Monday, August 13, 2018

Foundations for the renewal of covenant blessing in Haggai 2:10-19

This is the spillway at the Lower Nihotapu  dam at Parau in the Waitakere rangers west of Auckland. It is one of the reservoirs that provides water for Auckland City... A real blessing.  
We are working our way through the book of Haggai. We are calling the series renewal in the ruins. Haggai has spoken to the people who had come back from exile to Jerusalem and inspired and encouraged them to rebuild the temple. He had called them to renew their focus as a community, their identity as God’s people was to be found in God’s presence with them symbolised by the temple.  As they started to rebuild and encountered discouragement and despondency he had spoken to them about the renewal of their Hope: Hope found in the presence, providence and purpose of God and now Haggai turns to speak of foundations for the renewal of God’s covenant blessing for them as his people. As I sat down to put this message together my devotions for the day were entitled “only Holiness leads to happiness” and that was a real God moment because it sums up in nut shell what Haggai’s message to the then and there and the here and now is… “Only Holiness leads to happiness”.

That is not a recipe that says if we are good god will be good to us… More that if we simply seek our own pleasure as the returnees had been doing, we meet the law of diminishing returns… we get less out of more we have… If our focus is on God and his Kingdom… then we become more and amore aware of God’s blessings.

Let’s set the scene.
Once again Haggai’s words have a specific date. In this case it is the twenty fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius (December 14th if you want to tie it in to our calendar). Three month’s after the people had started to build the temple in response to Haggai’s first message. The previous two oracles had been tied to religious festivals. The new moon festival and the feast of tabernacles, but this one does not fit in with such a religious holiday or gathering. However, in verse 18 Haggai refers to the day that the foundation stone of the temple was laid and in Ezra 3 we have a record of the people gathering for a festival when that happened. In the Ancient near east when a foundation stone was laid there would be a religious gathering and a blessing for the endeavour. This day could also have been a significant other step in the building process, maybe even something being build on the foundation stone. We’ve laid the stone but know we are getting on with the job.

We do know that in the agricultural calendar this would have been at the end of the period of time when people would have been planting out seed for next years harvest. So at the end of that time there may have been a gathering to celebrate that and to pray for the coming harvest, Haggai says in verse 19 is there any seed yet left in the barn? Which fits in with that… and his message that from this day on God will bless you, does fit in with hope for the coming harvest. In his first oracle Haggai had said that because of the people were disobeying God’s call on them to rebuild the temple, that God could not bless them and the harvest were going to be small, now as they have started the work Haggai makes the bold prediction that God will change that.

 What we have in the passage we had read out to us is two oracles given on the same day, given together. In structure it is very much like the first of Haggai’s oracles, it starts with a series of questions that leads into the prophets teaching and calls the people to carefully consider their ways and finishes with a declaration of God’s actions on behalf of his people. In this Haggai sets the foundations for the renewal of God’s Blessing. It is a restoring, a turning round of the way things were because the people have turned round, they have repented and gone God’s way.

In these two coracles Haggai considers the consequences of past disobedience, looks at current obedience, and declares the certainty of blessing. So let’s explore those three things.

 The consequences of past disobedience.
When the people had come back to Jerusalem they had been very quick to re-establish the sacrificial system. The altar was re-established and sacrifices offered. This forms the basis for Haggai’s questions to the priests in verse 11-13. They have to do with ritual cleanliness or holiness. 
The first one asks if food that has been set aside for God is carried in the fold of a garment but then touches other food does it make that food Holy?  The answer to that from the priests is “no”, Holiness being set aside for God is not contagious. It can’t be passed on…

The second question is about dead bodies. If someone touches a dead body then touches food set aside for an offering does the food become defiled? And the answer is yes, uncleanliness is contagious. This being ritually unclean by touching a dead body is at the heart of Jesus parable of the good Samaritan, the priest and the Levi going up to the temple. If they touched the man who was set upon by robbers and he was dead they could not have served their turn in the temple, as they would have been unclean and what they touched would have been deemed ritually unclean.

Haggai uses these questions to show that God considered all the offering they had made as being  unclean and unacceptable because the people had not obeyed God, and rebuilt the temple. Even though they had gone through the motions how Could God bless them if they were being disobedient. Like God’s people down through the ages they had tried to separate the idea of ritual holiness from ethical holiness.

Sacrifices were given for the forgiveness of sins, but the call of God was that people would live a life that reflected the God they knew and served. It is like when my kids were smaller I used to like doing things like taking them out for icecream or another treat, but when they were not behaving I couldn't do it, I still loved them and cared for them and had to discipline them, but when change happened I would be quick to give them a treat...

For us it is the sacrifice of a totally righteous person, Jesus Christ that has put us right with God, that has atoned for our sins. That has put us right with God, the call we have is that we live that out by hearing Jesus words and obeying them, and we can do that because of the presence and guidance of the holy Spirit in our lives.  We are justified by faith in Jesus Christ and we are called to a life of sanctification as we grow in Christ and learn to live and love as Christ lived and loved.

 It is a challenge for all of us, as biblical scholar Mark Boda says “it’s easy for us to get caught up in the mechanics of our religious activities and not focus on the importance and impact of individual and corporate obedience”.

Then in Haggai’s second oracle on that day he turns from consequences of the past to look at the people current obedience. Here they are they have started to rebuild the temple. During the harvest time they had thought carefully about what they were doing and had started to rebuild the temple, they hadn’t just stopped at cleaning off the altar and having the sacrifices, but had begun building the temple. They were doing what God had called them to be doing. The temple was not just a place for sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin but was a place to focus on God’s presence with his people and that they were called to live as a witnessing community to the goodness and holiness of God by the way they lived. In 1 Chronicles 28 as David lay out his plans for the temple, he calls Solomon and all those who were to build the temple “to give careful thought to their ways” sound familiar “ to keep all the commandments of the Lord, that you may possess all the good things of the land.”

Amos was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel, he had come at a time of great prosperity and religious fervour in the city of Samaria. The people saw their prosperity as a sign of God’s blessing, and God’s word through Amos was that this was not the case, in fact they were laying the foundation of their own judgment, by treating God, like one of the other gods around them, thinking he would simply bless them because the observed the right religious rituals. While at the same time their prosperity was based on the exploitation of the poor and unjust trading practises.  Amos’s message is that “God hates your festivals and your songs and sacrifices make God sick to the stomach, what God wants is that justice flow like a river and righteousness like a never ending stream.’ 

The difference of the foundation in the two builder in the parable Jesus finishes his sermon on the mount in Matthew’s gospel is that on with the solid foundation is the one who listens to Jesus word and obeys it, the other hears the word and carries on their own way.  They both experience the storms and floods of life, but the one who obeyed Jesus words stands.

 Now Haggai also calls them to carefully consider their ways. The obedience wasn’t just in rebuilding the temple that was a symbol of that deeper call to live as God’s people. But the current obedience laid a foundation for the renewal of  God’s blessing.

Haggai finishes his oracle with a declaration of certainty that God would Bless his people. They had not had a good harvest, when they had come back to Jerusalem they had expected that it would be wonderful and prosperous and full of happiness, but it had not been. Now Haggai takes a bold step by telling them that as they had started to obey God’s purpose for them, that the deprivation of the past would change and God would bless them. 

For Haggai his focus is specifically that they would have a bumper crop. Maybe as he was speaking the autumn rain that was so necessary for the agriculture of the region to grow was starting and the Haggai is tying that in with what is happening in Jerusalem, or he is making a bold prediction. Up until know Haggai has told forth the word of God, bringing God’s word to the situation and context, but here is foretelling. But it is based on what he knows of God and God’s character.

The foundation for God’s people in Haggis’s day and in our own is the goodness of God, that God is with and for his people. That it is God’s desire to bless his people, that is a certainty. God’s desire is that his people, all the people of the earth, come to know God and his goodness. Haggai’s previous oracle had finished with and in that place I will give you peace… which means wholeness. In the book of Timothy, Paul tells us all to pray because it is God’s desire that all may come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. That we will be put right with God through his gracious sacrifice for us. In John’s gospel that saving knowledge is called abundant life, full life, it’s so abundant because of the presence and provision and purpose of God that it goes beyond the grace into eternity, lived with our eternal God.

And If the book of Haggai finished here we might be tempted to say that we can earn God’s blessing by our good deeds and equate God’s blessing with prosperity.  In the end the grace and hope of Haggai’s declaration is God’s sovereign promise to bless his people, it’s God’s grace, God’s grace, God’s grace…  

The challenge of Haggai is the same for us as it was for God’s people then and there. It is to consider carefully our ways, it is a call to see that fulfilment and fullness comes from knowing God through Jesus Christ, hearing God’s word and putting it into practise in our lives… “Only Holiness leads to happiness”. The promise is God’s blessing…

Also the book of Haggai does not finish here. There is one more word that Haggai brings on the same day as the two we looked at today. It is a word for Zerubbabel and it is a word that finishes the process of renewal by speaking of the renewal of covenant relationship, which is at the heart of covenant blessing… the heart of our hope… that points us forward to Jesus Christ, the fulfilment of all the promises and hopes of the remnant in their coming back, the fulfilment of Israel’s hope and ours. The fulfilment of God’s promise to bless his people. We are going to look at that in a fortnights time.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Those Were the Days... but the Best is Yet To Come: The Renewal of Hope in Haggai 2:1-9

“ Hope” Says Edwin McManus “lifts us out of the rubble of our failures, our pain and our fear to rise above what at one point seems impossible. Our ability to endure, to persevere, to overcome is fuelled by this one seemly innocuous ingredient called hope.”

And in the passage, we had read out to us today, Haggai, addresses a group of people who are disappointed and discouraged, who are literally in the rubble of their failure. Facing what seems like a hopeless situation.  Into that Haggai brings God’s message and that message is hope. He tells them to ‘be strong, build and not to fear” and his motivation for that is a renewal of hope in God: God’s presence, God’s providence and God’s purpose. It is the same hope that we can have today as we face  challenges in our life individually and corporately as the church. Hope because of the presence of God, hope because of the providence of God, hope because of the purpose of God.

Let’s set the scene.

As we looked at last week… The people had come back from exile in Babylon, they had come back to Jerusalem, to rebuild the temple and re-establishing themselves as God’s people. But it had never seemed like the right time to start the work. There were economic and political reasons for that. It hadn’t stopped them however from focusing on their own comfort and prosperity. They had finished their own houses and even started to develop a level of luxury. Eighteen years after they had come back the work still hadn’t started. So the prophet Haggai had challenged them about their priorities, he’d asked them to consider carefully their ways. To refocus on what was at the centre of their being a community, God’s presence with them symbolised by the temple. They listened and started to build and they were now the remnant that God had intended by his grace for them to be.

They started building in the sixth month, and now in the seventh month they had cleared off the site and re-established the altar and it was time to celebrate the feast of Tabernacles, when they remembered God’s provision for them in the wilderness. How God had been with them and lead them as they had built the tabernacle. It is at the end of this festival on the twenty fourth day of the seventh month that Haggai bring another word from God.

 In Ezra chapter three we have a record of such a festival which gives us insight into what is Haggai is facing. It says that at the end of the festival the people were to give a festive shout. “he is Good his Love endures forever” but as that happens we are told that those who remembered the old temple started crying as they saw what it was like now and the impossible amount of work that needed to be done and wept.

It probably didn’t help that most of those who would have seen the old temple would have seen it as a child. You know you go to a place when you are small and it seems so big and wonderful and grand, you go back later and well it seems a bit smaller and less wonderful. It didn’t help that the exiles would have been bought up on stories of the wonder of the temple and how great it was.

The people seemed to be caught up in the idea that those were the days… the best times were in the past… I went on a surf safari with a friend of mine way back in the day… and I discovered that the best time to surf was…yesterday… everywhere we went the locals said… “you should have been here yesterday, it was going off”. It got a bit discouraging. It is easy sometime to simply remember the good old days when we are faced with trouble and hardship in our lives and thing that the best days were in the past. It can sap us of hope for the future.

In churches it is easy to do that as well. We can look back to the hey day of the Presbyterian church in the 1950’s and 60’s when pews were full and the Sunday school was bursting at the seems, it was the baby boom remember. It is easy to remember that move of God that wave of the spirit, be it the charismatic movement in the 1980’s when the emphasis was on freedom in the spirit, or the spring bok tour when social justice and faith seemed to become so real, Youth group, or the camping movement and Hunua days. It is easy to think that the best days are behind us, the church has moved from the centre of community to the fringes.

Haggai starts his oracle by bring the feelings and words of the people out into the open. Is there anyone who remembers the temple. How does it look to you now? Does it look like nothing? Haggai however does not stop there he invites them to look and to see that with God the best is yet to come… the glory of this present house will be greater than the former.” The best is yet to come…

Haggai’s motivation comes from a renewal of Hope…

It comes from the presence of God. Haggai can tell the leaders Zerubbabel and Joshua and all the people to be strong and to carry on building and not to fear, because God is with them. This was at the festival of tabernacles and the same God who was with his people, who bought them out of Egypt and guided them to build the tabernacle in the desert is the same God who is with them now. They were lead and guided and provide for and defended and encouraged by the Presence of God, the craftsmen who built the tabernacle were filled with the Spirit of God as it tells us in Exodus 31. The same spirit is with them, God promised to be with his people and he is faithful and keeps his promise. God’s moving in the past is not to discourage us when we are faced with a reality that seems bleak and daunting it is to remind us that God does not change.

For us the hope is the same, the very presence of God.  Jesus last words to his disciples as he commissioned them to be his witnesses was and lo I am with you till the end of the age… In fulfilment of his promise in the book of Joel, and Jesus own promise God’s spirt has been poured out on all who believe in him, God’s spirit is not just with us but dwells within us. We can look with hope to the future because of God’s abiding presence…now. We can face mountains and insurmountable situations because God is present with us.

Haggai’s motivation for the leaders and the people to be strong to build and fear not only on God’s presence but also on God’s providence. God’s acting in history on behalf of his people. Not only is God present but God is moving. We looked last week at the unstable nature of the beginning of Darius’ reign in Persia. The Persian empire was at it height, but there were revolts, where places like Egypt were wanting to break free of Persian control.  New taxes were levied to pay for putting down these revolts. But God says through Haggai, That God will soon shake the heavens and the earth and all the nations will come to Jerusalem, and the desire of all the nations will come.” God is sovereignly moving in history on behalf of his people. He had raised the Babylonians up to discipline Israel, the book of Habakkuk wrestles with the fact that God could use such a violent nation, God had raised the Persians up to overthrow the Babylonians, and the Persians had changed the Babylonian policy of exiling people from their native country, so had allowed The remnant to return. Now God is saying that he is still sovereign and will again move in a new way. The language used here points us forward to the coming of Jesus Christ and the establishment of his kingdom. God is active in history and God is in control.

Not only that but the people would have been discouraged by the fact that to build the temple anything like it was that they would need massive amounts of money and resources. We can spiritualise the idea of glory, but in the eyes of the remnants glory meant Gold and silver. So God’s providence gives them hope because God tells them he is able to provide for them. When God calls us to do something he is able to provide us with what we need to do it. The gold and the silver are his. the picture here is of God shaking the earth and the sky and all the money and wealth coming out of their pockets and into the temple.

Ezra chapter 5 and 6 reads like the correspondence file of the government. It is like the first ever email thread. Tattani the governor of Trans-Euphrates province is opposed to the people building the temple. He writes to Darius asking him if the Persian emperor had given them permission to build. If it was todays world it would be asking if they had planning consent. He was trying to get the people in Jerusalem seen as revolting against Darius. Darius being a good bureaucrat looks back and sees what his ancestor Cyrus the first Persian emperor had said, and discovers not only had he given them permission but that the expense of building the temple would be paid for from the royal treasury. So in Ezra 6 you have a copy of his decree telling Tattani to pay all the expenses of the people while they build the temple. God’s providence and provision. We to can look to god to provide for us as we face difficulties and situations in our lives.

The third motivation Haggai gives the leaders and the people to be strong and build and not to fear is God’s purpose. “the glory of the 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. The people may have simply been concentrating on a building, but it was the focus of what God was doing to bring peace to his people. The people can have renewed hope because not only is God with them and active in history God is for his people as well. His purpose and plan is for them to have peace.  Peace in the scriptures is the Hebrew word wholeness. It infers a matrix of right relationships, with God, with ach other, with creation and with our material possessions as well. It is God’s purpose that the people in Jerusalem will know God’s presence and Glory and will have peace. In Acts 2 with the early church after Pentecost we get a glimpse of that. The community were committed to God, and in their midst no one was said to have a need as they shared hospitality and shared their possessions, god’s providence for the whole community.

God’s purpose is still for us may not be that we build a temple but that work to build the kingdom of God in our world today. To see God’s peace in the places where we live and serve. Wilbert Shenk, says that the church has tried to find renewal in many different ways. They have tried to reaffirm the central distinctives of their denominational tradition, or moved to recapture a more primitive expression of church, go back to the way it was in acts. They’ve tried to relive the past. Others try restructuring their denomination, they rearrange the past( can I say that it is a bit like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic), and others adjust their tradition to the current cultural trends, they repackage the past, But Shenk says it is only as they rediscover the purpose of God for the Church what God is doing in the world at the moment that they will find genuine renewal. It is as we see what the spirit is doing in the world today and go and align ourselves with it and work with the spirit that we will see hope for renewal and for the future, we will see God’s preferred future emerge in our personal lives and as a church.

It was easy for the people to be discouraged and weighed down thinking those were the days, the glory days are in the past… But Haggai encouraged them that The best is yet to come.  For those building the temple though they didn’t know it was the coming of God’s messiah.  The temple that the remnant built was the temple that Jesus was bought to as a child to be dedicated, it was the temple he came to as a boy and amazed the religious leaders with his genuine understanding of God, it was to this temple that Jesus drove the money lenders out of and dead he would destroy and rebuild again in three days. It was this temple where as Jesus died the veil was torn int two to signify God no longer dwelt in a building but in his people By the Holy Spirit.

It’s easy for us to have the view that those were the days… and when we are faced with the difficulties and struggles of today or seemingly insurmountable odds and the challenge of what lies ahead, it can discourage us and make us think that the best days, the glory days are in the past… But Haggai’s encouragement and motivation to be strong, build and not to fear, to have hope is that the best is yet to come, because God is with us, because God is active in history, and God is working his plans and purposes out. The presence, the provision and the purpose of God.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Panelled Houses and a ruined Temple: Renewal of Community focus in Haggai 1

In the Church today we may wrestle a bit with Habakkuk, be challenged a bit by Jonah even though we find parts of it a fishy, dust off a couple of verses of Joel at Pentecost, mention Malachi's first fruits when we want to talk about tithing and money issues, confuse Amos’ best line as Martin Luther King Jr’s and haul out Haggai when a church is looking at a building project. But all in all the minor Prophets are not often the focus of preaching in Churches these days. We may see the minor to mean not important, far from it, they are called Minor not because they are lesser in significance, but smaller in size, compared to the major; bigger works of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah. Your always telling me you want shorter sermons. The Jews get round this minor major thing by simply calling them the twelve. Over the month of August we are going to be working our way through one of the twelve: the book of Haggai.

Let me start by saying relax, it does not mean we are venturing on a building programme. But we are looking to Haggai to build us up as the Church.  Haggai was a significant prophet who ministered during the time of the return of the exiles from Babylon. The people of Jerusalem had been taken into exile in 587bc and after seventy years when the Persian empire conquered Babylon, they were allowed to come back and rebuild the city and live there.

I’m calling the series Haggai: Renewal in the Ruins… because it is about a group of God’s people rediscovering, the presence of God and focusing on God’s pleasure and the Glory of God as central to their community. For the people of Haggai’s day that focus was the temple, a very real and tangible expression of God dwelling with them, for us it is in the very real and tangible presence of Jesus Christ, his purposes and mission for us as a church community. As Justin Welby, the arch bishop of Canterbury, puts it, renewal comes as we once again find ourselves captivated by Jesus Christ.

The Book of Haggai is a series of four messages, each given at a specific time and place. The reading we had today is actually two messages, given twenty-three days apart, but they are seen as a unit because they start and finish with the dating, they start and finish with the mention of the same specific people, and by structure. In verse 2 We have what the people say, then what God says, the people’s actions in response to Haggai appears as a narrative in verse 12 then we have God’s reaction in verse 13-14.

The year we are given is the second year of king Darius. Darius came to power in 550bc in a time of turmoil in the Persian Empire and his first period of reign was full of dealing with rebellions, it was also a time of economic hardship caused by heavy taxation. It was the first day of the sixth month, which is the beginning of the grape, fig and pomegranate harvests in Judea, the first day would have been the new moon festival, and the civic leaders represented by  Zerubbabel, a descendant of the Davidic kings and the governor of the region and the religious leaders, Joshua the high priest and all people would have gathered to pray for the pending harvest and it is at this gathering that Haggai speaks.

He starts by what the people are saying, “The time has not yet come to rebuild the temple”. They would have been gathered amongst the ruins at the site of the temple to worship. The state of the temple would have been obvious to them. They had come back from Babylon specifically to rebuild the temple and to once again constitute themselves as God’s people, a worshipped and witnessing community. They would have had many good reasons, why it wasn’t time to rebuild the temple. They were struggling to make ends meet, there was political and economic turmoil, would it be seen as a sign of revolt against Persia. The harvest was due, then the planting and the tending and all the other things that just seemed to demand their time. They had to get a head, was it really a priority. It is easy for us as well to make those kinds of decisions about the priority in our life where we place our faith and identity as God’s people. It is not the right time. We can find so many things competing for our time and attention… in fact the people gathered there had been saying the same thing for about eighteen years at this stage, as various small groups had started to come back to Jerusalem with their focus on re-establishing the city and the temple and their religious identity, but it was never the right time…  

Then Haggai tells the people what God says. God asks the question is it right for the people to live in their panelled houses while the temple is in ruins? Have they got their priorities right? Now the idea of panelled houses can mean that the houses had roofs on them that they were living in finished houses and the temple wasn’t even started let alone finished. But panelled houses could also mean a degree of luxury was starting to manifest itself in those houses, they were wood panelled houses, and the temple wasn’t even seen as a necessity.

God asks ‘them to think carefully about their ways’. The focus was on their own material wellbeing, not on God and in a series of four images that feel so relevant for today, this is seen as not satisfying them at all. They eat and drink but never seem to have enough, they pile on the clothes but are still cold, they earn wages only to put them in purses with holes. It is a great picture of our own twentieth first century consumer society, that offers us so much fulfilment but in fact does not deliver. Individually it is based on having more to fill the hole inside, and it can simply be a purse with a hole in it that just seems to get bigger and bigger to fit our incomes. Societally, trying to keep that standard of living consumes all our effort and resources and the hole through whish so many people are falling into poverty seems to be growing.

Tom Sines a Christian thinker and futurist talks of the current cost of housing and says that the generation growing up today, and he is talking of the ones at university today will be the first post world war 2 generation who will not be able to afford the same standard of living that their parents did. And if they want to live that same lifestyle in the same kind of house they were bought up in it will shut down all their other options it will consume all their time and resources and even then may be out of reach. You just have to look at the fact that for most people it takes two incomes these days to simply run a household. Sines says for this next generation of Christian young people they will have to make some radical choices between lifestyle and their faith. His challenge is like that of Haggai that we consider our ways very carefully, what is the dream and priority and faith centred life that we pass on to them.  That provides a genuine alternative for the increasingly unobtainable and unsustainable western dream.

Haggai goes on to ask them to again think carefully about their ways. He calls them to go up to the mountains and bring down the wood to start building his house. He uses the imagery of curse and blessing from the Torah to explain what was happening to them. That drought and low crop returns  were things that their covenant relationship at Sinai had said would happen if God’s people did not keep the covenant. He says that the people had been focusing on their own houses their own pleasure and honour, rather than building a house for God’s pleasure and honour. At the heart of their identity as a people and a community was the presence of God, in the wilderness this had been seen as God dwelling in the tabernacle, then the temple was the focal for that. The glory had come down on the temple as Solomon had dedicated it. It was the meeting place between God and his people. As the exiles were taken away to captivity, Ezekiel has a vision of the presence of God leaving the temple and going with them into exile. God had never abandoned his people, now the call is to rediscover that presence and the pleasure and glory of God as the central focus of their community and being a people. They were focused on their own houses, their own pleasure, honouring themselves rather than God. In doing that they were depending on their own resources their own know how, on themselves and it wasn’t working out. They had forgotten that rain and harvest and abundance was a blessing from God. We can try and find fulfilment in life in trying to fill up our lives and focus on our own needs and wants and dreams and expectations and forget that as God’s people, and Haggai was speaking to God’s people, that meaning and purpose and fulness of life, comes not from what we have but from putting God and God’s glory first in our lives. Jesus said we were to put first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things would be added unto us.  We can easily focus on the added on’s hoping they will add up to enough and miss the core.

The great thing is that the people listen to what God brings through Haggai and they begin to build. It starts with a change of heart. The leaders and the people listen and obey, and they once again fear the LORD. Which does not mean that they are afraid of God, but rather they once again have a sense of wonder and awe and reverence for God. Jesus says at the end of the sermon on the mount if you love me you will hear my words and obey them put them into action in your life. That is the person who builds on a solid foundation.

There is a change here between how the people are viewed or how they view themselves. Haggai had started by calling them not God’s people but ‘these people” but now they are called the remnant, there is a sense that they are seen and see themselves as the people God has bought back to Jerusalem, they have owned their identity as God’s people and their priorities and purposes have changed accordingly. They now see that they are a people by grace saved for the purposes of God, rather than a rag tag group of returnees.

Historically, when the church has seemed to move away from its focus on Christ his glory and become simply assimilated into the worldview around them a there have been those who have been willing to step aside and reconstitute themselves in terms a new community. The desert fathers and the Celtic monks were a response to the compromise they saw in the imperial church, they developed practices and routines as a community that reprioritised them on knowing and following Christ. You can see it in the Wesleyan revival and its focus on small groups as a way of maintaining and developing disciplines for a Christ centred life, beyond Sunday worship. Today there is a growth of what’s called new monasticism, communities who don’t necessarily live together, but who hold a shared set of spiritual practices and routines and rhythms through which they want to grow in a Christ honouring way. Simplifying their lifestyle and shared resources and shared sense of mission and outreach is part of that. It is ways they have built a new community together, reflecting that change of priorities that comes from seeing Christ’s presence and Christ’s pleasure and glory as what is at the heart of being a faith community.

The passage finishes with God’s response. As the people have taken the time to carefully consider how their ways, and with the harvest out of the way, They still needed to do those essential things as we all do, but they started to respond by rebuilding the centre of their community together, and  God does two things. God speaks and reassures them that …“I am with You”… The temple was a symbol of that, but the reality of God’s presence is reaffirmed. The abiding presence of God. It’s interesting that the temple they rebuilt here would be the one Jesus entered into the one that at his death the curtain would be ripped in two as a symbol that God’s presence as not longer simply tied to that local but was going to be with God’s people in Christ where ever we are. It was Jesus last words as he commissioned his apostles to be his witnesses and lo I am with you to the end of the age, it was the starting point of the church as the holy Spirit came and filled all the believers gathered in that upper room at Pentecost, and did the same thing with the gentile gathered together at Cornelius’ house in Acts 10. It is what we experience in our lives as God’s people in this time and place as well. 
The second thing that God did was to stir up the spirits of Zerubbabel, Joshua and all the people to build the temple. As they responded to God, God responded to them and re-ignited that passion within them. We’ve just finished looking at 2 Timothy and I can’t help but thing of Paul telling Timothy to fan into flame the gift with him, the presence of God in Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit. How are we to respond to the passage today?   It is a call to think carefully of our ways? Which way are we going. Are we focused on our own houses, our own pleasure and honour, do we need to turn around and look at our priorities? Are they God’s pleasure and God’s Glory, are they about a life and community built round the presence of God with us. As we do that we will find that God is with us, Christ is with us, the Holy Spirit is present, and as we change direction, our spirits will again be stirred up , we will focus again on the pleasure and the glory of God, and seeing his kingdom built up. We will find fulfilment and purpose and meaning in knowing and being known by the God who loves us and showed that love through Jesus Christ.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Reflections on Finishing well from Paul's Final Remarks in 2 Timothy 4:6-22.

Are you a destination person?  or a journey person? Are you all about getting there: achieving the goal or “the getting there”: all about the process.  

Today marks an end for our journey through both the book of 2 Timothy and the pastoral epistles. We’ve been looking at Paul’s letters to his co-workers, Christian leaders in difficult pastoral situations, to give us insight in what it means to be Christian leaders in our own time and our own place. The passage today gives us keys to evaluate where we are in life and to move on in maturity and ministry in Christ. 

We don’t know if Paul is a destination person or a journey person, Statistics tells us more people are more journey orientated, I personally find going on holiday that one of the best parts for me is the driving there, the open road, window down, wind blowing in my hair (well two out three ain’t bad) and this passage does not help us to answer that because Paul reflects both on the destination and the journey, the goal and the process to evaluate his life.

The context is Paul is in prison in Rome awaiting judgement. He had finished giving Timothy a charge to take up his ministry of preaching the word and doing the work of an evangelist in a world of seasons, he is passing on the baton to Timothy. Paul describes his pending death in two ways. The first is “He is being poured out like a drink offering”. A drink offering in the Old testament accompanied a sacrifice, to make a fragrant offering to God.  Secondly Paul sees his death as a departure. This word comes from the military and means the leaving of a naval vessel of an army unit on the order of its commander. Paul sees all his life under the sovereign control of God. We may not like thinking and speaking about death but its is comforting to know that just as we have put our trust in Christ that from beginning to end and on into eternity is in the trustworthy embrace of God’s plans and hands. 

In verse 8 and 9 Paul moves to assess his life. He uses four metaphors from the field of athletics to look at the journey, the getting there. In chapter 3:14 he started his final charge to Timothy  by presenting his own teaching and life as a model for Timothy, he finishes that charge with his life as an example. Just like we might look to a famous athlete for inspiration for our own sporting endeavours.  

He says I have “fought the good fight”, something he had already told Timothy to do. In the ancient Olympiad, competitors had to commit themselves to a nine-month period of training before they could compete, if they didn’t they wouldn’t win and the games would be of a lower standard. Athletes has to make a promise to fight the good fight keep the rules.  Paul is evaluating his life in terms of integrity. That his life, His actions, reactions and words line up with his beliefs. Throughout the pastorals Paul talks of sound doctrine and godly living going hand in hand. Godly living meant a life that reflected the God you worshipped. He had talked of faith, that invisible vertical relationship with God, having it outworking in love, visible horizontal relationships with other people and he sees that his life is an example of that for Timothy and for us. A key as we evaluate our lives is the idea of integrity. Do our lives and faith and beliefs line up?

“I have finished the course”. The tour de France is on at the moment, and each year the race follows a different course through France, some pieces are the same others are different, to win the race you have to stay on course, no short cuts, no detours or distractions or you may not finish. It’s the tour de France not a detour in France.  Paul looks back on his life and sees that he has been faithful to the mission and purpose he has. He has kept the course God had set him. He looks back to his conversion on the road to Damascus, and sees from there on he has been following Christ and Christ’s commission to be an apostle to the gentiles. He can look further and see that as a continuation of his life as a Jew, as the fulfilment of the hope of Israel. A key to evaluating our lives is meaning and purpose. Staying the course that Christ calls us to follow. 

“ I have kept the faith”. Scholars question whether this means that Paul has held on to the content of the faith, the sound doctrine and apostolic teaching, as opposed to the false teachers, or that he is talking of that invisible relationship with God, made possible in Christ. Either way paul is talking of being faithful: A consistent holding on to and guarding the values at the heart of his life. Are you keeping those central core values and beliefs? Are they sufficient like Pauls were for life? 

“Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness”. Paul can see the champions laurel which was placed on the head of the winner of the race. He can see the gold medal. It’s not that he sees he has made it by his own endeavours. The reward comes from Jesus the righteous judge. Paul is not setting himself up as some super athlete here, setting an unobtainable goal for the rest of us. In Romans Paul talks of righteousness as a gift given to us in Christ, we are made right with God through faith, made complete as he is with Christ. He finishes his evaluation by acknowledging that this reward is for all who long for, or put first, the kingdom of God. We too need to evaluate our journey and see how we are travelling, our integrity, our purpose and our core values are they aligned with Christ’s kingdom.

In verse 16-18 Paul evaluates his life in terms of the destination., instead of looking back at the way he has come he tells Timothy about where he is now. He has had a trial, at least a first hearing before the emperor or in the legal system. It is the last chapter of his life. He evaluates that last destination in terms of Jesus Christ. 

 Paul sees his present situation in light of Christ’s life and death. His friends deserting him at his trial, a reflection of Jesus trial. The imagery of God saving him from the lion’s mouth comes from Psalm 22 which from an early time was associated with Christ’s suffering and death. For Paul life was the Christ life and here he finds himself standing where Christ had stood. Christ had said if they rejected him and persecuted him, they would do the same for us. He had lives with integrity, purpose and faithfulness and even in this ignominious end Paul can see his destination is not in defeat but in Christ. 

 Paul knows Christ’s presence with him in that situation as well, Paul’s destination is with Christ. Both as he faces his final suffering but also trusting that Christ will bring him safely to his heavenly Kingdom. If psalm 22, which Jesus quoted on the opening line of on the cross “my god my god why have you forsaken me”, was on Paul’s mind as he wrote this, the fact that it is a psalm that finishes with a great affirmation of God salvation was also on Paul’s mind.

Paul sees that his destination is through Christ as well. That through Christ he has come to completing his mission of sharing the gospel to all gentile nations. Here was Paul able to proclaim the gospel in this trial, at the very centre and core of the gentile world, the very cosmopolitan nature of his audience at court may have made him realise that the message would go out to all peoples. In his news about his co-workers we also see that the gospel was going out to more and more places. He sees that Christ has allowed him to complete his mission. Through Christ he could trust that God would lead his safely through the last chapter as well to his heavenly kingdom.  

Paul finishes this section with a doxology, to Him, Christ, be glory for ever and ever amen. For Paul the destination is seen in bringing God glory. As we evaluate our lives we ask the question is that our focus, our desire. The destination not that we get the Glory but our lives will point people to Christ.

There is a third way to evaluate our lives, to put it in a very kiwi way that is ‘te tangata, te tangata, te tangata… it’s people, people, people. Leonard Sweet puts it like this 

“The real meaning of life is not a journey question or an arrival question. It’s a relationship question. Your journey and your destination are both important, but neither is possible without an answer to this prior question: who do you have with you?”

Paul’s final instructions to Timothy are full of information about and greetings from and for other people. Paul’s life and ours can be evaluated in people. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by that as Paul in the pastorals talks again and again of faith that is worked out in love.

 Pauls list includes people whom he has invested time into and seen them grow and develop into ministry and maturity. His son in the Lord Timothy, who he wants to see once more. While Paul had said they all deserted him, Paul had sent out a lot of those people to further the gospel Titus whom we know a lot about and Erastus and Trophimus who we don’t and Crescens who is only mentioned in scripture here. Luke who stayed with Paul, and may have written this letter for Paul. Tychichus whom Paul sent to Ephesus, possibly with this letter and to be Timothy’s replacement.

Paul is aware that he had not succeeded with all people. He warns Timothy about Alexander the metalworker, who had done Paul great harm. Paul does not seem to bear a grudge here but as he has come to this stage in his life has simply left that in God’s hands. Always with the hope that there will be opportunity for grace. Demas, seems to have left Paul and gone home, because he loved this world more than the kingdom of God. But Paul does not write him off,  he probably has hope he will return. Paul asks Timothy to bring Mark to him, because he useful for his ministry, in Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas had gone their separate ways because Barnabas wanted to Take john mark with them and Paul didn’t think he was up to it as he had left them when the going got rough before. Now he is reconciled with Mark and there is hope for Demas.

 Paul also mentions people who have ministered to and with him. Pricilla and Aquilla, tent makers and fellow apostles who Paul had spent time with. The household of Onesiphorus is mentioned and at the beginning of the letter Paul had talked of  Onesiphorus refreshing his soul, and not being ashamed of Paul’s chains, but coming and finding him in Rome and ministering to him. The fact that his household only is mentioned may mean he had died. Paul asks Timothy to get his cloak, his warm outer garment, scrolls and parchment’s he had left with Carpas at Troas. Scholar wonder what was on the scroll and parchments, but they all agree to Paul’s being given hospitality by Carpas. While Paul’s mentor Barnabas is not mentioned in this passage the fact that Mark is shows he is still benefiting from Barnabas’ ministry. Paul finishes with the people he is simply enjoying fellowship with now, those in leadership like Eubulus, Prudens, Linus and Claudia and all the brothers and sisters.

As we evaluate our lives the riches part is in the relationships we have forged. Of people who have ministered to us and invested into our lives and the people we have invested into and seen grow and develop to take our place.

Are you a destination person or a journey person. Is it about the arriving or the getting there… I suspect that like Paul  its not either or, rather its  “both and” right and wrapped in the rich tapestry of people who Christ has bought into your life. Paul finishes with what could simply be seen as a formality, skipped over like the “yours sincerely” at the end of a form letter. But in the journey and the destination and the relationship here is the hope and promise and the thing that makes the journey possible. “The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you all”. The abiding presence and undeserved favour of God shown in Christ’s life death and resurrection, in us and with us by the presence of the Holy spirit, to lead and to guide, the hope for the future, that it is with Christ. As we evaluate and walk through our lives this is what makes the journey possible, that empowers the finishing well the integrity, purpose and faithfulness, that allows us to trust it will be bought to fulfilment in Christ, and is behind the people ministering to us and whom we minister to.

Are you a destination or journey person… in the getting there, the arriving and the relationships along the way the grace of God be with you individually, and with us all as God’s people.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

God's grace in history now and as a hope for tomorrow: A Prayer of Thanksgiving and Confession

A reminder of God's promise from my kitchen window 
Loving God,

We come before you this morning to acknowledge your great love,

Shown to us in Jesus Christ, the word made flesh,

his life, death and resurrection, Your gracious forgiveness and new life  

Experienced by us through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit

Providing hope in the darkness, as we await Christ’s return

Eternal God,

From before beginning, you were, and are

You spoke and all was created, made and fashioned

You made us in your image for relationship with you

But we turned away and went our own way

You have worked in history, to draw us back to you

Gracious God,

You chose a people for yourself, giving your law

You Spoke through the prophets

Then In Christ you stepped into this world

In Christ we beheld your grace and truth

Christ died win us back, and was raised to give us life

Faithful God,

AS you promised you poured out your Holy Spirit on your people

You dwell with us still, through all of life’s seasons

By The spirit’s presence we are lead into all truth

Christ words are bought to mind and they speak too and through us

You lead and guide us and enable and empower us to show Christ’s love

Righteous God

You are faithful and just, and forgive us our sins,

We confess we have done wrong, and are sorry

We admit we have left your good undone

That our lives fall short of your love and justice

We thank you that you forgive and that we are forgive

Alpha and omega beginning and end

 We place our lives in your hands

We trust you to lead and guide us

Please fill us afresh with your hold Spirit

That we may witness to our hop-e in Jesus Christ to your glory

With a sure and certain hope in the resurrection

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

A short devotion on 2 Timothy 4:22 for a gathering of ministers and elders.

a couple of ordinary ducks are joined by a royal spoonbill a majestic and wonderful bird. Just as we are joined as we move through our lives by the grace of God. (sorry a bit the sentiment is phrased not the Spoonbill). 
I don’t know about you, but the verse I just read out is one that is easy to overlook or forget or even disregard. We can see it simply as the "yours sincerely" that skip to see who the letter is from. Paul uses it in one way or another at the end of all his letters except Romans and Colossians. Often when we preach through a book we will stop before we get to it and in doing so we miss something of the greatest importance. We can miss the blessing of the grace of God.

Going through the letters to Timothy, the thing that stick out to me is the number of imperatives that Paul give Timothy. There is a lot of encouragement, but Paul is very definite about ministry and life expectations. Timothy is sent to Ephesus to counter false teaching, see that things were done in good order, leadership structures set in place, preach sound doctrine and godly living, deal with pastoral issues and social justice, looking after himself spiritually and physically.

Ministry and Christian leadership can feel like a whole list of imperatives of must dos. In our papers tonight we have reports from MSB’s and with one of them there is a good list of ministry expectations. It’s great to have them written out, out in the open and listed, but you and I know that there are a whole lot of expectations for ministers and elders that are never written down on paper or even spoken, but you certainly feel their weight. In fact at the ethics refresher course, which I attended as a result of another imperative, they said the key reason for complaints against leaders was unmet expectations.   In a  small parish they can run from putting the rubbish out, being the church secretary, visiting and pastoral care, leading the band and the worship and the awesome and wonderful  privilege of preaching the word of God... and .. and… on and on…and elders along with that leadership role and all its imperatives have other functions and tasks you do in and for the church.

You can get burned out, caught out, feel put upon, resentful of the time away from family and life, even when you have good boundaries in place…

In the midst of that we need to hear the wonderful life giving message of that final formal short verse. The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you all.

The grace of God in Jesus Christ is the thing that transforms it, that makes it more than simple a to do list.

The grace of God shown to us in the sending of Jesus Christ, his life, his death on the cross and his resurrection. God’s great love shown for us. How we are graciously forgiven and welcomed back into relationship with God and given new and abundant life. The good news that we as ministers and elders are called and set side for, to witness to and proclaim.

The grace of God, because of Christ and through the sending of the Holy Spirit, God’s abiding presence with us. A sure help; as the word paraclete that John uses of the Holy Spirit, tells us a learned friend who draws alongside. At the end of his letter and his life, Paul says that at his trial he was deserted by everybody, but the Lord stood by him and even though he is facing a death sentence he can say he was able to complete his task of preaching the Gospel to the gentiles and that God will bring him safely into his kingdom. The grace of God: God’s abiding and empowering presence.

The grace of God. That future hope of Christ’s return and ultimate victory. In 2 Timothy 4:7-8 Paul uses athletic metaphors to describe how he has lead his life, he has fought the good fight, run the race, kept the faith and he is able to look forward to the winners laurel as well, what he calls the crown of righteousness, Christ’s righteousness made compete in him. The same reward Paul says that is for all who long for Christ’s appearing, who long for and put first the kingdom of God.

The grace of God in the beginning, with us now and awaiting us as our future hope, through Christ, with Christ, in Christ.

Did you notice Paul gives the grace twice. One as a personal blessing to Timothy The Lord be with your spirit, and the other a more general blessing “grace be with you all”. So tonight know the grace of God is for each of one of you individually, hear it in the midst of the imperatives and ebb and flow of life. The grace of God be with you, Christ is with you.

Let’s hear it corporately as well  as a church called to make Christ known, the grace of God is with us all, his presbytery, his region, his mission, his church and people his presence, his grace … Grace be with you all… grace be with us all.

Lets Pray…