10/30/22 “First Things First”

Haggai 1:1-15a

One advantage to being called into ministry later in life is that I listened to a lot of sermons while sitting in the pews before I ever preached one while standing in front them. As I read our passage from Haggai this week, I remembered a line I heard in a sermon many years ago. The preacher summed up his sermon with this quote: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

This quote is attributed to business expert Stephen Covey. He was a co-founder of the Franklin Covey Co., which coaches companies and organizations in leadership and management. Covey is probably most famous for his best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I took a look at that book as I tried to track down my pastor’s memorable quote. I didn’t find it there, but I did find something very interesting in the chapter about Habit #3. It’s titled “Put First Things First.”

Before explaining how to develop Habit 3, Covey traced how thinking about time management has evolved over the years. Covey calls these the “generations” of time management. He explained that the first generation was simply keeping to-do lists and checklists. The second generation added calendars and appointment books which looked ahead to what needed to be done in the future.

When Covey’s book was published in 1989, he placed us in the third generation. The third generation of time management takes into account three more ideas—setting priorities, clarifying values, and considering the worth of activities based on their relationship to those values. But at that time, a fourth generation was also beginning to grow. In Covey’s words, the fourth generation recognizes that “the challenge is not to manage time but to manage ourselves…Rather than focusing on things and time, the fourth generation focuses on preserving and enhancing relationships as well as accomplishing results.”

The prophet Haggai was the ancient equivalent of Stephen Covey for the Jewish people. They needed guidance, not in time management, but in how to manage themselves. They had mixed up their priorities. They had ignored what should have been their most basic values. They had focused their efforts on activities that weren’t worthy of those values. This led to a disintegration of the most important relationship of all—their relationship with God. God spoke through Haggai to help them manage their lives better. They needed to remember to put first things first—to keep the main thing the main thing. And, the first thing—the main thing—is devotion to God.

Haggai is another one of the so-called twelve “minor prophets”—those prophets whose books are shorter. Haggai has only two chapters, and we’re going to take a look at the entire book over the next three weeks. We know very little about Haggai. We don’t have any information about the family he came from, or how old he was when God’s word came to him. We don’t know whether he was among the exiles who returned to Jerusalem from Babylon or had remined in Judah the whole time. We do know that he lived and worked in Judah, and we know when he worked; the dates of his prophecies are included in the book itself.

The prophet Ezra tells us that Haggai was a contemporary of Zechariah. They both preached to the people who had returned from decades of exile in a foreign country. At God’s command, the exiles had made lives for themselves in Babylon—getting married, building homes, having children and grandchildren, and working for the good of the community they found themselves in. But things changed in 539 BC when Babylon fell to Persia and Cyrus took over as king. Cyrus decreed that the temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt and that all of the temple goods that had been taken by the Babylonians should be returned. Any exile who wanted to go back to Judah were free to go.

Some stayed behind, but around 50,000 people decided to return. When they arrived, they found a city in ruins. Their efforts to rebuild the temple were challenged by the peoples in the surrounding areas. Work on the temple stalled. Eighteen years pass. Through Haggai, God observes that “these people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.”

There are lots of theories about why the people’s enthusiasm for rebuilding the temple petered out. Some say that the demands of trying to build new lives amidst the destruction absorbed all their energies and resources. The economy was in distress, so obtaining building materials may have been difficult. Others speculate that the people had a theological reason for waiting: they believed that rebuilding the temple should wait until there were signs that the age of the Messiah had begun and all the exiles had returned.

There may have been political reasons: in that time, temples were built by order of the king. Judah was a political dependent of Persia, and Zerubbabel, while a descendent of David, wasn’t a king but merely an inferior appointee of the Persian ruler. King Cyrus, the former Persian king, had authorized rebuilding the temple, but that was a long time ago, and objections to the project by the residents of the land around them had made the returning exiles afraid to proceed.

Finally, the people may simply have become discouraged. A drought had ruined the production of grain, wine, and oil. More than that, it had also made all human and animal labor unproductive. This may have prolonged their fears that the punishment of the exile wasn’t really over, and that God had abandoned them.

Any or all of these reasons could have led to the sorry state of the temple. But, through Haggai, God identifies the real culprit. The people have mixed up their priorities. Instead of making their devotion to God the main thing in their lives, they’ve made their own comfort their top priority. God’s house lies in ruins, while their houses are lined with plaster and wood paneling. The difference between the comfort of their houses and the ruin that is God’s is a reflection of what comes first for them.

Their disordered priorities may have resulted in nicely furnished homes, but they also resulted in empty lives. “Consider how you have fared,” God says through Haggai. “You 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.”

We can read these words literally, or we can read it as a poetic description of what happens when human beings don’t put first things first. If we have our priorities mixed up, nothing will satisfy us. We’ll always feel an emptiness that food, drink, and other “stuff” can’t fill. We’ll never feel the contentment that wraps itself around us like a warm coat. Our work will never be as productive or fulfilling as it could be. We’ll work hard, but nothing we do will last. We’ll experience a drought of the spirit that leaves us feeling dried out and withered up.

“Why is this?” the Lord of Hosts asks, rhetorically.  “It’s because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses.”

The God of all creation is not so small-minded or narcissistic as to require an attractive and luxurious physical headquarters. But, the state of the temple indicates the state of the people’s hearts. It’s a barometer that indicates the people’s priorities. Their lovely paneled houses show that they’ve put themselves first. The continuing ruined state of the temple shows that devotion to God is not the first thing for them. They haven’t been keeping the main thing the main thing. But, all is not lost. There is a solution.

God gives them a concrete way to start re-ordering their priorities: “Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored.” Action helps us to focus our energies and our resources. It’s a tangible and visible expression of what we think is important. For the Jewish people, rebuilding God’s house would be an act of devotion. It would be a project of the heart—a way of showing where the people’s priorities lie. Resuming the work that had been ignored for so long will allow them to demonstrate that they have placed God back where God belongs—as their first thing.

God gives them this first step through Haggai, and an amazing thing happens. The people hear and obey! From the governor Zerubbabel to the high priest Joshua to the community as a whole, they “feared” the Lord: they were filled again with reverence and respect for God above all else. God was once again their main thing. And, just in case they were still unsure of how God felt about them, God spoke again through Haggai with words of comfort and love: “I am with you.”

With these words, their spirits were “stirred up,” Haggai tells us. Their spirits were reawakened. They experienced a renewed excitement, not just about the temple project but about the relationship with God which it represents. Haggai tells us that they obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and Haggai, whom their God had sent. Within weeks, they had begun to rebuild the house of the Lord of hosts, their God.

At the beginning of the book of Haggai, the people are in Stephen Covey’s second generation of time management. Rebuilding the temple was on their to-do list. They had it on their calendars to take care of at some point in the future, when the time was right. But God moves them into the third generation, where they begin managing themselves. They set their priorities, with God and God’s house at the top of the list with a deadline of now. They remember that reverence for God is their most basic value and recognize that rebuilding the temple is a worthy activity in light of that value. As they hear and obey God’s word, they begin to move into the fourth generation of life management: they begin to renew their relationship with their God.

The events of Haggai took place more than 2500 years ago, but the observations we find there and the questions they raise are very relevant to our lives today. First of all, we have been assigned a project by our King—King Jesus. We are to build his church by making disciples of all the world. Jesus has told us what our priorities should be: to care for the poor, the outsider, and the stranger. To seek the kingdom, to love our neighbor, and to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength.

Jesus has spelled out what our values and our priorities are to be. But, sometimes, we forget those priorities. Like the ancient Jews, the demands of making a living, especially in the midst of a world changed by the pandemic, may absorb all our energy and resources. The continuing political turmoil makes us want to pull up the warm covers of home and family and friends, so we don’t have to confront the world Jesus wants us to serve. We live in a world that is indifferent, if not downright hostile, to what we believe. So, like the ancient Jewish people, we turn our thoughts and hands to other things. We may not intend for it to happen, but we may find that, if we are God’s temple as St. Paul says, the temple can pretty quickly fall into disrepair.

When that happens, we experience the same emptiness that the returning exiles felt. We sow much and harvest little. We eat but never have enough. We drink but never have our fil. We clothe ourselves but can’t get warm. The wages we earn disappear as though through holes in bags or purses. We feel that same spiritual dryness that Haggai described as a drought—a drought that saps the satisfaction from our lives.

But, through Haggai, God speaks to us and shows us what to do. We need to refocus our attention, re-order our priorities, and re-align our activities with our most basic value—that the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. We recommit ourselves to obeying God and heeding the words of God’s messengers. We reconnect with a reverence for God, the Lord of Lords.

That all begins with obedient action that puts first things first. What we do requires our time, our commitment, and our resources. When we put first things first—when we put God first—the rest of our desires and concerns take their proper place below God.

Maybe that’s why Scripture is so specific about offerings. Over and over again we read that the first and the best are to be given to God. “The best of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God,” we read in Exodus (34:26). “From your first batch of dough you shall present a loaf as a donation,” we read in Numbers (15:20). Even the firstborn of animals and of people were to consecrated to God (Exodus 13:2). God requires the first and the best—not because God is selfish, but because God knows that when we put God first in our giving, we are more likely to put God first in our living.

God’s solution to the emptiness in human lives begins with action. For the ancient Jews, that meant building a temple. For us, it means building a kingdom. Our building materials aren’t wood and plaster. They are our time and our money and our talents. They are also compassion and understanding. They are generosity and hospitality. They include a determination to work for justice, especially for those who have fewer resources and less access than we do to effect change. They include a willingness to share our faith with others—not by beating them over the head with a Bible but by telling the stories of what Jesus has done for us and how our lives are better because of his. We make it clear that we do what we do, not because we want to be nice people, but because the Lord is our God, Jesus is our Savior, and we act out of love and reverence for our Lord. We do what we do because we put God first.

When we act on God’s word, God acts in us. When we keep the main thing the main thing, we can hear God speaking words of encouragement. We can draw on God’s strength. We can find confidence in God’s assurance that God is with us. God stirs up our spirits and makes us ready once again to work for the glory of God.

God’s word, spoken through Haggai, is as relevant to our lives as Stephen Covey’s best-seller. Putting first things first is the key to effective management—not of our time but of our lives. We are to be intentional about making God our top priority. We are to keep kingdom values at the forefront—doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. We are to choose our actions, making sure that they are worthy expressions of our values. We are to work not just to accomplish earthly goals but to deepen our relationship with God, which will enrich our relationships with others. When we keep the main thing the main thing, we will find satisfaction in our work, joy in our lives, and refreshment for our souls. And, we will hear once again the word of the Lord: “I am with you.” Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young