When Denalyn and I travel together, she wants to drive. It’s not that she loves the steering wheel, it’s just that she loves to stay on track. My mind tends to wander. My thoughts tend to stray. I may be on a highway, but mentally, I’m in a distant land. Consequently, I miss exits, forget to turn, or stray off course. More than once she has dozed off only to awaken in a strange location. The ensuing conversation goes like this:
“Where are we?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think I messed up.”
“Max, we will never get there if you keep forgetting where we are going.”
Sigh. Guilty as charged.
The children of Israel made the same mistake. They didn’t miss a turn; they missed the reason for their return. Here is the backstory: they had passed the last seventy winters in Babylonian exile. Their city was razed; their beloved Temple ransacked. Except for the courage of Daniel and his three friends, the era would have been a shameful one. But, after seven decades of clouds, a tunnel of sunlight pierced the clouds and surprised the people.
“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 to 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 at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem’” (Ezra 1:2-4).
God turned the heart of King Cyrus toward the Jews and turned the Jews toward Jerusalem. He prompted the king to give the exiles permission and resources to rebuild the temple. In 538 B.C. a delegation of 50,000 Jews, prompted by God and funded by Cyrus, made the 900-mile trek back to Jerusalem. They rolled up the sleeves of their robes and got to work. Initially, God’s big thing was their big thing.
But after a few years, they began to grow weary. Perhaps the stone-stacking was too tiresome, or the criticism too irksome. Or maybe they began thinking of their own projects; their farms, houses, and businesses. One by one, little by little, person by person, they turned away from God’s big thing and quit working on the Temple. God’s big thing became their small thing.
They concentrated on their own homes and businesses. “We’ll get back to the house of God, they surely reasoned, next week, next month, after the harvest, after the turn of the year.” And, before they knew it, sixteen years came and went. Sixteen years! Enough time for grass to grow and cover the footers of the foundation. Enough time for neighboring nations to conclude that Israel’s God wasn’t worth any devotion. Enough time for a generation of Jewish children to determine that the abandoned temple was a forgotten construction project.
They got off track.
Meanwhile, as God’s house decayed, the houses of the Jews flourished. Fine, paneled houses. The former exiles built businesses and enterprises and, to their surprise, grew more and more miserable by the day. Take a highlighter to the words of Haggai.
“Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin? 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. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,’ says the Lord. ‘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. Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the olive oil and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands’” (Haggai 1:4-11).
Want to know how God responds to lethargy and misplaced priorities? You just read it. Ever wondered what God does when we make his big thing a small thing and our small things big things? Now you know. Ever asked the question, “How does God get our attention when we fail to give Him ours?” According to a page out of His playbook: there will be seasons of drought, times of exhaustive emptiness.
When nothing quenches our deepest thirsts, when no achievements abate our restless hunger, when droughts turn our fields into deserts and retirements into pocket change, what can we do? God’s answer is clear. “Give careful thoughts to your ways.” Evaluate your priorities. Assess your strategies. Is God’s big thing my big thing?
You gave your heart to God and your life to God’s work. But then came…the kids, the promotion, the transfer, the long hours, the business trips. With each passing day you thought less about God’s work and more about your work. Tithing became tipping, prayers became rote quotes. You didn’t forget God, but you didn’t remember him either. And you can relate to the people of Haggai’s day. Life just doesn’t work like you’d hoped.
And now God has pulled you aside for a face to face. It’s time to consider your ways. It’s time to “Go up into the mountains and bring down the timber and build my house” (Haggai 1:8).
Amazingly the Jews did. The Lord stirred up the leadership and the people got to work on the house of God. And God blessed their renewed spirit. “I am with you” (Haggai 1:13; 2:4) he twice assured them.
And He is with you. It’s not too late to start again.
C.S. Lewis said, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.”
They built the House of God. They participated in the greatest work of heaven. God’s word proved true. The glory of the latter was greater than the former.
Trust this promise of God. You aren’t building a temple, but you are building a marriage, a career, a witness, and a legacy. In God’s plan, in God’s hand, the glory of the next chapter will exceed expectations. Just keep your eye on the road. Make his big thing your big thing and see what happens.