The Book of Haggai has a lot to say to the church today. The Church in the west, which for most of my lifetime has been a church in decline: shrinking numbers, closing doors, finding itself moving from close to the centre of society to its edge. I don’t want to be all negative but that is the reality we live with.
Haggai has a lot to say to us here at St Peter’s as we look at turning around that trend and decline. And it is happening. As the parish council we felt that God was giving us a vision for the future ‘that (click for this to come up as quote) we are called to be an authentic, vibrant, sustainable community, growing as followers of Jesus and inspiring others to join us on that Journey’ and Haggai has some very significant things to say to us to help us see that vision become a reality.
I’ve called this series ‘Out of the ruins renewal’. Haggai speaks to the people of God at one of the low points in their history. Jerusalem had been destroyed, the temple torn down and left in ruins, the people taken away into captivity in Babylon, then the world had started to change again, a small rag tag remnant had come back to Jerusalem and started to rebuild amongst the ruins, and Haggai inspires them to rebuild the temple, symbolic of re-establishing themselves as the people of God, as a people that would witness to the goodness and greatness of God.
Last week we saw that as the people had come back to Jerusalem they had focused on getting the economy kick started. Some seemed to be doing quite well, they built wood panelled houses. But despite that the reality of life didn’t live up to the hope they had. There was famine and drought, and in a metaphor that sounds a lot like the economic reality that you and I live with, Haggai says, You earn wages only to put them in a purse with a hole in it’. Haggai challenges them to change priorities, to stop focusing simply on their standard of living, of just making a living, of material things and to focus on being God’s people, symbolised by focusing on rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. We saw that echoed in Jesus words to put First the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you’. The passage left us asking questions about the priorities in our life. How Does the Kingdom of God and his Righteousness manifest itself as a priority in our lives?
Well the people resolve to rebuild the temple, and Haggai brings a word of encouragement to them “I am with you says the Lord almighty. They clear off the rubble and they re-establish the altar. On the twenty first day of the seventh month Haggai brings them another word of the LORD, the passage we had read out to us today. Now all of Haggai’s prophecies are very time and place specific, and it’s great because we know the exact situation that Haggai is addressing. It’s recorded in Ezra chapter 3.
The people had re-established the altar and it was time to celebrate the festival of tabernacles. It’s a harvest festival that follows the day of atonement, where Israel confesses its sins and seeks forgiveness, a festival in which the people live in small huts and tents to remember God being with them as they travelled out of slavery in Egypt through the desert. At the end of the festival they were to give a festive shout, “he is Good, His love towards Israel endures for ever’. In Ezra it says that there was as much crying as shouts of joy. Those who had seen the temple in the old days, or had grown up with the stories of how grand it was as they had lived in exile wept…There was no way that what they had started could live up to that… let’s face it those were the days.
Maybe they were right to think that way. Solomon’s temple had been built when Israel was at its height as an empire, here they were a rag tag remnant, a province of a far off empire. When Solomon had built the temple they had peace and security, now their neighbours were wary about a resurgence of Jewish nationalism, they had built it with money from conquered lands, where was the money going to come from now? Solomon has used forced labour; they were all part time volunteers. The burden of ‘those were the days” was discouraging the leaders and the people.
Many of us who are older, and I’m rapidly moving into that category, and when all our families are here it’s great to be in the older half of the congregation. It’s a sign of life and of hope and renewal, but many of us can look back and remember times when the church was full to over flow, we look back and we sigh and we say ‘those were the days’. Youth group days, times of spiritual high, pioneering days when all we did seemed to prosper, building projects you name it. Those were the days… Those were the days and we can find ourselves grieving over them, that they have gone, and it’s hard to think that what we do now can compare, it is just a faded echo of some idealised past, and maybe it’s hard to think positively about the future.
Haggai speaks into that situation, he sums up what the people are thinking and saying, Who of you have seen the former house? Does this seem like nothing to you?’ It’s reassuring that God sees and God hears and God knows the memories we hold as precious, but also the sorrows and grief and misgivings we have, but it was easy for that group to hold back those who had fresh vision for the new thing God was wanting to do. It was easy to find themselves held captive to an idealised past… Haggai does not stay there he goes on.
Haggai speaks to the leaders, the civil leader, Zerubbabel… who is going to have to make the decisions and do the envisioning and planning and the guiding of the work. He speaks to Joshua the high priest who will provided the spiritual sustenance the people need, and the people and says ‘Take courage and work’, don’t be discouraged. The source of the confidence of the hope that the best is yet to come is the presence of God in their midst. These amazing words “I am with You” says the Lord Almighty… The thing that makes the future possible is the presence of God with us today. Haggai uses the very time that the people had just been celebrating, that journey through the wilderness to remind them of what God’s presence means. Israel remembers her past not with a wishful longing, those were e the days, but to inspire them to press on with the assurance of God’s presence. Then God lead them, God provided for them, God protected them. That same God is with them, so they should not be afraid, or be discoursed rather they should take courage and work for the future that God had for them. And so should we, Jesus last words to his disciples as part of the great commission are and Lo I am with You to the end of the age. In John, Jesus says I’m not going to leave you as orphans, I will send one like me the Holy Spirit.
Haggai addresses one of the chief issues they have, a very Jerry McGuire moment “show me the Money?”, it was a very real issue, where were the resources going to come from to make the temple a place that would be a fitting for the worship of God. Where was the silver and Gold going to come from? This isn’t just a pep talk and hype… it deals with realities. We’ll says Haggai, the Gold and Silver belong to God and God will soon shake the earth again and the picture we get is God shaking all the nations so that the money falls out of their pockets. In fact says Haggai, the glory of the latter temple will be greater than the former… Or in our language “those were the days… but the best is yet to come.” Now I love the way the story works out… if you read through Ezra chapter 4 to 6 you’ll see that God actually used the emperor Darius to provide the funds, and in a case of divine irony, it is the very people who oppose the temples construction who end up paying for it.
Now while this is a story about building a building at its core is renewal of relationship and the glory of the later temple comes not only from its appearance, as you’ll remember from our look at the Olivet discourse in Matthew’s gospel at the end of last year, Jesus wasn’t impressed by it physical grandeur, and that’s after Herod had refurbished it. The glory of the latter house came from the fact that it is the temple Jesus came to be dedicated to God in, that Jesus came to before his passion that in his death and resurrection he would destroy and rebuild in three days.
At the core of this story is renewal of relationship. At the core of this is God’s saving relationship with his people, god’s abiding presence. Haggai says that in that place he will grant peace, the Jewish term has the idea of wholeness of right relationships… Leonard Sweet talks of that in terms of a matrix of relationships… a right relationship with God, with each other… our fellow believers… those outside the faith, with the created world, to the spiritual realm and with our possessions.
What God has done in the past can give us strength and direction for today and tomorrow. It does not mean that it will be like it was then, culture changes things change. Let me give you an illustration of how the past can inspire us here, as I have heard your stories of how you came to be part of this congregation. I hear stories of people being invited along by neighbours and people down the street, of people who shared their faith. One of you even told me of being invited to come and be part of a new church plant. Yes those people ran programmes that people came to, that met needs in the community, they reached out beyond the walls of the church to care for people, but at the core was the simple gospel work of sharing your love of Christ with others. That is a way forwards for us today. It’s at the core of the new growth we’ve seen, it’s at the core of the future, being an authentic, (that’s real) vibrant (pulsing with the reality of God) sustainable community, that are growing as followers of Jesus and inspiring others to join us on that journey’.
People, those very well may have been the days… we can be inspired and encouraged by the past… but ‘God is with us’, Christ is with us, the spirit of God is within us… so take courage and do the work of the people of God. Be encouraged you who are in leadership, be encouraged of us, but also know it’s not all up to us, we are called to lead, we are all called to work. So people be encouraged, Christ is with you. And because of that The best is yet to come. Now I’m not saying the future is so bright that we gotta wear shades. It will take work. But remember Christ is with us now and waits for us in the future.