Haggai was not a book of the Bible that got much air-time in my teenage years. I knew the stories of the Pentateuch, delighted in the daring narratives of Joshua, Judges and Ruth, and was well-formed by a healthy dose of the gospels through Sunday School.
But in the middle of the Bible lurked an array of awkwardly-named books that never drew me in. Full of poetry and confusing names—they weren’t as appealing as hearing about the early Church in Acts, or David’s exploits in Samuel’s books. I stayed away—until, one day while youth pastoring I was drawn to the book of Haggai.
What was this short little book? What was it about?
As I read through the 926 words of Haggai, I was struck by its relevancy to the Church today, and the powerful prophetic partnership God speaks to his people. This book offers a fresh perspective on a life engaged with leading faithfully and is a fantastic place for church leaders, pastors and elders to rest in as the world sets New Year’s resolutions.
Haggai comes at a time when the leaders of Israel were feeling stuck. 18 years earlier, they had been overjoyed by the command of the new king Cyrus telling them they could leave Babylon, return to Judah and rebuild the destroyed temple! This was the hand of God at work! Seemingly overnight this freedom and opportunity had been granted them, with Cyrus even offering to provide the resources needed for the rebuild.
We can imagine the momentum and excitement in the air. Newness and potential, enthusiasm and drive! The pilgrims must have entered Jerusalem with songs of praise on their lips, and a resolute drive to make the most of this opportunity ahead of them.
But then, we read, that the work faltered. The plans were drawn, but the energy dried up. Rebuilding the temple was too hard a job, and gradually the people began to focus on renovating their own homes. Soon, they were back in the all-too-familiar grind of chasing the bigger house and keeping up with the neighbours—while the call on their community was long forgotten.
Instead of pursuing the momentum of God, they were stuck in maintaining the present.
Then God spoke, through the words of Haggai. As God speaks, we see a picture of how God can initiate powerful community change; through courageous honesty in the present, reflection on the past, and a powerful call to the future.
2 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’”
3 Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: 4 “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”
Instead of launching off into the future, God begins his call in the present. Within these two verses, God is inviting his people to a courageously honest assessment of how they are currently living.
God has heard what the people are saying, after 18 years of lethargy. In their minds the time has still not come for change and rebuilding. It will be sometime in the future, but for now it is too hard. These are the words and attitudes of the people in the present.
And then God asks a penetrating question that invites his people to reflect on their present reality.
“Is it time for you to be investing in your own homes, while mine remains a ruin?”
This question is one that hangs in the air, and invites each of the Israelites to reflect on where they currently are. Where are their hearts? Where are their energies going? Where are their passions currently lying?
Leadership experts often state that you cannot lead into the future if you don’t know where you currently are. God starts with the here-and-now, encouraging the Israelites to see things as they really are.
Perhaps God whispers this same question to our hearts?
Do you know—as a church family—where your church currently is?
Are you courageous enough to reflect on the energy, passion, beliefs and behaviours that are the expression of where you are in 2018?
Are you willing to invite the Spirit to guide you to look at the real state of your church heart? To celebrate the good, and to grieve the bad?
This may involve spending an hour as a group of leaders, prayerfully examining the current health of your church. It may involve an hour with you, the Word and a notebook. It might involve grabbing coffee with members of your church and inviting them to share where they see your church at in 2018.
Regardless, change often begins with a courageous honesty of the current state. And, as we see, God then takes us back, before we go forward.
After this sobering question, God offers a powerful reflection to the people of Israel.
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.”
I love this refrain in Haggai: “Give careful thought to your ways.” God invites all of Israel to move from the present to the past. What is it that has led you to this present reality? How has life been… really?
In God’s prophetic power he reflects with the Israelites and identifies a lack of flourishing in their lives. They have invested much energy but received little for their hard-work. Their lives were characterised by a profound discontentment and a sense of restriction on what they were called to be.
In short, their lives were not as fulfilled as they imagined they could be.
Their past 18 years were shaped by lack, despite their attempts to maximise. And instead of mindlessly continuing on in the same pattern, God urges them to reflect on where they have come from; suggesting that new actions will bring about new life.
Throughout the Scriptures, we see God continuing to remind His people to reflect on their choices and decisions. He tells the Israelites in Deuteronomy to retell their story to the priests as they celebrate the first-fruits of the land. He urges the parents to tell the story to their children when they inquire as to why they are engaging in these religious practices. He warned leaders through Isaiah that they had been foolish by not reflecting—and been leading blindly.
As 2018 concludes, I encourage you to invest time in reflecting on the year that has been.
What have been the stories that you’ve celebrated?
How have things moved from 2017?
What have been the transformational stories, and the surprises in following Jesus?
Where have the disappointments been?
What changes had you hoped for but remain unchanged?
Where has been the lack and the heart-break? What led to these moments?
Haggai encourages us to look at where we are, and where we have come from. However, God does not stop there; but then beckons us to gaze into the future with him.
A Powerful Call
“This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 8 Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the Lord.”
God doesn’t want his people to be stuck in a navel-gazing exercise. After courageously examining their present and identifying how they have journeyed to this place, God urges them to new behaviours.
Simply put, if the Israelites want their future to change, they need to begin new actions.
If their current reality is defined by a sense of lack and wrong priorities - that will not change with inaction. Inaction has shaped their past 18 years - they need a refreshing newness to enter into the future.
God has painted a picture of what the new future would look like for Israel; a finished temple that God delights in. But to do this requires work; going into the mountains, and bringing back timber, and building the house. This is the vision that is required for the change to happen.
What do you want to be celebrating in a year’s time, at Christmas 2019? What do you sense God is calling your church to adventure and move towards out of the certainty and comfort of 2018, and towards something new for the future?
What steps will you take to move towards this future?
Where do you need to go?
Where do you need to invest resources?
What do you need to learn together?
What do you need to try? How will you experiment and learn as you progress?
For 18 years the temple had languished. After this prophetic word from God, a powerful collaboration with the prophet Zechariah, and leadership from Zerubbabel and Joshua, the community launched into the temple rebuild with vigour.
Hard work? You bet. Five years of building—alongside maintaining their own livelihood—culminated with the rededication of the temple. Yet this was the change that God was calling them to, and that their community needed.
As 2018 concludes, what is God calling you and your church to?
As leaders, dedicate time to prayer, to courageously assessing the present, reflecting deeply on what has led to this, and commit to hearing what God may be calling you forward to in 2019.
By CCCNZ Coaching Coordinator Jeremy Suisted