What’s wrong with having a normal life? If you belong to God, everything!
That was the tough message proclaimed by the prophet Haggai to a bunch of bedraggled Jews struggling to survive in the ruins of Jerusalem around 519 B.C.. Of course, if you took God out of the picture, no one could blame them for wanting a normal life. Their hardship was real enough. By the time Haggai wrote, they had already faced eighteen long years of harrassment, intimidation, frustration and legal set-backs in the fight to rebuild their temple. Their enemies were not averse to sending assassins and spies to terrify them. Fear had crept in, unpacked and continually ate away at their stores of resolve. And to top things off, compared to past works of God, what they were building looked terribly small and weak. Day in and day out they were pouring out their lives…and for what? That was the question that screamed to be answered with bracing truth.
The truth was God was not only in the picture, He was the master artist. They owed everything to Him. Not only had He had made them His covenant community—a people for his own possession and purposes, and His own special treasure, but he had forgiven them appalling sins. That they were living in Jerusalem at all was a miracle of grace. That God had moved the heart of the most powerful man on earth to permit them to return to their land and have a fresh start was a testimony to God’s enduring love. They didn’t deserve to exist, let alone to be released from the captivity to which their idolatry had sentenced them, and yet there they were! And God had not done all of this just so they could be normal!
Normal was far below what God wanted for them! God had an amazing dream for them. He wanted to give them the greatest treasure possible: Himself! And to fulfill that desire, His immediate task for them was a construction project. They were to rebuild the house where He had chosen for His glory to dwell. That temple would become the heart of their fellowship with Him and would continue to point towards His future provision for them in Christ. It would sing with every stone, “I AM your Saving God!”
But sadly, somehow sin had crept in and they began seeing this calling as a curse instead of a joyous privilege. They looked at the people around them who seemed to have easier lives and one by one, they convinced themselves that the smartest thing for them would be to take a break from God’s work indefinitely. After all, God surely wouldn’t want them to suffer, would He?
It must have been with a sigh of relief that they dropped their tools and embraced normal life, turning their backs on the embarrassing construction site with all of its humiliation and heartbreak. They took the talents and energy God had given them to build for Him, and began making their own homes a little more comfortable, actually expecting to find a success and satisfaction in those things that had eluded them in God’s work.
Meanwhile, anyone passing by the abandoned temple construction site would have been forced to conclude that the God of Israel wasn’t much worth serving! But if their consciences bothered them about the conclusions the pagans were drawing or how God felt about it, they didn’t have much time to dwell on it. They were too busy trying to make ends meet. And somehow no matter what they pursued in their own personal lives, the sense of blessing and fulfillment they were seeking slipped through their fingers.
God let this state of affairs go on for long enough to prove a point He wanted to make. Then the prophet Haggai began to feel the burning words of a holy God pressing upon his consciousness. Urgently, he found the leaders, Joshua and Zerubbabel and indignantly charged, “These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD!”
God knew the lies that they had believed. The people’s excuse for walking away was that all the obstacles proved it couldn’t be God’s time to build. They thought God couldn’t expect them to risk so much just for His name to be exalted, and His glory to be seen! But God’s answer continued to pour out through Haggai’s lips.
Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now therefore, thus says the LORD of Hosts: “Consider your ways!
You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes…
…You looked for much, and behold, it came to little, And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house…”
With these words, God exposes not only their lame excuses and their sinful priorities, but also their unmet longings and their frustrated hopes. He lays them bare. He says, “You looked for “much” in your life of indifference to my kingdom. But you never got what you were looking for. You know why? I was blowing it all away!”
God, through Haggai is saying, “I will fight for my own glory because I take pleasure in it. Furthermore, I love you too much to let you find happiness in something so far below my joy in building my house. And finally, I love the people that I will one day redeem too much to let my plans be defeated by your indifference. ”
So God confronts them with their sin. And then He tells them what repentance would look like:
Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house…
It’s a call to turn away from the normal life any pagan could have, and come back to a life lived with Him. That life might include hardship and humiliation and backbreaking labor, true enough. But in the next breath God reveals what makes it all worth it and what should provide all the motivation that any of us who belongs to God should ever need:
“That I may take pleasure in it and be glorified!
Are you building?
“The kingdom of God is a big thing, and nothing associated with it can ever be insignificant. To be caught up in its coming, to be doing the work of the kindom, here and now, however apparently mundane that work might appear to be, is an awesome privilege.”*
*Barry G. Webb, The Message of Zechariah, Intervarsity Press, 2003, p. 37