Sermon series: Minor Prophets, Major Messages
E.M. Gray spent his life searching for the one trait all successful people share. His essay entitled "The Common Denominator of Success" revealed successful people's common characteristic was not hard work, good luck, or astute human relations, although these traits were important. The one factor that seemed to transcend all the rest was the habit of putting first things first. He observed, "The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don't like to do. They don't like doing them either, necessarily. But their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose."
The Book of Haggai, the second shortest in the Old Testament, communicates this same message: Put first things first. It was written to people like us, who would say that God must be first. But they had drifted away from this truth. They lived with misplaced priorities. Haggai was sent to help God's people get their priorities in line with what they knew they should be.
Haggai spoke his message to Jews who had returned to Jerusalem after living in captivity in Babylon. As you recall, Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon's Temple some 70 years earlier. When the Jews returned from exile they faced the daunting task of rebuilding. The first returnees made preliminary attempts to clear the debris and lay the foundation for a second temple. Their Samaritan neighbors offered to join in the work, but the Jews refused them. The Samaritans, in turn, threatened the workers and sent men to Persia to lobby against the Jews, bringing the work to a halt.
As years passed, slowly but surely, Jerusalem came to life again. Homes were built, stores opened, commerce established, fields planted, crops harvested, and life began to resemble normalcy. Israel, however, got used to life without the Temple. The foundations were overgrown with weeds. They stood as a mute reminder of the Jews' failure to take care of God's house. Fourteen to 16 years passed, and then Haggai appeared on the scene with one prevailing message: It's time to finish rebuilding the Temple.
It was a message of priority: Put first things first. The Temple was the center for worshiping God. It represented the heart and soul of the Old Testament religion. Although God is everywhere, the Temple was the place on earth where God dwelled in a special sense. For the Temple to lie in ruins was to neglect the worship of God. It was a testimony of misplaced priorities. It was an embarrassment to God and a blemish on his reputation.
Haggai's message was blunt. He pulled no punches and wasted no words. Haggai spoke like a foreman on a construction project. With a hardhat and tool belt, walking around the construction site, he bellowed out orders. Found here are a few practical steps about putting first things first.
I. Stop making excuses
First, Haggai confronted excuses for the Temple lying in ruins. "The LORD of Hosts says this: These people say: The time has not come for the house of the LORD to be rebuilt" (Haggai 1:2, HCSB). They intended to build God's house, but just hadn't got around to it yet. If you were to ask them about it, they would probably say, "I'm all for building the Temple. It is a great cause. But God wants us to take care of our own families first. Times are hard. Jobs are scarce. We need to pray about it some more. We will eventually build it, but not now." They made excuses.
Billy Sunday defined an excuse as "the skin of a reason stuffed with a lie." Benjamin Franklin wrote, "I never knew a man who was good at making excuses who was good at anything else."
It is always easy to make excuses when you don't want to obey God. We can always find rational justification for not doing what God wants us to do: The time is not right. I've got family responsibilities. My kids need me now. When things settle down at work, then I can do something. The first step to putting first things first is to admit our responsibility.
II. Cease being selfish
Closely aligned with excuse making is a selfish mindset that permeates everything. Haggai challenged the people's selfish behavior. "The word of the LORD came through Haggai the prophet: Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?" (Haggai 1:34, HCSB). Paneled houses can mean "covered" or "roofed," but the point was that it represented the finishing touches. Their homes were not "in process." No weeds were growing around their unfinished foundations. Their homes were complete while the Temple remained nonexistent.
Please understand: Nothing is wrong with having a nice home. This statement is not an attack on riches or big houses. What's wrong is to own a nice home while God's house lies in ruins. What's wrong is spend all your money on selfish needs while ignoring the things of God. What's wrong is to spend one's time, one's best hours, and one's talents on selfish pursuits while the things of God are left undone. It is an indictment of misplaced priorities.
It is easy to drift away from God's agenda to our own. It is easy to pursue selfish desires while ignoring God's. In fact, it is the default mode of our lives. If we give no thought to how we are living, we will naturally live for ourselves. The bent of our hearts and is always toward selfishness. This is what happened to the Jews Haggai addressed.
Like William Cowper, the hymn writer and pastor, penned: "Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love." That is what happens when we don't persistently and consistently seek God first.
III. Don't miss God's blessings
As a consequence of their excuse-making and selfish living, the people in Haggai's day experienced hardship. He continues: "Now, the LORD of Hosts says this: Think carefully about your ways: You have planted much but harvested little. You eat but never have enough to be satisfied. You drink but never have enough to become drunk. You put on clothes but never have enough to get warm. The wage earner puts his wages into a bag with a hole in it" (Haggai 1:5-6, HCSB). They sowed plenty of seed, but there was a drought and the crops didn't yield as much as they had hoped. They had active lifestyles but were not experiencing satisfaction. They were laboring but showing no profit. No matter how hard they tried, they seemed to be spinning their wheels. No matter how much money they made, they could not keep it. Do you know how that feels?
Because of their selfishness the people missed God's blessings. Haggai points out a sobering reminder: What happens in your heart affects every other part of your life. Because the people had pushed God out of the center, they suffered in every area.
What they did not see was that God caused their predicament. They hadn't stopped to consider that God was trying to tell them something. Haggai screamed: "Hey! It's God who controls the rain and the harvest. He is withholding his blessing because your priorities are not right. Put his house first and he will bless you." Jesus said the same thing: "But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you" (Matthew 6:33, HCSB).
Blessings come through obedience. If we want to experience God's blessings we will put him first.
IV. Take time to evaluate
With this strong indictment and devastating predicament, the people realized they had caused their own calamities. The people were ready to evaluate their situation. Twice Haggai instructed the people, "Consider your ways" (1:5, 7.). The word consider means to give careful thought to. It was time for the people to do some serious self-examination before the Lord. Haggai wanted the people to stop long enough in their busy schedules to evaluate their life in light of God's Word. He wanted them to measure the consequences of their actions.
Evaluation is a good thing. That is why teachers give tests and employers hold job reviews. Socrates wrote: "The unexamined life is not worth living."
Each day we need to evaluate how we spend our time and our money, and how we use our talents. We should examine who we choose as friends, what we set as goals, and where we are going. If God is not first, guess who removed him from his rightful place?
The failure to make constant corrections each day is like a pilot who does not make slight course adjustments in flight. The plane will end up hundreds of miles off course later. The failure to take the proper precautions today will result in severe consequences tomorrow.
When we stop making excuses, cease being selfish, seek God's blessings, and take time to evaluate, we can see God work in powerful ways. This is what happens when first things are first, when God is first in our hearts. How will we know that we have put first things first? How will we know that God is first place? Here are three indications.
A. We are active in the right things
"Go up into the hills, bring down lumber, and build the house. Then I will be pleased with it and be glorified, says the LORD" (Haggai 1:8, HCSB). In all of life there is a time to talk and a time to act, a time to consider and a time to do. Those who put first things first are up and doing the right things: spending time with God daily, serving people, honoring him with their time, talents, and financial resources. For the Jews living in Jerusalem, it meant cutting down trees to build God's house.
B. God is glorified
Why should the Temple be built? That God may be glorified. When God is not first we are indifferent to his glory—his fame and his reputation being spread. But when God is first revealing his glory is first on our minds. In fact, everything we think, say, and do is to honor God and bring credit to him. Whatever your occupation, the chief business of every Christian is to bring glory to God.
C. God blesses us
When the people obeyed, God sent word: "I am with you" (1:13). When God is first, he blesses us. And the sure sign of his blessing was his manifested presence. If God seems distant in your life, perhaps your priorities have gotten mixed up. When you put God first, you experience a new awareness of his presence. That is true blessing.
An instructor at a time-management seminar told the participants to prepare for a quiz. He reached under the table and took out a wide-mouthed gallon jar and set it on the table. Next to the jar were a number of fist-sized rocks. He asked the group, "How many of these rocks do you think we can get inside this jar?" The participants made their guesses. The instructor said, "Let's find out." One by one he began to put as many fist-sized rocks as he could into the jar until the rocks inside were level with the top of the jar.
The instructor then asked, "Is the jar full?" All the participants looked at the jar filled with rocks and said it was.
But then he reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar. The gravel filled the spaces between the big rocks. He grinned and asked again, "Is the jar full?"
The participants were not about to be fooled a second time. They said that the jar was probably not full.
The instructor nodded and said, "Good. You are catching on." He next took out a bucket of sand and poured it into the jar. Slowly the sand filled the gaps between the rocks and gravel. After the sand settled, the instructor once again asked, "Now, is the jar full?"
The audience roared, "No!"
He said, "Good." He was pleased that they understood an important principle. The instructor poured a pitcher of water into the jar. At this point he stopped and asked the group, "What's the point of this?"
Somebody said, "Well, there are always gaps, and if you work at it, you can always fit more into your life."
But the instructor said, "No, the point is this: If I hadn't put in those big rocks first, I would never have gotten them in at all."
What should be your big rocks? God and his house. Put them into your life first.