Now, we're going to take some time to dig into a short document written 2500 years ago – the Prophecy of Haggai. So please open up your Bibles to Haggai 1. The prophecy of Haggai is about the old Temple and was spoken to the Jews over 500 years before Christ. But it was written down primarily for us, the disciples of Jesus. And I want to get at its significance by asking a few simple questions.
1. Why is the Temple so important?
It housed the Ark of the Covenant containing the 10 Commandments, the symbol of the covenant relationship between God and his people. It was the place of sacrifice, where God's people found forgiveness (provisionally, until the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus). It was the place on which God set his Name. It was filled with God's glory. And it was where people met with God. So if the Temple was so important, where is it now for us? It's in two places, with a very close connection. First, Jesus is the Temple. Jesus said to his enemies:
"Destroy this temple [meaning himself, his body], and in three days I will raise it up." (John 2.19)
And also, secondly, the church – the Body of Christ made up of those in Christ by faith – is the Temple. The apostle Paul says,
"Don't you know that you [collectively, the church] are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?" (1 Cor. 3.16)
What is more, our task is to build the Temple on the foundation of Christ.
"Let each one take care how he builds..." (1 Cor. 3.10)
says the apostle Paul. That's the Temple.
2. What's the story so far?
After the building of the Temple by Solomon about 400 years before this, God's people had sinned and sinned and sinned. The glory of God that had filled the Temple departed from it. The Temple was destroyed and the people were taken to Babylon. The Temple lay desolate for two generations. Then in 538 BC the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus King of Persia and he sent the Jews back to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. God also stirred the spirits of the Jewish exiles, and after 7 months they rebuilt the altar. After 2 years they started work on rebuilding the ruined Temple and the foundations were laid. There was both grief and joy. Grief because it was nothing like before. Joy because, at last, progress was being made. But the progress didn't last, and the people became discouraged and afraid because of opposition, and the building ground to a halt. Nothing more was done for 16 years. They carried on their lives, but they did not build the Temple.
Then in 520BC God began to speak to the people through his prophets Haggai and Zechariah. In Haggai 1.1-11 there is the repeated phrase, "the word of the Lord came". This is not just Haggai's insights or ideas. This is the Living God opening his mouth and speaking. To us. That's the story so far.
3. What was the situation then?
"Thus says the Lord of Hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord."
We need to put ourselves into these shoes. And what the Lord describes is a situation of relative private prosperity alongside ruin in the wider church and society. Verses 4-6:
"Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your panelled houses, while this house [the Temple] 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."
We are relatively comfortable in our homes and even in our own church. Things are OK for us. And the Lord doesn't say that's wrong. That is itself a blessing from him. But all around things are not going well. And we must look beyond ourselves. Back then, the housing market was on the rise. But the situation in the wider society was dire. There was economic recession. The markets were jittery and volatile. Returns on investment were low. Many people were hungry, thirsty, cold, and skint. Why were things so bad? Because of the failure of God's people to build the Temple. So:
4. What of today?
Think of this as spiritual economics. The spiritual economy of our nation and our region is in severe recession. We live in a land that is turning its back on the Lord Jesus Christ. And the consequences of that for now and for eternity are terrible. You might say that we're in a spiritual Great Depression.
5. What then are we to do?
Verse 5: "Consider your ways". And again in verse 7: "Consider your ways". And then in verse 8: "build the house". Why build the house – the Temple – the church of Jesus Christ? Because when we build it we please God and we bring him glory. Verse 8:
"… build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the Lord."
So what will the people of Israel do in response to this sharp challenge? Just over 3 weeks go by. And we come to Haggai 1.12. They …
"... 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."
They 'obeyed' and then 'feared'. That's how they responded, and that's how we must respond to God's word. The process is clear. The living God speaks to Haggai. Haggai speaks to the people. The people hear the voice of the living God. Then in response they fear and they obey. Right fear of God is not cowering and whimpering. It is standing tall and obeying. Obedience is the evidence of right Godly fear. Then the Lord speaks again. Verse 13:
"Then Haggai, the messenger of the LORD, spoke to the people with the LORD's message, "I am with you, declares the LORD.""
Just four words – but what weighty words they are! "I am with you". I – the creator and redeemer, the Lord of heaven and earth – am with you. If we have a total and unshakeable confidence that God is with us, how does that affect our lives? How does that change the way we live our lives? Verse 14:
"And the LORD stirred up… the spirit of all the remnant of the people. And they came and worked on the house of the LORD of hosts, their God…"
The Lord stirred up their spirits. And what was the result? "And they came and worked on the house of the Lord of Hosts, their God." They feared. They obeyed. They worked – in response to the word of God in their ears and the Spirit of God in their hearts. Obedience is work. We need this same response to be ever more evident in the life of this church. As we obey, God promises us his presence, and he works in us by his power, stirring us up, which leads us to greater and bolder obedience. Then, nearly a month goes by, and the Lord speaks again. Haggai 2.3:
"Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?"
Some of the seniors among them had seen what things used to be like – what God had done at other times. And what is happening now seems like nothing in comparison. Is that true for you?
Haggai's words here remind me of a favourite true story of mine that my grandfather used to tell. He and my grandmother got to know one another as teenage Sunday School teachers at a church in Porstmouth with a Sunday School of, literally, thousands of children. They used to take them on day trips, and had to charter a train for the journey. Keeping track of all those children out for the day was a headache. On one occasion, they counted them all at the start of the day. Then when they got home off the train, they counted them all again. And they found they had more children than they started with.
Many churches in our country now have no children. When we stop being content with our own relative spiritual and material prosperity, and we lift our eyes to the massive needs all around us, and we see the desperate plight of our culture, doesn't it look like we're just scratching the surface? At the central prayer meeting the other week Craig Bryant was reminding us that there are now over 50,000 students in Newcastle. How many of them know Christ? Well, in the face of all this overwhelming need and opportunity, how are we to respond? This is what the Lord says to us – from Haggai 2.4-9:
"Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the LORD. Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not. For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the LORD of hosts. The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the LORD of hosts.'"
Be strong, and work. I am with you. That's what the Lord is saying to us. Because the future is going to be even more glorious than the past. Verse 9:
"The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts."
Other times and other places will be put in the shade by what God is going to do. When? "In a little while" – verse 6. The timing is in God's hands. He is sovereign. But it will happen.
And there's that very direct word about money. "I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in… The silver is mine, and the gold is mine…" God owns and controls all the money and more that we need to do what he calls us to do. It's all his. Those who come to faith will bring their financial resources into the life of the church. Church growth becomes self-funding and self-sustaining as we make disciples and the Holy Spirit teaches us to be generous with what God has given us to steward. As they did back then, we too have to sacrifice for the building of the temple – the church of the living God. But God does provide. And God will provide.
So this is what the Lord says to us, as we face our future, with all its challenges, not least in relation to our finances: Consider your ways. Build the house. I am with you. Be strong. Work. The silver and the gold are mine.