Are you excited about the Olympics? Friday night my family watched the opening ceremonies. It’s inspiring to see the parade of athletes. This year there are athletes representing 206 countries.
The sight calls to mind the scene recorded in Revelation 7:9 –
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
An article last week in Christianity Today highlighted vocal Christians competing in the Olympics – from Argentina, Australia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Italy, Jamaica, Nigeria, New Zealand, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, Trinidad & Tobago, Uganda and the United States.
God is building a global kingdom. He is at work in corners of the world we have never heard of in ways that we would never dream of.
This morning we join the people of that global kingdom in gathering on the Lord’s Day.
This morning I want to talk about how God uses flawed people to build his kingdom. We’re going to see how God uses people with misplaced priorities, misplaced faith and misplaced desires to build his glorious kingdom on earth.
To do that we are going to turn to the Old Testament to the book of Haggai.
Haggai was one of the last prophets of the Old Testament times.
His ministry took place in 520 BC in a time of upheaval for the people of God. 66 years earlier the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar 2 had invaded Israel, conquered its army, destroyed the temple and deported the people.
Solomon’s temple had stood in Jerusalem for nearly 400 years as symbol of the glory and favor of God. Its physical ruins represented the spiritual devastation of it’s people.
By 539 a new power had risen in the world and the Persian kingdom eclipsed the Babylonians. When Cyrus the emperor of the Persians rose to power something completely unexpected took place.
The ancient historian Josephus wrote that Cyrus came across the book of Isaiah and read a prophecy he saw as referring to himself, he made a decree announcing that Jehovah had appointed him to build a temple for him in Jerusalem. This allowed any Israelite to return to Jerusalem and restore the city.
The people of God returned to the city and began a restoration project which was soon interrupted by neighboring peoples and hostile politicians, who sought to oppose the work.
God had done something extraordinary through Cyrus, yet the people of God reacted in fear to their enemies and gave up on the work.
Sixteen years after the decree, the people of Israel had turned from the temple to their own homes and left the house of God neglected. That’s the context of Haggai’s message.
As we read we’re going to ask two question that are very helpful for understanding the Old Testament 1) What’s the human experience that I share with the people in this passage? 2) What’s God’s solution for our condition?
Obstacle 1: Misplaced priority.
The people they put off the work of building God’s house while they tended to their own houses. Paneled homes probably refers to cedar wood work which was a luxury in that day. The temple of God was a pile of rubble, while the people of God had invested heavily in their own homes.
We can be like that can’t we?
The New Testament equivalent of the OT temple is the church, the construction of the temple in the New Testament is the making of disciples – sharing the gospel and building one another up. Some Christians are devoted to building up the temple of God, others are busy at home with their own projects.
We can be like the remnant in Haggai’s time, can’t we?
In college we are zealous for God but we get married, get jobs, buy homes and we lose sight of our former passion.
Some of us put off getting serious about God until we have had a chance to have some fun.
Some of us tried the God thing, we experienced failure or disappointment and gave up hope that we have any real purpose in the kingdom.
It’s far too easy for us to put God’s house on the back burner while we tend to our own house.
Solution #1: God opposes my efforts to find life apart from Him.
The fruit of seeking first their own homes was poverty.
This is always the way it is.
When you don’t have God it doesn’t matter how much or where you try to find satisfaction – you won’t find it. You can look to food, you can look to alcohol and drugs, you can look to sex and romance – it will never fill you.
I have a friend who is very proudly committed to his independence. He is free and proud and he is miserable.
Haggai connects the dots for us. Why are people unsatisfied and restless? Because they have not sought God.
But it’s more than that, isn’t it. The people of Israel were not simply suffering the Psychological or Spiritual consequences of misplaced priorities.
God actively opposed them. (Verses 9-11)
The message of the Bible is not just Psychology. God is there. God acts in time and space. God interacts with real people like you and me in time and space.
Consider carefully God says.
Stop for a moment and look at your life, think about your experience. You have put God on the back burner, you have sought satisfaction and security everywhere but God. How is that working out for you? Are you happy? Are you really happy?
Think for a minute, God says. Consider how things are going for you. Get to work on my house.
Verse 12 tells us the people took Haggai’s message to heart and set out to work. They feared God.
Obstacle #2: misplaced faith.
As the people set out to work, some of the old timers who had been around to see Solomon’s temple back in the day because disheartened. They remembered stories of great kings sending treasures and resources to Solomon to build his temple. They remembered stories of massive crowds of laborers and skilled artisans coming together to build the temple. They remembered the sights and smells and sounds of the temple.
The ragged band of people clearing the rubble and starting over seemed like nothing to them.
It’s not very motivating to face a job that is big in labor and small in significance.
Have you ever felt that you were too small to do anything important for God’s kingdom? Have you ever felt that the big sacrifice was not worth the small result?
Solution #2: God promises the presence of His Holy Spirit.
How does God respond to the discouraged? “Be strong”
This is very personal.
Be strong Zerubbabel. Be strong Joshua. Be strong all you people of the land.
Be strong, because I am with you.
In other words, God is saying though this seems small to you, the same power that so gloriously worked in the Exodus is with you now.
It’s the same God. It’s the same promise. I am with you.
Just start the work. Take the first step. It is only after we take the first step of faith that we begin to experience the power of God.
Be strong, Haggai says. He then connects the work they are doing with two points in history – past history and future history.
The first is the covenant God made with His people when He brought them out of Egypt. The Exodus was the greatest moment in the history of Israel. There was nothing more glorious than that event. God ties the people of Haggai’s day into that event by bringing the promise he made to them at that point into the present day.
God then takes them into the future to reveal a time when the power of God will shake the world and bring treasures from every nation on earth into the temple.
The common denominator in all three points in history is the Spirit of God.
Imagine that I wanted to give my son a project to do in the house. “Gabe I want you to build a bathroom in the basement.” I provide him with the lumber, the hardware, the tools and a plan. Now imagine that I told him to get to work and walked out of the house. He would be very discouraged. However, if I were to sit down and say, I’ll be here with you. It’s a totally different experience.
You are small and distracted. You have serious obstacles and your work looks insignificant. But what you are doing is chapter in the great and glorious work of my Spirit on earth.
Be strong. Take heart. I am with you.
Do you ever feel like you are small? What can I do for the kingdom of God? How am I going to testify about Jesus in this world. I can’t talk to strangers, I don’t know the Bible well enough to teach it to others, I don’t have the answers that I know people are going to ask.
It’s not worth it.
These 4 words change everything, “I am with you.”
Obstacle #3: Misplaced desire.
Haggai moves on to an interesting interaction with the priests of Israel. It’s a conversation about purity. The Old Testament attached a sacred status to physical object. Meat which had been sacrificed on the altar was holy. Yet it did not carry the power to make other things holy. On the other hand the meat of a deceased animal was impure and anything it touched became impure.
What’s the point of this conversation?
The point is very significant. I don’t want you to miss this.
Do you remember Isaiah 64:6? Your good deeds are like filthy rags.
The Bible is very direct about human nature. We are made in the image of God and carriers of divine goodness, yet we are crooked. The crookedness in our hearts is so stubborn, our best efforts will never be truly straight.
Do you know that crookedness?
Do you know what it feels like to be impure? Have you ever felt that God could never do great things through you – you are too unclean?
In Haggai, God agrees with the premise of that. You are unclean. Hopelessly unclean. But his conclusion does not follow yours.
In Haggai God does not follow up his judgment of Israel by concluding that he can’t work among them or bless them. Nor does he call the people to straighten up and get it together.
He says, you were apathetic and disobedient, you were more concerned about your houses than my house. And look what it got you. Now I’m going to do what you couldn’t do and just watch the blessings pour in. You were empty and unfulfilled, but not you are going to be blessed.
God did not do a great work in Israel in Haggai’s time because the people there were great. He did not step into their lives to help them because he saw something good in them.
He stepped into their lives to work through them in an act of pure undeserved grace. Why?
Listen, this is so important. The ground of God’s favor and blessing among his people is not their purity or worthiness.
Solution #3: God initiates in a work of pure grace.
What is it? Look back at chapter 1, verse 8. The will of God is the ground for his favor and work among his people. It is God’s pleasure and God’s glory that moves him to initiate in grace in our lives.
Let’s finish the book. In the final verses, Haggai anticipates mighty and glorious works surrounding Zerubbabel. The scale and scope of these verses points beyond Zerubbabel to something much greater. Let’s follow that direction and turn to Matthew chapter 1, verse 12. Do you see where this is going?
The work of God’s initiating grace will reach a climax in Jesus, the ultimate king of Israel.
Jesus did not neglect the house of God. Do you remember? John 2:17: His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
Our crooked hearts have misplaced priorities, misplaced faith and misplaced desire. We neglect the house of God for our own projects of self-salvation. How does God respond? He sends Jesus to live the perfect life we should have lived. He sends Jesus to tend to the house of God and to die in that work as a substitute in our place. His obedience was a substitute for us. His death was a substitute for us. His resurrected life means He is with us.
Because of the pure grace of God we are free to live a new human experience. A life of Spirit-filled surrender and availability.
There is nothing God can not do through that kind of humanity.
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown