St Michael’s and St Barnabas 7th January 2018
Reading – Haggai 1
Church history can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can be so inspiring to hear how men and women have stepped out in faith trusting only in the power of Jesus Christ. It was thrilling to hear the story of how Devonport Community Baptist Church was planted twenty years ago, and that article from the Plymouth Times in 1843 shows how the founding of St Michael’s was meant to meet a real spiritual hunger. Speaking personally, I have always been interested in the history of revivals and who can fail to be moved when you read stories of whole communities turning to Christ and a generation transformed?
But on the other hand, church history also has a way of shining a spotlight on the present, and making you realise just how many challenges the people of God face today. A few years back, my family and I went on holiday to a village of about 2000 people in Wales. In the centre was a huge Baptist church that had obviously once been the heart of the community. It now stood empty and derelict, not used for several years. Nearby the Methodist church had recently closed and was up for sale. So we went on the Sunday morning to the only alternative, the Anglican church. The congregation was barely into double figures and half of those present were visitors.
To me, it seems that one of the greatest challenges to the church today is quite simply discouragement. When you turn up to a service and there are only a handful of people there, or when you have to keep doing some task or other, because there really isn’t anyone else to do it, it’s very easy to lose your spiritual fervour, and sometimes wonder even if it is all worth it. In my experience there are so many people in our local community who drifted away from church, not because they necessarily lost their faith, or had some big falling out, but simply because they found it too much hard work. And maybe some of us also have found ourselves asking on occasions, “Is this really worth the effort?”
This is why I wanted to choose perhaps what isn’t a very obvious passage from Haggai this afternoon. To give some background: Haggai is prophesying at the end of the most turbulent and devastating period in the history of Israel. For a long time Israel had come under attack from foreign armies and indeed the northern kingdom fell completely to the Assyrian hordes in 722 BC. The small southern kingdom of Judah clung on as an independent state and indeed it seemed that the Lord was somehow protecting and watching over it. After all, the capital of Judah was Jerusalem and in the centre of Jerusalem stood the temple built by Solomon. It was a magnificent, imposing building, the place where the Lord said He would make His dwelling. Surely the Lord wouldn’t let anything happen to His temple or His city?
Well, in 587BC the Babylonian armies finally conquered Judah. The king and the leading officials were killed. Others were taken captive back to Babylon. The city was destroyed, and the temple razed to the ground. It is hard to imagine just how devastating were these events to those who had trusted in the Lord for so long. They had lost everything – their home, their nation, and even more confusingly their spiritual anchor. And so it was only natural that the cry went up, “Where is God in all this? Is this really the end?”
Remarkably, the answer was no. The prophet Jeremiah had foretold that after 70 years of exile the Lord’s people would return to the land. It must have seemed hard to believe this at times, and yet when the Persians replaced the Babylonians as the local superpower, one of the first things the new king did was to allow the Israelites to return home. And so with much rejoicing and with shouts of praise the foundation of a new temple was laid. It looked like a bright new future was beginning once again.
But as we read in the book of Ezra the enemies of God’s people soon got wind of what was going on. Ezra 4:4: Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. And faced with such opposition God’s people did what so many people do when they are discouraged. They turned their attention to their work, their families, their homes. In theory it wasn’t that they had given up on the Lord. It was just that there seemed better, more worthwhile things to do. Why carrying on building the temple when it was hard work and there was opposition on every side?
So for about twenty years the site of the temple lay derelict and uncared for. Perhaps everyone was waiting for someone else to do something about it, and of course when that happens no-one ends up doing anything. That’s why in the end the Lord sent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. It was time to stir up God’s people, to tell them they’d got their priorities wrong, to encourage them to make a fresh start.
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 Jehozadak, the high priest: This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come for the Lord’s house to be built.'” Now presumably the governor and the high priest knew what the people were saying. But they had done nothing about it. And I wonder if maybe there’s a challenge here to those of us who are leaders. I know from my experience it can be so easy to allow people to drift, to excuse their falling away from church, and possibly even their faith. After all, it can’t really be time for the church in Stoke and Devonport to be built up, can it? Those stories about the Lord working in power, they’re for other places, aren’t they? Not here…
But the Lord wants to directly challenge such a defeatist attitude. Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” Actually we always find the time and the energy for the things we really want to do. And what the people of God really wanted to do was to have a nice home, a comfortable job, and a good income. So that is what they worked towards.
I am sure that as folk went about their daily business, very few of them consciously put the Lord way down their list of priorities. It had just happened, as other apparently more important things came their way. But oddly enough, the more they worked, the less productive they seemed to become. That wage packet somehow never seemed big enough, the meals on the table never quite satisfied. No-one could quite work out what was wrong. So everyone put in even more effort, and the Lord slipped further and further down the list.
That is, until Haggai rudely interrupted everyone with a message from the Lord. Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 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.” You see, if you live according to the world’s priorities, how can you expect to be blessed? You may or may not seem to be prosperous or successful, but unless the Lord goes back to being number one in your life you will never find the satisfaction that you crave.
And of course, the people of God should have known this. They knew the Ten Commandments, and about having no other gods. But what they knew about God had become just so much theory. They no longer were living by the promises of God they had once known and loved. That is why Haggai, therefore, challenges them to consider their ways. He is telling them to step outside their busy lives for once and take a hard look at themselves and at God. And I suggest that is something we need to do at the start of the New Year. Where is God on our priority list? When did we last stop and give careful thought to our ways?
Haggai’s message is uncompromising: This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honoured,” says the Lord. “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.”
Now there are two important things we need to note about Haggai’s words. Firstly, his instructions to the people of God were to go and build a physical structure, because in the Old Testament the temple of God was precisely that, a building. But from our New Testament perspective the temple of God is not a building. It is us. It is the church of Jesus Christ in whom the Spirit dwells. And so the equivalent of us building the temple is not spending all our time in committees and church meetings talking about fabric and maintenance. It is about spending our time drawing people to the faith, discipling them, caring for and supporting them, and equipping them to live out the good news. I say all this because all too often it seems to me we operate still with an Old Testament model of what the temple of God is all about. We focus more on the physical than on the work of the Holy Spirit in and among us.
Secondly, nowhere does Haggai mention the enemies who had so discouraged the people of God and undermined their confidence. It wasn’t that they had gone away. They were still all around, doing their best to prevent the temple being rebuilt. Yet Haggai doesn’t even mention them. Why not? Because the focus ought to be not on the opposition but on the presence of the Lord. After all, whenever we engage in the Lord’s work we will find ourselves in a spiritual battle. That is the reality the moment we put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ. But it is possible to spend so much time thinking about the spiritual warfare we lose sight on our simple call to obey and trust the Lord. The point I have been making recently at St Michael’s is that when the Lord says He will do something, He will do it. Haggai gave the people a word from the Lord. Their response was not to make excuses but to trust in that word.
After all, what happens when we fail to trust the Lord? “Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the oil and whatever the ground produces, on men and cattle, and on the labour of your hands.” Let’s be clear – the Bible consistently makes it clear our failure to trust the Lord has consequences. Again, for us, the consequences are usually less physical than spiritual; a dryness deep within that dampens our faith and leads us away from the Lord; a sense that what we are doing doesn’t really satisfy; a reluctance to pray or to read our Bible. What, then, is the antidote? To come back humbly, in repentance, to the word of God, to listen carefully to what the Lord is saying and then to take action. And I don’t mean just on our own. I mean as the church of Jesus Christ, gathered together, each one with a serious desire to have a fresh start with the Lord, and a deeper desire for His ways.
Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of 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. Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people: “I am with you,” declares the Lord.
What does it mean that the people feared the Lord? Quite simply this, that they realised afresh exactly who the Lord is – not some god who could be relegated to the bottom of the to-do list, or pushed aside in the business of daily life – but the Lord, the maker of heaven, their Creator, their Sustainer, their Redeemer. Because that is what happens when you come back in repentance to the Lord. You gain a new perspective on who you are and who the Lord is. You realise you are only a sinner saved by grace and you realise only the Lord has the power to rescue and to restore you. And yet the wonder and beauty of the good news is that when we confess our unbelief, our weakness, our wrongdoing, the Lord comes us with such a simple and personal message of goodness. “I am with you.” Yes, the opposition is real, but I am with you. Yes, there is so much to do each day, but I am with you. Yes, you may feel the work I have called you to undertake is hard, but I am with you.
How do we know this to be true? So the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of King Darius. The simple answer is that when we come in faith and trust to the Lord, He gives us of His Holy Spirit. He empowers us to do the work He has called us to do. He unites us with the common purpose of building His kingdom. He strengthens us so that together we defeat whatever challenges the Evil One comes his way.
So are we still saying here today, in Stoke and Devonport, The time has not yet come for the Lord’s house to be built? What would happen if today we heeded the word of the Lord and came back to him in humility and repentance? Yes, I know there is no magic formula for revival. The Holy Spirit blows where and when He chooses. But imagine the churches of Stoke and Devonport united, filled with the Holy Spirit, making 2018 a year of rebuilding. Dare to dream what the Lord could do in us and through us. And then turn those dreams into fervent prayer before the throne of God, and trust in the promise He still makes to us today I am with you.