Lukewarm Christianity 1 (Message at Calvary Chapel youth camp)

Good evening, my name is Aaron. Let me introduce myself briefly. I was born into a family of four. For most of my schooling years, I attended a missions school (ACJS, ACSS, ACJC). I became a Christian in Secondary 3, I’ll tell you a more about that a little later. After serving NS, I did my Honours degree in Civil Engineering in NUS. Upon graduation, I felt God’s call for me into full-time ministry. I served in Campus Crusade for Christ in NUS for several years. I then went on to do an internship in my church. I spent some time in Japan with OMF. For the past 10 years, I’ve been involved in chaplaincy work in SASS. This year, I moved to FMSS doing a similar work. I married my wife Catherine in 2005. We celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary in Japan last year (wonderful time). And God has blessed us with two lovely children: Samantha and Samuel.

The theme for this camp is “Lukewarm Christianity”. And I think I can identify with this. So allow me to share some phases of my life with you. I want to talk first of all about how I became a Christian.

When I was growing up, my parents used to bring my brother and I to Sunday school. As little children, we grew up hearing the bible stories of Moses, David and Goliath etc. So I had some background knowledge of Christianity, but I didn’t really know God. I didn’t have a personal relationship/friendship with Jesus. In fact, I think the thing I remember most about Sunday School was my Sunday School teacher bringing us to watch Star Wars at the movies once! And when we shifted houses from Jurong to where my parents still stay in Upper Bt. Timah, we stopped going to church for some reason.

And because church wasn’t something that was very important to me, I didn’t ask why. I think I had a pretty good and happy childhood. However, there were two things that were challenges that I did face. The first was the issue of death. Maybe some of you can identify.

You see, my parents’ place at Upper Bt. Timah is very lightning prone. Whenever it rains heavily, there will be frequent lightning strikes in that area. I remember one time when it was raining heavily and I had to get home from the bus stop to my home. The distance from the bus stop to my home was about a 10 minute walk. So you know what I did?

In my fear, I prayed, “God I don’t want to die” and then I ran as fast as I could all the way home. I reached my home, flung open the gate, ran under shelter and I was like, “I’m alive, thank God!” I feared death. I think the reason was because I didn’t know what came after death. Is there heaven/hell? If so, how can I get to heaven, how can I avoid hell?

So that was the first challenge I dealt with as a child. The second was loneliness. Now, I had good friends, so it wasn’t that I was alone. But it was more about missing my parents. Because both my parents worked, while they were working (and I was not at school), I would be at my grandmas’ place. And I missed my parents. I remember times where I would go to a room in my grandmas’ house, close the door and secretly cry because I missed my parents. That was the second challenge I dealt with as a kid.

The turning point, the most significant event in my life (even more than getting married or becoming a father), occurred when I was in Secondary 3. My classmate invited me to his church camp during the school holidays, and I agreed. And it turned out to be a blast! I had a wonderful time, it was awesome. (Got girls that’s why!) Don’t laugh at me, I’m sure some of you guys also the same. 🙂

However, I remember the last morning of the camp was different. I was not in a good mood. I was feeling kinda sulky. Guess why? Yah, I was thinking I may not see these girls again. So I was moody. It did not help that the preacher started preaching (sort of what I’m doing right now, ironic isn’t it?) But something changed when he started talking about the love of God. He started telling us about Jesus, and how He died on the cross for our sins and how much God the Father loves us.

I did not know it then, but I guess in retrospect, it was the Holy Spirit working in my heart. I had heard the gospel story before, but for the very first time, God showed up, touched my heart. When the pastor gave the invitation to respond to Jesus, I was amongst those who stood up and went forward to be prayed for. With happy tears in my eyes, I became a Christian that day. On a day like this one, at a church camp like this one. And friends, I tell you, God wants to encounter you during this camp, just like He encountered me all those years ago.

Now I wouldn’t say that my life changed dramatically the day I became a Christian. But changes have been real. And God has helped me overcome the two challenges I faced as a child. First, with regards to the fear of death, I shared that the reason I was afraid was because it was an unknown for me. But God says in the Bible that everyone who believes in Jesus, who puts their trust in Jesus has eternal life.

The Bible says in Romans 5:8 “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus…” You may ask, how can I know this for sure? Because on that first Good Friday (when Jesus was nailed to the cross to pay the penalty for our sins) and that first Easter Sunday (when Jesus rose again from the dead) is a historical fact. Jesus is not dead. He is alive. And HE promises that whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life. I don’t need to fear death anymore, heaven is my destiny.

Second, with regards to the feeling of loneliness, since God has come into my life, I don’t need to fear that anymore. Why? The Bible says in Hebrews 13:5 “I will never leave you; nor will I ever forsake you…” You see, I consider myself blessed. Growing up, I have a whole family. I have good friends. Friends whom I’ve known since primary school. I’ve made good friends in church. God has blessed me with a wonderful wife and children. But sum them all up, they cannot be there for me all the time. They cannot understand me completely. They cannot love me perfectly. Who can? Only God. Only God is big enough, loving enough, perfect enough to do that. I can turn to Him at any time, in any situation… He’s there. He is for me. He is with me.

But this process took time. I wasn’t properly followed up after the church camp. So I only had that one encounter with God. In my JC days, I had a few good Christian friends, and one of them invited me to church and I started to attend regularly. But then the A levels came along and as a very young Christian, I skipped church to study. Then after that came army. Church? I didn’t attend church. I spent Sunday mornings in bed. So what changed? Well, it started with a girl. You’re beginning to see a trend here.

I was in the army. It was the infancy of the internet in Singapore. Way before Facebook Messenger, Snapchat etc, there was Teleview. And my good friend and I were on it. One day, we decided let’s organise a gathering to meet these people face to face. So we did. I still remember we met at City Hall MRT. And then she arrived. With fairy dust in the air. I was like, “Who’s she? Who’s she?” I asked who her user ID was and after that meeting, whenever I was online, I looked for her ID. Started chatting. Progressed to phone calls. Even asked her out for a movie. There was a time she was going back to Malaysia (I sent her to the train station Tg Pagar). Like a scene from a movie, we were separated by the iron gate. And I mustered the courage to tell her, “I’m going to miss you”. I was trying everything I could to win her heart.

So there was this one night, we were hanging out with some of our chatter friends at a discotheque. And in a magical moment, she took my hand and led me outside. I was floating on air, cloud nine. Some of my friends gave me a thumbs up. The rest of the evening, we spent talking one on one and I sent her home that night. Happiest night of my life up till then. Some time later, I was just hanging out on the chat lines just waiting for her to come online. And then I noticed some guy mentioning her name.

And as his conversation continued, a lump formed in my throat. He was saying things like, “I’m glad that I have broken up with my girlfriend so that I can now pursue (this girl that I liked).” I was like, “What’s going on?” Well, to cut the long story short, I was effectively being two-timed. She was kinda just using me to make that guy feel jealous, so that he would break up and be with her. Wow. My heart was crushed. And that was good. Because it was a journey God would lead me on back to Him.

I was finishing army and I was entering into university. My best friend and I decided to join two orientation camps: one NUSSU (biggest one) and a Christian one. It was at this camp that God met me up. He spoke to me. He touched my heart. And it was there I surrendered this girl, and my life to God. It was during this period that I really started to grow in my walk with God, to be discipled and eventually be called into full-time Christian ministry. This process is not a self-effort, try harder, do more activity. That’s religion. Christianity is coming back to the heart of God. Discovering or re-discovering God as our heavenly Father. (*the rest of the sermon borrows heavily from Timothy Keller’s “The Prodigal God”)

Today I want to take you though a very familiar passage of Scripture. The Parable of the Prodigal Son. And I’m going to do it in two parts. The first part, I’m going to use a video. My son Samuel was chosen to play the part of the prodigal son last year during his kindergarten graduation concert, so just nice.

This parable told by Jesus is one of my favourites because the whole gospel message can be summarised by this story. This is at the heart of Christianity and the heart of God.

The story begins with a father and his two sons. The younger son comes to his father and asks for his share of the estate. A few things to take note of. First, this is not a poor family, it’s probably a well-to-do family (having an estate). Meaning, this young man was not poor. He was well provided for. His needs were taken care of. But he decided it wasn’t enough for him. He wanted more. He wanted his share of his estate.

Next, what does it mean to have the share of the estate? In Jewish culture, when a father passed away, his estate would be divided among his children: the elder getting a larger portion, the younger getting a smaller portion. Now, the important thing to note is this: you don’t get the inheritance till after your father dies.

But this father is strong and healthy. Maybe he drinks ginseng essence every night or something. The younger son waits and waits, but his dad is still around, alive, kicking. So one day, he can’t take it any more. He goes up to his father and asks for his share in the estate. It’s as good as coming up to your father and says, “I wish you were dead.” This is the force of what he is doing.

How would you react if you were the father? I might have said to my son, “You have no more part in this family AND you’re also not getting a single cent of the estate!” No one in the town or village would fault you if you chose this course of action. But the father loved his younger son and because of that, he did the unthinkable. He sold off portions of his estate and gave it to his younger son.

Imagine the humiliation of the father. The talk in town. They’re whispering in the marketplace… “See how the father spoilt his son. I heard the younger son is asking for the share of the estate, that’s why he’s now selling away portions of it.”

But then comes the ultimate humiliation: the younger son packs up everything he has and leaves to a far off country. You see, if all the younger son wanted was more money, he could have chosen to stay. Have the cash but stay. But he chose to leave his home… effectively saying to his father, “You’re dead to me, I want nothing to do with you.” He’s breaking off ties, cutting off relationship with his father. He wants his father’s stuff but he doesn’t want his father.

And for a while, the younger son is having the time of his life. He’s partying hard. Drinking, clubbing, doing all the things he wanted to do, buying all the stuff he’s ever wanted. Women are hitting him up, he’s got more people hanging around him than he’s ever known. It’s heaven to him. But soon, his money runs out, and it quickly becomes hell.

Because at the same time his money runs out, a famine hits the country as well. Bad economy. No jobs. He has no money, and he can’t find a job. He’s in bad shape. Eventually, he manages to get one feeding pigs. It’s terribly humiliating as a Jew. In their culture and religion, pigs were considered unclean. And this is the job he ends up with, feeding swine, pigs. Worse, his pay was so miserable that he longed to eat the food that the pigs were eating perhaps to save money. But he was forbidden from doing so.

You see, in that bad economy, labour was cheap, pigs were a rare commodity. You can replace labour, you can’t replace the pigs. So the younger son was forbidden to eat the pigs’ food. Food for pigs, yes. Food for you, no. Total humiliation. But it’s in this devastating situation that the younger son finally wakes up, he comes to his senses. “I’m starving here but even my father’s hired men have enough food to eat.” And he finally repents, and decides to head home.

But the younger son knows, he just can’t head home and expect things to be just like the way it was. What he’s done is to dreadful, too terrible. So he comes up with a plan. He’s going to pay his father back and hopefully, hopefully, his father would consider taking him back; not as his son, but as a hired hand. And as he heads back home, he’s rehearsing his “I’m sorry” speech over and over again. “I’m sorry. I’m not worthy to be called your son. Please make me a hired hand.” (Repeat a few times)

Meanwhile, let’s go back to the father. Has he moved on with his life? Forgot about his son? No. How do we know this? As the younger son was returning home, the text says, while he was still a long way off, his father saw him. How it that possible? How do you see someone from a distance and recognise that person. Only if you were looking out for him. So day by day after the younger son left, the father has been awaiting his return. Each day he thinks to himself, “Perhaps today is the day my son returns.”

So the father sees a figure in the distance. He looks vaguely familiar. “Could it be my son?” the father thinks. “But his hair is so long, and his appearance is so filthy, his clothes are all torn.” As the father continues to gaze upon the approaching figure, he becomes certain. It is him!

Now pause with me a moment. If you were the father, what would your reaction be? “Ha! No good fellow. Waste all my money, now have the audacity to return home? I’ll teach a good lesson.” Or, if this was a Chinese movie, “you kneel down outside the house in the rain, for 6 days, then we’ll talk!” But no, this is not what the father does. What the father does is breath-taking. Notice the verbs. The action-words. The father saw his son, felt compassion for him, ran to him (which in the Jewish culture is totally undignified, especially for an elderly gentleman. They wore robes in those days, and if you had to run, you’d have had to hike up your robes and bare your legs as you ran, Totally undignified. Children were allowed to run like that, not elderly men.) But the father ran.

When he reached his son, he embraced him and kissed him. And we all go, “Awww…” No! We all go, “Ewww!!!” I mean, come on, where has the son been working all this time? What has he been doing? Yup, feeding pigs. It’s a wonder the father doesn’t go, “You stink! You smell like a pig (because, he really did!) Go take a shower, then we’ll talk.” No, the father hugs him, kisses him.

And the son begins his sorry speech, remember? “I’m sorry. I’m not worthy to be called your son…” But he doesn’t even get to finish his speech right? He’s supposed to say, “Please make me one of your hired hands.” He doesn’t even get there. The father orders the servants, “Bring out the best robe (which is probably the father’s own), put a ring on his hand (which is probably the signet ring containing the family seal – meaning, he’s being restored to the family, “you’re part of the family again, full rights as a son”), and sandals on his feet (he was so poor, he couldn’t afford any). The father’s love is amazing.

But the best part is still to come. The fattened calf. We’re Singaporeans right? Makan, we’re the best. The fattened calf. The fattened calf is the key to the story. Every Jewish family (especially if you’re rich) would keep at least one piece of livestock that was fed a special diet to fatten it up, thus making it more flavourful when prepared as a meal. Slaughtering this livestock was to be done on rare and special occasions., like weddings or if you’re hosting important guests (the king or dignitaries).

What was this special occasion? The return of the son. The wicked son. The useless son. And the son whom the father loved.

Young people, this is the gospel, this is the good news of the Bible. God, our heavenly Father is portrayed by the father in this parable. His love is extravagant. He loves us deeply. And it doesn’t matter how far we’ve run from God, He welcomes us home.

Some of you need to hear this. You are far from God. You’ve done things, said things, thought things that you know are deeply wrong. And God is saying to you, “It’s time to come home.” And the way to come home, the way to deal with sin is very important. It is NOT by earning our way back home, like the younger son thought… “Make me one of your hired hands.” We cannot hope to repay God.

The way to deal with sin, the way to come home to God is repentance. We see this in the younger son’s words of contrition… Luke 15:18 ‘I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight…”’ And this is is the turning point in the story: when the younger son recognises and confesses his sin. This is his path of his way home. This is also our way home to God.

God our Father awaits with open arms tonight to receive all who would turn from their sin and come back home. Doesn’t matter what you’ve done, God’s willing to forgive you and restore you. Come home. In a short while’s time, I’m going to give an invitation for all of you whom the Holy Spirit is convicting of sin to respond to God.

Here’s the thing. That’s not the end of the story. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is actually the Story of Two Lost Sons. Turn with me to Luke 15:25-32.

Luke 15:25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

I want you to notice where the older son is when he is introduced. ‘In the field’. It is very significant. He was out working in the field, for his father, while the party and celebration for the younger son is going on. When the older son returns home, he hears the sounds of a party going on. “Strange, I don’t remember being informed of any celebration.” “What’s going on?”, he asks a servant.

“Your younger brother, he’s come home! He’s come home! And your father has killed the fattened calf in celebration, we’re having a party!”

“My younger brother has come home! That’s wonderful news, let me go in and see him!” No, that was not the way the elder brother responded. He refused to go in to join the celebrations, and instead, stood outside and sulked.

Poor father. Dealt with the younger son, now have to deal with the older son. But notice the humility of the father, who goes outside and pleads with his older son. Jewish patriarchs don’t plead with their children. This father does. But listen to the tone and words of the older son. He doesn’t even address his father, he says, “Look! (How rude!!!) Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends;  but when this son of yours came (doesn’t acknowledge his younger brother…this son of yours), who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.”

Now, many Christians growing up, hearing this story in Sunday school, may have the impression that the younger brother is the ‘bad’ guy and the other brother is the ‘good’ guy. But actually, the two brothers have this one thing in common: they both wanted the father’s stuff but didn’t want their father. The younger son did it through disobedience (Give me the money now!) The older son tried to do it through obedience (For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours)… ‘why give your stuff to him and not to me’ is the implication.

So here we come to the heart of sin: it’s not only the younger son doing bad, but also the older son doing good with the wrong motives. The younger son’s sin is more obvious: his disobedience is clear for all to see. If we’re like that, we know. We know God is not on our minds when we make decisions. We know we don’t really live to please God or follow His ways. We know we live life according to what we think is good for us, for what we think will make us happy. We know. And God is calling us to repent. To turn around. To come home.

However, for many of us, we’re like the older son (especially for those of us who have grown up in church). We obey the rules. We don’t have sex. We don’t drink alcohol. We don’t smoke. We come to church on Sundays. We do all the ‘right’ things. But we don’t really love God. We want God’s blessings, but we don’t really want God.

We go to church, read our Bibles, pray, serve… because we’re hoping if we do enough, God will bless us. With good grades, with good friends (maybe even boyfriend/girlfriend), with wealth, possessions etc etc etc. We hope to earn God’s love by being good. And when God doesn’t seem to give us our requests, we get upset… at God. We get angry. This is sin too. And we have to repent. Hear me now, God is a loving Father. He is gracious. Like the father in the story who reaches out to both his sons, so God is reaching out to us tonight. His love is for us all.

As we come to a close tonight, God invites us to respond to Him. Many of us have had the wrong idea of God. A God who is hard to please. Difficult to please, impossible to please. Or we have this wrong idea that God only blesses us if we do good, be good.

But God is not like that. Our Heavenly Father is a loving God. And He invites all younger sons/daughters and older sons/daughters to come home tonight. His love, forgiveness, acceptance, favour is available to all. This is the way out of Lukewarm Christianity. Rediscovering the love of our heavenly Father, coming back to our Father.

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