Series Title: “From wrack and ruin to blessing and beauty”
- Revelation 2:1-7
- Haggai 1
Can God really save?
You grew up with the idea that you are different; your family is different, and your people are different. For as long as you can remember your mother has been telling you that you are a member of God’s own people, and that you should not mix with children and people who worship other gods.
For as long as you can remember the history of your family and people has been recited to you, and the great deeds of the God of heaven are told when you prepare for the day to begin and when you go to bed at night.
But deep in you little mind you are struggling with questions which seem that even your parents have struggled with: where is this wonderful God? Why can’t you worship Him freely? Why are you not living in the land this God promised with an oath to your forefathers? Why is everyone who carries the name of you people as slave. If God is this wonderful and good, why the tyranny and slavery of your people?
Your people have been in slavery for more than one generation. The king under which they were driven from the Promised Land has been replaced by another from another kingdom, ostensibly even more brutal. The odds of being free again, of being back in your homeland, speaking your own language, and even more important, to worship the God of your forefathers in the place of worship He promised will stand forever, are not stacking up. Your parents have a living hope, but quite honestly you doubt. The probability of a political solution is zero. It might be just better to convert to the religion of the people who hold you captive!
God’s plan in action
But then, out of the blue, the new king changed policy: you and your people may go home, you may freely associate with those who worship the same God, you may once again speak freely and worship in the temple of your God. More than this, the king has ordained that your people must be treated differently, given special treatment, and he even announced that money from his treasury must pay for the rebuilding of your place of worship, which was destroyed by your enemy some 70 years before!
Why all this? Your God, who control all kings and kingdoms, moved the heart of this godless king in favour of your people.
Your people were arranged in family groups, and even the religious leaders were appointed according to their linage. Moreover, the special golden objects taken from your place of worship were handed back with the express purpose of being put to use as soon as that place was rebuilt.
Oh, the joy of being free and saved! Throngs of people sang songs of worship as they travelled back, crossing one hill after the other, and crossing one creek after the other.
Rebuild the ruins
Great was the joy of all the travellers to arrive back in your homeland only to find that no-one was missing and all the objects of worship were protected and safe. O, the greatness of God! His Name must be blessed and worshipped forever!
When the people got to the place of worship where so many generations worshipped the God of heaven and earth, people broke out in crying and lamenting. What happened to the most beautiful place of worship in the world? All that was left were rubble and heaps of broken stone. The only thing visible were the foundations of this once-glorious building.
The leaders called everyone together. “We must rebuild this place. God is with us and He made it possible for us to be back again. Go, find the farms and homes of your ancestral families, settle in and we will begin with this work. We must worship God and thank Him for his long-suffering, mercies and grace towards his people.”
The people were filled with jubilation and hope. “God is with us!”
They almost just put their belongings back in the shattered homes their grand-parents grew up in, and returned to the place of worship to start rebuilding it. Other people of other religions had settled in some of the towns, and they have been living there for more than one generation.
Opposition and bad times
But as soon as the work on the temple started, those who worshipped other gods began with a strategy of opposition. It was terrible.
“Maybe we understood it wrongly. Maybe we should first settle in our different towns and cities first, see that our own crops are growing, see that we increase our flocks, and see that we are financially and otherwise stronger to withstand the enemy before we continue with the place of worship.” It seems as if most people thought they could not be on the building site while paying attention to their own daily needs at the same time.
Drought set it. Crops failed. Business was bad. Inflation eroded the value of the currency. And on top of all things, the security situation got worse everyday.
“God is reasonable, fair and gracious to understand that we cannot continue with his work if we don’t have the means to do so. Did He not say that a man must look after his family first? It is not that we do not believe in Him – we still have our devotions from time to time, and we surely is thankful for the fact that we are back in our own country, but the conditions are tough, and we find it hard to make ends meet now. It will get better one day, and then we will restore the place of worship.”
Every penny the people got from selling something, and every hour of every day went into restoring their homes and putting their lives back together.
In the end the work on the temple stopped – completely, for quite some time.
And the conditions got worse. Opposition to your people just being there increased. Famine spread. “Maybe, we should not have returned from where we come from. We had it better there. Surely we could not worship freely, but it was better then than now!”
But then – who knows where this man came from, and what his background was? – Haggai appeared on the scene. He claimed to be a prophet of the God of the forefathers. He had the audacity to walk up to our leaders and deliver some sort of a prophecy. It was not kind, and lacked all forms of diplomacy.
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’ ” (Haggai 1:2, NIV)
But he used the same words as some of the prophets of many years ago. “This is what the Lord Almighty says.” And the people listened. He was from the God of hosts – all forces, powers, kingdoms and authority know to man are under his control – the same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When He speaks, you listen, you bow down in worship!
Never doubt God’s timing
“These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’ ”
It was not that they were against building the temple, it was just not the best time to do so!
But the implication of the words of the prophet was that God thought it was the right time.
By reinterpreting God’s timing we can sometimes be so wise that we do four things: we forget who God is; we forget what our salvation is about; we inhibit the work of God, and most importantly, we miss the splendour of his communion and presence. In short, we lose sight of the greatness of his Person and the power of his love.
The presence of the Lord
Why was it so important for them to restore the temple? Even Solomon knew this truth:
But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! (1 Kings 8:27, NIV)
So what was it about the temple? Listen:
May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. (1 Kings 8:29, NIV)
The ark of the Lord was in the Host Holy Place.
When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple. Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that He would dwell in a dark cloud; I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever.” (1 Kings 8:10–13, NIV)
The temple was symbol of God presence with his people. And this is what the returned refugees lost sight of! God was pushed onto the back burner. “Not now, God, but later, yes!”
And God says, “Now, or there is no later!”
What we sometimes forget is that God can never not be present. Yes we can act as if He is not important, we can try to push Him aside, or leave his work for later. But who are we to dictate to God? Who are we to think we can stop God from having in influence in what we do? Listen:
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.” (Haggai 1:11, NIV)
God is not absent when the drought comes; He is in it. He brought it on and caused it to happen. He is in control of the economy and the inflation, and in politicians making bad decisions, in the low cattle prices and the high cost of stock feed, diesel and electricity.
Think about what you’re doing
Not once, but over and over again Haggai drew the people’s attention to what they’re doing. And it was plainly the wrong way round. They had the cart before the horse; they drove the header and the picker backwards into the crop and complained that there was nothing to pick or gather in the bin!
Not only did it cause financial inflation, but also spiritual inflation. Nothing worked out. Everything they did became a daily struggled just to survive – and even that was not working out.
Year after year we have had drought after drought in our land. And every time our community finds itself in a bind, we look ways to get out of trouble. We blame all things: the government, low commodity prices, high costs, and now – climate change. I’m the last to draw a straight line between bad economic, agricultural, political and even security situations. But I surely think it’s time we heed the word of God: Give careful thought to your ways! Think what you’re doing. It seems as if our world is constantly chasing after what can never satisfy.
Build my house
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. (Haggai 1:8, NIV)
Get your priorities right. It is not that we should not have things keeping us busy, but it is the order of things. Who and what comes first?
To build the house is to have God smack bang in the centre of our lives; from there all things are prioritised. To build the house of God is to understand that his will comes first, that obedience and dedication to Him stands above our own plans and schemes. To build the house is not to have a neat and tidy church building; it does not even in the first instance mean that we should be involved in evangelistic and missionary outreach. All of these things will come to nothing if God is not in the centre of our existence. Ephesus, as we hear in our reading this morning have forsaken their first love. They has a wonderful ministry going, but they lost their love for God, and God called them to repentance, warning that He would remove them from amongst the churches should they not do so.
To build the temple in the days of Haggai meant restored worship: they would be once again sacrifices, sin forgiven, fellowship offerings and the hearing of the word of God. Without the temple communication with god was cut off.
When Jesus came, He showed the way: the temple had no meaning in his sacrifice, because He was the sacrifice, the High Priest and the way to God.
With building the house, the church of the new Testament will enjoy their buildings, laud their programs, marvel in their outreaches, invite others to their spectacular worship services – but all would be nothing more than the activities of a religious club, because Jesus Christ is not the Cornerstone, the One loved above all things.
I sometimes think about the child driven from the music class to the gymnastic practice, and then again to the ballet and the athletics – all meant for his good. But one day he would cry for his parents to just stay home and give him or her a hug and assure him or her of their love. Is it possible that God could ask us in amongst all our “ministries”, “Yes, but do you really love Me?”
We need to stop and think what we doing. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all the others things will be added unto you.” That is the house we should be building – the rest – all our glorious ministries – will then bear fruit.
I am with you
… 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. (Haggai 1:12, NIV)
This is the reaction our Lord is calling for: obedience and holy trust. What happens next is important:
Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people: “I am with you,” declares the Lord. (Haggai 1:13, NIV)
God stirred them up, they trusted Him and they began with the work. It took only three weeks for them to cut the first timber – and God blessed their work.
I am with you. Immanuel – Christ born for us.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, NIV)
This Christ, our Lord said:
And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20, NIV)
He brought us home from slavery and bondage. He is with us – this is what we will hear in the message of Christmas.
He call us to think about what we’re doing. Give careful though to your ways! Get your priorities right!
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 29 November 2015