No Substitute for Vigilance (I)

Based on a sermon series by Aun-Quek Chin—Singapore

Priest or prophet, king or commoner—regardless of station or position, all men struggle with sin since time began. While we are on this earth, there is simply no immunity from the lures of sin and we simply cannot ignore it. We can only acknowledge it, confront it, struggle with it, and finally either yield to it or overcome it. Yet more often than we should, we find ourselves yielding to sin. In this article, we will study one of the main causes for sin in our lives: a lack of vigilance in our faith.

Today, elders, deacons, preachers, and believers of the True Jesus Church (TJC) must all battle complacency in faith. Alas, as we have seen, one too many formerly pious and fervent servants of God have succumbed to the lures of sin and in the process wrecked their own faith and worse still, the faith of others as well. Ironically, many a time, it is the faithful church-going group of Christians who are most vulnerable to sinful temptations.

Many pious Christians believe themselves to be impervious to sin and temptation by virtue of their many years of service and ministry in church. While regular service and attendance in church does indeed make one’s faith more formidable, the sense of spiritual immunity it unwittingly fosters has led many to let their guard down and slacken as they mature in their faith. The growing lack of vigilance is, as we shall see, a grave weakness that the devil exploits to destroy God’s best workers.

There are two consequences of this weakness. Firstly, we reduce God’s majesty by worshipping Him in our own way. Secondly, we allow our lusts and desires to displace God as the object of our worship, ultimately prostrating ourselves before artificial idols—glory and money—while mindlessly chanting the same old “Lord, Lord.”

In other words, a non-vigilant or careless faith will lead us to distort how and what we worship, all the while we deceive ourselves as being faithful Christians.

THE WAY I WANT IT

Firstly, a negligent faith in God deforms our mode of service to God, causing us to worship God in any way we wish instead of the ways He has instructed us. Christians often do this because they believe they can get the best of both worlds by accommodating their desires with their worship of God. Though by doing so, they invariably prioritize the gratification of the flesh above their adherence to God’s word.

The episode in Exodus 32 involving Aaron and the golden calf is a clear example of how such a tragedy can unfold. Aaron's introduction into the biblical narrative sees him starting out as a “minor character.” He was to be merely the mouthpiece of Moses, after Moses had told God that he is “slow of speech and of tongue.” However, God subsequently chose Aaron to occupy the highly significant sacred office as His very first High Priest. As High Priest, Aaron was the most eminent religious authority among the Israelites, second only to Moses, and the Bible even records of God speaking to Aaron directly just as He did with Moses. Thus it would seem reasonable to suggest that Aaron should have been intimately familiar with God. Moreover, Aaron had also witnessed firsthand the powers of God in Egypt; he knew of God's strictness regarding absolute faithfulness and obedience to Him throughout their journey in the wilderness. The chosen people of God thus had good reason to look up to Aaron as a role model.

So how was it that Aaron could have led his people to commit such grave sin as idolatry, one of the most egregious and talked-about sins in the Bible? Why did three thousand men of Israel have to die at the hands of their brothers on that fateful day (v28)? One of the most fundamental reasons is that Aaron and the Israelites were not vigilant. While they waited for Moses at the foot of Mount Sinai, they allowed impatience and uncertainty to cloud the clarity of their faith—the same faith that trusted in the strength of God’s hands to pull the Red Sea apart. Consequently, they took it upon themselves to worship God in the manner they pleased.

There are two reasons to explain why believers would alter God’s direct instructions regarding how we ought to worship Him. The first reason is most evident in the case of the Israelites: we choose to worship God in the ways that gratify our immediate lusts and vices. In Exodus 32:6, Moses records that the “people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” Apostle Paul goes on to elaborate that these Israelites were taking part in idolatrous acts that incorporated pagan elements into the Israelites’ once-sacred mode of worship (1 Cor 10:7). To the Israelites, the invention of such a practice was ingenious: not only could they fulfill their obligations to God by supposedly worshipping Him as the golden calf, they could satiate their base instincts of sensuality and revelry in the process.

While it may be difficult for us to imagine incorporating religious practices of other faiths into our worship, the danger persists, perhaps even more insidiously, in the form of secularization today. For instance, the types of music that we choose to praise God with is one of the many areas of our own worship that is susceptible to distortion by secular influences. The infiltration of such secular practices into modern Christianity is often gradual and done in the innocent name of evangelism. For example, many churches have justified the inclusion of incredibly sensuous and worldly activities in their worship by claiming that this is the best way to reach out to the world. Upon seeing the thousands that flock to such services, people are compelled to agree. However, this is misguided and as the true church of God, we should not be concerned with marketing our gospel or packaging it attractively so as to garner mass appeal. The fundamental spirit of our worship and our service is our trust in the power of the Holy Spirit, believing that it is indeed only God who gives the growth. In today’s highly progressive socio-political age, the ability of secular influences to contaminate the purity and reverence of our worship has never been greater. Hence, we must remember to be vigilant in how we choose to conduct our worship.

The second reason we alter the way we worship is to satisfy our own preferences and for our convenience. After we have believed in God for some time, we might begin to indulge ourselves in the mercies of God and believe that God would accept changes to the ways we worship, changes that are made to suit our lifestyles and tastes. The Israelites certainly thought so when they chose to build a golden idol, created with their own jewelry and possessions, thinking that this somehow endowed them with authority over the true God. God’s seeming aloofness, Moses’s delay, uncertainty over the future—these were inconveniences faced by the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai that prompted them to take matters into their own hands.

If we consider this in today’s terms, we can think of it as Sabbath services clashing with our treasured, once-in-a-lifetime appointments. Or, perhaps our preference for certain speakers over others and how we choose to be absent for sermons given by those we dislike or find less interesting.

Reading of how Saul’s premature offering to God cost him a critical war and his favor with God, we learn that it is always God who makes the call. And because we trust in Him to do the best for us, we follow in faith. We must put God’s instructions and requirements above our own comforts and preferences, for this is part of what it means to take up one’s cross and to trust and follow Christ.

FALSE IDOLS

When our faith grows inattentive, not only does the way we worship change for the worse, the object of our worship changes as well. Gradually, false idols begin to displace God in our hearts and minds.

False Idols: Self-Glorification

The world presents us with innumerable idols to emulate and worship. Some secular role models are indeed worthy of emulation and praise for their heroism or the ingenuity of their contributions to humanity. However, no one, no matter how impressive, deserves to be worshipped with the same amount of dedication and fervor with which we worship Jesus.

While the temptation to worship others is great, especially when we aspire to be in the positions of our idols someday, greater still is the temptation to seek for, and bask in, the adulation others give us. It is hard not to like being worshipped and praised, but Paul, a man most worthy of admiration by worldly standards, shows us how we should act when we are placed in such situations. As recorded by Luke in Acts 14, Apostle Paul, accompanied by his co-worker Barnabas, had recently healed a born-cripple in Lystra. The miracle drove the Lycaonians into a religious frenzy, prompting loud cries of veneration and declarations throughout the city, such as, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” A priest of Zeus even brought sacrifices to offer before Paul and Barnabas, believing them to be both Hermes and Zeus incarnate respectively.

However, to everyone’s surprise, the two miracle-workers of Christ did not take this well. Tearing their clothes, they ran into the crowds, trying to shout over the din of misdirected praise and worship:

“We are also men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God…”

Why did Paul and Barnabas reject the Lycaonians’ praise and worship? To any bystander, it would have been well earned. However, Paul knew that even at his best, he was only a vessel, a messenger, a servant bearing good news. Paul knew that his hands healed no one unless they were holding on to God at the same time; his tongue spoke nothing, unless the words were the Living Word; his feet could bring him nowhere, unless the Holy Spirit guided them. In essence, Paul knew that all glory and all strength were God’s, and God’s alone.

What about receiving praise for our secular achievements, those we believe come from our effort and smarts? What does Jesus have to say?

“I do not receive honor from men… How can you believe, who receive honor from one another, and do not seek the honor that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5: 41, 44)

Very simply, we reject the honor from men because we know that reserved in Heaven is an even greater honor given by God. Indeed, there is nothing to stop us from becoming gods on earth to our fellow mortals but to do that is to forsake an even greater seat of esteem—one next to our Father, the Creator. Even while we strive to lead exemplary lives to show the world the powerful integrity and character of a true Christian, we should do so for the ultimate ends of bringing glory to God, not ourselves.

False Idols: Money

Interestingly, this formidable competitor against God for residence in our hearts is inanimate. That one of our greatest idols is not even a living being is symptomatic of the age-old disease of materialism: powerful enough to reduce thinking, feeling, spiritual, and faithful Christians to lifeless money-chasing machines who willingly sacrifice faith, family, and freedom in Christ for something that can be literally blown away by the wind. Just as this idol—money—is dead, so are its most ardent disciples.

For Christians, becoming a disciple of money is not an option. Jesus clearly warns in Matthew 6:24:

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

This warning makes the choice simple, yet exceedingly frustrating, for the Christian. On a fundamental level, we know how a life spent chasing after a larger bank account is meaningless and is at odds with the meaningful life Christ has given us through His death. Yet, by putting matters in such an uncompromising binary, Jesus prevents us from doing what we truly want: to find a “compromise” to gain the best of both worlds. We wish to have both a meaningful spiritual life filled with good deeds and ministry, and yet also a life with more money and luxuries. For Jesus to say that such a situation is impossible is indeed deeply distressing for many. When we choose our gods or God, it was, and still is, all or nothing. This is the same dilemma the Israelites faced.

Today, when we read of the many follies and failures of the Israelites, we might be inclined to think of them as an extremely fickle, feckless, and confused group of people, who were constantly sabotaging their chances of prosperity and bliss. While that may be true, we should not think ourselves as being any better. The modern Christian faces perhaps even more trials than they did, and in the age we live in today, our idol of materialism is an even greater delusion. The economic system of Western capitalism has brought with it an accompanying culture of materialism that has found its way into Christianity, where it has subtly displaced God as the object of worship while retaining all the trappings of Christianity like prayers and hymn-singing. Thus, what we see in many churches today are people using “Lord, Lord” as a stand-in for their true cry for money and prosperity. As TJC believers, we should be vigilant and examine whom we are truly worshipping in our hearts.

FINISH THE RACE

The Christian journey is a marathon, not a sprint. At certain points in our lives, we experience short bursts of spiritual energy, invigorated by a sudden display of God’s grace and mercy or by deeply spiritual experiences such as visions. However, these rarely sustain us for a prolonged period of time. Sooner or later, we settle back into our routine of an unreflective pursuit of power, status, and fortune. Therefore, vigilance is key. Having a sober faith that is always aware of God’s bigger picture and that always remembers God’s word, even in the most dire of situations, is the only way we can finish this marathon—where our enemies are not just distance and fatigue, but distractions and evil line the paths on either side of us, calling out for us to yield to the demands of our flesh.

To summarize, to be vigilant is to remember to be faithful to God alone and to the clear ways He has told us to worship Him. Just like the Israelites, we, as the chosen TJC, are now at the foot of Mount Sinai. Just like Moses, Jesus is descending soon. Will we survive the wait?

 

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