It can be tough on a boy growing up in a home where one parent loves the Lord with all their heart and the other is antagonistic towards anything to do with God. Mixed messages from those closest to us are never a good thing. The boy’s father, Patrick, not only wanted nothing to do with God, but he was a carouser. He broke his marriage vows often and didn’t even try to hide it from his wife Monica. Monica, on the other hand, was the most genuine, humble woman of God. She read God’s Word to her son, she shared Jesus’ love with her son, and she prayed for him daily.
As the boy matured his mother’s faith seemed to always echo in the back of his mind even though his father’s propensity for the ladies began to emerge as a consuming force in his life. Later in life he would write that from about the age of 16, “the frenzy gripped me and I surrendered myself entirely to lust.” He fathered a child out of wedlock at seventeen, moved out of his parent’s house and in with his girlfriend at eighteen, and his sexually promiscuous ways continued to grow and consume him.
He joined a cult whose most stringent rules were aimed at sexual promiscuity. The strictness of the cult wasn’t able to help him fix his problem. He turned to philosophy. He read the great philosophers, but they too provided little help. He kept hearing his mother’s voice, recalling her faith, but not even a mother’s desire for her son to get on the right track moved him.
He was by no means a guy who was down and out. Quite the contrary, he was both brilliant and hugely successful. He was offered jobs teaching rhetoric to the brightest students pursuing careers in law and government in Rome as well as Milan. While teaching in Milan he heard about a Christian preacher named Ambrose. He went to hear him teach and was mesmerized by Ambrose’ eloquent teaching style. He taught the Bible like no one the young man had ever heard before, but…not even the powerful teaching of Ambrose could help the young man find relief from his desire for the pleasures of the flesh. He said that he had often prayed, “Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.”
One day he was with a group of his friends, brilliant young philosophers and rhetoricians, as they sat around in a garden, a paradise-like setting in Milan. While talking with his friends he was struck by the thought that he had everything he had ever dreamed of, but he was empty, he was not satisfied, he was soul-sick…he knew he had to change. He was so overwhelmed with sorrow that he was about to start crying. He knew he had to get away from his friends. He got up and ran a distance into the garden. He later described the moment by saying that as he ran he was pulling at his hair, hitting himself in the head, and thinking to himself, “How long? How long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not at this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?” He said he heard a voice saying, “Tolle lege! Tolle lege!” which means, “Take up and read.” He had no idea what the message meant, but he got up and went back to the house where he picked up a Bible, randomly opened it, and read the first thing he saw. He read,
11 …The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature. (Romans 13:11-14 NIVO)
The Word of God pierced his heart and brought about a change in his life. The writer of Hebrews is so right. God’s Word is living and active. It is able to cut through to the deepest part of who we are. What I’ve just shared with you may sound like a modern-day story, but it’s actually the story of a man named Augustine who was born in 354 and died in 430. St. Augustine’s story is so familiar to many of us, not because we are familiar with Augustine, but because we’ve lived the same story. “Lord, I want to give my life to You, but not yet. Lord, I want to serve you, but not yet. The time’s not right now Lord, but one day…”
This is also the story of the Jews who were freed from Babylon by Cyrus to go back to their homeland. After the work on the temple came to a standstill in 536 B.C. because of the opposition they were facing from their neighbors, the sound of a hammer would not be heard for another sixteen years in Jerusalem. Let’s take a look at our Scripture for today found in Ezra 5:1-5.
1 Now Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the prophet, a descendant of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. 2 Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Jozadak set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. And the prophets of God were with them, helping them. 3 At that time Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and their associates went to them and asked, “Who authorized you to rebuild this temple and restore this structure?” 4 They also asked, “What are the names of the men constructing this building?” 5 But the eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews, and they were not stopped until a report could go to Darius and his written reply be received. (Ezra 5:1-5 NIVO)
For sixteen years the work that had begun in the first year of their return to Jerusalem stopped altogether. They had reset the altar in its place and laid the foundation of the temple where it had once stood, but then the work stopped cold. One year roll into another and before they knew it, sixteen years had passed. How could that be? Do you remember the great celebration that broke out when the work began? They began the work with such great joy and enthusiasm that we were told the sounds of the celebration could be heard all over the land. And then there was silence. No hammers at work, no tears of joy, or shouts of thankfulness. Silence.
After sixteen years of nothing I find the opening verses of Ezra 5 nothing short of amazing, spectacular, and mind-boggling. After sixteen years of nothing happening, suddenly the work began again and with great enthusiasm. How did it happen? What took place that caused the people to refocus, to remember the most important reason they had returned to Jerusalem in the first place? The answer is right before our eyes in verse 1: God sent help. Read verse 1 with me again.
1 Now Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the prophet, a descendant of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. (Ezra 5:1 NIVO)
Are you familiar with Haggai and Zechariah? The two men made it into the Old Testament listed among the minor prophets. All we know about Haggai is what we can read about him in the book that bears his name. His book is just two chapters. He preached four sermons over a four month period of time, from August 29 to December 18, 520 B.C. God sent Haggai to deliver His Word to those who had grown stagnant and distracted in Jerusalem.
The second prophet listed in Ezra 5:1 is a man named Zechariah. He also is listed in the minor prophets, but his preaching is much different than that of Haggai. Zechariah is a visionary, a preacher whose message is more like what we read about in the book of Revelation. Zechariah uses imagery that oftentimes is hard to understand. He uses numbers, colors, visions, and the last half of his book looks way out into the future to a greater temple and the coming Messiah.
If we simply read Ezra alone then we have no idea what it was that Haggai and Zechariah said to Zerubbabel, Jeshua the priest, and the other Jews who had returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, but had gotten discouraged and distracted when opposition came. But, if we read Haggai and Zechariah alongside of Ezra 5:1 then get so much insight into two very important aspects of this story. First, we can learn what was happening in the lives of the people during the sixteen years of inactivity when no work was taking place on the temple. Second, we can learn the content of the messages Haggai and Zechariah delivered to Zerubbabel and Jeshua the priest.
What was going on with the people of God during those sixteen years after they faced opposition and stopped building the temple? Let’s turn to Haggai 1 and see what we can learn.
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: 2 This is what the LORD Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come for the LORD’s house to be built.'” 3 Then the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai: 4 “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” 5 Now this is what the LORD Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 6 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.” 7 This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 8 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. 9 “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. (Haggai 1:1-9 NIVO)
God knew the hearts of Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the people didn’t He? He knows our hearts as well. Just like Augustine who often prayed, “Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.” the people were saying, “The time just isn’t right for us to rebuild God’s house, not yet.” Was their hesitancy because there were armed guards stationed around the building site? That’s not what Haggai tells us. They were distracted by building their own houses and their own lives. Their priority was themselves and not God’s will for their lives. They were totally devoted to their own bottom-line, boosting their net worth, and making a name for themselves instead of surrendering and serving God.
In Matthew 6, Jesus told the crowd, “No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve both God and money.” He asked them, “Why do you worry about your life? What you will eat and what you will wear?” We could add to that list, couldn’t we? Why do we worry about what others have? Why do we worry about how to get what others have? Why do we worry, fixate, and stay up late at night worrying about how to get more, more, more? Jesus told the crowd, and He says to us this morning,
33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33 NIVO)
Above all else in life, seek first God’s Kingdom, seek first God’s glory, seek first God’s will and purpose for your life and He will provide what you need in life.
Going back to the message Haggai delivered to the people in Jerusalem. He told them not once, but twice, “Give careful thought to your ways.” Really take a long, hard look at what’s happening in your life. You’ve planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but you’re never satisfied. You drink, but are always thirsty. You’ve got plenty of clothes to wear, but are never comfortable. You’re making money hand-over-fist, but you never have enough. Doesn’t that sound like Augustine when it dawned on him that he had everything he had ever imagined having, but he was empty, not satisfied with anything in life? Augustine, Zerubbabel, Jeshua the priest, and the people of Jerusalem had pursued what they wanted most and it had left them empty, completely empty, and unsatisfied.
After God used Haggai to point this out to the people, he highlighted a question they had been asking themselves over and over again, “Why?” Why did everything look good from the outside, but inside they were rotting away? How could they be so full and yet so empty all at the same time? How could they have given their full attention to taking care of themselves, providing for themselves, and yet all they had acquired and accomplished wasn’t enough?
9 …“Why?” declares the LORD Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house. (Haggai 1:9 NIVO)
Haggai wasn’t the only preacher God sent to the people of Jerusalem, He also sent a man named Zechariah. We can learn from the opening verse of his memoirs that he preached his first message two months after Haggai. Turn to Zechariah 1:1-4 with me and let’s read together.
1 In the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo: 2 “The LORD was very angry with your forefathers. 3 Therefore tell the people: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the LORD Almighty. 4 Do not be like your forefathers, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the LORD. (Zechariah 1:1-4 NIVO)
It’s important to know that Zechariah’s name means, “God remembers.” After sixteen years of being distracted by their own cares and concerns and neglecting God’s will, the people might very well have forgotten why they had been brought back to Jerusalem, but God remembered. Those who had been so determined not to do what those who had gone before them had done in turning to idols and ignoring God’s call, they had forgotten. Those who returned to worshiping God as their first priority as soon as they got back to Jerusalem, had now forgotten. Zechariah raised his voice in the heart of Jerusalem and cried out, “This is what the LORD Almighty says: Return to me and I will return to you.” There’s someone, maybe many of us here this morning who need to hear those words again: “Return to me and I will return to you.” It is in God’s grace that we learn the greatest of lessons: God is not like us. We can betray our friends and family members and they may or may not allow us to reconcile with them, but God says, “Return to me and I will return to you.”
God wanted His people to remember what it was that led to their exile in the first place so they wouldn’t repeat the sins of their parents and grandparents. Zechariah said,
4 Do not be like your forefathers, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the LORD. (Zechariah 1:4 NIVO)
The same message had gone out to the people of Israel again and again throughout their history: “Return to me and I will return to you.” They would not listen. You will remember that God raised up Jeremiah to urge the people to turn back, even as the Babylonians were descending on Jerusalem. In Jeremiah 25:4 we read,
4 And though the LORD has sent all his servants the prophets to you again and again, you have not listened or paid any attention. (Jeremiah 25:4 NIVO)
The people listened when Zechariah lifted his voice and said, “This is what the LORD Almighty says: Return to me and I will turn to you.” Like Augustine who read the Word of God and was moved like he had never been moved before, Zerubbabel and the people were moved out of their lethargy by God’s Word delivered by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. They turned their attention back to where it should have been all along and went to work on the temple, the house of God. We know this because we read in Ezra 5:2,
2 Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Jozadak set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. And the prophets of God were with them, helping them. (Ezra 5:2 NIVO)
There will be many more challenges ahead for Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Another complaint arrived as soon as they started rebuilding, but we read in Ezra 5:5: “But the eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews…” He will make a way for them when opposition arises, He will provide for them everything they need, and He will deliver on every promise He has made…if they will return to Him. And He will do the same for you if you will return to Him this very morning.
I want us to think about those sixteen years when no work was going on at the house of God before we leave here this morning. The problem wasn’t that the people were inactive. They were busy, beyond busy, building their own lives, their own portfolios, their own little kingdoms, but they left God out of the equation altogether. All of that activity simply left them exhausted and empty. God gave them the remedy. He offered them an invitation: “Return to Me.”
I want to offer you the same invitation this morning. Will you return to the Lord? Maybe, for some of you, it will be the very first time in your life that you turn to Jesus. What a great day this will be if you will take that step this morning. For others who are here this morning, maybe you have gotten so busy with other things that you have drifted so far away from the Lord. God has brought you this morning by His grace so you might hear His invitation to turn back to Him. I was talking to a friend of mine this week who said she had drifted away from the Lord. She would think about Him from time-to-time, but never acted. Then, one morning, she said she woke up early and had a strange desire to go to church. She came here to Britton Christian Church. She heard the Lord speaking to her as I talked about Alpha. She attended Alpha this past summer and the Lord has changed her life. He can change yours as well. Will you come to Him this morning?
Britton Christian Church
October 20, 2019