Do Not Fear – Haggai 2:1-5
By: Alistair Brown
As pastor of a congregation running an evangelistic campaign I had to invite my neighbors to meetings because I’d told everyone else in the church to do that. We’d planned big events and small events and brought in an evangelist. One strategy was cake and coffee house parties. Each host would invite their neighbors, serve cake and coffee, the evangelist would bring a gospel message, and then we’d see what conversations followed.
Alison and I did not believe even one of our non-Christian neighbors would come to a house party, but the pastor had to host one. Thankfully some of the church members lived in our street, so they’d attend, and we spoke to our neighbors too and gave them invitations.
Amazingly at least four or five of those unchurched neighbors came. The cake and coffee were good, the evangelist spoke well, a few questions and comments followed, then we served more coffee, and eventually people got up to leave. I felt good about what had happened. Nothing spectacular, but none of my neighbors had been embarrassed!
Everyone left…except one. Helen stayed behind, a woman Alison knew because her children were about the same age as ours. That was odd, but we sat down again and chatted about everyday things.
Then Helen said: “What that speaker said meant a great deal to me….” “Oh good,” I replied, and quickly asked how her husband was enjoying his new job. Helen wasn’t put off. Two minutes later she said: “What the evangelist talked about made sense to me for the first time ever….” “Nice,” I said, and asked where they were going for their summer vacation.
Finally, a little light went on inside my head! “Sorry, Helen. You said that made sense…? Tell me more….” And Helen did, about beginning to understand that God loved her and Jesus died for her. Alison and I explained more of the gospel, and eventually I said, “Helen, would you like to give your life to Jesus right here and now.” “I would,” she said. And she bowed her head and with a little help gave her life to Jesus.
Helen did that in our living room. I had had no expectation. I was one hundred per cent faithless that anyone would believe the gospel and put their trust in Jesus. Not at our event. Not in our home. Not one of our neighbors. I was the pastor, but I’d been disappointed so many times before I’d given up believing God would do anything amazing like bringing a neighbor to faith in my house right before my eyes.
I knew not to despise the day of small expectations, but I had slipped into the day of no expectations.
Back in the days of the prophet Haggai, the people of God were struggling. After years of failing to rebuild the temple, at last they’d begun. But, as the first flush of enthusiasm subsided, their hearts sank and energy drained. It seemed impossible. They had meager resources, they knew it could never look like much, and they’d no idea how to take the work through to completion.
In the second year of King Darius, 1 on the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai:2 “Speak to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, to Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people. Ask them, 3 ‘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? 4 But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, 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. 5 ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’
There is both negative and positive in what God told the people through Haggai.
1. The negative – the low state of affairs.
The prophet Haggai voiced what the people were feeling: “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?” (v. 3).
More or less what Haggai actually said was: ‘It and nothing, don’t they look the same to you?’ No-one argued with that. No-one was thrilled about the work that lay ahead of them. No-one was excited about re-building the temple.
They were discouraged because this would never look like the temple of Solomon’s day. Probably there were a few old people with memories of that temple, and everyone else had heard the stories. Solomon had said, “The temple I am going to build will be great, because our God is greater than all other gods” (2 Chron. 2:5).
He kept his word. Here is a description of one small part of what Solomon did for the temple in his day:
“He overlaid the inside with pure gold.He paneled the main hall with juniper and covered it with fine gold and decorated it with palm tree and chain designs.He adorned the temple with precious stones…He overlaid the ceiling beams, doorframes, walls and doors of the temple with gold, and he carved cherubim on the walls.” (2 Chron. 3:4-7. A full picture of Solomon’s temple emerges in chapters 1-4 of 2 Chronicles.)
Now, many years later, a small group of under-resourced people are staring at foundations of what they would build and it would always be a very modest temple by comparison, and they are dispirited because they can’t build what Solomon built. They don’t have the resources. They don’t have the time. They don’t have the skills. Nothing they do will ever match the past.
They were seriously discouraged. Here is why:
1) They compared the present to the past, and wished they could have the past back again.
Most people like the past. People of a certain era still love the music of the Beach Boys or the Beatles, or The Animals!
I still get warm, fuzzy feelings thinking back to my bell bottom pants, knitted tie, cord velvet jacket, the long pointed collars on my shirts. Nostalgia is very comforting.
We even have an amazing ability to filter out the bad things of the past. I grew up in a house riddled with woodworm, with a bath which had no tap for hot water, where the garden was so vast my father seemed to spend most evenings and weekends working there. When I was about thirteen, we moved home to get somewhere easier and more comfortable. But we so missed that old house. It had ‘character’ and we’d loved it.
Most of the time we like looking back. We do that about church and about our lives. Our memories filter out the negative, and events we didn’t really enjoy are those we remember now with great affection. The more we believe the past was wonderful, the harder it is to see anything good ahead.
These Israelites remembered the temple Solomon built which had been truly magnificent, and they found it hard to press forward. All they wanted was that temple back again, but they couldn’t have it, so they were discouraged.
2) They saw only how little they had.
They’d just begun work on the new temple. It was so much smaller. The materials they had were so meagre. And Haggai asks: “How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?” (v. 3).
Their foundations were for a temple that would never look impressive, and they could see it. It made them want to give up right now.
- Imagine a football team down twenty points within the first quarter…
- Imagine a golfer who’s six over par after seven holes…
- Imagine a baseball team down ten runs after the fourth inning…
Who’d want to go on? Stop the game now!
That’s how these Jews felt. What’s the point? This temple will never be great, never magnificent, never a worthy offering for God. As they stared at their poor beginnings, these Jews were overwhelmingly discouraged.
3) They could not see what God would do.
They had no expectation things could ever be better. They had not a shred of optimism anything would change. It never occurred to them that God would have a plan which they simply could not yet see.
I’ve been in a swimming pool when a boy nearly drowned. He’d got out of his depth, developed cramp, and started sinking. He struggled and shouted, but the pool was crowded and noisy. No one noticed. He went under one time, two times, and by the third time he must have been sure he would drown.
But a lifeguard at the end of the pool had seen, dived in, swam powerfully his way, and, just as the boy went under, pulled him up, swam to the side, got him out of the pool and revived him.
When he was drowning that swimmer had no idea he could be saved. But he was. There was a rescuer on alert, and all ended well.
When any of us can’t see the future, we’re dragged down by discouragement. We give up. Everything is hopeless. It’s understandable when things look bad, but the mistake is thinking God does not see or imagining he will leave us there. The question “Does it not seem to you as nothing?” was never going to be God’s final word on the rebuilding of that temple!
God very definitely had something else to say!
2. The positive – the promise of a future worth striving for.
The people had no basis for optimism until God spoke again through Haggai. He told them what they would do and what he would do.
1) What they would do.
God speaks to Zerubbabel, to Joshua, and to all the people. He says:
- Zerubbabel – be strong.
- Joshua – be strong.
- All you people – be strong.
And then very firmly adds “and work!” (v. 4).
“Be strong and work” is his message.
They had already been given promises that God was with them, and they’ll hear them again. They will need God’s power, and he was there to give it. But that didn’t mean they could sit back and just wait for God to produce a temple. They were not being excused from hard labor. They would have to work.
I did a lot of fishing when I was young but almost never caught anything. I knew exactly what to do. I had great bait. I had an excellent river right beside my house. And it was full of very catchable brown trout. But I was a hopeless fisherman.
Why? Well, I never really liked the idea of snagging a fish by its mouth, so I was rather lazy about bothering to put bait on my hook. I often sat on the bank with the line and the hook in the water but nothing on it. I probably thought some desperate trout would commit suicide by swallowing my naked hook. The trout in my river had no wish to commit suicide, so I never caught anything. I did nothing so I caught nothing.
God was there with his power to make the temple a reality but he would not allow the leaders or the people to do nothing. He would work and they would have to work too.
There are two equal but opposite errors – that the work of God wholly rests on our labor and that the work of God rests not at all on our labor.
Some are so driven that it’s as if they have to do everything for God. They’ll manage it all.
Others so ‘rest on the Lord’ that they imagine God requires nothing from them other than expectation and prayers.
The strong and effective Christian stands on two truths:
That God calls his laborers to work in his vineyard.
That God’s eternal work can be done only in the power of the Spirit.
Both those statements are needed. Neither is optional. And the people of Haggai’s day were being told forcefully that they had to strengthen their resolve and commit to a time of very hard work.
But there was more, for the message was also about:
2) What God would do.
“‘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’” (vs. 4-5).
God assured them about two things:
i) He would be right there with his people. God is no bystander just watching his servants struggle. God pitches in to our struggles and our callings. He is right by our side every step of the way. We must never slip into the heresy of an absent God. He is present, and he is at work. The impossible is possible when God is with us.
ii) He would always fulfill his promises. God had made a covenant with his people when they came out of slavery in Egypt. Many times since then they’d failed him. But though they were faithless to God, he was faithful to them. We imagine God cannot love us because we’ve done so much that’s wrong, but he goes right on loving us and being good to us. “My Spirit remains among you,” he says.
God has assured his people he will always be with them, and that he will always fulfill his promises to them.
Therefore he can also say to them: “Do not fear.”
We’re frightened about a lot of things:
-That God’s church will decline and disappear.
-That Christian values will be lost in the land.
-That our children will never come to faith in Christ.
-That our lives and our work will never matter for God’s kingdom.
-That God will give up on us because we’ve let him down so often.
“Do not fear,” God says.
– I am not giving up on you.
– I am not cancelling my plans for this land.
– I am not abandoning the church I have made for not even the gates of Hades can stand against it.
– I am not losing those you love for I love them even more than you do.
Satan would want us to surrender to fear, to make us like rabbits staring into the headlights, paralyzed, waiting to be run over by the powers of this world. We are not rabbits. We are the people among whom God dwells and in whom his Spirit is at work. God has plans which are good plans. His work is not finished, and everything he has purposed will be done.
Certainly there are negatives. But with God there are overwhelming positives. Therefore his word to us, as it was to the people of Haggai’s time, is: “Do not fear.”