Thursday, December 13, 2012

Interfaith Forum: The End Of The World

Good morning Mr. Chairman, distinguished panelists, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for this honor to speak before you today. Interfaith dialogues are critical to promote mutual understanding, knowledge sharing and respect in a multi-religious society like Malaysia. So I am glad that MMU Melaka has been active in promoting such forums.

Let me begin with a question: How would you react if someone came up to you on the sidewalk, waving a huge card board saying, “Repent, Repent, Doomsday is near”? I guess you might decide to run away or keep a safe distance, thinking: “How gullible are these people to believe in all these Doomsday predictions? Hmph! Another nutcase religious cult…”

I’d probably do the same thing. But then again, the end of the world doesn’t sound so crazy now that we have the technology (the know how) to destroy the earth and wipe out the entire human race many times over. We have atom bombs, hydrogen bombs and nuclear bombs. See how smart we are! If you consider the very real possibility of a nuclear holocaust, of global climate change, of earthquakes and tsunami, of disease outbreak, pollution or a giant asteroid crashing into our planet, then perhaps we are kidding ourselves to believe that our little world is immune to destruction. Contemporary movies such as Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, The Matrix, Resident Evil and Terminator show that we are still fascinated with various plausible end-time scenarios.

DoomsdayNow what do Christians believe about Doomsday (Hari Kiamat)? Well, in order to understand that, we need to first go back to the beginning of the world. Christians believe that this planet and everything in it (the sunsets, the oceans and mountains, the diverse ecosystem of animals and plants, and human beings with the ability to think, love and worship)… all of that is created by God, and therefore they are originally good. But the human race rebelled against the Creator. We wanted to be the boss of our lives apart from God’s way. By doing so, we have distorted the harmony in creation. Relationship with God and relationship with each other were broken. Sin is the root of suffering in the world – the injustice, corruption, discrimination and wars. So God cannot forgive our sins just like that because He is holy and righteous. Sin must not go unpunished.

So what’s the solution? Well, in spite of all that sin and darkness, God did not leave us to rot. He did not just send us prophets and messengers to teach us what is right. He came personally into the world as a human being to rescue us from sin – His name is Jesus the Messiah (or Isa Al-Masih to Arab speaking Christians). He loved us so much that He willingly died on the cross to pay for our sins. That settles the question of God’s justice so that God can now freely show mercy and forgive us. When we turn away from sin and follow Jesus as Lord, relationship with God is restored. Three days after He was dead and buried, Jesus was raised to life again and conquered the power of death. We call it: Resurrection. One day, the Bible calls it the Day of the Lord, Jesus will return to earth to judge both the living and the dead. He will destroy all that is corrupt and evil, and ushers in His kingdom, reign and rule of justice, peace and healing.

So that, in a nutshell, is God’s rescue plan. Christians call it the good news. Instead of an endless cycle of destruction and rebirth, this grand story has a beginning, a climax and an ending. History is linear: it is progressing and moving towards a purpose, an ultimate meaning and final destiny.

The Bible tells us what we need to know about the day of the Lord: “Do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you… He is giving us time, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

But the day of the Lord will come unexpectedly like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.” (2 Peter chapter 3)

Let us unpack the practical things that we can learn from this Bible passage

1) Christians are skeptical of any attempt to set dates or countdown to the end of the world. Because the Bible clearly said that the day of the Lord would come unexpectedly like a thief in the night. You won’t know when to expect it. Nobody knows the date and time. Come 21 December 2012, you can sleep better.

2) When many people think of heaven, what do they have in mind? Well, from Hollywood movies and cartoon strips, a lot of people have the mistaken notion that heaven is a place where people float around in fluffy clouds, wearing white gowns with a harp in their hand and a halo on their head. The idea is to escape from this material world into that ghost-like, abstract, spiritual existence somewhere else. It creates a mentality where we withdraw from this present life and passively wait for the afterlife. “Why bother making this world into a better place to live in when we will end up in some other place?”

So we need to be careful with how we use terms like Doomsday and end of the world. What exactly do we mean by that? When the Bible says the present earth and heaven will ‘pass away,’ it does not mean that they disappear or go out of existence. It does not mean that the old car is destroyed so we need to replace it with another one. What we mean is: the same car that was destroyed is now fixed, restored, transformed, upgraded and given a complete makeover into a brand new car.

We might say, ‘The caterpillar passes away, and the butterfly emerges.’ It means that there will be such a radical change that the present condition will pass away but there is also a real continuity, a real connection to the new heaven and new earth.

Through fire, the present earth will be dissolved, refined, and purified to give rise to a future world that will be more substantial, more tangible and more solid than one we know. God did not create this material world only to abandon it. Rather, He will renew and rescue it. So Christians have every reason to care for the material world, to protect the ecosystem and to heal the sick and work for social equality and relieve the suffering of the poor and marginalized. Because our hope of eternal life is not to escape from the world. But to renew and transform it… In the meantime, while we wait for that day, we pray and work so that God’s will is done and His kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

3) We see lots of suffering, violence and corruption today. Much of it is caused by people’s greed: consuming and accumulating things as if they will last forever. Often we see the bad guys win and the good guys lose. And we struggle with the question of whether evil that appears so powerful can ever be defeated. Christians do not believe that good and evil are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. Rather the day of the Lord is a promise that Jesus will return as a righteous Judge to put right all that is wrong in the world and restore all that is lost. Evil will not have the last word. It also reminds us not to build our security and significance on wealth and power because they will soon pass away. These things are temporal and provisional. The idea that there will be a final judgment is a comfort, encouragement and strength to those struggling with evil and suffering. For God promised a new world where there will be no more sorrow, pain or violence. He will wipe away every tear and restore all that is beautiful, noble and true.

4) Some people may wonder, “Now, that all sounds very good but it’s been 2000 years and Jesus hasn’t come back yet. Why so slow, wan? How can we be sure that it will ever happen?” Well, the Bible says that God is not being slow. He has his own time table. A day is like a thousand years from the perspective of eternity. He is actually being patient with us. He is giving us time to turn away from our selfishness and be reconciled to him before Judgment Day. He does not desire for anyone to perish in their sin because it would mean eternal separation from God’s presence. Forever.

And how do we know that God’s kingdom will indeed come? Well, the evidence is found in what happened to Jesus after his death on the cross. If He stays dead, there will be no Christian movement starting in Jerusalem. But on the third day, His tomb was found empty and many eyewitnesses testified to have seen Him alive. It changes everything. His resurrection (coming back to life in a glorious, incorruptible, physical body) is a sign, an evidence and guarantee that the future kingdom has already broken into the present. It is like a seed that will grow until it covers the whole earth. It means that death will not be final. It is a foundation of hope when you are faced with the shadow of death or cancer. It is the sign that Jesus has won the decisive battle over evil, the evidence that He is indeed the Lord of the universe and has now received authority and power to judge the nations.

For Christians, the physical body is not evil in itself. It is not a prison from which our souls need to be set free. The ultimate hope of Christians is the resurrection of the body. On that great Day, those who follow Jesus as Lord and Savior will also be raised to life in an incorruptible, glorified and physical body just like Jesus. These are the ones who say: “God, I am a sinner. I cannot save myself with my religious performance, my moral achievements. When I do achieve these moral standards, I feel proud and superior to others. When I fail to do them, I feel condemned and despair. So I will not trust on my own strength, my own merits and performance. I will put my trust in what You have done on the cross for me. You accepted me freely therefore I obey. I will give my life over to You as Lord and Savior to transform me and renew me and forgive me from inside out”.

This is what Christians believe about the destiny of the world, and the destiny of our own personal stories. Thank you.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Trial Of Jesus: His Theology, Politics and Superpowers

Download the audio sermon here

Let’s start with a quiz. What do these pictures have in common? They are all sensational trials or court cases that became hot conversation topics in mamak stalls, kopitiams all over Malaysia. While presidential candidates in other countries debate boring stuffs like “Do we want a big or small government or how to create more jobs in the economy?” we Malaysians get to be entertained by court drama full of C4 explosives, sex, lies and videotapes.

Who framed Anwar Ibrahim? Can Azlina Jailani (Lina Joy) have the freedom to change her religion? What’s the motive of Altantuya’s murder? These are trials of shadowy political intrigue and explosive theological controversy…

But when the media buzz subsides, people do tend to forget them after a few years, don’t they? After some time, they get numbed and so tired of reading the same things daily in the papers. And they move on to the next sensational hype that comes along – Gangnam Style or something like that.

In the Bible we read of another trial full of shady political drama, police brutality and theological controversy. It’s the trial of Jesus before the Jewish and Gentile authorities shortly after he was betrayed. It was a trial that made front page news in Jerusalem. Is Jesus the king of the Jews? Is he a threat to Caesar’s power? Is He the Son of God?

These questions still confront each of us today: Who do you say is this Jesus of Galilee? After more than 2000 years, people are still talking about it… Hollywood and Broadway continue to churn out movies, plays and songs surrounding these events. Every year, on Good Friday, Christians all over the world reenact the story of Jesus’ trials and rejection. They continue to remind us how and why humanity (both Jews and Gentiles) would nail Jesus to the cross. For the last few weeks, we saw how various individuals have responded to God’s calling… but today, let us take a look at those who chose the opposite and missed the boat… 1) The Jewish religious elite who were unhappy about His theology, 2) Pontius Pilate who was unimpressed with his politics and 3) Herod Antipas who was disappointed with His superpowers. People whose lives intersected with Jesus but missed the opportunity of a lifetime…

Jesus on Trial: Luke 22:66-71; 23:1-2566 At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and the teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them. 67 “If you are the Messiah,” they said, “tell us.”Jesus answered, “If I tell you, you will not believe me, 68 and if I asked you, you would not answer. 69 But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.”70 They all asked, “Are you then the Son of God?”He replied, “You say that I am.”71 Then they said, “Why do we need any more testimony? We have heard it from his own lips.”Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.”So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”“You have said so,” Jesus replied.Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.”But they insisted, “He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.”On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. 11 Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. 12 That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies.13 Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16 Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.” [17] 18 But the whole crowd shouted, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!” 19 (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)20 Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. 21 But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”22 For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.”23 But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.

Here is the context of that passage: Jesus was earlier arrested and put on trial before the high priest on that very night.. But why would you hold a trial in the middle of the night? It was not lawful according to Jewish laws (Mishnah). It looks and smells like a kangaroo court. It is a mock trial in which the principles of law and justice are ignored or perverted. So at the first sign of dawn, they quickly brought him to stand on trial before the Sanhedrin (something like the Jewish parliament) to give an appearance of legitimacy to the decisions reached the night before. And the Gospel of Luke picked up the action from there in the passage we have just read.

The religious leaders all asked, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” Are you the Christ? And by the way, “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name like Bond is the last name of James Bond: “Hi! My name is Christ, Jesus Christ…Nice to meet you Mr Christ.”  No, it is actually a title…

They are asking: Are you the Promised One? Many first-century Jews were expecting a Messiah who would pick up the sword and ride out to destroy their Roman enemies. Are you this kind of Messiah?

Jesus answered, “If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer. But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.”

This is not the first showdown Jesus had with the chief priests and experts of the law. In Luke 20, Jesus was questioned: Who gave you the right to do those things you do? Jesus was healing people and saying things like: “Your sins are forgiven”. But in those days, you can only get that sort of assurance after going to the temple and offer animal sacrifices to the priests and so on. But here he was: offering forgiveness of sins without going through the temple rituals. Jesus is not-so-subtly claiming for Himself what only God can say and do. Instead of going to the temple to meet God, people are encountering God in Jesus. Amazing, isn’t it?

To make things worse, when the triumphant king returns to the city from battle, he is supposed to be cheered on by people and ushered into the temple where the priests would bless and receive him… but here was King Jesus, after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem just earlier that week, (accompanied by shouts of Hosanna! Hosanna!) He went into the temple and symbolically cleansed it, giving a prophetic rebuke against the greed and violence of the temple administration. “You guys have made God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers (or a den of revolutionaries.)” He overturned the money changer’s tables and disrupted the sacrifice system. It’s an act of judgment. There are sinful idols of greed, corruption and violence in God’s own house that would bring down divine judgment and like in the days of Jeremiah, the temple itself would soon be desolated. And indeed, this is fulfilled later in AD 70 when the Roman army burnt it to the ground.

From then on, Jesus’ fate is sealed. The temple priests wanted him dead. It’s one thing to teach veiled parables to people. It’s quite another to cleanse the temple. It’s one thing to criticize politicians with twitters or facebook. It’s quite another to camp out at Dataran Merdeka or burn a flag. Symbolic actions speak louder than words. For the temple priests, this is like someone trying to issue passports at the IOI mall without going through the Immigration office. So it’s a rhetorical question: “Who do you think you are? Who authorized you to do things like that? You are bypassing the temple…You are leading people astray with your teachings.”
How did Jesus answer them? He said: “Let me ask you another question – John’s baptism. Is it from heaven or from men?” John the Baptist was the forerunner who paved the way for Jesus’ own ministry. Is his work from God or man? So they discussed among themselves: “If we say it’s from God, then why don’t we listen to him? If we say it’s from man, then we get into trouble because the people saw John as a prophet.” So they squirm their way out by saying: “I don’t know.” It’s the politically correct thing to say. So Jesus replied: “Ok fine. Since you don’t want to answer me, neither will I answer your question.”

That’s why when they ask if Jesus was the Christ, his answer was: If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer. Are you really interested to know the truth? Can you handle it? Or are you just asking from ulterior motives? It’s not truth you want. And I wonder if the Lord is asking some tough questions about our own priorities and commitments today. About the place He occupies in our lives? Is His kingdom agenda an optional add-on to our pursuit of the Malaysian dream? And can we honestly answer His searching questions or do we also play games with Him?    

This time round, it seems like the religious leaders finally had the upper hand. They managed to arrest him in secret, but they needed an excuse to justify killing him: “Are you the Anointed One, the Chosen One of God that will restore the kingdom of Israel? Are you then the Son of God?

Generally the Jews did not expect the Christ to be divine or God incarnate. 

But Jesus amplified the meaning of the Messiah by identifying himself as the Son of Man: “From now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.” What does he mean? These experts of the Torah know the Bible inside out and they would have known what the Son of Man means from Daniel 7. For modern readers, this may need some unpacking .

Here’s the background: In 167 BC, the king of Syria called Antiochus Epiphanes persecuted the Jews who refused to accept Greek culture. Some Jews (called the Maccabees) took up weapons and fought a successful war against his empire. They longed for divine judgment against all oppressive empires past, present and future. In the book of Daniel, the empires of Babylon, Persia, Macedonia and Rome are associated with chaos and horrible monstrous beasts.

In that vision, a heavenly trial was held before God’s throne against all these major empires. The kingdom of Antiochus IV was described as an arrogant mini-horn. But these beastly kingdoms will be replaced by the Son of Man. Daniel 7:13-14 – ““In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

The oppressive empires are symbolized by beasts but the kingdom of God will be given to this heavenly figure called the Son of Man. Daniel 7 is a liberating vision that the beastly kingdoms that oppressed the people of God throughout the centuries will be judged and overturned by the Son of Man, who will establish an everlasting kingdom.

So when Jesus claims to be the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of God, coming on the clouds of heaven and judging the entire world, He is saying that all authority belongs to Him to judge… and He stands above all imperialistic kingdoms. When you take all that He says and does together, it is impossible to miss Jesus’ outrageous claim to be equal with God Himself. In Him, we find forgiveness of sins that only the temple offers. Judging the world is God’s job description but Jesus claims it for himself. To make such a claim, Jesus must be either mad, bad or God incarnate.  

No wonder the Jewish leaders said, “Why do we need any more testimony? We have heard it from His own lips. That’s blasphemy... a crime punishable by death.” They have finally found a reason to justify killing Him. Here’s the irony: The Judge of the world stands judged by the world. And the judges themselves will one day be judged.   

These are expert theologians who spent their whole lives studying the Scriptures. Yet they fail to come to the One that all the Scriptures prophecy about to receive eternal life. These are the guardians of the temple, who perform prayers, burn incense and offer sacrifices day in day out. And yet they abused their powers, they are greedy for money, perverted justice and murdered the Reality of which the temple is but a shadow. The temple is not a bad thing; it is a true signpost pointing to God. It is where heaven and earth meet. But they are looking so hard at the temple itself that they miss out on the Reality to whom it is pointing. They are so obsessed by the signpost and they cannot see the true Temple in whom God dwells in bodily form. And when that happens, religion becomes idolatry... 

Friends: Reading the Bible is wonderful, but Bible knowledge in itself should not be mistaken for a real, living relationship with Christ. Theology should fuel our worship, not replace it. Great music is a blessing and a gift from God… but when the music fades and all is stripped away, it’s all about Jesus isn’t it? So is everything we say or do in church, our activities and ministries, they are all precious things but they are not ultimate things. They are means of grace showing us the way to the Real thing… to the person of Jesus Christ. In the new heaven and new earth, there will be no temple because Christ is the true temple. We come to Jesus to meet God where we find grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace… With His presence at the center, our music and learning and service all comes to life. Apart from Him, everything gets distorted and falls apart.

Now, the Jewish leaders found an excuse to kill Jesus but there is one small problem. They don’t have the legal power to pass the death sentence. Only the Roman authorities have the right to do that. So they must cook up a story to get Pontius Pilate the governor to do it. But there is another problem: Pilate doesn’t really care about their religious beliefs or theology. He’s not interested in what the Scriptures say about the Messiah. He won’t bother with their opinions about the temple or anything.

So they accused Jesus of something else: “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.”

If Jesus is a political threat to Caesar, now that’s something else. Then he must be put to death for the sake of Roman peace (pax romana). If Jesus was questioned for his theology before the Sanhedrin, now he is tried for his politics before Gentile rulers.

There was a naughty boy who went around asking other kids this question: “Hey, does your mother know that you are stupid?” I don’t know if anyone ever tried to give him an answer. It’s more likely that he got into a fight right after that. Because how would you answer a tricky question like that? No matter what you say: A straightforward yes or no means that you have already accepted the underlying assumption loaded behind the question: that you’re stupid.

Maybe some questions do not deserve an answer. 

We find similar loaded questions being thrown at Jesus when He was tried before Pontius Pilate.
 Pilate sarcastically asked Him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied.

In the Broadway musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, which is a distortion in many ways but still quite interesting to see how modern culture looks at Christ, there is a song sung by the Pilate character:

Oh so this is Jesus Christ, I am really quite surprised
You look so small - not a king at all
We all know that you are news - but are you king
King of the Jews?

In the play, the Jesus character replied: That's what you say. But that sounds too negative. It sounds like a denial. The NKJV translates it as: “You rightly say that I am”. But literally, in Greek, it actually reads: “You say”. It’s a qualified yes, but why did Jesus give such a vague, ambiguous reply?  

Well, it’s probably because Pilate’s question is like that naughty boy’s question. It comes loaded with so many dangerous assumptions: “Are you the king of the Jews? What’s your politics, Jesus? What kind of revolution are you starting? Are you political or non-political?”

And Jesus did not give a simple, direct answer. You say.

If He answers “yes”, it means that he is a political king just like Caesar or Herod. The kind of king that rules with coercion from above, control over, power on top of people. If He answers “no”, it means that he is apolitical. He’s just interested in your private spirituality but denies any claim to be the Lord of every area, every dimension, every corner of our lives.

That sounds like the kind of questions faced by the Malaysian church today, doesn’t it? The mother of all elections is coming soon. The war drums are beating. Are you for BN or Pakatan? And it is tempting to fall into the trap of partisanship – “preach it, pastor, use the pulpit to tell people to vote for Ajib Ko or vote against Ajib Ko.” Or the other extreme is to say that the church is totally apolitical. “We don’t bother about public issues, we just want to attend church and be spiritual (being ‘spiritual’ here is defined as I don’t care about what happens out in the world).”

What then is the politics of Jesus? Is he a king? Yes, but not that kind of king. His kingdom is not built by coercion from above, by control over, power on top of people. It is the kingdom of God. It is the power of humility that comes under people to lift them up. It’s the power to give up control, to die to self and to serve. It is the power of the cross… the power of love and sacrifice.

In the Gospel of John account, Jesus says to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place. You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

Jesus confronts Pilate’s false pretensions, unmasking them for what they really are: “You don’t have any power over me unless it is given by God.” As Eugene Yapp wrote: “Earthly thrones are merely provisional and temporal and subjected to the higher claims of God” Pilate misses the boat because he thinks of greatness in terms of coercive power, the power to make people do things for you. The high and mighty thought Jesus was weak because he won’t live and die for the power they seek. For Pilate, everything is power play… “What is truth?” Truth is a form of control. But actually everything (including politics) boils down to faith. Where do you put your trust? Is your faith in the sovereign God or faith in being in control? Is your security found in Christ or being in power?

If politics is your idol, then you pin all your hope on your policies and your favorite politicians to win and call the shots. You’d be devastated when they lose. You will despair, drop out and plan to leave the country or demonize those whom you disagree with. You will polarize the nation.

In one sense, Jesus is no threat to Caesar. He was falsely accused of opposing taxes to Rome. Actually Jesus told them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give the coin that carries the image of Caesar to Caesar. But in another sense, Jesus is a radical challenge to Caesar. Give to God what belongs to God. Give your whole being to Him because you are image-bearers of God. You are made in His likeness. You belong to Him. Pay your taxes to Caesar, but don’t sell your soul to him. Offer your heart and mind and body (your ultimate allegiance) to God.

And Pilate knew that Jesus is not the violent rebel type like Barabbas who would terrorize the countryside and be a threat to peace. “I find no basis for a charge against this man.” But instead of doing the right thing, he taichi to Herod Antipas: “He’s from Galilee, that’s under Herod’s territory. Let him decide”. He tried to wash his hands and pass the bucket like politicians often do. But every Sunday, Christians all over the world confess their faith like this: “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary: Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell: The third day he rose again from the dead”. That’s how history would judge him. His name is famous for all the wrong reasons.

But how does the kingdom politics of Jesus apply to us today? For some of us, there is a call to social activism. When we do this we join hands with Malaysians of all races and religions to pursue our common good. In the coming general elections, we all have a responsibility to vote, and vote wisely for a clean, just and fair government. I’d be casting my vote in Ipoh Timur and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that I’d be voting Rocket. As a Christian I don’t need to hide my personal conviction that absolute power corrupts absolutely so we must have strong checks and balances in government. I don’t want a monopoly in the Parliament.

At the same time, the church as a whole cannot be partisan to any political platform. So I would draw the line and not use the pulpit to formally support to anyone. We need to maintain a prophetic distance to be free to challenge the powers-that-be with God’s word. In Christ, there is neither Pakatan nor Barisan, ok… If my brother or sister who worships with me is from Gerakan or MCA, I need to reach out across the divide and see how can we find common ground and work together for the good of the rakyat. So we don’t put too much faith on election results to make this country a better place. Whoever wins or loses, life still goes on… that’s not where my ultimate hope lies. We are in the world but not of the world.   

More importantly (yes there is something more important than election results), as followers of Jesus, our politics should be shaped by the cross. It is the power to be humble, to serve, to give up control so that others may have life. In this community here, we must be who we are (the body of Christ) and model the values we want to see in society.

Among other things, it means we should embody the way of Jesus by becoming
- a community where all people are welcomed and embraced regardless of sex, ethnicity or class
- servant leaders who are not self-serving, quietly serving the poor around us
- free from the corrupting love of money
- reaching out to the weak and marginalized in our midst
- a church where people find healing, justice and mercy.

Won’t you like to be part of a community like that? The revolution Jesus is starting is a mustard seed group of people that brings reconciliation and hope and real transformation in His name. That’s the kind of revival we should pray for in Malaysia. By giving up his power to serve others, Jesus is the most influential king who ever lived.   

So Pilate taichi to Herod and as we will see, Herod tachi back… They were not the best of friends. There was once Pilate was so insensitive or arrogant he installed shields bearing the image of Caesar in Herod’s palace. So the Jews went to the streets in protest because it is deemed offensive and idolatrous. But Pilate did not want to lose face so he ignored them. And Herod had to write a letter to Tiberius Caesar and Pilate got rebuked and forced to take the shields away. On another occasion (we don’t know why) Pilate suppressed and killed some Galileans while they were in the temple, making sacrifices.

But that day, they became friends. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, perhaps? Herod was greatly pleased to see Jesus. For a long time, he wanted to meet this miracle worker after hearing so much about him. Now Pilate sent him over for an audience.

There’s a Herod song in the Jesus Christ Superstar musical that sums up his frivolous attitudes:

“Jesus, I am overjoyed to meet you face to face. You're quite famous all over the place. Healing cripples, raising from the dead. At least, that's what they all said.So, you are the Christ, you're the great Jesus Christ. Prove to me that you're divine; change my water into wine. That's all you need do, then I'll know it's all true. So, you are the Christ, you're the great Jesus Christ. Prove to me that you're no fool; walk across my swimming pool. Feed my household with this bread. You can do it on your head.
He’s not interested to hear what Jesus had to say. He just wanted to see him perform some miraculous signs or magic tricks to entertain him. He asked Jesus many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. Some questions do not deserve an answer.

For biblical faith is not a circus. Sad but true, many people have a lot in common with Herod when it comes to Christ. They are very curious with the spectacular, the sounds and lights, the signs and wonders. They may even be interested in some intellectual stuff. However, they do not have a saving faith in Christ. When a decision has to be made between following Christ and one’s own self interests, they act just like Herod. They may demand a miracle, ask some interesting questions but when it costs something, when they have to pay the price of obedience, they will mock and scorn at the truth. How deep or shallow is our own faith? Are we more impressed with the spectacular than with simple, quiet but costly obedience?   

One of my favorite singers, Chris Rice, has a song about a young boy who was obsessed with magic tricks but as he grew up, he realized that:

The only way to really change
Is simple choices everyday
Obey the Spirit-whisper in my soul
With the help of God, a little time
Can change a heart, renew a mind
Without a magic wand, God will work a miracle...

And Jesus does not put on his miracles for a show. He would not turn stones into bread even when He was starving in the desert. He opened the eyes of the blind. He cleansed the lepers and raised the dead to meet the relieve the suffering of others. But that was not His only reason. Jesus’ miracles had a deeper meaning. Signs and wonders are clues that he was indeed the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, the Son of Man. They are evidence that God’s future kingdom is breaking into the here and now, the present world in which we live. 

Herod wants miracles, he wants something spectacular; but Jesus will not layan (entertain) him.

Or maybe He did perform a miracle, after all? By his silence, by choosing not to defend himself, Jesus was preparing for the greatest sign and wonder that we will ever know. It’s a miracle greater than parting the Red Sea. But it was not something Herod would expect.

Jesus is going to the cross to accomplish the plan of salvation. He will go to the cross suffer and die for our sins, to die the death that we deserve for breaking God’s holy law, and then three days later, He will conquer death by being raised to life again. Herod will get the sign that he wanted: the resurrection proves that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, the promised Messiah. But he is too blind to see it.

Friends: do you see? We are like Barabbas – thrown into prison, found guilty for our rebellion against God and waiting for our death sentence. The payment for sin is spiritual and physical death. But Jesus had done no crime. He was innocent and without sin. He didn’t deserve to be crucified.

We hear the crowd kept shouting “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” The door is opened and we are pushed to stand before the cross. But our chains fell off. We have been set free. The guard says, “You have been released. You are free to go”.

What’s going on here? Why am I being released?

Because Jesus carried my cross… He was crucified on our behalf. Jesus is not just a victim of injustice. He’s in control throughout to carry out God’s plan to save the sinners just like us. 

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers
It was my sin that left Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

The sinless Son of God took upon Himself the guilt and wrath that we deserve because of his breathtaking love. He died that we might be alive in Him. And He lived again that we might die to sin. Won’t you give your life completely to Him today and call him your Savior, Lord and Friend? Let us pray. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

“Has Science Buried God?” A Debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox

In 2006, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins published his best-seller The God Delusion, a scathing attack on religion in general and the Christian faith in particular. With generous doses of ridicule and scorn, he sought to convince people why there almost certainly is no God. For Dawkins, religion is what happens when people persistently choose to believe in a delusion despite contrary evidence. But has science really disproved the existence of a personal Creator? Well, just the opposite may be true. According to John Lennox, professor of mathematics and philosophy of science at Oxford, the evidence actually points us to belief in a purposeful Creator of the universe.

His monograph “God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?” represents a sustained response to Dawkins’ challenges from a Christian perspective. Since then, both eminent scientists had conducted their debate live before sold-out crowds. The most recent encounter was held at the Oxford Museum of Natural History where the famed evolution debate between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce took place in 1860. More than 150 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, the question of God in relation to science is as fascinating and fierce a topic to engage the human mind as ever.  The format of this debate also entitled “Has Science Buried God?” was unusual in that both proponents engaged in extended conversations without much intervention from a moderator. Although it allowed for more spontaneous exchanges, the lack of a clear structure also meant that various issues cropped up that deviated somewhat from the main topics.

The Intelligible Universe

In his opening gambit, Dawkins made a surprising concession that “a reasonably respectable case” can be made for a deistic God, who merely set up the laws of nature, sat back and watched the show. It seemed like an about-turn from his de facto atheist position. In The God Delusion, Dawkins rated belief in God as highly improbable comparable to belief in fairies beneath a garden[1]. But he immediately went on the offensive by chastening Lennox for his specifically theistic beliefs, such as Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine. Dawkins found it unbelievable that the Creator of the universe, this Paragon of mathematical laws and physical science, should intervene to rid the world of sin by being personally tortured and executed. In start contrast, what he saw as “profoundly unscientific” and “petty” would inspire the Psalmist’s awesome wonder when he marveled in song, “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?[2]

In response, Lennox found it equally hard to believe the atheist’s claim that there is no rationality behind the universe’s existence. How could an intelligent mind such as Dawkins’ be produced by “freak accident”? As scientists, both men operate on the assumption that the world and its laws could be studied and understood rationally. But how do we account for the intelligibility of the universe? The entire scientific enterprise is undermined if the reliability of our cognitive faculties is in doubt. For Dawkins, the truth-discovering faculty of a brain is obviously useful for our survival in the real world. It would not help the propagation of genes if animals often made misguided jumps off a cliff. Lennox quipped that some human beings do very well by telling lies. The problem is also known as “Darwin’s doubt”: How can we really trust a mind that has been determined by unguided, mindless evolution interested only in reproductive success rather than the truth? For a Christian scientist, the world is ultimately intelligible because there is Logos (or a rational Mind) behind it. The present impasse may be transcended with further exploration into whether truth-discovery is necessarily helpful to survival or paranoid false beliefs could function as a survival strategy too.  

The Origin of Everything

Fred Hoyle once said that the probability of life appearing on Earth is like the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a junkyard, would assemble a Boeing 747. Dawkins admitted that scientists do not yet have an answer to explain how the extremely precise balance of physical laws and gravitational constants necessary for organic life came about. However, such gaps in our current knowledge should not be a license to bring in God as an explanation. The “parable” of Darwin’s theory showed that even seemingly designed living organisms could emerge from blind processes of natural selection. Perhaps we should wait patiently for a cosmologist “Darwin” to arrive on the scene. But even if science could never fill these gaps, he added, the God hypothesis would still be far more complex to explain than the “simpler” problem of the universe’s origin. Dawkins also had little patience for the idea that God may guide the evolutionary process in order to create life because it would be an unnecessary add-on explanation for something that could be exhaustively explained with natural causes. If we can explain a falling object by gravitational force, we wouldn’t dream of saying “Oh! There must be a God pushing it down”?    

Lennox took issue with the false dichotomy that just because a scientific mechanism has been discovered (evolution or gravity), the role of God as an Agent is ruled out of court. He believed that science could open up a few “good gaps” that we would expect if God indeed created the universe. Perhaps it would be helpful if he could distinguish between “bad gaps” caused by ignorance and “good gaps” revealed by more accurate scientific knowledge. For example, recent discovery of complex DNA language coded in the book of life is a clue inferring to the existence of a rational Mind behind it. For Lennox, the atheist’s assumption that there must be an exhaustive, reductionistic and natural explanation for all things is itself a faith position that cannot be verified by scientific experiments. Philosophically, he argued that the question “Who created God?” is meaningless because by definition, God is eternal and not caused by anything else.

As an analogy, we may imagine the sight of a tree being struck down by lightning while driving north from Simpang Pulai on a rainy monsoon day. The tree fell from a hill, washed down by pouring water and triggered an avalanche of rocks. At the end of these observable natural processes, a long string of rocks formed the words “Welcome to Ipoh!” Would we be inclined to think that it was no freak accident and that the natural processes themselves were directed by intelligence? It is not a superfluous but reasonable inference to the best explanation. If that simple rock-based information leads us to such a conclusion, how much more compelling is the complex, ancient DNA language written in each and every cell within our bodies? To borrow a quote from Lennox, “You don’t argue away the existence of an agent by explaining the natural mechanism.”

Ultimate Meaning and Purpose in Life

What can science tell us about morality and the purpose of life? Is there any ultimate justice in a world of suffering and injustice? The practical implications from both worldviews came into stark relief when such fundamental issues were addressed. When pressed for his own position, Dawkins bit the bullet with admirable clarity, “OK, suppose there is no hope. Suppose there is no justice. Suppose there’s nothing but misery and darkness and bleakness. Suppose there’s nothing that we would wish for… Too bad!” He proposed that it is a nobler alternative to face up to our inevitable death in a silent and cold universe than pinning our hopes on childhood illusions and imaginary friends. It is completely irrelevant whether a belief is comforting because the psychological benefits don’t make it true. We need to have solid evidence to ground our beliefs. Within an atheistic framework, Dawkins believed that each one of us could make up a meaning for our own lives. However, not all constructed meanings are equally valid. From his own subjective standards, Dawkins believed that it would be a “tragedy” that people waste their lives devoted to religion.

Lennox would agree that beliefs should be evaluated based on evidence rather than the emotional comfort it offered. He pointed out that atheism could be guilty of Freudian wish-fulfillment as well – “a flight away from the reality of God”. Lennox stressed the historical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection from the empty tomb and eyewitnesses. If Jesus rose from the death, it is a worldview-shattering event that expands our “horizon of hope” beyond the bounds of death. At least, in view of mainstream scholarship, Dawkins was forced to take back his claim that Jesus’ existence was disputable. Through God’s self-revelation in Christ, Lennox testified that it was a personal relationship with Him that offered fullness of life (science included!).

Under the looming shadows of a T-Rex skeleton, both participants did a good job comparing the worldviews they represented. Dawkins held the rhetorical edge with his engaging analogies, but Lennox held his own with careful philosophical arguments. It is a worthwhile experience to listen in order to understand the views of someone you do not agree with. The full debate may be viewed from YouTube or

[1] The God Delusion, pages 51-53
[2] Psalm 8:3-4 

Book Review: The Other Six Days

Review: The Other Six Days (Paul Stevens)

For most of church history, the people of God have been divided into two categories – those who “do ministry” (the clergy) and the objects of ministry (the laity). This clergy-laity division perpetuates a caste system of “spiritual” work with missionaries and pastors at the top of value chain, followed by people-helping professionals (like doctors, teachers, nurses) and “barely-religious, secular” jobs (such as lawyers, politicians and jazz musicians) close to the bottom! In The Other Six Days, Stevens challenged that dualism with provocative biblical, theological and practical reasons.

In Part I of the book, the author sounded a clarion call for reframing a theology “of the whole people of God” (where every member of the church is gifted, chosen and called by God for service in the world), “for the whole people of God” (which intentionally empowers the ordinary believer for practical, applied living) and “by the people of whole people of God” (where academic theologians work together with ordinary believers in the furnace of marketplace realities). By doing so, we recover an ecclesiology where each member is “ordained” to do the Lord’s work from Mondays to Saturdays and equipped to apply biblically Kingdom values to his daily concerns.

He argued that even in the Old Testament, the entire nation of Israel was called to belong to God and serve His purposes (Exodus 19:6). But within that people, were not some given a special call to be priests, prophets and kings? According to Stevens, the new covenant envisaged by the Old Testament promised a day in which all people will have God’s law written in their hearts (Jeremiah 31:34). The once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus the great High Priest has fulfilled the function of the Old Testament priesthood so that now the entire church is a royal priesthood. But he cautioned against ‘anti-clericalism’, stressing the need for gifted leadership of dedicated pastors as God’s will for the church (page 53). Drawing from the doctrine of Trinity, he outlined how the church needs to mirror that perichoretic life of God by rejecting individualism and embracing every member to contribute to the unity/ministry of the whole community of faith.

In Part II of the book, Stevens explores the thorny subject of calling and vocation in a culture where we no longer find meaning at work in relation to God. It is common to hear believers in ‘full time’ ministry speak of a special call from God but it seems not to apply to other believers. Stevens proposed that we do not separate God’s calling for humanity into two, disconnected mandates – The Creation Mandate (Genesis 1:27 – 30) and The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). It has tragic consequences to emphasize one and downplay the other. Rather, we ought to see our human calling in terms of a “covenant encompassing creation, redemption and final consummation. Salvation is both a rescue operation (recovering our lost vocation in Eden) and a completion project (preparing for the final renewal of creation at the second coming of Jesus)” . In that sense, all believers are called to communion with God, community-building (relationships, family and holy sexuality) and stewards in caring for the creation. “Every legitimate human occupation (paid or unpaid) is some dimension of God’s own work: making, designing, doing chores, beautifying, organizing, helping, bringing dignity and leading.”

In Part III of the book, Stevens explores how the biblical ministries of prophet, priest and king relate to the whole people of God in the wider world. As priests, the church intercedes for others in God’s presence and offers up everyday life as ‘spiritual worship’ (Romans 12:1). As regents, they bring in Kingdom values to bear on all of life. They embody the rule of God on earth as it is in heaven. As prophets, they bear witness to the gospel and challenge dehumanizing powers and idolatrous systems. People can be encouraged to see the marketplace as a natural place for evangelism by “using workplace terminology to share our faith; by connecting Sunday and Monday through interviewing people about their work, and praying for them; by extending pastoral care to the workplace, especially when there is injustice or unemployment; and dealing with workplace sins and temptations as part of church discipline” .  I am encouraged to put into practice some of these recommendations on a weekly basis during worship service to facilitate this paradigm shift.

The Other Six Days is a most worthy and inspiring read for Christians who seek deeper connections of faith to their work in the office, factory, school, field or at home as well as pastors who seek to send out the congregation to minister in the world. When we recover a biblical theology of work, ministry will be transformed as pastors are liberated from the crushing burden to minister to every need in the church. Rather, they exercise leadership gifts to empower and equip the people to spiritual maturity and service with God’s word. Similarly, mission is transformed when a church of one hundred members serve throughout the week in all the contexts in which God has placed them. They do not need to go into the world because they are already there.

Book Review: How Long, O Lord?

Review: How Long O Lord? (DA Carson)

Despite advances in science, pain and death remain an inevitable part of life. Where is God when suffering abounds and tragedy strikes in the form of cancer, tsunami, wars and abuse? For some, it is an intellectual question to reconcile the existence of a loving and all-powerful God in the face of seemingly purposeless evil. For others, it is an existential cry from the heart. D. A. Carson wrote this book to help Christians not only to find assurance that their beliefs are consistent but to apply and draw comfort from them in the dark seasons of suffering.

In Part I, Carson cautioned us against false security that we could be insulated from suffering and radical evil through our own resources. Sometimes, we expect immediate relief from pain through our prayers and forget that God works for the good of those who love Him precisely in the midst of misery. It is not a promise to remove suffering altogether in this side of heaven. We may also draw false comfort from biblically indefensible notions of God as a sympathetic but less-than-omnipotent god or as a deistic Watchmaker who stay uninvolved with the world after setting natural laws in motion. Such attempts at justifying God’s ways with humanity (or theodicy) are sub-biblical, Carson argues, because Scripture reveals God as personally involved with the world and His omnipotence is not constrained with human freedom.

In Part II, Carson explores selective biblical themes relevant to the problem of evil and suffering to locate it within a Christian framework. From a survey of redemptive history, we find that an originally good creation is corrupted by human sin. Sickness and death entered the world as a result. While it does not mean that every bit of suffering is necessarily the immediate consequence of a particular sin, there is a profound sense that we are sinners who take part in and deserve the sufferings of a fallen world. We have forfeited any “right” to a life of ceaseless comfort. It is by God’s mercies that we are not destroyed. While discussing social evils, Carson pointed out that Jesus was not surprised by the prevalence of wars, famines and earthquakes (Matthew 24). Instead, the Lord treats natural disasters and injustices as incentives to repentance: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish”. It thus runs counter to our default expectation that we deserve prosperity and health while suffering and death are grossly ‘unfair’.

There are also sufferings peculiar to the people of God as a form of discipline for their ultimate good and intended to help them to fight sin. It is not necessarily a consequence for the lack of faith or prayer. Sometimes, mature Christian leaders may experience suffering closely connected to opposition to their courageous witness so that through their weakness, the life of Christ may be revealed and nourish the church (2 Corinthians 4:8-12). The chapter on Job is also a provocative challenge to the mistaken notion that the righteous will not suffer or those who suffer must have directly deserved it: The real question is whether we are more interested in seeking God for His own sake or for personal gain? Will we still worship Him when all worldly comforts are stripped away?  

Another helpful biblical theme is God’s promise to right all wrongs and wipe away all tears at the End. It assures us that wickedness will not prosper ultimately. Death will not have the last word. From that eschatological perspective, we cultivate homesickness for heaven in God’s presence and avoid putting our hopes on all things finite. Ultimately, however, only the cross of Calvary reveals to us the kind of suffering God that we can trust despite not having all the answers. It is not “a kind of immanentist identification of God with all human suffering” (page 189). The cross is the supreme display of God’s justice and love. Christ suffered once-for-all to reconcile His people to the Father. He knows first hand what suffering is and therefore, He is able to sympathize with our weakness. Whatever hidden reasons God has for allowing tragedies and disasters, the reason could not be that He does not care. Only the God who carries the scars of wounds on Himself could really speak to and heal our own brokenness.

In Part III, Carson discusses the mystery of providence in how the Bible affirms God’s all-encompassing sovereignty in a way that is compatible with meaningful human responsibility. It consists more of biblical expositions than philosophical speculations. God’s loving providence teaches us to trust and obey in spite of not having all the answers. “God is less interested in answering our questions than in other things: securing our allegiance, establishing our faith, nurturing a desire for holiness” (page 245).

Finally, the book concludes with some pastoral reflections that often in the midst of suffering, the most comforting “answers” are simple presence, practical help and silent tears with those who mourn. Overall, I found it to be most helpful to anchor our faith in solid biblical insights so that we will stand firm when the storm of inevitable of pain and death comes. It challenges our false demands for how life ought to be and our idolatrous dependence in our own resources to insulate life from pain. It offers much wisdom and sensitivity in dealing with the problem of suffering in a gospel-centered perspective.