Building a Spiritual House

I would like to tell you the story of a man named Eli. Our story begins when Eli is a young man and even in his early years, Eli knew that he was incredibly good with his hands. Eli had a knack for building and fixing things. Eli was a marvel to his parents, his Dad always claimed that he couldn’t nail to boards together – but Eli could create, build, mend and repair just about anything. For Eli, working with his hands was not simply something he was good at, it was his passion – he loved to build! As Eli grew older, he decided to pursue his passion and he began his career as a carpenter working in construction. Over the years, Eli became a master craftsman and he developed a thriving and profitable business building new homes.

Eli never had sons of his own, but he took a young man named Adam under his wing. Adam was clever and also good with his hands, and over the years, Eli invested a lot of time and energy in training Adam, because Eli envisioned Adam taking over his business when he retired. Unfortunately, over those years, Adam grew complacent working with Eli. You see, Eli was generous and gracious with Adam – paying him far above market value, providing great benefits, paying for a yearly vacation and Adam grew accustomed to this and took Eli for granted. Eli had one last job for Adam before he retired. Eli had a beautiful piece of property on a high mesa, overlooking a valley and he wanted to build a house on it. Adam agreed but began the work with less than his full attention. Adam had many side projects that he preferred to work on and so he did not build the house as he should have. Adam cut corners; he used cheap material and did things to get the job done quickly instead of doing them correctly. When the house was finished, it looked beautiful on the outside – but that was only a façade, inside and underneath there were many problems. When the project was completed, Adam handed the keys to Eli – happy to be done with Eli’s final project and to have all his time to do what he wanted. However, Eli refused the keys, telling Adam – no, I have a house, I have everything I want or need – I wanted you to build this house for yourself and your family – I wanted this to be my final gift to you before I retire, so I can know that you and your family will be secure in this house and can enjoy it for years to come.

This story serves as a great analogy for the building of our own spiritual houses: do we place the priority on building for quality or do we place priorities elsewhere and cut corners. This morning I want to explore a story about the people of Israel as they sought to rebuild their corporate spiritual house – the temple; how Israel’s story can speak spiritual truths into our own lives and finally, I want to share God’s message of hope for Israel and how it relates to us at the Glenwood Church of Christ.

We are going to look at a couple different texts this morning. Our first one will come from the book of Haggai, but before we read, I want to give you some background information. Between 605 B.C. and 586 B.C. the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar carried off thousands and thousands of Jews to Babylon, culminating in 586 with the burning of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple. The destruction of the temple marked the end of an era in Israel’s national and religious life: Israel no longer had the house of God and were without their sacrifices. Under the generosity of the Persian King, Cyrus, nearly 50,000 Jewish men and women returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, the grandson of the last King of Judah. These Israelites returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the city: its walls, and more importantly the temple. In addition to Zerubbabel, Israel was led by the high priest Joshua and the Prophets Haggai and Zechariah. Upon the return to Jerusalem, sacrifices and burnt offerings were reinstated on a rebuilt altar. In the second year of the rebuilding, the foundation of the temple was laid. However, foreign harassment and pressure from the Persian government brought the rebuilding of the temple to a stand-still. With the momentum stopped, spiritual apathy set in, and the rebuilding of the temple was discontinued for 16 years, until the rule of King Darius Hystaspes – not to be confused with Darius the Mede from the book of Daniel. In the second year of King Darius, God raised up Haggai the prophet to arouse Israel from their spiritual lethargy and encourage them to again undertake the task of rebuilding the temple. That is the background as we begin to read from Haggai 1:

“In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest: This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come for the Lord’s house to be built.’” Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet 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 the 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.”

To begin our understanding of Haggai, we must consider why God wanted the temple to be rebuilt. The testimony of Scripture reveals a God who in mercy and compassion desires to make himself known. He comes to his people in a rescue out of Egyptian slavery or in a birth at Bethlehem, and thereby reveals himself to have a very particular character. When God promises Israel in the covenant, “I will be your God and you will be my people” – that promise is symbolized in Israel by specific displays of His presence. God’s presence with Israel was marked by the pillar of cloud and fire in their march through the wilderness. He was later revealed as enthroned above the Ark of the Covenant – which was ultimately brought into Jerusalem by David and placed in the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple. When the temple was destroyed, it was a sure sign that God had abandoned his people. So God seeks to remind his people, and all the nations of Earth, that the God of Israel is alive and He is present. So – God, seeking to have his presence symbolized by concrete reminders stirs the hearts of the nation to rebuild the temple. It is an announcement that the Lord of Hosts desires to give himself again in covenant fellowship with his People.

Yet, in the years since the rebuilding of the Temple began, the people had grown spiritually apathetic toward God’s presence and felt no desire to rebuild the temple. The charge that God levels at Israel through the prophet Haggai is that there is a problem with their priorities. Instead of focusing on the most important priority of building the Temple, the people have focused on building their own homes. While God’s house lies in ruins, Israel has busied themselves in obtaining more wealth and more possessions. In short, the people have raised their needs, wants and desires above God. This is no small problem, at its very heart, Israel is struggling with idolatry. Not the blatant idolatry of a golden calf or a foreign God; a much more insidious sort of idolatry that many 21st Century North American Christians can identify with: the idolatry of placing me and my priorities above God.

I want to look at a second text this morning, which I think will help bring Haggai into application with our own lives. Let’s read 1 Peter 2: 5, 9-10;

“You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Peter’s phrase in vs. 5 translated as a spiritual house could also be translated “temple of the Spirit.” Peter is emphasizing that our lives are the Temple of God. Within each of us dwells the Holy Spirit. Much as Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple were concrete symbols of God’s presence among His people, today, and our lives should be built into the temple of the LORD – a concrete symbol of God’s presence in the world.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself falling into the same trap as the Israelites in Haggai chapter 1. I become more concerned with my own interests and priorities than doing the LORD’s work. I busy myself with making sure that my material house or physical life is paneled, or gilded – making it beautiful. I busy myself trying to amass wealth and possessions and truly only focusing on the things for which I am concerned or which catch my attention. All the while, my Temple of the Spirit, my spiritual life lies in ruins. I’m too busy to read the Bible today, I need to get this project taken care of. I’m not concerned with doing my devotional reading tonight, it just doesn’t hold my attention like this new Hollywood blockbuster. I’m not interested in fasting tomorrow because restaurant A, B, or C sounds much more enticing.

I think that the building of my Spiritual life, house or temple is much like Israel’s rebuilding of the temple in Haggai’s time. When Israel first stopped work on the temple, many probably felt pangs of guilt. But as the weeks, months, and years came and went, it became increasingly easy to neglect what God wanted them to do at that time. I don’t know if that sounds familiar to you – but isn’t this exactly how apathy seeps into our own spiritual lives. It starts with missing the daily Scripture readings, prayers or devotions, that are the disciplines essential to build your Spiritual house, for one day, but soon that day stretches into a week, a month a year or longer. As time goes by, the guilt lessens and soon we find ourselves in the exact mess Israel found itself in: apathy, incorrect priorities and insidious idolatry through which we pander to our own appetites rather than serve and worship the living God.

I believe that Haggai’s words are incredibly appropriate for us today. I think Haggai would ask why we expend so much time and energy on our material houses when our spiritual houses, our Temples of the LORD go ignored. Haggai would challenge us to rethink our priorities and to reengage in building our spiritual houses – each day.

So far, my application of Haggai’s message to us has been very individual focused. However, I think there are some further reaching implications as Haggai’s message applies to our community of faith as the Glenwood Church of Christ. God’s presence is not only manifest in our personal spiritual houses – but also in the communal spiritual house that is the church. In Israel during Haggai’s time there was reluctance among the people to rebuild the temple because the rebuilt temple would pale in comparison to the glory of Solomon’s Temple. There is a risk in reminiscing and romanticizing the past in that it can sometimes paralyze the present and prevent the future. We must find a balance between remembering what God has done and looking forward expectantly to what God will do.

If I could point out what is obvious for a moment: The Glenwood Church of Christ has hit a rough patch in its life cycle, attendance is down, giving is down, the budget is decreased – in that there are some similarities between this church and the nation of Israel that had returned from Babylonian and Persian exile. Things are not what they once were, and if we dwell too long on that fact we will become paralyzed and never embrace where God will lead in the future. Listen to God’s words to Israel through the prophet Haggai in chapter 2:3-9.

“‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? But now be strong, O Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’ “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.’”

Israel worried about the Second Temple being inferior to Solomon’s Temple, and it may have appeared less magnificent, but in God’s sight it was greater because of the significance of its being rebuilt and the odds which the builders overcame to build it. It is powerful imagery when God says he will shake the heavens and the earth – in essence he will shake it so that all the materials necessary for rebuilding will come to rest in Jerusalem. This is a message of hope and peace to Israel – God is working on your behalf, He will make the rebuilding possible.

The same message can be spoken in this place today. It starts with each of us taking seriously God’s call to lay down our individual, material priorities and begin anew the building of our spiritual houses. When we have begun that, our corporate spiritual house – this church will be restored beyond its former glory by the Almighty, Lord of Hosts. The book of Haggai is a message of hope to a people that were disenfranchised, and it offers a message of hope to us today. Through God, Israel was able to rebuild the temple, which housed God’s presence and restore their nation. Through God, we can begin to build afresh our spiritual temple, which houses the Holy Spirit and see growth and life blossom in this church and community.