Finishing What You Start


March 1, 2009 | Brian Bill

This week I visited a website called to look for some procrastination humor.  When I clicked on the link to the “best procrastination joke ever,” only two words appeared: “Coming soon.”  That’s real funny.

Here are some statements that jumped out at me from the Procrastinator’s Creed.

  • I believe that if anything is worth doing, it would have been done already.
  • I shall never move quickly, except to avoid more work or find excuses.
  • If at first I don’t succeed, there is always next year.
  • I shall always decide not to decide, unless of course I decide to change my mind.
  • I shall always begin, start, initiate, and take the first step, when I get around to it.

Someone else has said that “Procrastination is the bad habit of putting off until the day after tomorrow what should have been done the day before yesterday.”   We’re going to take a look at a group of procrastinating people this morning.  Please turn to the Book of Haggai.  This is the second-shortest book in the Old Testament so it’s a bit difficult to locate.  The easiest way is to find Matthew and go left three books.  Before we jump in, we need to understand a bit about the setting.

The Setting

The high point of Israel’s history was during the reign of King David.  For forty years he expanded the nation in both breadth of influence and knowledge of God.  His son Solomon built a magnificent temple that was constructed out of extremely expensive material.  It was the centerpiece of the nation and the focal point of their worship.

But things went downhill from there.  After King Solomon died; Israel was split into two kingdoms.  The Northern Kingdom had ten tribes and was referred to as Israel.  The Southern Kingdom had two tribes and was referred to as Judah.  Because of their disobedience, the Assyrians conquered Israel and the ten tribes were scattered and became known as the “ten lost tribes of Israel.”  Even though the southern tribes saw all this happen, they, too, continued to rebel against God.  In 586 B.C., the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, decimated the Temple, and deported the Jews.

Many of God’s prophets predicted that this captivity would not destroy the nation; it would eventually end and the people would be allowed to go back home.  50 years later He allowed the Persians to conquer the Babylonians and he moved King Cyrus to make a decree to let some of the Jews return.  And in three stages, over about a hundred years, they were allowed to migrate back to Jerusalem.  In that first group, 50,000 Israelites returned to Judah with Zerubbabel and began rebuilding the temple.  Unfortunately, they got discouraged and quit.  God then sent them the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to encourage them to finish the project.  Ezra was also sent to help restore their spiritual fervor.

It’s time to finish what was started by putting first things first

The people worked hard…at first.  The foundation was laid but then they got sidetracked and the work was left unfinished.  Sixteen years pass and then Haggai comes on the scene to deliver four brief sermons in five months.  The message is clear: It’s time to finish what was started by putting first things first.  His style is simple and direct and he doesn’t waste any words.

Their Situation

In the second verse of the book, Haggai lets loose and quotes what the “Lord Almighty” has to say about their procrastination.  These are not Haggai’s suggestions but the words of God.  Let me pause right here to say that this name of God is “Jehovah Sabaoth” which references Him as the commander of all the armies of heaven.  It’s used over 270 times in the Bible and 14 times alone in this short book!  Jehovah means that He is the self-existent one who is personal, present, powerful, and the ultimate promise-keeper.  The Lord Almighty has all the hosts of heaven ready to do His work and as such He has unlimited power, unbridled might and untarnished glory.  

It doesn’t say so, but I get the feeling that the people are probably saying something like this: “Oh, oh, we’re dead because the Lord Almighty has showed up.”  

1. Mounting Problems. 

Before we start busting on these people, we should probably cut them some slack.  After all, they were courageous enough to leave Babylon when a lot of other Jews decided to stay behind.  When they arrived in Israel, they went to work and built the foundation for the Temple.  And, of course, there was some pretty major opposition from the people who lived in the land, especially the Samaritans (see Ezra 3:8-13; 4:1-5, 24).  One other thing was going on.  King Cyrus, who had showed them so much favor, had died and his successor was putting some pressure on them to stop working.

If you’ve been involved in serving, it’s no surprise to you that problems always come up.  Difficulties and discouragement can set in.  Caustic comments can make you want to give up.  If you’re serious about living for the Savior, watch out because there will be opposition, challenges and blow-ups.  Friends, listen.  If you wait for a time when there will be no blowback when you get serious about serving, you’ll be waiting a long time.

2. Major Procrastination. 

Even though the people faced some mounting problems, God summarizes their lame excuse in verse 2: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come for the Lord’s house to be built.’” By referring to them as “these” people and not “my people,” God was indicating that they were not acting like his people.  Nothing had happened for years!

If you had asked them why they hadn’t been working on the temple they might have said something like this: “Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m all for rebuilding the Temple but the time is isn’t somehow right.  We’re in an economic downturn here.  I just have to focus on me and my family right now.  I’ll get around to building the temple later…I promise.”  There was outward opposition but they also faced inward apathy.  I think they were procrastinating because they were indifferent to the Lord.  And I’m sure they had some legitimate excuses.  Here are some that we might hear today:

  • I have too much going on to be able to make it to church every Sunday.
  • People at church are hypocrites and I don’t like some of those who are serving.
  • I can’t commit to anything right now because of a sports schedule.   Maybe later.
  • I’ll think about joining a small group when things settle down a bit.
  • I’ll give more when I have more to give.
  • I’ll give myself totally to the Lord after I finish school, or when I get some rest, or when I retire.

John Henry Newman preached a series of sermons some time ago in which he returned to this theme again and again: No one sins without making some excuse to himself for sinning.

3. Misplaced Priorities. 

Then the God of the angel armies asks a very penetrating question, which gets to the heart of their procrastination problem in verse 4: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”  The time was right to get to work on God’s house.  God’s temple has been ignored and God’s holy name was profaned by the way they are living. Their houses were in riches; God’s house was in ruins.

It’s quite possible that the paneling that had been reserved for the temple construction was now being used in their homes.  We know from Ezra 3:7 that King Cyrus had provided money to buy hardwood timber to rebuild the temple; it’s likely that they used this instead for their own homes.  We know that most houses were normally modest dwellings built of stone, but these homes were luxurious while the Lord’s home was in ruins.  In contrast to what they were building for themselves, the word “ruins” means that God’s house was “desolate and decaying.”

They stopped doing the chief work that they had been commissioned to do – that’s why they were sent back to the land.  Likewise, our main job today is to bring glory to God by living out the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, to connect people to Jesus and to equip them to be growing and faithful followers.  That’s why we’re here!

It’s easy to become lazy in the Lord’s work and to place personal comfort ahead of service.  Have you ever noticed that when we focus on our own priorities and complete one of them, that another one seems to quickly take its place?  One of my wife’s sisters uses a phrase that we’ve adopted in our home: “People do what they want.”  It’s true, isn’t it?  People will find time to do what they want to do.

4. Misguided Perspective. 

In verse 5, God refers to himself as Jehovah Sabaoth again in order to get their perspective back to where it should be: “Now this is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways.’”  This is really the major message of the book.

The phrase “give careful thought to your ways” appears five times– in 1:5, in 1:7, in 2:15 and twice in 2:18.  Idiomatically it means, “To lay your heart on the road.”  Literally it means to “bring your mind to bear upon your ways.”  The New Living Translation puts it like this: “Look at what’s happening to you!”  That’s not easy to do, is it?  This is especially the case when we’re surrounded with mindless pursuits and shallow thinking.  Would you also notice that God doesn’t say, “What are your feelings saying?”  Instead, He wants us to engage our minds and do a serious inventory.  If we don’t, we’ll default to living for ourselves and not for the Almighty.  

Sometimes when someone tells me what they’ve been doing to manage their life or their stress or their problems and things are just falling apart, I’ll say something like this: “How’s that working out for you?”  God turns to us today and says something similar: “Take a look at the mess in your life and what happens when you put yourself first.  How’s that working out for you?”

It’s so easy to become distracted and then to end up drifting.  Some of you may feel like you’ve drifted and you wonder how you ended up wandering so far from the Lord.  It’s important to evaluate and take an inventory by giving careful thought to your ways.

I had an interesting experience on Friday.  I was just getting ready to work-out and I noticed that it was exactly 12 noon.  I was in a conversation with someone and we were talking about planning our lives and working hard.  He told me that he has all of his life planned out until the day he dies.  Because we’re doing the 60/60 experiment, I remembered that God was with me and so I said to him: “That’s good that you have your plans worked out until the day you die but it’s even more important to make sure you have a plan worked out for after you die.”  I’m praying that God will give me more opportunities to help my friend “consider his ways.”

5. Missing Peace. 

Verse 6 shows us what happens when we don’t put God first: “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.” The message is clear – we will never find satisfaction until our priorities are right.  They had a lot of action but they could get no satisfaction.

You’ve probably heard this expression before: “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.”  God not only understood their circumstances; He was the One who caused them.  Sometimes God gives us what we want so that we’ll experience some consequences, with the ultimate goal being that we turn back to Him.  Psalm 106:15 says: “So he gave them what they asked for, but sent a wasting disease upon them.”  Let me say it as clearly as I can: If you and I put our purposes above God’s priorities, we will never get what we’re after.  Here’s a news flash: Only God can satisfy our souls.  Until you put me first, He says, life won’t work.  The more we marginalize God, the worse things will get.

This is expanded in verses 9-11: “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 your hands.’”  This is what happened when they stopped serving God and instead served only themselves.  

God doesn’t let his children sin successfully.  Note the phrase: “Because of you…” As a result, God blew it all away.  Would you notice who did this?  I blew it away…”  “I called for a drought…”  Look over at 2:17: I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew and hail, yet you did not return to me…”

One commentator said it like this: “Those who plan to give to God ‘once they have enough for themselves’ will never have enough for themselves.”  God was trying to get their attention by causing them to be frustrated and unsatisfied.  God still does this today and when He does; some people blow up at God and then get bitter toward Him, never realizing that He is trying to get their attention so they’ll come back to Him.  

The God of the angel armies will go to battle for us when our backs are up against the wall, when we’re feeling oppressed, overwhelmed and outnumbered.  But he will also marshal His troops against us if we are not putting Him first in our lives.  He does this because He loves us.  He does this to get our attention.  He does this for His glory and for our ultimate good.  If it seems like what you’ve been chasing has just vaporized before your eyes, if you make money only to find it flowing through holes in your pocket, if you feel like you never have enough, the Lord Almighty may be knocking out the props in your life to get your attention.  And until you admit that you are impoverished apart from Him, things will not get better.

C.S. Lewis once said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”  He blows stuff away and calls for a drought so that we will return to Him.  

Their Response

Haggai’s preaching first moved the leaders and then the rest of the remnant to respond.

1. Immediate obedience. 

In 1:8, God is very specific on what He wants them to do: “Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored.”  We don’t often think that God takes great pleasure when we treasure Him by obeying what He says.  I love how verse 12 begins: “Then…”  As a result of what they heard, they heeded God’s call: “Then Zerubbabel…Joshua…and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God…”  You can’t improve on these words from a great hymn: “Trust and obey, for there is no other way.”

I talked to someone recently who told me that her family was really struggling to make it to church on Sundays.  They just felt like they had too much going on.  And then a wise pastor told them that if they put God first with their time on Sunday mornings, God will give them ample time the rest of the week to accomplish what they need to accomplish.  She told me that that’s exactly what’s happened.

If you’re drifting and want to get back, then practice immediate obedience

If you’re drifting and want to get back, then practice immediate obedience.  Good intentions don’t matter; only obedience does.  

I like what one person has said: “We have only one day to follow God and it’s not yesterday because that day is gone.  It’s not tomorrow, because we can’t be certain that it will come.  All we have is today.”  As the writer of Hebrews says: Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 3:7-8).

2. Real reverence. 

Check out the last phrase in verse 12: “…And the people feared the Lord.” The idea here is to not cower on the ground before God but instead to get serious about Him by keeping Him as the deliberate focus of your life.  We know this because in 2:5 God says “Do not fear.”  With that said, most of us could stand to tremble more in the presence of the Thrice-Holy God.  To be filled with awe means to catch a glimpse of the eternal glory of the living God.  A.W. Tozer has written some powerful words: “So necessary to the church is a lofty concept of God that when that concept in any measure declines, the church with her worship and moral standards declines with it.  The first step down for any church is taken when it surrenders its high opinion of God.”  When we revere God we’ll stop giving Him our leftovers.

One pastor asks the question: “Do you want to know the ironic thing about the easy road and the hard road?”  He then answers the question: “The easy road looks easy but once you get on it, it turns into the hard road.  And the hard road looks hard but once you do the hard thing in life, it turns out to be the easy thing…the easy road is deceptive…it is the way to wasted days, wasted weeks, wasted months, and wasted years.” 

When we practice immediate obedience and real reverence, then God goes to work.  Notice what God promises in response to our obedience.

God’s Response

1. His safeguarding will silence us. 

Look at 1:13: “I am with you.”  We were reminded of this amazing truth last week from Zephaniah 3:17: “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.”  The God of the angel armies promises to be with us when we stop procrastinating and get to work.  Here are some other passages that affirm this truth

  • Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
  • Matthew 28:20: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

After many years of hardship and danger in the heart of Africa, David Livingstone said that there was one thing that kept him going when working with people who spoke a language he did not understand and people who were often hostile.  It was this: “‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’  On those words I staked everything, and they never failed.”

2. His Spirit will stir us. 

We see this in 1:14: “So the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel…and the spirit of Joshua…and the spirit of the whole remnant of God’s people.”  They moved from apathy to an awakening.  The word “stirring” means to “wake up a sleepy person so they’re alert and ready for action.” That reminds me of an old Keith Green song called “Asleep in the Light.”  “You close your eyes and pretend the job’s done.  The world is sleeping in the dark that the church just can’t fight, ’cause it’s asleep in the light.  How can you be so dead when you’ve been so well fed?  Jesus rose from the grave and you, you can’t even get out of bed.”

3. His strength will sustain us. 

The order here is important.  Knowing that God is with us gives us great comfort.  Then when His Spirit stirs we can get to work serving.  After the Spirit stirred, 1:14 tells us that they “began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God.”  Drop down to 2:4: “‘…Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the Lord, ‘and work.  For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty.” God’s workers went from being delayed to being disciplined to being deployed.

There are two extremes to avoid.  One is to experience a stirring and not do anything about it.  The other is to serve in your own strength without any stirring from the Spirit.  Listen.  The stirring of the Spirit must lead to serving.  God’s work depends on God’s Spirit.  Church, it’s time to stop procrastinating and start persevering.  It’s time to rise and build!  The Holy Spirit is stirring…now let’s get to work and serve like never before!

From Procrastination to Action

This book is so rich and there’s still a lot more that we’ve not addressed but it’s time to wrap this up.  In an effort to help us apply what we’ve learned, lock in with me on a few things.

1. It’s time for a course correction. 

Ponder these questions.

  • Are you spending your time wisely?
  • Are you using your money for kingdom purposes?
  • Do your goals line up with God’s?
  • Are your friends helping you live a life of faith or are they taking you away from God?

2. Rely on God’s Spirit to stir us. 

Properly understood, God’s Temple today is God’s people.  1 Corinthians 3:16: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?”  How’s the rebuilding going in your life?

3. It’s time for us to move forward. 

Regardless of how you’ve been living, it’s time to move forward.  The good news of Haggai is that the people responded to the prophet.  That seldom happened when the prophets did their preaching!  I find that encouraging.  Ray Pritchard has said something that I find very helpful: I can’t go back; I can’t stay here; I must go forward.  What is God asking you to do?  How can you obey Him…today?  Remember that delayed obedience is really disobedience.

Those who follow the Procrastinator’s Creed have one more motto: “I will never put off tomorrow, what I can forget about forever.”  We can’t afford to forget about forever. That’s one reason we’ve been given the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper.  To prepare for this, let me draw your attention to Haggai 2:6-9: “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land.  I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, [most commentators believe this a reference to the second coming of Jesus] and I will fill this house with glory…the glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house.”

This temple, though smaller than Solomon’s, was later renovated by Herod and became beautiful once again.  But what made it really beautiful was that it was filled with glory by the Lord Jesus.  When Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms, he used these words in Luke 2:32: “A light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  The Bible teaches that there’s another Temple yet to come but check out this amazing verse from Matthew 12:6 when Jesus declared: “One greater than the temple is here.”

How’s God’s Temple among the people of PBC doing today?  1 Corinthians 11:28 calls us to a time of reflection, to a time when we consider our ways: “A man out to examine himself before He eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.”

It’s time to finish what was started by putting first things first.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?