July 16, 2017 Sermon
“The Minor Prophets: God’s Kingdom on Earth”
1st Scripture Reading – Haggai 1:1-7
1 In the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest: 2 Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house. 3 Then the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 4 Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? 5 Now therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. 6 You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.
7 Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared.
2nd Scripture Reading – Zechariah 8:14-17, 20-23
14 For thus says the Lord of hosts: Just as I purposed to bring disaster upon you, when your ancestors provoked me to wrath, and I did not relent, says the Lord of hosts, 15 so again I have purposed in these days to do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah; do not be afraid. 16 These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, 17 do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for all these are things that I hate, says the Lord.
20 Thus says the Lord of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, the inhabitants of many cities; 21 the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, “Come, let us go to entreat the favor of the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts; I myself am going.” 22 Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to entreat the favor of the Lord. 23 Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”
“God’s Kingdom on Earth”
As we near the end of our sermon series on the minor prophets – next Sunday will be the last – we move to the third chronological grouping. In case you’ve missed one or more of the previous sermons, let me re-cap:
- The first chronological grouping of minor prophets prophesied before the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel. Through them, God told God’s people they had been violating their covenant with God for centuries, and if they didn’t shape up, in accordance with the covenant they would be forced out of the Promised Land. Remember, even though these prophecies sound harsh – and they WERE harsh – they were delivered out of compassion, to give God’s people a chance to turn back to God and avoid being forced out.
- The second chronological grouping of minor prophets prophesied at least a century later, after the northern kingdom of Israel had been overcome by Assyria but the southern kingdom of Judah had been spared as a result of turning back to God. Unfortunately for Judah, the nation’s leadership had, over the previous hundred years, returned back to the old ways of violating the covenant with God, so God sent another round of prophets to tell them to shape up in a hurry…or else.
Now, with Haggai and Zechariah, we fast forward again about a hundred years. After God’s word through prophets like Zephaniah, the Judeans returned to God for a little while…and were spared destruction, but the Judeans very quickly returned to their ways of violating the covenant. So…God sent Babylon to conquer Judah and its capital of Jerusalem, and Babylon scattered God’s people throughout its empire. About 50 years after Babylon conquered Judah, Persia conquered Babylon, and Persia’s king allowed God’s people to return to the Promised Land, even decreed that they should rebuild the temple.
Some of God’s people returned, very few people actually; for some reason most of God’s people did NOT return. Those who did return STARTED to rebuild the temple: they built the altar and temple’s foundation, but they didn’t COMPLETE the temple. For almost 20 years, the Judeans lost their focus on God and instead turned their focused on themselves and their own well being. HOWEVER, even though they focused on their own prosperity, they did NOT prosper. So God sent a few prophets to shape them up: Haggai and Zechariah.
Through both prophets, God shared the message found in our first reading today from Haggai. God’s people seemingly could not figure out WHY they were failing in everything they did upon their return to the Promised Land:
- They had planted much, sown many seeds, but they harvested little – for some reason their crops were failing year after year;
- They ate and drank, always trying to achieve a sense of feeling full, a sense of having enough – but they never achieved that sense of fullness; they never have enough;
- When it got cold, they couldn’t get themselves warm; no matter how much clothing they added, layer on top of layer, they remained bitterly cold;
- And as they worked to earn money, they put that money into a bag with holes…which means they never had enough money to cover their expenses;
That’s what’s described in Haggai 1:6. But, it’s important to know that what sounds like a description to our modern ears was much more than a description to ancient ears. The language of Haggai 1:6 is the language of what’s known as an ancient “futility curse”. Such curses provided the consequences for violating an ancient treaty or covenant. And the language of the curse explained the frustration that would be experienced by the party who violated the agreement. What all this means is that God was telling the Judeans who have returned to Jerusalem and have been there for about 18-20 years, God is telling them that in such a short period of time, they have ALREADY violated the covenant with God. As a result, anything and EVERYTHING the people attempt will come to nothing. Everything they do will be futile…UNTIL they turn back to God, UNTIL they abide by the covenant with God, UNTIL they focus on God first and themselves second.
Some Christians take God’s word as given through Zechariah and they turn it into a kind of prosperity gospel. If covenant violation, if lack of focus on God, reaps material failure, then getting back to focusing on God will lead to material success, they suggest. Please note: that is NOT what God said. God did not guarantee any kind of success in these words; rather, God said that for a specific group of people, the Judeans who had returned from Babylon, they could not achieve anything but failure UNTIL they rebuilt God’s temple. Rebuilding the temple was not a guarantee of success…but it was a requirement to be met before success was even possible.
If you want to know about the SUCCESS, the GOOD STUFF, that would happen once the Judeans returned their focus to God, our passage from Haggai is not the place to look. Rather, we must turn to our reading from the prophet Zechariah. Through Zechariah, God provided a great vision, a great plan, GOD’s plan, for the future, God’s plan that would unfold when the Judeans fully returned their focus to God.
And God began by describing, by defining, what it would mean for God’s people to return to God. It was MORE than just rebuilding the temple. In verses 16-17, God told the people:
These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for all these are things that I hate, says the Lord.
Interesting, isn’t it? If you ask 100 people today, 100 Christian people today, what it means to return to God, I’m guessing you’d get a great many responses about: coming to worship every Sunday, maybe attending a Bible study now and again, reading scripture, praying, even getting their theology – their beliefs about God – properly aligned…stuff like that. In fact, these are the things people tell ME when I ask them what it would look like to return to God. But what did God say?
THESE are the things you should do:
- Speak the TRUTH to one another. Folks, these words from God 2,500 years ago are pretty spot-on for today, aren’t they? Aren’t we being told in our time to speak what is politically correct, to be “nice” to one another instead of truthful or loving? But even more than political correctness, there’s something else going on; it’s so pervasive that it can’t help but influence us. Turn on the news, and you’ll see people from BOTH political parties declaring every sentence spoken by others to be fake news. In our world today, it seems like too many people are more interested in getting others on their side than they are in speaking truth. But that’s not the way it is where God rules. In God’s kingdom on earth, people speak the TRUTH.
- Render judgments that are true and make for peace. Wow – not just truth, but truth that seeks peace. And not just truth that seeks peace in our words, but also in our judgments. I’m curious: when you hear a person in our society, be it a public figure or an ordinary citizen, ranting about one thing or another, does it feel to you like that person is rendering a judgment that is both true and intended to make peace? And what about in our ordinary lives? Do we – do YOU – go along with your friends because they’re your friends, even spreading rumors and lies about individuals and groups because you feel like that’s what you’ve got to do to remain a part of your GROUP? And do you think tacitly approving of those judgments with your silence or even actively spreading them with your words and actions makes for peace…or something else? (PAUSE) Y’all, it feels like every single week – if not every single day – I read or hear of yet another conviction of the past – a judgment rendered against a human being – that is proven FALSE by new technologies like DNA testing. And it gets me wondering: who spoke falsely all those years ago to convict that person? Who listened on a jury with something other than the intent to render judgments that are true? Well, in our world, these kinds of terrible tragedies happen…you never know when they might happen to YOU. But in God’s kingdom on earth, people wait to make judgments until they know the truth, and then they make judgments that are true and that make for peace.
- Do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath. In our world today, it feels like evil devised by one person against another is ubiquitous; you just can’t get away from it. People who want nothing more than to get ahead will take down anyone who’s in their way. People who don’t want to take responsibility for their own actions will point the finger at someone else. People who crave the wealth of others devise crazy schemes to get that wealth. I’m reminded of a friend of mine in high school – or at least I thought he was a friend – who unbeknownst to me decided that he wanted to date my girlfriend at the time. Rather than pursue her on his own merits, he decided instead to try to get rid of the competition – me…with a plot so crazy and twisted I’m not sure anyone would have believed him had he not confessed. He stole a key to a room in the school building that was typically kept locked, and then he went into the room and stole something from the room. He was caught before he completed his plan, and when he was asked why he stole the key and the item, he confessed he had planned to plant the key and the stolen item in my book bag, so I would get kicked out of school…and he would have easier access to my girlfriend. If he had not been caught and the items would have made it into in my possession, he would have turned me in as a thief, and no one would had believed that I didn’t have the slightest clue what was going on. (PAUSE) As you can imagine, in God’s kingdom here on earth, such plans are NEVER devised…and the kingdom is better for it.
You may have noticed by now that I’m connecting these things that God desires from us with God’s kingdom here on earth. And there are two reasons for that. First, since God’s kingdom is the place where God is in charge and people do what GOD wants and follow GOD’s rules, it only makes sense that in God’s kingdom people are doing the things God says they should do.
But there’s a second reason. Through these two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, God does quite a bit of visioning about a future time, a future kingdom set very squarely on earth, a kingdom built upon the foundation of people following God’s way. And God foretells that once enough people start following God’s way, the place, the KINGDOM, where that happens will be so wonderful, so amazing – particularly in comparison with the kingdom of humanity, the places on earth where people follow the desires of human leaders – God’s kingdom will be so incredibly WONDERFUL that “ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a [citizen of God’s kingdom], grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” Y’all, that’s pretty amazing, pretty compelling stuff. And that’s what WE can be. By “we”, I don’t just mean the universal Church, I mean US, First Christian Church, Grand Junction.
If we start doing everything we do out of a place of truth, out of a place of loving one another instead of scheming against one another, out of a place of rendering judgments that are true and make for peace…our little corner of Grand Junction will be so wonderful, so amazing, that people will come from the corners of the Grand Valley and beyond to be a part of what God is doing through is.
Think about it for a second. The secret to our future success as CHURCH: it’s not about the music; it’s not about the color of the carpet; it’s not about the roof or the parking lot; it’s not about how well the lawn is maintained; it’s not about how good our fellowship coffee tastes or smells; it’s not about how well stocked our library is. NO. Our future success depends ENTIRELY on whether or not First Christian Church, Grand Junction becomes God’s kingdom here on earth.
Because we can’t do coffee as well as Starbucks; we can’t do donuts as well as Daylight Donuts; we can’t do music as well as Garth Brooks or Neil Diamond or anyone who makes music for a living; we can’t do buildings as well as for-profit entertainment businesses. When you get down to it, if we try to be any of those other things – if we spend our time and resources primarily upon them – we’ll always be AT BEST second tier at those endeavors. But the one thing we can do BETTER than anybody else is follow God’s desires, build a kingdom that is not of THIS world. And, you know what? There are more than enough people who are longing for some other kingdom than the one offered to them by the kingdom of THIS world…there are SO MANY people longing for something different and better, something truthful and honest, that when we become that place, they’ll be lining up down 1st Street, past Patterson to the north and Grand Ave. to the south, to get a little taste of God’s kingdom here on earth. Amen.