Careful thought - Haggai 1:1-11
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me read you something: ‘Happiness has proved elusive in the contemporary world. By any conceivable measure of the good life, we are better off than any previous generation since the birth of time. We are more affluent. We have more choices. We can travel further and more easily. We have more access to education and information. Our health is better. We live longer. We keep ourselves fit. We have leisure. We are freer. There are fewer constraints on our lifestyles. We are living, compared to any previous generation, as close to paradise as people have ever lived. Yet by the indexes of self-reported life satisfaction, we are no happier than people were two generations ago. In some respects our lack of happiness is palpable. We take more anti-depressants. People suffer from more stress-related syndromes. They are less optimistic than they used to be. They no longer think their children will have better lives than they did. There has been a palpable breakdown of trust.’ So writes the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. And you know what? He is right.
Back in the 17th century the Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal said something very similar. He argued that within each one of us there us a ‘god- shaped vacuum’ or ‘gap’. That is, by nature at the deepest level of our being, we are made for a personal relationship with our Maker. But we are not all that keen on coming to him on his terms and so we try and fill that gap with all sorts of other things- what people today would call ‘stuff’. We especially try and distract ourselves through entertainment and building for ourselves nice homes, says Pascal, but invariably we fail. This is because only one shape will fit the spiritual hole. When God ceases to be number one, nothing else can ever take his place. And so the paradox is that the more we have, the less satisfied we become.
Now here’s the thing: this can so easily be the case with God’s people. It is only too possible for Christians to sideline God in their lives while professing him with their lips so that they find themselves aching inside and not being sure ‘why’.
That certainly was the case with God’s people at the time of Haggai. Without realising what they were doing, until God kindly pointed it out to them through his prophet, God’s people were not only short changing God, but short changing themselves, robbing themselves of the spiritual blessing that God was longing to pour out on them.
Now you will notice that twice in this passage God says through his prophet, ‘Give careful thought to your ways’ v5 and v7. ‘Literally it says, ‘consider the road your heart is on’, that is, give close attention to what you are doing and where you are going, the direction in which your desires are taking you. And there are three things which need to be thought about, three items of information which need to be known.
First, know your times v1-3, Look at verse 1 ‘In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jozadak the high priest.’
I am sure you have seen those films where before the action proper starts, introductory words scroll down the screen giving a little of the background to what is about to happen-you get that with the series Sharpe, where, before each episode, the scene is set regarding the Napoleonic Wars in which the particular episode takes place. Well, that is what is happening here. So, here’s the scene. In 589 BC Judea and Jerusalem was ravaged by the mighty army of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and the cream of the population was carted off into Exile. That was a tragedy of apocalyptic proportions for the Jews, make no mistake. By 550BC the Babylonians had been ousted as a world power and replaced by the new kids on the block-the Persians- some of you may have seen the movie ‘300’-that is it. In 539 BC, exactly 50 years after the Exile, under the Persian King Darius, the Jewish exiles were allowed to return home. Their leader is the governor of Judea, Zerubbabel- a big name for a big man, for he is a descendent of King David which, as we shall see as we go on in the series, is important because when you flick over to Matthew’s Gospel, he is specifically mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus. In other words, this is the man who prepares the way for the coming Christ.
Then on the 29th August 520 BC, 19 years after the Jews have returned to their homeland, God speaks, and a contrast is made between what God says and what the people have been saying v2; This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’” 3 Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: 4 “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”’
Now I know what some of you will be thinking at this point. The thought will be going through your mind, ‘Here we go. We know why Melvin is preaching on Haggai. It’s all about the people neglecting the building of the Lord’s house while busy building their own. This is a set up for an appeal for the building project at St Johns. This is going to be the hard sell.’ Well, if you are thinking that, then let me say that you couldn’t be more wrong. This prophecy deals with much bigger things than bricks and mortar. If you want to draw out some implications for the building project here, fine- you are free to do so; but I certainly won’t be doing that. In fact there is a whole host of implications for us from this book-the most important of which will be deeply spiritual from which all the practical outworkings come. God’s real concern, as we shall see, is with attitudes, matters of the heart. Get the heart right and everything else will follow- including God’s blessings and God’s buildings, but while the attitude remains wrong, then so will be our religion. So what is the big issue?
This is where we come to the next ‘knowing’, know your situation.
As I have already said, Zerubbabel is a descendant of King David. And it was back in 2 Samuel 7, that we learn that David wanted to build a house for the LORD- a temple, but the LORD said, ‘No’, he wasn’t to do that. In fact it was the LORD who was going to build a house or dynasty for him. Indeed, it will eventually be the case that a King will come who will have an everlasting throne. But here, Zerubbabel is told to get on with building the temple, since Solomon’s great Temple had been reduced to a pile of rubble by the Babylonians. It is the people who are saying, ‘Don’t build, the time is not right.’ Now why should they say that? Why do the people think that they know better than God when it is the right time to build the temple?
It’s not as if God has been silent. Sure, there may not have been a word of prophecy as such, but there has been a word through Providence which should have stopped the people in their tracks and made them think- v5 and 7, ‘Give careful thought to your ways’ think about what has been happing these last 19 years and join up the dots. What have they been thinking about? We are told in v 6 that they were thoughts of great expectations but experiences of great disappointments- ‘You have planted much, but 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.” Once they got back to the land of promise, they thought it was going to be glory, glory all the way. Why else had God shown them mercy and brought them home? Surely it was so they could prosper? Isn’t that what it means to be God’s people- health and wealth, healing and wholeness, peace and prosperity? Well to hear some preachers today you would think so. But their experience spoke against such nonsense; they found that the more money they accumulated, the more inflation eat it away. They discovered that the more crops they sowed, the worse the harvests became. And just in case they hadn’t yet received the message God was trying to get through to them, using what C.S. Lewis once called ‘the megaphone of pain’, it is spelt out in the clearest possible terms in v 9, “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little.’ And not surprisingly the people began to become more than a little jaundiced in their attitude. What is the point of being God’s people if he doesn’t treat you any better than he does the pagans? They said. Well, apart from the faulty view that God’s main concern is that we are happy rather than holy, these people, and maybe some of us, need to probe a little further and ask: ‘Perhaps we have got our thinking wrong. Perhaps God is trying to tell us something when things are not going right?’ That is what they were meant to give careful thought to, to wonder whether they were on the right path at all. What direction were their hearts going in?
Well, here is the reason given why things have been going wrong, God has been the one who has upset their plans, v9: ‘What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. 10 Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. 11 I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the olive oil and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labour of your hands.” You see, God is only doing what he promised back in Deuteronomy 28-30- firing a warning shot across their bows. The poor harvests, the lack of satisfaction, the rampant inflation, are like the warning signs when you are approaching a cliff edge- its time to turn back, you are going in the wrong direction. And it is God who is putting these warning signs in place if only people would have the eyes to see them and the brains to think about them and re-evaluate their lives- what’s it all about- getting more stud, satisfying yourself, putting your religion on the back burner?
This was what was wrong- v4, “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” And again v9, ‘What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house.’ So what is the problem? Is it that God is feeling jealous that while the people have nice homes to dwell in with wood panelling, God is stuck with Coronation Street which has not been upgraded since 1962? Is that it? Not at all.
You see, you have to grasp what the Temple signifies. Think of it like this. Imagine that it is the Queen’s diamond jubilee. But instead of having all the remarkable events we did have, there is nothing. In fact there is worse than nothing. Pictures of the Queen appear nowhere, Buckingham Palace has been allowed to fall into a state of complete disrepair; it looks an utter shambles with litter scattered all over the Royal Gardens, the gates hanging off and the façade peeling away. Of course 10 Downing Street is still in good nick. Whitehall hasn’t suffered any cuts and folk have made sure that their living conditions haven’t suffered, in fact they have never had it so good. But when it comes to the big day itself, people still have a street party, enjoying themselves and they even sing ‘God save the Queen.’ Tell me: what would that say about the Queen’s affections in the hearts of the people? Wouldn’t it tell you there really weren’t any? Wouldn’t it speak volumes that the people have a total disregard for the Queen at best and contempt for her at worse?
Now take that picture and multiply it a thousand times and there you have God’s complaint and concern in a nutshell. The fact that God’s temple is in ruins doesn’t mean that God is homeless, it means God is not respected. God is not the centre of his people’s affections, they are their own centre. And while that state of affairs continues they will never be satisfied, how can they when it is God alone who satisfies our hearts? As the great theologian Augustine put it in a prayer, ‘Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.’ Of course! And you may be here this morning with a sense of restlessness in your life, an inner longing which you want to be met. Have you ever stopped to consider that it is God you need, your heart is the lock and he is the key?
You know, when I first looked at this passage I thought that God’s people (and notice how far they are distant from God in v 2 for God calls them ‘These people’ not ‘My people’), I suspected that they were simply apathetic. But clearly they weren’t, they are very keen and busy- but busy doing what? Busy making sure their own lives are very comfortable thank you very much without God getting much of a look in. God has been pushed to the margins of their lives as symbolised by the ruined temple, and so their lives are ruined but they can’t understand why.
The public worship of God by God’s people is not an optional ‘add on’, it is part and parcel of who we are and what we were made for. Back in the Garden of Eden, God was in the midst of his people- that was the ultimate blessing, it doesn’t get any better than that. And after the rebellion, the people are cast out and God is no longer with them and it doesn’t get any worse than that- ultimately it is called hell. But do you see what God’s people are doing here? They are in effect making a hell on earth for themselves by neglecting meeting with God in the way he has provided- in a temple.
Now, in the light of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ- we know he is the temple of which this earthly temple was but a shadow, a pointer. He is the meeting place between God and man. And as Christians meet together we are his temple as he is in our midst. And it would not be stretching the point to say that today, just as it was back in Haggai’s time, God’s temple can be allowed to lie in ruins by God’s people. Oh, it may not be a total ruin, but it can be incomplete nonetheless. How? Very simply, by Christians not making church a priority, by Christians simply not turning up. Instead they give of their time and energy to other things- making sure their houses are getting fixed up, by going out on trips, or simply staying at home because meeting with God and his people is simply to much of a fag. Yes, of course there are times we can’t make church, sometimes because of infirmity, of course, but there are many times we can but just don’t. If we are honest and if we allow these words speak to us directly, what else can we conclude but that God is not really the centre of our lives if that is what is going on? By not meeting with God in this way, do you realise you are robbing God of pleasure and honour? That is what the text says in v 8, ‘Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honoured,” says the Lord.’ It brings pleasure- delight; honour- glory, to our dear heavenly Father when we meet like this. And so presumably it displeases him and dishonours him when we don’t. And why is it thought by some that it is a burden to meet twice on a Sunday? How can it be if by doing so we bring God twice as much pleasure and twice as much honour? Friends, I really do believe we need to examine in this. We are immensely privileged here at St Johns to have such wonderful gatherings together, but they are incomplete gatherings, incomplete ‘buildings’ if you like, if we neglect our part by absenting ourselves or not giving over of ourselves in worship when we do meet. If other things are beginning to take precedent over us meeting once or twice on a Sunday we need to repent of that very sharply. If we think we can find lasting pleasure in doing up our homes, having trips to the seaside when we should be meeting here, then we are deluding ourselves. And it may well be that the reason we are not seeing the spiritual fruit and reaping the spiritual harvest we long for is because we are being negligent at this very point- as these people were. We can have the excuses, as did these folk, ‘It isn’t the right time’- v2. It never is going to be the right time while God is not our priority. Do you see?
So, how will we know we are putting God in his rightful place, having him at the heart of our lives individually and collectively? We are told how at the beginning of v 8, ‘Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house.’ That is just get on and do it - play your part. If you are occasional in your public worship, resolve to be here every week. If you come only once on a Sunday, if you are able, why not resolve to come twice? And if the completion of God’s new temple in Christ involves adding new ‘living stones’ to it, as the Apostles Peter and Paul portray it, then we must be committed to evangelism. So the plea is: set your heart on bringing delight to the Lord and glory to him. Let’s not leave his house in ruins.
But if this is to be lasting and not merely a gritting of the teeth in some stoic way (not that coming here is hard-I love it!), we must know something else- know your God. Look at how he is described: He is the ‘LORD’- capital letters-this is the personal covenant name- Yahweh. We now know that name as Jesus. He is the ‘LORD Almighty’- the Lord of Hosts. He is no small god whom we can pick up and put in our pocket or place alongside our hobbies- he commands the heavenly armies! And this is the one, would you believe, who is being neglected by his people. But when our minds are enlarged with the knowledge of this God, then our hearts will be enlarged too with love for this God- and then we will know real satisfaction.
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