In most parts of Asia, newborns are received into the family through celebratory rites. These mark the beginning of their life in their respective communities. The Chinese have the man yue (滿月) celebration which takes place on the thirtieth day after the child’s birth. As infant mortality rates were high before the advent of modern medicine, it was only when infants survived thirty days that they were officially welcomed into the family. There would be a feast for family and friends, while ancestors are thanked and asked to bless the child. Indian Hindus have the namakarana ceremony in which the child’s name is announced to much feasting with family and friends. The Japanese also have a similar naming ceremony called the oshichiya which takes place on the seventh day of the child’s birth.
These varied rites of passage receive newborns into the family and extended network of relations, thereby promoting familial and societal solidarity around them. The community takes on responsibility for the welfare of the new child because the child now belongs to it. Even though children may not be aware of what they have undergone as infants, the rites give them a sense of identity and rootedness when they are told about them at a later age or witness them performed on others in their community. It is with this background that we can begin to understand why the church baptises infants. For the Reformed, the question of baptizing infants is all about the issue of belonging.
B. Warfield, the venerable Presbyterian theologian, succinctly summarised his arguments for baptizing infants this way: “God established His church in the days of Abraham and put children into it. They must remain there until He puts them out. He has nowhere to put them out. They are still then members of His Church and as such entitled to its ordinances.” (Here the term “church” refers to God’s covenant people in general.) In other words, from the Reformed perspective, to not baptise children is to express that they have no part in God’s covenant and are outside of the family of God. According to the Reformed Belgic Confession of Faith,
By [baptism] we are received into God’s church and set apart from all other people and alien religions, that we may be dedicated entirely to him, bearing his mark and sign. It also witnesses to us that he will be our God forever, since he is our gracious Father. Therefore he has commanded that all those who belong to him be baptized with pure water in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit (BCF 34).
It is through the sacrament of baptism that one is given the covenant promises and admitted into the church. If children are born to parents who are in the church, then they are part of God’s family and are received through baptism. The church baptizes them because the sacrament is “a sign and seal of the covenant of grace” (Westminster Confession of Faith 28.1) which presents and confirms the promise of Christ to the children of the covenant, thereby giving them an identity and rootedness in the covenant community.
One might notice that this makes baptism akin to circumcision of the old covenant. In Genesis 17.7, God promises Abraham that he will establish his everlasting covenant of grace with him and his descendants. He promises to be God to Abraham and his descendants, and gave them the mark of circumcision as the physical sign and seal of the covenant (Gen. 17.11). When Christ came, the new covenant in his blood fulfilled the old covenant and the sacrament of baptism was instituted to replace circumcision as the sign and seal of the new covenant. St. Paul explicitly connects the two in his Letter to the Colossians:
In [Christ] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead (2.11-12).
Therefore, circumcision was a shadow of the sacrament that is to come. Baptism now confers a greater circumcision, a “circumcision made without hands,” a spiritual circumcision (cf. Jer. 4.4 & Rom. 2.29) that brings about union with Christ and the double grace of justification and sanctification.
If children in the old covenant were circumcised and included in the old covenant of grace, then what more the children of the new covenant? When St. Peter proclaimed the need for repentance and baptism to the crowd on the day of Pentecost, he also declared, “For the promise is for you, for your children” (Acts 2.39). This language echoes Genesis 17 and affirms the continued inclusion of children in the new covenant. It would be most peculiar for this new dispensation in Christ to exclude children! History bears this out as the baptism of infants was not rejected by the patrimony of the church but widely practised and affirmed in the two millennia of the church’s existence.
Therefore, from a covenantal perspective, baptism is not essentially a public, outward declaration of a personal, inner faith because this would necessarily exclude infants from the covenant. While adults (and older children) do make their public profession of faith in the baptismal service, baptism does not revolve around it or depend on it because the sacrament is not constituted by a voluntary human act. It is not a human work. On the contrary, baptism expresses the priority of divine grace both in the calling of adults to the covenant and in the placing of infants in the covenant. In baptism, the church recognises the grace that God has already shown to the adult and infant candidates in bringing them to the limen of the church, the baptismal font, and seals upon them the gracious promises (and the corresponding demands) of the covenant in Christ. “When the question of the sacrament’s recipient arises, it arises in a specific way,” writes Reformed theologian Cornelius P. Venema. “The question is not, is this person truly regenerate? (which only God can answer in any case) but rather, is this person one to whom God wishes to address the promise and demand of the covenant?” In other words, the “only ground for administering the sacrament is that of covenant membership.”
Essentially, baptism is the “means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit” (BCF 33) and not a human work of profession. It is the earthly channel of divine action through which God confers us grace. In baptism, God
gives what the sacrament signifies—namely the invisible gifts and graces; washing, purifying, and cleansing our souls of all filth and unrighteousness; renewing our hearts and filling them with all comfort; giving us true assurance of his fatherly goodness; clothing us with the ‘new man’ and stripping off the ‘old,’ with all its works (BCF 34).
Whether believing adult or unaware infant, all are finally dependent on the Holy Spirit who mysteriously works through baptism “throughout our entire lives” (BCF 34) to bring about faith in the promise of Christ, and obedience to fulfil the demand of Christ. (Of course, this does not mean that all who are baptized will persevere in the faith. The exile of God’s people in the Old Testament demonstrates that not everyone included in God’s covenant remains faithful. Baptism admits sundry persons into the covenant community, but it is ultimately efficacious only for the elect.)
With this, we return to Warfield’s words: “God established His church in the days of Abraham and put children into it.” Baptism cannot be reduced to an individualistic declaration divorced from the church for it is the church that baptises; grace cannot be reduced to something abstract without any discernible reality. Baptism receives persons into the church and the church is the community of grace. For infants, it is through baptism that they become part of the covenant community in which they can grow in faith and maturity, and where they gain a sense of identity and rootedness. This means discipleship is crucial, and parents together with the church must commit to teach children faith and obedience. It is within this life of the community that our children may receive God’s covenantal blessings. To be baptized is, therefore, to belong.
When I write about “good”, I am writing about the goodness of God and of Christ. Without the goodness of God and of Christ, there can be no genuine goodness! In Christ Jesus, we are created to do good works and to walk in them (see Ephesians 2:10). When we are doing good works, we are doing good. May God’s goodness be reflected in our daily life with Jesus when we are doing good. What is “good”? “Good” is that which is morally right, that is, righteousness; that which brings benefit or advantage to someone. “Good” is that which encourages someone when they need it most. “Good” is that which ministers to someone at an appropriate and timely manner. “Good” brings delights to God and to others. “Good” proceeds out of the goodness of God. It is one aspect of the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) that every child of God should be bearing in their lives. We experience the goodness of God and therefore, we display it in our daily lives in Christ.
How can we excel in doing good? We can begin in our respective Discipleship Groups (DGs) for those who are currently involved in a DG. It is a good environment where the goodness of God can be displayed. When a DG meets regularly, it brings encouragement to one another in the DG. This is what doing good to one another implies. When we see each other whether in person or through virtual means, we have an opportunity to show care and concern for each other. We share with one another our needs and we pray for each other’s needs. This is what doing life together is all about. We find out how each one is doing or going through during this pandemic. This lends support to each other. We are a community of believers in Christ. We need each other and so, we lift up each other with encouraging words. “Doing good” can henceforth being practised in every DG. If DG members make the effort to call one another up or even send a text message, then this DG is having a good connection with one another. We need to keep connected and not live isolated life. We want to bring cheers and gladness to each other’s life. When DG members learn to open up to each other, they are doing good to each other and to the whole DG.
We can learn from our Lord Jesus in Acts 10:38, “… how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” Jesus Christ our Lord went around doing good. Likewise, we who are children of God and of Light, should imitate Christ Jesus our good Shepherd. We can pray for those who are sick and depressed among us, trusting God to heal and deliver them. We can ask our Lord Jesus to lead us to those who need words of encouragement and then, trusting God to give us His encouraging words for them.
We can also learn from the apostle Paul when he instructed Titus in Titus 3:8, “This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.” There is a great need to give our devotion to doing what is good because they are excellent and profitable for everyone. Let us not withhold good from others who deserve it when it is in your power to act (see Proverbs 3:27). One thing that we owe each other and that is “doing good” to each other. Look at how much goodness that God has bestowed upon you! Should you give it or should you withhold it?
Let me give you some examples which you can be doing good to one another. Making a phone call or texting a message to a brother or sister in Christ is part of the discipleship of doing good to one another. Visiting someone or connecting via virtual means with another person is another way of doing good or demonstrating goodness. Guiding or helping someone who desires to study the Word of God by taking him or her through an intentional Bible Study is indeed a good thing which you can do for them. When someone needs a listening ear, be there with them to support and encourage them by listening patiently to what he or she has to share with you in private. Be sure that you keep confidential whatever has been shared with you. We want to be trustworthy and be trusted. Learning to think first before speaking to others will help to remove unnecessary misunderstandings among us. This is also part of doing good to the people whom we are relating to. Having a close walk with our Lord Jesus will help each one of us in knowing and learning how to do good to one another. “Do not be wise in your own eyes” (Proverbs 3:7) is something that the Lord Jesus is teaching me. When I am open to others, I will learn and prosper. I must learn to be humble, be obedient and be teachable. This is the process of practising what is good and beneficial to the community around me.
“Doing good” is never an easy thing to do. I will sow the good seeds and God will reap the good harvest. I just need to persevere in doing good and not grow weary in doing good. I will do what I can and leave the result to God. May I encourage us to encounter God and experience the transforming power of God! Cultivating a close walk with Jesus our Lord helps each one of us in doing good. Let us bring encouragement to each other by doing good as the Lord Jesus leads and directs us.
What tops the news for us today? The PSLE, O, N, and A-Level exams or the surge in Covid-19 cases? More so would the latter catch our attention, especially with seniors over 60 and children being advised to stay home as much as possible. “The number of Covid-19 cases here has risen faster than expected, but a high vaccination rate has prevented the healthcare system from being overwhelmed, Singapore’s director of medical services Kenneth Mak said” (ST, Sep 17).
Our health minister assures us that “what is important is . . . what percentage translates into ICU admissions and deaths, and whether we can get our healthcare protocols updated and refreshed in time, moving more people to home recovery, and then we can ride the wave.” We should be glad that new measures have been announced, such as allowing more to recover at home. This should ease the strain on our frontline workers. Life goes on and if our daily routines are dependent on the number of Covid-19 cases, we will be paralysed by fear. The question, then, is this: How can we ride the wave?
I like the term “to ride the wave”. This is a surfing term. Surfers paddle out to catch waves. They wait for a good, high, strong wave, and then surf (ride) it to shore. When you ride a wave, it’s not your power propelling you, but the strength of the natural phenomenon. So, to ride a wave is to go with something that is already happening. The waves beneath the surfboard can threaten and overwhelm us, causing us to lose our balance and lose sight of what is before us.
If we apply this image as a metaphor for our lives, one such wave is the current pandemic. Covid-19 has taken the lives of many people. Such a wave can be paralysing—causing us to shut down. We are paralysed even though we know that many other things around us and in our culture are profoundly broken at this moment in history. We would rather watch others from the shore than get on the surfboard and ride the wave.
Using the same metaphor, we can say that there are three kinds of people: those who make waves, those who ride waves, and those who sit on the beach and watch. Life is an ocean, and we meet it at its pounding surf. The waves will never stop. Eventually they will overwhelm us, and we will succumb to their relentless pounding. Our choice is between riding the waves for as long as we can, or floundering against the might of the ocean. Consider the difference between these two images:
We are the ones called to get in the water and ride with God through this pandemic. We are the ones called to find ways to bring transformation possibilities to the world. And we are the ones called to believe that “with God, all things are possible”. After all, we have already proven to be a resilient people—a people who have found ways to be “church” at such a time as this. The resilience of a people is greatly framed by their ability to lean into these “in between spaces”—maintaining the balance beneath our surfboards, ready to pivot and rise—as we wait and prepare to join God on the journey.
Oswald Chambers says: “The surf that distresses the ordinary swimmer, produces in the surfer the super joy of going clean through it.” He cites Romans 8:37, which says that we are more than conquerors in Jesus. In addition, Exodus 14:14 says that God fights for us. Sometimes He wants us to simply be still and let the current have its way with us. Speaking of the waves of life, He gently whispers, “Stop fighting and instead learn to ride them. Let them take you where I want you to go. Lie in the boat and ride it out with Me. Through Me, you can experience peace and even joy in tribulation.”
In my opinion, our fear of failure often overcomes our desire to ride the wave of the Spirit. Although everyone wants to ride the wave, fear and self-centredness often wins the day.
Embrace God’s dream . . . Especially if it seems crazy.
Listen to God’s Word . . . Forget what you think you know.
Don’t try to explain it . . . Enjoy it.
Our God is the Master of the ocean of our lives. He sends the Holy Spirit to encourage and strengthen us to be professional wave riders, who expect life’s waves to keep coming. When large waves roll in, we can therefore position ourselves in the palm of God’s hand, knowing that the ride to shore will be an adventure that will not destroy us but improve our surfing skills—that is, our ability to live the abundant life.
In the movie Shawshank Redemption, there are two main characters – Andy and Red. They were able to survive the notorious prison life by clinging on to hope. Andy gets out of prison first and leaves a letter for Red, who is finally freed. When Red mustered up the courage to acclimatize back to society after spending 40 years in prison, he went to retrieve the letter. The letter contains the famous line, “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” The dictionary defines hope as “a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen.”
All of us hope in one thing or the other. This week, all parents of children taking their PSLE are hoping that their child will do well in their PSLE; hoping that their child will stay alert and read the questions carefully. For some, we are hoping in a miracle- healing of our loved ones. For many of us, we are hoping that the number of the COVID positive cases will drop soon. All of us are hoping that this pandemic will be over soon. The list goes on.
The writer of the song “There is a Hope” Stuart Townend writes, “We all have hopes and dreams, whether we are Christians or not, and these are often the driving forces in our lives. We hope to arrive at a certain place, to achieve certain goals, maybe financial or career-related, and we all hope the best for other people, perhaps our children or our close friends. These things can of course be great things to hope and pray for, but they remain hopes precisely because we never know for certain whether they will be fulfilled or not. They are tinged with uncertainty, and we do not know what lies around the corner.
Christian hope, however, is very different. When the Bible talks about hope, it talks about something that is certain, and can perhaps be broken down into two different certainties. The first is that no matter where we go and what we do in this life, God will be with us, and He will love us. The second is that when this life is over, we will not perish but will spend eternity at home with Christ. These certainties remain ‘hopes’ not because they may or may not come to fruition, but because they haven’t been fully realised yet – the second because we are still living this life on earth, and the first because there are and will be trials in which it might not be obvious that God is by our side. These certain hopes put everything in our lives into perspective, and we can live by faith on the solid and certain hope that Christ gives us.” (https://www.stuarttownend.co.uk/song/there-is-a-hope/)
Romans 5:1-3 says, ‘Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings…’ we can rejoice in hope of the glory of God even in our sufferings because of Christ the hope of heaven.
Like Andy and Red, we live in this world filled with many sorrows and uncertainties. Like being in a prison, we may feel caged by many things that are not within our control. We hope and pray for a better world without wars, famine, pandemics, all kinds of diseases, pain and suffering etc. As believers, we know that in this side of prison, we will continue to suffer the consequences of sin. But the good news is that it comes with an expiry date; we will be released from this prison. It will all end one day. While we wait for that day, we continue to live with a different outlook; not like those who have no hope, but as believers who have tasted a ‘glimpse of glory now revealed in meagre part’. Looking forward to something gives us strength to live each day.
As Stuart mentions, we will not know for sure if our earthly hopes will ever come true. As soon as it is safe to fly, many of us hope to be reconnected with our loved ones. Will all our loved ones make it till then? We do not know. Separation from loved ones can plunge us into despair but we know that as believers, we can hope for our ultimate reunion when Christ returns. The pandemic is not the only thing happening around us. Life goes on with all its ups and downs. But Jesus has given us the assurance that we can trust and hope in him. John 16:33 reminds us, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
As believers, our hope is unlike any other hope that the world has to offer. Our hope is in our Lord Jesus Christ who rose from the dead and will come again. One day, all the sufferings and sorrows of the world will die when we finally behold His face. Until then, let us cling on to this hope and continue to share with others the famous strain – There is a HOPE!
There is a hope that burns within my heart,
That gives me strength for every passing day;
A glimpse of glory now revealed in meagre part,
Yet drives all doubt away:
I stand in Christ, with sins forgiven;
And Christ in me, the hope of heaven!
My highest calling and my deepest joy,
To make His will my home.
There is a hope that lifts my weary head,
A consolation strong against despair,
That when the world has plunged me in its deepest pit,
I find the Saviour there!
Through present sufferings, future’s fear,
He whispers ‘courage’ in my ear.
For I am safe in everlasting arms,
And they will lead me home.
There is a hope that stands the test of time,
That lifts my eyes beyond the beckoning grave,
To see the matchless beauty of a day divine
When I behold His face!
When sufferings cease and sorrows die,
And every longing satisfied.
Then joy unspeakable will flood my soul,
For I am truly home.
(Stuart Townend & Mark Edwards/Copyright © 2007 Thankyou Music)
Since coming to Kusatsu, one of our goals was to get to know the church better and see how we might be a blessing to them through our service and also be blessed by them. The church, while small, has a passionate group of members who actively serve in whatever way they can. Aside from our usual duties through the week, Hooi Yin and I had also been exploring new ministry opportunities. However, due to the pandemic, these haven’t been feasible. In July, the cases in Japan started rising and though emergency measures were declared again and again, the daily infections peaked at 24,000 at the end of August. Shiga prefecture, where Kusatsu is located, started to see increases as well, prompting more people to stay home and away from the church.
Eventually the weekly bible study was put on hold for some time in order to protect the health of the attendees. Even in September people remain wary about gathering. Again and again, it seemed that the doors to ministry had been shut tight.
These setbacks were disappointing and with no end to the pandemic in sight, when would it be possible to do the things that we hoped to? How could we be encouragers when we felt discouraged ourselves?
One day, the Lord shone a light into my heart as I read the parable of the Talents.
Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew 25:14-30 are well known; a Master entrusts portions of his wealth to his servants before departing on a long journey. Upon returning they give their reports to him on what they had done. First the Master addresses the servant with 5 talents and then the servant with 2. Both took what portion the Lord had given them and acted faithfully by investing it. The Master recognised this and praised and rewarded them for it. In comparison the servant who was given the single talent was rebuked for hiding it. His response, (v25) ‘Here, you have what is yours’, sounds like he is claiming no responsibility for what his master has entrusted him. His lack of action and words can be interpreted as a show of disdain for his master. The first 2 servants on the other hand, treated the Master’s possessions as their own demonstrating trustworthiness.
The Master’s response to the unfaithful servant, that he would have been satisfied with just the interest and not a doubling of the amount, implies that the outcome was not the point. Instead it was his dependability as a servant that was paramount and so he was judged accordingly. As punishment, what little he had was also taken and given to his fellow servant.
In the past I thought that ‘talent’ here referred to the gifts or abilities that the Lord has given us. Therefore the ending words, (v29) ‘For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away’, always felt like a warning that if one did not exercise their ‘gifts’ you would lose them.
But as I re-read verse 29, in particular the portion in bold above, it appears the meaning is not what I had originally thought. How could the unfaithful servant not have any talents when he had been given one already by the Master? Could it be that instead of ‘talents’ the Master is actually referring to ‘faithfulness’ instead? Reading it this way, the meaning then becomes, “to whoever exercises faithfulness, more will he be given, but he who does not exercise faithfulness, even what he has will be taken from him.”
I felt the Lord’s reminder here, that while our time in Kusatsu coincided with so many challenges, and we couldn’t do all that we wanted, it was still a precious gift that He had entrusted to us. Therefore, I needed to adopt a more thankful and faithful attitude. After all, our Lord Himself is faithful and trustworthy and He would not have led us here just for us to flounder. Through His steadfast promises we could be encouraged to plan and find ways to be blessings to those around us.
There is another word of encouragement in the parable that I would like to share. In verse 21 it records:
“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”
That which the Lord has entrusted to each of us, may at first glance seem small. Perhaps the Lord has led us to take on a tiny role in a particular ministry or the Spirit’s guidance to do simple acts of kindness to others everyday. By demonstrating faithfulness even in these small ways, we can receive God’s praise as a good and faithful servant. Furthermore Jesus promises that we can receive His joy even as He entrusts more of His work to us.
For us, in Kusatsu, the pandemic has halted many plans. There are still members of the church whom we have yet to meet in person because they have stopped coming to church for over a year. Inviting people to come to church for evangelistic outreach is also out of the question. However for those who still attend church weekly, there have been ample opportunities to speak to them and to know them better. Even in a years time we may not be able to do what we have been hoping to, but by being faithful with that the Lord has already handed to us, we can still be the blessing to Kusatsu that He wants us to be.
So let us continue to be faithful with what ‘little’ we have been given now, in the hope that it will prepare us for a future where we can be faithful over much more.