(Sermon) God in a Godless World : Lessons from Esther

Bloged in Church, Culture, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles, Society, World by Mel Monday June 6, 2016

Good morning.

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That’s a picture of the Creation of Adam, a famous painting on the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. It only shows Adam though, and it missing the other half which is God.

We live in an increasingly “secular” world in which fewer and fewer people believe in God, and more and more people deny the existence of God. A consequence of this is a world in which morals become relative - in which people decide what is right or wrong based on how they feel, instead of being guided by absolute truths that are unchanging.

This bothers me a lot. It bothers me not only because I am Christian, but because I am uncertain if this will turn out for the good of society in the long run.

Let’s look at the issue of abortion for example. Among all the major religions in Singapore, I do not believe any would encourage abortion. Different religions may different views on when exactly a baby in the womb has attained the status of “life”. Religions may accept a law permitting abortion for limited practical or medical reasons. But I doubt you would ever find a religion that goes so far as to say that abortion at any time should be allowed because the baby does not have the status of life.

But that is what secularism would say. Personal happiness - the happiness of the mother or of the parents - is paramount. So let the mother or parents decide what they want to do – if they want to abort a baby, at whatever stage the pregnancy may be. At an advanced stage of pregnancy a premature baby is capable of surviving, at least for a short while, outside of a mother’s womb without medical support. However, the law says that a baby born alive, even prematurely, is a human person and allowing the baby to die by denying medical support would be murder. So what abortion clinics do? When the mother has reached an advanced stage of pregnancy, they inject medication to stop the heart of the baby – in other words they cause the baby to have a heart attack – so that it will die before it is removed from the mother’s womb.

Now I’m not saying that all secularists will agree that abortion should be allowed at any time. Even Singapore as a secular country draws limits on when an abortion may be carried out. However, the fact remains that secularism can support a very permissive view of abortion that no religion will find morally acceptable.

Which makes me question – what else might be morally acceptable to secularism? I worry that there might come a time when religion is something you can talk about only privately, in your own home or in church. I worry that there might come a time when the church has lost its voice – a right to state its views in the public square – and there is no one around to object to a serious moral wrong – like the Nazi genocide of Jews.

Which brings me to the theme of today’s message - how should the church respond to an increasingly secular world that is hostile to faith? Where is the place of God in an increasingly godless world?

To find some answers to these question, I decided to look at the most “godless” book in the Bible – Esther. I call Esther a “godless book” because it is the only book in the Bible where the word “God” does not appear even once. There is only a hint of it in a reference to fasting, but other common religious terms like “pray” or “worship” also do not appear.

The three lessons that I took away from Esther are these : Perspective, Engagement and Completeness in Christ. But before I go into these, let’s open in prayer.

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The story of Esther begins with King Xerxes of Persia having a wild party, getting wasted, and ordering his queen – Vashti – to appear before his guests to entertain them. However, Vashti was either in a bad mood or thought the King’s request to be too undignified, and refused. This humiliated Xerxes, and in a fit of anger, he removed her as queen.

It didn’t take long for Xerxes to feel lonely again. So he had all the pretty women in his kingdom rounded up and taken to his harem. One of these women was a lady called Esther, and Xerxes was so smitten by her that he made her the new queen.

Esther was a Jew, and her cousin was a man called Mordecai. Mordecai advised Esther keep the fact that she was a Jew secret, which Esther did.

Mordecai also uncovered a plot by two palace guards to assassinate the king. He informed Esther, who told other palace officers. The palace guards were arrested and the king was saved.

However, Xerxes was not made aware of this incident and did not reward Mordecai. He promoted another man – Haman – to become his chief advisor and right-hand instead.

Now Haman was a very arrogant and insecure man. He demanded that everyone bow or give him honour whenever he passed by. Mordecai refused to do so, which infuriated him. So Haman came up with a plan to take revenge on Mordecai – he lied and told Xerxes that the Jews were a rebellious group of people in his kingdom who refused to submit to his authority, and asked for permission to destroy them. Xerxes was deceived, and passed a law authorizing the Jews to be attacked and destroyed on a certain day.

The Jews who heard it were of course afraid, and Mordecai exchanged messages with Esther (through her servants, because he could not meet the queen face-to-face) to ask if she could help. Esther’s reply is a key part of the story which Christians praise as an example of her selfless courage.

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Esther goes up to Xerxes uninvited, but he pardons her intrusion and accepts her invitation to have dinner with him and Haman. This of course gives a huge ego boost to Haman, who thinks he is the only man important enough other than the Xerxes to get invited to dinner with the Queen. Haman is so happy that he builds a gallows in his home, where he plans to hang Mordecai.

The tide of events turn against Haman from here.

The night before the dinner, Xerxes has insomnia. Miraculously, instead of pouring himself another drink, Xerxes decides to do some work instead. He asks to review some of the records of his reign and the account of how Mordecai had saved him from a plot to kill him, is read. To Haman’s grief, Xerxes rewards Mordecai for this.

At the dinner, Esther the drama queen that she is begs Xerxes for his life. She tells Xerxes that if it was simply a matter of her people and her being enslaved she would not bother him, but that she had to beg for her life because someone is plotting to kill them. She discloses that this evil man is Haman. Xerxes is enraged and, after a bit more drama, Haman is hung on the very gallows that he built for Mordecai. Because Xerxes cannot revoke the law authorizing the Jews to be killed, he issues another law authorizing the Jews to defend themselves. The Jews are saved, and this dramatic event is to this day celebrated as the festival of Purim in Israel.


The word “God” does not appear in the book of Esther. Unlike other Old Testament books, Esther does not contain any prophets that go around teaching about God or telling people what God has planned. Nothing in Esther is attributed to God.

In the eyes of a non-Christian, Esther could be just another exciting political drama in which a group of people got lucky and avoided being killed.

Yet Esther is included as one of the books in the Bible. I think there is tremendous encouragement to drawn from that.

Because all of us encounter moments in our life when we cannot sense the presence of God. Because all of us will encounter moments in life when we walk into church on Sunday feeling lousy, and walk out after service feeling exactly the same way. Because all of us will encounter moments in our life when things have turned out so badly, that we almost lose all hope.

Esther reminds us that you are not the person in the world to feel that way. Think of what it must have felt like to be a Jew in Esther’s time - to hear the king’s pass a law that allows everyone, one month from now, to kill you, your family and to take property. And then to go through a long period of silence when there are no prophets who go around assuring you of God’s deliverance.

Esther reminds us in moments of disappointment, pain and tragedy, when God seems absent, God has not abandoned us. God is there. God is at work. God is positioning seemingly random events around us, so that there will be a good outcome.

When Esther was picked as queen out of hundreds of many other beautiful women – that was not random. When Esther approached the King without permission and was allowed to see him instead of being punished for disrespect – that was not random. When King Xerxes could not sleep and read through the records which reminded him of how Mordecai saved his life – that was not random.

To a non-Christian, events around us appear to be random. Esther encourages us to see random events through the eyes of God, to not lose heart, and to wait in hope for the moment when God brings everything together and make things right.

Psalms 121 says –

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.


The church looks at Esther as a positive example of a woman of God who by faith selflessly and courageously confronted a king in order to protect her people.

Sometimes the church goes further to say that Esther is a model for how Christians can engage the society and Government on a political front - that the church should be bold to confront the things that it sees are wrong in society, up to the point of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience means disobeying a law that is unjust. If you recall, the law in Esther’s time said that no person can meet the king unless he invites that person to, and Esther defied that law by approaching the king to plead for the Jews without invitation.

I agree that Esther is a positive example of courage and selflessness. I kind of agree that Esther is an example of how politics was used to bring about a good outcome.

At the same time, I am troubled by a narrative that looks at only at the good parts of Esther while ignoring the bad.

What do I mean? When praising Esther’s civil disobedience, we ignore the fact that Esther and Mordecai did not defy the unjust laws that took away young girls including Esther herself into the king’s harem. While in the palace, Mordecai encouraged Esther to keep her Jewishness a secret, and she did. That means that Esther probably did not keep to the rituals and requirements of her faith like abstaining from unclean food and praying daily.

In contrast, when Daniel was brought to live in the palace as an advisor, the Bible records that he refused to eat unclean food, refused to worship idols, and prayed openly even though his enemies would see this and report him to the king. For this defiance, Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den.

But no one preaches about how Esther sets a good example for Christians should keep their faith a secret, because she wasn’t a good example in that sense.

Why do I bring this up? Like everyone else, Christians like to look more at the good bits about ourselves, rather than the bad. This gave the Pharisees in Jesus’ time the false assurance that they were good people, but Jesus called them hypocrites. This can also give us a false assurance that we’re good people.

Let us always remember that we are in church not because we are a good people, but because we need of God to make us good. If we want to make a positive impact on society, we cannot just think good things about ourselves, while ignoring the bad. These double standards will become a stumbling block because everyone else can see our faults. If we want to make a positive impact on society, I believe we must speak from the humility of being aware that we are no better than a person outside the church, the only difference being our awareness of a need for God.

Another part I find troubling about Esther is the very brutal ending. As you know, the king first issued a law allowing people to kill the Jews. Under Persian law, a law that has been issued by the king cannot be changed. So, at Esther’s request, the king gave the Jews permission to protect themselves. Esther records that 500 people in the capital were killed by the Jews in self-defense.

But one day is not enough for Esther! Esther asks the king for permission for the Jews to attack their enemies for another day, and 75,000 people are killed. Wow. 75,000. Was that necessary? The pastor Frederick Buechner observed that perhaps Esther does not contain any reference to God, because God did not approve of the ending, and does not want to be associated with it.

That is a very disturbing thought – that even if we are right about something, God might not approve of what we do.

We live at a time – partly because of how accessible the Internet is nowadays – when Christians and churches believe that they have to engage the Government and society more actively on political slash moral slash ethical issues. So whenever we see something we disagree with, like the Ashley Madison website that promotes adultery, a petition will quickly be circulated on the Internet to protest against it. Or you will see critical comments posted on websites about how this is wrong.

I agree that the church should take an active interest in important political slash moral slash ethical issues of our day. Because if we rely on a secular perspective alone, we may arrive at very questionable conclusions on say, research on humans or genetic manipulation. In fact that is one of the ways that Ashley Madison markets itself – through the perverse logic of saying that if couples are allowed to be unfaithful to each other, the relationship will last longer.

However, political engagement has a way of bringing out the worst in humans, and Christians are humans. It makes people arrogant about their beliefs and blind to their own faults. How Christians tend to ignore Esther’s faults and see only her positive qualities, may also be how many of us conduct ourselves. This undermines the good that we want to accomplish, because it makes us hypocrites.

Political engagement, coupled with the Internet, also has a terrible way of encouraging people to say the rudest, nastiest, most hurtful, and also sometimes false, things about people we disagree with. Just like how the Jews in Esther’s time got carried away with taking revenge on their enemies, Christians can get carried away when debating with people around us.

The warning is Esther is this – if God disassociated Himself from Esther, God can also disassociate Himself from our actions. That is to say, even if the church is right about something, God might not be proud of what we did about it.

So how should Christians engage society? There isn’t time today to go through this question in detail and in any case I will not presume to know all the answers. But let me leave you with two verses from the Bible that I think are particularly relevant in this day and age -

“Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is also a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (James 3 : 5 – 6)

“Let your conversation always be full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4 : 6)


As I mentioned before, to someone outside the church, Esther reads just like an exciting political drama without any religion involved. And to be honest, that is what it could have been. Esther could have ended in two possible ways –

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The problem with either ending is this – the actual ending was needlessly violent and brutal, and does not have God’s approval. The alternate ending would make you question why God was missing. Is God real? Does He care? Why didn’t God do anything? And in history, there have been many instances in which God did not intervene supernaturally to save believers from persecution, suffering and death.

How do we reconcile the two possible endings? In one ending, Haman looks at the gallows and sees Mordecai hanging there. In another ending, Mordecai looks at the gallows, and sees Haman hanging there.

But we look at the gallows today, and see Jesus hanging there. Jesus reconciles both possible endings by His death and resurrection on the cross. What do I mean?

Without the hope of a resurrection in Christ, a bad ending in which Esther fails, Mordecai is hung, and the Jews are killed, would be nothing more than a bad ending. There would be no hope beyond the current lifetime, and all the struggle and sacrifice would be meaningless.

But the promise of a life with Jesus Christ after this lifetime, allows Christians to look beyond the here and now.

“If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead …” (1 Corinthians 15 : 19)

“My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14 : 2 - 3)

“These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God has planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11 : 39 - 40)

What about the other ending where there is needless violence and brutality, the actual ending that God does not approve?

Jesus Christ has changed that by setting an example of what it means to engage the community. More important than engaging the world around us politically, more important than signing petitions, more important than debating people on the Internet or in the real world, is to get to know real people who are lost or hurting personally and genuinely, and speaking grace and truth in their lives through the overflow of God’s love in our hearts.

That is why Jesus was sent. John 1 : 14 says -

“The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

The Bible records that God parted the Red Sea, guided the Israelites as a pillar of cloud and fire, and used miracles to warn people to turn away from sin. However, for most part, the life of a person was changed for good only when God dealt with that person personally.

And that is why Jesus was sent as a person. In the presence of God we would be overwhelmed by His power and His holiness – the Bible records that Moses had to hide behind a rock when the glory of God passed by, because no one may see God and live. Lesser persons like us either wouldn’t even dare to approach God, or would obey God for a little while out of fear.

However, with Jesus, we are not overwhelmed with God’s power or holiness, but with the intimacy of a personal relationship, with the grace and love and truth of God.

Let me close what I have to share about political engagement by revisiting the topic of abortion.

There is a famous US Supreme Court case in 1973 known as Roe vs Wade. The decision of the court in that case changed the course of abortion laws in the United States, I would say forever. Before Roe vs Wade, abortion was illegal under any circumstances. After Roe vs Wade, abortion at any time became legal, and a mother could undergo an abortion whenever she wanted to.

A key figure in this case is Jane Roe (the “Roe” in Roe vs Wade), whose actual name is Norma McCorvey. McCorvey signed the court papers necessary for the lawyers to file a legal case. McCorvey later became a pro-choice (which means pro-abortion) supporter, and worked in an abortion clinic. For the longest time McCorvey would detest Christians, because they treated her like an enemy would call her names like “baby-killer”.

However, Philip Yancey writes that McCorvey softened when she came into contact with the director of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion organization. Although the director was initially hostile to her, “he stopped treating her like an antagonist and treated her like a person. He apologized publicly for calling her “baby-killer” and started spending time with her during her smoking breaks … McCorvey later accepted an invitation to church”, baptized a Christian, and became a vocal pro-life (ie. anti-abortion) supporter.

CNN reported that -

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That’s interesting isn’t it? Between 1973 to 1995, which is more than 20 years, all the protests and demonstrations, all the name-calling, and all the insults, by anti-abortionists and churches failed to change McCorvey, who remained a hardcore supporter of abortion. But an unlikely friendship between a pastor and McCorvey melted her heart, and changed it all. This unlikely friendship exemplifies the love, grace and truth of Christ that was previously missing in all the efforts to change the views of pro-abortionists.

This is the third and most important lesson we can draw from Esther – that that Esther is unsatisfactory and incomplete because the absence of Christ. In the same way, our perspective and engagement of the secular world as Christians will be incomplete without Christ. To make sense of the secular world around us, and to meaningfully engage it, we must never lose sight of Jesus Christ. More important than engaging the world around us politically or in debates, is the personableness, and the love, and grace, and truth, that Jesus Christ demonstrated, that must guide everything that we do.

(Sermon) The Meaning of Life : A Question that Won’t Go Away

Bloged in Culture, Faith, Musings, Philosophy, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Monday May 2, 2016

Good morning. The message I am going to share today is somewhat philosophical, and just as philosophers like to ask questions rather than give answers (which they don’t have), I’d like to start first by asking you - what is one question that won’t go away?

Other than where is your boyfriend or girlfriend at Chinese New Year, or when are you having a baby.

I think there a few questions that everyone asks at some point in life. Yes - what shall e eat might be one of them. Another might be why there is evil and suffering. The question I want to touch on today is another fundamental question -

What is the meaning of life?

So where do we start looking for the answers? Because we live in the Internet era, one natural starting point is the all-knowing Google.

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Some "answers" are pretty thrashy, like -

“Don’t ask what the meaning of life is. You define it.”

In other words, don’t ask me. Go find out yourself.

Others sound confused, like these two.

“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”

“The purpose of life is to find your gift. The meaning of life is to give it away.”

Those sounds like a PSLE English question where you have to combine two sentences into one -

"The meaning and purpose of life is to find your gift and give it away".

Google some more, and there are more answers.

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This one is deep.

In other words, our meaning in life is to leave a legacy for future generations. If you don’t achieve anything else, at least plant a tree.

But that’s seems to contradict the next answer which suggests that the meaning of life is to be content with what you have. Don’t need to try too hard, and maybe don’t bother about doing something great for future generations.

Then there is the You-Live-Only-Once perspective, which is why we now have a YOLO credit card. Eat. Drink. Play. Repeat. Because we only have one life and we’re all going to die anyway. (May I clarify here that this message is not sponsored by UOB?)

Okay, so Google doesn’t give that great answers. What does the Bible say?

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The book of Ecclesiastes suggests three answers, which unfortunately also sound confused and conflicting. But that’s the book I want to share from today, and these are the three answers -

“Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is Meaningless!” (1:2)

“It is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given him–for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work–this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.” (5 : 18 - 20)

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth …” (12:1)

As Christians we know that the model answer must be "remember your Creator" meaning, remember God. But how do we reconcile the other answers in Ecclesiastes to this?

Before I go into that, let’s ask an even more fundamental question. Why does the question matter? Why does the meaning of life matter? Why bother even finding out?

My answer to why the meaning of life matters, is because it does. Why do we breathe? As babies, we instinctively gasp for air, before we understand the reason why our lungs need air. The impulse to discover the meaning of life is the same. Everyone instinctively desires to know the answer that question, even though we might not know the exact reason why. Renowned psychologist Victor Frankl, who tried to explain why meaning is important to humans in psychological terms, said that -

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”

We need meaning and purpose in life. In difficult times especially, knowing meaning and purpose of some sort will help to pull us through.

This is consistent with the wisdom in the Bible which says in Ecclesiastes that God -

“has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3 : 9)

We are created with a consciousness that life transcends the physical world around us. Just as how we breathe in and out without being conscious of it, we intuitively sense that life is beyond the here-and-now. That is why we search for the meaning of life, for meaning beyond mere physical existence. However, because our minds are finite and clouded by sin, we struggle to see beyond the here-and-now. We long to find true meaning, but often we lose the way. That has very important implications not just for us, but also for the people around us - everyone is going to question the meaning of life at some time, but if we as believers do not do our part to help them find the truth in the Bible, they may lose their way.

Now let’s turn back to the answers in Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes was written by King Solomon, the son of King David, who we know from the Bible was gifted with extraordinary wisdom. Solomon applied his wisdom to try and find the meaning of life.

Solomon tried various remedies - pleasure, wealth, work, power, influence, wisdom and knowledge, family and friends, living morally, contentment, and finally, a relationship with God - to resolve his sense of meaninglessness.

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The first set of remedies are what I call self-indulgence, basically doing whatever made him feel good for the moment, whether it was eating, entertainment, accumulating more wealth and property, or working towards the next promotion.

I undertook great projects : I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well – the delights of the heart of man. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. …. I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. (Ecclesiastes 2 : 4 – 10)

"I denied myself nothing my heart desired, I refused my heart no pleasure". But what happens after you have tasted every exotic dish and wine, when you have watched every possible movie, when you have holidayed in every major destination, when you have finally got the new car or house or promotion that you wanted?

You will find that you’ve reached the end of amusement. That there is nothing new under the sun.

“Everything is meaningless. … What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecc 1 : 2, 9)

“… a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune.” (Ecc 2 : 21)

In business or at work, you may find all the hard work you’ve put in isn’t going to last after you’re gone. The person who succeeds you might be someone less capable, or who has different ideas, or simply interested in following through on what you did.

“… one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields. Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.” (Ecc 5 : 8 – 10)

Maybe you’ve finally got the promotion you’ve been working for. Then, you find that the colleague below you is eyeing your job. Worse, you find that the boss above you is insecure and watching you like a hawk, because he is worried that you might take over him. And the person who reaps all the benefits from everyone working overtime and trying to outdo each other, is the boss who owns the business.

And so Solomon concludes that self-indulgence - going after all the things which make us feel good temporarily, is ultimately meaningless. A chasing after the wind.

Nick Vujicic, a Christian motivational speaker who was born without arms and legs, echoes this when he said -

“Life isn’t about having, it’s about being. You could surround yourself with all that money can buy, and you’d still be as miserable as a human can be. I know people with perfect bodies who don’t have half the happiness I’ve found. On my journeys I’ve seen more joy in the slums of Mumbai and the orphanages of Africa than in wealthy gated communities and on sprawling estates worth millions. Why is that? You’ll find contentment when your talents and passion are completely engaged, in full force. Recognise instant self-gratification for what it is. Resist the temptation to grab for material objects like the perfect house, the coolest clothes or the hottest car. The if I just had X, I would be happy syndrome is a mass delusion. When you look for happiness in mere objects, they are never enough. Look around. Look within.”

So if meaning in life can’t be found in self-indulgence, can it be found in living simply, being content with what we have, and being and doing good, without reference to God? If you read what I just quoted from Nick Vujicic on its own, that seems to be what he is saying. If you look at this advice that I quoted just now from the Internet, that also seems to be the case.

“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and obvious and so simple, and yet everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond ourselves.”

Without any reference to God here, the advice is to be content with what we have and to do good. Can meaning in life be found in that?

If you had asked me this question twenty years ago, I would have told you "of course not". I’ve been going to church since I was about six. Having grown up in church, it is unthinkable that anyone could even suggest that a life without God could be meaningful.

I’m going to say something radical, as far as the church is concerned. I believe that the answer is in fact "yes" - that even without believing in God, it is possible a person to find meaning in this lifetime by being content with what he has, and doing good.

This is possible not because God doesn’t matter, or because God doesn’t exist, but because of the grace of God. Just as God, in His grace, causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on both believers and non-believers, He enables people to find meaning and joy in the simple things in life - in family and friends, in earning an honest living, and in food that they eat - and by doing good.

Some of us might have friends who lead what I call a "fairy tale" life. They find their sweetheart at 18 years old, get married at 25, have 4 kids by 35, and grow old together holding hands and watching the sunset. They might not be particularly rich, but they’re happy living in the HDB flat they moved into when they first got married and taking the MRT to work. Their kids are well behaved and are Government scholars. And, they don’t go to church.

“It is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given him – for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work – this is a gift of God.” (Ecc 5 : 18 - 19)

“I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God.” (Ecc 3:12)

I think one reason why non-believers might not find the church very attractive, is because they don’t see enough Christians leading a life of contentment and doing good. Instead, they see Christians chasing meaninglessly after wealth and possessions, overworking themselves to get a promotion, and even behaving selfishly and unethically to get what they want. They look at us, and can’t tell the difference between a person who goes to church and a person who does not. Then, they look at the non-Christians around them, who lead simple and contented lives, who are ethical at work and in sincere their dealings with people, and who give their money and time to charitable causes and ask themselves – if these people can lead good lives without going to church, why should I?

I have to confess that personally, I have found it easier to form closer friendships with people outside of church than with Christians, particularly in the workplace. While other Christians and I are supposed to share the same worldview, what I appreciate and enjoy about the company of non-Christians is the sincerity, and the honesty and integrity and diligence at work, that you don’t always find in Christians.

On this point I want to touch on a recent confrontation between FCBC and the Humanist Society of Singapore. FCBC was going to preach a series of messages on evolution and the Christian worldview in April this year, and the Humanist Society responded by writing an open letter to challenge the church to debate these issues their secular experts. I have not followed up on what the outcome of that is. What I can say is if this happened 20 years ago, I would have thought of these people as just rude and godless in daring to challenge the church and the truth of the Bible in this way.

Is that really the case? Well, it is true that the Humanist Society, and people who identify themselves as “Secular Humanists”, reject that God exists. They believe that science and human reason alone, and not a religious book or authority, should guide their lives.

I don’t agree entirely with Secular Humanism. But there is one thing I would respect – if a person has carefully considered religion and concluded that he is not prepared to accept the existence of God at this time in his life, and then goes on to lead a highly ethical, moral and principled life based on human knowledge and reason, he may be a better person that the average church go-er. He is probably an even better person than I am.

Christians may think that we are close to God because we believe in Jesus and regularly attend church. But we ignore all the unGodly behaviour that we engage in, whether it is our materialism or unethical conduct. A principled Secular Humanist, on the other hand may be leading a highly moral life that would be pleasing to God, with his lack of belief in God being all that separates him from God.

In the Bible we see many examples of righteous and moral people who believed in God after a supernatural revelation from Him. This includes the apostle Paul, the Ethiopian who the apostle Philip met on the road outside Jerusalem, Cornelius the Roman centurion who the apostle Peter visited, and the people of Athens who were worshipping “an unknown God”. When Paul taught the Athenians who this "unknown God" that they were looking for was, many of them believed in Jesus.

Church, let us be careful not to become arrogant and complacent because we think we know God, or dismissive of those outside the church. There are people outside the church who may be even closer to faith, and all it takes is for God to reveal Himself to them at an appropriate time. On the other hand, people who have been attending church their whole lives may have deep issues with materialism or jealously or greed that will take a lot longer for God to deal with.

So is goodness and contentment without God enough for life to be meaningful? In this lifetime I think possibly yes for some people, but a life without God does not answer all the questions.

Let’s read Ecclesiastes 5 again, this time up to verse 20.

“It is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given him–for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work–this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.”

That verse says that when things are going well or at least going okay, being content with what we have is sufficient because it distracts us from reflecting on the deeper questions of life. However -

“The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.

Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come:

As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.” (Ecc 9 : 11 - 12)

We can try to lead as quiet a life of contentment as humanly possible, but sometimes things don’t fall in place.

“All share a common destiny — the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean … as it is with the good, so with the sinful; … This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead.”

We can try and lead a moral and ethical life, but not everyone around us will be moral or ethical, and we might be harmed by their actions. Also, at the end of the day, if everyone just dies whether they are moral or immoral, why does being moral or ethical matter?

“Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands.

As everyone comes, so they depart, and what do they gain, since they toil for the wind?” (Ecc 5 : 15 - 17)

If everyone is going to die, why does being moral or ethical, living responsibly or recklessly, working hard or not, matter?

And on this note I want to revisit Secular Humanism again. Some people reject God because they look at evil that has been done in the name of religion. The church, to its shame, has committed evil such as justifying slavery using the Bible. However, to reject God because the church has misinterpreted the Bible, is a bit like saying -

“because someone has misread the map before and led us in the wrong way, I’m going to throw the map away and find my way there without a map”.

“Can you tell me where is the ‘there’ you are trying to find?”

“There is ‘there’’ lah. I can’t point it to you on the map because I don’t have a map anymore. But it’s just roughly around there, where everyone will be more moral and ethical. We don’t need a map. We can just make it up as we go along.”

Is it okay to make things up as we go along? I struggle with that when it comes to ethics and morality because without a point of reference, which to me means the standards established by God in the Bible, whatever is ethical or moral is relative.

In Singapore politics we have this coined this hilarious expression - "ownself check ownself". It is our way of saying that the Parliament must be made up of more than one political party because you cannot trust a one-party Government to “ownself check ownself”.

However, in matters of ethics and morality, people are prepared to say that I can “ownself check ownself”. Yes I might listen to what you have to say about abortion, drugs, prostitution, and so on, but I reserve the right to "ownself check ownself", and decide what is ethical and moral for myself.

Taken to its extreme, if enough people personally decide – wrongly – that it is ethically and morally acceptable to kill over entire groups of people the way the Nazis killed the Jews, the gypsies and the homosexuals, or that is ethically and morally acceptable to kill and jail entire families and villages in order to achieve a Communist ideal, the world will go mad. That is why Solomon concluded -

“The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead.”

On the other hand, while certain churches at one time misinterpreted the Bible and used it to justify slavery, it was the Christian faith of William Wilberforce that motivated him to campaign against slavery. This resulted in the British Parliament passing a law to abolish slavery in the British empire in 1833, and the eventual abolition of this practice throughout the world.

Let’s turn to the final conclusion in Ecclesiastes about what meaning in life might be about – a relationship with God. In the final two chapters of Ecclesiastes, after examining self-indulgence and a life of goodness and contentment, Solomon concludes that a relationship with God is necessary for life to be meaningful.

“You who are young, be happy while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
God will bring you into judgment.

So then, banish anxiety from your heart
and cast off the troubles of your body,
for youth and vigor are meaningless.” (Ecc 11 : 1 – 10)

Because we only live once, we cannot just do whatever we like and pretend there is no ultimate reality. God will judge whatever we do, whether it is good or evil, meaningful or useless.

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
‘I find no pleasure in them’ …

Remember Him — before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecc 12 : 1)

Because we only live once, it makes sense to cherish and value the most important relationship that we can have next to our relationship with our family, before it is too late.

What do all these mean for us? Let me try and summarise whatever I’ve said today into something we can bring home and apply to our lives –

First – questions about the meaning of life will not go away. We will ask them. Our friends will ask them. But it is easy to get distracted by the things around us, and lose our way as we try and find the answer. God has called us to be the salt and light of the world. It is our duty to set an example for both believers and non-believers, of what it means to lead a meaningful life. How do we do this?

1. Remember that we are not called to lead a meaningless life of self-indulgence.

When a Christian If we remain as materialistic, as egoistical, as selfish and as unethical as he was before he started going to church, people outside of church will start questioning if becoming a Christian has made a difference to his life.

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (James 4 : 1 – 3)

2. We are called to lead a meaningful life of Godliness and contentment.

There are people “who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.” (1 Timothy 6 : 6 - 9)

In contrast to the materialism and selfishness in the world, Christians are called to be content and to do good works. But let’s not be arrogant and think that only Christians can lead a life contentment and do good. There are a lot of people outside of the church who may not believe in God, but who lead meaningful lives because they are better than us at living humbly and morally.

“… I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4 : 11 - 13)

The good news for Christians is that contentment comes as an overflow from our relationship with God. As we grow in our realization that God is able to provide for our every need, we will learn how to be content in every situation, and we will learn how to be generous with our money and in our good deeds in every situation.

3. Finally, we are called to discover ultimate meaning in a relationship with God.

One of my favourite movies is Jerry Mcguire, and one of the famous romantic lines from the movie was “you complete me”. It’s a line which the male lead says to his love interest, to tell her that he will only be complete as a person if they are in a relationship together.
Our longing to discover the meaning of life is like that – it’s a desire to be complete. And the Bible tells us that it is only in a relationship with God that we will be complete, because that is how we are designed.

“I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.” (Leviticus 26 : 12)

“… I will make a new covenant … I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,‘ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8 : 8 - 12)

In the Old Testament and in the New, God is consistently calling people to enter into a relationship with Him. This is the relationship that ultimately satisfies and answers our question of the meaning of life. Everything else, including finding contentment in the simple things and doing good without a relationship with God, is a poorer substitute. The disappointments and suffering in life, the evil that we see around us, and death, are reminders that we need more than what we have right now or what can accomplish by our own effort, to make life ultimately meaningful. We need God.

(Sermon) Faith at the Crossroads

Bloged in Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles, Society by Mel Sunday August 23, 2015

A couple of years ago, a friend told me about his experience going as an old boy to celebrate the 100th plus anniversary of his old school. Although the school had a long history, it was located in an older neighbourhood in Singapore, so it wasn’t attracting the better performing kids who would choose to go to other well-known schools.

The goal of the organizing committee for the anniversary celebrations was therefore to inspire its kids to work hard and do better, and to attract better students to the school. 

So on the Saturday of the anniversary celebration, one group of former students arranged to drive their Ferraris down to the school. Not just one Ferrari car, but a convoy of five or six Ferraris. I think the idea was to show that even a neighbourhood school kid can grow up to become successful. So successful, that he can afford to drive flashy, expensive cars. Personally, I’m not sure if encouraging kids to drive flashy, million-dollar cars is the best way to inspire students, but whatever we might think, that was a school at the crossroads. It had reached a critical point in its life where it had to decide what direction it wanted to take because it was at risk of becoming unattractive and irrelevant to the current generation of students.

In the same way, Singapore celebrates a very important anniversary this year – the 50th year of her independence. And like the school, we have been reflecting on our past and thinking about our future – what have we done well as a country? What can we do better? Where do we want to head to next?

We refer to such times in life or in history, when important choices have to be made, as the crossroads. In literal terms, it means a point where two or more roads cross each other, and split into different directions. In figurative terms, it means a point where you have to make critical choices that affect your future.

As Singapore stands at the crossroads, the churches in Singapore have pledged to stand with her. As Singapore makes important choices about its future, the churches have said that we want to be an instrument of goodness, righteousness and blessing in the future of this country that we love.

But that requires us to know what it means to be good and righteous.

I noticed a trend on the Internet recently for Christians to post a good deed which they have done on Facebook or Instagram and tag it #jubilee50k. I’m not sure who started this movement, but the idea is to “proclaim 50,000 acts of blessing” through the social media. Some of the things posted online have left me scratching my head. I suppose this is a nice change from the negativity that we typically see, but is this what it means to be good? Is it simply boasting about the good things that we have done online?

Unfortunately, reality is more complicated. There is a lot of noise competing for our attention, telling us what to do or who to follow. Some of these even pull us in different and opposite directions. Some churches try to be culturally relevant by putting up “magic shows”, but are then condemned by Christians for being “un-Christian”. When the Pope preached against the exploitation of workers and the environment, people condemned him for meddling in politics. You may have been asked to sign all sorts of petitions, some of which take opposing positions on issues. Nowadays, it is not enough to dress decently, we have been asked to wear clothes of particular colours, to represent particular causes.

Which is right? What is good? Like it or not, I think our faith is also at the crossroads. We are being asked to make choices that can take our lives and society down very different paths. I’m not going to tell you what exactly you should do in such matters today – we have church leaders who are wiser and better qualified than I am – but I do I want to share with you where I believe the heart of God is.

Let us read first from Jeremiah 6 : 16 –

   “Stand at the crossroads and look, ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”

The prophet Jeremiah lived at a time when the country of Judah was growing weaker. Judah was a small country surrounded by much larger, more powerful and more influential countries, like Assyria, Egypt and Babylon. In that sense, you can say that Singapore today, is very much like what Judah was at that time. Singapore is a small country, and not a major power like the United States, China or Russia. 

Judah did not influence the world. The opposite was true – events and ideas outside of Judah influenced it. Ideas outside of Judah set the standard for government, society, religion, culture, and civilization. These ideas were “imported” into Judah and influenced how the people of Judah thought and lived. I think this is very much how it is in Singapore as well – events and ideas outside of Singapore are more likely to influence us, than the reverse.

But not all of these foreign ideas in Judah’s time were good. Just because Assyria, Egypt and Babylon were the most successful countries in the world at that time, did not mean that whatever they did was good or right. However, the people of Judah became so caught up in the pursuit of what they saw in other countries that the prophet Jeremiah said –

   “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike all practice deceit.”

And so God warned through the prophet Jeremiah that it was time for the people of Judah to pause, reflect, and consider carefully what it meant to be good.

   “Stand at the crossroads and look, ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”

At a time like ours, where there are so many new and attractive ideas demanding our attention, God told the people of Judah not to blindly rush to follow the latest trends, or the most charismatic thought-leaders. God asked them to pause, reflect, and consider carefully what it meant to be good. This is what I want to do today, as we consider what it means to be righteous.

(1) Righteousness through Rituals?

Can we establish righteousness in our lives, and in our country, through rituals?

A ritual is a ceremony or an action performed in a customary way. In Christianity, this can mean going to church weekly for services and for Bible study, taking the communion, saying grace before every meal, reading the Bible, praying regularly and being very active in church ministry.

Can we determine righteousness by looking at how faithful a person is in complying with the rituals of religion? Usually, when we see someone who is very faithful in complying with the rituals of religion, we think that he or she is very holy. 

However, rituals on their own do not make a person better or more holy. A comment I hear sometimes from friends who do not attend church is “so-and-so goes to church every Sunday, but …” – and this is a very big “but” – then they go on to say something negative about how that person does not reflect the love and righteousness of God. 

External acts of religion only give an impression of goodness. You can engage in external acts of religion, with very little goodness or righteousness within you.

In Hong Kong triad movies or TV serials, we sometimes see the people pray to Guan Gong. The complication is this – everyone prays to Guan Gong. The good cop prays to Guan Gong, the bad cop prays to Guan Gong, the righteous gangster prays to Guan Gong, the evil gangster prays to Guan Gong. This is not just made up in the movies – in reality, triad members in Hong Kong do indeed worship Guan Gong, and there is a Guan Gong altar in every Hong Kong police station. But can you say that all four groups of people are good because all of them are religious? That wouldn’t make sense, and this proves that it is possible to perform the external acts of religion, without actually being good or righteous.

In Isaiah 29 : 13, God warned the people of Judah that their external acts of religiousness were meaningless, because there was no goodness in their hearts and in their actions. They did not practice the goodness and righteousness that they declared.

   “These people come near to Me with their mouth and honour Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is made up only of rules taught by men.”

So my first point is this – when we as the church in Singapore say that we want to be an instrument of goodness, righteousness and blessing in this country, external acts of religion without any change of heart and actions will not be enough.

(2) Righteousness through Rules?

Righteousness is not to be found in rituals alone. What about religious rules? Can we establish righteousness in our lives, and in our country, by observing religious rules? What if Christians obeyed every rule in the Ten Commandments, what if Christians complied with every command in the Bible – would that be good enough?

A friend recently posted online a picture of a letter which the traffic police sent to his wife. The letter was to congratulate her for maintaining a clean traffic record for the past five years. My friend tagged the photo – “my wife is a model driver”. When I saw it I commented “no more bad woman driver jokes”. His reply was that “she only drives twice a year, of course will have clean traffic record. But if you sit in the car while she’s driving you will be damn scared”.

In other words, just because you have not broken a traffic rule, doesn’t make you a good driver. It just means that you have not broken a traffic rule.

And it is the same when it comes to religious “rules”. Just because you have not broken the law or commandments in the Bible, doesn’t automatically make you a good person – it just means that you have not broken any rules.

Perhaps this was the nagging thought in the mind of the rich ruler when he approached Jesus in Luke 18, to ask “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Let’s read the passage together.

   A certain ruler asked [ Jesus ], “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

   … Jesus answered, “… You know the commandments : Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony …”.

   “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.

   When Jesus heard this, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have a give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me”.

   When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth.

Very few people can claim to have kept all the commandments in the Bible from childhood. But this rich ruler could! Even then, he felt that there was something missing in his life. He felt that, maybe, he wasn’t really good enough. So he approached Jesus for advice.

Whenever this passage is shared in church, Christians point to the rich ruler as a negative example of a man who did not love God enough to give up everything for God. Today I want to look him a little differently. The rich ruler may have lacked the love to give up everything for God, but he had the humility to reflect enough on his life, and realize that despite keeping all the commandments, he was missing something. He had the humility to recognize that maybe, he wasn’t actually good or righteous.

Not everyone is capable of that. Usually, when we look to “rules” as a measure of our goodness and righteousness, we focus on the faults of other people, overlook our own, and feel good about ourselves.

If you don’t believe me, you only have to look at the results of a Singapore national values survey that was published a few weeks ago.



   “Family, friendship and compassion are the top values Singaporeans feel best describe themselves”.

So far so good.

   “However, many described their society as materialistic, self-centred, ‘kaisi’ and ‘kiasu’.”.

In other words, Singaporeans were saying – “family, friendship and compassion” best describe me, but you horrible people out there – everyone else but me – you’re all materialistic, self-centered, kiasi and kiasu. Singaporeans were saying – I am a good person, but everyone else around me sucks.

I nearly fell off the chair the first time I read this, and I had to read it a few more times and consult my friends to get a second opinion. They told me I had read it correctly – Singaporeans were indeed claiming to be personally good, and that everyone else was at fault for the flaws in society.

Rules. When we look to “rules” alone as a measure of our goodness and righteousness, most of us will focus on the faults of others, overlook our own. This will not make us, or Singapore, better. It will just give us a false sense of our own goodness and righteousness, while we go round making the people around us feel worse about not being able to comply with the rules that we have kept.

On this point, let’s go back to the story of the model driver. My friend commented that his wife didn’t break any traffic rules because she hardly drives. If you drive only once a year, 500 m from your home to the petrol station and back, the chances of you breaking any traffic rules is very low if you don’t run into a lamppost along the way. A driver who hardly drives has a good chance of maintaining a spotless record. 

In the same way, sometimes people don’t “sin” in particular ways, because they don’t have a chance to or because, by the grace of God, they are not easily tempted in particular ways.     

Some of us don’t grow up in a place where we are tempted to sin in particular ways. Or some of us don’t grow up with an inclination to sin in particular ways. For example, until the Integrated Resorts came up in Singapore, there was hardly any opportunity to gamble recklessly in Singapore. Therefore, you wouldn’t be able to find a Christian who was addicted to gambling. Does this mean that all Christians have so much self-control that they don’t gamble? No – there was just no opportunity for Christians to be tempted that way. 

When I was growing up, my impression of students who ended up in the Normal stream in secondary school was that they were naughty, or lazy, or both. In my mind I thought : if these students attended class regularly like I did, and paid as much attention in class as I did, and did their homework regularly like me, they would do much better! Now that I’m older and a little wiser, I realize that many students end up in the Normal stream for a variety of reasons that disadvantage them, usually not within their control. Some might come from a complicated family background where there is little motivation to study, others might simply have been enrolled in a school that is a poor fit for them.

My very simple and childish thoughts reflect how we sometimes think. When we come from a background where we are not similarly tempted to break certain rules, we can become tremendously unsympathetic to people who are not so similarly blessed. 

Back to the topic of rules. By God’s grace, I did not grow up in a family where I was distracted from school because I had to find a job to support myself. By God’s grace, we have never experienced what it means to be so desperately hungry or poor, that we have to steal to feed ourselves or our families. By God’s grace, we have never experienced what it means to be given up to prostitution from a young age, such that we do not know of any other way to earn a living.

But these, and other difficult experiences, are what some people go through. And when we take time to understand them, we can empathise with why they feel cornered into what they do.

Just to be clear, the reasons why some people are cornered into stealing or prostitution, do not make stealing or prostitution right. 

However, there is a place of sympathy as we seek to help them out of their struggles. Hebrews 4 : 15 tells us that Jesus, whose example we must follow as Christians, is a high priest who is able to sympathise with our weaknesses, and who is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, and restore us to their full potential for goodness.

The reasons why some people are cornered into breaking rules, or into sin, do not make their sin right. But if we just follow our human inclinations instead of developing the love and sympathy of Christ, when we regard ourselves as superior because we have not broken the same rules – not much good or righteousness that comes out of that. In the eyes of the person who is struggling, we only declare condemnation without hope, and that does not do anything to help bring about positive change in people who struggle, and in society.

(3) Righteousness through Relationship

Righteousness is not to be found in rituals or in rules alone. Can it be established through a genuine relationship with God?

Let’s now turn back to Jeremiah, this time to chapter 22. Although the entire passage contains a lot of references to the king of Judah, Jeremiah’s message in context is not intended for the king alone. It is intended for everyone – “you [ the king ], your officials, and your people who come through these gates” (v2).

   Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar?
   Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. The defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well.  
   Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the Lord. (v 15, 16)

Let me paraphrase this passage. 

“Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar?”.- Cedar is the wood that comes from the cedar tree. In Old Testament times, cedar from Lebanon was very precious. It was like “gold” among woods. It was used to make palaces and buildings, religious articles such as altars, and merchant and military ships. Today, the cedar tree appears on the flag of of the country of Lebanon. How much cedar you had, and the amount of cedar possessions, was an indicator of your wealth and influence.

So Jeremiah was first asking – does it make you a better or more righteous person by doing more to satisfy your selfish purposes and your obsessions? The answer to his rhetorical question would be “no” – that we should first stop obsessing over things that gratify ourselves.

Jeremiah then asked his listeners to look at the example of righteous people in the past. Did they waste time obsessing over themselves? No – they were concerned about other people. They lived with integrity, and spent their time and resources helping the poor, the defenseless and the marginalized.

Jeremiah finally pointed out that goodness and righteousness are the result of “knowing” God. Not just an intellectual knowledge of what the rules in the Bible are, but righteous acts that flow out of a genuine relationship with God, in which our conduct reflects the goodness and righteousness of God.

What is your “cedar” today? What do we obsess over, that takes the place of our relationship with God and the righteousness that should flow from that?

The “cedar” of most people would be very material – wealth, property, and career success. However, it can also be something less tangible.

For some people it can be fame, especially in this age of social media when anyone can be instantly popular. I confess to being a little vain, and uploading nice selfies of myself in the hope of getting comments about how young I look although I am officially part of the “uncle generation”.

Other people are prepared to put up even inappropriate and controversial posts for that fame. There was a Malaysian couple (Alvivi) that posted intimate videos of themselves online, to “educate” the public. More recently, there was Amos Yee who made very rude and controversial comments about public figures and religion, just to gain public attention.

Our “cedar” can even have an apparent goodness about it. A charity organisation or a church can obsess over the number of members or volunteers it has, the number people attending service, the number of cell groups, the number of miracles, the number of hours spent in prayer (somehow it is never about the number of times Christians have read the Bible), or the number of supporters for a particular cause.

When our obsessions take the place of our relationship with God, even something that starts off with a good purpose can become distorted and corrupt. Recently, a HBO talk show reported about the questionable lifestyles and messages preached by TV evangelists in the United States. These are megachurch pastors who have gained a large following – and a lot of money – through their preaching on TV. These pastors probably did a lot of good when they first started out in ministry, but as fame and wealth from the donations of their followers grew, they lost sight of God.

God wants us to always keep our relationship with Him in sight as a first priority, and for the overflow of His love and grace in our lives to bless others. 

At almost every wedding dinner in Singapore, there is a ceremony where the newly married couple will open a bottle of champagne, and pour it into glasses that have been stacked as a pyramid. What overflows from the first glass is champagne that flows down to fill the other glasses lower in the pyramid. As the champagne flows out of the first glass into other glasses, it doesn’t change into plain water, toilet water or mud water. It stays the same, excellent champagne.

It’s the same with our lives. Imagine we are empty glasses, with God pouring His love, grace, goodness and righteousness into it. If we maintain our relationship with God, our glass will eventually overflow with the love, grace, goodness and righteousness of God and bless the people around us. The champagne does not turn plain or sour or bitter when it flows out of our lives. It does not change into mud water or toilet water. It maintains the sweet and rich consistency of God’s grace and love.

But when we exchange the glory of God for our personal obsessions, we stop pouring champagne into our glass, and replace it with something of lesser value. Hopefully it’s just iced lemon tea or coke or plain water. But sometimes it can even be mud water or toilet water, which corrupts and poisons instead of bringing blessing.

What is the overflow of God’s love and righteousness like? Jeremiah 22 : 15 says one aspect of this is where we do what is just and right. It means being honest in what we do. It means giving credit and praise to someone where it is due. It means paying a fair price for something that we buy, and paying our employees fairly and on time for work done. It means being fair to the foreign workers in our country, particularly because many of them are not in a position to bargain with us. It means putting in your fair share of effort for a school project, or for work you are hired to do.

Jeremiah 22 also talks about defending the cause of the poor and marginalized. These are people that are not in a position to stand up for or look after themselves. It may be because of a physical handicap. It may be because they are trapped in poverty. It may even be because of a mistake that they made, but they are now stuck because society discriminates against them or is not prepared to give them a second chance.

In 2007, the Singapore Ministry of Education brought together a group of teachers who were passionate about helping disadvantaged youths to set up the Northlight Secondary School for students who failed PSLE, but who needed a second chance to put their life in order. It was a “school for failures”. Because these youths did not even pass their PSLE, they would struggle to find a job and make a living otherwise.

Many of the students in Northlight come from poor and complicated family backgrounds, and are not used to respecting rules and authority. Many of these students would have come in with a feeling of hopelessness. What I find moving is the investment of the teachers in the lives of their students. They would have meals with the students instead of just amongst themselves. They would spend time after regular office hours getting to know students personally, visiting their families, and counselling students in need. Some even used their own money to help pay for part of an overseas trip for students, because they felt that no student should be left out of this learning opportunity.

Of course, not every student from this school has been a success story. A teacher was quoted as saying that there will of course be “students who will break your heart”, but the passion and the perseverance of these teachers have helped many students make good.

Northlight is a good example of a non-religious organization looking out for the poor and marginalized. Although as a church we are much smaller than a Government-funded school with full-time teachers, I believe that we have done the same within our means to bless our immediate community through free tuition lessons, bringing students out on free excursions, and visiting their families. All these are done without the expectation that people will join our church or become Christians. We want, first of all, to be a blessing to people who would otherwise struggle on their own.

In your personal life, I would encourage you to look at the world through God’s eyes. The love and compassion, and the goodness and righteousness, of God should not end with church activities on Sunday. Spend less time thinking about your own wants and obsessions. Spend more time looking out for how you can bless people who have less than you do, whether through your resources, or through your friendship and words of encouragement.


Today we asked ourselves what it means to be good and righteous in our personal lives, and in the life of our country, at a time when there are so many different thought-leaders and ideas competing for our attention. We heard that it is not about following the latest trends, no matter how good they claim to be. We heard that it requires more just following rituals and rules. 

We read in Jeremiah 6 : 16 that God wants us to pause, reflect, and seek Him. We read in Jeremiah 22 : 15 and 16 that we need to spend less time on our own obsessions, and more time on our relationship with God, and blessing others through the outflow of that relationship.

I want to end today with an account that one of the Northlight teacher’s experienced, followed by a final verse from Jeremiah. It is an account that reminds me of story in the Bible where the Pharisees confronted Jesus with a woman caught in adultery, and asked if she should be stoned to death. To be honest, if I were there with Jesus, I would not know how to answer the Pharisees that combines both grace and truth.

“We saw this tattooed man carrying groceries into her house, and asked who he was. She said: "My father’s boss"… We told her to be careful and not get so close to such people. She replied: "I am not sure if that uncle is good or bad. But I know that when my father passed away, no one, not even our relatives or my mother’s friends wanted to help us, but he brought food for us. Is he is good or not good?" I could not answer her question and paused, but it got me thinking about the kind of environment the children had been brought up…"

Like the story of the woman caught in adultery, this account from Northlight is one I don’t have a good answer to. But I think it brings across the point that as broken and sinful as we are, and as broken and sinful as people outside the church may be, God has created us in His image, and because we bear His image, there is potential for good even in our wickedness. As Christians we know that this potential is maximized when we find our redemption in Jesus Christ. The challenge for us is : how do we become a blessing to society, but responding with the love and grace of God to draw out the best in a person and, ultimately, help that person on this path to redemption?

In Jeremiah 31 : 21, Jeremiah says that it is the challenge for us who know God and the way to set up the signs at the crossroads, to point people to way to goodness and righteousness and to God –

  Set up road signs;
  Put up guideposts.
  Mark well the path by which you came.
  Come back again …
  … return to [ God ].

Shall we pray.

Alpha Introduction : Is Christianity on the Wrong Side of History?

Bloged in Church, Faith, Musings, Philosophy by Mel Monday July 13, 2015

Good afternoon. Thank you for coming.

Just as a show of hands - how many of you have attended Alpha at least once before, whether here in HarbourFront or somewhere else?

What is Alpha about? As its strapline - Ask Anything - suggests, it is a time when you can ask anything about Christianity. I would like to call it -

Questions you’ve always had for Christians but which might be too rude to ask

My wife and I have been attending church from a young age, so we can make bad jokes about Christians. One of the things we would joke about is how Christians must be the only people outside of school and maybe Alcoholics Anonymous to sit in circles and hold hands. Have you ever wondered why Christians engage in this sort of unusual behaviour?

Alpha is a time for all of us here, whether we go to church or not, to find out more about Christianity. What happens every week? Every session has food and coffee and a video of about 30 mins in which Nicky Gumbel, a pastor, speaks about a topic on Christianity. After that, there will be breakout sessions for about 15 to 20 mins for us to discuss the video in small groups. And ask rude questions.

This is our guarantee : There are no stupid questions. Only stupid people like me who can’t answer your questions. Today - the first week - there will be only a video, but not any breakout discussion.

But before we start the video, I want to get a little serious and philosophical. How many of you have heard the criticism that "Christianity is on the wrong side of history"? That means, Christianity is outdated - at best boring or irrelevant, and at worst untrue? Not that many I see - maybe you’ve not been hanging out with as difficult friends as I do.

Let’s keep this question at the back of your mind - I’m going to revisit it after the video.

[ Video ]

That’s the end of the video and I hope you enjoyed it.

Nicky Gumbel made two claims about Christianity in that video. The first is that it is emotionally satisfying. For those of us in search of meaning - who find that there are times when we feel empty despite a full day of work, the company of good friends and other great relationships - he says that satisfaction may be found in God.

The other is that it is intellectually satisfying, because it is true. And on this point Nicky Gumbel quoted C S Lewis, who said that Christianity’s claims are so radical that it must either be true, or a lie. There is no in-between. It is possible for us to find emotional satisfaction - at least temporarily - but feel intellectually unfulfilled. One example could be an extra-marital relationship - a couple in such a relationship might find emotional satisfaction in each other for a while but because it is built on a lie, there is limited intellectual satisfaction.

Which brings me back to the question "is Christianity is on the wrong side of history?". While I don’t have the answer to this now, I do have something for us to think about. A statement like this assumes that there is a "right side" to history. In fact, any statement which judges something to be wrong, assumes that it can judge what is right. But what is "right"? Is it wherever the flow of history takes us? If so, then at the height of Nazi Germany’s power during the Second World War, it would have been right to exterminate ethnic minorities, and the old, weak and handicapped.

If that doesn’t sound right, then how about the will of the majority, expressed through the vote or otherwise? But we’ve seen how the majority can act oppressively towards for example a minority ethnic group, and we think that’s wrong.

So what is "right" has to be determined by an authority higher than the flow of history, or collective human opinion. And here I would suggest that maybe religion - Christianity - has something to teach us about what is right and true. That intellectual satisfaction may be found in Christianity. Ok, so we’ve reached the end but before you go, I have two favours to ask of you:

1. We’re handing out slips of paper now, and I would like you to write any question you might have on Christianity on it. There’s no need to identify yourself, or where you work. This is your chance to ask anything - we’ll collect your questions as you leave and match them against the topics for the next few weeks, so that you get some answers. But if its not covered by any of the topics, we’ll discuss with the organising committee how to respond to them.

2. We need to plan for food and writing materials every week. So it would really help if you could let us know if you’re coming next few weeks by registering your name at the back. We would really like it if you could register your interest by today but if you, or your friends or colleagues, can only confirm this later, you can contact us through the number or e-mail projected on the screen.

On mortality

Bloged in Death, Devotional Thoughts, Faith, Musings by Mel Friday July 3, 2015



It took me a while to write this as there is never a good time to reflect on the possibility of death, particularly one’s own. But every once in a while something happens which forces us to pause and take stock of life. It can take the form of an accident at a place we had just visited, or the sudden loss of someone we know.

In my case, it was the scare of a persistent headache that refused to go away which, in the most morbid of cases, could be an indicator of something more sinister, such as a tumour or brain aneurysm.

What happens when we are confronted with our mortality? Anecdotally and perhaps also from popular fiction, I am given to understand that after an initial period of denial, people go about setting their affairs in order, saying goodbyes to those they are closest to and ticking off whatever they can practically complete from their bucket list. In this lifetime, we only live once.

Moving on to my faith, the Bible records that Joshua admonished his countrymen to obey God, vowing that his family would remain in the faith ("as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord" - Joshua 24 : 15). Samson prayed for supernatural strength to perform one last feat that would save his countrymen from their enemies ("remember me, O God, please strengthen me just once more …" - Judges 16 : 28). David gathered the resources necessary for his son Soloman to build a temple to God, and similarly advised Soloman to keep the faith ("so be strong, show yourself a man, and observe what the Lord requires" - 1 Kings 2 : 2 and 3). Hezekiah, I suppose not of the same noble character, thought of himself first and prayed for his life to be extended which God acceded to (2 Kings 20). Jesus prayed for strength to face His sacrifice on the cross ("My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done" - Matthew 26 : 42). Paul told the church that he felt conflicted between life and death because while the former would be a release from life’s labours, the latter would mean productive missionary work for the church ("to live is Christ and to die is gain If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruit labour for me. Yet which shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two …" - Philippians 1: 21 and 22).

I experienced no similar epiphany or catharsis. Life plodded on - kind of, because I was more grumpy and less patient at work - though there were the solitary more morbid moments I thought that it would be a relief to be released of life’s burdens, and the more sentimental moments when I silently grieved at the thought of not being able to hold the hand of the one imperfectly loved and fading into the sunset together.

So I am humbled. Humbled to see my conduct fall short of the standards established by popular fiction, human experience and Bible heroes. I suppose if Hezekiah’s supplication to God represents the minimum standard of expected conduct, I fell even below that. As a human, I am as flawed as they come. That the neurologist did not detect any issue that (he thought should be) of particular concern, is an extension of grace to me. And in other news, the MRI discloses that I have a brain.

(Sermon) What Would Jesus Say

Bloged in Church, Culture, Devotional Thoughts, Faith, Musings, Society, World by Mel Sunday January 25, 2015

Good morning.

What I’m going to share today began as a request by the group that meets every month at my workplace for prayer, to share something at our January meeting. I agreed, not because I already knew what to say, but because I couldn’t find a good excuse not to try.

As the days drew closer to the January meeting, I still could not figure out what to say. Have you ever had that feeling of reading the Bible, and going away without understanding much of what you just read, or feeling uninspired? I get that a lot. And that was how I pretty much felt throughout November and December.

So when the organiser asked me for the topic of my January message, the best I could think of was “What Would Jesus Say?”. I figured that if I didn’t feel inspired to share on any particular topic, I could still randomly flip to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John and be sure find a quotable quote from Jesus.

As it turns out, one of the passages I flipped to was John 13 : 7. The scene is the Last Supper, and Judas is about to leave the dinner table to betray Jesus to the Pharisees. Jesus knows this, and He turns and offers Judas a piece of bread, saying, “What you are about to do, do quickly”.

But eventually – and I believe nothing happens by coincidence – one passage I got really comfortable with, was Luke 4 : 15 – 19. Luke 4 marks the start of when Jesus crosses a quiet life of anonymity into public ministry, the start of His ministry on earth. After Jesus had fasted and prayed in the desert for 40 days, Luke records the first sermon of significance that Jesus preached in verses 15 to 19 and here, Jesus claims a prophecy declared by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, as applicable to Himself and to what He is going to do. Looking at what Jesus said at the start of His ministry, would be a good way to start the new year.

15 [ Jesus ] was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

I have read Luke 4 a number of times, but I have to confess that I only read it carefully about a month ago, and one of the thoughts to cross my mind was that if what Jesus said was to be understood literally, He sounded looney. Let’s look at the passage again.

“Good news to the poor” – Was Jesus saying that He would run a charity giving money and food to the poor? Well, we know that Jesus and His disciples did help the poor. But reading the gospels, we don’t get the sense that running a charity for the poor was what Jesus was about.

“Freedom for prisoners” and “set the oppressed free” – What prisoners? Jesus was not the king; He had no prisoners that He could set free. “Free prisoners” sounds more like an election campaign for governor, but we know from the gospels that Jesus wasn’t interested in becoming the political ruler of Israel.

“Recovery of sight to the blind” – We know from the gospels that Jesus healed the blind and sick but as in the case of the poor, we don’t get the sense that running a health and wellness clinic was what Jesus was about.

“Year of the Lord’s Favour” – That’s probably the craziest thing that Jesus said. The Year of the Lord’s Favour refers to a special celebration in the Old Testament known as the Jubilee. In Leviticus, the Israelites are told to celebrate the Jubilee at the end of every 7 x 7 years, which is the fiftieth year. In that year, the Israelites were the supposed to return the ancestral land that they had purchased from fellow Israelites, to the original owners. If you became poor and had to sell the farm that you inherited from your parents, this ancestral land would be returned to you in the Jubilee. And if you became so poor that you had to sell yourself and your family as servants to a richer family, so that you would have food and shelter, you were supposed to be released in the year of the Lord’s Favour. The Jubilee had never been celebrated throughout Israel’s history, and in fact has never been celebrated in any country in the world before. When Jesus “proclaimed the Year of the Lord’s Favour”, was he advocating for the implementation of the Jubilee? But we read in the gospels that celebrating the literal Jubilee was not on Jesus’ agenda either.

So was Jesus really looney? I don’t think so. I don’t think everything that Jesus said here is to be understood literally, so let’s take the passage apart and examine what it means.

In Luke 4, Jesus says He is here to “proclaim” four things : (1) Good news to the poor, (2) Freedom to prisoners, (3) Recovery of sight to the blind, and (4) the year of the Lord’s favour. And in addition to that He will do one thing, which is “set the oppressed free”.

Good News to the Poor

Who are the “poor”? When I did a google search on the Internet on Luke 4, I saw mostly two opinions – the “poor” are those who are materially poor and hungry who Jesus came to help, and the spiritually poor who Jesus came to forgive.

I think that’s generally correct. The good news for those who are in spiritual poverty is that a Saviour has come who can forgive their sins, and in whom we have a future hope of heaven. The good news for those who are materially poor is that God is concerned about their immediate physical suffering.

But I think this perspective misses out a lot of “in betweens”. That is, the people who are in between spiritual and material poverty. The Greek word for “poor” refers to not just the materially poor, but people who are powerless and marginalised, and people who are emotionally broken. These are people who you can’t help just by saying “your sins are forgiven” or, “here is $10 for your next meal” or, “here is $50 for you to go and see the doctor”.

What crushes the human spirit is not poverty, or suffering, or setbacks alone. That is why we see people who may be poor, but who are happy with the little that they have.

What crushes the human spirit is the sense of hopelessness that goes together with poverty, suffering or setbacks – a sense that no one understands or cares, that people have judged or rejected you, or that there is no second chance.

If you look at the life and ministry of Jesus, the “good news” is not that He gave everyone food and money, or made poverty disappear in this lifetime. The “good news” is not only that Jesus forgave sin as well. The good news is the infusion of grace and hope into the lives of people who felt hopeless, or which society rejected as hopeless.

This “good news” is Jesus’ identification with us : a Saviour who gave up His divine privileges, and who came to live with us not as an unapproachable, high and mighty king, but as a commoner who experienced the same hardship, suffering and rejection that we do. The “good news” is also Jesus devoting a significant part of His life to, hanging out and taking risks with, people that society ignored or rejected as hopeless : the lepers, the prostitutes, the tax collectors and even Judas Iscariot who betrayed Him to death.

In doing all this, Jesus was saying “I have walked the same path that you have, I understand what you are going through, and I will not leave you alone in what you are going through, no matter what everyone else thinks about you”. In Matthew, one of the names given to Jesus is “Immanuel”, which means God with us. Jesus demonstrated that to mean God with everyone, and not just God with the people on the right side of society – God who came to personally identify with us. In Hebrews, Jesus is known as the High Priest who is able to sympathise with our every weakness, because He had experienced hardship, suffering and temptation, just as we have, but was without sin.

So this is the good news for the “poor” – not just that God is concerned about material poverty, not just that we have forgiveness and a future hope in heaven, but that in the here and now, our God is a personal God who knows, understands, and sympathises with our brokenness, and who responds with a reckless grace that gives second chances where others will not.

Freedom to Prisoners

What about “prisoners”? This cannot mean literal prisoners because Jesus did not come to establish a political kingdom in which He would declare an amnesty for criminals after He became king. In fact, some of His followers wanted to make Him king, but He refused.

So “prisoners” must mean something else. People can be physically free, yet prisoners in other ways. A perfectionist is someone who is trapped in the idea that everything needs to be perfect, and who gets very agitated when something doesn’t go according to plan. An addict is a person who is trapped in a particular habit – abusing drugs or alcohol, even over-eating – because he cannot feel rested without engaging in that self-destructive habit.

So at one end of the spectrum you have the absolute liberals who believe that there is no God and are prisoners of their unbelief. At the other end of it are people who are very religious, who believe that by following certain rituals in religion like going to church regularly, or who believe that by their own righteous standards, they can please God. And in between, you have people who struggle with their belief in God and moral conscience because they feel trapped by shame and guilt of their addictions, past mistakes or for rituals that they were supposed to but didn’t follow.

Jesus came to proclaim freedom to people at both ends of the spectrum. The truth that sets us free is that we have acceptance in Jesus. There is forgiveness for our past, and freedom from having to prove that we are good enough for God because, on the one hand, we know that nothing we ever do will ever meet the standards of a perfect God but on the other, that perfection is attributed to us by God’s grace through Jesus.

“It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not something you can do, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2 : 8, 9)

The difference between someone who understands that perfection is given through Christ rather than won through performance is like two artists, one who paints in his prison cell, and another who has paints after he has been released from prison. The former desperately tries to paint the best painting he can come up with, in the hope that his painting will be good enough to please his captors so that they will set him free. The latter paints for the joy of painting, because he knows that he is already free. The latter represents the person who is no longer a prisoner of self-performance, because he knows that whatever perfection he needs has been given through Jesus Christ.

To many people today I appear quite Zen, very calm and even a little smiley in the most stressful circumstances. The only exception being when my Better Half is upset. But I have to confess that I used to be a perfectionist who would mentally beat myself up whenever I made a mistake, and who would get depressed when criticised for a less than perfect job. I eventually came to terms with the fact that no one can be perfect all the time, and what really helped was understanding that all the perfection we ever need has been given to us on the cross through Jesus Christ, and all that is needed is for us to do the best that we reasonably can for God, and not for our sense of self-worth.

Recovery of Sight to the Blind

What about “recovery of sight to the blind”? Again, this is not a sentence that can be taken literally because the focus of Jesus ministry was not just healing the blind or sick.

To find out what “spiritual blindness” was, I searched the Internet. The top hit was a website which talked about spiritual blindness as a disbelief in God, and indulgence in sin.

But there is another and perhaps more serious type of blindness, and that is where a person thinks he is so good, that he is blind to his own faults. I see this a lot in workplaces with a culture where employees dare not question supervisors. Therefore, when people attain a high level of seniority, no one dares to point out how stupid or petty they sound, and this begins a self-reinforcing cycle of stupidity in which senior managers think that whatever they do or say must be correct.

Jesus preached against a similar type of blindness too, and this was the spiritual blindness of self-righteousness perpetuated the Pharisees. The Pharisees formed the religious class during Jesus’ time, and everything that they taught and did became the standard of what it meant to be “good”. And so the Pharisees became very proud of how righteous or good they were because outwardly, they had complied with religious rules, such as washing the cup before each meal. But Jesus said that inwardly, their hearts were far from God, and that their actions did not demonstrate a generous love that should have overflowed from an understanding of what it means to be unconditionally loved by God.

Maybe because I am such an imperfect person, self-righteousness always bothers me. A book that I’ve started reading recently is “One Way Love”, which talks about how the grace of God flows unconditionally in one direction – towards us as sinners. One of the hard hitting says that the moralism prescribed by the Pharisees -

“can be relied upon to create anxiety, resentment, rebellion and exhaustion. It can be counted on to ensure that [ it hurts ] the precise people whom Jesus was most concerned with : sinners.”

How does Jesus heal this blindness? First, by reminding us that even the best of us fall short of God’s perfect standards. Secondly, through a love that forgives both the best and the worst of us unconditionally, so that we will be motivated not to deal with and judge people by how bad they are, but to love people based on how God has loved us despite of how undeserving we are. Finally, through the light of scripture, which guides us to check for the plank in our own eye against God’s expectations of us, before we start to criticise others.

Set the Oppressed Free

Moving on to “set the oppressed free”, this is the only part of the passage in which Jesus goes beyond mere proclamation, to say that He would do something (“set …free”).

First, what is “oppressed”? The Greek word for this, which I can’t pronounce, refers to people who are “bruised”. In other words, people who are hurting. And this hurt can be because of events beyond our control – a business that fails despite our best efforts. Or it can be self-inflicted, something that we know is foolish but which we do anyway.

I would cross-reference this to Matthew 20 : 20, in says this of Jesus –

“a bruised reed He will not break, and a smouldering wick He will not quench … an in His name the Gentiles will put their hope”.

Jesus did not come to crush those that are already broken and hurting. He came to restore. When the Prodigal Son returned home after living a wild life wasting his father’s wealth, the father didn’t reject away, or mock him for his foolishness. He threw a welcome home party, and restored the prodigal son.

Psalms 103 says that God “does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities … for He knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust”.

What does this mean practically? In “One Way Love”, Tullian Tchividjian – who is Billy Graham’s grandson and now a senior pastor of a church – wrote about how as a rebellious teenager he had dropped out of school and moved out of home, and engaged in all sorts of irresponsible behaviour, to the pain of his family. Several family friends met up with him try and turn him around, and each time they would lecture him about how irresponsible he was, or how much he was causing hurt and shame to his parents. But there was only one particular meeting that made a huge difference in helping him turn around eventually –

“And I thought, oh no, another one of my parents’ friends trying to set me straight. But I didn’t want to make things any worse between my parents and me, and the free meal didn’t sound too bad either, so I agreed to get together to meet with him.

Once we were at the restaurant, he just looked at me and said, ‘Listen, I know you’re going through a tough time, and I know life must seem very confusing right now. And I just want to tell you that I love you, I’m here for you, and I think God’s going to do great things with you. Here’s my phone number. If you ever need anything, call me. I just want you to know that I’m here for you.’ And then he switched the subject and started talking about sports. That guy … is still a friend of mine to this day. He will forever be marked in my personal history as an example of amazing grace.”

And I think that illustrates what Jesus meant by setting the oppressed free. It means, as in the case of the father of the Prodigal Son, waiting for and standing by someone who is broken and hopeless, because God knows that we are broken by nature, and He takes no pleasure in crushing an already broken spirit.

However we struggle with this because we live in an instant noodles and Internet age where we expect solutions almost immediately. When my kids click on the Youtube button on the iPad, they get very agitated when the video doesn’t start playing in the next ten seconds.

I get the impression that we expect God to do the same for us, and for the people around us. We think that if God doesn’t turn someone around quickly, it must be because that person is either beyond hope or a waste of our time, and we move on to something more productive. When I was still a teenager in another church, and this was before the Internet though we already had instant noodles, one of our youth leaders seemed to be quite mercilessly task-orientated in his approach to ministry. If someone wasn’t responding to his efforts to disciple them, he said that we should move on to someone who would.

Our time and resources are limited, and I agree that we should be wise in making productive use of the resources that God has entrusted to us. It makes sense to discuss whether it would be better use of our time and resources to offer tuition to primary school or to secondary school students, or whether to distribute Christmas presents to families in block 45 only or to both blocks 45 and 46.

But we cannot approach people as projects measured by the returns that we get from our investment in them. We cannot approach people as objects to be abandoned if they don’t demonstrate the change that we expect to see. Jesus rescued the woman caught in adultery from stoning and told her “go and leave your life of sin”, without knowing whether she would indeed leave her life of sin. As Christians, we would certainly like to believe though the Bible never confirms that. This because it is so tempting to think that the first priority for forgiveness goes to those who are genuinely prepared to change. This reflects human-to-human relationships, in which we are more likely to forgive a person who apologises or appears truly sorry for offending us or who, even better, compensates us for your loss. On the other hand, we are more likely to write off a person who does not appear remorseful.

To the assumption that Jesus had responded graciously to the woman because she was repentant my question is this : would Jesus have treated the woman any differently assuming He knew she would fall back to her life of sin? Would He have told the Pharisees to go ahead and stone her? I don’t have the answer to that question; I can only ask you to search your hearts and ask God to reveal to you what He would have done, in the light of scripture.

The Year of the Lord’s Favour

As I explained just now, the Year of the Lord’s Favour refers to the celebration of the Jubilee, that was supposed to take place every 50 years in Israel. In that year, debts were forgiven, ancestral land was returned, and slaves were set free.

And that is where we get the word Jubilee in SG50. It’s Singapore’s 50th year of independence, and as a country we are rightly celebrating it in a big way.

Churches in Singapore are making it a big deal too. In preparing for this sermon I did my best to read and listen to sermons online, and spoke to friends from other churches about what their churches were doing. From what I see and hear, there is a sense that God will do something different, and something greater in this year of the Lord’s favour. There is the expectation of exponential growth. Christians are being exhorted to give more generously and sacrificially, both in their time as well as money. The good work that church social programs have done, such as helping families with debts, are also given greater visibility in the media.

What makes me pause is the fact, as mentioned just now, that the Jubilee as envisaged in the Old Testament was never implemented even celebrated in the history of Israel, or of the church, and that Jesus did not attach any significance to once-in-fifty-year celebrations either.

In His lifetime, Jesus did not advance the Jubilee as a social or political agenda, and get people to donate their wealth, forgive debts and return property. Rather, when Jesus proclaimed the “year of the Lord’s favour”, He meant that there should be release from the slavery (sin), restoration of our God-given inheritance (blessing), and the establishment of social justice, on an ongoing basis. In other words, the Jubilee is to be celebrated by Christians on an ongoing basis as an outpouring of God’s love from their hearts, rather than mandated by special programs instituted by the Government or by the church.

Last week, Parliament passed a new law regulating foreign worker dormitories. It is a law which benefits foreign workers in the sense that it ensures certain minimum standards of living in large dormitories, and which requires dormitories to provide health and welfare facilities that foreign workers can enjoy or use without having to go outside. Leaving aside the important issue of security after the Little India riots, what has been left unsaid is this is an attempt to confine foreign workers inside their dormitories as much as possible, because Singaporeans are just not comfortable with them. To put it harshly, we are trying to discriminate against them.

I wonder how many Christians approve of these new measures, on the basis that they would prefer not to have to mingle with foreign workers in public. If so, I find it ironic that the year that we call the Jubilee and which God originally intended for freedom for slaves, is the very year that we discriminate against foreign workers even more. I’m not saying that the law is wrong. It may be that, after serious consideration of security and other issues, this law may be the most practical measure that we can adopt as a country. But that is no excuse for wrong attitudes inside our hearts, which partly motivates such a law.

The point I’m trying to make is that the Jubilee that Jesus proclaimed is supposedly greater than a once-in-fifty-year program, and has to come from an outpouring of God’s love from our hearts. The objectives we have for helping the poor are good, but have we been blind to how narrowly we define the “poor”, and excluded people who are not like us? Have we, against the spirit and intent of the Jubilee, excluded foreign workers and other people who are hurting in less obvious ways and who simply need a personal touch from Jesus – through us – by standing by them and being prepared to give them a second chance when no one else will?


Before we close l want to summarise what we just heard today, and look at what it means for us. First we heard that the message that Jesus preached was not to be understood literally. Instead, Jesus meant to say that –

1. He has a message that will bring hope to those who are materially, emotionally and spiritually destitute.
2. He has a message that can free those who are prisoners of sin / guilt / shame and of religious legalism.
3. He has a message that can open the eyes of unbelievers and those blinded by self-righteousness.
4. He has come to bring comfort and deliverance to those who are materially, emotionally and spiritually oppressed.
5. He has a message that is greater than the hope promised in the Old Testament Jubilee and that applies year after year, and only just once every fifty years.

What that means for us is that God is not a distant God, but a personal one. That we do not walk alone, and that in Jesus we have a saviour who identifies and sympathises with our experiences.

What that also means is that the message of the Bible not only frees us from unbelief, but also from sin, guilt and shame, and legalism and self-righteousness.

As for those people around us who are broken, hurt or rejected, it means that God desires to bring comfort and freedom from the issues they are struggling with, personally through Christians who are prepared to stand by them when no one else in society will, patiently as we wait for positive change to bear fruit in their lives.

Finally, God’s favour is ongoing; it is not a once-in-fifty-year event in which the church makes special effort to help the poor. The message of grace and hope applies at all times, and God desires Christians to be generous to the poor – in every sense of the word and not just to those in material or spiritual poverty – year after year, on an ongoing basis.

The Christian faith in the United States is perceived very negatively in some quarters of society, perhaps because it is much easier to remember what Christians strongly stand against (eg. abortion) than what they stand for. In such a polarised society, it can be very difficult for Christians to share their beliefs meaningfully. However, Philip Yancey observed a change when Christians responded with grace and compassion, unconditionally and without discrimination, to support the relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina swept through Louisiana and Mississippi. In closing I want to share with you this quote from his book, which sums up what is required of Christians if we wish to effectively proclaim good news to the poor, set the oppressed free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour –

“The storm [ Hurricane Katrina ] laid bare an unmistakable truth. More and more Christians have decided that the only way to reconquer America is through service. The faith no longer travels by word. It moves by deed.”

[ Close ]

Reflections on 2014, and the Question that Never Goes Away

Bloged in Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Wednesday December 31, 2014

And so 2014 ends on a tragic note.

News first of a lone terrorist taking hostages in a Sydney café resulting in two deaths, then of over 120 children massacred in another terrorist attack on a school in Peshwar, Pakistan, followed finally by the crash of QZ8501 with over 160 passengers and crew on board.

I was on a plane back from Hong Kong just a week before the Sydney café hostage incident and completed, in one sitting, Philip Yancey’s “The Question That Never Goes Away”. Yancey was invited to offer some words of consolation to the families whose children had been killed in a gun rampage in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. His reflections on that tragedy, which also took place close to Christmas, and on the question of suffering and pain – questions that never go away – became part of this book.

I’ve heard and read many (religious) people offer an explanation for tragedy. They range from divine punishment, to karmic retribution, to a little more placidly, fulfilment of some yet unknown larger cosmic purpose. I agree with Philip Yancey that seldom do any of these explain satisfactorily the reason for sad events in our lives.

In the concluding pages of his reflections, Yancey wrote that :

“From Jesus I learnt that God is on the side of the sufferer. God entered the drama of human history as one of its characters, not with a display of omnipotence but in a most intimate and vulnerable way. On a small scale, person-to-person, Jesus encountered the kinds of suffering common to all of us. And how did He respond? Avoiding philosophical theories and theological lessons, He reached out with healing and compassion. He forgave sin, healed the afflicted, cast out evil, and even overcame death. From His brief time on earth we gain not only a bright and shining clue to the future but also a clear example of how we [ Christians ] His followers should respond to those who suffer.

Does it make any difference, this assurance of Immanuel and the example that Jesus modelled for us? Surely it does not answer why evil exists in the first place, or why some innocent people … suffer while evil people seem to prosper. Yet it does help us to see God not as a remote being, untouched by what we go through on earth, but rather as One who is willing to experience it in person. No other religion has this model of God so identifying so deeply and compassionately with humanity.

We go through suffering not alone, but with God at our side”.

A Bible passage that is often fondly quoted in church is Psalms 23, which at verse 4 reads –

“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For you are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” (NKJV)

I had always imagined the shepherd (intended by the writer to be a reference to God) in this passage to be a strong protector leading his sheep on safe paths to greener pastures, and protecting the sheep from wild animals.

I have now come to see the Shepherd not just as a leader, but also as a companion to the sheep on their journey to greener pastures, experiencing the same harsh terrain and bitter cold and the same thirst and hunger, and confronting the same wild animals that threaten the lives of the sheep, even to the point of laying down His life that they might escape from death.

“I am the Good Shepherd”, Jesus said of Himself, “the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep”. (John 10 : 11)

I end 2014 without an answer to the question that never goes away, but with (re)assurance that we do not walk alone.

On the Save-My-CPF Hong Lim Park Fiasco

Bloged in Life, Generally by Mel Monday September 29, 2014

I find it hard to believe that someone has actually started a petition calling for Han Hui Hui’s citizenship to be revoked, with the following words being the only substance to that petition :

“Revoke Han Hui Hui’s Singapore Citizenship!”

What Han Hui Hui did last Saturday was insensitive and appalling, but surely not worse than someone who commits a sex offence, pays a bribe, cheats an organisation of massive amounts of money, or absconds from national service (ie. goes AWOL). Yet we do not demand that the citizenship of such offenders be revoked.

Han Hui Hui has been roundly criticised on the Internet, and what she stands for (what does she stand for?) largely discredited. That is punishment enough. What do we gain by demanding the revocation of her citizenship (which will not happen anyway, because the Government cannot suka-suka anyhowly revoke people’s citizenship)? What do we gain if, as a result of all this public pressure, she is terminated from her job (assuming she is working) or forced to leave school (assuming she is studying)? Why do some people appear so keen to “finish” her off?

Which is what troubles me about the state of civil discourse in Singapore.

In war, it is an international crime to take no quarter. In sports, it is against the rules to continue hitting an opponent that has been knocked down.

Yet in civil discourse, we take no quarter from those we disagree with. When someone we disagree with makes a mistake, we continue to mercilessly pummel them when they are down.

We may have very good reasons for standing by our views and disagreeing with someone else, but that does not mean that we should shut him/her up. If we want to create a more civil society, then we need to act with greater grace : leave room for people to express different views, and take time to evaluate even those views that we are inclined to disagree with.

It is difficult (if not impossible) to defend Han Hui Hui’s insensitive and appalling conduct last Saturday, but her immaturity does not justify a similarly immature response from the rest of us, by petitioning for as extreme a censure as the revocation of her citizenship.

On Driving Tests and the Pursuit of Perfection in Life

Bloged in Church, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Wednesday August 20, 2014

I recall a somewhat sombre conversation with a good friend back in April 2012. Reflecting on some of his bad decisions, he felt like giving up on the pursuit of perfection because, he said, life was like an endless driving test in which we keep accumulating errors till we reach a point of failure. These were the reflections that I posted thereafter :

“Life may feel like a driving test that never ends, and which one can never pass. But it is not a test we could have passed on our own to begin with. That is why we were given an unconditional pass from the outset through Jesus Christ. Not so that we can keep hitting the curb at whim, but so that we can keep practising and become better drivers.”

More recently, another friend I think - my memory fails me - asked in jest if I judged him for his mistakes. I said I did not, that everyone has a dark side, and the point is to never give up trying to become better persons. My reflections on this separate later conversation were :

“Everyone has a dark side. Hopefully we never stop trying to be better persons despite it. And how might we stop trying? One way is to feel so lousy about ourselves that we give up on ourselves and trying to be better. The other is to think that we are so perfect that there is no need for any improvement. Both are sad outcomes, though chances are that while the former hurts mainly himself, the latter is also a prick to the people around him.”

To paraphrase Lance Armstrong - (the pain from) setbacks or failures of the moment are temporary, but quitting is forever. I don’t think God ever desires any person to give up on being better. If He did the Bible would have ended with Exodus, on Mount Sinai, where God give to Moses the moral law and in particular the Ten Commandments, which lofty standards (most) people would be unable to comply with to the last letter and would eventually give up on.

What God did instead was send Jesus Christ, whose life, death on the cross and resurrection offer hope – hope that we can put our past behind us, and hope and that we can transform and become better persons even if change comes by fits and starts, before we are finally made perfect when we see God face to face.

(Sermon) Our Calling to be a Priesthood of Believers

Bloged in Church, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles, Society by Mel Monday August 11, 2014

Good morning.

I want to start today by going back to the church I worshipped at as a teenager. It was a church of the Brethren denomination, which is rather traditional in outlook. The only accompaniment during worship was a piano and we sang only hymns. Some women wore veils and it was unimaginable for anyone - whether male or female - to step into church wearing bermudas or shorts, like I did last week. So today I’m glad to be worshipping in a church today that does not judge me by my outward appearance or by how sinful my past is, but which sees the potential for Godly transformation through God’s eyes. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be standing here.

Anyway, back to my previous church. The most distinctive feature of Sunday service was this 30 - 45 minute segment which had nothing planned in advance. That means, no worship, no announcements and no sermon was planned. Every believer would sit quietly in his orher chair reflecting on God and, as the Holy Spirit inspired a believer, he would step up to the microphone and read a passage from the Bible, share atestimony or lead the church to sing a hymn.

I found out that this unique practice was inspired by 1 Peter 2 : 9, a passage inthe Bible that refers to Christians as a “royal priesthood” or what Christians refer to as the “priesthood of believers”. This means that God intends for all of us tobe priests before Him. Of course, there will be a role of some of us to be “chief priests” in the sense of pastors and full time ministers. However, God intends that all of us should be capable of guiding others in the truth, and praying with authority. This was tremendously exciting for me as a teenager whom adults tended to ignore or see as a nuisance. Suddenly, my identity was defined by the fact that God saw me as a “priest”, instead of how other people looked at me. Suddenly, my actions, my prayers and my words could be inspired by God, in the way that God inspired the elders of the church.

I want to share with what it means to be called as a priest before God today – a calling that as much belongs to me, as to you, and to our pastor. Now, turn to your neighbour, look him in the eye, and say “you are a priest before God”. Let’s open in prayer.


For those of you who watch Chinese period dramas, can you tell me what this is? This is a picture of the Temple of Heaven in China which, translated from Chinese, literally means “Altar of Heaven”. It is a place I hope to visit one day. Every year, the Emperor of China would visit the temple where he would fast for three days, before entering the temple to make a sacrifice and pray that Shang Di (or supreme god) would bless China with good weather and good harvests. In doing so, the Emperor of China became more than just a ruler. He became a priest –a representative to plead for his people before God.

The worship of gods through priests was not unique to Chinese culture. It can be found in almost every society or culture with some variation. Underlying all these religious systems was (i) an intuitive longing by people to make a connection with the Creator-God and (ii) a sense that, because the Creator-God is so much greater than us, He was prepared to only listen to selected people, which are the priests.


God changed that when He appeared to the Israelites. You would know that in Exodus, God rescued the Israelites from Egypt. In Exodus 19, they arrived at Mount Sinai. This is the mountain where God would later give Moses the Ten Commandments. Before Moses climbed up to meet with God, God told the Israelites : “You shall be for me a kingdom of priests”. In other words, unlike other belief systems around them, God did not want to create a special group of people that He would only listen to - He wanted every Israelite to be a priest. As a priest, every individual would have access to God and would have a personal relationship with God. As a priest, every individual would have the authority to represent non-believers before God, and to speak the words of God.

Sadly, this did not work out as planned. Moses came down from Mount Sinai expecting the Israelites to be waiting eagerly to hear what God had revealed to him. Instead, Moses found the Israelites worshipping idols. The Israelites got bored of waiting, and decided to make idols of their own to worship. Partly because of this disobedience, God had to postpone his original plan for people to approach Him freely. The tribe of Levi was appointed to serve as priests, and anyone who wanted to worship God had to present an offering at the temple through the priest. The “Levitical” in “Levitical Priesthood” refers to the tribe of “Levi”.

However, even in this less than ideal priesthood in Israel was an important difference from other belief systems at that time. In many other belief systems, the role of priests was to perform rituals to appease an angry god or to plead for protection or blessing. In these other religions, the priests represented gods who could be bribed into doing what a person wanted – if you were rich or powerful enough to bring the right offering – or who was detached or had mood swings and needed to be pacified, or who had no regard for human life which, in the most extreme cases, meant the making of human sacrifices.

The God of Israel changed that. To Israel, the priests represented a merciful and compassionate God. While other gods treated people erratically, the God of Israel established an unchanging standard of moral perfection. God gave Israel the Ten Commandments and other laws, which till today forms the basis for many laws in society. The fact that God is unchanging and that thelaws of creation can be understood, is what gave birth to modern science – because when Newton came up with his theory of gravity he knew that an apple that fell out of a free, it wouldn’t fall to the ground one day, fly up to the sky the next, and divide into two pieces which fly off in different directions on another day.

At the same time, this was a God who was merciful because He knew that the Israelites would never be able to keep to all His moral standards perfectly, and provided a way out. This way out was the system of animal sacrifices through the priests by which the Israelites could redeem themselves. That is why, in Exodus 34:6, the Israelites remember God as

“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generations.”


But as I mentioned just now, this Levitical Priesthood was not the ideal that God had in mind at the beginning. God was still distant. The Israelites could not approach and worship Him directly; they had to go through priests.

During the Japanese occupation of Singapore, the commoners had to bow whenever they encountered a Japanese soldier in public. If you met a Japanese soldier and did not bow, you would be beaten up. The harshness of this law served to remind commoners that the Japanese were the absolute rulers of Singapore at that time.

In the same way, the Israelites had to make regular - daily - sacrifices at the temple through the priests for their sins. Every bloody animal sacrifice, every day, several times a day, was a reminder of the separation between God and man, and of how far the Israelites fell short of God’s standards of moral perfection. Can you imagine if you had to bring a cow or sheep to church and ask the pastor to sacrifice that for you every Sunday? The blood, the noise and the mess would be a very visual reminder of how separate you are from God.

Then Jesus came and changed that. At the end of His ministry on earth, Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins, once and for all. In comparing the Levitical Priesthood and the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, the writer of Hebrews said :

“… those [ animal ] sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.

Therefore, when Christ came into the world … He set aside the first [ system of sacrifices ] to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all. For when this priest [ Jesus Christ ] offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God.” (v 3- 4 and 11 - 12 , verses reordered)

At the time that Jesus died on the cross, the curtain that separated the holiest part of the temple in Jerusalem from the rest of the temple, was supernaturally torn into two. That holiest part of the temple, which is called the Holy of Holies, was a special place the only the High Priest of Israel could enter once a year, to meet God. The torn curtain symbolized that Jesus had removed the barrier and the Levitical Priesthood that separated man from God, so that Christians today may approach God directly, and have a direct personal relationship with Him.

The first way that the Levitical Priesthood was imperfect was its daily reminder of the distance between God and man. The other way in which the Levitical Priesthood was imperfect, was how the priests and religious teachers substituted God’s mercy with an uncompassionate system in which the they distanced themselves from ordinary men, and created religious regulations that effectively left people without hope, and prevented people from drawing close to God.

Then Jesus came and changed all that.

Whereas the priests and religious teachers - the Sadduccees and Pharisees - in Jesus’ time condemned and rejected anyone who did not conform to their view of what makes a “good person”, the writer of Hebrews referred to Jesus as theHigh Priest who -

“shared in [ our ] humanity … fully human in every way … a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God… Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (2 : 17 - 18)

“… a great High Priest … [ who is able ] to sympathise with our weaknesses, [ who ] was tempted in every way, just as we are — yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (4 : 14 - 15)

In Luke 7, Jesus was having dinner at a Pharisee’s house when a woman “who led a sinful life” entered the house uninvited. She went up to Jesus, wet his feet with her tears and with perfume that she had brought, and wiped it with her hair. If this happened in church today I think we’d all be shocked. You can imagine how the conservative guests at the dinner, who were also religious teachers, felt - they were scandalised. Some choked on their food, while others muttered : if Jesus is really a prophet, if Jesus is really a Godly person, He would know how sinful this woman is and stay away from her. What Jesus did instead was the exact opposite. Instead of pushing away the woman who came to Him in great distress and at the risk of being humiliated, He graciously accepted her scandalous act of worship, and said to her : “your faith has saved you, go in peace” (Luke 7 : 50).

The Levitical Priesthood degenerated into a system in which the priests distanced themselves from men, and created rules that distanced men from God.

The Priesthood of Jesus Christ, in contrast, saw Jesus draw close to men, and draw men to God. Jesus deliberately immersed Himself in the whole spectrum of human experience, in order to identify with us.

Some of us come from broken families. Jesus was the boy who was sniggered at for being born before his father married his mother.

Some of us struggle to earn enough for ourselves or for our families. Jesus was the boy who had to go to bed hungry on days when his father’s business was bad.

Some of us struggle with self-esteem and being bullied. Jesus was the teenager whom adults laughed at, because they could not believe that a young and unschooled teenager could have anything meaningful to tell them about God. When Jesus started His ministry, He became the man whom members of His hometown despised, because they could not believe that the (illegitimate) son of a carpenter could become anyone important in life.

Some of us are treated unfairly. Jesus was the man who had to constantly put up with vicious accusations that He was a drunkard, a sinner and a demoniac although He led a life of perfect integrity.

Some of us struggle with personal weaknesses and bad habits, between living selfishly and living honourably, between living only for ourselves and living to bless others around us. Jesus was the man who had to constantly struggle between taking a short, easy route to success, and the longer, much harder route of glory through self-sacrifice. And at the end of all this, Jesus suffered and experienced the very same death that we see around us, and which we will personally experience in our lifetime.

Through Jesus, God was no longer distant or detached, but Immanuel – “God with us”. In John 14 : 9, Jesus told His disciples “whoever has seen Me has seen the Father”. As High Priest, Jesus represented not just the truth of God, but the loving, merciful and compassionate presence of God. Instead of avoiding the tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, lepers and other sinners, Jesus – God Himself – intentionally spent time with people whom the Pharisees and Sadducees had rejected, listening to what they struggled with in their daily lives, and offering the presence and grace and hope of God in place of condemnation and hopelessness.

And because we have Jesus as our High Priest who is able to sympathise with our weaknesses yet without sin, we are now covered with the love and hope of God. All of us may “draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4 : 15 - 16).


The Priesthood of Jesus Christ – His identification with us and His sacrifice on the cross – brings us back to the original plan of God. If you recall, when God first brought the Israelites out of Egypt, He intended that they should be a kingdom of Priests. The Israelites failed miserably, and the imperfect Levitical Priesthood was put in place. Jesus then came to bring to completion – by His death and resurrection on the cross – what a system of animal sacrifices could not.

The writer of Hebrews excitedly declared the fulfillment of God’s original plan through the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, by quoting from the prophet Jeremiah –

“I will put my law in their minds, and write in on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest.” (Jeremiah 31 : 33 - 34 / Hebrews 8 : 8 - 12 and 10 : 16).

This means that it is no longer necessary for people to approach God through a priest. Everyone can approach and know God. From the least to the greatest, everyone can have a personal relationship with God. Furthermore, knowledge of God would no longer be the exclusive domain of priests and religious teachers. From the least to the greatest, God will impart spiritual knowledge and wisdom – knowledge of the law – to everyone.

Therefore,in 1 Peter 2 : 9, Peter wrote that to the Christians saying that -

“You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.”

and in the closing book of the Bible, Revelation, Christians are reminded again that God -

“loves us and has freed us from our sins, and has made us to be a kingdom of priests to serve His God and Father” (Revelation1 : 6).

God wants us, as Christians today, to step up to our calling to serve as priests. He wants, first of all, for us to have a personal relationship with Him. Then He wants us to impart spiritual wisdom and knowledge to our lives, but for this to happen we have to be disciplined in reading the Bible, meditating on its words, and in spending time with God in prayer.

Then God wants us to fulfill our priestly calling by blessing the people around us. But this should not just be about fulfilling the traditional role of priests in proclaiming the truth. Sometimes I get the sense that the church sees its responsibility to be only about telling everyone to be good : do not lie, do not steal, do not kill, do not commit adultery, and respect your parents. If it ends there, all you have is the Levitical model of Priesthood : impose religious law, and keep your distance.

I believe God desires more than that. He wants us to follow the model of Priesthood that Jesus established. He wants us to live with integrity, and not just proclaim it, which is what Jesus did. He wants us to bless others with our time, our resources, and our talents, which is what Jesus did when He helped the poor and the sick. Today we do the same thing as a church when we give tuition to children in our neighbourhood, and support the children’s orphanage and education in Myanmar.

And God wants us to walk with people who are hurting and rejected, and deal with them in compassion, in the same way that Jesus did. The fact that some of these people do not seem to be “good people”, in that they might have made mistakes or bad choices in life or have bad habits, should not make a difference. Because Jesus did not just come to tell people to be good. If Jesus had stopped there, He would be no different from the priests and religious teachers. The tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, lepers and other sinners – the people who society rejected as “bad” – would remain rejected and condemned. They would continue to be excluded from faith.

Jesus came to give people hope – hope that they can put their past behind them and that, through Jesus Christ, they can transform and become better persons, and finally be made perfect when we see God face to face.

Some of you might have read the thoughts that I posted on Facebook about two weeks ago while preparing for today’s message. I asked : as Singapore grows older and celebrates her 49th birthday, how do Christians see themselves grow with her? Does God’s calling for Christians to be a “kingdom of priests” have any meaning for us?

In connection with this point on walking with people and imparting hope, a large part of the National Day Parade yesterday was, coincidentally and for a change, about hope and second chances – helping Singaporeans to be the best that they can be, especially for those who have suffered setbacks in life, and who need hope and encouragement and another chance to get their life in order. For example, there was a video of the Navy serviceman who lost his limbs speaking about his recovery, and of a former criminal offender studying to qualify as a lawyer.

As we reflect at God’s calling for us to be a kingdom of priests, and the model of priesthood established by Jesus Christ, I see so much potential for the church to do good – to not just proclaim good from a distance, but to do good by walking with people, empathizing with their struggles, and giving them hope in Jesus Christ.

On Empathy and Compassion

Bloged in Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Thursday July 31, 2014

I recall reading news of complaints pouring in some time ago, following an announcement that fees to qualify in a certain profession would be raised. I remember telling a friend that I could not see what the fuss was about - most of the members of that profession could easily afford the fees once upon starting work and a good number of employers in any case would pay for or subsidise the fee. My friend’s gentle rebuke was that I should not assume that everyone would be able to afford the increase in fees or that employers will (help) pay for everyone, and that she may well have been one of those who would struggle to pay those fees.

Her gentle rebuke was a reminder that I had failed to empathize - that I had fallen into the trap of assuming that every person’s situation is like what I had observed the majority’s to be. That while the increase in fees may have been reasonable for certain reasons, I should not dismiss the possibility that it may cause hardship for some people.

Empathy - the ability to identify with the thoughts and feelings of others - followed by compassion - a feeling of deep sympathy for someone who is having a hard time usually with a desire to alleviate that hardship, are words I hear mentioned quite often nowadays. And that the Government lacks it. And that Singaporeans sometimes lack it as well (which if true simply means that we have elected into Government representatives not very different from ourselves - something to reflect on whenever we accuse the state of lacking compassion).

We’re trying to improve that, happily, by encouraging people to give up their seats on the public trains and buses to others who need it more, return trays at foodcourts, and by giving more generously to and volunteering more with charities. From a secular perspective, it’s a good start.

Turning to the church, what does empathy and compassion look like in the Christian context? I think Jesus set a higher standard. When we think of empathy and compassion, one reference point is the account of Jesus and the adulteress in John 8 : 1 - 11. The religious leaders at that had caught a woman in the act of adultery, for which the penalty was death (by stoning). They brought her before Jesus, and asked Him how she should be dealt with. Jesus’ response is well known even to many non-Christians. While the people around Him were clamouring for the woman to be stoned, Jesus bent down and drew in the dirt with His finger. Then, He looked up at them and said,

“If any one of you is without sin, let Him cast the first stone”.

At this, the crowd started to leave. When only Jesus and the woman were left, He told the woman,

“… Has no one condemned you? Then neither do I … Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Jesus’ response is radical, not only in how it demonstrates divine grace and pardon. It is radical because it was (and is) so counterintuitive to human nature to treat with compassion people who are in situations different from our own, particularly in the quasi-theocratic society that Jesus was in, organized along principles of religious legalism.

In this connection, Job had remarked that “men at ease have contempt for misfortune as the fate of those who are slipping” (Job 12:5).

Therefore, as much as empathy and compassion in Christians can be “inspired” by the Holy Spirit, I believe that there must be fertile soil in a believer’s heart and spirit to nourish it; empathy and compassion are not likely to blossom at moment’s notice in a vacuum.

The account of Jonah reminds us that it is more easy to ignore, if not withdraw from or condemn people in their difficult situations, when the opposite response - empathy and compassion - are required. So when God instructed Jonah to preach repentance to Nineveh, Jonah did the exact opposite - he tried to get as far away from Nineveh as he could. And when God cornered Jonah into preaching to Nineveh and the city repented, Jonah sulked at God’s extension of grace to a city that he thought did not deserve it.

How many of us, at work, respond impatiently instead of graciously to colleagues who struggle at work because of a difficulty at home, like a sick child or parent? How many of us, at home, deal graciously with our children, spouses, siblings and parents when they do things that irritate us? How many of us, outside of work and home, would (quietly) swear at a foreign worker who gets in the way of traffic or who takes up a seat on public transport or space in a public area, instead of thinking graciously that he needs a space in our society as much as we do? Not everyone, or perhaps not even many of us, will be able to identify with the other person, and respond compassionately.

But Jesus could. And I believe He could do so not only because ofthe inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but because His heart and spirit had been nourished by what He personally saw and experienced as a human person and in walking with the common folk, and not apart from or above them. The author of Hebrews wrote that Jesus chose to identify with our humanity and brokenness, in order empathize with our weaknesses and deal with us compassionately.

In identifying with our humanity, Jesus became the boy who was sniggered at for being born out of seemingly illegitimate relationship. He became the boy who had to go to bed hungry on a bad day because His family was too poor to even afford the standard offering of a lamb for His birth. He became the boy whom adults laughed at, because they could not believe that a young and unschooled could have anything meaningful to tell them about God. He became the man whom members of His hometown despised because they could not believe a carpenter’s (illegitimate) son would amount to anything. He became the man who had to constantly put up with vicious accusations that He was a drunkard, a sinner and a demoniac although He led a life of perfect integrity. He became the man who had to constantly struggle between taking the short, easy route to fame and glory, and the longer, immeasurably harder route of suffering and death - the very same death that we around us and which we will personally experience in our lifetime.

Consequently, in Jesus’ every encounter with the sick, the lepers, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the grieving, and the lost, Jesus knew exactly what to do and say to bring comfort, healing and hope, and to draw people to God, notwithstanding that He did not always offer an immediate solution.

In “Compassion”, a book I read about three years go, the authors encourage Christians to think of empathy and compassion beyond the terms of offering immediate solutions, and in fact regardless of whether we can provide any solutions in this lifetime. Instead, they challenge Christians to emulate the authentic faith of Jesus Christ by walking alongside the sufferings and struggles of the people around us, and by offering hope and healing to the human spirit and heart. These were my reflections from reading the book back in 2011 :

“I found some time today to finish two chapters of a new book, “Compassion” by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill and Douglas Morrison.

Although written in 1982, its words are still amazingly refreshing. The authors first suggest that compassion is more than general kindness or tenderheartedness; it means “to suffer with”. It means :

“going to where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokeness, fear, confusion, and anguish … to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears … to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human”.

Reflecting on one of Jesus’ names, “Immanuel” or “God with us” (Matthew 1 : 23) — something which should be fresh on most of our minds given that Christmas has just only passed — the authors say :

“God is a compassionate God. This means, first of all, that our God has chosen to be God-with-us. … When do we receive real comfort and consolation? Is it when someone teaches us how to think or act? Is it when we receive advice about where to go or what to do? Is it when we hear words of reassurance and hope? Sometimes, perhaps. But what really counts is that in moments of pain and suffering someone stays with us. More important than any particular action or word of advice is the simple presence of someone who cares. When someone says to us in a midst of a crisis, ‘I do not know what to say or what to do, but I want you to realise that I am with you, that I will not leave you alone,’ we have a friend through whom we can find consolation and comfort. … [ so ] when we say that God is a God-with-us [ we mean ] a God who came to share our lives in solidarity. It does not mean that God solves our problems, shows us the way out of our confusion, or offers answers for our many questions. God might do all that, but the solidarity of God consists in the fact that God is willing to enter with us into our problems, confusions, and questions. That is the good news of God’s taking human flesh [ in the person of Jesus Christ or ' Immanuel', God-with-us ].”

I think as Christians we sometimes feel disappointment with God because we live with the expectation that God will intervene supernaturally, to change our lives, the people around us, or our difficult circumstances, but God does not.

However, the opening chapters of this book remind me that God is a personal God, more interested in walking in compassionate companionship with us, rather than solving immediate physical problems while leaving the human heart calloused and unchanged. When Jesus was physically present on earth, He did not heal every sick person, or eradicate hunger and poverty, or overthrow unjust rulers. Rather He lived and walked amongst the people as a common and humble citizen of Jewish society under a Roman government, interacting and teaching and healing people at a mostly individual or small group level. His most expansive miracle, in fact, was to multiply food to feed 7,000 hungry people who had listened to Him teach till it was too late for dismiss them so that they could get their own dinners. But that hardly came close to eradicating hunger and poverty throughout the Roman empire.

It is this personal, compassionate God which Christians must seek and seek to emulate in their lives, and not the more popular but somewhat distorted idea of an instant noodles type, just-add-water god and naive religious faith.”

A Kingdom of Priests?

Bloged in Church, Faith, Musings, Society by Mel Tuesday July 29, 2014

As Singapore draws close to her 49th year of independence, what do her Christians see their role to be in her future? I’ve recently been quite drawn to this passage in Exodus 19 : 6, in which God tells the Israelites -

“And you shall be for Me a kingdom of priests …”

- a calling that the Israelites did not eventually fulfill, and which was later replaced by the inferior Levitical priesthood.

Interestingly, we hear this phrase again at the end of the Bible, but with reference more generally to believers :

“To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood, and has made us to be a kingdom of priests …” (Revelations 1 : 5, 6. Note that some English translations render this as “kingdom and priests”.)

Do Christians here and elsewhere have a calling and destiny as priests? (The operative word here is “priests”, not “Pharisees”). What does that mean?

I think it’s something worth thinking about.

On the Anniversary of the Month that I Started Work

Bloged in Work Gripes by Mel Thursday July 24, 2014

July marks the month in which I started my first job many years ago and, coincidentally, the month in which I started all my subsequent jobs including my current one. While not all my experiences at work have been pleasant ones, I am grateful that even harsh experiences have not made me bitter or resigned, and for those lessons that I have gleaned in what not to do at work, including how people should not be treated.

I also recall that on my very first overseas business trip, which must have been less than six months after I started work, the lawyer on the other side telling me over dinner that in work, we are sometimes required to rise to the level of competence of experienced professionals, though we may be completely new to a job.

This may not be a very fair expectation, but not every encounter in life is “fair”. All we can do is the best that we can, while leaving the outcome to God. In this connection, I am thankful to not have fallen too far below the minimum level of competence, even when working on matters that I have had little prior experience in.

On this note, these reflections from July two years ago continue to be true of my life and work today :

“The third week of July marks my fourth year in the current job, and my twelth year of being gainfully employed.

Twelve years ago, I would never have imagined myself where I am today. By this I do not refer to having accomplished tremendous wealth or success at work - I think many of my peers are earning or achieving more - but life taking a path quite different from what I had imagined when I first started work.

It is possible for a person to be tremendously rich and successful yet “eat but not be satisfied … store up but save nothing … plant but not harvest” (Micah 6 : 14, 15).

However, even in the “leaner” periods of my working life, I do not think I have felt tremendous dissatisfaction, or lacked enough to give to causes which I consider worthy.

And so, for these twelve good years, I thank God.”

Loving People into Belief

Bloged in Faith, Musings by Mel Sunday July 13, 2014

"In the end, we love people into belief.  We do not argue them into belief." (Tim Keller)

Easter Reflections

Bloged in Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Saturday April 19, 2014

Evil and suffering do not necessarily turn people away from God. In fact, I think they draw people to God, because in the face of evil and suffering, we are inclined to seek a Person greater than ourselves and our current circumstances.

However, there is an evil that turns people away from God, and that is religious hypocrisy. Through religious hypocrisy Christians project a god who holds and rewards people according to double standards, and according to their ability to adhere to external rules and conventions rather than the true inclinations of their hearts. Such a god holds no hope or attraction for those seeking an answer to the evil and suffering in their lives.

Perhaps that is why Jesus reserved His harshest words for the Pharisees : because religious hypocrisy was not merely a personal sin - it was a sin that could corrupt and turn whole generations away from God. "You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter heaven", Jesus warned, "nor will you let those enter who are trying to." (Matthew 23 : 13) As we as Christians celebrate the triumph of the cross over sin on Good Friday and Easter over this long weekend, let us be humbled by the reminder that it was our forefathers - the Pharisees - that nailed Jesus to the cross. Let us also be humbled by the recognition that unlike other wrongs, the sin of religious hypocrisy and self-righteousness is one that only a Christian, or someone who calls himself one, can commit.

And may the Father forgive us for those wrongs that we may have done without knowing what we do.

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