Putting First Things First (Haggai)

Every day, you exchange a day of your life for something. It’s as if at the start of life, each of us was issued a certain number of coins. And these coins are hidden inside a huge machine so we don’t know how many coins we were issued or how many we have left. But, every morning of every day, the machine spits out one new coin. It could be the last coin we ever get, or we may get a lot more, we just don’t know. All we know is that the average person in America gets somewhere between 70 and 80 years’ worth of coins, but some people get far less; a few others may get more than that.

But every day, you take that day’s coin and you exchange it for something. You may exchange it for a day at work or school, shopping, going to church, watching TV, playing golf, social media, whatever. But, once you spend that coin, you can never get it back to spend on something different. And so, the art of living wisely is largely a matter of spending your coins on the things that really make a difference in light of eternity and not wasting them.

And most of us have discovered that living wisely is a difficult thing to do, because very often, the choice is not between spending today’s coin on something bad or something good. More often, our choice is, do we spend today’s coin on something good or something better?

The Book of Haggai, the second shortest book in the Old Testament, has a very powerful message about the decisions we make. Haggai tells us in no uncertain terms that we absolutely must get our priorities straight and put first things first in our lives.

This book was written to people, just like us, who would have told you that God must come first. If you were to ask the Jews of that day, “What is the number one priority in your life?”, they would have said, without hesitation, “God is”, just like we would. Because they knew, that’s what the right answer is. God comes first.

They believed that; we believe that. But they had drifted into a way of life where their claim that God was most important was not reflected in the way they were living. They said that God was their top priority, but the reality was, there were other things that came before God.

Because you can say whatever you want about what the most important things in your life are, but we all demonstrate what the most important things really are by basically three things – what we like to talk about, what we spend our time doing, and how we spend our money.

And the Jews of Haggai’s day weren’t focused on the things that should have mattered most. So, God sent this prophet, Haggai, to help his people get their priorities in line.

And that’s why the message of Haggai is so relevant for us. Someone once said, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Our struggle with keeping our priorities straight is nothing new. It’s always been a struggle for God’s people, and there’s always been the need for someone to stand up and remind us every now and then of where our priorities ought to be.

Before we look at Haggai’s message, though, we need to first take a look at the background of this book. And right away, we notice something different. So far, almost every prophet we have looked at delivered their message before the Jews were carried away into Babylonian exile. And so, the message of just about every prophet was the same – you Jews are living in sin and if you don’t repent and do what’s right, God is going to use the Babylonian armies to punish you.

But, sadly, they didn’t repent, and God did bring the Babylonian armies in and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, along with its temple, and carried away the Jews into captivity. And that’s where they lived for 70 years before they were allowed to go home. And when they finally did get back to Jerusalem, they found a mess. They had no homes, they had no temple, they had no walls to keep the enemy out. Everything had to be rebuilt from the ground up.

And it was during this time that Haggai spoke to the people. Not about their idolatry and their mistreatment of the poor and their lack of justice, things that all the other prophets talked about. No, the people of Haggai’s day were guilty of something different – they had their priorities all mixed up.

Let’s take a look at this overview of the book of Haggai, and then I’ll be back to explore this concept of misplaced priorities in our own lives.

VIDEO (Haggai)

In order to understand Haggai’s message properly, we need to keep in mind that the people to whom he was speaking were committed to following God. They had all made the difficult decision to leave their established way of life in Babylon and make the dangerous journey back to the city of Jerusalem.

Keep in mind, they didn’t have to leave and go back. They had a choice. And it had to be a difficult decision because they all had homes and jobs in Babylon. Most of them had been born and raised there. Remember, they had been living there for 70 years.

But they knew that God’s purpose for his people involved the Promised Land. And so, because of their faith in God, they made the choice to go back to Jerusalem and they committed themselves to the difficult task of getting re-established in that land that had been devastated by war. And I think it’s safe to say that most of them made that decision based on their commitment to God.

Shortly after returning, they started to rebuild the temple, but there was some opposition that stopped the project. Gradually, over time, the Jews lost their vision and they drifted into a lifestyle where God’s house was no longer the priority. I think they would have probably viewed the rebuilding of the temple as something that was nice, but not necessary, not essential.

But the temple was the center for worshiping God. It represented the heart and soul of the Jewish religion. And even though God is everywhere, the temple was that place on earth where God dwelt in a very special sense. So, for the temple to lie in ruins was to neglect their worship of God.
And I would imagine that we can all relate to what they were feeling. If you are a child of God, there was a time in your life when you made a commitment to follow Jesus Christ. And, at first, you were excited about spiritual things. You read your Bible every day. You got involved with fellowship groups. You got involved serving in the church.
But maybe things got difficult. Maybe you had a personality clash with another Christian, or you were disappointed with the results of your efforts, or you had some personal problems that God didn’t remove, even after much prayer.

Meanwhile, life moved on. You started a career and a family. You had bills to pay and other demands on your time. The church and the Lord’s work drifted into the background. You still attend church as often as you can, but it has become a part of your life, not the center of your life.

You tell yourself that you just don’t have time to serve the way you used to. Someone else who doesn’t have the responsibilities that you have will just have to get involved. And it’s not that you’ve rebelled against God. You’ve just kinda drifted away. And if your conscience ever bothers you, you have reasons to explain why things are this way.

Which brings us back to what Haggai had to say. Keep in mind, Haggai started preaching 16 years after the Jews returned to Jerusalem, and after all that time, the temple had still not been completed.

In chapter 1, verse 2, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.” (Haggai 1:2).

If you had asked them why the temple had not been built yet, they would have said, “Don’t get me wrong! I’m all for rebuilding the temple. It’s important to me. But it’s just not the right time. We’re in an economic downturn right now. Everyone’s pinched for money. There aren’t enough good jobs. It’s all I can do to provide for my family. But times will get better, and when that times comes, we will rebuild the temple!”

We do the same thing today. We’re very fond of saying that things ought to be done, but the time’s just not right yet. “I know I need to get more serious about studying the Bible, but not just yet — the time isn’t right. I know I need to be giving more than I am right now, but not just yet – the time isn’t right. I know I need to be more involved in the work of the church, but not just yet — the time isn’t right.

Maybe after we get settled in our new home, maybe after the kids get a little older, maybe when the children leave home, maybe after I retire. I want to be active, I want to be involved, I want to give more, really I do. It just seems like this isn’t a very good time.”

But I want you to notice that the Lord got a little bit sarcastic with the Jews: “Then the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, ‘Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?’” (Haggai 1:3-4).

God says, “You people say it’s not time to rebuild the temple. Isn’t it funny how you’ve all found enough time to build your own houses?” The house of God stood in their midst in ruins. Meanwhile, they had put a lot of time and effort into building their own houses.

And Haggai mentions the paneling to show that their houses weren’t just basic shelters. Typical houses in Judah were made of rocks taken from the countryside, or they were made of clay bricks, baked in the sun. But these houses were paneled houses.

Wood for paneling had to be brought down from the hill country in the north or from Lebanon where the famous cedars grew. It has even been suggested that these wood panels had originally been collected for the building of the temple, but they now they were using them for their own homes. At any rate, paneled houses indi¬cated they were living in comfort and elegance, while the temple lay in ruins.

Allow me to translate what Haggai said to those Jews into modern day language: “You folks say you don’t have enough to give to the Lord, but you’ve managed to buy yourself some nice houses and fill them with big-screen TVs and home computers, and you drive nice cars, along with a boat and a jet ski in the garage, and all the while you’re saying you can’t give anything to the Lord.”

Now, don’t misunderstand me. There’s nothing wrong with having a nice home. This statement is not an attack on riches or big houses. What is wrong, however, is to focus on getting yourself a nice home while God’s house lies in ruins. What is wrong is spend your money on selfish needs and wants while ignoring the things of God. What is wrong is to spend all your time on selfish pursuits while the things of God get left undone.
God is not against our providing for our families. But the Israelites were using that as an excuse for not doing God’s work. And the bottom line is that they were just plain selfish. All they were concerned about was taking care of themselves, and they were doing a really good job of that. And the question God raised to the Jews is a question we would all do well to ask ourselves, “Where do I fit into this picture?”

In verse 4, “Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways.” (Haggai 1:5). That phrase, “consider your ways” appears twice in this chapter. It’s God’s way of saying, “You folks need to stop and think about what you’re doing.”

“’Consider your ways. 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 he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.” (Haggai 1:5-6).

The Jews had been back in the land for about 16 years. During that time, all of their energy had been consumed with the task of rebuilding their houses, reestablishing their businesses, restoring their farmlands, orchards and vineyards. Yet, despite all their efforts, they hadn’t really prospered. As hard as they worked, they couldn’t seem to get ahead. It was like getting their paycheck at the end of the week and putting it into a bag with a hole in it because they turned around the next day and there was nothing left. I suspect many of you know exactly what that feels like.

No matter how hard the Jews tried, they just couldn’t get ahead. And, of course, the hard times meant that they didn’t have any extra to give toward the temple building fund. Surely God understood their difficult circumstances!

What they didn’t see was that God not only understood their circumstances. He caused them! They were working harder but getting further and further behind, but they never stopped to consider that God was trying to tell them something. Haggai came along and he said, “Hey, folks, it’s God who controls the rain and the harvest. He is withholding his blessing from you because your priorities aren’t right! Put his house first and he will bless you.”

You see, the Jews made the same mistake that we often make. They took care of their own concerns first and then they gave God the leftovers. How many times have we gotten ready to give to God and thought, “You know, I’d really like to give more, but after I pay my cable bill and my Internet bill and my cell phone bill and take the family out for dinner on Saturday night, there’s just not much left.” We don’t talk a lot about giving God the firstfruits, but that’s what God demanded of the Jews.

They were required to give God the very first part of the crop they brought in. And that was an expression of their faith in God. Because what if, next week, it doesn’t rain or it rains too much and the rest of the crop is ruined? Logical thinking says they should wait and get the whole crop in and see what they have to live on before they give God his part. But no, God said, “I want the firstfruits. I want the very first crops you bring in, and I assure you that if you will give me that, then I’ll take care of the rest for you. “

Folks, we’ve got to start putting God at the top of our responsibilities instead of the bottom. When you get your paycheck, giving to God ought to be the very first thing you take care of. But we think, “What if there’s not enough left to pay the bills with?” Let me assure you of this – you put God first and he’ll take care of the rest. He always has and he always will.

Remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33). Jesus says, “You put God first and God will take care of the rest.” It’s the same thing that Haggai is saying here.

Haggai didn’t pull any punches with his sermon. It was a harsh rebuke to the people for building their own houses and looking to establish their own material prosperity before looking to their spiritual obligations. And Haggai made it clear that if God isn’t put first in a person’s life, everything else that he tries to do is eventually going to fail.

It was strong language, but Haggai’s preaching got results. In verse 14, “the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel [he was their governor, the highest ranking political official]….and the spirit of Joshua [he was the high priest, the highest ranking religious official]….and the spirit of all the remnant of the people. And they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God.” (Haggai 1:14).

After Haggai delivered his message, the people repented and set about the task of restoring the temple the way they should have years before.

But, before they could do that, they had to do what God told them twice – “Consider your ways.” The people needed to do some serious self-evaluation. Haggai wanted the people to stop long enough in their busy schedules to evaluate their life in light of God’s Word. He wanted them to take a careful look at the choices they had been making. Self-evaluation is a good thing. And it’s something that we as Christians all need to do.

Because either God is our top priority or something else is. If I were to ask the question here this morning, “What is the top priority in your life?”, I suspect that almost everyone in this room would say, “God is.” Because we know that’s the right answer. God is supposed to be number one in our lives, so we say that he is, we think that he is.

But is he really? We would all do well to “consider your ways.” Because sometimes we can talk about what we think are the most important things in your lives, but if those things aren’t being lived out in our lives, then they’re not really our top priority at all.

Webster defines priority as “regarding one thing as more important than the other.” So how do we really know what’s most important to us? And the answer is found in the decisions we make because whenever we make a decision between two things, that tells us which one is most important to us.

So, what sort of decisions will reveal what our priorities truly are? I said earlier that our priorities are determined largely by three things – what you like to talk about, what you spend your time doing, and what you spend your money on. So, I’d like to close out by briefly looking at those three things.

(1) The Conversation Test — What do you like to talk about?

Have you ever been around someone who can’t stop talking about one topic, maybe football. He’s always talking about who’s playing who this afternoon, and did you see the scores from the games yesterday, and what about these statistics. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that football is a very high priority in that person’s life. Football is very important to them.

Which raises the question – if God truly is the most important thing in our life like we say he is, then how many of our conversations revolve around spiritual things? If God is our top priority, there are two conversations that need to be happening on a regular basis in your life. First of all, you need to have a lot of conversations with God, and second, you need to have a lot of conversations with others about God.

So, as you “consider your ways” and think back over the past week, have you spent much time talking with God? And can the people you’ve talked with tell from your conversation how important spiritual things are? It’s hard for us to say that God is the most important thing in our life if he never comes up in our conversation.

(2) The Calendar Test – How do you spend your time?

I can look at your calendar and identify pretty quickly what’s truly most important to you. So, what does your calendar say about your priorities? What does your daily planner say about what is most important to you? What does your daily routine look like and what does that say about you?

That doesn’t mean that we don’t all have a hundred different things that we need to get done in a week. But take a look at your schedule over the past week and ask yourself, “If someone looked at my calendar, would they be able to figure that God is my number one priority?” It’s hard for us to say that God is the most important thing in our life if we never have time to serve him.

(3) The Checkbook Test – How do you spend your money?

This one is a touchy subject and some of you thinking, “Preacher, don’t go there.” But, if you’re going to make God top priority, then God has to get the first and best of everything — including your money. Show me how you spent your money this past month and I’ll tell you what’s truly most important to you.

I’m a firm believer that we always find the money for those things that are most important to us. If going to the movies is important to you, then you will always find the money to go to the movies. If having the latest iPhone is important to you, then you will always find the money to get the latest iPhone. And I’m not saying those things are wrong or bad. I’m just saying, we always find the money for those things that are most important to us. So where does God fit into the picture?

The Jews of Haggai’s day said, “We don’t have any money to put into building the Lord’s house because there’s nothing left over after we spend money on ourselves.” Show me how you spend your money and I’ll tell you what’s truly most important to you.

I want to close by sharing with you a story that I’ve used before, but it’s a powerful illustration of this idea of priorities.

There was a time management expert who was speaking to a group of business students. He pulled out a large, wide-mouth jar and filled it with fist-sized rocks. When he couldn’t put any more in, he asked, “Is this jar full?”

The class responded, “Yes.” He said, “Really?” Then he pulled out a bucket of gravel and poured it in, shaking it down through the cracks. Then he asked, “Is the jar full?”

The students were onto him, so they said, “No.” He said, “Good.” Then he dumped in a bucket of sand which fell down between the pieces of gravel. Once again, he asked, “Is the jar full?” Again, they said, “No.” And again, he said, “Good.” Then he poured in a pitcher of water until the jar was full to the brim.

Then he asked the students, “What is the point of this illustration?” One student ventured a guess. He said, “No matter how full your schedule gets, if you try hard enough, you can always fit more in.”

The speaker said, “No, that’s not the point. The point is this — if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”

In other words, it is essential that we focus first on what we consider to be the biggest rock in our lives – serving God. We need to put that as our top priority and build the rest of our lives around it. And if we do that, it will be obvious to everyone around us that serving God is the most important thing in our lives, because that’s what we talk about the most, it’s what we spend our time doing, and it’s where we spend our money.

“Consider your ways!” What are the priorities in your life?

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