Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Lord's Signet Ring

Haggai 2:20-23

They say that timing is everything, but I have to admit that in my scripture reading, I often read right over time and place names, but God inspired the authors to include those names on purpose, and by reading over them, that purpose is thwarted. In today’s scripture, we find the last word of the Lord that came to Haggai. There is a specific date included, and it’s the same date that the last word came, which is also the same day that construction started on the temple. This is significant, because the word that God now delivers is in direct response to Zerubbabel’s actions.

I believe that God spoke again in direct response to the people. There are people who believe that God set things into action and then stepped back, but this belief simply does not follow from a biblical understanding of God. In this prophecy, we see God responding to the action of his people!

Remember that last week in God’s previous word: God promised to shake away all created things to point His people to Himself. He also spoke of clean/unclean and gave the clear warning that the reason He was disciplining His people was because they had sinned, and had thus defiled themselves, and therefore everything they did was under a curse. Yet we ended up that prophecy with hope:“From this day on, I will bless you.” (Haggai 2:19b)

So now God speaks again, and this time, He specifically speaks to an individual, Zerubbabel. If you remember, Zerubbabel is the governor of Judah, the leader of the God’s people. Zerubbabel is mentioned twice in the New Testament: can anyone tell me where? These passing references are important, because they are in the genealogies of Jesus. Zerubbabel was chosen to be in the list of Jesus’ ancestors. Zerubbabel was the leader of the people who took God’s Word to heart and began work on God’s Temple. This word, therefore, was given to Haggai specifically for Zerubbabel.

Remember again that this is during a time of political turmoil and economic hardship and disappointment. Judah is a conquered nation, ruled by their enemies. Yet at this time, God promised to shake the heavens and the earth. Remember what I said last week about this type of shaking? God shakes, and everything that can be shaken is shaken, and all that is left is God Himself, and God is enough for our every need.

So now God’s promise is that he will overturn the thrones of kingdoms, that he will shatter the power of foreign kingdoms, that he will overthrow horses and chariots and throw them into confusion and civil war. A couple of comments about this: First of all, remember that this action is from God. God is the only one who has the qualifications to do this. This is a key to spiritual warfare –we have spiritual victory only in the name of Jesus, never on our own. Secondly, notice that God’s aim here is to destroy the might of nations.

This should stand as a warning to us in our context; our country is becoming increasingly secular and though other parts of the world identify Hollywood and Christianity and America synonymously, it is clear that America is not God’s chosen people. I don’t mean to say that I don’t love our country. Quite the contrary, I love this country and that’s why I want to see our country turn to the Lord. Not just to return to the Lord, but no matter where we’ve been, to turn to him. But the warning is clear: as Americans, if we can stand solely behind our national identity, putting our trust in the USA, we have misplaced our trust. Our salvation is never in a country. God will destroy the might of nations.

We can only trust in God for salvation.

As we get to verse 23, God makes a declaration.

 “‘On that day,’ Now I want to stop there for a moment. Whenever the Bible uses this kind of terminology, understand that we are talking about end times. Just as an aside, if you would like a seminary word for end times study, it’s eschatology. When God says “on that day,” know that this phrase has an eschatological context.

We have to look at this entire phrase through the lens of end-times. So God’s word extends to judgment day. So if this word extends to judgment day, it can’t be for Zerubbabel alone. God tells Zerubbabel “I will take you,” electing him as a special representative among God’s people.

Indeed, Zerubbabel is given the title that God reserved for King David, “my servant”. “My servant” does not refer just to just any servant; when God calls Zerubbabel “my servant” he is echoing a reference that He made to King David as well. Without explicitly mentioning David, God is clearly implying that Zerubbabel is David’s rightful heir. This ancestry extends directly to Jesus through the New Testament genealogy I mentioned earlier. And Jesus entrusted the Church with being His hands and feet on this earth, so not only is this word for Zerubbabel, it is a word for the Church.

Let me go back to the concept of being God’s called-out servant, as God calls Zerubbabel. This servant would not be just one of the servants; it would be the king’s favorite confidant, one who remains near the king no matter what, one who knows the mind and wishes of the king, and one who executes the confidential assignments of the king. This is no ordinary servant.

But here is the deal – when Jesus died on the cross, the God tore the curtain in the Temple from top to bottom, opening up the Holy of Holies, taking away the separation between God and humanity. Then, on Pentecost, God gave every Christian His Holy Spirit, putting us in the same treasured position as Zerubbabel stands in. We have the option to remain near the King, no matter what. We have the opportunity to know the mind and wishes of our King. And the King has given us the confidential assignment of carrying out His will on earth as He does in heaven.

So it is clear that God’s word to Zerubbabel is appropriate for us as well.

The final thought in this passage is the signet ring. A signet ring was the symbol of a king’s authority. The king would always keep it with him, usually on a chain around his neck or on his right hand. When the king signed an edict, he would put a drop of wax on it and push his signet ring into it, leaving the seal of his authority. The seal of the state is the closest approximation we have to a king’s seal.

God is saying that Zerubbabel is his signet ring. This means we are the seal of God’s approval. When Peter made the Great Confession, when he said to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus affirmed that God had divinely revealed this to him. Then he said, And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:18-19.

This is the same idea as Haggai’s word to Zerubbabel, this time extended to the Church. We have the power of God, alive in us, and we are responsible to use that power. This is the one thing I want to get across to this church; it feels like some of you are constricted because you are waiting for a pastor to do this or that, but God doesn’t leave that power in the hands of pastors. God’s plan was to make His Church into that signet ring.

This is why in John, Jesus prayed that his followers would have unity. Because the Church speaks with God’s authority, and when we bicker and fight about peripheral issues, like “I don’t like technology in church” (which is really an idiotic thing to fight about), what we’re really doing is demonstrating to the world that God’s authority is at best arbitrary and irrelevant and at worst, divisive and hurtful.  

But God’s mandate is clear – the Church is God’s signet ring. The Church has been given the authority to speak on God’s behalf. The Church has been given the authority to carry out God’s wishes. The church is not a decorative ring on God’s finger, pretty, nice, but without any power or authority. The Church is God’s signet ring – with God’s authority.

Very quickly, I want to remind you of this: as God’s signet ring, God holds you close to his heart. God’s heart is for the local church, because the local church is where lives are transformed. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

From This Day On

Haggai 2:6-19

Last week, we were given to be strong in God and work, do not fear, because God is with us. As we continue in Haggai 2, Haggai brings the word of the Lord. As we read, notice how Haggai refers to God. Five times in four verses, he refers to the Lord Almighty. There are tons of names for God and descriptors of God throughout the Bible, so it’s not by accident that Haggai calls Him the Lord Almighty, especially that he uses the same phrase five times.

Haggai wants to reassure a discouraged people of God’s power. I think this is appropriate to remember now – that our God is all powerful. There are times when it’s easy to get discouraged – if you’re not already discouraged, then just check out the political and economic landscape of our nation. And it’s only getting worse. But God is still God!

Haggai needs to remind the people of who God is, because of what God is going to do. He prophesies: “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.

God tells the people that He is going to shake the nations. The Bible uses “shaking” imagery to point to the day of the Lord. In the book of Amos, where the prophet prophesied two years before a literal earthquake, God says he will shake the nations as grain is shaken in a sieve (Amos 9:9).

In the New Testament, Jesus speaks of a shaking to occur – this time in predicting about the last days, repeating Isaiah’s prophecy. “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” (Matthew 24:29)
God uses all sorts of means to point people toward Him, and God’s plan was to do this shaking to bring glory to himself. God is so brilliant – in Haggai, he chooses to shake the nations in such a way that the nations, people who neither know nor serve God, will bring their treasures to him. We all love our autonomy and our independence, but this is a good time to remind you that ultimately nobody has a choice in the matter. We will all ultimately bow in worship –Philippians 2:10-11 tells us that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Our sovereign God is Almighty, and although it can feel like we have all kinds of choices in this life, the one choice that really carries meaning and weight is the choice to serve God, because we will ultimately have no choice whether or not to bow in worship to God. God can even use his enemies to carry out his discipline – and when God shakes the nations, he will accomplish his will.

In Hebrews 12, the shaking is presented as a warning from heaven. Friends, when you see natural disasters, earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, floods, whether or not you think God actively sends them, the truth is that they all present valid warnings. When God threatens to shake not only the earth, but also the heavens, he is saying that everything that can be shaken will be, and it will be removed, so only that which cannot be shaken will remain. What is it that cannot be shaken? In Psalm 125:1, we read that Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever.

Likewise, in Isaiah 54:10, we hear God speak: “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken, nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

When God shakes, he will remove all created things – those things that stand in the way of our relationship with God. A couple of weeks ago at the Baccalaureate service, Zach Maughmer stood in front of us and said he was quitting playing video games, because they stood in the way of his relationship with Christ. He listed a bunch of other things that can potentially do the same, and many of us have allowed that to happen. So God shakes everything, and all we’re left with is that which cannot be shaken.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29)

When God shakes us, all that is left is God. And when we’re left in a spot where all we have is God, we realize that we have everything we need and everything we ever desired as well.

This is why we can have peace in the midst of shaking.

Let’s continue in Haggai. There’s a lot of ground for us to cover in a little time. Haggai continues with another word from God, posing a question about consecration and defilement.

This is maybe the most disturbing part of God’s word to Haggai, and it comes right after a high point. To me, the clean/unclean/defilement/consecration rules seem pretty obscure, but suffice it to say, whatever came into contact with something that was considered unclean or defiled itself became unclean or defiled. This was passed on and on, so if you touched a dead body, not only were you unclean, but everything you touched became unclean as well.

You might think of it this way: your child is outside playing in the mud. You have just mopped the floor. If your child comes inside, the neatly mopped floor does not make your child clean… So God is saying, “My people, who are called to be consecrated (meaning set aside for my purpose) have disobeyed me and have defiled themselves with sin. Therefore, I will not bless anything that they do, because it is all unclean.”

This is the same thought process by which Jesus can later say, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23)

There are church people who are not saved, and if that is you, it doesn’t matter how much you do, because none of that will make you clean. None of that will save you. And furthermore, apart from Jesus, the works we do are an insult to God. Isaiah 64:6 confirms that We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall, and our sins sweep us away like the wind. 

So God commands his people to carefully examine and evaluate. He tells a discouraged people, “You haven’t had enough. You’ve never had enough. When you’ve gone to get food or grain, where you thought you had twenty, there were only ten. Everything you’ve done has seemed like a failure, and you’ve suffered through hardship. I struck everything you did, but you’ve failed to turn to me.”

Did you get that? I have a friend who is always the victim. All of this stuff happens to him, and he is always whining about how it’s everyone else’s fault. Could it be that God is trying to get his attention?

So God proclaims: ‘From this day on… give careful thought to the day when the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid. Give careful thought: Is there yet any seed left in the barn? Until now, the vine and the fig tree, the pomegranate and the olive tree have not borne fruit. “‘From this day on I will bless you.’”

God is making promises here: he recognizes that his people have listened to his word and have begun the work on the Temple. And so he says, “Even though you don’t yet see the results, know that I am blessing you.”

This is the essence of faith, defined by Hebrews 11 as being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

God’s message for his people is to recognize our own selfishness and self-centeredness and how far we’ve strayed from God, and to return to him, to prioritize Him. We’ve spent too much time giving ourselves the best and giving God left-overs and then wondering why won’t God bless me when the truth is we haven’t blessed God. We have worked toward our own glory and acted in our own self-interest and then we wonder why God has removed his blessing!

God gives the image of the vines, fig trees, pomegranate trees, and olive trees – saying, “You don’t yet see their fruit, but the fruit will come.” My promises never fail. It can be easy, as we discussed last week, to stand in our own strength and to operate out of that mindset. But what happens when our own strength is not enough? What happens when we try to the best of our abilities and still fail? This is the image of the vines and trees. What can any one of us do to cause a harvest? Sure, we work hard, but we are not the ones who bring about the harvest. That is God’s job, and God alone can do it.

This is the long way of saying: when you are at rock bottom, think of it as enduring a shaking from God, where God is shaking away all of the external things, things that can get in the way and can distract you from Him alone, and when all of that other stuff is shaken away, you can concentrate on Him alone – we can depend on the only One who can and will deliver.

And then we can receive the blessing that He has for us, from this day on.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Be Strong

Haggai 2:1-5

When I was in college, Northwestern University had a big observatory on the shore of Lake Michigan. It was really cool – it kind of looked like a giant alien bug. It was right by the intramural soccer fields, where I spent a lot of my time on the weekends, and it was even part of the logo for the college of arts and sciences.

There was just one problem. Our proximity to Chicago rendered the observatory ineffective. You couldn’t see much of anything because of the light pollution. So they took out the telescope and sent it to Arizona or somewhere, and they tore down the observatory. Actually, that was a story in itself – the strange design of the observatory ended up causing the demolition team fits trying to destroy it. They tried to implode it with explosive charges, but instead of imploding, it just leaned. Then they tried to pull it over with big tow trucks, but that didn’t work either. They finally got it down and out of there, and a campus landmark was gone.

Have you ever watched a landmark demolished?

Or, have you ever been gone from somewhere for a long time, and when you came back, you hardly recognized it? Somehow, things don’t look the same. They look years older. Everything looks dated, poorly kept and, well, old. You tell your kids or grandkids, “This place used to be the place to be. We came here for dances, and it was beautiful. And the kids are rolling their eyes, because they don’t see the former glory; all they see is a dump. Or a parking lot – the one they put in after they paved paradise. Recently I ran across a series of pictures from Pripyat, the city near the Chernobyl nuclear disaster… the once busy city left as a ghost town 25 years after the nuclear disaster. In the town where I grew up, the big industry was the steel mill, which closed its doors in the late 70s. We would drive past the hulking buildings, rusting and falling apart, a reminder of bygone prosperity.

For those who remained in Jerusalem, the remains of the Temple served as a constant reminder that they were a defeated people. It was a reminder that as a people, they had sinned against God, and God had used their enemies as part of His discipline.

This is why it was such a serious accusation when God accused the people of living in paneled houses while the house of the Lord lay in ruins (Haggai 1:4). Not only had they not done anything about the Lord’s house, but they were going on with normal lives, thinking about themselves, looking out for number one.

I kind of get the feeling that everyone knew it was an issue, but nobody was talking about it. Certainly nobody was doing anything about it. So Haggai asks the question: Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?

Who remembers what the Temple of the Lord looked like back in the glory days. How does it look now? There is defeat, and there is crushing defeat, and to look upon the once glorious Temple, which had not only been demolished but demolished, desecrated, and burned, is demoralizing and disappointing.

Especially to those who saw it in its former glory.

There has been some disappointment here at the Millersport United Methodist Church – some of which I have heard of and some of which I have seen. I hear stories about the booming Sunday School department that our church once boasted. Some of you saw that department in its former glory. Many of you also remember a church that was discussing a building program because of the size of the congregation, and you fondly remember the crowds, or you remember people who have left the church. You took great pride in the size of the church and in the health of our finances that came with the numbers.

In today’s passage we can find a key to moving forward in a disappointment and frustrating time. How do you respond to something that used to be strong and vital and now it looks defeated?

Did you notice that once Haggai has gotten to this point, he isn’t pointing fingers or blaming? Two weeks ago, many of us raised our hands to confess that we haven’t given our best to God. So, in a sense, maybe all of us can shoulder a little bit of the blame. But anyway, God’s command is clear: In Haggai 2:4-5, we read God’s word: “But now be strong, O Zerubbabel,” declares the Lord. “Be strong, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,” declares the Lord, “and work. For I am with you,” declares the Lord Almighty. ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.”

God’s command is three-fold. If you are using your inductive Bible study skills, you’ll see a repetition here: three times, he tells the people to be strong. He says it to Zerubbabel, he says it to Joshua, son of Jehozadak, and he says it again to all of the people of the land.

Be strong.

This is the same advice that Paul gives when he talks about spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6. Whenever we talk about the armor of God, we have to start with Paul’s command to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.” (Ephesians 6:10). The strength we stand in is not our own; it is strength provided by the Lord. Here’s an issue I see in churches all the time; we get all of the “right” people in place, serving where they have natural abilities, and then we’re frustrated when things don’t happen like we want them to. The problem is often that we are standing in our own strength, not the Lord’s.

When I came to this church, it looked like a strong church from an outsider’s perspective, but we have been standing in our own strength. Why would we ask the Lord for His strength when ours is enough for us?

The old song Jesus Loves Me has it right when it says, “They are weak, but He is strong.”

Standing firm in the Lord’s strength doesn’t always look the same as standing in our own strength. God often calls unqualified people to do amazing things for him. Can you imagine God saying, “No, I can’t use him; he’s just not enough” – the truth is, God can use whomever God chooses. As our children will learn in VBS, all things are possible with God. (Quick, what’s the scripture reference?!)

So God says, when things look their worst: be strong. But that’s not all. God says, Be strong and work. It’s not enough to just stand there being strong. When you stand in God’s strength, you obey God’s commands, knowing that it’s God who works through you. Unfortunately we give all kinds of excuses why we don’t work. It’s not my job. I already served there. I’m tired. I could never do that. I’m not called to make disciples or share my faith… The largest church in our conference is Ginghamsburg UMC – they’re the ones I stole the “Christmas is not your birthday” shtick – but when Michael Slaughter arrived there, they were a church of 90 people. Under his ministry, God grew the church to 60. But Mike Slaughter attributes the initial uptick in attendance to some of the women in the church. Their big activity was their chicken dinner, but the women realized that the chicken dinner was not making disciples of Jesus Christ, and they shifted their focus to youth ministry.

Who would think a group of 60+ year old women would be the ones leading the charge for youth ministry, but there they were. Ginghamsburg now has them to thank, not only for transforming that dying congregation into a megachurch, but for transforming Darfur as well.

The truth was, they opened themselves up to the chance that maybe they might have to change the way they’d always done things. Change is hard, and nobody likes it, but when it comes down to it, are we going to protect the status quo while a generation goes to Hell? The women of Ginghamsburg stood up and made themselves known, and the effects are still being felt.

It takes work to rebuild. Don’t get the wrong idea – your work is not ever going to get you into heaven. Your work is never going to atone for the bad things you’ve done. Your work is not your salvation. Your work is a response to your salvation, an eager obedience to Christ. Your work can be instrumental in bringing other people to Christ, so let’s look at work for a moment.

There are lots of people who are good workers. There are others who are willing workers. Sometimes you meet someone who is both. Know that your work is worship. You may think of the Garden of Eden as an idyllic paradise – yes that’s true, but Genesis 2:15 tells us that The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. God created us to work! Unfortunately, due to sin, our work has been cursed, and we’re all living on this side of the Garden of Eden, but we were made for work. God has a purpose for each of us. Listen to how Paul puts it in his letter to the church in Ephesus: For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10) Yes, I fully appreciate the irony of preaching that God created us to work on a weekend that many people in our nation celebrate simply because they get out of work tomorrow. The humor in this situation is not lost on me.

God expects us to do good works, and to work hard at it. But here’s the thing: if God created us to work, and if God expects us to do good works, and if God prepared the good works in advance for us to do, then God will make sure it happens! When God says, “Be strong, all you people of the land, and work” he doesn’t stop there. He continues by saying: “For I am with you,” declares the Lord Almighty.

Two weeks ago I preached on this topic, because it was a main focus in the second part of Haggai chapter 1, but God says it again, so it bears repeating. God is with you. God renews the covenant he made with his people. He reminds them: When you came out of Egypt… that was me. I made a promise, and have I ever fallen short? Have I ever made a promise and not followed through?

God promised, and God’s promises never fail. So our response: No fear. Work fearlessly for God, because God is with us. He has given us His Spirit, which is not a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline (says 2 Timothy 1:7).

So Do not fear. As Paul says in Romans 8:31, If God is for us, who can be against us?

So as we go from this place, as we start the work God has prepared for us to do, remember to be Strong in Him and work. Do not fear, because God is with you!