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One of Jennifer Phillips' early sermons given at St. Marks Methodist Church in Napier New Zealand in the 1980's - the only surviving audio as tapes of her later sermons were stolen and ruined. Only the sermon notes still exist.

Learn from the mistakes God's people made

In this sermon I would like to talk about some of the mistakes that a group of God’s people made in the past so that hopefully we won’t make the same mistakes but will learn from them. This is one of the reasons why the Scriptures have been written for us.

Now to give you some background.
God had allowed some of his people to be exiled into Babylon because of a variety of things that they had done. I will mention two of them here. Firstly, they wanted to worship the same way that the nations around them did and secondly, when God sent his prophets to speak to them they wouldn’t listen. So Jeremiah prophesied that they’d be exiled, taken into captivity for 70 years. At the end of that 70 years, God stirred up King Cyrius in his first year of reign to send out a message to all of God’s people and basically He said, that God had given him, King Cyrius, the responsibility of building a temple in Jerusalem (Nebabacaneza had destroyed it). King Cyrius said that all of those who were God’s people were to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. If any of God’s people in exile needed help, his neighbours were to give him what he needed in the way of supplies, money and pack animals to do the job. And he said, “May your God be with you.”

The command was sent out everywhere and most of the people obeyed, returning to their houses, which had been partly demolished as well when Jerusalem was torn down.

They began working on the temple and when they had built the foundations everyone celebrated praising God, everyone except a few of their enemies that is. Now these enemies came and discouraged the people of Judah. They frightened them off from building. They hired councillors to frustrate their council all the days of the Emperor Cyrius. Now it’s interesting what their enemies did next. They wrote to King Artekircsus saying "Check the records and see what a rebellious city Jerusalem is. If we let them build this temple, build up Jerusalem, they will stop paying taxes." They were saying, "Look at the negative side of things. Check the record and see the negative side of things." Well King Artekircsus listened and he issued a new decree to stop the Jews from building. This encouraged these enemies of the Jews so that they took up arms and forced the Jews to stop.

So what did the Jews do? Here they were with some sort of conflict, some sort of resistance, hindering them from doing what God had told them to do. They had a big problem. Some of them were probably completely fed up and frustrated and we know that some where discouraged. Some of them may have been quite angry. How would we feel if people were saying negative things about us? How would we feel if somebody kept discrediting what we were saying, or bringing what we said and did to nothing?
Well, they did what many people do when faced with a conflict or some form of resistance. They sought to avoid it. Do you do that? Do you tend to avoid the conflict?
There is a lot they could have done but they didn’t. They could have sought God’s help and counsel. They could have asked the King to check the records and see the positive side of things, that they had been given the authority to do this work, but they didn’t. They didn’t find out how best to resist the enemy. They just gave up. They didn’t stand their ground even though they had the authority to.

Why did they react to conflict in this way? Was it fear, fear of the enemy’s weapons, all the “arms” they had or maybe it was no fear … no fear of God? Had they forgotten the word of King Cyrius? Their work of building the temple was supposed to enhance their relationship with God. But as we will find out later it was as though they didn’t even have a relationship with God, they didn’t know who He really was, that they could trust His word and stand their ground when doing what He had commanded them to do through the Emperor.

Maybe anxiety about what they thought was important, ruled. I can imagine them looking at their own houses, which had been partly demolished when Jerusalem was torn down and saying “Look we have spent five years on this. Let’s get on with our own houses now. If we don’t get some crops in, we won’t have anything to eat. Let’s get our own house in order first and then we can build God’s house.”

Maybe it was fear of hard work, the task just looked too big. They had been encouraged to take part in the activities in Babylon, to join in the commerce and become a part of the culture during their exile and life wasn’t too bad. But they come back to a broken down battlefield that needed a lot of work to rebuild.
When we read what the prophets said later, I think that maybe their hearts just weren’t really in the job. They forgot God’s plans and they made their own. It was no longer God’s house first but "our houses" full stop.

What about us? Do we react to conflict in similar ways? Do we avoid conflicts? Peace at all costs? Do we let fear dictate to us what we will do. Before he was a King, King David had every reason to fear. He had the threat of death like a shadow of evil, a shadow of death hanging over him with King Saul chasing him and trying to kill him. How did he deal with this problem? Did he let negative self talk rule? Did he let the fear dictate what he would do? No, he confessed the truth. He said, "The Lord is my Shepherd, though I pass through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. I will fear no evil for thou art with me." He knew his God so he didn’t give in to fear. He replaced the fear with positive self talk, the truth. “God is with me.”

What do we do when the enemy of our soul reminds us of our horrible past record. “Check the record and see what a ‘rebellious’ person you are.” What does the enemy accuse you of? Past sins? According to the record of God’s word "If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." So we can remind ourself of that record.

What do we do when we have a problem, when things get tough, when we feel discouraged? Do we give up or do we choose what we think is the easiest option?

God had released His people from captivity to work for Him but they got stuck into working for themselves and they got stuck. The harder they worked the bigger the hole in their purses became. Have you ever had that? The more money you earn the more your expenditure comes up to meet it so you feel as though you are no better off. Well, that’s the sort of thing that was happening to God’s people. But it is interesting that God said that he smote them and every work of their hands with blasting wind, mildew and hail and so they didn’t have enough to satisfy themselves. God saw to it that only when they obeyed him they were satisfied and had plenty. But God’s people didn’t recognise the signs and return to Him. So God sent two prophets Haggai and Zachariah to speak to them.
Haggai, Verse 4. "My people, why should you be living in well built houses while my temple lies in ruins. Don’t you see what is happening to you?"
Other translations say Consider your ways. You have so much corn but have harvested very little. You have food to eat but not enough to make you full. You have wine to drink but not enough to get drunk on. You have clothing but not enough to keep you warm. And the workingman cannot earn enough to live on. Can’t you see why this has happened? Now go up into the (this one says hills, and the other translation says mountain) get timber and rebuild the temple and then I will be pleased and will be worshipped as I should be. You hope for large harvests but they turned out to be small and when you brought the harvest home I blew it away. Why did I do that? Because my temple lies in ruins while everyone of you is busy working on his own house. That is why there is no rain and nothing can grow. I have brought drought on the land, on its hills, cornfields, vineyards and olive orchards. On every crop the ground produces, on men and animals and everything you try to grow.

So he’s saying, "Take a look at your life. What are you doing? Consider your ways. Stop living to please yourself, building up your own house, your own self-image, your own reputation. Bring glory to God’s name. Cause his reputation, image and house to be respected and known. Put some effort into building God’s house. Spend time preparing." Zachariah prophesied similarly saying, “Return to me that I may return to you. Don’t be like your fathers who didn’t listen or give heed to what the Lord said.”

Well, what happened next? God loves his people and after letting them experience the leanness of their own ways, stirred them up again. Zerabable and Joshua arose and began to rebuild the temple and the two prophets supported them. Then God encouraged them saying "I am with you." He told them to look back and take notice of things. For from the day that they decided to do God’s work they would have plenty. Well, was this the end of their troubles? No (This side of heaven God’s people always have an enemy). But this time His people didn’t run away. They didn’t give up. They politely told the officials to check the records to see if King Cyrius had given them authority to build or not. The result was that King Darius, who was the King at that time, issued a new decree telling their enemies to leave them alone. Not only to leave them alone, but to give from his own treasury everything that they needed to do the job, money, supplies, whatever.

We are told that the elders of the Jews were successful in building through the prophesying of Haggai and Zachariah. See what an important gift the gift of prophecy is? We need that prophecy today, don’t we? It can help build up the church.

So what else can we learn through this? There is a better way of doing things. Our ways are not God’s ways. God has good plans for us. He created us and designed every one of us for a specific purpose, and we won’t be fully satisfied until we start fulfilling his plans. So we need to find out what his plans are for us. Seek his counsel on all matters and do it. There is work for everyone. In fact there is more work than there are willing workers. So whose house are we concentrating on? Are we spending our time doing his work or our work? Now our houses are only temporary buildings, but sometimes we treat them as though they are going to be there forever and we make them as grand and as beautiful as we can spending all our money and time on them.

Let’s have a look at Mathew 6 Verse 31 on page 11 of the New Testament. "So do not start worrying where will my food come from or my drink or my clothes." Take notice of this. “These are the things the pagans are always concerned about.” Are these the things God’s people should be concerned about? No. Your father in heaven knows that you need all these things. Instead be concerned above everything else, with the kingdom of God, the building of God and with what he requires of you and he will provide you with all these other things. So do not worry about tomorrow. It will have enough worries of its own. There is no need to add to the troubles each day brings. Now, that doesn’t mean to say that we are not going to have moments of anxiety. We all have those come upon us. But what do we do with them. Do we take them to the best counsellor in the universe who is right here with us? Or do we just carry on being anxious?
Jesus said. "Don’t be anxious," "Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you." Our top priority should be our relationship with God.

Now just imagine if your husband went out to work and he considered the work and getting you things more important than you. Or imagine how a wife feels when her husband spends all his time at work. She might think he considers it more important than their relationship. Sometimes we do this with God. Sometimes we think the work that we are doing is so important that we forget that really it is only there to enhance our relationship with God, well really it only comes out of our relationship with him. We don’t think it consciously but this is what soemtimes happens.

Our time is very short on earth. We can spend our time just earning money and that’s all we really think of....or we can look at the job in terms of what God wants us to be doing through it. Now you older people know life goes very quickly, don’t you? Did you ever think it would zap away like that? No. Let’s have a look at James 4 on page 287. "Now listen to me you who say today or tomorrow we will travel to a certain city”. Verse 13. “Where we will stay a year and go into business and make a lot of money. You don’t even know what your life tomorrow will be. You are like a puff of smoke.” That’s what we’re like, a puff of smoke which appears for a moment and then disappears. What you should say is this; "If the Lord is willing, we will live and do this or that. But now you are proud and you boast. All such boasting is wrong. So then a person who does not do the good he knows he should do is guilty of sin."

Now where did God’s people get what they needed to build? They were told to go up into the mountain. Isaiah tells the bearers of good news..... and we are bearers of good news too.... to get up onto a higher mountain and not to be afraid. Isaiah also said, "Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord to the house of our God and he will teach us his ways and we will walk in his paths."

Where do you get what you need to do God’s work? Up on the mountain. And the mountain is usually significant of the presence of God. The mountain was thought of as a place where God dwelt. So go into His presence. God wants us not just to go into his presence to find out what to do, but to abide in him. To get into God. Not only God getting into us but us getting into God. Being filled with the spirit... and then you will know what he wants.... and then you will have everything you need to do the job. So we need to just remember that our relationship with God is more important than the work, but that doesn’t mean to say the work is not important at all. The work is supposed to enhance our relationship with God. The temple was going to be a place where God’s people could worship him.

Right, what else can we learn from this? What is God saying to us today?
Don’t be put off or discouraged when you encounter difficulties along the way. God has an answer. "Through our God we shall do valiantly". It is "He who will tread down our enemies". We don’t have to put up with or agree with every thought that comes into our minds either. We need to check them against the record of God’s word. And in order to stand we need to know what the record says. Build our lives on his word. It was the wise man wasn’t it, who built his house upon the rock? The rock of Jesus’ teachings. So we need to get to know what God says so we can stand upon it as George was saying – get to know his promises.
Psalm 1 says "How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked." That’s what the Jews did. They accepted the decree from King Articurskus, even though they had been given authority to do the work by God. So they walked in the counsel of the wicked.

The bible says, "How blessed is he whose delight is in the law of God and in his law he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree firmly planted. He will be able to stand by streams of water and he will bear fruit at the right time. They will succeed in all they do." That’s a wonderful promise isn’t it? Those who make the Lord their delight will succeed in all they do.
It also says "Blessed is the man who fears Jehovah." Not fears his enemy. Fears Jehovah. "Delighting greatly in his commands. His seed shall be mighty on earth." Now blessed! We have had lots of teaching on blessedness, haven’t we? And it means being right. It means happy. There’s nothing wrong with happiness. We can be happy as well as joyful. It means happiness. It means relieved. It means prosper. It means to be straight… going straight forward. How much we miss out on. How much happiness….how much joy when we don’t let our Lord have his place as Lord. How much we miss out on when we don’t let Jesus be our number 1 interest … our greatest delight. God’s ways are good. I found out by my own experience. His way, His plans are far better than mine. His plans are satisfying. So, let’s help each other to build God’s kingdom. May his rule as King increase.