Sunday, August 6, 2017

Parable of the Wise Manager

Good Morning -- please turn with me to Luke chapter 16, where our text begins at verse 1. This morning, we will look at another one of Jesus’ parables, the third in the sermon series that we started a few weeks ago. In particular, we will consider what is often called the parable of the Dishonest Manager, or possibly the parable of the Shrewd Manager. But as you can see from the slide, this morning I’m going to call it the parable of the Wise Manager. Now the manager was both dishonest and wise. But let’s not be distracted by his dishonesty. After all, the aspect of his behavior that Jesus is calling out for us is not his dishonesty, but his wisdom.

This is the word of our Lord:

1 Jesus also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his resources. 2 And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 3 And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ 5 So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 8 The master commended the dishonest manager for his wisdom. For the children of this world are wiser in dealing with their own kind than the children of the light.

Now before we get into the meat of it, I’d like to point out that Jesus is telling this parable for us. First, the text begins by telling us that Jesus said this parable to his disciples. And that’s also the clear implication of the last line. “For the children of this world are wiser in dealing with their own kind than the children of the light.” That is, Jesus wants us -- John tells us in his gospel (12:36) that we are the children of the light if we believe in the light -- Jesus wants us to be wiser in our dealings with each other than we often are, and that to that end, we can learn from this crook of a manager.

But that’s a problem, isn’t it? The main character in today’s parable has been caught being irresponsible with his employer’s money, and he is on his way out. But in the final moments of his employment, he rips off his employer by lowering the balances on all of his employer's debtors! And then, as we are reeling from the deception of it all, his employer -- and by implication, Jesus! -- commends this dishonest employee for his “wisdom”. And yes: that’s the word Jesus uses here to describe the man’s actions -- even though it is translated in many Bibles as “shrewd”. It is a word that only ever means “wise” throughout the rest of the New Testament. So Jesus says the dishonest man is wise, and commends his actions to his disciples -- he sets up this manager as an example for us.

So what’s going on? Well, interpreters seem torn. On the one side, there are those that are pretty clear that this manager is a terrible person -- he’s selfish and dishonest. But they can’t seem to understand how Jesus could possibly commend such a person, and so their interpretations are often all about avoiding the clear fact that Jesus’ commends him. The end result then becomes an odd story about a dishonest individual with very little point.

On the other side, there are those that are pretty sure that Jesus commendation is the key, but they struggle to understand why he should be commending such a crook. So they imagine that the manager is helping the poor or that he is discounting interest. But none of those interpretations work, either. There is no hint that the debtors are poor, and the interest on these debts couldn’t possibly represent half of the balance, as it would in the case of the oil. Besides, all of Jesus’ other parables are tightly connected to their meaning. If Jesus wanted to teach us to help the poor, for example, this parable would be a really odd way to do it.

So how can we understand this parable? I’d like to answer that question by comparing the parable of the Wise Manager with a number of other Jesus' parables that I hope you are familiar with. The exercise will be a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. There are three themes that I’d like us to see in those other parables. And I hope that when we put them together, the meaning of the parable of the Wise Manager will come into focus.

The first of these themes is the easy one: “God’s Reign”. In a number of Jesus' parables, there is a boss (or king, or landowner, or employer) who  likely represents God and there are also underlings (that is, the servants, the employees) who represent people -- and very possibly us. Let’s look at a few examples among many.

Remember the parable of the Talents? That’s the one where the king entrusts his wealth to three of his servants, whose handling of it makes all the difference. Clearly, it teaches us to take seriously those valuable things that God has entrusting to us. The parable of the Minas has the same message.

How about the parable of the Laborers? That’s the one where the employer pays everyone the same, even though some have worked through the day, while others have worked only a few hours. That parable reminds us that God doesn’t have to explain himself to us. He’s in charge, after all.

The parable of the Unmerciful Servant has the same structure. The master represents God, and the servant represents us. And it reminds us that we want God to treat us with mercy, and so we had better extend mercy to those around us.

How about the parable of the Tenants? There, the landowner is expecting tenants to pay him their rent. Similarly, God also has expectations of us.

But these are just a few of the many parables with this structure. Now wouldn’t it be odd if the parable of the Wise Manager was the only parable with an employer and an employee, but these represented something entirely different? Let's see how far we can go with the assumption that this parable is like all those others: that is, the employer represents God, and the manager represents us.

Now, of course, that makes many people uncomfortable. But if we are tempted to imagine that Jesus would never use an unsavoury character to represent us, it doesn't hurt to be reminded that in another of Jesus' parables, he even uses an unsavoury character to represent God (in the parable of the Persistent Widow or Unjust Judge).

I understand: we don’t want to be associated with such a crook. But if we are honest, we find ourselves in exactly the same shoes as the manager. What was the accusation levelled against this manager? That he was wasting his employer’s resources. I’m guilty of this all the time. I don’t know about you, but one of my (many) failings is puzzles. I like puzzles; I spend time solving puzzles. And if God were to tell me that I spend far too much time -- even a wasteful amount of time -- solving puzzles, I would have nothing at all to say in reply. He could only be right! But in our culture of personal entertainment, for some people it could be television, or Facebook, or video games, or shopping, or gardening, or toys … you know the toys I’m talking about; and God certainly does, too. Anyway, you get the idea. Every one of us could legitimately be accused of wasting God’s resources.

Besides, The Bible tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” A few chapters later, we read that, “the wages of sin is death.” The manager was found wanting by his employer and was not going to last forever in his position. Similarly, none of us are perfect, and none of us will last forever, either. We are the manager in the parable. And God is the rich man, our boss.

But the next obvious question is “then who are the debtors?” To answer that, let's consider the debts -- and for that, we need to consider the next piece of our puzzle.

The second theme from the parables is that as King, God has expectations of us: “God’s Requirements”. Did you notice that the debts collected in our parable were not expressed as cash but as produce? Oil (in those days, this would be olive oil) and wheat are both the fruit of a harvest. But fruit-bearing and harvest images are throughout the teaching of Jesus. In the parable of the Sower, for example, we are to be like good soil, accepting the message of the Kingdom, and so being able to bear fruit. The parable of the Fig Tree also plays with the same theme: it’s message? God is expecting a delivery of the fruit of the harvest from each of us. Similarly, in the parable of the Tenants, there is the clear expectation that the landowner should receive a portion of the harvest as their rent payment. Of course, this theme is also made explicit elsewhere in the gospels. Here are three quick examples:

“Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down”
“Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit”
“I chose you and appointed you so that you should go and bear fruit”

Now in our parable (the parable of the Wise Manager) the debtors owe a portion of their harvest to their Lord. Now, since we are working with the hypothesis that the manager represents us, then the debtors must represent others.

So God is the master. We are the manager. Those around us are the debtors. Now let’s consider the final piece of the puzzle.

The final theme to understanding the parable of the Wise Manager is “God’s Representatives”. Remember the Sheep and the Goats? There, the King judges his people according to how they have treated him. But if you recall, this surprises both the good and the bad. The King needs to explain to them both that the way his representatives have been treated is the way that he considers himself to have been treated. And who are his representatives? As the King puts it, “the least” -- the least attractive, the least wealthy, the least talented, the least interesting: these are the ones that the King chooses to represent Himself. We don’t get to choose who God’s representatives are -- God does. We might not even like them. It doesn’t matter. That’s not God’s problem -- it is ours! This truth is often hard to swallow in a generation that chooses everything. We choose our friends, our entertainment, our wardrobe, our diet, the place we live…. We even get to choose the church we go to and the preacher we listen to. But God isn’t limited by our choices, and he is continually sending us representatives that we might not even recognize.

This idea is present in other parables as well. In the parable of the Unmerciful Servant, when that servant is unkind toward a lesser servant, the master seems to take it quite personally. There, the lesser servant is taken to be his master’s representative. In the parable of the Wedding Banquet, the invitees don't just refuse to attend, they also mistreat of the King's representatives. And how about the parable of the Tenants? There, the landowner repeatedly sends his representatives to his tenants requesting payment on their debt. Those tenants’ failure was both their refusal to deliver a portion of the harvest and their mistreatment of the landowner's representatives.

This is also a theme that shows up elsewhere in Jesus’ teaching. He tells his disciples: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. (in Matthew)” and “the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me. (in Luke)”. Clearly, Jesus wants his disciples (that’s us) to understand that we are his representatives. Elsewhere, Jesus even says: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives not me, but the one who sent me.” But if even children can be his representatives, then it isn’t a stretch to conclude that we are all God's representatives to each other. Let me say that again: we are all God’s representatives to each other!

So now we have our three puzzle pieces: God’s Reign; God’s Requirements; and God’s Representatives. Now for anyone who reigns, the combination of their reign, their requirements and their representatives is a good summary of their kingdom, isn't it? So now we have a picture of the Kingdom of God. These three puzzle pieces don't just tell us about the Kingdom of God, they also tell us how it operates.

With the first piece (God's Reign), the dynamic of God’s Kingdom becomes clear: we must treat God as our King. That means we pay our debts to him. But the second piece (God's Requirements) indicates that God is expecting that payment in the form of harvest-fruit. So what is this fruit that God is requiring of us? Perhaps the best possible answer can be found in Galatians 5:22,23, where we read: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control.” These are the things that, as children of the Kingdom, we are expected to be delivering to the King.

But the final piece of our puzzle (God's Representatives) adjusts this picture ever-so-slightly. We must still deliver this harvest-fruit to God, but now, we must make that delivery through his representatives. After all, when we show kindness to “the least”, then we are showing kindness to the King. And it makes sense that that should also be the case for patience and gentleness and all the rest.

So now I’d like to try to convince you this morning that the parable of the Wise Manager is the flip-side of the parable of the Tenants. The parable of the Tenants deals specifically with our role as debtor, or fruit-deliverer. In that parable, the King (representing God) sends his servants (representing all those we encounter) to his tenants (representing us), expecting delivery of the fruit of the Kingdom to God through them.  

When M. shows P. kindness, he is delivering the fruit of the Kingdom to God through P., as God’s representative. When A. is gentle with T., she is delivering the fruit of the Kingdom to God through T., as God’s representative. You get the idea. This is the dynamic of the Kingdom: we remit the fruit of the Spirit -- the fruit of the Kingdom -- to God through each other, and we owe more of this to God than we can possibly deliver.

But the parable of the Wise Manager now deals with our role not as fruit-deliverer, but as the representative, or fruit-receiver. And that, of course, is exactly what we see in the parable: the manager is the rich man’s representative engaged in the recovery of huge debts. Likewise, we are God’s representatives to those we encounter. And the parable tells us how to deal wisely in that role.

But this is where it gets really interesting: the essence of the manager’s “wise” behavior is that he downgrades the debt that each of his master’s clients owes the master. Now if that debt were paid in the currency of love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control, to downgrade such a debt would simply be to require less of all those we encounter than God requires of them -- to be merciful in our assessment of their behavior!

And we know of God’s requirements are very high indeed: Jesus’ sermon on the mount sets that bar for us. There, Jesus tells us: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In that day, the scribes and the Pharisees literally defined what it meant to live righteously. But Jesus is saying their best efforts don’t cut it. We must do better. And Jesus’ summary at the end of that section is explicit: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

And the enormous gap between this standard of (perfect) behavior and our actual behavior -- this is how much we “fall short of the glory of God” -- and this is also the debt we owe to God. This is the “ten thousand talents” in the parable of the Unmerciful Servant; this is the “hundred measures” in the parable of the Wise Manager. This is what we are legitimately expected to deliver to those around us, receivable in the currency of the Kingdom.

But far too often, Christians demand God’s standard of behavior of each other. After all, if God demands that standard of behavior of us, aren’t we doing God a favor by demanding that standard of behavior from each other? Many seem to think so. But that bar is set too high for us! We aren’t being fair to our brothers and sisters if we rely on God’s mercy while insisting that they live up to God’s standard.

The way that it usually goes is this: Christians don’t ever actually hold each other to God’s standard. Instead, we hold each other to the aspects of God’s standards that we, personally, are comfortable with. Now this is all well and good if we only engage with those Christians whose comfort zone is in sync with our own. This is, of course, how denominations start. But there are other Christians -- those who might be quite uncomfortable with some of those aspects of God’s standards that we are comfortable with. But here’s the thing: they might be quite comfortable with other aspects of God’s standards that we have been avoiding -- because we know (perhaps subconsciously) that they would make us uncomfortable. Of course there is no wisdom at all in fighting over which aspect of God’s standards are most important. Instead, our parable encourages us, not to lower our standards -- by no means -- but simply not to impose God’s standards on our brothers and sisters whose wiring or circumstances are different than ours.

Let me re-read Jesus’ comment at the end of the parable: “For the children of this world are wiser in dealing with their own kind than the children of light.” The children of this world often have no worries about using their employer’s resources to facilitate their friendships. In our parable, the manager extends mercy to all those who owe their harvest to his master. Of course, the mercy is ultimately the master’s. It is he who must now absorbs the cost. The scandal, of course, is simply that the Wise Manager is reducing his master’s debts without authorization. But the surprise of the parable -- and in Jesus’ parables, the lesson is often found in the surprise -- his master is not at all offended by this unauthorized mercy. In fact, the manager receives commendation from the rich man for it. Similarly, we, too, are wise to extend mercy to all those we encounter, not holding them to the standard of God’s requirements -- even as God, in his mercy, does not hold us to the standard of His requirements.

God will never be offended if we extend a certain amount of “unauthorized mercy” or “unauthorized generosity” to those around us. If you are a parent, you’ve likely experienced some of this dynamic. If you pay for your child’s room and board and schooling and clothing and entertainment and transportation and allowance, when your child decides to be charitable, you might feel a bit of conflict. On the one hand, you’re proud of your child for their generosity. On the other hand, you appreciate that it is always easier to be generous with someone else’s resources -- namely, yours! So what do you do? Well, unless your child’s generosity is absurdly disproportionate, you treat your child as your agent, and you participate in their charity.

Well, our parable this morning is telling us that God is willing to extend the same kind of grace to us as we are willing to extend to our children. Even when the mercy we show to others is “unauthorized”, God is willing to bless it and commend us for it. The fact that Jesus uses a dishonest character to illustrate it is simply to remind us of our own falling short of God’s glory.

So this week, this month, this year… consider the dynamic of the Kingdom of God. Consider how you can deliver a portion of the harvest of love and joy and peace to those around you. And if those around you don’t seem to return the favor, show them mercy, because our Lord and Savior teaches us that it is the wise thing to do, and we will receive commendation for it.

Sunday, June 25, 2017


It is almost vacation time… some of our members might be on vacation already! Victor Borge told a story about a couple going on vacation:
Standing in line waiting to check their bags at the airline counter, the husband (a musician) said to the wife, "I wish we had brought the piano."
The wife replied, "Oh honey, this was supposed to be a vacation! And we've already got six bags!"
The husband: "Yes, I know-- but I wish we’d brought the piano: I left the tickets are on the piano!"

It’s a silly story, but it reminds us that the important thing is to prioritize the important things. And that’s the theme of our text this morning, because we will be looking at the Old Testament book of Haggai. Now Haggai is one of the shortest books in the Old Testament, second only to Obadiah. It starts with these words:

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 ...

The second year of King Darius... with these words, Haggai clearly wants to situate his prophecy in history, so I hope that you don't mind if I give a bit of historical background. Way back in Deuteronomy, when the people of Israel crossed the Jordan River to enter the promised land, one of the first things that they were to do was to shout at each other. Seriously (you can find it all in Deuteronomy 27): six of the twelve tribes were to gather on Mount Gerizim, and the other six were to gather on Mount Ebal. The banks of these two mountains are almost a kilometer apart, but the two of them form a remarkable natural arena -- words shouted from the bank of one can be heard on the bank of the other! And Moses gave the people these instructions: those on one side would pronounce blessings, and those on the other side would pronounce curses. And these were the first words to be shouted (Deut 27:15):

“Cursed is anyone who makes an idol—a thing detestable to the Lord...—and sets it up...” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

As you are likely aware, avoiding idolatry is a big deal in the Old Testament. The first of the ten commandments is, after all “you shall have no other gods before me.” And because of their idolatry, the people of Israel met their downfall. Only a few centuries later, the prophet Isaiah could write (Isaiah 2:6,8):

You, Lord, have abandoned your people, the descendants of Jacob….
Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands,

Now before we become smug about how much better we are, we need to appreciate that idolatry continues undiminished up until the present -- just in different forms: idolatry can be subtle. David Foster Wallace said, “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” Paul describes the dynamics of idolatry clearly in Romans 1:25:

they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creat[ed] rather than the Creator

And we do that all the time. Knowing how susceptible we all are to this tendency, Paul also wrote (1 Cor 10:14):

my dear friends, flee from idolatry.

But back in Deuteronomy, God had made the consequences of such idolatry clear:

(28:15)...if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today…(36) The Lord will drive you a... to a nation unknown to you or your ancestors.

And that, of course, is precisely what happened. The people of Israel were taken into captivity by the Babylonians in the sixth century BC. But this was not the end. God had not fully abandoned his people. In chapter 30 of Deuteronomy, God anticipated the whole thing in advance! We read:

10 if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 9 Then ...The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your ancestors, 8...the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you….

And, sure enough, after the Persian empire conquered Babylon, the Persian King Cyrus encouraged the Jewish exiles to return to the land of Israel and rebuild the temple, as we read in the first chapter of Ezra:

Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.

But shortly after laying of the foundation for the temple, the people encountered opposition, resulting in a delay of about twenty years mentioned at the end of Ezra chapter 4:

Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.

So that’s the history; that catches us up to Haggai… But that twenty year delay -- a delay between the laying of the temple foundations and getting to work on building the rest of the temple -- will help us understand Haggai, where we will (finally!) turn (1:2):

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.” Then the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this (my) house lies in ruins? 5 Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts, “Consider your ways! 6 You have sown much, but harvest little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied; you drink, but there is not enough to become drunk; you put on clothing, but no one is warm enough; and he who earns, earns wages to put into a purse with holes.”

Hold on. That’s not right. In Deuteronomy, Moses had promised prosperity! It’s right here: after being gathered from the nations, Deut 30:9 says:

the Lord your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land.

And yet Haggai is reporting just the opposite! So what’s going on? Well, in the next few verses, Haggai explains it all.

7 Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Consider your ways! 8 Go up to the mountains, bring wood and rebuild the temple, that I may be pleased with it and be glorified,” says the Lord. 9 “You look for much, but behold, it comes to little; when you bring it home, I blow it away. Why?” declares the Lord of hosts, “Because of My house which lies desolate, while each of you runs to his own house.

“Consider your ways,” says the prophet. That seems to be one of his themes. He wants us to be aware that our behavior and our experience could be closely related. Do we want to know why things aren’t working out for us? Do we want to know why our efforts seem to be ineffective? Do you want to know why we put so much in and get so little out? -- because we have our priorities wrong. God’s House lies in ruins, while our houses are receiving all of our time, and resources, and energy.

Now of course there are always all kinds of forces conspiring against the building of God’s House -- just like the opposition encountered by the people in Haggai’s day. After all, the building of God’s House requires work. It requires dedication. God understands this, and that is why He is encouraging us through Haggai this morning:

(2:4) Be strong, all you people of the land declares the Lord. Work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts, [echo of 1:13]... My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not.

And the people obeyed the words of the Lord (this is what Haggai writes -- 1:14,15):

All the remnant of the people... came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month, in the second year of Darius the king.

(Notice: it took a little more than three weeks for them to get their act together toward obedience.) But the task is not easy. The task involves sacrifice and investment. The task involves setting our face against the tide of corruption and self-worship. God is aware of all this, too, and so He challenges us through Haggai (2:10):

On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, … “Now then, consider from this day onward. Before [work began on] the temple of the Lord, 16 how did you fare? When one came to a heap of twenty measures, there were but ten. When one came to the wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were but twenty. 17 I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and with mildew and with hail, yet you did not turn to me, declares the Lord. 18 Consider ... Since the day that the foundation of the Lord's temple was laid, [remember: that was twenty years previously] consider: 19 Is the seed yet in the barn? Indeed, the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have yielded nothing. But from this day on I will bless you.

Did you notice that God waited three months to deliver that blessing? They got to work on the twenty-fourth of the sixth month, and now it is the twenty-fourth of the ninth month, and now God says that he will start to bless the people. I wonder how often we are impatient for God’s blessing. Do we come to church expecting -- perhaps even demanding -- to be blessed in the moment, when it is God's preference to provide the blessing at the end of a long obedience. What kind of obedience? Well, God is instructing us this morning -- telling us through Haggai to work on his House.

But how does that look in ‘real life’? Well, the key question is clear: how do we understand the Temple today? In the time of Haggai, God put great value on his Temple. What is it that God puts such value in today? Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the modern equivalent of the Temple is the building that we meet in. After all, the early church met in homes and on hillsides and anywhere they could. Rather, the New Testament tells us that (Col 2:17):

These [things -- including the Temple! --] are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance [that is, the reality] is found in Christ.

And remember those famous words of our Lord? (John 2:19)

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” [and John explains that] He was speaking of the temple of His body.

The reality is found in Christ. The New Testament equivalent of the Temple is the body of Christ. But the Bible has more to say about the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27):

Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.

Or how about (Romans 12:6):

so we, who are many, are one body in Christ

Or how about (Ephesians 4:15,16):

we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

That’s right: we are the body of Christ; we are God’s Temple. The proper understanding of the Temple for today is the church! It is us! And scripture even makes it explicit. 1 Cor 3:16,17 says:

Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? ...God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.

And the word “you” in all these verses is the plural form, so that the NIV renders it “you together are that temple.” As Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” The fact that the church is the true Temple is also found elsewhere:

we are the temple of the living God (2 Cor 6:16)

the house of God... is the church of the living God (1 Timothy 3:15)

you are ... members of the house of God…., Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph 2)

So we can’t escape it: the New Testament equivalent of the Temple is the church -- not the building but the people! In the Old Testament, it is clear that God had great concern for His Temple. It was a place to meet Him; it was a place to gather. It was a place to worship and to be challenged and to experience community. And today, God’s concern is for the church. The church is now where God prefers people to meet him. God wants people who encounter you to see God in you! The church is now where God prefers people to gather, to worship, to be challenged -- "spurring one another on to love and good deeds" -- and to experience community.

Now if that is not your experience at Bethel, may I offer a humble apology on the behalf of us all, and on behalf of the elders. If that is not your experience at Bethel, then too many of us are giving too much thought to our own houses at the expense of God’s house.

God isn’t asking for a “trickle-down” investment in the House of God -- as if God is grateful with our leftovers -- the message of Haggai this morning is that the real blessing occurs only when we make the House of God a primary rather than a secondary concern! If we aren’t experiencing the blessing of God, it might simply be a question of our priorities.

God wants to bless us, but he also wants us to appreciate that the path to the greatest blessing is counter-intuitive. “Whoever wants to keep his life will lose it,” says Jesus, “but whoever loses his life for the my sake, will find it.” And that’s the principle in play here: if we primarily invest in ourselves (or even our families), those investments may not return all that we hope them to.

Scripture is clear: we are not to bring leftovers to the House of God. We are not to bring discards. Instead, we must bring our firstfruits: the best portion of our resources. As it says in Exodus 23 and again in Exodus 34:

The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God.

Now I know that this is a challenging message. But let’s face it, when Jesus introduced the church, he made it clear that it would be in direct conflict with the gates of Hell -- so we should expect challenges! And, of course, knowing that doesn’t discourage us. Rather: we can legitimately be energized. As Jesus promised: “the gates of Hell will not prevail" -- the church wins!

In fact, Haggai’s message makes it clear that the new Temple will be greater than the old Temple (2:7):

I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts.... 9 The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts.

So let me repeat the words of God to Haggai as the message to the church this morning:

Be strong, all you people of [Bethel] declares the Lord. Work, [God knows it takes work. If we see someone struggling, it is always so much easier to go home to our 'panelled houses' and forget about our brother or sister. Work: become the people who represent God to the world. Work: become a people of worship, and a people of challenge, and a true community] for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts, [echo of 1:13]... My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not. (Haggai 2:4,5)

Or, as Paul puts it:

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

So what are we doing to build up the church this week? Haggai tells us to “consider our ways”. He challenges us to put God to the test. If we commit to the construction of his House, the church; if we’re willing to invest in those beyond our families and our close friends, if we are willing to share his vision for a church and make it our primary, rather than our secondary investment, then his blessing will follow. Let’s recommit ourselves this morning to an investment in God’s Temple -- even in the lives and the concerns of the people seated all around you this morning.