A life worthy of the Lord

Series Title:  Growing in knowledge of Jesus Christ

Scripture Readings

  • Hosea 4:1-9
  • Colossians 1:3-14

Introduction

Millions of people attended Christmas worship services just two day ago right across the world.  One can only wonder how many those attend the services today.  And one would probably more amazed by the small number whose life is changing, or has changed, because of what they learned or understood about the reason why Christ came into the world.

Many cannot get beyond the manger and the lowing cattle.  A great multitude love the carols, while others only enjoy the Christmas pudding after the service with relatives and friends.

But that is not how we continue on from the manger, the Baby in the crib, star, the wise men and Bethlehem of 2000 years ago.  There we meet Him who had been promised by the prophets, but from there we follow Him to become his disciples.

The Gospel summed up

On Christmas day we heard the glorious message of Christ who was sent into the darkness of this world to be the light leading us back to the Father.  The last verse we read this morning from Colossians 1 explains it perfectly:

For He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13–14, NIV)

This verse is the gospel summed up:

  • God rescued us from darkness who held us in bondage.
  • God saved us from that kingdom and brought us into the kingdom of his Son.
  • God loved his Son, and by extension, He loves us.
  • We are redeemed, bought with a price.
  • Our sins are forgiven.

What this verse teaches us is that there was something which created a deep gulf between us and God:  sin.  Sin is described as living in darkness.  God, who is powerful over all things in the universe had the power and the will to get us out of that darkness.  His plan was put into motion and then executed by his Son, Jesus Christ.  What did He do?  He saved us, He redeemed us from the grip of darkness of sin and made us members of his kingdom.

This is the message which signalled the beginning of the Gospels.  It all started in Bethlehem when Jesus Christ was born in a meagre out-building of the inn.  He surely did not strike anyone as a king then, but that was the beginning of God’s rescue plan to destroy the power of the darkness. Remember, the darkness could not overcome it!  (John 1)  Why?  Although he was just a baby in a crib, He was also the eternal Son of God on a mission to save the lost out of darkness and bringing them into the light of God’s presence and freedom of the bondage of sin.

When one studies the letter of Paul to the Colossians one cannot otherwise but come to the conclusion that Paul had one major purpose for writing the letter:  He wanted the Christians in Colossae to know Christ better, and therefore live lives that would glorify Him.  The purpose of the Holy Spirit including this book into the Bible is nothing short of the same purpose.  We will get to more specific indicators of this truth just a bit later.

The change in Christ: anarchy to love

Paul is filled with thankfulness towards his Father for the salvation of those who were once lost but have now found new life in Christ Jesus.  Once they lived in darkness, but now they are people of love and faith, hanging on to a living hope stored up for them in heaven.

This is a mighty statement: by nature we are born into darkness; we are not inclined to love, but rather hate.  Born sinners gossip, they steal, they hate, they murder, etc.  Paul puts it these words in Galatians 5:

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19–21, NIV)

You say we are not like that!  Well, the first son of Adam and Eve after they fell into sin murdered his brother.  We might not go to these extremes, but it seems reasonable to believe the very inclusion into the Ten Commandments a command against murder, means that sinful mankind is capable of murder at some point in the bondage in sin.  Add to this all the other commandments.

When the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and the Holy Spirit does the job of regeneration, the opposite of all these things begin to reign in the life of a sinner.  Once again, let’s here Paul:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22–23, NIV)

The good news of Jesus Christ

Paul refers to the gospel of Jesus Christ in verse 5:

… the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel (Colossians 1:5, NIV)

When the Colossians heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, something amazing happened:  they were taken out of darkness, out of bondage, into the kingdom of light.  Now, all of this message would have come to nothing if what the apostle preached to them was only a set of philosophical ideas.  The Christian message is not theory, or a set of self-help rules of morality.  That’s what some people think, and even some church people might think so.  The only reason why they come to church or read the Bible is to brush up on their do-it-yourself endeavours to become a better person.  This is not the Gospel of Christ who took us out of the bondage of darkness putting us into the kingdom of light of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Progress in the Gospel

But this verse continues into the next:

In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. (Colossians 1:6, NIV)

Epaphras was their pastor.  He continued to preach the Gospel once preached by Paul.  The Gospel has the effect that God’s people grow in their understanding of its message.  This truth of the Gospel is the truth about Jesus Christ who sets man free.

When they heard this Gospel they were put on a road of discovery and service.  Their service was a service of love:  they began to love one another as fellow believers who now share the same hope.  Their discovery was what Paul prayed for when he said:

We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, (Colossians 1:9, NIV)

And this is what so many Christians are in need of.  We need to grow in our understanding of who the baby in the crib of Bethlehem was.  Growing spiritually in our knowledge of who Jesus Christ is and what He wants us to be in Him and under Him, leads to a life which is to the glory of God.

Paul prays for the church to be filled with the knowledge of his will.  This implies spiritual growth.  We read a bout the people of God in the time of Hosea.  Their problem was that they were destroyed by a lack of knowledge of God.  Knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ comes through the fervent study of his Word and communication with Him in prayer; it comes by worshipping together with others members of God’s family in corporate worship; it comes from studying with others in Bible study groups; it comes by reading books and contemplation about God – something which our generation has lost the art of.

We don’t read, we’re addicted to electronic media, and the riches of contemplation and private time with the Lord has been replaced by words about God, short soundbites regarding Him, and summarised experiences of what we hear of others in their walk with God.  But of the authentic, genuine relationship with God meditating on his Word and talking with Him we don’t really know.  We are so noise addicted that we sometimes need to have a radio on while we spend time with God.

My dear friend, don’t be surprised if your spiritual life is dry and lifeless, don’t be shocked if your spiritual life is stunted and fruitless if this is the description of your spiritual life.  I am afraid that the church of Jesus Christ has become a illiterate church.  I heard about a study which found that only 2% of people who attend church on a Sunday actually read the Scriptures during the week.

If we take the words of Paul within its context this morning we have to say that such a life is not worthy of the Lord.  Why?  We simply don’t know “how to please Him in every way” (verse 10)

Paul uses very strong words and expressions here.  Listen:

so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, (Colossians 1:10–11, NIV)

Do you get the gist of his thought:  “every way”, “every good work”, “growing in the knowledge of God”, “strengthened with all power”?  Paul was not looking for church members who had a date of conversion; he was not looking for people who understood something of a baby in a crib; he was looking for people who showed signs of growing up and have become useful in the kingdom of God.  There must be fruit, there must be knowledge, there must be growth.

We are struggling with all sorts of theories and teachings coming our way, and we need to stand on the foundation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  In Ephesians 4 Paul writes:

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:14–16, NIV)

To the glory of the Father

Our chapter this morning ends with an humbling pronouncement:

being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. (Colossians 1:11–12, NIV)

The spiritually healthy Christian, the Christian who is growing in knowledge of the Gospel and Jesus Christ, is someone with “great endurance and patience”.  Being a Christian in the time of Paul was not easy task, and its nothing better now.  The spiritually exercised and fit Christian can run the long distance without becoming out of breath at this first hurdle.  You can remember those painful stitches in your side when you had to run and you were not fit. Those things was a sure pointer of running on a lack of oxygen.  Only spiritual exercise brings the stamina to be patient as we run to the winning post which might look so far.  Sometimes we see athletes run the last round of the marathon with agony and pain clearly visible on their faces.  It seems the Christian race should somewhat different: our verse talks about endurance, patience – and joy!  And along along we should give thanks to the Father.  What a calling, what a challenge!

Is all of this meant to see if we can stack up enough good deeds to eventually enter heaven?  Fortunately not.  Listen to the good news of the Gospel:

God has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. (verse 12)

Am I qualified to be in the winning team of heaven?  Yes!  But how?  Listen again:

For He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13–14, NIV)

Let’s put it this way:  redemption began at the crib of Bethlehem, but it culminated in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The Son of God did it all:  He satisfied the standard of God for righteousness and holiness.  He rescued me.  By faith now God looks at Him, and by faith I’m qualified.

If that is the case, I need to know Him better; I need to serve Him by serving Him more and more.  Only then will my life be “worthy of the Lord.”

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on 27 December 2015

The throne of the Servant King

Series title: From wrack and ruins to blessings and beauty

Scripture Readings

  • Revelation 5
  • Haggai 2:20-23

Introduction

Dear brothers and Sisters in the Lord,

In just more than a week this year will be history.  The old calendars will disappear from our walls and the back of our doors, and we will replace it with new one for 2016.

Some of us will then write in the major events in our family life, like birthdays and anniversaries.  We do it because these dates are markers of our earthly journey:  it will be thirty eight years since we got married; it will be so many years since our first child was born, and so many years since the first grandchild was born.  On those days we will give special thought to the occasion, and we will thank the Lord for every day, month and year He has added to our lives.

The book of Haggai has a few markers on the calendar.  It starts with 29 August 520 when the prophet delivered the first message from the Lord to them.  They were struggling to keep the cash flow going after their return from Babylonian exile: crops failed, pestilence chewed the crops away, and what was left the drought and inflation slurped up.  Haggai showed them what their problem was:  they had their priorities wrong – God was shoved to the back-burner, and their own interests were high on their wish list.  Get this right, his message was, and God will take care of the rest.  His words were:

Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. (Haggai 1:5, NIV)

Only a few weeks later, after the Lord stirred their hearts and the hearts of the leaders, on 21 September 520, what they thought was impossible, happened:  they found time and money and began the work of the temple.

Another month away, on 18th October 520, the word of the Lord came to them again.  This time it was to encourage them:

“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 what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. (Haggai 2:6–7, NIV)

This spurred them on to keep working in spite of severe opposition, and on 18 December 520, now almost finished with the work, or at least after the groundwork was done, the word of God came to them again:  He requires holiness from his people, and – as we saw last week – this is only bound to the altar and the sacrifice.  For as long as they understood that they cannot meet the demand of God to be holy by themselves, but only by continued sacrifice and salvation by the blood of the sacrificial animal as God demanded, and therefore living in the right relationship with God, He would be pleased with them.  A new temple means nothing if the people worshipping there are not made new.

From our perspective after the cross of Christ, it means our continued relationship with Christ as we cling to his righteousness: only then have we become royal priests as Peter puts it:

As you come to Him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to Him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4–5, NIV)

Mark this date

Then, as we have read this morning the word of God continues:

“ ‘Now give careful thought to this from this day on—consider how things were before one stone was laid on another in the Lord’s temple. (Haggai 2:15, NIV)

As if God takes them back to the days when they had their priorities wrong, He reminded them of their failures.  Nothing worked out, everything failed.  But now, with priorities restored and with God having restored their relationship with Him, things are going to be different.

‘From this day on, from this twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, give careful thought to the day when the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid. Give careful thought: (Haggai 2:18, NIV)

Go to your calendar and circle this date and take God on his word, ponder what He says and what He promises.

‘From this day on I will bless you.’ ” (Haggai 2:19, NIV)

We need to be careful to not fall in the trap of the so-called prosperity Gospel here.  Where this so-called gospel is teaching is not much different to the teaching of the Roman Church before the Reformation when sinners, loaded with guilt of their sins and the sins of those who died outside of grace, were told that if they put their money in the collection basket, grace will come to them in all sorts of ways.  Prosperity Gospel may not be as blunt, but where it goes wrong is their teaching is that the grace is not the main thing.  This theology attracts people not through teaching that Christ by forgiving us from our sins, restoring us as God’s children, giving us far more than what we even can dream and fathom in the sense of a new family in Christ, and granting us a place in heaven.  Their teaching almost bypasses the grace of God in Christ Jesus, and draws a straight line between the good things I do, more so in terms of giving money, and the output of ever greater blessing in the form of earthly possessions.  If I follow Christ and serve Him with my money, He will give me more money and earthly possessions.  It’s almost like the people who followed Jesus only because of the bread and the food He provided.

This is not what this passage teaches.  What it does teach is that without God, even what God provides in the form of earthly blessing, has no value – it will eventually loose all value.  On there contrary, holiness because of Christ’s cross and our clinging to that righteousness pulls everything in life into meaning:  what we gain in Christ has eternal value.  But more than that:  we may expect God to, by his grace and mercy, add to our spiritual blessings; but we understand this life from our perspective from eternity, and not the other way round.  A ploy of the devil is to make us think that we need to have everything here and now, and if we don’t get it, well, then there is something wrong with God.

No, the blessings promised by God were strictly connected to the rebuilding of the temple.  And it was not primarily their achievement, but the glory of God which was now in their midst.  That was the reason for their future blessings.

The servant king

To mark the day of blessing is to look at Christ, our servant King.  This is what the second part of the sermon of Haggai wanted to teach the people on the 18th of December 520:

I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother. (Haggai 2:22, NIV)

This verse pointed to the work of God and not to the power and achievements of Zerubbabel.  Their change of heart to begin with the building of the temple was because of the stirring of God and the encouragement through his word by the prophet.  Now, in the same way, what was about to happen, was God’s work again.

God would do wonderful things in and through Zerubbabel, all because God chose him.

“ ‘On that day,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you,’ declares the Lord Almighty.” (Haggai 2:23, NIV)

Who was this man, this Zerubbabel?  He was the son of Shealtiel and thus grandson of King Jehoiachin.  Jehoiachin was appointed king of Judah by the Babylonians following the revolt and death of his father Jehoiakim who was king of Judah.  He was the son of Josiah whose place he took at the command of Neco II of Egypt. His name was changed from Eliakim to Jehoiachin.  Why is this so important?  Well, it is important to understand that God was true to his promises to David that there would also be one of his descendants on his throne.

For the returned exiles it almost looked like God had forgotten David.  But now, after the exile, God remembered and made true his promises.  There was only one son left – one to continue the line of David.  Now God renewed his covenant with the words:  “I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you.”

This promise is directed primarily to Zerubbabel, the Lord’s representative, in order to help him supervise the work on the temple, control the whole community and stand firm in faith amid the surrounding turmoil. The verb ‘take’ emphasizes the Lord’s choice, his special election and appointment of Zerubbabel. He will advance, honour, defend and own the adopted leader of his people.

Zerubbabel was not only ‘governor of Judah’ (2:21) but also ‘my servant’. This title was given to David.  Zerubbabel, a descendant of the line of David, will be heir to the throne of his forebear and predecessor, David, because he will have an absolute and universal reign.

A ‘signet ring’ was a token of authority that was worn by the king either on his right hand or on a chain around his neck. It was engraved with the monarch’s seal, and used to endorse official documents and decrees. It was the legal representative of the man himself and corresponded to the throne.

Zerubbabel would re-establish the throne of David, re-establish the Israelites as God’s chosen people, and as such the people of God would be a blessing to the peoples around them.

Oh, how great are the promises of the faithful God.  No worldly king or authority can stand in his way.  He will have his kingdom come.  Mark this day:  it is written in the plans of God as the day of the Lord.

The unbreakable link

When Matthew wrote his gospel, he thought it good to begin to explain God’s plan though the generations. We don’t like genealogies, but listen to this:

After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, (Matthew 1:12, NIV)

Matthew worked his way through the generations from Abraham, through Zerubbabel and ends it with these words:

and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah. (Matthew 1:16, NIV)

Even Luke, the good doctor who “searched carefully everything from the beginning” (Luke 1:3) writes:

the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, (Luke 3:27, NIV)

Luke began with Jesus, worked his way through Zerubbabel and ended up with Adam.

God’s unbreakable link of promise to give his people One who would crush the head of the serpent and deal with the enemy of the cross, worked itself out through the returned exiles from Babylon, their leaders, Zerubbabel, and all the way to Christ.  And if Zerubbabel wore the signet ring of God, then, Jesus was the signet ring of God.

We have seen the glory of the Father!  The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15–17, NIV)

The blessings the Bible is referring to in Haggai were not primarily a better price for the grain, or a better economic climate, or a bigger house, and more cars and a fat bank account; no, it pointed forward to the blessing in Christ.

Of Him we have read this morning:

And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. (Revelation 5:9, NIV)

And to his coming again we are looking forward.  The earth and the heavens will be shaken when He comes to judge the living and the dead:  The Rider on the white horse will sit victoriously on his galopping horse as He overthrows the thrones of them who resisted his kingdom:

Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: king of kings and lord of lords. (Revelation 19:15–16, NIV)

This is the Christmas Child.  Let us worship Him.

Sermon preached by Rev D Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 20 December 2015

 

Vision restored

Series title:  “From wrack and ruin to blessings and beauty”

Scripture Readings

  • Revelation 3:1-6
  • Haggai 2:1-9

Introduction

In the 1700’s a little man in England, a cobbler by trade, who kept a map of the world on a wall of his workshop so that he could pray for the nations of the world, became burdened for a definite missionary outreach. When he shared his burden at a meeting of ministers, he was told by one of the senior men of God: “Young man, sit down. When God wants to convert the heathen, He will do it without your help or mine.”

But the young shoemaker did not let the fire of his enthusiasm be dampened by such a response. That man had a vision of the greatness of the love of God for the lost.  He trusted God more than anyone or anything else.  If it was the will of God for him to become a missionary, he believed God would provide.

So he left the shores of England for those of India, where he engaged in pioneer missionary work, doing work of God. His name was William Carey.

Vision lost

We saw last week when the word of God came to us from the first chapter that the mixed up priorities of the Israelites who returned from captivity out of Babylon, led them to lose sight of the glory and the greatness of God.  Their own program and own interests led them to stop building the temple for more than 16 years.  They blamed the bad economic and security circumstances, and came to the conclusion that they cannot give to the work of God, because they do not have anything to give.  When Haggai appeared on the scene he turned their thinking upside down by telling them that they do not have anything because they do not give anything.  God’s work became last, and their’s first; whereas He should be first and their’s last.

We ended the sermon with the work of God in the hearts of the depressed people by stirring them up to work, and within weeks they were where God wanted them to be:  busy building His temple.

What they needed was a fresh vision from God about who He is, how He would provide for them, what they could expect from Him, and God’s long-term vision for his work of salvation of which they would become part.

Vision restored – Who is God?

Dates in this little prophecy are very important.  In chapter 1:1 the date, put in our modern calendar, 29 August 520.  In verse 15, after they received the first message from God through Haggai on 21 September 520. In other words, it took them only three weeks to get working on getting the needed building material and to start the work.

In between the celebrated a very important festival on the Jewish calendar, the Festival of the Booths.  During this feast, which began on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after the crops of the land had been gathered, the Israelites were meant to ‘live in booths’. The Bible teaches them:

On the first day you are to take branches from luxuriant trees—from palms, willows and other leafy trees—and rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. (Leviticus 23:40, NIV)

The feast was a time of celebration and thanksgiving to the Lord for his protection and provision during the wilderness wanderings.

Interestingly enough the temple of Solomon was finished in the same time of the year, and the ark of the covenant was brought into the temple.  What happened at that point in time was:

When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple. (1 Kings 8:10–11, NIV)

Now, let’s go back to Haggai.  The next mention of a date takes us to the last day of this festival, which was 18 October.  The problem for the people then gathered in Jerusalem was first, they did not have any first fruit to bring, and secondly, to them it seemed as if God is not with them anymore.  There was no temple.

But God’s timing was perfect.  In what He will tell them to give them a new vision their eyes would be opened to his faithfulness and his provision.

The God of the Covenant

Through Haggai God’s word came to them:  But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord.

‘Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, 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.’ (Haggai 2:4-5, NIV)

This was language they would understand.  “Be strong!”  This was the command of the Lord to Joshua when he took over from Moses; Moses himself used these words to strengthen Joshua.  When?  When they was about to walk into the Promised Land to inherit it.  They God provided for them and made the nations fall before them.

But even more:  God refers back to their delivery from Egypt, when He ransacked Egypt, freed his people and made the Egyptians give them gold and silver and all things they would need for their journey into the Promised Land.

The very fact that they had to have the Festival of the Booths, was to remember how God provided for them through the wilderness.

And once again so He did:  He brought them back out of slavery a second time, now out of Babylon.  As if He would say, once again He would provide for them, even as He did then and defeated the enemy before them.  On that day they had nothing, but what they has was their Saviour, the God of Hosts – all armies belongs to Him.

He reminds them of the fact the He was with them as He walked with them through Egypt, the wilderness, the Jordan into the land He had promised to their fathers.  “I am with you!”  And as the Spirit of god filled the temple when the ark was brought into the temple of Solomon, so God says, “My Spirit is with you.  Do not fear!”

The God who controls the nations

“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. (Haggai 2:6, NIV)

Their forefathers had firsthand knowledge of God shaking mountains – they first saw it on Sinai.  And afterwards God would send earthquakes when He so desired, He even made the sun stand still in the days of Joshua.  All nations are under Him.  Hew determines the times of their existence, the time of reign of their kings, and when He would make them disappear in history.

Not long after these words to the people in Haggai’s time God put his plan into action. Only twenty years, later in 501 B.C, the Greeks rebelled against Persia, and invaded it.  Darius was king at this time. He led a great army, but he was defeated at Marathon in 490 b.c. in a victory the Greeks still remember with pride. Shortly thereafter, Darius’s successor Xerxes marshaled an even larger army and a powerful navy. The army contained 1.8 million men. The navy was the largest ever seen. But in 480 b.c. the Greek boats scattered the Persian navy, and the Greek army defeated the Persian army. A year later the reassembled Persian navy was again defeated. Thus Persian hopes of conquering the Greek mainland were forever crushed.

As the Persian Empire began a gradual collapse, Alexander the Great came to power and led the Greek armies over the Bosporus against Persia. At his death the Greek empire broke up and was eventually replaced by Roman rule of the Mediterranean countries. The Romans were in control at the time of Christ. If there was ever a shaking of the nations and a redistribution of power, it was during this period.

All of this happened exactly as God prophesied through Daniel.  All these once powerful king, armies and kingdoms were in the hands of God and prepared for the Messiah who was promised through the ages.  A detailed study of these events is fascinating.

God’s purpose with the message of Haggai was to tell them that the main thing is not the substance of the temple as such, but the greatness of Hom will bring it about.  He wanted them to know that, however they saw themselves in their need as only a speck of dust on the great drama unfolding over history, they were indeed part of the plan of god to bring in the nations to bow the knee before Him.

He held what they desired and looked upon as precious in his hand.  And when it was time, they would give up their treasures so that the kingdom of God could be built and his name be glorified.

Not everything yet fulfilled

In the vision God gave to his people in the time of Haggai He indeed lifted their horizon above the everyday:  He would provide for them, He would shake the nations, He would make them bring in their riches, because it belongs to them.

But He also gave Haggai the word to make the people look through the binocular in see far into the future.  Yes they were restoring the temple, and later Herod would build an even more beautiful one.  But God promised:

‘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.” (Haggai 2:9, NIV)

The glory of the temple was not limited to the beauty of the structure;  it was dependent on the presence of God.  Indeed the temple they built never looked as grand as the one Solomon built.  And not very long after they completed their building it was once again attacked and damaged badly.  And then, Herod built another, even bigger and grander.

In than temple our Lord once walked.  What He saw then horrified Him.  The people made it a house of robbers and thieves.  Jesus had to cleanse the temple twice.  God was not there anymore.  Yes, they had the building, but not the glory which filled it.  Then, towards the end of his ministry we read this:

Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” (Luke 21:5–6, NIV)

In John 2 Jesus said:

“Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple He had spoken of was his body. After He was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what He had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:19–22, NIV)

Israel in the time of Haggai was part of God’s unfolding plan of redemption.  They would see the glory of God return to the temple as He would once again dwell with them, but they was an ultimate temple which would be fulfilled in the body of Christ who was crucified and was raised on the third day to be to his people the temple of the living God:  the peace of God.

Application

  • For the church of the Lord Jesus to become a power in this world again, we must focus on God’s plan, and get an understanding of God vision for his church.
  • We need to understand that God has a grand plan which cannot be thwarted by any power of this world.
  • For the work God has assigned to his church, God will provide the needs.  He holds the nations and the riches of the nations in his hands and what He needed is to his disposal when He needs it.
  • We need to get the vision of the promise of Christ who assured us that He is with us till then of the age.
  • We need to understand that the Spirit of God is with us to strengthen us and guided us to the victory already belonging to our Lord.
  • We need to be strong, not because it means we need to apply positive thinking.  We need to be strong because the same God who rescue his people out of Egypt and provided for them is with us;  He is the faithful God who keeps his covenant in Christ Jesus.
  • We need to understand that we indeed have a future.  Everything is not fulfilled yet, we are on our way still; but our destination is firm in Christ who is our Prince of Peace.  His Kingdom cannot be shaken – and one day He will return to take us to our eternal home where there will be no temple:  his glory and the glory of the Father will be our eternal light (Revelation 21:22, 22:5)

Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on 6th December 2015

The lonely barber

It was time for a haircut.  I’ve been to this barber before and was impressed by his old-style professionalism.  His wealth of local knowledge was another drawcard.

The narrow alley to his shop was almost void of any pedestrian traffic, and as I walked into his shop I found the old man sitting on an old leather couch, bent forward as he read the daily newspaper.  Or had he nodded off?

“Do you have time to cut my hair today?” I asked.

“My customers have deserted me.  I’ve been open for two hours already and no one has come in yet.”

I remembered seeing the hand-written sign out on the kerb.  “Barber open Sundays and Tuesdays. 9.00am – Noon.”  The letters in different colours of chalk seemed to be written by a hand who knew the spelling, but lost its steadiness between points.

“Well, then I’m the lucky guy today,” and followed his gesture to sit in the grand old leather chair with shiny steel lattice footrest.

In front of me an array of scissors, combs and brushes were neatly arranged on dark green narrow pieces of towels.

He took my glasses off, carefully collapsed the sides and rested them on an open space on the towels.

The mirror in front of my reflected the face of a man well over seventy behind me.

“I’ve been in this business for more than forty five years now.  I choose to keep working, but have cut it back to two days per week.  I’m seventy seven this year.”

The way he selected and handled the scissors surely tells the story of a master of the trade.

“How do you want me to cut it?”

“There’s not much on top, but don’t cut the rest too short, thanks.”

He draped the barber’s mantle over my shoulder, took a sheet of paper towel, folded it neatly and tucked it between the mantle and my neck before he pulled the velcro tight.

With remarkable speed he sniped-sniped-sniped the scissors – all in the air.  That was just the warm-up.

“I used to have enough customers to have the shop open for six days a week.  People came in from the smaller towns too, but they have deserted me.  I wonder if I should just shut the doors and walk away.”

I tried to comfort him.  “May people do not even cut their hair these days; the styles changed. It’s become fashion to have one’s hair unkempt.  And others just do it themselves.  You can tell by the untidiness of the young folk’s hair, can’t you.”

He was not fishing for comfort, neither was he looking for an solution to his problem.

For a while the only sound was the clicking of the blades of the scissors.

He broke the silence by telling me and abbreviated version of his life story.  After migrating from Italy following the war, the two newly weds settled in one of our of capital cities, but later, for the good of the two children, they decided to move out to our town.

“It was good then.  It took some time to get to know people, but we were well received.  And the kids loved it.”

He carefully selected another pair of scissors, and even chose another comb.

“They finished school and left to go back to the big smoke, leaving us alone.”

Alone.  Deserted.  The words rang in my ears.

From what I saw in the mirror he should have been finished by now.  But there were apparently some hair on the back of my head that needed more attention.

“One came to visit us last week.  She just left this morning.  It was terrible!”

“I know. We always find it hard to see our lot go after a visit”, I chipped in.

“No, not that.  The whole week with her here was terrible.   We quarrelled all the time.  All of the past and all the mistakes we make rearing them were brought up, over and over again.”

I was beginning to wonder if my ears were safe in the way of the sharp blades of the scissors, now markedly unsteady in his hands.

“It happens all the time.  My wife stopped talking, and I am left to do the fending.  I’m tired of doing it.  Maybe if it’s better if she does not come to visit again.  Just leave us alone.”

It’s funny how the Lord sometimes put you in a position where you don’t have a choice but pastorally care for people.

I tried, “Well, you have some grandchildren.”

“No!”  I traced helplessness in his voice.  “There is only one, but we may not contact him, and he is barred from contacting us.  We haven’t  seen him in four years.  We can only sent money for Christmas presents.”

Why me, Lord?, I secretly asked.  Why do I have to listen to this angry tirade of a lonely barber?  I gathered my thoughts as I heard the words of the apostle, “Make the best of every opportunity …”

“This is where we have to apply our faith,” I said.  “God is a God of the lonely and forgotten.  He is always listening when we pour our our grief and sorrow at his feet.”

“I do go to mass from time to time, but I think I should stop doing that too.  My wife is nagging me to go every day.  Why?  God is not listening. And He abandoned my children!”

I was sure there was nothing on my head to be cut any shorter, yet he picked up another smaller pair of scissors, which disappeared in my ears and my nose.

“Oh, boy,” I thought.  “Just take it slow.  At least I visited your shop today!”

“I’m ready to give it all away.  A life of hard work, rearing children who now turn their backs on us, relatives who died in my homeland, and customers who left me alone.”

Maybe he should ask someone else to write more steadily on his chalkboard; the shaky handwriting might scare some customers away, especially if one keeps in mind the sharp scissors and the barbers razor.

Speaking of it.  He gave a step towards mirror and picked up the sharpest instrument in his shop.  With remarkable skill he unfolded the blade, grabbed what seemed like a leather belt hanging from a hook and swiped the blade forwards and backwards over the belt to give it an even better cutting edge.

It was time for me to say something, not only to help him not to injure me, but to calm his heart.  As he was scraping the blade to line the edges down the hairlines of my neck, I said, “Christmas is coming.  And it’s the story of God showing mercy to lonely and lost sinners by giving us his Son.  Perhaps you have reached a point in your life where you need to put your hand in the hand of Him who died and was raised to make us His children and give us joy.  You now that carol, ‘Joy to the world’, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, trust Him who knew loneliness better than any of us.”

I could also tell Him about Christ who cried out, “Why have You forsaken Me!”, but left it to the Spirit of God to convince my old barber that a living faith in Christ is what his heart was crying out for.

With a tearing sound he undid the velcro of the mantle, removed the paper towel, puffed some powder onto my neck and brushed it away.

At the counter our hands exchanged money, and I noticed that the till was empty.

And so was his heart.  And mine.

May the words of the Gospel reverberate in his mind when he hears, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”

Written by D. Rudi Schwartz

 

Priorities mixed up

Series Title: “From wrack and ruin to blessing and beauty”

Scripture Readings

  • Revelation 2:1-7
  • Haggai 1

Introduction

Can God really save?

You grew up with the idea that you are different; your family is different, and your people are different.  For as long as you can remember your mother has been telling you that you are a member of God’s own people, and that you should not mix with children and people who worship other gods.

For as long as you can remember the history of your family and people has been recited to you, and the great deeds of the God of heaven are told when you prepare for the day to begin and when you go to bed at night.

But deep in you little mind you are struggling with questions which seem that even your parents have struggled with:  where is this wonderful God?  Why can’t you worship Him freely?   Why are you not living in the land this God promised with an oath to your forefathers?  Why is everyone who carries the name of you people as slave.  If God is this wonderful and good, why the tyranny and slavery of your people?

Your people have been in slavery for more than one generation.  The king under which they were driven from the Promised Land has been replaced by another from another kingdom, ostensibly even more brutal.  The odds of being free again, of being back in your homeland, speaking your own language, and even more important, to worship the God of your forefathers in the place of worship He promised will stand forever, are not stacking up.  Your parents have a living hope, but quite honestly you doubt.  The probability of a political solution is zero.  It might be just better to convert to the religion of the people who hold you captive!

God’s plan in action

But then, out of the blue, the new king changed policy:  you and your people may go home, you may freely associate with those who worship the same God, you may once again speak freely and worship in the temple of your God.  More than this, the king has ordained that your people must be treated differently, given special treatment, and he even announced that money from his treasury must pay for the rebuilding of your place of worship, which was destroyed by your enemy some 70 years before!

Why all this?  Your God, who control all kings and kingdoms, moved the heart of this godless king  in favour of your people.

Your people were arranged in family groups, and even the religious leaders were appointed according to their linage.  Moreover, the special golden objects taken from your place of worship were handed back with the express purpose of being put to use as soon as that place was rebuilt.

Oh, the joy of being free and saved!  Throngs of people sang songs of worship as they travelled back, crossing one hill after the other, and crossing one creek after the other.

Rebuild the ruins

Great was the joy of all the travellers to arrive back in your homeland only to find that no-one was missing and all the objects of worship were protected and safe.  O, the greatness of God!  His Name must be blessed and worshipped forever!

When the people got to the place of worship where so many generations worshipped the God of heaven and earth, people broke out in crying and lamenting.  What happened to the most beautiful place of worship in the world?  All that was left were rubble and heaps of broken stone.  The only thing visible were the foundations of this once-glorious building.

The leaders called everyone together.  “We must rebuild this place.  God is with us and He made it possible for us to be back again.  Go, find the farms and homes of your ancestral families, settle in and we will begin with this work.  We must worship God and thank Him for his long-suffering, mercies and grace towards his people.”

The people were filled with jubilation and hope.  “God is with us!”

They almost just put their belongings back in the shattered homes their grand-parents grew up in, and returned to the place of worship to start rebuilding it. Other people of other religions had settled in some of the towns, and they have been living there for more than one generation.

Opposition and bad times

But as soon as the work on the temple started, those who worshipped other gods began with a strategy of opposition.  It was terrible.

“Maybe we understood it wrongly.  Maybe we should first settle in our different towns and cities first, see that our own crops are growing, see that we increase our flocks, and see that we are financially and otherwise stronger to withstand the enemy before we continue with the place of worship.”  It seems as if most people thought they could not be on the building site while paying attention to their own daily needs at the same time.

Drought set it.  Crops failed.  Business was bad.  Inflation eroded the value of the currency.  And on top of all things, the security situation got worse everyday.

Maybe later

“God is reasonable, fair and gracious to understand that we cannot continue with his work if we don’t have the means to do so.  Did He not say that a man must look after his family first?  It is not that we do not believe in Him – we still have our devotions from time to time, and we surely is thankful for the fact that we are back in our own country, but the conditions are tough, and we find it hard to make ends meet now.  It will get better one day, and then we will restore the place of worship.”

Every penny the people got from selling something, and every hour of every day went into restoring their homes and putting their lives back together.

In the end the work on the temple stopped – completely, for quite some time.

And the conditions got worse.  Opposition to your people just being there increased.  Famine spread.  “Maybe, we should not have returned from where we come from.  We had it better there.  Surely we could not worship freely, but it was better then than now!”

God’s voice

But then – who knows where this man came from, and what his background was? – Haggai appeared on the scene.  He claimed to be a prophet of the God of the forefathers.  He had the audacity to walk up to our leaders and deliver some sort of a prophecy.  It was not kind, and lacked all forms of diplomacy.

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’ ” (Haggai 1:2, NIV)

But he used the same words as some of the prophets of many years ago.  “This is what the Lord Almighty says.” And the people listened.  He was from the God of hosts – all forces, powers, kingdoms and authority know to man are under his control – the same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  When He speaks, you listen, you bow down in worship!

Never doubt God’s timing

“These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’ ”

It was not that they were against building the temple, it was just not the best time to do so!

But the implication of the words of the prophet was that God thought it was the right time.

By reinterpreting God’s timing we can sometimes be so wise that we do four things:  we forget who God is; we forget what our salvation is about; we inhibit the work of God, and most importantly, we miss the splendour of his communion and presence.  In short, we lose sight of the greatness of his Person and the power of his love.

The presence of the Lord

Why was it so important for them to restore the temple?  Even Solomon knew this truth:

But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! (1 Kings 8:27, NIV)

So what was it about the temple?  Listen:

May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. (1 Kings 8:29, NIV)

The ark of the Lord was in the Host Holy Place.

When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple. Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that He would dwell in a dark cloud; I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever. (1 Kings 8:10–13, NIV)

The temple was symbol of God presence with his people.  And this is what the returned refugees lost sight of!  God was pushed onto the back burner.  “Not now, God, but later, yes!”

And God says, “Now, or there is no later!”

What we sometimes forget is that God can never not be present.  Yes we can act as if He is not important, we can try to push Him aside, or leave his work for later.  But who are we to dictate to God?  Who are we to think we can stop God from having in influence in what we do?  Listen:

I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the olive oil and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labour of your hands.” (Haggai 1:11, NIV)

God is not absent when the drought comes; He is in it.  He brought it on and caused it to happen.  He is in control of the economy and the inflation, and in politicians making bad decisions, in the low cattle prices and the high cost of stock feed, diesel and electricity.

Think about what you’re doing

Not once, but over and over again Haggai drew the people’s attention to what they’re doing.  And it was plainly the wrong way round.  They had the cart before the horse; they drove the header and the picker backwards into the crop and complained that there was nothing to pick or gather in the bin!

Not only did it cause financial inflation, but also spiritual inflation.  Nothing worked out.  Everything they did became a daily struggled just to survive – and even that was not working out.

Year after year we have had drought after drought in our land.  And every time our community finds itself in a bind, we look ways to get out of trouble.  We blame all things: the government, low commodity prices, high costs, and now – climate change.  I’m the last to draw a straight line between bad economic, agricultural, political and even security situations.  But I surely think it’s time we heed the word of God:  Give careful thought to your ways!  Think what you’re doing.  It seems as if our world is constantly chasing after what can never satisfy.

Build my house

Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honoured,” says the Lord. (Haggai 1:8, NIV) 

Get your priorities right.  It is not that we should not have things keeping us busy, but it is the order of things.  Who and what comes first?

To build the house is to have God smack bang in the centre of our lives; from there all things are prioritised.  To build the house of God is to understand that his will comes first, that obedience and dedication to Him stands above our own plans and schemes.  To build the house is not to have a neat and tidy church building; it does not even in the first instance mean that we should be involved in evangelistic and missionary outreach.  All of these things will come to nothing if God is not in the centre of our existence.  Ephesus, as we hear in our reading this morning have forsaken their first love.  They has a wonderful ministry going, but they lost their love for God, and God called them to repentance, warning that He would remove them from amongst the churches should they not do so.

To build the temple in the days of Haggai meant restored worship:  they would be once again sacrifices, sin forgiven, fellowship offerings and the hearing of the word of God.  Without the temple communication with god was cut off.

When Jesus came, He showed the way:  the temple had no meaning in his sacrifice, because He was the sacrifice, the High Priest and the way to God.

With building the house, the church of the new Testament will enjoy their buildings, laud their programs, marvel in their outreaches, invite others to their spectacular worship services – but all would be nothing more than the activities of a religious club, because Jesus Christ is not the Cornerstone, the One loved above all things.

I sometimes think about the child driven from the music class to the gymnastic practice, and then again to the ballet and the athletics – all meant for his good.  But one day he would cry for his parents to just stay home and give him or her a hug and assure him or her of their love.  Is it possible that God could ask us in amongst all our “ministries”, “Yes, but do you really love Me?

We need to stop and think what we doing.  “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all the others things will be added unto you.”  That is the house we should be building – the rest – all our glorious ministries – will then bear fruit.

I am with you

… 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. (Haggai 1:12, NIV)

This is the reaction our Lord is calling for:  obedience and holy trust.  What happens next is important:

Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people: “I am with you,” declares the Lord. (Haggai 1:13, NIV)

God stirred them up, they trusted Him and they began with the work.  It took only three weeks for them to cut the first timber – and God blessed their work.

I am with you.  Immanuel – Christ born for us.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, NIV)

This Christ, our Lord said:

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20, NIV)

He brought us home from slavery and bondage.  He is with us – this is what we will hear in the message of Christmas.

He call us to think about what we’re doing.  Give careful though to your ways!  Get your priorities right!

Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 29 November 2015