Haggai 1:15b-2:9, 2 Thessalonians 2: 1-5, 13-17
There couldn’t be a message more timely than this speech from Haggai who brings a word of encouragement to a people who have grown weary in rebuilding their lives and their temple, reminding them of the presence of God not only in the past, but even now in their present circumstances, planting seeds of hope for a promising future. Especially in this season of Remembrance when we look to the past century stained red by world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Bosnia, to name but a few…..brutal conflicts in every corner of the world, where unspeakable acts of genocide and terror have revealed the depths of greed, hatred and fear that may lie in the heart of humanity.
We know that many people’s lives have been touched either personally, through their families or through the communities they may be from, that have been affected by war and conflict and know that there is always a need for ongoing healing of memories, a renewed sense of purpose and motivation to keep trying to build a future where peace and shalom is a reality for everyone on earth. Foremost in our minds as well is the ongoing search for a sense of hope about the future of this home we call the earth, now suffering so much devastation everywhere.
The prophet Haggai invites his people to come and find that hope again by returning to God, making the Lord’s vision and purpose central to their lives. The way they are called to restore that relationship again is by rebuilding their Temple. These prophetic writings come at a time when is a few decades have passed since their return from their exile in Babylon, having been freed by the King of Persia to rebuild their society in Judah. It reminds me of the people of post-war Europe, devastated by conflict, where land and building had been laid waste, needed to be rebuilt, or today, the land of Syria, much of which is in ruins.
The people had begun returning about 539 BC to rebuild their society, including their temple of worship, but as a few decades have passed, nothing much has happened, and stones lay upon stones, and now they have entered a difficult time where crops are poor and drought is rampant. Their also seems to be conflict within the population about how their society and their Temple is to be rebuilt for a new generation.
There is division between the generations about what can and should be done even conceptually let alone practically. The older generation remembers the glory days, when King Solomon’s Temple was in existence, magnificent and filled with people and beauty and so they now struggle with their feelings of grief and loss as they muster the energy to begin building again. Haggai shows empathy to these people who are now only a remnant of the former population that lived in Judah saying to them “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?”
They have worked hard to rebuild the temple and no doubt with fewer people and resources at their disposal, but the older timers see that what they have created does not compare with the former glory of the old temple and they weep. They said that if we just act like we did back when it was a big and important place, then all would be well. If we sacrificed the old way, did ritual the old way, dressed the old way, then somehow all of those people who had moved on and changed and become indifferent today would just come back again and act like they did back when we were young. But there were younger people in their midst who saw the potential of doing things differently, of building up the temple in a new way.
“But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.” (Ezra 3:11-12).
I know that is the feeling of so many in our day who are part of what is called the Builder generation including perhaps some of the Boomer generation – veterans and their families who know what a high price was paid for holding onto the values which created so many important institutions and infrastructure that have helped societies to flourish -growing a middle class, extending education and health care to more people, creating vital urban communities, eliminating diseases, and creating new technologies. And so to see so many institutions, including our democratic institutions, the United Nations, Nato, and now possibly the Paris Agreement on Climate Change coming under threat, our one global hope for reducing carbon emissions, it is hard not to feel that sense of grief and despair.
I know too that there seems to be a developing conflict between the Millennials and the Boomer generation of which I am a part, where both groups hurl accusations and blame for the negative changes that we are experiencing in our day. Generational conflict has long been a part of human existence as the younger generation try to live into their own vision for how the future should unfold. But it seems that we are at a time in human history when we need to put aside our differences, in age and ideologies and find ways to understand each other and to work together for common purposes that will enhance everyone in society and save our earth.
We know that Haggai, along with the prophet Zechariah who lived in such a fragile time of rebuilding, knew about all of these conflicts and feelings and yet God still sent them to bring a word of hope and encouragement to the Israelites – to their political leaders, their religious leaders and to the remnant of the people who were there doing the work – “ Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord.”
The book of Haggai is one of the smallest in the Bible, being two short chapters, but it packs a powerful message that has encouraged people throughout time. In speaking to all these people he calls the leaders to work together, to collaborate and seek a common goal. For these people, it is to rebuild their temple for worship, to make God a central part of their lives again. It is not so much that they need a physical building, but the Temple is an important symbol which points them again to the relationship with God that they had known previously. They were to remember how God was a God who led them to freedom, out of the economic oppression and slavery they had known in Egypt, leading them to a promised land, and reminding them that the Lord was still present, inspiring them in that moment. God had also given them laws in which to govern themselves, to build communities based on compassion, justice, truth, mutual love and care for their neighbours, of welcome to the orphan and the stranger.
I hope that this is reminding you of the kind of societies that our forebearers tried to build and sustain. Within Christianity in North America, we know there is decline in all churches in numbers and perhaps in vision, many feeling that our energies that went into creating the institutions that have built up society are now beginning to decline or fracture. Many church buildings have been sold or changed into other more secular purposes. We too struggle to discern the best future for this heritage church building so that this space might continue to serve the purposes of God of justice and compassion.
What I hear from younger Christians who say they have never personally known the church when it was such a glorious place, is that they have little interest in building expensive church buildings in order to fulfill a new ministry, a new mission. They say that it doesn’t need to be that huge building that it used to be but it could be lean and directed towards meeting needs of a new world in a new way.
Haggai offered a vision that saw God shaking the heavens and the earth, shaking all the nations, so that the treasure and wealth would come and fill the house of the Lord with splendour, promising that there would be prosperity again. Some Christian leaders have turned this message into what is called the Prosperity Gospel, a heretical gospel, but especially popular amongst poor people throughout the world, mostly leading some evangelical leaders to have great personal wealth. But the scholars that I respect indicate that this Hebrew word for ‘prosperity’, is best interpreted to mean “shalom”, “peace and wholeness” for everyone. So when we hear of God shaking all the treasures and wealth out of the nations for building the temple, we can interpret this to mean that God’s intention is to work with his people to ensure that the wealth and resources of religious and political groups and the earth are to be used for creating peaceful communities.
And so the younger generation can cheer as did the people in Haggai’s day, as they look toward the potential of what can be done, even though the resources might be more limited. Our hope can be made stronger by hearing again the ancient promise, re-iterated hundreds of times throughout the Bible, the promise that God is with us, that we do not need to fear. It was given to Abram in the beginning of the biblical story (Gen 15. 1) and in Zechariah and in Haggai, it promises that “from the poverty, despair, and factionalism of the restored people of the land, the Lord promises deliverance.”
For Haggai, in the end, it was never really about the building. It was really about work that was only symbolized by the building. God says, “do the work, and I will always be with you,” and that was the real point. He said, do it “according to the promise I made to you when you came out of Egypt,” back when they had no building whatsoever. “My spirit abides among you, do not fear” (v. 5). That is the true and final message. Do the work, he says, build the building, but know that whatever happens, I will be there, do not have fear.
It was and is and always will be about creating a community (both locally and globally) in which people feel the presence of God in their midst, lifting, enabling, empowering, and redeeming their lives and the lives of others. If we can do that, then God’s “House” will be rebuilt and revived and revised, and it will be a beacon to outsiders and will beckon to others. If we are unable to do that, then we might as well join those who moved to Samaria and started another religion. And then, at the end of the day, “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former…and in this place I will give šālôm, ‘peace.’”
Hear again the promise God made to his people long ago:
Do not be discouraged!
Be strong and courageous.
for I am with you.
My Spirit remains with you,
and is living among you.
So do not afraid!