Thoughts on preaching the book of Haggai

What does a “minor” prophet from 520 B.C. have to say to our post-Christian culture? Quite a lot actually. In the last fortnight, our church went through the book of Haggai and were challenged to “give careful thought to our ways” and to refocus our wandering attention back to kingdom priorities of Christ our great Servant King.

To help prepare for the series, I translated Haggai from the Hebrew text (with occasional peeks at the LXX translation, especially around Haggai 2:6-7). On the text, I found Andrew Hill’s contribution to the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries at a good level of depth and detail for a busy pastor. Michael Prodigalidad’s excellent 9 Marks article gave good pastoral reasons to tackle this book as a church. Some timely help also came from conversations with two Hebrew-reading friends (one who is about to begin her PhD in Old Testament post-exilic narrative – great!)

For preachers, bible study leaders and keen readers, here’s a few thoughts in no particular order:

  • The average church-goer is unlikely to have read Haggai. So it’s important to set the scene and explain where this minor prophet fits within the biblical storyline. I found Vaughan Roberts God’s Big Picture schemas a quick and helpful way to paint the post-exilic picture for God’s broken people, living in God’s place, longing for God’s rule.
  • Preaching Haggai has to be a balance of challenge and encouragement. Chapter 1 has the Lord’s well-known rebuke of people seeking material comfort over kingdom priorities (“panelled houses” over completing God’s temple, 1:4). But context matters: it’s written to people who were already faithful – they’d obeyed the call to leave Babylon almost two decades earlier, they’d begun the rebuild, and were worn out by the constant opposition (c.f. Ezra 3-4). Our listeners today are likewise not faithless people to rebuke, but faithful people who have lost heart, been discouraged, and saturated with the messages of our world.
  • I think that’s also why the LORD repeats the phrase “Consider your ways” (or literally, “set your heart upon your ways”; 1:5, 1:7, 2:15, 2:18). It’s the language of wisdom (e.g. Job 1:8, 2:3, Daniel 1:8), rather than a fiery rebuke. So our tone and posture matters, especially since we’re exposing deeply-held beliefs and values shaped by our society and culture’s materialism (who of us hasn’t been sucked in by the “I want” songs of our age?). But as we repent of our self-centred pursuits and return to kingdom priorities, there will surely be great blessing for God’s faithful remnant.
  • If Haggai 1 challenges the returnee Jews’s FOMO (fear of missing out), Haggai 2’s prophecies tackle their FOBO (fear of better options). After all, a few months into a 4-year rebuild it could be tempting to lose heart when “it seems to you as nothing” (2:3). And after restoring offerings and sacrifices it could be tempting to think holiness can be transferred to a people who are still defiled (2:14). Whether to the people, the priests, or Zerubabbel himself, the underlying fear is one of committing to the Lord’s will for our lives. Haggai gives us a startling vision worth committing our lives to: God shaking the nations with His peace (v6-9), God blessing a defiled people with his holiness (v19), and God promising a great servant He has chosen (v20-23).
  • I think Isaac Watts was well-meaning but incorrect in treating Haggai 2:7 as a direct Messianic prediction in the carol, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” (verse 4 starts with the famous line, “Come Desire of Nations come”). The Hebrew text reads, “they will come (plural), what is desirable/precious of all the nations” (וּבָ֖אוּ חֶמְדַּ֣ת כָּל־הַגּוֹיִ֑ם). Although the LXX renders the subject as singular (“he/it will come”), the object is translated as “the chosen things” (τὰ ἐκλεκτὰ), so it’s more likely a description to the “treasures” among the nations coming to worship the LORD, rather than a single individual.
  • Accordingly, I think it’s better to preach this verse (and prophecy) not being fulfilled by Jesus the Messiah individually, but rather by us corporately as we join in God’s mission to fill His temple with the glory of treasures from the nations (c.f. Rev 7:9-11). As a well-known Maori saying puts it: What is the greatest treasure? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. (It is people, it is people, it is people.) As we cross the pew, cross the street, or cross the oceans with the fragrance of Christ (2 Cor 2:15), this proverb and Haggai’s prophecy becomes truly fulfilled.
  • Rather, I think the Christ connection more readily comes from two places. Firstly, in God’s promise to be present with His people as they resume His kingdom-building work (“I am with you”, 1:13, 2:4), we see a foretaste of the risen Lord Jesus, whose Spirit is truly with us — always — as we fulfil His Great Commission (Matt 28:20).
  • And secondly, in Haggai’s personalised prophecy to Zerubabbel (2:20-23), we get another glimpse of Christ from the Old Testament. The Hebrew in v23 literally reads: “For in you I have chosen” (the בְךָ֣ construction is the same as Genesis 12:3 where the LORD says to Abraham: “In you, all peoples of the earth will be blessed.”). But if Zerubabbel is the signet ring, who is the chosen one in Him? Who else? Jesus. Son of David (Mk 10:47). Once a future seed in Zerubbabel’s line, now our chief Cornerstone and foundation of God’s ultimate dwelling place – His church (Eph 2:19-21). There’s no better option than Him.

At our church, we considered Haggai over two talks (though perhaps three would have been easier!) You can hear our English service sermons on SoundcloudSpotify and elsewhere (just search “PCBC English”).

Thoughts on preaching the book of Acts

(Image credit: Isaac Mui)

Our church has journeyed through the book of Acts over the past 6 months as part of our 30th anniversary theme, “How Firm A Foundation”. It’s been timely for my own heart to dig deeper into this important book with a team of preachers as we saw time and time again how (as the Quizworx team once put it): “The message of the risen Lord Jesus cannot be stopped!”

To help prepare for the series, I translated most of Acts from the Greek text and read a few commentaries. On the Greek text, Scott Kellum’s EGGNT volume was a reliable guide. On planning the series, David Cook’s Teaching Acts (Proclamation Trust) was especially helpful in highlighting how to navigate the larger sections (e.g. Acts 24-26) and suggesting listener-friendly outlines. Alan Thompson’s The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus (NSBT) offered some really helpful explanations of Old Testament fulfilment. For issues relating to the social and cultural background of the many speeches and writings, consulting Ben Witherington’s Acts: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary was heavy(!) but helpful. Other conversation partners included Sam George’s Journeys of Asian Diaspora and a range of missions biographies and prayer partners.

For preachers, bible study leaders and keen readers, here’s a few thoughts in no particular order:

  • Acts is a historical narrative first addressed to Theophilus and his fellow readers (Acts 1:1-3), and much of what follows this introduction is described, not prescribed. For example, we’re not instructed to get a snake bite like Paul, or hang ourselves like Judas; it’s described! So we need to discern from context why something occurs, and whether we are given a direct command (e.g. “repent and be baptised”, Acts 2:28), a pattern to follow (e.g. “preach the whole counsel of God”, Acts 20:27), or broader principles to trust (e.g. God is in control of all of circumstances, good and bad, Acts 27). Asking “Is this described or prescribed?” and “why did Theophilus need to hear this?” helps us to consider questions like “does Acts teach us to pursue a second Spirit-baptism?” or “is speaking in tongues a mark of a true believer?” in a clearer way.
  • Also, Acts completes what Luke’s gospel started and earlier prophets hoped for. This means much of why something happens has an Old Testament background. The speaking in tongues at Pentecost reverses the confounding of languages at Babel and fulfils the hopes of Joel 2:28-32 that sons and daughters will prophesy and that everyone who calls upon the name of the LORD shall be saved. The conversion of the Ethiopian fulfils the Servant Song promises in Isaiah 56:3 that foreigners and eunuchs will one day be part of a spiritually fruitful family. Before we look forward and pursue a specific “Acts” experience or strategy, it’s helpful first to look back and see what hopes from Israel’s world are being fulfilled in the lives of the first Christians — and understand our own questions in that light.
  • Acts is a drama in three “acts” – Acts 1:8 is the interpretive key to the whole book, where the risen Lord Jesus declares to his disciples: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” From this, you have the three main movements of the symphony that is Acts: Jerusalem (ch. 1-7); Judea and Samaria (8-12); and to the ends of the earth (13-28). I took David Cook’s suggestion on structuring Acts as three mini-series or “seasons” along these divisions.
  • The story of Acts is to be continued! It was a treat to welcome several guests who shared their missions and church-planting experience alongside the expounding of God’s Word, including Johan and Debbie Linder (church-planters in Thailand), Matt and Cristelle Nicholas (heading to the Philippines), Rowan Hilsden (Auckland EV) and more. During our third series in Acts 13-28, we also took time to pray specifically for a number of different countries and people groups (and enjoying their delicious food!).
  • Acts is a multi-cultural story – Preaching Acts in an immigrant church highlighted some of the cultural and language-related aspects of the storyline I’d failed to notice before. Whether it’s the grumbling between Hebrew and Greek-speaking Jews in Acts 6, or Paul switching languages when talking with different people in Acts 21:37-22:2, the early church was a diverse mix of immigrant and diaspora groups who spoke several languages and had to cross cultures frequently. We are not the first generation to wrestle with the gospel and “biculturalism”, meetings in multiple languages, and how to welcome “outsiders” into our midst!
  • Reading Acts cross-culturally also helps us make sense of the diverse ways that the Word increases and multiplies greatly. Some entered God’s Kingdom through patient reasoning until they understood Jesus as the promised Messiah. Others had no knowledge about Jesus but yearned to worship unknown gods that Paul makes known to them (Acts 17:16-34). Still others needed a power encounter with the unsurpassed authority of King Jesus (e.g. among the superstitious people in Ephesus and Asia Minor). Because God is calling different cultures to Himself, different metaphors of Jesus will connect with different people. Notice too how each sermon in Acts is tailored to a particular audience: whether in a Jewish synagogue, outside a pagan temple, or before rulers and authorities. While the content of the gospel doesn’t change, what is effective evangelism and ways to communicate this will vary depending on our particular audience.

At our church, we looked at the book across 25 talks. You can hear our English service sermons on SoundcloudSpotify and elsewhere (just search “PCBC English”).

Acts 1-7: Empowered by the Gospel
Acts 8-12: Breaking Boundaries
Acts 13-28: To the Ends of the Earth

How to manually clean up weird punctuation, and scrambled non-English characters on WordPress

Oh, WordPress. This was not how I had intended to work on paratext over the summer! It seems like our 10+ years hosting platform stored years and years worth of blog posts on this website using some kind of non-UTF-8 character set. However, after our hosting provider moved this website’s backend to a new server running MySQL 8 in October last year, suddenly a whole bunch of quotation marks, em dash, en dash, ellipses and non-English characters on this site were instantly transformed into ugly-looking codes. Unfortunately, as the source data itself was corrupted in this way, the only fix was to manually find and replace all the offending characters.

After putting it off for a long time, here are two steps that helped to clean things up.

  1. Follow these instructions from to use SQL to find/replace the most commonly-occurring weird characters – this is the most offensive bit to most readers, and a database find/replace means not trawling through every post to manually fix your punctuation. To do this you need access to your WP database files – though I’m sure there are WordPress plugins out there to do the same if you’re not confident in editing the database directly. The basic SQL query is here (using “ / “ as an example):
UPDATE wp_posts SET post_content = REPLACE(post_content, '“', '“');

Step 2: “Universal online Cyrillic decoder”, a web app that helps you to decode what on earth you previously typed in non-English text (it works for all non-English languages, not just Cyrillic). You paste in the garbled text, and use the website to work out what it was encoded in, and what’s the correct way to decode it. Once you find your original words, you can then either type it back into your post, or run find and replace in the database (see step 1). You paste in the text to be decoded, then the website lets you scroll down a dropdown menu to discover what the source encoding was, and how to convert it into readable text.

Once lost in translation: what is εν Χριστω ?
Turns out I had typed εν Χριστω (in Christ, unaccented)

It’s not absolutely perfect but when you have multilingual posts like this one, it really feels like a miracle to be able to decode what you said!

For posterity, here’s a snapshot of some of the find/replaces that were involved (a mix of punctuation and non-English characters – a window into the kinds of things we talk about on here!)

Â, ,
εν Χριστωεν Χριστω

Lesson learned: don’t let your hosting provider update SQL on their servers without a back-up! But if it’s too late, there’s always the find and replace and pretending you discovered the Rosetta Stone for the internet.

A time for speaking in tongues (ordination sharing)

(Last Sunday, we had the privilege of being publicly affirmed by our church for gospel ministry. Below is what we shared on the day. The Chinese was planned; the crying was not! We’re grateful to God for His grace and mercy. Thanks to everyone near and far who have journeyed with us. Please pray that we’ll keep magnifying the LORD in our momentary marriage and ministry.)

Good morning, brothers and sisters, friends and family. Thank you everyone for being here today to witness our ordination. 各位弟兄姐妹,平安!非常感謝大家能够来参加今天的按牧禮。

Sometime in 2020, some friends connected me with a brother from East Asia who was willing to teach me Chinese so I wouldn’t sound like an 9-year old boy. One of my personal highlights these past two years has been reading the Word with G. Practising difficult Bible vocabulary. Praying in a foreign tongue. Appreciating the culture of the Chinese church. Learning the language of faith that millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ use today. 2020 年時候,有同工介紹一位 “東亞” 的弟兄,願意教一對一的中文課,目前是把我的兒童水平的國語補充一點。這幾年,我每週的某一個亮點是跟 G 老師 讀聖經,練習困難的和合本詞語,用陌生的方言祈禱,欣賞華人教會的文化,學習怎麼理解千萬弟兄姐妹的信仰語言。

老師,感謝你。今天是我的母語測試 ! Teacher, thank you so much. Today is my spoken test!

2003 年,有一位頑皮的青年(就是我)第一次來到這家教會的青年團契,第一次遇見了基督裡的家人。 2020 年,神呼召我們把我們一家帶到這家教會,過去兩年我在英文堂的服侍是一段很不尋常的經歷,我們很感恩,感謝你們對我們一家的特別的愛心。 In 2003, a rather rebellious teenager attended a youth group at this church. It was here he had his first experience of a Christian family. In 2020, the LORD called this same boy and his family back to this church. Serving here these past two years has certainly been an unforgettable experience! We thank you for the warmth and care you have shown us as a family.

每當我被問及我們的教會是什麼樣的,我的回答往往需要強調 和澄清 : “我們是華人教會的英文堂,不是隔壁的英文教會。” Whenever I am asked what our church is like, my answer often needs clarification. “Yes, the English congregation of the Chinese church. No, not the English-speaking church right next door.”

我們很愛這教會。但是有時後 — 可能在經歷了又一次雙語聚會的掙扎 ,或者又犯了一個文化錯誤之後 — 有時我們也會懷疑,是否有其他地方更能滿足第二代的需要?是否一個支持亞裔聲音的跨教會機構 可以解決他們的需要?是否隔壁的英文教會能做得更好? We love this church. But sometimes, perhaps after struggling through yet another bilingual meeting, or making yet another cultural mistake, it can be tempting to wonder: might a parachurch group that champions the Asian voice solve the needs of our next generation? Or could the English church next door do a better job?

無論他們多麼有幫助,我相信 “神百般的智慧”(以弗所書3:10)仍然還是藉著華人教會彰顯 出來。只要紐西蘭繼續接受移民,大使命還是需要在華人中實現 。 也許,如果我們要讓我們的下一代從這國家踐行 大使命,那新西蘭的華人教會需要有英語事工。所以我很喜樂,很榮幸的接納東區華人浸信會的按立為傳福音的事工。 However helpful they are, I believe God’s “manifold wisdom” (Ephesians 3:10) is still being shown through a church like ours. As long as New Zealand continues to attract immigrants, there is a place for the great commission to be fulfilled among the Chinese diaspora. And for the next generation among us to fulfil the great commission here in Aotearoa, we must have an English ministry. So it is a joy and privilege to be set apart and publicly ordained for gospel ministry by our PCBC family.

一位宣教姐妹曾經分享說,第二代華人學會在基督裡找到自己的身份後,會成為最有效果的宣教士和具有全球視野 的支持者。在基督裡,願神賜給我們眼光,能在我們教會的下一代身上看到神國度的潛力 。 所以我在此想鼓勵各位弟兄姐妹,為主耶穌的名,來一起 “同心合意地興旺福音”,也求莊稼的主多給工人收祂的莊稼。因為“要收的莊稼多,做工的人少。” A missions colleague once shared that second-generation Chinese who learn to find their identity in Christ become some of their most effective missionaries and global-minded supporters. In Christ, may God give us eyes to see the kingdom potential in our children, in the brothers and sisters among us. So brothers and sisters, can I encourage you, for Jesus’s fame, to partner in the gospel with us. Please pray for more labourers to join us. “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few.” (Mt 9:38)

“僅此 一生,轉眼 過去; 為主做工,永遠長存 。”
As the missionary CT Studd once put it:
“Only one life, t’will soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”

Cheryl and I would like to give some thanks. Thank you Ps Albert, Ps James, Ps Andrew for your friendship and openness. It has been a joy to serve with you, to learn from your wisdom, and to share in the task of shepherding this church family. And thank you to the rest of our ordination council. Each of you have done far more than lay hands on us! Thank you for your teaching, prayer and example. May our future be filled with more of these unlikely friendships for the sake of gospel renewal here in Auckland, across Aotearoa, and all over the earth. 感謝鄧牧師,卞牧師,黎牧師的友誼和坦誠。這兩年當你的同工,遇見了神給你們的智慧。很感謝主可以跟你們一起牧養這個教會。 我也想感謝今天的按牧團。你們不只是為我們按手! 感謝您的教導、祈禱和榜樣。願我們以後會更有像今天看出的 “不尋常” 的關係,向我們的城市,國家,直到地極宣傳福音。

To our friends from Bible College. We still miss you dearly. Thank you for your updates, for praying for us and showing us the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. Three years to this day, we gathered for an unforgettable praise and prayer night. So much has changed since. But the truths we remembered, the songs we sang are still true. One day we will reunite and worship Jesus again as every tribe and tongue and language. Until then, let’s “declare His glory among the nations” (Ps 96:3). 我們神學院的朋友們: 我們還是非常想念你。 感謝您仍然的報告,祈禱,展示認識主基督耶稣为至寶了。三年前,我們都聚集在一處,讚美和祈禱會。 這幾年我們都遇過許多的變化。但是我們記住的真理,我們唱的歌詞還是真實的。 末後時我們會再聚集跟“各國、各族、各民、各方”的弟兄姐妹讚美耶穌。在那之前,讓我們“在列邦中述說他的榮耀!在萬民中述說他的奇事!”(詩篇 96:3)

I want to honour my parents as well, who can’t be here today. Thank you for the sacrifices you made for our family to be here today. It is a debt we can never repay. 我也要感謝我的父母,他們今天不能來到現場參加今天的按牧禮。感謝你們幫助我們移民到奧克蘭,為此你們付出了許多,受了許多的痛苦,這是一個還不會的債。

爸,我知道當牧師本來不是你對兒子的期望 。我小時候還記得你對孩子們的願望 是:健康,幸福,和成功。我想告訴你,你這些願望都實現 了,因為上帝已經給了你二兒子這三樣東西。而且上帝也可將這樣的祝福給你。因為祂將祂的獨生子賜給我們,祂的獨生子已經勝過了死亡,賜給我們:永恆的生命,永遠的幸福,勝過死亡的成功。 Dad, I know this is not the life you had planned for a son. Many times as children you told us you wanted “health, happiness, and success” for our family. Please know that your wish came true. God has already given me these three things. And He can give it to you too. Because He offered his only Son to give us everlasting joy, eternal life, and victory over death.

我們因罪而無法償還 的每一筆債務 ,耶穌都替我們償還了。 耶穌是完美順服的聖子,藉著祂的聖靈住在我心裡。 所以我希望有一天你也願意悔改信靠耶穌基督,也可以同心敬拜真神,共同的天父。“我替基督求你… 與神和好。” 下個月來時候咱們再談吧。爸,我愛你!Every debt we could not pay because of our sins, Jesus paid it all. Jesus is the perfect obedient Son, who lives in me through His Holy Spirit. So I pray you will turn and trust in Jesus Christ. I pray that we can share one Heavenly Father. “On behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor 5:20) Let’s chat more about it soon. I love you dad.

Cheryl and I also want to thank our other parents. We may be in different congregations most of the time, but we would not be here without your support, encouragement and wisdom. Please pray we will love this church family as much as you have. I’ll still gladly mow your lawns. We love you. 我和 Cheryl 也要感謝媽咪爹哋 。雖然我們不在同樣的敬拜,但是如果沒有你們的支持、鼓勵和智慧,我們可能不會在這裡。 請祈禱我們會像你一樣愛這個教會。隨時需要幫你們剪草,我還會幫你們。 我們愛你。

And thank you Cheryl. You are my biggest encourager. You are my best friend. My wisest ministry partner. My fellow language nerd. And my God-given helper. You did not sign up to be a pastor’s wife. But I’m so grateful that you are first and foremost a follower of Jesus. We said to each other on our wedding day, so let’s keep saying it: “Magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt His name together.” (Ps 34:3) 謝謝 Cheryl。你是我最大的鼓勵,最好的朋友,最有智慧的同工。我們同樣的喜歡說各種方言。你也是上帝賜給我的配偶幫助。 結婚之前你沒有計畫當師母。非常感謝神你首先的身份不是師母,是耶穌的門徒。我們婚禮當天彼此說的經文,今天也在說:“…和我當稱耶和華為大,一同高舉祂的名。”

Thank you to our children. Please don’t call me “Reverend”! You bring us so much joy and we are proud to be your parents. Mum loves you, Dad loves you, and God loves you most through Jesus Christ our Lord. 孩子們,謝謝!你們不必叫我“牧師”!你們每天給我們許多的歡樂,我們很自豪能成為你的父母。 媽媽愛你,爸爸愛你,上帝通過我們的主耶穌基督最愛你。

And finally, thank you to everyone who joined in to support us today “in one Spirit”. The Apostle Paul once said: Εμοὶ γὰρ τὸ ζῆν χριστὸς καὶ τὸ ἀποθανεῖν κέρδος. “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil 1:21) So whatever calling God gives you, wherever He takes you, do it for the glory of Christ. It will not be in vain. Because to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 我們最後想感謝其他的會眾,有一樣的心思來參加今天的按牧禮。使徒保羅曾經說過: “我活著就是基督,我死了就有益處。” (Phil 1:21) 所以無論上帝給你什麼呼召,我勸你,為基督的榮耀去做,肯定不會是徒然的。 因為活著就是基督,死了就有益處。

To close, please join me in saying Psalm 117 together in your own tongues.

Psa. 117:1 Praise the LORD, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples. 2 For great is his love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever. Praise the LORD.

請各位一起用各位的語言來誦讀詩篇 117 章:

Psalm 117:1 萬 國 啊 , 你 們 都 當 讚 美 耶 和 華 ! 萬 民 哪 , 你 們 都 當 頌 讚 他 ! 2 因 為 他 向 我 們 大 施 慈 愛 ; 耶 和 華 的 誠 實 存 到 永 遠 。 你 們 要 讚 美 耶 和 華 !

May all the glory be to Christ our Lord. Amen. 願在基督裡歸榮耀給上帝真神,阿門。

(You can watch the whole service below, or the ordination ceremony itself from 1:11:49.)

“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8)

A time for everything, including outdoor sermons

If you were to tell me at the start of the year that my final sermon for 2021 would be at a beach baptism celebration for a crowd of friends, family and curious onlookers, I wouldn’t have believed you. But thanks to COVID, there’s a time for everything it seems!

Here’s a few quick observations from preaching at a special occasion:

  • Even a 13 minute sermon can still feel long when you’re at the beach on a sunny afternoon and there’s no place to sit comfortably. Cut, cut, cut. On Boxing Day, people aren’t interested in the Hebrew word play about the “sons of Adam”, they’re more likely to want to go for a swim and get ice cream!
  • Everyone needs an outdoor preaching voice from time to time, so I’ll need to keep practising mine (or get the sound system properly set up first time round!)
  • No one came to hear from you, so connect your talk to the people they came for as much as you can: illustrations from their lives, incorporating their favourite passages, etc. (Sam Chan talks more about this in his thoughts on event preaching in Evangelism in a Skeptical World)
  • We learned to craft one big idea from a passage, well it’s even more important in a context where you don’t get full attention and compete against squawking birds and other distractions. “There is a time for everything, and yet because Jesus died and rose again, His timing meant everything.”
  • Beautiful moments call for beautiful words. I found it helpful to play with “time” words throughout the talk and thread the sermon together with this theme (including the gospel offer from Rom 5:6-8: “At the right time Christ died for the ungodly…”). I still did the three point exegesis, but without a consistent metaphor, I suspect attention would have dropped even quicker.
  • Preach the gospel every time, every place. Among those present was an atheist who had attended church for a time but then dropped off the radar over lockdown, curious family members and school friends who had never been to church or abandoned it as teenagers, and even some locals who were at a picnic next to us. We sow it, He grows it. Pray for good soil that bears much fruit!

If you’re interested, here’s the recording and script of the talk (the audio quality is poor, so turn on the subtitles!). Would love to hear what you thought.

“A Time For Everything” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

Some people say, time slows down when you’re at the beach. The gentle breeze, the unhurried waves. Wouldn’t we love to capture a moment like this for all eternity?

By my count, there are 5 days left of 2021. It seems like yesterday we were making plans for 2021. Then our least favourite Greek letter of the year – Delta – brought lockdowns, vaccines, traffic lights. And so if you’ve wondered this week, “Where did all that time go?” – I get it.

Turns out time is also on the mind of the Teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes, which Song just read. (This also happens to be Song’s favourite chapter of the Bible). Did you notice how the Teacher started? “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” (Ecc 3:1)

And whether you wish time could stop, or fast forward from here, that statement rings true, does it not? “There is a time for everything.” Time to weep, time to laugh. To mourn. To dance.

And because there is “a time for everything”, we’re gathered here, in our beach clothes, to celebrate a special time, our five brothers and sister getting baptised.

Let me explain baptism briefly. As Christians we believe in “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:5). As PCBC, we believe the Bible teaches that baptism is an ordinance of the church, offered to believers as one of the family habits our Lord Jesus gives us. We see baptism is an outward sign of an inward reality. Baptism pictures the change of heart and life that happens in every genuine believer who, by God’s Spirit, repents from sin and puts their trust in Jesus Christ alone for their hope, peace, joy – the change we heard from each of their testimonies yesterday and today. Like a wedding ring symbolises the union of marriage, baptism symbolises a person united with Christ, living in Him.

Baptism itself has no saving power. This is water from Cockle Bay. These are sandshoes from the Warehouse. But by being baptised, Erica, Billy, Song, Chris and Kenneth are publicly declaring that, through the saving blood of Jesus Christ, they have received the gift of eternity with God, and a new way of life.

And if someone was looking for a new way of life, it was the teacher in Ecclesiastes. Because his reflections on time in chapter 3 come after two chapters of complaining. Listen to some of his earlier words:

“I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces.” (Ecc 2:8)

“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.” (Ecc 2:10)

Sounds like the Kiwi dream. And yet, when the Preacher looks carefully at everything he’d accomplished with his own hands, he says:

“Everything was meaningless… a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” (Ecc 2:11)

And if 2021 has felt looking for a breeze that won’t come… if your life feels like a mist or vapour, if it seems as pointless as blowing bubbles and watching them pop, then you are not alone. We remember from the book of James – “Is not your life like a vapour? …like a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)

And after reflecting on time, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes 3:10 says:

“I have seen the burden God has laid on people” (Ecc 3:10). And then he makes a profound observation:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecc 3:11).

In this sentence I want us to notice three timely thoughts.

First, He has made everything beautiful in its time.

Our country has seen its fair share of division, hurt and heartbreak this past year. But we’ve also seen kindness and generosity. Sacrifice for the common good. Amidst the burdens, He has made everything beautiful in its time.

And spiritually, this is something each of our five brothers and sisters know first hand:

As we heard from Billy, it took 7 years of depression, hurt and loss before God made everything beautiful through the love of Jesus, who “loved him first.” (1 John 4:19)

For Erica, her earlier feelings of insecurity and failure eventually showed her a beautiful God who is “in control, and will never forsake me.”

And Song put it this way: “COVID allowed me time to pause and conclude there was more to life than tangible possessions, job status or even the next step in life. All these items are about filling a need for more which can only be filled by God’s love and grace.”

Amidst the burdens of life (v10), God does bring beauty from brokenness, in His timing.


He has also set eternity in our hearts.

This verse from the Teacher alludes to a much earlier time – to our first parents. Notice the echoes from Eden: a yearning for eternity, to live forever. And verse 10 speaks of the burden (lit: the task) God gives to – literally — the children of Adam (Ecc 3:10).

To want something that lasts forever, and be left frustrated, is an age-old, timeless problem. But it’s our problem too.

Because what is behind our obsession with work, or grades, if not a wish to live forever?

Or our mission for likes and subscribes, are we not just chasing eternity in our hearts?

Sometimes it takes standing at a beach, surrounded by God’s beauty, for those deep questions to surface from our hearts. “Who am I? Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life?” Perhaps now is the time to search (v6) for the true answer for something that lasts forever.

And finally, in this timely sentence the Teacher says:

“yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

And here we realise the Teacher speaks from too early a time, before the cross. By the end of Ecclesiastes, the call is to rejoice rightly, to fear God and keep His commands (12:13). But that’s all.

You see, when these words were penned thousands of years ago, God’s saving plan from beginning to end was still unfolding, like deep water, unfathomable.The tide had not yet turned.

But pay attention to Paul, an eyewitness of Jesus, because in Romans 5:6-8 he says: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” [REPEAT]

Do you see? Timing is everything. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

As we heard from Kenneth, even when his life was a meaningless cycle of partying and drinking, Christ died for him.

Even when Chris was stuck in his downward spiral, Christ died for him… he died for you, and me, for all who believe in Him.

There is a time for everything, what makes Jesus such good news is that His timing meant everything. At just the right time, he enters our world. Takes on our flesh. At just the right time he announces the Kingdom of God with signs and wonders, teaching and healing like no other. At just the right time, he hands [show] himself over to demonstrate God’s own love for us – while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. His timing meant everything.

What the Teacher in Ecclesiastes couldn’t fathom, you and I are about to see in the waters of baptism. What God has done from beginning to end. There’s a time for everything, yet because Jesus died and rose again, His timing changes everything.

For these five, today marks a new chapter. What about you? What will you do with your time?

If you’re not a Christian, is it time to seriously consider who Jesus is, perhaps by picking up a Bible with a friend?

If you’ve never publicly owned your faith in Jesus, is it time to be baptised and added to the church?

If you long for others find eternity in Christ, is it time to give up something good, for something better, and follow God’s call for you into deeper waters? Jesus once said: “The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:23) As we spend time celebrate these baptisms, as we see his death and resurrection before us, may Jesus, the Son of Man, be glorified. Let’s pray.

“A Time for Everything”, 26.12.21, Baptism Celebration @ Cockle Bay Reserve