"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
These words are words of an oppressed people, struggling to support a system where the elite live lavishly while majority languish in the tyranny of unjust rule. The religious leaders were more concerned about maintaining the status quo and not rock the boat, in the fear of reprisal from the Romans. They had, after all, much to lose.
These words are words of a people longing for a way out of their situation, their predicament. These words are words of a people looking for salvation.
We live in a different age, and a different time, separated by 2000 years of history. We live in an age where we can fly over the mountains, and drive across the valleys. We live in an age where we understand salvation very differently. When we talk of salvation today, we are most likely referring to the idea of "being saved." But what exactly are we saved from?
I went to a church camp when I was twelve - I remember it quite vividly - it was on St John's Island, and it was my form teacher who invited us there.
So every day, during the 5 day camp, we were told in different ways how we would be thrown in the fiery furnace if we don't believe in Jesus. And every night, we would gather, and they would ask us to bow our heads and pray - and ask who would accept Jesus as Lord and saviour and be saved.
Saved from the fiery furnace, that is. And every day, i didn't raise up my hand. Because this wasn't the God i have come to know, this isn't the God that i have experienced.
We need to understand that salvation in the Bible has many rich meanings. As Marcus Borg points out, these powerful meanings of salvation run through the whole Bible:
Salvation as liberation from bondage comes straight out of the story of the Exodus and the Exodus is the most formative event in ancient Israel's history. Then, probably the second event that most shaped the Jewish bible was the experience of exile in Babylon. That story of exile creates an understanding of salvation as return, reconnection and homecoming. Also, scattered throughout the Bible, you have images of salvation as having one's eyes opened. Jesus talks about this. There are other forms of salvation, too. In Psalms, salvation is primarily about deliverance from our enemies or deliverance from serious illness or from other threats like this. You know, the idea of salvation as just an afterlife, this heaven and hell framework, doesn't even appear in the Old Testament.
And, when we do get to the New Testament, salvation sometimes does mean an afterlife, but most of the time the word has these other meanings that run throughout the Bible.
In words of the prophet Isaiah, paraphrased in the Gospel of Luke, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
Isaiah speaks of the way of the Lord - the way of return, the way of reconnection, the way of homecoming.
In Exodus, the people of God were liberated from Egypt, freed from slavery, and led to the promised land. The way of the Lord. Not only was the valley filled, and the mountain made low, the crooked made straight, the rough ways made smooth, even the sea parted for God's people.
The people in exile in Babylon after the invasion of Jerusalem, longed for salvation - longed for return to their homeland, longed for reconnection with their families and friends, longed for homecoming, when there would be a great celebration. They lamented, in Psalm 137, "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept, when we remembered Zion."
The prodigal child, far away in a distant country, after squandering what he had been given, hungry, alone, longed for salvation - a way out of the rock bottom he was in - where he would gladly fill himself with the pods meant to feed the pigs.
Too often, we think of salvation only of the individual. We think only of personal salvation. But that interpretation of salvation is only one of the many rich meanings of salvation.
Personal salvation, at the end of the day, still places us at the center of all things. We are concerned about what will happen to us.
"All flesh shall see the salvation of God!"
The reality is this - that we are not truly saved until all are saved. Salvation is incomplete as long as there is someone, something left behind. Just like how we spill some of the wine during communion - our celebration is not complete, until all are liberated, all are saved from suffering and oppression.
Christianity has, since its incorporation into the Roman Empire, betrayed its calling. It is easy to talk about believing. It is easy to talk about individual salvation. It is easy to talk about grace.
It is not easy to talk about the injustices that surrounds us - it is not easy to talk about our own culpability and our complicity in the evils that is happening.
The way we consume causes rampant destruction to the environment. Our thirst for more and more can never be quenched in this cycle. Our silence and our inaction in the face of injustices continue to perpetuate the evil that persists in this world.
The prophets all have in different ways called us to prepare the way of the Lord.
Jesus, when asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed;
nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’
The kin-dom of heaven is here. The holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
they will be God's peoples,
and God will be with them;
God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
If we all begin to realize how inter-connected we are, and how we play a role in bringing us closer to the kin-dom of God, if we all work towards a world of love, justice and peace - that day will come.
Prepare Ye the way of the Lord. Yes. It says Prepare Ye the way of the Lord, not Prepare Ye the way for the Lord. This is not some wayang exercise to make everything look orderly and beautiful when some royalty visits. John the Baptist isn't preparing the way for Jesus. He is preparing the way of Jesus. He is preparing the way for God's people - the way of liberation, the way of return, the way of reconnection, the way of homecoming, the way of reconciliation. The way to the Kindom of God.
In our modern world today, we are fortunate to have some mode of transportation that brings us quickly from one place to the next. But picture this - in a place where there is no transportation but your two feet, the journey from one place to another can mean climbing over hills, over mountains, heading down through valleys. The journey, the way could be dangerous, perilous, tiring. Some will not make it there. Our role as the church, our mission as God's people, is to fill every valley, to make every mountain and hill low, and to make the crooked straight, and the rough ways smooth.
Rob Bell, founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan writer of many books including "Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived," argues that setting some people aside as missionaries “undercuts the notion that everyone in the church is in mission. To call some missionaries sends all the wrong messages — that somehow business people, educators, or social workers are not missionaries. Everyone, if they are a Christian, is in full-time ministry.”
Here at FCC, we do believe in the priesthood of all people. Here we believe that all of us are called to full-time ministry. Gary asked in his sermon on Membership and Leadership in FCC, how many of you see yourselves as leaders. And he said all of us are leaders. Likewise, I ask - how many of you see yourselves as priests? Because all of you are priests.
The responsibility of ministering, the responsibility for transforming the world, the responsibility for building a community that is healing, learning, welcoming, liberating and thriving, the responsibility of expanding that community beyond, the responsibility of ministering to the least amongst us, the responsibility for speaking for the voiceless, marginalized and oppressed, the responsibility for comforting those who are suffering, the responsibility - isn't mine alone. The responsibility belongs to all the priests here -
Rob Bell writes, "What if instead of the church having a mission, what if the church was the mission — its very organizational heart served the poor, helped the needy, and listened to the cry of the oppressed? … If you had a couple thousand priests in one place, the earth would tremble."
The earth would indeed tremble.
What are we called to do? How do we get closer to the kindom of God? How do we prepare the Way of the Lord?
"Love God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength." "Love your neighbour as yourself."
We repeat this ad nauseum at FCC. What does it mean? How do we translate these commandments into practice?
First, is to put God at the center. Not us.
Our Christmas tree looks bare. But we don't want to buy more decorations to decorate it. Rather, we want to live out what we profess - how can we be sustainable? By making our own decorations out of what we can recycle.
Those who attend Living Water on Friday will know - after every session, i would collect all the plastic bottles and soft drink cans. I am fortunate to have a recycling bin in my neighborhood, and I do my little part to recycle.
We have all heard about the SMRT drivers' strike. I have circulated Vincent Wijeysingha's facebook note that tells of the circumstances that led to the strike, as well as his indictment of our racism, elitist, xenophobic nation. We are ALL complicit in this.
I shall read an excerpt from his article:
The government has acted in our name as is its duty. It purged an industrial action and returned the nation to business as usual. The bus drivers from SMRT recklessly involved themselves in an illegal strike after refusing to bring their grievances to management or their trade union or seek the assistance of the Manpower Ministry. Twenty-nine have been deported, one hundred and fifty more issued a police warning and the five ringleaders will be tried. Industrial harmony has been restored, the tripartite relationship upheld, and public disorder averted.
As fortunate citizens of this prosperous and stable nation, we can heave a sigh of relief. Those refractory foreigners got what they deserved. How dare they come to our land - which our government built from a fishing village - and demand such indulgences as suitable accommodation and an equal wage. Nobody promised them any of that: if they aren’t happy here they can fuck off back home.
There are too many damn foreigners here as it is. The come here to steal our jobs, marry our women, clog the trains, explode housing prices, beat up taxi drivers, and drive Ferraris too fast. They dance outside Wisma Atria and jam the staircases at Lucky Plaza. Oh, and they smell. And talk too loudly. In strange accents.
In short, they are audacious and unpleasant. Oh, and they smell. Did I mention that? They do. And they talk too loudly.
Twenty-nine PRC workers deported means trains that are twenty-nine odoriferous bodies less crowded.
Except that they mostly built the train stations in the last twenty years. And the condos. And the roads. And dug the drains. And sweep the streets and collect the garbage. And keep one million households clean, children fed, grandparents minded, dogs walked, and laundry washed.
All at a cost so miniscule that our taxes can be kept low. And investment can pour in. And we can go to work in comfort, walk clean streets, and come home to clean houses and clean children.
What price do we pay for these smelly philanthropists?
What price do they pay?
I remember this from the prophet Amos.
"I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
Those of us who were at Amplify will remember. We are not here for a Jesus party every Sunday. You know what, God takes no delight in our assemblies or our worship. "Take away from me the noise of your songs - I will not listen to the melody of your harps."
I wonder how many churches have great music, but fail utterly at what it means to be the Church. I pray, and I will put in every ounce of my energy, that FCC will not become that kind of church. I pray that we will be the ones that "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
Some of you will ask - what can we do? What should we do?
First of all, start by thanking every single person who work to serve your needs. From the bus driver to the taxi driver, to the hawker who serves your meals, to the old auntie who clears your table. I don't know about you, but every time i wish the taxi driver "have a good day" or thank the bus driver as i step off the bus, i always notice they are pleasantly surprised.
This is our way of resisting the dehumanizing power of the capitalist consumerist state that elevates the worship of things, rather than the nurturing of human relationships.
Second, speak up when you hear people make racist and xenophobic remarks. We must stand up against this behavior. We cannot allow ourselves to be complicit in our silence. This can be in the public, or in private, or even on facebook.
Speak up through all the channels you have. We often complain about this and about that - do we complain to the people who are responsible? I have said time and time again, when we have a problem with someone, we speak with that person. We don't go around talking to everyone else except for that person. So instead of reposting complains on facebook, write in! Write in to our government. Tell them your dissatisfaction. Tell them you do not agree with their decisions. It is your responsibility as a citizen. It is your responsibility because this is one of the ways we shape the world and get closer to the kindom.
When I read Psalm 137, " By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept, when we remembered Zion," I wonder who are the displaced refugees weeping, remembering where they come from. I wonder about the Palestinians displaced from their homes. I am glad that the UN voted to admit Palestine as a non-member state. I pray for the day where Israelis and Palestinians work and live together in peace, in joy, in harmony.
We are to announce the coming of the Kindom - where everyone is family. We are to be God's people.
Some people will doubt if we will ever get there. Some people will say it is not possible. "There will ALWAYS be evil in this world," they may say. Some people do not believe.
I like the scene from Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back where Yoda lifts the X-wing fighter out of the swamp. It is one of the most powerful scenes in cinema. Luke, astonished and amazed at what Yoda has done, says "I don't believe it." and Yoda replies "That is why you fail."
We say we believe in Jesus. This is what it means to believe - we believe and testify to the power of the God of resurrection, the God of love, and we testify to the power of God and that it is possible for us to make the kindom of God happen. We are to announce Hope, Joy and Peace to humankind. We are here to make justice be like a river and righteousness an ever-flowing stream.
And how do we get there? Through LOVE. One step at a time.
"What if instead of the church having a mission, what if the church was the mission — its very organizational heart served the poor, helped the needy, and listened to the cry of the oppressed? … If you had a couple thousand priests in one place, the earth would tremble."
Indeed the earth would tremble, and the kin-dom of heaven would be here. The holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, to be amongst us.
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
they will be God's peoples,
and God will be with them.
We wait, in this time of Advent, but we do not wait in vain. We do not wait passively. We put all our hearts, all our minds, all our souls, and all our strength to prepare the way of the Lord.