Plans that seem like nothing

It is that time of year again, when we are asked to develop annual ministry plans for the coming year. We dream about what we would like to see happen in 2017 – and then we face the reality of our limited financial and people resources.  We do not want to discount what God can do, and so we seek to set goals that call for faith and utter dependence upon God.

But we are also told to make sure that our annual goals are SMART:

  • S – Strategic (How clearly does it propel our vision forward?)
  • M – Measurable (How will we know when we have completed the goal?)
  • A – Ambitious (a faith-stretch) (Does it require us to depend on God?)
  • R – Realistic (Do we have at least a rough idea for how we could work towards accomplishing it?)
  • T – Time-bound (Have we determined a deadline for completing the goal?)

Ambitious, yet realistic.  A difficult balance, I find.  Do the Scriptures have anything to say about that tension?  I think maybe Haggai’s prophecy might give us some help here.

‘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? 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. ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’ – Haggai 2:3–5

The historical context of this passage is after the Babylonian exile, almost 20 years after the first group of exiles returned to Jerusalem and began building the temple.  For a variety of reasons, the project had stalled.   Ezra 4 talks about how the enemies of the Jewish people who also lived in Palestine fiercely opposed the rebuilding of the temple, and were able to frustrate the work for a couple of decades.

But there were internal reasons as well for why the temple didn’t get finished. The Lord knew that the people were comparing the grandeur of this new temple with the much more glorious temple that Solomon built. Ezra 2:12-13 talks about the older people weeping at the laying of the foundation, expressing their disappointment that this temple would not be grand as the previous one. Although I imagine that few Jews were actually openly disparaging the new construction, I also suspect that this comparison was constantly in the minds of many of the older people, and that this comparison was discouraging people from putting their full energy and resources to completing this temple.

Maybe some had quietly suggested that it might be best to wait on the construction project until they had the resources to do it “right”.  But God did not want them to wait to build it until they had enough money to build something similar to what Solomon had built. Now was the time to build, even though their temple plans called for something much less ornate than what the Babylonians had destroyed in 586 BC.

So the Lord deals with the “elephant in the room.”  Through Haggai, he confronts this demotivating mindset. He does NOT tell them to dream bigger, tear up the blueprints and spend money that they do not have. Rather he encourages them to be strong and continue building on the foundation that was laid 20 years ago.  What they needed to change was their attitude toward these plans.  They needed to realize that God was with them. This less impressive temple was still His house, and they were still God’s people. This temple was still going to be His residence among them. He was not embarrassed to be identified fully with this project, so why were they?

Missionaries are not immune to this temptation to making comparisons. We may think our goals and our past accomplishments are small in comparison to those who have had the privilege of serving in countries where it is “harvest time”, where missionaries have seen massive people movements to Christ, where churches now number in the thousands. The Lord of the harvest is fully aware of what we are thinking. He knows that we may think that our plans are insignificant.

But he has given us this task in this country among this people group, and he wants us to move forward confidently, determined and focused. If these goals will move us forward, don’t minimize their significance or compare them with what others have done. The Lord is not embarrassed to be identified with our goals and plans, even when they may not seem impressive to others. He plans to celebrate when our plans are accomplished!

This is seen even more clearly in the prophecy of Haggai’s contemporary, Zechariah:

Then the word of the Lord came to me: “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you. “Who dares despise the day of small things, since the seven eyes of the Lord that range throughout the earth will rejoice when they see the chosen capstone in the hand of Zerubbabel?” – Zechariah 4:8–10

Zerubbabel finished the temple four years later (Ezra 6:14-15). It was a time of great rejoicing.  The celebrations were on a far smaller scale than the dedication of Solomon’s temple. For example, Solomon sacrificed 120,000 sheep and goats. In Zerubbabel’s day, they sacrificed only 612.  But the people had no question that God was with them, and the biblical record emphasizes the joy that the people experienced at what God had enabled them to do (Ezra 6:16, 22). Through the prophet Zechariah, we know that God Himself was rejoicing as well.

Several centuries after the time of Zerubbabel, King Herod embarked on a huge, costly and extremely lengthy renovation and expansion of the temple built in Zerubbabel’s day. People were very impressed with this massive and magnificent building.

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” – Mark 13:1–2

But Jesus was not impressed with the temple, now much larger and much more ornate than what Zerubbabel originally planned and built (Mark 13:1-2). God is not impressed with size and grandeur, with projects done on a massive scale.  He wants hearts that are willing to be obedient and work hard to accomplish something on a small scale, even when it looks unimpressive.  Nothing wrong with big goals, even big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAGs), but let’s not despise the small goals, if those are the ones that God has given us.

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