Message by Bishop Rennis Ponniah, given at the National Day Thanksgiving Service 2017 on 17th of August.
Message by Bishop Rennis Ponniah, Diocese of Singapore given at the National Day Thanksgiving Service 2017 on the 17th of August 2017. (Also included in the November 2017 Issue of Diocesan Digest.)
It is a wonderful thing to gather as the people of the Lord whatever our church affiliation or station in life. We are greatly encouraged to have our President and those who serve as Ministers and MPs join us in this service of prayer and thanksgiving.
The great challenge for Christians is how to live out the Kingdom in this world. By the grace of God toward us in Christ Jesus, we have become citizens of His everlasting Kingdom. And the challenge is how are we, on this side of eternity, to live out our lives as a people belonging to God in the midst of the society and culture around us.
There are two equal and opposite options we are to avoid. The first is assimilation, where Christians buy into or are seduced by the culture around us. Christians lose their distinctiveness. The second is withdrawal, where Christians detach themselves from the society around them. In this model, Christians only engage in society to make a living, but take no active interest in the affairs of the nation. The people of God and the society travel on different tracts.
Both options were available to the Israelites, the Old Testament people of God, when they were carried into exile to Babylon. In their case, there was a third option: rebellion against the present regime. Because the Babylonians were their enemies who destroyed their homeland and carried them away as captives to a foreign land, you can imagine how attractive this option was, especially when there was ferment in the empire.
Now while some passages of Scripture, like Psalms 137, 1 Peter and Hebrews address the danger of the first option (that of seduction and assimilation to the culture around you) our passage in Jeremiah 29:4-14 counsels and admonishes us not to withdraw from society, nor rebel against the present regime.
In a stunning way, God’s command to His people is to “settle down in Babylon.” - You are going to be there for 70 years as part of my discipline and as part of my purpose. So settle down, give your children in marriage, build your homes, take root there – “but make sure you seek the welfare of the city.”
This was not at all what the Jews were expecting. They wanted God’s judgment on their enemies, and the quickest possible way to return to their homeland. The last thing they expected to hear was “to seek the welfare of the foreign city that they were in, and pray to the Lord on its behalf.” This was the Old Testament equivalent of Jesus’ command to ”love our enemies” and “pray for those who persecute you.” It is consonant with Jesus’ prayer that His disciples would be in the world and yet not of it. It chimes in with the reading from Matthew where He says to His people, “You are the light of the world.” So Jeremiah 29 is in harmony with these passages of Scriptures: Seek the welfare of the city in which you live your daily lives.
Now Babylon at its height in the 6th century B.C. would have been then what we call today a First World city. The material riches of the empire, the people’s standard of living and their cultural achievements, their vineyards and hanging gardens would have won top architectural prizes of the day. That would have made Babylon the equivalent of a city of first choice – like Melbourne, if you like, which is the most liveable city as reported in the papers today.
Arguably too, Singapore is a First World city. Using the Human Development Index criteria for education that charts adult literary rate and expected years of schooling, healthcare, life expectancy and economic factors (Gross National Income per capita), it may not surprise you that in 2015 Singapore was ranked 5th, together with Denmark, out of 188 countries
I think a credible case can be made that Singapore would qualify to be a First World country. It may not be the tag we want to use when we do trade deals, but it is not an entirely mismatched label. Many things identify us with being a First World nation.
As we gather tonight, it is good that we recognise that the First World nation will face some unique snares or dangers that could lead to its unravelling and decline. What would these dangers include? They would include:
a) intoxicating materialism
Everyone wants bigger, better and newer. We are in a spin thinking money can buy us happiness. But the love of money leads to greed, exploitation, squabbles and a whole host of vices.
b) selfish individualism
Everybody wants what’s best for himself or herself with little thought for his neighbour, the larger collective, or the common good. We must have right of way whether it is driving our car or choosing the morals we want to live by.
c) social polarization
In a First World nation, it is not the amount of GNP or the Nation Income. Rather, it is income distribution and the cost of living. So widening income differentials between social economic groups, coupled with the heightening ideological differences that spread rapidly in a shrinking social media-driven world, could easily raise tensions between the different groups that make up society.
In the light of these, hence my topic To Build A ‘First World’ Righteousness. We need a righteousness to safeguard our country from the pitfalls common to First World nations.
How do we do that? How do we build ‘First World’ Righteousness? Our Jeremiah text suggests three Ps to help us remember the response that God is calling of us to actively seek the welfare of our nation: Practice, Pray and Proclaim.
I. PRACTICE CHRISTIAN ETHICS
I am not sure if you noticed, but there is a rather humorous straight-line application from our text to our Singapore situation. If you look at the passage, at the end of verse 6, God says to the exiles, “Multiply there, and do not decrease!” I think it is more than humorous. Given the value of procreation, and the biblical view of children as God’s precious blessing on the one hand, and Singapore’s dismal fertility rate of 1.20, one can make a case that to promote Singapore’s wellbeing, Christian married couples should aim to have more children.
More to the point, “to seek the welfare of the city” is to adopt a lifestyle of active goodness in the everyday life of the society. We are to practice Christian ethics in our family life, in our work places, in our business and social interactions in the marketplace.
Two words underlie Christian ethics: justice and love.
JUSTICE is God’s order of right and wrong - what is ethically right in all levels of society, in every human situation. So Christians affect the moral climate of a First World nation by their character and conduct: our integrity, our truthfulness, our keeping of promises, our fairness in dealing with others, our commitment to the larger good, our sense of responsibility to the role we are given.
Before I became a pastor, I worked in social research for the Housing and Development Board. My colleagues and I knew the temptation of selecting the data or aggregating the data to keep everybody happy. There is that temptation because, I suppose, it needs courage and integrity to tell the whole truth. So it is our responsibility to practice Christian ethics, justice, what is right, and what is true, and what accords with God’s right and wrong.
The second word is LOVE. We are to love our neighbour as ourselves. Do to others, Jesus said, as you would have them do to you. Here, I can think of three prongs:
First, our practical care for those in need in our society. This covers a wide spectrum. Our God is a compassionate God and He moves towards those who are aching, struggling on their own, suffering from various afflictions, and caught in various traps and addictions. The NCCS is tremendously encouraged that one of our churches has become a helping place for gambling addicts – a place of help, and journeying on what can sometimes be a long journey. I believe that’s on God’s heart that we are helping a whole spectrum of people in need.
We also demonstrate love for our neighbour by engaging the public square where the values and policies of our nation are forged. It is not about wanting to be represented, or jostling to be heard. It is being stewards, because we believe this Book of Life is for all. So we need to learn a language of discourse. We can’t go into the public square saying, “The Bible says this.” But we can learn how to present it in a language of discourse that would convince the fair-minded person. And we do it out of love because God truth makes for life. When you run against God’s truth, we actually dehumanize our existence.
A third prong about love that I think is unique for us in this age and in this First Word nation, is the beautiful expression of love through forgiveness, because a First World nation can be quite harsh. Some of us have the opportunity to travel to other countries; they may not have the best standard of living, but their hospitality is outstanding. Their bands of give-and-take are winsome. Here again, with Christian ethics, there is forgiveness. Christians are a forgiven people. We ought to be known as a forgiving people. No one goes through life without making a wrong step. When we are broken by our own mistakes or failures, God forgives and God builds us up from a place of brokenness. We ought to do the same for others. So first, practice Christian ethics in everyday life.
II. PRAY FOR ‘SHALOM’
Shalom is a Hebrew word that is variously translated into English bibles as ‘welfare’, or ‘peace and prosperity’. It is a rich word, which is why I didn’t change it. It is good that we receive the word in all its richness. One commentator describes it this way: Shalom embraces all that belongs to the good and satisfying life. It means peace understood as wellbeing, wholeness, unimpaired relationships and harmony. It is the opposite of fragmentation, conflict and alienation. And the Word of God says, in verse 7, we are to pray to the Lord on behalf of the city for its ‘shalom’, for its wellbeing, its welfare, its peace; knowing that in our nation’s ‘shalom’, we too will find our ‘shalom’. Doubtless we have so much to be thankful for in terms of the existing. Would you not agree? We have so much. As we assemble here in the Cathedral, we have so much to be thankful for: that our teenagers can return home even late at night; that we live in harmonious relationships across ethnic groups and income groups.
So we are thankful tonight for the instruments God has used to bring about this ‘shalom’. The integrity, foresight and sound policies of our government leaders who, it can be said, set the example of putting nation before self. We’re thankful for our remarkable public servants who work sacrificially, fairly and effectively. We are thankful for a judiciary that is committed to applying the law with an even hand, and interpreting the law with intellectual integrity. And we are grateful to God for our community leaders who build relationships of trust and work for the common good. So we are here tonight to pray for the continuance of these vital ingredients. They are not to be taken for granted.
But when we pray for ‘shalom’, wellbeing, unimpaired relationships, peace, we are also praying that God would shield us and deliver us from the forces that can destroy or undermine ‘shalom’. We know that there is an enemy of God, the ancient enemy, the devil, who looks for gaps to exploit and to oppose God’s good purposes for a nation. So I call our attention to pray for the moral gate of our nation. There is a nasty wind that is bringing confusion and deception in the area of moral values. It seems to me the world is like a crowd wanting to plunge headlong into the abyss of moral darkness. The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy.
We need to pray for social cohesion, that the different ethnic, religious and social groups in Singapore will not get caught up in the polarizations and internal tensions spreading right through and around the world. Only with God’s help can we overcome religious and racial prejudices, and treat each other with care and respect, as equal citizens of our beloved homeland. And as we pray for our nation will be socially cohesive, let’s pray that the Church in Singapore would model such unity.
I believe there is a third thing to pray for: humility, because in a First World nation, success can easily breed pride. Human progress and achievement can easily beget the wrong kind of autonomy. We are not captains of our own souls. We are not masters of our own destiny. We are stewards of all that God has graciously given us. We are dependent on His mercy and grace. So tonight we pray for humility and the reverential fear of God in our land. The Scriptures say that righteousness exalts a nation. And as we practice Christian ethics on the one hand, it needs to be accompanied by prayer, because only God can build a righteousness that spreads. The right way of living, the pathways of life and not of darkness and death - only God can overcome the present wind and tide. So we pray for ‘shalom’.
III. PROCLAIM GOOD NEWS
We build First World righteousness by telling others the old, old story of Jesus and His love, because it is only in faith in Jesus Christ that a person has the capacity for Kingdom righteousness. And we need Kingdom righteousness to sustain a society in its trajectory. In God’s grace, this has been our trajectory of growth and peace and ‘shalom’. But to sustain it - because we all know about civilizations that decline - we need this righteousness of the Kingdom, that is through faith in Christ because it is only through Christ that a person get a new heart. We can lay out all the rules and penalties but what will sustain a righteous way of living is a new heart, a new capacity for doing what is right in the world.
So God says through Jeremiah, in verse 11, “I know the plans that I have for you. – plans for ‘shalom’, for your good, wellbeing – not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
We may be a First World nation, but so many are also anxious, and uncertain about the future, and live lives of quiet despair. But God says I will give you a future and a hope. That phrase was partially fulfilled historically with the Jews returning to the homeland. After 70 years they did come back to the homeland. But that phrase “and future and a hope” rings with anticipation of what was to come – not just for the Jews, but also for all nations, that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have a future and a hope. Because of sin, all humanity is exiled from God. But through Jesus Christ, we come home to God and we have an eternal destiny. So the finished work of Jesus on the cross is what gives us a glorious future, kept in heaven for you, imperishable. And it gives us a true hope. That’s the foundation I believe, of the eternal city, whose architect and builder is God. And because we believe in this city, we believe there is a final judgement before that eternal city comes into being. We believe there is a day when God would judge every person. Evildoers and those who rely on their own righteousness will receive their due from the Judge of all the earth. But those who trust in Jesus, and pursue righteousness with a new heart, they will be saved unto eternity. And that is Good News!
Therefore, extending Kingdom righteousness in our land will involve proclaiming the Good News. We are to do this personally with our family, colleagues and friends; we proclaim it faithfully in our churches in word and deed; and we herald it winsomely in especially arranged public meetings. We thank God for the freedom in our multi-religious society (with a secular state). In this matrix, all religions have the freedom to believe and responsibly practise our faith. For us, practising our faith must include proclamation, not in an underhanded or arrogant way, but with passion, with love, with courage.
So we take every opportunity to share the Good News of God’s salvation in Christ. So let’s across all ages, because this is the Good News that saves, that transforms, that keeps a nation on the path of righteousness.
And so I conclude: How do we build a ‘First World’ righteousness? Practice Christian ethics, pray for ‘shalom’, and proclaim Good News. We need divine power. In Christ, we receive divine power through the Holy Spirit. We need the Holy Spirit’s power to fulfil all three. The risen Lord is present, tonight in our midst. On this day when we thank Him for our nation, and pledge ourselves to build a righteousness that matches the needs of a First World nation, He is present to strengthen us by His spirit, to seek a robust and enduring ‘shalom’ of our city. In that ‘shalom’, we honour God and we find our ‘shalom’, to His praise and glory. Amen.