Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Communion, Carols and Jeremiah

Of all the practices and customs that define and distinguish Christian denominations, there is none perhaps so resistant to the currents of time as the Eucharist, and none as unique to each denomination.

These days, music has caught up and most churches probably sing a number of songs in common. Sermons, church architecture and structures of hierarchy differ only slightly. Of course, there is baptism, but then even in that, those that baptise by immersion do it in pretty much the same way.

In communion, I have seen some level of variety even among churches of the same denomination. Maybe it's just me, but whenever I visit a new church, I look forward to communion, because this simple institution of bread and wine represents the distinct identity of a church and yet also identifies it with the larger body of Christ, and with the body and blood of Christ himself.

Now of all denominations, I seem to appreciate mine the least. I happen to prefer more traditionally conducted Eucharists, with the extended liturgies and elaborate ceremonies; but one recent Sunday at my church, something simple yet profound struck me as I watched the communion stewards. First, they took the trays and served the congregation; then, they returned to the altar and stood in line as the assisting pastors served them; finally, the conducting pastor served his assistants.

One word jumped out at me: stewardship. We call them stewards, these people who serve us; and as they serve, they are served by authorities higher than them in the church. What struck me the most was the act of the assisting pastors serving the stewards; I was reminded that all authority we receive from Christ is that we may serve others, and be served by those higher than us.

Some of this, I believe, is reflected in that account of the Centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant. He said, "I too am a man under authority; I say to this man, 'Come', and he comes, to another 'Go', and he goes. So just say the word, and I know my servant will be healed." (Kaun and I sang that Donut Man song on the way down Penang Hill.)

I always used to wonder why he said he too was a man under authority. Not long ago, I realised that he knew he only had authority because someone above him conferred that authority on him. He must have known that Jesus only had power because the Father gave it to Him. And in some way he must have known that Jesus' authority was far greater that his, such that he could give orders to soldiers in sight, but Jesus could order illnesses even in those He could not 'see'.

And no wonder Jesus commended him for his faith. The Israelites awaited the sign of Jonah, and now One greater than Jonah was come. They missed him, but apparently this Gentile, this Centurion, did not.

* * * * *

Lately, I have been hearing Christmas carols in almost all the shopping malls I've visited. And I have been very glad to note that they were true Christmas carols, not just fun seasonal songs like 'Jingle Bells' and 'Rudolf, the Red-nosed Reindeer'.

Almost everywhere, I've heard 'O Come, All Ye Faithful', and the other day in Mid Valley, I heard 'The First Noel'.

As I remarked to Ai Wei, it is amazing that even here, the true King of Israel is proclaimed. The little plot of land is such a fiery bone of contention amongst the followers of the three great Abrahamic religions, and yet at Christmas we are reminded that two thousand years ago, a Child was born who claimed to be the true King of that land.

The Christians believe He died but is now alive, yet we haven't quite seen Him in two millennia.

The Muslims say He did not die but was raised to heaven, and will come again the judge the world. We still haven't seen Him in two millennia.

The non-Messianic Jews say He was a great teacher but not the promised Messiah. God still hasn't sent Him in two millennia, it seems.

And yet at Christmas we sing these crazy hymns in praise and honour of that Child. And apparently those scholars and (possibly) magicians of the East did not think it folly to travel all those miles to honour Him.

It seems equally foolish for the Muslim authorities not to ban the playing and singing of such carols in public, as it is for the Christians to sing them. And yet at every Christmas, Christ is proclaimed.

Ai Wei and I talked about Christmas being at the end of the year. It would seem that the last word of every year is still the Last Word.

* * * * *

Reading Jeremiah this month has been a challenging yet very meaningful experience, especially in context of Christmas and some of the recent struggles.

I know, O LORD, that a man's life is not his own;
it is not for man to direct his steps.

--Jeremiah 10:23 (NIV)

This passage in particular summarises what the book seemed to be saying to me in general:

"'In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David's line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.

In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it will be called:
The LORD Our Righteousness.'

For this is what the LORD says: 'David will never fail to have a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, nor will the priests, who are Levites, ever fail to have a man to stand before me continually to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings and to present sacrifices.'"

The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: "This is what the LORD says: 'If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night no longer come at their appointed time, then my covenant with David my servant--and my covenant with the Levites who are priests ministering before me--can be broken and David will no longer have a descendant to reign on his throne. I will make the descendants of David my servant and the Levites who minister before me as countless as the stars of the sky and as measureless as the sand on the seashore.'"

The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: "Have you not noticed that these people are saying, 'The LORD has rejected the two kingdoms he chose'? So they despise my people and no longer regard them as a nation. This is what the LORD says: 'If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his sons to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them.'"

--Jeremiah 33:15-26 (NIV)

In it, God not only renews the Abrahamic covenant, He also maintains His sovereignty from the creation itself, identifying Himself as the God who set in place the day and the night, and fixed the order of the universe.

Ai Wei quoted to me Psalm 17:14 one morning.

O LORD, by your hand save me from such men,
from men of this world whose reward is in this life.
You still the hunger of those you cherish;
their sons have plenty,
and they store up wealth for their children.

Reading it that night, I was challenged by the verse that followed:

And I--in righteousness I will see your face;
when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Therefore the pure in heart and the righteous must be one and the same. How far I am from that!

I asked myself if I can be truly satisfied with seeing God's likeness upon waking; I still don't really know.

YHWH Tsidkenu: the LORD our Righteousness.

He is the Lord who makes us all right. God wanted to rescue them and set them free from their bad habits. He is a holy God but also a forgiving God. The news God shared with Jeremiah was that He was sending a Holy King to earth -- the Lord Jesus Christ.

--YP's Devotional, May/June 2002