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.

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