Vision 2: The Haggai Church
The northern tribe of Israel had been decimated and taken away, never to return from Assyria. Then came the time of judgment for the southern kingdom of Judah. Now Babylon laid siege to the city of Jerusalem until it fell, totally destroyed. Its residents were either killed or taken away and the survivors would remain in captivity for 70 years. All of these events had been foretold by the prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah over the years as the people of Israel continued to descend into greater degrees of rebellion against God.
The book of Ezra begins 70 years after the exile began with the first of three waves returning from Babylon as granted by king Cyrus (Ezra 1). They began, first of all, by reconstructing the altar so the sacrifices to God could begin once again (Ezra 3:1-6). Then they began collecting materials and initiating the laying of the foundation for the temple (Ezra 3:7-13).
Of course, once God’s people begin coming together to do great things they know that they will meet opposition and difficulties. So, Ezra 4 details the opposition research project that Israel’s western neighbors began. The final result of their complaint against the Jews was “Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill” (vs. 24). No counter-letters of protest (king Cyrus himself had given them permission!), no resistance, no push back. They just stopped.
God’s vision, given to the prophet Haggai, among others, was straightforward: “Get back to work!” (Ezra 5:1-2; Haggai 1; my paraphrase). After giving up their vision of rebuilding the temple, God asked them a question: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” (Haggai 1:4).
Overwhelmed by opposition and choosing not to fight the builders had simply stopped working on the temple and started fixing up their own houses. I have often wondered if some of the collected materials dedicated to the temple construction had been taken to make paneling, adding insult to injury. God makes it clear that this lackadaisical attitude toward the vision of rebuilding the temple is the reason why they had been personally unfruitful.
5 Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 6 You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”
The ‘church’ that Haggai encountered was one where the people had concluded that the temple could not be rebuilt. Sure, it would have been nice and we can remember when it’s splendor was known all around the world (Ezra 3:10-14). But, it will be too hard. Let’s just go home and take care of our own stuff. We just got back from exile. We don’t have the heart to face these challengers.
Conflict has a way of causing us to pause. Difficulties often require that we take a moment to consider our options. Sometimes the risks can seem so overwhelming that we just give up. It is a sentiment that is not so much stated in words; it has more to do with actions. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) is great for others to do and it would be nice if we could obey Jesus’ command to “Go!” but….we’ve got our own things to take care of, first.
And so, we get cynical and it is easy to write off the task ahead because it’s too hard. It will upset people. It works for them over there but it won’t work for us here. I’ve got better things to do with my time and money. I’ll just mind my own business. Sentences begin with “I need….” or “I have so much debt that….” or “I can’t….” or, the most defeatist statement of all, “I won’t….”
In the end, the effects of the Ecclesiastes and the Haggai churches look very similar.
THE VISION CURE
The cure is simple but almost impossible when churches get to this point. A Haggai has to come along and help people recall their mission and vision so the Lord can do great things in their midst. For Haggai, the people and the priests became convicted and they chose to “obey the voice of the Lord” (Haggai 1:12). “The Lord is with you” Haggai declared,
So the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God…. (Haggai 1:14).