A new beginning (3) – God’s business first

Bible readings

  • Matthew 6:25-34
  • Haggai 1:1-15

Introduction 

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Two weeks ago we began with a series of sermons under the title “A new beginning”.  It revolves around the return from Babylonian captivity of the people of God in the Old Testament.  God kept his promise had made through the prophets to deliver his people from the enemy and bring them back into the Land of Promise.

A few things stood out very clearly.  First of all, we saw that God called according to his own plan and purpose those foreordained.  Not all went back to Jerusalem and Judea.  

The second is that God provided for the need of those called to worship Him in the land promised to their forefathers. They lacked nothing to restart their worship of God back in Judea.

The third is that is when God’s people resettled in Judea the very first important aspect in their relationship with God had to be restored.  God sent them into captivity in the first place because they served Him on their own terms.  More so, their corporate worship around the temple and the altars had been a matter of outward concern, while their hearts were far away from God.  We learned that any other form of worship not ordained by God is not acceptable and it invites the wrath of God.

We heard of the return and resettlement first in the book of Ezra.  But other books in the Bible were written around the same time and for the same episode.  They are the prophets of Haggai and Zechariah.  The Word of God comes to us today from the first chapter of Haggai.  But first a bit of background.

Resettlement brings opposition

The Israelites returned to Judea roundabout March/April of the year 537 BC.  In 536 BC  they began the work to rebuild the temple.  But in chapter 4 of Ezra, we read about opposition.  The enemies of Judah tried to make them stop rebuilding the temple.  We will DV go into this episode next time.

When we pick up the story in Haggai, it was twenty years later on 29 August 520.  And what to be seen in Jerusalem?  What was achieved in the twenty-year since the foundations of the temple were restored?  Nothing!  There were only ruins overgrown with grass and weeds.  Nothing more.

How did the rest of Judah look?  What was to be seen in the towns and cities?  Well constructed homes, with the people quite happily going about their everyday business.

Three ways to argue

When you would ask the average citizen in Judah at the time why is it that they never continued after the foundations were laid, he would probably come up with three answers.

We’ve got the basics right

What would he mean by this?  He would point to the altar, the priests and the Levites, the Passover, the Feast of the Booths and all the morning and New Moon offerings.  He would probably point you to the fact that these are the most important elements of worship anyway.  For as long as we have the priests, the morning and evening sacrifice, the offerings, the Levites and our prayers right, we don’t really need more.  This is the essence, and we’ve got the essence right.  The temple is of secondary significance. To reconstruct the temple is not necessary, because Solomon built the temple as a personal project and not a direct command from God.  Besides, God cannot be contained in a building.  Maybe somewhere along the track, we will rebuild the temple, but not now.

 It’s not the time

The next argument against rebuilding the temple would be, “It’s not the right time to do it.”  Look around you and just take note at what happened when 20 years ago they tried to rebuild it:  there was a lot of opposition.  Since we have stopped rebuilding the temple the opposition stopped.  And besides, we still have the altar worship.  If we rebuild the temple now, there might be a danger that we could lose all of it.  And of course, as we know from the first argument against rebuilding the temple, altar worship is the essence of worship.  That we still have; and that without opposition.  In the meantime, we find a break to rebuild our homes and families, and infrastructure.  One has to take care of one’s family.  As soon as we have done these things correctly and as soon as we really settled, we will then think about the temple.

 We cannot afford it

The next reason the average citizen of Israel will tell you, is plainly that they could not afford it.  Apart from the early enmity with the surrounding nations soon after their return, they experienced very bad crops and very bad inflation.  The crops they harvested could not be sold for much.  What they brought home got blown away and eaten up by the ever-rising prices. So, in short, we cannot afford the rebuilding of the temple, we can hardly afford our own living.  We cannot give, purely because we do not have.  I mean, just make a few calculations and you will understand.  Does that make sense?

Give careful thought to your ways

Then God sent his prophet Haggai.  He went straight to the leaders, to Zerubbabel the governor, and Joshua, the high priest.  And from this unknown prophet, they heard it uncompromised.

Twice in a short span, the people heard this command coming from God twice:  Give careful thought to your ways.  It is as if the Lord wanted them to think about the reasons they offered why the temple was still in ruins.  And today the Lord wants us to look at the reasons we offer when it comes to not be active in building the church of Christ under his command and to the glory of God. Yes, we don’t have to build a  physical building; the building we need to be building under the headship of Christ is his church. We need to work on it locally and worldwide.

We’ve got the basics right

Let’s look at their first argument.  As long as they worship God around the altar; as long as they do the basics; God cannot be contained in a temple in any way.

You know, all these arguments are correct.  But it also pointed to a sloppy and inferior attitude of the heart.  The prophet pointed it out:  You don’t put God first; you are busy with your own house.  Your personal business is more important than the business of God.  There mere fact that you argue that the essence is enough, reflects an attitude that God is not all-important.  Yes, you love God, but not with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. If God wants a temple, then He wants a temple, even if we can find a reason why it is not necessary. 

This argument of “We’ve got the basics right” found its way into the modern church. The result is that people became individualistic – as long as my heart is right.  And it’s there where it stops.  The reverence of God and awe for his holiness becomes optional in the worship of God.  The dress is sloppy, the attitude and preparation for worship are untidy and careless.  Even ministers of the Word proclaim the Word and represent God to the people, shoddily dressed, and in some cases unprepared. What a disgrace!

You heard the argument “as long as my heart is right before God”; another is “God is not interested with the outward appearance, but with the inward attitude of the heart.  In part, this argument is correct, but only in part.  The full story is that God is interested in both the inward and the outward.  Christians are different, not only because they think differently, but also because of them having a Biblical mindset, they then present themselves to the world as ambassadors for Christ.

The lady who lived an unholy life, repented and came to the Lord.  She gave her testimony in the church.  On her arm was a big tattoo.  Through her lower lip was a stud.  Nobody commented about the tattoo; it was a reminder of her wild days, and it could not be removed. However, the minister of the church was very unhappy about people commenting about the stud, because his argument is, “What is wrong with it, her heart is right with God!  Outwardly this lady looked like anyone else who displayed the signs of her life outside of Christ.  She did not understand that her body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and her minister did not have the courage to tell her.

Indeed, we have saved as we are, but saved people are new, and do not remain what they were before God’s grace saved them; they become ambassadors for their Saviour.

This brings us to the second point:

 The time is not right: opposition

We are called not to build a physical temple on some holy mountain in some distant city.  The church of Christ is called to build another temple:  the body of Jesus Christ. It is the calling of the church to preach and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in season and out of season.  Now, why are we slack in this?  The time is not right.  We pray for the missionaries far away from here, and rightly so.  But of building the church in the city not so much happens.  Why?  If we are honest we have to say we don’t like opposition.  To build the Kingdom of God means to, as the apostle puts it in Ephesians 5:11, is to not have a part in the darkness of the word and its fruitless deeds, but to expose it.

We might claim that it is not the time, we might claim we have opposition, but deep down it boils down to the same basic argument as earlier:  we are busy with our own thing, while the house of God is in ruins.  It is a matter of priority.  It is a matter of building with all my heart, soul, mind and strength.

The last argument:

 We cannot afford it

Give careful thought to your ways”, the Lord says through his prophet.  Let’s just list the things mentioned in verse 5-6 and also in verse 9:

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.” (Haggai 1:5-6)

“You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. 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 his own house. (Haggai 1:9)

Spiritual inflation leads to other forms of inflation.  The moment we put other things first, and not God and his glory to serve Him whole-heartedly, the other inflation sets in.  We work but are not satisfied; we gather in but we never have enough; we dress, but somehow we still feel satisfied; we earn money, but still see it slip through our fingers.  We work with expectation, and the only thing we can show in the end is frustration, disappointment and ulcers. 

At this point we argue just like them in old Jerusalem:  we cannot expand the work of God, because we cannot afford it;  in short, we cannot give because we do not have. It’s as simple as that.

Give careful thought to your ways”.  That is not your problem; your problem is, “You do have because you do not give!” Look at the clouds and the dew;  there is nothing in them, not because it is dry our because we are going through a dry cycle; its because we have put ourselves in the centre, while the Kingdom of God is pushed to the periphery. 

What gain is it that we work for what does not satisfy? The heathens do that.  They gather in, they are worried about today and tomorrow.  God’s children don’t do it.  What do they do?  They seek the kingdom of God first, knowing that the living God will provide in all the other things. What is the promise of Christ:

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:7–8, NIV)

Conclusion

 My dear friends in the Lord, it is a matter of priorities.  It is a matter of Christian stewardship. 

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)

May I challenge you individually, but also as a congregation, from the Word of God this morning:  Repent before God and ask his forgiveness.   And then, ask God to teach you to trust Him completely, to obey Him completely.  Look up and hear the promised of the Almighty God:  I am with you! (verse 13).  Look at the cross and the open grave.  Hear the promise of our Lord, I am with you till the very end of this age; go, disciple the nations and teach them to obey everything I commanded you. We have a job do to.  We can’t, we don’t have the means.  No, we do have the means, because we don’t give:  time, talent, money, our hearts.  AMEN.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 19 January 2020.

 

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