I read a real-life story a while ago about parents who managed to leave their 5-year-old behind in Stuttgart Airport, as they both drove off in their separate cars. And you think to yourself, 'as tempting as it may be at times, how on earth did you both manage to walk off and leave your child behind in an airport? Didn't you check that he was with one of you?!' We have to ask, don't we? What were their priorities?
What are our priorities in life? That's the big question God asks us in Haggai 1.
Haggai had a message for God's people after they had returned from exile. The exile was God's judgement on his people where he allowed them to be defeated, and thousands of them carted off by their conquerors the Babylonians. Jerusalem was ransacked, and the temple was burnt to the ground.
The temple had been the dwelling place of God – so it signified his presence with them. And it was where the people went to make sacrifices for sins – so it provided access to God. Its destruction was a spiritual disaster, so rebuilding must have been a priority, right? Well the book of Ezra tells us that things got going, but soon there was stiff opposition from the surrounding nations. God's people gave up, and the work stopped. In fact, it stopped for 18 years. Which is an awful lot longer than your average builder's tea break!
That's where the fiery prophet Haggai comes in.
1. Look at Your Priorities (vv.1-4)
And here's the first thing he says: look at your priorities.
So, here we go, verse 2:
"Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD."
It's not that the people didn't want to rebuild the temple. It's that other things seemed more important. But that was basically them saying: 'it doesn't matter whether you're fully present with us Lord. We have enough of your presence at the minute. Building the temple is going to be such hard work, it's going to cost so much. Eventually, when things are looking a bit better for us, we'll get round to it.'
The New Testament equivalent of the temple is God's people in local churches – he now dwells in us, and we signify his presence in the world. And the equivalent for us, of what Haggai was calling people to, is work at building up the church – by using our time, gifts and money. But since it's the Giving Review, we're going to apply it especially to money.
Do we treat our giving financially to church like a household chore we keep putting off, meaning we never get started? 'I'll give to church when I've graduated, but not yet.' 'No, I'll give when I've got myself established in this job.' 'Well, you see I'm trying to save every penny I can for a house deposit, I'll give when I've got that sorted, but just not yet.' 'I need to do some redecorating, then I'll give.' 'But I need to save for the future – for my retirement, for my children, I'll give soon. But not yet.'
Friends, there will always be selfish and sinful reasons not to give to God's work. So let's start now, even if like, e.g. the students among us, we have no income and precious little money. One good way of committing to give, and keep giving, is to give even a little, regularly (say each month), to our ministry here at JPC and to other Christian work we want to support. And to stick to that.
God's message in Haggai, inexcusably, pulls us away from saying, 'one day I'll get going in giving, but not yet' to asking ourselves, 'how can I keep saying not yet to God and his work?'
On to verse 3:
"Then the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, 'Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins?'"
There's disagreement over how rich or poor God's people were. But "panelled houses" in verse 4 makes me think their houses were both comfortable and, for the age, contemporary. I guess that's a lot of us, and, let's be honest, that's the trajectory most of us are on. E.g. the house we recently bought came with phone-controlled central heating. So I can turn it on just in time for it to be nice and cosy for me coming home, then with a little tap, it's off again – and Hayley never knows! Obviously I'd ever actually do that, of course!
But God asks a question of his people, and he says: 'Look at your priorities. Is it right that your house has all the mod cons and yet my house is a pile of rubble?' He asks that question of us, too. 'Is it right that we live in supreme comfort, while neglecting God's work?' Answer: no.
Now last year, along with those at St Joseph's, we gave £1,006,000 to God's work (including Gift Aid). Praise God! Ministry-wise God has been good to us. It's safe to say we're not sitting on a pile of rubble, physically or spiritually!
And yet when we look at the world around us, and when we look at our own ongoing need to be built up in the gospel, we know that there is much work still to do. And we need to press on with that. So, for all of us Haggai presents a challenge to look afresh at our priorities.
One way of doing that would be to make a list of everything you spend money on. Some things will be necessities: food, rent/mortgage, clothing, electricity etc. But some things will be non-necessities and actually maybe luxuries. Maybe regular meals out, the latest phone, or a new car. And then we need to look at the money we give to God and his work, and ask ourselves how does that figure compare? And, 'what does that say about what's important to me?'
Let's start by looking at our priorities.
2. Consider Your Priorities (vv.5-11)
But looking isn't enough, says Haggai. We need to consider our priorities by looking closely at the things we think are important, and asking: 'do they really pay off?'
"Now, therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes."
The people were just not satisfied with what they had. After all, they had seeds to sow, they had food to eat, clothes to wear. But these things didn't satisfy them. And, perhaps in an inflated economy, their money didn't go the distance. Their selfishly used resources just seemed to slip through their fingers.
A student who was here a while back was desperate to get a first so they could begin their career at the top. They spent all their time chasing after it. They did get their first, but when they got their results they felt strangely empty. Another Christian I know strived for promotion at every available opportunity. But it just never satisfied. We can chase after material comfort, feathering our nests, extending our houses, booking elaborate holiday after elaborate holiday. And these aren't wrong things – but they can too easily take too high a priority in our lives. And they can't provide ultimate satisfaction. And over-prioritising them doesn't please God.
"You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labours."
God isn't prepared to be second best. So he sends a drought, and gives Haggai's message, to wake the people up. The people had worked hard, but they couldn't make their crops grow. Only God could. And God was able to take that away, with as little effort as it takes us to blow out a candle.
Now the danger of these verses is thinking 'if I don't give, God will punish me'. But this chapter is talking about God's discipline when his people disobey him – which was designed, if you like, to grab them and pull them back to him. And, applying that to us, believers needn't fear punishment from God. Jesus dealt with the punishment our sins deserve on the cross, once and for all. But God does still discipline us – by letting us feel when he's displeased with us, and letting us feel the dissatisfaction of disobedience, and half-heartedness.
The truth remains: God will be displeased if we don't give sacrificially to his work. Because the priority for the people then is to be the priority for us today.
Verses 7 and 8:
"Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD."
For us, living the other side of Jesus' work on the cross, we glorify God by sharing the gospel and building up the church. That has to be the number one priority in our lives. That involves a considerable amount of our time: as we serve one another, and go out of our way to speak about Jesus. And our money: as we all give to make the range of ministries here happen, which are aimed at all of us, aged 0-100. Of which we will only ever experience a small amount.
So, as one Christian said to me recently, "the more I earn the more I'll be able to give to God's work. That's actually a good reason to succeed in my career". There's an example of someone who was considering their priorities.
3. Live Out God's Priorities (vv.12-15)
Lastly, we need to live out God's priorities.
Reading from verse 12:
"Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the LORD their God, and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the LORD their God had sent him. And the people feared the LORD. Then Haggai, the messenger of the LORD, spoke to the people with the LORD's message, 'I am with you, declares the LORD.' And the LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people. And they came and worked on the house of the LORD of hosts, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month, in the second year of Darius the king."
The people finally saw that future good intentions weren't enough. They needed to make God their priority now. So they came to God's word and made a new commitment to obey it. They feared God, verse 12, which means that gave him the honour that he deserved and started to put him first. God stirred them up to action. And, very quickly, they began work on the temple again, pouring their time and money into that.
We too, like them, need to put a line through our 'to-do list' and put God at the top. So that everything we do in life passes through that filter of him. Which means that one thing we'll need to live out is giving financially to God's work here among us. In our giving literature here we recommend that each of us conducts a review of our finances, working out (as best we can) what our income will be for the next year. Once we've done that, we can decide how much we should give to God's work here, in a way which says 'Lord, you are my priority.' We suggest 5% of our income for gospel work we support around the world, and 5% for the work of JPC.
But that's just a starting point. Some of us may be able to give much less, some of us much more than 10%. Some of us are Christians who have been giving for years – but we need to "consider our ways". Maybe we're able, and it's time, to give more. Some of us are Christians who've not yet got going with giving. And we need to. So that we are honouring God in this area – and not just leaving it to our brothers and sisters to support what we're benefitting from.
The main thing is that we prayerfully consider what to give and respond to the church office with as much detail as we can, as soon as we can. That helps our leaders plan responsibly.
As I've studied over this passage, to be honest, it's hit me hard, as I think how often I fail to prioritise God, and say 'not yet' to thinking about how I could use my time, energy and money better. I'm not sure I'm not the only person here this evening who knows that they've said 'not yet' far too many times to God. That's why it's so reassuring that we're reminded in Haggai that God is committed to us, when we so often fail to be wholeheartedly committed to him.
The ending of this chapter shows us that we can give sacrificially of our money and our time, knowing that God is the Lord of Hosts – i.e. he's an all-powerful God, who says to us 'I am with you – to provide for you and to bless you'. So, whatever challenges we face individually, and whatever pressures we face as a church family (financial or otherwise), we know that God is with us, if we remain faithful to him. And, friends, that's great news for this Giving Review.