A few years back I got a message from my father on the answering machine. It said, ‘Ian, its Dad here. Give me a call back as soon as you can, please.’ So I wrote him on my list of people to call. Fatal. Two days later, the phone rang and it was Dad. He said, ‘Didn’t you get my message?’ I said, ‘Yes, I did.’ He said, ‘Then why haven’t you called me?’ And I said, ‘Because I’m really busy, right now – but you’re on my list.’ To which he replied, ‘‘I’m on your list’? How do you think that makes me feel?’ Which was a bad moment. Because it was a wake-up call to the fact that I wasn’t treating my father as my father.
Well, 520 years before Jesus, God’s people were doing the same to God – failing to treat God as God. And the sobering thing, for those of us who think of ourselves as God’s people, is: how easy that is to do, and how hard it is to detect. So like me with Dad on my list, these people back in 520BC certainly had God somewhere ‘on their list’, somewhere in their priorities – but if God is only somewhere on our list, we’re miles off relating to him properly. For them the wake-up call came through the prophet Haggai. And we’re going to look at it tonight as part of our Giving Review – because, it says that one thing which reveals how we’re really relating to God is our use of money. So would you turn in the Bibles to Haggai 1. And we’re going to look at it under two headings tonight:
1. EXAMINE YOUR PRIORITIES, and
2. ESTABLISH GOD’S PRIORITY
So firstly, in this part of his Word, God says to us:
EXAMINE YOUR PRIORITIES (v1-11)
And he asks us: what does our use of money reveal about how we’re really relating to him? So look at Haggai 1.1:
“In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest:"
So it’s 520BC. 20 years before this, God had allowed his exiled people to return to Judah, and had told them to rebuild Jerusalem – especially the temple, which was meant to be a gigantic sign of God being among his people and of his people treating him as central, as first, in their lives. But v2:
“This is what the LORD Almighty says: "These people say, 'The time has not yet come for the LORD's house [i.e. temple] to be built.'”
Now 20 years earlier, they’d at least started clearing the rubble, but for various reasons (including threats from enemies who didn’t want to see Jerusalem rebuilt) they’d stopped. But Haggai sees that the main obstacle to God’s work isn’t external – it’s not the threats and difficulties and cost. It’s internal, as it often mainly is today. Look on to v3-4
“Then the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai: "Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house [the temple] remains a ruin?"”
I.e., they’d rebuilt and done up their own houses – B&Q and IKEA Jerusalem were doing a roaring trade – while putting nothing into the temple. And that, too, was a gigantic sign – a sign of the people putting themselves – their needs, their plans, their ambitions – first, with God just somewhere on their list. Which is really a way of saying, ‘God isn’t actually that important. We can basically live without him.’ So God then engineered problems for them to show them that’s not true. Look on to v5-6
“Now this is what the LORD Almighty says: "Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm.”
I.e., you’ve put your needs and wants first, and yet you’re struggling for income and contentment. Read on:
“You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”
I.e., you’ve put saving for your future needs and wants first, and yet inflation’s eating it away.
Now look down to v9-10, which is the same train of thought:
“You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?" declares the LORD Almighty. "Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house. Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the oil and whatever the ground produces, on men and cattle, and on the labour of your hands.”
Why? To teach them, and us, that all income ultimately comes from him and therefore rightly belongs to him. You see, they had this tiny view of God – as if they were looking at him through the wrong end of a telescope. In their thinking, God just occupied this tiny area of life marked ‘religion’ – church-going and Bible-reading and not much more. And he had nothing to do with the rest of life. So, e.g., they thought that they were the ones who engineered good harvests for themselves and therefore had the right to spend the income on themselves. So God had to engineer a few droughts to remind them who good harvests really come from. It’s a bit like, today, we might think that our income is our income because it’s our skills that get paid for doing our jobs. To which God would say: and who gave you those skills? And who gave you the privileged start in life that gave you education and training? And who gave you the job that’s currently earning you £20,000, £50,000, £80,000 – whatever it is? The point is: all income ultimately comes from God and therefore rightly belongs to God – and is therefore to be used for his purposes – which include meeting our needs, but they don’t begin and end with that.
Now in Haggai’s day, God’s over-riding purposes was building the temple. Look at v7-8, which we skipped:
“This is what the LORD Almighty says: "Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honoured," says the LORD.”
And today, his equivalent, over-riding purpose is building the church – by which the New Testament (NT) always means people. So remember: this building isn’t Jesmond Parish Church – it’s what keeps Jesmond Parish Church dry. The church is people. And God’s over-riding purpose is that the world-wide church be built – both numerically, as more people come to faith in Jesus through our witness; and in maturity as we grow up in our knowledge and love of the Lord. So the equivalent of v8 for us is what we looked at two weeks back: not, ‘Go up into the mountains, etc,’ but:
“Go and... make disciples of all nations...”
... which takes time and energy as well as money. But it doesn’t take less than money. And several times in the NT we’re told that if we call Jesus ‘Lord’, then obedience to him includes giving to support our own church’s ministry, and the spread of the gospel world-wide. And notice in v8 the two motivations for doing that:
‘so that I may take pleasure in it and be honoured.’
You see, it’s easy to think, ‘I’ll leave this giving business to the really keen Christians and get going with it a bit later, myself.’ But Haggai reminds us that God is not pleased with so-called discipleship that fences off any area of our lives – whether money or anything else – and says, ‘This is mine, not yours. You can’t have control of this – at least, not yet.’ As someone put it, ‘If Jesus is not Lord of all, he’s not Lord at all.’ If we are not – albeit imperfectly – trying to yield all areas of our lives to Jesus then we are not treating him as Lord and he is not pleased. Whereas if we start, or continue, to bring our use of money under his control, it will bring him great pleasure.
And it’ll also bring him ‘honour’, v8 – or you can translate that ‘glory’. One big problem for these people is that they were demoralised: just look on to chapter 2, v3. Building a lesser, replacement temple is now underway and Haggai asked them:
“Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?”
But he goes on to encourage them to do what seems like nothing because God will use it to bring himself glory. And we need to hear that. Because although the world-wide church is growing – and in places like Africa and South America, growing phenomenally – here things are spiritually dire. And what we’re doing can seem like nothing. E.g. just one church planted in the years I’ve been at JPC can seem like nothing. I mean, wouldn’t it take another fifty church plants like Holy Trinity Gateshead on Tyneside before God was being glorified? Well no, God is glorified by every step forward we take for him. God will be glorified by what this year’s giving enables us to do; and if the amount you can contribute to it seems like nothing, don’t believe it. It’s not. Nothing is ‘nothing’ when God takes it and uses it for his purposes to his glory.
So the first thing God is saying to us here is: examine your priorities. So can I call on those of us who call Jesus ‘Lord’ to sit down very soon with the JPC Giving Literature (which we’ll hear more about later)? And can I call on each of us to look back, as Haggai did, and ask ourselves: did we give last year? And how much did we give (especially, compared to major spending on ourselves like holidays)? And when did we give? E.g., did we need the prompt of that finance letter last October to act on what we heard last January? And what does all that say about our priorities and whether we’re treating God as God? Examine your priorities. Then,
secondly, ESTABLISH GOD’S PRIORITY (v12-15)
Look at Haggai 1.12:
“Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the LORD their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the LORD their God had sent him. And the people feared the LORD.”
‘The people feared the LORD.’ Which means that through Haggai’s word, they got a fresh view of God as he really is. It’s as if Haggai snatched the wrong-way-round telescope from their hands, turned it about and said, ‘Now look at him!’ Because to fear the LORD is to see him as he really is and take him with absolute seriousness as a result. To fear the LORD is to see afresh: that he’s the centre of the universe and that I’m not; that he’s the Almighty Creator and I’m the tiny creature; that I only exist because of him and I only exist for him, to be at his service; and that I owe him everything – time, money, energy – and that there’s nothing I can fence off and call my own. So it’s not ‘my’ money, ‘my’ time, or even ‘my’ life. It’s all his. So either Jesus is Lord of all, or he’s not Lord at all. And the ‘fear of the Lord’ simply means: waking up afresh to the massive meaning of that single word, ‘Lord’; and realising afresh that I’ve barely even begun to treat him as Lord even though I’ve been calling him that for years; and re-committing myself to do so. ‘The people feared the LORD.’ Do we?
C.S.Lewis captured this brilliantly in his Narnia stories by portraying the Lord Jesus as Aslan the lion. You might remember how one of the children in the story is understandably nervous about meeting Aslan, and asks, ‘Is he safe?’ To which comes the reply, ‘No, he’s not safe. But he is good.’ God is not a pussy-cat. He’s not safe, in the sense that he won’t curl up in our lives, providing a bit of comfort and companionship and demanding nothing but the odd tin of Whiskas. He demands that we put everything at his disposal – because he’s God and because he gave it all to us in the first place, for his purposes, not ours. Do we believe that?
Well, what we do is what we really believe. So how will the fear of the LORD show up in what we do? Well, v12, in obedience. They:
“..obeyed the voice of the LORD their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the LORD their God had sent him.”
Which emphasises that they realised this call to give wasn’t just the idea of a leader which they could take or leave, but that it was the revealed will of God – and therefore a matter of obedience to God. And likewise, this Giving Review isn’t just a human idea. It’s a means to help those of us who call Jesus ‘Lord’ to obey him in this area of our lives. Because according to the NT, it is a straight matter of obedience to him that we should financially support the church to which we belong and from which we benefit; and that we should support mission partners in the world-wide spread of the gospel. So to those of us who do call Jesus ‘Lord’, it’s not putting it too strongly to say that it’s a matter of obedience to him to sit down soon with the JPC Giving Literature and to plan our giving for this year – both to JPC and beyond. That means working out, as far as you can, what your income is going to be this year – whether that’s salary, pension, inheritance, gifts, investment returns, or a mixture. It then means working out a proportion – a percentage – that you’ll give to the building of the church. The giving literature suggests as a starting point for our thinking giving 5% of our gross income to JPC and 5% to world mission – i.e., 10% in all. But that’s only a starting point for individual thinking. We’re all in different circumstances – of income or living on loans, of number of mouths to feed, of financial comfort or difficulty. But for many of us, giving only 10% would actually mean we’re spending on ourselves and saving for ourselves far more than is godly – while there’s a world out there needing to hear the gospel that we’re sitting on, along with the resources for getting it out. And if you need to start supporting overseas mission partners, I’d strongly encourage you to look in the first place at the JPC World Mission booklet. If you’ve not got a copy, you’ll find it on the Welcome Desk.
So the fear of the Lord will show up in obedience to God – but also in trusting him as we obey. So look lastly at v13. As people begin to give seriously, look at the assurance the Lord gives them:
“Then Haggai, the LORD's messenger, gave this message of the LORD to the people: "I am with you," declares the LORD.”
And two weeks back in the ‘great commission’ we saw the risen Lord Jesus saying the same: ‘And surely, I am with you always...’ (Matthew 28.20). Which means two things. It means ‘I am with you’ to prosper your efforts to build the church. And in a time and place when it’s easy to be demoralised, we do need to take stock of what God has done among us. The fact that for all our imperfections we’re a church of 1,000 and that Holy Trinity Gateshead has been so encouragingly launched is proof of this promise that he’s with us. So as we give again this year, let’s trust him to prosper the efforts which that giving finances, despite all our imperfections as a church.
But ‘I am with you’ also means ‘with you to meet your personal needs as well.’ I guess that, through the Gateshead project, the Lord has pushed many of us into more serious giving than ever before – so that we do feel financially significantly less-well off, less well-looked after. To which the Lord says: ‘I’m looking after you. At the first church I served, one of the Parish Assistants crashed my first car – my beloved, custard yellow Vauxhall Cavalier, of which someone once said it should fail its MOT on colour alone. I was told it would cost £250 to patch up, which was all I had saved at the time. And, as a church, we were looking to give over £1m for a new building, and I felt constrained to give the £250 to that. So I wrote the cheque one morning and posted it off to the church office. And that night I got back home to find an unmarked envelope on my doormat containing £250. No-one but God could have known what I’d given or what I needed. ‘I am with you’ declares the LORD.’ So as we give again next year, let’s trust him to meet our personal needs, trust him that what’s left to us after serious giving, he will make adequate.
So what God is saying to us through Haggai this Giving Review is very straight: Examine your priorities. And establish God’s priority. Not just with your money. But not least with your money. And to close, I’m going to read out v14-15 and then pray that the Lord does the same for us:
“So the LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the LORD Almighty, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of King Darius.”