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Now, it is entirely possible that only a youngster would come up with a line like that. But what do you think? Is your religion is SUPPOSED to show...or not? God's Word says YES!
To show you what I mean, let me take you back twenty-five hundred years, back to a time when Israel was just beginning to get back on her feet as a nation. A few hardy pioneers were just returning to their devastated homeland after a half-century of exile in Babylon.
To be sure, they were glad to be there. This was, after all, the land of their ancestors, the ancient dwelling place of the heroes of their nation. But what they found there would have been enough to depress the most wide-eyed optimist. The great city of Jerusalem was totally destroyed. The walls were torn down...no protection. Their magnificent temple, the legacy of David and Solomon, the earthly "home" of their God, was in ruins. Yes, the people were happy to be back...but sad at what they saw at the same time.
To their credit, they got right to work in repairing their place of worship. They got the great stone foundations ready for reconstruction. They repaired the altar. But, along the way, they got side-tracked: their enemies were giving them anxious moments so they had to defend themselves; they had to eat, so crops had to be planted and tended; they had to survive the elements, so houses had to be constructed - all perfectly legitimate undertakings...but they kept the people from finishing their work on God's house...and not just for a little while...for almost twenty years.
And those were hard years for those Jewish pioneers. They might have thought that they were going back to a land of milk and honey, but what they found was a land of famine and drought. Nothing seemed to work for them; their crops and herds just never seemed to provide enough for them...not enough food, not enough to drink, not enough clothing, and most certainly, not enough money: the "times that try men's souls."
But, again, this was no temporary condition; it had persisted for almost twenty years. And no one seemed able to come up with a solution. Or perhaps I should say ALMOST no one. There was at least one man who had one, HAGGAI, the prophet of God. His message said "YOUR RELIGION IS NOT SHOWING...and it had BETTER show if you want things to improve."
Now, a nation other than the Jews might not have thought that that was such a terrible indictment. After all, religion is often considered a private matter. But the Jews had been a people in special relationship to their God, and they knew from their history of repeated incidents of distress and deliverance that trouble would come if their faith and trust in God was put on a back burner. Their allegiance to Yahweh had to be OBVIOUS or their allegiance was no allegiance at all.
Haggai did not come with a denunciation of sin or social injustice or the worship of false gods. His message simply called attention to faulty priorities. These 38 verses we have under his name in the Old Testament might lead us to think he had a one-track mind: "get the temple rebuilt; get the temple rebuilt; get the temple rebuilt. You have nice houses with roofs over your heads. How can you expect your God to be satisfied with any less? You say you love your God; you say you want to serve your God; you say your God is worthy of your worship...and then you leave your God's house a dump...a wreck...a ruin. What kind of religion is that? Put your money where your mouth is. FIX the place. YOU would not want to call a house like that YOUR home; why would you expect GOD to want to." That was Haggai's message.
But the prophet did not quit there. He went on to say that if these impoverished people (and that is what they were - impoverished) if they would have faith enough to dig deep enough into their pockets to get the job done, if they would let their religion SHOW by what they were willing to do, God would take care of these other problems they were having.
As the scripture recounts it, within weeks of Haggai's call to get going...and to get SHOWING...the nation had gotten the necessary finances together to get the job underway. Granted, it took four years to get the temple finished, but they DID get it finished, and that is what Haggai had told them to do.
If old Haggai were to come back today, I wonder if he would have a strange sense of DEJA VU. Oh, not that he would see God's house in ruins (although there are some that do not look like much more than that). What he would see is a great collection of folks whose real religion is not much different from the one he saw among his own people so many centuries ago: they come to worship (when it is convenient); they say the right words; they drop a dollar or two in the plate; and then go on about their business. Why, if they did not SAY they were God's people, no one would ever know. I suspect Haggai would say the same thing all over again: "Your religion is not SHOWING and it HAS to show if you are to get the blessings God intended for you."
Does that mean he would recommend more and greater cathedrals, huge monuments; tremendous building programs? I doubt it. The message would be "get your priorities straight, and the place to begin is the same place MY people had to begin...in their pocketbooks."
Years ago, Mora Morris whimsically caught the spirit of the age VERY succinctly:
And of course, he would not be alone in that. You know very well that Jesus would join in. Fully one-sixth of all the verses in the Gospels attributed to the lips of Jesus and one-third of all his parables concern the right management of possessions. Jesus knew that we could easily come to love that which we have accumulated even more than God. The rich young ruler came to Jesus, anxious to know the way to eternal life, but his possessions possessed him even more than his desire for life. The rich man who built huge barns to hold his goods was called a FOOL because he had placed the amassing of wealth at an even higher priority than his own life. Yes, Jesus preached about money... because he had to - it was (and is) a tremendous stumbling block on the path to eternity.
One thing should be pointed out here: the people of Haggai's day were finally willing to part with some of their hard-earned cash to get the job done once they were reminded of their obligation. But, as we said, these folks were poor - they did not have all that much to part with. And that being the case, their lack of money became a source of real discouragement to them. They saw the huge foundations that were in place for the temple-rebuilding project; they remembered the stories of the grandeur of the building from their mothers and fathers; they wanted to be able to at least equal that or even surpass it...but the money was not there, not in the entire nation. So, three months into the work, they got discouraged: "Gee, this place won't amount to much. It won't be all that special. What are we bothering for? Let's just give it up for a bad job and go on about our business."
To be honest, those sentiments are echoed in churches all around the nation every week. They see all sorts of magnificent programs and staff that might be available to them; they see great community projects in which they could participate and make an impact in the name of Jesus; they see a tremendous work for God that cries out to be done...and then they see their bank book...and get discouraged. Haggai says, "Do not be concerned. If you will be faithful in your giving, God will be faithful in making your work splendid."
Let me share a true story with you. It happened in the first church I served...the Liberty Hill Presbyterian Church of Liberty Hill, SC. Liberty Hill was TINY, a VERY small church in a very small village. The population was, for the most part, retired and living on fixed incomes. For a number of years, the presbytery had to subsidize them to keep the church operating.
When we first went there, Liberty Hill Presbyterian had no manse. They had owned one some years before but had sold it because they rarely had a minister and were unable to keep it properly maintained, particularly with no one in it. The result was that we ended up living an hour away from the church and were thus extremely limited as far as much contact with parishioners and community was concerned. Everyone knew that such an arrangement was unsatisfactory, so for months people looked around to try to find some place for the Leiningers to stay...but to no avail - we could find NOTHING. Finally, after about eight months of this, an older couple who lived right next door to the church concluded that they were getting too old to live that far out in the country so they decided to sell their home and move into Camden, some twenty miles away. The church was offered the property for $30,000. It was a fair price, but it may as well have been 30-million because that little congregation figured they could NEVER come up with the money.
Still, it was too good an opportunity to pass up - God had dropped it in our lap. But good stewardship demanded that we not go to any bank for the money because, at that time, mortgage rates were sky high. So I told them that we should go ahead, make the purchase, but pay cash for it. Needless to say, this was quite a shock to them, but when they regained consciousness, they got up and got to work. Within ninety days, they had put together enough money, not only to buy the home but to finance needed renovations as well. And they did it because they realized the importance of priorities - they wanted their religion to SHOW in Liberty Hill, and they were willing to do whatever it took to MAKE it show. They wanted to tell the world that what was being done for Jesus Christ in that tiny village was of tremendous, indeed eternal, importance, important enough to back their commitment with cash. By the way, in the years since, that congregation has thrived...to such an extent that, a few years ago, they were named Small Church of the Year in the Synod of South Atlantic.
Quite frankly, here at First Presbyterian in Warren, we are not faced with a challenge as visible as that one in Liberty Hill. But the challenges are there none the less...the challenge of maintaining an adequate staff, the challenge of mission support both at home and abroad, the challenge of providing Christian education for ourselves and our children, the challenge of being faithful disciples of Jesus in our own community. They might not be as visible as the need for a new manse, but they are challenges to be met. Frankly, the biggest challenge we have here is financing our work without relying on our endowment funds. That is a powerful temptation, and one to which we have given in too easily in recent years. We need to fix that.
Can we do it? Of course we can. All that is required is the faithfulness of God's people in giving according to God's standard: the tithe. Scripture does not mention Haggai saying much about tithing to ancient Israel, but I doubt that he had to. Those people knew what the standard was - one-tenth of their income. Haggai's challenge was to go even BEYOND that for the accomplishment of a monumental task. Here in this church, that kind of challenge is not presented to us right now. All WE really need to do is be faithful with the tithe. It is up to us, just as it was up to the people of Haggai's day.
Mark Twain once attended a party where he was bored by a paunchy tycoon who was pontificating on the subject of wealth. "Money isn't everything, gentlemen," he said. "It can't buy happiness, nor can it buy a happy home, nor can it lift the spirits of the saddened, nor alleviate the sufferings of the afflicted, nor buy the love of a good woman."
Commented Twain, "You refer, of course, to Confederate money."(1)
Money, money, money. Listen to Jesus: "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap." GREAT PROMISE! But here's the kicker. "For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."
As has been said, "We make a living by what we get out of life, but we make a life by what we give."(2) Are you ready for that? I hope so.
Over the next several weeks, you will be hearing about a new stewardship emphasis that will culminate here on Consecration Sunday, November 17th. It has the potential to be a wonderful blessing to what I believe is an already wonderful congregation. Be on watch for it. And be ready for some surprises as God works among us and helps us have a religion that shows. As someone says so often on television, "You will be blessed."
1. Streiker, Lowell D., A Treasury of Humor, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2000)
2. James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988) p. 239