February 8, 2004

Refocusing: From Our Work to God’s Work
Haggai 1:1-15
David Meckley was a wonderful handyman. I suppose he still is. For years, David was self-employed, and he earned a living repairing oil burners, fixing leaky faucets, installing tubs and toilets, overhauling busted lawnmowers, and replacing faulty wiring. David could fix virtually everything, and he did just that for us and for many other people in the area. When it became increasingly difficult to manage on his own, however, David took a job with a larger contractor, and we sadly lost his services.

Anyway, David was eating lunch with us one day while he was working at our place, and I asked him a question about his family. He told me where he lived, and he mentioned with a grin that his wife was a bit frustrated with him at the moment. “You are always off doing your own thing and fixing everybody else’s house,” she must have said to him earlier that morning, “but you never get around to doing what I ask you to do!” “You never get around to doing what I ask you to do.”

The people of Judah, given permission to leave their captivity in Babylon and return to their homeland, make the rather long journey and arrive safely back in Jerusalem. Upon their arrival, they are to devote their energies to the God-given task of rebuilding the temple, a task that I suppose they began with a fair bit of enthusiasm. After all, the temple was to be the central location at which the Jewish people worshiped God.

But it didn’t take long, as Haggai points out here in chapter one, for the people to get sidetracked. The going gets tough. Difficulties arise. Distractions clamor for their attention. As a result, the people never get around to doing what God asked them to do. Instead, they abandon their work on God’s temple and do their own thing.

Haggai, you might notice, doesn’t tell us precisely why the Jews at this time abandoned their God-given task. We can easily surmise that the same variety of reasons that we might offer in a similar situation were in place here. The people no doubt grew tired of the sarcasm and criticism of the local residents. They probably felt overwhelmed at times by the sheer magnitude of the task. Maybe they lost interest when the project took longer than they might have originally anticipated. Or perhaps they simply concluded that their own needs and those of their families were more important than doing what God had asked them to do. They needed a new roof over their own heads. They had the chance to put in extra hours at work and they wanted to earn additional money to further secure their own futures. They wanted to spend even more time with their children and friends. For whatever reason, these people lost their enthusiasm for God’s work and focused instead on their own.

Alarmingly, however, Haggai points out that, rather than providing the people of Judah with a richer and more rewarding way of life, their self-serving ambitions have left them empty and deeply disappointed. “Your lives are not blessed,” Haggai informs them (v. 6). “You work, but gain nothing. You eat and drink, but remain hungry and thirsty. You wear fine clothing from Abercrombie and Fitch, but are cold nonetheless. You invest more and more money in your savings accounts and mutual funds, only to watch it fall through holes in the bag.” Worse yet, God himself is deeply displeased and disappointed. “Refocus,” Haggai declares. “Stop thinking about your work, your needs, your agenda, your wants, and recommit yourselves to completing the work that God has called you to.” And fortunately, the people do.

In many ways, we today are in a similar situation, and you and I repeatedly face the same range of fundamental choices that our Jewish ancestors in the faith faced over 2,500 years ago. God continues to call us to build his temple, not so much out of wood and brick, but out of human beings filled with the Holy Spirit. “Do you not know,” Paul asks the entire assembly of believers in Corinth, “that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you (1 Cor. 3:16)?” Or even more directly, Paul informs the followers of Jesus in Ephesus that the church, consisting of Jews and Gentiles alike, “is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord (2:21).” Where once a literal temple stood in the hills of Jerusalem, the New Testament repeatedly assures us that that majestic building has long since been replaced by one made of flesh and bone. We, you and I together, are now the temple in which God dwells.

Yet we face so many distractions that try to prevent us from building. We want our children to take full advantage of every opportunity that our society offers, and that takes hours that have to come from somewhere. We often readily take on additional responsibilities and accept except extra hours at our places of employment, hours that have to come from somewhere. I’ve even heard people reason—and perhaps I thought this way myself a few years ago—that insofar as they are involved in church-related work, whether at the college or at a shelter in Harrisburg, they need not be involved in building the local church. All of us make choices regularly, and for many, those choices seem to place the local church at or near the bottom of the priority list. Choosing to do our work first and God’s second, Haggai would remind us were he here, is a sure way to miss the glory of God in our lives.

But why is it so important to focus a good bit of our energies and resources on building the local church? Shouldn’t we be salt and light wherever we are? Isn’t it possible that we can sequester ourselves in these walls, as though we were marooned on a deserted island, and forget about the world out there? Absolutely. I’ve even discouraged certain people from entering the ministry because I believed that they could serve God more effectively out in the workplace.

But there is something else that you must always keep in mind, something that is of fundamental importance to our Anabaptist understanding of the “visible” church. As God has designed it, the church is far more than a broadcasting station sent to deliver a message to the world. In God’s eyes, the church not only shares a message, but is itself the message for all of the world to see. We are not simply asked to announce good news, but to demonstrate it by building a visible community that enables people in the world to actually catch a glimpse of the Gospel in the flesh. If I might be so bold, even as Jesus himself took on human flesh in order to give the world a real-life depiction of God, so the church is called to live out the good news in tangible and life-changing ways. When we pool our resources, share our gifts, volunteer our skills, and concentrate our energies on developing this local body of believers, we are in fact establishing a visible extension of the Kingdom of God.

Think of it this way. When you walk through the Lower East Side of Manhattan, you can clearly notice significant cultural shifts from place to place. If you stand at the corner of Mulberry and Grand, for example, you know immediately that you are in the middle of Little Italy. The signs on the walls. The smells in the air. The sounds coming from peoples’ mouths. It is as though you were transported for a moment to Italy. But when you wander further south on Mott Street, everything changes. The rigatoni gives way to egg drop soup. You now find yourself in Chinatown. These little neighborhoods are not, as any visitor well knows, Italy and China. Italy and China are miles and miles away, clear on the other side of the ocean. These neighborhoods are, however, smaller scale representations of the real thing, representations that enable people to get a taste of what Italy and China are really like and may even inspire them to go there!

So it is, as God has designed it, with the church. The church, as Paul reminds us, is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and we are called to build it with all of the energy and imagination that we have. We are to create a community here—“Little Heaven” or “Heaventown”—that represents or duplicates heaven itself. We are to build a church here that enables people in our surrounding areas to see and experience a bit of heaven in the midst of their otherwise broken world. And all of us are called to this exciting task. Not just the staff. Not just the board members. All of us. And if you don’t share your gifts and talents with the rest of us, and if you live your lives in such a way that you have nothing left to contribute to the work here, we will all suffer for it. By God’s design, we are in this together.

What comes to the minds of people living in our area when they hear about the Grantham Church, if they ever do? What do people sense—what images flash through their minds—when they drive past our building? What do visitors experience when they come here for the first time? What happens in the lives of those who come here week after week, month after month, and year after year? Is this a place that points people to a world of hope, transformation, forgiveness, love, and grace? Is this such a place? Is this a place that directs people to God and to heaven? God calls us, to be sure, to be his salt and light wherever we are—at work, on the playground, at school, at home, in the mall. But he also calls us to build a visible community here in Grantham that serves as a clear passageway into the very presence of God.

David Meckley, at least from his wife’s point-of-view, was too often running around doing his own thing. He was wiring here and installing there; he always seemed to neglect her wishes in the process. So too with the Jews who had just returned to Jerusalem some 2,500 years ago. They did this and they did that, but they also lost sight of what God had called them to do. Certainly among the most stunning thoughts in all of Scripture is this: God invites each and every one of us, to share in the building of his new temple. Let’s not be distracted and settle for less.