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Priorities: First Things First

PRIORITIES: First Things First

Haggai 1:1-11


One of my favorite devotional writers is pastor and author Max Lucado. He is able to paint pictures with words like few others. In an on-line devotional he posted on January 1 of this year, he wrote these words: “Suppose I were to drop by your house holding a foil-covered saucer. “Hello, friend,” I say. “A few days back Denalyn made a strawberry cake. It was so good. It came out of the oven hot, moist, and sweet. I wish you could have tasted it. Today, as I was eating the last piece, I thought of you. Just before I took the final bite, I put my fork down and thought, I’m taking these crumbs to my friend.” How would you feel?


Contrast that emotion with the one you feel if I were to knock at your door holding a cake pan with oven mitts. “Denalyn pulled this out of the oven a few minutes ago. It’s still hot. No one has touched it. I got here as fast as I could. I want you to have the first piece. I want you to have the whole cake (although I did bring my fork in case you want to share).” How would that invitation make you feel? Or, better asked, how does that make you feel? God offers you the whole cake. You do not receive crumbs or leftovers. You have received his best. Why? Because he loves you based on the “Principle of Firsts.” …  re-visit the theme of “firsts” in the Bible. Open a concordance to the word and prepare yourself for an avalanche of entries. First. Firstborn. Firstbegotten. Firstfruit. Firstling. First-ripe. My concordance contains seven columns of tiny-fonted words and verses. Apparently, “first” is a big theme in scripture and a big thing to God!”[i] He gives us his best. But what do we give to him?


What is important to you? What gets your “firsts?” Who and what get the best of you? And who or what get what’s left. In an ideal world, we would have time enough to maintain every relationship, to do and see everything our hearts want to do and see. But this isn’t an ideal world, and time and resources are limited. So we make choices. We make choices about how we are going to spend that which is most precious to us: our time, our talent, and our treasure, on that which is important to us: our families, our education and career, our comfort and security, our rest and relaxation.


But what do my calendar and my investment of talent and treasure say about priority of God in my life? Lots of things are important. Family is incredibly important. And that includes providing for them, so jobs and careers are important. Health and recreation are important. But for most of us, the God who created the universe and everything in it, the God who loves us so much that he sent the Son to live with us and die for us, gets a nod a couple of Sunday mornings a month and that’s about it. So we’re going to take the next four weeks to look at priorities, and the role God plays in our lives. And we’re going to do that by looking at the Old Testament prophet Haggai. There are people all over the sanctuary right now looking at each other going, “Who’s Haggai? I’ve never heard of Haggai.” Haggai was an Old Testament prophet, and one of the little books near the end of the Old Testament bears his name. It’s the record of his prophecy to the people of Judah as they returned to the Holy Land from exile. It’s a teeny book. Two chapters total. You can go home today and read Haggai in about 10 minutes. Fifteen if you’re a slow reader. And Haggai should be read alongside Ezra, because Ezra gives the historical context for Haggai’s ministry as prophet. To find it, go to the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, the first book of the New Testament, and turn backward a few pages. You’ll flip through Malachi, and then Zechariah, and then you’ll find Haggai.


Haggai 1:1-11.


Haggai’s prophecy seems mundane to most. On the surface, it seems to have nothing to do with us at all, for it was simply this: rebuild the temple, rebuild the temple, rebuild the temple. We all know that the temple was important in Old Testament Judaism. Located on the temple mound, it sat on the highest point in the hilly city of Jerusalem, representing the presence of God at the center of the lives of his people, the rule and reign of God among his people, and the place where the people of God gathered to worship God. Those who lived outside the city prayed facing the city and the great temple of God. It oriented people toward Yahweh, the one true, living God; focused them on God, and reminded them that they were in fact the people of God. It was considered the earthly palace of the heavenly king, representative of God’s rightful place at the center of his people, his rule and reign from the darkness of the Holy of Holies where the presence of God sat enthroned above the mercy seat, the lid to the Ark of the Covenant.


But didn’t Jesus render the temple unnecessary. When Christ died, wasn’t the temple curtain separating the Holy of Holies torn in two? And didn’t Jesus himself say that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:24). Didn’t Jesus render not just the temple but the whole system of sacrifices that took place there obsolete? Of course he did. In the life, the death, and the resurrection of Christ, God took everything that was centered around the temple, the system of sacrifices and the rules and rituals for holy living and focused them on Christ, who died once for all. And then he began construction of a new temple – a temple made not with stone and wood, bricks and mortar, but with living stones. “… you yourselves like living stones, says Peter, are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). So today, as has been true since the days of Christ, the temple is a different kind of temple. It is a spiritual temple, but it is being constructed out of living, breathing human beings who are following Jesus. Today we build the church by reaching those who aren’t following Jesus, inviting them to become a part of the body of Christ, and becoming disciples, followers of, Jesus Christ.


Now, by the time of Haggai the Jews who had returned from exile in Babylon and were again living in the Promised Land had been there for 20 years. The first group to return came soon after Cyrus, king of Persia, had defeated the Babylonian empire and replaced it with his own. And Ezra tells us that in the first year of his reign over the Jews, Cyrus proclaimed, “The LORD, (he even used the Jews’ name for God, Yahweh), the God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house (a temple) at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel …” (Ez. 1:2-3). The Jews who had been living in exile in Babylon were now permitted, if they wanted, to return to their homeland specifically to rebuild the temple. But twenty years later, little was done – just a little bit of foundation work. The temple of God was still in ruins. So was the spiritual life of the people of God.


They had lost their sense of urgency. When they returned to Jerusalem it was with a sense of great urgency. They were going to rebuild the temple to prepare for the return of God’s rule and reign among them, so that they could once again be known as the people of God, his special possession. But opposition and hardship had worn on them. The Samaritan nobles who had remained in the land sought to stop the work  on the temple. They were the product of the intermarriage of Jews, their own people who had been left in the land, their cities reduced to rubble by the conquering Babylonian army, and members of the tribes and conquered nations around them. Ezra 4:4 says that “the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.” There was a king in Persia between Cyrus and Darius, Artaxerxes, and the opposition even sent him a letter asking him to officially halt the construction of the temple, and he sent a letter back, telling them to stop. So they stopped.


How often do we quit because we experience opposition? We’ve kind of developed this notion, and it is absolutely NOT biblical, that if God’s hand is on us and with us, he will always blaze the trail for us and we’ll never experience hardship, or difficulty, or risk of any kind. Churches are full of people sitting around waiting on God to do something and God is saying, “You’re my body on earth. Christ is the head. You know what he wants done. Go and make disciples. Go do it.” We’ve become so passive. We have no sense of urgency. No sense of “Christ is returning, we need to be reaching out to those living around us. We need to be building God’s temple, adding more and more and more living stones, not to fill our sanctuary, but to make disciples, real followers of Jesus.


Imagine a football player who just goes down every time someone tries to tackle him. He isn’t going to play for very long. The point of football is to fight for yardage, to strain, to move the opposition, to run over the man in front of you trying to stop you. I love football, and I love it when a player just puts his head down and keeps churning out yards with two or three defenders trying to stop him. What would we accomplish if we, the body of Christ, the living, breathing temple of God, had the same mentality. But we don’t. We lay down every time someone tries to tackle us and say, “Well, it’s getting hard, I’m getting bruised up a bit, this hurts, it’s going to cost me something, hit me in the checking account big time, so it must not be God’s will.” And so we stop, content to sit in our pews, sing our songs, memorize verses, and never actually DO anything to follow Jesus.


And they didn’t have much as far as resources. At least, they didn’t think they did. The land had not been good to them. They were a primarily agricultural society at this point, and they’d experienced several consecutive years of drought. Look at V. 6. Because of the drought, the production of their crops and livestock went way down. Their finances had been compromised. Their economic stability was at stake. The problem really wasn’t in their economic stability and finances. It wasn’t in their resources. The problem was in their priorities. And this problem preceded their economic difficulties. Look down at Vv. 9-11. The real economic difficulties they were now facing were a form of discipline from God. Now, the Bible is clear, it isn’t always because of sin that we experience bad things in life, that we go through hard times, that we experience pain and suffering. But sin does have its consequences, and in this case, God brought the drought, made their labor fruitless, because of their messed up priorities. And discouragement, when it’s allowed to run unchecked, turns into indifference.


The people no longer cared. Instead of rebuilding the temple, they turned their attention to building their own lives. Haggai 1:4. Their own houses were done. The word “paneled” indicates more than just that they had built themselves a place to live. And the participle there indicates that this was their ongoing focus. It indicates that they had spent time decorating, finishing, perfecting their own abodes, focused only on their own comfort, their own lives, while the house of God lay in ruins. In V. 9, God says that while his house lay in ruins, “each of you busies himself with his own house.” The word translated as “busies” there is literally “to run after.”


Do we have any runners here today? Runners are an interesting group of people. I don’t think anyone has more of a love-hate relationship with their sport than runners. I used to run more than I do now. I do other things for exercise now, but I used to run a lot. Running is one of those things that you feel really good about, AFTER YOU FINISH. While you’re running, especially if you’re on a long run, you’re constantly thinking, “I could be doing something else. Why am I doing this? This is stupid.” You see, running is strenuous. It isn’t light exercise.  Somehow, they still managed to take care of themselves and their homes, to make sure that their homes looked good inside and out, and yet, or maybe even because of that, little was left over for the work of God. Their houses were paneled, finished, decorated, ornate. And the participle here indicates that this was an ongoing condition. Constant, continuous decoration and expansion of their own homes. But the house of God was a pile of rocks. God would get what was left, but not the best, the firsts. Give generously of your time. Give generously of your talent. Give generously of your treasure. What is important to you? What is your priority? Who is your center?


Our rational minds say, “Take care of yourself, your family first, and then give a little bit to God out of what is left.” God says “Really put your faith in me by trusting me with your firsts, and let me take care of the rest out of my abundance for you.


Now, let me be clear here. God isn’t saying here that if we make him the center of our life that we’ll be healthy and wealthy. But he does say that we’ll be blessed, that we’ll have all the resources that we need to build his temple, to make disciples. He also promises that he knows what we need and that when we seek him first, make the life of discipleship, following Jesus our priority, we will have all that we need IN THE BODY OF CHRIST. Jesus said it this way: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). What things? The things that our loving and faithful Father in heaven knows that we need in order to live as disciples of Jesus. Okay pastor, then why are there so many children dying from lack of water and nutrition? Why are there so many children in foster care, orphans without a home? What about the homeless? What about all the suffering in the world? Friends, I don’t know the answers to all of those questions, and they’re real and serious questions. But I do know what Jesus said. And I do know that if every church in Michigan, each church, found sitting in its pews and chairs just ONE FAMILY to adopt just ONE CHILD, we wouldn’t have a foster care problem in Michigan. And I do know that if the church in America brought her actual resources to bear, not what she thinks are her resources, but her actual resources, we could, by ourselves, stamp out much of the suffering in the world attributed to hunger, and thirst, and treatable disease. The problem is we we’re sitting around waiting on God to move. God is standing there saying, “Come on. Let’s go. Build the temple.” And we don’t want to. The problem isn’t God. We know what he wants done. The problem isn’t our resources. He has given us all that we need to be the people he is calling us to be. The problem is our messed up priorities.


Eugene Peterson, best known as the pastor who gave us The Message paraphrase of the Bible, spent some time watching tree swallows raise their young while on vacation in Montana one summer. For several weeks he watched them gather food for their mates and chicks and one day was thrilled when he saw three babies perched on a branch about four feet above the surface of the mountain lake. He was about to watch three baby birds learn to fly. One adult swallow got alongside the chicks and started shoving them out toward the end of the branch – pushing, pushing, pushing. The end one fell off. Somewhere between the branch and the water four feet below, the wings started working, and the fledgling was off on his own. Then the second one. The third was not to be bullied. At the last possible moment his grip on the branch loosened just enough so that he swung downward, then tightened again, bulldog tenacious. The parent was had no sympathy. He pecked at the desperately clinging talons until it was more painful for the poor chick to hang on than risk the insecurities of flying. His grip was released and the inexperienced wings began pumping. The mature swallow knew what the chick did not – that it would fly – that there was no danger in making it do what it was perfectly designed to do.


Birds have feet and can walk. Birds have talons and can grasp a branch securely. They can walk; they can cling. But flying is their characteristic action, and not until they fly are they living at their best, gracefully and beautifully.” He then says this: “Giving is what we do best. It is the air into which we were born. It is the action that was designed into us before our birth. Giving is the way the world is. God gives himself. He also gives away everything that is. He makes no exceptions for any of us … We don’t think we can live generously because we have never tried. But the sooner we start the better, for we are going to have to give up our lives finally, and the longer we wait the less time we have for the soaring and swooping life of grace.”[ii]

[i] Max Lucado, “First Things First,” January 1, 2017.

[ii] Eugene Peterson, “Run with the Horses,” Intervarsity Press, 2009, pp. 43-45.