What Religion is Not (Jeremiah 7: 8-11)

Jeremiah began his ministry when the Assyrians, the greatest power of the world at that time, which had dominated the world and seemed invincible, began to lose power. 114 years before, the Assyrians had taken the Northern Israel into exile. Assyria had fallen and Babylon and Egypt were seeking to take Assyria’s place as the next great power of the world. It was a politically unstable time and Judah was caught in the middle. It was in the midst of this political turmoil that the Lord called Jeremiah.  God called Jeremiah to warn of the coming Babylonian invasion and the restoration that would follow the exile.

When Jeremiah began his ministry, it was during the reign of King Josiah. King Josiah brought about many reforms, repaired the temple and urged the people to return to the Lord. The people returned to the Lord. In the 13th year of his reign, God called Jeremiah to be a prophet to Israel and to the nations (Jeremiah 1:10). He was to uproot and tear down, meaning, to warn people of God’s judgement, and to plant and build up, meaning, to give a word of hope to the people.  

After King Josiah, the next king was evil and the nation went back into her old idolatrous ways. The Israelites turned away from God. They worshipped idols. The priests, the kings and the prophets were far from God. That led to rampant social injustice. The widows, orphans and immigrants were suffering.

God told Jeremiah to stand at the temple gate publicly to preach God’s Word.  This message was to be preached to all people, therefore, it was most likely that it was preached during one of the big religious festivals, such as Passover or the Feast of the Tabernacles. As the people entered into the temple to worship God, he warned them about religion.

The people worshipped God at the Temple but God was not pleased with them. They were going to the Temple because it made them looked good to be seen at the Temple. Furthermore, the spiritual leaders: the priests and the prophets were living in denial assuming that everything was all right because the Temple was there. They decided that the Lord would protect Jerusalem and Judah and would not allow anything to destroy the Temple. There were also fake prophets, saying that everything was all right. The false prophets said, “God will do nothing; no disaster will come upon us” (Jeremiah 5:12). They said peace, peace” everything is fine (Jeremiah 6:14, NIV).

And so they would continue in their sin, and also go through the motions of the worshipping God at the Temple, thinking that everything were just fine.

Inside the temple, they worshipped God, and did all the required rituals, thinking that they would be accepted by God. But their hearts were far from God.

However, outside of the temple, it was a different story. These worshippers were unfaithful to God. They forsook God and worshipped idols. Jeremiah used the word “adultery” to describe their idol worshipping practice. Some even followed the pagan ways by offering their children as child sacrifices. They rebelled against God. There was injustice in the nation. They oppressed the weak, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows among them. Innocent lives were taken in the name of religion.

The Israelites had substitute worship with religion. Religion is not: 

 (1) Religion is not a lucky charm

“‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. 3 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.(vv2-8, NIV).

The people kept saying, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord”. Saying that would not save them. They had put their trust in the physical building. They thought the Temple could save them from enemies and that as a nation, their national security was strengthened. They had made the Temple their lucky charm.  

For us as Christians today, wearing a cross pendant around our neck does not make us Christians. It is not a charm that brings us success or good luck or health. Some people hang a cross in their car as a lucky charm to protect them from accidents. The cross pendant and the decoration in the car is symbol to remind us of the sacrificial love of Jesus on the Cross for us. And that He had risen from the death and will come back for us and to judge the world. The cross pendant itself does not save us.  

The act of worship in the temple would not save the worshippers. The people thought that as long as they were worshipping in the temple, the rituals would protect them.

The worship God was looking for was the transformation of His people: holiness, renewal of life and cleansing of the heart. Not the mere outward rituals and ceremonies.

True worship means there are changes for the better in the way we live and act. How are we living our lives? The way we live tells more powerful stories than testimonies that we say with our mouth. Are we just in our actions and in our dealings with others? Do we treat others with respect and dignity and do not oppress the foreigners or the migrant workers or our maid in our homes? Do we oppress the orphans and the widows and take advantage of them? True worship is “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). This is true worship. And we do not bow to other idols or political figures to save us. We give our whole heart and devotion to God, the maker of heavens and the earth for He rules with justice and He governs the world with His wisdom.  

(2)Religion does not necessarily mean that we enjoy a healthy relationship with God

Having a religion does not mean having a relationship with God.

9 “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury,[a] burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.

Verse 9 mentions 6 of the 10 Commandments. You shall have no other gods before me, you shall not make idols, you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witnesses against your neighbour.

The 10 Commandments is the foundation of the covenant relationship between God and His people. The people thought that they would be safe to do whatever they like if they had performed all these rituals.

Having a religion does not necessarily mean that you are have a real relationship with God. Being a Christian does not mean you have the license to commit sins and behaviour which are morally wrong and displeases God. God forgive sins, yes, but we often bend it too far. We often takes His grace for granted and think it is ok to sin because God will forgive us when we ask for forgiveness. Let us truly repent and forsake sinful ways. God is not a machine that dispenses grace like dispensing drink from a vending machine.

If we are reading the Bible, attending church just as a ritual, it does not mean we are having a close relationship with God. Do you know the heart of God? Do you spend time with God just because He is your Heavenly Father and you love Him and enjoy Him?   

Without a love relationship with God, reading the Bible, prayers, coming for Sunday worship is a burdensome chore. It is burdensome, dry and boring. But genuine relationship with God gives us joy, strength, love and fulfilment in life.

(3)Religion does not mean we are superior than others

12 “‘Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel. 13 While you were doing all these things, declares the Lord, I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer. 14 Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your ancestors. 15 I will thrust you from my presence, just as I did all your fellow Israelites, the people of Ephraim.’

Shiloh was the central city of Israel. It was the centre of worship for about 400 years. It was the place where the tabernacle of meeting and the Ark of the Covenant was. Shiloh enjoyed all this glory for these hundreds of years. The people in Jerusalem thought they were better than the northern tribes because they had the Temple. But then, these glorious years ended quickly.

The Lord then drew a comparison between Shiloh where the tabernacle used to dwell and in Jerusalem where the temple now dwelled. By Jeremiah’s day, Shiloh had been in ruins for a long time. If God did not spare Shiloh from His judgement, where His Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant used to be, what would make God spare Jerusalem even though His temple was there? If the people of Jerusalem did not repent, a similar ending would come to them, as what happened to Shiloh. 

Having a Temple in their city did not mean they were superior than the others. Going to church does not mean we are superior than those outside of the church.

One thing that we Christians tend to do when we talk to unbelievers is to talk down to them because they are not Christians. We can be harsh and say unpleasant things to them. Some Christians will say: you are suffering from certain illness because of your sins or the sins of your ancestors, and so on.  

We are too quick to judge. We are too quick to see the speck of sawdust in their eyes and pay no attention to the plank in our own eye. We have lost compassion for others.   

Yes, their souls matter. We care for them and we really want them to be in Heaven with Jesus someday. Evangelism is important but it has to match the way you live your life. If not, it will repel people from coming to know the love, mercy, holiness and grace of God. Let us evangelise with our lives, and not with words.

(4)Religion is not our safety net

Rituals will not save us. Coming to church, reading the Bible daily do not save us if we do not have a genuine relationship with God, our Creator.

Religion is not an investment. Some people hope that by putting in certain hours at church, or serving in the church, we will be rewarded with a long life, with a life with no worries, good health and wealth. If you put your trust in religion, it will disappoint you. You will still face problems and worries, your health may decline as the years go by. 

Religion does not provide a safety net for us. We can only find refuge in God alone.

What kind of a Christian are we? What kind of a church are we? Let us prayerfully examine ourselves.

Are we worshipping God because it is our Sunday routine? Are our hearts far from God although we are sitting in the sanctuary or worshipping from home?  

Christianity is not just a religion. It is a lifestyle. Religion does not work. Religion does not save us. God is not looking at our rituals and ceremonies. He is looking at our heart.

Jeremiah was a prophet who warned people of God’s judgment if they did not obey Him. Yet, Jeremiah also reminded the people that God is a God of Grace.  God said He will punish His people, yet, He will restore.

What does God require of us? To love Him wholeheartedly. To walk with Him in humility, to care for one another, not to oppress the weak.  God requires transformation from within: walking in holiness and righteousness. May our lives bring glory to God.   

An Internal Dialogue with myself

Malaysia has entered into the 3rd wave of the pandemic. Towards the end of the 2nd wave, people were starting to move about and life seemed to go back to normal. With the 3rd wave of the pandemic, once again, we have to remind ourselves to be careful and to practice social distancing and personal hygiene at all times.

Now that I was not able to meet my friends as regularly, I have a chance to talk to myself— as a friend. When was the last time you were nice to yourself? It is easy to be nice to our friends and strangers, but we are not necessarily the nicest person to ourselves. We think awful things about ourselves. I am harsh on myself and say the not-so-nice things to myself all the time. Often times, we are our own biggest critic.

I am glad that I had this chance to talk to myself and be a friend to myself. Jesus said that we should love others as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39). We can not treat ourselves too poorly or else we will be devaluing ourselves from the person whom God had created us to be.

When I start to respect and treat myself better, I have a better outlook on life and am more responsive to receive the blessings and gifts that God has given to me. 

  1. Be mindful

Time slips by like sand. If I am not careful in keeping track on the use of my time, I will be overwhelmed with the tasks which needed to be completed.

Lately I have been working myself too hard. Just about half an hour ago, I was looking into the mirror and was shocked to see the dark circles under my eyes. It has been a tough and busy week, and the momentum will build up by the weekend.

I cram too much into the day. This is when I realise I have to take care of myself so that I am able to share my gifts with my family, church members and friends. Take time to be mindful of what is happening in the day and pay attention to what God is saying in every circumstance.

I keep a journal at night so that I can keep track of what happened in the day, in the past week and in the past month. Tracking my progress will help me to stay focus on what needs to be done. It may mean saying “no” to less important thing so that I can focus on the tasks that needed to be done.Time with God   

2. Time with God

This is the most important one to be on this list. Time with God is the most precious part of my day. I get to be alone with God, study His Word and to be reminded of His sovereignty and how loved I am.  Time with God also reminds me that the agenda of the day is set by God, not me. I am to welcome assignments from Him and to participate in His Work. It is an adventure with God and an adventure to know myself better.      

3. Nourish my body

Now that I am starting to eat healthy, I do feel the difference. I am less sluggish and I feel more energized.  I begin to pay attention to my body and to understand my body more, in terms of what makes me feel good and the type of food that makes me feel sick and sluggish. When I am mindful of the things I put into my body, I am showing kindness to myself. This helps me to appreciate myself. God has given me a body and this is my task to take care of it. In the past, we feed it with whatever we want because we are young and we want to satisfy our cravings for fried chicken and sweet soda. Now that I learn to feed it with the nutritious food, I feel an improvement in my overall health.

Apart from that, getting enough rest is important too. When I was functioning on 5 hours of sleep, I was irritable and made poor decisions. Now, I make it a priority to get enough sleep and rest, not just for myself, but so that I can lead better and make decisions that is beneficial to all.  

I read somewhere that exercise is a way to celebrate what my body can do. When I exercise, it gives me an opportunity to thank the Lord for what I can do with my body. Just today, I can swim longer than I normally can. These little victories help me to celebrate life.

Taken during a morning walk. Morning walks refresh me.
Saw an orchid during my morning walk. The morning walks refresh me.

Learning to Love and Appreciate Myself

Learning to love and appreciate myself is a journey. Jesus Christ had died on the Cross for me and had saved me from sin so that I can have a relationship with God. I am a child of God. I should treasure my life and enjoy the days that I have while on this earth. This is my personal growth during the pandemic—to see myself as a friend. 

How was your personal journey during this pandemic? May you discover something wonderful about yourself and that you will treasure yourself every day.

Are Christians Superstitious?

Today is the Mid-Autumn Festival. It is celebrated by the Chinese and it is the second most important tradition celebrated after Chinese New Year. On this day, the moon is round and bright. The Chinese believe that the full moon is the symbol of a family reunion. Families gather together for a reunion meal as well as to observe the moon. Many ancient poets wrote about the moon as it reminded them about their family back home and thus they expressed their homesickness in the poems.

Today, most Chinese families will be playing with lanterns, enjoying gazing at the full moon and having a meal with their family and friends.  The Chinese will also be enjoying mooncakes— a traditional Chinese pastry which is made from wheat flour and sweet fillings, such as lotus seed paste. The mooncake is a symbol of family reunion. It is usually only eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival.  

However, in the ancient Chinese world, not everyone was able to enjoy looking at the moon. There were superstitions that forbid those who were feeling tired to be out of their house during Mooncake festival. For the ladies who had just given birth, they too, were not allowed to enjoy the full moon, even though they might be standing at the balcony of the house. There were many other superstitions as well which people had to observe to avoid bad luck.

Superstitions are not things of the past. Regardless of how the world is changing, it seems human beings are always looking for some objects, behaviour and belief that make us feel in control of our lives. We know that in life, many things are beyond our control: accidents, bad bosses, terrible job interviews, a sickness in the body, a crisis and so on. We can not control what will happen to our health, wealth and future but if there is something we can do to increase the chances of our having a good life, we will take it.   

I have friends who are Christians but they believe in lucky numbers and lucky objects which will give them good luck and prosperity. They still hold on to the Chinese superstition by looking at the Zodiac signs and finding life partners by looking at the time of birth to see if the pair is compatible.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, superstition is, “a widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief.”

A superstition is a belief that if you do a certain ritual, it will lead to either good luck or bad luck. If you do this, you will have a good day. But if you do that, you will have an unlucky day. We may have our lucky objects that seem to bring us good luck if we carry it with us. This is the more obvious kind of superstition.

There is also subtle superstition too, one that we may not be aware of. We can be superstitious but it is a fake mask of being spiritual. For example, a Christian may say or use a specific special prayer so that God must surely listen. Or, some Christians may even take ministry as superstition: I am serving in church ministry and because of this, God will bless me. I read the Bible and pray in the morning, so that God will bless me with a good day. If we are not careful, we will turn our ministry into rituals that will bring us blessings in life. If I miss reading the Bible in the morning, something bad will happen, which I irrationally believe is God’s punishment for me. We may unknowingly turn our relationship with God into superstition.

One afternoon, a church member came into my office. She showed me crosses which she had brought from a Christian bookstore and requested for prayers of blessings for these crosses. She thought by blessing these crosses, they would protect her family and household. Crosses are symbols to remind us of the sacrificial love of Jesus on the Cross for us and His triumph over sin and death. The cross pendant on our necklace or the cross we put in our living rooms will not protect us from harm and evil—only Jesus Himself can save us and protect us.  

How do we know if we are faithful followers of Jesus or we are being superstitious? A sign that we may be subtly superstitions is that we depend on other things apart from God Himself for success, good things, security and protection.    

Superstition may seem to give us comfort and a sense of security but it is not the real peace that we can have. Real peace comes in knowing Jesus alone and that His grace is sufficient for us (2 Corinthians 12:9), regardless of the external circumstances. Let us not be bound to superstition. We have been set free from fear in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ has come so that we can have life to the full (John 10:10), and not a life that worries and stresses over not being faithful in following a certain ritual or behaviour.  

Jesus Christ died on the Cross to save us from God’s wrath against our sins so that we will not die eternally. We are saved not because of good works but we are saved because of God’s love and grace for us. We love God and others and do good work in response to His great love for us, not because we want to get more blessings and have more successes.

Superstitions may seemingly give us a sense of control and security but the greatest security that we can have is in Christ Jesus Himself. Do you trust in Him enough that we do not need to have lucky things as crutches for a smooth sailing life? May knowing Jesus be the greatest joy and treasure in your life.