August 26, 2018

CHOOSING GOD

BIBLE READINGS
John 6:56-69
Joshua 24:1-2, 13-18
Ephesians 6:10-20

REFLECTION

On Friday morning, I had a rather strange experience. There was one Prime Minister before I took a shower and a different one when I finished. Someone told me that my experience was like watching Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, Psycho, in the 60s. The movie made many people then afraid of taking shower. After everything that happened recently in Canberra, I may develop the same kind of fear. You never know, we may have another new Prime Minister if I take my next shower.

Joking aside, I think it’s obviously clear that being a Prime Minister is not easy. Especially in Australia where we have five different Prime Ministers in just 10 years.

Indeed, a Prime Minister’s main job is to convince others that his policy and agenda are the best options out there. But people, including those in his/her own party, don’t always buy what he/she is selling. They may want to replace him with a different seller altogether. Just like what the old saying says: in politics there is no permanent friend or enemy, only self-interest. Indeed, people change allegiance constantly in politics. We see it when members of Mr. Turnbull’s own party deserted him because they disliked his policy or him himself.

I hate to draw a parallel between Australian politics with Jesus’ ministry. But we can see similarities between what happened recently with Jesus’ own experience in ministry. 

One day, Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, a Jewish place of worship. The event took place not long after he miraculously fed a crowd with only five loaves of breads and two fish. There were five thousand men present, and most likely a lot more people when the women and children were also counted. So, people were still enthralled by what happened on that day. It was still the hot topic of the day. A great man was in their midst, but they didn’t really know who he was and what he wanted. They tried to make him king, but Jesus refused. He did not come to gain political power.

Some people from the crowd chased Jesus to Capernaum. After witnessing what Jesus did with the bread and fish, they wanted more sign from him.! They wanted Jesus to perform a miracle like the bread that came from sky when their ancestors were in the desert.

But Jesus was not going to follow their agenda. He said that the real bread from heaven was not the one their ancestors ate in the desert or the one that he gave to the crowd before. The real bread from heaven was he himself. Eating the other breads wouldn’t give them eternal fulfillment in life. Only by eating his flesh and drinking his blood would one be able to find true fullness in life.

His saying was difficult to hear for some who were there, including his own disciples. They were taken aback by his words and abandoned him and his cause. Only twelve disciples – those who were the closest to him - remained.

We now know that Jesus was only using his body as a metaphor. We now know that his flesh and blood were metaphors for the bread and wine/grape juice that we have during communion. But those who were present at the time didn’t know this. Perhaps, those who left him thought that Jesus was teaching them about cannibalism. 

Or, perhaps, they were offended because Jesus seemed to dismiss Moses, the greatest prophet of the Jews. Moses was directly involved in the giving of the manna bread to their ancestors in the desert. By saying that he was the true manna bread, Jesus seemed to ridicule Moses himself.

But the main reason why his disciples left him was his challenge to have faith in him. Having faith in God was also the main issue that the Jewish ancestors faced as they journeyed in the desert. When God delivered Israel from slavery, they rejoiced and marveled at the miraculous signs that God showed. But once they faced the reality of living in the desert, they soon lost their faith in God and their leaders.

Likewise, those who had witnessed Jesus’ miracle lost their faith in him once they knew what he was really about. They wanted to see more wonders and miracles to sustain their faith. But Jesus told them that the ultimate miracle was enough. And that ultimate miracle was he himself. The feeding of the large crowd was nothing compared to him.

Many people were disappointed when he said this and abandoned him. They wanted more and more spectacular signs to feed their desire. It became like an addiction. But what Jesus offered were not never-ending miracles; he offered a long-lasting relationship with him. He invited them to feed on him just like their ancestors fed on the manna, the bread from sky that God gave.

Of course, the eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood were only metaphors. What he truly asked from people was to be in a relationship with him so that they would be one in him and he in them. This relationship was the one that would forever satisfy their deepest longing in life. 

One woman once had a failed investment. She was hoping that she could retire comfortably with the income from the investment. But the investment didn’t work out so she had to take a job to earn money.

She got a good income, but the job often came with challenging situations. When the pressures in her job increased, she would feel resentful for her failed investment project. She poured herself out in prayers, asking God why the investment didn’t work out the way she hoped.

God didn’t answer her prayers directly. Instead, God gave her a nudge in her thought. She was reminded that the greatest treasure, the most valuable asset she had was God himself. All the other assets in her life were of less value than the knowledge that God was always present in her life.[1]

Indeed, friends, there are many things in our life that are competing for our devotion. There are other gods in the world that promise us fullness in life. These gods can take the form of wealth or power or lust or even time and health.

When the people of Israel finally settled in their new land, Joshua, their leader, challenged them. He asked them to choose between God and the gods that previous generations worshipped in Egypt and Mesopotamia. He also asked them to choose between God and the gods that other nations worshipped in their new land. There was no middle ground; there was no either or. They could only worship one: God or the other gods.

And the people chose wisely. They knew that the other gods may promise many things, but they would only bring slavery and death. Only God who offered them freedom and new life.

Just like for Joshua, for the Apostle Paul the other gods were real forces in the world. He may have used different words to describe them in his letter: forces, authorities, dark rulers, spiritual powers. But he meant the same thing. He meant the forces and power that can take us away from God.

He saw all believers as being in a constant warfare against these forces. That’s why he advised the believers to wear spiritual armors.

Now, there is always danger in mixing religious language with weapons. We see this in recent terrorist groups who like to parade their religious symbols with their weapons.

But Paul didn’t talk about real armors. Yes, he was using the Roman empire’s standard military equipment for their soldiers as an example. But he did not ask the Ephesians to be like the Roman soldiers. Unlike the Roman army, “We are not fighting other human beings,” he clearly said in his letter. He reminded them that they were fighting the spiritual forces that put people in bondage.

When Nitraporn from Thailand was diagnosed with cancer, she soon underwent treatment to remove the cancer. But she suffered debilitating side effects from each of her many chemotherapy treatments. Her hands, feet, and nails turned dark, and her hair fell out. She suffered physically and mentally.

But instead of falling into despair, she decided to spend more time praying and reading the Bible. She asked for God’s mercy and asked other people to pray for her. She devoted her time preaching the gospel.

He cancer diagnosis was now 18 years ago. Her faith in God had truly helped her stay strong as she focused on what truly mattered in life.[2]

Friends, it is hard to focus on God when we are pulled to many different directions by other forces. In the morning when I have my quiet time to pray, I’m often bombarded by alarms and reminders on my IPhone. Time can be a distracting and limiting asset to our spiritual life in this modern world. But every day, we are invited to choose God over anything else. Only then can we truly find wholeness and everlasting joy in our life; the kind of joy that no one can take it away from us.

Amen.
Toby Keva

[1] Real Treasure, a reflection from Sarah Eom in The Upper Room Daily Devotional for August 21, 2018.
[2] God’s Steadfast Love, a reflection by Nitraporn Laddakornbhand in The Upper Room Daily Devotional for October 8, 2017.