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Haggai 2.1-9, with Luke 19.11-17
Walking to school the first time on my own... From the perspective of my imagination, I might as well have been Bilbo on an unexpected adventure – trolls, dragons, goblins, wild dogs could be found behind the next tree or around the next corner. Be strong. Take courage. Words that show up in Scripture like a refrain, over and over. In this passage, they are followed by the word "work". "Take courage, O Zerubbabel; take courage, O Joshua; take courage, all you people; WORK, for I am with you ... according to the promise that I made you" (Haggai 2.4).
Israel had gone into exile, the monarchy and the priesthood decimated, the city and the temple destroyed. Now they have returned and they’ve tried to rebuild the temple, but not tried too hard. It is too expensive, it is too difficult; we don’t have the time and we don’t have qualified leadership. And, because it is nothing like what we remember, nothing like what we have lost, it’s just plain difficult to get started.
Unwrapping the gift, our theme for this series of messages: God has something wonderful for you. It may be an awkward time. It may be a transition filled with uncertainty. It may be a moment without leadership or clarity. It may be a period of depression. No matter what moment we are in, God has a gift for us. Last week, we looked at the experience of emptiness as a spiritual practice to make room for the gift of God in our lives. Today, we are reminded that receiving God’s gift is an act of courage. Be strong. Be courageous. And DO something. Take a step. Like last night’s fog, you may not see 5 steps ahead, but you do see 1 step. Take that one step with courage.
About 500 years before the return from exile, David the king, the greatest leader in ancient Israel, was dying. His son, Solomon, was preparing to take the throne. David says to him, "Be strong and of good courage, and ACT ... for the LORD God is with you" (1 Chronicles 28.20). Succession in the ancient world was bloody and uncertain. David has prepared architectural drawings for the first temple – the one destroyed so many years later at the exile – and gathered the building materials. So much is riding on a smooth ascension to the throne. Be strong. Be courageous. Work.
Twenty-two years ago, I made my first visit to someone in the hospital.... "O God, help me. O God, help me."
Most of the time, we know what we need to do. We know it is right, we know that it may even be good, but we are scared. Sometimes, too scared to do it. Sometimes, too scared to step out into the blessing God offers. Be strong. Be courageous. And act!
About 200 years (though the dates here are uncertain) before David the king, Israel was at the edge of the Promised Land, and leaderless. Moses, the great Law-giver, the one who led the deliverance from Egypt known as Exodus, this Moses was dead. Joshua, his right hand for many years, was the new leader, and as yet untested in that role. It fell upon him to lead the nation across the river and to make war on the land of Canaan. "Be strong and courageous. ... Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to ACT in accordance with all the law [of Moses]. ... Be strong and courageous, for the LORD your God is with you" (Joshua 1.1-9). Be strong. Be courageous. And act!
On the verge of each gift, the Promised Land, the Temple of Solomon, the Second Temple, the greatest danger was not the risk of the moment. The greatest danger was fear itself. When analyzing risk, when doing cost-benefit analysis, we often fail to ask the question: "What is the cost of NOT taking the risk? What opportunity is lost to us? What gift is never unwrapped?" FDR said, "There is nothing to fear but fear itself" (2nd Inaugural). Though I do not think it is true in the absolute sense, it carries a ton of practical wisdom. Sometimes, it’s just time to do something. It is time to "Just do it."
A college roommate of mine leads "member care" for an international mission organization. One of the folks that he cares for is a woman who has spent years in Syria, a land now at war with itself, between the forces of President Assad and the various resistance groups in the country. She recently went back to visit with and encourage her friends in Syria, our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. And, she writes, "It was the right thing to do, God-wise, though to human eyes it was crazy. I would rather follow God into the fire because where he is, there is the protection of his presence". Be strong. Be courageous. And act.
About 550 years after the prophet Haggai, we find God in the midst of the next great salvation movement in history. On the night before Jesus’ death, he says to his disciples, "Take courage" (John 16.33). You will feel that you are all alone. Take courage. You will experience persecution, hardship. Take courage. You are not alone, and Jesus overcomes the world. Be strong. Be courageous. And ACT.
Today, in the church calendar, is "Baptism of our Lord" Sunday. When Jesus came up out of the water, he heard his Father’s voice: "You are my Son, whom I love" (Luke 3:22). That is tremendously assuring to hear. What we often miss is that that Greek phrase is the exact same phrase used when God asked Abraham to offer his "son whom you love" (Genesis 22). Baptism assures Jesus of the love and pleasure of his Father. It is also a point of no return. It is the beginning of decisively offering himself, that offering that climaxes on the cross.
And, baptism is a point of no return for Christian people as well. In the ancient world, baptism was the clear point of entry into the Christian family. If you were not baptized, you were just interested in Jesus. But if you were baptized, you declared your faith in very political language. You said, "Jesus is Lord." The language of political loyalty in that era was, "Caesar is Lord." So, to confess your faith in Jesus, to enter the waters of baptism, to receive the gift of God, required an act of courage. Be strong. Be courageous. And ACT.
Here in our nation, we do not face the same kind of danger when we receive the gift of God. But the life of faith requires no less decisiveness. The life of faith still involves crossing that point of no return. Receiving God’s gift is an act of courage, and always will be. Today, no matter what is going on in our lives – grief, uncertainty, transition, depression; joy, clarity, stability, fulfillment – God has a gift for us, a gift for us to unwrap. It may be saying "Yes" to Jesus for the first time, or for a particularly decisive time. It may be stepping out in a new direction in your service to Jesus, visiting in hospitals, for example. It may be taking a risk with the resources of the king (Luke 19.12-17). And, I assure you, not taking the risk, not stepping out in faith, brings greater loss than we would ever lose in stepping out with God. Be strong. Be courageous. Unwrap the gift.