Thursday, December 21, 2006

What Do We Want For Christmas?

Why doesn’t God give me what I want for Christmas.
Why doesn’t God act the way we want him to?

Why don’t we give God what he wants for Christmas.
Why don’t I act the way God wants me to?


Our shopping would be much simpler if people tell us what they want for Christmas. As it is, it is very difficult trying to find a gift that is useful and not tacky. Our problem in gift buying is compounded when we are invited to a party and we have to bring a gift for gift exchange. In Emmanuel, we know the price of a penny, so we are asked to bring a gift that is not more than RM10. I asked our college CG folks originally to bring a gift of not more than RM5. There were howls of protest all round. "What can we buy nowadays for RM5?", they ask me. Even so what can we possibly get for RM10? At this rate, we are in danger of getting enough socks, assorted towels, key chains and toiletries for Christmas to start our very own RM10 shop.

Seriously, if given a choice what do we want for Christmas?

If you ask a beauty contestant for Miss Universe she would say “I would wish for world peace and love among mankind”

That sounds awfully corny, but the problem I suggest is not with her but with us for we have become so cynical. None of us believe there will be world peace and love and all the other fuzzy things that Miss Universe contestants talk about. When it comes to prayer for world peace and for love and goodwill among all men, God certainly doesn’t give us what we want for Christmas. He doesn’t act the way we want him to.

I suppose if we really want to complain there are many things in which God does not act the way we want him to. There are many things I want for Christmas, which God doesn’t seem to want to give me:

  • People still fall sick, deadly diseases still kill millions
  • Accidents, natural disasters are still a daily occurrence
  • Wars and rumours of wars
  • Dictators, madmen, downright evil men still rule failed states ( Zimbabwe, Haiti, Sudan, Somalia)
  • Near civil war in Iraq, Palestine
  • Missionaries and evangelists continue to be murdered, arrested, and tortured
  • Families torn asunder, Christian leaders failing morality tests
  • People in church not talking to one another

What did the Jewish community want from the Lord?

At the time of Jesus’ birth, what did the Jewish community really want? They wanted independence, they wanted the glory days of King David back. They wanted prosperity and justice. But in religious terms, the Jewish community wasn't particularly remarkable. In the 400 years of silence, there was no historical record of any community like that of Zinzendorf praying and interceding for a 100 years for God to act. At best there were a few individuals like Simeon and Anna looking for the consolation of Israel, i.e. waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel.

Most of the Jews were just going through the motions of worship, going to the temple, the priests doing what they were supposed to be doing. People were praying but not really believing their prayers would be answered.

Zechariah for instance certainly did not expect the gift he received. He must have long forgotten his prayers for a child and no longer expected his prayers to be answered:

Lk 1. 11Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13But the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.[b] 16Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

18Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

Similarly, who could imagine that God will come to a virgin and say,

Lk 1.30 "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

34"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"

35The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[c] the Son of God. 36Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37For nothing is impossible with God."

Even if godly people were praying, they were not expecting God to work in this way. They were looking for a mighty messiah that will deliver Israel from the bondage, the rule and the power of Rome. Hence John’s great confusion, doubts and despair in prison and his subsequent questioning, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

No human being could ever imagine such a possibility – a virgin conceiving a child by the HS and the son born will be very God and very man. Therefore no human being could ever pray that God will act this way.

Think about it. Our complaint is why doesn’t God act in the way we want him to.

If God acted the way we want him to, there will be no Saviour born today.

God doesn’t act the way we want him to, because to do so would be disastrous. It would reduce God to man's image, man's wisdom, and man's capabilities. God would not be God. He would merely be Superman, a 'god' moulded in our image. Able to accomplish only what man thinks is possible or imaginable.

As it is we do not have the answer for the problems we are facing. We cannot get our act together. We need a saviour. We do not know the way. We need a guide. We need a deliverer to free us from the chains that keep us in bondage.

Praise God that He doesn’t act the way we want him to. He remains God and therefore is our Guide, our Saviour, our Deliverer.

So what can we learn about God from the Christmas stories?

  • God does not work in the way we expect him to
  • God works in ways beyond our comprehension and imagination (Eph 3.20)[1] How we have limited him? Lack of trust, belief, godly imagination
  • God takes more time to work out his will than we expect him to. (birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, John the Baptist born long after Zechariah and Elizabet had given up hope of ever having a child. How long did Simeon had to wait before he carried the baby Jesus in his arms? 2700 years passed before Isaiah's prophecy came true, that a virgin would conceive a child and named him Emmanuel).
  • God is not absent, even if he seems absent (Godly remnant, Good Friday and Holy Saturday)
  • God is strong even when he seems weak
  • God is victorious and triumphant even when he seems defeated
  • God cares for us and we are assured of a future and a hope even when all seemed dark and futile and hopeless

How can we be sure of this?

The birth of Christ the messiah

The life and ministry of the messiah

The crucifixion, death and resurrection of the Lord

On a more personal level we ask: Why don’t we give God what He wants for Christmas.

Why don’t I act the way God wants me to?

  • Why am I not experiencing victory in my life of faith?
  • Why am I still struggling to have a consistent prayer life. Why is my practice of prayer as Yancey puts it “often confusing and fraught with frustration?”
  • Why do I have no desire to read the word. But I spend hours reading the papers, novels, watch TV
  • I have been a Christian for more than 10 years and I am still angry, jealous, lustful, covetous
  • I am still superstitious – when good things happen I fear that God is toying with me and bad and evil things are waiting for me round the corner
  • I lack belief, faith, trust and am filled with fears, worries and anxieties, no matter what the leaders say
  • I am fearful of death, of pain, disease and disabilities associated with old age (recently friends of my daughter visited an old folks home where an old lady was tied up to prevent her from falling and hurting herself. The poor old thing wailed non stop in evident distress)

Why doesn’t God do something about it – answer my prayers and actively, consistently, successfully and permanently transform me into Christ’s likeness.

We expect supernatural, instantaneous transformation. Instead God doesn't seem to be doing anything.

We expect short cuts – some of us are taught, once we are born again, magically all things will become new, the old has gone. Or we are told, "once we are able to speak in tongues, we are baptised in the Holy Spirit, we will never be the same again" Yet despite all these extravagant claims, privately we find ourselves still asking, "Why don’t I act the way God wants me to?"

It is important for us therefore to take some lessons from the testimonies and examples of NT believers

John the Baptist had doubts, questions. He was in near despair at point in his life and ministry.

Peter denied Jesus, subsequently was inconsistent in his behaviour and needed to be rebuked by Paul. But at the end was executed for his witness

Paul the persecutor of the early church, became an Apostle. But later broke up with Barnabas over John Mark, only to be later reconciled with John Mark later thereby implicitly vindicating Barnabas. Executed too for his witness.

They worked hard.

2 Cor 11.27 “I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.”(Paul certainly wasn’t lazy).

The apostles had high standards. Cf. 1 Tim 3 and its qualifications for elders. Paul urged the need for training in holiness. (1 Tim 4.8)But they were NOT perfect. However they all loved the Lord. In the end this is what matters. Not obsessing about obtaining sinless perfectionism.

In concentrating on ‘actions’, ‘behaviour’ and ‘obedience’ we are majoring on the minor. The consensus of the church for thousands of years, is that 'The Great Commandment' of the Lord is not that “ you must be perfect as I am perfect”, or you must "imitate me as I imitate Christ". Rather it is "you are to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength."

As a father I do not look for faultless obedience to my commands from my children. Neither do I look for competencies and abilities. I am their father, not their employer. I am not expecting returns from my investments. However I hope for, long for and I look for a relationship that is marked by love and affection. A loving child is not a perfect child. He is not 100% obedient all the time. He may even stray and rebel. But not for long. In the long run, love will always do the right thing, the proper thing. Love makes a man lay down his life for another. You cannot pay a man to do so. Suicide bombers are not laying down their lives for another – they are willing to lose their lives in order to kill as many of their enemies as possible. Besides "Love is patient, love is kind......" Above all, God is love.

The Pastoral Challenge:

The question is not “Why don’t I act the way God wants me to”. The question is “ Do I love the Lord my Saviour?"

So what do we want for Christmas?

May we genuinely be able to say, what I want for Christmas is to 'Love the Lord my God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my strength and with all my mind.'

[1] Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us

Our response to John’s witness to Jesus.


Gal 4.4But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law,

Rom 5.6You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.

IT WAS NOT suddenly and unannounced that Jesus came into the world. He came into a world that had been prepared for him. The whole Old Testament is the story of a special preparation … .

Only when all was ready, only in the fullness of time, did Jesus come. Hence the importance of the Advent period. We need to prepare our hearts, our families, the church for Christmas. God prepared us carefully before he sent his son to be born on Christmas day

Isaiah and the Old Testament witness

The times and conditions in which Isaiah prophesied were dark, uncertain and perilous. The people of God were at the end of their tether. The Davidic house was sinking and the Jews had no where to turn. It was then that Isaiah prophesied about Jesus’ birth. The implications being: You have to look for a divine Saviour, the Lord’s anointed, the Messiah. Only God can give us hope. Only God can deliver us. God has to wean us from all other hope, such as :

  • Trust in our own personal strength, power, wisdom, wealth (family pedigree – e.g. the Kennedy clan) , education, status
  • Trust in a human leader (Churchill – after leading Britain so well during WWII was dumped as prime minister after WWII)
  • Trust in philosophies, ideals, democracy ( Greeks) Law and justice (Rome) Religion ( the Jews) : modern day equivalents communism, socialism, capitalism
  • Trust in naked power ( USA, British colonial imperialism, might of Rome)
  • Human nature – intrinsically good, only needs education, opportunities, training, etc

By the time of the NT, we are all suitably disillusioned

John the Baptist and the NT witness

The messiah had already been born – his primary ministry was to challenge the Jews to a proper response to the Messiah.

Prophecy concerning John the Baptist

Lk 1.13But the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. 16Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." cf. Mal Leaving out the last part “otherwise I will come and strike the land with a curse.

Lk1.76And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace."

(glorious fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah)

80And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.

First witness of John the Baptist

39At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!"

Luke wrote his Gospel in such a way that Theophilus would naturally ask the question, “Who is this man that such strange things happen even before he (Jesus) was born?”

Mature witness

John the Baptist was a stern, uncompromising prophet. He dressed the part too. Clothed in camel hair, surviving on a diet of honey and locusts. Livingi in the desert until he heard the call of the Holy Spirit. Mark gave us more details in his gospel:

1The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.[a]

2It is written in Isaiah the prophet:
"I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way"[b]
3"a voice of one calling in the desert,
'Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.' "[c]
And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7And this was his message: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I baptize you with[d] water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Other gospel writers:

Lk 3. 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins

Jn 1.29 Look! The lamb of God that takes the sin of the world

In short, John is saying : repent, prepare to meet the Messiah that you may receive forgiveness for your sins. And be baptised with the Holy Spirit. This is the good news. But if you do want to receive the good news, be warned, His winnowing fork is in his hands….judgment awaits you.

Response to John’s witness

Lk 3. 7John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire."

10"What should we do then?" the crowd asked.

Notice how balanced and thorough, was John the Baptist’s answer. Faith was not meant to be privately engaging, but publicly irrelevant as Os Guinness once said.

11John answered, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same."

Biblical faith have a place for the marginalize and the disadvantaged Where are they in our churches? Are we all comfortably mainstream and middle class?

12Tax collectors also came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?" Biblical faith directs the way we view our business ethics, corruption, social and civic responsibilities.

13"Don't collect any more than you are required to," he told them.

14Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?"
He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely—be content with your pay."

Those in power, authority and influence must work out their biblical values

Cost of John’s witness.

Lk 3.19But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother's wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison. From which he was later put to death. This contrasts greatly with the Chinese fear of being involved. Of not looking for trouble. Or not disturbing the peace and bringing trouble to ourselves.

But in prison, John the Baptist experienced a crisis of faith. He had believed fervently in the truth and authenticity of his message and his witness to Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah.

But now, John was confused, bewildered. Not solely because he was in prison. The questions running through his mind are these:

“If Jesus was indeed the Messiah, how come things are still the same. Why is it that evil men like Herod are still on the throne, still in power? Where is the justice, the righteous rule, the godliness that is said to mark the reign of the promised Messiah? Why is it that it is still very much the ‘same old, same old?”

Wrong witness? John’s crisis of faith

Lk7. Calling two of them, 19 he sent them to the Lord to ask, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

Where was the dazzling clarity of the message that John received when he was in the desert? Where now the unshakeable conviction that marked his preaching? Confidence, clarity, conviction, zeal turned into doubt, confusion, discouragement, and near despair. This is what happen when what we hoped for, believed in does not come to pass.

Lk7.21At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. 22So he replied to the messengers, "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. 23Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."

Jesus is saying to John: “Yes I am the Messiah. You did not give a wrong witness.

But no, you will not be freed from prison and you will die in prison.

Nevertheless ‘Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.’”

Jesus gave the assurance needed by John the Baptist that he was indeed the Messiah. Look he said to all and sundry: “The signs prophesied of the Messiah is evidently present. I am indeed the long promised messiah”. But He gave no other assurances apart from that.

For no other assurances are needed

Pastoral challenge

This Christmas are we celebrating the birth of a wrong saviour? Are we saying in our hearts : "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

If we are, why are we saying that?

What do we hope to hear from God?

What assurances do we hope to hear?

Actually it all boils down to this final question: What do we want from God?

Many of us do not ask much from God : Agur son of Jakeh in Proverbs 30: 8 wrote

give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.

9 Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, 'Who is the LORD ?'
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonour the name of my God.

Is that too much to ask? We are reasonable people. We are not demanding. We are not greedy.

If indeed this is more or less the lot of our life, we celebrate the birth of the saviour gladly. We have no anguished, confused, despairing questions to ask of the Lord.

But if even this simple thing that Agur asked of the Lord is not given to us, then the questioning begins, the doubts surface, the anger and bitterness consume us.

Phillip Yancey’s latest book, Prayer. Does it make a difference? P 240ff

Yancey shared a letter written to him from a couple who were leaders in their church. He writes.

“ In 1991 their 21 year old son, a scholarship athlete and youth leader in the church, fell asleep at the wheel while driving a green Datsun pick-up truck. The accident severed his aorta and caused paralysis from the waist down. Thirty thousand people in the close knit community prayed for divine healing, elders anointed him with oil, and a national television minister prayed over him. Fifteen years later, the young man is still paralysed. ‘Where was the answered prayer that I longed to share with my friends?’ writes the mother. ‘Where was my Father in heaven who sees the sparrow that falls and loves my son even more than I?’ The father minces no words, ‘What is the value of prayer?’ he asks.”

"Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

The Lord’s answer to us is clear: I am the Messiah, the Son of God, your Lord and Saviour. My dear brothers and sisters. This assurance is enough. The Lord Jesus is God. He is sovereignly and providential in control. There is nothing outside his rule. He is utterly and completely trustworthy. He is loving and merciful. He knows what is best for you. He is for you and not against you. You will have a future and a hope. He will not forsake nor abandon you.

"Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you."[a] 6So we say with confidence,
"The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
What can man do to me?"

The sense of the Greek here is “never, never, never will I leave you, never, never, never will I leave you.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters. Ask no more questions. Doubt no longer. Be not in despair. Have faith in your Lord and Saviour.

Rejoice, celebrate, take great joy and comfort in the birth of our saviour.

At the same time, our faith must result in actions. So take note the words of the Baptist and do what he asks:

"The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same”.

To the tax collectors "Don't collect any more than you are required to," he told

To the soldiers :
He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely—be content with your pay." (those in power, authority and influence)

Then indeed all will be well!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Call To Live By Faith in a time of darkness

(Very much helped by Alec Motyer's commentary on Isaiah. Have incorparated a lot of his insights into my sermon)


Advent is marked by a spirit of expectation, of anticipation, of preparation, of longing. There is a yearning for deliverance from the evils of the world, first expressed by Israelite slaves in Egypt as they cried out from their bitter oppression. It is the cry of those who have experienced the tyranny of injustice in a world under the curse of sin, and yet who have hope of deliverance by a God who has heard the cries of oppressed slaves and brought deliverance! This longing was expressed by Isaiah in chapter 9 below:

Is 9.2 The people walking in darkness (living out their lives in darkness)
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.

What was this darkness that Isaiah was talking about?

Politically it was a time of uncertainty and peril for Judah. King Ahaz, an evil king was on the throne. We read in 2 Ki 16.2-4 this description of the king:

2 Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years. Unlike David his father, he did not do what was right in the eyes of the LORD his God. 3 He walked in the ways of the kings of Israel and even sacrificed his son in [a] the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites. 4 He offered sacrifices and burned incense at the high places, on the hilltops and under every spreading tree.

On top of that, the cruel, heartless and ruthless nation of Assyria was asserting its power and its threat of invasion in the north. In the not too distant future they could expect fierce, merciless hordes of evil men storming into their villages and cities. Killing men, women, children, raping, pillaging, destroying all in their paths.

(Read 2 Kings 15.37, 16)

Syria and Israel decided to be pro-active and joined together to form an anti-Assyrian alliance – They expected Judah under King Ahaz to join them. But when King Ahaz refused to join them, they both threatened to attack Judah.

We read in Is 7 .2 Now the house of David was told, "Aram has allied itself with [a] Ephraim"; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.

Significant : house of David – set up by the Lord himself with many assurances and promises of protection –

2 Sam 7.11 " 'The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you: 12 When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, with floggings inflicted by men. 15 But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me [b] ; your throne will be established forever.' "

So in keeping with his promises, God send the prophet Isaiah to reassure King Ahaz:

7.3-9 Then the LORD said to Isaiah, "Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub, [b] to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Washerman's Field. 4 Say to him, 'Be careful, keep calm and don't be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood—because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah. 5 Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah's son have plotted your ruin, saying, 6 "Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves, and make the son of Tabeel king over it." 7 Yet this is what the Sovereign LORD says:
" 'It will not take place,
it will not happen,

8 for the head of Aram is Damascus,
and the head of Damascus is only Rezin.
Within sixty-five years
Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people.

9 The head of Ephraim is Samaria,
and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah's son.
If you do not stand firm in your faith,
you will not stand at all.' "

But there is one caveat, one condition : King Ahaz and his people must be courageous enough to live by faith (v9)

To strengthen King Ahaz, he was asked to seek a sign from the Lord your God.

To which King Ahaz replied "I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test."

Gideon asked for a sign not because he doubted or disbelieved but because he wanted to be doubly certain that he was walking in the will of the Lord ( Jdg 6.36ff) Isaiah was here giving Ahaz an opportunity to affirm trust and faith in God and to act as a believer. God was ready to stop at nothing, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights for the sake of the Davidic king and the chosen city.

Ahaz chose instead to reject the offer of a sign. Thus showing himself to be a willfully unbelieving man. Instead of looking to the Lord, King Ahaz decided to turn to the Assyrians for help ( 2 Ki 16.7)

Just as the Lord loves to be trusted,(Mt 8.10 – faith of Roman Centurion) so unbelief is the unforgivable sin ( Jn 16.9 – world’s refusal to believe in Jesus)

King Ahaz’s refusal to obey Isaiah's call to faith in a very real sense marks the beginning of the end of the house of David. The remaining kings in David’s line inherited a puppet throne by courtesy, first of Assyria, then Babylon, until the royal line disappeared into the sands of the exile, never to reign again.

In v 13 with the change from the your God of v10 to my God, in v13, Isaiah signals the new, disastrous turn of events. It s no longer a matter of invitation but of prediction, no longer persuading to faith but confirming of divine displeasure. The birth of Immanuel would confirm all that the Lord said through Isaiah – with the consequences of divine retribution on unbelief.

The Assyrians will destroy Judah – a grim prophecy in Is 8!

In Is 9, Is rests his vision on the devastation of the northern lands about 733 – homelands alienated and fellow Israelites carried captive. The beginning of the end for Israel and Judah - the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali – these lands were the first to fall to Assyria.

The darkness prophesied by Isaiah had become a reality.

Today you and I have not yet experienced this darkness – of war, killings, pillage, rapes – which brings in its train, hopelessness and shattered dreams. This is darkness as it rushes to meet us with all its threats and snares and there is very little we can do about it.

But there is another darkness.

A darkness that we have helped shape by our wrong choices, faithlessness and sin.

Remember the three young boys killed by their parents because they were unable to settle their debts to loan sharks?

What about the current racial and religious tensions in our country? The waving of kris, seditious and murderous threats?

Razak Baginda – well known political analyst with a fine future and an important and influential role to play in our country – arrested for abetting the murder of a Mongolian girl.

Our own, bible believing, evangelical world is not exempt. Recently, Ted Haggard, resigned, as president of the National Evangelical Association and from his church, the New Life Church, a church with a membership in the thousands, of which he was the founder pastor. In a statement Haggard said, "The fact is I am guilty of sexual immorality...There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I've been warring against it all of my adult life.

In his analysis of the Ted Haggard fall, Gordon MacDonald talks about the inner assassin that dwells in all of us:

"I've spent more than a little time trying to understand how
and why some men and women in all kinds of leadership get
themselves into trouble, whether the issues be moral,
financial, or the abuse of power and ego. I am no stranger
to failure and public humiliation.

From those terrible moments of twenty years ago in my own
life I have come to believe that there is a deeper person in
many of us who is not unlike an assassin. This deeper person
(like a contentious board member) can be the source of
attitudes and behaviours we normally stand against in our
conscious being. But it seeks to destroy us and masses
energies that—unrestrained—tempt us to do the very things we
‘believe against.'

If you have been burned as deeply as I (and my loved ones)
have, you never live a day without remembering that there is
something within that, left unguarded, will go on the

Bob Dylan was the cultural pop icon of the sixties. The sixties was a time of turbulence, social and civil unrest and war in Vietnam. He wrote the song below:

Where have all the young men gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the young men gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the young men gone?
Gone for soldiers every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Yes indeed. When will we ever learn? What is the darkness in your heart and mine? In the push and pull and strains of everyday life in the market place, how do we treat our troublesome clients, these customers from hell, as it were? What courtesy do we accord to the unreasonable sales girl? The rude waiter? The driver who has the audacity to cut into our lane?

What do we do in the privacy of our homes? Our bedrooms? How good a husband, wife, mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister, are we?

Who have we gossiped about and complained and slandered in church?

When will we ever learn? Will sin, evil and our failures have the final word?

The people who walked in darkness…..

For the Israelites there is a longing for a King who will rule with truth and justice and righteousness over His people and in His creation. It is the hope that the reign of an Anointed One, a Messiah, will bring peace and justice and righteousness to the world. The House of David had failed, the Davidic house is sinking, but they look forward to the promised King who will come and restore the monarchy

For us there is the desperate wish that sin will not have the last say. That our failures will not permanently shape and direct our destiny. That there will be forgiveness, cleansing, restoration and reconciliation. A new beginning, a new future. And wonder of wonders, a new creation, if only we can be born again!

To the Israel of old and to us, the prophecy and message of Isaiah is this:

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death [a]
a light has dawned!

Is 9: 2-7 is couched in past tenses; the future is written as something which has already happened.

Light and joy related to Liberation 9.4, entering into fruits of a victory past, 9.5 and ultimate explanation, 9.6 birth of the child.

Emphasis falls not on what the child will do when grown up but on the mere fact of his birth! In his coming all that results from his coming is at once secured! Child relates to his ancestry, son expresses his maleness and dignity in the royal line. He is born as if from human parentage and given as from God. His shoulders are a symbol of ‘bearing rule’. And he will be called – given name indicative of what the new king and his rule will be.

The word ‘Wonderful’ in Hebrew connotes something supernatural – that which for whatever reason, require God as its explanation.

Hence Wonderful Counsellor is more than the humanly gifted Ahithopel ( 2Sam 16.23) and Solomon in all his fabled wisdom. His wisdom and counsel is divine. Hence the next title, Mighty God a clear affirmation to deity. The Jehowah’s Witnesses argues that since the word mighty instead of almighty is used, the title refers to a deity instead of the deity. However Motyer notes in his commentary that “ (Isaiah) puts the matter beyond equivocation by using the identical title of the Lord himself in Is 10.21

Everlasting Father – points to his concern for the helpless (Ps 68.5) care of discipline of his people (Ps 103.130 and their loyal, reverential response to him (Mal 1.6)

Prince of peace is himself the whole man, the perfectly integrated rounded personality, at one with God and humankind

Kingdom will increase and occupy progressively all space until he rules over all. The focal point is David’s throne. The very promises hw Ahaz refused to trust will be wonderfully fulfilled. Further the Moral foundations of his kingdom is justice and righteousness. All this we are assured will happen, for the Lord’s zeal will see to it.


Finally we raise the question again: what does it mean to live by faith?

For the Israelites of old : the Lord will stand by his covenantal promise made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and to King David.

For us the Lord Jesus, our lord and saviour will stand by his promises to us: that he will be with us to the end of the age. That he will never forsake us nor abandon us. He works for good to those who loved him and are called by him.

The Lord is lord of history –he can recover his people from the hand of the enemy.

The Lord is the God of salvation (whereby sin will not have the last word)

The pastoral challenge:

Are we to look at the darkness, the hopelessness, the dreams shattered and conclude that God has forgotten us? Or are we to recall the Lord’s past mercies, to remember his present promises and to make greater affirmations of faith? That he is for us and not against us?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Meditatons on Titus

Overview of Titus 1–3

We know very little about Titus. Just that he was a Greek by birth and that he had been with Paul as early as the time when Barnabas went to Tarsus to bring Paul back to Antioch (Gal 2:1). Over time, Titus earned Paul’s trust and represented him in the matter of the collection for the Christians in Jerusalem (2 Cor 8:16-24). Paul also called on Titus to deliver his ‘corrective’ letter to the Corinthians. Hence, it was no surprise that Paul left him in Crete to deal with the false teachers there and to strengthen, correct and stabilise the churches.

Crete is an island in the Mediterranean, situated south of Greece and Asia Minor on a north-south line bisecting the Aegean Sea. The Cretans had a nasty reputation attributed to them by a quote from the poet Epimenides (1:12). Paul, however, applies the quote not to all Cretans but specifically to the false teachers present in the Cretan church.

Paul left clear instructions about the careful selection and appointment of church leaders (1:5-9), about the damaging effects of false teaching (1:10-16), and especially about working out Christian teaching and ethics in the church (1:5-6), in the home (2:1-15) and in the world (3:1-11).

I have found John Stott’s commentary in the BST series and Philip Towner’s commentary in the IVP NT Commentary series, particularly helpful.

Our Public and Private Personae

Read Titus 1:1-16

The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. Titus 1:5

If we are honest, we will admit that basic character flaws, besetting sins and addictions are still very much part and parcel of our lives. Fears and anxieties continue to trouble us. Complete faith and trust in God elude us. Our private personae very often differs from our public personae. Yet the elders whom Titus was to appoint in Crete had to be blameless! This point is repeatedly stressed (6a, 7a). Who can, thus, qualify?

However the Greek word used, anenkletos does not mean flawless or faultless. Rather it means ‘without blame’, or ‘unaccused’. That is, elders must be people of ‘unquestioned integrity’. Their lives are to be such that they leave no reason for people to accuse them of any wrongdoings.

In particular, elders need to be blameless in their marriage and family life. This is one area where their private life at home must match public expectations. If elders cannot manage their families, how can they manage God’s family? Further, they are to be blameless in their character and conduct. Again private and public personae must match. Finally in view of the need to counter false teachers, elders must be blameless in their doctrinal beliefs. They must have the gift of teaching to encourage believers and to refute false teaching. Calvin clearly understood this dual role of pastors. He wrote: ‘A pastor needs two voices, one for gathering the sheep and the other for driving away wolves and thieves.’

In contrast, the false teachers were rebellious people. Their character matched the poet Epimenides’s description of Cretans as liars, evil brutes and lazy gluttons. Most destructive, however, was their false teachings which were strongly denounced.

The glory, honour and holiness of God and the purity of the church in terms of character and teaching cannot be compromised. Under the constant threat of false teachers and their teaching, Paul’s strategy was to increase the number of true teachers. We will know them by their character and true teaching, which are in line with apostolic doctrine.

Sound teaching and a blameless life are inseparable. Let us resolve to put godly, blameless elders in our churches!

Sound Lives and Doctrines

Read Titus 2: 1-15

You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine. Titus 2:1

There should be no dichotomy between theology and ethics, between what we believe and the way we behave or live our lives. Hence reading and studying the Bible ought to lead to change and transformed lives. The trouble is that our knowledge grows at the speed of a jet plane, while our lives change at the pace of the bullock cart.

To prevent doctrine and duty from becoming disconnected, Paul asked Titus to give detailed duties and responsibilities to various groups in the church.

Men and women in a particular age group have different temptations, opportunities and failings from those in another age group. The older men may have the tendency to be grumpy, bossy and self-centred. Paul urged them to show the character appropriate to their senior status which would make them worthy of respect. In particular, they should show soundness or maturity, especially in the areas of faith, love and endurance.

The weakness of older women, freed from the responsibilities of caring for their families, is to misuse their tongues, for example, to slander others. Instead of indulging in unwholesome activities, they should actively seek out younger women and mentor them to be good wives and mothers.

Young men are urged, above all, to have self-control. In these days of easy access to internet pornography and increasing promiscuity, young men need to develop self-discipline to be pure before marriage and to be faithful after. In particular, Titus being a young man himself, is to set the young men an example in everything ( v 6b).

The last group addressed, the slaves, are the most marginalised group. They have no rights. They can be forced to serve, but Paul urges them to serve willingly from the heart. In this way teaching about God their Saviour may be attractive to their masters. For the same reason, whether we are young or old, slave or free, we must make sure that nothing prevents us from living upright lives that will impact others for eternity.

May the people around us see the soundness of our lives as well as our beliefs.

Christians in the World

Read Titus 3:1-15

Remind the people … Titus 3:1

Remind. This is one of Paul’s favourite methods of encouragement. In Philippians 3:1 we read, ‘ It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.’ Most of the time we already know what we ought to do. What we need are constant reminders.

The Cretans had been under Roman rule since 67 BC and had continuously tried to throw off the Roman yoke. It was not easy for them to submit and to pray for their rulers and authorities. Many Asian Christians find it equally difficult to submit to their totalitarian and unjust governments. A radical change in mindset and attitude is required. True repentance is costly.

However, as Christians, we do not give the state unconditional allegiance. If our duty to God clashes with our duty to the state, then our loyalty to God must come first. Nonetheless, the state’s authority has been delegated by God (Rom 13) and it is thus, the Christians’ duty to submit to the state.

Paul further addressed the way Christians ought to relate to people in society at large. We are not to slander and not to be quarrelsome. We are to be considerate and show true humility.

The logic behind how we should conduct ourselves in the world is clear. As John Stott points out in his commentary: ‘Remind them to be conscientious and considerate citizens, because (Greek: gar) we were ourselves once anti-social, but He (God) saved and changed us.’ Our experience of God’s salvation, Paul reminded Titus, gave us the incentive and encouragement to commend others to be socially involved as well. This account of salvation is recounted in verses 4-7.

Finally, Paul concludes the letter with a list of things for Titus to do. Titus was to avoid profitless controversies and pointless theological arguments. He was to discipline difficult divisive people and if necessary, after giving appropriate warnings, to excommunicate them. Christians in general should be dedicated to good works. In the final analysis, unlike the Cretans depicted by Epimenides, the Cretan Christians are urged to live productive lives.

Are we leading productive lives for God? What changes do we need to make?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Four meditations on Ruth

Overview of Ruth 1–4

In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit (Judges 21:25).

Ruth lived during the time of the Judges, a period of disobedience, idolatry, and violence. Her story speaks of ordinary people caught up in difficult and distressing times. More than that, it is a story about the powerless, the poor, the marginalised, the forgotten people, people that you and I tend not to see. It is a story of three women who had the misfortune of losing their husbands and are left without any sons to look after them. Bereft of any means of support, what would be the lot of these widows? Would they still have a future and a hope? It is a gripping story that quickly arrests our attention.

Told in four parts, the first part of Ruth’s story could be titled: ‘From Fullness to Emptiness’. It asks the important pastoral question: How do we respond when bad things happen to us? The second: ‘Coincidence or the Hand of God’? The question arises: Do we trust in God alone or do we use our initiative? We have the story’s final resolution in the third part: ‘Providence and working with God’. It is a fitting finale as it reveals that the book of Ruth is ultimately the story of God’s providential grace. But the author saves the best for the last. The final part or the Epilogue has an ending with a twist. God sees fit to incorporate a despised Moabitess in the royal Davidic line! Truly, God’s grace knows no boundaries.

I find Daniel I. Block’s commentary on Ruth in the New American Commentary series, to be particularly helpful.

From Fullness to Emptiness

Read Ruth 1:1-22

I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Ruth 1:21

Naomi, her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, made the decision to live in the land of Moab to escape the famine in Israel. After their father died, the sons married Moabite women, named Orpah and Ruth. Ten years later, Naomi’s two sons also died. Heartbroken, Naomi decided to go home. ‘Call me Mara … I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty,’ she told her neighbours when she returned home.

These words show that she blamed God for her troubles. Nonetheless, her anger and bitterness with God did not prevent her from dealing kindly with her daughters-in-law. ‘Go home,’ she urged Ruth and Orpah. They were young and could still carve out a life for themselves. Orpah (although she was later persuaded to leave Naomi) and Ruth, however, put their mother-in-law first before their own welfare. They were willing to choose a life of destitution and deprivation out of love, faithfulness and responsibility.

Naomi and Ruth teach us how we should respond when bad things happen to us. They did not make any demands of God. Naomi, (despite her complaints) and Ruth especially, remained devoted to God. After all, one strong reason for Ruth returning with Naomi to Israel was due to the fact that she had made Naomi’s God her God (v 16). Their faith was a God-centred, others-orientated one, showing grace and kindness to others while alert to the signs of God’s working in their midst. As a result, they were able to discern the hand of God working in their everyday life. We shall see this in clarity in the later parts of the book.

When bad things happen to us, there is always the temptation to be self-centred and self-absorbed. Let us follow the example of our Lord Jesus instead. Let us seek to serve first, before seeking to be served.

Coincidence or the Hand of God?

Read Ruth 2:1-23

And Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, "Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favour." Ruth 2:2

The laws of Israel reflect God’s concern for the needy and marginalised. In Deuteronomy 24:19, Moses commands the Israelites: ‘When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.’ The only way in which widows like Ruth and Naomi could survive was to glean the leftovers in the harvest fields. It was a dangerous, backbreaking job (2:9).

What is the correlation between trust in God and taking and using our initiative to solve a problem? Are they mutually exclusive?

In Ruth’s case, as we have seen, God had made provisions for widows like herself. She therefore rightfully took the initiative to go to the fields to work and she worked hard, all day long (v 7). As she did so, she ‘happened’ to glean in a field belonging to Boaz, who ‘happened’ to be a relative and who also ‘happened’ to be her kinsman redeemer! She just ‘happened’ to be in the right place at the right time to meet the man who could redeem Naomi’s property! (Leviticus 25:25 tells us: ‘If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative (kinsman redeemer) is to come and redeem what his countryman has sold.’) An amazing series of coincidences? Surely not! These were no coincidences, but the providential working of God on behalf of Ruth and Naomi.

Our trust in God does not mean we do not need to work hard. Using our initiative does not mean that we do not trust God. Instead, let us do what we can, what we should, what we ought. At the same time we should always be trusting God and looking out for Him to work in our midst.

Providence and Working with God

Read Ruth 3:1-18

Although it is true that I am near of kin, there is a kinsman-redeemer nearer than I. Ruth 3:12

Naomi recognised that God had brought Boaz, their kinsman redeemer, providentially into their lives. Yet, God’s providence still had to be worked out. She therefore instructed Ruth to approach Boaz and to ask him to marry her so that her land could be redeemed.

Today’s women may find this somewhat unsatisfactory. They may ask, ‘Don’t I have a choice? Shouldn’t I marry for love and not out of duty? Would it not be better if God were to arrange for a man, that Ruth could marry for love instead of out of duty?’ Ruth, however, remained the dutiful, responsible and loving daughter-in-law to the end. For the sake of the family, she would do what Naomi asked of her. These are values that we Asians can more readily identify with.

Wonderfully, Boaz very much wanted to marry Ruth and be her kinsman redeemer. However, as an upright man, he acknowledged that there was another relative who was even closer to Ruth than Boaz himself. So he told Ruth, ‘If he (the closer relative) wants to redeem, good; let him redeem. But if he is not willing, as surely as the LORD lives I will do it.’

When something matters very much to us, it may be tempting for us to ‘bend’ the rules, or ignore what is right in order for us to get what we want. Often, our business ethics bear no resemblance to our Christian profession. The primary motive is profit, at the expense of compassion, responsibility, duty and integrity.

But in Boaz’s subsequent actions we see no manipulation and no devious manoeuvring. He did it by the book. When told that he would need to redeem the land for Naomi, the ‘closer’ relative declined to marry Ruth, leaving the way for Boaz to do so.

God promises in Romans 8:28 that ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him who have been called according to his purpose.’ Let us trust in the providential goodness of God, and in all things and in all ways, do the right thing.

From Emptiness to Fullness!

Read Ruth 4:1-22

Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David. Ruth 4:22

The story began with the bitterness of Naomi. She left Israel full, with husband and sons, and returned empty with husband and sons dead. Now at long last, the tide had turned. The LORD compensated Naomi for the years the locusts had eaten (Joel 2:25). The LORD finally turned Naomi’s emptiness to fullness!

Some of the most joyous verses in Ruth are verses 13-15. Who would have imagined ordinary villagers saying, ‘Your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons …’ in a patriarchal and male-dominated society during the time of the Judges? Ruth had come a long way. The Lord, under whose wings she had taken refuge (2:12), had truly taken good care of her.

But the twist to the story is that an even deeper fullness had been given to Naomi. Together with Ruth, the Moabitess widow, they would become the ancestresses of Israel's beloved King David. Obed, the son born to Ruth, would be Jesse’s father and Jesse in turn would be David’s father.

Looking in from the perspective of the New Testament, we realise that even this is not the end of the fullness given to Naomi. Ruth will become an ancestress to our Lord Jesus Christ Himself! Further, the inclusion of Ruth in our Lord’s genealogy makes the following message clear: no one will be excluded from God’s kingdom solely on the basis of race, or social status. In Christ’s kingdom, all who repent will be welcome.

The story of our lives is larger than us. How we live our daily lives has serious consequences on the generations after us. There is no telling how an ordinary life lived in faithfulness and obedience can be used by God to carry out His great purposes to bless and redeem not only our own families but the whole of mankind.

Let us renew our pledge to live faithful and obedient lives unto the Lord.