Scripture: Haggai 1:1-8
Most of you know that in our Sunday Bible Study we’ve been reading through the Bible in a year: we’re doing the abridged form, with about a chapter of assigned reading a day. Today we’re going to be finishing up the Hebrew Bible, talking about the last three of the so-called Minor Prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, and I thought I’d bring you all along for the ride here in worship too.
Not all of the Minor Prophets are easy to preach on – join us later on to hear more! – but as I was reading the prophet Haggai this week I did think that Haggai might have a good word for us today. He is not one of the more well-known prophets – even I didn’t remember much about Haggai before putting this week’s study together – so let me start by telling you telling you a little bit about him.
Haggai was a prophet around the year 520 BCE. Years earlier, in 587 BCE, the Babylonian army had laid siege to the city of Jerusalem, broken through the walls, and destroyed the Temple along with the entire city. The religious and economic elites of Jerusalem, the ones who get to write the books, are led away in chains and scattered across the Babylonian empire, while the poor are left to farm the land. It’s not a stretch to call this the defining event of the Hebrew Bible. The Bible becomes the Bible in light of this event. Even much earlier stories and scriptures are edited and compiled in light of the destruction of Jerusalem and what becomes known as the Babylonian exile.
The Temple was where God resided on earth. When the Temple is destroyed, then what? Well, either God is absent, or your theology has to change.
But that was all before Haggai came on the scene.
By the time Haggai is part of the picture, Babylon itself has fallen. Persia is now in charge in the Ancient Near East. In 539 BCE, King Cyrus tells the exiles to go home, and he sends them with resources to start rebuilding. For this, Cyrus is called no less than God’s anointed, in Hebrew mashiach, Messiah. Back in Jerusalem, reconstructing the Temple is the first order of business. That way, God can dwell with God’s people in Jerusalem once again. The returned exiles get down to work on this holy project that God has called them to – work God has given them both the opportunity and the responsibility to undertake.
You can imagine it’s probably not as easy as all that. The small surrounding nations and some questionable newcomers to the city itself see the Temple beginning to be rebuilt, and they start to feel threatened. What happens to them if Jerusalem starts to gain power again? So they actively work to subvert the process.
And the people get discouraged. They start to believe their neighbors. And the project comes to a halt. It’s not necessarily a grinding halt, as far as I can tell. It just kind of…peters out. And maybe sometimes the people will walk past that half-rebuilt Temple and feel a kind of pang, you know, but mostly they try to push it out of their mind – the Temple was before. And hopefully someday it will be again. Just not right now.
Maybe there’s some connection here to the way I imagine a lot of us feel right now, discouraged and despairing that life will ever be the same. I’m not saying it’s the same as being forcibly exiled from your home (there are those in our country, out in the West, who are experiencing a version of that too) but I think it’s fair to say that many of us are experiencing a sense of exile from life as we knew it right now. Once in a while there are some signs of hope, some promise of a return to something normal, and discouragement as we realize it’s just not that easy and it’s just not the same.
I’ve experienced this as my kids have returned to preschool, only to have our new rhythm interrupted by the need to quarantine. Young adults are starting college only to be told to return home. Some of you have been through Plans A, B, and C for major life events this year. Or you’ve found new jobs and lost them. Trying to find “life” in all of this just isn’t that easy, and maybe trying to find God in all of it isn’t so easy either.
And so the people say, we’ll build the Temple later. Later, when it’s easier. Later, when resources are more abundant. Let’s just regain our footing, here, and then we’ll get back to God’s work.
That’s where Haggai comes in with a word from the Lord.
At first his words sound angry, or at least disappointed. “These people say, the time hasn’t come, the time to rebuild the Lord’s house….Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses while this house lies in ruins?”
Think about it, God says, “You’ve sown much, but it has brought little. You eat, but there’s not enough to satisfy. There’s clothing, but not enough to keep warm.” And what it sounds like to me is that the people think they just don’t have enough to really invest in anything right now. They’re just trying to survive, here, to get through, and someday, when things are better and easier and more abundant, then we’ll build the Temple.
No, God says, go to the highlands and get some wood. You all are waiting for things to get better, but actually what would make things better is for me to dwell among you in that Temple again.
We call the Bible the Living Word of God because, even though it was written in and about specific circumstances in specific times in history, it still has the power to speak to us today, and this week, Haggai did to me. Because how many times during this whole pandemic have I said I’m just trying to survive here, I’ll worry about the rest later?
On the other hand, that’s not all wrong, is it? Sometimes just trying to get through a rough period is all you have, and I have to believe God understands that. I think there’s been something good, even, about having to pare things down to the minimum this year, and having to face that question of what really matters and what’s just been keeping us busy. God has never cared if you used this year to write your novel. God has never cared if your house is clean. God does need us to care for ourselves. God does want us to be well and whole and not just overwhelmed all the time.
So I wondered if this was, in fact, the right word for today. Maybe it’s really not time to talk about rebuilding yet. Maybe the time to bring out Haggai is after there’s a vaccine, after all of this is over, but it’s still hard and we’re still figuring it out.
Maybe I’ll preach this sermon again then. But I still think Haggai has a word for us today.
Building the Temple is doing God’s work, and that’s what the people are stalling on, saying they just can’t focus on it now, they don’t have enough to invest in it now, and it’s to all of those excuses that God says no, it’s time.
I’m not talking about the pressure to accomplish all the things you wanted to accomplish this year; what I’m talking about is doing God’s work, whatever that looks like for you: the work of being part of a community, the work of caring for our neighbors, the work of pursuing justice, the work of prayer; the work I have so often gotten away from in the past six months as it has been so easy to turn in on myself and my own stress and my own fears and my own scarcity. At various times in these past six months I’ve heard God telling me, no, it’s not going to be better later, you’re not going to have more time to help out a neighbor or support a cause for justice later, you can do that now, and your life will be better for it.
What is God asking of you now? Not someday when things are better and you have more time and more money and it all seems generally safer, but now?
Life is different now, but it’s not on hold. That’s what God needs God’s people to know. The time for rebuilding is now.
I am with you, God says to God’s people, and they start to get to work.
The next words of Haggai are words of encouragement. Be strong, Zerubabel, says the Lord. Be strong, Jeshua, says the Lord. Be strong, all you people of the land. Work, for I am with you. Do not fear. When you’re done here, it’s going to be even better than it was before. Not the same! Not the same. But even better.
So who here needs to hear a word from Haggai today?