“Who Comes First?”
Lots of people in this world live by a set of priorities. There are some things which are important to them, while other things are not. And from time to time, those people look at their list of priorities and make adjustments. I am one of those people. And whether or not we have such a list, we are all aware of those things and those people that are a priority to us. There are two prophets in the Old Testament who challenge God's people to rethink their priorities. Some things are not quite right in these people's lives, and the messages of these prophets help reshape their priorities. As we study together today, I encourage us to allow their messages to help us check our priority list, as well.
A number of years ago, a dear friend of mine suggested that the problems we face in the world today are a result of two things either the sin of pride or the sin of selfishness. And I thought about those words on a number of occasions, and I believe she was right. So many problems we encounter in the world today result from pride and selfishness. And those two words seem to be the theme of the two Old Testament prophets which we study today, Zephaniah and Haggai. Zephaniah's prophecy takes place about 40 years before the people living in Judah are carried away into captivity in the land of Babylon. And Zephaniah encourages the people living in that land, and especially in the city of Jerusalem, to change their ways, in hopes that God might change His plan and not send them away. But, the people refused to change. They're not interested in doing that. For example, they worship Almighty God, but also worship the foreign gods all around them. Their lives are characterized by things like violence and fraud. They refuse to receive correction, not only from God's servant the prophet but from their spiritual leaders also. And the people live only to please themselves. They are guilty of the sins of pride and selfishness, and God is about to punish them for that. Listen to these words from Zephaniah chapter 1, beginning with verse 2. <“I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. “I will sweep away both men and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth.”> And then also, verses 12 and 13. <"At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs, who think, ‘The Lord will do nothing, either good or bad.’ Their wealth will be plundered, their houses demolished. They will build houses, but not live in them; they will plant vineyards, but not drink the wine.”> Zephaniah very plainly tells God's people, "You are headed in the wrong direction." He warns that God will not dwell in the midst of their rebellion. And yet, the people do not want to change; they had no desire to live holy lives. Worshiping God is not a top priority for them and they refuse to draw near to Him. We might say today, such individuals have closed minds. They reject advice. They refuse correction. They might have the attitude that says, "Well I'm going to do whatever I want to do, and it really doesn't matter what you think." Or, "Well, I have my own opinions as to how things need to be done, and I'm going to pursue that, regardless of the consequences." Perhaps we have heard some of those very same statements made by people today. But, God's complaint against them revolves around their lack of devotion to Him. The people are filled with pride and selfishness, and they only think about themselves. However, God's servant Zephaniah has an alternative, if they will but consider it. It is in chapter 2 and verse 3. <Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what He commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger.> Oh, in the future, a remnant of God's people will be blessed by Him once again; and, it will include all of those who live a humble life; who seek righteousness; those who are obedient and who live in a spirit of humility, instead of a spirit of pride. Yes, there is coming a time when God will restore and make clean the lips of His people, once again. And, He will give them a safe place to dwell, there within the land. But then on the other hand, God will punish all of those who are arrogant; who are full of pride; who oppress their fellow man; who are cruel and violent; and, they will suffer for their sin. Oh, God is still looking for those kinds of people today. He is looking for people who will turn away from the influence of this world and who will live with a spirit of humility and unselfishness. He seeks those people who are kind, who refuse to ignore and neglect the people who are abused in this world. And those are the people to whom God will give a new heart. He will extend His love and forgiveness. And when He finds such people, He will rejoice over them. He will sing over them. He will announce to them that He loves them. Zephaniah points that out towards the end of his prophecy, in the third chapter. Listen to these beautiful words, beginning with verse 16, of how God honors and blesses people who respond to Him and who live with humility and kindness. <On that day they will say in Jerusalem, “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The Lord your God is with you, He is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you; He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.”> Isn't that a beautiful thought! That those who live in a spirit of humility and kindness and unselfishness, God will rejoice over them with great singing and those people will experience His love. Oh, the message of Zephaniah is very clear; get rid of the sins of pride and selfishness; live with humility and kindness. Well, the book of Haggai says something very similar. His prophecy started about 90 years after Zephaniah's prophecy ended. And it also came about 15 years after the people came back from Babylonian captivity, the very same captivity Zephaniah had prophesied. And as the people came back to the city of Jerusalem, they found it lying in ruins; complete devastation everywhere. In fact, it was the very same as when they were carried away into Babylon, some 70 years earlier. Their houses were a mess. Life in Jerusalem was nonexistent. The Temple lie in ruins. And very slowly, the people began to put life back together and rebuild those things that were necessary. And Haggai comes along about that time and he sees the fear and the uncertainty in the eyes of God's people. Oh, they had gone through decades of turmoil, 70 years in captivity, and now they had come back to Jerusalem, thinking that somehow everything would be back to normal and somehow God would have restored it, without them doing anything at all. And, surrounded by opposing forces, such as the Samaritans, they began to lose interest in rebuilding the Temple of the Lord. Instead, they began to focus on themselves. They looked inward. They began to rebuild their own houses. And because of the surrounding peer pressure, the Israelites had no interest in the things that mattered most to God. And the message that Haggai brings is that they must fear the Lord instead of fearing the people. They are to honor God and not be intimidated by outside influences. And four times in the first chapter, Haggai points the people back to the Lord God Almighty. Oh, he understands the people have experienced great loss. He has compassion for them; and yet, they were thinking only about themselves. They were not thinking about God, who had delivered them from captivity and brought them back to the homeland. And there was a note of urgency in Haggai's voice, it demands immediate attention. He instills courage in these people. He inspires them to complete a very important task. And the theme of his message revolves around one idea, and that is rebuild the Temple; get back to work on God's house and make that your first priority. Notice his message in the very first chapter, Haggai chapter 1, as we begin reading with verse 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.’” 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 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.”> Oh, the people had failed to rebuild the Temple of the Lord because they faced that opposition. And now they were more focused on themselves and their own houses and on their own luxuries than they were on the House of God. I suppose we could say it like this: these people had their priorities mixed up. They were not putting God first. And then there is that little phrase, "you are dwelling in your own paneled houses." Well, what does that mean? Evidently the people were importing some very special cedar wood from Lebanon. They were paying high prices for that wood. And they were bringing it down to Jerusalem and using it, not to build their houses, but rather they were using it on the inside to put up fancy wall paneling all around the inside of their homes. They were living in luxury, without giving any thought, or attention, or resources to God's Temple. And when I think about that, no doubt it reminds me of an attitude of pride, an attitude of selfishness. Well, the people failed to honor God. They showed no concern for spiritual matters. The Temple was lying in ruins. In fact, it had grown up in weeds, and they were doing absolutely nothing about it. Well, Haggai isn't finished. Listen to what he says beginning with verse 7 of this same first chapter. <This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build My 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. Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the oil and whatever the ground produces, on men and cattle, and on the labor of their hands.”> God says, "Okay, you have not honored Me, therefore I will not honor you. And, the problems that you are experiencing are My way of getting your attention. You work, and you earn wages, and you put all that money into your pockets and purses. But before you know it, it's gone. I called for a drought on the land, and the animals, and they are not working like they should. Why? Because, I want to remind you of who comes first." And that is the message of Haggai to these people. Give very careful thought to your ways, look at your lifestyle, consider your priorities and make sure that I am first, is the word of the Lord. Yes, the people were consumed with their own houses and they were content to let God's house lie in ruins. They worshiped God with their mouth, but their actions were far from what they needed to be. They didn't respect God. They respected everyone else. And because of that, God was making life even more difficult on them in order to teach them a very valuable and important lesson. Well, it is true, the people needed a place to live, but they were pursuing their own interests. God wanted them to have a home for themselves and for their families, but at some point they had to turn their attention to the rebuilding of God's house, the Temple. It's interesting to notice; Haggai's message had an impact upon the people. In fact once they heard the message, within three weeks they went back to work on rebuilding the Temple of the Lord. They recognized the importance of readjusting their priorities and they began to put God first, once again. Oh yes, there were still some who believed that this Temple would never compare to Solomon's Temple, the one that had been destroyed, and they discouraged other people from doing their work. And yet, more and more of them began to change their priorities and do what God had called upon them to do. And Haggai reminded them that God's resources would be enough to bring glory to Himself and the rebuilding of this Temple; that He would triumph in the end; and, that God, through them would be able to rebuild this Temple that would be far greater, far more beautiful, than the one which had been destroyed. The years of pride, and the years of selfishness, left the people unclean in God's sight. In fact, that was one reason why He sent them into captivity in the first place. Many of them had failed to learn the lesson God was trying to teach. But, if they would persevere in the work that was before them, and if they would remain faithful to God, then God's blessings would flow to them, once again. When I think about the story of Haggai, I believe there are some very important lessons we can learn and apply to our lives, today. The first one is this; if we live in fear, there is no room for faith in God. 365 times in the Bible, we find the words “do not fear,” or “do not be afraid.” That's one reminder for every single day of the year. There's no need to fear what happens in the world around us when we are on God's side, and when we walk with Him. Lesson number two: when we respect the Lord, we will put Him first. And when we honor God, He will become the first priority in our life. When we live in a way that honors Him and His ways, and when we respect Him and obey Him, then automatically He goes to the top of the list and He is our first priority, in everything we say and do. But then, here is lesson number three: it is easy to become selfish and to only think about ourselves. And when that happens, we become prideful people. Maybe we've seen that, even in our own lives. If we have a tendency to only think about our own interests and our own desires, before we know it, we build ourselves up, become prideful and arrogant, and we have no concern for the people that God puts into our life. Oh, pride and selfishness seem to consume our world, and we see many examples of it every single day. Many people want the best for themselves, while at the same time forgetting what God wants and what is important to Him. Others believe that God's kingdom will take care of itself. They believe, so much so, that God controls this world, that there is no reason for us to become involved in the work of the Lord; that God doesn't need anything. And indeed, He really doesn't need us in order to accomplish His purposes in this world, His world. Yet at the same time, He does want us to be involved in His work, in His mission that is right here before us. Sometimes, it is tempting to work on our own behalf instead of on God's behalf. Sometimes it is tempting to think we deserve good things and are entitled to them. Sometimes, we might even believe that if we do not take care of ourselves then nobody else will. And, at times, we may also feel the pressure to be like everyone else all around us, and so we give into their criticism; and we don't want to do that, and so we become like them. So, what do we do? The great temptation is to build our own paneled houses, and to live in them, while God's house, and His work and mission in this world, grows up in weeds. That is the great temptation that Haggai calls upon us to avoid. Oh, the messages of both of these prophets, Zephaniah and Haggai, revolve around the sins of pride and selfishness. And they also revolve around this one question: is what I am doing with my finances, and my time, and my worship, and my work, bringing glory to God? Or, am I living with pride and selfishness? Take a look at this short video clip, as it illustrates the lesson of these two prophets.
Whenever I walk through neighborhoods like this one, I am reminded there are lots of people who have lots of wealth in this world. They are able to build and to live in very nice homes, like these. They are able to have all kinds of vehicles, nice jobs, and other things that bring joy and entertainment to their lives. And yet at the same time, I'm reminded of the call that we receive from the Lord to practice justice and kindness to other people, to those who are less fortunate than we are. Yes, we are to put first things first; to honor God with our lives and with the wealth He has given to us; and then at the same time to use those blessings to be a benefit and encouragement to other people. Oh, it's nice to enjoy the good blessings and the things God has given to us, but let us not fall guilty of practicing injustice or neglect of those who don't have what we enjoy. Rather, let us use these blessings, the things that God has entrusted to us, so that we can be a blessing and encouragement to the people God puts into our life. I would encourage us today, that no matter where we stand on the spectrum of wealth or poverty, that we always think about God first, we think about other people second, and then, we think about ourselves; that we don't live selfish lives; that we don't always horde up things for ourselves, and pursue our own interests and desires, but we think about what God wants from us and how He can use us to be a blessing and encouragement to the people He puts into our lives.
Oh, these two prophets, Zephaniah and Haggai, remind us to put God first in our lives. In fact, that is the very same thing that Jesus said, over in Matthew chapter 6 and verse 33: "Seek God and His kingdom first, then all these things will be added unto you." Yes, when we put God first, when we recognize what His priority is for us, and we pursue that, then God's blessings will flow into our lives. The challenge that is before us, from these two prophets, today, is very simply this: May we never be found guilty of cheating God. He deserves our very best. But, if God is not first, then our wealth costs us far too much. Like God's people of old, we are to evaluate on a regular basis who is first and foremost in our lives, and what is our attention directed to, ourselves, or to the Lord? Here is one final thought, with which I want to close the lesson; and hopefully we will take it to heart. If I am not receiving God's blessings then maybe I need to spend more time building up God's kingdom. Think about that and think about how you might need to respond to that message, in your own individual life. Oh, my prayer and my encouragement today is that we will carefully consider the messages of Zephaniah and Haggai, and we will make sure that God comes first. In fact, that is the question we are to ask our self, every single day: who comes first? And as we ask that question, let us be very conscious of eliminating the sins of pride and selfishness in our lives, so that we might be able to receive and to enjoy the many blessings that God has in store for us.
Thank you for taking time to watch today's program. I trust it gave you some things to consider regarding your priorities. If you would like to view this message again, or previous messages, please go to our website, keytothekingdom.com. The lessons and videos you will find there are all free of any charge or obligation, and I hope they are of great benefit to you. Or, you can call the number on the screen to request a free Bible study. Please leave your name and address, and we will be happy to send it to you just as soon as possible. You can even find us on Roku television. I hope you will take advantage of any or all of these opportunities to know more about God and His gift of salvation. Thank you again for tuning in to today's program. And, I invite you to join us again next time, as we continue to study the Bible on "Key to the Kingdom."