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Putting God First

Sermon - 9/30/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Haggai 1:1-10

I've been preaching just about every Sunday since the summer of 1984, except for vacations and the like -- 23 years, that's a lot of sermons.  And I'm doing something today that I've never done before:  I'm preaching from the prophet Haggai.

I just wanted to check and see -- how many of you have ever heard a sermon from the prophet Haggai?  That's not fair -- you were in the first service [this morning]!  That's cheating!

How many have a clue as to where to find Haggai in your Bible?  A few, that's good, that's good.  Toward the end of the Hebrew scriptures, third to the last book in the Old Testament.  

Haggai is a very short book -- it's only 2 chapters.  You can read the entire book in the spaces in the worship service this morning.  There are five short oracles, covering just 6 months at the end of 520 before our common era (BCE), before the birth of Christ.  The period of the Babylonian captivity, when the people of God were held captive, came to and end in the year 538 BCE, when Cyrus, the King of Persia, defeated the Babylonians and set free all of the captive peoples.  Not just the people of Judah, but there were other peoples as well.

For the next 18 years, those returning exiles that went back to their homes in and around Jerusalem, struggled to rebuild their homes and their cities.  A task that turned out to be exceedingly difficult given the ruined state of the land and the economy.  As well as the resistance of all of those who had occupied the land in those 50-60 years in the meantime, and did not welcome the exiles coming home.  It's a very common theme we see acted out, even today, not only in the Middle East but elsewhere as we deal with the problems of displaced populations.

According to the book of Ezra, another one of those books that we don't read too often or that I preach on very often, the attempt to rebuild the destroyed temple in those first couple of decades all came to naught.  

And so enter, then, the prophet Haggai, when Darius is now the King of Persia, continuing some of the benevolent practices of his predecessor, Cyrus.  Zerubbabel is the grandson of the last descendent of David to sit on the throne of Jerusalem.  He is appointed governor of the territory.  And Joshua, who is the grandson of the last High Priest of the Temple, assumes that position in the Temple.

Hear then, this first oracle of the prophet Haggai to the people of Judah who are seeking to rebuild their nation:

In the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest: 2Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lordís house. 3Then the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 4Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins? 5Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. 6You 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 you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.

7 Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. 8Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored, says the Lord. 9You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses. 10Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce.


Before we get to the heart of the matter in this text, I want to take just a moment to consider one of the more difficult aspects that this story raises.  Namely:  does God use droughts and storms to punish people?

Remember hurricane Katrina, when we heard those kinds of claims being made.  That the people of New Orleans in particular were suffering because of the storm -- that was God's punishment upon them for the sins of that city.  If you believe such theological nonsense. . . . I really shouldn't use that kind of language, I should be more precise:  if you believe such theological garbage (I might say theological sewage, but I'm afraid I might get carried away and need a censor for the sermon). . . .

In other words, if Katrina was the work of God, then you have to explain how its victims were not the drug traffickers and sex traffickers, but the elderly, stranded in buses, fleeing the flood.  The ill, abandoned in hospitals to their own fate.  The poor, trapped in attics where they drowned like rats.  

Is that the work of God?

What is becoming quite apparent, I think, especially today as we learn more about climate change and the impact of human activity, is that floods and droughts are more the result of human folly than they are God's acts.

So whether we're talking about weather or football [the Ducks lost to Cal yesterday L], the manipulation of natural occurrences is not the way that God works in our world.  Otherwise, we'd have to conclude that the fumble just before the goal line, on the next to the last play of the game yesterday, was punishment by God upon the Ducks.  Inconceivable!

So regardless of the theological interpretation that the prophet gives to natural events, the hardships encountered by the people of God are symptomatic, for the prophet, of a much greater malaise.  They have put their own prosperity above the house of the Lord.  Their personal comfort before their faith.  Their wants over God's desires.  The result, the prophet says, is you work hard all day and you come up empty.

Does that sound familiar?  The message of Haggai is pretty simple and straightforward.  Life will go better when you put God first.

For Haggai, that meant rebuilding the Temple, thereby demonstrating and giving witness to the faith of the people in God, the redeemer of Israel, for all the world to see.

What does it mean for us today?  Well, as I think about Haggai's message, it would seem that this would be a good time to talk about the need of our stained glass windows, many of which are in serious disrepair and will take quite a bit to fix them up.  Or our organ, that we're told has a short life expectancy -- is on its last legs.  Our basement, that has no handicap accessible restrooms.  Our elevator that is inadequate for modern mechanized wheelchairs, and does not go to the third floor, which means that any child in a wheelchair cannot participate in our Christian Education programs.  

I could point out all of these things, but I don't want to do that this morning J.  I won't call attention to our heating system, that groans like and old person getting out of bed on a cold morning whenever the heat comes on.  Or I won't mention our inefficient aluminum single-pane windows in the office that just suck the heat out of the building as we feel that cold draft coming through.  I won't mention any of that.

As much as I'd like to make this about the needs of this beautiful historical building, one of the last in our city, the crown jewel in many ways (featured in the mural on the back of the City Council chambers), as important as that is, that is not what putting God first is about.

It's not about a building.  It's not about an institution.  It's not about salaries and utilities and all those things so essential to church budgets.  It's about us.  It's about how we live.  It's about what we make a priority in our lives.

A couple of weeks ago I received a little book in the mail, unsolicited.  I usually don't pay attention to such things because typically they come with a letter that reads something like "Pastor, this resource will revolutionize, rejuvenate, and revitalize the ministries of your church, for just $249.  Act now, and we'll throw in completely free, the 10 steps to more effective preaching like St. Peter, written by the apostle himself!".  Where's my checkbook?  Sign me up.

But this one didn't have one of those letters.  So I was curious and took a look at it.  "The Wealth Conundrum" by Ralph Doudera.  It says he's the CEO of a very successful financial management firm.  Has successfully invested hundreds of millions of dollars and he himself has made tens of millions.  I figured this is going to be one of those 'prosperity gospel' books -- you know, follow these simple steps to make you wealthy because God wants you to be like that.  I figured, hey, here's my chance to make some money, you know, for the love of Jesus J.

So I read it.  And it wasn't that kind of book either.  Indeed, to the contrary.  Doudera does write about the basics of financial health and well-being, the importance of avoiding personal debt, budgeting, taking advantage of compound interest, saving, and all of those keys to financial health.  But the heart of the book isn't about obtaining wealth, it's about giving it away.

Doudera was in the midst of building his own personal financial fortune when the 'black Monday' hit in October of 1987.  The stock market crashed.  And although he managed himself to avoid any loss in that (because he saw it coming), he says he lost something much more important to him:  he lost his faith in the market.  And that caused a spiritual crises.  It caused him to go back and to study scripture and to begin this long faith journey.  And he went on a retreat and studied all of the teachings of Jesus about wealth and money and he was surprised to discover that Jesus talks more about money than he does about any other topic.

And he does the unusual things.  Things totally contrary to conventional wisdom.  He gives the money bag to Judas to keep -- a thief.  Does Jesus not know he's a thief?  Or does Jesus know and give it to him anyway?  He praises that woman who wasted a year's worth of wages on expensive perfume poured out at the feet of Jesus.  He holds up as an example the widow who gave her 2 last cents to the Temple treasury, for an institution that didn't need it.  That instead should have been supporting her.  These things don't make sense, he says.

Clearly, money has no influence, no pull over Jesus.  And so Doudera sums up Jesus' teaching on wealth and money in three basic principles:

First of all, comes as no surprise, you have to choose between God and mammon (or wealth).  You can't serve both.  

Secondly, that riches are deceitful.  They never satisfy, they just leave you wanting more.  True happiness comes not from what you keep but from what you give.  In the first service, when Janet [a professional fund-raiser] was talking about how she has discovered that people thank her for asking them to give, a little voice behind me said 'wow!'.  True happiness comes from what we give.

And third, those who hang onto their wealth are rebuked by Jesus.  Such as in that story of the rich man and Lazarus that Dennis read for us.  While those that give it away are rewarded.

And so Doudera's struggles with the meaning of all of this eventually led him to Calcutta to work with Mother Teresa with the destitute and dying.  And he learned from her a key principle that he has sought to apply not only in his personal life but in his business:  that anything that is not given is lost.  Anything that is not given, is lost.

He says permanent assets is that which we give away, because of the treasures we have in God when we do that.  Temporary assets (our stocks, our bonds, our checking accounts, our books, our clothes, our homes), those are just temporary assets.  Where his goal as a financial advisor used to be to make as much money as he could, he says now his goal is to give as much as he can.  He quotes a businessman, Mike Kendrick, who lost a fortune in the stock market crash of 2000, who wrote:  "We never know how long God is going to let us hold on to our resources.  If we sit in fear and hold on, God may say 'You have held it long enough, I am going to give it to somebody who won't hold onto it'.  So seize that opportunity, because God is going to continue to bless those who live with an open hand".

And then, putting his money where his mouth is, Doudera gives not 10%, not 20, not 30, he says he sets his goal every year to give a minimum of 50% of his income away.  Why?  Because, for a very simple financial reason -- IRS has a charitable tax deduction of 50%.  He says if you pay any income tax and you haven't maximized that charitable tax deduction, it's an opportunity that you lose forever, you can't go back and claim it.

Now he does not suggest that everyone follow his example because he realizes that not everyone is in a position to do so.  But he does strongly suggest that everyone follow the Biblical example of a tithe.  He says the Bible teaches that the purpose of tithing is to teach you always to put God first in your lives.  Tithing effects everything else in your life.  Jesus said 'If you are not faithful with money, then God will not bless you with spiritual blessings'.  That indicates that your giving and your spiritual life are very much connected.  Your giving and your spiritual life are very much connected.

And so Doudera concludes:  this simple principle puts God first and squashes the spirit of greed and materialism.  Giving disarms the controlling spirit of mammon.

We are asking you this year, in our campaign, to think seriously about what it means to be a friend of Jesus.  Especially as it relates to your financial support -- not of this institution or this building, but of the ministry God has entrusted to us.

And so, when you get that packet of information, and watch that video of all the wonderful things that are being done here, ask yourself this question:  as you think about what you might give, what estimate you might make, not only for the church but for United Way or whatever the case may be, have you, will you, put God first in your life?

And if so, how will you show it? 


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