Isaiah 64:1-4, Haggai 1:2-8 & Philippians 2:12b-13
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
September 2, 2018
Is it truer to say that God helps those who help themselves or to say that God helps those who cannot help themselves? Maybe they’re both true?
Do we do better to remind ourselves that without us God will not do much or that without God we cannot do a thing? Maybe it’s best to bear both in mind?
Is there more wisdom in the exhortation, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” or in the exhortation, “Don’t just do something, sit there! – and stop, look, listen and learn from the Lord”? Maybe the wise see both having application at times?
Is the Christian life more waiting on God and getting out of His way, or more obeying God and collaborating with Him in His work? Maybe walking with God is like dancing a Texas two-step, one in which we sometimes wait, and sometimes work – and only know when to do which by staying close to our dance partner and allowing Him to lead. In taking the lead, He reveals each moment’s moves, not by a set of rules by which we figure it out on our own, but by a close relationship in which, with the subtle modes of a dance partner, He guides us with gentle touches and quiet whispers?
There is a striking moment in biblical history that coalesces these questions in consecutive verses. Shortly after being liberated from their enslavement, the Israelites found themselves between a rock and a hard place, and perhaps at a dead end. Before them was the deep water of the Red Sea in which they’d surely drown and bearing down on them from behind was the Egyptian army by whose swords they’d surely be slain.
At that point of fatal peril, God by His prophet Moses first commanded them to do nothing but stand back and watch Him work; and then the next moment God commanded them to stir and move on ahead. In Exodus 14:14 they are told to “keep still”; and, in 14:15, to “go forward”. What faith they must have had in order to follow God’s will when it must have seemed to make no sense, and perhaps even to contradict itself!
Half a millennium after that, at another time when God’s people were in peril, the prophet Isaiah encouraged them to just wait for the decisive action of the God who “works for those who wait for him”. By contrast, a century and a half after that, at a third time of peril for God’s people, the prophet Haggai encouraged them to quit waiting and get working on God’s priority assignment: the rebuilding of His house.. God wanted them to work hard on that job even ahead of taking care of their own houses.
Furthermore, God through Haggai warned them that, if they did not work for God first and foremost, God would not work for them so as to bless them in their other labors.
So, Isaiah proclaimed the good news that God aches to work for us who wait for Him; Haggai, the good news that God aches to share with us the joy of working in collaboration. The two truths are not contradictory but complementary, with both involving a trust in God’s wisdom and a devotion to following God’s plan.
We see these two truths woven together in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He insisted that they “work out” their salvation. But who can work “out” what has not already been given and worked “in”? God is, after all, behind our ability to work and our effectiveness in working. Because God has been, Paul says, already “at work” in us, God has enabled us “to will and to work for his good pleasure”. Thus, though we do much – as a derivative response to His gracious initiatives – God in fact does it all – in an originative and ultimate sense.
What we do in faithful obedience matters much. But God only commands us to do what He has already made possible for us to do. And, because God takes us as He finds us, and because we develop slowly, God only asks a little of us at any given time. Even when He does something miraculous through us, like feeding 5,000 people in the middle of nowhere, He needs no more contribution from us than the spiritual equivalent of five small loves and a couple of sardines.
God gives to us that we might have something to give to the fulfillment of His good purposes. He doesn’t, however, give us enough that we bring about what most needs to happen without His doing the heavy lifting. And more often than not, all we contribute is next to nothing: just showing up for worship most Sundays and for some alone, one-on-one time with Him several times a week; saying our prayers and reading our Bible; and treating one another with basic decency. But, while the little things we contribute are never decisive, they are always crucial; for God has made them the conditions for His doing what is decisive. While we can’t do anything significant apart from Him, He most often won’t do anything magnificent apart from us.
When we do our work in faithful obedience, God in His grace works on our work and works through our work. God elevates its quality and its effectiveness. Thus Moses prayed, “Let the favor of the Lord our God upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands.”
There is a story of a rich man who one day looked out the window of his home office and saw his young daughter collecting flowers in the far fields of the family estate. He observed how she was bunching them together to form a bouquet and had in her hand a purple ribbon with which to wrap them all together. He smiled seeing the ribbon, because purple was his favorite color and that tipped him off that she was making him a gift.
As he continued to watch her, he noticed how she, not knowing any better, sometimes added to the bouquet weeds and creeping plant runners. He called in his son and told him to go into his garden to pick its best flowers. Then he told him to wait for his little sister to come back and, upon her return, insist that she go wash up before bringing her flowers to her father. Once she was off cleaning herself up, the big brother was surreptitiously to remove the weeds and creeping runners and replace them in the bouquet with the garden flowers.
When that little girl entered her father’s office, she admired the gift she was bringing him and exclaimed, “Here, Daddy, is a beautiful bouquet that I made, just for you, all by myself.” Only later, when she was older and wiser, did she understand how much the work of her hands had been made to prosper by the gracious provision of her father.
God will only rarely do all the work; but He will always provide the grace that will enhance all our work.
Of course, if we aren’t already engaged in doing His work, He will have nothing to enhance and make prosper with His grace.
So sometimes, we wait on God, and sometimes God waits on us. Sometimes, God does all the work; but most often God waits to work in collaboration with those who work for Him and with Him.
May we dance close with God in order to know which moves are to be made with the next beat of heaven’s music. May we wait when we should wait, and both wait and work when that’s what’s to be done. And may we always work when He has given us something to make something of.
It’s a delightful dance of trust and love, for everyone involved. Let us pray.