Thursday 29 April 2010

The Stain of Sin (Genesis 34)

".. as they heard what had happened ... they were filled with grief and fury" (Genesis 34:7)

The Disgrace of Dinah

Genesis 34 is the account of the rape of Dinah, the teenage daughter of Jacob, also the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Of course, at this point of the biblical narrative, they were the twelve sons of Jacob. The verse above describes their outrage upon hearing what had happened to their sister.

Scholars argue whether the crime constituted rape. Shechem, son of Hamor, the tribal leader of that region in Canaan "saw her, took her, and violated her" (verse 3). This descriptive pairing of "seeing" and "taking" ought to be familiar to the reader of Genesis. We have encountered it at least a couple of times before - Eve "saw" that the fruit in the garden was good and desirable, so she "took" some to eat (Genesis 3:6). The sons of God "saw" that the daughters of man were attractive and "took" them as wives (Genesis 6:2). In each case, desire is followed by decision; impulse justifies intent.

Yet there are the circumstances of the encounter. Verse 1 could be translated - Dinah went out "to be seen" among the women. She was looking to be noticed. And then there is Shechem's subsequent pursuit of Dinah. "..His soul was drawn to (her)... He loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her (literally - he spoke to her heart)" (verse 3). The young man doesn't merely display deep affection but also some measure of guilt for his actions. The situation is remarkably similar to modern instances of date rape.

Shechem sends - almost instructs - his father Hamor to acquire Dinah as his wife (verse 4). So Hamor approaches Jacob with the proposal - "Please give her to him to be his wife." (verse 8). But why stop there? "Make marriages with us. Give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves." (verse 9). In fact, think of the possibilities if we became neighbours, business partners - one big happy family! "You shall dwell with us, and the land shall be open to you. Dwell and trade in it, and get property in it" (verse 10).

Motivated by shame and anger, the sons of Jacob deceitfully agree to the Hamor's proposed arrangement; on one condition - that every male in the city be circumcised. Shechem at least was enthusiastic with the idea (!) - "And the young man did not delay to do the thing". Wow, talk about keen! Won over by the prospect of new economic wealth, the whole town joins in the fun by verse 24 - "and every male was circumcised".

The reason for the ruse is clear on the third day when Simeon and Levi, brothers of Dinah, exact their revenge on the entire town, killing every male - including Hamor and Shechem - carrying away their wives, children and livestock.

But by the end of the chapter, it becomes clear that the focus of the story is not on Shechem, though great is his sin, nor even Dinah, though great is her pain and humiliation. Notice that she never gets to say a word. In fact, except for the narrator, she is never even referred to by name.

No, Genesis wants us to see that reaction of Jacob and his sons. It is a remarkable picture the bible paints of how we commonly react to sin, injustice and pain.

The Stain of Sin

To see this, we must notice how peculiar sin is described in this passage. Dinah's rape is described not as a crime nor an act of wickedness, but as a "defilement" (verse 5). The brothers are incensed, yes, but moreover they express a deep sense of shame. Verse 7 say they were angry because Shechem had done an outrageous thing against Israel (which could either mean their people/nation, or more likely their father/family name - still, notice that it's never an offence against their sister). "Such a thing must not be done," they say.

"Defilement" conveys sense of impurity. Something clean that has been made unclean. It is a loaded word that is used regularly in temple worship. Someone who approaches a holy God must be ritually clean. To be defiled is to be stained - stained with sin. It is to be made unfit for the presence of God.

And part of the offence expressed by the sons of Jacob in verse 7 had to do not so much with the fact that their sister had been raped, but that she had been raped by a Canaanite; a non-Jew. Verse 14 reinforces this: giving Dinah in marriage to a foreigner would be a "disgrace". Circumcision was prescribed as the symbolic act of "cutting off" that which was unholy and defiled. Yet Simeon and Levi had a different idea of what needed "cutting off" - they cut down every male in the city in the effort of "redeeming" their sister. Their deep sense of shame and injustice could only be quenched by blood. They certainly couldn't depend on their father, Jacob. He didn't do or say anything. He just kept quiet when he first heard about Dinah (verse 5).

When Jacob finally did speak up it was right at the end, only to betray his selfish insecurities and hurt. "You have brought trouble to me... making me a stink to the inhabitants... my numbers are few... if they gather... against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household" (verse 30).

Jacob and his sons display two radically different approaches to dealing with sin and shame.

One approach is to bury it. That's Jacob. Things are bad, but they could get worse - especially with kids like his. Maybe that's why he kept quiet at first. Some people read this passage and blame him for being a bad father, but in his eyes he's just trying to keep the peace. There's no point going to war against the locals and after all, the offending party were trying to make amends.

Still, his own sons recognise the hypocrisy in dad and decide to take the matter into their own hands. That's the second approach. Anger. Make someone pay. Simeon and Levi are insulted. It's their sister that's been treated like a prostitute (verse 31) - notice they didn't say it was Jacob's daughter that had been wronged. They made it personal. It was their shame; it was their pain - to the point that they were blinded to their sister's pain (having just given her to Shechem as his wife, only to kill her husband three days later).

Two different approaches. And neither of them work. That's the problem with sin. We try to get rid of it, through our efforts and denial, but the stain's still there. It is always there.

Even at the point when Levi and Simeon are hacking away at the townspeople - you would imagine at this point they would have been satisfied! Their wrath quenched. The blood satisfying their thirst for revenge! Yet at this point the narrator paints a very different picture.

"The sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the city, because they had defiled their sister." (verse 27)

Isn't that curious? It's not just Shechem's sin that is in view. Verse 27 says, the whole town - they had been the source of "defilement". The whole city was stained as far as they were concerned. They were trying to deal with one sin, but then it got out of hand. They tried to scrub it off, but it's not just one tiny bit - it's never just one tiny bit - soon it's everywhere and affects everyone.

That's the picture of sin in this passage; that's the story with this family. One horrible sin that just sticks like a bad stain you can't get off not matter how hard you try. But worse, as you do, it just grows and grows. Rape leads to deception leads to murder. Irresponsibility leads to mistrust leads hate.

The Power of the Gospel

Now it is very tempting to conclude by simply pointing to God's justice. If only Simeon and Levi knew of a God who sees all and will judge all, they would not have acted the way they did. If only Jacob had feared such a God, he would have been quicker to recognise the injustice taken against his own daughter. And indeed, the bible does look forward to a time when God will raise the living and the dead to stand before him for all they have said and done both good and bad. Shechem will be there, together with Hamor, Dinah, even Jacob and his sons. In fact, you and I will also be there.

While there is some satisfaction in knowing God's justice will be done and seen to be done on that last day, the bible is much more focussed on a different day - a day 2000 years ago when God's righteousness was revealed. It was revealed at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-22).

For Christians, the certainty of justice lies not simply in the future hope that God will one day deal with all sin and wrongdoing in this world - but in the knowledge that our sins have already been judged through the death of Jesus on the cross. Believers are forgiven, freely and completely.

One of the most powerful images the bible uses to convey this reality of forgiveness and transformation is that of washing.

"But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (1 Cor 6:11)

This verse is taken from a letter Paul wrote to the church in Corinth (where he would go on to address sexual sin). It is powerful image isn't it? For so many - for those like Dinah - who might live with the reality of sin, the effects of sin - who try daily to deny the presence of their sin as a coping mechanism like Jacob; who try to resolve the shame of their sin through impulsive action and even more pervasive sinning like Simeon and Levi - isn't this something absolutely refreshing and yet mind-boggling? A gospel which says that in Jesus, God sees you are completely made clean. Not only that pure. More than that - holy! Even more amazingly - accepted and righteous.

Nothing you need to do, nothing you could do. Except trust in Jesus who takes your sin upon himself and receive his righteousness and life from the cross.

Isn't this glorious? That we are washed, sanctified and justified? To be loved and fully accepted by God. Friends, if you are in Jesus, that's exactly what you are.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Reminders of God's Grace - 2009 Annual Review

Top 10 Highlights of 2009 @ The English Ministry

Here is a quick review of the ten most memorable events of 2009. There were so many to choose from but hopefully this short list will help us recognise God’s marvellous grace and mercy shown us in Jesus, leading us to respond with thanksgiving, prayer and witness of the gospel.

  1. Colossians + The Just Jesus Rap
    We kicked off the year studying Colossians which reminded believers the importance of remaining in Christ. "So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness." (Colossians 2:6-7).
    Many of us will remember the awesome "Just Jesus Rap" performance which was written based on the first two chapters of Colossians.

    "Jesus over earth has all supremacy
    He is the head over the body, he's the deity
    Through the blood that he has sheddeth, in his body reconciliath
    In which showeth in all things he has authority"

  2. Genesis @ Rock Fellowship
    Our mid-week bible study ran every single week of 2009! We began a fresh look at the book of Genesis starting right from the beginning, covering each verse and each chapter in turn - from creation to the fall; from the destruction of the flood to the building of Babel; from the calling of Abraham to God's blessings poured out upon the nations - with each step learning more of God's plan to save individuals, families and communities through his chosen "seed" promised in Genesis 3:15 ultimately pointing forward to the coming of Jesus.

  3. Matthew's gospel @ Sunday services
    Matthew's gospel presents a powerful testimony of Jesus as the promised Christ and King, fulfilling all expectations in the Old Testament and bringing in all the promises of the Kingdom of God. Best of all, opening the gospel each Sunday has allowed us to meet with Jesus in the flesh and in His Word. We have read of his birth and baptism; his mission and ministry; even his trials and temptation - all of this pointing forward to his purpose for coming into this world: to save us from our sins by dying on the cross (Matthew 1:21).

  4. Christmas Party
    Our special guest event was entitled "Coming Home". It was a unique Christmas service which looked at how Jesus left his heavenly home to make his home in us and to his dwelling among us as his people (John 1:14 and Revelation 12:3). The choir put their heart into learning and practising the carols and the children added to celebration and lively atmosphere of the day.

  5. Farewells
    We said goodbye to Faye, David, Rich, Shirley, Helen, Judy, Molly, Andy, Susan, Sophia, Lang and Kinki; We love you, we miss you and we pray that you will continue to grow in the knowledge of God's grace and goodness in Jesus!

  6. New Year + New Birth!
    Bartow Wylie spoke on "True Prosperity" in the bible at a special guest Chinese New Year event. The day ended with a big hotpot event to also celebrate 4 sisters who had come to know and profess Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. Hallelujah!

  7. Chinese Student Survival Event
    At the beginning of the new academic year, Rock Fellowship held a welcome event for new Chinese students in Cambridge. We introduced them to useful "survival" tips: how get around town, relating to a new culture and even where to stock up on Asian cooking ingredients! The day ended with a lucky draw, lots of snacks and a tour of the Mill Road shops.

  8. Men and Women's Fellowships
    Fun weekend activities which included a picnic at Grantchester, trips to parks, cooking lessons and even beauty treatments (for the girls only!). At each meeting we looked at bible passages relevant to men and women in their true identity to be found in Christ - dealing with work and aspirations, marriage and godly relationships, as well as true beauty and inner worth.

  9. Chinese Cultural Night
    Tasty snacks, Mandarin lessons and even a martial arts demonstration were on the programme for our annual Chinese Cultural Night at Harry's International Cafe. The gang from Rock Fellowship had a wonderful time getting to know language students from all over the world.

    And finally, the most memorable event of 2009 is.......

  10. The 2009 Solid Rock Music Event
    So much preparation and time and work went into this event and in the end, I think I speak from everyone when I say it was WORTH IT! The youth were amazing in their dedication and teamwork. They put their talents and time together to write and perform their own composition ‘Never Failing Trust’ which was an excellent reminder to hold on to Jesus amidst the troubles of this world. Their growing faith and commitment to the Lord was shown And this showed - not just in their attitudes and actions through in the practices and final performances - but even more through their newfound joy and unity in the Lord. It was fun, it was exciting, but most of all, it gave glory to Jesus - our only true Solid Rock and Foundation given us to trust for our salvation and fulfilment in God.

Monday 26 April 2010

Believing is Seeing (John 6)

How do we know Jesus is the true Bread of Life?

We looked at John chapter 6 yesterday at the Chinese Church where Jesus miraculously fed 5000 with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish; and this question was asked at the end of the service. How do we know Jesus is who he claims to be - the true Bread from Heaven, who gives everlasting life to all who feed on him?

1. We cannot know based on our own existing appetites
It is worth noticing that the passage itself asks the same question.

At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." (verse 41)

Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (verse 52)

It wasn't just the crowd - even Jesus' own disciples had problems with his words:
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?" (verse 60)

But right from the beginning, Jesus says they are making their judgements based on their existing appetites.
Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill." (verse 26)

We are motivated by our stomaches; our hunger; our desires. We come to Jesus with a list of our needs to be met. So often we leave disappointed thinking that God has not fulfilled our expectations. But instead of finding our appetites too big, Jesus says they aren't nearly big enough. You have had your fill! You are too easily satisfied!

2. The True Bread brings True Life
The crowd is shrewd enough to connect Jesus' miracle with the biblical account of manna during the time of the Exodus.

So they asked him, "What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" (verses 30-31)

Jesus corrects their reading of the bible on two points. Firstly, it is not Moses who gave them manna but God. In this, Jesus is similar to Moses in miraculously producing bread and feeding the crowd. Yet, Jesus is vastly different from Moses - Jesus himself produced the bread that fed the crowd. The connection is not between Jesus and Moses, but Jesus and God.

Secondly, even the bread that Jesus speaks of is superior to the manna in the desert. Both come from heaven. Both come from God. But the True Bread brings life!

"For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." (verse 33)

"Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die." (verses 49-50)

3. Taste and See
But the core of question remains. How can we know?

The short answer is - by eating it!

"If anyone eats..." (verse 51). "Unless you eat..." (verse 53). "Whoever eats..." (verse 54). "Whoever eats..." (verse 56). "The one who feeds.. " (verse 57). ".. he who feeds on this bread.. " (verse 58).

Psalm 38 verse 4 says "Taste and see that the LORD is good". And it is the same here. We come to know Jesus fully by trusting in him fully. We receive eternal life by eating of the Bread of Life.

4. Hear and See

The crowds want to see more miracles. Only then will they believe Jesus (verse 30). For the crowd 2000 years ago and maybe for many of us today, seeing is believing. Jesus replies with stinging words. Having seen, they have not believed (verse 36).

By the end of the chapter, it is Jesus' words that draws and divides. Because of his words, most leave him! This is hard teaching - they say. And give them some credit - it was! Believers are eat his flesh, drink his blood (verses 53 to 56)?

Yet for Christians, these are words of life - and Jesus calls on us to feed on him spiritually.

"The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life." (verse 63)

In the bible, hearing leads to believing leads to seeing. Often, we get it the wrong way around. We want to see, in order to believe, and only after that, will we hear what Jesus has to say. That is what the crowds thought. "Show me more miracles to prove who you are! Then we'll consider what you have to say."

We have just come off Easter when sermons have been preached on the resurrection of Christ. Many focus on the proof of the resurrection and this is important. But it is all the more important to preach the resurrection not simply as the bible's proof to non-believers (Acts 17); but as the proof of assurance to believers in Jesus. If anything, we should expect that preaching the resurrection may well serve as warning to those who do not trust Jesus. In the case of Paul at the Areopagus, it was evidence of Jesus raised to judge (Acts 17:31). And here in John's gospel, Jesus would refer to it as source of offence!

"Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, "Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!" (verses 61-62)

The words of Jesus divide. But they also draw.

"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: 'They will all be taught by God.' Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me." (verses 44-45)

And in the end, those who remain with Christ do so because of his words.

Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." (verse 68)

5. Believing is Seeing

As a Christian, this can be a very uncomfortable passage to read. Here the bible talks not about a passive salvation but an active savouring. I am not just to draw my life from him but to be drawn to his death. Knowledge of Jesus is framed in terms of hunger and thirst. Faith is equated with feasting.

Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty." (verse 35)

And the biggest challenge for me from this passage is the radical reality Jesus paints for those who do claim to believe. On the one hand, he condemns those who are blind to the knowledge of who he is, having seen what he has done and having heard what he has said. Yet on the other, for those who have put their trust in Jesus, these words ought to open our eyes to the treasures that are already ours in him. Having believed we ought to be able to see!

"For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." (verse 40)

To believe in Jesus is to always look to Jesus. To keep our gaze upon him and never turn away. It is to continually focus our hearts on the cross where he was broken for our sins and raised for our life. To believe in Christ is to see Christ as our complete satisfaction and fulfilment - in this life as well as the life to come.