Monday, September 01, 2008

Being The Church In Malaysia

Independence Day sermon on 31 August 2008. Audio download will be available here soon.

Selamat Hari Merdeka! Today we celebrate 51 years of independence. Are you feeling patriotic today? There are many things we could be thankful for and achievements that are worth celebrating.

For example, in just about 50 years, we have transformed from an agricultural economy to an industrialized nation with a fast-growing urban middle class. You can see signs of modern progress everywhere with high-tech buildings like Twin Towers, KL Tower, KLIA and so on. By and large, we have also lived in peace together in a culturally diverse society. We live amongst Malays, Chinese, Indians, Kadazans, Ibans, Sikhs dan lain-lain. And except for that infamous 1969 riot, we have been spared from the communal violence that happened in other nearby places like Indonesia or Southern Thailand.

Having said that, there are also many weaknesses that we need to overcome if we really want to be a developed country by 2020. Before we get to that, let us turn to the passage of Scripture for today

Psalm 93
1 The LORD reigns, he is robed in majesty;
the LORD is robed in majesty
and is armed with strength.
The world is firmly established;
it cannot be moved.
2 Your throne was established long ago;
you are from all eternity.
3 The seas have lifted up, O LORD,
the seas have lifted up their voice;
the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
4 Mightier than the thunder of the great waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea—
the LORD on high is mighty.
5 Your statutes stand firm;
holiness adorns your house
for endless days, O LORD.

We Malaysians are living in very, very interesting times. Our newspaper headlines these days are so full of suspense and intrigue that they make even Obama look so boring in comparison. Almost every week, we have shocking revelations of sex, lies and videotapes… statutory declarations flying here and there with allegations of political conspiracies, cover-ups, spies, murder, sodomy and C4 explosives! I think someone should make a movie out of all these drama and sure can make a lot of money. Who knows? Maybe can even win an Oscar!

But seriously, I think our nation is at a crucial crossroads of sorts… winds of change are blowing and powerful opposing forces are shaping where Malaysia will be for the next 50 years. So the theme for church camp this year “For Such A Time As This” and the message of Esther is especially timely and relevant.

The last general election on March 8th (so called political tsunami) raised some interesting questions: Could we be seeing the beginning of a two-party democracy in Malaysia? Like in US, they have Republicans and Democrats. The morning after, we woke up to find ourselves living in a state ruled by Pakatan Rakyat.

Are we beginning to see that finally Malaysians have matured enough to go beyond racial politics? In the past, Chinese only vote for ‘Chinese’ parties like DAP or MCA, Malays only vote for PAS or UMNO, Indians only vote for MIC or MIC… But now we have Makkal Sakti?! This time around, we see a mood for change among Malay, Chinese and Indian communities.

But there are also fears that in this desperate moment of transition that communal violence may flare up once again. We have different ethnic and religious communities living side by side with each other but with precious little contact and understanding in between. On the night of March 8, many of us get SMS to stay at home and be careful for fear of violence.

While all these things are happening, petrol and food prices are going up. A globalizing economy is getting more competitive.

The Malays have this saying “Gajah sama gajah berjuang, pelanduk mati di tengah”. As Malaysian Christians, we watch much of the drama and sandiwara like the kancil (mousedeer) caught between two fighting elephants. We have no political power. Just a small minority. I wonder what are your feelings at this time of uncertainty?

Some of us may feel
Fed-up or ‘Jelak’: “Look at how dirty and corrupt politic is. Christians should never get involved in it.”
Cynical: “Aiya… What difference can small fries like us make la? We have been like this for 50 years, we will remain like that for another hundred years. Migrate better.”
Hopeful: “I think things are changing for the better. If So and So becomes Prime Minister, then our country’s problems will be solved.”
Confused: “Where is God in all this? What does God want the church to do?”

The passage of Scripture today from Psalm 93 points us to the throne of our sovereign God. “The LORD reigns, he is robed in majesty; and is armed with strength.”

Although we are weak and needy people, God is mighty and strong. Where is God in the midst of all these events? He is on His throne. His throne was established from eternity and will last forever. He created the entire universe, the galaxies, solar systems and everything in it out of nothing. And He sustains the whole creation and set up physical laws that keep them from falling apart.

Isaiah 40 describes God’s power in poetic terms: He measured the seas in the hollow of his hand and mark off the sky with his hand, he weighs the mountains on scales and the nations are like a drop of water in a bucket… That’s how awesome and great is our God.

Psalm 93 is an enthronement psalm that worshipfully celebrates the fact that God is the ultimate ruler in the nation of Israel. In the other surrounding nations, the king is also considered divine and their power is absolute. But for Israel, though they have a human king, but the king is ultimately answerable to the divine King and the ‘constitution’ of the nation, that is, the covenant the Lord made with Israel. No one is above the rule of law, not even the king (Deuteronomy 17:18-20)

Our human rulers like Yang Dipertuan Agong and Prime Minister and Cabinet members, state governments are ultimately God’s servants/ministers to bring justice and order in society (whether they know it or not). So our default position is to obey their authority and laws of the land and pray for them. But their authority is not absolute, there is a higher law/King that even our rulers must answer to. If the state acts and speaks as if it is god, demanding our ultimate loyalty and obedience, then it has become an idol and we have the freedom and responsibility to disobey unjust laws.

If our vision of God is too small, we’d be too impressed or depressed by men or what’s happening in this world. But if we see how awesome God really is… how majestic His rule is over our national affairs… We can still be aware of what’s happening in the world but we’d be more impressed with God. And whoever becomes Prime Minister on Sept 16 or 4 years from now… no matter how things turn out… we are reminded that God is still on the throne and His rule is everlasting. No one can frustrate his plan and purpose.

Like we saw in the story of Esther, the invisible hand of God (His providence) is quietly working behind the scenes, putting the right people at the right place to do the right things at the right time. Even the sinful actions of men, God can use it and turn it around for his own purpose. Like Haman who set up a trap for Mordecai and the Jews but it ended up as a trap that ironically backfired.

Psalm 93 also gives us a picture of chaotic, tsunami-like waves that represent all the threats and upheavals against the rule of God. But the Lord on high is mightier than all of them.
3 The seas have lifted up, O LORD,
the seas have lifted up their voice;
the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
4 Mightier than the thunder of the great waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea—
the LORD on high is mighty.
So our trust and confidence are anchored on solid Rock. We can take comfort that God is big enough to protect and carry us through.

Remember this scene from the movie: “The Lord of the Rings”?

Frodo, the small innocent hobbit who was given the dangerous task of carrying a powerful ring to the Enemy’s stronghold, said: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.

We may wish for the good old days when things are more stable… economy is growing… yet sometimes, it’s not up to us to choose or decide. But we can choose what to do with the kairos moment that is given to us, discern what God wants us to do in this small window of opportunity available today.

The sovereignty of God is not an excuse for laziness though: “Since God in control, I dun need to bother doing anything la”. No, the truth that God is sovereign sets us free from cynicism. Let me explain… For a long time, many young people are disillusioned and feel disempowered: “We are only small fries, what can we do? We can’t change anything” So they felt helpless and “tidak apathy”. They will complain and rant at the government at the mamak but they are not interested to be part of the solution.

But if our God is awesome and sovereign, and he s ultimately in control of our affairs, then no matter how difficult the problem in our country is, it’s not a problem for Him… and that should be a powerful motivation for us to action: To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with Him. While we do these things, we await the day when Jesus will usher in his kingdom of peace and healing righteousness. So while life won’t be perfect on this side of heaven, we can work to improve it so that our church and society starts to look something like the future Kingdom of God today. It can be like a movie preview or foretaste of things to come.

In light of God’s sovereignty, how then shall we live? What can we do in this time of change and contribute to nation building? (3 applications)

1) This may sound very basic but the obvious things are usually the most important. If God is all powerful and rules over all and we are weak and powerless, the most obvious thing we can do is to humble ourselves and pray.

“And my people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chro 7:14)
We need to pray for God’s Kingdom, God’s rule to come and His will be done here on earth as it is in heaven. If we do a stock take on our prayer life. What do we pray for most of the time? If our prayers are only limited to our own personal needs, it may show that we are too inward looking. We need to expand our horizon.

For example, NECF 40 days fast and prayer theme this year: “The Lord Revives: Transforming the nation through the local church”. Christians are called to pray our personal revival, then move outward to pray for the church, then the community (empower the community to work toward social justice and good governance) and government (a reformed police force that is corrupt free, impartial, competent and effective in upholding public order and peace). That’s the kind of world embracing prayer we need.

2) Abraham Kuyper: There is no sphere of life that is not subject to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.

If Jesus is the King and Lord over all of our life, then we cannot divide our lives into neat little boxes like ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’. I don’t mean that we should form a political party called “Christian action Force” (Chrisaf) and try to make this country a Christian state. The church is called to bear the cross, not to pick up the sword. While Christian individuals could actively participate in political party, the church as the body of Christ should maintain a prophetic distance from partisanship and not be used as a tool by politicians.

What I mean is we cannot isolate the gospel from making an influence in the wider society.
We cannot say “OK religion is for Sundays and quiet time, but when it comes to my business decisions from Monday to Saturday, that’s secular stuffs so I play by different rules”…

If I’m a Christian lawyer, I can’t say: “Ok Christianity is what I believe when in church, but when it comes to the 1988 judicial crisis (In Malaysia we have the best justice that money can buy), I dun really bother”.

We can’t because God is not just interested in so called religious activities but how we conduct our lives in the marketplace. He is Lord of Sunday and the other six days also.

For example, He is interested in integrity and transparency in business practice and justice in the government:

Proverbs 11:1 “The Lord hates dishonest scales but accurate weights are his delight”.
Proverbs 29:4 “By justice a king gives a country stability, but one who is greedy for bribes tears it down.”

God has given us each one with unique abilities, skills, talents and resources. As we study in college/university or work, we begin to discover what our passion and super-powers are. These are things I like to do… These are things I am good at doing…

Spiderman said: With great power comes great responsibility. Our responsibility to redeem that sphere of life for Christ… It’s not easy, every industry has its unique challenges and opportunities.

If you are a salesperson, you are an “ordained salesperson”. You have been summoned by God to serve Him in that specific sphere of activity.
Or, if you are an “ordained lawyer”, you are called to prayerfully explore how your discipline shows signs of rebellion against or submission to Christ’s Lordship.
An “ordained environmentalist” ought to read the Scripture not just devotionally, but actively apply the biblical mandate for creation care in his work.

Whatever our calling is, we need to learn to think and live “Christianly” in areas specific to what we do – media, education, politics, business or the arts.

In humility and boldness, we should creatively integrate our faith with our vocation.

Laypeople in every facet of life – media, politics, business, education and others – should be enabled to challenge the prevailing assumptions of society in light of the gospel. Theology should not be reserved for pastors and scholars only! (Newbigin)

The biggest impact you can make for the kingdom is by being faithful to your calling and gifts that God has given you in the marketplace.


3) If God is the God of this city, Lord of this nation, King of all people groups as we have sung today, then we should work towards racial reconciliation.

The issue of race is sensitive and potentially explosive topic in Malaysia. Raja Muda of Perak, Raja Dr Nazrin Shah said this at a Student Leaders Summit 2007:

“To ensure sustained success at nation-building, Malaysians of all races, religions, and geographic locations need to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have a place under the Malaysian sun. Only when each citizen believes that he or she has a common home, is presented common opportunities, given due recognition and is working towards a common destiny, will he or she make the sacrifices needed for the long haul.”

His vision for Malaysia is consistent with what many Christians have labored for in history: Martin Luther King a pastor and civil rights activist who worked to end racial segregation and discrimination in US through non violent civil disobedience: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

So how can we be a community of peace makers? How can we ensure there is a place for everyone under the Malaysian sun? When Jesus lay out how Kingdom living looks like in the Sermon on the Mount, He says: Blessed are the peace makers for they will be called sons of God.

Here is a short and by no means exhaustive list of simple things we can do

1) Intentionally cultivate friendship with people who are different from us: The people we work and play with, the friendships we make, must never be limited by race. Prejudice and misunderstanding can be removed if we interact personally with others of a different ethnic group or religion -- even if it is just one teacher, one colleague or one schoolmate.

2) Free ourselves from racism in our language. We may not say it in polite company but do we enjoy that racist joke that our friends tell or we read in forwarded mails? People are made in the image of God so they are precious and have dignity. People are people, they are not ‘babi’.

3) Help the weak and poor from other races. I think many people in CDPC are already doing it and if you like to join in, do let the pastors know. In the orang asli ministry in sg buloh and kg batu, the church helps a marginalized community through education to break the cycle of poverty. Other CDPC members are also working to resolve communal conflicts and giving tuition class to the multiracial groups of children in Subang.

4) Be informed and speak up: As Daniel Khoo who works for the Edge advised us: Read from both sides of the fence, both mainstream and not so mainstream media. Kairos magazine this month has very good articles on Merdeka and post general election analysis.

Yes, we thank God for people like Tricia Yeoh (Center Public Policy Studies), Kian Ming who writes for Malaysiakini or KJ John (OHMSI) who works for integrity and transparency in public governance, speaking sensibly on public issues. But what about ‘ordinary’ people like us? What can we do?
The media has become more open and independent these days. With the internet, blogs, TV debates and radio talk shows becoming more independent, we have opportunities to write or call in to voice our views also.

There are many issues that affect Christians today like the ban on the word Allah in our Malay language Bibles that would affect our bumiputra brothers and sisters in East Malaysia… and the famous Lina Joy case and yes, we need to speak up on such issues. But if we only get worked up over ‘Christian’ issues are involved and remain silent when it affects those who are not Christians, then we could be guilty of ‘tribalism’, we just care about people from our ‘tribe’. Or do we also care and speak up for fellow Malaysians who are not Christians? (Proverb 31)

I think we can and should. Here is one example of how this can happen.

Remember Revathi? Born Siti Fatimah to Muslim convert parents, she was called Revathi Masoosai by the grandmother who raised her. She married the man she loves Suresh in 2004 according to Hindu rites and has a 18-month-old daughter. In January last year, Revathi was detained at the Syariah Court and held at a rehab camp for six months. The authorities seized her daughter from her husband and handed the child to Revathi's Muslim mother.

The NECF together with other religious bodies organized a candlelight vigil outside Dataran Merdeka in solidarity with a fellow Malaysian whose fundamental liberties have been denied her.

A certain Irish scholar Peter Rowan wrote a good article called The Malaysian Dilemma that everyone in church should read: “Since reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel, and since the gospel transcends the barriers of race, ethnicity and culture, and since the church is the most inclusive community on earth, the local church is a community of hope in a fragmented world. In Malaysia, the church has the task of not only proclaiming the message of reconciliation to all Malaysians, but of embodying the concrete implications of that message in its community life, so that Malaysians of all races can look at a local church community and see the gospel fleshed out in a racially reconciled group of people who can work, worship and witness together.”

Won’t you like to be part of a community like that? Wouldn’t you like to celebrate diversity of races and cultures in CDPC when we gather to worship, work and witness together?

In conclusion, we live in a very interesting time in our country’s history. There’s a window of opportunity for us to get involved in transforming our nation. We need to be confident in the fact that God is on the throne, and live out His lordship in prayer, in the marketplace and in being a covenant community of diverse culture and race.

4 comments:

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Stephen Tan said...

Hey Hedonese,

Enjoyed the article! U don't seem to get enough compliments on the comments huh?

Do U think its a Malaysian-ism to not encourage our fellow brothers and sisters? We can't seem to sincerely praise or criticize anyone openly.

It always has to be hidden behind a joke of sorts.

BTW, nit-picking but "With great power there must also come great responsibility" is what Uncle Ben said to Spider Man. Sorry, he's my favourite hero. Had to set the record straight.

God Bless

The Hedonese said...

Hi Stephen, thanks for setting that straight :D

The congregation was appreciative last Sunday, but i dun think many of them read the blog hehe... unfortunately some technical problem happened that the audio recording didnt work.. aiseh...

Peter said...

ur sermon was well prepared and organised, clearly communicated. it fitted well w the themes of merdeka and the challenges facing the christian community. a very relevant treatment...

u look at the text in its context and help us understand what it means to live in light of god's sovereignth. u did this theologically and w practical and concrete suggestions relating to msian sociopolitical scenes.

what might u think abt if u get the chance to preach it again? i wonder if u might explore the theme of kingdom of God tracing it from the OT esp psalms and thru into NT and Jesus. Many christians think kingdom of god is a NT idea!

the peopl of god in ot knew very well wat was requirred in living under the kingship of God. they knew what that was supposed to mean but they also pushed the kingdom of god into the future.

when we get to the NT kingdom of God comes into sharper focus in the person and work of Jesus. in jesus the kingdom arrived and the message of the gospel was the good news that the kingdom of God was now a present reality. And as in the psalms, in the NT the reality of the kingdom has political and social as well as spiritual implications:

A new agenda for living! PR