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]!
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
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
Hear then, this first oracle of the
prophet Haggai to the people of Judah who are seeking to rebuild their
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
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
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
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?