In the Church today we may wrestle a bit with Habakkuk, be challenged a bit by Jonah even though we find parts of it a fishy, dust off a couple of verses of Joel at Pentecost, mention Malachi's first fruits when we want to talk about tithing and money issues, confuse Amos’ best line as Martin Luther King Jr’s and haul out Haggai when a church is looking at a building project. But all in all the minor Prophets are not often the focus of preaching in Churches these days. We may see the minor to mean not important, far from it, they are called Minor not because they are lesser in significance, but smaller in size, compared to the major; bigger works of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah. Your always telling me you want shorter sermons. The Jews get round this minor major thing by simply calling them the twelve. Over the month of August we are going to be working our way through one of the twelve: the book of Haggai.
Let me start by saying relax, it does not mean we are venturing on a building programme. But we are looking to Haggai to build us up as the Church. Haggai was a significant prophet who ministered during the time of the return of the exiles from Babylon. The people of Jerusalem had been taken into exile in 587bc and after seventy years when the Persian empire conquered Babylon, they were allowed to come back and rebuild the city and live there.
I’m calling the series Haggai: Renewal in the Ruins… because it is about a group of God’s people rediscovering, the presence of God and focusing on God’s pleasure and the Glory of God as central to their community. For the people of Haggai’s day that focus was the temple, a very real and tangible expression of God dwelling with them, for us it is in the very real and tangible presence of Jesus Christ, his purposes and mission for us as a church community. As Justin Welby, the arch bishop of Canterbury, puts it, renewal comes as we once again find ourselves captivated by Jesus Christ.
The Book of Haggai is a series of four messages, each given at a specific time and place. The reading we had today is actually two messages, given twenty-three days apart, but they are seen as a unit because they start and finish with the dating, they start and finish with the mention of the same specific people, and by structure. In verse 2 We have what the people say, then what God says, the people’s actions in response to Haggai appears as a narrative in verse 12 then we have God’s reaction in verse 13-14.
The year we are given is the second year of king Darius. Darius came to power in 550bc in a time of turmoil in the Persian Empire and his first period of reign was full of dealing with rebellions, it was also a time of economic hardship caused by heavy taxation. It was the first day of the sixth month, which is the beginning of the grape, fig and pomegranate harvests in Judea, the first day would have been the new moon festival, and the civic leaders represented by Zerubbabel, a descendant of the Davidic kings and the governor of the region and the religious leaders, Joshua the high priest and all people would have gathered to pray for the pending harvest and it is at this gathering that Haggai speaks.
He starts by what the people are saying, “The time has not yet come to rebuild the temple”. They would have been gathered amongst the ruins at the site of the temple to worship. The state of the temple would have been obvious to them. They had come back from Babylon specifically to rebuild the temple and to once again constitute themselves as God’s people, a worshipped and witnessing community. They would have had many good reasons, why it wasn’t time to rebuild the temple. They were struggling to make ends meet, there was political and economic turmoil, would it be seen as a sign of revolt against Persia. The harvest was due, then the planting and the tending and all the other things that just seemed to demand their time. They had to get a head, was it really a priority. It is easy for us as well to make those kinds of decisions about the priority in our life where we place our faith and identity as God’s people. It is not the right time. We can find so many things competing for our time and attention… in fact the people gathered there had been saying the same thing for about eighteen years at this stage, as various small groups had started to come back to Jerusalem with their focus on re-establishing the city and the temple and their religious identity, but it was never the right time…
Then Haggai tells the people what God says. God asks the question is it right for the people to live in their panelled houses while the temple is in ruins? Have they got their priorities right? Now the idea of panelled houses can mean that the houses had roofs on them that they were living in finished houses and the temple wasn’t even started let alone finished. But panelled houses could also mean a degree of luxury was starting to manifest itself in those houses, they were wood panelled houses, and the temple wasn’t even seen as a necessity.
God asks ‘them to think carefully about their ways’. The focus was on their own material wellbeing, not on God and in a series of four images that feel so relevant for today, this is seen as not satisfying them at all. They eat and drink but never seem to have enough, they pile on the clothes but are still cold, they earn wages only to put them in purses with holes. It is a great picture of our own twentieth first century consumer society, that offers us so much fulfilment but in fact does not deliver. Individually it is based on having more to fill the hole inside, and it can simply be a purse with a hole in it that just seems to get bigger and bigger to fit our incomes. Societally, trying to keep that standard of living consumes all our effort and resources and the hole through whish so many people are falling into poverty seems to be growing.
Tom Sines a Christian thinker and futurist talks of the current cost of housing and says that the generation growing up today, and he is talking of the ones at university today will be the first post world war 2 generation who will not be able to afford the same standard of living that their parents did. And if they want to live that same lifestyle in the same kind of house they were bought up in it will shut down all their other options it will consume all their time and resources and even then may be out of reach. You just have to look at the fact that for most people it takes two incomes these days to simply run a household. Sines says for this next generation of Christian young people they will have to make some radical choices between lifestyle and their faith. His challenge is like that of Haggai that we consider our ways very carefully, what is the dream and priority and faith centred life that we pass on to them. That provides a genuine alternative for the increasingly unobtainable and unsustainable western dream.
Haggai goes on to ask them to again think carefully about their ways. He calls them to go up to the mountains and bring down the wood to start building his house. He uses the imagery of curse and blessing from the Torah to explain what was happening to them. That drought and low crop returns were things that their covenant relationship at Sinai had said would happen if God’s people did not keep the covenant. He says that the people had been focusing on their own houses their own pleasure and honour, rather than building a house for God’s pleasure and honour. At the heart of their identity as a people and a community was the presence of God, in the wilderness this had been seen as God dwelling in the tabernacle, then the temple was the focal for that. The glory had come down on the temple as Solomon had dedicated it. It was the meeting place between God and his people. As the exiles were taken away to captivity, Ezekiel has a vision of the presence of God leaving the temple and going with them into exile. God had never abandoned his people, now the call is to rediscover that presence and the pleasure and glory of God as the central focus of their community and being a people. They were focused on their own houses, their own pleasure, honouring themselves rather than God. In doing that they were depending on their own resources their own know how, on themselves and it wasn’t working out. They had forgotten that rain and harvest and abundance was a blessing from God. We can try and find fulfilment in life in trying to fill up our lives and focus on our own needs and wants and dreams and expectations and forget that as God’s people, and Haggai was speaking to God’s people, that meaning and purpose and fulness of life, comes not from what we have but from putting God and God’s glory first in our lives. Jesus said we were to put first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things would be added unto us. We can easily focus on the added on’s hoping they will add up to enough and miss the core.
The great thing is that the people listen to what God brings through Haggai and they begin to build. It starts with a change of heart. The leaders and the people listen and obey, and they once again fear the LORD. Which does not mean that they are afraid of God, but rather they once again have a sense of wonder and awe and reverence for God. Jesus says at the end of the sermon on the mount if you love me you will hear my words and obey them put them into action in your life. That is the person who builds on a solid foundation.
There is a change here between how the people are viewed or how they view themselves. Haggai had started by calling them not God’s people but ‘these people” but now they are called the remnant, there is a sense that they are seen and see themselves as the people God has bought back to Jerusalem, they have owned their identity as God’s people and their priorities and purposes have changed accordingly. They now see that they are a people by grace saved for the purposes of God, rather than a rag tag group of returnees.
Historically, when the church has seemed to move away from its focus on Christ his glory and become simply assimilated into the worldview around them a there have been those who have been willing to step aside and reconstitute themselves in terms a new community. The desert fathers and the Celtic monks were a response to the compromise they saw in the imperial church, they developed practices and routines as a community that reprioritised them on knowing and following Christ. You can see it in the Wesleyan revival and its focus on small groups as a way of maintaining and developing disciplines for a Christ centred life, beyond Sunday worship. Today there is a growth of what’s called new monasticism, communities who don’t necessarily live together, but who hold a shared set of spiritual practices and routines and rhythms through which they want to grow in a Christ honouring way. Simplifying their lifestyle and shared resources and shared sense of mission and outreach is part of that. It is ways they have built a new community together, reflecting that change of priorities that comes from seeing Christ’s presence and Christ’s pleasure and glory as what is at the heart of being a faith community.
The passage finishes with God’s response. As the people have taken the time to carefully consider how their ways, and with the harvest out of the way, They still needed to do those essential things as we all do, but they started to respond by rebuilding the centre of their community together, and God does two things. God speaks and reassures them that …“I am with You”… The temple was a symbol of that, but the reality of God’s presence is reaffirmed. The abiding presence of God. It’s interesting that the temple they rebuilt here would be the one Jesus entered into the one that at his death the curtain would be ripped in two as a symbol that God’s presence as not longer simply tied to that local but was going to be with God’s people in Christ where ever we are. It was Jesus last words as he commissioned his apostles to be his witnesses and lo I am with you to the end of the age, it was the starting point of the church as the holy Spirit came and filled all the believers gathered in that upper room at Pentecost, and did the same thing with the gentile gathered together at Cornelius’ house in Acts 10. It is what we experience in our lives as God’s people in this time and place as well.
The second thing that God did was to stir up the spirits of Zerubbabel, Joshua and all the people to build the temple. As they responded to God, God responded to them and re-ignited that passion within them. We’ve just finished looking at 2 Timothy and I can’t help but thing of Paul telling Timothy to fan into flame the gift with him, the presence of God in Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit. How are we to respond to the passage today? It is a call to think carefully of our ways? Which way are we going. Are we focused on our own houses, our own pleasure and honour, do we need to turn around and look at our priorities? Are they God’s pleasure and God’s Glory, are they about a life and community built round the presence of God with us. As we do that we will find that God is with us, Christ is with us, the Holy Spirit is present, and as we change direction, our spirits will again be stirred up , we will focus again on the pleasure and the glory of God, and seeing his kingdom built up. We will find fulfilment and purpose and meaning in knowing and being known by the God who loves us and showed that love through Jesus Christ.