Saturday 31 December 2011

God's plan, our praise (Ephesians 1:1-10)

1. Every spiritual blessing

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
Ephesians 1:3

Praise and worship: that is what we begin with every Sunday here at the Chinese Church. With praise and worship of God. That is why we sing. That is why we pray. That is why we gather. In praise and worship of “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

But notice why: “who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing”. Every spiritual blessing in heaven! As we look back on the past year, what have been the highlights? What has God blessed you with? That new job? That new relationship? That new start in life? We worship a God who has blessed us abundantly and generously.

Yet someone might say to me: Calvin, 2011 has been a tough year. It was difficult and depressing year. How can I still praise God?

I would say, “You can!” Because the bible isn’t simply saying to us, “Look at the all the blessings you have received and use those blessings as a measure of your praise to God.” It isn’t. It is telling us to look at Christ. “Every spiritual blessing… in Christ,” verse 3 says. It squeezes all of heaven; it squeezes all of God’s blessing into one single focus, one channel and one person – in Christ.

Don’t just look to the blessing. Look to Jesus. It is as if God funnels all his blessing – every single blessing he could give us; every single blessing in heaven – and he funnels it to us through Jesus – in Christ. So much so that the phrase, “in Christ”, occurs again and again in these words of worship and praise.

Verse 1: To… the faithful in Jesus Christ
Verse 4: For he chose us in him
Verse 5: He… adopted us as sons through Jesus Christ
Verse 6: in the One he loves
Verse 7: In him we have redemption
Verse 9: (God) purposed in Christ
Verse 10: All things… under one head, even Christ

We praise God truly in Christ because God had blessed us fully in Christ. If you are in Christ, God has blessed you with all the riches of heaven. That is what Paul is saying in this letter addressed to Christians in the city of Ephesus. If you are in Christ, Paul is saying, “I want you to realise that you guys are the most fortunate people on the planet!” Because, as Paul writes in verse 4, “God chose you.”

2. Chosen from creation

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.
Ephesians 1:4

Before God made the world, he chose you. When a mother is pregnant with a baby and even before the baby is born, she says, “I will love you.” When a man and a woman stand at the altar on their wedding day and the pastor asks them, “Will you take this woman as your wife? Will you take this man as your husband?” And they answer, “I will.” They are making a promise for the future. They are choosing to love one another for better and for worse, in sickness and in health.

And when God loves us, he chose to do so even before he made the world. Even when he knew that we would rebel against him and reject his love – “while we were still sinners,” Romans 5 tells us – God demonstrated his love for us by sending Jesus to die for us.

That is what Paul means when he says that God chose us “to be holy and blameless in his sight”. It is not saying that you need to behave yourself in church, pay attention during the sermon and stop passing around those Haribo sweets (make sure you leave some for me). God makes us holy by putting us in Christ. When he looks at us, he sees Jesus. We are holy and blameless “in his sight”. So much so, that in verse 1, he says to the Christians in Ephesus, “You are already holy!”

To the saints (or “the holy”) in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus.
Ephesians 1:1

Saint Along! Saint Howai! That’s what you are if you are a Christian. If you are in Christ. (Try putting that on your business cards – Saint!) It just means that you are holy. Both are exactly the same words with the exact same meaning. It means that when God looks at Along and when God looks at Howai, he sees perfection(!) Why? Because he sees Jesus.

Before God made the world, he chose you to be in Jesus. That sentence is meant to give you great confidence. If you are ever in doubt about your faith and trust in Jesus, remember, God chose you before the foundation of the universe. Before he decided where to put the stars, and what the constant for the speed of light was, God said, “Right, she’s going to be in Jesus. And that guy of there, he is going to be a Christian.” In fact, that’s what verse 5 says.

3. Re-born this way

He predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
Ephesians 1:5-6

Lady Gaga says, “I’m beautiful in my way; ‘Cause God makes no mistakes, I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way.” It is a very powerful song. Millions of teenagers listen to that song because they want to hear someone tell them, “It’s OK. You are not a mistake. You were born that way. Just be who God made you to be.”

None of us is born a Christian. The bible is very clear and honest about that. Doesn’t matter whether Mum or Dad is a Christian. None of us is born in God’s family. But you see, God adopts us into his family and gives us full rights as sons (Girls, please don’t be offended if you see those words, “adopted as sons” – because what the bible is saying is that all of us receive the full rights and inheritance “as sons”. In fact, what it is doing is comparing us to the Son, Jesus Christ.)

I don’t know how many of you are adopted. Or maybe you have friends who are adopted. To be adopted as a son or a daughter is to be brought into a family that you were not naturally born into. You were not born this way. As such, it requires even more love to be adopted into a new family. It means God reassures you constantly, “You are my son. You are my daughter.” It is what God does with us, even at the expense of his one and only Son, “the One he loves,” verse 6 says. God loves you so much, that he is willing to send his own Son to die on the cross, so that you could be his son. You, who were not born this way, could be reborn, through the Way, the Truth and the Life.

The best advice Lady Gaga can give is you should love yourself even when others hate you. The bible says God loved you even when you hated him. Lady Gaga says you were born this way. The bible says God gives you new birth in Jesus Christ.

Before you knew God – he predestined you to be adopted as his son through Jesus Christ. Before you were even born, God already decided that Jesus would die for you on the cross. Verse 7 tells us that we have redemption through his blood:

4. The riches of God’s grace

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.
Ephesians 1:7-8

God adopts us as sons at great cost to his own Son. That’s what these verses are saying. On one hand, it talks about “the riches of God’s grace”. God is this multi-billionaire tycoon who decides to take you, a homeless orphan into his family. He adopts you as his son with all the rights to his fortune as his heir. He lavishes his riches upon you.

But this adoption comes at a great cost. It costs him the life of his one and only son. “In him,” that is, in Jesus, (the One he loves, verse 6), “we have redemption through his blood.” Redemption is talking about a payment. A cost. Your life for his life. Why and what for? Read on: “In him we have… the forgiveness of sins.”

Our sins are a form of debt. We owe God our lives. We owe God our praise. But the bible says we all reject God and we all turn away from God. We are happy to take the gifts but we reject the giver. The consequence of rejecting God is death and separation from God. The sad thing is: we are blind. Blind to God’s goodness. Blind to the consequences of our sin. Blind to our debt to God.

I remember a friend who once said to me, “God is so good. He is like a father who gives me a credit card that I can spend without limit.” I said to her, “Yes. And we spend and we spend, never realising that there is a cost. Never thinking of our debt.” As you look to the coming year, how will you spend your life? If God should give you that opportunity you have been praying so earnestly for, how will you spend it? If God should bless you with that good thing, how will you use it?

Will you spend it on yourself? “I worked hard for this. I paid for this. This is mine.” But it’s not yours, is it? You have not paid for any of this. God gave it to you at great cost to himself.

God pays for our salvation in blood. That is the cost the Jesus bore for you and I to be adopted as sons. That is the measure of God’s rich mercy which he lavishes upon us.

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

It’s a funny thing isn’t it, to think that God could become poor? We think of billionaires like Bill Gates and Simon Cowell and suppose that life ought to be so easy with all that money. With all that wealth. We could buy anything, do everything, live anywhere. Doesn’t God own everything? Isn’t all the money in the world his? How then can God become poor?

By sacrificing the one most precious thing he has: his glory. Jesus wasn’t being an “Undercover Millionaire” like we see on TV, where the CEO trades in his designer Gucci suit for some overalls to hang out with his unsuspecting workers in the docks; where for a day, he acts like he is poor when in reality he still has all of his wealth. That’s not Jesus. Jesus took on our humanity. God became a man, born as a baby, born of a woman. He took on our suffering. He took on our rejection – Jesus was betrayed by his closest friends. And finally, he took on our death. On the cross, he was paying our debt of sin. The bible even says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us”, meaning, when you look at Jesus crucified and cursed on the cross – that’s what sin looks like. That’s what God does to our sin.

For our sakes he became poor. We have redemption through his blood. Our salvation and security comes through his condemnation and his humility.

Where are you looking for God’s blessing? Are you looking to the cross? Because friends, you will find it nowhere else. The bible calls this “a mystery”. By that it doesn’t mean that it is mysterious or strange, but rather that it was hidden in the past and has now been revealed. God is revealing his purpose and his plan for us through the cross.

5. All things under Christ

And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
Ephesians 1:9-10

All of creation is headed in one direction. Heaven and earth are being pulled together towards one final purpose. That Jesus Christ will be the ruler of all creation.

This is God’s plan for the universe. It was hidden in the past, but Paul says, God has “made known to us the mystery of his will”. Why is that? In part, it is because of our new status as sons. In part, it is a sign of grace: “that he lavished on us with wisdom and understanding” (verse 8), that is, God graciously opens our eyes to understand the gospel and what Jesus has done for us through the cross.

I think the clue to the fuller answer lies in the word “mystery” which recurs five times in Chapter 3. There, Paul says that this mystery was made known to him by revelation and by insight, yet it was not made known in past generations; this mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel. You see, Gentiles were the outsiders while the Israelites were the chosen ones. But now through Jesus, the outsiders have been brought into the family of God. The outsiders have been adopted as sons and been blessed with full and equal status as the people of God.

The reason why God reveals this mystery to Christians so that when the world looks at the church they will see a preview of what God will do at the end of time. They will see Jesus as the head and all things held together as his body, the church. They will see men and women, Chinese and Ang-moh’s, graduates and non-graduates, Dr Who fans (yeah!) and Downton Abbey fanatics (bleagh!) – people who don’t have anything remotely in common; people who would normally be divided by their backgrounds, their language, by their cultures and preferences – They will see these different people gathered together in submission to Jesus and in worship of God.

That is God’s plan. Our gatherings as the Chinese Church; our meetings at Rock Fellowship; even the New Year’s Eve get-together at WM’s place is meant to be a preview of what God will do at the end of creation. God will bring all things under Christ so that all honour, praise and glory will go to Jesus alone. That is God’s plan for the church. That is God’s ultimate purpose for all creation.

6. God’s plan for you

Which means it is also God’s plan for you. God intends that all of your life be brought under one headship. Not yours, but Christ.

How will God do that in your life this coming year? Are there areas you still hold on to and won’t let go; areas in which you will not submit to Jesus? Is it your job, your education, your ministry, your accomplishments? Is there something that you would say to Jesus, “That is off-limits. That is mine.”

Abraham Kuyper, the former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, a theologian and a Christian, once wrote, “In the total expanse of human life there is not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare, 'That is mine!'”

It isn’t simply things of value or of wealth. Some of us hold on to our pride. Some of us find it hard to let go of our hurts and resentment. For others, it’s a destructive behaviour, like anger and addiction. Even in these things, there is not one inch of you that Jesus does not say, “That is mine!”

All of your life belongs to Jesus. That is God’s ultimate plan. Why not make it yours this year?

Jesus, all for Jesus,
All I am and have and ever hope to be.
Jesus, all for Jesus,
All I am and have and ever hope to be.
All of my ambitions, hopes and plans
I surrender these into Your hands.
All of my ambitions, hopes and plans
I surrender these into Your hands.
(“Jesus, All for Jesus” by Robin Mark)

Friday 30 December 2011

Isn't God nice?

Praise be to the God of every faith who blesses every man everywhere at every time. He chose us, well, because we’re so special just the way we are. In love, he didn’t predestine any of our lives but left us alone to choose our own paths in life. To the praise of his glorious tolerance which he has freely given us in any and every religion. In Jesus - though you could easily have said, ‘in Krishna’ or ‘in Buddha’ - we have good health, good weather and good exam results in accordance to all our wishes and all our hard work.

And God made known to us the mystery of his will - which wasn’t all that difficult to work out for ourselves, really - that we should come to church every now and then, especially over the holidays, and try to be as nice as possible to old people and little kids. That way, everyone will get along, they’ll eventually join our church and help to serve tea after service on Sundays. Oh, and God will reward them in the end by letting them into heaven.

Isn’t God nice?

Compare what Paul actually wrote in Ephesians 1.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.

And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
Ephesians 1:3-10

Which God would you worship? Which God do you worship?

Thursday 29 December 2011

God's plan

We are kicking off the new year looking at the book of Ephesians in a new series entitled "God's plan".

1 Jan | What is God's plan for the world? (Ephesians 1:1-10
8 Jan | What is God's plan for me? (Ephesians 1:11-14)
15 Jan | What is God's plan for Jesus? (Ephesians 1:15-20)
22 Jan | CNY Celebration: New year, new you! (Ephesians 2:1-10)

Saturday 24 December 2011

All I want for Christmas is... Love (Matthew 21:33-46)

Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
Matthew 21:37

All I want for Christmas - that’s the title of our Christmas series. And for the past few weeks we have been dealing with expectations. What do we expect from one another? What do we expect from God?

Today we end our series by looking at a passage in the bible which speaks not about our expectation of God, but of God’s expectation of us. Last of all, verse 37 says, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. But as soon as they saw him, verse 39 tells us: They took him and they threw him out and they killed him.

What was God’s expectation in sending Jesus? That he would be received. That Jesus would be rejected. Both are true. Jesus should have been received as God’s son. But God also knew that Jesus would be rejected, cast out and killed.

The turning point in the whole story comes in the next verse; in verse 40. Jesus turns to his hearers and asks, “So, what do you think will happen next?” You see, Jesus is telling a story with a conclusion that is so obvious that everyone can see how it is going to end. Look at how his hearers respond - not Jesus, but the people listening to Jesus tell this parable - Look at how they end the story.

He will bring those wretches to a wretched end.
Matthew 21:41

“Ooh, those horrible people deserve to be taught a good lesson!” they said. This was not simply a matter justice. This was vengeance. Payback. Those wretches will be brought to a wretched end. Those soi yan should be squashed like soggy satsumas. Everyone was going, “Yeah! Get them, Jesus! Get those bad guys.”

But then again, Jesus wasn’t just talking about “those” bad guys. He says, “I am talking about you...” Verse 41: “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”

Happy Christmas! Joy to the world - The kingdom of God will be taken away from you! Not exactly the warm fuzzy story we expected on Christmas day - of love, peace and joy? But let me just say, if we understand this story rightly, it is a story of love - a rejected love. It is a story of peace - a restored peace. And it is a story of joy - an everlasting joy.

It is a story  that begins with a generous landowner who provides the very best for his tenants.

The landowner

“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey.
Matthew 21:33

Imagine you were starting up your a new business. Yao, Ben and Lang form a band - the Solid Rockers. Or Winnie and Alana decide to open up an architecture firm together. Or Along starts up law firm in Cambridge. What you would need is lots of money and investment, office space, furniture, advertising, staff.

That’s what Jesus is talking about. I mean, we hear “winepress”, “tower”, “vineyard” - and naturally, we think about farming. But what this landowner does is he builds a business. He develops his land so that it isn’t just empty space, but rather, it becomes fruitful. This is a vineyard - meaning, it’s for growing grapes, and technically, if all he wanted to do was grow grapes, he had everything he needed - land and soil. But what else does he do? He builds a wall - he protects his investment. He digs a winepress - meaning, he builds in the facilities to produce wine from the grapes. And finally, he builds a tower - this is like putting in a high-end security system, on top of the wall that’s already there.

It’s like going to an investor with your business idea and he says, “Right, I’ll give you the money, I’ll buy you all the equipment you need - the fastest computers, the best equipment, a snazzy website. On top of that, I’ll insure and protect your business - I’ll file the patents and get Along to countersign all the legal documents. All you need to do is to move in and start working. Anything and everything you need will be provided for you.

This is a picture of a God who is generous. A God who blesses abundantly - more than we expect; more than we deserve. This is a God who takes joy in his creation. Notice how it is the landowner who plants the vineyard, he builds the wall, he digs the winepress. He gets his hands dirty, because he is invested in his creation and he takes joy in his creation. Finally, he entrusts his joy and the labour of his love to others so that they will benefit from his creation.

The story starts with God. And that’s something we need to realise. Everything comes from God who created everything and entrusts his creation to man. In the story, the landowner rents the business out to some farmers who lease the vineyard, together with the all the added extras. And as we shall see, they love the land. But as we shall also see, this same love for the land, causes them to start hating the owner of the land.

The tenants

When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.
Matthew 21:34-36

At the end of the month, the bill arrives in the post - “Please pay this month’s rent.” Except instead of just ignoring the letter or throwing it in the bin, they tie up the postman and start beating him up! Meaning: this isn’t just ignorance we are looking at, nor is it merely ingratitude. It is contempt for the landowner and anything who represents the landowner. Notice what the farmers do to the servants in verse 35: they beat one, they killed another, and they stone the third. They went all Old Testament on these guys, especially the bit about stoning. Stoning was a communal act of judgement. It wasn’t just a few farmers who didn’t like their boss. Everyone turned up, picked up a stone and threw it at the postman. Everyone took part in the rebellion.

But notice the landowners response. He sent other servants, more than the first time. He doesn’t give up. He sends more and more people - servants, not soldiers - to deliver a message. But each and every servant was treated the same way.

That’s what the landowner did, and that’s what God does in the bible. He sends his prophets. He sends Moses. He sends Isaiah. He sends Daniel and Jeremiah. But each time, the servant is reject, the message is rejected because God is being rejected. Yet, God does not give up. He keeps sending his word and he keeps sending people to speak his word to a world which rejects his word.

But lastly, he sends his Son.

Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
Matthew 21:38-39

What is so interesting about this is that now we start to see why the tenants have been rejected landowner. Look at what they say when they see his son approaching the vineyard, “This is the heir. Let’s kill him and take his inheritance.”

There are two clear reasons. Firstly, they want the vineyard. It’s a fantastic business venture. Everything is good. It is not the case that the landowner is forcing them to work. It is not the case that there was something wrong with the land. Everything was good. That was the problem.

Often times in church, especially during a time like Christmas, we focus on reminding everyone just how good things are. We talk about Christmas as time for family. A time for thanksgiving. A time for rejoicing. And we say, isn’t it amazing how God has blessed us this year? And so much of our efforts at Christmas-time is focussed on making sure everyone has a good time.

Now the last thing I want to suggest is that we make Christmas horrible and miserable! But isn’t it the case with the tenants that they were so focussed on how good they had it with the land and with the vineyard, that they rejected the one who gave them that blessing in the first place? I see this every year at Christmas: people who are so desperate to celebrate all the good things God has given them that they are ironically blinded to God himself. They are so desperate to make Christmas about everything good except God - It’s all about  the food, family, presents, turkey, holiday, TV, sleeping in on Sunday - but mention about Jesus at the dinner table; or bring up the cross in a Christmas sermon - and people will get upset.

The first thing we see from the tenants is: It is very possible to receive God’s blessing and still reject God.

The second thing we see is this: The tenants recognise the landowner’s son. “This is the heir. This is his inheritance.” They wanted to separate the son from his inheritance. “Let’s kill him  and take his inheritance.” But notice how in verse 39, the tenants didn’t simply kill the him, they way they did with the other servants. No, first they took him, then they threw him out of the vineyard. Only after that did they killed him.

What were they doing? They wanted to be sons. Do you see that? They didn’t say, “We will take the land.” They said, “We will take the inheritance.” For them, sonship was about a status. They would own the land, not merely live in it. They wanted to be the landowners.

Jesus is helping us understand what sin actually is. A lot of people might read this parable and think sin is killing the servants. Or that, sin means killing the son. I mean, those actions are sinful. So we might teach this parable in Sunday School and say to the kids, “So kids, we should not be like the bad tenants and beat up the people we don’t like. Understand?” And the kids go, “Yes, teacher!” But that’s not the bible’s definition sin (doing bad things) and that’s not the lesson of the parable (don’t be like sinful people).

Rather, the parable teaches us that sin is wanting to be God. Sin means we’re not happy merely receiving blessing from God. We want to own that blessing. We want to be the source of that blessing. We want to be God of our own lives. And it is out of this deep desire to replace God that flows sinful actions like anger, jealousy and hate and murder. But at the root of sin is this deep desire to be God - to be our own master and to reject God as our master.

When we make Christmas out to be about me - that’s sin. We take the good things that God has given us and we celebrate ourselves. And when we make an effort to intentionally separate Christ from Christmas - to distance him from the blessing’s he has given us, which rightly belong to him - it’s really no different from the tenants kicking the son out of the vineyard. That’s a very dangerous and foolish thing to do.

The Son

“Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
Matthew 21:40-41

At this point it is very important to recognise who Jesus is talking to. In a sense, yes, he is talking to us and we’ve seen that there are lots of points of application in our own lives. But while it is very tempting to apply this parable directly to us today, it is important to recognise that Jesus is addressing a specific group of individuals in this passage.

Verse 23 introduces the context of the conversation.

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him.
Matthew 21:23

But the more obvious verse to look at is near the end of the chapter.

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.
Matthew 21:45

In fact, for the next few chapters, Jesus is speaking to the same specific group of individuals - the chief priests and the Pharisees. The chief priests were the pastors. They were the guys who led the biggest church in town. If you had a question about the bible or about God, you asked the chief priests. On the other hand, the Pharisees were the bible teachers and experts. Not only did they know Leviticus inside-out in Hebrew and Greek, they tried to apply as much of the Old Testament laws as possible to their own lives and to others. In other words, these were the evangelicals of their day.

The chief priest and Pharisees were church leaders and top theologians of the Jewish faith; and verse 23 tells us that Jesus was engaging them in their home turf - the temple. There he was in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge - talking to the Chinese tourists armed with their Canon SLR’s - about what God was really like; how God’s kingdom was coming; what is meant to understand God’s will in the bible - and the theologians and church leaders in Cambridge weren’t happy. They came to Jesus and asked him - this ex-construction worker without a degree who had from a housing estate up north in Arbury - what business he had to be here.

Jesus answers them. To these experts and religious teachers, he says, “Haven’t you read the Scriptures?”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvellous in our eyes’?
Matthew 21:42

This is a direct quote from Psalm 118 and at first glance it might be hard to see the connection to the parable. Jesus switches from a farm to a construction site. He switches from talking about a rejected son to now talking about a rejected stone.

The builders were the experts in choosing the right building materials - the right stones that they needed to build the walls. From experience and skill, they were the experts who could tell which kind of brick was best. Often this meant choosing the most uniform-looking and standard-sized stone. Yet here, they come across one stone that is unsuitable for use and is tossed out. Psalm 18 says, this rejected stone becomes the captone - literally, the headstone - meaning, the one that caps the entire building and has the most prominence.

Like the builders, the chief priests had rejected Jesus. Like the tenants, the Pharisees rejected the son. Out of all the people in Jerusalem, the religious leaders ought to have recognised who Jesus was, because of their privilege of serving in God’s temple, because of their position as God’s priests. Instead the experts rejected Jesus as unsuitable and unworthy.

It is to the religious teachers that Jesus pronounces the judgement in verse 43:

“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.”
Matthew 21:43

These leaders were unfruitful and unfaithful. All this while we may have been assuming that the tenants were merely unwilling to share the fruit they had worked so hard for. But Jesus sums up the story by saying that God’s kingdom will be given to another people who will “produce its fruit”. This is very telling. It’s saying that they current tenants aren’t producing fruit at all. They were entrusted with an enterprise - a vineyard that was meant to grow in fruitfulness and blessing. But these tenants don’t want to do the work. They want the status as owners. They want to live on the land and to live off the land as landowners.

If you remember a couple of weeks ago, this ties in very clearly to the judgement Jesus pronounced on the fruitless fig tree. It was a tree that was full of leaves, meaning, it had the appearance of bearing fruit. But in reality, it was all empty packaging.

And when Jesus says “the kingdom of God will be... given to another people”, the word that he actually uses is “nation”. It will be taken from you and given to another nation - Jesus says. As in, the Court of Nations, where Jesus drove out the money-changes and dove-sellers. As in, the house of prayer for the nations that he quoted from Isaiah 56:7. Jesus is talking about mission. God’s blessing is meant to go out to the nations.

What is the fruitfulness that God looks for amongst his people - specifically amongst his church - today? It isn’t that your church grows. The chief priests and Pharisees were concerned for their own church - so much so, that they were willing to turn the Court of the Nations into the temple bookshop and to run Alpha courses for their own church members (which really kinda defeats the point of having Alpha courses, if you ask me). And neither is fruitfulness about growing your church finances, having a bigger building, or hosting large conferences in the name of Jesus. Again and again, right through this chapter in Matthew 21 and right through the bible - fruitfulness has to do with the mission of God’s son proclaimed among the nations.
The leaders in the temple were unfruitful. In an effort to preserve their own status and guard their own investments, they had forsaken God’s mission to bring all nations to a knowledge of himself.

But there is another - more serious - indictment that Jesus makes here of the builder. They were unfaithful. They had rejected God and they had rejected his Son. Like the tenants, they saw in Jesus a threat to their status. The last verse reveals very tellingly, their true yet hidden intentions towards Jesus.

They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
Matthew 21:46

The only difference was opportunity. The tenants saw the son and they killed him. The religious leaders would have done exactly the same, if it weren’t that they were more concerned about how it would look bad for them in front of the crowd. It is exactly the same with us. We have the motivation. Our hearts are just as opposed to Jesus. We are just too scared to let other people see what we would really do if we had the chance.

That’s the thing about unfaithfulness. We cover it up. Do it often enough and we might even succeed in hiding it from ourselves. But Jesus comes to exposes the unfaithful hearts of the religious leaders, “I tell you.. the kingdom of God will be taken away... from you”. It is amazing how they couldn’t see the obvious truth coming a while away. For them, the parable was a story about those “wretched people” who deserve a “wretched end”. Jesus says, It’s not them, it’s you.

That’s the bad news. But embedded in this is the tremendous good news. God takes our rejection and turns it into the very basis of our salvation. Jesus knew he would be rejected. He was days away from being executed on the cross. He could see that coming a mile away. But he also predicted that he would be raised and resurrected, and in doing so, fulfil the prophecy of Psalm 118.

‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone;
the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes.

God has done this. Yes, the builders rejected the stone. And yes, the same religious leaders would be responsible for killing Jesus on the cross. But Psalm 118 says that ultimately, the Lord has done this. God sent his son knowing that Jesus would be rejected but that on the cross, he would be taking all of our rejection of God, and all of God’s rejection of us, upon himself. On the cross, Jesus would take our sin and our punishment for sin, so that all who trust in him would be fully accepted before God. For us who look to him on the cross - on Jesus - he is marvellous in our eyes.

What do you see when you look at Jesus? The parable gives us two possible responses.

Some of us see a threat. The tenants see the heir coming to take away the land, forgetting that it was all graciously given them in the first place in trust and in love. The religious leaders see a challenge to their authority and status in the church. Ironically, their love for God’s blessing has led them to forsake God, the source of their blessing.

But I sincerely hope you see Jesus as he truly is. Marvellous. God has sent his son into the world to be received as who he really is - the heir of all things. In his generosity and his wisdom, it is to those who do receive his Son who receive together with him - all things.

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

Saturday 17 December 2011

Empty packaging

Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves.
Matthew 21:18-19

The fruitless fig tree was Jesus' illustration of empty packaging. All form but no fruit. It was like walking into a Blockbuster store with thousands of movie titles on display but not a single actual DVD in stock - just rows and rows of empty plastic cases on shelves. Here in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus walks up to the fig tree and finds lots of leaves, it tells us, but not a single fruit. Jesus found “nothing”, the text says.

Jesus went on to use the fig tree as a parable for the emptiness of religion. The disciples would have remembered that just the day before, Jesus had driven out the money-changers and dove-sellers from the temple. They had never seen their teacher lose his temper in public like that before, overturning tables and chairs. As far as we can tell, they probably just stood there like idiots looking at one another with confusion and embarrassment. Nobody wanted to bring that incident up again. Nobody that is, except Jesus. You see, he was still thinking of the temple. And Jesus wanted his friends to understand why it was such a big deal.

It wasn’t the money. A lot of people think Jesus was ticked off by the unscrupulous practices of immoral businessmen, though I can understand why. It’s partly because of what Jesus said, “My house will be a called a house of prayer but you have made it a den of robbers.” It’s not unlikely that the temple officials had found a way of profiting from the worshippers. There was only one authorised temple in the Jewish religion and every Jew had to bring their offering to this temple alone. Each Jew was charged a temple tax - not an exorbitant amount, but it still added up to quite a bit. Furthermore, sacrifices had to be ‘temple-approved’. A priest had to inspect each and every animal. It was just a lot more convenient to get one from the official animal-sellers who had set up shop in the temple itself. Again, it wasn’t unlikely that the temple got a cut from these transactions. So many people think the Jesus is referring to the shady operations between the greedy religious officials and the opportunistic businessmen as “a den of robbers.”

But when you notice that Jesus was actually quoting the bible when he said what he said about the house of prayer and the den of robbers (“It is written”, verse 13 begins), and then you look up these verses in the Old Testament, you begin to realise that Jesus is concerned about something entirely different from just money. He is actually concerned about - and angered by - the emptiness of the religion. For Jesus, all he saw in the temple was empty packaging.

The first bit comes from Isaiah, where God says, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:7) This is significant because the one and only place in the whole temple where these merchants could have set up their stalls was an area known as the Court of the Nations. It was the part of the temple - indeed, the only area in all the temple - where outsiders could enter and worship God. However, the temple authorities had decided it was more important to use this space for business, yes, but moreover to serve the needs of the Jewish worshippers. After all, the merchants were providing an important service to the people of God - enabling them to offer up sacrifices prescribed by God. But in doing so, they had neglected the other nations in favour of their own. Isaiah says God wanted the temple to be a house of prayer for all nations. The temple authorities had conveniently forgotten that - not by closing down the Court of the Nations, of course - but simply by “re-allocating” its use.

Here is God saying in Isaiah that missions is right at the centre of the true worship of the people of God. And yet isn’t it tempting to think of missions as an optional extra? When deciding on your church budget do you put missionary commitments as the last item up for discussion - after the stationery and photocopying needs? When reaching your city or your college isn’t it just prudent to focus on those who are most like you - who speak your language, who are within your own age-group, who are part of your own denomination - and leave all that troublesome ‘international work’ to other organisations while you focus on God’s calling for ‘your church’?

Missions is the at the very centre of the true worship of the people God. Revelation 5 praises Jesus, the Lamb of God, with these words: “With your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Missions is measured in terms of Jesus' blood. His death paid for men and women from every single nation, tribe and language there is.

The second bit of Jesus’ quotation from Jeremiah where God again is speaking and he says, “Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:11). Now we know that God isn’t just referring to thieves and terrorists when he talks about the “den of robbers” because just a few verses earlier he lumps the whole lot together with those who commit adultery, perjury and idolatry. But the key thing to notice is that God says he is watching them when all this while the perpetrators think that they are safely hidden from God’s sight. Why? Because they have the temple. Also, not only do they think they can get away with sinning in God’s presence, but they even delude themselves into thinking that they can sin in God’s name! “We are safe,” they said. “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” reassuring themselves that they were OK as long as they were in the right church, they had the right pastor, the right bible translation.

They were caught up with the packaging - the temple, their religious practices - and as long as the packaging still looked good, that was all that mattered. But Jesus is saying that God deals with empty religion the same way we deal with empty packaging. He throws it in the bin.

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.
Matthew 21:21

The mountain Jesus was referring to was a specific mountain - this mountain, Jesus says. He was pointing to Jerusalem, the mountain where the city was built; the mountain where the temple was situated. Like the fig tree, the temple was all form but no fruit. And like the withered tree, the temple would be cursed and destroyed.

Indeed, we know that the temple was destroyed in the year 70AD. You can go to Jerusalem today and there is no temple standing. But you see, there is no need for the temple anymore. There is Jesus. He has come to be God with us.

The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.
Matthew 21:14

Right after Jesus clears out the temple area, what does he do? He fills it again! With the blind, with the lame and with children - the very kinds of people who would not be permitted to go anywhere beyond the Court of the Nations. These guys couldn’t go up and offer sacrifices. None of these guys could serve as priests. Definitely none of them would ever be able to enter the Holy of Holies and see the throne-room of God. But what could they do? What did they do? “They came to Jesus at the temple”. Here in the Court of the Nations, Jesus came to them and they went to him. They had full access to Jesus.

Jesus gets rid of all the empty useless packaging that is religion and reveals himself as God to us. Now some people hate that because all they want is the packaging. They want the image of being respectable, the reputation of being a Christian, the honour of serving on a committee. But if that’s the case with you, Jesus warns us that all that empty religion is going straight into the bin.

Jesus is God with us. That’s wonderful news. You don’t have to get on a plane and travel to some holy place to be with God - he comes to you. You don’t have to do anything to earn his love, well, because you can’t - you are just like the blind and the lame and the kids in the temple who go to Jesus - he heals you; he welcomes you. More than that, he went to the cross to pay the full price of your sin and die for you.

You have full access to God through Jesus Christ. Why hide any longer behind empty religion? Why not come instead to Jesus and live?

Weak and wounded sinner
Lost and left to die
O, raise your head, for love is passing by
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus and live! 

Monday 12 December 2011

Solid Rock Sunday

Sunday 18 December 2011
2pm Chinese Church, Downing Street
Head on over to

Saturday 10 December 2011

All I want for Christmas is... Faith (Matthew 21:12-22)

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!”
Jeremiah 7:3-4

A Chinese friend from Hong Kong once told me that going to the temple in Asia is a lot like doing a business transaction. You go and make your offering - money, joss sticks, prayer. And the temple gods repay your act of worship with a blessing - good exam results or a big fat bonus.

In today’s passage, Jesus encounters people who were “buying and selling” in the temple and immediately he gets angry. So angry, in fact, that Jesus starts overturning the tables of the money changers as well as the chairs of the people selling the doves for the sacrifice (verse 12). You can just imagine the scene of Jesus tearing up the market square - coins scattered across the pavements; the merchants chasing after their animals; doves flying everywhere - and at the centre of it all: Hulk Jesus, fuming with anger going, “Arrrrrgh! Jesus smash!”

But notice that amidst all the havoc, Jesus tells us why he was so angry.

“It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’”
Matthew 21:13

He begins by saying, “It is written.” Meaning, Jesus is quoting the bible and if you look below the page at the footnotes in your bibles you will see the two Old Testament passages that Jesus is quoting from. What these passages teach us is that God is angry. God is angry with the business that was going on in the temple.

The first quotation is from Isaiah Chapter 56. Here God says that the temple was a place of worship and of prayer for all nations. Not just Israel, the chosen people of God. But for everyone.

Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.
Isaiah 56:7

The second quotation comes from Jeremiah.

“‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.
Jeremiah 7:9-11

(It’s really easy to remember these two Old Testament passages: Just remember 5-6-7 and 7-Eleven - that is, Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11)

The temple of the Lord

Why is God angry with this business of buying and selling in the temple? Well, if we didn’t look up the two passages, someone might say it was because people were being ripped off. And in a sense, that would be true. The temple officials found a way to provide a service to worshippers but make some money out of it at the same time. You see, every worshipper had to do two things: (1) Pay a temple tax (kind of like an offering); and (2) bring an animal sacrifice. That’s why we see two different kinds of businessmen in the temple area: the money-changers and the people selling doves.

Does this means that churches shouldn’t have bookshops? If you go to King’s College chapel the first thing you will see as you enter the building is a shop selling postcards, CDs and tea-towels. Is the bible saying that the next time you visit King’s College chapel you should overturn the CDs and display cases?

This is where reading the Old Testament really helps. Remember that Jesus says, “It is written,” meaning he is thinking about these passages from Isaiah and Jeremiah right at this moment. Both are talking about the temple. Both refer to the temple as God’s house. But notice that in Isaiah, it is a “house of prayer” for all the nations. Not just Israel, the one nation and people of God. All nations.

You see, the temple was divided up into different courts or areas. There was firstly the Most Holy Place symbolising God’s presence and God’s throne. Only the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place. Then there was the Holy Place - only the priests could enter. Then there was the area where only men. After that the area where women could enter. Finally, there was the court of the nations. In the design of God’s temple, God wanted other nations to come and know him. However, what had happened was, this court of the nations was turned into the Grand Arcade. That it, the space was used not to welcome outsiders, but to make money. It’s true, they were providing a service for the worshippers - only the temple currency was accepted so you needed to change your pounds, HK dollar and yuan into the right denomination. Also, you couldn’t simply bring your cat, your dog or your pet hamster and say, “I’m sacrificing this to God!” No, only certain animals that were spotless and approved by the priests could be offered up at the temple. So again, they were providing a service to worshippers who wanted to worship God in the right way. And yes, probably they were making lots of money in the process!

But the real issue was not the money - we need to see that. The issue was, for the sake of money, they were excluding the nations from knowing God. “My house will be a house of prayer for the nations.” We need to be very careful, friends, of using money as an excuse for side-lining missions. We just approved the church budget a couple of weeks ago, didn’t we? It is very tempting when drawing up our plans for the year, what we are going to spend our money on - to put our own needs and concerns first and then think of missions as an optional extra. This passage is God telling us that missions should be the very heartbeat of the church. “Go and make disciples of every nation,” Jesus says. “With your blood you purchased men from every tribe and language and people and nation,” Revelation says. Missions is not to be measured in terms of what we can afford but in terms of what Jesus’ blood is worth. It is worth the praise of every single nation on this planet.

We ignore this truth to our peril. Jesus says, “you are making it a den of robbers.” Again, when we go back and read Jeremiah 7:11 we understand better what Jesus was referring to. The people in Jeremiah’s day (who lived 600 years before Jesus was born) were saying to themselves, “We’re safe” - safe to continue sinning; safe to do all these detestable things - murder, adultery, false worship. Why? Because we have the temple - the temple of the Lord.

Or put it another way: Because we go to a impressive church. Because everyone knows that our church is a gospel-centred church which teaches the bible; we have a long history of missions and evangelism; lots of people come to our church and our pastor has published many books. We’re safe from condemnation and criticism because we go to church every week.

God says, “You are hiding. You think you are safe. You think that you can even hide from me.”

Do you understand now why Jesus got so angry? He saw people using religion to hide their sin and to keep others from knowing God.

Some of the most painful and discouraging conversations I have ever had are with people who use their church membership and at times, their positions of church leadership, to cover up their sin, and maybe even, justify their sinfulness. It is very hard to get through to them that they are fooling themselves when they think that they can use God’s name to make a profit for themselves, to advance their own personal agendas, to act unlovingly towards outsiders; that they are fooling themselves when they think that they are somehow protected from church discipline - and God’s discipline of his church.

How do you deal with such foolishness? How to do confront such stubbornness? Anger? (“Arrrrhrhhhhagh!!!!”) We’ve seen that Jesus deals with it in anger, yes. But actually, we shouldn’t miss the fact that Jesus confronts and exposes sin with God’s word. He does it again the next few verses where he says to the religious leaders, “Haven’t you read your bibles?”

Have you never read?

The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.

“Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.
“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,
“‘From the lips of children and infants
you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?”
And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.
Matthew 21:14-17

This is all still happening in the temple. Jesus has cleared out the money-changers, the businessmen - they are all kicked out of the court of the nations. But now tell me, who comes to Jesus in the temple? Answer: the blind and lame (verse 14). The children (verse 15). These are sick people, probably helpless and poor people. These are insignificant people - children, who are often ignored; and considered unimportant; inconsequential. But isn’t it interesting that after clearing out all the businessmen from the temple, these are the people who gather around Jesus? None of them would be let near the sacrifices. None of them would be asked to lead a church committee or to speak at a big national conference for church leaders. None of them contribute to the church budget or help out with making tea after service.

But they come anyway. Why? Because Jesus is there. He heals them - intentionally, I might add, right here in the temple. As if to make a statement: These are exactly the kind of people God is looking for.

Still, not everyone would agree.

“When the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did (Jesus was healing the sick - it was amazing!) and the children shouting, ‘Hosanna to the son of David,” their first instinct is to complain. They were indignant.

“How inappropriate!” they thought, “Children singing in church? Well, we must put a stop to that at once!”

Kids, I want you to see what Jesus says next. “From the lips of children and infants, you Lord have ordained praise.” God wants – he has ordained - the youngest person here today to know him and to praise him! So young, in fact, that it says there that even babies should be praising God. Now you might say, “Babies? How can babies praise God? All they do is cry and poop!” But you see, the religious leaders were trying to limit the kinds of people they wanted in church and what Jesus is doing is removing all restrictions. He is saying, “You’re mad to see kids singing in church? I want even the babies singing about me!” (“Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.... Jesus!”)

Ah! But some of you might have been observant enough to notice that it wasn’t a question of “who” it was that was singing that got the religious leaders all riled up, but “what” they were singing. Verse 16: “Do you hear what these children are saying?” And you look back at verse 15 to see the answer: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” That is, they were calling Jesus God’s King. That’s what the title “Son of David” means. It was a way of referring to the Christ, God’s chosen King.

And when Jesus answers by saying, “Haven’t your read your bibles?” he is actually telling the religious leaders, “Yes. I am God’s King.” Which is why he quotes a psalm that talks specifically about God’s King, Psalm 8 which says, “You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet” (Psalm 8:6).

Jesus was saying, “Yes, I do hear what these kids are saying. They have got it spot on. I am God’s king. He has put everything under my feet. The real question is: Do you hear? Do you hear what Psalm 8 is saying?” You see, what is so interesting is to go back and read the whole verse that Jesus quotes from, because there’s actually more to it than just kids singing praise:

From the lips of children and infants
you have ordained praise
because of your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
Psalm 8:2

Did you catch that? Psalm 8 is saying that the kids will sing, but also that the enemies of God will be silenced. The religious leaders have nothing good to say. Even after witnessing all the “wonderful things” that Jesus did; even after seeing children praising Jesus in the temple, the religious leaders and teachers of the law open their mouths to criticise Jesus and to silence the children.

Psalm 8 says God ordains the children to sing and he will silence his enemies. The fact that these children are able to recognise who Jesus as, and you can’t, is a sign of God’s judgement on you – Jesus seems to be saying.

Here in the temple of God we see two different groups of people – two communities gathered before Jesus. One recognises who Jesus is and one rejects him. One comes to him for help and healing, the other comes to Jesus just to tell him off. One praises him as God’s King – and indeed, if you understand Psalm 8, as God himself. The other does everything they can to silence their praise and exclude outsiders from worshipping God.

Here in the temple Jesus seems to be forming a new community of God’s people. At the same time he begins to hint at the rejection of God’s enemies.

'Cause you gotta have faith-a-faith-a-faith

Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
Matthew 21:18-22

These words have been used to justify all manner of unreal expectations and selfish ambition in the name Jesus Christ. “Name it! Claim it!” Isn’t that what Jesus seems to be saying? “If you believe, you will receive!”

Yet at the same time, Jesus is giving us a great promise here and I don’t want to dilute that promise in any way. “Whatever you ask for in prayer,” Jesus says. No restrictions. But there is one requirement. “If you believe,” or a better word might be, “trust”. It is the exact same word that occurs in verse 21, “If you have faith” To have faith means to trust, to rely or to depend. Which means every prayer is an act of faith; of trusting, relying and depending on God. Meaning: you cannot pray if you do not trust God. The atheist cannot pray because there is no God for him to trust. The agnostic cannot pray because even if there is a God, he cannot not know him and therefore he cannot trust him.

But the Christian prays because he knows that God is trustworthy, he depends on a God who is dependable, he relies on a God who is reliable. The bible speaks of a God who keeps his promises. And that is what Jesus is giving us right here – a promise. “Whatever you ask for in prayer, you will receive by trusting God who is trustworthy; by faith in a God who is faithful to his promises.”

Yet at the same time, Jesus is also giving an answer. The disciples see Jesus cursing a fig tree and ask, “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.”

What does the fig tree have to do with faith? What does the mountain have to do with prayer? The answer is pretty clear from the context, but I must warn you, you might not like the answer: It is judgement. The fig tree is cursed by Jesus. The mountain is thrown into the sea.

You see, the disciples are amazed to see the immediate effects of Jesus’ curse on the fig tree. Jesus wakes up the next morning and makes his way back to Jerusalem. He gets hungry along the way, sees a fig tree, so he stops and searches for some figs for breakfast. Only thing is this tree didn’t have any fruit. So…. Angry Jesus! Oooo, he curses the fig tree.

Now I’m no agricultural expert (and I would much rather have durians than figs any day of the week) but the scholars say that fig trees typically produce their fruit the same time as they produce their leaves. Which is why Matthew tells us that Jesus “found nothing on it except leaves”. Meaning that this tree had all the appearance of having fruit – the leaves were abundant – but in reality, it was empty and fruitless. Not a single fig. Hence the curse, “May you never bear fruit again!”

But Jesus doesn’t stop at the fig tree. He uses the fruitless tree to illustrate God’s judgement on a fruitless religion. This is where the mountain comes in, because notice that in verse 21, Jesus doesn’t simply promise them they can move just any old mountain with their prayers. He says “this mountain”. This was a specific mountain. The mountain he was referring to – this mountain – was Jerusalem. The temple in Jerusalem was built on this mountain.

Jesus is saying that a time is coming when this mountain is no longer going to be the centre of worship. It’s going to be thrown out into the trash like a used toothbrush. But at the same time, it will be replaced, not with a new structure or building, but with a new community. Do you remember what Jesus said as he was throwing out the merchants and money-changers? “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers?” He throws out the robbers. Jesus gets rid of useless religion. And in its place he builds a house of prayer.

“If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

Jesus is gathering a new community to replace the old. It is a community gathered around him. It is a community built on trust in him. It is a community in relationship with him – in prayer. And he says to his disciples, “You are that community.” You will receive. Whatever you ask will be given to you.

If you get this: Jesus is promising something much greater than a blank cheque for all your desires to come true. He is giving us direct access to God. He is giving a new status as the people of God.

The great exchange

The more I think of it, my friend from Hong Kong was right. Many people do consider prayer and worship much like doing a business transaction. The question is: How is Jesus different? How different is it when Christians pray and Christians worship before God through Jesus Christ?

If all we hear in Jesus’ words is the promise of a blank cheque – that we will get everything and anything we want as long as we use the right words or pray to the right God or offer up the right offering, then quite frankly, there is no difference at all. God is just a genie in a bottle whose sole function is to meet our wants and desires. Such a god is no god at all.

But I hope you can see that Jesus is talking about something entirely different. Jesus offers us a relationship with God as sons and daughters of the living God. That’s the reason why God longs to hear and answer our prayers. Because through Jesus Christ, God is our heavenly Father.

And unlike the worshippers in temples today, Christians have nothing to offer to God except the sacrifice that was given once and for all through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Through his death, Jesus offers up to God his own body as the perfect sacrifice, he pays our full debt of sin but taking upon himself our punishment for sin, and he is the perfect worshipper through his complete submission and obedience to the will of his Father.

Martin Luther calls this the great exchange. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) We exchange our sin for his righteousness; he takes our death and we receive his life.

This is the faith Jesus is talking about. It’s not faith in a place or in a ritual or in anything you could ever do for God. It is faith in his death for you on the cross. If Jesus is at the centre of your faith, if his death is the one and only basis of your faith, then he says to you today, You are the new community of God. Doesn’t matter how young you are; how insignificant you might be; how unsuitable other people think you are. He removes all the restrictions and barriers to God and calls you to come and receive forgiveness and eternal life.

My Lord, what love is this that pays so dearly
That I the guilty one, may go free!

Amazing love oh what sacrifice
The Son of God given for me
My debt He pays and my death He dies
That I might live, that I might live.
(“Amazing Love”, Graham Kendrick)

Saturday 3 December 2011

All I want for Christmas is... Joy (Matthew 21:1-11)

Our passage today focuses on Jesus as the King, but what is really interesting about this account – which is so significant that it is found in all four of the gospels in the bible – is how it presents Jesus as the long-expected King who arrives in an unexpected way. Surprising still, is how the most unexpected element in this story has to do with a donkey. It really is quite remarkable how everything turns on this donkey that Jesus rides into the city of Jerusalem.

We will explore the unexpected nature of Jesus as the King in today’s passage under three headings:
1.       Preparation (verses 1 to 3),
2.       Explanation (verses 4 to 5); and finally,
3.       Expectation (verses 6 to 11)

1. Preparation

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
Matthew 21:1-3

Here is the surprising thing about Jesus. He is about to make this big entrance into the city of Jerusalem. He knows there is this massive crowd waiting to receive him. And he goes, “Hang on, what I really need to get at this point is a donkey.”

So he tells two of his friends, essentially how there is going to be this donkey just waiting for them round the corner to pick up. “At once,” Jesus says, “you will find a donkey tied there.” Now of all the strangest things for God to do; compared to all the miraculous things Jesus has already done – calming the storm, healing the two blind men, raising the dead! – You have to admit that this one’s rather strange!

And you can tell that the disciples were also thinking, “Hmm, this is a bit odd,” because Jesus has to say to them in verse 3, “Oh, and in case anyone says to you, ‘Hey! What are you jokers doing stealing my donkey!’ All you have to say is, ‘The Lord needs them’.” That’s all you need to do. Just say to the nice man whose bicycle you are breaking into, “The Lord needs this,” and he’ll go, “Oh! Why didn’t you say so? Please have my keys and don’t forget the bike lights too.”

What’s going on? Well, that’s the reason for point 2: the explanation in verses 4 to 5.

2. Explanation

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
“Say to the Daughter of Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

Matthew 21:4-5

This is a quotation from the prophet Zechariah Chapter 9 verse 9 explaining the significance of the donkey. “See your king comes to you,” Zechariah says, “gentle and riding on a donkey.” The very next verse says, “I will take away the chariots of Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem.” Do you see the contrast? The King gets rids of the war horses and rides in on a donkey. The donkey is a symbol of peace. This is a peaceful King.

Imagine if two nations are at war and one loses, the conquering nation might ride in with its armies, tanks and helicopters to subdue the enemy nation. It is saying, “I’ve won. You have lost!” It is a show of power. The tanks rolling into the city. The solders marching line by line with their guns. It is saying, “We have defeated you. Now lay down your arms and surrender.”

But Jesus is the King who comes in peace. He is victorious, yes, but he doesn’t ride in on a war-horse. In fact, he intentionally chooses a non-threatening domestic animal – the donkey. How does Zechariah describe this king again? Gentle and riding on a donkey.

That’s the explanation. The donkey symbolised that Jesus was the King who had come in peace.
However, was that the expectation? Did the crowds in Jerusalem understand that Jesus was a gentle king? Look at verses 6 to 9.

3. Expectation

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest!”
Matthew 21:6-9

“Hosanna!” according to the footnote at the bottom of my bible means “Save!” or “Save now!” Meaning: the huge crowd had gathered to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem because they wanted him to do something for them. They wanted Jesus to save them.

This week in Cambridge and all over the UK, large crowds gathered in an effort to save their pensions. The new shift in government policy meant that they would have to give more, work longer and yet receive less money at the end.

This crowd in Jerusalem wanted Jesus to do more than reverse a government policy. They expected him to bring down the entire government. They wanted him to be the King who would conquer the Romans and kick the foreign occupiers out of Jerusalem.

Notice that this “very large crowd” (verse 8) did two things. Firstly, they “spread their cloaks – or their jackets - on the road.” This was a sign of submission and loyalty. It was saying to Jesus, “These jackets on the ground; that’s us on the floor in total submission. We submit ourselves under your authority.”

Secondly, they praise Jesus. “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Son of David is a royal title not unlike Prince of Wales or the Duke of Edinburgh. In the bible, the Son of David was God’s way of referring to his chosen king. So for the large crowd to shout out in public that Jesus was the Son of David, they were recognizing that Jesus was this King who had been sent from God. Hence the next line in the chorus, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus had come in God’s name empowered with God’s authority.

So again, the crowds did two things: the submitted themselves to Jesus, and they sang praises to Jesus. Two very good things. Two very positive things, in fact, for any Christian to do.

And yet let me remind you of the question I asked just a few moments earlier: Did the crowds understand what kind of king he was? Do we understand what kind of king Jesus is?

You see, we, unlike the crowds, we have the benefit of reading the whole story. We have the preparation and the explanation. Matthew has prepared us and explained to us about the donkey and the reasons for the donkey. And yet when we as Christians sing songs like “Hosanna in the highest” are we singing in a way that is no different from the crowd? I sincerely hope not.

Hosanna means “Save us!” And yet, tell me what did this crowd want Jesus to save them from? A bad government. Oppression. Injustice. Suffering. Poverty. The Roman government. And how did they think Jesus was going to save them? As a conquering king. With God’s awesome power.

The “large crowd” did not understand that Jesus was the gentle king of Zechariah 9. I wonder if they even noticed that Jesus was riding in on a donkey. Some of them might have gone, “Hmm, that’s a big strange.” A bit like seeing David Cameron being driven up to Number 10 Downing Street in Paul’s car, a Renault Clio. No, all they saw was Jesus – Conquering King, coming in God’s power, Defeater of the Roman Empire.

The prophet Zechariah would have said to them, “See.” You need to open your eyes and see. Daughter of Zion, meaning Jerusalem, see your gentle king. See your humble king. See your king who has come to you in peace.

Notice that Zechariah was referring not just to the crowd, but to all the people of Jerusalem. Their response can be found at the end, in verses 10 to 11.

4. The king has come. The king is coming.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Matthew 21:10-11

Who does this guy think he is – causing this massive traffic jam on the high street?

When it says that, “the whole city was stirred”, it wasn’t saying that everyone was talking about Jesus in Jerusalem, “Oooo, check this guy out!” Rather it is describing how everyone in the city was shaken by Jesus’ arrival. “Is this outsider gonna cause any trouble?”

The crowds reply, “This Jesus is that prophet we’ve all been hearing about. He comes from the northern town of Nazareth in Galilee.” You need to realize what this sounded like to someone living in Jerusalem. It was like telling a Nobel-prize winning Cambridge professor, “Check out that really smart kid from the primary school in the small village up in Arbury who coloured inside the lines.”

I mean, this was Jerusalem, the city of the kings. Jerusalem: home to the temple of God and the ark of God’s presence. Why are you talking to me about some lowly-educated carpenter’s son from Galilee?
All this is to answer the question: What were their expectations of Jesus? The people living in Jerusalem saw Jesus as nothing more than a trouble-maker. The crowds and fans saw Jesus as a king arriving in power to save them from Rome.

Both expectations were mistaken because both did not see Jesus as he truly was. “See your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey.” The crowds did not want a gentle king. Jerusalem could never accept a humble king. What about us here today at the Chinese Church? Do we see Jesus as he truly is? Like the crowd, it is easy to fool ourselves because on the outside it looks like we’re saying the right thing and acting the right way. Like the crowd we can sing at the top of our lungs, “Hosanna! Hosanna!” and we can bow down in submission. But like the crowds, we need to ask ourselves what are we asking Jesus to do for us? How do we expect Jesus to save us?

I remember a big mega-church back in Singapore which calls its meetings “Celebration services”. I was a young Christian when I first heard that - Celebration service – and thought, “Hmm, that’s a pretty good name for a church meeting”. Not bible study. Not prayer meeting. It was Celebration service. Lively music, amazing band, charismatic song leader and singing! Wow, it really seemed like a celebration! Again, I thought, “Cool!”

But during these celebration services there would a strong emphasis on, well, celebrating. Celebrating life. Celebrating the miracles that God did in our lives. Celebrating the health and the wealth that we receive from God. Which are all good things to ask for and pray for from God, I need to say.

But the question is: How do we expect Jesus to save us? Is it by giving us a better job? A nicer house? Healing our sickness?

Jesus was arriving in Jerusalem to go to the cross. He would be tortured, stripped naked, hung on a cross, bleeding and suffocating to his last breath. And there at the cross, crowds would gather to spit on him. They would curse Jesus to his face, “Save yourself”. Because they could never imagine that a man hanging on a cross could save them – could save them from their sins.

But that’s what Jesus came to do. He came as the king on the cross. He took our rejection of God and he took God’s rejection of us. Sin is us saying to God, “I don’t want you as God”. Sin is us saying to Jesus, “I don’t want you as my King.” That’s sin: it’s rejection. And on the cross, Jesus took our sin and he took God’s punishment for our sin, which is death.

Friends, I think, “celebration service” is a wonderful way of describing our church meetings. But we need to celebrate the cross. “Hosanna” is a good song to sing – but we need to sing it praising Jesus for the cross. And Jesus is the Christ – he is the King – but he ascends to the right hand of God by going to the cross.

Do you see this? Do you see your king, gentle and coming on a donkey. Meaning: do you see Jesus now coming in peace and offering salvation through the cross? Not everyone does, but I hope you do. Because friends, the bible says that one day, every eye will see him. On that last day, Jesus will return riding on a white horse, no longer in peace, but riding in victory and judgement.

Revelation 19:11 says, “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war.” One day Jesus will return in justice and in judgement. One day Jesus will return as the conquering King.

But that is not today. Today we are able to sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Let earth receive her King.” Today we can sing, “Hark the herald angels sing ‘Glory to the newborn King! Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.’”

We can sing that because Jesus came two thousand years ago to bring us peace. By coming as the king, yes, but as the king who went to the cross. The bible prepares us for this King. The bible explains to us who is this King. And the bible tells us, Expect this King – Christ Jesus – who comes to brings us peace, salvation and joy.

Hark the herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled"
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"