The text for this is Haggai 1.
The people of Jerusalem had become self absorbed. 18 years earlier they had returned to the city following their exile in Babylon with excitement and hope. They would rebuild the city and the temple. They would become a mighty nation once more.
However, skip forward to the second year of the reign of King Darius and things weren’t going as planned. Those at the top had so much money and food and such nice houses that they were more concerned about keeping their own prosperity. Those at the bottom were struggling so hard that the temple was not a priority for them. And those who were trying to rebuild it were having their efforts hampered by reluctant locals.
So the people said “not now” – The temple should be rebuilt, just not now. We have more pressing things on our plates.
They had forgotten who it was who brought them out of exile. They had forgotten that turning their backs on God, doing their own thing rather than honouring him, is what saw them conquered and exiled in the first place.
They hadn’t learned a thing.
And this is where Haggai steps in.
He points out to the Israelites that their lives, their nation, are not what they should be. They have food, houses, money in abundance, but they don’t have enough. They sew, but they can’t harvest. They can’t keep what they have. Nothing ever satisfies, no matter what they do.
And that is because they have lost sight of God. They have failed to honour him for what he did and what he does. Their priorities have become skewed and messed up to the point that, rather than putting God first in everything, they put their own concerns before anything else.
Life has become about making sure that they are ok, before they have the time to fit God into the picture.
There is a story which you may well have heard before. A time management expert who speaking to a group of business students. He pulled out a large, wide-mouth jar and filled it with fist-sized rocks. When he couldn’t put any more in, he asked, “Is this jar full?”
The class responded, “Yes.” He said, “Really?” Then he pulled out a bucket of gravel and poured it in, shaking it down through the cracks. Then he asked, “Is the jar full?”
The students were onto him, so they said, “No.” “Good,” he replied. He dumped in a bucket of sand. Once more he asked, “Is the jar full?” “No,” they shouted. Again he said, “Good.” He poured in a pitcher of water until the jar was full to the brim.
Then he asked, “What is the point of the illustration?” One student ventured, “No matter how full your schedule, if you try hard, you can always fit more in.”
“No,” the speaker replied, “that is not the point. The point is, if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”
Israel wanted to get rid of the big rocks for a while in order to fit everything else in. They had put themselves before the one who brought them out of the slavery of Babylon
Have we done the same?
Do we live our lives in a way which suits our own priorities, our own desires, our own self interest? Or do we put the one who brought us out of the slavery of sin first?
When we choose how we spend our time, energy and money is it on us, or is it on those things which bring glory and honour to God? Do we act out of love and worship, or out of selfishness?
We have just come out of the biggest financial crisis to hit the western world in any of our memories, since the Great Depression in the 1930s. Many people lost businesses, jobs, livelihoods, homes… everything. Most people have had to try and cut their cloth accordingly, many have been totally unable to and are still struggling desperately just to make ends meet. Or at least trying to get those ends a bit closer to each other as they slip further into the red.
The most vulnerable in society have been hit hardest, while those at the top have soaked up the pressure with ease. Some have even got richer of the back of the crisis.
And the perceived wisdom amongst politicians and the media is this; we must fix the economy above all else. If we don’t fix the economy it’ll all come crashing back down again. If we don’t reign in public spending it’ll go back to how it was in 2008 again in no time. The economy comes first, everything else comes later.
Everything else comes later.
So we no longer have money to help the increasing number of people in unemployment or low paid employment to keep their heads above water.
We no longer have the money to ensure the disabled get the care they need to live as full a life as possible, playing as full a role in society as possible.
We no longer have the money to pay those who educate our children, look after us when we’re ill, clean our streets, put our fires out, keep law and order and do so many other roles vital to the way we all live.
We have money for election after election, referendum after referendum. We have money to keep the banks going (if not the shops). We have the money for weapons which can kill millions. And we have money to build up our institutions which are designed to make it harder for people from other lands to find a home here.
But when it comes to feeding the hungry, quenching the thirsty, clothing the naked, inviting in the stranger, caring for the prisoner; when it comes of doing this for the least of one of God’s children, we no longer have the money.
Now, am I saying we shouldn’t fix the economy? No, of course not. If you don’t, you can’t pay for anything and the country descends into chaos and extreme poverty.
However, we have our priorities all skewed.
Yes, we should fix the economy, but make sure we are caring for our vulnerable, educating our children, healing our sick whilst doing it. To abandon these things is to abandon the teachings of Christ and the commands of God to his people throughout history. We honour God in how we treat other people. When we forget that we dishonour him and ourselves.
But we see how the people of God still care about these things today. We see it in the work of the Foodbanks, of the Street Pastors, of Christian charities such as Oasis who work with the homeless, or XLP who work with the youth in some of the most disadvantaged inner city areas in the UK. These are some of the building blocks of making this country the “Christian Country” so many like to portray us as.
But we need to go further. In an age which concentrates on what we can do for ourselves, or what other people can do for us, we need to subvert the way things are.
The model, Munroe Bergdorf, was on Channel 4 News yesterday talking about racism. She posed a powerful question,
“If you say you’re not racist, what are you doing to dismantle racism?”
A question which can be extended and which we can all, myself included, ask of ourselves. What are we doing to dismantle poverty, inequality, hunger, domestic violence, suffering… the list goes on. It’s all well and good for us to come to Church on a Sunday, sing our songs and say our prayers. It’s all well and good for me or any of the thousands of others like me to stand up and preach a message like this. What are we actually doing about it?
We serve a God who came down to Earth to be our servant, and who acts as an example for all. The way we, as individuals, treat others, the way we look out for friends and neighbours, the way we spend our time and money (and where we do both those things), the way we act on a Monday to Saturday – away from the four walls of the church building, even in the way we vote; all these things need to be done with a love, compassion, generosity and integrity that shadow our own interests.
We need to be people who act in the best interests of others, rather than ourselves. Not just people who talk about it, but a people of holy, Godly action.
This is what Haggai is saying to the Israelites – listen to God and do as he asks. Build the temple. Have a place which honours him. Then and only then will you prosper. He said it then, 2,700 years ago, and he’s saying it now. Now we have become the temple in which his Holy Spirit lives, every single person who has faith in Jesus Christ has become his temple, and we need to rebuild it according to his plans.
We need to put the big rocks in first. We need to live by his priority, not by our own. Then we can build the loving, just Christian nation, and world, God is calling us to be.