Briefly explain the purpose of this series – God often asks questions to help us to see our real values and beliefs. Real change happens only at this level, and God’s questions thus help us to change deeply and lastingly.
This morning we will look at a question that exposes a very common problem for God’s people (TITLE). In order to understand and benefit from this question, we need to understand its setting. Read 1:1,2. Haggai was an Old Testament prophet who arose around 520 BC. He spoke to Jews who had returned from exile to Jerusalem some 20 years earlier. God called on them to rebuild His Temple, and they had started to do this. But after running into political opposition, they tabled the project. For the past 14 years they had been saying that the time/circumstances were not conducive to resume it.
The purpose: building God’s Temple
What’s so important about this building, anyway? Unlike pagan deities, God didn’t need a temple to have some place to live and be fed. Rather, His Temple was a communication device. He designed its architecture, furniture, priests, rituals and animal sacrifices to teach His plan of salvation to Israel and through them to the rest of humanity. Through the centrality of animal sacrifice, God revealed that our main problem is our true moral guilt. Because God is holy, our sins separate us from Him and bring us under His judgment of death. But these sacrifices also taught that God is loving, and that He would provide a blameless substitute whose death would pay for our sins. By commanding them to rebuild the Temple, God was giving them the privilege of communicating to humanity who He is and how to receive His forgiveness.
God’s people today have been given an even greater privilege. Jesus has come to fulfill the Temple sacrifices. Because He lived a sinless life, His death was the sacrifice to pay for our sins. And because He was God, His sacrifice paid for all of our sins. The moment you entrust yourself to Him by asking God to forgive you through Jesus’ sacrifice, God comes to live in your heart and you become part of God’s new Temple (1Pet.2:4,5). And God gives you another privilege – the privilege of building His new “house” by helping people come to know Christ and by helping fellow Christians to mature in Christ (1Pet.2:9). This is the most important development in this stage of human history, and God gives each Christian a unique role in this building project. But it’s easy for God’s people to get sidetracked from this priority...
The distraction: materialism
These folks shouldn’t have tabled the reconstruction project just because they got political opposition. God is more powerful than any human ruler; He can do whatever is necessary to advance His plan through us. He had already proven this to them by delivering them from exile! But they forgot this and quit building, and then they became distracted by materialism. God exposed this problem through Haggai’s question (read 1:3,4). Paneling was a luxury (see Solomon’s palace in 1Kg.7:3,7).
Had God simply declared that they had become materialists, this may have merely incited defensiveness: “We go to synagogue most weeks! We fulfill our giving pledge! Are you saying that all paneling is a sin? We got our paneling on sale, and it is less expensive than other paneling!” But a question like this is more likely to stimulate self-reflection: “Why do I have plenty of time to remodel my own house – but I don’t have any time to rebuild God’s house? Why do I ‘run’ (1:9) to my own home improvement project – but feel apathetic about building God’s house? Is it really not time for God’s house to be rebuilt – or is it that I’m busy with my own projects?”
When I read this question, I realize that I have gone down the same path as these folks (in varying degrees) many times. And my guess is that if you have been a Christian for very long, you have too. This path has certain stages that we can recognize:
When we meet Christ and experience God’s love, we are naturally filled with zeal to build His church with Him by telling people about Him, encouraging other brothers and sisters, using our spiritual gifts, etc.
But sooner or later, we run into obstacles. It may be opposition from family or friends who criticize us for being fanatical. It may be the disappointment of seeing people not respond to Christ or walk away from following Christ. It may be the frustration of seeing how much more broken we are than we realized. It may that life gets more complicated (e.g., marriage, children, career, etc.). These obstacles create a fork in the road. Either we let them deepen our trust in God’s power, and persevere in His priorities – or (like these folks) we begin to compromise our commitment to live for Christ.
This compromise results in discouragement concerning our Christian life. Then the joy and satisfaction we formerly got from serving Christ wanes, so we become vulnerable to materialistic distractions like material possessions, entertainment, career, our kids’ school and sports success, etc.
These distractions lead to rationalizations that we don’t have time to serve God sacrificially. We may say: “When the kids are older, when my job is less demanding, when I get out of debt, when my schedule gets easier, when my marriage is in better shape...” Some drop out of involvement with God and His people; others stay involved – but it is perfunctory, and perfunctory involvement tends to decrease over time. Have you seen this? Can you relate to this?
That’s why the rest of this chapter is so helpful – we learn how God delivers His people from materialistic distraction when they fall into it. I see three principles in 1:5-14...
How God delivers us from materialistic distraction
He intervenes to expose its emptiness. Read 1:5,6,9-11. Part of Israel’s covenant agreement with God was that if they departed from allegiance to him, He would discipline them by withholding agricultural prosperity (Deut.28:38-40). They were frustrated that the weather was causing consistent drought and crop failure. But God says: “It’s Me! I am blocking your material prosperity so that you will realize that you will be fulfilled only when you return to serving Me as the integrating priority of your life.”
This specific discipline is not part of our covenant relationship with Christ, but God does promise to discipline us as His children (Heb.12:5ff.) when we stray from loyalty to Him.
Sometimes God mercifully sabotages our materialistic goals through career reversal, job loss, economic recession, etc. I know many Christians who were angry at God during these times, but later thanked Him for how these dashed dreams brought them back to the Lord.
Sometimes God grants us vivid memories of the peace, hope and joy that we used to have when we followed Him fully. This helps us to realize that we are not truly enjoying the things we have put in His place. We may have more entertainment or hobbies – but they haven’t replaced our former joy. We may be making more money and/or rising higher in our careers – but this hasn’t replaced our former sense of true purpose. This realization motivates us to acknowledge that we have “left our first love” and to return to the Lord.
Sometimes God mercifully opens our eyes to see that our lives have become what Jesus describes in Mk.4:19. We thought materialism would make us secure, but He opens our eyes to see that it has made us anxious (e.g., consumer debt). We thought it would make us content, but it has made us full of lust that never satisfies (e.g., law of diminishing returns). We realize we have been deceived.
God’s discipline can be painful (Heb.12:11) – especially if we realize that we have strayed deeply and/or for a long time. But God takes no joy in inflicting this pain, and He doesn’t want us to engage in self-recrimination. Like a doctor whose probing causes pain, He only wants to secure our cooperation so He can restore us.
He invites us to realign our hearts with His purpose. Read 1:7,8. What an amazingly merciful request! Even though they had deserted their posts for 14 years, God didn’t “fire” them. No, they couldn’t undo the 14 year delay. But they could move forward with God now to rebuild the Temple! He still had a role for them, and playing their role would both please God and glorify Him. Yes, rebuilding the Temple would mean less time and effort on home improvement. But this was essentially a positive call, an invitation to re-join God in accomplishing His purpose.
Whether we have succumbed to materialism for 14 days, 14 months, or 14 years, the only thing He wants us to do is decide from our hearts to return to Him. His grace is such that He receives our repentance with joy. He does not make us do penance or set us aside. He invites us back into His service, and He usually gives us immediate opportunities to represent Him (EXAMPLES).
Read 1:12. The leaders and the people responded in this way. “(They) obeyed the voice of the Lord... they showed reverence for the Lord” means that they simply told God: “We want to start living for Your purpose again.”
He supplies us with encouragement and motivation to serve Him. Read 1:13,14. The moment they realigned their hearts, God drew near to them in support. He assured them that “I am with you” to protect and guide them. And He “stirred up their spirits” (supplies them with motivation) to rebuild the Temple. 14 years of spiritual lethargy evaporated in the blink of an eye, replaced by assurance and hope and zeal for Him!
Have you gotten enmeshed in materialism (especially for a long time)? Are you contemplating returning to the Lord? Satan is probably saying to you: “Why bother to change? Even if you do, it will take such a long time to recover spiritual vitality and motivation that it’s not worth it.” That is a lie! God says: “Draw near to me, and I will draw near to you” (Jas.4:8). All He requires is a decision to return in the way He shows you. When you adopt this attitude, His Spirit will personally encourage to you. And He will begin to supply renewed motivation to follow and serve Him. You may be amazed at how rapidly your spiritual life can improve!
One final application – God helps us through one another to get out of our materialistic distractions and back into His service. Ask yourself two questions in this regard:
“Am I willing to let others be a ‘Haggai’ to me?” Are you involved enough with other Christians that they can see when you are getting distracted by materialism? Have you given them permission to challenge you in this area? Or have you made it clear that it’s none of their business? With openness to this kind of input, God can nip materialism in the bud. But without openness to it, Heb.3:13 says we will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
“Am I willing to be a ‘Haggai’ to others? Are you willing to raise this issue when God puts it on your heart – to point out how pursuing other priorities is not leading to a fulfilled life, and to call them back to the privilege of building God’s “house?” And we need to affirm and encourage and facilitate those who respond. This is a super-important ministry that we can all take part in!
NEXT WEEK: Haggai 2 – “Who saw this Temple in its former glory? Does it not seem like nothing in comparison?”
DISCUSSION: Questions about and/or experiences with these three principles