Faith, Acceptance and Work
Sabbath Day Sermon: Saturday 18 January 2003
"Then the word of Yahweh came through the prophet Haggai: "Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house remains a ruin?" Now this is what Yahweh Almighty says: "Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it." This is what Yahweh Almighty says: "Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honoured," says Yahweh. "You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?" declares Yahweh Almighty. "Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house. Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the oil and whatever the ground produces, on men and cattle, and on the labour of your hands" ... Yet now be strong, Zerubbabel,' says Yahweh; 'and be strong, Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; and be strong, all you people of the land,' says Yahweh, 'and work; for I am with you,' says Yahweh of hosts" (Hag.1:3-11; 2:3-5, NIV).
I know a man who is sure that he has thrown his life away through being deceived into making fundamentally wrong choices in career, marriage and religion. He has had moments of deep depression that have alternated with anger and bitter regret. In such circumstances it is tempting to believe that all the good chances in life have passed us by - that it's too late to do anything constructive - too late to find happiness, too late to do something worthwhile, too late to realise in life what Yahweh has planned.
If we're honest, I think we have all had that problem at some time or another, particularly those of us who are older. Indeed you will find, as you talk to people and get to know them better, that everyone of them has done things they have regretted, every one feels they have missed golden opportunities, every one feels that life has cheated them in some way. What's important - however young or old you may be - is not to look back with regret, accept where you are, and move on.
A few years ago I preached to you and suggested that we should thank Yahweh for all our circumstances. It's certainly a biblical teaching. We are told to give thanks for all things (Eph.5.20), both the good and the bad. Admittedly it's not an easy doctrine to live, and I would be the first to admit that I have struggled with it. And yet it is a fact that a person who keeps looking back and complaining can never develop. However discontent we may feel with life, complaining about your circumstances, lost opportunities, failed romances, or whatever, it is a fact that our environment can never be bettered if all we do is to either complain or accept the status quo.
Anyone with a modicum of common sense, plus a little knowledge of history, knows, however, that all the cruelties, injustices, slums, and downright stupidities would have remained had the doctrine of acceptance been the best way for everyone. Common sense tells us that we have to stir ourselves into action, fulfil ourselves, exert ourselves, and "make hay while the sun shines" if we ever want to prosper. Common sense tells us that the weakest go to the wall. And all of these objections to passive acceptance do have a certain ring of truth to them. Nothing in this life is ever achieved by doing nothing.
However, that's not what I am talking about today. I am talking about accepting what comes to us in life when there genuinely are no other choices. There is no peace of mind available, no hidden resource of strength obtainable, and therefore no poise, resistance, nor courage that can laugh in the face of adversity, unless and until a man or woman has learned how to accept what comes to him in life - some of it exceedingly puzzling, some of it downright unpleasant - unless he can accept that somehow it comes within the good purposes of Yahweh.
I want to suggest to everyone today a doctrine which is in some respects universal to all religions, and that is, the way of acceptance. Not blind acceptance of everything no matter what it is, but more in line with the prayer of St.Francis of Assisi: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference". To which I would add, "courage to change the things Yahweh wants me to change", for not all changes are for the better.
The doctrine of acceptance is not, however, something to be believed in on its own. My scripture text for today is: "Be strong ... and work, for I am with you, says Yahweh of hosts". Acceptance of life's circumstances does not mean we should be idle. "Heaven helps those who help themselves," goes one expression. And you may suddenly remember another which says, "God is on the side of the big batallions". Haggai is a down-to-earth, common sense, nitty-gritty sort of prophet. "Be strong and work," might almost be his motto. The religion of Haggai is common sense religion. And you might be tempted to take courage and leap ahead.
However, please pause for a moment. Does enterprise come before acceptance, or acceptance before enterprise? Which way round are we supposed to do things?
To know the correct answer we need to know something about the life and mission of Haggai. Like most of the prophets, his job description was a pretty thankless one. Never were people so dispirited as in his day, the second year of King Darius. The people had tried, and tried, and tried again. Only Yahweh knows how hard they tried. They had in their country a housing program, an agricultural program, and a money program - but nothing ever seemed to prosper. Nothing ever seemed to work. This is what the scripture says: "You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it" (1:6). Depressing, isn't it? You can almost see the people Yahweh was talking to through His prophet: drab faces, drab clothes, dead eyes. Depressed. Worn out. In your mind you can picture these listless souls crying bitterly from out of the depths of bitter disappointment: "I'm just not getting anywhere at all."
All this was 17 years after the Jewish exiles came back from Babylon with a song on their lips and a light in their eyes. All bright-eyed and hopeful, they had rolled up their sleeves, sharpened their tools, and enthusiastically launched themselves into rebuilding their desolate land. But there was no rain and the crops were almost non-existent. What was even worse, Yahweh seemed determined to undermine their noble enterprise: "You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away" (1:9).
So what do you do? What can you do when people are disheartened? What can you do to lift them up to work, live and laugh? Do you just tell them to "work, live and laugh"? Well, probably not ... not if you have any heart, and certainly not if you have any brains. How will they do the very things they cannot do? If all you have to say is: "Pull yourself together" or "Chin up and smile", they will answer blankly with the truth: "Why? Why should I? What difference will it make?"
Surely here is the blunt truth about us human beings. We wilt if we feel we are forsaken. Look at the unloved man, the unloved woman. They wilt, they lose heart in their clothes, they lose heart in their work. The truth is, we start to stir when we feel it is worth the effort, don't we? We rise to life when someone else cares for us.
And so the first message of any believer to an unbeliever, or a flagging believer, must never be: "Do this" or "do that". The first utterance we must make to such a person is: "Yahweh is a Father who loves you, and loves you so much that He sent His Son to die for you, and you matter to Him always." That is the heart and life blood of the Christian message. And you won't be able to "work and be strong" until you have discovered that to be true.
Let's hear Haggai the way he is supposed to be heard. Let us hear him as those men and women of Judea heard him 520 years before the Messiah came, hearing as they stood with horny, blistered, work-worn hands propped up by their tools. It was not the call to work that made then try again; it was the reassurance of the fact that Yahweh was with them still: "Be strong and work, for I am with you, says Yahweh-Sebaoth".
And still people don't understand. They show you their setbacks, they describe their loneliness, they speak of their frustrations that make life seem so very empty. And of course we should not try to rationalise these things away. You know, even ministers know these things ... more often than you might realise. And yet we must teach and preach the doctrine of acceptance, the faith that even these frustrating facts come somehow in the providence of Yahweh. "I am with you," says Yahweh-Sebaoth, Yes, in spite of these setbacks, even co-operating with these setbacks, for His ultimate purposes of good. He says: "I love you. I care for you. I will never leave or lose you." This is the message of God's Word. This is the constant message of the Scriptures. We may protest against it because it does not meet our expectations or demands at any one moment in time; and yet those who have ears to hear this truth will, no matter what his setbacks, rise up to live his life again. And you can see it.
Now I am sure you would like some confirmation if the truth of the doctrine of acceptance. Look at the Scottish Presbyterian Calvinists, the spiritual children of John Knox. Were they a lazy people? Were they an unenterprising people? What kind of people were largely responsible for the settling of the North Americas? Hard, determined workers. You see, acceptance of a plan of Yahweh for human life on earth does not result in laissez faire - unrestricted freedom. It results in the reverse. If Yahweh loves me, I shall not wilt, but rise to meet Him on the way. And I am no Calvinist, as you all know, for all the respect I have for that man of Geneva. But I most certainly believe in a providence of Yahweh which makes for human enterprise - for purpose, energy, and contentment.
So we return to Haggai again. What does he tell them? "Go up to the mountains," He said to those dispirited people, "and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honoured". In other words, He told them to reconstruct the temple - the sign of His presence in their midst. Then you will have life, then you will have energy, then you will prosper. And they did go up to the mountains, and they did bring timber, and they did build the temple and they did prosper. Not all at once, but in due time. In fact, it's the only way. First faith, then acceptance, then enterprise (work).
So whatever you do, don't reject this doctrine of acceptance, because it makes for peace of mind, and it makes for industry and enterprise. "Be strong and work, for I am with you, says Yahweh of hosts." Or to use the words of the apostle Paul, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is Yahweh who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose" (Phil.2:12).
So why didn't the Judeans rebuild the temple sooner? Why did they have to wait for disappointment and divine rebuke? Because like all men who listen to the flesh instead of the spirit, they kept postponing. They kept saying: "Not now, later." They procrastinated. They delayed. Theirs was the typical reply of the unbeliever: "Some other time, maybe". And that's why Yahweh referred to them as "this people" rather than "My people". Notice that the people didn't say building the temple wasn't important - rather they said the right time hadn't come.
They were wrong. Salvation is never tomorrow - salvation is today. "Today is the day of salvation" and every time they postpone it, they bring trouble on themselves. Living a life without Yahweh's presence is a pretty risky business, whether on earth or in heaven. If you want to be fruitful in the spiritual life, you have to build the temple - not the Old Covenant building of bricks and stone, but the New Covenant building of people. The message of Haggai to us is this: if you neglect the Church - the Assembly - the Messianic Community - and worry about your own business, no matter how much you believe in Christ, your efforts will be in vain, because the Kingdom of Yahweh is about people working co-operatively in a common cause. Every one of us - you and I - are pillars in that temple. And for it to hold, those pillars have to be properly made. We need to be discipled and to respond to that discipling.
Now what is that Messianic Community? What is the Church? Is it just evangelising? Is it just teaching? It is these things to be sure but it is also nation-building. The Messianic Community is Israel. We may not be in the Holy Land right now, and we may not have theocratic government yet, but we do have our homes, and if we are living in communities of fellow believers, we have those too. We must first start with ourselves and accept that Yahweh loves us and is with us. Then we must co-operatively reach out as families and help each other build a home we are proud to make into a Temple of Yahweh. Then as families we can help other families in our community so that they, co-operatively working with us, can attain the same goal - to build Zion.
If you have been working hard and seen no results and are dispirited, stop a while, and ask Yahweh to reveal His love for you. Search the Scriptures and witness how He loves. Then go to Him in prayer and ask Him to confirm it to you in the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit). Then start putting your life together by repenting of sin, quitting it, and obeying His commandments - His Torah. And help others do the same. Help each other. Build one another up. Once you know that Yahweh loves you, enough to send Yah'shua (Jesus) to die for you to give you the possibility of eternal life, your perspective will change, you will find new hope, and work will become a joy to you, for you will know you are building His Kingdom. Amen.
This page was created on 24 January 2003
Last updated on 24 January 2003
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