Israel-Hamas War: a reflection

A few months back, I was preparing a sermon about the Old Testament book of Habakkuk. As I studied the text, I was surprised at how the truths about God and his ways with Israel and its enemies may be relevant to what is happening in the ongoing Israel-Gaza War. Let me explain.

The prophet’s lament

Habakkuk was a prophet who lived in a dark period of Israel’s history. He ministered during the reigns of the last three kings of the southern kingdom of Judah. The nation was rotten to the core: violence, destruction, injustice, idolatry, strife and wickedness. The prophet was deeply affected and lamented to God in prayer. It seemed God was deaf to his pleas for God to intervene and reform society. Here is his honest complaint to God (Habakkuk 1:1-4 NLT):

How long, O Lord, must I call for help?
    But you do not listen!
“Violence is everywhere!” I cry,
    but you do not come to save.
Must I forever see these evil deeds?
    Why must I watch all this misery?
Wherever I look,
    I see destruction and violence.
I am surrounded by people
    who love to argue and fight.
The law has become paralyzed,
    and there is no justice in the courts.
The wicked far outnumber the righteous,
    so that justice has become perverted.

I like the honest lament of the prophet. Perhaps we need to lament over the tragic wars in Myanmar, Ukraine, Israel-Gaza in our prayers.

I also like that Habakkuk actually bothered to patiently wait for God’s answer. I admit I speak more and listen less in prayer, in most of the decades that I have been a Christian. I am learning more and more to listen, to watch, to discern God’s notifications. I am learning to unmute my spiritual notifications button.

God’s inconceivable reply

God’s reply got Habakkuk puzzled and upset! God said to him: “I am raising up the Babylonians, a cruel and violent people. They will march across the land and conquer other lands. They are notorious for their cruelty and will do whatever they like” (Habakkuk 1:6,7).

Habakkuk must have thought, “Did I hear God correctly?” Is God going to discipline his chosen people, with whom he made a covenant of love, through a more violent, cruel, and unrighteous nation?

O Lord my God, my Holy One, you who are eternal—
    surely you do not plan to wipe us out?
O Lord, our Rock, you have sent these Babylonians to correct us,
    to punish us for our many sins.
 But you are pure and cannot stand the sight of evil.
    Will you wink at their treachery?
Should you be silent while the wicked
 swallow up people more righteous than they? (Habakkuk 1:12,13)

God’s ways are usually different and higher than our ways. What is unthinkable, unfathomable to the prophet is a real possibility with God! How can a holy God use an unrighteous people to punish a more righteous people? How can God allow this to happen to his chosen nation, his covenanted people?

9/11 a judgment of God

I was at home when 9/11 happened. I remember it vividly. After a tennis game, in the master bedroom, cooling down before I bathed, on the TV, before my eyes, I saw a plane ploughed into one of the World Trade Centre towers. What movie was this? I then noticed that a news reader was relaying news of the Al Qaeda attack on the New York buildings. I was shocked.

In the aftermath of this terrorist attack,  a few preachers proclaimed that this was God’s judgment on America for its idolatry and sins. There were major reactions and objections to the message of judgment: how can a righteous God use a violent, cruel, terrorist instrument to punish a nation that believed in God. Same reaction as Habakkuk’s. In the light of what we have read in Habakkuk, why isn’t it possible that those preachers may be speaking God’s word?

What about October 2013?

What about October 2013? Is God using Iran and its proxy, Hamas, as an instrument to discipline a nation he has chosen and loves? Is not this unthinkable thought a possibility? Hasn’t modern Israel broken its covenant with God too? Israel is very much a secular nation that has left its holy roots to pursue its idols. Even if half the population claims to be Orthodox, they practice a form of religion that doesn’t please God.

God clarifies Habakkuk’s ethical dilemma

It did not take long for God to shine his light on Habakkuk’s ethical dilemma. God’s reply to Habakkuk was that the Babylonians would also be punished for their violence and cruelty – in due time. God’s judgment will come upon the Babylonians for their aggression, greed, pride, sadistic humiliation of people, and idolatry. God assured Habakkuk that this would definitely happen even if the vision awaited fulfillment for a long period (70 years later the Medo-Persians would topple the Babylonians).

In the meantime, the righteous will have to keep faith in God, and if they do so, they will live: “the righteous will live by faith”. The answers of God to Habakkuk’s complaint and protest brought him out of his doubts and distress to a place of peace and contentment. He was now convinced that God was Sovereign over all nations, small or superpower. His ways were higher than his ways or thoughts. He is worthy of complete trust and he would rest in him.

Even while the wars around us continue to increase in intensity and tragedy, and it angers and frustrates us, we will do well to remember the book of Habakkuk, and learn to lament and finally to trust in God to act in sovereignty, holiness, and justice. Take comfort in this apt song by Lauren Daigle: “Look Up Child”

Where are You now
When darkness seems to win?
Where are You now
When the world is crumbling?

Oh I, I hear You say
I hear You say

Look up child, Look up child,

Where are You now

When all I feel is doubt?
Oh, where are You now
When I can’t figure it out?

Oh I hear You say
I hear You say

Look up child,
Look up child,
Look up

You’re not threatened by the war
You’re not shaken by the storm
I know You’re in control
Even in our suffering
Even when it can’t be seen
I know You’re in control

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Where Are You? Gen 3:9

Well, Lord, I was on the mountaintop enjoying the fresh air and views with You. Freed from pastoral work in church, and able to do only what I love and want to do, I felt a new lease of life and vision. My physical health improved and the doctor took me off blood pressure pills. I enjoyed the slower pace of life, the simple joys of home-bound living during the two years of the covid pandemic, and enjoyed preaching in my home church and in other churches as well as in teaching missions. I received formation as a spiritual director with a wonderful community of brothers and sisters, many of whom became friends and fellow ministers. I was blessed by an ecumenical community of spiritual directors and religious who taught, formed and loved us. I tasted the privilege and joy of accompanying others in their journey of growth. Thank You, Lord, for a sweet retirement and transition in new avenues of ministry.

Lord, this year I found myself in the valley of distress and uncertainty when my wife was attacked by bacteria on her spine which caused unbearable pain for her, and anguish for me as I felt powerless to relieve that pain. Thankfully, even in the valleys of life, You are actively present. You gave me this verse in Isaiah 43:2, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” You spoke and I was strengthened (Daniel 10:19).

My wife was in the ward and the community hospital for a total of 51 days. You were with her in her pain and her deliverance from it. She went through the spinal operation You granted us a godly surgeon, Dr Reuben Soh, and his skillful hands stabilized her spine and removed the cause of her pain. She had antibiotics infusion for weeks on end. You gave the infection specialist Dr Jean Sim the wisdom to treat my wife. It was a medical emergency and she was in grave danger, but You, O Lord, was with her, and today she is recovering well.  You moved many pastors, friends and my church family to pray and You heard and answered them: today she is well and no longer in pain. Lord, You are so good.

Lord, I thank you that now I am out of the valley and in the plains. My wife Jenny is at home getting stronger with her twice-a-week physiotherapy sessions at St Luke’s Hospital and she continues with an oral antibiotics course. I am less tired and at peace. I am also beginning to return to the routines and joys that were a part of my usual schedule.  I continue to preach and teach and this gives me joy. I continue to give spiritual direction to a few persons who want You to direct their lives. I have begun to edit and refine the first draft of an e-book that I have written. I was able to continue playing pickleball twice a week whenever possible. Beginning in May, I will be putting on my backpack and hiking shoes and preparing pilgrims for their camino in October 2024. Lord, You also answered one of my longstanding prayers as I did not know what course to use my Skills Future Credit on. Soon I will attend a course on Artificial Intelligence, and it will be conducted near my home too. Thank you for sending Susan who talked about and recommended the course and helped me to sign up.

Lord, I know there are some limits to ministry and meetings when they conflict with physiotherapy and medical appointments. These limits, I believe, are necessary and will only be temporary.  I believe Isaiah 43:2 and You will strengthen my wife and make her as active and healthy as before.

Lord, does this answer Your question?

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Prayer

I was reading this poem by Aaron Lee Soon Yong which to me conveys an important truth about prayer. It is self-explanatory so I will not make any comment.

On Prayer

“Of course He can.”

“But will He?”

“He will.”

“He will?”

“He will. Be God.”

(poem from Coastlands)

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Sermons for Good Friday & Easter

One of the tasks that pastors find challenging is to find fresh sermons to preach during Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

In the past, attendance increases during these special days in the Christian calendar, but nowadays more Christians are taking the opportunity to get out of the country for a break. This is sad because these are high days for followers of Christ to be present to receive the full significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. These high days mark the great turning point in the salvation history of the world.

The forty days of Lent before these high days are preparation for a more meaningful remembrance and experience of Christ’s death and resurrection. Look further back and there is Advent, with its theme of hope in the midst of darkness. Advent and Lent point us to this pivotal point in salvation history. It is meant to be the high point, the climax of the Christian year. Christians should all be geared to honour, celebrate and worship our God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Preaching sermons about Christ’s death and resurrection can be forbidding for some pastors. Partly because expectations are higher. Partly because there are usually special programs like evangelism and baptisms planned around it, and these can be tiring. Partly because the members half-expect and know what’s going to be preached. They can guess what the preacher’s next point is. Partly because the pastor has already preached so many Good Friday and Easter sermons in the past, that he or she is now scraping the bottom of his creativity pot.

My suggestion is to use a resource I have put up. They are actually a first draft of a book I have written titled, “A to Z of Christ’s Finished Work”. Here are my suggestions:

You can do a series on “Blessings of Christ’s Death & Resurrection” or some title like this and choose three points for each sermon. That’s a total of six points out of 26 points available. Use the ones that resonates with you, or that the congregation can be blessed with, or because it suits your purpose (eg. evangelistic sermons have to focus on facets of salvation).

Alternatively you can preach A, B, and C for Good Friday, and then D,E, and F for Easter and end it by encouraging cell groups to do the rest of the alphabets in their Bible discussion groups.

Or if the response and feedback is good, you can continue the series for the following Sundays. It only takes seven more Sundays to finish all the alphabets. It will give the congregation a good grounding and understanding of the whole gospel.

Well, have a look and pray about it. You can look at all the material HERE. You have full permission to use whatever you wish without acknowledgement, and add or subtract to make it suitable for your purposes and for the feeding of your people.

Have a great and exciting Good Friday and Easter.

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Whats Been Happening

I noticed that it has been almost a month since I last posted. I have been away in Arizona, USA visiting my son’s family for a month. We had a great time with his family, especially quality time with our grandchildren, who we missed greatly for two years. However, this joy was soured by a strange debilitating back pain that my wife suffered from. She is currently making a recovery from this after a few weeks in the hospital – glory to God and the prayers of church members and many pastor friends. God willing, I will write a blogpost about my vacation in Tucson, and about this medical emergency and God’s timely intervention. May his name be glorified always through our lives, both in joy or in suffering.

I have been in and out of hospital these several weeks, caring for my wife, as well as taking on the care of her older brother. It’s been tiring, challenging and frustrating at times but most times the grace and strength of God kept me going day by day. Sometimes anxious, sometimes full of faith, sometimes blur. The Bible readings during this period fell on Isaiah 40 to 55 and there were so many verses that spoke to my heart, encouraged me and my wife, and gave us faith and hope. The word of God feeds our soul with faith, hope and love. The rhema word helps me move from meditation into prayer seamlessly, and always lifts me up when I set my heart on his promises. The word is strengthening and in this trial I find myself on my knees with the open Bible and asking God to open my eyes and ears to his word.

I am learning how tough caregiving can be. I am now an admirer of all the church members who had to give care to their elderly or/and sickly parents, spouse or siblings. I salute them wholeheartedly with great respect. Now I experience for myself how much grace and strength and patience is needed to do this well. How we need to do it as though to the Lord himself. So much to learn. For one I have taken a day off ever so often to rest completely from caregiving and turn my attention to life-giving and life-lifting activities to attend to my needs. Can be as simple as cycling to Jurong Lake and having a picnic with myself. Take a walk at night with my camera and take pictures. Or having a leisurely breakfast at my favourite coffee and hawker fare. Or do chores and physical labour at home. Or idle and chill. Or learn to draw.

It is also a time I can focus on prayer and the word and some ideas for future books. I began to write out possible outlines for books on the subjects like: A to Z of Receiving God’s Word; the A to Z of Communicating God’s Word, A to Z of God’s Promises. Good ideas but I will see how these ideas develop. In the meantime, I have yet to edit and refine my first draft of the first book: A to Z of Christ’s Finished Work. Hmmm….need to do all these on my knees. Really need to pray for God’s enabling help.

Right now my concern is with some commitments I have made to lead a retreat, and to preach in my home church and other churches. WhatsApp a prayer to God for me in my endeavours and in my continued learning to be a caregiver.

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