Kingdom identity (Haggai 2:20-23)

Preached on: Sunday 17th November 2020
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 19-11-17-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon.
Bible references: Haggai 2:20-23; John 17:20-26
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Texts: Haggai 2:20-23; John 17:20-26
Sunday 17th November 2019
Brightons Parish ChurchLet us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Have you seen that programme on the BBC: ‘who do you think you are?’ I’m not sure it’s still running now-a-days, but you can see a few episodes on BBC iPlayer and sometimes on replays. The basic premise of the show is that various celebrities are helped to explore their ancestry, often discovering secrets and surprises within their family tree. One of the episodes I watched included Billy Connelly, the comedian, and he found out that his great grandmother was baptised in India, even though he thought their background was of Irish immigrants who came to Glasgow for work…
It came as a real surprise to Connelly, to find this out about his family. Knowing the truth about his background reshaped his story, and reshaped his self-understanding, his identity.

That question of ‘who do you think you are?’ is a crucial one for anyone to engage with and understand, because our identity has an effect upon us that sometimes we are unaware of. To have a poor understanding of ourselves can be deeply detrimental to our choices, our aspirations, even our health, and to our peace and joy.

This coming Wednesday is the final week of our Alpha course here at Brightons and it has been a great course – with more folks attending than in previous years and everyone growing in their faith, whether they be longtime church members…
or someone new and simply exploring what it means for their life. If you haven’t done Alpha already then I encourage you to think about doing it next year.

One of the most powerful aspects of the course is that the Alpha videos include many stories of how the Christian faith and knowing Jesus has changed people’s lives, often bringing great healing for these people. I’d like to play a video of one of those stories for you just now.
(PLAY VIDEO)

Here is an educated, articulate, professional young woman, and she was so very broken. She is typical of us all really, whether inside or outside the church because we all have brokenness within us, and often that
brokenness is tied to our identity,…
often a misplaced, unhealthy, even negative identity, and that broken identity can feel like a prison, a prison we so desperately want to be free of.

So, how would you define yourself? What is the voice that goes around in your head, describing your identity? Is it ‘failure’, ‘untrustworthy’, ‘never good enough’, ‘ugly’, ‘unimportant’? The list of possibilities is endless, but to be aware of that inner voice in our heads, and to bring it into God’s light is so crucial for us individually, but also for us corporately.

The question, ‘who do you think you are?’, was also relevant in Haggai’s time – for both the people and their leader Zerubbabel.

In previous weeks, we’ve covered God’s summons to the people to rebuild the temple, and to show fidelity to His commands. Throughout there has been this underlying question: who do you think you are? How do you define yourself, O Israel?

We have followed some of their journey, some of their rediscovery, their reawakening of their identity as the people of God, and as such, the need to give of themselves to His purposes and obey His commands. As the people have allowed their identity to be shaped by God’s word through His prophet Haggai, they have come into a new season as the people of God, and they are now on the brink of knowing God’s blessing like they have never known it before. God has been asking them: are you really my people? Are you willing to show that…
in how you live and in what you give yourselves to? Are you focused on your lives, or will you adopt an identity focused upon my kingdom?

In today’s reading, we see that Haggai is sent with a second message on the very same day that he gave that previous word of encouragement. This time, however, the message is to Zerubbabel, to their political leader, titled the ‘governor of Judah’ in verse 21.

Again, the message here is forward looking – looking ahead to what God is going to do amongst the nations and for the people. So, God’s promise to ‘bless’ in verse 19, is also connected to this portion: for the previous promise of blessing upon the harvest…
and of resources for the temple, well that was simply a kind of firstfruits by God, for now God adds that a far greater blessing is to come.

At the heart of what God says here to Zerubbabel is a question of identity for him, and through him to the wider people: who are you Zerubbabel? Are you simply the governor of Judah, or is there something else to you?
What is it that defines you?

Because in verse 23 the Lord packs in five very key phrases which begin a monumental change for Zerubbabel and for the people. It might not seem
immediately obvious but let me walk us through this verse.

We read this morning: ‘“On that day,” declares the Lord
Almighty.’
It begins, ‘on that day’, and this is prophetic language used by all the prophets to point beyond the immediate time to a future time when God will do something significant, when His kingdom will break into our world in even greater measure than we currently see it in Haggai’s time. So, what we read previously in verses 21-22, should be seen in that context – the shaking of the universe, the overthrowing of human power – this is not going to come immediately, but is part of God’s larger purposes and plans, yet it begins now.

For we reed here in verse 23: “I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel…and I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you,” declares the Lord Almighty.’

Here four key phrases, as I’ve highlighted, all point towards Zerubbabel playing a part in God’s larger plans and purposes. The language used here is all Messianic language, for in many places in the Old Testament these same words or phrases are used. For example…

‘I will take you’ – echoes what God said to David: ‘“tell my servant David, “This is what the Lord Almighty says: I took you from the pasture, from tending the flock, and appointed you ruler over my people Israel.”’ (2 Sam. 7:8)

These words were used by God to remind David of the journey taken and they lie within 2nd Samuel at the point where God promises to David an eternal throne and someone to sit upon that throne,…

someone who will be ‘a son of God’, and that promised King would become known as the Messiah.

Similarly, ‘my servant’ became a well-known title for the Messiah, such as in Ezekiel’s prophecy: ‘I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.’ (Ezek. 34:23) What’s interesting here is that Ezekiel is speaking this hundreds of years after the death of David, so it’s clearly not the original David being referred to, but again that promise to have someone sit on David’s throne, a King, and he will be the servant of God.

At the end of verse 23 we read the words ‘I have chosen you’, and again, this echoes what God said of His servant, the promised Messiah, for we reed in Isaiah:
‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.’
(Isaiah 42:1)

Again, Messianic overtones. But in the middle of what God says through Haggai are these words:
‘…my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel…I will make you like my signet ring…’ (Haggai 2:23)

We need to begin with the reference to a ‘signet ring’. As many of us will know, it was a sign of authority. It would be worn by the king, engraved with the king’s seal, and was used to endorse all official documents…
It was so precious that it was personally guarded by the king, who would wear it and keep it with him at all times.

Now, by referencing this picture, the Lord through Haggai is alluding to an earlier prophetic message given to the line of David in Jeremiah, where we reed:
‘‘As surely as I live,’ declares the Lord, ‘even if you, Jehoiachin son of Jehoiakim king of Judah, were a signet ring on my right hand, I would still pull you off…Record this man as if childless, a man who will not prosper in his lifetime, for none of his offspring will prosper, none will sit on the throne of David or rule any more in Judah.’ (Jeremiah 22:24, 30)

In this prophecy, given 80 years before the coming of
Zerubbabel, God is saying that He is rejecting…
King Jehoiachin because of his idolatry; that the signet ring, the seal of the office of the Davidic King, was stripped from Jehoiachin and furthermore, in declaring Jehoiachin as “childless” this means that no son of his would ever sit on the throne. This word from the Lord came true and as a result the line of David through his son Solomon was terminated here, and indeed many may have thought that the Davidic line was null and void all together.

But God said to Zerubbabel:
‘…my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel…I will make you like my signet ring…’ (Haggai 2:23)

So, God is taking Zerubbabel and from him the line of David, the line of the Messiah will continue. For, if we were to trace Zerubbabel’s ancestry,…
we’d see that he is within David’s family tree, though not an obvious branch of it. Nevertheless, God is addressing the Davidic line through Zerubbabel, and reinstating that line as the signet ring of the Lord, from whom the Messiah will come.

It’s a remarkable turn around for the family – a family that was once rejected because of its disobedience, now forgiven and restored, given a royal identity once more. Within these words we can hear the Lord asking: “Who do you think you are Zerubbabel? Are you simply a governor? Or are you something more?”

In declaring this over Zerubbabel, the Lord is not only changing the identity of this one man, He is once again summoning all Israel to a royal identity –
to see themselves as the people of God, contributing towards the purposes of God. They are meant to see that the rebuilding of the temple is the first step in God’s plan to bring His rule to the nations of the world. The people are also to have a ‘kingdom of God’ vision, a ‘kingdom of God’ identity, this is not just for Zerubbabel.

So, it’s all about identity: who do you think you are? What defines you? You’re past, Israel and Zerubbabel? Are you defined by the decline and failing of previous generations? Or by what the Lord says in this time? Will you heed His word now and embrace an identity within the kingdom of God?

And these are questions that God asks all of us, maybe especially in this time…
Will we, like God’s people of old, adopt a kingdom identity and vision? Just like in Haggai’s time, we don’t know when or how God might fulfil His promise and our prayers for His kingdom to come – but our job, our summons is to adopt a kingdom identity and vision, and as always, we then have a choice to make – will we, or won’t we? So, what’s it going to be brothers and sisters?
What is going to define us?

At an individual level, adopting a kingdom identity is lifegiving, faith-increasing and adventure-making. One way I’ve experienced this in the development of my willingness to pray for and with other people. I began praying with people two months after becoming a
Christian; it was just the environment I fell into. So, I got used to it quite quickly and grew to love it.
But as doors opened to new areas of responsibility in ministry, I soon found myself in situations where I needed to pray with people for stuff outside of my comfort zone. It was really daunting; I thought to myself, who am I to pray this? Can I pray this?

But then, I received some really excellent teaching on prayer ministry, and with that came the realisation that by being a Christian, I am truly “in Christ”, as the Bible says. And if I am in Christ, then I am an heir and co-heir of the kingdom of God, I am a son of God, a prince of the kingdom, with authority as an ambassador of the kingdom, with direct access to the throne of grace, seated at the right hand of God in heaven even though my feet walk upon the earth. And if all that is true, which it is,…
if all that is true, then it was time to truly adopt a kingdom identity and vision, a kingdom confidence and passion.

Now, there are times when I have wobbles – when a particular issue may arise for prayer – but then I need to remember that it’s not so much the words that matter, but that I am in Christ, and being found in Him makes all the difference. And I tell you, praying with people, laying a hand on their shoulder and bringing them before Father God, it is one of the delights of the Christian life! But it shouldn’t be just the minister or the mature few who experience this; this should be prevalent throughout our church family, for if we are in Christ, then we are all sons and daughters of God, indeed, though it sounds odd, we are all princes and princesses of the kingdom!
But how seldom we live in that reality!? We’re often scared to pray. We hesitate to step out in faith, not only in prayer, but in a variety of ways. How often we are held back, in fear, because we lack a sufficiently mature kingdom identity.

Just like that woman in the video from Alpha, I think God wants to set us all free and heal our brokenness, and part of that, on an individual level, is to grow in our kingdom identity, to know deep down that we are ambassadors of the kingdom, sons and daughters of the living God such that our lives change and the lives of people around us are changed as well. So, who do you think you are?

Let’s take this focus on developing a kingdom identity up to the corporate level; to us as a church family.
We are going into a challenging phase as a congregation, a Presbytery and a denomination. And with challenges and change come questions and tensions including over identity: who do we think we are? Who are we?

This afternoon we have the first meeting of the representatives and ministers from the Braes Churches and the question must be asked: who are we? What is our principle identity? Is it Brightons Parish Church, Slamannan Church, Polmont Old Church? Or is it sons and daughters of God, ambassadors of the kingdom? Because, how we answer that, how we see ourselves, is going to shape the conversations and future direction for this area.

So, are we simple governors, or are we in Christ, His signet ring, and dear to the Father? Are we intimidated by the changes that we face, the forces around us, like the Israelites so often were? Or do we see ourselves as in Christ, the Messiah, the One who is the Lion of the tribe of Judah? Are we paupers or are we princes and princesses?

To see ourselves rightly, is so important that even Jesus prayed about it, and probably still prays about it even now as He intercedes for us in heaven. We read today: ‘I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ (John
17:20-21)
This is at the heart of what Jesus yearns for His church, even today: that we display unity. Now, this is not about uniformity or conformity, as Jesus says, our unity is rooted in the Father and the Son: ‘may they also be in us’ (v21). Our unity is not institutional or organisational, rather it is a living, organic oneness, a unity of being, not only of purpose and action. This unity is not a moral effort powered by human energy and self-will; it is an outworking of our union with Jesus – we are in Him, He is in us, we are sons and daughters of God, branches of the vine, ambassadors of the kingdom, princes and
princesses, heirs of Christ. This unity is not so much a byproduct of discussion and diplomacy, as it is of worship, repentance and prayer.

And deep down, or at the back of our minds, we know this. If you pray for someone – if you pray for their wellbeing, and if you wrestle over the things they wrestle with, then you will grow in love for them and you will yearn and ache with the burdens that they feel as well. The Christians I am closest to, are probably those I have prayed with and for, and those that have done the same for me. It’s like that in all of life; we all ‘love’ the children that are around us, but we learn to truly love them as we spend time with them and their families, getting to know their personalities, foibles, and quirks. It’s the same with church unity – as we worship and pray and repent together, as we focus together on Jesus, and find in Him our common identity, then the boundaries and walls blur and crumble – it’s no longer Brightons Church and
Slamannan Church; it’s the Church of Jesus Christ,…
and we are together children of God, princes and princesses, ambassadors of the kingdom.

So, who do you think you are? Who are you individually? Who are we corporately? As we go into this new season, are we going to bunker down, are we going to adopt a pauper mentality and identity? Or, are we going to adopt a kingdom of God, identity understanding ourselves to be in Christ and so conducting our lives, individually and corporately, in light of that?

In our day, in our time of change and uncertainty, I pray we also may hear the summons of God to a kingdom identity and vision. May it be so. Amen.

Fidelity (Haggai 2:10-19)

Preached on: Sunday 3rd November 2020
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 19-11-03-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon.
Bible references: Haggai 2:10-19; John 15:1-17
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Texts: Haggai 2:10-19; John 15:1-17
Sunday 3rd November 2019
Brightons Parish ChurchLet us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

When Ian Baillie introduced this series a few weeks’ ago, he outlined what he understood as my reasons for having a series on Haggai. What he was too kind to say was that, I wanted to work systematically through an Old Testament book, but we only had a four week window, so it needed to be a short book – and so the best fitting option was Haggai. You might have expected a more mature or spiritual reason, but that’s the honest answer.

However, my feeling is that it has brought a timely word for us as a congregation, timely in relation to what is happening around us in the Braes area, timely…
in our life as a congregation, hopefully timely in our own personal lives as well.

In the first week, Ian spoke on the first chapter and brought home that challenge to each of us: are we putting God first and giving ourselves to His purposes today? It’s a question we need to be regularly asking ourselves, because without that core conviction the rest crumbles.

Then last week we looked at the first half of Haggai chapter two, and we saw the encouragement of the Lord, in that He seeks to help us persevere in our calling by finding strength in His presence and courage through His promises. And when the going gets tough, it is crucial for us to be seeking and trusting the Lord, and so last week was equally important to hear.
But when you heard the words in Haggai today, did you get that feeling? Did you think: mmm, sacrifices, defilement, mildew, lack of fruitfulness…wow, this sounds like really relevant stuff!? If you did, you’re clearly a more spiritual or knowledgeable than I am, because that was not my first reaction last Sunday night when I began looking at this passage – my first reaction was:
God, why have you got me preaching through Haggai?!?

But you know, as I’ve delved into this, as I’ve read up on the books of Deuteronomy, Matthew, John…I feel like God has made this passage a lot clearer and more meaningful for me, and I hope you’ll see its relevance for you and for us as a congregation.

To get our heads around this passage I first want to give you what I think is the summary message of this passage, and then I’ll try to help us see where I get that from. So, the summary message of this portion of Haggai, I think, is this: ‘fidelity over formalities leads to fruitfulness’.
‘fidelity over formalities leads to fruitfulness’.

I realise I’m doing that typical old-school preachers’ thing of using alliteration, and ‘fidelity’ isn’t a word we often use now-a-days, but go with me on this, and hopefully you’ll see why I’ve summed up this passage as ‘fidelity over formalities leads to fruitfulness’.

The first four verses of our reading today are in some ways the weirdest, and seem almost to have no link to the second five verses, but in actual fact they do, and they prepare the way for that second portion.

What God is doing here, is setting the scene for what is to come, and God begins on the positive side of things first, as we all do. So, God ask the priests:
‘…“if someone carries consecrated meat in the fold of their garment, and that fold touches some bread or stew, some wine, olive oil or other food, does it become consecrated?”’ The priests answered, “No.”’
(Haggai 2:12)

And this is a correct answer, for God’s law says that only what originally touches the offering is made holy; holiness does not pass along the line, as we read:
“the sin offering…is most holy…Whatever touches any of the flesh will become holy…” (Leviticus 6:24-27)

So, with that correct answer, Haggai continues:
‘“If a person defiled by contact with a dead body touches one of these things, does it become defiled?”

“Yes,” the priests replied, “it becomes defiled.”’
(Haggai 2:13)

Again, a correct answer, as God’s law says:
“Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days…Anything that an unclean person touches becomes unclean, and anyone who touches it becomes unclean till evening.” (Numbers 19:11, 22)

In this case, defilement passes further along the line, whereas holiness did not.

And with their correct answer, Haggai continues once more and shares a startling word from the Lord:
‘“So it is with this people and this nation in my sight,” declares the Lord. “Whatever they do and whatever they offer there is defiled.”’ (Haggai 2:14)

If you had been part of the Jewish people at this time, such words would have been a real slap in the face, because Haggai is saying here that the offerings and worship they have been giving are seen as…
meaningless and ineffectual by the Lord. They are meaningless and ineffectual because they are defiled, they are unholy, they are revolting, even abominable, in God’s sight, and God sees these offerings that way because the people themselves are unholy.

It sounds really bizarre to us now-a-days, but we need to remember that God gave the sacrificial system as a way of maintaining the relationship between Himself and His people – and the people valued that, they valued having a right relationship with God, because they wanted to stay as God’s people and enjoy His blessing.

As a result, we read at the start of Ezra chapter 3, that one of the first acts by the exiles after their return was to rebuild the altar amongst the temple rubble…
They did this because for God’s people in the Old Testament, sacrifice was essential to being right with God. And so, one of their first priorities was to rebuild the altar and reinstitute the rhythm of sacrifice in the Holy Land. This reveals the importance they placed on a right relationship and on worship as the people of God, and we might even applaud them for such devotion.

Unfortunately, these people did not continue their reconstruction efforts on the rest of the temple, and instead they focused their attention on their own homes at the expense of the temple, which lead to God’s challenge through Haggai in chapter 1, for by focusing on their own homes they had disobeyed God’s call to reconstruct His sanctuary. As a result, their disobedience made them unholy,…

thus rendering their sacrifices unacceptable before their holy God and so, the people remained under the judgment of
God despite sacrifices, and so their crops failed.

The point is that the project needed to progress beyond the “altar” stage; God had called His people to build an entire temple structure, not merely an altar, and until they obeyed Him, they were unholy, their sacrifices were unholy, and so all that they offered was meaningless.

Now, this should have been known by the people, and especially by the priests, which is maybe why God starts with the priests. For in multiple places within the Old Testament we find such words as these:
‘Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.’
(1 Samuel 15:22)

It is obedience to the Lord, fidelity to His voice and commands, that leads to life, to fruitfulness – and the priests should have known this. As a result, God first withheld His blessing from their crops, so as to get their attention, but that didn’t turn them from their ways, and so He sent Haggai to spell it out to them, and as we saw at the end of chapter 1, thankfully, the people heeded the prophetic word of God through Haggai, for we read: ‘So the Lord stirred up…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.’ (Haggai 1:14-15)

They began the work on the temple, they moved beyond a focus on the alter, and so now, in chapter two, three months later, God sends Haggai a third time, not with a word of challenge, but with a reminder of what had come before this day and what lies ahead of their fidelity.

Verses 15b-17 rehearse some of this again:
‘consider how things were before one stone was laid on another in the Lord’s temple. When anyone came to a heap of twenty measures, there were only ten. When anyone went to a wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were only twenty. I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew and hail, yet you did not return to me,” declares the Lord.’ (Haggai 2:15b-17)

The same principle is here: sacrifices offered by an unholy people are meaningless and God’s judgment remains; the harvest will be poor, whether the harvest of grain or the harvest of grape, it bore less fruit because of the people’s disobedience.

Before and after these words, however, the Lord gives a word of encouragement, for we read:
‘“Now give careful thought to this from this day on – … 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: 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.”’ (Haggai 2:15a, 18-19)

In verse 15, Haggai begins a sentence, then breaks off to remind the people of the past as we saw. But with the same words in v18, ‘…from this day on…’, he returns to the original thread this prophecy: ‘from this twentyfourth day of the ninth month, give careful thought to the day when the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid.’

This day, this twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, is a crucial day, because it marks a turning point – it marks the point where the people show themselves as truly committed to obeying the Lord, because they lay the foundation of the Lord’s temple. It is a mark of commitment, of intention, that they are going to see this through, and because of that intention, because of that obedience, this day also marks a turning point in their relationship with God, because now He will bring blessing.
In fact, to really prove that this is a prophetic word, the Lord adds at the end here:
‘…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.’ (Haggai 2:19)

This news of forthcoming blessing is given as a prophetic word, as foretelling of what will come about before anyone can predict it. For by this time of the year, mid to late December, there’s no seed left in the barn; it’s in the ground, it’s been planted.

And when the people look to the vines and the trees, again there is no sign that something good is coming, the plants have not borne fruit, even though by this point in the year they should have.
Into this this bleak situation the Lord gives a word of promise through Haggai, a word of certain hope, that blessing is coming, fruitfulness lies ahead, because they have been obedient, they have shown fidelity to the Lord’s command and voice.

So, hopefully you can now see why I summarised the message of this passage as: ‘fidelity over formalities leads to fruitfulness’. Fidelity to the Lord’s voice and commands is of greater worth than formalities, than sacrifices, services and ceremonies, for it is fidelity to the Lord’s commands that leads to fruitfulness, to blessing.

And in our heart, we know this. Many are the stories we could tell when we’ve felt convicted of the right way to go, or directed by the Lord to do something,…
and it has led to life. Those times where I have been a terrible husband, grumpy, irritable, and then the nudge of the Spirit comes, a nudge to go seek reconciliation, to say “sorry”, to humble myself. And when I have heeded that voice of the Lord, it has healed the relationship.

I’ve already spoken with you about the times the Lord nudged Gill and I to marry sooner than our parents would have wished, but from it came good. Or, with Friendship Plus, I shared how the Lord led me into ministry, and because of fidelity to the command of the Lord to leave chemical engineering and go study youth work, a path opened up to me that has led to so much good. If I had kept to ‘formalities’, to the way things should be done, then I would have missed out on so much life and blessing.
Conversely, I wonder if this principle is at the heart of the current state of the Church of Scotland. We as a denomination have not kept fidelity to the Lord’s commands, but we sure have kept to the formalities, and as a result, I wonder if the Lord has held back His blessing. For example, we know we have a shortage of ministers, but our ministers have been a large part of the problem, often preaching a less than true gospel, often encouraging the church along paths that are not in keeping with God’s commands, and so I wonder if the shortage of ministers is God’s judgment upon us – maybe He is calling less people into ministry until such a time as we, and those in ministry, keep better fidelity to His commands, and then He will bring fruitfulness. I can’t prove it, but it’s certainly a thought.
Another thought that has struck me this last week has been: I wonder what the New Testament equivalent of this passage is? Because, we don’t live under the Old Covenant, and so God doesn’t deal with us quite the same as the Israelites – there is not a list of blessings and curses in the New Testament, as there is in the book of Deuteronomy.

But in reading up on the book of Deuteronomy, I was directed towards our second reading today, John chapter 15, for in that chapter we see that ‘fidelity to the command of Jesus also leads to fruitfulness’. We see this in a couple key verses:
‘‘‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit…If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love …My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”’ (John 15:5, 10, 12-13)

If we remain in Jesus, we will bear much fruit. To remain in Jesus, means to obey His commands, and His command here is to love each other, to lay down our lives.

Now, obviously, Jesus taught many things, beyond just love for one another, He taught also love for God and love for neighbour. So, fidelity to the command of Jesus here, surely includes not only love for friends and those in the church but the principle is that fidelity to the command of Jesus leads to fruitfulness, but that fruitfulness only comes about by showing fidelity to the command of Jesus to love, to love well, to love by laying down our lives.
And so that got me thinking, where do we need to grow in our love for others? Where are we being called to lay down our lives for one another?

Fourteen years of marriage between Gill and I, has rubbed off a fair number of rough edges, though we’re still not perfect. Some of those rough edges have been serious things, some have been smaller but still important things. For example, I am terrible at scheduling stuff and putting things in the diary, or making a decision about something, without checking with Gill and including her in the process.

I’ve had to learn that she and I are a partnership, and that to partner with her well, to love her well,…
means to include her in the decision making and scheduling. It might sound silly way of illustrating this, but hopefully you get the idea: that the tensions in our relationships can show us where we need to grow in love for one another and where we might need to lay down our lives.

So, I wonder what tensions you would pick on? What would you highlight? I am not the font of all knowledge, and I don’t see and hear everything, but across the Western church, and across our denomination, maybe especially our denomination, there can appear to be a tension at times between the generations. Specifically, there can be a feeling at times, that priority is being given nowa-days to our younger generations, that things are being changed to benefit them, that money is being given to them.
I wonder if you resonate with that feeling, with that sense of things? I wonder if you have that feeling for what we here at Brightons? If we do feel that way, if we have this tension at Brightons, then we need to remember the words of Jesus: ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ And it is fidelity to this that will bring forth greater fruit in your own life, and maybe through you to the wider church.

And it might seem horribly unfair – this place, this way of worship you have grown used to, and it is precious to you. And it is you that has funded the church for decades, and it is by your time and your sweat that there is still a place and community of worship here.

But Jesus says: ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ So, when it comes to our young people, we need to lay down our lives, and maybe that includes our preferences, our time, our money. Because you know, or may you don’t know, we have a short window to convince them that this congregation, and this Christian faith, is of relevance to their lives, and that they are truly loved. We probably need to convince them of this before they are ten or eleven years old, because after that, they’ll just walk, they will refuse to come to church.

My daughter Hope is three years old – we will be here as a family for at least 5 years, God willing, and maybe as many as 20 or more. It is here that Hope’s faith will either be helped or hindered in its formative years…
And in 20 years’ time, when she is a young adult, what do you want Hope’s memory to be: that this was a place, a community, who gave themselves in love, who lay down their lives for her, such that her faith blossomed and she grew into a woman of God? Or do you want her in 20 years’ time to look back on how we clung to our life, to our way of things, such that it stymied her faith?

Quite literally that is the choice we all face, every one of us who is over 18, including myself, that is the choice we face not only for Hope, but for every single child we have contact with as a congregation.

Jesus said: ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down
one’s life for one’s friends,’ and it is by fidelity…
to the commands of Jesus that we will abide in Him, and by abiding in Him, His life will flow through us, impacting our own lives and impacting the lives of those around us, for fidelity leads to fruitfulness, not formalities.

Now, it is not just to older generations that this is of relevance, younger adults need to heed this too. We are all called to lay down our life, and how younger adults might show that to older generations may simply be to take notice and give of our time to those more mature members of our congregation. I realise we are all strapped for time, but we are called to lay down our lives. And it’s the most beautiful thing seeing the generations come together – what might it look like, if a family invites an older couple, or a few older single people, round for a cuppa, or round for a meal?
Friends, we can know a fruitfulness in our own lives, and a fruitfulness through our lives to others around us, beyond anything we have known or imagined. But fruitfulness comes by fidelity not formality, and in our day, by fidelity to the command of Jesus, to lay down our lives for others, to love others like He loved us.

In our day, in our time of change and uncertainty, I pray we also may be a people who show such fidelity to the command of the Lord that it bears fruit for generations to come. May it be so. Amen.

Persevere in your calling (Haggai 2:1-9)

Preached on: Sunday 27th October 2020
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 19-10-27-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon.
Bible references: Haggai 2:1-9; Acts 18:1-11
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Texts: Haggai 2:1-9; Acts 18:1-11
Sunday 27th October 2019
Brightons Parish ChurchLet us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

I wonder if you struggle with church as it currently is? I wonder if you feel disgruntled about how things are done now-a-days? Or I wonder if you compare our present state as a congregation, or as a national church, even the state of our country, to what it used to be? For some of us, we may have vivid memories of Sunday School numbers in their hundreds, or of the singular focus on a Sunday being church and family life. And maybe you compare what we have now-a-days to that time and you may struggle with that comparison – it may grieve you, sadden you, and maybe even provoke the thought that what we have now is nothing compared to what once was.
You may assume, that such things are felt only by older generations, and so you may also assume that this message is going to be aimed at those of you amongst the older generations – but that is not so.

Feelings of dissatisfaction, even disillusionment with our present experience of church, are not limited to older generations. Those who are younger may not look back to the glory days of a particular congregation, or even to the glory days of a denomination or country, but they may look back to moments when God moved in power in particular places, or even their own lives, those moments when God seemed much nearer than He does in today’s church.

What’s more, there can be a tendency, across the generations, to hark back even further still – to the early church in the first century and to yearn for those days when the faith was new, and the Spirit moved in such power and the growth and vibrancy of Christianity turned a whole empire upside down.

Dissatisfaction and disillusionment are not limited to any one generation; we all feel it at one time or another.

You may even have felt your despondency and pessimism increase another notch with the recently proposed Presbytery Plan with the reduction in ministers for the Braes area – maybe that news provoked you to think that we are simply managing decline and that the future of the Church in this area is doomed with such a trajectory.
In every age, across all the generations, spanning thousands of years, God’s people have had times and seasons where dissatisfaction and disillusionment rise up. In what we read in Haggai today we see those very same feelings.

God’s people had returned from exile in Babylonia some twenty years before Haggai began his ministry. A small fraction of the total Jewish community had returned and begun the reconstruction work, but strong opposition from neighbouring peoples soon brought the work to a standstill. And so, in the year 520BC, Haggai is called by the Lord to bring a prophetic message to God’s people; coming firstly with a word of challenge to the people, which we read about in Haggai 1 last week, and which Ian superbly covered in my stead…
We heard that the people did respond to the Lord’s challenge and they began the work on the temple.

But now a second prophetic word is brought by Haggai and yet it has a different tone. We read earlier today: ‘On the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai…“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?”’ (Haggai 2:1-3)

We can guess that during the intervening weeks between the first and second messages that efforts were concentrated on clearing the site of rubble, re-dressing stone, testing the walls for safety, and organizing teams of workmen. Such preparations on a sixty-year-old ruin, without any mechanical aids, would tax the endurance of even the most enthusiastic people, so no wonder there was a degree of frustration. But there was another factor.

Progress would have been delayed during the seventh month by the major Jewish festivals on which no work would be allowed. In addition to sabbath days, the first day of the seventh month was the Feast of Trumpets, and the tenth the Day of Atonement. Then on the fifteenth day the Feast of Tabernacles began.

So, how could there have been any measurable progress in such a short period of time considering the few days the builders had to work? And so, with seeing little real progress, pessimism once again may have set…in amongst God’s people, as they became overwhelmed… by their external circumstances and their internal expectations.

Indeed there was a small proportion of the remnant who remembered the first temple built in the days of King Solomon; a magnificent structure, full of glory in its material decoration, and at one time full of glory with the presence of the Lord dwelling in the Most Holy Place. Some could still remember that structure, which had been destroyed some 60 or 70 years earlier, and compared to it, what they saw before them in Haggai’s day was pathetic in their eyes, it was nothing.

And so, maybe people begin to question the call upon their lives – were we really called to return from exile?
Maybe we should have stayed in Babylon…
and enjoyed the good life. Were we really called to rebuild the temple when all we have is this heap of rocks? Maybe we should just give up; maybe our leaders were deluded or on an ego-trip; maybe it’s better to cut our losses and downsize our dreams and mothball any sense of calling we had to this.

And into that situation God sends Haggai once more – not with a message of challenge, but with a word of encouragement, of exhortation, and the Lord gives two specific encouragements so that His people persevere in their calling.

Firstly, the people are exhorted to find strength in the Lord’s presence. We read today:
‘“But now be strong, Zerubbabel,” declares the Lord. “Be strong, Joshua…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.”’ (Haggai 2:4-5)

Be strong and work, for my Spirit remains among you. In one form or another this promise is said by God to His people over 50 times across the Old and New Testaments:
• “let them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8)
• “go and make disciples of all nations…surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew
28:19-20)

• “One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you…’” (Acts 18:9-10)

Each time the Lord placed a calling upon His people and promised to be with them.

What is also striking is the similarity of the words from Haggai with what is said to an earlier Joshua in the history of Israel, a Joshua who also led God’s people in equally challenging times. In the book of Joshua we read this:
“After the death of Moses…the Lord said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant: ‘Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the River Jordan into the land I am about to give to them…As
I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you…Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.’ (Joshua 1:1-2, 5, 9)

On both occasions, separated by hundreds of years, we find a Joshua leading the people, and into both situations God speaks a word of encouragement to strengthen them for the calling upon their lives. Now the word of encouragement that would give strength was similar in both contexts: ‘Be strong…for the Lord your God will be with you’ (Joshua 1:9), or in Haggai: ‘Be strong…for I am with you…my Spirit remains among you.’ (Haggai 2:4-5)

In both periods it was a crucial encouragement, for in one
Moses had just died, their leader. He was the one… through whom God had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, and the people would wonder, is God with us still?

In Haggai’s time, the people had returned from exile, but after twenty years little had been accomplished with regard to the temple, and maybe they too wondered: is God with us? Does He want this calling fulfilled? Has He given up on us?

Into both situations, God speaks a word of encouragement – “I am with you, I am among you, press on”. At both times, the people of God needed to persevere in the calling upon their lives, and to do so they needed to be strong: strong of conviction, strong in hope, strong in faith that the Lord would come through for them and strong in faith that the Lord would work through them to accomplish His purposes.

But to find and keep that strength, they needed to have and know the presence of God in their midst. They needed to shake off disillusionment and dissatisfaction by turning their focus upon the Lord, who was among them and working through them, for with a focus on Him the people of God would find new vigour for the calling upon their lives.

I wonder friends, is that what we may be need at this time? In the midst of our dissatisfaction and our disillusionment, do we need to pursue the Lord Himself? In whatever way we may be feeling despondent and pessimistic, whether it be in comparing things…
to how they once were, or frustrations with the present, or what the future might look like in our Braes area, do you need to seek the Lord’s presence and face?

Because, as I emphasised in the latter weeks of our previous series, we have God’s Spirit in an even greater way than what the Lord’s people did in Haggai’s day. Back then, they relied on prophets and leaders, for it was only key people who had the Spirit of God upon them.

But in this age, through all that Jesus won for us, every person who calls themselves a Christian, is a temple of the Spirit, you have the Spirit of God living within you, and so any Christian can seek and know the Lord’s presence in greater and more intimate ways than those to whom Haggai spoke.
Friends, there have been too many instances to count when this has been the case for myself. Even just last week in my own devotions, the Lord gave words of encouragement in the times I spent with Him to sustain me in the call upon my life. Key, for me, and indeed for any of us, is the Bible – it is God’s principle way of speaking to us, and we need to be in the Word so that we can hear God’s words of encouragement, strength and affirmation.

But – it is in the real, dynamic, up-close presence of the Lord that we find strength not to crack up under the demands upon us, nor to give in to the worries that assail us, or turn bitter and judgmental in our present time.

In our dissatisfaction and disillusionment – will we heed the encouragement of the Lord, to draw near to Him and to know that He is with us?

If you’re not sure how to go about this, then one practical step would be to listen to the sermon from the 17th of March this year, and download the resources from our church website for that date on the “sermons” page.

But equally, you could join a Fellowship Group, get a copy of the Bible reading notes, come along to one of our prayer times. But let us seek the Lord, one way or another, for He is with us and in His presence we find strength to persevere in our calling.

Now, the Lord also gave a second exhortation to the people of Haggai’s time, for He said:
‘“Do not fear…[For]…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…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…And in this place I will grant peace.”’ (Haggai 2:6-9)

In this portion of prophecy, the people are exhorted to overcome fear, they were exhorted to find courage, by trusting in the Lord’s promises. They are to trust that God will move in power and accomplish the calling He has laid upon His people.

The fear that they would have felt would have been of the mighty nations that surrounded them. This remnant of the Jewish people are in a struggling province on the edge of the great Persian empire, dwarfed by it and by the stronger provinces around them. Fear had been evident in the early days of their return from exile, and once again fear is beginning to rise up.

Understandably so, we might say – for they have been called to rebuild the temple, there is opposition against them still, and they have no idea where the resources are going to come from, especially in light of such a poor harvest – where will they get the money for the elaborate decoration that the temple demands?

And so, into this situation comes the word of God, a word exhorting them to have courage by trusting in the Lord’s promises. He promises “once more” to shake “the heavens and the earth…[indeed to] shake all nations.”

Now, the reference here to “once more” is to jolt their memory back to other times when the Lord caused a shaking upon the land and amongst the nations. In particular, we reed in the book of Exodus:
“Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire…and the whole mountain trembled violently.” (Exodus 19:16-19)

Here the land shook because of the presence of the Lord. As for the shaking of nations, the exodus of God’s people from Egypt shook that nation to its core, as the Psalmist recalls for us in Psalm 114.

And so, God makes a promise in Haggai’s day to shake cosmos and the nations again, such that “what is desired by all nations will come” – i.e. wealth, treasure – and so financial, material provision will be made for the calling upon God’s people to rebuild the temple.

Indeed, if we were to go into the book of Ezra, where we reed of the wider story and what is happening around and through the people, then we come to see that soon after this prophecy God did meet their financial need.

In chapter 6 of the book of Ezra, we reed that the very opponents of God’s people,…
the opponents who had hoped to bring the building work to a halt, well these opponents were ordered by the emperor to pay in full the cost of the temple repairs (Ezra 6:8–12).

But the people first had to respond in faith – they had to trust in the Lord’s promises, so that courage could arise, fear be overcome, and the work continue. They could have held back, they could have played it safe, but instead they responded in faith, then the doors began to open, then the resources were provided, and God’s purposes for this time were fulfilled.

We might be tempted to spiritualize these material elements of Haggai’s prophecy. But the Lord did promise to provide His people with the material resources…
for the building of His kingdom purposes. His provision is simply a sign of His sovereignty over these resources as Creator and Sustainer of the cosmos.

And the same is true for the church. This same sovereign God promises to provide the resources for kingdom work in material as well as spiritual ways. The church, as the place of God’s presence today, as His present temple, needs material resources to carry out the Great Commission given to us by Jesus, and God does promise to provide those resources (see Phil. 4:10–20; Matt. 6).

Indeed, in this very year, your giving has confirmed this – God has more than given the resources we need as a congregation, because our level of income has gone up significantly…
The question has always been, whether we would be open handed with it; would we give sacrificially, and thankfully we have, we have responded to God’s sovereign provision in our lives with generosity towards His Kingdom work.

But let us take the principle of these verses beyond material provision, and let me ask you this friends, what are the promises we are clinging to by faith for our present time? As we face potentially radical changes in how we do church in the Braes area; as we compare church now to church as it once was – what are the promises of God that we are clinging to?

For we need to have those promises and cling to them, because it can be tempting, especially in hard times, especially in times of dissatisfaction and disillusionment to play it safe, or to bunker down.

But to live in step with the God of Haggai is to place ourselves in the dangerous position of trusting in God’s promises; it is placing ourselves in the dangerous position of grasping the hand of our Creator and Redeemer, and walking into the unknown with Him.

Personally, I find some of the promises of Jesus helpful: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)

Or that passage where Jesus said to the disciples:
“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)

God used Haggai to call a generation to experience God in the present, not only in similar ways to the past, but in ways that would dwarf the past. That is akin to what Jesus meant when He said: “you will do even greater things than these”. We often see the past as setting up patterns that are insurmountable. But Haggai encourages us to see the past as only setting precedents that can provide a springboard to even greater miracles.

To a people who were wavering, laid low with dissatisfaction and disillusionment, the encouragement of God through Haggai is to persevere in your calling by finding strength in the Lord’s presence and courage through the Lord’s promises.
I pray we may be such a people as well, a people who resolve to seek and trust the Lord always. May it be so.
Amen.

Put God first (Haggai 1:1-15)

Preached on: Sunday 20th October 2019
There are no sermon text or Powerpoint pdfs accompanying this sermon.
Bible references: Haggai 1:1-15
Location: Brightons Parish Church