The Return Home

Series: Preacher: Date: February 3, 2013 Scripture Reference: Ezra 1-6; Haggai 1-2; Zechariah 1; 8


 1 – In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the Word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshuason of Jehozadak, the high priest:

2 – This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come for the Lord’s house to be built.’”

3 – Then the Word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai:

4 – “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”

5 – Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways.

6 – 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.”

7 – 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.

9 – “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. “Because of My house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house.

10 – Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops.

11 – I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the oil and whatever the ground produces, on men and cattle, and on the labor of your hands.”

12 – Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the Lord their God had sent him.  And the people feared the Lord.

13 – Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people: “I am with you,” declares the Lord.

14 – So the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God,

15 – on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of King Darius.

These days in Church Council our primary focus, as prescribed by the by-laws, is on EVALUATION. We have asked each ministry leader to write an evaluation of his or her area including all the programs and committees that support it. In our meetings the Church Council is reviewing those evaluations, deciding if a ministry or program should continue as is or if changes need to be made to improve it or if that program or ministry has achieved its purpose and it’s time for it to come to an end. This past Monday at our meeting we got through three of our nine ministries. It took us over an hour to do this and our homework before our next meeting is to prepare to evaluate the rest. By the way, you can read the minutes of our meeting on the hexagon in the foyer or if you call the church office, Christy will be glad to e-mail you a copy.

Now, I must confess all this evaluation is not a “fun” activity for me. Redland is a very busy place, so there is a lot to evaluate, which means long meetings in which we go over one evaluation form after another. But in spite of the fact that it’s not fun, it is an IMPORTANT thing for us to do in order to be good stewards of God’s resources. Evaluation is one way we make sure we are staying true to God’s leading, hence the requirement in our by-laws that we take the time to do so every single year.

But, evaluation is not just important for churches, groups of believers, it is important for individual Christ-followers as well. As fallen beings, we tend to have a hard time staying on the straight and narrow path, so on a regular basis it’s good for us to take time for some honest evaluation, time when we evaluate our attitudes and actions, time when we take a good hard look at our priorities. In fact, if we are to progress in becoming like Jesus it is vital that we ask God to help us in this. We must pray as David did and say, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24)

I mention all this because in chapter 19 of The Story, we read of a time when our Heavenly Father reminded the Hebrew people that they needed to do some evaluation.  But before we look more closely at this chapter, let’s do a quick review of THE SETTING of this part of The Story.

You should remember from your reading over the past few weeks, that at this point in their history, the people of the nation of Judah have passed three and a half decades in exile in Babylon. Jerusalem, their capital city, has been razed; their beloved temple ransacked and destroyed. If it weren’t for the faith-fueled courage of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, this particular chapter of Jewish history would have been a shameful one. But this week we read that, just as things looked like they couldn’t get any worse, something wonderful happened. Randy Frazee puts it this way, “After seven decades of darkness, a tunnel of sunlight pierced the clouds and surprised the people.” Ezra 1:1 gives us the specifics of this “tunnel of sunlight” that suddenly shone on the Hebrew people. It says:

“In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, in order to fulfill the Word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus, king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also put it in writing: ‘This is what Cyrus, king of Persia says,  “The Lord, the God of Heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and He has appointed me to build a temple for Him in Jerusalem in Judah. Any of His people among you, may their God be with them and let them go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God Who is in Jerusalem. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock,with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.”

Isn’t that amazing? After 70 years of captivity God turned the heart of King Cyrus toward the Jews and turned the Jews back toward Jerusalem! And, at the risk of sounding like a Ronco commercial, I’ll say, “But that’s not all!” because not only did Cyrus send the Jews home, he also commanded the temple to be rebuilt and provided the funds to build it to boot! Now, I have to say this “tunnel of sunlight” shouldn’t have been that big of a surprise to the Hebrews. And I say that because 150 years before Cyrus came to power, long before Cyrus was even born, the prophet Isaiah had singled him out by name, singled him out as the person God would use to rebuild the temple. I find that astounding. Feel free to say “WOW!” You can even say it backwards if you want. And if you don’t feel moved to say “WOW!” yet, listen to the exact prophecy. In Isaiah 44:28 God had said fifteen decades before Cyrus’ existed.

“I am the Lord Who says of CYRUS, ‘He is My shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”

Does that show the authority of the Bible or what?! NOW do you feel a “WOW!” coming on! If you’d like to hear other examples of fulfilled prophecy like this in the Bible, let me know because there are tons of other instances like this, times when God said something would happen and it happened exactly as He said it would. In fact, God’s accuracy record when it comes to prophecy is not 70%, not 80%, not 90%. No, it’s 100% because God always does what He says He will do!

Now, have you ever wondered why God would use a pagan king like Cyrus to rebuild His holy temple? I mean, why not raise up a Jewish leader for this special task? Daniel was still alive. Why not give him the job?  Why would God speak of Cyrus as His “Shepherd” or “anointed” which, by the way, is another word for “messiah?” I mean it’s kind of like having a rich drug kingpin who had made his money on prostitution and drug dealing, write a big check to pay off the debt on the ROC. Why used “tainted resources” like Cyrus to build God’s sacred temple?

Well, God is SOVEREIGN so of course He can do what He wants. God is also ALL-POWERFUL and as such is able to draw straight lines with crooked sticks. But, I think the main reason God does it at this point, the main reason He uses a crooked stick like Cyrus to build His temple, is to send a message to the Hebrew people, and here it is. God was saying: “I will use whatever it takes to finish My plan to build a perfect community where I can be with My people forever, even a king who doesn’t know Me.”

In any case God was bringing His people home, just as He had promised, and to be completely accurate, there were not one but three homecomings, three returns by the Hebrews to their promised land.

  • The first was under the leadership of Zerubbabel in 536B.C. Zerubbabel led the temple to be rebuilt and we read about this in Ezra 1-6.
  • About eighty years later, a second group returned to the homeland under the leadership of Ezra. Ezra led the people in a spiritual revival and a renewed commitment to God. This is recorded in Ezra 7-10.
  • Then about 13 years after that a third group returned under the leadership of Nehemiah who led the people to rebuild the walls around the city of Jerusalem.

This morning we are looking at the first group to make the 900 mile journey home. As I said, their assigned task was to rebuild the temple of God.  In essence they were to establish a spiritual beachhead before the rest of the Jews could return. That had to come first. In fact, that job was at the heart of the Hebrew nation’s return to Judah. And this was a vital FIRST task for the returning Hebrews to accomplish because you see, God’s people wouldn’t truly have BEEN home until God’s home, the temple, was among them.

Remember, Jesus hadn’t come yet. In fact, He would not come on the scene for five more centuries. We’ll study the chapter of The Story that tells of His birth in a few weeks. But Jesus hadn’t been born, so there wasn’t God in the flesh at this stage of history. Of course this was also before the gift of the Holy Spirit, so without the temple, God’s presence wasn’t felt. Well, the temple was a visible reminder that God wanted to be with His people. That’s why God told them to build it in downtown Jerusalem. He didn’t command that the temple be put on some remote high mountain out in the Judean wilderness. No, God had it built smack dab in the middle of the most populated city of all of ancient Israel. God put it there because He wanted the people to know that He wanted to be with them, wanted them to understand that He is an EVER PRESENT HELP.

And you know, physical proximity of a loved one is helpful in that it brings us comfort. I don’t know why, but it does. I remember when I had my surgery a few years ago, having Sue sitting in the room with me eased my pain. Her physical presence made me more physically comfortable. Just her being there was far more effective than morphine or Percocet. And you know what I’m talking about. Having a loved one with you in a time of difficulty helps, even if they do nothing and say nothing. Their presence makes a huge difference. Well to an infinitely greater degree, knowing God is right there with us brings us peace. It comforts our fears and gives us strength and courage.

So that’s one reason God put the temple where He did.  He did it so that every time a Jew walked the streets of Jerusalem, he or she could see the temple, see it and be reminded that God was with them. And you know, God still wants us to experience His nearness. He wants to ease our burdens and magnify our joys.  He wants to guide us through life’s decisions. God wants to fill the void that is in every person who doesn’t know Him. And there is indeed such a void in all people because we were made, custom-designed, to fellowship with God. Life is meaningless and lonely without Him.

Well, the temple was a reminder that God wanted to be with His people. But it was a reminder of something else, it was a reminder of sin, the sin that blocks man from fellowshipping with God. The temple reminded the Hebrews like sheep they all tended to go astray, that they were fallen and that they disobeyed God, requiring daily sacrifices. This leads me to point out that the temple’s MAIN purpose, was to point to Jesus, God’s only Son Who would be the final sacrifice for sin, the ultimate sacrifice, the “it-is-finished-once-and-for-all Sacrifice.”  Jesus would give His life on the cross to do what animal sacrifices could never do, atone for the sin of all mankind.  When He died on the cross, the thick curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple would be torn in two from top to bottom, showing that our sin debt had been paid, and we could come to know God personally.

Suffice it to say that this building project was an important one indeed and this is why God gave this job to the FIRST group of Jews to return. Let’s face it, without the temple, the Hebrews might as well still be in exile. So, in 538BC fifty thousand Jews, prompted by God and freed and funded by King Cyrus, made the journey from Babylon back to Jerusalem. When they arrived, they went to work and at first the people were eager to complete the project. They rolled up their sleeves and got down to business. Their highest priority was getting that temple rebuilt. Ezra 3:1 puts it this way. It says, “The people assembled together AS ONE in Jerusalem.” In other words, they were united in their desire to get the temple built, and I love that phrase, “together AS ONE.”  I love it because it reminds me that experience has shown that it is always a beautiful POWERful thing when God’s people are one, no divisions, everyone focused on doing the work God calls us to do!  This is one reason I love mission trips so much, whether they take place in the D.R. or in the ROC during Upward basketball games or in RBC camp. Few things in life are as satisfying as doing things TOGETHER AS ONE for God!

But, one thing I have learned in all my “mission trip experiences” is that whenever you attempt to do something for God you can always count on OPPOSITION. The adversary will attack, and that is exactly what happened as the Hebrews began building the temple.

Dissenters in the region tried everything they could to block the people’s efforts to build, but the Hebrews maintained their resolve. Day after day, despite interference from outsiders they persevered, making God’s priority their own. Frazee puts it this way, “They made GOD’S big thing THEIR big thing.” Within five years the foundation was laid, and this may sound slow to us, but back then with the tools available, five years for a foundation that size was lightning fast! I mean, these people were serious about getting the job done!  In fact, if you were to ask them why they were so focused on this task you might have gotten the Dan Aykroyd answer from the movie The Blues Brothers. They might have said, “We’re on a mission from God!” Nothing would get in the way of that magnificent mission. Nothing would stop them from rebuilding the temple, at least for a while.

Then something changed. Little by little, they LOST their focus. People began to lose their passion for the project. Why did this happen? There were probably several contributing factors. For example, they may have gotten tired of all the hard work and I’m not making excuses for them but if you’ve ever been to Jerusalem and seen the size of stones it took to build the temple you’d know how HARD the work must have been.  So maybe they just got tired, tired of sore muscles and blistered hands and strained backs. Another possible factor was the constant criticism of the people of the region who opposed the project. Perhaps the taunts and jeers of those who ridiculed their building efforts began to humiliate them. Maybe the threats of violence by their enemies became too intimidating. Maybe they quit because they feared for their lives.

But, the main reason according to the Bible was they started thinking about their own personal endeavors, their businesses, their farms, their houses, such that they got distracted.

And let me stop and ask, has that ever happened to you?  Have you ever made a commitment to God and you were serious about it at first but then you got distracted such that you didn’t follow through? Here are a few examples to stimulate your memory.

Perhaps you made a New Year’s resolution one year to get up early every morning and spend time with God.  You were finally going to make a daily quiet time part of your life. You pledged to set the alarm clock a half hour early to give you time to read the Bible and pray every morning before going to work. But, then one night you stayed up a bit too late and when the alarm went off you silenced it and grabbed another half hour of sleep. You told yourself, “I need my sleep to be effective at work today. I’ll get back to my daily devotions tomorrow.” And you did, but other late nights led to other missed mornings with God and you began to think the getting up early idea wouldn’t work, so you decided,  “I’ll have my devotions on the way to work! I’ll spend the entire commute talking to God.” And you do that for a week or so, but then one morning something happened in the news and you wanted to hear more details so instead of tuning in to the still small voice of God, you tuned in to WTOP. In subsequent days you made other excuses to tune in to the radio instead of using the time for prayer, and before you knew it, you were not spending any quiet time with God at all.

Here’s another example: You read a passage of Scripture one day and you become inspired to be more ethical on your expense reports at work. You made that commitment to God. But then one day as you sat down to pay your bills you saw a collision coming between your bills and your bank account and you didn’t know how you could avert it. So when you filled out your next expense report you reverted back to exaggerating or fabricating your expenses.

Here’s one more for our young people. This past fall you told yourself, “This year I’m going to live out my faith. I heard they have a campus Christian club that meets every morning before school. I’m going to go every day!” And you did for a few weeks but then you had a test and you needed the extra study time. Other excuses popped up and before you knew it you hadn’t been to a club meeting in weeks.

I could go on and on with examples of this kind of thing, because unfortunately there are so many ways that we fail to keep God’s priorities as our priorities. We fail to make His first things FIRST in our lives. C.S. Lewis once said, “If you put first things first, you get second things thrown in. But if you put second things first, you lose both first and second things.” We all know what it’s like to lose first and second things because we allowed ourselves to become distracted. In the book of Revelation, Jesus speaks to the church at Ephesus about this very problem. He says, “I hold this against you: You have forsaken the first love you had. Consider how you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.” (Revelation 2:4-5)

If you’re guilty of doing that, if you have ever become distracted, if you’ve ever stopped following God as passionately as you should, would you raise your hand? Thanks for your honesty! We’ll talk about what to do when we’ve done that in a moment, but for now I’ll say that my guess is that, like us, these well-intentioned Hebrews did not intend to abandon the temple project forever. They didn’t just wake up one day and decide to quit building. They probably thought, “You know what?  We’ll get back to working on that temple. Just give us a week. Give us a month. In fact, give us a year. Let us get our crops harvested. Let us get the house finished. We’ll pick it up again one of these days soon. We promise.”

And one by one, everyone embraced this rationalization. They quit showing up at the work site. Then one day no one came. As Frazee puts it, “God’s BIG THING became a SMALL THING to His people.” Well a week passed with no work being done, then a month, then a year, then two, five, ten.  SIXTEEN YEARS the temple project sat there untouched. It turned into an abandoned construction site in the middle of town.  The weeds grew and soon they covered the footers of the foundation of the structure, not to mention the foundation of the people’s faith.

Frazee points out that sixteen years was enough time for every visitor from the surrounding nations to look at the temple there in Jerusalem and think, “Well, they don’t take their God very seriously around here.” It was enough time for a whole generation of Hebrew children to grow up and look at that abandoned work site and think, “Well, I guess our parents don’t really care much about God. They certainly don’t care about His temple.” But, as I said, I don’t think the Hebrew people meant for this to happen. It just did; gradually, over time, as they gave their attentions to their own homes and fields.

You know, I have yet to meet a follower of Jesus who deliberately set out to ignore God, but I’ve seen many people drift away from Him because they allowed everything else, the kids, the job, the demands, the stress, the struggle, whatever, to get in the way. The time came when they no longer woke up thinking about God’s priorities. It’s not that they forgot God; they just put Him in a closet so to speak.

Max Lucado writes about a closet in his home where he stores the things he used to be excited about but are now forgotten.  In it are things like the telescope he was enthused about because of his childhood dream of studying the stars and becoming an astronomer. He stayed committed to mastering the telescope for 24 hours, but it has been in the closet for years. There’s the stepping stone kit he bought with his three little girls (who are now grown), and got them all excited about making stepping stones for Mom’s garden with their handprints, and messages. The box has never been opened.  He has 27 years worth of family photos in there. He envisions a shelf full of scrapbooks, labeled and dated, giving everyone joy to look through, but the photos are all in sacks. The closet holds a guitar, some books, some exercise video tapes.

And the point of Lucado’s story is NOT that we have to finish everything we start. Some things are not worth finishing. Some books you start reading and realize they’re not worth finishing. But, God is not a book or a guitar or a photo album project, I mean don’t think you can put God in your storage closet of forgotten passions. God is either The Big Thing, or He’s nothing.  In fact, if you follow the example of the Hebrews and put him in the closet for 16 years, prepare for 16 years in which nothing seems to quench your thirst, nothing seems to work. God’s message through Haggai is, “I won’t stay in anyone’s closet. I want to be there with you, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing. So, I’m going to do something to get your attention!”

That’s what happens when we allow ourselves to become distracted. When we put God on the back-burner, He has a way of getting our attention, a way of getting us to seek His face. I can’t help but think of when Daniel was a little boy.  He’d talk to us about his day on the way home from school and we loved to hear about it but at times we got distracted, and when we did, he could tell so he’d put his hands on our face and turn our heads so that He could look us in the eye and make us listen. Well, there are times when God does the same kind of thing. Frazee writes,

“He puts a chill in the corner office. He puts a dent in the savings account. He permits a drought to come on the farm. He sends a lonely wind through our big house. When our priorities become more important than God’s, our lives are marked by futility.”

Has this ever happened to you? Has there ever been a time when you were making more money than ever before but still didn’t have enough?  Have you ever been through a time when you had great success in your career but it left you feeling flat? Has there ever been a time when you wondered why everything you thought would make you happy didn’t? These feelings of futility could actually be God’s way of trying to get your attention.

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t want you to hear me saying that every tiny mishap of life is discipline meted out by an angry God. Every time something bad happens your way, don’t think God is punishing you. Bad is just part of living in a fallen world. The Bible teaches that rain falls on the just and the unjust. But there are times in life that are so difficult, so challenging, one difficulty stacked on another for an extended period of time, that it just may be that God is trying to get you to wake up. There are seasons of God-ordained struggle, times of exhausted emptiness when nothing seems to work, nothing quenches our deepest thirsts, times we are literally forced to our knees. The fact is, when we put our purposes above God’s priorities, life becomes empty and meaningless.

I think this is what Psalm 106:15 is talking about when it says, “So God gave them what they asked for, but sent a wasting disease upon them.” Charles Spurgeon wrote, “God doesn’t allow His children to sin successfully.” And He doesn’t.  God loves us too must to let us continue down paths that lead to sin and destruction. And that’s what happened with the Jews. God got their attention by making life rough for them so they would turn to Him and decide to make His purposes their priority once again He sent the prophet Haggai to explain what was happening. Listen to verses 5-7 of our text again:

“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.’ This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways.’” In other words God said, “It’s time for a little EVALUATION! It’s time to examine your ways. It’s time to take a close look at your priorities.”

Okay, what should we do if after giving careful attention to our ways, what if after our own time of evaluation we realize our priorities are misplaced?  What steps can we take to fix things? What can we do to get back to work on “the temple” so to speak? Well look back at Revelation 2:5 with me. Look at what Jesus said to the church at Ephesus, people who had made this mistake and lost their FIRST love. Here are the steps He said they should go through in their own evaluation.

A. First, Jesus said, “REMEMBER—remember the height from which you have fallen.”

In other words, take time to recall all God has done for you. Remember Jesus’ sacrifice on your behalf. Let that memory compel you to embrace God’s priorities once again. REMEMBER!

Do you know what happens to me when I leaf through the picture albums of the Adams family history?  When I leaf through the pages and look at pictures of the day I took my son, who was four at the time, on a tour of Ft. Delaware…or the day we took his toddler sister Sarah to Longwood Gardens…or the day we took Becca to Luray Caverns. When I leaf through pictures of birthday parties and vacations to the beach. When I look at all these pictures I REMEMBER, and my eyes fill with tears and my heart swells with love.

REMEMBERING is a POWERFUL thing! Well, Jesus is saying we must do whatever it takes to REMEMBER the past—back when He really was FIRST in our hearts! This is what the prodigal son did, REMEMBER?  As he stood knee deep in pig slop he remembered what his life had been like before he left home, back when his love for his father was first in his life. And that memory prompted him to return home to the loving arms of his father.

The words of Jennie Hussey’s great hymn come to mind. The chorus is a prayer and goes like this: “Lest I forget Gesthemane, lest I forget Thine agony, lest I forget Thy love for me, lead me to Calvary.”  To repair the damage that comes from not putting God’s things first, we must REMEMBER what He has done for us, that will compel us to make HIS big thing OUR big thing again!

B. And then second, Jesus says, “…REPENT.”

Once we have SEEN the gap between the way we are now living and the way we used to live, we must bridge that gap through genuine repentance. We must turn our life around, making a conscious vow to do whatever it takes to make our relationship with God right again.

C. Finally Jesus says, “RESUME—do again the things you did at first.”

In other words, get back to work. Put God first again. Harry Emerson Fosdick says, that “The great truth about Christianity is that no man need stay the way he is.” And we don’t, with the power of God’s Spirit in us, we CAN repent of our sin, we can stop doing the things that we know we should not do. We can re-arrange our priorities. We can change! We can put God first again.

As we come to our time of decision, let’s all do some evaluation. Take a close look at your life.  Give careful thought to all your ways. Ask yourself, “Are God’s priorities my priorities, or have I become distracted and put other things first?”


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