Due to Lunar New Year 2023, worship will not be held on Jan. 22nd, but will be moved to Jan. 29th.
Due to Lunar New Year 2023, worship will not be held on Jan. 22nd, but will be moved to Jan. 29th.
Related Scripture: Matthew 5:21-4
Last year, I was at a meeting of Kowloon Union Church’s Worship Group. We were brainstorming ideas. One member said, “I’d like to hear a sermon series on the difficult sayings of Jesus.” Now, we usually follow the lectionary readings like many churches around the world, so we were thinking how to fit this in, maybe a summer series. It seems though we dropped the idea for the moment. Maybe too many difficult sayings to choose from, maybe it would mess up the preaching calendar if the same bible reading came up later in the lectionary.
Today, however, the Gospel lesson would be a prime candidate for a series of sermons on the difficult sayings of Jesus, all in one passage. We could spend a whole month on it or at least a series of weekly bible studies. But you only get one sermon on it – today – because Transfiguration Sunday is next week and we enter the season of Lent after that. So, I will try to do justice to this challenging passage from the Sermon on the Mount without overwhelming you with too much information. I won’t have time to go into detail though of every verse or you’re going to have a one-hour sermon. Actually, there’s nothing wrong with a one-hour sermon if you are a good Baptist preacher. But I’m a Presbyterian and we were trained to preach for 20 minutes. And then sit down. So, let’s see what we can do in 20 minutes this morning. And then I will sit down.
These difficult sayings of Jesus concern the following topics: murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation and loving your enemy. If this seems a bit like curriculum overload, remember what happened In Matthew before this. In Matthew Chapter 4, we saw Jesus ministering to huge crowds throughout Galilee. He was preaching good news and healing many, many people who were brought to him with every kind of sickness and disease. Then in the Beatitudes at the beginning of Chapter 5 he proclaims blessings upon those suffering in this life. He promises that they are not forgotten by God. Jesus thus ministers to their bodies and spirits before asking anything from them. He offers hope and encouragement before demanding ‘something more’. As one minister put it, grace comes before task.
That said, if we take Jesus’ teachings in today’s Gospel reading seriously, we’re going to need all the grace we can get. Because that ‘something more’ is nothing less than showing the world what total obedience to God requires. As we heard last week, we have to be salt in a world that’s lost its taste for righteousness. We have to be light to a world that has no idea how to give glory to their Creator.
So just how do we do that?
Obviously, it takes more than just following the rules down to the letter. The scribes and Pharisees were already doing that better than anyone. But Jesus warned unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.
We might be thinking, it shouldn’t be that hard to surpass the scribes and Pharisees. They were a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites anyway, right? But if we had been right there at the Sermon of the Mount, we would’ve been shocked at Jesus’ words. Remember his followers were for the most part just grassroots people. They looked up to the scribes and Pharisees as religious experts. Scribes were experts in preserving the Jewish law, Pharisees experts at putting it into practice. If the experts were getting it wrong, how do we get it right?
Let me give you some examples, says Jesus.
So that’s exactly what Jesus is doing here – 1) he’s telling his followers how to get a genuine A+ in holiness and 2) he’s going to show them how to do it by his own life. A Master Teacher indeed but there’s even more. For you know, many of the sayings in the Sermon on the Mount can be found in similar form in other ancient literature. But they become Holy Scripture here because it’s Jesus who is speaking, not someone else. For you see, nobody, nobody had the authority to add ‘something more’ to the law and prophets except Jesus. And nobody, nobody had the right to ask his followers to obey that “something more” except Jesus. Because Jesus is the Son of God, and the Son of God lived and died by those teachings all the way to the Cross. For your salvation and mine.
So, friends, a life truly pleasing to God requires way more than just ticking all the right boxes – even if those boxes represent good things. You and I are children of the living God! A God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. If you and I believe in Him, we are capable of so much more than a C- in holiness.
Let me share a story from the Desert Fathers to illustrate. Abbot Lot came to visit old Abbot Joseph to seek his counsel. “Father,” said Abbot Lot. “According as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation, and contemplative silence; and according as I am able, I strive to purify my thoughts. Now, what more should I do?” Whereupon Abbot Joseph stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire, as he said to him, “Why not become all flame?”
Why not? Why not? That’s what Jesus is asking you and me. Don’t settle for a C- when you could have an A+. But we tremble in our boots when we hear his words. We are afraid. We’re afraid it requires too much, we’re afraid we’re going to fail. If we can just pass with a C-, it’s good enough. We never pretended to be a saint. Let someone else knock themselves out for that A+, and we’ll admire them from afar.
But, you know, Jesus never made two categories of people – saints and the rest of us. Even if some churches recognize a few extraordinary Christians as models of virtue, the reality is we’re all held to the same standard of conduct as children of our Heavenly Father. We may be far from perfect at the moment (I know I am), but that doesn’t change what perfection is in God’s eyes or God’s desire that this be our goal.
N.T. scholar Dale Allison said: Would a mother not bother teaching her children to be generous simply because she knows they’re going to be selfish anyway? We know from experience that a standard must be upheld even when failure is almost certain. The ideal is necessary. It may not raise humanity to the heights, but it can lift us up from the depths. And we might just surprise ourselves what is humanly possible with divine guidance and the power of the Holy Spirit.
O.T. scholar Jack Lundbom compares Jesus to a doctor who tells you to do something you think you can’t do. He tells the story of being in this situation years ago when he had both hips replaced. After the first surgery, on the same day, the doctor came into his room. “I want you to get out of bed and stand on your feet.” Lundbom said, “I can’t possibly do that”. However, the doctor and the nurse provided help. And with effort he did stand briefly on his two feet. During the next few days he had to walk to the door of his room, then a short distance down the hospital corridor, and later he had to do therapy exercises in rehabilitation. He says, “I remember wishing on some days that the nurses and therapists would forget to come and leave me in my bed. Many times, I thought I could not do what was being asked. But with effort, and with help from the therapist, I did do it. In each case it was a ‘stretch’. But that is how I regained my health, was able to walk again, and became the whole person I so much wanted to be.”
Lundbom remembered two very elderly women in the therapy room who were also in rehab. One had to be 90 years old or more. She cried at her therapist, “I can’t do it.” Lundbom felt so sorry for her. The therapist was a compassionate man but someone who in earlier days had trained Olympic gymnasts. The therapist remained firm, saying: “If you don’t try, you will never walk again.” The woman dried her tears and with effort took a few steps. As the days went on, she progressed to the point she too was able to walk out of that hospital.
Lundbom says the Sermon on the Mount is meant to stretch us spiritually. Jesus asks us to do more than we think we can do, but nothing he asks is impossible. As a Master Teacher and the Great Physician, Jesus knew his disciples must aim for higher than a C-. Otherwise, we are never going to enter the Kingdom of heaven. He knew if we didn’t reach for the stars, we’d remain earthbound forever.
Needless to say, however, living up to the Sermon on the Mount is hard. And we will make mistakes and have setbacks along the way. But thanks be to God we have a Savior who will not give up on us. Who forgives us when we fail, who gives us courage to start anew, each and every time. But we do have to try. Because if we don’t try, we’ll never become the healthy, complete and mature followers of Jesus Christ we so much want to be. For truly, we are not only asked to do ‘something more’ for Him. We’re asked to be ‘something more’ through Him who shows us what it is to be holy, to be perfect in the eyes of God.
So, to recap:
Due to the Covid-19 situation in Hong Kong, Pastor Gustav has given this week’s sermon on video. Please find it here on our new YouTube channel!
It is our great joy to report that Rev. Ole Skjerbæk Madsen has returned to Hong Kong and Tao Fong Shan to continue his program in “Christfulness.” While CTC is meeting bi-weekly (2nd and 4th weeks of the month), Rev. Ole will be offering Christfullness Communion during the off-weeks. This is in addition to other special programs you may be interested in. For more information and registration, please click here.
Those without Facebook may do so through the TFS Website.
Rev. Judy Chan
28 Nov 2021 – Advent 1
Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:25-36
Good evening! Happy Advent! There are many traditions associated with the season. Christmas decorations are one, the advent candles are another. And then there’s the Advent calendar. Are you familiar with those? The ones I bought in the past were fairly simple, a thick piece of cardboard with a winter or Christmassy scene on it, and 2 dozen small windows, numbered 1 to 24. You open one window each day from Dec 1st until Xmas Eve. And behind each little window? A Scripture verse or picture related to the coming of Jesus. Sometimes there might even be a piece of chocolate inside.
I thought these were cute to give to my children when they were small. You know, something fun to help them think about the real meaning of Christmas. One year, things were going pretty well for the first few days of Advent. And then at the end of week 1, I came home and found that Christmas had come early. All 24 windows were open, all the chocolates were out. “Girls,” I said. “What happened??” They sheepishly confessed, “Sorry mom! We just couldn’t wait!” That was the last Advent calendar in our house.
Looking back, I think maybe it’s not just children who have trouble getting Advent right. Maybe we adults do too. You know, I grew up as a Baptist so we didn’t even have Advent. Then I went to seminary where I became a Presbyterian and learned about the liturgical seasons and colors. And purple – that was the color for Advent and Lent.
Have you ever wondered though why purple is the color for Advent? Lent – we understand that. Lent’s a penitential season, a time of intense self-examination as we journey with Christ to the Cross. But Advent? What are we guilty of before Christmas? Jesus hasn’t even been born yet! So in some churches, there’s been a move towards the color blue for Advent instead of purple. They say Advent should be a season of Hope – hope in the 1st coming of Jesus as a baby in a manger and hope for the world in the 2nd coming of Christ at the end of time.
Now, we probably get the first part about hope in the birth of a child – it’s like that popular quote for new moms and dads: “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.” But did you know that for much of its history, Advent has been more about the Second Coming of Jesus … Christ returning in glory as Ruler and Judge over the cosmos? In other words, God’s opinion that the world should not go on.
How do we reconcile these two seemingly opposite moods and messages of Advent – repentance and hope, purple and blue, judgment and salvation? Maybe we have to look at the Gospel lesson for today to get some answers. So, let’s go there.
The Gospel reading is obviously disturbing. There’s no way around that. Alarming signs in the sky, catastrophe in the seas, confusion among the nations. Some may say, well, we already can see that when we look around the globe right now. So actually the end of the world doesn’t seem that far-fetched, does it? But the Gospel message for Advent is more than an ancient prediction proven true in the disasters we have wrought upon the Earth.
In the message of Advent, God is the subject, not us. So let’s spend some time to reflect on God’s message in Luke 21:25-36.
What do we do when hear these kinds of ‘apocalyptic’ passages in the Bible? I have to admit that for most of my life, I’ve tried to ignore them. I guess my reasoning is: “What can I do about it anyway?” But since I’m the preacher and this is my text, I can’t ignore it now. And high time because once I was confronted with something in the Bible that I didn’t really want to think about, I found out it said a lot more than I expected.
So, what do we find out when we dare to take the 2nd Coming of Jesus seriously? I hear two big messages from God: (1) Don’t be surprised and (2) Don’t be afraid.
Don’t be surprised. Why should Christians be surprised that Jesus is coming back? It’s in the Bible. Jesus speaks of the Son of Man returning in glory. And after his ascension, didn’t the angels tell the disciples that Jesus would come back the same way they saw him go up into heaven? And what do we often hear during Holy Communion liturgy? “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” That’s straight from I Corinthians 11:26.
No, it’s not that we haven’t heard Jesus is coming back. That’s not the problem. I think the problem is we’ve quit believing it’s really going to happen. That the world would actually end with Jesus coming down from the sky to put an end to all our sufferings and injustices. After all, people have been waiting for 2000 years and he hasn’t come back yet.
I cannot tell you the exact day or way Jesus will return. No one knows except God. But I can tell you that the 2nd Coming of Christ is crucial to our hope for eternal life. It’s crucial because if Jesus does not return, there’s no one to rescue us from the pit of Hell. If Jesus does not return, then Evil has the last word.
But you and I know Evil does not have the last word. God does. And God spoke it on the Cross when our Savior declared, “It is finished.” IT IS FINISHED. Not just Jesus’ earthly life, but the power of sin and death over the world. Indeed if in the first coming, Jesus declared God’s intention to change our destiny, then his 2nd coming is final confirmation that God has done exactly that.
According to Scripture, the 2nd coming of Jesus will be an earth-shattering event. Just as a heavenly host declared his birth in Bethlehem, and darkness filled the sky at his death in Jerusalem, the return of Jesus will be signaled by cosmic disorder. We’re not sure what all the biblical language means, but for sure if anyone doubts that God is in control, there will be no more reason to doubt. God has returned once and for all to fulfill the promise of a new heaven and a new earth.
So don’t be surprised, Jesus tells us. Don’t be caught off guard or give up hope. Salvation is at hand, and I am coming in person to deliver it.
Which brings us to the other message of Advent today. Don’t be afraid. Well, you might be thinking, why should I be afraid if God is coming to save us? Because the hard truth of the matter is this: There is no salvation without judgment. Jesus is not only coming back to save us, but to judge the living and dead, as we say in the Apostles’ Creed.
I confess when I think about the Final Judgment of God, I am afraid. In fact, one reason I started going back to church when I was a teenager was an illustration in the newspaper showing the Last Judgment. It was the full-page Saturday ad for church services in my little town in Mississippi. There was a terrified looking man and woman and the question “How will you answer God at the Last Judgment when He asks, Why were you not in the House of the Lord on Sunday?”
Well, since then, I’ve spent a whole lot of time in the House of the Lord. And I may think I’m better than a lot of people, or at least I’m not the worst of the bunch, but is that enough? Even if I throw myself at the foot of the Cross and at the mercy of the blood of the Lamb, I’m still afraid of being judged and found coming up short. As we put it: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” This is our human dilemma.
So if we really take the 2nd coming of Christ seriously, how can we not be afraid? The Bible says by being alert, on duty, 24/7. Everything counts. Everything. It’s like the job of a security guard. You never know what will happen next – so you have to be ready all the time, right? Don’t be caught napping or on your phone looking at the horse races, or coming in late and leaving early. There’s a joke that goes: Jesus is coming, look busy!
Well, Jesus is coming, but we don’t need to look busy. We need to be busy praying and working for the Kingdom of God. You might feel what you do day in and day out doesn’t really matter. But it does. Every act of kindness and compassion, every truth instead of lies, every courageous act for justice and peace, every sacrifice you make for the common good – they all count. They all contribute to bringing God’s Kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. And they all are remembered by God on that final day when the verdict on our eternal destiny is decided.
So, don’t be surprised and don’t be afraid. Advent is the season to be Born Anew with Hope because He is coming back. And if you look forward to it, long for it, and get ready for it, the 2nd coming of Christ is good news indeed. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Rev. 1: 4b-8
Today we celebrate the Reign of Christ. Christians across the world live in different countries under different regimes, both bad and less bad, but today Protestants and most Catholics take this time to remember that we all live in the dominion of Jesus Christ. You could add any number of royal titles to his name – Son of God and Son of Man, Rose of Sharon, etc.— but you don’t need to. Jesus is the Christ, the anointed.
But what does that mean? What kind of King is Jesus? What is his Kingdom like? These are the crucial questions! Is his living in his kingdom anything like living in the kingdoms of the past? I hope not! Feudalism was not that great. The Middle Ages were never as happy and “magical” as depicted in Disney movies. Royalty would bicker and fight amongst themselves, and the regular folks would suffer. And frankly, I am not sure why anyone would want to be a king or queen, because it seemed like people were always out to get you.
I like to think of a kingdom as game of 4-Square. Do you know 4-Square? Well for those of you who don’t know, 4-Square is a schoolyard game played on a square court divided into four quadrants—that is, four smaller squares. These smaller squares are about 3 square meters in size. And there is always a player in every square. The goal of the game is to defend your square and send the other players out of the big square. There is a rubber ball that is bounced between the squares, and if a player misses the ball, or they hit it out of bounds, then they are “out.” Like tennis, as long as the ball bounces once inside your opponent’s square, it is a fair play. When a player gets “out,” they leave the square and go to the back of a line of players who are waiting to (re)enter the game.
The squares will be ranked – 1,2,3,4 – and when people enter the game they start at rank 1 and try to move up to rank 4. The 4th square is kept by a person called the “king.” Everybody wants to be king. But once you are king, you face a bit of a conundrum. It’s a powerful position to be in, but there is nothing else beyond King. There is nowhere else to go but “out.” So, the King’s only goal is to try and survive for as long as they can. And survival isn’t easy because the other players are usually trying to get you out. Sometimes a king will get lucky and maneuver some of his friends onto the lower ranks, and they will defend their “king.” But in most proper 4-Square circuits, this kind of collusion is frowned upon.
4-Square can be tense, especially for the king, but it’s still just a fun schoolyard game. But in real life, kings faced greater stress, greater challenges, and even the possibility of being overthrown, or worse — stabbed in the back! And, if we’re being honest, politics today is still a lot like a deadly game of 4-Square. It still involves a lot of jockeying, canoodling, bribing, lying, and backstabbing. Sometimes good comes out of it, like an Infrastructure Bill, but it can be pretty hard to watch the whole process, to see the “sausage get made,” as they say.
I think most would agree that the Reign of Christ cannot be like that. In fact, it cannot be like any kingdom humankind has churned out. Christians — and I think people in general — want a society that is free from violence, injustice, deception, and greed. But unfortunately such things seem to be the necessary ingredients for any system that we set up.
Without any earthly referent, it’s hard for me to imagine what that “Kingdom of Christ” is like. For other’s maybe it isn’t so hard to imagine. As most of you know, I grew up in the American South, and there you don’t have to look very hard to find evangelical preachers who are willing speculate about the Kingdom of God/Christ. Most versions of Christian paradise sound about the same. Everybody is happy and content, living in peace—basically the way it is described is just as a utopian version of the world we live in now. Frankly, it can be a bit unexciting. Instead, a lot of preachers will spend more time on the lead up to the Kingdom. This is because in certain “theologies,” before we get our utopia, all of these other really dramatic things are supposed to happen. Many charismatic preachers, who believe in what we call dispensationalism like to use Apocalyptic texts like Daniel or the Book of Revelation as their basic reference, using the epic imagery of dragons, serpents, cosmic battles, and—finally—the glorious triumph of the Lord.
Of course, the way the these “End Times” are often described has very little Scriptural basis. These narratives are mostly invented using “clues” from all the imagery and signs of the Biblical prophets. To give you an example, when I was in High School, the Left Behind series of books was very popular. I don’t know if any of you have read them. I haven’t read them, I just know there were over a dozen novels and few very, very bad movies. And I’m told they dealt with things like the Rapture, the Anti-Christ, and of course – the 2nd Coming of Jesus Christ. Those kinds of things may sound cool, but most of them are just speculation. It’s more science fiction than theology.
Daniel’s dream and the visions in Revelation are truly epic, but they must be treated metaphorically. The writers used the words and symbols available to them to imagine the Kingdom of God/Christ. This is why their descriptions are exaggerated versions of the cultures they lived in. God is not a King, but a “King of Kings,” sitting on a fiery throne and served by a “thousand thousands.” But again, this is metaphor, and frankly it says more about the world that the writers lived in than the world of the future. Literally- and materially-speaking, we cannot know what the Kingdom of God/Christ is like. But I think this is because it is not something that is meant to be understood on any kind of sensory level.
Rather, the best way to understand the Kingdom is to listen to the King himself. In his interrogation with Pilate, Jesus Christ seems to reveal so very little, but he is actually being quite revealing. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he says. Pilate doesn’t get this of course. As a Roman governor, he is a traditional sort of leader, with a traditional Roman understanding of what a king is; A king is someone who holds power and influence, and isn’t so easily defeated and captured. To Pilate, Jesus must seem truly pathetic, a rebel leader handed over by his own people!
We could say that in today’s Scripture, Pilate is still thinking according to the rules of “political 4-Square.” But Jesus is not playing the traditional “game of thrones.” What Jesus means when he says that the Kingdom is not of this Earth is, firstly, that such a Kingdom is built on different rules than what everyone is used to. It is not a kingdom ruled through violence, fear, and greed, but rather it is ruled through peace, hope, and love. It is ruled through weakness, not strength. The true leaders of such a world are not those who are served in throne rooms but are servants of the people.
And the 2nd thing Jesus reveals about this Kingdom is a bit counterintuitive to our normal way of thinking: that is, that the Kingdom is not something that “will be.” Rather, the Kingdom is something that is. The King, himself, is already present, the life and ministry of Jesus—the life of the Servant-King, is already available to us in the Gospel. The Kingdom is already breaking into the “here and now.” And this kingdom is not something material that can be visualized in any one form. It has as many forms as there are human lives and human cultures. It lives in every heart.
It is true that this Kingdom is not “fully” here. In our regular lives, we still have play by the old rules of 4-Square most of the time. So maybe we can speak of two “Kingdoms.” The first is the full Kingdom of the triune God, which exists somewhere off at the end of time. But right now, we are living in the Kingdom of Christ, which is present through the transformative message of Jesus. The Reign of Christ is a present possibility, not some distant, future utopia. It exists in the reconstituted and renewed hearts of those who listen to His voice. It is here with us now, sitting in this church. It is with the poor on the streets. And it is with those sitting in prison for daring to challenge the old rules of the old political games. And of course, it was there with Christ, before Pilate, as he awaits death in the Gospel of John. Such as it was, Jesus’ “earthly” kingdom did die that day. But this day, on Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate the founding of his true eternal Kingdom. Amen.
John 3:1-17, Isaiah 6:1-8 and Ps 29
Today we are going to do something you are not supposed to do: Eavesdropping
– listen in on a private conversation between two people, Nikodemus and Jesus.
Nikodemus even tried really hard to make this a very private conversation –
coming to Jesus at night time. At least we often think that is why he came at
night. Perhaps it was just the culture among disciples of rabbis to seek out the
master at night. Maybe Nikodemus is actually treating Jesus with respect – as a
rabbi – by coming at night. For sure, Nikodemus does appear to be a very
respectful, honest and even open person, addressing Jesus the way he does and
quite different from other pharisaic leaders we read about in the Gospels
Listening in on two people’s private conversation is, however, not very respectful.
But what can we do? John wrote it and it is the gospel story assigned for this
Sunday, Trinity Sunday, where we begin on a new journey in our church calendar.
I think we have to assume that Nikodemus himself actually is the one to leak the
conversation and share the story with John later on. We know that the
conversation that started that night led to Nikodemus later becoming a follower of
Jesus – and therefore also a friend of John.
Before we get further into our eavesdropping let us pause and notice where are
in the church calendar. As mentioned, today is called “Trinity-Sunday”. The three
big church holidays are now all behind us. No big feasts to look forward to. From
now on it is all about putting into practice what we have learned so far. We´´e
now been told the whole story about Jesus: His coming into our world – the
Christmas story; His death and suffering on the cross, culminating with the
resurrection, the Easter story and we have just celebrated his ascension and with
that the completion of what he came to do. He has returned to his father and sent
us the Holy Spirit which we celebrated a week ago with Pentecost Sunday. We
have been told what we are to believe in. Now the focus is on how to live in that
story so that what we know with our heads and believe in our hearts can take
shape in our lives with each other and in society – as the people of God. The
God we have come to know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity.
What does this life look like? A key word for Christmas could be light. A keyword
for Easter could be life – even from the dead. Perhaps a key word for this next
season starting from today could be love – or faith, hope and love. Faith and
hope in Jesus leads to love in action.
Is it not amazing that as we set out on that journey – the journey of faith, hope
and love, that we start with the words from John 3:16 – about God’s love – for us
and the world that is ours – and still remains God´s. Not our love for God but his
love for us. John 3:16 has almost become a cliché. We know it so well – or at
least we can say John 3:16 as if everybody then knows what we mean. Are we in
danger of being num to them? Can we hear them afresh: “For God so loved the
world that he gave his only son”.
A God who loves! Do we realize how unique this is for the Christian faith? Not a
God who is holy, righteous, all powerful, compassionate. But a God who loves –
Yes, even more, a God who IS Love. I have often met people coming to faith in
Jesus from other religions who would say that this is what was so different and
surprising to them. God, as a father who loves his children. And it is a love that
acts – by giving – giving what is most dear to him. God did not just send Jesus –
he gave him, gave him up. A giving that opens the door – for whoever- believes.
Opens the door and gives life – everlasting. It should blow us away! When we
talk about God so loved the world – it is not like when we say, I just looove the
people of HK, or I just looove the Danish people. You can put your own name
there where it says “world.” I can put mine. God so love me, you. God’s love is
measured by what it is giving. We cannot string the beginning and the end of this
verse together and omit the middle part and just say: God loved the world so that
all could have eternal life. God had to give – give up – and what God gives we
get through faith – “whoever believes”. Perhaps it is easier to understand how we
are to respond to God’s giving if we use the word “trust”. Trust in God.
We can know these words so well that we forget the context in which Jesus said
them. It was as he was talking to Nikodemus trying to explain to him what the
kingdom of God is all about – or what “life with Jesus” is – as we have labeled this
season in our church calendar.
So Nikodemus comes to Jesus very respectful, very open, not judgmental at all. I
think many of us have to redefine our understanding of the Pharisees when we
meet him here. He does not fit the stereotype. So, let us not be too quick to put
people into boxes. I sometimes think that Jesus could have answered
Nikodemus a little more friendly. Could he not have given him credit for his good
behaviour, his high morals, his honesty. But it is like Jesus is telling Nikodemus:
All that is good, but with regard to your questions – or what it is you are looking
for, it will not get you there. You will not be able to grasp the Kingdom of God with
more information, more miracles, more good deeds. You have to be born again.
Says Jesu and he does so three times. Had it been about moral deeds –
Nikodemus could already check that box. Nor is it about great miracles that he
had seen or heard Jesus perform. It is a whole new beginning. To explain what
he means Jesus then refers to a story familiar to Nikodemus – the story about
when God’s people were poisoned by snakes in the desert and Moses was told
to make a snake out of bronze, hold it up high and have the people look at it. By
doing so they would live. In the same way, says Jesus to his polite and open
guest, the Son of Man must be lifted up and in looking to him you can find life.
God has to do something for you – not you for him. And God still has a remedy
for broken and dying people in a broken world. We are not to look to a snake
raised on a stick, but to the Son of Man, Jesus, God’s only son, raised up on the
cross. For so – so much and in this way – God loved – and continues to love – the
Words and phrases can be used so much that we no longer can hear them. As
we said this can be the case with John 3:16.
Other words can be taken captive by certain groups so that others no longer feel
they can identify themselves with this label. I think many feel that the label
“evangelical” has become such a word. It has been stolen – at least from me –
and politicized. It no longer stands for “trust in the Bible, a desire for unity or
mission and a conviction that the gospel should be shared with all people.”
I think the same can be true for the phrase “born again” that some people will use
to describe themselves, saying: “I am not just a Christian – I am a born again
Christian”. The phrase was made famous when it was used by the former US
president Jimmy Carter back in the last century and also used as the title of his
biography. When Billy Graham then wrote a book about “How to be born again”
the phrase was almost made identical with the evangelical movement – and to a
certain extent trivialized. But whether we like the phrase or we think it sounds as
if the person is saying “I am a better, more serious Christian than others” – the
text today begs us to consider what Jesus means when he – three times – uses
the phrase “born again”.
Perhaps we should rather talk about being “born from above”. It is not a physical
re-birth, it has nothing to do with a program for moral upgrade. Nikodemus did
not need a moral upgrade. What he needed was something from “above”. It is
something that God does. It starts with God! It starts with “For God so loved the
None of us have ever done anything to be born. Birth is something that happens
to us. We cannot initiate it, or add to it. When it comes to our own birth we are
totally on the receiving end. Birth happens to us. And the same is true when we
talk about being born again – or born from above. It is like the wind – you feel it,
you know it is there but you can’t see where it comes from or where it is going.
However, it does not make us totally passive. We can respond! Respond to
God’s love for us. Jesus talks about being born of water and spirit – Repentance
and believing in Jesus – looking to Jesus – like the Israelites were told to look at
the snake in the desert. Looking to Jesus here means looking to Jesus – at the
cross. For so – in that way – God loved the world.
And the world is you and me. God loved you, loved me – not just the big
impersonal world. But you, me. How can we hear this afresh – or again. It is like
the phrase “born again”- or evangelical.- Just because the word has been stolen
from us does not mean it is no longer relevant for us to ponder what it means to
be born again and what it means to believe in the gospel the eu-engalicon.
And in a similar way, just because we have heard Joh 3:16 often does not mean
that we now can put it behind us and move on. As we start this season in our
church calendar with a focus on living out the gospel we need to be reminded of
this fundamental basis for living out the Jesus story. The story that we know now
because we have celebrated Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. This is a story we
can live in and we can do so, because God so loved us that he raised up not a
snake in the desert but Jesus on the cross as the remedy not for snake-bites but
for the bite of sin and death in our lives.
Our response to the new birth – the born again – or rather born from above – for it
is God’s doing and we are on the receiving end – is – if we take the answer
Nikodemus got from Jesus that night – to look to Jesus. There we see how God
loved us. Can that make us stand in awe like Isaiah did in the temple? He
realized that God is holy, holy,holy, – notice the three holys – and his own
situation? And can we then respond as he did. He realized that he was in the
presence of God, but also in need of God to make him clean, heal him from the
snake bites in his life. When God did that, gave him a new birth, a new identity,
his response was: Here I am – send me!
May we see that we are loved people – people that are loved by God. And may
God’s love for us make us people who love. Love the world, our family, our
neighbor, the stranger. Love with the love with which we ourselves have been
loved – the love that gives – everything, so that whoever – no exceptions –
believes in Him – or with a less “religious” word: Trust in him – will not perish but
have eternal life. That is why Jesus came – not to condemn but to give life.
Let’s not withhold that love of God from anyone. May we like Isaiah be
overwhelmed overjoyed, again by this love so we too respond: “use me, send
me” May we start this season in our calendar – as church, as God’s people
soaked in the love of God, by setting our feet firmly on this as the foundation on
which we stand and from where we move as we are sent. May we then go out
and into the world. And remember, the big world is made up of my family, my
friends, my colleagues, my neighborhood. This Is where we as loved people are
to love and to give – that people will not perish but live.
Sermon: “Do It Again, Lord!”
23 May 2021
Christ Temple Congregation
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Good evening. Let me begin with a story. It’s attributed to Fred Craddock, a distinguished American preacher in a denomination called the Disciples of Christ. The Disciples of Christ are one of the churches that sponsored my ministry in Hong Kong. So, when I’ve been in the US for speaking engagements, I sometimes got lucky and was at the same meeting as Fred Craddock. And I can tell you, he is a great preacher and master storyteller.
Craddock says once he was on a tour of the Holy Land with a group of seminary professors. One of their stops was the traditional site of the Upper Room in Jerusalem. There was another tour group ahead of them so they had to wait their turn. This other group was led by a pastor. With deep emotion, he told his flock: “This is the very room where Jesus shared the last supper with his disciples, where he appeared to them after his resurrection, where he urged doubting Thomas to touch his hands and side, where the Spirit came upon them at Pentecost.” The group responded emotionally praying and weeping and shouting to the Lord. They finished their time reverently taking Holy Communion together. Then Craddock’s group entered. Their guide said, “Actually this room where we’re standing did not exist at the time of Christ. It’s Byzantine in architecture and it’s less than a thousand years old.” The professors nodded their heads as the guide went on with fact after fact. The talk may have been accurate, Craddock thought, but not a particularly inspiring history of such a venerated site. As the tour guide droned on and on, a woman in Craddock’s group leaned over and whispered: “I wish I were in that other group!”
Does this story resonate with you? Do you see yourself here anywhere? Maybe you put yourself firmly with the group of professors from historic churches. We do things decently and in order. Or maybe you’re in the more pentecostal group praising God to the heights: “Do it again, Lord!” Or maybe, at some point, you’ve been someone who wished you were in the other group.
You come from many lands and cultures at Christ Temple Congregation. Your spiritual experiences and church backgrounds are also diverse. So, I’m pretty sure among you here that you’ve been brought up with various interpretations of Acts 2 and the Day of Pentecost. Speaking for myself, I grew up in a conservative Baptist Church. We were taught certain things about the Holy Spirit. Then I got to know some Baptists who were part of the charismatic movement. And they taught me some other things about the Holy Spirit. And what did I learn from all this? I learned I needed to have an open mind and open hands to receive everything God wants to give us – in my own life and church as well as through other people’s lives and churches.
And why is that so? Because the presence of the Holy Spirit can be manifested in different ways in different people for different purposes. I have an ex-patriate missionary friend who told me in her early days, she was in a prayer group in Hong Kong with other ex-pats. She started to pray in Cantonese. The others thought she was praying in tongues like in the book of Acts. She said, no, I’m praying in Chinese (which she had studied). She’s never prayed in tongues in her life. I can tell you, though, she’s one of the most Spirit-filled people I know and a very fine missionary. Then I told her I have prayed in tongues, mostly in private devotion. But regretfully it wasn’t Cantonese, as much as I might have wished it. I joke if you ever hear Judy praying in a language anyone recognizes as Chinese, you’ll know signs and wonders have not ceased. Nonetheless, my friend considers me a Spirit-filled Christian who also contributes to the Kingdom of God.
It’s tragic that the whole issue of the Holy Spirit has so often divided Christians of goodwill. God sent the Holy Spirit to unite us, not divide us. It’s not a competition – who’s got the Spirit and who hasn’t. I’m helped here by Pentecostal theologians like Gordon Fee. He’s convinced that whoever confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior has already received His Spirit. No exceptions. No one, he says, no one comes to faith in Christ without the power of the Spirit in their lives. Faith is just not humanly possible without divine intervention. So, the most important question to ask is not whether we’ve got the Spirit – if you’re a Christian, that’s settled. The most important question is How does the Spirit change our lives? How does the Spirit change my life, your life, the life of the Church and the life of the world?
If we look at today’s traditional reading for Pentecost Sunday from Acts, we can find some answers. Are you ready?
Where do we start? There’s so much going on in this passage in Acts 2 that I could drone on and on like that tour guide at the beginning of the sermon. I could tell you fact after fact about Pentecost, and it might all be accurate but not particularly inspiring. So instead let’s cut to the chase: Let’s ask how did the Spirit change lives in the book of Acts? How did the Holy Spirit change the disciples? The people who listened to them? The Church that came into being? The world that God so loved?
When we look at Acts 2 with those questions in mind, we find some amazing results. Let’s talk about two of them today.
The first amazing result of Pentecost is the transformation of those 120 disciples in the Upper Room. You might be thinking, hey, the disciples already believed in Jesus – why does the Spirit need to come down upon them again? New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall explains that we need not limit being filled with the Spirit as a one-off experience. In Western thinking, if something is filled, it’s full. But we can be full of many things – like joy or love – and it doesn’t mean we can’t have more joy or love, does it? So too the Spirit – God continues to pour out the Spirit again and again in our time of need. And the disciples were certainly in need if they were going to accomplish the mission Jesus gave them. And what was that mission?
As we read it in Acts 1, verse 8: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Not for the faint of heart.
The pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost then was God’s equipping the disciples to be witnesses – bold and effective witnesses. And for sure they were going to have to be bold to be effective because they were starting in Jerusalem among their own people. So, what did the Spirit do but give them exactly the kind of testimony they needed. Remember the first disciples weren’t highly educated urbanites with an impressive resume. It would take a miracle for these disciples to convince that crowd. But through the Holy Spirit, that’s exactly what happened – a miracle – a miracle that allowed them to witness to Jesus Christ in every foreign tongue of their skeptical listeners. And that of course opened the door for Peter to address the astonished crowd and preach the first sermon in his life. The result? Over 3000 people that day repented, turned to Christ and were baptized.
So, the first amazing result of Pentecost? Bold and effective witness for God.
Does this look anything like your life? Have you ever been called a bold and effective witness for God? If yes, praise the Lord! But if you’re thinking, well, not exactly, don’t lose hope. Because Acts 2 is really not so much about the Holy Spirit coming down on individuals. It’s about the Spirit of God coming down on a whole community, empowering them for mission. We were never expected to go it alone.
The birth of the Church then is the second amazing result of Pentecost. It’s the answer to our prayers, whether we know it or not. And what’s so amazing is how this little Jewish start-up succeeded in taking the Gospel to the Gentiles as well as to the ends of the earth. Think about it. The early Church didn’t have lots of money. They weren’t seminary trained. They didn’t have the support of a big organization. All they had was the Holy Spirit and a mission. And that was enough. Enough to fulfill the words of the prophet Joel quoted by Peter.
‘In the last days…God declares…I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”
Did you get that? I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh and they will prophesy – male and female, young and old, slave and free…we’re all included, from the greatest to the least. We’re all included, not only to receive the blessings of God but to be the blessings from God to a hurting world. And how does that happen? By telling the truth. That’s what prophecy means in the Bible. Not predicting the future like an astrologer or fortune teller. When God’s people prophesy, they tell the truth about the sin and evil of this world. When God’s people prophesy, they tell the truth about how God is at work right now in this world. When God’s people prophesy, they tell the truth about what this world would look like if God were in charge instead of man. That’s what the Church was born for – to tell the truth – God’s truth – and to live by it every day.
Of course, being bold, effective witnesses in a truth-telling community isn’t always going to be easy. In fact, much of the time it’s pretty hard. That’s what the first disciples and the early Church discovered wherever the Spirit led them. And you know what they did when things got tough? They prayed. That’s right. Every time we read in the Bible about the Spirit coming down, God’s people were praying. So, let’s close today with prayer – a beautiful hymn to the Holy Spirit written by Gina Tuck. Please pray with me:
One with the Father and Son
Declare to us things to come
Pray for us when we can’t speak
Strengthen us when we are weak
Come upon us when we pray
Grant us your words to say
With us, in us
Power to rest in your grace
With us, in us
Power to finish this race
Spirit of Him who rose from the dead
Live in me
Spirit of Truth who pierces my heart
Breathe in me
[She] who hovered over the birth of the waters
Bring forth the birth of my soul
Remind me that He who set me free
Will make me whole
 Gina Tuck, “Hymn to the Holy Spirit,” 2011, https://cardiphonia.bandcamp.com/track/hymn-to-the-holy-spirit
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