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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/mountnasura/
 
Title:A Lesson in Church-Building
Text:Haggai 1:3-11 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Church Building
 
Preached:2016
Added:2016-06-12
Updated:2016-06-26
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 48:1,3                                                                                            

Ps 79:3,5

Reading – Ezra 6:13-22; Haggai 1; Revelation 3:14-22

Ps 132:1,2,4,8,9

Sermon – Haggai 1:3-11

Ps 84:1,2,5

Hy 61:1,2

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved in the Lord Jesus, are you a church builder? Do you see it as your responsibility to serve the church of Christ? To strengthen it, and to grow it? You should, because that’s the calling given to you by the Lord God!

Sometimes we like to leave church-building work to the experts. We leave the physical aspects of the church to the Committee of Administration (or whoever): they’ll take care of the roofing and lighting and flooring, because these men know what they’re doing. And we leave the spiritual side of things to the elders: the encouraging, the exhorting, admonishing and helping. “It’s really up to the office bearers, the minister and elders and deacons,” someone says. “They’re the experts, after all. What could I ever do?” But we’re all church builders, called to that holy task of strengthening the church of Christ.

We see this clearly in the prophet Haggai. Haggai was one of three minor prophets who ministered after the exile. Because of their sin, the people of Judah had been taken to Babylon. But fast forward some decades, and God has graciously brought some of the people back to the land, to rebuild and restore. It’s a new day, but that doesn’t mean that everything is sunshine and roses. Israel still needs to hear the Word of God, his promises as well as his rebukes. So Haggai will speak to the LORD’s people.

And a refrain that we quickly notice in this book is the call for God’s people to consider their ways. See 1:5, “Now therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Consider your ways!’” Then again in 1:7, “Consider your ways.” God is calling his people to serious reflection, to self-examination, to look beyond the surface of things. Are they really doing their utmost for his church? Are we working for his cause and purpose, or are we too much focused on our own life and pursuits? “Consider your ways!” Through this call comes the prophet’s message, which I preach to you on this theme,

Haggai exhorts God’s people to build His unfinished temple:

  1. the people’s sinful slackness
  2. the LORD’s righteous rebuke
  3. the temple’s precious purpose

 

1) the people’s sinful slackness: Haggai’s book of prophecy begins with a date, “In the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month…” (1:1). We may want to skim right over this sentence, but it tells us something important. It tells us that there’s been a change in the world scene. It wasn’t Assyria who was the superpower anymore, nor was it Babylon—the empire who’d taken Judah captive years before—but it was Persia. For this Darius was king of Persia. 

Like Cyrus before him, Darius took a different approach to the empire he ruled. They weren’t interested in having huge POW camps in the home country, but they allowed the exiled nations to go back from where they came. The kings of Persia prided themselves on this, having a reputation as the liberator of exiled peoples.

Of course, God had always promised this freedom. Even when Zephaniah or Habakkuk were bringing a message about Jerusalem in ruins, it wasn’t all gloom and darkness. There was always the sure hope that one day they’d be released. Jeremiah had said it too: there’d be seventy years of being purified in exile, and then when the seventy years were done, they could go home. So Cyrus said that any Israelite was free to go home. Cyrus had even said that he wanted to build a new house for God at Jerusalem, and he provided resources to get the project started. Things were looking up!

But since that time, a lot has happened. By Haggai 1:1, Cyrus’ decree is more than two decades old. And both the return from exile, and the rebuilding of the temple, had gone in fits and starts. One large group of Israelites had returned to the land in 539, and at once they had rebuilt the altar and they had laid the foundations of the temple. There was much joy in those days, a lot enthusiasm for this new beginning.

After that, however, the work had ground to a halt. The temple didn’t ascend much farther than that first course of stones. You can read the first part of Ezra to get the whole picture. One problem was the Samaritans, who didn’t like the idea of a restored Judah, so they tried to obstruct the work. Among the Jews too, there were some nay-sayers and negative nellies, because this second temple wouldn’t be nearly as nice as the one Solomon built. So why bother? Discouragement set in. And twenty years later, the temple sat there, unfinished.

That still happens sometimes, doesn’t it, when we carry out the Lord’s work? We have an initial burst of excitement for a project, passion for a new opportunity and calling. Things look really good—but then our enthusiasm starts to dwindle. There are distractions that keep us from progressing. Troubles get in the way. Opposition can deter us, and we put good intentions aside. Time and again, the Lord’s people need prodding along toward better things.

So God sends Haggai. God has heard what Judah is saying, “‘This people says, “The time has not come, the time that the LORD’s house should be built’” (v 2). That single sentence really shows their apathy, their pessimism. The people knew what needed to be done. Every day, the unfinished temple was staring them in the face. But they said it wasn’t time.

Why not? We mentioned a couple reasons already. God’s people can just lose motivation to do the right thing. If you wait long enough to do an important work like repenting or forming better habits, it gets harder and harder to make a beginning. The job seems overwhelming, so you leave it, and you just get used to how it is. Now it’s too late to change…

We also find out in Haggai 1 that there had been some poor harvests lately. Crops had failed, which meant that the barns weren’t full, and resources were in short supply. In other words, there’s not enough money! They knew they had to build the LORD’s house, but not now. It wasn’t time. “Later, when we have more saved up. Later, when we’re more settled in.”

But then comes God’s Word to his people in verse 4, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, and this temple to lie in ruins?” The LORD knows what’s going on. This wasn’t a matter of a lack of money, or a bad economy. This was wrong priorities. The people had become so stuck on their own interests and pursuits that they had almost nothing left for God. 

“Paneled houses” was the big thing that year in home decoration. What was it? This was laying strips of wood over the basic stone walls that everyone had in Israel. Such a veneer made for a nicer look; your home suddenly had a smoother, more luxurious finish. It’s striking that the only other time that we read about this paneling in the Bible is in connection with the temple and royal palace! The people weren’t content with the usual walls and ceilings, but their standards had changed. Their standards had gone up.

And the wrongness of it was very plain: the people were living in fancy homes—or aspiring for such dwellings—while God’s temple lay unfinished, barely off the ground. The LORD sets the irony before them in verse 9: “My house… is in ruins, while every one of you runs to his own house.” No, not a lack of money—a lack of will. And all this went back to the heart of the matter: How important to them was the Lord’s work? 

It’s all in such contrast to the spirit of King David. Just listen to what he says in 2 Samuel 7:2. David has finally become king over all Israel, but something isn’t right, “I dwell in a house of cedar,” he says, “but the ark of God dwell inside tent curtains.” He feels uncomfortable in his royal luxury, while God’s ark has only a tent as covering. So David tells God that he wants to build a permanent and glorious home for the ark, a proper dwelling for God among his people.

“Now,” someone might say, “it’s only a building. God doesn’t need to live in some man-made box like we do. Even the very best of what we could build wouldn’t be enough for the holy God. It’s not about how much we spend on the church.” And these things are all true—even more so today, when there is no more temple. Today God calls his people his temple, and He says that believers are the dwelling of his Spirit! But surely that means God’s temple still needs building! Today the church of Christ still needs so much work. He calls us to the work of growing it, and strengthening it, and increasing it, until we reach fullness. Christ says that this has to be our priority: the strength of his church.

Like the people of Judah, we might be all for the paneled houses, or whatever the style is right now. And the point of this is not what kind of interior decoration we have, or what kind of winter vacations we take, or what kind of car we drive. The point is the spiritual outlook that we have. It’s what we consider to be important.

Do we neglect God’s work, while we run to tend to our own affairs? Do we make sure that we’re well taken care of first, and only then give thought for the church? It's when we ask the question, “How much for myself?” instead of “How much for God?” This is what the Spirit calls to each one of us, “Consider your ways!” Consider them carefully, and be honest.

Because together with Judah, we can always make excuses. For example, we can make excuses not to give: “The time isn’t right for contributing. It’s been a bad year for business. I’ve got to pay down my debt.” Or we make excuses not to get involved: “I just got a new position at work, so I really have no time. No energy. Next year hopefully. I’m sure that other people will get it done.” But we know what God thinks of such excuses. Should we neglect his church, while we’re always busy with our own affairs? Should we leave church-building to the experts?

We heard it in Jesus’ letter in Revelation 3. The Laodiceans were saying, “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing” (v 17). They were so comfortable in their lives. With full bank accounts and good positions, they thought they had it all. Yet they were missing the whole point of these gifts! At its heart, the church of Laodicea lacked all zeal for the Lord’s work. So God rebukes them, just as he rebuked the church in Haggai’s time.

 

2) the LORD’s righteous rebuke: If a child is misbehaving, and Mom wants her to learn her lesson, she won’t only use words. She’ll find a way to drive the truth home with action: maybe being sent to the corner, maybe some other consequence. So for God and his people. He rebukes them for their slackness, and he shows them the effect that their sin is having.

In verse 6 we find five contrasts, each telling the same story: trouble has come on them because of their unfaithfulness. Like the first part of verse 6, “You have sown much, and bring in little.” The people of Judah had plowed a lot of ground after it had lain fallow for so long during exile. And having sown much, they looked for great harvests, but it didn’t happen. Then also: “You eat, but do not have enough; you drink, but you are not filled with drink; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm.” It was like their bread couldn’t nourish, their water couldn’t satisfy, and their clothes couldn’t keep in the heat.

Even “he who earns wages, earns wages to put into a bag with holes” (v 6). The people were worried about going into debt; that’s why they hadn’t contributed toward the temple project. But God sees to it that the only result of selfish saving is disappearing money. Their resources evaporate as fast as they can hoard them.

We see it again in verse 9, “You looked for much, but indeed it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away.” It’s becoming very clear that God is the one behind all these failures in field and business! “I blew it away.” The people planted their crops, but, says verse 10, “The heavens above you withhold the dew, and the earth withholds its fruit.” The LORD called for a drought on the land, and everything suffered: the grain, the wine, the oil, even the cattle, and men’s labours! None of it enjoyed God’s blessing.

Was God being unfair? Was this discipline not a bit heavy? No, the LORD had warned his people about this. If they will be unfaithful, there will be a price. This was a just judgment of their covenant God. To remind us of the reason, look at verse 9, “‘Why [have I done all this]?’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘Because of My house that is in ruins, while every one of you runs to his own house.’” What does it say when people pursue their own interests, instead of God’s? What does it say when people have money for everything but the Lord’s work? It says that they don’t much care for God to dwell among them. No wonder the people receive his righteous rebuke!

And this is the way the LORD can still treat his people. We hear Jesus say it in Revelation 3, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten” (v 19). By the hardship in life, sometimes God makes us consider our ways: What am I really aiming at? By failures and disappointments, God compels us to look at our priorities. What’s important to me? What am I living for? God doesn’t do this in anger, but in grace. He wants us to realize that our only help is in his Name. He wants us to see that in this life the only worthwhile purpose is his glory. That’s why we’re here.

Looking at Judah’s situation, we might say that it amounts to a vicious cycle. God isn’t blessing them, because the people do not build. But the people do not build, because God does not bless—remember, they were claiming money was tight because of all those poor harvests. If only God gave better crops, then the temple could get done. Might we do a similar thing today? I think we might. When a person says: “If God gets me a raise at work, then I’ll start to give generously. If God will just get me through this busy time, and if He takes away these anxieties, then I promise I’ll do my part in the church. If God gives me more courage, then I’ll speak with my neighbour about Christ.” We could wait a long time for the moment to be right.

Yet the LORD calls us to act in faith. In Haggai 1, God calls them to start rebuilding right at the peak of the growing season—and with the harvest just around the corner! Right when they’re itching to get into the fields, God says, “I want you to work on my temple. I want you to build my house.” That takes faith: to put aside our own interests, because the Lord’s work needs to be done. Think how hard it is to give your time to a project in the church when you’re so busy with everything else. Or how hard to obey God’s call to be hospitable and have people over whom we don’t know well, because that’s uncomfortable for us. Or how hard to admonish someone, when it’s almost sure to bring a tense conversation. The Lord’s work can be hard!

Yet here’s the marvelous thing: God’s promise is to bless our obedience. When we do give, God will show his goodness. When we are busy with building up the church, God will give every bit of strength we need, and more. We find that so often in Scripture, the LORD’s assurance that when we give, we gain.

It’s an abiding truth of Scripture. Paul says it too, that when we give cheerfully “we will be made rich in every way.” When we live in thanksgiving, God will shower on us gifts of joy and contentment and confidence. Our Saviour said it too: “Seek first God’s kingdom, and all these things will be given to you as well.” When we delight ourselves in God above all, when we honour the Lord’s priorities first, it might be that we’ll have less time for ourselves. When we seek to build the church, it might be that we’ll have less money in the account, and less energy for our hobbies. Maybe. But God will see to it that we are far richer in him. That’s his promise.

 

3) the temple’s precious purpose: What then, must the people do? Haggai tells them plainly: “‘Go up to the mountains and bring wood and build the temple, that I may take pleasure in it and be glorified’ says the LORD” (v 8). God’s people have to let their hands and feet do the talking. As always, faith is seen by action: “Go to the mountains, get wood, and build my house.”

It’s interesting that wood is mentioned here. We know the temple was built mostly of stone, so the wood here must refer either to the needed scaffolding, or indeed, to that paneling inside the sanctuary. Once again, the people hear what’s more important. Your own luxury and comfort? Or a fitting home for the LORD God?

Maybe it wouldn’t compare to the temple that Solomon once built. But do you think that matters for God? Listen again to what He says in verse 8: “Build it… that I may take pleasure in it and be glorified.” If this temple will get built with sincere hearts, if it’ll rise in a spirit of thanksgiving, if the people give themselves wholly to the LORD’s work, then the result is sure: God will take pleasure, and He will receive the glory.

That’s because building the temple—or even having a big congregation today—is never an end in itself. It’s about the hearts of the people who fill it. Do we love him? Do we thank him? Do we make the LORD our highest joy? That’s the precious purpose of God’s house. His glory never depends on the outward splendor of the building. It’s about having God among us, and then worshiping him rightly. In this our God takes great pleasure!

Later in Haggai we hear how God’s people respond. It doesn’t take long, and they organize work teams and gather resources, so that the temple can be completed. That’s later in this chapter and the next, and also in Ezra 6, “So the elders of the Jews built, and they prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet… And they built and finished it, according to the commandment of the God of Israel” (v 14). They found the money and they found the time, and they got it done.

And having built the temple, they weren’t just glad to cross this off their to-do list. Ezra tells us, “They celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy” (6:16). They celebrate the Passover, and praise God’s name, because they can see once again the goodness of the LORD in dwelling among his people. That’s the beautiful message He sends them in Haggai 1, “I am with you, says the LORD” (v 13). Notice that for all their failings and sins, they are still the people of God’s presence. He was with them.

And it was to the very temple which was built and completed in Haggai’s day that the Lord Jesus came. The Messiah himself walked in these courts, and then He offered himself as the great Passover lamb. Now He calls us his temple. And now Christ tells us, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Beloved, in Jesus Christ we have an even greater reason to build up the house of God. Build up the church by your prayers for one another. Build it up by your words of love and care. Build up the church by your gifts of money and time and talents. Build up the church by your hospitality to the lonely, your kindness to the needy, and by your holy conversations with each other. Even if we have delayed and made excuses, we may always return and find the Lord to be gracious. For “I am with you,” says the LORD.

The work in Christ’s church won’t get done in a hurry. We don’t have a target date for completion. But this is what makes the difference: It’s the work of our Lord! It’s the church that Christ bought with his precious blood. That makes every sacrifice well worth it, every effort well spent. Let’s then show our love for Jesus Christ by our work in his church, and for his church. For then God will surely bless!  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2016, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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