PRIORITIES: Staying Focused
In the American frontier days, there was a settlement in the West whose citizens were engaged primarily in the lumber business. And the townspeople decided they wanted a church. So they built a building and called a minister. The preacher moved into the settlement and initially was very well received. But one afternoon he happened to see some of the people in his congregation dragging some logs, which had been floated down the river from another village upstream, onto the bank. Each log was marked with the owner’s stamp on one end. To his great distress, the minister saw his members pulling in the logs and sawing off the end where the telltale stamp appeared.
The following Sunday he preached a strong sermon on the commandment “Thou shall not steal.” At the close of the service, his people lined up and offered enthusiastic congratulations: “Wonderful message, Pastor.” “Mighty fine preaching.” “Keep up the good work.” It wasn’t the response he expected, so he went home to prepare his sermon for the following Sunday. He preached on the same text, the same commandment, but gave it a different ending. He said, “Yes, thou shall not steal, but thou shall also not cut off the end of thy neighbor’s logs.” When he got through, the congregation ran him out of town.[i]
Last week we started a sermon series from the Old Testament prophet Haggai. Haggai was a prophet in the Old Testament AFTER the Jewish people returned to their homeland from exile in Babylon. The Persian empire overtook the Babylonian Empire as the greatest world power in the area, and they said, “We’re still in charge, you’re still our subjects, but you can return to your homeland and rebuild the temple there and worship God the way you are supposed to worship God.” So some of the people returned to rebuild their temple. But twenty years later, not much had been done. So God spoke through Haggai and said, “Your own houses are finished and decorated. You’ve expanded and renovated them. You’re using everything you have on yourself. And my temple lies in ruins. Rebuild the temple.”
They claimed to be the people of God, but they weren’t giving God a central role in their lives. They were apathetic and discouraged. They didn’t care all that much about God, and about his temple, anymore. In the New Testament St. Paul says “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). In other words, you yourselves are the living, breathing, building blocks of my Kingdom, of my Temple. It is the body of Christ together that draws people’s attention to God. It is through the body of Christ that God brings glory and honor to his name. But like the people of God in Haggai’s day, we’ve become discouraged and apathetic. We’re way more interested in building our own lives, our careers, our homes, than we are anything God might want us to do. Instead of getting our best, God gets what’s left, and let’s be honest – it isn’t much. God asks for our faith. He asks us to really trust him, by obeying him, and to do that by giving him our tithe, the first 10% of what we earn, not a little bit of what’s left. And he asks us to use our time and talent for his glory. Not everyone is called to PROFESSIONAL ministry as a pastor, but we’re all called to full-time ministry. So the call is the same for us as it was coming out of the mouth of Haggai: build my temple. Jesus said it this way: “Go therefore and make disciples …” (Matt. 28:19). That’s how we build the temple of God, expand the kingdom of God, today. We add living stones, disciples of Jesus, to the temple.
Turn in your Bibles to Haggai 1:12-15.
Watch this video.
Funny. But sad too. Sad because we know it’s true. How do we respond to the Word of God? Look at V. 12. The people didn’t care anymore. They had gone from discouraged to despondent and apathetic. They had their own homes, their own families, their own lives to tend to. But something happened when Haggai spoke the Word of God. Something changed. Something broke through the inertia, the complacency and apathy of the people. The Word of God moved them! The Word of God is more than just words on a page in a book on your shelf. The Word of God is more than just fodder for interesting sermons and Bible studies. It will change the way we think, yes, but in changing the way we think, it will also change the way we act. It moves us. In Isaiah 55:11, God says, (not just said, to a people long ago in a galaxy far, far away, but says, to us, today too) “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
When I was a kid, we burned firewood for supplemental heat in the winter, much as Becky and I do today. And every summer we went to a friend’s farm to cut and chop wood for the fire. So my brother and I would climb in the truck dad borrowed, putting our little toy chainsaws in the back of the truck with dad’s real one. Our little saws made sounds. They looked just like small versions of the real thing. Even had little toy chains that went round and round the plastic bar. But the chains weren’t sharp and there was no powerful motor. Just a little noisemaker and a plastic gear. You could touch the chain when it was spinning and not get a burn, much less a cut. They couldn’t cut anything. Today I own two real chainsaws. The chains are sharp and the motors powerful. Start one, pull the trigger, and it roars to life and will cut through a branch, or the trunk of a tree, like butter. Touch it to your finger while it’s running, and you’ll be missing that finger. They aren’t toys. They’re tools. Incredibly powerful tools. They do something.
The Word of God is no toy. It is a powerful tool in the hand of a loving God. And when he uses it, it does exactly what he intends it to do. It breaks through apathy and complacency. It finds its way into cold, hardened hearts. It breathes life into the lifeless. It pierces the darkness with incredible light, exposing sin and brokenness, offering the hope and healing of the Christ to whom every word, every syllable, bears witness.
The Word of God, spoken by the prophet Haggai, took an apathetic, couldn’t care less, complacent people who hadn’t even asked for God to speak to them or move in their midst, and moved them to action. It was God, and God alone, through his word, who brought about the change. In Jeremiah 31:33, God says “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” The Law, which is a short, abbreviated way of saying “The Word of God,” goes from being a set of boundaries, a list of rules, of do’s and don’ts, to a Holy-Spirit empowered, living, breathing thing beating inside of us. And the heart was, for ancient Jews, the seat of personhood. It was the core of a person, where your personality, your will, your choices, your emotions, and your thoughts originated. “I will write my word on their hearts.”
Imagine it like this. In most wedding ceremonies, something along the line of “forsaking all others” is spoken during the vows, right? So when Becky and I got married, I promised to ignore anyone else who might be interested in me for her, and she promised to do the same for me. That’s what that means. I am choosing to love as wife only you. I can love my friends, my neighbors, my congregation, whoever, but I save a special kind of love, a special depth of love, for her. Now, I can choose to see that as a rule to be followed. So I have to stay within this boundary and not have an affair with someone. But I can try to get as close to the line as I can and as long as I don’t cross it, I’m good. Now, I’m not recommending that. It isn’t a good way to be a spouse. But it’s one way of understanding that commitment, as a rule to follow. Or I can choose simply to pay attention to Becky, to love her like I love no other, to protect and fight for her and try my hardest to make her happy, or at least not push her over the edge. I’m not looking for the line and trying not to cross it, trying to follow the ten commandments of marriage. The line can serve as a reminder of what faithfulness isn’t. But really I’m looking at her. Paying attention to her. Loving her with all that I have. And so instead of being fenced in by a rule, I am set free to love her like I love no other.
That’s what it looks like for God to do as he promised and write his Word on your heart. It isn’t about following a list of rules, a bunch of lines you can’t cross. It’s about living in a loving relationship with a heavenly Father who loves you more than you could ever imagine. His Word written on our hearts will accomplish God’s purpose in us and in the world, but he will not override our desire to either allow him to be lord or not. There is not, however, an in-between. As the old saying goes, either he is Lord of all, or he isn’t Lord at all.
So what was the response of the people to the power of the Word of God spoken to them? Look first at the end of V. 12. Their first response was the fear of God. Now, that’s a phrase that we use a lot. The fear of God. But do we really know what it means? It can have two meanings. One is a positive sense of reverence or awe in the presence of God, something we might feel as we worship God. The other is the outright trembling dread and fear of being in the presence of one who is so much greater than you. It actually feels like fear and produces a sense of trembling. It is the awe and fear that Isaiah felt when he received his vision of the throne room of God and fell on his face crying out “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (6:5). It is the fear and awe of actually coming face to face with the God of the universe with trembling, weak knees. Now, I know a lot of us are of the more staid, stoic variety in worship. Not all of us, but some of us. But when we stand in the presence of God, standing still with your hands in your pockets won’t be an option. Paul tells us that every knee will one day bow before God (Rom. 14:11). That includes you, and you, and you, and every human being who has ever lived, is living, or will live. Why? Because bowing, even falling on your face before him, will be the only possible response.
They responded in fear first, and then in obedience. Look again at V. 12. They did what God was asking them to do. They responded. They were driven to action. The cool thing about Haggai is that he gives us the exact dates on which these things happen. Knowing what we know about the calendar that they used, we know that the Word of God was spoken to a complacent and apathetic people on August 1, 520 B.C. And the people were at work building the temple on August 24, 520 B.C. In just 23 days the people, in obedience to God, had completed their fruit harvest, mobilized, organized, and were ready to undertake a massive construction project, a project they completed a few years later, without a forklift, crane, or power saw. It’s an organizational timeline that would make even the strongest leader cringe. That is the power of the Word of God written on the hearts of the people of God, and the people of God responding in obedience, giving God their best and trusting him to provide for them.
And God’s response to their trust and their fear? Look at V. 13. “I am with you.” I have always been, am now, and will always give you my best. I am with you and I am for you. You do not need to be afraid. I know you don’t think you have the resources to do this. I know you’re afraid. I know this is a dangerous task and the other residents of the land will again try to stop you, but know this: I. AM. WITH. YOU. Truth is, if we’re comfortable, if the pastors are always comfortable, if the board is always comfortable, if the congregation is always comfortable, if we are never opposed by our culture, if we are never opposed by Satan, then we are not stepping out in faith and obedience and following Christ. We aren’t dangerous to the enemy. If God never has to say “Fear not, I am with you,” we’re missing something, because that is a regular promise from God to his people as they follow him, as they pursue the building of Christ’s kingdom, his temple, by adding living stones.
God’s ultimate declaration that he is with and for us is Jesus himself, Emmanuel, God with us. In Christ, God’s work echoes through the universe, I am with you. The last words of Jesus to his disciples before he returned to his Father’s side, just after he told them to go and make disciples were I am with you. “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). The assumption is this: if we are making disciples, if we are building the kingdom of God, the temple of God, we won’t always be comfortable, and we’ll need that word from God, that he is with us, always.
Several years ago, Walt and Susan Noble (who are members here), their youngest daughter went to them with something on her heart. She was probably 14 or 15 at the time, and she wanted to collect and deliver shoes to orphaned children and teens in Jamaica. Like many Caribbean nations, Jamaica has some wonderful, clean shops and restaurants near the cruise ship ports on the coast and near the beaches and airports, but behind the façade of paradise lies an incredible amount of poverty and crime. Now, if Aubrey, who is 16, came to me with an idea like that, I’d shrug it off as youthful idealism and wait for her to forget. Charlotte Noble didn’t forget, and Walt and Susan didn’t shrug. They connected with a former northern Michigan pastor who runs an orphanage high in the mountains inland in Jamaica. A year later, they led a team of maybe twenty teens and adults from the church to Jamaica, having overcome logistics obstacles to getting all of those shoes to Jamaica and fundraising the entire amount needed right in the middle of the downturn in our economy. The team ministered with and to the children in the orphanage. They did some repair work around the orphanage. And they fitted over 100 orphans with shoes. As one of their pastors, all I did was allow them to raise funds and recruit people, and offered some feedback from my own experience leading international mission trips. They and their team did all the fundraising. They went. Basically, all I did was give them the church’s blessing and attend the men’s chili and poker night fundraiser and a special Jamaican meal fundraiser. They didn’t say, “Hey pastor, we have this idea, this vision, will you do it?” They said, “We have this vision, will you give us your blessing to do this?” They heard the word of God. And they responded. A little over one year from the time young Charlotte approached them with what many would say was a childish fantasy to provide shoes to orphans, they were in Jamaica, placing shoes on the feet of orphans. By the way, they aren’t here today. They’re in Guatamala. You see, many of the diseases that afflict and kill people around the world are very treatable and can be easily prevented with a little effort. So they’re in Guatamala, installing very innovative, inexpensive water treatment systems so that the people have clean water to drink, bath in, and cook with. Walt and Susan aren’t plumbers. He’s a surgeon. She’s a dermatologist. They don’t have the kind of expertise you might think would be needed on trips like the ones they’ve done. But they know something. They know that what God is looking for more than anything else are obedient hearts willing to trust him. And that they have to offer. May we follow their lead.
[i] Haddon Robinson, “Grace and Truth in Application”