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 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 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.