The biblical story of the exile of the Israelites into Babylon and their eventual return to the Promised Land has always been close to my heart. Why? Because as Paul told Timothy, all the stories written in this Bible were put there for us, as examples, as warnings, for lessons of what happens in our lives… because those people long ago were, really, just like us. Have you ever been in exile? In a way, being in jail is like that. Is there hope?
This is a three-part sermon series I did at Durango Jail in 2015. Today we are going to spend some time on the Books of the Prophet Haggai and the Prophet Zechariah. It is all about the return from the exile.
If you remember the story, the people of God, lost the Promised Land because they stopped serving God and started turning to the false gods, forgetting all the promises, and blaming God when things went wrong. So eventually, the kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians and then later the kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians. You read about that time in the books of Jeremiah and Daniel and Esther. As the Lord had warned them, all the way back in the time of Moses, they all ended up in exile, a God-planned exile of 70 years.
When the end of that time approached, God intervened in the hearts of the Babylonian and Persian kings and that’s how Ezra the Scribe and a group of people under the leadership of Zerubbabel, a descendant of King David, and Joshua son of Jehozadak the high priest, were allowed to return to Jerusalem to start rebuilding the temple. (All scripture quotes are from the NIV)
2 Chronicles 36: 22-23 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing:
“This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:“‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up, and may the Lord their God be with them.’”
You read the beginning of this story in the book of Ezra and what you find is that once the exiles returned to Jerusalem and the surrounding cities, they did rebuild the altar so they could worship God and have the appointed feasts but, after that, instead of immediately starting to rebuild the whole temple, they built houses for themselves (ok, understandable) and then they settled down to live their lives.
In every crisis, there’s eventually a moment of calm; what do I do with it?
Now, if you think about the people, they finally get to go home, right? The young among them were born in the exile, hearing the stories of the Promised Land, filled with the longing that their parents and grandparents had for that home; and here they are finally back… free! No longer under the direct rule of the Persians, no longer having to worry about what laws that foreign King may come up with and how it may affect them. I mean, if you remember the stories of Daniel and Esther you know many of the people in those countries didn’t necessarily love the Jews. Daniel got thrown in the lion’s den. In the time of Esther, Haman the Agagite tried to get all the Jews in the principal cities of Babylon exterminated.
Imagine how you would feel. Free, at last, back home… I don’t have to deal with all that mess anymore; I just get to live my life. Wouldn’t we feel the same way? Don’t we feel the same way after a time of crisis hits our lives, and it is over, whatever that may be? I think every man here understands it better than most because being in a place like this is indeed like being in exile, far from home, from what you long for, far from ‘normal life’. And then one day, God willing, comes freedom.
When the crisis is over our natural reaction is ‘finally now I get my turn again; now I get to decide what to do. And that’s true but, when is it God’s turn? That’s the title of today’s sermon.
Haggai 1:1-4 In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest: This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’” Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”
King Cyrus the Persian gave permission for the people to go back. This is now the time of the next King, King Darius the Mede, his second year. And God says, ‘OK guys, you are back, you settled down; did you forget why you were sent back here in the first place?’
And did you notice who God speaks to first? Zerubbabel, the civic leader of the people and Joshua, the spiritual leader of the people. He sends Haggai to them to tell them, ‘What’s up guys? Isn’t this your job?’ And it is. They were put in positions of leadership so they would lead. We, have been put in position of leadership in our families so we would lead them… in God’s ways! That’s our job. And it even extends from there to our lives as Christians in this world, we have been put here also to be leaders in this world, leaders that point the world to God’s way.
But the responsibility does not all rest on Zerubbabel and Joshua’s shoulders because even if God had not sent a prophet, every person in those cities had been getting a hint for a while now that something was not right:
Haggai 1:5-11 Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 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.”
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 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. “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the olive oil and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands.”
It is something to think about… When we forget about God and settle down to do our thing, we are by definition doing the wrong thing. It may not be an evil thing but the point is that God, the God who sustained us and kept us from falling into despair during all those years of the exile, the God that watched over us even there and then moved the hearts of Kings to set us free, that God has had a perfect plan for me all along. I may have deviated from it, reaped the consequences and got stuck in exile… but that God never changed, and his purpose to bless me never changed. That, he guaranteed. Before the exile he told me for certain:
Jeremiah 29:11 I know the thoughts I have towards you, for your good and not for evil… to give you a hope and a future.
He too has been waiting, holding his breath for the time when freedom will come. And so if we forget about Him, don’t turn to Him and ask Him, ‘OK, please, now, you lead me the right way’, what happens? We do any old thing and again miss out on all he had planned for us. Why is it that we think prosperity is in our hands? Haven’t we lived long enough in the world to know how messed up it is? How powerless we are to change anything in it? And we think we can make it on our own? Really?
And I think it’s interesting the way God says it here in verse 11: You notice He doesn’t say He caused the drought, He says I called for a drought… and the Earth obeyed. He didn’t have to cause a storm, all He had to do was blow, and the Earth got the hint and obeyed.
What is it going to take for me to obey?
Haggai 1:12-15 Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord.
Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people: “I am with you,” declares the Lord. 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, on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of King Darius.
And the message is that if we stop and listen, observe what is going on all around us, and get the hint, we can obey; not because we are afraid of the Lord, but because we are in awe of Him. The God that made the whole universe cares about my life, my personal life… Yes He does. That is why He says here, ‘I AM with you. I care. I care the same way I cared back then when I set you free from the slavery in Egypt. I have never stopped caring. And I AM here right now to help you.’
With his help, we can rebuild.
And the key to success in that rebuilding is to learn the lesson that anything we do with Him is never over. The journey of this life of mine isn’t over until it’s over; and every step that I take in it is a step I want to take with Him. I need to have Him with me there by my side always. Wasn’t that the mistake they made when they first returned? Yes, they knew God set them free and then after they arrived, they forgot… He set them free so they could live free… with Him, in His plan.
When we start rebuilding we need to do it with that attitude. It is He that rebuilds in me, with me. I am not the one making the big plans, I am not the one that has to come up with the grand design. It’s not up to me to decide how big it should be, how wonderful it should be, how glorious this new life is going to be… The Glory is His. Our job is to listen, get a hold of that plan and carry it out with the strength and gifts he has given us. It will be perfectly right for us, and through it we will be able to carry out His purpose in our lives and in our families and in the world around us.
There will be snares: Don’t look back
The most dangerous thing we can do in this rebuilding is compare… Compare the new life He is giving me with the old one. You know, the good old days.
Haggai 2:1-3 On the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Speak to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, to Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people. Ask them, ‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?
That’s the danger of thinking about the good old days.
- God is trying to restore your marriage after a crisis that nearly shattered both your lives and you start complaining because you want it to be just like it was when you were both madly in love.
- Or he is getting you back on your feet, finally a job, a roof over your head, but it’s not like when you were at the top of the ladder, with the Cadillac and the expense account, fancy suits and fancy parties.
- Or He’s giving you a second chance at life, real life, and the devil comes by and whispers in your ear: ‘but you are an old man now…’
Does this new work He is doing in you seem like nothing? Oh, don’t look at it with human eyes. If we do, and listen to the lies of the devil we’ll lose our strength and give up.
Haggai 2:4-9 But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’
“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”
You see what God is saying? When you look at it with your eyes you do not see the whole picture that God has put together.
‘Be strong. Don’t give up. To your eyes it may not seem much. To your eyes it may seem that you lost so much in the exile that you’ll never be worth anything again BUT IN MY EYES, you are precious! You are mine, you are my treasure. I know what I am doing.’
And you saw what He told them: Work! I am with you, and I am working; and what I promised all the way back by Moses, I have not forgotten. I made a plan, the plan promised to Abraham that out of my people would come One to bless all mankind. He is the desired of all nations and He will come.
You work, so that I can do my work through you. And the glory of this new house, the Church, will be greater than anything you could ever remember or conceive. I will bring Peace, the Prince of Peace.’
When is God’s turn? Always is God’s turn, because when He is in control, when things go the way He planned, everything is good for me.
Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
And that’s what we need to hold on to and believe. Because if we don’t, then we will be tempted to second guess ourselves, second guess God, doubt Him, and compare, not only to the good old days but…
- to the neighbor’s life,
- to our fantasies, the life we thought we were supposed to have
And when we do that we are really breaking the last of the Ten Commandments: Thou shall not covet. And that opens the door for the devil to plant the tares and the bitterness.
The second snare: Discontent.
Some of the people in Haggai’s time fell into that trap: Discontent. Why do we have to do all this work? Isn’t it enough that we go to the Temple on the Sabbath? And keep the feasts? Isn’t that enough? But pretty soon discontent turns into hidden sin. We know it. God knows it. So He sends the young man Zechariah to talk to them.
Zechariah 1: 1-6 In the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo: “The LORD was very angry with your forefathers. Therefore tell the people: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the LORD Almighty. Do not be like your forefathers, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the LORD. Where are your forefathers now? And the prophets, do they live forever? But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your forefathers? “Then they repented and said, ‘The LORD Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do.’ “
God is telling them, ‘you already know what the right thing to do is. You already know that all the blessings promised can only be fulfilled in your life, if you Obey. How do you think your fathers ended up in the exile? Don’t make the same mistake.’
And Haggai followed up to prove to them the fallacy of their thinking: that it’s enough to have the Temple, that going to Church on Sundays is enough; that that makes me holy enough…
Haggai 2:10-14 On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Haggai: “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Ask the priests what the law says: If someone carries consecrated meat in the fold of their garment, and that fold touches some bread or stew, some wine, olive oil or other food, does it become holy?’”
The priests answered, “No.”
Then Haggai said, “If a person defiled by contact with a dead body touches one of these things, does it become defiled?”
“Yes,” the priests replied, “it becomes defiled.”
Then Haggai said, “‘So it is with this people and this nation in my sight,’ declares the Lord. ‘Whatever they do and whatever they offer there is defiled.
Our attitude matters. Just going through the motions to “satisfy God” is not what life is about. He gave everything for us: “For God so loved the world…” 100%, nothing held back, right? Who did He do all this for? Didn’t He do it for me? Aren’t I His pearl of great price? Then shouldn’t we enter into this relationship also 100%?
We have to do the work, AND work not to fall into the trap of discontent, or laziness or bitterness. But the good news is that God promised all along to be with us, from the very beginning. Remember that: I AM with you.
And God is not afraid to prove Himself
Haggai 2:15-19 “‘Now give careful thought to this from this day on – consider how things were before one stone was laid on another in the Lord’s temple. When anyone came to a heap of twenty measures, there were only ten. When anyone went to a wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were only twenty. I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew and hail, yet you did not return to me,’ declares the Lord. ‘From this day on, from this twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, give careful thought to the day when the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid. Give careful thought: Is there yet any seed left in the barn? Until now, the vine and the fig tree, the pomegranate and the olive tree have not borne fruit.
“‘From this day on I will bless you.’”
We all go through times of exile
So, when the exile is over, and we finally come back home, what is the first thing He calls us to do? Rebuild the House of God. What does that mean for us today?
Rebuild the House of God:
- This talks about my personal dedication to Him. I make a purposeful decision to work to restore my relationship with Him
- What else happened in the House of God: Community under His leadership. We work to rebuild our family’s relationship and dedication to God. Read the Bible to your kids, go to Church together, make the right choices together.
- And of course: Worship. This means He is King indeed. God comes first.
If we do this as soon as we come out of the exile, God has promised He will gives us the strength and He will add the rest.
Jesus said it: Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.