The word and the will - Haggai 1:12-15
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
The House that God Built
Let me begin by asking a question. How do you bring about a Reformation? If the state of the church is dire, the Gospel is all but obscured, the establishment corrupt, and the ordinary people apathetic, how can that situation be changed? Let’s look at the assessment of one man as to the answer to that question- Martin Luther; for this was the state of the Western church at the beginning of the 16th century- a more bleak and dismal state of affairs you could not imagine. And yet within a matter of a few decades the sweet wind of God’s Spirit was found to be sweeping through Europe. What had happened? This is what Luther said about his part in that great movement we call the magisterial Reformation: ‘I will constrain no man by force,’ he said, ‘for faith comes freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing: the Word did everything.’
Of course there is a good biblical precedent; for that is exactly what happened at the time of the prophet Haggai. To be precise, it began on the 29th August, 520 years before Jesus was born. Some 50,000 Jews had returned to their homeland after 50 years in Exile, isolated miles away in pagan Babylon. And what they returned to was utter devastation. The country had been reduced to nothing by a scorched earth policy. Jerusalem lay in ruins and had become a habitation for rats and jackals; and the pride of Israel- the Temple, the symbol of God’s presence and blessing, was a pile of rubble. Initially, the people were enthusiastic about the restoration and set to work with a renewed vigour. But, as is so often the case, a spiritual work which begins well can run out of steam due to opposition on the one hand and a change in priorities on the other. The result is spiritual lethargy as materialism takes over. The things of God are allowed to take a back seat, while the pleasures of man occupy the driving seat. That is what had happened. And as we look around us today and the state of the church in our land, who would dare to claim that things are that much different? So what was the remedy to the spiritual malady? A new organisation to ensure worker co-operation perhaps? More tax breaks to switch work from building houses to building the temple? A new ‘how to’ programme on spiritual self- development maybe? No. None of these things. As Luther was to discover for himself many centuries later, the way God was going to effect a change from top to bottom was by the work of his Word- his spoken revelation. We saw this last week at the beginning of the book in verse 1, ‘the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai.’ And this morning we see how effective that Word was then and how effective it still is today.
Now there are four things about God’s Word which this passage focuses for us and which is meant to challenge and encourage us.
First, it is a comprehensive Word. Did you notice in verse 12 just to whom that Word came? It to everyone- from the least to the greatest: ‘Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of the people.’ Do when God speaks, he speaks to everyone. No one can claim immunity from God’s Word by virtue of their position in society. Zerubbabel is mentioned first. He is the royal governor- so the politicians are to be subject to what God has to say. Whatever authority they may have in terms of government, they are nonetheless subject to a higher authority still- God’s government. It is called the Kingdom of God. Next we have Joshua, the high priest- so the religious establishment as well as the political establishment is subject to that Word. You might well expect that to be the case, but Israel’s problem in the past had been that those who should have been teaching what God had said had stopped doing it; they had colluded with the people in a conspiracy to silence God, in effect issuing him with a gagging order. They simply wanted to hear their own voices about how they were going to conduct their religion without God interfering thank you very much. And then it is the whole people- bakers, builders, housewives, accountants, midwives, children- everyone- ‘the whole remnant of the people’. There is no area of life- especially for those who claim to be God’s people- in which God will not have a say. God is no respecter of persons- he will speak to anyone and everyone.
And so God expects monarchs to obey him. Just listen to these words which were spoken by the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland as he handed a copy of the Bible to the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth the Second: ‘We present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is wisdom; this is the royal law; these are the lively oracles of God.’ You can’t get it any clearer than that can you? The implication being that the monarch is to cherish that Bible and have her wise ruling shaped by that Bible. And when those in authority deliberately flout that Word, for example in redefining marriage, so making it ‘unmarriage’ – a disaster is just waiting to happen.
Similarly at the ordination service of a minister in the Church of England, these words are spoken by the Bishop: ‘He is to proclaim the word of the Lord, to call his hearers to repentance, and in Christ’s name to absolve and declare forgiveness of sins.’ And he is given a Bible s a sign of his authority, for it is a preaching ministry he is been called to. This is the means whereby God effects change in his church. So the minister is not to share his thoughts with his congregation, but God’s thoughts which are found in this book.
So what of the rest of the people? Well, we live in a country where Bibles are so readily available to everyone. We even have children’s Bibles which are terrific. The Bible still continues to be the world’s best seller. The Quran has been translated into 128 languages, the Bible into over 300 languages and the New Testament into 495 more. But paradoxically, while this is the most purchased book it is a much neglected book. Survey after survey shows that even amongst professing Bible believers, evangelicals, both here and in the United States, daily Bible reading is a diminishing practice. Could I ask: how often do you read this book and not simply skim it? Remember those words to the Queen, that the Bible is ‘the most valuable thing this world affords’? Does your treatment of this book reflect that conviction or deny it? This is not just a book for the so called professionals- clergy and the like- or the enthusiast-it is a book for everyone- ‘all the remnant’.
But God’s voice or ‘Word’ doesn’t just come to us as a sound in our minds or appear fully engraved from heaven, like the so- called Book of Mormon, for it is a co-ordinated Word. Let me explain what I mean. The end of verse 12 can easily be misunderstood when it says, ‘the voice of the LORD and the message of the prophet Haggai’ as if these were two separate and distinct things, so on the one hand there is the voice of the LORD and on the other, the message of Haggai. We have already been told in verse 1 that God’s Word, (another term for God’s voice- his verbal communication) came through the prophet Haggai. Similarly in verse 13 we read that Haggai gave this message: “I am with you”, declares the LORD.’ The voice of God and the message of Haggai are one and the same. The message of the prophet is the product of God’s voice- it is God’s voice. In other words, there is a co-ordination, a coming together of what God says and what the prophet says. The technical tern to describe this action of God speaking through people and what has been recorded here in the Bible, so that what the Bible says, God says, is ‘concursive’- that is, God working in and through people, using their own characters and circumstances to produce exactly what he wants them to produce. So a Dr Luke writes a biography of Jesus which has a different perspective and style to say, Mark. Both biographies, or Gospels, are just as God intended them to be. There is no playing off God and man against the other, as you get when people say, ‘I like what Jesus says but not what Paul says.’ Both speak the inspired Word of God and what they spoke has been written down for us today. So what is written down in black and white are, as Paul puts it in 2 Timothy 3:15, the ‘breathed out words of God’. So if you or I want to hear God’s voice, it is to this book we must turn. As Dr J.I Packer put it, the Bible is ‘God preaching’. Of course, he uses many different forms to preach, as we may use many different forms to get across what we want to communicate. If I am speaking to my grandchildren I may wish to tell them something by writing a letter or telling a story or drawing a picture. And God does that here in this book. So we have God speaking to us through events in history; he sets out his character and what is good for us by laws, he shows the way of wisdom by proverbs. Sometimes he will get beneath our radar defences by telling a parable or giving us a word picture. And in order for his voice to be heard today, God has appointed and gifted teachers within his church not, as some put it, ‘to explain the Bible’, as if the problem is one of understanding and we are so simple; but rather they are to open the Bible in such a way that we hear God’s voice through it and when that happens we are encountered by God himself. You see, talk of ‘explaining the Bible’ treats the sermon as if it is simply an educational exercise, appealing solely to the mind. But it is far more than that. When I say to my wife, ‘I love you’, or tell a corny joke to my grandchildren (known as Grandad jokes), or warn a fellow Christian who is in danger of sin, or console a friend who has lost a loved one- I am not just ‘explaining things’ to them – I am sharing with them something of myself. That is what God does through his book and through his preachers. That is why sometimes when I am introducing the preacher I say, in faith, they are going to ‘bring God’s Word to us’ and although it is in a different manner to Haggai who was a prophet, the Word the preacher brings is no less than God’s Word or God’s voice, than when he spoke through Haggai.
Thirdly, it is a compelling Word, v12, ‘Zerubbabel, Joshua and the whole remnant of the people obeyed or listened to the voice of God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the LORD their God had sent him. And the people feared the LORD.’ Anyone who has only a passing knowledge of the history of the Jewish people in the Old Testament will realise what an amazing thing we have just read. They actually ‘obeyed’ the voice of the LORD and ‘feared’, literally ‘feared before the LORD.’ A few years ago on the radio, there was a news item about some new development taking place in the countryside which was going to upset some nice area, and one man who was being interviewed said, ‘If my brother were alive today, he would be turning in his grave.’! That is what this verse is like, given the history of God’s people in failing to obey God’s word. It’s like the shock you get when you ask your teenage son or daughter to go upstairs and tidy their room and the answer you get is, ‘Sure, no problem I will go and do it straight away’. That is the kind of thing that has you reaching for the wake up pills. What the prophet says here is that surprising! You know, Moses, Jeremiah or Isaiah would have the same reaction if they had come back from heaven and read this. The people actually obeyed the voice of the Lord and feared him! Wow! If only they had had such a reaction in their ministry, how much more would their lives have been sweeter? But in this case, it happened.
Now the word for ‘hear’ in Hebrew has the same root as ‘obey’, which is why you can translate verse 12 either way. But that in itself may be significant. The point of listening is to do something about what you hear. When God speaks, it is not for our entertainment, but for our edification. When sermons are preached, it is not to fill in 25 minutes or so in a service- it is so that God’s people can meet with God and be changed, and for those who are not yet Christians to have the opportunity to believe and be changed. The God who speaks a universe into existence is the same God who speaks to a congregation with the same intent, to bring order and harmony into being, to have our lives, our affections, our attitudes re-aligned so that they start to go with the flow of God’s kind and loving rule as our heavenly Father. So be a Bertie Bassett whenever you come to the Bible- expect all sorts.
Fourthly, God’s word is a constructive Word- it brings about change. Remember Luther’s comment about the Reformation? He did nothing, the Word did it all. So through Luther’s teaching, preaching, writing of things God revealed in the Bible- God reached out and changed lives and whole countries and, in due course, history. That is what we see happening here in vv 13-15, ‘Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the LORD to the people: “I am with you,” declares the LORD’ Then what happened? ‘So the LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the LORD Almighty, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of King Darius.’- that is the 21st September 520BC. The impact was so great you could set your watch by it. Now when it says that following God’s message God stirred up people’s spirits, it doesn’t mean that the stirring up was a separate event from the delivery of the message. Rather, it was through the message that God did the stirring up. Think of Winston Churchill’s famous, ‘We will fight them on the beaches’ speech in June 1940. It was that speech which did the stirring up of the hearts of a nation; so it is here with God stirring up the hearts of his nation-Israel. This gives us insight into how God works by His Spirit. There isn’t ‘Word’ ministry, followed by ‘Spirit’ ministry. There is Spirit ministry through Word ministry.
But how does this happen? The Bible tells us that by nature we are spiritually deaf and blind: 2 Corinthians 4:4 ‘The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.’ So how does God overcome that hearing impediment in order to communicate? How did he get these people to listen and obey for a change? Maybe you have heard the story of Helen Keller a woman who was born blind and deaf. The story was made famous a number of years ago in the academy award winning film, ‘The Miracle Maker’. How does someone like that who has never heard words get communicated to and how do they communicate back? Let me tell you what happened. One day Helen’s teacher began to spell words on Helen’s hands, tracing the letters with her finger. Helen learnt to imitate the movements which spelt out the words, but failed to understand what the movements were. They were just meaningless movements. One day her teacher spelled the word w-a-t-e-r into one of Helen’s hands as she held the other hand under a spout of running water and the mystery of language was suddenly revealed. Helen later wrote: ‘I knew then that water meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set free.’ Interesting terms she uses to describe what happened to her don’t you think. They are almost biblical terms. You see, Helen’s teacher was like the Holy Spirit who effectively ministered the word to Helen to bring her understanding. That is what the Spirit does with us as he takes this Word and applies it to our lives.
And notice here that the response of all the people was not simply of the ‘nice sermon Vicar’ variety- it resulted in decisive action- they started work on building the temple. You see the measure of whether we have really heard what God has said is if we act upon it. Anything else is just fluff. So here is the question: what sort of hearing have we been engaged in this morning? Is it that of hearing but not really heeding? Have we only heard with our emotions- which is going to evaporate tomorrow morning when we go out into the so- called ‘real world’? Have we only heard with our minds, so we have some new insight and then next week we are onto something new? Or have we heard with the whole person, not just ears and minds, but heart and soul, unconditionally and totally responding to God’s loving, sovereign claim on our lives? The challenges and opportunities which face us as a church, and as a nation, are immense as well as exhilarating. But they will only be met if we respond with the whole of our being to what God says.
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