Chapter 19 – Priority on God’s Proximity

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Introduction

Some roads don’t lead to heaven. Many lead to slime pits, sand dunes, and sticky situations. If you have ever been four-wheeling you know what I’m talking about. There are those trails that are well maintained, packed-down highways for bush-worthy wanderers, and then there are the paths that land somewhere between the branch-slapping bush mosquitoes and swamp sludge. The latter are more fun–filled with dips and dives, twists and turns, and the skeletons of the last adventurers who went overboard. These are the moments that land somewhere between exhilaration and terror. Life is the splash of mud and slice of adventure until our tires begin to slip. It is the subtle twist too much to the right or the the left that tips us over. We don’t seek to fall off the track, point our nose at the swamp, and gun it.

All good “lost in the woods” stories follow this same pattern. They don’t start with a bunch of people saying, “I’m bored. Let’s go get lost in the woods!” Instead it starts out innocent. Perhaps it is playing too far out so that we can’t see the house any more. Maybe we don’t bother to look at the map because we are trying to impress somebody. It could even be that we heard a rumor of some buried treasure just a ways off of the prescribed school field trip trek. What harm could there be in leaning a little bit to the left for the chance of riches? Inevitably we end up in the swamp one way or another.

What does God do when we get off track? How does he handle our misplaced priorities? The prodigal son smelt the answer to this question: shoveling pig poop and craving corn cobs. He made pleasure his priority. Jonah felt it in the belly of a big fish. He put prejudice at the top of his preferences. Sometimes, God lets us land in the muck when we put partiality on our own pleasures, passions, and pagan pursuits instead of on his presence.

Priority on His Presence

God put much priority on his presence. One of the first things he chose to do after leading the people out of slavery in Egypt was to establish his presence in their midst. Now,  after having his people lost in slavery again, it is o for them to come home. But, Jerusalem is not just any home. It is a home built on the foundations of God’s presence with his people.

Ezra 1:2-4 (NET)

Thus says King Cyrus of Persia:
“The LORD God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has instructed me to build a temple for him in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Anyone from his people among you (may his God be with him!) may go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and may build the temple of the LORD God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. Anyone who survives in any of those places where he is a resident foreigner must be helped by his neighbours with silver, gold, equipment, and animals, along with voluntary offerings for the temple of God which is in Jerusalem.”
God wants to show his people once again that he wants to be in their midst. He wants the temple to be build right at the heart of the largest city around: Jerusalem. It wasn’t on some mystic mountain or hidden behind some rocks in a desert cave. His presence was to be made known right in the heart of his people. Verse 3 puts it well when it gives the reason for the rebuilding of the temple: “for he is the God who is in Jerusalem.” He is not the God who has abandoned his people. He is not the God who is only available after much deliberation and proper sacrificing. He is not some distant deity who is only interested in creating the world and then scourging us for getting out of line. He is the God who is “in Jerusalem:” right in the middle of his people. He lives at the heart of the capital city. That is like us saying, “He is the God who lives in Toronto.” Or “He lives in Ottawa, right next to the parliament buildings.”
He wants to have the temple rebuilt right at the moment of the people’s return from exile so that it will be more than evident who it is that freed them from slavery. He wants to show them that he never forgot about them… and having his temple built right in the middle of town would encourage the people to not forget about him.They would walk by the temple every day; see it on their way to work; run into it when going to meet up with friends for the evening. Children playing in the streets would be frolicking on God’s front lawn.
50,000 people make the 900 mile trek from Babylon to Jerusalem prompted by God and funded by Cyrus. God provided for them miraculously through this pagan king. He was not one of God’s chosen people, yet he heard and replied to God’s commands. Why? One has to presume it was because of God’s great acts of wonder on display in the times of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. King Nebuchadnezzar learned that compared to YHWH, he was just a cow. King Darius, after the Lion’s den debacle also sung to the glory of the God of Israel, and so when King Cyrus of Persia hears the voice of God, he answers the only way that would make sense–with reverent obedience. Not only did he let the people leave, but he sent them packing. Silver, gold, equipment, animals, all that they might need to make a glorious temple that only this great God deserved. The people praised YHWH, and started to build.
 
Misplaced Priorities

Ezra 3:1-3

When the seventh month arrived and the Israelites were living in their towns, the people assembled in Jerusalem. Then Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his priestly colleagues and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his colleagues started to build the altar of the God of Israel so they could offer burnt offerings on it as required by the law of Moses the man of God. They established the alter on its foundations, even though they were in terror of the local peoples, and they offered burnt offerings on it to the LORD, both the morning and the evening offerings.

The people started out strong. They came back to Jerusalem, laid the foundations of God’s house, and praised him for his deliverance. The animals gifted them by King Cyrus were offered up as a form of worship and thanksgiving. But, just because they started out strong, doesn’t mean that they stayed that way. So often our best intentions become distant memories. All that dieting paraphernalia adds more weight to the wastebasket than it removes from our waist. Those exercise videos get buried beneath layers of dust. Our church shoes are replaced with slippers on Sunday morning. Breakfast becomes burritos. Date nights become boys nights. Slowly we lose our leverage on life. If you have ever made a new years resolution, you know what this is like. They are resolutions for the new year, but no one ever said how long they are supposed to last. To many, they are January resolutions.

The Israelites had their own January resolutions. They said, “this time we will do better. This time we will be faithful followers of The Almighty. This time…” But, as time went on, they lost their focus. The foreigners all around urged them to quit. It could have been the social pressure to not persist, or perhaps just laziness. Even though there are projects to do, the couch is more comfortable than loose rungs on a ladder. Whatever the case, over time the workers slowly stopped coming to the temple construction site. Soon the few that remained faithful to the project lost hope and went their own way. No, they didn’t lift middle fingers to the clouds or spit in the dust. This wasn’t the direct defiance of Nebuchadnezzar or Jonah’s snooty scamper. They just lost focus: the slow slipping of a once faithful people.

Loss of focus and lack of priorities were the slithering tricks which turned a weekend to themselves into a sixteen year vacation. They asked the big question that so starts this slipping in us all: “what about me.” They became less interested in God’s house as they grew more interest for their own affairs. Now, instead of this glorious proclamation of God’s greatness in the centre of town there remained the shadow of a construction sight. People would walk by it every day and think, “ya, I need to get back to that.” Foreigners would walk through town and see the dilapidated ruins and think, “I guess these people don’t really care that much about God…”

As we know, God sends prophets to remind us of his importance when we forget. He has done so for the Israelites many times in the past. The prophet he sends at this time is Haggai. He comes at a time when the people have left God’s house in ruins and redirects their attention to where their priorities should be.

The Emptiness of Self Preservation

Haggai 1:4-11

Is it right for you to live in richly panelled houses while my temple is in ruins? 5 Here then is what the Lord who rules over all says: ‘Think carefully about what you are doing. 6 You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but are never filled. You drink, but are still thirsty. You put on clothes, but are not warm. Those who earn wages end up with holes in their money bags.”

Moreover, the Lord who rules over all says: ‘Pay close attention to these things also. 8 Go up to the hill country and bring back timber to build the temple. Then I will be pleased and honoured,’ says the Lord. 9 ‘You expected a large harvest, but instead there was little, and when you brought it home it disappeared right away. Why?’ asks the Lord who rules over all. ‘Because my temple remains in ruins, thanks to each of you favouring his own house! 10 This is why the sky has held back its dew and the earth its produce. 11 Moreover, I have called for a drought that will affect the fields, the hill country, the grain, new wine, fresh olive oil, and everything that grows from the ground; it also will harm people, animals, and everything they produce.’”

God says, “look at your houses! Look how well you are doing for yourselves… yet how empty do you feel? You plant, eat, drink, and cloth yourself all while residing in beautifully panelled houses, and you have left me in the dust.” Isn’t this how we feel when we forget to put our priorities on God? Food doesn’t taste as good. Our clothes never seem to fit quite right. Relationships don’t leave us feeling loved. Our job is unfulfilling. As Solomon puts it so eloquently after amassing great wealth and power in the absence of God. Ecclesiastes 1:2 “Vanity. Vanity! All is vanity!” Other translations say “useless” “futile” “meaningless” “fleeting” “a vanishing vapour” “like chasing after the wind.” This is how life feels when we treat God’s plans for us like an option. Our greatest efforts seem like we are just spinning our wheels when God isn’t put first in our lives.

This is not just some fateful mistake. The vanity of life is not just a coincidence but a God incident. Vs. 9 puts it very plainly. “You expected a large harvest, but instead there was little, and when you brought it home it disappeared right away. Why?” asks the LORD who rules over all. “Because my temple remains in ruins, thanks to each of you favouring his own house!” Putting ourselves first and God second makes life seem meaningless. That is just the way of the world of our Creator. It is by deity’s design that futility follows forgetfulness.

Storage Closet of Forgotten Passions

I think that we all have a storage closet of forgotten passions. For some of us, those closets are full to over-flowing. Some people use a whole garage for this, others paint the attic with cobwebs and a spray of moth balls. Crack that closet open some times and see what’s inside. Perhaps you once felt inspired to write a book and there sits a half finished manuscript beneath a pile of dust. Maybe its a tree house you’ve been meaning to finish for years. Perhaps an old car that isn’t running anything but oil. Maybe you wanted to get into knitting and so you have all sorts of hooks, threads and patterns–but that once perfect passion has been traded for a pile of pretense.

What’s in your storage closet of forgotten passions? A guitar, exercise equipment, pictures that one day will make it into a scrap book and up on the mantle. Just about everything in our lives can end up in the closet, attic, or garage just waiting for the doors to swing open and be hauled out on the lawn and pawned for a penny. But God doesn’t fit in that space. He was never designed to be covered in dust, and will not go forgotten. He cannot rot with the floorboards of an abandoned house. He is too present for that. He is always with us, always for us, and forgetting about him is not like a simple abandoned building project. It is forgetting life! Not knowing God is like not knowing how to truly live! The space between the Obstetrics clinic and the coffin is not just a survival exercise. It is an opportunity to thrive.

God will not stay in our closet of forgotten passions. He wants to be the paint that colour our walls, the beams that hold up our roof, the foundations that keep the wind and rains of life from toppling us over and tearing us down. How can he do that in a closet? God wants to turn our world upside down, change us from suffering slaves into free followers. He wants to build a temple in the midst of our lives so that no matter where we go, no matter what we face, we can find peace in his proximity. If we put our panelled houses a rung higher than his forgotten temple, he will turn the ladder upside down.

Does this mean that our needs are not his concern? Are we to live in suffering because we only care about what God wants? No. But it is not us who will provide for those needs. It is God. Jesus uses an opportunity to speak about this in Matthew 6. The people want to make sure that their lives are safe and secure because they turn over to him whatever is left, but he says, “that’s what the pagans do. That’s the way of the Gentiles. Why? Because they don’t know any other way to live. But those who know the LORD, we know better than have access to something so much greater than our frail and failing abilities.”

Matthew 6:32-33 (NCV)

The people who don’t know God keep trying to get these things, and your Father in heaven knows you need them. 33 Seek first God’s kingdom and what God wants. Then all your other needs will be met as well.

If we put God first everything else will fall into place, but if we forget him in the attic everything else will fall apart.

Conclusion

This is one of the greatest stories in the Bible because God’s people listened! They heard the warning from the Prophet Haggai and went digging through their closets, attics, and garages, each one finding a half built temple. They returned and finished building God’s house, and once again celebrated the God who had given them all things.

Is God’s temple in our closet of forgotten passions this morning? Were we once on fire for his name and in love with his ways, but got distracted? Let us return to God this morning. Let us stop saying, “I will get back to my relationship with God when I have time.” Before we know it there will be no more time, and all the while people brush up against our lives, see a ruined temple in our hearts and think… “God must not be that important.”

Let us be encouraged this morning to remember that God is important! He is of the utmost importance! Life without a relationship with God is shaky like a house with no foundation. It may look good, but once we get into the storms of life soon we realize that a popping paint job does not make a perfect panic room. As we turn back to the foundations of God’s house, and place those stones one after another, he will show us things that we never saw before. If we build that solid foundation on Christ, the rest will work itself out. If we seek God first, all those others things that so drive our lives will be “added unto us.”Let us be like the Israelites in this story and listen when God calls us back to himself.

May we return to our passion for his name and live in celebration of what he has done, peace in the shadow of His Son, and hope for the days to come.

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