Futility and the Future Kingdom (Dr. Trey Benfield)

Scripture Readings:

Deuteronomy 28:36-40
Matthew 6:19-21
Haggai 1:5-11

Last week we began our study of the book of Haggai.  To recap, Haggai was a prophet who ministered to the small group of Jews who had returned Jerusalem after Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians 70 years earlier.  Much of the leadership and nobility had been taken captive and was living in Babylon to sever their link with their land making revolt less likely.  The Babylonian empire had since fallen to the Persians who controlled their empire by giving local populations more autonomy.  The great Persian king Cyrus encouraged tolerance throughout his empire and these policies were carried on by his later successor King Darius.  

At the time of Haggai, Israel was but a shadow of what it was and even its continued existence was precarious at best.  The people awaited God to restore the kingdom to a much greater glory than was hoped, but as of now those hopes and dreams seemed quite distance.  As a result the people began concentrating on rebuilding and working to improve their situation in the midst of their challenging environment.  Haggai’s message is a call to focus on rebuilding the temple instead.  

Last week, I drew a parallel between the time period that Haggai takes place and our own.  We call the time period of Haggai the post-exilic period.  The captives had returned to Israel but the glorious restoration that was promised was no where to be seen.  In a similar way we also live between two ages.  Christ has won a victory on the cross and His resurrection proves that death has been defeated.  As a result the kingdom of God has broken into our world.  However, we still wait for the full restoration and the glorious future the prophets and Jesus promised.  Because Haggai’s audience and we in the present church live in a time between promise and cold reality, we can find relevance in Haggai’s teachings to the church’s present situation.  

Today’s passage lays out Haggai’s argument for why the people should rebuild the temple.  We will learn that Haggai’s message is incredibly successful.  Unlike most prophets in the history of Israel, Haggai was actually able to persuade the people of Israel to do as God commanded.  One technique Haggai uses to persuade the people is by asking questions.  Twice in chapter 1, in verse 4 and in verse 7, Haggai asks the people to, “consider your ways.”   Haggai will continue this practice of posing questions to the people in chapter 2.     

A question is very engaging way to deal with an audience.  Instead of issuing pronouncements, Haggai draws the people into a discussion.  This allows the audience to reflect and even to help in formulating the answer.  So let’s delve into this question a bit and see what the words consider your ways mean.

The word consider is literally “set your heart.”  It means to understand, to see, to know, to give careful thought to their circumstances and experience.  To disengage from the day to day concerns of their lives and to view them objectively as an outsider.  We would think of this as engaging in self reflection or introspection.    

The term ways is a common word used for a path or a road.  We often think of ways in a more abstract way, but it is actually very concrete concept referring to a literal street.  By making the word “way” too abstract we sometimes a miss a very important point and that is that the word way implies a destination, an end, a goal.  So the people are asked not just to judge their actions but also what their actions are achieving, what they are leading to, and where they are going?  To what end is their current behavior leading them toward?  So the question “consider your ways” is not only about what the people are presently doing but goes beyond this asking them what are they really aiming for.

Haggai asks this question because the people have returned to the land and begun to build their houses but have not rebuilt the temple.  Last week I made the point that this was not because the people were selfish but because they felt the time was not appropriate.  God had promised a glorious future in which Israel would be remade and restored more prosperous and powerful than ever.  This vision of the future would include their freedom from foreign dominion and God Himself return to rule His kingdom.  The people saw none of these signs - they were few, struggling, and still under the rule of Persia and so they concluded the time was not right to rebuild the temple since God’s presence seemed more a distant promise than a reality. 

So these true believers who left Babylon, which for many of them was the only world they knew, came to Jerusalem and seeing the kingdom and restoration as something distant did what we would probably do - they got on with their lives building their house and going to their jobs.  They would even gather to worship at the site of the temple.  We know from Ezra that the altar had been rebuilt and sacrifices were offered there.  The people continued to keep the old feasts and so it was not like they had abandoned their faith.  What they had done was failed to move forward, to work toward the advancement of the kingdom.  The building of the temple as a nexus between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the earth, the place where the spirit of God resided, would be a key step in the progress of the kingdom.  

So the issue that Haggai calls out the people for is not as simple as their priorities are out of whack as we talked about last week. Nor is the issue that the people have forgotten God and have become secular materialists.  Haggai’s question is an attempt to rouse the people to remind them their purpose is greater than simple existence even if it is existence in the land promised to their fathers.  What Haggai wants them to do is see beyond their limitations to their true calling and their true purpose.

A few months ago when I preached on Jonah I made the point that part of God’s teaching to Jonah and therefore to us is to imagine a greater world.  One of the big points of the book of Jonah is for the Israelites and for us in the church is to expand our imaginations.  To imagine a world where even the violent and evil culture of the Assyrians could be reconciled to God.  Since then I have come across an Old Testament theologian named Walter Brueggemann who has written that the purpose and message not just of the prophet Jonah but all the prophets is to expand the imagination of the people.  Brueggemann argues that “the task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”  

A prophet’s job is to challenge the commonly held notions of what it means to be human.  By asking the question consider your ways, Haggai challenges their dominant views of what their lives are about.  Haggai wants them to understand that their return is not about simply existing in the land again while waiting for God to act.   

Haggai then fleshes this out by showing the people where there current actions are leading them.  You sow much, but harvest little.  You eat, but you never have enough, you drink but never have your fill.  You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm.  And he who earns wages does so to put the into a bag with holes.  God wants the people to understand that their current actions are leading only to frustration.  They are on the wrong road.  Again think of this concretely - if you take I-40 West you will not end up in Wilmington but Asheville.  If you are not building the kingdom of God then you will not end up with restoration but continue in the exile.  

So what does this mean for us in the church living on the other side of the resurrection where we are told restoration has begun?  It is tempting to read these words of sowing much and reaping little, of drinking and never having your fill, of clothing and never being warm and draw the conclusion that we need to have our priorities in line and if so we will experience abundance and prosperity.  This is certainly the lesson many have drawn from this text and then we create a prosperity gospel where people who follow God are blessed.  This is an easy conclusion but I think experience would show this to be a false one.  We can all recall examples of people who strive to follow God but still suffer and probably generate even more examples of people who are abundantly rich and yet live with no thought to God or His kingdom.   

To escape this line of thought, we often say that this thinking works in general but of course there are exceptions because the world is fallen and imperfect.   Another trick we use is to spiritualize the logic.  Perhaps if our priorities were correct we will reap spiritual abundance which is way better than simple material pleasures.  However, I want to suggest an alternate solution to this question.

You see Haggai is not generating his argument about sowing much and reaping little out of thin air.  This is not an original thought.  Like most prophets, Haggai is borrowing from prior scripture to make his point.  God had made a covenant or agreement with His people that they would inhabit the land of Israel and if they were loyal to Him and acted like His people by obeying his laws they would receive blessing but if they turned to other gods and disobeyed His laws they would suffer the curses of the covenant.  Throughout Israelite history, it was the responsibility of the prophet to remind the people of the terms of the covenant and then prosecute the people similar to a lawyer when they had violated the terms of the covenant. 

Here Haggai is actually quoting these words from Deuteronomy 28.  Many of the prophets quoted this passage.  In fact you can go to Micah 6:14-15 you  read almost the exact same words.  Deuteronomy 28 is a record of the curses that will befall Israel if they do not obey the voice of the Lord and are not careful to do all His commandments and statutes.  Among the curses is that the people will be taken captive by another nation which had just happened.  The people were also told that they would carry much seed into the field but gather little.  

The reason I point this out is that the people that Haggai is preaching to are operating under the Mosaic covenant.  So the consequences of the peoples actions are applicable to them as they were under its terms.  They knew this full well since they had experienced full force the consequences under the Babylonian conquest.  We however are no longer under the Mosaic covenant because it has been replaced by the new covenant that began with Christ’s death and resurrection.  The new covenant was promised in Jeremiah and Ezekiel and even back in Deuteronomy and the terms of the new covenant are different.  The new covenant is not like the Mosaic covenant.  The new covenant says that the law is within us and written on our hearts.  Our sins are forgiven and our sin is remembered no more.  Because of Christ, the Spirit is working within us to causing us to walk in God’s way and allowing us to obey God’s rule.  

We are freed from these curses and so we cannot take this passage and draw the conclusion that if our priorities are in line with God’s we will be prosperous.  We also are freed from the fear that when our priorities are out of line that we will suffer these curses.  As Paul tells the Philippians, He who began a good work in us will bring it to completion on the day of the Lord.  So the story for us is different, but that does not mean everything is perfect yet.

We still live in a fallen world.  As a result of the fall of Adam, the world we live in is broken.  Here is how it is described in Genesis, “Cursed is the ground because of you, in your pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life, thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the plants of the field by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return the ground.”  As a result, all our work is ultimately frustrated.  

However, we have hope of a better way because Jesus’s death and resurrection brings to us the kingdom of heaven.  The kingdom of heaven is the restoration that the people looked for and were waiting for and that Jesus tell us is here.  The kingdom of heaven is the alternative to this world of frustration that the prophets were pointing to and that Haggai is urging the people to begin building.  The world, where if we have the imagination to contemplate it, will make nonsense of the consciousness and perception of our culture and our way of life.

So when Jesus describes the radical nature of this world in the sermon on the mount, He pushes the imagination of the people to consider a world where the poor and spirit, the mournful, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted are the ones who are blessed rather than the rich and the powerful.  In this world the old ways no longer make sense.  The destination has changed, we are on a different road.  So Jesus teaches do not lay yourselves treasures on earth.  Not simply because it means our priorities are out of line, but because it no longer makes sense.  In this world moth and rust destroys them and thieves steal them.  Laying up treasures on earth is subject to frustration because this world is fallen.  Instead consider the kingdom of heaven, the alternate world, the real world, the world initiated by the death and resurrection of Christ, the future where there is hope.  

So the message from Haggai still remains to consider our ways.  As individuals and as a community of believers we need to be introspective and reflective.  We need to understand that with the death and resurrection of Christ something new has broken into our world.  We need to understand that there is an alternative to the consciousness and perception of the world that surrounds us.  This will require us to step outside our lives of work and play and to set our hearts upon our path to contemplate where our lifestyles, choices, and actions will lead us.  This will require us to use our imagination to picture the kingdom of heaven that Christ declares has come upon us.  

We need to consider our ways not in a moralistic sense of right and wrong.  We need to consider our ways in light of what destination they are leading us toward.  Are our actions leading to a place that will end only in frustration?  Are we simply providing treasures for moths and rust to destroy and thieves to steal?  Are we simply existing in our paneled houses without thought to the kingdom of heaven that is the only hope for the frustration of this present world?  Our actions should instead be directed to the future, to the world that is coming to pass.  To do this will require us to consider our ways and us our imagination and our creativity.  To ask the question what would the world look like if God were in charge.  Resting in the knowledge that the victory has been won and the proof of this world is in the resurrection of Christ.   A new world has begun and it is our task to demonstrate for the people in our lives what that new world looks like to give them a taste of the glorious vision of the wonderful future God is bringing in through His church.