We’re at the end of our series from the OT called Encounters With God. This message is a bit different because it points toward the kind of encounter with God you and I can actually expect to have. The paradigm for encountering God in the NT era is in this passage, so Haggai 1 serves as a fitting end to this series. In the OT God led his people in a relationship of growing maturity. And I pray he has led us along the same path as we encounter him in his fullness through the Holy Spirit uniting us to God in the Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve discovered that Haggai is incredibly relevant to Christians. It shows us one reason why our desire to encounter God is so often frustrated.
It’s so easy to build our private little kingdoms and to justify our neglect of God’s big kingdom. Why do we do this, especially when our little kingdoms prove dissatisfying? How can you escape this terrible rut when we are all more or less at fault? How can you stand if we tend to fall together? God knows our hearts and the situations we collectively inhabit, so he is able to properly challenge us to consider our ways when we fall out of his favor and then feel life’s frustrations. God calls us and stirs us through his powerful word to return to him in reverent obedience. No more excuses. Our time has come.
The short book of Haggai is near the end of the OT. It narrates the prophet’s ministry to the remnant of Jews who returned to their homeland after being exiled in Babylon for 70 years. The civic and religious leaders, and all the people, have been rebuilding their nation’s infrastructure and neighborhoods, but the temple still lies in ruins after an aborted effort to repair it 20 years prior.
The Excuse Uncovered
God knows your situations (v. 1)
On 8/29/520 BC God spoke. It was the first of the month in the Jewish calendar—the day of the new moon festival in Jerusalem and thus a day of public worship. Trumpets blared. The priests offered the people’s sacrifices. The crops were mostly harvested. Godly leaders presided over the people. It was a time for all to rest from their labors and celebrate. But the time was not as happy as it appeared, and God knew it. So the Lord spoke through his prophet Haggai to governor Zerubbabel and high priest Joshua in order to confront the big problem that no one was seriously discussing anymore.
God knows your excuses (v. 2)
The source of the problem was the broken-down temple. But the big problem was that no one wanted to do anything about it. Everyone wanted in theory a rebuilt and functioning temple, but no one considered this a serious problem anymore. They had accepted their situation as normal, and they made excuses for their apathy. They told themselves the time was not yet right to start working. And they had probably convinced themselves this was true for a number of reasons. (1) The last time they tried rebuilding, opponents killed the project. (2) Wasn’t the coming Davidic king supposed to rebuild the temple? It was really God’s project—that’s what Ezekiel said (Ezek 37:24-28). (3) It had only been 66 years since the Babylonians tore down the temple. Didn’t Jeremiah say their exile would be 70 years (Jer 25:11)? God knew all their excuses, and he wasn’t buying any of them.
Do you know what people do more than anything else when life isn’t going well and they know things need to change? They make excuses. I used to think it was just me because I’m a “glass is half-empty” kind of guy. I’m really good at explaining why things aren’t going well. I can line up all the reasons why it’s not entirely my fault until I feel justified in the status quo. And then I became a pastor and started making excuses for all the problems I had in the church. Some of you started confiding in me your own feelings of frustration with your problems. Then it hit me. You’re just like me! You make up excuses and rationalize them just like I do! We all do it. You know it. I know it. God knows it. So let’s just admit it and stop pretending that our excuses are better than the other guy’s excuses.
The Excuse Dismantled
Consider your wacky priorities (vv. 3-4)
Here’s the thing. Once upon a time such excuses made sense. But the times had changed. That’s what God wanted them to consider. How wacky is it that God’s temple (the most important house in history) is in shambles while God’s people hurry home from their jobs to make their own houses extra nice and comfy with paneling? Paneling possibly refers to wood lining the inner walls and ceiling (1 Kgs 6:9; 7:3, 7; Jer 22:14). It implies a level of personal luxury for that day which is striking compared to the ruined condition of the temple. Paneling in David’s palace was once a royal luxury, but now the level of affluence had risen. Yesteryear’s indulgence was now perceived as today’s necessity. These homes are finished and furnished, but now the people are busy perfecting them. It was extremely insulting to God and his glory that his people were not content to dwell in livable homes, but reached for more and more when God’s house lay in ruins. It sure looks bad on the face of it, but they can’t see how absurd they look because everyone is doing it! It’s obviously a problem of getting priorities all wrong. King David sensed things were out of whack after he had built his own palace while the LORD still dwelt in a tent (2 Sam 7:1-2; 1 Kgs 6:9; Jer 22:13-15). His sense of spiritual things out of order stirred a desire to build God a magnificent temple. But in Haggai’s day the situation is inexcusable. Now God’s people prioritize making their homes overly fancy, while their God is homeless! And they’re fine with it! Do you see how wacky were their priorities?
The famous preacher Chuck Swindoll tells a story about a time he was preaching on the great need for Christians to commit their priorities to God. There was a man with “boat fever” in his congregation whom he watched squirm uncomfortably through the sermon. The man had been dreaming for some time of a life on the water, but had not consulted his wife, friends, or anyone else (especially God) about what he should do. After the service, the man approached Swindoll who was trusting God had used his sermon to do heart surgery on the man. The man explained, “During your sermon I couldn’t shake the feeling that God wanted me to commit my life to him, including my wanting a boat. I just want to thank you for what you said because now I see God wants me to teach a Sunday School class on the boat.” There’s a man who had not yet considered the wackiness of his priorities!
Consider the what and why of your ways (vv. 5-7, 9-11)
After dismantling their wacky priorities, the LORD urged his people to carefully think about whether their choices have led to prosperity or frustration. It’s as if he says, “Look at your basic needs: work, wages, food, drink, and clothing. You have, but are you truly satisfied? You work hard for your paycheck, but you run out of money before you run out of month. You pour all your energy into your job, but look what you get out of it. By any reasonable account you have enough food, drink, and clothing to live, but you are frustrated and unfulfilled. And when you bring home the meager fruit of your hard work, I just huff and puff and blow it away like straw. You’re trying hard to get ahead but all you’re doing is spinning your wheels and burning yourself out! Didn’t you read Ecclesiastes!? You’re chasing after the wind!” Then God challenges them to stop and seriously ponder, “Do you think there is a connection between the way you’re living and the way life is treating you? The sky withholds rain, the earth withholds crops, and drought conditions hover over every man and animal. These are not peripheral details. I am sovereign over the weather, the earth’s produce, and the economy. Remember what you’re experiencing is spelled out in our covenant (Dt 28:24, 30, 38-40, 48). Now that you see things clearly, what are you going to do about it?”
Consider your way out (v. 8)
Verse 8 is God’s prescribed remedy. It’s right in the middle of the passage so you can’t miss it. Reorder your priorities and start giving God the glory he deserves. That is the only thing you can do right now to please him. The glory of God is the final and driving reason why the people must rebuild the temple (1 Cor 10:31; Rev 4:11). Bringing God glory is the fundamental reason why Christians do everything they do. The “sacrifice” of temple-building will bring God pleasure and glory much like he takes pleasure in the temple sacrifices that give him glory. Rebuilding the temple was critically important because it prepared God’s people for the greatest encounter with God: the coming of Jesus Christ. We need Jesus because as the express image and glory of God he is the way out of our excuses, our disobedience, our misplaced priorities, and our sin.
Do you know what God means by “consider your ways”? He doesn’t mean you just nod your head and think “that’s true.” Or to say to yourself, “that was a good sermon” and then forget about it by lunchtime. God is giving you a homework assignment when he says “consider your ways.” He wants you to devote some time to take stock of your lifestyle choices, your schedule, your spend habits, your reasons for why you work, play, worship, and serve. He urges you to make an account of your spiritual inventory with other Christians you trust (not those who will just tell you what you want to hear), to talk with them about what God is doing in your heart and the changes you think you need to make. God wants you to do some soul-searching, and to put some effort into it. Consider your ways prayerfully, asking God to do spiritual heart surgery on you. Then perhaps you commit to partnering with another Christian to keep one another accountable to “consider your ways,” to discuss it, and to dismantle your excuses for not putting God first wherever you find it’s true of you.
The Excuse Rejected
We fear, repent, and obey the Lord (v. 12)
Isn’t it wonderful that God meets us right where we are? As a loving Father he perfectly disciplines his children in order to turn us from a life of futility and frustration back to a life of glorifying him and finding true fullness. At just the right moment he speaks the precise words we need to hear. God never makes reorienting our spiritual priorities a complicated task. Rejecting our excuses is actually quite simple, although it takes courageous faith. It begins when you start fearing God more than you fear what you might lose if you give up your excuses and turn to him. Repentance (actually making up your mind to reject your lame excuses) follows when you begin fearing God. And the flowering of repentance is making the turn away from the things that distract you and moving toward God in renewed obedience. This is exactly what the people did. Quite simply, they feared, repented, and obey the LORD.
The Lord assures, stirs, and empowers us (vv. 13-15)
Notice how God gracefully dances in time with us when we reject our excuses for not giving him first priority in our lives. Fearing God makes us vulnerable. We’re afraid of a father who is distant and stern and demands obedience. But God is no such father. When we’re afraid of him, he assures us, “I am with you.” When we repent it’s tempting to let shame rob us of joy. But God meets our repentance by stirring our spirits to love him again. He renews our joy as if we are converted anew. Remember the happiness and excitement you felt when God first won your heart? When you repent God stirs your spirit and resets your heart’s affection for him. Do you see that repentance is actually a precious gift? And when you begin to apply your repentance in obedience, there is a great temptation to serve God “in your own strength.” What we mean by this cliché is we forget we need God for the will and energy to obey. But God meets us at this point of temptation when we obey for our own glory (“Look what I did for God!”) by empowering us for spirit-filled obedience (“Look how great is my God!”). When we reject our excuses by fearing, repenting, and obeying God, he promises we will encounter his presence all the way and in every way! God is able and willing to love sinners who are naturally excuse-generators because Jesus made no excuses when the obedience of glorifying God demanded his life as a sacrifice for us. Christ’s supreme act of glorifying God, for the love of his excuse-making people, won the love of God for us. Through Christ’s sacrificial obedience we are now forever in a position where God lovingly comes to us through his word, in Christ, and by the power of the Spirit.
This is the mature paradigm of encountering God. That is the main point of this passage. But don’t forget the biblical theme that occasioned this message: God’s presence with us in the temple. The temple theme helps us apply the main point. God’s house on Mount Zion in Jerusalem was a kind of placeholder, a symbol that pointed forward to the day when God would be with us perfectly. Jesus is the reality of the temple symbolism. The Lord Jesus, in his body, has become the place where God dwells with us. And so Jesus, the divine man (fully God and fully human) is with the church (we are his body and he is our head). This means God’s call to the Jews to dedicate themselves to rebuild his house is absolutely relevant for Christians today. Just as Jesus is God’s temple, we are also his temple since we are in union with Christ. So when you see dysfunction in the church, broken or stalled ministries in the church, or any other problem where the gospel needs to be more consistently applied in the church, heed God’s word through Haggai to rebuild God’s house by dealing with your excuses. Uncover them. Dismantle them by considering your ways. And then reject them. Encountering God is always, always a call to rightly order our priorities, a call to action, a call to serve, and a call to worship. Consider your
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