Thursday, January 31, 2013

On Hiring Paid Staff

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Trivializing God

SCRIPTURE: Deuteronomy 5:11
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 25 January 2013

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. (Deuteronomy 5:11)

The Ten Commandments
The words, "Gosh," "Gee," "G-d Dxxx It," "Holy Moly," "What the "F#*&%#," or even "Goodness me," can trigger some discomfort among pious Christians. For some, these words amount not only to swear words, but they are in contempt of the LORD's name. Worse, it breaks or in danger of breaking the third commandment which clearly says, "You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God." There are many arguments for or against. On the one hand, those who use God's Name liberally say that it is simply a human expression without any intent to hurt or harm God's Name, or the beliefs of Christians. On the other hand, those who are dead against any form of blasphemy no matter how small, will take offense at the way God's Name is used.

What is taking the Name of the Lord in vain? The Hebrew word is "shav," which can also be understood as 'empty,' 'false,' or 'vain.' Many English translations prefer the word 'vain' to represent the meaninglessness when using God's Name falsely. This week, I want to reflect upon what this third commandment means for us.

A) Sad State of Swear Words

Hollywood movies are notorious in using "Jesus" as a swear word. When I watch movies on TV, DVD, or streaming movies from the Internet, the single biggest turn-off for me is when the Name of Jesus is used as a casual swear word. In trying to inject "reality" into movies to reflect the surrounding culture, it has unfortunately propagated the use of swear words to the general public, especially young innocent children still forming their thinking processes. Even with movie ratings, the easy availability of movies nowadays simply means anyone from 2 to 100 can watch any kind of movies.

On the Internet, words like OMG ("Oh My God" for short) or WTF, or any form of swear words on social media are expressions of human emotion on one hand, but also trivializing words, and worse, it may trivialize God, the creator of all things, and the creator of all people. Come to think of it, God has given man the gift of creativity. Why are we misusing these gifts by cursing and breaking people down with careless words? Why are we misusing the Name of the Lord? The simple answer is sin. The more complicated answer is pride. The pride to insist that we are above all authority. The arrogance to think that we are higher than God. The sad state of swear words is simply a desire to elevate our human emotions above community considerations.

For example, if A screams out "Jesus" as a swear word, and a neighbouring Christian gets annoyed. Will A suddenly proclaims his right to "freedom of speech?" On the other hand, it is so common nowadays, that when a Christian states his support for traditional marriage as being defined as a marriage between a man and a woman, it is almost expected that some groups will scream out labels like: "You're a gay hater!" or "You are homophobic," or worse, "You are a bigot!"

It is really hard to be a Christian in such an environment. Sometimes I wonder, do Christians have lesser rights to freedom of expression than secularists or atheists? If Christians are demoted in their freedom of religious expression, chances are, when they stand up against anyone using "Jesus" as a swear word, they will be criticized or even condemned.

KEY: Resist people who ridicule God through words. Resist the temptation to empty words of their true worth.

B) Looking at Deuteronomy 5:11

What does the third commandment actually say? I see four sets of doubles. Twice, the Hebrew word 'Lo' (not) is used as a negative warning. The word "LORD" is mentioned. The word "name" is also mentioned twice. The word "vain" is also mentioned twice. Such double words feature an importance that needs to be emphasized. It reminds me of a need for listening doubly hard.

When something is repeated in Scripture, we ought to sit up and take notice. When something is repeated within a short verse, we need to be even more vigilant and pay attention to the central point. The Third Commandment is about making sure that we revere the LORD's Name totally, in our speech, in our words, and in our behaviour. The word "in vain" essentially means we devalue God's Name, or we reduce and empty God into what He is NOT.

What is taking the Name of the LORD in vain? William Barclay makes it more succinct by describing it as a breaking of a promise to God, or promising something that we do not have the intention of keeping it in the first place.

"The commandment is a prohibition of taking the name of God in vain in a promise or a pledge, that is, of making such a promise or pledge in the name of God, with no intention of keeping it, or of making a promise in the name of God and then afterwards breaking it, because it was inconvenient or uncomfortable to keep it." (William Barclay, The Plain Man's Guide to Ethics, London: Fontana Books, 1973, p22)

Along this line of thought, I can also add in another way we take the Lord's Name in vain. When we frivolously use God's Name in our daily language. This is where I will turn to next.

KEY: Breaking promises is another way of taking God's Name in vain.

C) Frivolous Use

In Christian circles, sometimes you can hear Christians use pious language. They say 'hallelujah' to people as if it is a synonym to "How are you today?" They prefix what they want to do with "God told me so." They make their words sound more saintly with "Praise God," "Jesus told me this," or "The Spirit told me that."

Is that a problem? No if it is true. Yes, if they are simply using God for their own ends. God is not to be used as a rubber-stamp for our motives. God is to be God, and we are to be saved from our own follies and misdeeds.

I have heard of people who tries to justify their decisions with God as their witness. The moment they say things like: "God told me to take this job," or "God said to me that I must leave this marriage," they have cemented the door, and terminated any arguments. Thus says the LORD, they insist.

Who can speak against God's decree? Who dares to question God? How dare a simple human being argue against a saint who has the Lord's blessing and Name as a stamp to their decision making?

Case closed. The person using God's Name in his/her statements has essentially used God's Name as a spiritual rubber stamp of divine authority. Such actions amount to pontification of one's deeds and actions.

Now, do not misunderstand me. God does speak to people. God also uses other people to speak to people. The final authority is never one's words. The final authority is God's Word. The final authority is God's Name, period. If we fail to honour God in our words, we have already taken the Name of the Lord in vain.

KEY: Before you use God's Name to rubber stamp your actions or words, think again about the 3rd Commandment.

D) A Call to Keep Our Promises

The third commandment is about being careful with our thoughts, our words, and our works, lest we be guilty of thinking wrongly of God, saying wrongly about God, and behaving wrongly for God. It is about keeping the promises of God, as God had intended for us, and not subjected to our interpretations. That means, we cannot allow our interpretations to usurp God's authority.

Let's say someone comes up to an unmarried woman and says: "God told me to marry you."

What should the woman do? If it is true, the woman has no way to argue against God. If she refuses, then she is standing in the way of God's will. She is making things difficult for the purposes of God and will stumble the man who approached her.

What if it is false? Then, the woman has every right to challenge that presumptive man about his misusing the Name of the LORD. She needs to question him on the basis of Scripture. She needs to let him know that he is not the only audience in the great address of God. There is a wonderful example of how the Spirit moves in the hearts of two different persons in two different places, and brings them together. In Acts 10, Cornelius had a vision where an angel of the Lord appeared to him, praising him for his many acts of charity. At the same time, Peter too had a vision of the Lord, explaining to him that it is wrong to call something that God had cleansed, as unclean. Cornelius is a Gentile. Peter is a Jew. The same message brought by the Holy Spirit is that both Jew and Gentile are under the same God. Both are moved by the Holy Spirit. When the Lord calls, He will send His Holy Spirit to confirm all things, to counsel us, and to comfort us. Keeping the promises of God is something that the Holy Spirit will be most glad to help us with.

My readers, are we guilty of careless use of words that dishonour God? Have we given in to temptation in using God's Name for our own ends? Do we know that each time we misuse God's Name, we become more de-sensitized to the holiness and purity of God?

We need to battle our sinful nature toward vanity for ourselves at the expense of God. We need to clamp shut our constant pursuit of vain things. We must gratify ourselves less and obey God more, talk less and listen more, panic less and pray more.

Can we be attentive to God a little more, and be worried about our cares a little less? Selfishness often taints reality with unrealistic demands. Self-centeredness will tempt us to elevate ourselves above God. When we put our interpretation above God, we are taking the Name of the Lord in vain. We are misusing God's Name. We are breaking the third commandment.


THOUGHT: "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." (Matthew 5:33-37)


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Friday, January 18, 2013

The Deceptive Middle Way

SCRIPTURE: Matthew 7:13-14
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 18th January 2013

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Matthew 7:13-14)

Anyone who reads the words of Jesus above will easily understand that there are only two choices. The first one is narrow, difficult, and treacherous, but is one that leads to life. The second one is wide, easy, and safe, but leads to death. The answer is clear. We want life, not death. We want the good, not the bad. We want the easy, not difficult. So we pick and choose. If you are like the people who prefer the fruit but not the cost, you will want all the goodies, all the rewards, all the accolades that come without hard work, without the cost, and without having to lift up a finger to work for it. How nice it is, to be able to have both the cake and eat it as well.

So some Christians come up with a brilliant idea. Why not have the goal of eternal life, and then manufacture a path of easy, convenient, and comfortable journey? Why not come up with a middle way? The biggest problem in mainstream practice of Christianity is not whether we understand the merits of the narrow way or the dangers of the wide way. The biggest problem is that we have convinced ourselves that there is a third way, a Middle Way which takes the best of the narrow way (the reward) and the best of the wide way (the easy path), and imagines it exists right between the narrow and the wide ways. This Middle Way is deceptive and dangerous.

A) What is the Middle Way?

Beware: The Middle Way is a Disguised Wide Way
Simply put, the middle way is somewhere in between the narrow way and the wide highway. It can be imaginery, or it can be something fixated in the minds of people. On the one hand, the destination is the wonderful heavenly treasure and eternal heaven. On the other hand, the journey is one of easy and convenient highway. Put them all together and we get the middle way. Easy right? More gain, no pain. Getting more for ourselves that demand less of us.

This is precisely the problem when Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes as "Cheap Grace." He writes in his classic work,

"Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, New York, NY: Macmillan, 1959, p36)

The middle way is having the easy traveling path of the highway that will lead us to the heavenly destination of eternal life. It is the receiving of wide forgiveness from God, without the narrow requirement of our repentance. It is the easy baptism into membership of any Church we choose without sensing any need to obey the rules and disciplines of membership. It is the easy taking of weekly communion without the tough act of confessing our sins. It is the easy display of soft love without the corresponding courage to exercise tough love. It is easy to call oneself a Christian, and then ignore the cost of discipleship.

The middle way attempts to take the best of both worlds, and ignore the worst of them. It believes that with the latest technology, the most competent management structures, and the wide range of expertise at our hands, we can overcome the most difficult terrains by using the easiest and greatest scientific knowhow. For too long we have been spoilt by an all-conquering, know-it-all, attitude of supremacy and excellence. After all, we justify ourselves into believing that God has given us everything easy, and since all the difficult stuff have been shouldered solely by Jesus, Christians nowadays are no longer bound by the law, and is free to be anything they want to be. There is no need for the law anymore as we are all "under grace."

The middle way is seductive. It is tempting. It promises the rewards without requiring a corresponding payment. We take everything because Christ has paid everything, so we reason.We deserve everything because Christ has nailed all our sins to the cross, and we become sinners saved by grace, without having to worry about our sinning once in a while. The Apostle Paul deals with this line of argument in his epistle to the Romans. He write,

"What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." (Romans 6:1-4)
Through the Middle Way, we deceive ourselves thinking that we can continue to sin because grace has paid everything. We are ready to shoot down every argument to obey the law, by saying that obedience to the law equals legalism. The trouble with this argument is that Jesus Himself does not claim to destroy the law but to fulfill them. Moreover, the law is for lawbreakers, for sinners. Unless of course, we can turn around and say that we are perfect and pure, sinless and totally innocent. Fact is, we are not. That is why the law is still necessary for keeping us sensitive to any acts of sin, and then to avoid, to stop, and to mortify the sinful selves.

Let me share three ways in which the Middle Way is commonly practiced.

B) #1 - No Action

A brilliant strategy taken by those walking the "Middle Way" is to just talk about it only. They argue at length. They analyzed the depths of the material. They study, they debate, and they convince themselves that they have known the truth. Then they stop. After the discussion, they close their books, they go home, and nothing changes. Life goes on, until the next study session where they re-ignite the discussion without the need to apply what they have learned, or to obey what they have been taught.

Long time Bible study groups are most prone to this first manifestation of the Middle Way. I know of many groups that keep talking and arguing over the same old thing, year in and year out. The material may change. The leader may change. Unfortunately, the hearts of the people remain unchanged, unmoved, and unable to go beyond talk-only.

KEY: We practise the Middle Way when we are interested only in talking but not obeying what we have learned.

C) #2 - No Commitment

The second strategy of people taking the Middle Way is the mantra: Minding My Own business. I obey only the parts of  Scripture that benefit me. As long as it is for me, I will do it. If it is for others, I stay out of the picture.  Religion for me then is private and confidential, comfortable and quiet. If it is too difficult, either wait it out, or search for an easier option. Take the Great Commission for example. How easy it is to say that the words of Jesus are only to the disciples who saw Jesus at that time! Why ruffle the feathers? Live and let live. If we do not meddle into the spiritual lives of other people, other people should not meddle into my own spiritual lives. If the pastor does not preach a message that I like to hear, I will leave. I can easily find a Church that I can enjoy being present without any commitment.

KEY: Obedience entails commitment. Commitment to obeying Christ always is a mark of discipleship. Don't know what to obey? Perhaps, you've NOT been reading your Bible.

D) #3 - No Cost

Finally, the third strategy of the Middle Way is to get everything without paying any cost. The days of the martyrs are over. Such a thinking typically makes one believe that one is the exception rather than the rule. God can call others to give up everything, but I am the exception. I am the odd one out. I am the special and unique case. It is true that the great reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Wycliffe, and others are called, but God didn't call me. It is also true that the modern heroes of faith have given up their lives for the gospel, like the Jim Elliots, the Hudson Taylors, the Jonathan Livingstons, and many others. Not me. Not small little me. After all, who am I compared to these giants of faith? How can I even compare to Billy Graham or Jonathan Edwards? There is only one Tim Keller, and I am no Keller. There is only one CS Lewis, and I am no Lewis. Hey, I am not even from an Ivy League University!

It is easy to rationalize ourselves out of God's calling and God's will. It is easy to take the middle way of comfortable living and expect the heavenly reward on the basis of God's grace.

KEY: There is no discipleship with the cost. Grace is free. Obedience is not free.

E) Don't Be Deceived. The Middle Way is the Wide Way

Here is my point. The Middle Way is a cop-out for non-action. It is a deceptive manner in which we think we are obeying God by simply rationalizing our lack of obedience with all kinds of reasoning. Then we come back complaining about our lack of spiritual vitality, how boring church is, and what small faith we have.

I shudder. Let me close with this parable of warning. In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells of a master who gives the first man 5 talents, the second man 2 talents, and the third man 1 talent. The first man takes the 5 talents and faithfully earned another 5. Likewise, the second man gained two out of his two talents. The master praises the two men, "Well done, good and faithful servant!"

For the third man, look at the excuse.

“Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ (Matthew 25:24-25)

This third man thinks he has been kind to the master by not losing the one talent. Instead, the master reprimands him, "You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest."

My readers, this third man practices the middle way. He keeps the one talent safe, and adopts the easy path of doing nothing. At the same time, when he comes to the master, he presumes erroneously that the master is going to be happy with his easy going disposition. Wrong! The master is not only disappointed, but angry at the lack of desire to be faithful and to be fruitful.

Are you practicing the Middle Way? Are you burying your talents? Are you involved in committees and groups that talk only without walking the talk? Are you content with simply a life of non-commitment? Are you rationalizing yourself into a life where there is no necessity to pay any cost at all?

If you are doing that, let me remind you, there is no middle way. There is only a narrow path or a wide path. The default path is the wide path. The Middle Way is the wide path. The non-committal way is the wide path. Refusing to choose the narrow path is to remain in this default path. For when we choose the narrow path, it will be grace that will lead us home.

THOUGHT: If you think the Middle Way is the new narrow way, think again.


Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at . You can also send me an email at for comments or enquiries.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Making Good New Year Resolutions

SCRIPTURE: Ps 119:105
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 11 January 2013

"Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path." (Ps 119:105)

Last week, I preached the first sermon for the year, presenting a question to the congregation: "What kind of New Year resolutions should we make?" My intent is to encourage people to start the year well, with the Word of God as our guiding lamp and light. That we will be enlightened and illuminated by God's Word in our hearts, that we may shine forth for God in our good works.

Many things in the Bible can only be learned by obedience, not mere study/analysis.

Some people are sick of making resolutions, as they feel like they have never been able to keep it anyway. Others are nonchalant about it all, preferring to keep to the status quo. For them, no change is a good thing. Whatever it is, every New Year begins with some kind of a new hope and promise that things will be different this year. Will it not?

That depends. It depends on our attitude toward life. It depends on our determination to try again. For Christians, it is not simply about making or not making resolutions. It is about making good resolutions, especially the ones that gear toward becoming more Christlike and making disciples of all nations, starting with ourselves. It is with this that I challenged the congregation to adopt one or more of the five resolutions which I call GOOD resolutions. Here is a summary of the five.

#1 - LEAN ON GOD (Moving From Independence to Dependence)

In our high-achiever society, independence is a much sought after status. Children in particular can breathe a sigh of relief as they do not need to be dependent on their parents anymore when they reach the legal age for adulthood. Independence means freedom from parental restrictions or curfews. Independence is cool. Independence is liberation from rules and regulations.

Yet, spiritually, we cannot survive on our own. The problem with mankind is that they become too independent for their own good. They easily become selfish with their own ways. They become self-seeking creatures to the detriment of the community. Perhaps, we need to learn to grow more on dependence on God rather than the world. This is because spiritually we are lost without God.

Blessed are those who are aware of their own self-limitations and adopt a state of humility and depend more and more on God each day.

Resolution: I resolve to increasingly lean on God for all of my decision making. It can be through prayer, or through humility, I will refrain from self-seeking independence and progress toward God-dependent lifestyle.

#2 - LEARN GOD's WORD (From Sleepiness to Wakefulness)

The Scriptures urge us to depend on God, for God's Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. When we encounter darkness, sometimes our natural reaction is to simply shrink back and wait until sunlight appears before venturing out. When we hear screams in the dark, we will huddle back in fear, unwilling to venture into the unknown, even when we hear a victim's scream a far distance away.

God's Word is a lamp and light that we have. In a world of darkness, God's Word can shine forth to help us see and to walk in the ways of the Lord. When we are spiritually sleepy, we miss out on the will of God for our lives. In Jared C. Wilson's "Gospel Wakefulness," one key reason why many Christians are spiritual sleepyheads is because the centrality of the gospel makes no sense to them. Often, the root of the problem lies in not knowing God's Word in the first place. That is why we need to keep God's Word in our hearts.

One way to do so is to embark on a Bible reading schedule that is regular, consistent, and disciplined.

Resolution: I resolve to read through big chunks of Scripture through the Year. I recommend reading through the New Testament and Isaiah. The plan is available here

#3 - LEAD WITH COURAGE (From Timidity to Courage)

Many of us are in positions of influence in our respective domains. Whether in the home, at work, or in our social circles, we all have a role to play. Timidity is often a problem with the attitude of our heart. It claims inability and questions why one needs to volunteer. It prefers to let others do it. It prefers to procrastinate.

Courage on the other hand requires us to live up to our own highest ideals. We are to lead with a positive attitude for God, rather than to shirk aside our responsibilities. Courage proclaims that with God's help, we can do it. It volunteers without being asked. It is open to God's prompting and call to do good works. It acknowledges that today may very well be the tomorrow we have been talking about yesterday. Perhaps, this year is the "next year" we have been talking about in the past few years!

Resolution: If not you now, then who? If not now, then when?

#4 - LEAP IN FAITH (From Passive to Active)

The Christian walk is not a path strewn with roses or easy-going walkways. Often, it requires a leap of faith. In fact, every step we take is a demonstration of what kind of faith we have. Like the lame man at the pools of Bethesda. Instead of simply accepting the lame excuse of not having other people to help him get into the pool on time, Jesus commands him to "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk!" (John 5:8)

It is so easy for us to toe the line, and to mind our own business even in the light of evil happening before our very eyes. Poverty levels remain high. Homelessness continues to be a problem. The gospel is still not preached to certain other places. What is our response to all of them? Do we simply complain to God that we have no resources or time to do that? Surely, if we make an effort to look for an opportunity to give and to serve, God will provide. Perhaps, the reason for our inaction is because we too have the lame excuse of the lame man of Bethesda. God is telling us: "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk!"

Resolution: Faith is responding to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Wake up! Pick up your courage and do something!

#5 - LEAVE OUR COMFORT ZONE (From lethargy to Lively)

For many Christians in many Churches, comfort is something we all enjoy having. So much so that once we are snuggled up in a nice corner in our favourite places, we become coccooned in. We wrap ourselves up with nice clothes and comfortable friends, that the world we live in becomes comfortable and hems us in. As a result, we are willing to live a lethargic Christian life as long as we maintain our levels of comfort.

Wrong! If we are serious about the gospel, we must not let comfort be our top priority. In fact, the early disciples of Christ could have comfortably remained in Jerusalem. Paul could have remained an influential solicitor in Rome. Yet, they press from Jerusalem toward Judea, Samaria, and many other parts of the world. Paul himself makes at least three missionary journeys.

The key is this. If we want to have spiritual vitality, we need to leave our comfort zone.

Resolution: I resolve to leave my comfort zone through risk taking and gospel sharing.

May a great year ahead, with making and keeping good resolutions, that Christ be glorified as we walk in the light of God's ways, and live in the power of God's Word.

THOUGHT: For far too many things in the Bible can only be learned by obedience. In fact, obedience brings understanding in ways no analysis can ever achieve.


Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at . You can also send me an email at for comments or enquiries.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Bye 2012! Hello 2013!

TITLE: BYE 2012! HELLO 2013!

SCRIPTURE: Ephesians 1:1-3
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 4 January 2013

"Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ." (Ephesians 1:1-3)
Synopsis: We began the New Year with hope and great anticipation of something good. Yet, we often feel deflated and let down, come December. Why? Perhaps, we have gotten it all wrong. We have erroneously thought that good or better has not come. The truth is, the best has already come.  (read the rest below)

A year ago, we were wishing one another a "Happy New Year." Yet, after 12 months, I hear people saying, "Thank God it's over," or "Good riddance, 2012." What happened? The cycle repeats itself every 365 days. We begin with a hopeful new January but it is common to see people heave a sigh of relief at the end of December. Why?

Of course, not everyone is that pessimistic. Not everything needs to be so negative. Yet, December did not really end well. Open up the newspaper, and when you see shootings, wars, fights, and all kinds of tragedies, one might be forgiven for thinking negatively about the year 2012. After all, according to the Mayan calendar, 2012 was supposed to usher in the End of the World. More specifically, it was supposed to be December 21st, 2012 where the doomsday scenario would all play out. Earthquakes, tidal waves, storms, tsunamis, and so on.

A) Bye 2012!

Last Sunday, I preached on the need for us to reflect on the year ahead, to look back with gratitude, to learn with humility, and then to properly leave the year behind. No point bringing excessive baggage from 2012 to the new year. Lest 2013 starts to resemble an extended and dreaded 2012. Before we can say goodbye, we must take time to reflect, to take a hard look at the events past, and to learn humbly from the lessons. Last year, I completed my studies at Gordon-Conwell. After four years of flying back and forth from the West to the East Coast, I received my degree and along with it, much congratulations from friends and loved ones. The road has not been easy. Working and studying, plus my pile of books to be reviewed can be quite a tall order. At the end of it all, the feeling of completing the race is satisfying. All the hard work, the time put in, and the crazy time of writing and editing reminds me again that I am getting old.

Gone are the days where I can do multiple things at one time. Gone are the days where I can connect easily with so many different people with greater hours of wakefulness. Not anymore. I find myself moving slower and getting more forgetful. I find myself pausing more often because life does not comprise of an abundance of non-stop activities. I find myself becoming more discerning of what things are necessary and what are not. A crazy busy life no longer excites me. I prefer something more quiet, more peaceful, and more contemplative. That is why I write more. I write more so as to put down my hopes and desires for my family to remember, that because God has first blessed me, I will bless others with the gifts that I have. This is what the Apostle Paul teaches. In a stark reversal of the way the doxology is normally used, Paul begins his epistle to the Ephesians with a doxology. He begins with the blessings of Christ, that we do not need to look toward the future thinking that only then we get to be blessed. Paul reminds us again that we have already been blessed. Not only that, we have been blessed with 'every spiritual blessing in Christ' in the heavenly realm. In other words, we are called to begin from the position of blessedness.

B) Beginning with Blessedness: Three Assurances

Paul begins with an assured identity in Christ. Right at the beginning of the letter, he proclaims unabashedly his calling in Christ to be an apostle. An apostle is a servant of God, a follower, a specially chosen disciple of Christ. Sometimes, we distinguish the word 'apostle' as referring to the first disciples of Jesus, as those who have seen in person, our Lord Jesus. In that way, Paul is an apostle, as he has met Jesus in his encounter at Damascus. The same goes for the first disciples who walked with Jesus. In a way, we are all apostles, as in some special way, those of us who have confessed Jesus as Lord and Saviour, will have had a personal experience with God. We are then able to begin in blessedness. We are blessed to be blessed.

This beginning is important for three reasons. Firstly, it is an assurance of God's presence. Being blessed is a sign of being marked for spiritual gifts, to be ready to receive even more. It is a passport to that life in Christ. It is that mark of identity that in ourselves, we can do nothing. In Christ, we can do anything. It is because Paul knows God is with him, that he is able to greet the people in Ephesus, "Grace and peace to you from God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." Recently, I shared a story about a man being yelled at his workplace. Fearing for his job, he refrained and retreated into silence. Upon his return home, he started to yell at his wife for the most mundane things. His wife, trying to be an understanding homemaker, released her frustration at her teenage son. The son ran out of the house and kicked the cat. The cat rushed back to the house and scratched the man. The man called in sick and forced his supervisor to put in an extra hour to cover the man's work. When we are assured of God's presence, we will not be given to yelling so easily at the slightest provocation. Instead, we will cover our tracks and our actions with prayer, trusting that God will teach and guide us in the way that we should go.

Secondly, it is an assurance of our calling. Being blessed is a way that God affirms us in our calling. In our dizzy race toward finding out what our calling is, we often forget that our calling is made more sure not in passive yoga-like posture, but in active faithful service. We are called to serve, not to be served. We are called to help, and not be constantly on the receiving end of help. We are called to share and to care, and not to expect others to do the heavy lifting for us, especially when we have the hands and the legs to do the sharing and the caring. Calling is a much touted word for us. The trouble is, I think we have given the word too much attention, and forget that we are already called to be faithful where we are. We are too future-sighted for our own good. In planning so much for the future, we forget to properly live out the present. Someone recently said to me that all of our lives, we are constantly planning for the future. It all looks very logical, and very practical. After all, if we do not plan for the future, we are not being responsible. However, have we paused to smell the flowers of life? In our rush to get things planned for the future, have we forgotten to live, and to love? The present is not meant solely to be the fuel for the future. It is after all, the future that we have been talking about yesterday. It has been said before.

"The past is history. The future is mystery. That is why the present is a gift."

Appreciate our calling in the present to be the best that we can be. Do not be deceived that only the future is the best. For all we know, we are to be the best self, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. There is no such thing that only tomorrow will be better. If we have been blessed in Christ, every day is going to be better.

Thirdly, it is an assurance of God's will for us. We have often talked about what is God's will for our lives, and then we get stuck at the words, and conveniently procrastinate about the good works.We have all been trained in this.
  • What do you want to do when you grow up?
  • What is your next job going to be?
  • What is God's will for your life?
There is a strange project for nearly every Christian I meet. What is God's will for me? There is a three-word default answer: "I Don't Know." Sometimes, what we need is a rebuke, just like Paul J. Bucknell, who warns us, "Most believers have never found the secret of discovering God's will. They are too caught up on their search for their own will."

Maybe, that is why many of us get stuck into trying to discover God's will for us. We are simply discontent until we get our own favourite versions of God's will going our way. We are too caught up with ourselves that God's will become more and more distant from us.

Frankly, if I were to tell you that God's Will for you is in God's Word, will you read the Bible more passionately and more purposefully? Maybe. John MacArthur has said,

"This is the first thing about God's will: He wants people to be saved. So much so that He stays His Judgment. Paul said, 'This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:3-4)" (John MacArthur, Found: God's Will, Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 1977, 10-11)

Rather than chasing after a version of God's will for us that has to fit into our own convenient schedules, our own complacent liking, and our own preconceived notion of spiritual planning, we must seek out the heart of God. The heart of God is not just aimed at us. It is for the whole world to be saved. How are we playing our role to do just that?

C) Entering Into 2013

So let us enter the year with these three assurances of faith. That we are assured of God's presence. That we are called to be the sons and daughters of God. That we are to work out God's will for us, by sharing the good news, by blessing others because we have been greatly blessed. Perhaps, the reason why the 'happy' in any new year greeting has been so elusive is because of our inward looking disposition. God has not given us a faith so that we can lock it up in our security chests of spirituality. Neither has He given us blessings that we will only keep for our self-consumption. He has given us more. He has given us His Son, Jesus for us to receive, and to give of ourselves, the way Christ has given us.

The gift of salvation is free to us. We are thus set free to freely give of ourselves to others, in sharing the gospel, in serving our community, and in saving the best we have for the rest of God's concerns.

Can we do that?

THOUGHT: Substitute your impersonal "Happy New Year" with a personal Holy New Life.

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