We gather as God's people tonight, uniting our hearts in worshiping our sovereign God, and seeking His face over someone very dear to us in the Church community and to this land that we have missed for 50 days.
Like you, I was most disturbed when I first heard of the shocking news of our brother Raymond Koh’s audacious abduction in broad daylight in a busy urban residential area of Petaling Jaya on 13 February 2017.
For us Malaysians – we watch such episodes only on TV or hear of them happening in Mexico, Latin America or Africa where civil war, drug barons, clandestine armies and armed groups exist; where the rule of law has been severely compromised.
This growing sense of bewilderment, anguish and outrage is compounded by the fact that this happened to a gentle man of peace, who is a good neighbour to the peoples of Malaysia who are in need - regardless of race, standing, gender and age. He sacrificially and doggedly paid the price of having to raise the necessary funds and resources to run the centre that has given many in the margins of life hope - the Harapan Komuniti.
Then this bewilderment and lamentation is further fuelled by the paucity of information and scarcity of leads about the investigation by the law enforcement agencies. This is most troubling and anxiety provoking, especially when we realise that the chances of solving the case diminish with the passage of time.
It was at this early stage of “fearing the worst but always hoping for the best” that I sensed the Lord speaking and laying His word on my heart of “lamentation – never beyond hope”. It was similar to the epiphany, a sudden revelation of discovery, like that of the psalmist in Psalm 73. There in this psalm of Asaph, the psalmist had his fair share oflamentation of outrage when he declared: Truly God is good to Israel, to those whose hearts are pure. 2 But as for me, I almost lost my footing. My feet were slipping, and I was almost gone. 3 For I envied the proud when I saw them prosper despite their wickedness. ....16 So I tried to understand why the wicked prosper. But what a difficult task it is! 17 Then I went into your sanctuary, O God, and I finally understood the destiny of the wicked.
Lamentations in life are unavoidable. Lamenting speaks of physical danger and mental anguish, where inevitable questions like “why me? Why now? Why this undeserving crisis, suffering and pain?” arise. It is a deep sense of grief and outrage, often profound and at times accompanied by demonstrative and reactive expressions of sorrow and disappointment. It deplores being a victim or a recipient of unjustified crises and undeserving travails. Lamentation really puts faith in God to the test.
There are three “stand out” places of lamentation in the Old Testament – in the Psalms, The Book of Lamentations and Job. All these three sources tell us that lament is an essential ingredient of honest faith in an unchanging God.
“We were created to live with God in a garden, yet we wake every morning in the desert of a fallen world,” says Michael Card, a singer, songwriter, author, and radio host from Tennessee. There seems to be a painful “disconnect” between reality and the promises of God.
It is noteworthy that Israel’s acknowledged Book of Worship, the Book of Psalms, contains more psalms of lament [both personal and communal] than any other major genres or categories of psalms. Lament is indeed a prevalent experience in the life of the chosen people of God.
The lamenters of old always brought their sorrow and suffering to God in worship and discovered that genuine lament in worship often led to a healing sense of the presence of a sovereign God. Those worshippers of old gazed honestly but unflinchingly at their present reality of pain in the face of the apparent slowness to save by their sovereign God. That could only happen because there was a real underpinning of a true relationship that was deep, real and close enough for the lamenter to “tell it to God’s face” the outrage felt in the face of injustice.
T. Tennent reminds us that the Psalms makes an important difference between despair and lamentation. He points out that the language may sound similar but the destination is different. The destination of despair is hopelessness, cynicism and even suicide. The destination of the Biblical lamenter in honest faith in the unchanging sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God, Who is the Author and Perfecter of creation and faith – is hope.
The laments in the psalms are always songs of hope and not funeral dirges of despair – because of an honest faith in an unchanging God.
In the Old Testament book which the 19th
century British poet laureate, Lord Alfred Tennyson, called “The greatest poem of ancient and modern times” – Job, we witness yet again another lamenter of honest faith in an unchanging God.
This “blameless and upright man” [Job 1:8], whose candidature was endorsed by God to withstand the full weight of Satan’s attack - lost his children, possessions and wealth, health and reputation almost in a flash.
Yet the response of HOPE of this very man, a genuine lamenter of honest faith in an unchanging God has since echoed powerfully all the way through the corridors of history to our own day. Job had declared – “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him....” [Job 13:15] and “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. Job 19:25 [the Hebrew could also be translated as ‘my Vindicator lives’]
But even as we are now into Lent and nearing Easter, we cannot but acknowledge the cry of the chief lamenter of honest faith in the unchanging Father God - the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Lord Jesus, the very Son of God, uttered the excruciating words of abandonment on the cross, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? [Matt 27:46]. In this traditional Fourth Word at the Cross, He was quoting from Psalm 22:1. In the words of the psalmist, Jesus found a way to express the cry of his heart: Why had God abandoned Him? Why did his Father turn his back on Him in His moment of greatest agony?
Martin Luther once said, “God forsaking God. Who can understand it?” That was pain that belonged to the eternal dimension that cannot be fully understood or grasped on the mortal and temporal plane.
Nevertheless, since then, when that greatest lament of all ages and God’s greatest victory planned from eternity met at the Cross – all of life is framed with hope for those who trust in Christ!
So that just as death does not have the last word, so also our greatest laments on earth will not have the last say! In our Christ the Messiah Who expressed and embodied the greatest lament of history - God’s eternal purposes of hope for humankind are summed up and brought to fulfilment by His suffering, death and resurrection.
As we come together to seek our unchanging sovereign God on this 50th day of the abduction of our brother Pastor Raymond Koh, let us remember our lamentation on this occasion and in this circumstance is never beyond hope. We in the Church of God is doubly hopeful and assured, for 50 days after the resurrection of Christ at Easter, the Church of God was then birthed at Pentecost in accordance to God’s eternal purpose.
Paul declares this in Ephesians 3:8-12 - Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In my heart, in the hearts of those who know Raymond Koh well enough, we can confidently say that Raymond Koh, Christ’s faithful servant who dedicated his life to God’s work, would unhesitatingly identify with Paul’s words... “Although I am less than the least of all God’s people..... His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We can see that out of this troubling and challenging circumstance, the unity and witness of God’s Church in Malaysia has strengthened as the people stand together across the whole nation. Since his abduction on the 13 February 2017 – this UNITY of coming together has gained momentum as evidenced by Christians united in inter-church Prayer Vigils organized on both sides of the South China Sea: in Sibu, Sarikei, Bintulu, Kuching, Kanowit, Miri, Kota Kinabalu, Kelana Jaya, Petaling Jaya, Shah Alam, Penang, Seremban, Kluang and Johor Baru.
We witness how the early church birthed at Pentecost in the book of Acts according to God’s eternal purpose remained undefeated in the face of internal and external threats. In their “normal Christian life and ministry” they experienced the “highs” of seeing miracles of healings and deliverance of people and “lows” of being stoned like Stephen was!
In spite of being inundated and surrounded by “puzzles and problems” that included crises over church leadership, finances, ethnic tensions between Palestinian and Hellenistic Jews, theology and ethics disputes, not to mention very serious confrontations and clashes with political as well as religious authorities that threatened their lives and did them bodily harm – the early Church experienced remarkable growth within a relatively short period of time. They spread throughout the known world then with great impact.
Whatever may be our personal or communal laments – they are never beyond hope, never greater than the eternal purpose of the sovereign unchanging God.
So Job proclaimed - “Though He slay me, yet I will hope in Him. ......
I know that my Redeemer [Vindicator] lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.”
This unchanging sovereign God Who declares “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool [Isa 66:1]” is “not restricted by space, not challenged by time, not surprised by change, and certainly not threatened by man”.
Hallelujah! Praise be to God!
Bishop Ong Hwai Teik
[This Reflection/Message was preached at the Ecumenical Solidarity Prayer Service, on 4 April 2017, Sungai Way Subang Methodist Church, Petaling Jaya, that was attended by about 400 people representing 72 churches and 8 church organisations.]