The Blessings of Obedience
June 1, 1997
A few weeks ago someone sent me the following prayer, written by a man named Frank Morris. It’s from something called Frank’s Daily Chuckles. It’s one of those things that makes you laugh and then makes you think:
So far today, God, I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper, haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, over-indulgent, coveted my neighbor’s spouse or taken your name in vain. I’m very thankful for that. But, in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed. And from then on, everyone that I encounter will probably need a lot of help from you. Amen
I smiled when I read that because it’s so typical of most of us. The Christian life wouldn’t be very hard if we could stay in bed all day. It’s all that stuff that happens after we get up that gives us problems.
If Only We Could Stay In Bed
This morning I want to talk to you about the blessings of obedience. My sermon is really about all that stuff that happens after we get out of bed and the struggles we have each day to obey God. In preaching this sermon I’m going to make two assumptions. First, I’m going to assume that most of us on one level truly want to obey God. That is, as Christians we want to do the right thing and we want to please our Lord if we can. In putting the matter that way I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt. It’s always easy to question motives but this morning I’m going to start with the assumption that in your better moments you truly desire to please God.
My second assumption is that no one obeys God all the time. As James says, “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). That little prayer is basically right. Gossip is no problem until we hear something juicy. We never lose our temper as long as we’re not around other people. We’re usually not grumpy or nasty until someone gets under our skin. We do OK as long as we’re in bed, it’s the stuff that happens after we get that gets us in trouble.
Obedience isn’t easy, is it? Or perhaps I should say that it’s easy in theory but difficult in practice. This week one of the ladies of our congregation asked a friend, “Do you ever get upset with people for no reason at all?” The friend answered yes—as most of us would have to do. Even though we mean well, we all sometimes growl at perfectly innocent bystanders—like spouses, children, friends, and co-workers.
In truth as much as we’d all like obey God, it’s easy to say than it is do to. That’s something the Jews of Haggai’s day found out rather quickly. If you remember, after 16 years of delay, they finally began to rebuild the temple. With great enthusiasm they launched into the project. Within a month they got discouraged and Haggai encouraged them to continue. Two more months passed and the people were downcast again and feltl like quitting. This time their problem was simple. God had told them they were suffering because of their disobedience. So when they started to rebuild the temple, they expected their problems to disappear. Three months passed and nothing had changed. They still had all their old problems and the temple was a long way from being finished.
So the people began to wonder if it was worth to obey God. After all, if there’s no reward for obedience you might as well live like the devil. So Haggai delivers his third message to the people (2:10-19). In it God speaks directly to people who wondered why things weren’t getting better faster. It’s an important message for anyone who has ever wondered it it’s worth it to serve God.
I. Two Curious Questions 10-13
On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius (which happens to be December 18, 520 B.C.) , the word of the LORD came to the prophet Haggai: ‘‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Ask the priests what the law says: If a person carries consecrated meat in the fold of his garment, and that fold touches some bread or stew, some wine, oil or other food, does it become consecrated?’” The priests answered, ‘‘No.”Then Haggai said, ‘‘If a person defiled by contact with a dead body touches one of these things, does it become defiled?” ‘‘Yes,” the priests replied, ‘‘it becomes defiled.”
Needless to say, these verses sound rather strange to our ears. But everything Haggai said would have made perfect sense to the Jews. They had hundreds of laws governing all aspects of life. Most of those laws had to do with understanding what was holy and what was not. Holy things were objects that had been set apart for God’s use—usually in the temple worship. Because God is holy, only holy objects could come into his presence. An unholy object is not necessarily sinful in itself. For instance a pot might be holy because it was dedicated to the Lord’s use. But the same pot might be used by a housewife to cook a meal and in that case it would be ordinary or common. In particular dead bodies were defiled or unclean and anyone touching a dead body himself became unclean.
With that background these two question come into focus. What if something holy touches something unholy, does the unholy thing become holy? The answer is no. But what if an unholy thing touches a holy thing? It becomes defiled.
We can summarize it this way:
Holy touches Unholy = The unholy object remains unholy
Unholy touches Holy = The holy object becomes defiled
This is really a lesson about the pervasive power of sin. Let me illustrate. Suppose you wash your hand and then touch a dirty plate. What happens? Will your clean hand make the dirty plate clean? No, but the dirt on the plate rubs off on your hand. Now change the image. Suppose your son walks on your clean carpet with dirty shoes, what happens? The dirt on the shoes quickly stains the carpet.
Kissing the Wrong Person
Sin is like dirt. It’s spreads so quickly. Just as it’s hard to keep a house clean, it’s hard to keep a life clean because sin stains everything.
Or consider this illustration. Sin is like a contagious disease. Suppose a person with a cold kisses a person in perfect health. Will the sick person catch health from the healthy person? No, but the healthy person can easily catch a cold from the sick person.
Sin is it like dirt and like disease. It transfers much easier than holiness. Or we can say it another way. Sin is like spaghetti sauce. It stains everything it touches.
II. An Important Application 14
Then Haggai said, “‘So it is with this people and this nation in my sight,’ declares the LORD. ‘Whatever they do and whatever they offer there is defiled.
Here is the application of those strange questions. The key is the word “whatever.” When your heart isn’t right with God, whatever you do will be wrong. You see, God wanted more than a temple built. He wanted the hearts of the people to be fully devoted to him. God didn’t want a big house filled with empty hearts. He didn’t want animal sacrifice unless it was accompanied by a living sacrifice of the people.
Write it down big and plain. You can’t fool God. He isn’t impressed by religious ritual unless it is accompanied by a humble heart.
We may summarize this truth in two crucial sentences:
Holiness is not transferable.
Holiness begins in the heart.
That’s the whole point. God wants your heart because if he has your heart, he’ll soon have every other part of your life. That’s why Proverbs 4:23 says “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” There’s an old gospel song that says, “How about your heart, is it right with God? That’s the thing that counts today.”
So how about your heart? Many of us are concerned about heart disease—and rightly so– but what about spiritual heart disease that is just as insidious? During a heated battle one of Napoleon’s soldiers was shot just above a heart. In those days surgery was done without anesthesia. While the doctor was removing the bullet, the soldier declared, “One inch lower you will find the emperor.” What would we find if we opened your heart today? Would we find Jesus Christ enshrined in your heart?
A Daughter’s Prayer
Recently some friends sent me a copy of a letter their young daughter had written to God. They found it in her backpack. To me it’s a wonderful statement about what it means to love God with all your heart.
Dear Lord, God of Heaven, and maker of the universe, I write this
prayer to you, for you are almighty, powerful, and a wonderful,
awesome God. Lord, I love you sooo much. I want to give you my
life, so that you will change it from sin and sorrow, to faithfulness,
and living in your ways. Thank you for sending your son to die
for me. It is a sacrifice no one will forget…especially me. Lord, I
also thank you for all the gifts you have given me. I pray I will
use them in the way you want me to. Lord Jesus, I know it was
hard for you to die, because it probably hurt more than anyone
could imagine. I cannot imagine dying for a sinner like me. Jesus,
when I get to heaven, I will first ask a question. Lord, I do not
understand about the 3-in-1 thing. That will be my first question.
Thank you for loving and forgiving me, even when I do a terrible
sin. Please help me to grow in your ways and read my Bible and
pray to learn more about you. Amen.
When Jesus said you must become like a little child to enter the kingdom for heaven, I think this is what he meant. Let me ask the question again. What’s the condition of your heart this today?
III. A Reminder About the Past 15-17
“‘Now give careful thought to this from this day on—consider how things were before one stone was laid on another in the LORD’s temple. When anyone came to a heap of twenty measures, there were only ten. When anyone went to a wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were only twenty. I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew and hail, yet you did not turn to me,’ declares the LORD.
In these verses God reminds them of how things were before they began to rebuild the temple. They were going broke—economically and spiritually. Every time they made $100 half of it disappeared. They invested $1000 in a sure thing and within a week they had lost $600. Everything they touched turned sour. Nothing worked right. They entire nation was in an economic decline—all because they had disobeyed God.
But notice the last phrase: “But still you did not turn to me.” That’s all God wanted all along. He wanted his people to turn to him with a whole heart and put him in the center of life. They had pushed God to the circumference and as a result, God has sent blight to their crops and mildew to their souls.
That leads to an important principle we often misunderstand: God disciplines in order to restore, not to punish. It’s true that God was behind their hard times, but he wasn’t doing it just to punish them, he wanted to get their attention and turn their hearts back to him.
This week I read an article about a couple in the ministry who lost their position in a very humiliating way. The wife was very angry over what had happened and was bitter over how she and her husband were treated. She especially resented the fact that her former friends wouldn’t even speak to her any more. Her greatest anger was reserved for God. “I have given my life to be in full-time Christian service. How dare you treat me this way?” she cried out. That night she told God never to speak to her again. The next day she remembered she wasn’t supposed to speak to God and tried not to. Later that day, God spoke to her and said, “You trusted me with your death. Why don’t you trust me with your life?” So she decided to see what God could do. And that was the turning point. From that moment on, she was a changed woman. (This story is found in the article “You’re Fired,” Pastor’s Family, June-July, 1997, pp. 26-28).
So many of us waste hours, days, weeks, months, and even years blaming others for our problems. But after you are through blaming the world for the mess you are in, you still have deal with God. And the quicker you deal with God, the quicker you can get better and move on with your life.
It’ a wonderful thing when you approach life with the knowledge that even in the worst moments God is not out to get you or to hurt you, he simply wants to bring you to a new and deeper relationship with himself.
III. An Encouragement For the Future 18-19
‘From this day on, from this twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, give careful thought to the day when the foundation of the LORD’s temple was laid. Give careful thought: Is there yet any seed left in the barn? Until now, the vine and the fig tree, the pomegranate and the olive tree have not borne fruit. “‘From this day on I will bless you.’”
Notice that the same phrase is repeated twice: “From this day on.” It’s as if God is saying, “The past is the past and we can’t change that. But things are going to be different from now on.” Let’s draw two simple conclusions from this truth:
# 1: Blessings begin the moment we obey
After delaying for 16 years the Jews had finally started to rebuild the temple. But they had a long to way to go and their fields were still barren. I think some of them were wondering if all this talk about rebuilding the temple was worth the effort.
Many of us look at our problems the same way. We feel like we’re so far away from what we should be that it’s easier to say, “What’s the use? Why bother trying? Things will never be different.”
Let me share a little illustration that has helped many people. If you find your life in a bit of a mess today, just remember that you didn’t get where you are overnight. You got there by taking a thousand steps in the wrong direction over a long period of time. Therefore, don’t be surprised if it takes you quite a few steps to get your life back in order again. You normally don’t change your thinking overnight and you don’t break bad habits in one week. Think of it this way. Every day you make thousands of decisions—most of them very small. But each decision either leads you toward the light or back toward the darkness. If you’re life is messed up, you feel like everything around you is total darkness and you wonder if you’ll ever see the light again. The answer is, it depends on you. When you wake up, ask the Lord to help you walk toward the light. Not just in the light but toward the light. If you keep taking tiny steps toward the light of God, little by little the shadows will begin to lift and one day you’ll wake up to the blazing light of God’s presence all around you.
But you’ve got to take those little steps every day in the right direction. So be encouraged. God’s blessings begin the moment we begin to obey him. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
# 2: The harvest will come eventually
All gardeners understand this principle. You don’t plant today and harvest tomorrow. It takes a few weeks for the plant to poke it way through the soil and even more weeks and months for the fruit to ripen for harvest. Historically it took the Jews four years to finish rebuilding the temple. No doubt they faced continued opposition and discouragement all the way along. But by starting to rebuild they were planting fresh seed in the ground. It hadn’t come up yet, but God is saying, “Don’t worry. You’re going to reap an abundant harvest eventually. Just be faithful and I promise the harvest will come in.
This is an important for Christian workers to remember. Sometimes we grow weary in the service of the Lord and wonder if our efforts are in vain. God says, “You plant the seed and let me take care of the harvest.”
“God Loves You and I Love You Too”
This week at the Wednesday noon prayer time Joan Edwards shared a lovely story. For many years she and Frank worked in the Awana program at Judson Baptist Church, one of our sister churches here in Oak Park. If you have ever worked in a program like Awana, you know that all kinds of children attend. Some are well-behaved and others are a handful. And you never know how the kids are going to turn out. Often you lose track and don’t see again for 20 or 30 years. Sometimes you never see them again.
After a recent service at our church a young woman walked up, gave Joan a big hug, and said, “Do you recognize me?” No, she didn’t. Then the woman gave her name and Joan remembered she had been in her Awana club 25 years ago. She had been a real troublemaker in Awana, the kind of kid you might be tempted to give up on. But Joan never did that. She just worked with the girl and prayed for her. She hadn’t seen her for at least 20 years. “I have to apologize for all the trouble I gave you in Awana,” she said. “Thanks for not giving up on me. I remember you saying, ‘God loves you and I love you too.’ I’ve never forgotten those words. That statement has carried me through some rough times in my life.” Today she’s living for the Lord.
Joan related a second story that happened recently when she and Frank were eating at the Thyme and Honey restaurant just a few blocks from here. While they were eating dinner a young couple wiith four small children walked in and sat down at the next table. Joan saw them pray before the meal and then noticed how well-behaved the children were. She went over afterwards to speak to them and to ask if they were Christians. They said yes and then the husband said, “Would you be an Edwards?” Yes. Are you Mark and Joy’s parents?” Yes. The man said, “I kept looking at your husband because many years ago I had to meet him before I could take Joy out on a date.” Frank and Joan hadn’t seen him in years, now he’s raising a Christian family for God’s glory.
Many of us could tell similar stories. We sow and sow and sow and then wait for the harvest. Sometimes when the harvest is delayed we are tempted to despair and to wonder if our work is in vain. Then out of the blue God gives us a little reminder that the harvest comes in his time, not ours, but that nothing we do for the Lord is ever in vain.
Is it worth it to obey God? You bet it is, and hundreds of people here this morning could give testimony to that fact. The moment you begin to obey God, he will begin to bless you life, and the years to come, you will reap a bountiful harvest.
In saying I am saying nothing more than what the Apostle Paul declared in Galatians 6:9, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
What is the secret of obedience? Never give up. Those three simple words will give you hope to keep going. Never give up. Just keep on doing good, keep on serving the Lord, keep on helping others, keep on living for Christ, and in the end you will reap a bountiful harvest.
In the days to come we’ll all stand together before the throne of God and praise our Redeemer for his amazing grace. When that glad day finally comes, no one will have any regrets. When you see Jesus, you’ll never regret serving the Lord. You’ll only wish you could have done more.