. But more importantly, keep trusting Jesus with your friends and family. “Jesus, only you can save them. Only you can change their lives.”

Secret enemies

Finally, we see some secret enemies.

Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’
Mark 2:6-7

I call them secret enemies is because they are undercover. On the outside, they look good. Firstly, they were sitting there, meaning, they came early - not like those four friends who came late and the house was full. Secondly, even though they were saying bad things about Jesus, they said it secretly in their hearts.

But Jesus could see into their hearts. Verse 8: “Immediately, Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them and he said to them, ‘Why are you thinking these thing?’”

What were they thinking? Jesus cannot forgive sin. He is not God. He is insulting God because only God can forgive sin.

And Jesus asks them a question. “Which is easier: to say to this paralysed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk?’” Or put it another way: Which is cheaper? When we buy something we often compare the prices? This brand is cheap, but that brand has a big discount. Jesus offers two options: Which do you choose?

The first is Brand Forgiveness. “Your sins are forgiven,” and we say, “OK, let me think about it.” But the second brand is Brand Fortune. Get up: Meaning, Immediately! You are healed immediately. Pick up (your mat): Meaning, No need for your friends to carry you. You are strong enough to carry your mat. Go home: Meaning, Life is back to normal. And Jesus says: Which is better?

If I am honest, I want Fortune more than I want Forgiveness. When I pray, I ask God for health, for happiness, for my exams, for my job, for more time, for more money, for more people to like me. I pray for fortune more than i pray for forgiveness. And Jesus says, “Why are you thinking these things?”

But then Jesus says, “I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” and he heals the man. He gets up, picks up, goes home. Everyone goes “Wah, so amazing!” and he goes home. But what should they have said instead? They should have said,  “Wah, his sins have been forgiven.” They should have said, “Wah, Jesus has authority to forgive my sin.” Maybe even, “Wah, Jesus is God!”

Going home is important, but more important is being welcomed home. Why go home if you are only going to argue with your parents, to boast about yourself, to fight with your friends? Why go home if you are not welcome in your own home? We are stuck. We want to go home but we can’t, not because of money. Because we are not welcome.

But if you are welcome home, it means you are going back to a family who loves you. To friends who want to see you (Paaang Yaauuuu!!). And when Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven,” he is saying, “God is welcoming you to come home.” “Son,” he says, “Your sins are forgiven.”

There is a story of a man named Paco who ran away from home. His father put an advertisement in the newspaper - “All is forgiven. Paco come home.” 800 sons named Paco came home. Why? Because all of us want to be forgiven. All of us want to go home.

At the cross of Jesus Christ, where he died for our sins, God is saying, “All is forgiven. Come home.”

All is forgiven

We have seen three things. Jesus comes home to preach God’s word. That is his number one priority - that people hear God’s word in the bible. Secondly, Jesus sees our faith. Don’t give up bringing your friends to Jesus. Jesus sees your love and your sacrifice.

But finally, Jesus sees our hearts. He offers us the most expensive gift God could ever buy - forgiveness. On the cross, Jesus died to pay for all our sins, for all our hatred towards God so that he can say to us, “Come home. All is forgiven.”

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father,
We pray for our friends,
Who are sick,
Who are in trouble,
Who don’t yet know you as their God,
We pray, most of all, for them to be forgiven of their sin.
And to hear Jesus saying to them, “All is forgiven. It is time to come home.”
In Jesus name, we pray,
Amen.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Remain in me (John 15:1-17)

Jesus is preparing us for his death. What we have in Chapters 13 to 16 is one long conversation between Jesus and his disciples about what life will be like after he is gone. They don’t fully understand everything he says at this point. Jesus says he is going away. He says where he is going they can’t follow. At this point, the disciples are emotional – they are confused – but step by step, Jesus is preparing them for what lies ahead.

Of course, we know that Jesus will rise again after three days; and yes, we know that even now Christ reigns in heaven at God’s right hand. But it is significant that Jesus chooses this moment with his friends – just before he leaves, just before the cross – to explain what it means for them to remain in him. He could have said this after. But no, his words make the most sense here.

“Remain in me.”

It is remaining in Jesus in between the times. For them it was the time between the cross and the resurrection. For us, it might be between this Sunday and next weekend. The in-between times are the times when we are tempted, when we will be intimidated; when we are alone and Jesus seems far away. Jesus says to us during such times: “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.”

This is more than loyalty. This is intimacy with Jesus that is tangible and real – that keeps us faithful to him and abiding in him. And what we find in in John 15 is a clear command to pursue such intimacy, to maintain such a connection with Jesus.

1. Remain in me

Jesus begins with his own connection with the Father.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.
John 15:1

More than Father and Son, God is a gardener and Jesus is the vine. This gardener is constantly cutting away at the branches of the vine.

He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.
John 15:2

That sounds painful. Can’t God leave me alone to be fruitful on my own? All I need are the raw ingredients (from Jesus, of course) but I want to do this on my own. Jesus reminds us that God is a gardener who snips away at every area of our lives. Snip here. Snip, snip there. God only does this to fruitful branches to make them even more fruitful.

That’s still painful, isn’t it? Yet Jesus says pruning can be reassuring.

You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.
John 15:3

Here is where the footnotes help us out. “The Greek (word) for prunes also means cleans.” It is making a connection between pruning and cleansing – one done by God in verse 2; the other done by Jesus’ word in verse 3 – a connection between our salvation and sanctification.

In other words, pruning is not punishment. If Christ died to take all your punishment on the cross, therefore, there is now no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Pruning can’t be punishment because there is no punishment left for those in Christ.

But if you are in Christ, you will be pruned. God will use every painful circumstance, every painful situation to make you more and more like Jesus. According to verse 3, he will keep pruning you because you have already been pruned (or cleansed; same Greek word) in Jesus Christ. God sanctifies all whom Jesus saves. He wants us to be fruitful.

“Endure hardship as discipline,” might sounds like something my Mum in Malaysia would say, but it’s actually from Hebrews Chapter 12, verse 7: “God is treating you as sons.” Jesus is saying the same thing: Don’t fall away. The hardest thing you could experience as a Christian is nothing less than the pruning of God’s love. It means he loves you as a daughter. It means he loves you as a son.

It is this specific context of pruning in which Jesus says, “Remain in me.”

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
John 15:4

Many read this as Jesus’ call to endurance in the face of suffering. “Remain in me,” sounds like, “Endure hardship.” (In Cantonese, it’s “Teng Chui” or in Malay, “Tahan”). Later, Jesus warns that the world will hate them (John 15:18), persecute them (John 15:20), even kill them thinking they are doing a service to God (John 16:2). But that’s describing the world’s hatred resulting in hardship. The difference is, here, Jesus is talking about the Father’s love that leads us to fruitfulness.

Friends, the greatest temptation to fall away is never hardship; it is in hardship that we learn dependence and humility. No, the greatest temptation to fall away from Christ is our self-sufficiency. It’s saying, “I can do this on my own. I don’t need to be pruned or cleansed.”

It’s when you understand that God wants you to holy, but you respond, “I don’t want to be holy.” It’s when you understand that God wants you to be fruitful, but you respond, “I don’t need the pressure.” It’s when you finally get that God loves you, that he will never leave you in your sin; he will keep turning you back to Jesus, but you respond, “I don’t want to change.” That’s when we will be tempted to think life will be easier if we just took a break from God. That’s when we will be tempted to think we might be more effective, more fruitful if we just tried things our own way.

Self-sufficiency is the basis of self-deception. “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”

Older translations have “Abide in me.” That’s because “remain” and “abide” are residential terms (Greek: “meno,” meaning to dwell, where we get “mansion”). It’s where you live. It’s your address – where you hang out and do your laundry – though it’s rare these days for people to live in one spot. We move from place to place – for study, for work, for holiday. Some of us do that with churches and relationships. We are mobile.

But Colossians 2:6 calls us to plant ourselves in Christ. To stay put. “Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him.” It is a picture of a tree, planted in one spot, taking root and growing in fruitfulness. It is the call to abide in Christ. To remain in him.

2. Remain in my words

This picture of God as the gardener as Jesus as the vine is not new. Have a look at Psalm 80:

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
You drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it,
And it took root and filled the land.
Psalm 80:8-9

In the Old Testament, the vine of God equates to the people of God. It’s not something new – not to Jews or anyone who knew their bibles (see Isaiah 5). That’s why Jesus tells a parable about vineyards and everyone gets that he’s talking about them (and why they get offended in Matthew 20 and 21). Here in Psalm 80, the vine is transplanted out of slavery into a place God prepares for his people. It’s talking about Israel. It’s talking about them.

But now Jesus says, “I am the true vine,” in verse 1. And in verse 5, he turns to his disciples saying, “You are the branches.” What is he saying? Jesus is the true Israel and his disciples are God’s true people. If you are connected to Jesus, you get in. If you are disconnected from him, you get kicked out.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit, apart from me, you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown in the fire and burned.
John 15:5-6

If ever there was a more chilling picture of death; it is verse 6: to be discarded, dried up, picked up, thrown into fire and burned. It is a picture of death, judgement, rejection, condemnation; it is a picture of Hell. And yet, the point is: the branch was dead the moment it detached itself from the vine.

It’s like the fresh food section at Sainsburys. You look for the juiciest fruit and the freshest veg but what you are looking at are dead things. They were dead the moment they were plucked. They were dead the moment they were detached from the source of life. That’s Jesus’ point. Dead things don’t look dead. Disconnecting from Jesus might not seem a big deal now but it is. You are detaching yourself from the source of life.

Ephesians 2 says we were dead in the sins in which we used to live. Death is not a destination but a direction in life. When we walk away from God, when we live as if we were God, the bible calls us the walking dead (Some of us are thinking: zombies, others are thinking: condemned criminals. The walking dead are those who are unresponsive to God, whose senses are dead to his love). The same passage from Ephesians goes on to tell us how God made us alive in Christ while we were still dead in our sins. He raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms. Finally, he created good works for us as Christians to walk in. We have a new direction in life, no longer living for ourselves but living in obedience to his will.

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
John 15:7-8

Life in Jesus comes from obedience to Jesus. To have Jesus’ words remain in us means more than memorising bible verses. It is talking about obedience to his commands. It is walking according to his will. This is why we can ask whatever we wish and it will be given us. We are praying in accordance with God’s will.

Having said that, it is his word that enables us to know his will. Earlier, we saw how Jesus cleansed his disciples through the word spoken to them (verse 3). In verse 25, Jesus says, “All this I have spoken while still with you.” That is, Jesus’ commands were entrusted to his disciples as his spoken word, passed down to us in his written word, the bible.

So to have Jesus’ words remain in us does mean more than memorising the words of the bible because it means obeying words of the bible (in which case, memorising helps!). Revelation 1:3 says, “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” The blessing is for those who take his words to heart, for those who obey his commands.

3. Remain in my love

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed by Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
John 15:9-11

What does it mean to remain in Christ, the true vine? What does it mean to pursue intimacy with God? To experience the reality of his love?

The answer is: Obedience. Verse 10: If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love. What it means to remain, to have his word remain and to remain in his love is simply to obey his commands.

Jesus connects obedience with love (verse 10); obedience with joy (verse 11). Yet if we are honest, obedience disconnects us from God. Being told to do stuff doesn’t sound loving. Obedience does not overwhelm me with emotion. Some of us were searching for that mystical connection, that experience that lifts our spirits to the heavens. Some of us would rather retreat to the mountains to meditate and be alone with God. That’s what we thought it meant to remain in him, to remain in his love.

But no, Jesus says it’s obedience. Why? Because obedience to his Father’s commands is why Jesus died on the cross. Obedience is the key to understanding his love.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no-one than this; that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from the Father I have made known to you.
John 15:12-15

The command is to love like Jesus, to love our brothers and sisters in Jesus and to love sacrificially as Jesus loved us: “Greater love has no-one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends”. Distilling down further, Jesus is telling us to love in such a way that it points others to his love. It is love that points to the gospel as the ultimate display of God’s love for us in Christ.

Twice, Jesus says to us, “As I have loved you… as I have loved you.” The first time he says this in verse 9, he is demonstrating the Father’s love. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” The second time in verse 12, we are demonstrating Jesus’ love. “Love each other as I have loved you.” This is an upward, directing love. It is love that points to a greater love – the greatest love, in fact, according to verse 13 – that Christ demonstrated on the cross.

Two implications of this command. Firstly, it’s helpful. My love for my brothers and sisters will always, always be a subset of Christ’s love for them. It doesn’t mean I can get away with being stingy with my love. It’s not an excuse for being choosy with whom I love. But what makes this so helpful is the fact that I’m always pointing back to his love, his sacrifice and his obedience on the cross.

But secondly, it’s humbling. Jesus calls us his friends. It’s one thing to be humbled by a boss who puts you in your place by ordering you around and keeps in the dark about the details but this is different kind of humbling. Jesus commands us to do nothing that he himself has not already done. Jesus lets us in on the Father’s business, indeed, everything he learned from his Father he makes known to us as his friends. Meaning: Jesus wants us to be just like him, to work alongside him and to enjoy the same benefits he has received from obeying his Fathers commands.

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love one another.
John 15:16-17

Abide with me

“Abide with me” is a hymn commonly sung by soldiers in the trenches during the First World War. Looking at the lyrics, you can understand why. It’s a prayer for God to be near us, to stay with us in times of darkness and helplessness.

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Friends, what we have in John 15 is Jesus saying these words to us. The Lord was just moments away from facing his own darkness and Hell. In his last few moments with his friends, he says to them, “Remain in me.” The difference is he says this not for his own comfort but for ours. Jesus’ main concern is that we remain in him.

If you are in the trenches now, you need to know that Jesus is right there with you. He hasn’t moved away. He is and has always been by your side. The question is: Are you abiding in him? Is his word living inside of you? And are you abiding in his love?


Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
John 15:4