God's Building Plan

The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, November 7, 2010.  The text for this week's message is Haggai 2:1-9.

We are in the little-known book of Haggai this morning with a message that seems very appropriate as we look at the task of reaching others with the good news of Jesus Christ.  This can be a daunting task, one that we may feel incapable of accomplishing.  However, what we will see in today’s passage is that our deficiencies and inabilities are not obstacles to God when He has something that needs to be accomplished.  To start off this morning, let’s take a look at some of the background of Haggai so we can understand where we are in history, and then move forward from there.

Haggai was a prophet in the time after the Israelites had returned from exile.  In 587 B.C. the Babylonians came into Jerusalem, conquered the city and exiled the majority of the Israelite people.  Nearly fifty years later, in 539 B.C. the Persians, led by Cyrus conquered the Babylonians.  The Persians had a very different policy regarding conquered nations, allowing them to continue in their cultures and traditions, including their religions.  In 538, Cyrus issued an edict allowing the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple.

Construction began the following year, but was quickly stopped because this new Temple was nothing like Solomon’s Temple.  It paled in comparison, and the people were discouraged.  When they saw the foundations of the new temple, they wept out loud because they knew that the new temple would be inferior to the first.  They knew that there was no way they would be able to build a Temple that even somewhat resembled Solomon’s Temple.  How could they?  Solomon had a workforce of over 30,000 people.  They were just the remnant that returned from exile.  When we get to prophet Haggai, we are in about 520 B.C., roughly 17 years after construction on the Temple began, and the Temple was still not finished.  This is where we are as we come to the second chapter of Haggai.

At the beginning of today’s reading, we are told that the word of the Lord came to the prophet Haggai.  Before we go much further, let’s take a look at what this tells us right from the get-go.  We come to a situation in which the people have grown comfortable and complacent in their inability to rebuild the Temple.  Because they didn’t think they could accomplish the task that was set before them, they didn’t even bother trying.  Eventually, they got to the point where the foundations of the Temple just became a part of the landscape.  It was no longer a reminder to press on to accomplish their task.  It was no longer a goal that they were trying to meet.  It was just the foundation of a failed attempt to build another Temple, and they had accepted it as part of the scenery in Jerusalem.

When the Lord speaks into this situation, we know that He cannot be pleased with what has been going on in Jerusalem, or rather, what hasn’t been going on.  The Lord is not pleased with a defeatist attitude and complacency with the status quo.  He is not pleased that the people have abandoned their task because they felt as though it was too difficult for them to accomplish.  We know that God cannot be pleased with this situation because if He was, then He wouldn’t have said anything at all.  He would have just allowed them to continue in their complacency, and the Temple never would have been rebuilt.  But that’s not what He does, is it?  No, the Lord speaks into this situation through the prophet Haggai.

One of the problems that we have in the church worldwide, but particularly in contemporary American culture, is that we’ve grown comfortable.  While we make think that comfort is a good thing, the truth is, comfort is not always the ideal, and should not be the goal.  It’s okay to be comfortable when you are trying to go to sleep, but when we are faced with a task from the Almighty God, comfort should be the last thing on our minds.  If we ever find ourselves too comfortable with where we are, then maybe we need to
 step back and reexamine what it is that we are doing.
For too long the Israelites had been just living their lives without any regard or concern with accomplishing the task of building the Temple.  Some of them had put more time and effort into their own house than they put into the house of God.  And it was unacceptable.  When God gives us a task, it is imperative that we actively seek ways to accomplish that task.  It is unacceptable if we have a call from God in our personal or collective lives, and we are not seeking ways to fulfill that call.

When the Lord begins to speak through Haggai, the first thing he says is, “Who among you saw this house in its former glory?  How do you see it now?”  In other words, who here remembers the way things used to be?  Does it look the same now?  There would have been a few people around that remembered what the previous temple looked like, but not very many. 

Remember, they were in exile for 50 years.  Many of the people that are around at this point either were really young when the exile occurred, or they were born after the exile.  But there would be some who would have remembered.  The older crowd would have in their minds what Solomon’s Temple looked like prior to the exile to Babylon, and they already knew that this new temple could not measure up.  That is why they stopped in the first place.  They were stuck in the glory days, and didn’t see that God was doing something new in their midst.

Our past is incredibly important.  We could not be who we are today if we did not have the influences that we had in the past.  However, we can’t live in the past.  We have to live in the here and now.  We have to look forward to the future.  When you think about this church, this place that you find yourself this morning, do you think about how things were 10, 20, 30, even 40 years ago?  Or do you find yourself thinking about how things could be in 5, 10, even 15 years?  We honor our past, we remember our past, but we don’t live in our past.  The Israelites had lost sight of their future because they were so focused on their past.  They had become complacent and ineffective in their present because they didn’t look forward to what God was going to do through them.  We need to learn this lesson from the Israelites.  We cannot be so focused on the way things used to be that we lose sight of the way things could be.

When the first temple was built, Solomon had a massive workforce.  They didn’t have that kind of workforce after the exile, and they became discouraged.  There problem, however, wasn’t that they didn’t have enough people to do the work, but that they tried to do the work in the same way that it was done before.  A smaller workforce didn’t mean that they had to abandon the project; it just means that they needed to take a new approach.  A different time calls for a different approach.

Ministry as it existed 10 years ago is not the type of ministry that will be effective today.  What worked in 1985 is not necessarily going to work in 2010 and beyond.  This is true in all facets of ministry – youth ministry, discipleship ministry, outreach, missions, everything.  We cannot do the things that we have always done and expect different results.  We live in a different time, and it is necessary for us to take a different approach in order to effectively reach people with the good news of Jesus Christ.  The days when we can just expect people to come to church on a Sunday morning are over.  I’m sorry to say that, but it’s the truth.  We must be intentional about reaching out to those who need the message of the gospel, both by our actions and by our words.

Notice what else God says in this passage.  Two times, He says, “Take courage,” or “Be strong.”  God is calling them to a new way of life.  They have been living in discouragement.  They have been living in hopelessness.  They have been living in fear.  God calls them away from those things.  God calls them to take courage.  God calls them to have hope.  God calls them to be faithful.  How?  How can they move from this place of discouragement, hopelessness and fear?  By realizing something critical to their mission – the Lord is with them.

They are not alone in their task.  God gave them this great task, but did not leave them to figure it out for themselves.  The Lord never left them.  Twice, He reminds them of His presence.  In verse 4, He says, “Work, for I am with you.”  In verse 5, He says, “My Spirit remains in your midst; do not fear.”  Knowing that God is with us in our endeavors helps us approach them with a sense of confidence.  Trusting in God’s presence helps move us out of complacency and comfort, and into faithful obedience, which is where we need to be if our task is to truly be accomplished.  We have to remember that the Lord does not call us to something and then leave it up to us to figure out how to get it done.

I’ve talked to my dad a few times about his job.  He does drafting for all kinds of buildings.  Many times, the biggest challenge he faces is the fact that sometimes architects come up with really neat designs, but figuring out how it practically comes together can be difficult.  It is his responsibility to put it down on paper and figure it out.  It’s not like that when we are given a task from God.  God gives us the design, but He has already put together the plans.  That is what is so great about this call that we have from God.

God has called us to reach others with the good news of Jesus Christ.  We do need to figure out what that means in our context, but it is not up to us to figure out every last detail.  What we have to do is spend time in prayer, discerning the design that God has already put together for us.  We need to have discussions with one another about how God is speaking to us in this time.  We need to remember that this awesome task that has been given to us has been given by an awesome God, whose Spirit resides within us.  We need to turn away from the fear and anxiety.  We need to take courage and rest in the hope that we have in Christ Jesus.  God knows what needs to be done.  We just have to trust in Him, open ourselves up to Him, listen to Him and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

What is so great about this passage today is not that God is coming down on the Israelites for their lack of effort because He’s not.  This is a very encouraging word from the Lord.  Yes, they have to face the reality of their situation, which isn’t always that easy, but ultimately, God is encouraging them to press forward.  They don’t know what the Temple is going to look like, nor do they have any idea how it is going to be accomplished.  But God doesn’t call us to understand His plans, just to be obedient to the task that He has given us.

Take this passage as a reminder today.  Remember the past, but don’t be trapped by the memories.  Push forward.  Think about where God is leading us, not about what has already been accomplished.  Take courage and know that the Lord is with you.