What can we do with our faith amid this Coronavirus crisis? Is our faith able to make this turbulent situation any better? Is our faith able to boost our immune system and protect us from the virus? Here’s a more fundamental question. Does our faith even matter in this chaos? Yes? Then, how? In what way? Faithful friends in Christ, I think, now is the time we should clearly answer these questions.
The rapidly evolving spread of Coronavirus becomes the greatest threat to our lives. Day after day, the number of confirmed cases continues to climb across the States. Last Friday, a national emergency was declared. Schools are sending their students back home and starting online classes. Public offices are closed. In the meantime, racism rears its ugly head and some people fall prey to discrimination and assaults. And much faster than the spread of virus, selfishness is infecting us like wildfire, and we are helplessly exposed to overwhelming fears—fear of uncertainty and fear of the other.
If we take a close look at this situation, we find, this crisis is exceptionally serious not just because Coronavirus itself is life-threatening and even fatal to the vulnerable, but also because this crisis causes us to be unnecessarily anxious. And excessive anxiety invokes our primal instinct for survival and grows the urge, the thirst, for our unsatisfied basic needs amid the crisis—need for safety, for health, for care, for well-being. Maybe, this is a very natural and common human reaction to a crisis like this.
Both the Hebrew Bible and Gospel stories for today show us two different cases of crisis. In the Exodus story, we see the people of Israel facing a deadly calamity. After they escaped from the slavery in Egypt, they are on their journey to the promised land. This journey has been great overall except the fact that they need to travel through the wilderness. One day, people can’t find water to drink. So they do what they are good at. They make complaints to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:3;7) Overwhelmed by growing anxiety and thirst, they already lost their faith. They lost the joy of liberation and forgot the mighty works and wonders of God that saved them.
In today’s Gospel story, we see the Samaritan woman. She’s one anxious and thirsty soul. One of the main causes of her issue is her ethnic background. In Jesus’ time, there was a clear separation between the Samaritans and the Jews. Technically, both of them were Abraham’s offspring. But the Samaritans inter-married non-Jews, so their bloodline got mixed up. So, the Jews denounced them as half-breeds and didn’t want to interact with them. See how the Samaritan woman replies when Jesus asks for a drink: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria? (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)” (John 4:9) Yes, she’s not very proud of herself being a Samaritan. She thirsts for some dignity.
Moreover, she has a much graver cause of anxiety. It’s from her personal history. When Jesus says to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back,” the woman answers him, “I have no husband.” Then, Jesus says, “You are right in saying, I have no husband; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” (John 4:16-18) We don’t know her entire life story but one thing is clear. She went through a lot in her marital relationships, and she has lived a shifting and twisting life of unrest. Was this record okay by people in the days of Jesus? No doubt, it must be something she always wanted to hide away but always followed after her. In this anxious Samaritan woman’s heart, there grow deep thirst—thirst for some self-esteem, for a true relationship.
Although these two cases of crisis look different from the other, from the stories, we find, God’s solution is the same. For the people of Israel, God satisfies their need by giving them water through Moses. The purpose is to teach them how to remain faithful in times of crisis, how to remain joyful and hopeful for the promised land on their wilderness journey. True, God’s solution to their crisis is faith. For the Samaritan woman, God sends Jesus. And Jesus opens her heart and opens her eyes so she can have faith in him and find new life in him. It’s the same. The solution to her crisis is also faith.
Of course, faith is not a magic wand. So it couldn’t rewrite the Samaritan woman’s past history; it couldn’t completely wipe away her disgrace or instantly satisfy all of her thirst. But faith must have enabled her to live a new life in Christ. How am I so sure? It’s because I believe, faith has a power to awaken all of us to see ourselves always worthy and beloved no matter what; faith has a power to fill our hearts with the joy of salvation and relieve us from anxiety and thirst; faith has a power to give us enduring hope for the future in Christ.
Faithful friends in Christ, I asked in the beginning, what can we do with our faith in the midst of this Coronavirus crisis? How does faith matter in these anxious and thirsty days? For sure, our faith is not a vaccine for the virus. But I can testify with confidence that our faith is the God-given solution in any crisis of our lives. It’s because, faith is the doorway to a new life. Through faith, we live a new life with deep awareness of the unchanging truth that God loves us and God is with us always. Through faith, we live a new life with joy and hope, not with anxiety and thirst even in the middle of a crisis.
The Apostle Paul tells us today, we can even boast our faith “in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). Yes, God’s steadfast love is in our hearts through the Holy Spirit here and now…so, we still have a reason to remain hopeful for the future, a reason to find meaning and purpose even in our suffering, a reason to walk our journey of Lent through the wilderness with Jesus Christ our Lord.
Faithful friends in Christ, let us have faith in Jesus and continue to live a new life in him. This is our way to go on whether circumstances are favorable or unfavorable. From today, let’s not allow any anxiety and thirst overwhelm us. Let no worries and complaints fill our hearts. But through our prayers and meditations, let only the love and grace of God flow from within our hearts to others. In our care and sacrifice for the vulnerable, let the joy and thanksgiving anoint us afresh. And in our daily words and deeds, let the everlasting hope for Easter, for the resurrection and victory of Jesus, renew the resilient and generous spirits in us and in many people around us. In the face of the crisis, let us keep the faith and live a new life in Christ.
Have you ever thought about the difference between knowing and believing? To know of something and to believe in something…certainly, they express two different cognitive actions. But it’s really hard to pinpoint their difference. The reason that I’m asking this question today is simple. It’s because, believing is what matters most in our Christian life. So, as Christians, we better clarify the meaning of believing at least once. What does it mean to believe? And how is it different from knowing? Let’s find out.
Imagine that you are in a mountain hiking along a trail. And this trail leads you to a hanging bridge. But that bridge looks old and dangerous. So you are worried and hesitating to cross the bridge. Right then, you see a man coming across the bridge. And he happens to be a State inspector. He’s there to check the bridge for an annual inspection. So you ask him, “Is it safe?” And the inspector gives you up-to-date knowledge about the bridge…about how sturdy the bridge is, how much weight it can sustain, and so on. Now you have good knowledge about that hanging bridge. But still, you are not hundred percent sure about that bridge, because it just looks unsafe. Who knows if something goes wrong when you put a step on it?
Here, we see one simple truth. Our knowledge alone cannot make us cross that hanging bridge. We need a certain degree of belief that the bridge is going to be alright. Of course, having more knowledge about the bridge can help us build confidence. But the actual action of walking across the bridge requires our belief… belief in the inspector and in the bridge. Now, can you see the difference between knowing and believing here? Knowing is about our reason, about proof and objective assessments. But believing is beyond reason; it’s more about our attitude, about our commitment that enables us to take action.
This is why that knowledge alone cannot make us Christians. Even if someone knows everything about Christianity and everything about the Bible, we can’t simply say, that person is Christian. To be a Christian, to actually live a new life in Christ, we need to believe in Jesus and commit ourselves to his way of love. Those who just have some knowledge about Jesus…they don’t have to follow him; they don’t have to live or die for him. But for those who believe in Jesus, he is the reason for life, reason for loving others and welcoming strangers, and reason for changing the world. Yes, believing in Jesus is more than just knowing Jesus.
In today’s Hebrew Bible story, we see Abram who is going to be called Abraham later. He is a believer. He’s a kind of person who puts believing before knowing. Here, God makes a great promise to him, saying, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). But before this promise, God commands Abram to “go.” Go? To where? God doesn’t specify the destination of this journey. God just tells him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you”…the land I “will” show you (Genesis 12:1). God says, I will tell you later, but for now, just go. Incredibly, even though Abram doesn’t know where he should go, he believes in God’s plan and starts his journey. Without any knowledge, without any map or guide, but only with his belief in God’s promise, he commits himself to God’s lead and takes action.
Now, there’s a guy in today’s Gospel story, who is quite different from Abram. His name is Nicodemus. He is a knower. He’s a kind of person who puts knowing before believing. He was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme council in Jerusalem, a gathering of PhDs and JDs of his days. In the story, he is very curious about Jesus. This young man from the poor town of Nazareth has something special. So, one night, he visits Jesus making sure nobody sees him, because his board doesn’t like Jesus. Looking at Nicodemus’ eagerness to seek a piece of truth, Jesus teaches him about the secret of salvation. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:3; 5). What? Being born again? How come? It doesn’t sound right to Nicodemus.
To this Nicodemus, Jesus gives a lesson of lifetime. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). Here, Jesus means, “Nicodemus, the truth of salvation is beyond your knowledge. But don’t you think that it’s not for you to know but for you to believe. Knowledge can help you understand me better, but it’s your belief in me that regenerates you and saves you.” So listen, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). You don’t have to know all the mystery of God’s grace to be saved, you can simply believe in me. Then you will be born again as a child of God.
Faithful friends in Christ, are you more like Abraham, a believer? Or are you more like Nicodemus, a knower? Between knowing and believing, where are you at now? In this Season of Lent, I hope we all become more like Abraham who puts believing before knowing. I love the English expression “believe in.” Yes, when we believe, we are in. We are in the attitude of accepting Jesus as our Lord. We commit ourselves into the journey with him. We step in the relationship with God. We abide in the Holy Spirit, so that in the presence of God, we experience and understand more and more the love that pours out upon us, the joy that fills our hearts, the grace that renews us even in our darkest days.
Today, you may feel like you don’t know how to live your life, don’t know why bad things happen to you, don’t know where God is, don’t know what to do to renew yourself. If you do, why don’t you stop trying to know everything, but instead, start believing like Abraham, believing that someday God will lead you to the land of promise? Why don’t you stop trying to know everything, but instead, start believing again the truth that Jesus gives to Nicodemus today, the truth that we have heard so many times? “For God so loved the world, for God so loves each one of you, that gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Do you believe this? Do you believe in Jesus?
In this Season of Lent and beyond, let us put believing before knowing. May God renew your spirit and regenerate your life as you trust in Jesus more and more. And may God reaffirm your faith that is the assurance of what you hope for and conviction of what you do not see yet. Amen.
A traveler is walking alone across a wilderness. Suddenly, he hears a weird growl and the sound of ominous footsteps coming toward him. It is a huge elephant charging straight for him. He panics and runs as fast as he can. But he makes a wrong turn leading him to a cliff. Fortunately, there’s a tree standing on the edge of the cliff. But he has no time to climb it. So he quickly grabs one of the ivy vines hanging from the tree and clings to it. Now, he looks down to see if there’s any way out. But to his surprise, there are large venomous snakes waiting for him to fall. Making matters worse, two mice, one white and the other black, appear out of nowhere, and takes turns gnawing the vine—his only lifeline. At this desperate moment, something strange happens. There’s a beehive over him on the branch, and it starts to drop some honey to his face. He licks it a little bit and finds it really sweet and delicious. So he keeps on licking the honey and wants it more and more. After a while, he totally gets addicted to this small pleasure, and forgets all the dangers he is in.
What’s going on here? This story sounds ridiculous, right? This bizarre and even comical story is actually a famous Buddhist illustration of human life. I know, it’s from another religious tradition, but I think, it gives us a poignant description of life with some universal wisdom.
Let me explain its symbolism and it will make sense to you. Here, the traveler represents us, humans. We, lonely travelers, take a journey of life through a wilderness. And there, every one of us encounters death coming toward us like the huge elephant. We try to run away. But we can’t avoid it because there’s a cliff, a certain end. We have to jump off of the cliff and hold on to the ivy vine, which signifies, our uncertain lifespan. And do you remember the two mice gnawing the ivy vine? They represent the passage of time. The white mouse is the symbol of day and the black mouse, night. So day and night take turns and shorten our lives. The venomous snakes in the bottom mean endless sufferings that are ready to devour us. But in this desperate situation, we humans don’t realize the danger and even forget about it. How come? It’s because of the sweet and delicious honey—worldly desires and pleasures. The more we lick it, the more we get indulged and addicted, and the more we lose our mind.
What a stark picture of our life. Like the story shows us, we are stuck. We can never be free from the matter of death. And our fragile ivy vines are being cut even at this very moment. But in reality, we live as if our life would last forever and keep on craving for more honey. Then, what’s the solution here? What might be the way out of this seemingly inescapable situation?
For your information, the Buddhist solution is like this. Wake up! Realize that all this situation is just an illusion. Wake up from your dream. This is what the Buddhist enlightenment is about. But for us, Christians, the solution is certainly different. Our Christian faith understands that it’s impossible for humans to find their own way out by themselves; it’s impossible to renounce all the temptations in life. Look at today’s Genesis story about Adam and Eve. Even though the serpent makes an offer they can’t refuse, they themselves also find the fruit is, the Bible says, “a delight to the eyes,” and “to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 2:6). Yes, the Bible is honest about us. And I believe, this biblical assessment on human nature is so true. It’s impossible for us to reject all the honeys of the world and make the way out by our own ability and willpower.
Then, what’s the Christian solution for us, for humans who are bound to the chains of temptation, sin, and death? Here, our Christian faith opens our eyes to see a person coming into the picture of our life. This person was the same human just like us, but there’s something different, something special, in him. He came, renounced temptations, put up the way out to set us free. Who is this person? Yes, Jesus Christ.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus is tempted by the devil. The devil brings Jesus to the cliff and offers him the finest and sweetest honey of the world so that he may lose his purpose and forget who he is just like other humans.
The first temptation targets on his hunger, a basic human need. The devil lures him to satisfy it by using his power. After fasting 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus is famished. But he renounces the temptation, saying, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:3-4). The second temptation targets on Jesus’ vulnerability. The devil attracts Jesus to earn security and fame by using God’s power. If Jesus would jump off of the pinnacle of the temple and get rescued by angels, he could be easily called the Messiah and draw many followers. But Jesus rejects the devil. The last temptation targets on Jesus’ human ego. After showing him “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor,” the devil asks him to get them by using the devil’s power (4:8). “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (4:9). But Jesus overcomes this final temptation.
Follow your human urge. Satisfy your need. Crave your desire. Don’t you know you can use your power, God’s power, and even my power anytime you want? Just tell me. You can have it all. The finest and sweetest honey of this world is yours if you only ask. The devil’s temptation is strong and tries to bind Jesus tightly. But Jesus renounces this temptation. He becomes free and finally, paves a way out of the cliff. And the way he opened…he opened it for all. So the people who has followed Jesus and taken his way also find freedom. Which way is this? It is the way he made by his sacrifice, the way of freedom…yes, it’s the way of the cross.
Faithful friends in Christ, please remember our Christian solution to the matter of life and death is always the cross. Paul proclaims in his Letter to the Romans, “[Jesus’] act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Romans 5:18). The way of the cross…this way of freedom reveals, there’s a different life in Christ, a life free from human bondage to sin and death, a life free from the fragile ivy vine, and from the worthless honey. And this way of God’s grace saves us from the deadly cliff and leads us to follow Jesus and join his victory. So we give thanks and praise to our God for this amazing act of righteousness of Jesus.
On this first Sunday in Lent, Jesus calls us to open our eyes, look around, and see the true picture of our life, the stark picture of our status quo filled with our hidden addictions and flaws, our greed and sinfulness. And today, Jesus also calls us to take his way of the cross with our faith. He leads us to renounce temptations, sins, and all the spiritual forces of wickedness. And he leads us to walk up the way out of the cliff in our continuous works of piety and mercy. Pray. Meditate. Examine yourself before God. Repent. Love. Forgive. Build up the church. Carry out missions for the lost and the least among you. Share the good news with others. Jesus is calling us. So from today through this Season of Lent and beyond, let us cling to the cross. Let us cling to the old rugged cross of our Lord, join his freedom from temptation and his victory over sin and death. Amen.
Change. What do you feel as soon as you hear this word? Are you feeling totally fine with it? Comfortable? Or a little bit anxious about? Do you like changes in your life? Well, some changes are good and positive. And for sure, there are necessary changes we should make to improve our lives. But some changes certainly discomfort and irritate us. Then, what’s the difference between these two types of change? I think, in general, we are okay with the changes made by our own will because they happen within our control. Whereas, we are not that okay with the changes made against our will, especially some unexpected changes that just happen in our lives. These uncontrollable changes certainly bother us, because we just have to admit them and move on.
Let’s say, one day, I changed the carpet at home without telling Jee Hei about it. But I like it because I picked it. Then, Jee Hei comes back home from work and says what? Even if she likes the carpet, she may be surprised and ask me, “Why didn’t you tell me about this change?” And what if she doesn’t like the carpet? Let’s not go there now. And here’s a simpler example. Imagine that you are watching your favorite TV show or a sports match with your friends. You are so into it now and having so much fun. But suddenly one of your friends suddenly changes the channel without asking anybody about anything. Are you feeling alright with that kind of change? Of course, not.
In today’s Gospel story, the disciples experience one serious change in their lives. And no doubt, this change is neither what they want, nor what they can handle. Let’s follow their journey. It’s another day with Jesus for Peter, James, and John. Jesus calls them and leads them up to a high mountain. But there, all of sudden, Jesus is transfigured. His face shines like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white. Then, out of nowhere, Moses and Elijah, the two greatest prophets of Israel, appear to them (Matthew 17:2-3). And they’re talking with Jesus in divine glory. To the disciples, Jesus looks so different. And they feel, this change is not just about Jesus himself but also about them. They certainly sense that their lives will never stay the same after this watershed moment.
Why? Why do the disciples feel that way? It’s because right before this event, Jesus taught them about his upcoming death and resurrection. As soon as Peter, James and John witness the transfiguration, they realize that the time has finally come and something groundbreaking, something radical, is really going to follow soon. In fact, the transfiguration of Jesus is not just any given event. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this story commonly marks a turning point in Jesus’ ministry, which leads to the final days of Jesus in Jerusalem where he gets arrested and finally crucified.
Peter, James, and John… about three years ago, when they were fishermen, Jesus called them to follow him. They immediately left everything behind and followed Jesus. This change is what they made by their own will. That’s what they wanted. But now, at the mountain top, the disciples encounter the change of Jesus that signals a series of unruly changes to come. And they know, this time, those changes will be out of their control. They already heard the scary word, death, from Jesus. And they don’t know what to expect from resurrection. It’s just an absurd idea to them. These things are more than enough to terrify them. Indeed, the Gospel tells us, while Jesus is transfigured, they fall to the ground and are overcome by fear (Matthew 17:6).
I believe, Peter, James, and John in today’s Gospel story are the precise reflections of us. Facing the overwhelming changes, it is natural for any human to feel fear. But here, we should pay more attention to the rest of their story. Now, they fall to the ground and are overcome by fear. What happens then? Then… Jesus comes to them and touches them. And he talks to them. Let us read it together. “Get up and do not be afraid” (Matthew 17:7). Get up and do not be afraid. And at the mountain top, the disciples somehow pull themselves together and start walking the way to Jerusalem with Jesus, even though they are still scared to death.
Like the disciples’ journey, our Christian journey also encounters unavoidable changes. But remember, at the moment when we committed ourselves to following Jesus, we basically agreed to obey Jesus; we agreed to surrender our will and let God’s will be done in our lives; we agreed to humble our egos and let the mind of Christ live in us. Today we sang, “Change my heart oh God. Make it ever true. Change my heart oh God. May I be like you. You are the potter. I am the clay. Mold me and make me. This is what I pray.” Yes, again, today we asked God to reshape us and asked the Holy Spirt to transform and sanctify our lives. Then, what if today Jesus wants to change us and our life more radically and totally against our will? What if Jesus makes unexpected changes in our life and changes the direction of our journey right to the cross?
If we ask God’s will to be done in our lives, we will never be the same. We will do what Christ wants us to do, go where God wants us to go, and follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit who is like a wind that blows where it wills.
From this coming Wednesday, another Season of Lent begins. In this season of penitence and reflection we are invited to walk the way of Jesus, the way through the wilderness. I hope and pray, this journey through Lent be filled with hope rather than fear, with radical changes even against our will rather than maintenance of the status quo.
Get up and do not be afraid, Jesus is telling us today. Going through whatever changes, whatever hardships, challenges, and struggles, I will be with you. Jesus is saying to us. Get up and do not be afraid. Even though there are daunting changes in your life, in your family, in your church, in The United Methodist Church, in the U.S. politics, and in the world, I will lift you up today as I did to Peter, James, and John. I will come to you, touch you, empower you, and say to you, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Therefore, let us open our hearts wide to Jesus every day in our prayers and meditation, so that he can truly change us. He is knocking at the door. So let him in. Let him lead our ways to his cross. Amen.
1. God Is with Us
Today, we are celebrating the very first Sunday of 2020, as Epiphany Sunday. The word “epiphany” means revelation or manifestation of the divine. And for Christians, this epiphany is about Jesus, especially the day of his humble birth. On this day, the Magi, the three wise men, followed the starlight, traveled a long way to visit the baby Jesus, and finally, they witnessed the shimmering revelation of something divine in him. What would be that something these three wise men witnessed? It’s a mystery with full of wonder. But, we do know one thing for sure. The baby Jesus in a manger manifested the heart of God for the world, the heart full of love. In that baby Jesus, we see and experience that God loves us and wants to be with us, so God comes down and dwells among us. As the Angel Gabriel announced and as the Prophet Isaiah foretold, the name of Jesus is indeed “Emmanuel, God with us.”
Yes, Jesus, as the Son of God, reveals the heart of God: God doesn’t want to be without us. So, God will be with us all the time. The Bible in many places testifies that God always came to people first, when they were yet sinners and even when they had no idea about God. God came to Abraham to make a covenant with him. God revealed Godself to Moses in the burning bush to save the Hebrews from slavery. God spoke to the prophets to turn the people of God back from their wrong ways. And finally, God came down to earth and was incarnated in Jesus. Why? It’s because our God’s nature is love. Our God is love and the best expression of this love is to be with us always. Throughout the year of 2020, whether circumstances are favorable or unfavorable to us, let us not forget this truth we know: God is with us. And this is the first simple lesson for us to remember as we open up this new year.
2. Embody the Love
The God of true love doesn’t only stay in a higher or lofty position to be adored. But this God doesn’t mind coming down to lowly places in our midst, to be with us. This surely is good news for us. The love manifested in Jesus Christ is not an idealistic or philosophical love. Instead, it’s literally a down-to-earth love, the embodied love. To be with us, this God of love doesn’t mind taking a human form, having flesh and blood. God doesn’t mind coming to dwell in humble places. Jesus was born in a shabby stable. There was no crowd and no visit from any family or friends, from any powerful or famous people. However, right in the very stable, which looks farthermost away from divine glory, the most divine and the most mysterious work of God happened. The incarnation.
Yes, Jesus, as the love incarnate, reveals the heart of God: God doesn’t want to be out of our reach or remain illusory. So God shows the way that divine love takes on flesh in our lives, takes on concrete and tangible form. And this love calls all the believers, who have faith in the incarnation, to follow this way of God’s love to change the world. One of my favorite writers, Parker J. Palmer, beautifully describes this, saying, “An infant in a manger is as vulnerable as human beings get, and what an infant needs is simple: food, shelter and protection from harm. The same is true of all the good words seeded in our souls [love, truth, and justice] that long to become embodied in our midst. If these vulnerable but powerful parts of ourselves are to be incarnated—to suffer yet survive and thrive, transforming us and the wounded world around us—they need to be swaddled in unconditional love.” As the followers of Jesus, we are called to try and try more and harder to embody the love of God in our lives through our hands and feet, through our church’s ministries, through our kind words, and through our merciful hearts. Make the love visible, make the love real. Make it take on flesh in our words and deeds. Embody the love. And this is the second simple lesson for us to remember as we open up this new year.
3. Shine the Light
From the baby Jesus in a manger, the light of grace shines forth on all people and illuminates the world in the darkness. Jesus is “the true light” that “enlightens everyone” as the Gospel of John testifies (John 1:9). This true light came and shone in a manger, in a humble stable. There, the Magi witnessed the presence of God in the true light—not in the palace of the powerful Roman emperors who were often deified, not in the Holy of Holies in the temple of Jerusalem. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the birth of Jesus was immediately followed by a great threat as Herod came after Jesus to kill him. The life of Jesus was set in a treacherous situation from its beginning. The holy family who didn’t have a place to stay for a night and even needed to flee. The family became refugees running away from persecution and wandering in a foreign land. However, nothing could keep the divine light from shining.
Yes, Jesus, the true light, reveals the heart of God: God doesn’t want us to be in the darkness. God always shines the light upon each one of us. Jesus becomes the enduring light in our hearts. And as bearers of this true light, we are called to carry this true light to wherever we go and let it shine. Especially, to the lowliest and loneliest places around us, in the places that seem to have nothing to do with any matter of God, and to the lives that are not cared by many people, we are asked to go to those places with the light of Christ. The prophet Isaiah proclaims, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you” (Isaiah 60:1-2). Arise. Shine the light. And this is the third simple lesson for us to remember as we open up this new year.
Faithful friends in Christ, God is with us. God wants to be with us no matter where we are. So with Christ in our hearts, let us joyfully start our new year with faith and hope. And let us change our parts of the world with the love and light of Jesus Christ. Remember the three simple lessons for this new year. God is with us. Embody the love. Shine the light. Amen.
The Season of Advent has begun! In this beautiful season of waiting for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, may God fill our hearts and anoint our souls with hope, peace, joy, and love. As we prepare ourselves in this season, I’d like to invite you to explore with me the lives of the people we see in the nativity scene. These people usually huddle around the manger and play their supporting roles in the drama of Jesus’s birth. They are Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds. I think it is meaningful to look into their stories that are easily overlooked. Why? Because there’s something similar between their lives and our own. Of course, their lives were quite different from ours. Unlike us, they met the angels who delivered messages from God. And they lived their lives as the firsthand witnesses of Jesus. But, beyond these differences, I believe, we still are very similar to these people because we are also taking part in the grand narrative of God’s salvation history.
Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds…are not the main characters in this narrative; nonetheless, their lives, like our own, ultimately point to the one character whose birth changed the whole world. Yes, Jesus. If they waited for the advent of Jesus at his birth, we wait for the advent of Jesus on the day of the Lord that all God’s promises are finally fulfilled. In this way, Jesus’s light illuminates all of us through centuries. And Jesus’s life weaves all our lives into the common thread of faith. So, the things that Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds did as they were waiting for Jesus two thousand years ago are still very meaningful to us who are waiting for him today. We have so much to learn from them by reflecting on their stories and the messages of the angels they delivered to them. Keeping this in our minds, today, I would like to take you to the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
The Gospel tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth were going through a hard time. They almost lost their faith and hope. Zechariah is a priest, but it is so difficult for him to remain faithful. It’s not just him. His people, the people of Israel, are also hopeless and helpless. God has been silent to them for more than four hundred years. There has been no sign. No angels. No prophets. No messages. The last prophet they had was the Prophet Malachi who delivered prophecies over four centuries ago. Look at today’s Hebrew Bible reading, Malachi, Chapter 4. This passage is the very last chapter of the entire Hebrew Bible; the Old Testament ends with this passage, and this passage is followed by the stories of Jesus in the Gospels, in the New Testament. So in our Bible, the prophecies of Malachi and the stories of Jesus in the Gospels are side by side. But chronologically speaking, there’s a gap of about four hundred years’ time between them.
Making matters worse, during God’s silence, Israel had continued down a path of suffering and persecution, failed revolution and lost war. Most people scattered in all directions of the conquering nations. Some had come back to the land with Nehemiah. But other powerful nations came and savaged the land and the people one after another. And now, the people of Israel are under the rule of the Roman Empire. So every day Zechariah walks in the temple, built by Herod, the ruthless king of Israel, he sees the Roman flag waving in the wind, high above his homeland. Looking at this situation, Zechariah is losing his faith and hope for God’s deliverance. How long, oh, Lord!
His despair is getting bigger and deeper at home with his wife Elizabeth. She has been unable to bear a child. It was especially difficult in the first century, when the fertility was seen as a direct sign of God’s blessing. At this point in their lives, they completely lose their hope. They expects little from God. On the outside, Zechariah may appear to be a holy priest. But on the inside, it’s a different story. His faith has gradually withered away and he just keeps and performs rituals as mere religious habits. This old man and his wife dream no more dreams. They are losing their faith and hope in their private anguish.
But to this broken-hearted couple, into the midst of their despair and sadness, God’s message of hope suddenly comes. One day, as Zechariah enters the sanctuary of the Lord and offers incense, there appears to him the angel Gabriel. And he says, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John…. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:13-17).
For Zechariah and Elizabeth, this is the moment when their days of suffering and doubt are gone. They will have a son. And their son, John the Baptist, will be a forerunner, a prophet who reflects the light of Jesus. God is faithful indeed, they realized. God never forgets them. In fact, the meaning of the name Zechariah is, “God has remembered.” Truly, God has remembered Zechariah and Elizabeth.
And this moment is meaningful not just to this couple but to all God’s people. The angel’s message means that the promise of God delivered through the prophecy of Malachi is going to be fulfilled. In fact, Gabriel’s word to Zechariah clearly repeats the prophecy of Malachi: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:5-6). The angel says to Zechariah that this promise of God is going to be fulfilled by his son, John the Baptist. After four hundred years of silence, God’s plan of redemption now begins to unfold. The day of the Lord, the day of new life, is coming with the Messiah. Finally, the light shines through the darkness. Amidst a downtrodden people, a new day is dawning. Truly, the God of Jacob neither sleeps nor slumbers. Zechariah, Elizabeth, and the faithful believers of God praise God for this.
Faithful friends in Christ, from the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, I hope we may remember this one thing today. God is faithful to us and God remembers us. Although we are living our lives in this broken world full of troubles and suffering, God never forgets us. God never overlooks the righteous people’s struggles and their silent sighs and anguishes. Even when we feel like God is silent all the time to us, even when our prayers seem never heard, even when it looks like our lives always go down a path of hardships, we should not give up on God. As God made a way for Zechariah and Elizabeth, and for all God’s people, God is with us today and unfolds history in our lives following God’s own timeline and plan. In this Season of Advent, as we await the coming of Jesus Christ, let us hold onto this truth that our God is always faithful to us and remembers us. May God be with all of us who want to learn how to be patient and yet confident and look for Jesus, the light of the world, the prince of peace. Amen.
For the last seven and a half years, I delivered about four hundred sermons here but among them, fewer than three sermons are about money. You already know, I preached on money when I really had to. And today is unfortunately one of those days. But our faith and money… this is a truly vital topic. Money is one of the most critical parts of our life. And it has power to decide many things and change many things. So it is necessary for us to reflect on our stewardship of God-given treasure, and especially, on our practice of giving. What kind of principle of giving should we hold onto as God’s stewards? Let us look into it together.
Who is the most generous person in the world now? So far, according to Forbes, Bill Gates has donated $28 billion with a net worth of $66 billion. Warren Buffet has donated $17.25 billion with a net worth of $46 billion. George Soros has donated $8.5 billion with a net worth of $19 billion. Isn’t it incredible? For me, those numbers are too big to imagine. It’s just surreal. No doubt, they are truly generous people. Then, who is the most generous person in our church? So far, according to Robert, the chair of our finance committee…I’m just kidding! Relax. I don’t even have access to such records. As a pastor, I keep certain ethical conducts regarding finance of the church, and one of them is not to ask anything about personal offering records. So no worries.
Anyway, let’s change the question a bit. Who would be the most generous person Jesus ever encountered? Have you ever thought about this? Do you think Jesus might regard one of the rich guys I mentioned earlier as the most generous person? I’m not sure. But one thing I am quite sure about is this: for Jesus, the most generous persons were not often some people who were rich or famous. In many times, they were the people whose names never make any headlines. And in most cases, they were quite unexpected people like the poor widow we see in today’s Gospel story. She offers two small copper coins that are worth only a penny. But Jesus praises her, saying, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mark 12:43-44).
This poor widow clearly shows us: Jesus doesn’t measure the size of one’s generosity by the sum of what he or she gives. However, he measures how much that giving really costs the giver something. In other words, Jesus measures how much sacrifice he or she makes to give to God. So here’s the principle of Jesus. Generosity is not determined by the size of the gift but by the size of the sacrifice. Yes, when we give something to God, it should cost us something, something substantial. Otherwise, it is not a real sacrifice. In our giving, there must be a degree of sacrifice, so it makes our gift valuable. So by this measure, the poor widow deserves praise. While everybody contributes something out of their abundance, she, out of her poverty, puts in everything she has, all she has to live with.
Then, why sacrifice? Why do we have to make sacrifice to give back to God? Can we just give some surplus or leftover? Something that doesn’t affect our finance, our savings? Yes, there may be a lot of questions. But the reason for sacrifice is quite simple and straightforward to us, who believe in Jesus Christ. We make sacrifice to give God what we have, because Jesus made his sacrifice on the cross to save us and give us the precious new life in God. One dictionary defines sacrifice like this: “an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.” We all know, what’s more important and worthier in our lives. We all know, our faith in Jesus is the best gift we received from God. So we can give back to God what we value, what we cherish—our time, our treasure, our talents, and even our whole life. We can make our life a living sacrifice to God and God’s vision for a new kingdom of love.
True, there’s no more precious life than the life sacrificed for the purpose of love. There’s no better life than the life of Christians surrendered to the will of God and to the continued life-giving mission of Jesus. And here’s one thing we should also remember. This sacrifice we make for the sake of Jesus and his kingdom isn’t hard or painful. Instead, this holy sacrifice brings us joy. Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). For those who don’t understand the value of this hidden treasure, it’s meaningless to make sacrifice to own it. But for those who understand the surpassing value of living in the kingdom of God—the value of worship and fellowship, the value of ministries that change the world, the value of prayers and practices, making sacrifice can be a joyful thing indeed.
Today, we are called to remember the sacred value of God’s unending love, the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross. Do you believe God’s love really matters to you and your life? Yes? Then, you can commit yourself to God, even if it may cost you something. Do you believe the sacrifice of Jesus matters the most to you and your life? Yes? Then, you can surrender yourself to the will of Christ, even if it may cost you everything.
The founder of the Methodist movement John Wesley left us great wisdom on money: “Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.” Until last week, I thought, the emphases in these sentences are on “you can.” Earn all “you can.” Save all “you can.” Give all “you can.” But last week this phrase came to me anew as I realized, it is “all” that Wesley really wanted to emphasize. Earn “all” you can. Save “all” you can. Give “all” you can. To God, who first came to us and made the covenant relationship with us, to Jesus Christ, who first loved us and sacrificed himself on the cross for our salvation, we can give “all” we can; we can dedicate our whole life. From today, let us be more generous. Let us find true joy as we make more sacrifice to God and serve God’s mission. May God bless us more and grant us more heavenly gifts as we give God something that really cost us and as we gladly make sacrifice of our time, treasure, and talent. Amen.
 Rick Ezell, “The Heart of Generosity,” preaching.com (accessed November 13, 2019, https://www.preaching.com)
An American tourist in Italy met a monk. The monk offered him to show around the monastery where he was staying. On their tour, they visited the monk’s room; the tourist noticed there was no TV and radio, but only one change of clothes, a towel, and a blanket. He asked, “How do you live so simply?” The monk answered, “I noticed you carry only enough things to fill a suitcase; why do you live so simply?” To him the tourist replied, “But I’m just a tourist, I’m only traveling through.” To him the monk said, “So am I, so am I.”
This story tenderly reminds us of how short and transitory our life is. And it certainly helps us realize that we have not much time in this life. We are just traveling through. This is what today’s Hebrew Bible reading also poignantly tells us. Isaiah delivers God’s voice to us, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it” (Isaiah 40:6-7). Yes, our time on earth is limited, and moreover, we don’t know when God calls us back. True. Our life is just a short-term trip.
But in our daily lives, we are not always mindful of this unchanging truth of human life. Why? Because we are so busy and distracted by so many things we should take care of. Competing-time demands are an inevitable part of modern life. And everyone is combatting their busy schedule. But to make our short-term trip more meaningful and valuable, we better be aware of the transient nature of our life always. The Letter of James teaches us, “Come now, you who say, ‘today and tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:13-17).
Like the grass and flower of the field, like a mist that briefly appears and then vanishes, our life is short. So today, the pressing question for all of us is this: “What is the best and most fruitful way to use our limited time?” We can find an answer from Jesus. Here, I am not trying to describe Jesus as the perfect time management expert like in some self-improvement books. Of course, if we look into the Gospels, we can certainly see how Jesus uses his time. But believe or not, what I found last week is that his way of time management is not that different from us. Surprising? Yes, for sure, if you expected a kind of divine or magical way to manage time from Jesus. But the truth is… Jesus did the same thing as we do in time planning.
In fact, Jesus set priorities in spending his time, just as we do. We also spend our time on our priorities right? Look at the grid. Even if we are not aware of it all the time, we try to do the important and urgent things first. We make our to-do list whether we write it down or just keep it in our mind. And we try to keep up with it. Why? It’s simply because we don’t want to waste our time doing not important and not urgent things. Probably for the same reason, Jesus also set his priorities, so that he could accomplish his mission in only three short years of his ministry. Anyway, it is great that Jesus used the same time management method as we do.
But… here comes the difference between Jesus and us. Jesus is different from us in a way that he decided what’s important and what’s not. And here’s an incredible thing. His priorities are not about himself. He prioritized the things that are important to God and to God’s kingdom. But check out our to-do list. We can easily and clearly say that we prioritize the things that are important for us. Yes, Jesus used the same time management method as we do. But his priorities are not quite same as ours.
So what are the priorities of Jesus? From today’s Gospel readings, we can get to know them. Jesus says, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). For Jesus, love is the number one priority. And he actually used his precious time on earth for the purpose of love—love that forgives us, accepts us, and saves us. And with this love, Jesus asks us to go and make disciples of all nations, and build the kingdom of God, the kingdom of love, peace and liberation, wherever we go. Love God and love your neighbor with all your time. Build the kingdom of God whenever you can. Indeed, these two are the overriding priorities that Jesus focused on in his days.
And it is clear that they should be our Christian priorities as we manage our time. We, the Christians, always say, “We want to follow Jesus. We want to be Christ-like believers,” not knowing exactly what to do. But today, we learn one certain way to follow Jesus. Prioritize what Jesus prioritized and make the priorities of Jesus our priorities.
A couple of weeks ago, one news really inspired me and led me to reflect on my priorities in life. It was the news about former President Jimmy Carter helping people build Habitat for Humanity homes in Nashville. It was just one day after he fell at his home and received stitches above his eye. And he has also had some trouble walking after he had a hip replaced in May. But this 95-year old man insisted on coming out and helping build houses even with his shaky hands. And he insisted on teaching Sunday School regularly. To an interviewer, he mentioned, “I had a No. 1 priority and that was to come to Nashville to build houses!”
What’s your number one priority when it comes to time? In your priorities, on you to-do list today… among many items that are important to us, to our family, to our entertainment, is there anything that is important to God and God’s kingdom? Is there any items that Jesus would have also prioritized?
From this Sunday until the end of November, we are having our annual Stewardship Campaign. This is the right time to reflect on how good we are as stewards of our God-given resources. And among the three important resources, I mean, time, treasure, and talent, I think, time is the most precious resource we have. Then, how are we using this resource? Are we using it wisely enough following the overriding priorities of Jesus? There is no enough time for all things, but I’m sure, there is enough time for the most important things. So from today, on our to-do list, why don’t we include more things that are important to God and God’s kingdom? If you attend worship service once a month, why can it be twice a month or three times a month? If you pray for ten minutes a day, why can it be twenty minutes a day from now on? If you spend an hour for church’s mission weekly, why can it be two hours? Let us use more time to love God and love our neighbors. Let us spend more time building the kingdom of God among us. May we bear much fruits of love as we make the priorities of Jesus our priorities in our short lifetime. Amen.
Sometimes people ask me if we believe in saints in The United Methodist Church. And I say, “The answer is both yes and no.” On the one hand, the answer is no, because we don’t really have saints in the way that the Roman Catholic Church does. We don’t formally beatify or canonize people. So we don’t have any officially recognized saints in our tradition—not even John Wesley. On the other hand, the answer is yes, because we do use the word “saint.” But the difference is that we use this word to refer to all believers of Jesus Christ, whether they are still with us or already with God. Yes, in our Methodist tradition, saints are not just a few angelic people with haloes behind their heads. Rather, saints are all believers just like you and me, all believers who follow Jesus here and now, or who have already lived their faithful lives and gone before us.
I’m blessed for I’ve known many saints in my life. They have inspired me to be a better believer and to become a pastor. But honestly, they are not very special people. Their lives are hardly perfect or extraordinary. Just like me, they have suffered the same kinds of challenges; they have struggled with the same kinds of sins; they have received the same God’s grace, just as I do. Yet, they all have lived their ordinary lives with great faithfulness and courage. They are saints to me, not because they are so saintly without any blemish, but because they have faithfully walked their journeys of sanctification through all the ups and downs in life. I believe, you can also talk about such saints in your life, some people around you who have inspired you to become better believers.
Then, what about us? Do you think that we are saints too? Not sure yet? You may ask me, “You said, ‘We all are sinners,’ in your sermon last Sunday. Then, today you tell us, ‘We all are saints,’ all of sudden?” Of course, we all are sinners. That’s for sure. We are always inclined to do something wrong, and we are weak and in need of forgiveness. But still, we can be called saints. Why? It’s not because of who we are, our holiness or righteousness, but because of who Jesus is, his steadfast love that saves us, dwells in us, molds us and shapes us into more Christ-like people each and every day. Yes, in Jesus our Lord, we surely are saints of God on our common journey of sanctification.
In today’s Hebrew Bible and Epistle readings, for all God’s saints God promises many great things. Through the vision of Daniel, God says, in the end time, when the judgments is upon the earth, “the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever” (Daniel 7:8). And today’s Epistle reading reminds us, “in Christ, we have obtained an inheritance, the redemption and the promise of the kingdom, and also, in Christ, we are “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:11; 13). Such grateful words of promise! Thanks and praises be to God who calls us to be saints on earth, who chooses us to inhere the kingdom, and who marks us with the seal of the Holy Spirit.
But for all God’s saints, God doesn’t grant those privileges only. In fact, there are things we should do as saints. Yes, privileges always come with duties, right? Let’s look into the Gospel reading. In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus first assures that we are fully blessed even when we are hungry, poor, weeping, and persecuted, and our reward will be great in heaven. So, God’s saints always have a certain reason to rejoice even in the days of suffering. Second, Jesus also warns us that when we indulge in pleasure and comfort from our richness, fame, fullness, that is the time when God’s woe can be upon us. So, God’s saints always check themselves not to be complacent and lose faith when things are going all too well.
Right after this assurance and warning, Jesus finally tells us the things we should do as saints. Let us read them together. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:27-31).
I know, this to-do list is a kind of impossible-to-do list, or at least, a hard-to-do list. But Jesus is so sure and clear that these are what all saints of God should try and practice in their lives. This list of duties can be summarized in one single sentence: “Practice the love of Jesus”—the love that is unconditional, self-denying, and life-giving. We are saints, because Jesus’ sacred love dwells in us as we believe in him. And as saints, we are called to reveal this love and share it with others. It is not important how much successful we are in practicing love. But we should persevere always. That’s our holy duty. Live out the love of Jesus, and make life more holier, keep relationships more sacred, and change communities gradually into the kingdom of God.
Fellow saints of God, today we are celebrating All Saints Sunday and our 191st Anniversary. Today we shouldn’t forget all those ordinary saints in our church’s history, in the history of First United Methodist Church of Montclair and also in the 186 years of history of Verona United Methodist Church. Indeed, today, in this sanctuary, we are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses” from both churches’ history. Let us remember our saints and their legacy of faith as we celebrate the joining tougher of the two churches today and as we move ahead toward our future. Because of their love for God, for neighbor, for the two churches, we are here to continue the common history of saints today; we are here to share the same love with others.
Indeed, it was love, from the beginning, the love of Jesus. This love grants us the redemption and consecrates us to be saints at our baptism and to inhere God’s kingdom. It still is this love, today, the love of our Lord. This love marks us with the seal of the Holy Spirit and binds us together in the communion of saints beyond space and time. And it will be the same love, in the future, the unconditional love of Christ. This love will always dwell in us, continuously sanctify us on our spiritual journey, and always call us to the duty of sharing that love with others. As we live out this sacred love and our sainthood, let us be persistent. Let us take up our own crosses and follow Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:3) May God’s grace and love be with all of us in abundance, as we continue the work of saints with great faithfulness and courage just like the saints who have gone before us. Amen.
These days, most cars can diagnose themselves and give us signals if there are any issues. You probably have seen these common symbols at least once on your dashboard. The first one from the left tells you, check the tire pressure; it might be too low. The second one says, check the level of engine oil and fill it. And the third one is scary. It tells you that there’s something wrong with your car’s engine. Because this warning sign is about nothing else but the engine, we better pay careful attention. And I’m sure everyone knows the last one. What does it mean? Yes, your gas is running out… basically. But we take this symbol in different ways. For example, my wife takes it so seriously like God commands her, “Thou shall not pass the next gas station. Go now and fill up thy gas tank.” To me? Well… it says, “You can still drive 30 miles more, so take your time.” Anyway, these dashboard symbols are very helpful for us to keep our cars in good condition and fix issues without any delay.
Reflecting on today’s Gospel reading last week, I thought, it would be great if we have an ability to diagnose ourselves and get some dashboard symbols whenever we have some issues in our spiritual life. It must be convenient for us to maintain our healthy relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves. Just imagine. A traction warning light comes on, when we lose our faith and wander away; a brake warning light comes on, when we can’t stop chasing our desires and ignoring God’s call; a low fuel indicator comes on, when there’s no love, no hope left in us. How about that? I believe, it must be very helpful. But the question here is, how can we clearly diagnose ourselves, our spiritual status quo? True, it’s hard to tell what’s going on when it comes to our spiritual matters. Do you have any good ideas?
Today, Jesus tells us a simple yet clear way to diagnose our spiritual condition and have our issues indicated and fixed. Let’s look into the Gospel reading. Here, Jesus tells us a parable. Two men go up to the temple to pray. The first is a Pharisee, a religious insider who serves a vital role in the spiritual life of the Jews. Like other Pharisees, he meticulously keeps the law to set him apart and be upright religious leader. So, standing by himself, he prays in self-righteousness, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income” (Luke 18:11-12). In contrast, the second one is a tax collector, a collaborator with the Roman Empire; a traitor to his own people. He works for the Roman oppressors and sometimes has to extort revenue for them. So, standing far off, he “would not even look up to heaven, but just beat his chest in self-denial and pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)
While the Pharisee is in self-righteousness, the tax collector is in self-denial. While the Pharisee makes a personal progress report to God, the tax collector just repents before God asking God’s mercy and forgiveness. While the Pharisee puffs out his chest in pride, the tax collector beats his chest in sorrow. And here is Jesus’s conclusion: it is the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who goes home justified. How come? It’s because the Pharisee fails to diagnose himself clearly. His self-righteousness blinds him. He’s so sure about his spiritual condition that he doesn’t even glimpse any warning signs. So there is no chance that his issues get fixed. But the tax collector is different. He knows that he can’t avoid all the troubles and struggles as a humble human being. So he pleas, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This honest self-denial opens his eyes to see himself before God. From there, he can get to see which dashboard lights are on; he can bring himself to God in his repentance and get himself fixed, forgiven, renewed, and justified.
What is the way to clearly diagnose ourselves, our spiritual condition before God? As an answer, Jesus teaches us the way of self-denial, the way that begins with accepting the unchanging truth of ourselves: we are sinners, and we have issues to be indicated and fixed. Faithful Christians in history practiced this self-denial every day to check themselves and to become more mature Christ-like Christians. Today, I would like to share one of the examples. It’s a time-tested way of daily spiritual checkup. Please look at the hand-out inserted in your bulletin. This is called, the Examen, created by St. Ignatius and used by many Christians even today. Why don’t we read it together?
1. Ask God for light.
I want to look at my day with God’s eyes, not merely my own.
2. Give thanks.
The day I have just lived is a gift from God. Be grateful for it.
3. Review the day.
I carefully look back on the day just completed, being guided by the Holy Spirit.
4. Face your shortcomings.
I face up to what is wrong—in my life and in me.
5. Look toward the day to come.
I ask where I need God in the day to come.
I personally use this Examen when I conclude my day. And I can certainly tell you, this short 15 to 20-minute self-denial and self-checkup will lift you up and deepen your relationship with God.
Faithful friends in Christ, let us try it from today and check our dashboard symbols. In our self-denial, let us diagnose our spiritual condition every day. We all are in need of God’s graceful repair every day. So let us bring ourselves to God in our prayer of confession, and leave our sins unto the Lord in our honest repentance. Then, our Creator God, who built us and continuously fixes us, will make ourselves anew. Please remember, there’s no expiration date on God’s warrantee, God’ promise. Whether it is a major repair or a daily maintenance thing, we can get all of them for free. God’s grace covers them all. This is indeed the good news. So from today, as we keep our faith and trust in our God, let us take the way of self-denial and experience God’s justifying grace in abundance each and every day. Amen.
Pastor Earl Kim