Summary: The Post-exilic people got their priorities wrong. So do we. God calls us back to put first things first
It was 29th August 520 BC, over 18 years since they had returned from exile in Babylon. An exile that their parents and grandparents had been repeatedly warned by the prophets would come if they did not abandon the worship of fake gods and return to the Lord alone. They ignored the warnings of the Lord through his prophets and paid the consequences of losing all that was familiar and seeing their children and grandchildren being born in exile. But this new generation, victims, as so often children are, of their parents’ sin, had returned to the worship of the Lord, and he had returned them to their ancestral homeland, using the decrees of pagan kings as his instrument.
At first they were full of vigour and enthusiasm for the work of rebuilding the deserted, forgotten, ruined, desolate Temple. They made all the plans; they knew what they would do, and how they would do it. The priests and the Levites were prepared and purified for their liturgical functions in the worship of the temple.
Then came the great day when the foundations were laid, and the altar, standing out in the open, surrounded by the fallen down walls, was dedicated. The young people shouted for joy, but the old people, who had seen the old temple in all its glory, wept when they saw the state of things. It was a day of joy, and a day of sorrow. But it was to be just the start of the restoration of God’s temple.
But quickly the enthusiasm turned into apathy. They began to run into obstacles. People of other religions round about opposed the work, and they became disheartened and gave up. They never abandoned the worship of the Lord, or turned to other gods, in this they were better than their grandparents, but they left the temple standing incomplete, with no roof, and the walls still ruined in parts.
Then they began to get comfortable in their neglect of the Lord’s work happy building comfortable homes for themselves while the temple mouldered. The intention was still there to eventually get on with the work - just not yet. They had their own lives, families and work to focus on, there never seemed to be enough time. They would get down to building the temple someday when they had more time. Every set back or difficulty was taken as a sign that the time was not right for the work. So they were drifting along from day to day, quite happily, thinking that sometime in the future, when things were not so busy, when they had got themselves sorted out, when it was more convenient, they would get down to God’s work. Just not yet.
It was at this time that the Lord raised up the prophet Haggai to challenge them. He spoke first to the leaders, and then to the ordinary people. He chose the day of the New Moon feast, a day when Jerusalem would have been crowded with people visiting the city, and the still half-built temple, for the feast.
His message was simple. To those who said that the time was not right to complete to temple, who were putting off the work, and waiting for some unspecified day in the future when things would somehow be easier, he reminded them that they were very busy trying to make their own lives comfortable, that they had already built their own houses, and now they were richly decorating them and making them comfortable and richly furnished and decorated. How could it be the right time to look after their own interests, but not the right time to look after the interests of the God who had rescued them from exile in Babylon? He also told them that the reason that their farming was so unsuccessful, that things were going wrong in their everyday lives, was precisely because they had got the priorities so wrong and skewed. Instead of seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, they were seeking first their own interests, their own comfort, their own wealth. For this reason the Lord was holding from them rich harvests and only allowing them to have paltry pickings.
Procrastination has always beset God’s people. It is a sign of distorted priorities. Today we are no different from the people of Haggai’s day. We attend to our own business, make sure that we are OK; all this has the first call on our time and energy. There is always something pressing, something that needs urgent attention, we will devote our concentration to God, one day, when we have more time, just not yet. The right time never quite seems to come - after Christmas, when the kids are a bit older, when I have got a job, when I am less busy at work... etc.