‘Why the Bible Belt is a Mission Field’ – Haggai 1:1-11 – November 4th, 2018

If you have your Bible, we’re gonna be in the book of Haggai. If you’re not sure where that is, it’s right near the end of the old testament, between Zephaniah and Zechariah—sandwiched between the two “Z’s”. Our passage will be Haggai 1:1-11, if you would turn there.

Haggai is about the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem after it had been destroyed along with the rest of the city by the invading Babylonian army in 587 B.C. So at this particular point in time, the Israelites are dealing with their exile in Babylon, which is narrated at the end of Chronicles, and then carries on throughout the books of Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, and the prophets Obadiah, Joel, Haggai and Malachi. That was a lot of information, but at least now you can’t say I didn’t teach you anything.

So let’s look at our text. I’ll be reading from the English Standard Version. Haggai, chapter 1, verses 1-11 says:

“In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest: “Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD, [the temple].” Again, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while my house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes. Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. Go up to the hills and bring wood. Build my house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD. You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought home what little you found, I blew it away. Why? declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.”

So part of the reason this whole section of scripture, this whole time-span in history that Haggai fits into, is so close to my heart is that I got saved because I accidentally opened a Bible and turned to Nehemiah. A guy named Brad kind of annoyed me into meeting with him and we’d talk about the good Lord. So one day I got my dust covered Bible out of that one cabinet everybody has in their house – you know, the “Bible Cabinet” where we lock it up between each Sunday – and I opened it to a nice middle-y section, and it was the book of Nehemiah. And I understood none of it. I had a thousand questions. Number one being, “what’s Jerusalem?” Why did it need a wall? What happened to the wall, and why did the guy who gets paid to test out the king’s beverages care? But somewhere between the first and last chapter of the book that I had just stumbled through, I had just kind of stopped not-believing and started believing.

So I met the Lord, but I almost didn’t. Because there’s a profound danger that comes along with growing up in this particular part of the world. The fact that we live in the Bible Belt means that we live in the most overwhelmingly Christian part of the most overwhelmingly Christian country on entire planet. And yet the Bible Belt is a mission field – right? Because our culture is so flooded with surface level Christianity, most people are born, live their whole life, and then die claiming the title of Christian but never meeting Jesus – and our culture cultivates and encourages that pattern. And I was almost a one of its victims.

My parents loved the Lord, and they tried very hard to follow Solomon’s advice and “raise [me] up in the way [I] should go, so that [I] would not depart from it.” But despite my parents’ best efforts, I grew up with the sense that being a Christian meant going to church and not having fun. And those were the two parts. And I was pretty good at going to church, and I was pretty good at not having fun, so I figured I was set. Because this was the Bible Belt, and almost no one’s an atheist in the Bible Belt. Instead, when you aren’t so sure about God, you keep the Christian moniker, but you always caveat that you don’t judge people. Right? Once you say you don’t judge other people, you’re off the hook for everything. So you’d whisper it to yourself when you do something you know is wrong, and you feel bulletproof. I was that guy until my friend Brad annoyed me into the faith.

Growing up in the middle of the most overwhelmingly Christian region of the most overwhelmingly Christian country, most people my age grow up going to church, making some sort of confession of faith at a young age, and then going off into adulthood to raise more kids to do the same but never actually come to anything like genuine faith in Jesus. And so the question that we have to raise in response to this is, “How did this happen?” How is it that the culture of the Bible Belt is almost tailor-made to produce nominal Christians – “Christians in Name Only”? And once we have answered that, I think the question we absolutely have to address is, “How can we instead create a culture where the gospel flourishes and people meet Jesus?” And I think this kind of obscure text from the Old Testament actually addresses both of those questions.

So in vv. 1-4, the Lord says:

“Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the temple of the LORD,” . . . “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while my house lies in ruins?

To give a little background here, at the time that Haggai is preaching, Israel has been having pretty good fortunes. As fiery as this word from the Lord out of the mouth of Haggai is, things have been going pretty well for Israel, and that’s the problem. At this point God has worked in the heart of Cyrus, the king of Persia so that, almost out of nowhere, he decided to allow the exiled Israelites to return to their land and live in peace as his subjects.

And their fortunes continued to get better when a later Persian king, Artaxerxes, gave them permission to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem to protect themselves from their enemies. They built the wall and then they began to rebuild the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem that Babylon had destroyed when they conquered the nation years earlier.

The problem is that, throughout all of history, God’s people are always looking for a way out. Right? Even for us, when our relationship with God is at its best, part of us is looking for an exit sign. There’s just something in us that rebels against the Father. And Israel continued that pattern here as well when they just stopped building the temple. When everything was going so well, they just stopped rebuilding the temple. And Haggai gives us a pretty good idea why: Look at v. 2-4. The people of Israel, that God had just graciously brought back to the land that He promised them and had enabled to build a wall for their protection, were now building well-crafted houses and planting crops and vineyards throughout the land. And you might notice that these are all good things. If they’re gonna survive the next year in Jerusalem, these are pretty non-negotiable things that they have to do. But the problem is that in the process, they stopped actively carrying out the will of God and only concerned themselves with taking care of their immediate needs. So after God had rescued them for a purpose, the Israelites went into what you could call survival mode.

So in the midst of taking care of the necessities of everyday life, they had lost touch with the mission that God had rescued them for. Just a few years earlier, they were struggling to survive under the harsh rule of the Babylonian empire and God had rescued them. And we’re in kind of the same position here too, right? If you’re in this room this morning and you’re a believer in Christ, then there was a time when you weren’t. Even if you can’t remember that time because it was so long ago. God rescued you from the pit of your own sinfulness and made you His ambassador. God has made you His priest.

And that’s why we don’t have “priests,” because God didn’t rescue us from the darkness that we were walking in just to make us into people who sit each week and soak up sermons. He rescued us to make us into priests for the world. That doesn’t mean that you need to go get a priest’s robe and start chanting words in Latin from a pulpit – even though that’s honestly pretty cool, right? I’m into that. What it means is that if you are a believer in Christ in this room, you are the one that God has chosen to introduce the town of Louisburg, North Carolina to Jesus.

So if you want to know why the culture of the Bible Belt is almost tailor-made to produce cultural Christians who show no evidence of repentance and faith, it doesn’t take much to see that part of it boils down to the fact that more folks than any of us can count have lost touch with the mission that God has rescued us for. That same impulse that kept the Israelites from carrying out their mission in Haggai flows through us and everyone.

One of my friends from college graduated several years ago and joined the Episcopal Service Core, which is kind of like the North America Mission Board, but for Episcopalians. He started working with the youth pastors at his local parish and was horrified by a few of the things he learned. A couple of years ago, he said, and I quote:

“A lot of the kids in the youth group that I serve at wouldn’t be able to locate the four Gospels in a Bible. And that’s kind of why the Episcopal church is dying. They raise their kids to be ‘religious’ but they don’t really teach them anything distinctly Christian. So what happens is that students will grow up going to church but drop out after a little while in college because there was never any real root to their faith. When they get older, some of them come back because they want their kids raised religiously like they were. But only some of them come back, and so every generation the Episcopal church gets smaller and smaller. I don’t think it’s gonna be around that much longer.”

Now, I told that story because I wanted to evoke a certain response. If I had heard that several years ago, I would have thought, “OK, well, that’s just the Episcopal church.” But my perspective changed because every semester in college, I would meet new students during orientation week, and I’d meet new students while I was teaching a Bible study, and I’d meet new students as an intern at my church, and eventually, I lost count of all the 18 year old life-long Baptists I’d met who couldn’t explain to me why Jesus needed to die on the cross. Right? So I’m talking about 18 year old life-long Baptists who showed up for orientation at my Baptist college needing to be converted to Christianity – victims of the ‘cultural Christianity’ that haunts our part of the world.

And that’s why Sunday School teachers are superheroes. Right? I have so much respect for Sunday School teachers, and small group leaders, and all of the regular folks who pour themselves into discipling the church without fanfare. Every week you throw yourselves into the scriptures and surrender to the God who inspired them to use you as a tool to shape the people in your care into the image of Christ. That’s a real thing. A good sermon is good, but the work of discipleship really happens when we turn our chairs toward each other. Right?

I can think back to so many men and women who decided to disciple me – they decided to keep going, even when I and all my classmates seemed impossible to reach – and it made all of the difference. And plenty of those people who discipled me weren’t even any good at it. The best Sunday School teacher I ever had couldn’t teach to save his life. But he was. He could barely put a sentence together, and he was the best teacher I ever had because the Holy Spirit just works that way. He stumbled his way through books of the Bible and bad life-examples and it totally worked . He discipled us from one degree of maturity to another in a way that sermons can’t, because the Holy Spirit will carry you through the work that God has set before you. So if you’re teaching Sunday School or you’re teaching a small group or you’re discipling a new convert or you’re trying to raise kids to stay Christian don’t lose your hope. You’re sowing more seeds than you think you are. Keep at it, and rest in the knowledge that the work that God gives you was “set aside for you beforehand,” like Eph. 2:10 says.

So we exist to spread the gospel into every corner of the earth, including ours, but the prosperity of the Church in the Bible Belt has made it incredibly easy to ignore the mission that God rescued us for while still feeling like obedient Christians.

And that is a really dark thought, but there’s good news. If you would, look at v. 5-6. The Lord says:

“Now, therefore, consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.”

Israel has lost touch with their mission, and God’s response is to poison the well that replaced it. And if you’ll look at vv. 9-11.

The Lord says, “You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.”

And God may not have brought a famine to our land, but the Church is rapidly losing “cultural influence” in America. And God seems to really like plot twists, and the big plot twist here is that somehow losing our safety and status in America has been a good thing, more than a bad thing. This is a dumb analogy, but I think it works: It’s generally a bad thing to take food from hungry people. But if they’re eating, like, rat poison, y’know, it’s the most loving thing you can do. And God loves His Church. And since the founding of our nation we have enjoyed a near unprecedented place of safety and privilege in society, which for a very long time served to help the Church propel the gospel to every corner of the earth. But in recent decades, we’ve allowed the safety and the privilege that we’ve enjoyed in America to turn us away from the mission of God to the nations and instead become drunk on comfort and on cultural influence. And that’s an easy thing to do, and it’s the thing that happened. So it’s a bad thing to take water from thirsty people, but it’s a good thing to take arsenic from thirsty people. And the privilege and cultural influence that used to aid us in carrying out God’s mission for us have gradually become an obstacle.

So for the last few decades, it looks like God has been taking away the thing that captured our affections in His place. Right? If the comfort that America has provided us is sabotaging our missionary mind, He’ll take it away from us—not because He wants to hurt us, but because He wants to save other people.

So if the privilege that the Church enjoyed in American society for the last two and a half centuries is causing us to lost touch with the great commission, God will take away the thing that has kidnapped us. And that’s a painful process, but it’s also a fruitful process.

Because you know that the single greatest periods of growth in the Church have always been times of great persecution. And you hear that in, like, every sermon, I know. But God has always used persecution against the Church to multiply the Church. Right? For the first three centuries after the resurrection of Jesus, the Church was like a rabbit, it just kept multiplying: Every day, there were new Christians, and sometimes new Christians were former persecutors. Like, some Roman spy would visit a small church community in somebody’s basement hoping to get some dirt on the members of this new religion that the government could use to justify persecuting them. And the spy would hear the gospel clearly proclaimed, gets saved, and have to go into hiding because if his boss found out he’d be the next martyr.

So we’re part of a faith that began as a persecuted people group and currently throughout most of the world is still a persecuted people group, and might one day return to being a persecuted people group in America. But we can rest knowing that everything that happens, happens so that the gospel will further multiply to every corner of the earth: God removed every obstacle that kept Israel from obeying the mission that He saved them for, and there’s no reason not to think he’ll do the same thing here.

 So vv. 7-8, the Lord says:

“Consider your ways. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD.”

In 2018, God doesn’t live in a temple in Jerusalem. We’re not called to buy a plane ticket to the modern state of Israel and start construction on a third temple. But we are called to make disciples.

And it’s easy to make that more than it is. Reading Matthew 28:19, “Go ye therefore and make disciples,” can give the impression of “raise some support, pack up your stuff, kiss your family goodbye and move to Kazakhstan.” And somebody – at least one somebody – from every church should do that, if possible. You should “go.” You should leave, if you’re able to. Mission trips are awesome. That’s a real thing. Go somewhere that doesn’t have the gospel and share it with them. Organize as many as you can. Support as many missionaries as you can. All of that is good, and right, and perfect.

But the Great Commission is for every corner of the earth and there are so many corners here. And we’re never not “going,” so if you have neighbors, I hope that you’re going to make disciples of them. Right? The guys who live in the apartment next to mine are not my pastor’s responsibility. They’re mine. Because God pulled me out of the pit of my own sinfulness to make me a priest to them. And the primary reason that isn’t immediately obvious to me is that the American Church, and especially the Church in the Bible Belt, has grown so comfortable because of the safety and privilege we have enjoyed here that that it’s easy to lose touch with the mission that God rescued us for.

So because God cares about His mission in the world, I don’t suspect that 20 years from now Churches will have tax exemptions. I don’t suspect that 10 years from now Christianity will be the majority religion in the United States on paper anymore. But I do suspect that we’ll be a more obedient and effective people. I do suspect that the gospel will spread throughout our nation all over again. And I do suspect that, when all is said and done, God will have shaped us into a people with whom He is well pleased, and that through us, He will create a culture in which the gospel flourishes and people meet Jesus.

And if you’re not a believer in Christ, I pray that you’ll be one of them. I pray that through us, God will create a culture in which you meet the Lord. I pray that you’d become profoundly dissatisfied with holding on to the Christian moniker but serving as your own King of Kings. If I can annoy you into the faith, I will. But even if I don’t, I pray that you’ll pick up you dust-covered Bible and let the good book convert you on its own. uld res

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