A Question of Priorities
The book of Haggai is unlike the other books we have been studying. Haggai delivered his message after the time predicted by the previous prophets. When Haggai stepped on center stage the Babylonians had overrun Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. Leading citizens (including Daniel) had been deported to Babylon. Babylon had been overrun by the Persians and in 536 BC the emperor Cyrus issued a decree permitting the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem. The events of this return are recorded in the historical books of Ezra and Nehemiah. About 50,000 people returned to Jerusalem under the newly appointed governor, Zerubbabel. He was also called Sheshbazzar.
When the people got back to Jerusalem the first thing they did was begin the process of rebuilding the temple. They began a capital fundraising campaign, cleared the site of the old temple and began to offer sacrifices on the location of the former temple. The people worked hard to lay the foundation of the new temple.
After laying the foundation they began to face opposition on every side. The Samaritans fought the work, Cyrus died, and work on the temple stopped. The people continued to offer sacrifices on the foundation of the temple. And that is the way things stayed for 16 years after the decree to return the prophet Haggai came on the scene.
THE JOB LEFT UNDONE
Haggai brought God’s message charging the people with neglecting the house of God. He asked a simple question, “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” [Haggai 1:4]. They were living comfortably, they had addressed all their “needs” and much more but the Lord was still “homeless”. Haggai let the people know that their attitude toward the house and work of the Lord was indicative of their true hearts. I want you to notice a few things.
These were not Bad People. We have been used to scathing accusations and indictments of those who were ripe for God’s judgment. But these people were different.
- When the opportunity to return to Jerusalem was given they gladly and eagerly made the difficult journey and left the comfort and riches of Babylon.
- When they arrived at Jerusalem they gave sacrificially to the “Temple Building Fund”.
- They worked hard to get the foundation of the temple established.
We would say today that these folks were genuine believers. They loved the Lord and served Him enthusiastically . . . at the beginning.
They Became Distracted. The people began the race with enthusiasm. When things became difficult they lost their heart and then lost their focus. If you had asked these people about their failure to carry through on the rebuilding of the temple we can imagine their excuses,
- The “doors seemed to close” so we figured it must not be God’s will to rebuild the temple.
- We had family responsibilities. Our kids were involved in activities and the job was more demanding. Surely God would want us to give first priority of our time and energy to our family.
- We didn’t get along well with the leaders of the project. Their personality and ours just didn’t mesh so we thought it would be better if we just withdrew from the project.
- All my neighbors were working on their houses so we thought it was OK to work on ours.
- We were working on the temple building during our free time. That’s the only time I have to relax and do the things I like to do.
If you use your imagination you can come up with some other likely excuses. Here’s a simple principle I learned from Dr. Boice this week, “if there is no wrong-doing, there is no need to make excuses.” Did you heart that? “if there is no wrong-doing, there is no need to make excuses.” Does that pierce your soul like it does mine? Are you making excuses for why you are not serving the Lord more fully?
Again, these people were not bad people. They did want to follow God . . .or at least they did at one time. The same thing is true for many today. They had good intentions when they began their walk with Christ. They worked hard; they studied fervently, and pitched in wherever there was a need. But for too many, this is a time in the past. When they think of serving the Lord they talk about when they were in a campus youth ministry, or their times at summer camp, or their enthusiasm right after they made their commitment to Christ. For some it was a time when they were in some exciting ministry opportunity or mission trip. But those times are in the past. As time has passed the Devil has gotten them distracted.
They faced adverse Consequences. God then points out something, ““Give careful thought to your ways. 6 You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.” [1:5-6]
Do you hear the message? God asks, “Have you noticed that the harder you work . . . the more behind you seem to get?” “Have you noticed that no matter how much stuff you have, you don’t seem to be satisfied?” God’s message is simple . . . you won’t find happiness and fulfillment until your priorities are correct. I am happy to bless you when you put me first, but I will not bless you when you put me last. You are frustrated in your work because I have withdrawn my blessing.
THE RESPONSE OF THE PEOPLE
So how did the people respond to Haggai’s words? Did they make excuses? Did they reject the prophet. No. We are told, “Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord.”(v.12)
They were convicted by Haggai’s words and repented. They refocused and once again started to work on the temple. In the Book of Ezra 6:14,15 we are told,
“So the elders of the Jews continued to build and prosper under the preaching of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah, a descendant of Iddo. They finished building the temple according to the command of the God of Israel and the decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes, kings of Persia. The temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.” (Ezra 6:14-15, NIV)
If you do the math between the dates given in Ezra and Haggai you will learn that the temple work was completed in less than six months! When they got down to business the work went quickly. By working together they accomplished more than they dreamed possible.
It’s a good example to you and me. If we find that we have gotten lazy in our Christian commitment, it is time to “get with it”.If you are drifting spiritually it is time to “get back into the game!” It is time to re-orient your priorities and to get involved in ministry, in service, and in following the Lord. We will be more effective in our ministry if everyone does their part.
A COMMON OBSTACLE TO SPIRITUAL VITALITY
There was a problem along the way. As the people began to rebuild the temple, they realized that this new temple would not even begin to compare to the previous temple built by Solomon. The book of Ezra tells us that some of the older people wept when the foundation of the new temple was established. The people had given sacrificially but they did not have the resources of Solomon. Can you sense the feeling of discouragement that hindered the work? I can’t help but wonder if some of them gave up on the work because they felt that the reconstructed temple would never measure up to the temple of Solomon.
How often are we discouraged from a task because we feel we cannot measure up? We don’t want to get involved because we don’t have the talent, resources or personality of someone else. We don’t want to give because we can’t give as much as others. We don’t want to share our thoughts because we aren’t as educated as another. As a church we look at the churches like Willow Creek and their 20,000 people a week that attend there and we conclude that there is little we can do. We look at the history of the church and see the fervor of people in years past and conclude that we will never see revival like this again. We live in a small town . . . what can we do for the Lord?
The Lord addressed this concern of the people,
“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 the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘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.” [2:6-9]
Do you understand what he is telling them? He is saying, “This temple will be smaller but it is going to be a very special place. This “Inferior” temple is going to be where the desired of nations will sit. This temple will be a place where people will be able to find real peace.” Do you know who the “desired of nations” was? It was the Messiah. It was Jesus. This puny temple (as the people would call it) would be the very place where Jesus taught, walked and worshipped.
Any frankly, you and I have no idea what God can do through us if we simply give Him our best effort. You may be the person that leads a future world leader to Christ. You may be the one that God uses to begin a revival in our community.
I believe that God means the Union Church of La Harpe to be a small town church that makes a worldwide difference. I believe that in our obscure corner of the world we can make a difference not just in Burlington and Macomb but throughout the Midwest . . . throughout our country and even throughout the world.
How? We begin by being faithful. We must dig in here and work hard to impact the lives around us. We must look for ways to reach out through our jobs, our friendships and our activities. We must work to support those who are going into missionary work and keep open to opportunities to expand our reach through the Internet, the Radio and any other way God chooses to give us. We are a small people . . . but God is a great big God.
Do you remember how the church got started? Eleven blue collar guys took the message of faith into the world. The disciples didn’t have the Internet, radio or television. They weren’t famous. In fact, you get the feeling that these guys were just ordinary men who gave God their best.
I don’t know what God can do through the Union Church of La Harpe. I don’t know what He can do through your life. I do know that it won’t be much unless we get focused on the work that must be done.
Haggai Reminds us that the Flame of Spiritual Enthusiasm and Focus is something that must be continually stirred and attended to. Spiritual growth and maturity is never automatic. We can never say we have arrived and can move on to something else. We must constantly work to remain spiritually alive. We must be diligent in the work of the Lord.
Are you looking back on days of spiritual vitality and aliveness? Has your Christianity become more of a chore than a delight? Are you “going through the motions” or do you feel that sense of energy that comes from walking with the Lord. Are you standing on the sidelines being critical or are you rolling up your sleeves and getting involved? Are you making excuses or are you giving the Lord your best.
Haggai reminds us that some of our problems and dissatisfaction may be due to our own mis-placed priorities. The people of Jerusalem experienced frustration in their lives because of their misplaced priorities. It’s possible that the dissatisfaction, the frustration, the inability to make ends meet that you have in your life is not because of the system, Congress, or bad luck. It is possible that these things have happened because your priorities are skewed. You are looking for satisfaction in the wrong places. You have deserted God to grab the brass ring of the world. You have adopted the power tactics of the world rather than the servant mentality of the Lord.
Notice that once the people re-establish their spiritual priorities God tells the people,
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.’” [2:19]
Once the people had their lives in order, God promised to bless them. They would know fulfillment, their needs would be met and their joy would be full. Dr. Boice captures the essence of what God is saying in a stirring application,
You may have been going your own way, putting yourself first. You may have said, “Well, I have to do that. If l don’t look after myself, no one else is going to do it. I have to look out for number one. But God asks you, “How does it work out when you do it that way? You haven done very well, have you? Things have gotten pretty rough. You’re having trouble with your boss, your family, your wife, your husband. Isn’t that the case? Isn’t that what you see when you give careful thought to your ways You have acknowledged that God is right, and that is indeed true. But no God says, “I want you to change your priorities and put me to the test. I want you to turn from the way you’ve been living and begin to live as a Christian should live. I want you to ‘seek first [my] kingdom and my righteousness and see if ‘all these things will [not] be given to you as well’ (Matt. 6:33) Three months from now, or a year from now, I want you to look back and ask yourself: ‘Was God a God of his word or wasn’t he? Does Christianity work or doesn’t it? Is it better to follow God or the world?'” God is not afraid of that kind of test. Are you? He puts the challenge to you directly. [Boice p. 480]
How will you respond to the message of Haggai? Haggai’s friends and neighbors chose to throw off distractions and they built a temple that impacted generations and became the house of worship for Jesus. They did what they could and the whole world felt the impact.
Will you put Him to the test? Will you dare to serve wholeheartedly and see what God will do? Will you trust His promise to provide for you and bless you in ways you never imagined? Will you get down off the bleachers and get back into the game? I hope so. I believe we will be astonished at what God can do through us . . . if we give Him the chance.