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.