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.

(Sermon) Peace in Troubled Times

Good morning. I’m going to share today on how we can have "Peace in Troubled Times", mainly from John 13 - 15. It’s always very difficult to speak on such a heavy topic. I’m not sure where to start, and whenever we don’t know what we do, we pray. So let us open with a word of prayer.

[ Prayer ]

Have you ever had the experience of your world falling apart?  Let me share with you two experiences I had from the early years of my working life.  As you all know, I work as a lawyer.  However, I never wanted to practise commercial law.  As an idealist I told myself that making money wasn’t the most important thing in life so I studied international law instead. After all, what can be more important than world peace, human rights and saving the environment?

My first job after graduation was advising on international law in the Government service and in my mind I thought that this was it - that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life : international law as a career civil servant. Unfortunately things didn’t work out as I planned.

My first boss was not an easy person to work with and after one-and-a-half rather tense years he one took offense at an e-mail that I sent.  Within a minute of receiving it he called me to his room and said that it was not possible for us to work together (but in not such nice words).  I broke down inside and had to stop myself from crying in front of him (post-message note : I was young and naïve then).  Within a week I was posted to another department to do civil and commercial law.  This was the first deviation from my work aspirations.

The change fortunately didn’t turn out badly for me.  I surprisingly did very well in my new role and in my annual performance assessments, my scores went up year after year.  In my fifth year of work, out of a maximum score of 5, I got something above 5 due to bonus "points" for certain ad hoc projects.  I thought then that for all the work I had put in, I should get a promotion or at least a more substantial performance bonus. Now, our head of department would walk around giving out envelopes with news of our performance bonus inside.  I remember clearly that he came up to my desk, shook my hand, and congratulated me. After he walked away, I tore open the envelope in excitement and saw - to my disappointment - that I received less performance bonus than the year before.  I was insulted - we are not a Communist country and people are should not be paid the same regardless of their contribution! 

My world again collapsed. I remember being so upset that day that I drove into a one way street in the wrong direction. I’m fortunate to not have killed anyone or myself.

Have you ever had the experience of your world or your dreams falling apart?  If you have, it’s not new.  Not because of what I’ve just shared, but because of what the disciples of Jesus went through 2,000 years ago.

It was the day before Jesus was going to be crucified, though of course no one knew that except Jesus. Jesus had just washed their feet. Then, as the whole group sat down for supper, Jesus broke the bad news : someone was going to betray Him, and He was going to leave them.

The disciples had been with Jesus, almost every day of their life, for the last 3 years. They ate and slept together. They served the community together. They preached and even performed miracles together. They were becoming famous together.  Some of them even harboured the hope that Jesus would start a revolution against the Roman government that would restore the kingdom of Israel to Jewish rule, with all these disciples as His ministers in government.  And just as they were so so close to victory, one of them was going to betray Jesus? And Jesus would leave them? These are Jesus’ exact words from John 13 -

21 After He had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me.” … 33 “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews so I tell you now : Where I go, you cannot come.

It’s like having your fiance breakup with you on the eve of your wedding. Or discovering that the person you’re in love with and hoping to marry is cheating on you and attached to someone else. Or being told that someone you really care about is critically ill.  Or confronting the reality of divorce or loss of a job. Or discovering that you can’t have kids because of a medical condition. Or suffering a mental breakdown. Or even, as Pastor Chong Yew told me before, some people have approached him and told him that they just can’t bring themselves to be interested in the opposite sex – that they’re gay.

Suddenly the whole world falls apart.  Dreams of a life together, dreams of what it means to be in love, dreams of a perfect family, dreams of doing great things in a particular job – all fall apart.

I remember a friend who was crying and crying as he told us - a group of friends – about his broken marriage. His words were, “I’m sorry – I’ve never done this before”. 

There are some disappointments or setbacks in life that happen only once, and that we can never be fully prepared for.  But God does not leave us alone. This is what Jesus told His disciples.

Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14 : 14)

Jesus said that I will give you peace to cope with your circumstances.  It does not mean that your problems will be solved overnight, or that your problem will be solved at all. But you will have peace to go through this phase of life.

But first, let’s look at the peace that the world gives. Putting God aside, what makes people secure or feel at peace?  They may find security in their achievements, wealth, talents, influence, or even their "goodness".  They may feel secure about themselves because they fit a certain mould of what it means to be good in society.  For example : married with kids, financially independent, filial towards parents, and active in community service.

In periods of instability, such as a loss of a job, people may find security in past precedents of their success (eg. how easy it was to get another job in the past), or savings to tide them over a difficult period.

1.  Our Security in Christ

But what about Christians - what does or where should our peace firstly come from? It comes from our security in Jesus Christ. Let’s read the two verses there -

“But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14 : 26)

“Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put His Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” (2 Corinthians 1 : 21, 22)

In John 14, the disciples were troubled that they would be left alone and Jesus would not be around to guide them. So Jesus assured them that they would have His Holy Spirit to remind them of everything.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul elaborates on what the Holy Spirit is to all of us as Christians. It is God’s seal of ownership on us. It is like God putting His stamp and signature on our lives, saying : this person belongs to me. No one is supposed to take him away from my love. And I will come back for Him one day.

Without Christ, people find their security in their achievements, their talents, their wealth and their influence. Take that away, and many become insecure. We will become insecure too – we will lose our peace – if we rely on what we have or what we own to make ourselves feel good. But if we look to Christ for our security, then we will have peace even if our achievements, wealth, influence or talent are taken away from us. This is because the love of God for us will never change.

So what if I didn’t get the promotion? So what if I don’t earn as much as other people? And even if, in a moment of carelessness or foolishness, you make a costly mistake – God still loves you and accepts you as His child. This may not change the consequences of your mistake, but God still loves you. If a person commits a crime in a moment of foolishness, he may not escape punishment for that. If in a moment of foolishness a person decides to visit prostitutes and contracts HIV – that mistake is irreversible. But God can forgive those mistakes, and love that person despite those mistakes.

2.  Our Glory in Christ

Moving on to my second point – where else does our peace come from? It comes from our glory with Christ.

Many people today are hard at work for a personal agenda. This agenda maybe something very admirable, like to provide for the family, or for a charitable that they really believe in. Or the agenda may be more self-serving : to buy a bigger car or house, or to establish a good reputation, because they want to be admired as someone very charitable, or maybe they want to run for public office.

But the agenda is, first of foremost, their own. Because of that, they assume the entire burden of success or failure, and stress themselves out over it. They stand or fall by the goals they set for themselves, and lose their peace when they fall short. But look at what Jesus told His disciples :

5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. … 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15)

Jesus said : When you bear much fruit, that should be to God’s glory. Whether this fruit is tangible success in what we do, or an intangible fruit such as being loving and gracious towards others, the glory which comes from that, is also God’s glory.  In other words, our agenda must first and foremost not be our own, but God’s.

Throughout John, Jesus repeatedly emphasised in one way or another that “I and the Father are One” (John 10 : 30). In other words, His only agenda was to do the will of God. Whatever He did or said, people could take at face value as something said or done on behalf of God. So, if people accepted Jesus that was to the glory of God. If people rejected Jesus, they were rejecting God. Never once did Jesus have to assume the burden of success or failure for Himself – that burden belonged to God. All Jesus needed to do, was His reasonable best. And that too should be our attitude towards life.

When we put God’s agenda above our own, we don’t have to worry excessively about the outcome. We just have to do our reasonable best, and leave the outcome to God. This doesn’t mean that the results of whatever we do will be perfect – it doesn’t mean that we will score 100 marks for every exam, that we will meet the sales quota every month or that we will always be the first in line for promotion, but it means that we can leave the pressure of the outcome to God.

Life is not simple, but if I may simplify things somewhat through an example – this is like constructing a building. Let’s say the goal is to build the Eiffel Tower. If it is your personal ambition to build the Tower, you will have to worry about every aspect of it, from the design to getting the raw materials to getting the contractors and workmen to build it. But if there is a Master Contractor, you don’t have to worry about those. You just take the Master Contractor’s design and plans and work according to it. If the design says that you need only 500 tonnes of steel for the base, you don’t need to question that design and repeatedly check whether it is correct; you trust that the Master Contractor got it right. If the plans say that someone else is to deliver the raw materials, you only have to trust that the Master Contractor will ensure that the raw materials appear when you need them. The burden of completing the Tower safely and on time is not yours – it is the Master Contractor’s. Your only job is to do your reasonable best in those tasks which are your responsibility.

During the time of Samuel the prophet, in 1 Samuel 8, the Israelites demanded that Samuel appoint a king to rule over them. Before this, the Israelites did not have a king; God appointed prophets to lead them whenever necessary. This signified that God, and not a monarchy in which a king and his descendants, would be their leader. But the Israelites looked at the countries around them and decided that they wanted to be like the others. When Samuel heard the Israelite’s demands, he got upset, partly because it was a rejection of his office as a prophet. It was a sign that Samuel had failed. But God told him this – “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king”. In other words, God was telling Samuel – don’t assume this failure as your own, it is mine.

The same applies to all of us today. I’m not saying that when your job application is rejected or if your boss rejects your request for a pay increment, that God is being rejected. What I’m saying is that if you put God first in what you do, then you no longer assume the entire burden of its outcome. Furthermore, when God takes on the burden of the outcome, it is God’s desire to see that in the long run, we bear much fruit. We may not always see “fruit” in the conventional sense of success, but the outcome – which may be a better character moulded through our experiences – will be one that brings glory to God and to ourselves.

3.  Our Refuge in Christ

I said just now that being at peace does not mean that our problems will go away immediately. In the same way, knowledge of our security in Christ and knowledge of our glory in Christ, does not change our immediate feelings when we are in a difficult situation. When something goes badly – when we hear bad news – it is normal to feel anxious, angry and, for some people, depressed.

Let’s take a look at how Jesus felt just before He knew He was going to be crucified.

37 … He began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to [ Peter, James and John ], “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” 39 Going a little farther, He fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” … 42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” … 43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping … 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. (Matthew 26)

He was overwhelmed with sorrow. The other gospels record that Jesus prayed till His sweat dropped like blood. Jesus pleaded with God the Father not once, but three times, for the circumstances to be changed. It didn’t; Jesus was arrested and crucified within several hours later.

Let’s take a look at some other prayers made by other people in the Bible.

“May his days be few, may another take his place of leadership.” (Psalms 109)

“O Lord you deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me prevailed. … the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. … Cursed be the day I was born!” (Jeremiah 20)

The first is a prayer by a very angry David against his enemy, possibly Saul. The second is by a very depressed prophet Jeremiah because the people rejected what he said. Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsamane did not help Him avoid death, but it gave Him the strength and will to move on.  Jeremiah’s prayer didn’t change the peoples’ heart. Throughout his entire life, people repeatedly rejected his message. But Jeremiah found the courage and strength to preach on.

David’s prayer I guess was the only effective one because Saul was eventually killed in war. But interestingly, despite this nasty prayer, David did not take matters into his own hands and kill Saul when he had a chance to. David did the honourable thing by refusing to “lift his hand against the Lord’s anointed”.

The point I’m trying to make is : With God there is no need to hide how we feel.  I think that sometimes Christians feel that they can only approach God in a certain way, and because of that they are never authentic with God - they put up a front which is not their true self.  However, Jesus, David and Jeremiah did not hide how they felt.  With God, there are no “right” feelings that we should only feel, or that we should only present to Him. God accepts how we feel for what they are : our anger, our disappointment, our despair, our depression, even our hate or our lust!

The Bible says that God is our hiding place, that our refuge is in Christ. “You are my hiding place; You will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.” (Psalms 32 : 7)

It also says that God cares about how we feel. “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5 : 7)

But what we do with our feelings matter, and that is why it is important to entrust our feelings to God so that we can have the peace to move on.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4 : 6 - 7)

The Bible honours David and Jeremiah because they persevered in doing the right thing, despite feeling otherwise. That is why it is important to be authentic about our feelings with God – to entrust our feelings and ourselves to God – so that we can receive His peace that transcends all understanding and which guards our hearts and minds so that we can do the right thing.

Closing

As we close let’s go back to the blessing that Jesus pronounced at the last supper.

“Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid”. (John 13 : 14)

What is the secret to peace in troubled times? The answer is not found in how the world traditionally views peace : trying harder to achieve success, finding assurance in our past or in our savings or talent, or planning intensely in the future. It is found in Jesus Christ, who is our security, our glory, and our refuge.

One final thought. A friend recently put up a question on Facebook, asking if it is possible to be perfect at work, in religion, health and in parenting. His question read –

“There is no way a person can hold a full-time job, be a parent, commit to exercise and religion, and still be able to produce great works. Or is there? Pray tell”.

My answer to her summarises what I have said today from my perspective – that our security isn’t to be found in doing more or trying to do better. It is found in Christ. I said –

“That’s the whole point of faith isn’t it (at least as I see it as a Christian)? It’s because we can’t do everything perfectly as humans that we have to turn to God who accepts us despite our imperfections and even failures.”

How to be Zen at Work

Bloged in Devotional Thoughts, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles, Work Gripes by Mel Tuesday April 15, 2014

Good afternoon. Today, I’m supposed to share how we can be Zen in the workplace. But first, let me confess that it’s very difficult to be Zen in front of a large crowd.

Zen is not a Christian word. It has its roots in Buddhism. At work, “Zen” is a label some colleagues have given to me because I am seen as an unusually calm, regardless of the situation. So I thought, after looking through the list of possible topics that I could talk about, why not share something unconventional from personal experience?

“Zen” but has come to represent in popular culture – to quote the Urban Dictionary which is the ‘online authority’ for all such matters – “a trait where peace, calmness, and inner awesomeness are all intertwined”. What I want to share today is how we can “keep calm and carry on” despite the pressures at work.

But first a few disclaimers.

(i) I do not live the life; I (hopefully) point to the vision.

I’m not perfect. I don’t live perfectly what I’m going to say. Please don’t look at me but look always to God. Nonetheless, I hope that what we hear today will inspire us to live as better Christians.

(ii) Zen-ness is not an end in itself.

It’s probably not good to be extremely Zen all the time. Extreme Zen-ness is not the most appropriate response in every situation. Anger is an impulse that many of us have to protect ourselves and people around us. When we see something wrong or unfair, it is both natural and right to get angry and be motivated to correct the situation. A greater sense of urgency - maybe even panic - can be positive in motivating us to respond quickly to an emergency. For example when the tsunami struck Japan, the business needed to act quickly to check that it’s employees were safe and to ensure the continued flow of essential supplies such as fuel to the country. If we were all in a state of total Zen-ness, none of that would have been achieved.

(iii) Zen-ness is not an excuse for poor stewardship.

We should not be calm if we are lazy or careless and make mistakes. What I have to say today must be understood in the framework of good stewardship. God expects us to make good use of the time, resources, opportunities and talent that He has entrusted to us. The issue is how we can be calm and composed when being good stewards.

Zen : Why Bother?

So why bother about Zen? I think that could remain calm and composed in the midst of tight deadlines and difficult colleagues, that would be good for our hearts and health. It would also be good for decision making, whether at work or in our personal lives, because a clear and composed mind can think more objectively. Most importantly, we project a positive image for God when we are even tempered, and are fair and objective in what we say and in the decisions that we make.

Three Intertwining Principles

I think that one of Bible heroes who exemplified Zen quite a bit was David, and I’m going to share from his life today. We think of him as a warrior and King, but first life ambition was to tend to his sheep and do that well. He had no other aspiration to greatness in military or political office. Even when he had a chance to kill his enemy (Saul) seize the throne, he didn’t.

So, what does it take to be Zen? I would like to introduce you to three intertwining principles : (1) Security in Christ, (2) Working for Christ, and (3) Entrusting our Feelings to Christ.

1. Security in Christ

David found his security in God, and not in his achievements. He was always assured of his identity as a child of God regardless of the circumstances. In Psalms 23 he wrote –

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He refreshes my soul. … Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for You are with me ….”

In the same way, our security is to be found in God and not our successes or setbacks. We remain loved by God whatever the outcome at work. However, if we rely on our achievements for our assurance in life, we will always be stressed over the need to perform.

2. Work for Christ

In 1 Chronicles 22, we read that David had consolidated power and had the resources to build a temple in Jerusalem. What better thing to do next then to leave a monument in his own glory, by building a temple for God? But God told David that he should not be the one to build the temple because he was a "man of blood", and David obeyed. To me this showed that when David worked, it was not for his own glory or his own personal ambition, but for God.

In the same way, Paul encouraged the Christians in 1 Corinthians 10 : 31 that "whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it for the glory of God." In other words, whether it is for work or anything else, do it for God. Work first and foremost to glorify God, not for ourselves, or for our personal objectives.

People try hard to be successful at work for many reasons. Some may be quite noble, like providing for the family, while others may be a little more self-serving. Whatever they might be, if we are working primarily to achieve a personal goal, then we assume the burden and the stress of achieving success, and the disappointment of every failure.

On the other hand, if our primary goal in working is to glorify God, we only need to do our reasonable best and leave the outcome in God’s hands.  We don’t need to worry excessively about success or failure; we just need to be responsible for the work that is entrusted to us. Success is a bonus, and we need not assume the shame of the setbacks.

During the time of Samuel the prophet, in 1 Samuel 8, the Israelites demanded that Samuel appoint a king to rule over them. Before this, the Israelites did not have a king; God appointed prophets to lead them whenever necessary. But the Israelites looked at the countries around them and decided that they wanted to be like the others, with a king to rule over them. When Samuel heard the Israelite’s demands, he got upset, partly because it was a rejection of his office as a prophet. It was a sign that Samuel had failed. But God told him this – “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king”. In other words, God was telling Samuel – don’t assume this failure as your own, it is mine.

The same applies to all of us today. I’m not saying that when your boss rejects your proposal, that he is rejecting God. What I’m saying is that if you put God first in what you do, the responsibility for the outcome is no longer solely your own – you have shifted the burden and the stress of the outcome over to God.

3. Entrust Feelings to Christ

Now despite all that I’ve just said, we’re going to have negative feelings at work. As the host of this session said, there were times when she felt like strangling others.  It’s only human to have such feelings, but what do we do about them?  I want to share with you some awkward prayers that you will probably never hear your pastor preach about in church.

“May his days be few, may another take his place of leadership.” (Psalms 109)

“O Lord you deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me prevailed. … the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. … Cursed be the day I was born!” (Jeremiah 20)

It’s unimaginable that anyone should pray anything so nasty or negative in church today. But why does the Bible record them? It’s because God cares about how we feel. 1 Peter 5 : 7 says that you can - “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.”

With God there are no right or wrong feelings, He does not reject us and we can be honest about how we feel. And it is after we have poured out our feelings to God, that we can move on and do what is right and good.

Interestingly, David, who prayed Psalms 109, did not kill Saul but instead spared his life.  Jeremiah continued preaching although the Israelites continued to reject his message. In Philippians 4 : 6 – 7 Paul wrote -

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

So the third key is to entrust our feelings to God, whatever they might be, and then move on with work in faithfulness.

Closing

Before I end I want to share with you a closing thought. A friend recently put up a question on Facebook, asking if it is possible to be perfect at work, in religion, health and in parenting. His question read –

“There is no way a person can hold a full-time job, be a parent, commit to exercise and religion, and still be able to produce great works. Or is there? Pray tell”.

My answer to her summarises what I have shared today about being Zen – that our security isn’t to be found in doing more or doing better. It is found in Christ. I replied –

“That’s the whole point of faith isn’t it (at least as I see it as a Christian)? It’s because we can’t do everything perfectly as humans that we have to turn to God who accepts us despite our imperfections and even failures.”

On Faith, Faithlessness, and God’s Unwavering Faithfulness

Bloged in Church, Devotional Thoughts, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Saturday February 22, 2014

I taught the kids’ Sunday School about three weeks ago.  The topic was God’s Promises - a lesson on Abraham’s faith in God, and God making good His promises to Abraham, in Genesis 12 to 22.

Central to the lesson was of course Genesis 15 : 8, a passage made famous by the Apostle Paul when he quoted in his letter to the Galatians - "Abraham believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness" - to demonstrate that it is not by human effort in doing good or compliance with religious codes that people were made righteous, but by God’s grace received in faith.

The church traditionally commends Abraham’s faith because he took God at His word when God promised that Abraham would have a son at his old age, obeyed God’s direction to leave his home (Ur) to travel and settle down in a foreign land (Canaan) and, when asked to sacrifice his only son Issac, passed this ultimate test of faith by complying with God’s directions to do so.  (Note : Human sacrifice was not unusual in those times, and the Bible records that at the time of the sacrifice God stopped Abraham and provided a ram as a substitute in place of Issac).

But as I reflected on Abraham’s life, it struck me that as much as there was something in Abraham’s faith to be commended, Genesis was ultimately more about God’s faithfulness to Abraham than the reverse.

Abraham had quite tremendous faith, but it also stumbled at times.  The man who would have sacrificed his son in faith, also lied about his marriage to his wife Sarah while in Egypt because he was afraid of being harassed by the Egyptians on account of Sarah’s beauty (Genesis 12).  Not only did Abraham lack the faith to trust that God would protect him, but he unchivalrously bartered his wife’s safety for his own.

Then in Genesis 14, we read that Abraham with Sarah’s encouragement decided to have a "surrogate" child through their maid instead of waiting and believing that God would cause Sarah to conceive as promised.  Subsequent to this Abraham laughed when God repeated his promise that Abraham (admittedly old at 99 years old) would have a son through his wife.

So I see Abraham not just a the spiritual giant of faith as he is traditionally regarded by the church, but also a flawed person whose faith wavered from time to time.  I see a man who I would say was as faithful as a human can possibly be, plus a little but perhaps not very much more.  Nonetheless, God did not ditch Abraham but kept and went beyond His word, and blessed Abraham.  In other words, even when Abraham was faithless, God remained faithful.

What does this mean for us?  I remember as a boy attending Sunday School being taught about faith, and told cautionary tales about how we should NOT be faithless like Peter who doubted Jesus after walking on water as Jesus did (and sank) (Matthew 14), or Peter who denied Jesus when questioned about their friendship in the home of the high priest after Jesus was arrested (Matthew 26) or, worst of all, like Judas who betrayed Jesus.

What no one emphasised was that Jesus reached out to grab and save Peter from drowning after Peter lost faith and started to sink, and that Jesus proceeded to die on the cross to atone for the sins (amongst others) of Peter’s and Judas’ betrayal despite knowing of their betrayal - that God was faithful to them, despite their faithlessness.

In broader terms, Jesus reaches out to us - He died on the cross - in love and in faithfulness to us, to redeem us despite our faithlessness, and from our faithlessness, because He knows that even the faith of the most faithful person would not persevere in every situation.

The above has been quite a tremendous revelation to me - to think of faith not as a cautionary tale against faithlessness, but as an assurance that God remains faithful to us when our faith falters.  To think of faith not as working with only human effort towards the ideal of an unwavering faith, but as rest in a God who is more faithful to us than we can ever be to Him.

This is not cheap grace.  2 Timothy 2 : 12 - 13 cautions that "if we disown Him" - that if there is total and absolute faithlessness - God "will remain faithful" to His own nature, which He cannot disown, and disown us.  But it is this total and unwavering faithfulness to His own nature of also perfection and love, that prompted God not to spare His own son Jesus from the cross that we might be redeemed from our faithlessness, and to spare nothing in order to seek and save the one lost sheep that had strayed from the flock.

So I concluded the lesson by telling the kids that in those times when we feel bad about mistakes that we make (as we should), we can also draw hope and strength to move on because we have a God who remains faithful to us despite our mistakes.

(Sermon) The Transformation of Zacchaeus

Bloged in Church, Culture, Devotional Thoughts, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles, Society by Mel Monday January 27, 2014

Good morning. Whenever I stand here I feel compelled to start by saying that I’m not worthy to be here. I mean it. But the love and grace of God looks past our imperfections, and here we stand before each other and before God, to worship God as one.

Today I want to share with you the story of another unworthy person. That person is Zacchaeus. Those of you who attended Sunday School as kids will probably remember this as the story of a short man who climbed a tree in order to look at Jesus as he was walking past. I’ve now become quite fond of this story because it reminds me that God looks out for short people too, and I’m almost short.

Before we read the passage I want to go a bit into the background. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. Now tax collectors were despised by society at that time because they collected taxes for the Roman government, which many of the Jews hated. Furthermore, most of them were also abused their position to collect bribes for themselves. Zacchaeus was the chief, which would make him the worst of all the tax collectors. If tax collectors were sinners, Zacchaeus as chief would be the worst of time.

Luke 19 is about what happens after Zacchaeus climbs a tree in order to catch a glimpse of this “Jesus” that he had heard so much about.

1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

[ Opening Prayer ]

1. I don’t remember

There are many things in Luke 19 that jump out at me, but I want to start first with verse 7. Jesus had just said that He wanted to visit Zacchaeus at home. When the people heard this, they started to criticise Him and said “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner”.

Before I explain the implications of this, let me tell you another story : Many years ago, there was an old woman and her daughter who were members of a large church in another country. They were very faithful believers, and the old woman started receiving visions in which Jesus would talk to her in her sleep. News of this got around. Eventually the senior pastor heard about it and he decided to investigate if the old woman was really receiving visions, or just senile. So he paid them the family a visit.

“The next time you see Jesus, I want you to ask Him to tell you the sins that I had just confessed”.

The old woman and her daughter were shocked. The pastor was supposed to be a good man, and now they were going to hear about his sins. “Are you sure pastor, you want me to ask Jesus to tell me about your sins?”

“Yes, I am very sure”, said the pastor. “Give me a call when you hear from Jesus”.

The pastor waited anxiously. Monday passed – nothing. Tuesday passed – nothing as well. Finally, at 4 am on Wednesday morning, the senior pastor got a call from the daughter. “Jesus just appeared to my mother, and she can’t go back to sleep”.

“Did your mother ask Jesus the question?” the senior pastor asked.

“Yes she did”, the daughter replied from the other end.

“OK. Make her a cup of coffee and make sure she doesn’t go back to sleep. I am coming over right now.”

The senior pastor immediately got into his car and drove 50 km to their home, and was there in half an hour.

Nervously, he went up to the bedside of the old woman, leaned forward, and asked, “What did Jesus say ?”

The old woman took his hands, looked into his eyes, and in a very serious tone said, “Pastor, these are His exact words : I DON’T REMEMBER”.

I DON’T REMEMBER. Jesus did not say exactly those words to the crowd that criticised Him for going to the house of a “sinner”, but that was what Jesus was effectively saying through his actions. Jesus didn’t disagree with the crowd – Zacchaeus was a sinner. The Bible doesn’t say that Jesus argued that Zacchaeus was actually not a bad person.

But the crowd was not just saying that Zacchaeus was a sinner. In their eyes, he was no ordinary sinner. By singling Zacchaeus out a “sinner”, the crowd was suggesting that Zacchaeus was such a bad person – that his past and his sins were so terrible – that he could not be forgiven. And this is perfectly human. As humans we tend to classify our wrongful acts as “major” – murder and rape – and “minor” – like cheating on parking coupons or littering. For practical reasons, we also punish the “major” offences like murder and rape very severely, while we are happy to close an eye to minor offences or to let them go with a small fine. It’s practical because society will come to a standstill if we were to jail people for every offence. The problem is that we’ve taken our practical approach to how society is organised, and applied it to how we see and treat people spiritually. So we tend to think of a major wrongdoing as unpardonable as well, and that was how the crowd viewed the Zacchaeus the chief tax collector.

But Jesus didn’t dwell on Zacchaeus’ past. Jesus didn’t put Zacchaeus down for his past. Jesus didn’t change His mind about having dinner with Zacchaeus despite pressure from the crowd. Through His actions, Jesus was in effect telling the crowd that : I can and will have dinner with the worst of “sinners”, because I can forgive all sins, and where I have forgiven, I DON’T REMEMBER.

Some of us here might be struggling with a past that you think cannot be pardoned. The good news is that when Jesus has forgiven us, He doesn’t hold the past against us anymore. He says “I DON’T REMEMBER”. We can be confident that after confessing our sins to Christ, we can put our past behind us and move on.

And what is true for us, is also true for people around us. Maybe you know of someone who has done something so wrong or so shameful, and who is struggling to get over his past despite having confessed it to God. Or maybe you know someone who has done something so wrong or shameful that you cannot imagine that God can forgive him. Luke 19 reminds us that this is not true. There is no sin so great that it cannot be forgiven. Jesus can forgive all sins, and what He has forgiven, He does not hold against us anymore. To these people who struggle with their past, we must hold out the promise that Jesus says “I DON’T REMEMBER”.

2. I don’t forget

The second encouragement I want to draw from Luke 19, is that God does not forget us.  I DON’T FORGET.

When Jesus was at the home of Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus announced that he would give half of his wealth to the poor, and compensate everyone that he had cheated four times the original amount. This showed that Zacchaeus had repented. In response to this, Jesus said in verse 9 that Zacchaeus had been saved, because he “too is a son of Abraham”.

I find what Jesus said very curious. Jesus could have simply said “today salvation has come into this house” and stopped there. Why did He go on to mention that Zacchaeus “too is a son of Abraham”?

Let me go a bit into the significance of the words, “son of Abraham”.

Firstly, Jesus was referring to the fact that Zacchaeus was a genetic descendent of Abraham. Abraham was in turn the forefather of the Israelites, and the Israelites the group of people to which God had revealed the Ten Commandments and all the blessings and promises in the Old Testament. God had also promised that Abraham’s descendants would be specially blessed because of Abraham’s faithfulness to Him.

Secondly, Jesus was referring to the fact that Zacchaeus had turned away from his past in faith, demonstrating the same faith that his forefather Abraham had in God.

This reference to Zacchaeus as a “son of Abraham” is a reminder that God never forgot His promise to Abraham – the promise to love and bless Abraham’s descendants. Zacchaeus may have led a very sinful life, but because Zacchaeus was a “son of Abraham”, God continued to look out for him. This is like how, if you are a citizen of Singapore, the Government of Singapore will try its best to assist you when you are in trouble in a foreign country, even if it is because of something that you did wrong. So suppose you are the driver involved an accident in a foreign country, and you are accused of having caused it, the Singapore embassy will step in if you have been treated unfairly in the investigation. This is because your status as a Singapore citizen does not change despite what you might do wrong. In the same way, God did not forget Zacchaeus’s status as a “son of Abraham” despite what he did.

In addition, by referring to Zacchaeus as a “son of Abraham”, Jesus was also pointing out that Zacchaeus and the other sons and daughters of Abraham in the crowd, were equally entitled to God’s love, grace and forgiveness. Jesus was not going to discriminate between sinners, between people who commit major and minor sins. The fact that Zacchaeus may have sinned more than others, did not put him beyond the reach of God’s love and promises to Abraham.

What does this mean for us? The good news is that the promises that God gave to Abraham are no longer confined to his genetic descendants.  In Galatians 3, we read that -

6 So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

7 Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. 8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

In Galatians 3 : 8 - 9, Paul wrote that everyone who comes to God in faith will be made righteous and blessed, in the same way that Abraham was blessed as a man of faith. Therefore, while none of us here are the genetic descendants of Abraham, we can become spiritual descendants through faith.

Furthermore, just as God never forgot Zacchaeus, and just as how God never forgot Abraham’s genetic descendants, God will not forget Abraham’s spiritual descendants. God will not forget us.

I DON’T FORGET my love for you. That is why Jesus said in Luke 19 : 9 that He had come to “seek and save the lost” – people who are lost because they do not have faith in God yet, but who had the potential to become spiritual descendants of Abraham after hearing the message.

2 Peter 3 : 9 says that God “is patient, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”. 

In other words, God does not forget anyone who is lost, no matter how sinful or terrible his past might be. One of the constant themes in the Bible is that God never gives up pursuing the lost in love, like the good shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep behind to look for one lost sheep. And if God has not forgotten – if God has not given up – we don’t give up either.

As between God and us as individuals, we are encouraged by the promise that God does not forget us even when we make mistakes, or when other people think that we are a lost cause.

As between us and others outside the church, we must “seek and save the lost” as Jesus did. We do not leave anyone behind and label him as a lost cause, because God has not forgotten him, and left him behind.

3. I don’t leave you unchanged

Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus turned his life around. That is the power of a genuine encounter with Jesus – no one can walk away without being moved.

God does not simply forgive sins. God does not simply not give up. God changes lives. I DON’T LEAVE YOU UNCHANGED. This is the final I DON’T that I want to draw from today’s passage. It is a personal challenge to, first of all, discover for yourself who Jesus really is so that your life will never be the same. It is, secondly, a challenge to represent Jesus as who He really is so that the lives of those around you will never be the same. In other words, I DON’T LEAVE YOU UNCHANGED.

Having said that, I’d admit that there appears to be a gulf between the promise and reality. The reality is that many people leave church every Sunday feeling uninspired, while others quickly slip back into bad habits once the work week begins. I remember when I was younger, some of my friends would “church hop” or change churches frequently because they could never find a church that was inspiring enough for them : they would complain that the message was irrelevant, or the worship was boring, or that they couldn’t connect with the people in the church.

Then, when we look outside the church, there is the reality of people who stay away from church despite their numerous interactions with Christians. If God is really that great, why aren’t these people more interested in going to church to find out more? Some people even swear to never step into a church because of bad experiences with Christians!

Uninspired Christians, and non-Christians who can’t be inspired to go to church. If God changes lives, what might be the reason for this? I think it is because we – regardless of whether we are regularly attending church – have not had a genuine encounter with Jesus.

If today someone asked you to show him who Jesus is, would you show him one these pictures? Will you, like me, Google for images of Jesus and show them to your friend?

Which is the real Jesus?

I think most of us will pull out the Bible or a Christian book and explain to that friend what it says about Jesus, and maybe share a personal story about how Jesus has touched or changed your life. So going back to the question, we are probably not going to show that friend images of Jesus. This is because we know that none of these pictures of what artists imagine Jesus looks like, will give a complete or even accurate picture of Jesus. (Though having said that, the image on the right is my favourite, because in my very disturbed mind, I imagine Jesus to be a chill dude with a quirky sense of humour telling Christians not to take themselves too seriously).

 None of us today would seriously take one of those pictures, whether for ourselves or to show to others, and say that “this is Jesus”. We don’t hang up one of these pictures on our wall, like the one on the left, look at it daily and pray “handsome Jesus with the blue eyes and rebonded hair, how you inspire me to become a better Christian”. That sounds silly, but in our daily life, some of us are satisfied with relying solely on someone else’s projection of faith to sustain our own. Instead of developing a personal relationship with God by reading the Bible regularly and listening to what God might have to say to us, we are happy to just attend Sunday service and hope that this will be enough. That’s like looking at the picture of Handsome Jesus with the blue eyes and rebounded hair and hoping for a life-changing encounter. That will not happen.

This was the point that Jesus made in Matthew 16.

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15 “But what about you?” He asked. “Who do you say I am?”

16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus first asked His disciples what other people said about Him. The answers – Elijah, John the Baptist, a major prophet – were all wrong. Then, He made it personal and asked the disciples who they personally thought He was. That was when Peter answered correctly the “Messiah”. What Jesus was saying here is that the disciples’ faith had to be personal, based on their relationship with Him, and not a borrowed image of what other people said about Him.

What about people outside the church? Sometimes I think people outside the church have not had a genuine encounter with Jesus because Christians are satisfied with projecting a distorted image of God, instead of carefully reflecting on whether our actions match our words. I’m not saying that we can be completely perfect in word and in deed like Jesus was because that is not humanly possible, but sometimes I get the sense that Christians don’t even try.

One possible case in point : Anton Casey, the British expat who became notorious in the past week after he put up Facebook posts calling Singaporeans who take public transport “poor” and “smelly”. His comments provoked a flood of criticism on social media. Details on his family were dug up and published online. Some really nasty comments were also made against his family though they had nothing to do with his words. Cornered, he apologised, and yesterday’s papers reported that he had been fired from his job and had moved to another country. I have no doubt that Anton Casey reaped what he had sowed. If you say something to insult everyone, can’t expect everyone to simply brush that aside instead of giving to you as good as they got.

Interestingly, on Friday, the chairman of the Singapore Kindness Movement published a letter asking Singaporeans to consider whether our response showed a total lack of empathy. Singaporeans rubbished that letter and said it was nonsense, with some Christians openly declaring that they could have no empathy for someone like Anton Casey.

In contrast to the prevailing mood, a Christian friend put that letter up on Facebook and quoted Jesus’ teaching that we should “love your enemies”. An amazing reminder of what it means to love as a Christian. I expected a large number of “likes” given his extensive list of Christian friends. We’re Christians, how can we not “like” a post when someone quotes from the Bible. But he only got 28 “likes”, one of which was mine.

Anton Casey Facebook Snapshot

It would be wrong of me to use this Anton Casey incident and what I casually observe online to generalise anything about Christians. But I can say this – if we are serious about bringing people into a life-changing encounter with God, then our actions must match our words.

I think Christians are generally quite good at talking about our beliefs. For those of us who grew up in church especially, most of us have been taught various ways to tell others about our faith. In the Internet age, sharing our faith is even easier because any Christian with anything to say about God can post in on a blog, or on Facebook, or Twitter, or an online forum. Online resources are also everywhere – anyone who wants to find out about faith can just look it up using Google. But if you think about it, people outside the church don’t really need more information about God. That information is everywhere and anyone who is interested can Google for it. What people outside of church need, are Christians to go out to them to create the opportunities for them to encounter Jesus, and this can only happen if our actions in real life demonstrate the love and grace of God more effectively that the words we publish on the Internet or on social media.

Going back to Luke 19, both the religious teachers – the Pharisees – and Jesus preached about the same God which we read about in the Bible today, but only Jesus changed lives. Can you imagine where Zacchaeus would have ended up, if whatever he knew about God, was what he heard from and saw in the Pharisees? He would probably have remained where he was or even repulsed at the thought of going to church. The Pharisees couldn’t even bring themselves to talk to him, because he was a “sinner”. Jesus on the other hand, went to Zacchaeus’ home despite heavy public criticism. By this, Jesus demonstrated that God never forgot and that God never stopped loving Zacchaeus despite his sins, and that God could forget and wipe clean his shameful past. By the time Jesus stepped out of the house, Zacchaeus was a changed man.

I DON’T LEAVE YOU UNCHANGED. That’s the final encouragement we get from Luke 19 – that a genuine encounter with Jesus will not leave anyone the same. Whether you’re regularly attending church or not, the challenge is to be like Zacchaeus – to take a step towards genuine faith by looking for the real Jesus, instead of depending on just projections of faith that may be distorted or incomplete. And the challenge for us as Christians is to represent Jesus without distortion in both what we say and what we do, thereby creating the space for those outside the church to have a life-changing encounter with Jesus.

Closing

Before I close I just want to take a few minutes to walk through today’s list of I DON’Ts, each of which have an application to firstly our inward lives, and secondly to how we live outwardly towards others.

The first is I DON’T REMEMBER your sins and your past. Individually we can be encouraged by the promise that God forgives all sins and once He has forgiven us, we can move on without looking back in shame. Outwardly it means that there is no one so sinful, that God cannot forgive him – and we must hold out that hope to everyone who does not know God yet.

The second is I DON’T FORGET my love for you. We draw encouragement from the promise to God there is no lost cause – He came to seek and save the lost in love. He loves us despite our sins, and he loves others despite their sins. And just as Jesus did not forget and came to seek and save the lost, we too must follow His example to seek and save the lost.

The last is I DON’T LEAVE YOU UNCHANGED. God changes lives. We must continuously seek a life-changing personal relationship with God, instead of rely only on the faith of others. As between us and people outside the church, we must faithfully represent Jesus in word as well as in what we do, and create the space for them enter into a life-changing encounter Jesus.

Let us pray.

How Shall We Live this Year?

Bloged in Church, Devotional Thoughts, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles, Society, World by Mel Sunday January 12, 2014

In Luke 5 : 1 - 11, we read an account of Peter’s first encounter with Jesus.  Jesus was at the Sea of Galilee, speaking to the crowds on shore from Peter’s fishing boat.  When Jesus was done, He turned and told Peter to move into slightly deeper water and cast out the fishing nets.

Now Peter and his crew had not caught any fish for the entire day.  With nothing more to lose, Peter complied with Jesus’ instructions, and caught so many fishes that the nets began to break and even the fishing boats nearly sank.  Peter then fell on his knees and said to Jesus : "Go away from me, Lord!  I am a sinful man!"

I find Peter’s response remarkable.  A more typical response would have been to try and exploit his new found golden goose, like what the crowd in John 6 wanted to do.  Or maybe to tell people around him that he had found a curiosity who apparently had authority over the fish.

But Peter did the unexpected.  He fell to his knees and confessed his unworthiness.

Many church leaders point to this account and say that Peter exemplifies the kind of repentant heart and faith that God desires in all of us.  I don’t disagree.

But I question why I don’t hear of such dramatic proclamations of faith more often.  Rather what I hear, anecdotally, is institutional religion saying -

"Go away from me - for you are a sinful man!"

What a contrast!  Jesus in Luke 5 on the one hand, neither preached directly to Peter nor demanded his repentance with the threat of fire and brimstone, had tamed the calloused heart of Peter the fisherman and transformed him into a fisher of men.  Institutional religion on the other, proclaims "you shall not pass" as did Gandalf to the Balrog, abandons rejects outside the temple gate and fails to turn them into Pharisees (perhaps happily for these rejects, because Jesus said that those that the Pharisees converted became "twice a son of hell") .

As we as Christians reflect on Luke 5, we should pray not only for a heart like Peter’s, but also ask how we might reflect the love and grace and truth of Christ that disarms even the most calloused heart.  Because at the end of the day, people are not going to come to church when we tell them "you shall not pass" but when, overwhelmed by the love of God that we project, they on their own volition concede that "I am not worthy to pass".

What’s great about this story for all of us is that it does not end with a hopeless feeling of unworthiness.  Rather, Jesus turns and says to us as He did to Peter : "do not be afraid; follow me - from now on you will catch men".

And in this may we find hope for ourselves and for others, and inspiration to live the year differently for Christ and for the people around us.

Reflections on the Year Past and the New Year

Bloged in Church, Devotional Thoughts, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Wednesday January 1, 2014

So I end the year I think considerably more imperfect and flawed than when I began it.  Which is statistically accurate in the least because I can only accrue more, not less, sins and mistakes as time passes.

In all this I am reminded of the Old Testament books of Judges through 2 Chronicles in the Bible.  I had always struggled to understand why the leaders and heroes in those books were so imperfect and flawed.  A non-exhaustive list -

Some were Godly but had severe deficiencies : Samuel was a bad parent who raised lousy kids, David was an adulterer and a murderer, Jehoshaphat consorted with wicked rulers, and Hezekiah was proud.

Some started off well but screwed up later : Gideon, Soloman, Asa, Joash, Amaziah and Uzziah.

Some were impulsive or self-indulgent : Samson.

Some were stupid : Rehoboam.

Some were plain evil : Jeroboam, Ahab and Manasseh.

And some promising ones made bad decisions and died prematurely : Josiah.

I used to ask myself : Surely the Israelites were not so short of good people that they couldn’t even churn out one decent leader who could make all the right decisions (on critical matters) from beginning to end, without screwing up somewhere?

But they didn’t.  Judges through 2 Chronicles tells us that there wasn’t a single perfect leader; all were flawed.

It also tells us that in all this seeming randomness, in all these deficiencies, in all the triumphs of the Israelites and the depths to which they fell, God was there.  The writers of these books consistently added a spiritual perspective to the historical narrative : God was watching.  He was concerned.  He loved and continued to love, even when He disapproved of certain decisions and actions.  Sometimes He sent prophets to guide and to warn, other times He intervened supernaturally to rescue the Israelites from self-destruction.

And when Israel could no longer be spared the consequences of their sins, when it was in the depths of its misery, overrun by another empire and deported to foreign lands, God gave them a promise and hope through the prophet Jeremiah :

"I will come to give rest … I have loved you with an everlasting love, I love drawn you with loving-kindness" (Jeremiah 31 : 2, 3).

And as it was for the Israelites, so it is and will be for me, and for us.

I’m humbled to realise that the story of my life like that of the Israelites is that it will be flawed.  But as I lived out my imperfections, flaws, bad decisions and mistakes in 2013, God was there.  And as I live out my imperfections, flaws, bad decisions and mistakes in 2014, God will be there.  Not approving of what I’ve done badly or am going to do wrong, but watching over me with concern and in love.

This is not an excuse for behaving badly last year or an excuse to behave badly in the year ahead, but a reminder the God loves us despite who we are or what we’ve done or will do, that He pursues us, and that He longs to give us rest if we will let Him.  So this is the promise, I hope, that will carry me through the new year -

"I will come to give rest … I have loved you with an everlasting love, I love drawn you with loving-kindness" (Jeremiah 31 : 2, 3).

Sunday School Pre-Christmas Lesson

Bloged in Church, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Sunday November 24, 2013

Joyce said that the message below sounded like something I would put into a sermon. Well, the message of the love and grace of and of our hope in Christ is universal isn’t it, regardless of age?

“Immanuel means “God with us”. In Jesus we have God who is close to us, who grew up as a human like us and experienced the same feelings. The Bible tell us that Jesus played with children that everyone else ignored, comforted people who felt sad when a loved one died, provided food for the poor, and spent time with sick people that everyone else avoided.

We have hope because we know that God will not leave us alone even when other people don’t understand what we are going through or how we feel. We have hope because we know God will love us even if others don’t.

Because everyone goes through the same experience of being lonely or sad or misunderstood at some time in life, we want to tell our friends about hope in Jesus. We can do this by acts of love and kindness, and by telling them the Christmas story.”

The Victorious Limp in a Victorious Life

Bloged in Church, Devotional Thoughts, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Sunday November 17, 2013

Extract from Brennan Manning’s the chapter on "The Victorious Limp", in The Ragamuffin Gospel. Wittier, and more authentic and meaningful than some of the messages I’ve heard preached in churches in the past 20 years :

Most of the descriptions of the victorious life do not match the reality of my own.  Hyperbole, bloated rhetoric, and grandiose testimonies create the impression that once Jesus is acknowledged as Lord, the Christian life becomes a picnic on a green lawn - marriage blossoms into connubial bliss, physical health flourishes, acne disappears, and sinking careers suddenly soar.  The victorious life is proclaimed to mean that everybody is a winner.  An attractive 20 year old accepts Jesus and becomes Miss America; a floundering lawyer conquers alcoholism and whips F Lee Bailey in court; a tenth-round draft choice for the Green Bay Packers goes to the Pro Bowl.  Miracles occur, conversions abound, church attendance skyrockets, ruptured relationships get healed, shy people become gregarious, and the Atlanta Braves win the World Series.  Idyllic descriptions of victory in Jesus are more often coloured by cultural and personal expectations than by Christ and the ragamuffin gospel.

The New Testament depicts another picture of the victorious life : Jesus on Calvary.  The Biblical image of the victorious life reads more like the victorious limp.  Jesus was victorious not because He never flinched, talked back, or questioned; but having flinched, talked back, and questioned, He remained faithful.

What makes authentic disciples is not visions, ecstasies, Biblical mastery of chapter and verse, or spectacular success in the ministry, but a capacity for faithfulness.  Buffeted by the fickle winds of failure, battered by their own unruly emotions, and bruised by rejection and ridicule, authentic disciples may have stumbled and frequently fallen, endured lapses and relapses, gotten handcuffed to the fleshpots, and wandered into a far country.  Yet they keep coming back to Jesus.

After life has lined their faces a little, many followers of Jesus come into a coherent sense of themselves for the first time.  When they modestly claim, ‘I am still a ragamuffin, but I’m different,’ they are right.  Where sin abounded, grace has more abounded.

The portrait of Peter, the rock who proved to be a sandpile, speaks to every ragamuffin across the generations.  Lloyd Ogilvie notes :

‘Peter had built his whole relationship with Jesus Christ on his assumed capacity to be adequate.  That’s why he took his denial of the Lord so hard.  His strength, loyalty, and faithfulness were his self-generated assets of discipleship.  The fallacy in Peter’s mind was this : He believed his relationship was dependant on his consistency in producing the qualities he thought had earned him the Lord’s approval.

Many of us face the same problem.  We project into the Lord our own measured standard of acceptance.  Our whole understanding of Him is based in a quid pro quo of bartered love.  He will love us if we are good, moral and diligent.  But we have turned the tables; we try to live so that He will love us, rather than living because He has already loved us.’

Why wasn’t one of Jesus’ first disciples a Pharisee?

Bloged in Church, Devotional Thoughts, Faith, Musings, Philosophy, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Tuesday November 5, 2013

Why didn’t Jesus chose a Pharisee as one of His first disciples? This unusual question crossed my mind while jogging one morning last week, and I have been reflecting on it ever since.

Jesus’ first disciples came from a broad cross section of society which included fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots (true there were no politicians and lawyers but politicians and lawyers particularly are the scum of the earth so they were understandably excluded), but why was there no one from the religious establishment? Surely it must have crossed God’s mind that if He wanted to start a church, He needed to get a churchy type of person into His organising committee.

As I thought harder about it, I figured that it probably had to do with the possibility that a Pharisee would complicate Jesus’ ministry, to say the least. Self-righteous, legalistic and inflexible, a Pharisee would probably have driven Jesus up the wall. I can imagine how some conversations could have gone like :

Saul : Did you see that Jesus? The children were peeping while you were leading the dinner prayers. Smite them with blindness Lord - that will teach them not to peep while you are praying …

Jesus (rolls eyes) : Saul, you need to chill.  I came so that the blind may see, and not to inflict blindness.

Saul : What will be the punishment for that village which did not even welcome you a cup of cold water? Will it be a plague of flies or hailstones?

Jesus (rolls eyes again) : Saul, I’m generally not in the business of destroying entire villages or, for that matter, inflicting punishment on individuals. There are a number of dramatic instances of divine punishment in the Tanakh BUT by and large, during and between each of these episodes, sunshine and rain in their season continued to fall on both the righteous and the wicked. It is not by condemning the wicked that I will draw them to Me, but by My grace.

Saul : What?

Jesus : Nevermind.

Interestingly, it was only after the death and resurrection of Jesus from the cross, that God (if we ignore Nicodemus, who may have been a little deficient in the theological genius department) picked His first Pharisee-disciple. And even then, it took a dramatic confrontation on the road to Damascus for God to knock some sense into Saul’s thick head.  What significance if any does this have for us as Christians today?  At least three intertwining points cross my mind:

1. The cross points to a radical grace that we will never figure out by just playing church alone.

The church today is an institution, every institution has rules, and Christians being human and social / communal creatures, will gravitate towards playing by the "rules" of the church in our desire for acceptance.

The problem with the Pharisees was that they played so much by the "rules" of their "church", that they completely missed the grace of God. Jesus repeatedly warned the Pharisees that the elaborate rules by which they lived and measured righteousness, not only deceived them to think that they were righteous enough for God by blinding them to their own deficiencies, but also imposed a burden of misdirected condemnation and guilt on people, thereby denying the masses to access to the grace of god. It took the brutal sacrifice of Christ on the cross to draw everyone’s focus away from the deluded naval-gazing self-righteousness of their deficient personal lives, back to the overflowing grace and love of God which would cover all of our imperfections.

When the apostle Paul woke up to this reality he wrote -

"It is by grace you have been saved through faith … not by works, so that no one can boast" (Eph 2 : 8, 9).

Between 15 to 20 years ago in Singapore many churches were divided over the issue of the form and format of worship services. Traditionalists believed that only hymns accompanied at most by a piano was the only appropriate form of worship, while not-so-traditional Christians believed that the only appropriate time for God to be worshipped through hymns accompanied by piano was at a funeral memorial service. Traditionalists perceived deviation from hymns as the start of a slippery slope towards secularising church services into rock concerts, while not-so-traditional Christians saw hymns as an obstacle to an intimate, life-changing encounter with God.

On hindsight, the only life-changing encounters as I see it (to exaggerate somewhat), were broken Christian lives over fractured churches.

Along the way, it seemed that no one remembered that worship tradition and practices - whatever form it took - was supposed to draw people to God, remind them of His grace, and inspire them to bless people outside the church, and not tear Christians and churches apart.

So Christians today must be careful not to lose sight of the grace of God, by teaching - overtly or implicitly, by the way we conduct themselves or the affairs of the church - that access to God is to be found in compliance with man-made traditions, practices, and rules.

As Jesus taught, "the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2 : 23 - 27).

2.  Perhaps the prostitutes, drug addicts, and loan sharks understand grace better than churchy Christians do.

In Matthew 21 : 31, Jesus warned the Pharisees that the prostitutes were entering heaven ahead of them.

Why was this so?  One only needs to look at the account of the sinful woman who annointed Jesus in Luke 7, to understand why.  The Pharisee who hosted the dinner in that passage basked in his self-righteousness and religious stature. Though the dinner was supposedly held in Jesus’ honour, the Pharisee kept a safe distance from Jesus, possibly because he did not want to be closely associated with the dubious "radicalism" or "liberalism" of Jesus and His disciples.  Midway through the dinner, to the horror of all the Pharisees present, a local prostitue crashed the dinner party, knelt at Jesus’ feet, wet it with her tears and with perfume, and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. 

As everyone at the dinner table started to choke on their food, Jesus calmly told everyone that the sinful woman loved much, because she had been forgiven much.  Her sins and her shame were so egregious - she had no dignity or moral standing to speak of - that she could only turn to the God of grace for forgiveness, acceptance and adoption into a new spiritual life.  The Pharisee on the other hand, held himself out as a pious believer, did not feel the same need for forgiveness, and was forgiven little. So confident was he of his self-made righteousness, that he had lost sight of His need for God.

Isaiah 64:6 states that even the righteousness of the most moral or righteous of us, is like filthy rags when compared against the perfection of God. A rag can be bleached, scrubbed, rinsed and sunned countless times, but it will never become spotless again.  However, Jesus taught that the rags of our lives can be made white, by the redemption brought about by His death and resurrection from the cross.  But this requires us to first acknowledge that the rags of our lives are not white. 

Most of us - thankfully - have never felt the shame of being questioned by law enforcers like prostitutes, roughed up by law enforcers like drug addicts, or dragged into and charged in court like loan sharks. Never having been shamed or having to beg for leniency, however, we like the Pharisees can easily become dismissive and disdainful of the circumstances which compel people to do the wrong things that they do.  Like the Pharisees, we can forget that Jesus also extends His hand of grace to the very sinful. 

To the extent that the very sinful reflect the compassion and grace of God to those around them because of they are conscious of the depths from which they have been redeemed, they enter heaven ahead of us.  And to the extent that we fail to reflect the redemptive grace of Christ in our lives because of our self-righteousness, we are at risk of becoming guilty like the Pharisees of denying people of access to God, even as we ourselves miss out on the grace of God.

3. Perhaps we need a radical encounter with God, as Paul did on the road to Damascus.

The most sobering thought to cross my mind is that we may need to be radically humbled, in order to become receptive to God’s grace and to understand what it means to reflect that grace to the people around us.

The Pharisee Saul (as he was known before he became the apostle Paul) took tremendous pride in his religious heritage and theological knowledge, and went around persecuting early Christians who did not adopt his interpretation of orthodox religion. If there was anyone who believed that he could see the truth with absolute clarity, Saul was he.

God blinded Saul while he was on the road to Damascus. And for three days, the man who thought he could see the truth was, literally, blind.

And if that was not bad enough, Paul suffered from an afflication throughout his life that God refused to take away. In 2 Corinthians 12 : 7 - 8 Paul wrote that "to keep me from being conceited … there was also given me a thorn in my flesh … three times I pleaded  the Lord to take it away from me", but God never did.

The outcome of this was a deeply humbled man who realised that he had nothing that he could take pride in, before the infinite God.  In connection with his highly successful ministry, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15 : 9 that "I am the least of the apostles and do not deserve to be even called an apostle … but by the grace of God I am what I am".  Then in connection with his affliction, Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12 : 9 that God had revealed to him that "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness".

The grace of God, not self-made righteousness, or mere human brilliance, physical ability or force of character, was what gave birth to Paul’s ministry, and carried it through.

In my years in church, I’ve heard of many reasons why Christians experience disappointment or suffering.  They range from Christians undergoing spiritual attack, to divine punishment, to training for future greatness.  And sometimes (though less frequently because we like to spiritualise everything), we conclude that it is just a natural outcome of poor decisions.

The one reason I have heard only once, and only recently from a pastor friend of mine in response to the suicide of a relative of a prominent church leader, is that sometimes disappointment or suffering might be God’s way of humbling us, so that we can understand and empathise with what others go through when they suffer similar pain or disappointment, regardless of whether we agree with their actions.  Often it is only after we are able empathise, that we can extend God’s love and grace unconditionally instead of conditionally with hints of self-righteousness.

In Hebrews 4:15 and 5:2, we are reminded that Jesus humbled Himself and took on human likeness, so that He may "sympathise with our weaknesses" and "deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray".  Jesus became human and suffered as we do, to assure us that we do not walk alone even when we go through our darkest moments because He has walked a similar path before, and to assure us that He will walk with us unconditionally and guide us through if we will let Him.

If the Jesus Christ from whom Christians have derived their religious identity had humbled Himself to death in order to identify with us and to demonstrate to us the depth and breadth of God’s love and grace, why do Christians in their dealings with others today live as if the love and grace of God is conditional and limited?

May we never like Paul have to be made blind, so that we might learn to empathise with the blind.

Authentic, Poignant, Hopeful

Bloged in Death, Faith, Musings, Philosophy, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Wednesday October 16, 2013

I have finally completed reading Frederick Buechner’s Listening to Your Life, a compilation of excerpts from Buechner’s other books that I started on at the beginning of this year.  Though I certainly took my time to complete it, I found it to be quite engaging and refreshing because of his style and his authenticity.

One excerpt which I found particularly moving, towards the end of the book, was Buechner’s reflections on his father’s suicide.  It is so rare, I think, to find in a Christian so much authenticity in the face of so poignant an event, and in the face of so poignant an event, so much humble hope.

"As I understand it, to say that God is mightily present even in such private events as these does not mean that He makes events happen to us which move us in certain directions like chessmen.  Instead, events happen under their own steam as random as rain, which means that God is present in them not as their cause but as the One who even in the hardest and most hair-raising of them offers us the possibility of that new life and healing which I believe is what salvation is. 

For instance I cannot believe that a God of love and mercy in any sense willed my father’s suicide; it was my father himself who willed it as the only way out available to him from a life that for various reasons he had come to find unbearable.  God did not will what happened that early November morning … but I believe that God was present in what happened.  I cannot guess how He was present with my father - I can guess much better how utterly abandoned by God my father must have felt if he thought about God at all - but my faith as well as my prayer is that He was and continues to be present with him in ways beyond my guessing.  I can speak with some assurance only of how God was present in that dark time for me in the sense that I was not destroyed by it but came out of it with scars that I bear to this day, to be sure, but also somehow the wiser and stronger for it.  Who knows how I might have turned out if my father had lived, but through the loss of him all those long years ago I think that I learned something about how even tragedy can be a means of grace that I might never have come to any other way. 

As I see it, in other words, God acts in history and in your and my brief histories not as the puppeteer who sets the scene and works the strings but rather as the great director who no matter what role fate casts us in conveys to us somehow from the wings, if we have our eyes, ears, hearts open and sometimes even if we don’t, how we can play those roles in a way to enrich and ennoble the hallow the whole vast drama of things including our own small but crucial parts in it."

Frederick Buechner on the Born Again experience

Bloged in Culture, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Monday October 7, 2013

"… Presumably those to whom it does happen feel themselves filled, as a sheer gift, with that love, joy, peace which Saint Paul singles out as the principal fruits of the experience.  In some measure, however fleetingly, it is to be hoped that most Christians have had at least a taste of them.

Some of those who specifically refer to themselves as ‘Born Again Christians’, however, seem to use that term in a different sense.  You get the feeling that to them it means Super Christians.  They are apt to have the relentless cheerfulness of car salesmen.  They tend to be a little too friendly a little too soon and the women to wear more makeup than they need.  You can’t imagine any of them ever having a bad moment or a lascivious thought or used a nasty word when they bumped their head getting out of the car.  They speak a great deal about ‘the Lord’ as if they have Him in their hip pocket and seem to feel that it’s not harder to figure out what He wants them to do in any given situation than to look up in Fanny Farmer how to make brownies.  The whole shadow side of human existence - the suffering, the doubt, the frustration, the ambiguity - appears as absent from their view of things as litter from the streets of Disneyland.  To hear them speak of God, He seems about as elusive and mysterious as a Billy Graham rally at Madison Square Garden, and on their lips the Born Again experience often sounds like something we can all make happen any time we want to, like fudge, if only we follow their recipe.

It is not for anybody to judge the authenticity of the Born Again’s spiritual rebirth or anybody else’s, but my guess is that by the style and substance of their witnessing to it, the souls they turn on to Christ are apt to be fewer in number than the ones they turn off."

A Birthday Gift and Message

Bloged in Church, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Tuesday October 1, 2013

My guess is that you now spend most of your days buried under a load of work.  Perhaps not entirely by choice, but work is certainly a welcome distraction from life’s other complications.  As Ecclesiastes 5 : 18 - 20 warns, work, food, drink, wealth and possessions are a gift from God.  However when a person is too occupied with these, he fails to properly reflect on life.

So while hard work and its rewards may be good and even necessary in certain seasons of life, my prayer for you this birthday is that work will not permanently distract you from the relationships that really matter.

I do not know where you see yourself spiritually at this time, but foremost amongst these should be your relationship with Christ.  Family, friends, work, romance and exotic vacations may bring a sense of pleasure, accomplishment or satisfaction, but they merely point to something better.  In their near perfection we are reminded that they are a foretaste of something even greater that is to come, and in their shortcomings we are reminded that there is something better - something perfect - to look forward to.

We are created (to long) for so much more, and only Christ can truly satisfy.

I’m not saying that this relationship with Christ is easy.  It isn’t.  Most of us have an uneasy relationship with our parents, and my relationship with God is no exception.  If it were easy, the Bible would not have described following Christ as entering through the narrow gate, and I would not - and here I qualify what I say by admitting that I set a poor example of what it means to be Christian - struggle as I do today, and everyday, to keep the faith.

So I’ll leave this book (The Well) with you to do the talking.  Written by Mark Hall from the Casting Crowns, it is a simple reminder that there is only one well from which we can draw living water that truly satisfies, and that no one and nothing else can complete us but God.  I am not sure if this book is something you feel ready to open and read at this stage in life but if not now, then I hope that you will open it some day in the future and find what it says resonating with you.

Musings on Suffering on Re-reading Job

I re-read Job recently.  Job - which deals with the question of God and suffering - is a book I have always struggled with. 

Partly because it is not written in prose, and I’m quite bad at reading anything other than complete grammatical sentences.  The other reason would I suppose be youth and a dearth of life experience.  

In the first two chapters of Job, we read that Job has lost most of his family and his health.  His circumstances are tremendously tragic, and his anguish so severe that he wishes that he had not been born.  But Job’s experience was not something I could identify and empathise with in the innocence and naivety of my youth.

Several years on, with a lot more age and with that more disappointments in life, I think I’m finally able to grasp Job’s pain and anguish a little better.  Reflecting on Job and on life, these are some of my thoughts:

1.  The initial response of Job’s friends was remarkably compassionate

In Job 2:13, we are told that when Job’s friends first heard of his tragedy, they visited him and did nothing but sit next to him in silence for seven days and seven nights.  This may admittedly not have been literal (ie. they may not have literally sat with him seven days and nights), but the author of Job used this expression to convey the depth of their compassion.

While their subsequent response left much to be desired, and they may well have pre-judged Job even as they sat next to him in silence, the compassion in their initial response was rare and commendable.

In contrast, I think it is more common nowadays for us to quickly heap condemnation on a person that we disagree with, while ignoring his personal circumstances or even listening to what that person might have to say.  Sadly, the advent of the Internet and social media, with its cloak of apparent anonymity, has emboldened such behaviour.

Note that I am not saying that we should excuse wrong-doing, or that bad behaviour should be rewarded with a hug and a mug of hot chocolate.  I’m just saying that there is usually room for us to extend compassion, to try and understand how someone else is feeling, and/or to hear all sides of a story before we arrive at a particular conclusion.  And for all we know our initial opinions may, like Job’s friends, be proved wrong after we have taken into consideration all accounts.

Christians particularly are called to distinguish ourselves by being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to express anger (James 1:19), and to examine our inner lives before we examine the faults of others (Matthew 7 : 3 - 5).

2.  The subsequent response of Job’s friends was unremarkably unsympathetic

Though Job’s friends sat with him and appeared to take the time to hear what he had to say, they seemed to have  already decided in their minds the reason for his suffering.  Hence their subsequent response was unsympathetic.  In short, each summarily decided and then told Job that he must have been a really wicked person.  Otherwise, suffering would not have been inflicted on him as a punishment.

And I think this was unremarkable or not unexpected, because we are not by nature very sympathetic towards those who are in different circumstances.  If it were otherwise, Jesus would not have needed to teach about loving your neighbour using the unlikely illustration of a Good Samaritan, and Singaporeans would be treating their domestic helpers with a lot more consideration.

This prompted Job to lament that "men at ease have contempt for misfortune as the fate of those whose feet are slipping" (Job 12:5) or, to paraphrase, people who are successful (eg. at work, in a relationship, etc.) tend to think that those who are less successful are failures because of their lack of virtue. 

This sadly remains true today.  Back in Job’s time as it is today, it is too easy for us to condemn a person for his apparent faults when we are not in the same position, or have not been through a similar experience. 

The Pharisees and other religious leaders in Jesus’ time were at the apex of society and were typically condescending towards others.  In particular they distanced themselves from and condemned people in "sinful" professions such as prostitution and tax collection, and lepers who were presumed to be diseased because of their sin. 

However, Jesus Christ distinguished Himself from the religious leaders of His time by identifying with the lost, and reaching out to them in God’s love.  Jesus took human form (Philippians 2:7), lived humbly (Matthew 8 : 20), and spent as much of His time of His time (if not more) with the poor and outcasts of society as with the powerful and privileged.  Christians are similarly called to stand out in our generation through the exercise of Christ-like compassion.

3.  The subsequent response of Job’s friends was unremarkably presumptuous

Often tied in with the absence of sympathy, is presumptuousness.  Presumptuousness feeds an attitude of superiority or self-righteousness (as opposed to sympathy), because it makes us think that we are or know better and therefore can sit in judgment of another person.  It also amplifies the anguish of the person in pain because we sometimes presume wrongly, and further hurt that person with poor advice or insensitive comments.

In the case of Job, his friends repeatedly insisted that his suffering was the outcome of his wickedness even though this was not true.  In the course of this, they even speculatively accused him of all sorts of wrong-doing -

  "You demanded security from your brothers for no reason,
  you stripped men of their clothing, leaving them naked.
  You have no water to the weary
  and you withheld food from the hung.
  Though you were a powerful man, owning land -
  an honoured man, living on it.
  And you sent widows away empty-handed
  and broke the strength of the fatherless.
  That is why snares are all around you,
  why sudden peril terrifies you."  (Job 22 : 6 - 10)

They also repeatedly claimed that wicked people would always be punished in their lifetimes, a lie which is not borne out by reality then as well as now.

I find such presumptuousness unremarkable, or not unexpected, because it happens so often today.  It is sadly not usual for religious leaders - yes, church leaders included - to proclaim that an individual or a community had suffered a certain disaster or tragedy for its sin or depravity.  For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, several church as well as Al Qaeda leaders (the irony!) were quick to presume and proclaim the natural disaster as divine retribution of the sins of New Orleans or of the United States.

I am by and large able to agree with such broad proclaimations of divine judgement only in the most general of terms.  That is to say, all men are morally imperfect and guilty of perpetuating wrong, on each other and on the environment.  The natural or man-made disasters or personal tragedies that we see are just a consequence of a once perfect world despoiled by our abuse, of our cruelty towards each other, and of our wicked neglect of the environment.  That aside, good people die at about the same rate as bad people : 100% of the time.  Good people probably contract cancer at about the same rate as bad people.  And good people are as much the victims of disasters such as a tsunami as bad people.

I do not mean to say that God does not sometimes offer particular protection to Christians (hopefully, "good people") during a disaster, or healing to Christians who are ill.  I believe God does.  However, Christians are as much subject to suffering as non-Christians, and it is unhelpful and even distasteful to presume that everyone who suffers is being specifically punished for sin, and that everyone who is successful and/or who does not suffer is a good person.

4.  The book of Job is remarkable in that God never explains to Job why he suffered

We know from the first two chapters of Job that God had allowed a terrible tragedy to occur in Job’s life because Satan had challenged God to prove Job’s faithfulness.  This is never disclosed to Job, even at the end.

It is disturbing to think that God may sometimes allow suffering in response to a challenge from Satan.  It is even more disturbing to contemplate that we may never be told - in this lifetime - of this or any other reason for some of the suffering or disappointments that we go through.

And this is what I find remarkable or unexpected about the book of Job.  I would have expected a book which deals with the suffering of a Godly man to have answered the question of suffering.  However, there is no attempt to mislead readers by giving a feel-good or esoteric one-size-fits-all reason for suffering.  Rather, God is candid in telling readers that there may be instances in which we suffer, and the reason for this is something we will not be told about or understand, within this lifetime. 

And this reflects reality.  In presumptuousness we sometimes try to draw a connection between personal suffering and personal sin.  But the reality is that many good men suffer despite their righteousness, while many bad men prosper despite their wickedness.

So in lieu of an answer which may not be within  human comprehension, God offers Himself to Job.  God offers a divine "non-answer".  He asks Job to examine His sovereignty as seen in the glory of creation, and invites Job to trust Him despite the seeming meaninglessness of his suffering.  And to this, Job can only reply -

  "Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
  things too wonderful for me to know." (Job 42:3)

5.  Jesus is remarkable in that He suffers with us

I would be lying if I said that the divine "non-answer" at the end of Job is satisfactory.  I don’t think it is.  In fact, I think it was somewhat unfair of God to play the "God card" and ask Job to trust Him because He’s God.  That’s demanding a lot of feeble humans like me with fickle faith.

But God’s response to the question of suffering does not end with the "non-answer" in Job.  It ends in Christ.

God’s response to the seeming meaninglessness of some of our experiences is as, if not more, brutal and unjust and meaningless than our suffering.  By the death of Jesus on the cross, God suffers with us and for us.  There is no attempt to mislead us with a warm-and-fuzzy feel-good, or esoteric, one-size-fits-all answer to the question of suffering. 

In the absence of a simple answer (possibly because none within human comprehension exists), God tells us that He loves us, that He identifies with us, and that He feels the pain of our suffering and disappointments in the ultimate means possible, by taking human form and suffering Himself on the cross.

  "He was despised and rejected by men,
  a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
  Like one from whom men hide their faces
  He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.
  Surely He took up our infirmities
  and carried our sorrows,
  yet we considered Him stricken by God,
  smitten by Him and afflicted.
  But He was pierced for our transgressions,
  He was crushed for our iniquities;
  the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him,
  and by His wounds we are healed." (Isaiah 53 : 3 - 5)

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