Sunday, April 06, 2014

Isaiah 53: Prophecy on the Suffering Messiah

Luke 18: 31- 34    
31 Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; 33 they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.”
34 The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

This painting is called The Shadow of Death. It is not portraying any event recorded in the Gospels. Rather, it depicts an imagined scene. Here Jesus is portrayed as a young man in the carpenter’s workshop before his public ministry had begun. Tired from work, he stretches his arms. His face carries a mix of rapture and agony. His shadow is silhouetted against the wall across his tool board, creating the impression of his body on the cross. In the corner, his mother Mary looks up, aghast to see the shadow of the cross looming over her. If you look carefully, you see that she is opening a chest that contains gifts from the wise men – gold, frankinscense and myrrh which represent his kingship, his divine glory and his death. Although this painting is not historical, it does truly depict a biblical insight that the shadow of the cross hangs over the entire life of Jesus.

In the ancient world, there were three “supreme penalties” that people fear the most. What are the worst methods to punish criminals to death? Beheading was a horrible way to go, being burnt alive was worse (more painful but sometimes, people died from inhaling the smoke before the fire reached them). But the most extreme death penalty one can have was by crucifixion. You catch a glimpse of how violent and agonizing a crucifixion looks like in the movie The Passion of the Christ.

And that is Jesus’ destiny prophesied in Scripture. It is his mission on earth. It is the reason He came.

That’s not something you would expect. Our Muslim neighbors would stress that the prophet of God cannot be allowed to be mocked and crucified. Or suffer defeat. Surely God will protect his servant by rescuing him and replace someone else to be crucified instead. We don’t want that kind of hero. According to a 16th century document called the “gospel of Barnabas”, Judas Iscariot was supposed to have substituted Jesus on the cross. You may like to know that manuscript written in Italian is more than 1500 years removed from the actual event. So it’s not a reliable historical source.

But the Gospel of Luke, written within only a few decades from the death of Christ, shows us that our Lord was not surprised by what’s going to happen in Jerusalem. He knew it was coming. He anticipated it. He was going to travel to the holy city one last time to celebrate the Passover. Jerusalem is the city where the temple is located, the sacred place where heaven and earth meets.

So Jesus rounds up His disciples and tells them that He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him. They will flog him and kill him. 

You may think: “Oh well, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. John the Baptist his predecessor was also executed earlier. There was no freedom of speech in those days, right? So what’s so special about Jesus’ death?”

Well, in the case of Jesus, look at verse 31 here, his death and resurrection happened so that “everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled”. It has been foretold in Scripture. It has been predicted beforehand.

In other words, it may look to bystanders as though Jesus is the victim of betrayal and political conspiracy and mob violence and mock trials and corrupt religious leaders. Yes, we see that a lot in this cruel world. But what Jesus says is breath taking: I am in charge here. It’s all taking place just as Scripture has foretold. Nobody takes my life from me. I lay it down. I take it up. Jesus already predicted when he died, how he died, and when he rose from the dead. Yet he still made that journey to Jerusalem. Why?

1) Because all that prophets have predicted hundreds of years ago must be fulfilled.

You see, Jesus is not just another human prophet. Rather he is the ultimate goal of all prophecy. He is their purpose. He is the fulfillment of what the prophets have foretold. What was predicted hundreds of years before had come true in his life. If you are considering the claims of Christ and wonder if there is any good reason to suppose that His life and death are unique, here is a powerful clue: Fulfilled prophecies.

Let me read to you a prediction written in the 16th century and you tell me what event is being fulfilled here:

The great man will be struck down in the day by a thunderbolt,
An evil deed foretold by the bearer of a petition.
According to the prediction, another falls at night time.
Conflict at Reims, London and a pestilence in Tuscany.
(re-kan-s, tas-kanee)

Whose death do you think is being predicted here? You would never have guessed by just reading it. The answer is: The assassination of John F Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy. Who do you think wrote these four lines of prediction? Nostradamus.
OK, thunderbolts and gunshots: not terribly dissimilar. And the great man was struck down in the day, as John F. Kennedy was. The other falling at nighttime would be Bobby Kennedy (five years later).

Science Channel: Now, it can work if you want it to, but do you really think a Secret Service agent reading this passage in 1963 would have cause to be concerned?
Probably not. It is so vague, vague enough to mean any other great leader killed during day or night. And it doesn’t even say there were related as brothers. And what of Reims, London and Tuscany? Their deaths were not related to any conflict or pestilence in those places. Not a terribly impressive prediction.

Now let us return to the death of Christ. Where was it prophesied that the Promised One, the Messiah will die a violent death and rise again from the grave? It would be amazing if such prophecies were true. But were they really talking about Jesus? Or were they just too vague like this one?

Around 700 years before Christ was born, the prophet Isaiah made one of the clearest predictions of the Messiah’s death and resurrection. It shed so much light to what He was doing that the book of Isaiah came to be known as the ‘fifth gospel’ apart from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  

I would like to read with you a portion of this prophecy about the suffering and vindication of the Messiah in Isaiah 53: The God of Israel says:

See, my servant will act wisely;
    he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. (resurrection, ascension, exaltation?)
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
    and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
    and what they have not heard, they will understand.
 Who has believed our message
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. (rejection by people in life)
Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, (the Roman spear pierced Jesus’ side)
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all. (substitutionary atonement language)
He was oppressed and afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth. (Did not fight his arrest, accepted suffering)
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
    Yet who of his generation protested? (False accusations, corrupt trial)
For he was cut off from the land of the living; (means: His suffering led to death)
    for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
    and with the rich in his death, (Even though Jesus was poor and crucified people are left to the dogs, Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea)
though he had done no violence,
    nor was any deceit in his mouth. (He has committed no crime or sin deserving death)
10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
    and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his seed and prolong his days,
    and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
    he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
    and he will bear their iniquities.
(This is all about the resurrection. Jesus would suffer, die, and buried in a rich man’s tomb. And then, after the suffering, he’d get out of his grave, he’d see the light of day, he’d enjoy life again, he would accomplish his mission to justify many and take away sin, that he’d reconcile us to God. “It is finished.” He will be satisfied to see His people, his seed prosper)
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
    and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
    and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Sin bearer)

Now, who is This Servant of the Lord? Who is Isaiah talking about in its original context? Some interpreters would say, in its original context, the servant of the Lord refers to the nation Israel. Israel has always been persecuted by the sinful Gentile nations and suffered greatly because of the transgressions of others. Think of Nazi Holocaust and similar tragic episodes throughout their long history. Yes, sometimes in the book of Isaiah the servant of the Lord is clearly the people of Israel (Isaiah 41: “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you.”). And sometimes the servant refers to the prophet Isaiah himself (Isaiah 49:5) "And now says the Lord, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring back Jacob to him." Here the prophet Isaiah is the servant who brings the people of Israel back to God.

But in Isaiah 53 the servant cannot be the prophet or the people. Because the Servant is portrayed as substituting himself for both the prophet and the people of Israel. Verse 4: "Surely he [the Servant] took up our pain and bore our suffering." Verse 5: "He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities." "Our" means "me, Isaiah" and the people of Israel. So this mysterious Servant is not the people of Israel and not Isaiah, because he is the substitute for both of them. His job is to restore Israel and bring light to the Gentile nations.  

Who then is this Servant of the Lord? Ancient Jewish rabbis understood it to refer to the Messiah. So it is not surprising to find that Jesus clearly understood this prophecy as being fulfilled in his own life and ministry. He is the suffering servant who is crushed for the sins of the people. What will soon happen to Him in Jerusalem is fulfillment of this prophecy. He himself said, "The Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve (to be a Servant) and to give his life a ransom [a substitute!] for many" (Mark 10:45).  

In all the history of Israel, no one comes close to fulfilling this prophecy apart from Jesus. In Acts 8 there is an Ethiopian eunuch (a diplomat) who was reading Isaiah 53 when Philip joined him in his chariot. The eunuch asked, "Of whom does the prophet Isaiah speak, of himself, or of someone else?" Philip opened his mouth and beginning from this scripture he proclaimed Jesus to him (Acts 8:35).  

Let me remind all of us that this was written 700 years before Jesus was born and there was no way Isaiah could have known it unless it was revealed to him. This passage is packed with details about the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

2) Why did Jesus die? Why did He press on to Jerusalem knowing certain death awaits him?

What is the meaning of His death? Actually it would be more accurate to say there are multiple layers of meanings in the Cross of Christ. Like a diamond, it has many sides. The cross is God’s victory over the powers of Satan because sin and death have no dominion over those who are in Christ. It is Jesus’ non violence unmasking the corruption behind oppressive powers. The cross is Christ satisfying God’s holy requirements in the law. The cross is a demonstration of how much God’s love is for us. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us so our indifference melts away. The cross inspires us to follow Him in self-sacrifice and self-giving.

All these are precious ways of understanding the cross of Christ that should we should recover. And I would also point out that all this is true because sacrifice is at the heart of the cross. Jesus took up our pain and bore our sins. He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. It was the Lord’s will to crush him as a sin offering.

What the movies like Passion of the Christ or the historical books cannot show us is what goes on spiritually on the cross. They cannot show us the reality that we are separated from God by our sin. That God is alienated from us by His holy anger. God doesn’t lose his temper for no reason at all. His anger is provoked always by sin.

 Some people say this is not fair. This is like me saying “You offended me. So in order that I can forgive you, I must go and beat up Yoong Zhen first”. Some even call it ‘cosmic child abuse’ – an angry Father punishes his own innocent son for the wrongs of others. But that’s a serious misunderstanding of what the cross is about.

Firstly, Jesus is not an unwilling third party here. He is not forced to do it. He willingly embraced the Cross for the joy set before him. He and the Father are one in this plan.

Secondly, God the Father so loved the world that He gave his only Son. It is not as though he is reluctant and needs to be pacified by Jesus. Precisely because God is love that He has made a way for sinful men to be forgiven without ignoring sin… without downplaying sin. It is not just another man that the Father is punishing for our sins, but Jesus the embodiment of God took upon Himself the sins of us all. The One who passes judgment now steps down and receives the penalty.  

It is in the death of Christ as a substitute and sacrifice that sin is removed and God’s wrath is absorbed, so that God can look on us without displeasure and man can look on God without fear. Sin is cleansed (expiated) and God is satisfied (propitiated).

It is not justice. But it is grace. God is showing us the love and mercy that we do not deserve.

3) When Jesus predicted His death, the disciples were clueless. They did not get it. Does it surprise you? How can that happen? Is it because they couldn’t hear properly or what? Or are they confused because what Jesus predicted was not what they wanted to hear? Could it be that their misunderstanding is caused by their refusal to understand? 

They are ever hearing but never understanding because they wanted a kingdom that brings judgment down on the bad guys. The Messiah should not suffer. He should cause our enemies to suffer. We want a Messiah who brings power, prestige and deliverance to us. A crucified Messiah is not what we would expect. He is supposed to be the one crucifying others. Lest we become too harsh on the disciples, let’s ask ourselves: Do we really understand any of this? What kind of Savior are we looking for? What kingdom are we expecting?

Do we seek a kingdom where God blesses us with a lovely spouse who is always loving; always understanding and agrees with us all the time? A kingdom where we are blessed with above average children, always fun to play with, always healthy and obeys us all the time? A kingdom where our nasty colleagues get fired and evil people get zapped right now? A kingdom where our bank account grows steadily and keeps us safe and secure?  

But the focal point of Jesus’ mission is not our comfort. It is sacrifice. And that’s hard to understand and if understood, it’s even hard to accept. Take up your cross and follow me. Die to sin, be alive to God.

Here is Jesus saying: I must go to Jerusalem. I must go to the cross. Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone and lonely. But if it dies, it breaks forth into new life and produces much fruit.

The Christian life begins when we are forgiven of our sins and the Holy Spirit breathes new life into us. So our discipleship is shaped by the cross and the resurrection from first to last. As we die to our selfish pride, die to our greed and sinful ambitions, die to the mindset of the world, we become alive to God, alive to His purpose and design for our lives, alive to what it means to be in community.

Only through death can we experience newness of life and joy in Christ.

And I wonder: How would we die to sin today? Is there a legitimate pleasure that is controlling us, entangling us from walking closer to God? Is there something that our Lord is asking you to let go? Is He calling you to obedience in some area in your life? Perhaps He is calling you to sacrifice comfort to pursue something much greater? Are we shaped by the self giving pattern of Christ?

Friends, the cross and resurrection of Jesus is a once-off event that changed history. But death and resurrection is also an ongoing process in our spiritual life… dying to self and being raised to new life is the shape of Christian discipleship. We have a cruciform spirituality. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Ecclesiology: Humble Service In The Body of Christ

Let’s do a brief exercise today. Find a person next to you preferably someone whom you seldom talk to. Spend two minutes each answering these questions:

What is one thing you can be thankful for in CDPC Puchong this morning? “I am very grateful to God this morning that though we are many, we are one body in Christ. It’s always enriching to worship together with brothers and sisters from diverse culture, language, nationality, age group and ethnicity.”  

Maybe today is your first time here. If you are our guest this morning, just share what is your first impression stepping into this place?

It’s great to see the church and especially children in Sunday School writing thank you notes to their teachers and to God for the blessings of being part of this community.

Humble Service in the Body of Christ

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

CDPC Puchong was born on 21st March, 2010. It’s easy to remember her birthday: 321.
She will turn 4 years old this coming Friday. Look at how fast our children have grown: Rosie, River, Andrew, Lee Yi, Yoong Zhen… They are about same age as this church.

4 years of worshipping and living together as a community in Christ…
4 years of sharing of our joys and sorrows, the ups and downs of life together.
4 years of serving Christ and building His church together.

Today I would like to look back on our journey so far and remember with you what God has done in our midst. We want to celebrate and give thanks for what His sovereign grace has wrought in this church. There is much to be grateful for. And it’s also a good time for us to look ahead to where we want to go in the year ahead. And there is much to look forward to… (We look forward to rejoicing with Yih Khai and Jessica as they tied the knots this coming Saturday) 

In the Scripture passage we read a moment ago, Paul is laying out what it means to live in light of the gospel. What are the practical implications of the good news? In earlier chapters, Paul wrote that we know of God as Creator, we perceive His power and moral law yet we exchanged His glory to worship lesser things. But instead of punishing us, God gives us a righteousness that comes not by observing the law, but through faith in Christ. Christ became an atoning sacrifice for our forgiveness. When we turn away from sin, we look outside of ourselves and we look to Christ who justifies us (He declares us as righteous). We look to Christ who sanctifies us, making us righteous through His Spirit and one day, He will return to bring us to glory. It’s all about Christ, not about how good we are.

In light of that good news, Paul says: By the grace God has given me as an apostle I say to every one of you: “Don’t have too high estimate of yourselves but rather think of yourself with sober judgment. Have an accurate, balanced and humble evaluation of who you are. But how? How do we have a sober judgment? Well, you do it by reference to the faith which God has distributed to each of you. It could mean that God gives different measure of faith to different people, and since it is God’s gift and not of our selves; there is no room for boasting or envy. But the phrase “in accordance with the faith God has given you”… may also mean that you have sober estimate of who you are only when measured by the faith… the gospel is the real yardstick of who we are… only by the cross, we can measure how deeply broken and sinful we are because God himself has to die to redeem us… and only by the cross, we can measure how deeply loved and treasured we are because God himself would die for such as us. Only through the cross, we see ourselves as we truly are… both saints and sinners at the same time.  

CDPC Puchong… what does that mean for us as a church? Coming to our fourth year as a church plant, it’s good to do a sober evaluation of how far we have come. We are who we are because of God’s gracious gift. So we can look back and give thanks. We can also accept our shortcomings with hope for change.

When you step into CDPC Puchong, you’d probably observe the sofa arrangements, a wonderful children’s library, storybooks and toys lying around and a feeding room. There’s a monthly kid’s talk. There’s a Sunday school and English language tuition ministry. There’s also a Rosie fan club. You’d hear children running around, making lots of noise. You get the feeling that this is a family-friendly place, don’t you?

Last year, we focused on building strong families (and healthy marriages). Every month, we watched a video together on “Sacred Parenting”. We learnt from Gary Thomas that God uses our children to shape and mold us to be more Christ-like. Parenting is not a distraction from following Jesus. It is the means of our spiritual formation and the instrument by which God shaped us to be a disciple. We had the chance to share what we learnt in small groups and pray for each other as a family. Huey Fern and Sook Yee also started a covenant group for couples to build strong Christ-centered marriages.

That’s how we lived out the letter ‘L’ in our SIMPLE DNA. These are not just words on our website. They are guiding values that are important to us.

The other DNA that we focused on last year was I – “Integrating faith and work”. If you hang around for some time, you’d notice that almost every week we have a unique conversation with various people on how their faith makes a difference in the marketplace. We pray for our sister or brother as they follow Jesus in a fallen world with very real challenges and temptations. We lay hands and send them out as a truth-telling journalist, as a student-witness in the campus, as a lecturer who doesn’t only lecture but be available his students and so on. Through sermons on how the gospel transforms culture, movies, politics and spirituality at work, we remind each other that Christ is Lord of every area of our human life - be it in the factory, classroom, home or office.

Each church has her unique character, strengths and weaknesses. And we are no different.  So over the years, you begin to sense these SIMPLE values begin to shape how we do things here in worship, at home or at work.

For “S” (Seek and Celebrate God), we are grateful for the unassuming, faithful excellence of our worship team. Their creative arrangements breathe new rhythm into old hymns and our PA team that ensures the sound system works and the sermon podcasts are available on the website. The ethos of our worship is a blend of old hymns and new choruses. Even though worship leaders have their own styles and personality, we seek to have one thing in common: Our worship tells a story. We want to tell the gospel by the way we worship. So as we worship week in week out, this liturgy… a pattern of adoration, repentance, assurance of forgiveness and dedicating ourselves to God’s purpose reshape our hearts and minds to pursue Him with all our hearts.  

For “M” (Making disciples), we are grateful for the opportunity to share Jesus and do a Bible study on the gospel of Mark with students from various parts of the world. We are grateful that Mandy could share the Christmas story with children from the library. We can also see how people are transformed and their discipleship deepen when they commit to one another and feel safe to share their lives with each other in a covenant group.

Last Monday, Uncle Lawrence (our sister Janet Tan’s father) went home to be with the Lord after a brave fight with cancer. Pastor Wong and other members of the church went to Penang to attend the funeral and mourn with her family. Even when he could not speak, Uncle Lawrence encouraged so many people including the doctors with his inspiring trust in Christ that overcomes fear of death. I could only wish that I could stare death in the face with similar confidence. Janet has shared with me how the community, especially her covenant group has been a source of courage and support during this time.

And that’s what church ought to be like. It’s not a social club. It’s not a multi level marketing company. Though we are many, we are one body in Christ. If our hand is hurt, the whole body shares the pain. Our eyes tear up, our mouth cries out, our face becomes contorted. We belong to one another.

Unfortunately I can’t tell you what a covenant group is like. You have to experience it for yourself. We are encouraged to see signs of growth, community life and leaders emerging from these small groups. But it’s not something that has permeated the entire church yet. Some of us still go through tough times in silence and alone. Others remain as an observer, rushing off right after the service. You may wonder if there’s more to church than this.

So let’s talk about other areas where we can improve. Last Sunday, Steven shared from his heart about how we could neglect prayer and relying on God’s strength in the midst of our busyness and activities. We could certainly be more intentional and effective in reaching out to others with the gospel. For ‘P’ (DNA for “Plant churches”), who is aware that there is a church plant being planned in KL? Various individuals like Ian, Micah and Pastor Wong are part of that conversation. But it doesn’t feel like something that we as a church have actively owned it through our prayers, financial support and growing/sending out leaders. Many of us are probably not even aware of it. So for that reason, I think we have yet to cultivate a missional church planting culture in our midst. It’s probably something that we should work towards over the next few years.

When it comes to “E” (Embrace Reformed theology), we have been committed to no-frills expository preaching from Scripture, aiming to be Christ-centered and letting the gospel shape every corner of life. That’s something we desire. But we could probably help each other improve in our preaching through mutual feedback and sharing best practices. Personally, I take it as a good sign if members are comfortable to invite non-Christian friends or eager to share sermon podcasts online because they know that church is always a scene of evangelism. People are confident to bring friends because no matter what Bible text we preach on, every message is ultimately pointing us to the gospel of Jesus and applied to people’s heart. We’re not there yet but that’s the goal we aim for.

That in a nutshell is where we have come so far. As we reflect and pray and look forward to the year ahead, we see the need to major in the major and minor in the minor. If we focus our time and energy on a few priorities like evangelism, discipleship/spiritual care and raising leaders, it would make a big impact on the church as a whole.

You may ask: How do we measure signs of growth in the church? How do we know if we are going in the right direction? What is our Key Performance Indicators (KPI)?

Sometimes you hear it said that “God requires faithfulness, not fruitfulness.” But the reality is that God requires both faithfulness and fruitfulness. When the seed of God’s word fell on good soil, it grew and produced fruit – some thirty-fold, some sixty-fold and some a hundred times. There is no category for unfruitful good soil.

The question is not whether you will bear fruit. The only question is: How much? What kind of fruit are we expecting?  If we make disciples, if we become disciples ourselves: What kind of growth are we seeking for? How do we measure spiritual growth?

When you look into the life of this church, our spiritual growth can and should show up in all sorts of ways. I think Romans 12 paints a beautiful picture of how that is going to look like. Scripture says: We have different gifts… We have different functions according to the grace God has given.
You see, the church is like a body with different gifted members. The big idea is not to have ministry of a few, but to empower ministry of every member sitting on the pew. Speaking the gospel in people’s life and making disciples is not only the job of full time ministers. All of us play different roles as God’s people in loving, serving and building each other up, Sunday by Sunday. We all have a one-to-one ministry of the people, by the people and for the people of God. Each of us can be a disciple-maker in our own way.

If that’s your understanding of what the church is…if that’s your ecclesiology… As you step into church, your thinking will not be: “Where should I go for lunch after service? Bak kut teh in Klang or Kungfu steam fish in Puchong? Or will Wee Lern play my favorite worship songs this morning?” You won’t think like a consumer or a customer. Instead, we will pray as we come: “Lord, where should I sit this morning? Lord, please guide me this morning to someone who needs encouragement, whom I could show friendship and hospitality. Would you lead me to someone whom I could pray for and serve this morning?” I know of a sister who visited our church and on her very first visit, she sat next to our Indonesian sisters and translated the sermon to them in Bahasa… Nobody asked her to do it. She just intentionally sat next to them and humbly served.

If CDPC Puchong makes progress in this area, we would go a long way towards obeying Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations. If we make progress in this area, we would see signs of different members exercising their gifts in this way. So think of your own role in this journey together as we look at the spiritual gifts listed in Romans 12.

If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith. None of us is divinely inspired like the prophet Elijah or the apostle Paul. None of us can tell the future infallibly. We cannot prophesy in that sense, but there is also a sense that prophecy in the early church refers to “telling forth something that God has spontaneously brought to mind that we would not otherwise have known”. And this must always be measured by what the Scriptures say. It cannot contradict God’s written word. For example, a friend recently had a mental picture of a house perching precariously on a rock, about to fall and then the word, "family" came. He sensed the Lord urging him to ask the person sitting next to him: “How is your wife today?” The person replied: Why you wanna know? So he shared that it seems that the Lord put that impression on his mind. And his friend goes: “Wah! So you can see one ah?” (bomoh with bamboo binoculars) and so he shares that his wife has left him recently. That opens up a chance for him to counsel this person.

There is also another sense in Revelations 19 that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” Testifying about Jesus is also a kind of prophecy, forth-telling His truth. We see spiritual growth in CDPC when more people rise up and say: “David, I’ve enjoyed sharing the gospel with the students from overseas. I wonder if God is calling me… Or I love to invite my Omani friends to church, could the sermon address some of her apologetic questions and existential concerns? Instead of top-down programs and events, people spontaneously come up and say: “Pastor, I want to start an evangelistic Bible study with young people but I’m a little nervous. Would the church please pray?” 

If it is serving, then serve. Steven and Han Meng serve as deacons in managing the church’s finances and well-being of our church premises on top of spiritual care for the congregation. Constance and the Kopitiam team serve us today in preparing food and even the dish-washing because there is no water supply today. Sophea served us by baking a nice cake for the anniversary. They would need your help to serve in setting up the tables for Kopitiam after the service. I think we see signs of growth when members make personal and even career sacrifices so that they can serve others. For example, we hope to hear stories like: “Hey, did you know Tom turned down a promotion three times at Sunway College so that he could continue devoting himself in the college ministry?”

If it is teaching, then teach: We see signs of growth when parents intentionally disciple their children in the faith. That’s what Mandi and Sandy will help us do in the “Family Worship” covenant group. It’s encouraging to see people step up to be Sunday school teachers to teach and equip our kids in catechism, Bible study through songs, activities and crafts. It becomes ever more important to clearly teach and equip our young people, not just to entertain them. If our children who have grown up in church know more about how to sing “Kumbaya” or they get more excited about Justin Bieber or Katy Perry, than they do about Christ, the Scriptures or how to wrestle honestly with doubt, then we have a huge discipleship problem.

If it is to encourage, then give encouragement: We can measure growth when regular members sense a fresh sense of their responsibility in encouraging newer members. When after service, we gather for conversations and prayers that build up and encourage each other in our life struggles and problems. We begin to think: “Hmmm…Who is new to CDPC in the last 6 months? Do they hang around after church service? Maybe I should invite them to come over for lunch?” Like Steven said last week, the hour after service is a key window of opportunity when personal, one-to-one spiritual care and discipleship happens. If everybody rushes for the door after the benediction, we’re in trouble.

If it is giving, then give generously: We cannot measure growth by the size of our budget but sacrificial cheerful giving is a sign of discipleship. We hope to hear husbands and wives having this conversation even in times of rising costs: “Darling, the Lord has provided for our needs. We have enough to live by. Maybe we should plan how can we cut fifty ringgit from our monthly budget in order to support World vision?” In every revival, there are generous givers behind the scene who provide resource so others can proclaim the gospel. Behind the Great Awakening revival was a wealthy Lady Huntingdon… behind the first translation of the English Bible was funding from a businessman named Humphrey Monmouth… behind the ministry of Jesus were supporters like Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Suzanna… They were unsung heroes, visionary, risk-taking, and generous men and women who were active partners in great spiritual movements. They often chose to remain anonymous. CDPC Puchong has also been blessed financially by such gospel patrons… I could name some of them but I want to honor their decision to remain unknown.

If it is to lead, do it diligently: For a church to be healthy, we need godly and able leaders, elders, pastors and deacons. We need gospel-centered fathers and mothers to lead a family. Last year, we are so encouraged to see Doris and Victor leading our young people in the Christmas play and Sandy/Mandi leading the children library Christmas program. When we see more covenant group leaders being trained and stepping up to serve others, that’s a great sign of healthy spiritual growth.

 If it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully: There are brothers and sisters in our midst who are in need. Some are being persecuted for their faith. Others are in need of support raising children with special needs or dealing with marriage issues. There are less privileged children who need education to escape the poverty cycle. We can see that the gift of joyful mercy happening in the English tuition ministry for the Enggang Flats kids. I think we can measure growth when we see more members share their time, energy and resources to show practical help cheerfully to each other.

So as we celebrate our fourth anniversary, we are reminded that because of Christ’s broken body and shed blood, we are now one in Him and we belong to each other. We have seen some signs of spiritual growth and unity in CDPC Puchong. So we give God all the glory. And we look forward to more growth and adventures ahead as we continue to humbly serve each other in the body of Christ. We need everyone to be on board.

It’s easy to see if we ourselves are following Jesus. The spiritual life we have will multiply, reproduce and bear fruit in making other disciples.  We will see that passion rub off on others. Others will catch the fire if we are on fire. 

Let us pray. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Call To Discipleship

Do you remember these characters from the movies? Here’s Yoda training his padawan Luke Skywalker in the way of the Jedi… “Fear is the path to the dark side… Fear leads to anger… anger leads to hate… Hate leads to suffering. May the Force be with you”. On top right, Mr. Miyagi is father figure to the karate kid. He protects this young boy from a group of bullies and teaches him self defense through daily mundane activities like waxing a car and painting a fence. Wax on. Wax off.  And the last one is Master Shifu teaching Po the panda kungfu using food. A mentor/disciple relationship is a favorite theme in movies… It reflects our own longing to have someone guide and teach us as well as our desire to bring out the best in others.
I’d like to invite you to stand and find a partner. Someone you don’t usually speak to.

Question 1: In what ways, are you a disciple or student learning from someone else? If you are not yet a Christian, you can share: Is there a mentor figure in your life? What have you learnt from that person? If you are a Christian, maybe you can share how has someone discipled you and what you have learnt from this person?
Question 2: In what ways are you a discipler? How have you discipled someone else? How can you help someone grow as a follower of Jesus? Or how have you been a role model or teacher in some ways to someone else?
You can start like this: In what ways am I a disciple? In high school, there were two Sunday School teachers Sister Lai Kum and Sister Poh Yoke who loved Jesus and taught me to pray and to love the Bible. They gave me the first opportunity to stand behind a pulpit and preach to a group of teens in Cantonese. That was around Form 5 or Form 6. It was a horrible experience. I bored everyone to tears. But that was how I learn. Now it’s my turn to try and help young people in our church to read and understand the Bible and encourage them to serve too. Sometimes I still bore them to tears. That’s how I try to disciple someone else now.
OK please spend two minutes each person: Share with your partner in what ways are you a disciple and in what ways are you a discipler?

“16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Debrief: How many of us have someone who has helped you grow as a Christian? How many people have actually made disciples? Which question is easier to answer? It seems that many of us find it easier to be a disciple than a discipler. As you share, I hope you realize how indebted we are to someone who took the time to disciple and how important it is that we do the same.
Let us turn to Matthew 28: 16-20 at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. The context is after Jesus has completed his ministry on earth, He was betrayed and crucified but raised to life again. He gathered His scattered disciples, encouraged them and sent them out on a mission: The Great Commission…

Imagine the disciples making the journey up the mountain to meet Jesus. It seems like only yesterday when all was despair. Their leader was arrested and killed. But here they were surprised by hope. Jesus has just risen from the grave. He has shown himself to be who he claimed to be – the Son of God. Like what we are doing this morning. A mixed group of followers… some see and worship Him. But some wrestle with doubt. But He didn’t reject any of them. He is big enough for our questions.

And He has defeated the powers of sin and the enemy. All authority in heaven and earth are now with Him. And how we the Malaysian church needs to see that? With all the provocations, Molotov cocktails and false accusations that we hear these few years, when we look at all the possible yet depressing scenarios of how the Allah issue will pan out, we need the confidence and assurance that above all authorities, Jesus is still on his throne. He is king of kings and lord of lords. He is in charge. Therefore… go and make disciples of all nations.

The first command in the Great Commission: Go make disciples. Every Christian knows it by heart. It’s in our SIMPLE DNA. But how many of us are actually, really making disciples in our churches today? I saw a funny Youtube message by Francis Chan this week called “How not to make disciples”. He says something like this: Have you played this game called “Simon says”? Simon says: Pat your head and you pat your head. You do it. Simon says. But it’s so weird that in church today, “Jesus says” is such a different game. When Jesus says something, you don’t have to do it. You just memorize it. You study it and discuss it. Jesus says: Go make disciples. But who are the people that we are discipling today? When I look behind me, is there anyone following? But of course, I memorized the Great Commission. I may even read it in Greek but do I do it? When was the last time I help someone be a disciple?

That’s not just a challenge for Puchong. It’s a challenge that churches around the world are wrestling with. As I talk to friends from various churches, I hear the same refrain: How can we follow Jesus and make disciples? It’s just not happening very much.

Why? There are many reasons but let’s talk about one. For the longest time, we function as if there were two categories of Christians. If you accepted Christ as your Saviour and say the sinner’s prayer, you were saved. You had Christ in your life. You would go to heaven when you died. You attend church, listen to sermon, sing songs, don’t smoke or drink. You are a respectable Christian. But if you were really serious about your faith, you would then commit yourself to spiritual disciplines, radically serve others. You would sacrifice comforts and do serious stuffs like reading the Bible regularly and actively lead others to Christ. If you were really serious about the Christian faith you would become a disciple. Mentoring others is a pastor’s job. Or a covenant group leader’s job. But disciples-making is an optional add-on for ordinary Christians. It’s only for those who are a bit over the top… You have an option.

But there’s something seriously wrong and unbiblical about this understanding. Jesus says: Go make disciples. It’s not optional. He didn’t say: “Go make converts. Or go make consumers. If they are interested, maybe they can move on to be my follower.” As a result of this, we have a kind of flabby, nominal, bare minimum, maintenance mode kind of Christianity where converts never graduate to be a disciple. (Rwanda) But you can’t have Jesus as Savior if he is not also your Lord. Your Master. Yes, we are saved by grace alone, and therefore we do not earn God’s favor through works. But that doesn’t mean that grace is cheap. It doesn’t mean that holiness is optional. It doesn’t mean that discipleship come easy. It takes effort, discipline, sacrifice, counting the cost. It takes dead-serious effort empowered by the Holy Spirit. At the heart of the Christian faith is our relationship with a Christ who says: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the Gospel will save it. (Mark 8:34-35 NIV)

For some of us here, Jesus is calling you to give up all that you are in exchange for all that He is. You’ve been searching and seeking… but He has already come to seek for you and gave his life for you. And Jesus says: “Let go of what’s holding you and follow me. Learn from me. You can’t find life if you don’t lose it. If you lose a self-absorbed life, you find true life”.

For some of us here, whether you like it or not, you are already a disciple and discipler in some ways. If you really trust in Jesus, you would listen, obey and follow Him. The command to make disciples is not an optional upgrade.

But be careful… If we are a leader, we need to keep in mind that these are not OUR disciples. “Gabriel is my disciple, you cannot talk to him”. We become controlling and possessive. There is only one ultimate Master… one Teacher and that’s Jesus… But He chooses to involve us. So our role is to help people to follow Him by being a follower ourselves. Imitate me as I imitate Christ, Paul says. It takes humility to be a discipler and it takes humility to be a disciple. Your spiritual growth will be forever stunted if your attitude is like I don’t need to learn from anyone. I’m self-sufficient. It’s God and me – I don’t need anyone else. I have my sermon podcasts and books. But that’s not how discipleship works.

So what does the word “disciple” really mean? It basically means a learner, a student. Perhaps a better word is: an apprentice. An apprentice learns a skill, a trade from the master by practicing with him and observing him at work for years. There is close personal relationship.

And you can see this in how Jesus made disciples. He called His disciples so that they might be with Him, to be in a relationship with Him. He instructs them in the way of His kingdom (Sermon on the mount), He corrects and rebukes them when they messed up, He delegates responsibilities to them and sends them out two by two to preach the gospel, He trains them on what to do when they were rejected or when they were well received… then when they returned from their assignment, He debriefed them and rejoiced with them. When a disciple sinned and denied him 3 times, He restored him. He lived with them as they travel and serve people together.

Think about what it means if we are to follow Jesus’ way of making disciples. I’d rather not confront people when they sin. People will not like me very much and I want to be liked. But from Jesus, I realize that I need to create an atmosphere of open, honest feedback giving permission for others to speak the truth in love so that we could help each other grow in Christ.

Community: Baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The second command in The Great Commision is to “baptize” – this act of being immersed in water signifies us dying to the old way of life and rising again in newness of life. There’s a new priority. It signifies that we give up sin and live in relationship with the Triune God (Father, Son and Spirit). At the heart of God is interpersonal relationship, mutual self giving in the Trinity. Through baptism, we are now incorporated, adopted and grafted into the family of Christ...  into the body of Christ… into the people of God… into the community of disciples. 

Jesus didn’t leave behind an empire or a monument or a book. He chose 12 disciples, invested His time in them and trained and equipped them. It’s no coincidence that he chose twelve persons. The King is reconstituting the people of God (the 12 tribes of Israel) around Himself… They learn the truth and live out the truth together in community. Stanley Hauerwas: God’s truth is credible to the world only when it sees a community shaped by the truth. If the gospel is to be heard, it must also be seen.

But the reverse is also true: You cannot have a community unless you go and reach out to people so that they also know Christ and be baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are a community that exists by mission, on mission and for mission. We exist for mission for the glory of God and good of the wider world. Not just a holy huddle for its own sake. 

So which is more important? Evangelism or discipleship? But that’s like asking whether the brain is more important than my heart to stay alive. Both tasks are actually one: “Making disciples”. If we grow better Christians they will be concerned about evangelism and disciple others. If we want to be effective in evangelism, we must also help people to grow in character to be more like Christ, fight sin and to serve others.

But there are a million distractions that draw me away from the mission to make disciples. My personal ambition. My desire to be liked and admired. I need a community (fellow travelers in this journey) to keep me focused on the mission. Stay on course. Stay on the mission, David.

You need a community where you can practice giving and receiving love, practice serving and being served by others. You need a community who can correct your blind spots and yet love you in the process. There can be no discipleship apart from relationship with the Trinity and this gathering, this community called the local church.

That’s why we have covenant groups. That’s why it’s key component to our discipleship in CDPC Puchong. There’s learning, Bible study and at the same time, you experience this personal modeling of the Christian faith… you have opportunities to serve and pray others… In principle, we would want everyone to participate and experience what a covenant group life is like. Some of us may feel not ready for that yet and that’s ok. But if you want to go deeper in your walk with God, this is where more meaningful relationship and discipleship happens. In a community.

Third command: Teaching them to obey all I have commanded you

You can’t make disciples by just sitting through a few class room teachings, homilies, lectures, sermon podcasts, take some exams and get a certificate of attendance. Don’t get me wrong. A new believer needs to know how to read the Bible, know basic beliefs of the faith and why they believe what they believe. We desperately need something like adult Sunday school, definitely (The Academy and PTI).

But if that’s all that we do, we miss out on Jesus’ way of teaching. That’s just not how Jesus made disciples. It lacks His focus on relational, hands-on, life-sharing, everyday ministry. Most of the lessons Jesus taught were over the course of ordinary life… at Lazarus’ funeral… at a wedding at Cana… while resting by a well… visiting a tax collector’s home… while traveling on a boat… Lives are changed through relationships. Through modeling a transformed life in everyday circumstances…  

Tyler Dirks… “Map of the world”… Spending time alone with wife… fetching son to school and pray… “Your car” (stewardship) naturally intentional… he would invite neighbors to Halloween gathering at home… planting a church… conversations with students… Teaching what it means to be a disciple.  

If you are a parent, you cannot escape from being a mentor and a discipler. Clearly you are called to disciple your child. And Yoong Zhen is my first responsibility.

Through parenting or a covenant group, we learn to be a spiritual friend… we learn to mentor a disciple. We learn to care, share and dare. It takes intentional effort. It’s time consuming. It’s not very efficient. You can’t mass produce disciples. You invest your life and love in people but you don’t know how they will turn out to be. There is no guarantee you won’t get a disciple like Judas. Making disciples requires transparency. People will come to know your strengths and weaknesses. You can’t maintain a mask of being someone who has it all together.

Why go through all these troubles? Because our goal is not just an informed person but a transformed person who can in turn make disciples. Because if we settle for anything less, we are just playing church and not making disciples. And the cost of non-discipleship is much greater than the cost of discipleship.

It’s not going to be easy, But Jesus promised: Surely I am with you always till the very end of the age. 

As we make “Evangelism. Pastoral care. Growing leaders” our priorities this year, you may think: Oh, the church is on a recruitment drive. We wanna get bigger by setting numerical targets, more programs, events and meetings. That’s not it. Actually, what we want to do is to go deeper… you can only make disciples if you are first a disciple. If we are disciples and care for others to also follow Jesus, then the question of growing bigger takes care of itself. We are more interested in sending disciples into the marketplace as salt and light to make disciples than having more sales targets and marketing gimmicks.

The church exists by mission just as fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission, there is no Church.  It is easy to determine when something is aflame. It will ignite other material. Any fire that does not spread will eventually go out. A fire that does not burn is an oxymoron.

It’s easy to see if we ourselves are following Jesus. The life we have will multiply, reproduce and bear fruit in making other disciples.  We will see that passion rub off on others. Others will catch the fire if we are on fire.

If we make disciples, if we become disciples ourselves, how do we know if we are growing and progressing? What kind of growth are we seeking for? How do we measure growth? When you look into the life of this church, our spiritual growth can show up in all sorts of ways.

Last week, Jacob wrote a beautiful tribute to his mother who has passed away.  Members of the church have come to show support at the funeral. The tribute included an email from Valerie:  "Aunty you will be missed. You were my role model in life. You had given me the encouragement to face all the obstacles in my life. You had made me understand what the real meaning of suffering in life is (Romans 8:18). You have made me understand how important it is to have faith in God no matter what happens. Today because of your testimony I Know who I am in Christ and I know no matter how tough, God will always hold our hands and walk through with us. Thank you for being such a blessing to people around you"

When we look back at the end of a lifetime of discipleship, may we see many testimonies like this of how people come to know Christ more deeply because we step up to serve them.