Sunday, May 13, 2012

God is With You


Haggai 1:12-15

Last week we looked at the first chapter of Haggai, where God spoke through the prophet to a poor and defeated people who had limped back to Jerusalem, still under foreign rule. The accusation was that they were focused on their own houses while the house of the Lord lay in ruins. God called them to obedience, and in the last few verses in chapter 1, we see the response: Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the LORD their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the LORD their God had sent him. And the people feared the LORD.

The response of the people is immediate and unanimous. The people feared the Lord. Don’t let that phrase slip past you just because you’ve heard it a million times. Do you really know the fear of the Lord? Jesus isn’t just your “homeboy” – he is God Almighty, and putting ourselves before him is a terrifying thing. God isn’t just a kindly old bearded grandfather – he is a God of wrath. God does not allow sin in his presence, and because we are by nature sinful beings, the response of fear, especially to those pre-Jesus, is a fitting response.

We would all do to have a healthy fear of God. There is a such thing as a healthy fear. As a runner, I have a healthy fear of cars and dogs. I am always watching out for traffic and always give myself an “out” (figuring out where I will jump if a driver doesn’t notice me). I keep my eye on dogs, especially those that are not on leashes. Now, both of these are in the category of healthy fear; I know both can be dangerous (I have been bitten, but I thankfully haven’t been hit by a car), but I don’t live my life in fear of them.

Healthy fear of God is not living a life cowering, wondering when God will choose to smite you. I know of people whose earthly fathers were abusive and they fear God in the same way they feared their fathers. That’s an unhealthy fear. But honestly, our culture has lost its fear of God. We walk around like we rule our own little worlds, basically thumbing our noses at God, with no fear or reverence for him. Fear and reverence of God is constantly reminding yourself who God is… and who we are.

In the midst of a fear of God, God speaks: (Haggai 1:13) Then Haggai, the LORD’s messenger, gave this message of the LORD to the people: “I am with you,” declares the LORD.

When fear of God was turning into an unhealthy fear, God speaks, but not with thunder and lightning, not in an earthquake, not with fire, but in a still, small voice. In a clear, calm, loving voice that says, “I am with you.”

For some people, it might be a new thought to hear God say “I am with you.” Some people believe in a god, but they don’t believe that the god they believe in would ever be involved in human affairs. That god is aloof, apart, transcendent, but not personal.

For Haggai’s Jewish audience, this statement had a fantastic historical connection. They would think back to their story, which is a story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. After Abraham’s death, his son Isaac was facing famine and was tempted to go to historical enemies to beg for help, but God renewed His covenant with His people. In Genesis 26:24, God appeared to Isaac, saying, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.”

God is saying, “I gave a promise and I will fulfill it. You can trust me. What I said is always true.” Maybe some of you need to hear that for yourselves today, that you can trust God, that what God says, God means, and He will always uphold His end of the bargain.

A few chapters later in Genesis, God appears to Isaac’s son, Jacob, in a dream (this is when Jacob saw a stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending). Genesis 28:15 “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Again, God confirms and reaffirms the covenant He made with Abraham, this time to Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. Every Jew would know these stories, because these stories weren’t just Israel’s history, they defined who Jews were. As a nation, we have largely lost our story, which can be a dangerous thing.

But what is worse is when Christians lose sight of our story. This is why Biblical literacy is so important. I remember one Sunday in the first church I served, I had just preached a sermon in which I mentioned how so many of the heroes of the Bible had issues, and I mentioned some of them, like Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Elijah, Jeremiah… After church, one church member approached me and admitted that he didn’t know who most of these people were. And he was in church regularly and had been for years. There is no reason for us to be Biblical illiterate. No reason whatsoever. We have an abundance of Bibles and we are an extremely literate society. The only reason you don’t know the Bible is either because you don’t care or because you are relying on someone else to know the Bible for you.

Anyway, that’s just an aside, something that I’m passionate about. But again and again throughout scripture, God tells His people, “I am with you.”

While God’s people were in exile, God said “I am with you.” This had to come as a surprise, because in that culture, nations were linked to their deities, and if you were defeated, it was thought to mean that their god was superior to yours. So exile was not merely a national disgrace and difficulty; it was a spiritual crisis. But Isaiah tells a nation in exile: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10

Listen to the word of God given through Jeremiah:
·         “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 1:8)
·         “They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 1:19)
·         “I am with you to rescue and save you,” declares the Lord.  (Jeremiah 15:20b)
·         “I am with you and will save you,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 30:11a)
·         “Do not be afraid of the king of Babylon, whom you now fear. Do not be afraid of him, declares the Lord, for I am with you and will save you and deliver you from his hands.” (Jeremiah 42:11)

Are you getting the picture? God is telling a disappointed and disillusioned people that, despite what it looks like, He is in control. No matter how strong the enemy looks, no matter how bad things get, no matter how dire the circumstances, you have no reason to fear, because the God of the universe is in your corner.

What are you afraid of? And what might your life look like if you knew that the God of the universe is there to rescue you and to fight for you? Is there something you might attempt for God if you knew that God would be there with you?

The Bible is full of people who thrived despite great odds. God picked Abraham and Sarah, old beyond normal childbearing years, to bless as the father and mother of God’s people. God picked Moses, stutter and all, as the one who would lead Israel out of Egyptian captivity. God chose Gideon, the least of the weakest clan, to become a leader. God chose David, a mere shepherd boy, to defeat Goliath. Jesus chose fishermen, tax collectors, religious zealots, and other nobodies to transform the world. 

They probably all had moments where they thought, “There’s no way this could work. I can’t do this!” When God told Moses that he was going to be the one to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses said to the Lord, “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” (Exodus 4:10). Do you see how silly this is – Moses, trying to use words to demonstrate to God how unfit he was to use words…

We do the same thing every time we give God excuses. God comes back to Moses with the question: “Who made your mouth?” So, what would you do if you knew that God was there? I know people who are afraid to share their faith because they don’t know how they would answer questions. All that fear really is just a lack of faith in God, because God promises to be with you. Do you think God will fail?

I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s a preacher secret that we don’t usually tell the churches we serve. First of all, it’s scary being a preacher. Preparing a new sermon every week is much harder than most of you imagine. The public speaking aspect isn’t the hard part, unless you’re Moses and have difficulties speaking; I realize that I am generally speaking to a receptive group. Yes, there are people who don’t like the preacher, and there are people who complain that the sermons hit a little too close to home, but as long as the preacher is getting his sermons from the Bible and not the internet, those critiques are generally based on someone’s guilty conscience. And as another aside, I don’t really know any preachers who get their messages from the internet. That’s a generic blanket straw-man criticism; it’s easy to knock a straw man over, because he’s not real.

But anyway, the scary thing about being a preacher is the amount of self-disclosure that naturally comes out during a sermon. No, not the funny or self-deprecating anecdotes that all of us store up, like the one about me falling off the treadmill in front of Jon Mark Kennedy. Every sermon I preach is first preached at me. I’m not an advocate of a fake-it-‘til-you­-make-it practice; but I am the first and usually the greatest audience for my sermons.

All of that is to tell you that I am preaching to myself today. You all know that our family is in a time of transition. There are all kinds of thoughts swimming around in my head, and this sermon series came at a perfect time for me to be reminded of God’s words: “I am with you,” declares the Lord. (Haggai 1:13b)

There is a lot up in the air right now, but through all of it, God’s promises never fail. He will be with us. I preach that to myself, but also to the rest of us. Whenever God’s people face uncertain times or daunting challenges, God reminds us he is with us. In Matthew 28, when Jesus pronounces the Great Commission, (you know, the mandate for the church to live up to: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.) he completes it by reminding us of his presence going with us. “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Jesus doesn’t just say “I will be with you” – he says “I am with you.” It’s not a future hope; it’s a present reality. God, in the person of Jesus Christ, makes this promise, and we get to live our lives, knowing he is with us.
·         When people let you down… God is with you.
·         When you get the diagnosis you feared… God is with you.
·         When you step way out of your comfort zone… God is with you.
·         When you boldly share Christ with your unsaved family members, co-workers, or neighbors… God is with you.
·         When life gets hard… God is with you.

When and where do you need to hear an “I am with you” from God?  God is with you.

Back to the situation in Haggai: Haggai made the proclamation, and listen to the response from the people. So the LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the LORD Almighty, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of King Darius. (Haggai 1:14-15)

They heard the Word of the Lord, and God stirred up their spirits, and immediately they got to work. They knew what they needed to do, and they set out to do it. They began work on the house of the Lord. They gave their best to God. And I wonder about us. It’s time for us to begin our work on the house of the Lord. Are you giving your best to God? Maybe there needs to be a time of decision now – will you give Him your best? Is God stirring up your spirit within you? Let’s close this service with a time of confession and commitment. And as I ask these two questions, remember that God is right with you.

If you’re honest enough to admit that you’ve not given God your best, would you be courageous enough to raise your hand. And if you were bold enough to take that first step, maybe would you have the courage to accept a prayer that God would stir your spirit and empower you to give your best to Him – that He would empower you to work on His house…

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Busy With Our Own Houses

Haggai 1

This week as I was preparing to preach, I realized that I only have seven weeks left to preach. In deciding what to preach on, I was looking through my sermon archives, and I realized that I had never preached from Haggai. In fact, I don’t remember ever hearing a sermon series on Haggai. As I read through the book – it’s just a short little two-chapter prophecy – I thought that God could use it for us.

So you are being the pilot congregation for my first foray into Haggai. Have you ever been in the pilot program? Haggai knew how this felt – Haggai was the first post-exilic prophet. In 520 BC, the word of the Lord came to the people through Haggai.

I wonder what it felt like – for so many years, God was silent. Now the people are back home, and God finally speaks again. Now, for a little perspective, God’s people did not triumphantly ride back into Jerusalem. They were allowed to go back, and there is a huge difference. They are still a conquered people, disappointed, maybe even questioning God. Their theology included prosperity as a sign of God’s favor, and they were poor. They were a defeated people.

And it was to these people, defeated, disappointed, and frustrated as they were, that God speaks. I don’t know about all of you, but I know what it is like to be defeated, disappointed, and frustrated. Sometimes that’s what it takes to hear the word of the Lord.

We don’t know who Haggai was other than the first post-exilic prophet (he’s not mentioned anywhere else), but we know he had an important audience: Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, and Joshua, the high priest. We also know that Haggai came with an important word, one from God.

A few weeks ago, I preached from Nehemiah, and we looked at the situation in Jerusalem where the city was unprotected; the walls were destroyed and in ruins. In Haggai’s time, the debate raged: is now the time to rebuild the Temple?

(Haggai 1:2-4) This is what the LORD Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come for the LORD’s house to be built.’” Then the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”

The first thing that I thought of when I read this had to do with our financial stewardship – that the average American Christian doesn’t come near to a tithe – it’s more like 1.5%, and that the problem isn’t from people who don’t have; it’s those who do. One problem we have is that we are so busy that we live largely unexamined lives. Most people I know are just getting by, but the methods we use to “just get by” are not necessarily helpful or healthy.

What would our lives look like if we put God first? Some of you already do this, but what might your day look like if the absolute first thing you did each day was spend time in prayer? Not just on the “prayer list” kind of prayer, but enjoying God’s presence.

Things are tough for many people. Though most of us put on our good faces when we go out in public, we struggle internally. Haggai spoke to a people who were disappointed and frustrated. Yes, things are tough for them. And they had been content to hear “the time hasn’t come for the Lord’s house to be built.” That let them off the hook. But I’ve heard the same excuse given too many times. You can substitute any age or station in life here – well, I need to wait until… maybe you think you have to wait until you’re older… until you can drive… until you can vote… until you graduate from high school or college or graduate school… Maybe it’s when you’re married, or when you have children, or when the children reach a certain age, or even when the children have left the nest or after you’ve retired. Then I can… and fill in the blank with the things you can finally do for the Lord.

We are so busy with our own homes that we don’t even realize how we’ve neglected the Lord’s house.

Financial stewardship is an easy target, because, to some extent, this is what Haggai is talking about: (Haggai 1:5-6) Now this is what the LORD Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”

You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it… That is such a fitting image. Have you ever felt like that? God is speaking to any of us who can’t hold on to money. But this prophecy isn’t about money. Talking about money would only be treating the symptom. The prophecy is about hearts, and the way we deal with our money is only an indication of the state of our hearts. In Matthew 6:21, Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

One problem is that we are so stubbornly independent. What’s mine is mine, and I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.

This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. (Haggai 1:7) Last Sunday I was finishing up the intensive personal leadership training in Dallas, and the most important aspect of it was that not only did I get to give careful thought to my ways, I got some expert outside Christian insight into my ways. Why was this important? Because it will help me to be the person God made me to be. Many of us default to just getting by – we do what we have to do, and we never work out our issues. I personally developed my defense mechanisms when I was just a little guy, and that’s just not healthy. But I had never examined those ways, because I wasn’t even aware of them. There are some people in this congregation who need to get into counseling, and I’m not just talking about meeting with me, because I’m not a trained counselor, and besides, I count myself in that “some people.”

When we give careful thought to our ways, where do we stand with God? The Lord tells his people to give first to His house, which is not to be confused with church buildings, because, as we read in Acts 7:48, “the Most High does not live in houses made by men.” Indeed, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:19: your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God…

Ephesians 2:19-22 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Very quickly, when reading the Bible, remember that the Bible was written to specific audiences in specific times. It always means what it meant. That’s why context is important. When God spoke through Haggai, he was speaking to the post-exilic community in Judah, and he was speaking about a bricks-and-mortar building. But the scripture is living and active and has applications for us today. So when we read Haggai, don’t just think about a building, because God is not talking to us about a building. God commanded, “Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the LORD. (Haggai 1:8), and this applies to us this way:

It takes work to build up the Body of Christ. It takes work to build up the church. It’s not one person’s job or the job of a committee; it is every Christian’s job. I don’t say this to guilt you into working harder for God or to doing more in the church. This isn’t a “stewardship” message or a “get volunteers for programs” message. It just follows after what we did a couple of weeks ago, when we started rebuilding the walls and ruins.

“You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the LORD Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house. Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops.  I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the oil and whatever the ground produces, on men and cattle, and on the labor of your hands.” (Haggai 1:9-11)

There are times when things just happen. God created humanity in perfect union with Him, living in the paradise of the Garden of Eden. But when Adam and Eve sinned, they were banished from the garden, but did you ever think about the curse God proclaimed to Adam? Cursed is the ground because of you… (Genesis 3:17) We live in a world that is not the Garden of Eden. It is a fallen world, one characterized by Paul as “groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). Not every natural disaster is a direct curse from God. But there are certainly times when God uses natural disasters, sicknesses, difficulties, and so forth to point his people toward him. In this case, God takes direct blame (or credit, depending on your point of view) for the drought.

Why would God do that?  God wants only the best for us, which is himself. God doesn’t want us to settle for less, which is what we do when we live by our own strength. Our culture values the “self-made man” who “pulls himself up by his bootstraps.” This just doesn’t work in God’s economy. The honest truth is we can’t do it on our own. If we try to do it without God, we are saying that we don’t need God, and if we don’t need God, then we’ve set ourselves up as God. So God disciplines us.

Hebrews 12 (shortly after the Great Cloud of Witnesses part and the call to run the race with perseverance) quotes Proverbs 3:11-12, saying, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” (Hebrews 12:5-6) The author continues by saying: Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. (Hebrews 12:7-8)

Accept hardship in your life, and allow it to bring you closer to God. Allow Him to shape you into His likeness, because that’s what He wants for you. Sometimes we forget that we don’t live in the Garden of Eden, where everything is supposed to be perfect. We’re not there! And things are not perfect here, and that’s the point. We’re living in a world cursed by God – and to ignore that is to not face that we need God desperately!

As the author of the letter to the Hebrews continues: No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)

If you read ahead, you can find out how this post-exilic community responds to the word of God, but the question today is how will you respond? Is God first, or does He get the left-overs? This isn’t meant to guilt anyone into action; that’s never a good way to approach God – hey, God, I’m feeling guilty because I haven’t given you my best, so for the next day or so I’m really going to try, because then I won’t feel so guilty anymore. When we do that, we’re actually just doing it for ourselves, not for God.

So the challenge this week is to seek God, not out of mere obedience or to assuage guilty feelings, but to seek God for God’s sake. Spend the first part of each day with God. For those of us who are morning people, take time early in the morning to praise God and enjoy his presence. If you’re a night owl and your best time is at night, give that to God and enjoy Him then. And let’s experience God together as we rebuild His house.