Fear is a great motivator. Nobody likes being afraid, but it helps us get stuff done. Fear will make you run fast. Fear will keep you up all night long. Fear will make you vigilant and careful. When I was 16 and I first started driving a car, I never used my cellphone while I was driving because I was afraid. I was a bad driver and had a huge fear of getting in a car accident. And that fear made me a better driver.


A lot of people today have trouble with motivation in life. From older people who feel there’s no point in doing anything at this point in their life to younger people who feel like their life will never amount to anything, we have trouble with motivation. We have trouble finding the energy to get out of bed in the morning, to put in another day at work, to make it through life. And although fear has a bit of a bad reputation, fear is a great motivator. 


Our passage this morning shows us what fear can do. Today we’ll be looking at Haggai chapter 1 verses 12 through 15 which you’ll find on page 768 of your Bible and I’d encourage you to turn there. And this passage comes right after what we heard last week where God told the Israelites that they were being punished, that because they had put themselves first instead of God, they had sown much and harvested little; because of their selfishness God had called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the soil produces, on humans and animals, and on all their labors. And now we see how the people of Israel responded to God’s message. Listen to Haggai chapter 1 verses 12 through 15. 


Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the words of the prophet Haggai, as the Lord their God had sent him, and the people feared the Lord. Then Haggai, the messenger of the Lord, spoke to the people with the Lord’s message, saying, “I am with you, says the Lord.” And the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people, and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month.


This morning we’re going to look at three things from this passage: the people’s obedience, God’s presence, and the Spirit’s influence. And together these will show us that if we fear God, we will be near God. Let’s start with obedience. 

As we’ve touched on before, the prophet Haggai was speaking to the nation of Israel after they had returned from exile in Babylon. And in the previous verses God reprimanded Israel for their selfishness, for caring for their own houses instead of God’s house, instead of the temple. And after God revealed to them that this selfishness was the root cause of the drought and famine and pain the people had been suffering, God commanded them to build his house. 


How would the people respond to this message? This is a hard message the people received. Have you ever been in trouble and someone told you it was your own fault? That’s a hard message. 

“I’m tired.” Well then you shouldn’t have stayed up till 2m last night. “I don’t have any money.” Well then you shouldn’t have spent so much. “A cop pulled me over and gave me a ticket.” Well then you shouldn’t have been speeding. It’s awful; nobody wants to hear that.

And if we’re being honest, when we’re told that what’s happening is our own fault, a lot of us don’t listen. We ignore it or reject it, those are normal reactions to being criticized. 

Now the people of Israel had just received a message like that from Haggai. “We don’t have enough stuff.” Well then you shouldn’t be so selfish; you should go and give your stuff to somebody else. You shouldn’t build your own house; you should build God’s house. Hard message. How did the Israelites and their leaders respond? 

Listen to verse 12: then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the words of the prophet Haggai, as the Lord their God had sent him, and the people feared the Lord. 


 They obeyed. They did what they were told. Now obedience, like fear, has a bit of a bad reputation in America today. Nobody brags about how obedient they are anymore. Nobody is posting on facebook or twitter about being obedient. When we talk about celebrities or ceos or great athletes or our leaders, we may talk about them being bold and innovative, having grit and determination, being wealthy and successful, handsome, powerful, smart, kind, compassionate, we may use a lot of nice words to describe the people we look up to, but we probably won’t describe them as obedient. 

Of course we like it when other people are obedient. It’s nice when you tell your kids or your siblings or your parents or your friends or your coworkers to do something and they do it. We all love that. But when it comes to us doing whatever we’re told without complaining or second guessing or procrastinating, that we don’t really love. Obedience might be good for other people. Obedience might be good for your pet dog, but for me, not so much. 

And yet the Israelites are obedient. They obey God’s message. Why? What made them do it? What motivated them to be obedient? Listen to the end of verse 12: the people feared the Lord. Fear. Fear is a great motivator. It’s not the best reason but it is a reason. 

They were afraid. God had told them what he had done, that he had called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the soil produces, on humans and animals, and on all their labors. And the people were afraid that God would keep doing that. They were afraid of what God could do to them. 

That might not be how you like to feel about God, fearful; we don’t talk much about the fear of God anymore, but it matters. When something is powerful we should have a healthy fear of it. If you have a stove in your house, that’s powerful. You can burn yourself with the stove. You can burn your whole house down with the stove. This doesn’t mean your hands should shake and you should start sweating every time you go to boil water on the stove, but it does mean you should be careful with the stove. You should have a healthy fear of it. 


We teach children from a young age to be careful around the stove, to be careful crossing the street, to be careful talking to strangers; we want to inculcate a healthy fear in children. And we should want that same fear. That fear is good. For two reasons.

First, let me tell you a story. My dad is a very gentle man. He’s a pastor. He doesn’t yell. He doesn’t lose his temper. He gives people counseling and listens to their problems. He has all sorts of degrees and knows history and all sorts of things about the Bible. And yet there’s one phrase, one piece of wisdom I heard him quote all the time growing up. 

It’s not from the Bible or Shakespeare or anything like, it’s from a friend of his in college who was in the ROTC for the marines, and the marine got it from an old John Wayne movie: “Life is tough. It’s tougher if you’re stupid.”

Stupidity makes life harder. We’ve all seen it. And one way to be stupid is not to be afraid of things we ought to be afraid of, is to go around touching hot stoves and crossing the street without looking and giving your bank account information to Nigerian princes.

And the Bible tells us that The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It’s not all of wisdom but you can’t begin to be wise without that fear. Why? Because there is nothing more powerful, nothing more dangerous, nothing more important than God the creator and sustainer of the universe. God who made everything that exists out of nothing. God who spoke and there was light. God who made you out of nothing who knitted you together in your mother’s womb. The God of life and death. The God of heaven and hell. The almighty God is powerful. We would be wise to be afraid of him. Don’t make life tougher than it needs to be. Don’t be stupid. Fear God. 


Second, fear is a great motivator, it leads us to action. The fear of God is what made the Israelites obedient. If you go through the Old Testament you’ll see that most of the time the Israelites aren’t obedient, they are a rebellious and stiffnecked people, always worshipping idols and forgetting about God. And so this time, when the Israelites finally do obey, Haggai adds this little note to explain why and the people feared the Lord. 

We are called to obey God and fear motivates us to do that, but in the next verse we see that when we fear God, something wonderful happens. Listen to verse 13: Then Haggai, the messenger of the Lord, spoke to the people with the Lord’s message, saying, “I am with you, says the Lord.”

Have you ever wondered whether God was with you? Have you ever wanted to experience the presence of God? Maybe you were going through a hard time in your life, maybe you were grieving for a loved one, maybe you just moved to a new place, maybe you were completely alone, maybe you got sick and you wanted to know whether or not God was with you. 


Wouldn’t it be wonderful for God to send you that message, “I am with you says, the Lord.” Not just that God is real, not just that God loves you, not just that God will help you, but God is with you right now, in the midst of whatever you’re going through. 

God has told us many times in the scriptures that he is with us, but that he can be hard to believe, hard to remember when we’re struggling. What we want is God to tell us here and now that he is with us. We want to experience God’s presence. 


And our passage this morning shows us a way to experience God’s presence. The people feared the Lord. And because they feared the Lord, they obeyed the Lord. And because they obeyed the Lord, Haggai, the messenger of the Lord, spoke to the people with the Lord’s message, saying, “I am with you, says the Lord.”

Our obedience leads to experiencing God’s presence. Now we should be clear about what that means, because that can sound like a works-based religion, as though we earn our way into God’s presence as though we do this so God does that. But that’s not what’s going on here. God was present before he sent the message that he was with them. He was just as present when he sent the first message telling the Israelites to consider their ways and that he had caused their drought. 

God was present but God’s presence was unpleasant. His message was hard and painful. God’s presence revealed Israel’s failures. God’s presence pained Israel. It was hard for them to hear that they had messed up and messed up badly. 


But now, when the Israelites obey, God’s presence becomes a blessing, a comfort, God’s message is “I am with you, says the Lord.” 

God is present whether we are obedient or whether we are disobedient. God is unchanging. God is the same from age to age, from everlasting to everlasting. But how we experience God’s presence depends on our actions, on our behavior, on our choices. If we are disobedient, God’s presence will be overbearing, guilt-inducing, painful, punishing. If we are obedient, God’s presence will be a comfort, “I am with you, says the Lord.”

And this is God’s grace, this is God’s love: that when we follow the wrong path, God, like a loving Father, seeks to correct us, to guide us back to the right path, through warnings and punishments and discipline, and when we follow the right path, God like a loving Father, walks alongside us and speaks tenderly to us “I am with you, says the Lord.” 

This grace on God’s behalf is something that sets Christianity apart from other religions. We don’t earn our way to God. God doesn’t make deals with us. God loves us unconditionally, and we experience that love, we experience God’s presence differently depending on whether or not we obey. 


I’d like to say more, but it’s hard to talk about God’s presence. It’s hard to explain. Sometimes when we pray or when we come to worship, it’s hard to tell what’s happening. We can start to feel like maybe we’re praying wrong or worshipping wrong. But ultimately experiencing God’s presence isn’t something predictable or standardized.

And this is another one of the differences between Christianity and other religions. Christianity acknowledges the mystery and sovereignty of God. There isn’t a set of magical tricks you can use with God to get certain results. God isn’t just a big cosmic vending machine where if you put your money in you can pick what you get out. God is a person with a will of his own, who decides how to reveal himself to us. God decides how each of us will experience him. 


Some of us experience the presence of God when we sing hymns, others experience God in nature, when we see God’s creation. Some experience God’s presence praying silently and others experience God’s presence praying loudly, crying out to him. 


There is one God who has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the only way to the Father. But Jesus loves us so much, desires to be known so much, that Jesus strives to be known and to be present in our lives in many different ways. 


And when we experience God’s presence, something wonderful happens. Listen to vere 14: And the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people, and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God.


When the Israelites were obedient they experienced God’s presence, when the Israelites feared God, they were near God, and once they were near God, the Spirit stirred Zerubabbel and Joshua and all the people to action: they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God.

When we experience God’s presence, our lives change. The Holy Spirit stirs us up and we do things. The Spirit influences us. Our faith becomes manifest in works. The seed of the gospel planted within us bears fruit. Those strange, indescribable experiences of God’s presence should lead to action, should lead to Christ working through us in our everyday lives. 

Notice here the words used to describe what the Israelites did: they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God. This sounds pretty normal. After all this is just what God told the people to do, to rebuild his house. When it said in verse 12 that the people obeyed the voice of the Lord, it meant they did what God said, they came and rebuilt the house. But now, after the Spirit has stirred the people up. It doesn’t say the people obeyed; it says they came and rebuilt the house. Same action, but a different description. Why is that? 

The Israelites’ perspective has changed. They see their actions in a new light. Now they are doing it not only out of fear and obedience, but they have been stirred up by the Spirit to do the work. Here’s an illustration. A man once walked by a building site and saw three stone masons side by side, sweating over their work in the hot sun. He asked the first, "What are you doing?” 

"Laying bricks" came the reply.

He asked the second stone mason, "And what are you doing?"

"Building a wall." came the reply.

Then he asked the third mason, "And what is it you are doing?"

"I am raising a great cathedral." All three men took the same action, but they each had a different perspective on it. When the Israelites began to work on rebuilding God’s house, they were obeying and obeying out of fear. But their fear and obedience towards God, brought them near God and when they experienced God’s presence, God stirred their spirits to action, and the Israelites continued their work with a new perspective. 

It’s a strange thing about Christianity, that we do a lot of the same things non-Christians do, or even that we did before we got saved. Of course there are also things we try not to do, we try not to sin, but think about all the things both Christians and non-Christians do. We go outside and enjoy nature, we spend time with our families and friends, we go to work, we cook food and we eat food. 

But when we become Christians we do all those things in a new light, we do all those things under the Spirit’s influence. We go outside and enjoy nature as a gift from our creator God. We spend time with family and friends knowing they are made in the image of God. We go to work and do our work to honor God, not to please men. We cook food and we eat food, but we say grace and acknowledge that it all comes from God. The same actions seen under a different perspective. 

My wife Marci’s grandfather Wally calls airplanes paychecks. I remember visiting him down in Georgia and him pointing up to the sky and saying there goes another paycheck. Wally spent most of his career working as a mechanic for Delta down in Atlanta. He saw the same plane I did in the sky, but with a different perspective: a paycheck. 


The Spirit’s influence changes our lives and changes our perspective. But the changes the Spirit makes in us aren’t always easy. Jesus experienced God’s presence, God’s nearness at his baptism. The gospel of Mark tells us this: In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tested by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.

A voice from the heavens declaring God’s love! What an experience of God’s presence! Immediately followed by the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness to be tested and tempted, to be hungry and weak and pained. The Spirit may not lead us somewhere easy to go. 

Jesus was led by the Spirit everyday. He perfectly followed the influence of the Holy Spirit. And yet that Spirit did not lead him to prosperity or peace, no that Spirit led Jesus to a place where he would cry out my God my God why have you forsaken me. The Spirit led Jesus to the cross. They put nails through his hands and the weight of his body hung from those nail pierced hands so that he struggled to breathe. And when the Spirit had led him there, Jesus said to God, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. 

Even then, he would let God lead. And because Jesus trusted God and followed the Spirit to the point of death on a cross, by that death on that cross he took the punishment we deserved for our sins. So that if we believe in him, in Jesus as God, our sins will be forgiven and we will receive eternal life. 


Jesus' obedience in life and death to the will of God, has made it possible for all of us to experience God’s presence, for all of us to hear “I am with you, says the Lord.” If you’ve never heard that from God, if you’ve never felt your heart strangely warmed by the presence of God’s love, if you’ve never committed yourself to a life of obedience towards God, let today be the day that you say like Jesus did, Father into your hands I commend my spirit. Trust in Jesus to lead your life. 

And for those of us who have experienced God’s presence and who are committed to obeying God and following the influence of his Spirit, here are three ways for us to apply what we read this morning, knowing that we should fear God to be near God.

First, practice. Practice what God says. Obey the commandments. Fear God. Do what he says. We all have things we know we ought to do but don’t. We all have something nagging at our conscience. I really ought to apologize to him. I really ought to tell her the truth. I really ought to thank her for all she’s done. I really ought to forgive him. Whatever God is telling you to do, do it. And when we obey, we will find ourselves nearer to God. 

Second, pray. Prayer is a way we enter into and enjoy God’s presence. Spending time speaking to God and listening to God, asking God and praising God, reminds us of that key message “I am with you, says the Lord.” Set aside time in your life for prayer. Maybe right when you get up or before you go to bed. Pray before meals. Pray with friends and pray alone. Pray whenever you can remember to pray. Enter into God’s presence, know that he is with you. 


Third, provide. Provide for the needs of others. When we experience God’s presence the Spirit stirs us up to do good works. The Spirit stirs us up to serve others. How is the Spirit influencing you to help others? Who is the Spirit putting on your heart, that you should call them or make them a meal or babysit for? There are people praying every night to God for help and God may have chosen you to be the answer to their prayer. Be stirred by the Spirit to do good works and provide for others. 


And remember that whatever we do as Christians, Jesus does through us. Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians: it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. Christ is alive within us. And when we are called to practice and pray and provide, the Spirit of Christ living within us will answer that call. The Spirit of God has empowered us to do good and to experience the joy of his presence forever. Let’s pray.