Saturday 31 March 2012

Poured out

There is a pivotal scene from the 1997 movie “Gattaca” I have been replaying in my head all week as I've been reading Philippians. Two brothers, Vincent and Anton, compete against each other by swimming out to sea. It is a game they've played ever since they were kids, a game they called “chicken”. Essentially a test of strength and stamina, both brothers would swim out to sea and they would keep on going until one would give up and turn back to shore. That person was always Vincent. He was always the “chicken”. Born with a heart condition, Vincent repeatedly lost to his younger yet stronger brother, Anton.

Now as adults, Anton was still the stronger of the two. Vincent continued to struggle with his physical ailment. Still, something had changed. As they set out to open waters, each time Anton turned aside to look at his brother, there was Vincent, pulling ahead. “How are you doing this, Vincent?” the bewildered Anton asks. Vincent keeps pushing on. Only towards the end, as Anton tires from the strain and gives up does Vincent reply his brother, “You wanted to how I did it? That’s how I did it, Anton. I never saved anything for the swim back.”

The apostle Paul, writing from prison, contemplating the possibility of execution because of his ministry in preaching the gospel, writes:

Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.
Philippians 2:17

In considering the totality of his life, poured out for the sake of the gospel, Paul rejoices. He holds nothing back. Everything is spent for this one single purpose, towards this one single direction: to glorify Christ whether by life or even by death (Philippians 1:20). Finally, he calls upon us as Christians to do the same.

Likewise, you also should be glad and rejoice with me.
Philippians 2:18

SEEC 2012

I will leading a workshop at next week's South England Easter Conference (SEEC) on the topic of work. Here is the blurb I submitted to the organisers.

The bible teaches us that all work matters to God. All work. In this workshop we explore the theology of work as worship, the origin of toil and the fulfillment of rest in Jesus Christ. Additionally, we will look at the practical issues of career aspirations, witnessing in the workplace and serving within your local church.

Friday 30 March 2012

Walk as one (Ephesians 4:1-6)

Two cultures, one church

The church in Ephesus was as church of two different generations: old and new. It was a gathering of two conflicting cultures: Jew and Gentile. This was a church in tension. The two factions were under pressure to splinter and to split. What kind of church is this? A divided church? A disunited church? Some of us might even say, “This sounds like a Chinese Church!”

If you turn to the very beginning of the letter, Paul writes, “To the saints in Ephesus,” and most of your bibles will have footnote to that verse, which reads, “Some manuscripts do not have Ephesus.” What does this mean? This problem was not unique to its location. Paul was, in fact, writing a generic letter addressing a common situation. Unlike Romans, Galatians, Philippians and Colossians, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians does not mention any individuals by name. It does not contain any details specific to Ephesus (events or places), except, of course, for the opening address in Chapter 1, which the footnotes tells us, is missing in some manuscripts. The word Ephesus may not have been there in the first place.

What it means is: Paul was writing about situation that is real in, that is relevant to every church. Most likely, Ephesians was a circular letter: Paul did write this to Ephesus originally, but he wanted other churches to pay attention to the situation in Ephesus, as if to say, This is about your church. Their problem is your problem. And more importantly, their solution is your solution.

The issue is unity. How do you unite two cultures in conflict with one another? How do you reconcile two family members alienated from one another? How do encourage two different congregations - one speaks Putong Hwa, the other, English, mate; one likes slow songs, the other rocks out to Hillsongs - to love one another, to worship one God together, to meet as one church?

We will look at what the bible says under three headings:

(1) Our calling as the church: to be the body of Christ
(2) Our unity as the church: which we keep in the Spirit
(3) Our worship as the church: to the one God and Father of all

Our calling, our unity and our worship - as the Chinese Church here in Cambridge, as the people of God redeemed under Christ.

1. Our calling as the church

Paul opens with a passionate appeal. He pulls out all the stops. I mean, look at what he says in verse 1. You can almost hear the violins playing in the background.

As a prisoner of the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.
Ephesians 4:1

This is serious, Paul seems to be saying. I am in chains. Locked up. If my incarceration means anything to you, please listen. More than that, if you have truly been called - referring to God’s call to you in Christ - Paul says, I urge you to do this one thing: Live a life worthy of that calling. Literally, Paul uses the word walk (peripateo in Greek). Walk in a way that is worthy of your calling. There is something visible about your walk, the way you live your life. When someone looks at you, they see the manner in which you go about your work, your relationships, your studies, and they see something that says This is where I’m headed. This is how I’m going to get there. The question is: what will they see when they look at you?

Back in Ephesians 2, Paul answered this question with two possibilities. Two walks. (1) You either walk in death: following the devil, following the world and following your sinful desires (Ephesians 2:1-3). Or (2) you walk in Jesus Christ, renewed in him, forgiven through his blood, enabled by God to do good works. Paul writes:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Ephesians 2:10 (English Standard Version)

And here, Paul says to the Christian, Walk this way. In a way or manner that is worthy, that is a result of (or working out of, see last week’s sermon) God’s call to you in Jesus Christ. In other words, walk in response to God’s call. That’s an important distinction. God’s call comes first, your walk comes second as a response to that call. Paul is not telling you to earn your salvation. Rather your Christian walk is enabled by your salvation. Verse 1 literally reads, “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” God has already called you in Christ. You respond to that call by turning to him in repentance and trust in Jesus for forgiveness and new life. So Paul says to the Christian, You have been called, you have been saved. Now walk each day consistently with that call. God prepared good works for you to walk in, to display as the fruit of that call.

The question is: What does that look like? What does the truly authentic Christian walk look like?

Think about it for a moment. Should the authentic Christian be loving? Well yes, he should. Sacrificial? Of course, she must be. Generous? Certainly! And if you’ve peeked at the very next verse, all these ingredients are there. The difference is, Paul doesn’t list these qualities as individual traits, like on a CV (Hmm, I see that Mr X is responsible, patient and capable) - as impressive as these qualities are, as important as they may be for every Christian believer. Rather, Paul sets each and every one of these characteristics in the context of Christian relationships. Or to put it simply, Paul says, If you want to see the authentic Christian walk, look at the church.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
Ephesians 4:2

The context of these characteristics is the church. Remind that to yourself this Sunday, The person sitting next to me is put there by God for me to relate to as my brother, as my sister in Christ. To be patient with, to be bear with, to love. It is not easy. Actually, Paul is saying, This will be hard. It is much easier to be proud; to want to impress our neighbour and get them to like us. It is much easier to be assertive with our views and our rights. It is much easier to talk to the people we already know instead of some stranger whom I do not know. But that is not the Christian walk. That is not the Christian church.

            Humility and gentleness (literally, lowliness and meekness) are words used in the Old Testament of the poor and the oppressed. In other words, when Paul says, Be completely humble and gentle, he is telling us to empty ourselves and to relate to one another as beggars, as slaves, as orphans. I was very encouraged recently by a brother in Thailand, who has been cycling around the country visiting orphanages dressed as Superman. Looking at the photos he’s posted on Facebook, I’m struck by how excited the kids are to have Superman turn up in their classroom teaching them English; how joyful these kids are to have Superman hanging out with them in the playground and swimming with them at the lake. Now my point is not that you should dress up as Superman in church next Sunday (though I’m sure the kids at Sunday School would love that!). And yes, there is a lot we could learn from our brother in Thailand in terms of his sacrifice, love and generosity. But my bigger point is this: We need to learn from the orphans. We need to learn from their humility, their gentleness and even their joy. Sometimes we turn up in church acting like we’re Superman. We’re in disguise, of course, but we say to ourselves, If only these guys could see that big red S on my chest, boy, they’d be impressed. We forget that we are all orphans who have been adopted into God’s family through Jesus Christ. We forget that we are all beggars brought into God’s banquet at his expense.

So the first set of qualities talks about an inner weakness within ourselves - Be completely humble and gentle - but now, the second set of qualities deals with external weakness in others - Be patient; bear with one another in love. I like the translations which preserve the phrase “long-suffering” in place of “patience” here in verse 2. When I say the word patience, people think of a late bus or a delayed flight. But mention long-suffering and you start to hear stories of that unreasonable boss who makes you work overtime on weekends or the insensitive neighbour who stays up all night playing Halo on full volume. Those are the kinds of situations Paul has in mind. Those of the kinds of people Paul is telling us to love here in the church. The ones who annoy you. The kids who make a mess and don’t clean up. The adults who act like they know everything and keep telling you what to do. Bear with one another in love. Imagine that, Paul is actually telling me to love that person, whom I finding it so easy to ignore and hate. Now, notice this: Paul does say, Bear with one another. Meaning, even when you’re hurt and you’re really mad over something a brother or sister did that was unloving towards you - You can still be patient. You might not be able to hug it out, but you can hold back from retaliating. That, too, is loving.

This isn’t a lovey-dovey list of mushy nonsense, now is it? The bible is teaching us how to deal with our weakness and how to respond to weakness in others. The bible is defining love. Love isn’t turning up in church one day, buying everyone chocolates and roses and saying, “I love you!” That’s sentimentality. Love means emptying yourself to fill another person’s need. It is saying to that person, I am willing to enter into a position of weakness so that you can be strong. That is why all these qualities are seen most clearly in Jesus who approached us in humility, with gentleness, who bore our sins and who loved us from the cross. He emptied himself so we could be filled. He humbled himself so we could be glorified. The bible is calling us to do nothing that Jesus did not do himself, which God now empowers us to be able to do through his Spirit.

2. Our unity as the church

Make every effort to keep the unity (or oneness) of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 4:3

When there’s a dispute within the church, when two factions are at odds with one another, this is the response. This is Paul’s strategy in dealing with conflict: Do everything you can to keep the oneness of the Spirit. That’s counter-intuitive. It’s almost paradoxical. Because on one hand, you make every effort, you explore every solution - you don’t just leave the situation as is and hope for the best. Instead, you make it a priority and you do something about it. On the other hand, what you’re focussing on is not the conflict itself, not the internal strife, but an external solution: The unity of the Spirit. It’s an internal problem with an external solution.

Unity is not something you can ever create within the church. Unity is external to the church. What we are called to do is maintain this unity. To keep it. Now, that’s radical. Why? In a business environment, you foster unity by sending employees on team-building exercises: paintball sessions and away day programs. In sports like basketball and football, it is vital that teammates work together towards a common goal, that everyone does their job and plays their part. In other words, we create unity by finding common ground, establishing better communication, by working towards a common goal. That sounds good, right? Yet, remember the tower of Babel. “The whole people had one language and a common (or literally, one) speech” (Genesis 11:1). They had one purpose: to build a tower reaching the heavens, to establish a name for themselves. They had one strategy: make bricks of stone, use tar for mortar. In other words, this was a strategy for uniformity - every brick was exactly the same, held together by the same material. God saw the pride in their unity and responded with judgement. God did not destroy the tower; the building wasn’t the object of his judgement. He struck at the heart of their unity - their language. “That is why it is called Babel (which sounds like the Hebrew word for confused) - because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world” (Genesis 11:9). The tower of Babel is there in the bible to remind us that there is such a thing as bad unity. Unity for the sake of our pride. Unity that emphasises uniformity. Unity in rebellion to God’s sovereignty.  This is not the unity that Paul calls us to maintain. This is not the unity of the Spirit.

            Paul calls it a bond of peace. It’s like a rope that tie us up or a seat belt that keeps us down. That might be an uncomfortable picture for some of us to have in our minds. We would much prefer handlebars of peace, which we hold on to and let go at any point. The mention of peace however is an important reference back to Jesus in Chapter 2. There we see that Paul calls Jesus “our peace”.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one humanity out of the two, thus making peace and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Ephesians 2:14-16

Our hostility with one another is first and foremost a hostility against God. The way Jesus deals with our hostility - our anger, our hate, our suspicion of another, our racism towards one another, our pride over one another - is he “puts it to death”. He takes it into his body and he kills it. The cross is the symbol of our hostility to God and to one another. And the cross is the symbol of the price Jesus paid so that we can be reconciled to God and to one another. He is our peace.

And we are his body.

3. Our worship as the church

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Ephesians 4:4-6

In all things, we see the oneness of God. By oneness, I mean God’s diversity: as Father, Son and Spirit. By oneness, I mean God’s exclusivity: there is only one God, echoing the Shema: “Hear O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). By oneness, I mean God’s sovereignty: God stands over and above all things as creator, judge and saviour.

            Which leads me to conclude that there is another dimension to God’s oneness, a more important one, that isn’t simply reflected in the unity of the church. As important as unity is as an expression of the Spirit, as a reflection of the work of Jesus Christ who is our peace, these closing verses are drawing our attention away from our unity as the church to God’s unity in himself. This is a call to worship:To worship the one God as the Trinity, the only God in his exclusivity, to praise the sovereign God in his majesty. God’s unity is seen in our worship as his people. God’s oneness is displayed in our walk as the church. Paul began with the passionate appeal to believers to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which we have been called. Here he ends by clarifying what that walk looks like, what our daily lives entail, what our relationships with one another in the church is truly an expression of: It is worship! Our walk is our worship before God.

            You could turn verses 4 to 6 into a song (or better still, a rap - one Spirit, one Lord, one God; of all, through all, in all - uh huh!) And many scholars think that Paul has adapted an early Christian confession. I don’t think so. I think what we have here is spontaneous from Paul (and maybe even slightly clumsy, especially where he says, you have been called to one hope when you were called). It is worshipful praise. Now what has caused this? Paul has been reflecting on just how difficult and tricky it is to get a church to function together as one body. To love another, or even just to put up with one another. They have to make every effort to do this, to keep their focus on the Jesus as their peace, to apply the fruit of the Spirit in their daily lives. That’s hard. That’s challenging. But as Paul writes this and reflects on how God is working powerfully behind the scenes to make this happen in his church, Paul can’t help but explode in praise. He looks at this church in Ephesus, with its factions, with its problems yet held together by the gospel and he sees God working in all, through all, over all things for his glory.

            This is worship. Worship isn’t the thirty or so minutes you spend on a Sunday singing choruses and waving your hands. It’s not just that. It’s the way you greeted one another as you sat down. It’s the way you go out for ice-cream afterwards and talk about your lives (and maybe even this passage from Ephesians). It’s the way you walk across the hall to say hello to someone who comes every week but who is always sitting alone. It’s the way you forgive a brother or sister who has hurt you. It’s the way you put yourself in a position of weakness to strengthen another.

This is 24/7, authentic, Spirit-filled worship. Every step of the way as you follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour: Your walk is your worship. Walk in a way that is worthy, Paul says, and the result is a reflection, not simply our oneness as the body of Christ, but a powerful display of God’s oneness. There is one Spirit, one Lord, one God who is Father of all, who is over all, who is through all, who is in all.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Shine like stars (Philippians 2:14-16)

Yesterday at the Chinese Church, we looked at Paul’s encouragement to Christians to continuously work out our salvation. That means, as followers of Jesus we are to be (1) consistent in our obedience, (2) confident in Christ’s work on the cross, and (3) courageous in living for the gospel.

One thing we didn’t have time to look at was how God uses our work as a witness to the world.

Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.
Philippians 2:14-15

1. Do all things without grumbling or questioning

In 1 Corinthians 10:31, Paul writes, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all things to the glory of God.” That’s the positive encouragement. What we have here in Philippians is the negative discouragement, Do all things without grumbling or questioning. In the context of the letter, where Paul is separated from the church due to his imprisonment in Rome, it is likely that he is warning the believers from grumbling against their leaders. Notice how he immediately commends Timothy (verse 22: “But you know Timothy’s proven worth”) and Epaphroditus (verse 29: “So receive him in the Lord and honour such men.”) in the remaining verses of Chapter 2.

Yet Paul is also saying much more to us than simply, Don’t cause trouble, or Keep your complaints to yourselves. He uses a phrase from the Old Testament book of Exodus used to describe the nation of Israelites who have just been rescued from slavery in Egypt. In the desert, the Israelites repeatedly grumbled against Moses and questioned God’s goodness as they faced hunger (Exodus 16, where the word “grumbling” occurs six times) and thirst (Exodus 17 where the word “quarrel” or “question” occurs three times). In both cases, God responded to their grumbling and quarreling with grace and goodness - he sends the quail and manna for food; he instructs Moses to strike the rock releasing the water. Still, the tragedy of the Israelites’ dissatisfaction was this: They had so easily forgotten God’s salvation. Here were a people who been rescued from slavery, who had seen with their own eyes God’s power poured out upon Egypt, who had received the promise of even greater things - the Promised Land, the Tabernacle, the Law; but who had taken their salvation for granted.

Remember that the book of Exodus opens with the Israelites crying out to God (Exodus 2:23). God heard their cry, he remembered his promises to them, and he acted on those promises by sending Moses to save them. In times of difficulty and distress, we can call out to God who hears us, we should call out to Jesus who saves. But Paul is differentiates that sincere cry for help, that expression of helplessness, that call for justice, from an insincere heart that rejects God’s salvation and questions his goodness.

Do everything without grumbling or questioning, Paul says to us. It is a call to examine the attitudes of our actions, the motives behind our ministry, the sincerity of our service of one another and before God in whose kingdom we serve.

2. In the midst of a crooked and depraved generation

Paul contrasts the attitude of the Christian with that of a “crooked and depraved generation”. Who is he describing? At first glance, it looks like the non-believer. After all, he ends by speaking of Christians as lights shining brightly “in the world”. Yet that word “generation” should clue us in on the fact that Paul is still using the language of the Exodus (remember how Moses’ entire generation was excluded from the Promised Land), quoting a passage from Deuteronomy 32 known as the Song of Moses. Interestingly, this song echoes much of the language found here in Paul’s letter. Have a look:

They have dealt corruptly with him;
they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
they are a crooked and twisted generation.
Deuteronomy 32:5

Is Paul thinking of the non-believer? Yes, but I think a better name for it is non-receiver. The crooked and twisted generation was not a reference to pagans, to the Egyptians or to the Canaanites, all of whom did not know the God of the bible, all of whom worshipped other gods instead of the God of the bible. Rather, in his song, Moses is describing his own generation, his own people, the Israelites who knew God and yet chose to reject God. Rather than disbelieving God, they chose not to receive him as God.

It is in this sense that Paul is describing the world and contrasting the world against Christians, whom he calls, “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish.” Paul does not mean that Christians are blameless in and of themselves. No, the only difference between them and the rest of the world is that Christians have received God’s promise of salvation. They are blameless because of the work of Jesus Christ who took their blemishes, meaning their sin and shame, upon himself, and transferred his righteousness and acceptance onto them. Jesus is the spotless lamb, without blemish, offered up on the cross in our place to take the blame of our punishment, to bear God’s anger for our sin.

The difference between the Christian and the world, between God’s children and God’s enemies, between the blameless and the blemished is simply this: It is Jesus. You either receive Jesus or reject Jesus. And Paul says this world has chosen to reject Jesus as Lord. We live amongst a non-receiving generation.

3. Among whom you shine like stars in the world

How then does God use us as his witnesses in this world? I think the answer might surprise you because here, at the end of verse 15, when we finally get to the exciting bit about “shining like stars”, which might have caused us to conjure up in our minds powerful images of mission, evangelism, acts of service, tangible displays of love - we find that verse 15 is not actually a command from Paul, but rather the result of a command. Paul does not say to Christians, “Shine!” (Or “Let your light shine before others,” as Jesus commands in his famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:16). No, the command is not found in verse 15, but previously in verse 14: Do everything without grumbling or questioning.

In other words, it is not the impressiveness and the excellence of your lives as Christians that makes you shine like stars. The command is not to be the star - to win the X-Factor and sing “Shine, Jesus, Shine” at the finals in front of Simon Cowell and the unbelieving world. That isn’t what Paul has in mind. Neither is it to build a successful multinational company so that you can use all your profits to plant churches around the world. That is not the command.

The command is to do everything without grumbling, without questioning in submission to God as an expression of our dependence upon God and our faith in Christ. Friends, this means you can do this right now. The way you are revising for that Tripos in June. The way you speak to your colleagues at work. The way you serve the Sunday School kids in church. The way you provide for your family at home. Do everything without grumbling or questioning, and Paul says, the world is going to notice the difference in your lives. Do this, Jesus says, and the world will recognise and give thanks to your Father in heaven.

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Matthew 5:16

Please don't mis-hear me. Of course you can and you should pursue excellence. Remember that Philippians 2:14 and 1 Corinthians 10:31 are flip-sides of the same coin. Do everything to the glory of God, Paul writes to the Corinthians. Yet in the pursuit of excellence, be wary of making excellence your god (Hence the context of 1 Corinthians 10 is idolatry). Be careful of turning your job, your ministry, your witness into your basis for righteousness before God. I think that’s why the bible gives us both commands as a safeguard. Do all things to the glory of God. Do all things without bitterness. And as we do this, we learn obedience. As we obey this, we learn grace. As we lean on God’s grace, we experience God’s joy.

In other words, God wants his glory to be seen in every believer. God wants all Christians to shine for him no matter where they are, no matter what job they are in, no matter what situation of life they are dealing with. This is not a call to be a celebrity for Jesus. This is a reminder of the power the comes from trusting completely in Jesus in your day-to-day lives as children of God.

This is all it takes for the unbelieving world to sit up and take notice: Live for Jesus, trust in Jesus and you will shine for Jesus. Having said that, it will never be enough to change an unbelieving world. As important as it is to live consistently with the gospel and as attractive as it is to behold a life transformed by the gospel, in the end what the world needs is the gospel.

4. Holding out the word of life

Holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labour in vain.
Philippians 2:16

The gospel must always be at the centre of our witness to Jesus. Otherwise, says Paul, it would all have been for nothing.

If you are a Christian, yes, it is important that you “live such good lives amongst the pagans, that though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God” on that final day (1 Peter 2:12). But at some point, you will have to open your mouths. You will have to talk about Jesus. The gospel is the word of life. Only by hearing and responding to the gospel can anyone be saved.

If you are a non-Christian, maybe you have noticed how your Christian friends go about their daily lives - in the classroom, in the workplace, queueing in line at Sainsbury’s. I hope you have seen a difference. I hope these Christians have been loving, patient, generous, kind. Perhaps you might say to me, “No, actually there hasn’t been a difference,” or, “Their lives haven’t been consistent with the bible.” Yet I do want to draw your attention back to what Paul is saying here: the biggest difference isn’t in a changed life (as amazing as that is), the biggest is seen in the word that gives new life. The difference is the gospel - which says we can never be good enough for God. It is the gospel - which frankly tells us we all stand under the judgement of God. It is the good news - that Jesus Christ has taken our judgement and given us his reward through his death on the cross. Do you see this difference in the gospel?

Friends, if we do not see the gospel - that the gospel is central, that the gospel is absolutely essential, that the gospel alone saves us and changes us, Paul says, we have missed the plot. No amount of labour, evangelistic programs, acts of kindness, church events, sacrificial giving can ever replace the gospel. And that is such wonderful news, because the gospel is all about Jesus’ work. Not ours. We witness to his finished work on our behalf on the cross.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Work out your salvation (Philippians 2:12-18)

The Jeremy Lin problem

About a month ago, the New York Times published an op-ed piece entitled, “The Jeremy Lin Problem”. In case you don’t know who this is referring to, Jeremy Shu-How Lin is a 23-year old Asian-American basketball player who went unnoticed for most of his career up until February this year when he started leading the New Yorks in a string of wins, sparking the interest of sports fans within the United States and worldwide, in a phenomenon that has now widely come to be known as “Linsanity”. He is a graduate from Harvard University with a degree in economics (which explains why he is such a hit with the Tiger Mums). Unlike many basketball personalities, Jeremy does not use coarse language on or off the court but comes across in interviews as courteous, polite and is often heard commending his team-mates rather than putting them down.

Yet according to columnist David Brooks, Jeremy Lin has an anomaly; by which he is not talking about Jeremy’s ethnicity, education or athletic ability. You see, Jeremy Lin is a Christian, and the article suggests that his biggest anomaly - Jeremy’s greatest problem - is this: “He’s a religious person in professional sports”. David writes:

“The modern sports hero is competitive and ambitious. (Let’s say he’s a man, though these traits apply to female athletes as well). He is theatrical. He puts himself on display...This is what we go to sporting events to see. This sporting ethos pervades modern life and shapes how we think about business, academic and political competition.

But there’s no use denying — though many do deny it — that this ethos violates the religious ethos on many levels. The religious ethos is about redemption, self-abnegation and surrender to God.”

Notice how this doesn’t just apply to basketball and sports: “The sporting ethos... shapes how we think about business, academic and political competition.” The conflict that is described here applies to you as a student, as a businessman. It affects the way someone runs for political office (or treasurer of ABACUS). In any and every situation where you will need to prove yourself and deliver on a set of goals, this article is saying that your belief in God is going to trip you up and hold you back. Trusting in Jesus is incompatible with achievement in the workplace, or so the article suggests.

Our passage today begins with humility but ends with glory. Paul, who wrote this letter to the Christians at Philippi, focuses on the obedience, the sacrifice, the humility of Jesus Christ but from that centre of Christian faith, he urges us to work out our salvation; in other words, to strive. Right at the end, he points to the athlete and to the hard-working farmer as illustrations of what it means to live to God’s glory. It is a tension that the bible insists is authentic and essential for every believer. We need both - to trust Jesus for our salvation and to work out our salvation.

We will approach this passage under three headings:

1. Be faithful: God is present
2. Be confident: God is working
3. Be all in: God is rejoicing

Be faithful: God is present

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
Philippians 2:12-13

Paul begins by telling his readers, This is something you already know. In fact, it’s what you have always been doing. Paul begins with their obedience, in the first instance, to him as their senior pastor. Paul looks back at the history he has had with these Christians and he smiles. “I thank God every time I remember you”(Philippians 1:3). While the NIV has “my dear friends” in verse 12, a better translation would be “loved ones.” This is the ultimate bromance. Here is a deep affection, a real connection, a partnership in the gospel.

Now, when Paul talks about obedience, he isn’t dealing with a church who is going, “Who does this guy think he is - telling us what to do?” No, he says You have always obeyed. But now, it is even more important that you continue in your obedience in my absence. Why? Because their ultimate obedience isn’t to Paul but towards God. “Not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence,” adding these words, with fear and trembling.

Obedience has a bad rap today. It is seen as foolish. It is considered dangerous. Our modern understanding of democracy and freedom encourages us to question any authority that sets itself up against popular opinion, to rebel against any power that suppresses the voice of the people. So when we read Paul’s words encouraging Christians to obey God with fear and trembling, it is possible that some of us imagine a harsh dictator oppressing his citizens using force and coercion. Yet what we need to realise is that Paul has just been describing Jesus Christ, exalted by God to the highest place as Lord and Judge because of his obedience - an obedience which verse 8 says, flows from humility and led to indignity, to a shameful death on the cross. His obedience is rooted in a loving relationship with God the Father. His obedience is empowered through a humble dependence on the Spirit of God. And Paul says, ours is the same.

That’s the why of obedience: we obey Jesus, who himself was obedient unto death. But now Paul deals with the questions of how and when. How are you obedient to God? When do you display your obedience to Jesus Christ?

The answer is not just when you’re in church. Not just when your leaders are around to give you a pat on the back for helping set up the sound system, for teaching the kids at Sunday school. If that is what you’ve been doing so far, Paul is saying, That’s good. Well done. But... But it is even more vital that you continue in obedience when there’s no one watching. “But now much more in my absence,” he writes.

In other words: Are you the same person on and off the court? If here in the Chinese Church with your brothers and sisters around, you are a gracious person, a loving brother, a caring sister, a helpful servant - would I see the same person on Monday morning, when you are in the office, when you are stuck in traffic, when you are revising for your exams at the Central Library, when you are at home with mum and dad, when clocks have switched over and you’ve had one hour less sleep. It is even more important for us as Christians to be obedient in the absence of authority because ultimately, we answer to God’s authority mediated through Jesus Christ. This is faithfulness. This is true obedience.

It is unfortunate when the topic of God’s authority is brought up only to justify rebelling against a human authority - like oppressive governments, dictators and the like. The bible teaches us as Christians to submit to authority; that there is no authority except that which God has established; and that he who rebels against authority, rebels against God (Romans 13:1-2). Some even find excuses within the bible to justify rebelling against church authority, citing passages like 1 Corinthians 4:4 (“It is the Lord who judges me”) while ignoring 1 Corinthians 5:12 (“Are you not to judge those inside?”), dealing with church discipline. Again, these troublemakers are not the ones Paul has in mind. Rather, Paul says of his friends in Philippi, You have always obeyed. Now do so even more in my absence.

The immediate context is authority over God’s church and accountability amongst God’s people. Paul as the founding pastor writes from prison, in chains. That is the reason for his absence. He is confident that he will be released soon (Philippians 1:25-26), but until then, he writes to this small congregation in the city of Philippi, encouraging them to remain faithful in the gospel.

How does that translate here in the Chinese Church? Two years ago, we had two senior pastors. Two years on, we have none. And it is tempting to put off our responsibilities as the Chinese Church until the next one is found. It is tempting to put off mission, prayer, devotion, evangelism, membership until a pastor is here, because really, some of us might think, That’s his responsibility. That is his job. Notwithstanding the importance the bible places on clear leadership within God’s church, especially with regards to the teaching of scripture, with regards to the accountability over people’s spiritual lives, isn’t this text saying to all of us - whether we are leaders or not - How are we being faithful to Jesus now? When Jesus returns on that final day and asks you for an accounting for your life, I sincerely hope you aren’t planning on giving the excuse, “Well, it’s not my fault. We didn’t have a pastor. That’s his job.”

Paul is telling us, Be faithful today. Learn obedience now. God is your sovereign judge. That phrase “with fear and trembling” recurs in the Old Testament describing man’s response to God’s final judgement (see Exodus 15:16). Most notable however is Psalm 2, where it is speaking not just of God’s enemies (though it does includes them as “the kings of the earth”), but calls them his servants; those who “serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11). Psalm 2 is the same psalm spoken by God at Jesus’ baptism and at his transfiguration, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” It recognises Jesus’ authority as God’s chosen King, the Christ. Meaning, for Christians today, our obedience to Jesus is not simply motivated by the final day of judgement - in dread and fear - but rather more so because of Jesus’ death on the cross, where he was exalted as the Christ. Christians therefore serve Jesus in love tempered with obedience, in joy sustained by reverence. Serve the LORD, the Psalmist says, with fear and rejoice with trembling.

Which is why, Paul doesn’t say Watch out for judgement! Rather, what he says next is Work out your salvation!

Be confident: God is working

Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act (literally, to work) according to his good purpose.
Philippians 2:12b-13

Have you ever had someone say to you, “Try your best and God will do the rest”? When you are at a crossroads in your life and you can’t decide which path to take; when you feel like giving up on a long and difficult situation that never seems to improve; when you are stressed out about facing a huge challenge - an assignment, an exam, an interview - it is such an encouragement to know that God is always in control. That you should just do what you can, try your best and God will take care of the rest.

Having said that, I don’t think that’s what Paul is saying. I think he’s saying something even more profound, and much more encouraging.

On the one hand, Paul says Continue to work out your salvation. Keep working at it. Don’t give up, that’s what it means. Give it all you’ve got. Two very important things to notice about what Paul is saying: (1) It’s continual; and (2) It’s personal.

Firstly, it’s continual. This needs to happen every day. Continue to work out your salvation. Whether you became a Christian twenty minutes ago or twenty years ago, Today, this needs to happen. Right now, work out your salvation. And tomorrow, when you get up, continue working out your salvation. The term for this is sanctification. It is a daily, continual, process of growth, renewal and relationship with Jesus Christ. Secondly, it’s personal. Your own salvation. I can’t do this for you. Your parents can’t do this for you. When it comes to prayer, reading the bible, giving, serving; especially when it comes to repenting of your sins and trusting in Jesus - you work out your own salvation.

That’s verse 12, speaking from our perspective. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling before God. The flipside though comes in verse 13. Here we find God’s perspective. For it is God who works in you. So on the one hand, yes, you need to work it out. You need to do the math. But actually God is the one working through you. Meaning this: It’s not 1% you and 99% God. That’s not what Paul is saying. Paul is not saying, “Try your best, God will take care of the rest.” Rather he is saying, God is the working God who enables you to join him in his work. It is 100% you. It is 100% God.

Where do I get this? From the second half of verse 13, “To will and to act according to his good purpose.” Whose will and whose actions is Paul describing? It’s yours. It’s not talking about God’s work, God’s will. Paul is saying your will and your actions are all determined by God. Try to wrap your heads around this: As you work out your salvation through your daily actions and decisions, the bible says that God is ultimately the one working, not just alongside you, but through you. He wills your will. He works your work. It is 100% you. It is 100% God.

What difference does this make? If you are in that situation of uncertainty and you are praying for direction. If you are in that situation of difficulty and you are praying for wisdom. If you are in that situation of helpless and you cry out to God for salvation. God help me. Please give me a sign. Please make a way. If you are stuck in difficulty, uncertainty and helplessness, I’ve got to tell you, that advice of “trying your best and letting God do the rest” will only work short-term. Now I understand why we give this advice - I’ve said the same thing to some of you in the past. But it really only works in the short-term at best, and in the long term, it may lead to even greater depression and disappointment.

Why do I say this? Because ultimately, the “1% me and 99% God” formula still draws attention to what I can do about that situation and what God expects me to do in that situation. It may just be 1%. It may just be that one thing. But when you’re stuck in depression and uncertainty and helplessness, that 1% is going to be the one thing that weighs you down. You are going to place all your eggs in that one basket. You are going to place all your chips on that one hand. You are going to spend all your energy and time finding that one key to success, that one magic prayer, that one special person and either it’s going to all work out beautifully, reducing God to a genie in a lamp who grants all your wishes because you said the right words, you came to church, because you did something right; or more likely what’s going to happen is you’re going to be disappointed with God and question your faith in him. What’s the alternative? The bible points us to a working God who work is seen in us and through us. And what Paul is saying to us as Christians is, “Join him”.

It boils down to our confidence in a sovereign, gracious God. Do you realise what Paul is implying when he says, God is the one who works “to will and to act”? He is saying, it’s not just what I do in terms of my actions, it’s not just how I do in terms of my performance, but even at the level of what I think in terms of my motivations - Why I’m doing that job, why I’m in that relationship, what I expect to get out of coming to church today. That is how sovereign and in control God is. And what that does is two things: Firstly, it frees me from second-guessing myself. Should I do this or that, does God want me to go this way or that way? - not that we should not pray over our choices - but rather it encourages me take risks for the sake of the gospel and to work out my salvation every day, How can I work on my holiness today? How can I work on my generosity today? It means I will fail. It means it is going to hurt. But that’s OK because God is in control. The bible says I can keep going back to God in repentance, asking him for forgiveness, knowing that Jesus Christ covers me with his righteousness. Secondly, it motivates me to press on with absolute confidence that my life is going somewhere. Katergazomai, translated here as working out, means to produce something, even to finish something. It means God wants my life to be fruitful, to display concrete evidences of Jesus work through my actions, words and thoughts. Earlier in the letter, Paul writes this:

Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.
Philippians 1:6

When you look at Christian, you should a big sign that says, “Work in progress”. When you look at Christ, you see blueprint, the plans of what that finished work will look like. And God guarantees us that the construction will be completed on schedule.

Let me ask put it this way: Where is your life headed? What do you hope to do with your one life such that when you look back at it, there will be no regrets? In other words, what’s the plan? Get married? Be a successful entrepreneur? Win X-Factor? Some of us hear that question and get excited - Yeah, I’m going to do this and to be that. Some of us get depressed - I have been there, done that.

Do you realise what you have here in these verses? It’s a guarantee. God will finish his  perfect work in you and through you. It’s a guarantee the bible wants you to take out and to look at every single day of your life - Every action that I take, every thought in my heart - is being used by God to change me, to mould me, to transform me to be like Jesus. If we are honest, some of those actions we’d like to take back. Some of those thoughts we deeply regret. But if God is God, and Jesus Christ is Lord, it is especially those difficult circumstances in our lives that God uses for his glory. 100% means the good years and the bad years. 100% means the times of plenty and the times of want. All of it is under God’s control. Nothing falls outside of his plan. If you have this confidence, you can look back on your life, see something really painful or difficult and you can honestly say, “I messed up,” or “Oh wow, that was really awful”, but you are able to do so without bitterness, without regret, but instead with thankfulness in your hearts and renewed trust in the grace of God. That’s the guarantee God gives us through the cross. Jesus takes all our sin, all our shame. He gives us all his joy, all his reward.

Paul is urging us: Work it out. Keep on going. Why? Because God is 100% for you in Jesus Christ. God is 100% in you, working out your salvation in Jesus Christ.

Be all in: God is rejoicing

One of my all-time favourite movies is Toh San which is Cantonese for “The god of gamblers”, starring Chow Yuen Fatt. The final scene is a real cliche: Toh San, the hero sits across the table from his arch-nemesis, Chan Kam-Sing in a high-stakes game of five-stud poker and says, “Don’t waste any more time. Let's say we go all in - 26 Million!” (Mo sai si kan. Zhou wai Sai - Yee chin lok pat man!) What’s he doing? He is going all in. Toh San bets everything he has on one hand!

In these final verses, Paul says, “I’m all in!” He does so with no regrets. No hesitation. What is more, he does so with joy. I am glad and rejoice and with all you. Paul writes:

But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.
Philippians 2:17-18

What would it take, I wonder, for you to go all in? To place everything you have on the line. To sacrifice everything you have spent your lives working towards. To risk losing it all in one go. What would it take for you to that - responsibly and willingly? We’ve looked at two possibilities so far. We looked at faithfulness: that knowledge that God owns all things and blesses us with all things. And we looked at confidence: that guarantee that God gives us through the cross. So for some, maybe what we need is to be faithful with the gifts God gives us; they are not our own; they are to be used for his kingdom. For others, it is the reminder that God is worth the investment, his guarantee is that he will bring every work to completion. His plan will never fail.

So, we’ve seen two motivations, two reasons to invest our lives fully in God. What Paul does here is give us a third: It is joy. Paul has put his life on the line. That’s what he means by the drink offering being poured out alongside the sacrifice. It’s a picture from the Old Testament temple. The sacrifice was the bull, the goat, the main thing that was offered up to God on the altar by the priest. The drink offering was the side event, almost like a toast (Yaaaamseng!) By analogy Paul is saying this: his life isn’t the most precious thing he has to offer. The most precious thing he wants he already has. It’s Jesus.

Or take this as another example. Next week, many of us will be celebrating M and L’s wedding. It’s going to be in a beautiful college here in Cambridge, there’s going to be amazing food, people are going to get all dressed up. Let’s face it, it’s going to be an elaborate, beautiful, joyful and frankly, quite costly thing to have, all on just one single day. But the two people who are paying for it all, who are bearing most of the cost - not just the money, but also the time, the effort, the preparation and the stress - for them, it is nothing compared to the most precious thing they will receive on that day - the promise to faithfully love one another in marriage as husband and wife before God. There is no comparison. The cost is real. The cost is significant. But they gladly spent it - they go all in - with fullness of joy because the most precious thing they want, they already have.

Paul says, “I am glad and I rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.” He’s saying you have that reason to go all in. If you have Jesus Christ, you have found that joy. Through Jesus Christ, God is working in your life to bring you into that joy - For it is God who is works in you to will and to act according to his good pleasure.

The Jesus Christ problem

According to the New York Times, Jeremy Lin has a big problem. He can either be religious as a Christian or he can pursue his joy in sports as an athlete. But according to columnist, David Brooks, he can’t do both. They are in conflict with one another.

And let me tell you, David Brooks is right but at the same time, profoundly wrong. It is a problem not for Jeremy Lin but for Jesus Christ. You see, how can Jesus bring glory to God and bear the punishment of God? How can Jesus save others and not himself? How can Jesus be absolute judge of the universe and at the same time be handed over to the judgement of men?

Through the cross. Don’t you see? Jesus Christ is able to do both and he did accomplish both through the cross. Mercy and wrath. Love and justice. Glory and ignominy. Life and death. They meet at the cross where Jesus Christ was crowned and crucified.

Go to the cross. Give your all to him. And receive from Jesus Christ full forgiveness, full restoration, fullness of life and fullness of joy.

Friday 23 March 2012

Walk this way

We pick up where we left off in Ephesians Chapter 4 with a new Sunday series entitled "Walk this way", beginning April 2012 at the Chinese Church. Paul refers to our daily lives as a “walk” and urges us as Christians to walk in a manner worthy of the calling we have received (Ephesians 4:1).

Walk as one (Ephesians 4:1-6)
Sunday, 1 April

Walk in truth (Ephesians 4:7-16)
Sunday, 22 April

Walk with love (Ephesians 4:17-32)
Sunday, 29 April

Thursday 22 March 2012

The transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13)

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Jesus asked the disciples. John the Baptist (who had been beheaded back in Chapter 14), or one the prophets from the Old Testament - Elijah or Jeremiah (Matthew 16:14). Jesus was more than he appeared to be; an uneducated blue-collar worker from Galilee, touring the country, preaching to masses and healing the sick. Jesus was asking his disciples, What’s the word on the street? Who do people say I am?

But then he turns to them and asks, “Who do you say I am?” What do you guys think? You, who have been with me all this time? Peter speaks up, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” It’s an amazing revelation and altogether a different answer. The Christ. Son of the Living God. Jesus was not like one of the great prophets. He wasn’t like these servants of God. The prophets spoke of him. These great men of God were his servants.

Peter didn’t have a clue what he was saying, of course. Jesus tells him plainly, “This was not revealed to you by man (in other words, you didn’t work this out yourself), but by my Father in heaven.” Just a few moments later we find Peter scolding Jesus for talking about his impending death and resurrection. “Never Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus’ reply must have stung. “Get behind me Satan!” Peter and the disciples could not conceive of a crucified Christ. It didn’t make sense to them for God to send his Son to his death. Jesus exposes their thoughts, “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” In their minds, Peter and the disciples were anticipating a human kingdom; a human king.

Yet the episode ends with Jesus giving a great promise to his friends. Some of them, according to Jesus, would see this kingdom with their own eyes. “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Six days later, some of them did.

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.
Matthew 17:1-2

Jesus was revealing who he really was, but he did so to a select few. Away from the crowds; away from the rest of the disciples, Jesus brought Peter, James and John up the high mountain by themselves. Later on, Jesus would instruct them to keep the vision to themselves. Why the secrecy?

In part, they weren’t ready. There is an awesomeness to the revelation of who Jesus is; of what he really is like that would overwhelm them to the point of fear and despair (Indeed, this is the reaction we find in verse 6). But I think there is another reason. Jesus chooses his friends. Jesus chooses who he reveals his glory to and consequently who he hides his glory from. Yes, Jesus had the Twelve with him at all times but Peter, James and John - they were in Jesus’ inner circle. They were the first of his disciples; they were the first whom Jesus called. At this point in his life, Jesus reveals to them - and not to others - who he really is. And what Peter, James and John saw that day was nothing less than Jesus’ full glory.

“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” Now, Matthew records this incident in such a way that it bears a striking resemblance to the events in Exodus when Moses encounters God at Mount Sinai. After God rescues Israel from slavery in Egypt, he brings them to his holy mountain to gather in worship before him. The people tremble with fear as they behold God’s glory in the form of fire and smoke covering the mountain and as they hear God’s voice speaking to them out of the cloud from the mountain. So terrified were the Israelites of God’s presence and especially of God’s voice that they beg Moses to mediate God’s word to them. “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” (Exodus 20:19) The people keep their distance; Moses alone approaches God on the mountain.

The result is the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant. Moses spends forty days receiving instructions from God on how Israel is to live and worship as the people of God. Now this encounter had a profound effect on Moses himself because Exodus 34 tells us how he came down the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant, not realising that “the skin on his face shone because he had been talking with God.”

So here in Matthew 17, we find the same ingredients of (a) the mountain, (b) the voice of God from the mountain and (c) an amazing transformation occurring on that same mountain. What Peter, James and John were experiencing was nothing less than an encounter with God’s presence, God’s word and God’s glory. Yet almost immediately, we see a striking difference. Unlike Moses, Jesus’ transformation was from the inside-out. His face shone, Matthew tells us, like the sun. Meaning, he wasn’t reflecting God’s glory; Jesus radiated God’s glory. Furthermore, his clothes became white “as light”. The apostle Paul, when describing Moses’ glory, equated it with something that was impermanent; something that was being brought to an end (2 Corinthians 3), whereas Jesus is called the “radiance of the glory of God” (Hebrews 1:3). In other words, Moses’ transformation was external; Jesus’ glory was internal. His transformation was from the inside-out.

This was something new. This was something altogether different; from Moses’ encounter with God; from anything ever recorded in the Old Testament scriptures. There was continuity and yet a profound discontinuity with Jesus. As if to drive home this point, two of the greatest figures in Israel’s history appear next, Moses and Elijah, and they are talking to Jesus on the mountain.

And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Matthew 17:3-5

Notice the two sudden occurrences in these verses, marked by the word “behold”. Behold! - there appeared to them Moses and Elijah; Behold! - a bright cloud overshadowed them. The three disciples were caught off-guard. They saw two completely unexpected, spectacular visions. The bible punctuates each of these visions with a Wow! (or Wahlauweh!, if you are Chinese).

In reaction to the first vision, Peter says to Jesus, “Lord it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents.” I like how Mark explains Peter’s response: “he did not know what to say” (Mark 9:6) which is a nice way of saying that Peter was being an idiot. He had just seen Jesus transformed with light, and then Moses and Elijah appear next to Jesus; so Peter’s first instinct is ask if they would like to stay for tea and biscuits. “Lord, it is good that we are here,” Peter say, by which he is not expressing how privileged it was for him and his two friends to be there with Jesus and Moses and Elijah. Rather, what he is saying is, “Good thing you brought your buddies with you, Jesus. We got your back. I’ll just go pitch us some tents and we can all gather round the campfire, holding hands and singing Kumbayah.”

The King James Version has Peter saying, “let us make here three tabernacles.” It is the same word used to describe the tent of meeting/Tabernacle constructed during the Exodus as God’s ordained place of worship. The Tabernacle was symbolic of God’s abiding presence amongst the Israelites. The gospel writer, John picks up on this imagery when he writes, “And the Word became flesh and tented among us,” (John 1:14) meaning the Old Testament tabernacle of worship pointed forward to the New Testament incarnation of Jesus Christ. He was God with us.

Peter was speaking better than he knew. Yet his words give us insight in how his mind worked. Beholding Moses and Elijah, beholding the glory of God in Jesus Christ, Peter’s first instinct was to frame his experience in terms of religion and tradition. Firstly, he felt he needed to do something: I will build tents. Secondly, he felt he needed to ground his experience in some place: I will build tents here. Peter’s first instincts are ours too, if we’re honest. We encounter God; we have an experience of his goodness and glory - and something in us goes, “I need to do something to earn this.” That’s religion. “I need to replicate this experience.” That’s tradition.

The bible brings our focus back to Jesus and to his glory alone. That’s the purpose of the second vision, which if you notice, breaks in and interrupts Peter mid-sentence.

He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
Matthew 17:5-6

The second vision of the bright cloud is indicative of God’s presence, what is sometimes referred to as God’s shekinah glory. The Hebrew words for presence (shukan) and tent (mishkan) are closely related. Indeed, you find both recurring in the Old Testament. The closing words to Exodus describe how “Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled/dwelt (shukan) on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tent/tabernacle (mishkan)” (Exodus 40:35). The symbolism carries over into the New Testament where the Greek word for tent (skene) bears a striking similarity to the Old Testament Hebrew counterpart.

As Peter tries to contain the glory of the first vision suggesting that he build three tents; three dwellings, so here God interrupts Peter with a second vision of his overwhelming uncontainable presence filling the entire scene with light; with his shekinah glory.

As he does so, God speaks from the cloud authenticating the glory of his Son. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” These are familiar words to Peter, James and John. These ought to be familiar words to us if we have been attentively following Matthew’s gospel. Back in Chapter 3, these same words were spoken from heaven as Jesus emerges from the waters at his baptism. They are taken from two Old Testament sources - Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42. The first is a coronation psalm - a song that is sung during the installation of a new king where God declares that the king to be God’s Son. “The LORD said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you” (Psalm 2:7). The second quotation from the prophet Isaiah reads, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isaiah 42:1; see also Matthew Chapter 12). On the one hand, Jesus is the Son, meaning the true King chosen by God. He is the Christ. On the other, Jesus is the true Servant, who humbles himself under God’s rule. These two pictures of Jesus’ identity - as the Servant King - are so important for us to grasp that we find God speaking the exact same words twice to these disciples; that we find Matthew recording these words twice in his gospel.

Only this time, God adds these words, “Listen to him,” by which God is saying, Obey him. A transition has occurred from what the three disciples are meant to see, to what Peter, James and John are now meant to hear. Because the moment these three lift their eyes again, the vision is gone. No more cloud of glory. No more transfiguration. No Moses nor Elijah. Just Jesus, and Jesus alone.

The voice from heaven says Obey him; Listen to Jesus. But what does Jesus say next? Puzzlingly, Jesus instructs his three friends to tell no-one what they have just seen.

And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”
Matthew 17:9

Why does Jesus tell them to keep this a secret? Why doesn’t Jesus reveal his true nature as God’s chosen Son and King to the world? “Tell no one the vision, until the Son the of Man is raised from the dead,” Jesus says. Something needs to happen first and that is the cross. You cannot begin to grasp Jesus’ glory if you do not first come to grips with Jesus’ suffering. That’s what he seems to be saying. Peter, James and John are meant to share their experience. They are supposed to bear witness to the vision on the mountain that day. That’s why we have this account recorded for us three times in the gospels; in Matthew, Mark (Chapter 9) and Luke (Chapter 9). But after, not before, the events of the cross. Only after, not before, his resurrection from the dead.

Why? Because we cannot begin to understand Jesus’ glory without first coming to grips with his suffering. In fact, that’s the very case with these three disciples. They still don’t get it. The Son of Man must suffer, Jesus says.

And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.
Matthew 17:1-13

Remember that we just met Elijah a few moments ago. He was one of the two Old Testament figures to appear next to Jesus on the mountain; the other was Moses. I’ve always wondered: Why these two? Some of suggested that together, Moses and Elijah represent the Law and Prophets - the whole canon of Old Testament scripture. That makes sense for Moses, since he authored the first five book of the bible, known as the Law or Torah. But the thing is, Elijah doesn’t really represent the Prophetic writings. He never wrote anything that became part of the Old Testament. It would make more sense to have Isaiah or Jeremiah, prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah, whom Jesus and the New Testament writers quote extensively from.

I think we find the reason for Elijah’s place on the mountain here in the conversation the disciples have with Jesus on their way down the mountain. They ask Jesus, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” This is an interesting reference from the Old Testament because if you know anything about Elijah, it is probably from reading his adventures in 1 and 2 Kings: Elijah challenging the prophets of Baal, Elijah calling fire down from heaven and barbequing the whole battalion of soldiers, Elijah raising the dead to life or Elijah when he was finally taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. Those are the action-packed chapters you think of when you mention the name Elijah.

Yet the passage the disciples are referring to was written much, much later (something like 300 years later). It comes from Malachi Chapter 4.

Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.
Malachi 4:4-6

Now isn’t that striking! Both Moses and Elijah are mentioned in Malachi’s prophecy of a terrible day of judgement - “the great and awesome day of the LORD”. In other words, we are not to think of Elijah, the superhero prophet from 1 & 2 Kings who stands up to corrupt dictators and Baal worshippers. Nor are we to think of Moses, deliverer of Israel from the clutches of Pharaoh. Instead Malachi warns us that it’s Israel that stands under God’s judgement. It is Israel who have turned away from God’s law; Israel who have been unfaithful to God’s love.

This much at least, the scribes got right. “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things,” Jesus says, only to then add, “But I tell you, Elijah has already come.” This day of judgement is not a future event, it’s already happened. According to Jesus, it happened with the ministry of John the Baptist, who did not perform a single miracle, as far as we can tell. Instead he boldly called for repentance. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Ever seen that on an Easter greeting card? Heard a sermon recently where the pastor got up the pulpit snarling these words - You brood of vipers? Yet Jesus points to John the Baptist, who looks more like the homeless guy standing outside your local supermarket flogging his last copy of the big issue than he does your average middle-class church pastor - Jesus points to this guy and says, That’s Elijah. No wonder Jesus says they didn’t recognise him. No wonder Jesus says they did to him whatever they pleased. He’s a nobody, they must have thought. He’s a lunatic. John was imprisoned, beheaded, thrown out like trash they thought him to be.

Who’s the they Jesus is talking about? Herod, the scribes, the bible experts, the religious leaders - the very people looking forward to the coming of Elijah. They did this John. “So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Ironically, Jesus is saying the very people expecting the coming of the Christ will reject him as the Christ. Yet by their rejection they confirm that Jesus is the Christ, he is the true Son of God.

Why does Jesus tell Peter, James and John to keep the vision of his glory to themselves until after the cross? Because the cross is the true revelation of Jesus’ glory. It is not on this hill enveloped in light with Jesus standing next to the two giants of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah; it is not on this hill that we see his true glory. No, it’s on another hill: one called Golgotha, the place of the Skull, where Jesus would be hung on the cross between two criminals, when darkness covered the whole land, when there was no voice from heaven declaring the Father’s love for his Son, but instead the loud cry of Jesus, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Where the crowds of bystanders say to one another, “He’s calling for Elijah; let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.” Elijah does not come. Jesus dies on the cross, rejected by man, forsaken by God.

The Son of Man will be mocked, despised, rejected. Yet it is this rejection that authenticates Jesus true identity as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. On the cross, Jesus displays his true glory - the glory of a conquering King who destroys sin, death and Satan. On the cross, Jesus displays the glory of the suffering Servant who was obedient unto death, even death on the cross. On the cross, Jesus displays the glory of grace of God who forgives the wicked, justifies the sinner and transforms them into the image of the Son he loves.

In Christ alone
I place my trust
And find my glory in the power of the cross
In every victory
Let it be said of me
My source of strength
My source of hope
Is Christ alone

Tuesday 13 March 2012


Yesterday at the Chinese Church, we looked at the parable of the talents, exploring what Jesus had to say about our motivations in our work and our expectations of his return. We concluded with the following three points:

1. Work with joy: Jesus is our Lord

Eric Liddell, the Olympic athlete famously portrayed in the movie, "Chariots of Fire" once said, "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure." He ran not simply to reach the finish line or to win the prize. Eric experienced God's joy in the race, as he ran.

In the parable, the faithful servants were motivated to work hard at expanding the master's assets simply to hear these few words, "Well done, good and faithful servant!" (Matthew 25:21,23). CS Lewis called this "the weight of glory"; by which he wasn't talking about riches, power or even the gift of eternal life. It was the praise of a master over his trustworthy servants, the love of a proud father for his obedient son, the joy of the Creator over the work of his creation: "It was very good!" (Genesis 1:31).

2. Work for joy: Jesus is our reward

Work finds it's fulfillment and purpose in rest. That is, rest is only partly the cessation of work or the absence of work. True rest flows from finishing the work - from satisfactorily completing that work - and then enjoying the beauty, the fruit and pleasure that comes from beholding the masterpiece. Thus God finished his work of creating the world in six days and on the seventh, he rested. God rejoiced over his creation.

In this parable, Jesus invites us to join God in that rest; to join the master in his joy. "Enter into the joy of your master" (Matthew 25:21,23). The greatest treasure the master can share with his servants is not more of his wealth, but the fullness of his joy.

3. Work on joy: Jesus is our Judge

Our Chinese culture takes great pride in being prudent. We don't like taking unnecessary risks. Rather, we exercise every precaution to maximise success at minimal cost.

Ralph Winters was one of the most influential individuals used by God to effect global mission in the last century. He said this, "If something is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly." Read that over again: It is worth doing poorly! That's very un-Chinese! What's he talking about? He is describing unrestrained sacrifice. He is talking about risk.

I think many of us read the parable and think the third servant's problem - the guy who received only one talent - we think his problem was that he got too little. "The other guys received more than me. The master obviously thinks more highly of them compared to me." It really isn't the case, you know. He turns up with the master's money, freshly dug up from the back garden and says, "I was afraid and hid your talent in the ground" (Matthew 25:25). We need to remember that one talent was equivalent to 20 years' wages. Today, that's about 600,000 pounds. It was a fortune. What the third servant was saying, in effect, was this: "This is too much." In other words, he was simply being cautious. He didn't dare take any risk losing the money entrusted to him and then facing the master's anger and disappointment.

For this servant, the result over time was fear, resentment and self-righteousness. "See, take what is your's," he says. He thinks he has done his job. "Here you go. Mission accomplished." He even implies that the master does not deserve to have more than the servant was presenting him.

Our over-cautiousness with God's gifts may not necessarily be a sign of prudence. Cautiousness may rather imply callousness towards God. Like the unfaithful servant, we think of God as a miser. We doubt his motives. We question his grace. Ironically this often happens in seasons of abundance; in situations when God has actually been generous with us. When we have been blessed with plenty our temptation is to hoard that treasure and store it away, instead of spending it freely to bless others and using every opportunity to grow the work of the gospel.

Jesus challenges us to work on our joy (and not simply to work on our work). He sees straight into our hearts. He knows our inner struggles and hidden motivations. When there's conflict in your workplace; when there's a misunderstanding in your church; when there is bitterness in a relationship - the first step is not to change your job; to switch to a different church or to end that friendship. Our first step is always to turn to Jesus and to trust in Jesus - for forgiveness, for renewal, for grace. 

For there, at the cross of Jesus Christ, we see unrestrained sacrifice in exchange for unlimited joy.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:2

Sunday 11 March 2012

The weight of glory (Matthew 25:14-30)

His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'
Matthew 25:21

This story is commonly known as the parable of the talents. In fact, that is the heading we see in our NIV bibles, printed in bold and introducing the words of Jesus Christ, who describes for us what it is like to wait for his return. Jesus says that it is like a man who goes on a journey but leaves his money to be managed by his servants (verse 14). It is a story of a master, his slaves and his talents.

However, when we hear that word “talent”, I suspect that most of us will be thinking of the ability to play the piano; we might think of a skillful artist or a singer auditioning for X-Factor. These are individuals with gifts and talents; with a skill or an ability to do something impressive and well. But look at the way the word “talent” is used here in the bible in verse 15.

To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went of his journey.
Matthew 25:15

Here, the word “talent” is used as a weight measure, like kilogram or tonnes. It comes from the Greek word, talenton, a unit of weight, commonly used to measure an amount of silver, and possibly, gold. Now, one talent was equivalent to 34 kilograms of silver, which was 6,000 times the daily wage of a labourer, or 20 years’ pay. So when you see the word talent in this story, I want you to imagine a big suitcase stuffed of fifty pounds notes, amounting to six hundred thousand pounds in total. That is the kind of money we are talking about. Meaning, when we read that the first servant was given five suitcases, he was being entrusted with no less than three million pounds!

Another important thing to note is this: the word used here in Jesus story is not servant, but slave. In verse 14, the man calls his slaves (or doulous in the Greek) and gives them several million pounds. These are not investment bankers. They weren’t his buddies who played golf with him every weekend. This was his cook, his maid and the bloke who fixes his toilet. These lowly slaves were entrusted by their master with his own fortune.

And look at how each decides to use the money.

The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
Matthew 25:26-18

There were no stock markets in the ancient world. The first guy did not use his three million pounds to buy shares in Facebook. Rather, when it says in verse 16 that he “went at once and put his money to work”, what it means is, he built a business: he invested in stock, he managed the company and he worked hard in this company such that its profits reached a staggering one hundred per cent. With five suitcases of cash, he “gained five more”. The second guy with his two suitcases of cash did the same and “gained two more”.

But the third slave took his one suitcase of money and buried it in his back garden. Now, it is worth noticing that he did not take the money and run. He did not even spend it on himself - by buying a nice apartment in London or sailing around the world and living the good life. He certainly could have, with more than half-a-mill in cash. He didn’t do any of that. What he did was put the money away. Out of sight. And out of mind.

After a long time, the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’
Matthew 25:19-20

I want you to notice how eager the first man is. “Look, master. Look and what I brought you!” He presents his master with five additional suitcases of cash. “You gave me five. I have gained five more.”

For the first time in the story, the man who goes on this long extended journey is clearly identified as the master. Literally, he is “lord (kurios) of those servants” (verse 19). The millions of pounds belong to the master; we already know that. But what this reinforces is the fact that these slaves belong to the master as well. They are not their own. Like the money under their care, they have the one and same owner. It is the master. He is their lord.

His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
Matthew 25:21

The master says three things. Firstly, he praises the slave for his trustworthiness: “Well done, good and faithful (or trustworthy) slave!” Secondly, the master places even more responsibility on this slave: “You have been faithful with a few things,” and by this he is referring to the three million pounds given already given him - just a small potatoes in this master’s eyes; “I will put you in charge of many things.” What could that possibly mean? More money? More wealth? Whatever it means, this slave will receive something so infinitely luxurious that the six million pounds he has now will pale in comparison - just “a few things,” says his master.

Thirdly, the master invites this faithful slave to share in his happiness. The English Standard Version (ESV) has “Enter into the joy of your master,” a way of saying, “I am proud of you.” The greatest treasure the master can share with his slave is not his wealth but his joy.

Well, that’s the first servant. What of the second?

The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’ His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness.’
Matthew 25: 22-23

This is word-for-word, an identical response from the master. The slave entrusted with two suitcases of cash doubles his investment. He receives the same commendation, “Good and faithful slave!”

Meaning: it really isn’t about the amount entrusted to each slave. The first had five talents, the second, two, but both were commended by the master because both had been faithful with the master’s money. Notice that back in verse 15, each was given “according to his ability”. The first guy could handle more responsibility - the other guy had less. But both were trustworthy. And more importantly, both were commended in exactly the same way.

But not the third.

Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said. ‘I knew you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
Matthew 25:24-25

The third guy shows up with his master’s money and say, “Here you go. Please take it back.” Now notice this, it is not the case that he received the least amount of money and that he is now complaining that his master did not give him enough. It is not even the case that this slave thinks that his master does not trust him enough - “Why didn’t you give me 3 million like the first guy? Don’t you think I can handle it? Do you have such a low impression of my abilities?”

Rather, with just one talent of silver - which is considerable, nonetheless; about 20 years’ pay - this slave is saying even that was too much for him to handle. He was fearful: “I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground.” It was too big a risk - angering his master should he lose any of it. It was too big a responsibility - being entrusted with so much money. So again, it is not the case that this guy got the least. Rather, he thought it was too much to handle; too much to deal with.

Moreover, his words reveal what this slave really thought of his master. “I knew you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.” What was his excuse? The master was being unfair. After all, why was the slave expected to do all the work while the master was on holiday?

Listen to the master’s response.

His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.’
Matthew 25:26-27

The master repeats the slave’s accusation and uses his own reasoning against him. “So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?” Well, the logical thing would have been to put it in the bank, not dig a hole and bury the money like some pirate treasure. Notice again, why did the slave do this? Was it because it did not occur to him to deposit the money? Well, we already saw that it was partly because of fear. “You are a hard man,” the slave says, possibly fearing the consequences of losing the money. But more likely, his words reveal a deep disdain and hatred towards his master. “You don’t deserve this money, but since it’s yours, have it back.” The reason why the slave did not put the money with the bankers was simply because he had no desire to seek the master’s good. To him, his master was a hard man, and unforgiving man, a man undeserving of his immense wealth. And this slave was not about to do him any favours.

You can imagine the slave cowering in fear as he sheepishly presents the money, freshly dug up from his garden, still covered in dirt, nudging the suitcase before his master. Yet for all his timidness, his words reveal boldness and brazenness. His words reveal an attitude of self-righteousness and ungratefulness. As far as he was concerned, he did his duty. The money is all there. Not a penny is missing. If the master expected anything more of this slave, well, the master was frankly being unfair. “You are a hard man,” he says.

That was not how the master saw things. “You wicked, lazy servant!” was the master’s response. But that was not all the master said.

‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Matthew 25:28-30

It is a picture of final, eternal judgement. The blessings of the master are removed from the slave and he is thrown out of the master’s presence, “into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. It is picture language, of course, in the same way that Jesus is telling us a parable; a story. Nonetheless, it is a picture and a parable of extreme sadness (weeping) and at the same time, anger (the gnashing of teeth) for those who reject Jesus as Lord.

What does this mean for us?

This month we are considering what the bible has to say to us about work. And last week we looked at Genesis Chapter 2 to see how God is the working God who involves men and women in his work of blessing his creation. That is what we saw in the garden of Eden. God planted the trees in the garden. God put the man, Adam, in the garden to work it and to care for it. This was Adam’s act of worship towards God: It was his work in obedience under God.

The second thing we saw was God’s rest. For six days, God created the world and on the seventh, he rested. The rest of the bible is the story of God bringing man into his rest. That is the fulfilment of work; that is the goal of all work - it is rest. And God’s work of creation and salvation finds its fulfilment in the rest that comes through the cross. Jesus finished God’s work of salvation on the cross when he took our sin upon himself, when he took God’s punishment for sin upon himself, and opened the way for sinners like you and me to enter into God’s presence; into God’s eternal rest. Those were the two things we saw last week: work and rest.
Now hopefully, we see these two themes of work and rest running through Jesus’ parable about the talents. Firstly, we see work. The master entrusts the slaves with work, each according to their ability. Their work is to expand the master’s wealth. At the end of the day, they give account to him as judge over their work.

But did you notice how the master rewards the two slaves who were trustworthy in their work? He gave them even more responsibility. “You have been faithful with few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” Now I wonder what you think heaven is going to be like? A never-ending concert? Well, we get partly from Revelation 5 where multitudes from every nation worship Jesus as the lamb upon the throne. Or will heaven be like a big buffet with unlimited tim sum and millions of flavours of ice-cream? Well, Jesus does talk about a wedding banquet a few pages earlier in Matthew 22.

Yet, friends, this is a picture of heaven - this parable of work - and it comes from Jesus himself. If we are trustworthy with the few things given us in this life, we will have more to do - not less -  in the life to come. In that sense, heaven will be a never-ending worship session, if you understand even our work to be an expression of worship towards Jesus. I say this because often we are left with the wrong impression of heaven as boring place with nothing to do. We will walk around in our pajamas, carrying golden harps, nibbling cream cheese all day. The bible looks forward to a huge mega-city. Cities are are centres of culture; of industry; of achievement; of knowledge; of activity. Think London. Think Hong Kong. Think Singapore. And multiply that a million-fold. We see this in Revelation Chapter 21, where the heavenly city of Jerusalem comes down to this earth. Now, that’s pretty important. We don’t go up to heaven; heaven comes down to earth. This is picture language of course, but it making a very important point because later on in that same chapter we encounter a remarkable verse that reads as follows:

The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it.
Revelation 21:24

The kings of the earth bring their glory into the heavenly city. It is talking about continuity. The best of God’s creation will be the basis of the new creation. The best of humanity will be brought into the new heavenly community.

What will we be doing in the new heavens and the new earth? We will work. What kind of work will we do? No idea. No idea. But I know this. It will be shaped by the work Jesus gives us in this life. For as much as he entrusts us with and as much as we are faithful with in this life - Jesus will entrust his faithful slaves with more.

But some of you will say to me, “Isn’t heaven supposed to be about rest?” Yes, it most certainly is. But rest isn’t simply the cessation of work. Rest is the fulfilment of work and the enjoyment of that completed work. In six days, God completed his work of creation. On the seventh, he rested. At the end of his work, God stepped back, looked at what his hands had made, and said, “That is so awesome!” (I’m paraphrasing, of course). “It was very good” (Genesis 1:31). God was enjoying his creation.

To enter God’s rest is therefore better defined as entering into God’s favour; to enter into his joy. Isn’t that what Jesus says? “Enter into the joy of your master” (verses 21 and 23). The greatest praise Jesus can give us on that last day, when we see him face to face is, “Well done, good and faithful slave!” CS Lewis referred to this in his sermon entitled “The weight of glory” where he talked what often gets mistaken for humility or parodied into human ambition or so quickly turned into the pleasure of seeking praise from others. It is the desire to hear these words spoken from Jesus lips of you and of me, “Well done, good and faithful slave.”

I know many of you will have problems hearing me say that word: slaves. It’s the reason many translations have opted not to go with the word. But that is what it means and that is who we are in Jesus Christ. As a Christian, you might be CEO of a multinational company, successful, accomplished, respected. Remind yourself, “I am a slave of Christ. He is my master.” As a Christian, you might be in a humble job with little respect from your boss and from friends. Remind yourself, “I am a slave of Christ. He is the one I serve. His approval is the one I seek.”

Aren’t we sons of the living God? Yes. Doesn’t the bible say we are no longer slaves? Yes, in Galatians 4, verse 7, where we are also called heirs. But Galatians is talking about our freedom from sin. We are no longer serving sin as our master, but Jesus. And to him, we are slaves, bought with the price of his own blood. And through him we are sons, receiving the blessings and inheritance due to him through his sacrifice on the cross.

If you are a Christian, your work matters a great deal to Jesus. If you are a Christian, God will use your life to bless others. God will use your life to bring glory to his Son. He will. What he calls us to do is to be faithful with this one life. Notice how that theme of trustworthiness comes up again and again in the parable: “Master, you entrusted (given over to) me with five talents.” “Master, you entrusted (given over to) me with two talents.” “Well done, good and trustworthy slave! You have been trustworthy with a few things..” Whether it is five talents, two talents or one talent - every single one us has, in Christ, been entrusted with the master’s wealth. It is immense. It is not our own, but for his glory.

For some of us, that’s our money. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21). Where you invest your money and where you spend your money, that’s where your priorities are, and that is what you worship.

For some of us, that’s our sexuality. You were bought with a price, therefore honour God with your body (1 Corinthians 6:20).

For some of us, it is our responsibilities in relationship: as husbands over wives, fathers and mothers over children, as leaders over God’s household, the church. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25). Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Leaders, keep watch over the souls of those under your charge - that means your bible study, your Sunday School, your student fellowship - and give account to the Shepherd of our Souls (Hebrews 13:17,20).

For some of us it is the gospel. Yet when I preach I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:16).

What has Jesus entrusted you with? What treasure has he placed under your care and accountability?

And what will you do with that treasure? Will you use it for your own gain or hide in the ground because it is too much for you to deal with right now? Or will you work to increase the master’s wealth, seeking Jesus’ glory and longing for God’s approval?

For all of us, this parable serves as a reminder that the master will one day return. Jesus will call us to account. And the greatest words one can ever long to hear are these:

“Well done, good and faithful slave. Enter into your master’s joy.”