Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ten of the Twelve - Haggai and the attitude of poverty.

Tons of weblogs in the weblogosphere made Best Of lists for the last decade at the beginning of January. Even if I wanted to join the noise, it's way too late now. But if someone asked, I would gladly name Read Music/Speak Spanish by Desaparecidos as one of my favorite records from the last decade. It's the reason I might never enjoy Bright Eyes ever again. It's a trashy, scathing, unapologetic recording. The theme of the album deals with urban sprawl and hyper consumerism. One song, Greater Omaha, has a line that I still find myself humming. "We can't afford to be generous. There's closing costs and a narrow market." I've thought about that line for years. If a person had enough money to worry about housing costs, contracts, stocks, etc, what stops them from generosity?

Of course the song is sarcastic, but the chorus nails the attitude of poverty. "Just one more mouthful and we will be happy then." It seems that people can act impoverished no matter how much wealth they possess. When Babylon overtook Jerusalem, the invaders destroyed the Temple. Now in exile, God's people were completely brokenhearted. You can hear their sadness in Psalm 137. After 70 years, God brings His people back to the Promised Land but it took many years before they restored the Temple.

It's here we find Haggai prophesying to Governor Zerubbabel, Joshua the High Priest, and the former exiles. In 1:3-4, "'Here is what the Lord of Hosts says: "This people is saying that now isn't the time - the time hasn't yet arrived for the Lord's house to be rebuilt.'" Then this word of the Lord came through Haggai the prophet: 'so is now the time for you to be living in your own paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?'"

Some of those hearing him were alive at the time of Judah's fall to Babylon. They saw the Temple in times of glory. When they returned, they saw their land poorly tended, the surrounding nations showed them hostility, and they had to pay high taxes in tribute to the government. They developed a spirit, or attitude, of poverty. Yes, they were poor. Yes, they were despised. But they forgot who God is and what He thought of them.

I've said the phrase "attitude of poverty" a few times now. Here's what I want to communicate when I say those words. When a person gets a dollar, they think, "I should spend this dollar now because I might not have it tomorrow." Sounds silly, but that's a common reaction poor people have to resources.

I work with a few people who grew up in the projects and other destitute neighborhoods. They honestly think this way. Guess how many of them have savings accounts? Any kind of bank account? Zero. None of them. I asked a couple of these co-workers what they do when they get their paycheck. They cash them at convenience stores. They request payday weekends off so they can go to the club or the beauty shop. With the exception of one guy I've found so far, none of them seem to save for anything lasting. Spend the money while you have it. Just one more mouthful.

Coming from people who haven't expressed any solid belief or trust in God, I can see why they think this way. But for God's people in Judah to have this kind of attitude supposes no trust in the One who fulfilled His promise to bring them home. Haggai lists out the different areas of lack and explains the origin in 1:5-9. "'Therefore here is what the Lord of Hosts says: "Think about your life! You sow much but bring in little; you eat but aren't satisfied; you drink but never have enough; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and he who works for a living earns wages that are put in a bag full of holes."' 'Here is what the Lord of Hosts says: "Think about your life! Go up into the hills, get wood, and rebuild the house (or Temple), I will be pleased with that, and then I will be glorified," says the Lord. "You looked for much, but it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why?" asks the Lord of Hosts. "Because my house lies in ruins, while every one of you runs to take care of his own house."'"

What do you think would have happened if God's people had achieved success while they had this attitude? They could have easily credited themselves, forgotten to place their trust in God, forgotten to give Him the glory for their restoration, and found themselves in pre-exile arrogance. So God made things hard and kept them at a level of subsistence until they learned to trust Him.

It's not just about money, though. The attitude of poverty is also self-effacing, making the person feel stuck and incapable. A few of the homeless people that sleep under the train bridge by my house feel this way. I've excuses as to why they won't work their way out of this life. They're old. They're sick. They don't have any skills. The one guy who told me he believes in Jesus seems the most downcast.

I pray for him to receive the kind of encouragement the Lord gives His people at the end of Haggai 1, "I am with you." In verse 14, "The Lord roused the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the High Priest, and the spirit of all the rest of the people; so that they came and began to work on the house of the Lord of Hosts, their God." This doesn't sound exactly like when God miraculously gave His people the means and ability to build the Tabernacle. From what I see, He merely encouraged them buy His Spirit. They were capable in theory but didn't know it until God roused their spirits to do the work.

Haggai talks to the priests in chapter 2 now that the work has begun to restore the Temple. Soon, they're going back to their jobs and need orientation. God tells Haggai to ask them what makes something holy and what makes it defiled. If something designated as holy like the meat of the sacrifice were to touch a common item of food, it becomes defiled, going from holy to common. If something particularly unclean were to touch either holy or common items, then those items would become unclean. God explains how this orientation also applies to the condition of the people. He called them holy and set-apart. They were to keep a distinction between themselves and the rest of the world. If they tried to mix themselves with the world and its practices, they would become defiled again.

One last prophecy is given specially to Zerubbabel. Haggai relays the message from God, "I will shake the heavens and the earth, I will overturn the thrones of the kingdoms, I will destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and I will overturn the chariots and the people riding in them; the horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother." At first this sounds like a repeat promise from earlier when God told the people He would restore their fortune from these destroyed kingdoms. But the prophecy continues, "'When that day comes,' says the Lord of Hosts, 'I will take you, Zerubbabel, my servant, the son of Shealtiel,' says the Lord, 'and wear you like a signet ring; for I have chosen you,' says the Lord of Hosts."

Chosen him far what? He was already governor of Judah. He was already, in a sense, spirit-filled and doing God's work. We find the answer in Matthew 1:12 where the author gives Jesus' genealogy. "After the Babylonian Exile, Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel was the father of Zerbbabel." This prophecy was a promise of the coming Messiah, Jesus. In all the work to be done on this Temple, the one God promised to be more glorious than the last, Haggai reminds Zerubbabel of the point. Yes, the Temple was good. God dwelt among His people there. But there would come a time when God would come as a man and walk among His people. After His resurrection and ascension, then we would experience the ultimate form of "God with us" during our time in this life when the Holy Spirit came.

Think about what this was like for Zerubbabel? "The Messiah is still coming, Mr. Governor, and He'll be one of your descendants." I wonder if this gave Zerubbabel a new perspective on the importance of what he and Joshua were asked to do. I wonder what his relationship with God looked like afterward. If it were me, I'd feel overwhelmed with humility. A short time ago, he was poor and couldn't do anything for himself. God gives him hope for future restoration, "your work isn't in vain. Not only that, but the One who will come and set everything right will be born of your line. You, Zerubbabel, are a part of my plan for salvation."

For those of us who have our trust in Jesus and see the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, we can also be certain of this. Our work for the Kingdom of God is not in vain. Be encouraged! We will make mistakes, we will find times when our energy begins to run low, but God has promised to set everything right through Jesus.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Nine of the Twelve - Zephaniah's indictment against complacency.

My girlfriend knows this girl who, in my opinion, is a total brat. God help her. One night during a painfully selfish episode, I asked her, "If you could be your own god, would you?"

She gave me the Stink-eye and said, "I don't know." Like I was dumb for asking. I kept my mouth shut and nodded my head. She might not have thought of it to know but her answer was the same as "Yes". Every idol and false religion is just a variation of the serpent's lie in Genesis 3, "You will be like God." Either you serve God, or you serve whatever vehicle promises to fulfill your selfish desires. These vehicles, like money or romance or achievement, become idols when we do not submit our hope and trust to God alone.

Even thought this girl goes to a church, I don't know if she is a Christian. I've never asked. But I do know a handful of people who say they're believers while acting like every other idol-worshiper. In conversation with them, I hear them speak of God not as Lord but as a means for wealth, success, perfect fitness, etc. Not that I'm saying God doesn't want this for us, but there's so much more to Him. A.W. Tozer once said that idolatry is worshiping anything less than God, including a reduced version of God. I've heard this reduced version referred to as "Easy Gospel". It doesn't cost you anything and gives you everything in this life. We'll talk more about this later, but for now, let's look at Zephaniah.

In the first verse of Zephaniah's book, a genealogy notes the prophet as a cousin of King Josiah, sharing Hezekiah as a great-grandfather. Josiah was distinguished in the Bible as a good king who pleased God. He removed official places of idol worship and restored the Temple. This reform came after two generations of wicked kings who worshiped Molech and belonged to a cult devoted to "The Army of Heaven". In my Bible, Zephaniah starts at the bottom of the right hand page and only shows the first verse. My surprised at verse two when I turned the page was probably a distant echo of the shock Josiah may have felt. "'I will completely sweep away everything off the face of the land,' says the Lord."

It would seem that, despite Josiah's reforms, idolatry continued throughout the country and held to peoples' hearts. Zephaniah 1:4-6 names the different idols. "I will stretch out my hand over Judah and all those living in Jerusalem. I will wipe every remnant of Baal from this place, the idol-serving priests and even their names, those worshiping heaven's army on the roofs, also those who worship and sear by the Lord but swear by Malkam as well, those who turned away from following the Lord, and those who haven't sought the Lord or consulted Him at all."

If Zephaniah knew about this ongoing practices, the king most likely had knowledge of them as well. Josiah might not have personally worshiped idols or promoted their worship but we can guess he at least demonstrated a tolerance toward idol worship in his kingdom. Instead of giving this a governmental application, I'll compare the average Western church with Judah and modern versions of these idols.

Baal/Asherah worship was a fertility cult. It ultimately had to do with agricultural (financial) prosperity and implemented sexual perversion as a part of their ceremonies. If you look at the history of something like televangelism, it doesn't take long to find stories of greed and sexual perversion. This problem is obviously bigger than TV preachers. Beau Black, writing for the Baptist Standard, cited a statistic saying between 40 and 70 percent of evangelical Christian men struggle with pornography. It wouldn't surprise me if the real number were closer to 70 than 40. It also wouldn't surprise me if this number reflected the percentage of pastors who struggle with porn. And this statistic doesn't even consider the women who also deal with this issue. I would look further into these statistics but I hesitate to run a Google search including the word "porn". I guess for now, the Press will have to suffer some limits of research. When a friend of mine came to visit me in Nashville, he noticed the city's high number of adult stores and strip clubs. He wondered aloud why there were so many. I answered his rhetorical question, "probably because there are so many pastors." I didn't mean to be cynical but I had that 40 to 70 percent statistic in mind.

The people who worshiped Malkam, another name for Molech, would sacrifice their children by fire to this false god. I won't go into the common comparison to abortion here. Instead, I'll focus on what Zephaniah said about people swearing by both God and Molech. Overall, the way Zephaniah puts it, the very thought of someone worshiping God and aligning themselves with something as evil and wicked as Molech downright confuses me. There are some who belong to organizations and societies that make oaths to a vague, catch-all, "god-as-you-know-him" name. Of all these organizations and societies I've read into, at some level below the surface, one realizes they do not at all serve the one, true God. I know of people who belong or once belonged to these societies and the more I learn, the more I wonder whether they were duped or if they ever truly accepted Jesus as their Lord.

The Army of Heaven cult was a weird version of modern day astrology mixed with pseudo-biblical mysticism. 2 Kings 23 tells of Josiah tearing down the altars to the Army of Heaven that his grandfather Manasseh had built in the Temple and removing its priests, but Zephaniah's words make me wonder if the king had succeeded in completely eradicating its practice from his kingdom. I don't know many churches that promote astrology or biblical mysticism, but I have heard a decent number of church-goers discuss these studies. Our society tends to have a casual view on this sort of thing.

Most of all, in this first chapter of Zephaniah, I can see how much God hated the attitude of false religion masquerading as what I know call Christianity - those who worshiped the Lord and had hope in Jesus, the coming Messiah. Why is it that so many Unitarian churches appear to promote Christian tendencies on the surface when their very message is "god-as-you-know-him"? I've seen the West support a belief in "God", but discourage belief in Jesus. It's culturally acceptable to use what Francis Shaeffer called "the word 'God'" and go to church. This reminds me of Keith Green's story. He used to believe in something he called "God" and looked to Jesus more like a spiritual teacher or guru. Then he came to saving faith, became a genuine Christian, and went on to say convicting things like, "Going to church doesn't make you a Christian the same way going to McDonald's doesn't make you a hamburger."

This brings me back to the topic of Easy Gospel and Tozer's definition of idolatry. The Bible teaches that God is holy. Wayne Grudem defines holy as something special and set apart form common or ordinary things, clean as opposed to defiled. The beings who surround God and praise Him in Revelation 4 call Him, "Holy, Holy, Holy." Using the word three times was a Hebrew literary device to describe its perfection. God isn't just holy, He's perfectly holy. In the Temple, there was the Holy Place and then the Most Holy Place. God dwelt in the Most Holy Place. The Holy of Holies. What we see in Zephaniah 1 is an attitude that seeks to reduce God and put Him on the same level of importance as the false religions of the surrounding nations. I think they intended to make God more culturally appealing so they wouldn't look like the weird, backwater country with the un-hip religion. In chapter 2 and 3:1-4, it looks like they succeeded when God angrily compares them to other nations.

God also felt grief for His people. I mean, they were pissing Him off, but it still pained Him. When He took Israel out of Egypt in Exodus, He called them "His people". In Leviticus, He gave the blessing for them to be holy as He is holy. They were supposed to be special as a nation, set apart from the others, dedicated to God and God alone. I know that this essay may sound like I'm grinding and axe for the church. Please don't mistake me. I love the church. I don't intend to make blanket statements. But I do live in the West, see what our culture calls Christianity, and I see many who fit the comparison.

Like that girl I mentioned at the beginning, there are people who may say they're Christians while displaying an exhausting kind of selfishness. Like Zephaniah's Jerusalem, they want all the grace but none of the conviction, salvation but not the life of repentance. There are churches that would are willing to accept sin and ignore God's call to holiness and their responsibility to biblical church discipline. Josiah's family had a history of worshiping both Molech and the Army of Heaven. I wonder if he turned a blind eye to their continued existence (at any level) because of something like family feelings. That's speculation, of course, but I do wonder. The people of Judah might have called themselves holy, but God through Zephaniah exposed their hearts.

Thankfully, the third and final chapter of Zephaniah offers hope. The first reference to Jesus occurs in 3:5. "The Lord, who is righteous, is there among them." The idea of God dwelling with His people first appears in Genesis when He walked with man in the Garden of Eden. Despite the separation caused by sin, God again expressed His desire to dwell among His people when He ordered the Tabernacle (an early form of the Temple) built. The name given for Jesus in the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 7 is "Immanuel", translated "God with us".

In Zephaniah 3:9, God promises, "For then I will change the peoples, so that they will have pure lips, to call on the name of the Lord, all of them, and serve Him with one accord." This is a picture of cleansing, of salvation, of God Himself changing our hearts. The part about pure lips reminds me of Isaiah 6. There, Isaiah sees God and cries out, "Woe to me! I [too] am doomed! Because I, a man with unclean lips, living among a people with unclean lips, have seen with my own eyes the King, the Lord of Hosts!" Then one of the angels takes a glowing coal from the Temple altar and touches it to Isaiah's lips. The angel says, "Here! This has touched your lips. Your iniquity is gone, your sin atoned for."

We can read books like Zephaniah, think about its application to our lives, and wonder like Isaiah if we too are doomed. But God the Son, Jesus, came to live among His people as a man, died to take our punishment, and rose again to offer us new life. Before He returned to Heaven, Jesus told His disciples in Acts 1 to wait in Jerusalem. Again, He promised, God would come among His people in the form of the Holy Spirit. Scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit then indwells those who accept Jesus as God. Our bodies become a temple of the Holy Spirit, something like the Most Holy Place.

This should cause some sort of heart change in a person! Paul explains in Galatians that the Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control as "fruit" in the life of a believer. Of course one quick prayer doesn't make us immediately awesome and none of us ever reach perfection. The process God uses to make us more holy is called "sanctification". Like God says in Zephaniah's prophecy, this change of heart comes by His power alone.

This raises a few questions. Have you seen this sanctifying work in your life, where by the Spirit's enabling you become more like the holy, set-apart person God desires? Do you see more of the fruit He produces in your life now than in the past? If your answer is yes, God be praised. We can high five and continue to encourage each other. If you see your Christian brothers or sisters struggling , then talk with them, pray for them. Don't be like Jerusalem and tolerate them with an attitude of "I'm okay/you're okay". If your answer is no, please take a moment to pray and ask God to reveal idols you may have in your heart. Open yourself to the Holy Spirit's conviction. Be willing to receive His correction and change.