Tuesday, January 19, 2010

CONSIDER YOUR WAYS



How often have you been sidetracked on a project which you began in earnest but failed to complete? This was the story of the children of Israel, who returned from captivity in Babylon in 538 B.C. Their numerous sins had led to their exodus from the land for seventy years, but God had graciously kept His word to bring them to their homeland: “For thus saith the LORD, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place. For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end” (Jeremiah 29:10, 11). After the death of King Nebuchadnezzar in 562, the Babylonian empire began to crumble from within and was eventually conquered by the Persians under King Cyrus, God’s anointed (Isaiah 44:28), in 539 B.C. Cyrus was hailed by many of the Jews as a liberator. One year later, he issued a decree allowing the Jews to return home. With newly born hope in their hearts, the first group returned under the leadership of Zerubabbel, the governor, and Jeshua, the high priest. They were charged with the task of building the temple that lay in ruins. The work progressed for two years until the foundation was completed. This was a time of mixed emotions: “And all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men, that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy” (Ezra 3:11b,12).

When opposition to the building arose (Ezra 4), apathy set in and the work ceased (Ezra 4:24). For the next sixteen years, the people directed their efforts toward making their own lives more comfortable. They began to rationalize their sin, as recorded in Haggai 1:2: “Thus speaketh the LORD of hosts, saying, This people say, The time is not come, the time that the LORD'S house should be built.”

I must confess that I also am guilty at times of such rationalization, both with sins of commission and omission. One can only imagine what thoughts crossed the people’s minds when, day after day, they looked upon the abandoned temple left to the destructive elements of nature. Human nature being what it is, they eventually became accustomed to living without the house of the Lord as the center of their religious life. How could this be? Alec Motyer reminds us, "To refuse to build the Lord's house was at best saying that it did not matter whether the Lord was present with them. At worst it was presuming on divine grace, that the Lord would live with his people even though they willfully refused to fulfill the condition of his indwelling that he had laid down." The lesson here is that a Christian can get quite accustomed to life in the world. Stay away from church, fellowship, or ministry for a period of time, and you will adjust to life without those things. Life in Jerusalem continued as normal, or so the people thought, until two of God’s prophets arose and sounded out the Word of the Lord. Their names were Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5:1). This seems to be the way of the Lord when he addresses the indifference of his people. They go about their day-to-day affairs until God, without any advance notice, calls upon them to “consider their ways.” This was the focus of Haggai, a virtually unknown man of God, whom God used as his mouthpiece: “Then came the word of the LORD by Haggai the prophet, saying, Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your cieled houses, and this house lie waste? Now therefore thus saith the LORD of hosts; Consider your ways” (Haggai 1:3-5). Calvin commented, “He [God] condemned the sloth of the people; for, being intent on their own advantages, they all neglected the building of the Temple; and he shows that they were deservedly suffering punishment for their ingratitude; for they despised God their Deliverer, or at least honored him less than they ought to have done, and deprived him of the worship due him.”

Dear friend, does this sound like you? Have you become slothful in your Christian duties, honoring God less by putting self first? Take heed! Haggai told the people that serving self before God is not the path to blessing. As you read his message, you find that it puts emphasis on four things: First is the rebuke and call to solemn reflection (1:1-7). Next, Haggai points out that sin is the reason for their lack of prosperity (1:6 and 9-11); this is followed by a call to repentance (1:8). Finally, there is a word of encouragement: “Then spake Haggai the LORD'S messenger in the LORD'S message unto the people, saying, I am with you, saith the LORD” (1:13).

Every preacher’s desire is a positive response to the preaching of God’s Word. This is exactly what happened with Haggai: “And the LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Josedech, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and did work in the house of the LORD of hosts, their God” (14). Repentance is turning from disobedience to obedience, from self-will to doing God’s will.

One of the hidden blessings in this revelation of God’s grace working in the hearts of the people is found in chapter 2 of Haggai. Ironically, although this second temple was outwardly inferior to the temple built by Solomon, God said: “The glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former, saith the LORD of hosts: and in this place will I give peace, saith the LORD of hosts” (2:9). What comfort and assurance it is to know that God is not like man, whose vision and knowledge is limited: “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (Isaiah 46:9-10). With great practical wisdom, Dr. J. Vernon Mc Gee reminds us that “God was encouraging the discouraged builders of Haggai’s day to see their temple in the
perspective of the ultimate purpose of God. Oh, that you and I might see our present circumstances in that same way! We need to look at them in the light of eternity and to look at them in the light of God’s purpose for us.” As children in whom God delights, we build more than we see if our desire is for God’s glory. But we do not build without difficulties. The enemies of Israel discouraged the returning exiles from doing what God wanted them to do. They constantly hindered them in their goal (Ezra 4:4). For all of us who know God, this is the reality of life. Numerous trials and spiritual foes will come our way which can frustrate us and discourage us from the tasks God has given us to do. In addition, the desire to take care of our own affairs to the exclusion of building up the Kingdom of God is ever present. However, as those redeemed from the kingdom of darkness (Colossians 1:13), we must always remain vigilant and stay passionate for the glory of the Lord. Don’t grow weary, because there is no going back to Babylon. Babylon is the world and there is no joy in Babylon. We must press on in faith, without wavering or doubting when the hills of life are steep, the valleys low, and the storms severe. The God who brought Israel back to the land of promise is our God. We can be confident that He will guide and provide for all our needs through “the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). “The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, saith the LORD of hosts” (Haggai 2:8) . Don’t forget what you set out to do for the one who did so much for you (John 3:16). Keep your eye on the prize and finish the work!

“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8).

May the Lord be glorified in our lives,

Pastor Tom