PUT YOUR TALENTS TO WORK IN GOD’S TEMPLE
Text: Haggai 1:1-8
The second in a three-part stewardship series
How many projects have you started, but never quite finished? You start to remodel the kitchen, and five months later, you’re still not done. You start to redesign your closet for more storage and better use of space, but it takes half a year before the project is done. In my case, I started organizing a large box full of family pictures over a year ago. Half of the pictures are organized, and the other half are on a table in the parsonage dining room still waiting to be fully organized.
In the reading that today’s sermon is based on, the ancient people of Judah had a project to complete. They had returned to their homeland around 520 B.C. after a 70-year exile to another nation. They had major rebuilding projects to complete–rebuilding their homes, rebuilding the city walls, and especially rebuilding the temple of God. And the most important project of all, the temple rebuilding project, languished. The homes of the residents were repaired and restored while the house of God remained in ruins. Although the incident is ancient, the situation has something to say to us in week two of our stewardship program.
In one of the other Scripture readings heard earlier in this service, you heard how the ancient Israelites put their talents to work to build the tabernacle. The tabernacle was the traveling worship structure Israel used during their years of wandering in the desert. And in that situation, the people couldn’t do enough. “The skilled craftsmen who were doing all the work on the sanctuary left their work and said to Moses, ‘The people are bringing more than enough for doing the work the LORD commanded to be done'” (Exodus 26:4-5). What a stark contrast to the attitude Haggai describes! God wanted them to put their talents to work in his temple, but the people had other ideas. “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘These people say, “The time has not yet come for the LORD’s house to be built.”‘” And that was the great irony of the situation. When the people said that it wasn’t time to rebuild the temple, they were acknowledging that it was their job to rebuild it. Their excuses exposed their misplaced priorities.
If their priorities were not focused on restoring the temple, then where were their priorities? “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?'” The people may not have been honest about the situation, but God was brutally honest. Here they were, living in their finished, furnished, and enclosed homes, yet the temple of God Almighty was a dried up rubble heap! When it came to offering their talents for the temple, the temple took second place.
Does this sound familiar? Well-manicured lawns in front of homes while the church grounds look almost abandoned. Living rooms that look spic and span for company, while the church sanctuary has cobwebs and unvacuumed floors that would embarrass us if this were our own home. No trouble funding home improvements, but big trouble finding bodies for workdays. The 2,500 years between us now and the incident in Haggai’s book do not separate us from the situation one bit.
But the situation in Haggai’s day was even more complicated than an unfinished place of worship. The misplaced priorities of the people only led them to feel greater emptiness and further discontentment. “Now this is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but have 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.'”
Many people have observed that we live in a materialistic world today. Enough is never enough. More than enough is never enough! Yesterday’s luxury is today’s necessity and tomorrow’s old news. But this is nothing new. This was the state of affairs in Judah 2,500 years ago. It’s not as if the people of Judah didn’t have what they need. They could live life reasonably well after the return from exile. But instead of seeking after the Lord’s house, they were only concerned with their own. Instead of looking to the Lord’s will, they were only concerned with their own. As a result, they were never really satisfied.
How should God have dealt with ancient Judah, so mired in me-centered materialism? Perhaps we should simultaneously ask the more searching question: How should God deal with us for those all too frequent times when the concerns of his house are at the absolute bottom of our priority list? How does God deal with people whose spiritual house is not in order because they are more concerned about their own house than God’s house?
Would God turn his back on Judah? Would he give up and say, “After 70 years in exile, you think you would have learned your lesson, but apparently you didn’t. I’m starting over with a new nation. Go chase camels!”
Would God start bossing Judah around? Would he just concern himself with getting the job done right? “Since you fellows won’t do it on your own, I’m going to poke and prod you until you get that temple built like it’s supposed to be!”
Would God just “let ‘em have it”? Would his justice and anger finally take over and give them the hellish rejection that they and their forefathers had invoked time and again because of their constant sinful rebellious ways?
The answer was not to ignore Judah or boss them around or just “let ‘em have it.” The answer was none of those things because the problem wasn’t just a lack of outward behavior. In verse five and again in verse seven, God says, “Give careful thought to your ways.” The Hebrew text literally says, “Set your hearts to your ways.” In the Hebrew language, the heart was thought to be the place where you did your careful and serious thinking. God wanted their hearts to do some careful and serious thinking. In what direction were they heading? God saw what they were ignoring. He saw the greed that put their homes above God’s house. He saw the selfishness that put their wants before God’s commands. He saw the sin that sent them into exile once and should have sent them to hell forever. And God sees our greed and selfishness and sin as much as Judah’s, and we deserve the same earthly and eternal fate that they did.
God wanted their hearts to do some serious thinking. And a part of that serious thinking should have been concerned about the One who was talking to them. Several times in this section, God calls himself, “The LORD Almighty,” sometimes translated, “The LORD of hosts.” And in comparison to the sin and selfishness of Judah, God’s name was a breath of fresh air. Every time you see the all upper-case “LORD” in our (NIV) translation, the original word that is used is the special name for God often called Jehovah or Yahweh. It’s a unique name that God specifically defined with these words: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7). Every time God’s people heard that name, it pointed to his forgiving heart and his redeeming love. And on top of that name, Haggai adds that he is the “LORD Almighty.” So when Judah heard this name for God in the midst of this criticism from God, they still heard about a God who loved them freely and faithfully and who has all power and might under his control.
What greater thought could come to mind when we hear God’s name? The Lord Almighty is the compassionate and gracious God who saw our sin and determined to take it away in his Son. The Lord Almighty is our patient and loving God who so loved you and me and the world that he sent his one and only Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins and the sins of the world. The Lord Almighty is our faithful and forgiving God who has wiped our record clean from sin’s stains because of the blood Jesus shed for us on the cross. The Lord Almighty is the powerful and victorious God who sent his Son to defeat death and by his resurrection open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
That beautiful name of God was present even when he condemned Judah for failing to put their talents to use in his temple. And that beautiful name of God was still present when God called them once more to put their talents to use in his temple. “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways. 8 Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,’ says the LORD.”
Do you know what happened? After dragging their feet for so long, and after God took them to task for withholding their talents from his temple, Judah finally turned things around. A few verses after our reading, Haggai recorded this good news: “So the LORD stirred up … the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the LORD Almighty, their God.” They put their talents to work in God’s temple, and in time the temple was finally rebuilt.
Friends, there’s no question that we need your talents to be put to use in this temple, this house of God. There are many, many unmet needs right now. There are many, many tasks that need someone’s attention and time. Just one walk through the property and the building and you can see how much needs attention. And if we’re honest, it is all too easy to see these needs but assume that it’s someone else’s job to take care of it.
I’d like us to take a different approach. I’d like you to set your hearts and minds on God’s grace and promises. I’d like you to remember all that the “LORD Almighty” has done for you. Remember your baptismal adoption. Remember God’s repeated promises of forgiveness and mercy because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Remember the tangible way God comforts and forgives you in his Supper. Remember that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Remember all these connections we have to the mercy and grace of God, and keep those in mind when God calls you to put your talents to work in his temple. After all, when our talents are put to work in the church, it’s not a chore. It’s an honor. It’s a honor to sit around a little table with some kindergarden Sunday School kids and see God nurture their faith through the message you share with them. It’s an honor for God to use your best efforts and ideas for reaching out with our school so that others can come into contact with the gospel. It’s an honor to use your hands to beautify these grounds so that people sense the unspoken but visual message that what this church is all about is important. It’s an honor when God calls us in so many different avenues to put our talents to work in his temple. The only question is: How will we answer his call? Amen.