Sunday, November 06, 2016

The Shaking of God’s Presence

I must tell you up front that the title (“Already—Not Yet”) you see in the bulletin and the direction that the sermon takes may be only loosely related at best. I had Remembrance Day in mind for the Already: that aspect of the coming of God’s Reign that was inaugurated in the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. We remember what has been. As we remember the heroism and courage of those who have died in service of their country, we remember the even greater love expressed in God’s gift of Jesus, the Son of God, who came and died and rose “for our sin and for our salvation”. I had All Saints Day in mind for the Not Yet: that aspect of God’s reign that still remains to come in fullness with the return of Jesus. As we anticipate reunion with our loved ones who have died, we think of that great crowd of witnesses before whom we run our race.

Then I read the texts again as I attended a conference this week, and the combination of the texts and the conference gave me the direction that we will go this morning. If it fits with my first thoughts above, that will be a gift of God’s grace. So we turn to the texts and ask what they say to us today.

Haggai 1:15b-2:9
In the second year of King Darius, 1 on the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: 2 “Speak to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, to Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people. Ask them, 3 ‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? 4 But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 5 ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’
6 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. 7 I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. 8 ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 9 ‘The glory of this 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.”

In contrast with the prophecy we read last week from Joel, Haggai gives precise specifics: In the second year of King Darius; on the 21st of July (to use our seventh month); Haggai speaking to Zerubbabel. The generality of Joel allows us to hear prophecy as applying to all of us; the precision of Haggai reminds us that God works in specific space and time with actual people. In Haggai the context is set in Judah among those who had returned from exile in Babylon. Cyrus ordered the return (Ezra and Nehemiah), and Darius continued it. Now Haggai encourages the exiles to proceed with rebuilding the Temple (verse 3). Verses 6 to 9 then describe a shaking of the nations that leads to the rebuilding of the Temple as the symbol of God’s full presence with God’s People.
Note: The NIV says, “and what is desired by all nations will come”, while other translations talk about the treasure of the nations being brought into the Temple. I work with both ideas in my remarks.

The full presence of God’s glory brings in God’s peace—which suggests that we have here a picture of the final consummation of all things. Similar passages in Isaiah and Micah talk about beating swords into ploughshares and the lion and lamb lying down together. These are all images of a peace beyond human understanding.

So we move on to 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. 3 Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. 4 He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.
5 Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? …
13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.
16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

Paul wrote his letters to the Thessalonians (writing with Silas and Timothy) somewhere around 50 a.d., so that these are perhaps the first books of our New Testament to be written. Chapter 2 focusses one of Paul’s primary concerns in these letters: To respond to those who thought that Jesus had already returned. He says that instead of “the Day of the Lord” (verse 2), they are in a period of rebellion in which the “man of lawlessness” is being revealed. This time of trouble [compare to Haggai’s “shaking of the nations”] has begun, but also still lies primarily ahead.
Note that the verses in the text refer to the future coming of the rebellion and of the man of lawlessness, while I take this period of rebellion to have already occurred. I base my reading on the way that verse 7 speaks of the period of lawlessness as having already begun. This already-not yet quality of the rebellion parallels the already-not yet character of God’s reign.

Verses 13-17 then encourage the Thessalonians to live according to the gospel and the teachings of Jesus, so as to share in “the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” at the end of all things. That is, as in Haggai the shaking of the nations leads to the establishment of the Temple, which is the body of Christ.

Luke 20:27-38 recounts a controversy concerning the reality of the resurrection.
27 Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. 28 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”
34 Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

Linking Luke’s account of the controversy of the resurrection with the first two passages, one notes that the internal religious debates between the Pharisees and Sadducees shook the Jewish people so that the living God was revealed to them. God is indeed the God of the living and not of the dead—God of the Jewish People in Luke’s Gospel and our God as well, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the God of our time and all people in the world today. We will not say more about this controversy, but move to a synthesis based on this idea of “shaking”.

There are many pieces one could explore in these passages. “The God of the living and of the dead” is a theme worth pursuing, but we leave it aside today. The theme of the “man of lawlessness” (or the “man of sin”) is also of interest, a figure I take to be roughly synonymous with the anti-Christ, a recurring character in human affairs rather than simply a figure at the end of time. I take this figure to be someone who presents himself/herself as a follower of Christ and at the same time undermines God’s reign by acting completely against God’s reign—you can fill in names that fit the description yourself. Again, I leave this theme aside to return to Haggai’s words about the shaking of the nations so that the desire of all nations shall come.

Haggai 2:6-7 states: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the LORD Almighty.”

Paul puts it in 2 Thessalonians 2: “Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.” Note that I understand Paul to be pointing at what they saw around them—not to say that therefore now the end is here, but to say that the end of all things has begun (what we have called the “already-not yet”). The letter as a whole makes it clear that the return of Christ has not come. We are to live in anticipation of the End, but not to assume that it has occurred.

Common to both of these is the theme of shaking—the sense of chaos and threat that is common to our day as well. In “The Messiah” Handel combines Haggai with Malachi 3, thus: “Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts: Yet once a little while and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations; and the desire of all nations shall come. The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the Covenant, whom you delight in; behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of hosts. But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire.”

The Old Testament uses this theme repeatedly—that God shakes, purges, refines us in order to bring about what is good in us (the desire of all nations). Thus the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation”, suggests a purging and refining action to that fire: “When through the fiery trials they pathway shall lie,/ My grace all sufficient shall be thy supply./ The flames shall not hurt thee, I only design/ Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.” The hymn writer goes beyond Isaiah 43 (his source for the image of the fire), but captures accurately the sense of this idea through Scripture.

The Contemporary Scene
This brings me to our experience in the present. We sense the shaking of the nations, from a rattled economy to political fears, from unstable regions where violence prevails to the reality of personal loss. I think of a friend whose mother just died: She and her husband are plunged into grief and loss without warning, shaking their world to its core. When C.S. Lewis died, his old friend Tolkien said, “So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age—like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”

This is the way of our world. No matter how secure we feel at any point, threats lie around the corner and we can find our world shaken to its core. When that happens, we find out what we truly desire; we find out what is “the desire of the nations”—or at least what it is we most desire. What is “the desire of the nations”? In Haggai it is the Temple, the symbol of God’s presence. In our world, it is the presence of God the Creator, who comes to us in the person of Jesus, the Son of God. I speak as a Christian, and I know that those who are not Christians will not agree that I have expressed their desire. They may be right. I can only say what I believe to be true.

David Garrison has written a book on this theme title, A Wind in the House of Islam: How God Is Drawing Muslims Around the World to Faith in Jesus Christ. He states that in the years before 1900 there was perhaps one effective movement of Muslims into Christian faith. In the 1900s there were perhaps 10 such movements. In the first 12 years of this century there have been, by his count, at least 69 such movements. His web page states (
In this new global study, Dr. David Garrison reveals that the first Muslim movement to Christ did not occur until the 19th century, more than 1000 years after Muhammad’s message first echoed from the minarets of Medina. This first movement was followed by a further 10 Muslim movements to Christ in the late 20th century. But something now is happening. In the first 12 years of the 21st century, we have already seen more than 60 new Muslim movements to Christ!

Leaving aside questions of how he defines a movement, it is clear that across the Muslim world God is shaking the nations, and some people within these countries are discovering Jesus the Messiah, Isa al-Masih.

I encourage you both to read the stories and to increase your own interaction with Muslims and other immigrants in Canada. I warn you also that they bring us the temptation to respond with a sense of triumphalism. We may cheer as if we are playing a game of football and our side just scored a touchdown. That kind of response undermines “the desire of the nations”. This is not a game, but an intense search for meaning and power to live in our world. We are being shaken, and God wants to bring us closer to Jesus, God’s Son—to reveal Jesus within us.

That is my closing word to you. Embrace the shaking of the world around us and of our own inner worlds as part of God’s work to bring to completion our desire to know God better. Paul prayed for the Thessalonians, and I pray for you: That God will teach you to know him better, to love him more fully, and to serve him with your whole hearts, until the Day Christ appears.

Grace Bible Church
6 November 2016

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