A few years back I got a voicemail saying, ‘It’s Dad here. Give me a call as soon as you can.’ So I wrote him on my list of people to call. Two days later, the phone rang and it was Dad. He said, ‘Did you get my message?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Then why haven’t you called me?’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve been really busy – but you’re on my list.’ To which he said, ‘‘I’m on your list’? How do you think that makes me feel?’ Which was a bad moment. Because I wasn’t giving him the priority he deserved as my father.
Well, in the time of the prophet Haggai, God’s Old Testament (OT) people were basically doing the same to God – failing to give him the priority he deserves as God. Only they couldn’t see that was what they were doing: if you’d asked them, they’d have said, ‘We believe in God – we’re God’s people.’ So God had to say to them through the prophet Haggai, ‘But you’re not actually treating me as God – and what shows that is your use of money.’
And that’s why we’re looking at Haggai chapter 1 tonight as part of our annual Giving Review. Because Haggai says: how we use our money is one of the best indicators of how we’re really relating to God. So would you turn in the Bibles to Haggai chapter 1, which makes three main points:
First, LOOK AT YOUR PRIORITIES (vv1-4)
That is, look at your financial priorities. Haggai 1, v1:
In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest: (v1)
So this is 520 years before Jesus. Seventy years earlier than this, as a judgement on their disobedience, God had allowed his peoples’ land to be invaded. And Jerusalem and its temple had been destroyed, and many of the people were taken into exile (eg, Daniel to Babylon). But then twenty years earlier than this, God had allowed them to return to Judah and told them to rebuild Jerusalem – especially the temple in the city-centre, which was meant to be this gigantic sign that God was with them and that they were putting him at the centre of their lives. But v2:
“Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD. [ie, the temple].” (v2)
Now when they’d first returned, they had started rebuilding it – and then, mainly because of threats from people who didn’t want to see Jerusalem rebuilt, they’d stopped (see Ezra 4-5 for the full story). But Haggai saw that the main obstacle here wasn’t external – the threats and difficulties and cost of rebuilding. It was internal – it was to do with fundamental priorities. Look on to v3:
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 [ie, God’s temple] lies in ruins? (vv3-4)
Ie, they’d rebuilt and done up their own houses quite nicely – B&Q and IKEA Jerusalem were doing a roaring trade – while putting nothing into the temple. And that was a gigantic sign that they were putting themselves at the centre, putting their plans first, and basically saying, ‘God isn’t actually that important to us.’ Which is why Haggai says to them and to us, ‘Look at your financial priorities and you’ll see how you’re really relating to God.’
Now back then in God’s unfolding plan, the over-arching priority was to rebuild the temple, whereas we live further on in God’s plan: Jesus has now died and risen, so that people can be forgiven back into a relationship with God that lasts through death into eternity. And the over-arching priority now is to get that message to as many people as we can, so that more of them do come into relationship with him and become part of his people, the church. Or as the Lord Jesus put it, the overarching priority is to build his church (see Matthew 16.18). Now that takes time and energy as well as money and resources. But Haggai focuses in on the money and resources and asks, ‘What do your financial priorities say?’ When we look at what we spend on ourselves (over and above our basic needs) and compare that with what we spend on the spread of the gospel and the building up of God’s church, what does it say?
And if you’d say Jesus is your Lord and this church is your church, then we’re asking you to sit down with our giving literature and review and plan your giving. And something you could do by way of review is to make a list of the big things you’ve spent money on, over and above basic needs – maybe some new furniture that, strictly speaking, was a luxury; and maybe your level of holidays; and maybe a top of the range iphone or music system – and compare it with what you gave to the spread of the gospel and the building up of the church. And ask yourself, ‘What does that say?’
So, look at your priorities. Then,
Secondly, LEARN WHO DESERVES PRIORITY (vv5-11)
Look down again to v4:
“Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins? 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. (vv4-6)
Now that’s not saying they were in poverty. Like most of us they had more than they needed. But they were dissatisfied – v6 means, ‘You never think you have enough.’ And despite sowing a lot, harvests were bad, so prices went up – which is why wages seemed to be going into a bag with holes – ie, money was buying less and less. And the next thing Haggai says to them is, ‘You need to realise that’s not just because of bad weather. It’s because of the Lord who stands behind the weather: he’s teaching you a lesson about who deserves priority.’ Read on, v7:
“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. You looked for much [that is, when you sowed your fields], and behold, it came to little [that is, at harvest time]. 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 [ie, that’s why] 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.” (vv7-11)
So the way the people in Haggai’s day saw it was that there were two compartments to life. There was the ‘spiritual compartment’ – where all God wanted from you was a bit of Bible reading, a bit of prayer and a bit of temple-going if you had time (and if you’d bothered to rebuild it). And there was the ‘material compartment’, the real-life compartment – of work and home and money and so on. And the way they saw it, God had nothing to do with that compartment, and no claim on the things in it. So, eg, their money was their money – and if they preferred to spend it on doing up their houses, rather than re-building the temple, that was fine.
But through these bad harvests plus Haggai’s ministry, God was saying to them, ‘No that’s not fine.’ Because life is not compartmentalised like that: God is the Lord of every area of life – including our ability to make money. And to get that across to them, God sent these droughts to remind them that successful harvests, and the money they bring in, ultimately come from him. So that the money we have is not our money – it’s his. And if we profess to be his people, then over and above meeting our needs, we’re to use it for his purposes – and the over-arching priority in his purposes is the spread of the gospel and the building up of the church.
So if you’re a Christian, have you begun to see your money that way? Do you see that the start you had in life, and the abilities that got you the qualifications that got you your job (or will get you your job) are ultimately from the Lord? And that the twenty or forty or ninety thousand pound salary you’re currently on (or will one day be on) ultimately comes from him? And that he therefore deserves the priority in how it’s used?
One man who really saw that was John Laing. He was the Christian businessman who from a small family business over in Cumbria built up the Laing construction company. And right at the start, he and his wife agreed to a standard of living and that, in real terms, they would never live on any more than that, however much his income went up. Well, it went up into the millions. And he gave millions to Christian ministry – eg, the university CUs movement was built largely on his money. And when he died, his estate, having been head of that multi-million pound business, was just £460. He’d given it all away, because he knew who deserved priority.
So, look at your priorities; learn who deserves priority; then,
Thirdly, LET HIM HAVE PRIORITY (vv12-15)
Look on to v12 to see how they responded back then:
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. (vv12-15)
And underlying that response are those six words at the end of v12:
And the people feared the LORD. (v6)
And when the Bible says that about believers, it’s not talking about fear of punishment. It means they wanted to start treating the Lord as he should be treated, and they feared displeasing or dishonouring him or belittling him – as they realised they had been doing. It’s as if they’d been looking at the Lord the wrong way through a telescope, so that he’d just looked really small to them. And it’s as if Haggai has turned the telescope back round and said, ‘Now look! You’ve been treating him like he just wants a little bit of your life, when in fact he’s actually Lord of everything.’ It’s like C.S.Lewis said: either Jesus Christ is all important, or he is not important at all. The one thing he cannot be is moderately important. And when it comes to money, he deserves to have us say to him, ‘Lord Jesus, you died for me and rose again; you are the rightful Lord of every area of my life; please help me to learn how you want me to use the money you’ve entrusted me with.’
And the way we encourage people to do that at this church is through this annual Giving Review. So if you’d say Jesus is your Lord and this church is your church, this is a call either to start, or continue, systematic giving:
• We ask you to read the giving literature that will either have reached you by post, or that you can pick up tonight.
• The first thing it encourages us to do is to work out (as far as we can) our total income for the year ahead. And I take it that includes what we earn from work and investments before tax, plus money gifts that come our way.
• The aim of doing that is to let God have the priority he deserves by planning from the outset how much of that total we’ll give to his purposes.
• Our literature suggests a starting-point of 10% – 5% to the ministry here and 5% to world mission. But that’s just a suggestion of where to start thinking, taken from the 10% tithes of the OT. But from that baseline, the NT calls us to give a generous and appropriate percentage of our income. So for some that might be 15% or 20% or 30% - or something more.
• We then ask you to return the response card soon, so that we can plan responsibly. And those just go to our two finance administrators – none of the rest of us on the church staff see them; it’s as confidential as possible.
Now Haggai was speaking to people who had not been letting the Lord have priority with their money. Whereas I’m speaking to a church where, last year, people gave: £991,000 to support the ministry here,£298,000 to world mission through the Jesmond Trust, and £1.25 million in that June Gift Week to start our new work at St Joseph’s, Benwell. So I’m speaking to many people who fit the description of v14 – whose spirit the LORD has stirred up to give committedly. And I thank God enormously for that – it’s been amazing to be part of it.
But those of us who are already committedly giving need to keep this vision of the Lord and his purposes – and to keep giving, as we can, and giving more if we can. But others of us need to start – whether we’re students with very little to give out of right now, or whether we’ve recently come to faith in Jesus and are on £40,000 or £50,000 a year and need to start using that income to serve his purposes.
And to all of us, as we give, the promise in v13 still applies:
“I am with you, declares the LORD.” (v13)
Which means, ‘with you to look after your own needs, as you give money away.’ And it means, ‘with you to bless the work you’re giving money to’ – so that you’ll look back and say, ‘I’m so glad I didn’t spend it on anything else.’
Recommended read: The Treasure Principle, Randy Alcorn, Multnomah Press