Monday, March 20, 2017

Haggai: You Can't Go Back

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Haggai 2:1-9:

In just two weeks the Major League Baseball season will start, and baseball is one of those sports that in the more things change, the more they stay the same, so for example, one well known player said of the younger players coming up "The great trouble with baseball today is that most of the players are in the game for the money and that's it, not for the love of it, the excitement of it, the thrill of it." Does anyone want to make a guess what year, or decade, that was uttered in? It was Ty Cobb, and he said it in 1925 while he was still playing the game. So, for all those people who complain today that the athletes are only in it for the money, that’s a complaint that goes back a long, long way, and I am sure that others had said exactly the same thing about Ty Cobb and his peers when they broke into the game as well. There seems to a natural tendency among humans to look to the past and to long for the ways that things used to be done, to wish that if things could only be like they were back then, then everything would be great. Or to phrase it differently, everything was awesome back then, and it’s terrible now, and who do these kids think they are anyways, kids in my day yadda, yadda, yadda. Perhaps it will make you feel better, or maybe not, to know that we see this same story taking place in scripture. There are the people complaining to Moses as they are wandering in the Egypt, who say “remember how good we had it back in Egypt? I mean sure we were slaves and all, but at least we weren’t walking all day following a cloud, Moses, when are we going to get there? Yadda, yadda, yadda.” And then there are the people who were complaining about the state of Judah after the people returned from Exile and how good it used to be, which is where the prophet Haggai comes into play.

All of the minor prophets we have encountered so far have been making prophecies in or to Israel, the northern kingdom, or Judah, which was the southern kingdom during the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. As you may remember, Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian empire in 721 and the 10 northern tribes were removed from the land and basically disappeared to the sands of history. They were replaced on the land by the Samaritans. Then the Assyrian Empire was destroyed by the Babylonian empire, who then laid siege to Judah and Jerusalem destroying the city in 587 and then the Temple in 586 carrying off all the treasures of the Temple, including the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the ten commandments, and set in place Indiana Jones’ search. They also carried off the elites of the society, including the political and religious leaders, into captivity in Babylon, which is why it’s called the Babylonian exile. This is one of the most important events in Jewish history with most of the books in the Hebrew Scripture focusing on the issues surrounding these events. But, then in 538 the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians, ending their reign, and starting a whole new empire in the region, see you didn’t know you were going to get a history lesson on the empires of the ancient near east. But the last 3 prophets we will encounter deal with Judah under the rule by the Persian Empire. And just so you know it’s Alexander the Great who defeats the Persians, although I’m guessing the Persians didn’t think he was too great.

But after the Persians defeated the Babylonians, one of the acts undertaken by the emperor Cyrus, who became known as Cyrus the Great, although I’m sure the Babylonians didn’t agree with that title. But Cyrus issued a decree allowing people to return to their native lands and to rebuild their temples.  The decree also ordered the return of the sacred images and temple furniture taken by the Babylonians as spoils from the cities they had conquered. Most of what we know from scripture about this time come to us from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, who mention both Haggai and also Zechariah, and also the leaders that King Darius of Persia, who follows Cyrus, sends back to Judah to undertake the task, Zerubbabel who is the governor and the grandson of King Jehoachin, who was king when the people were taken into exile, and Joshua, the high priest, was the grandson of the exiled chief priest Seraiah, of whom Ezra is also said to be a descendant.

Now probably unsurprisingly since I’ve been saying basically the same thing for the past nine weeks, we know very little about the prophet Haggai. Like Habakkuk, who we heard from two weeks ago, there is no genealogy given for Haggai, which is unusual, and he is also specifically referred to as a prophet in the book, which is also unusual. There is lots of speculation about Haggai and his background. Some have speculated that his family is not listed because doing so would have announced family connections that may have been problematic if they were announced publicly, whereas others say it is because they wanted to emphasize the divine nature of the prophetic message that was being given, which has nothing to do with Haggai’s family and everything to do with God.  This could be why there is such an emphasis on naming him as a prophet, which is done 5 times in the two chapters of the book. There is some thought that Haggai, and his family, were not people who were taken away as exiles, but had remained behind in Judah, and others believe that he, and Zechariah, came back to Judah along with Zerubbabel and Joshua. But, regardless of that background speculation, what we can be sure of is that Haggai speaks with authority to Zerubbabel, Joshua and the people of Judah.

What we can also be sure of, at least from the information given, is very precise dates of when these prophecies were delivered because we are given specific dateable information, and that is these take place over a three-month period starting on August 29 and running through December 28, in the year 520. The prophecy we heard in today’s passage was given on October 17, 520, which also happened to be the 7th day of an 8 day festival celebration known as Succoth or the festival of booths. This was one of the three pilgrimage festivals in Judaism in which Jews were supposed to go to the Temple to celebrate, the other two being Passover and Pentecost, and it had two meanings for its practice. The first was that it was an agricultural celebration, a celebration of the harvest and of God’s sustaining care for the people, but the other meaning and celebration was a remembrance of Solomon bringing the ark of the covenant into the Temple when it was first completed. But, the problem that the people have, or that Haggai wants to address to the people, during this celebration is first that there has been a drought in the land, and so it’s hard to celebrate the harvest when it’s very limited, and secondarily, and more importantly, how do you make a pilgrimage to the temple, when there is no temple, or celebrate the ark of the covenant being in the Temple when it too has disappeared?

The answer is that you have to rebuild the temple, which is what they exiles had gone back to do nearly 20 years before.  But, after the initial energy and excitement everything tapered off. There was internal bickering, there financial problems, the Samaritans were interfering because they didn’t want the temple rebuilt, but more importantly, at least according to Haggai, people were only focusing on their issues. They were working to rebuild their own houses, and not insignificantly trying to figure out how to redistribute land that people said had belonged to their families before the exile, but which were claimed by others when they were taken away, and they wanted it back. They were dealing with a lot of stuff, but what Haggai says, or what God says through Haggai, is that while they are focusing on their own issues and their own concerns, they are ignoring the communal concerns, the religious concerns, they are ignoring God’s house, remembering that in Judaism the Temple was the literal house of God. So God says that they are building up paneled houses for themselves, while God’s house remains in ruins. That, God says, is the reason why there has been drought, that they are sowing much, but harvesting little, that they never have enough, it’s because they are ignoring their obligations to God.

There also seem to be some people who are bemoaning what the Temple is now, versus what it used to be, and perhaps even saying that it will never be like that again. That no matter what they do, it will never be as good as it once was, that they glory of the former time will never make it to the present.  But, Haggai asks “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?” That’s probably a rhetorical question, because it was 66 years since the Temple had been intact, so while there may have been a few, they would have been small in number, and so those who were trying to recall the glory days were not actually there for the glory days. All they had were the stories, and the stories of the past are not the reality of the past. But Haggai, taking their remarks seriously, asks “How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” This sort of implies the question, so what are we going to do about it?

The most troubling aspect of what the people appear to be saying is that there are some who seem to wonder if God is even with them, or if they have the ability or resources to undertake the monumental task before them in rebuilding the temple. Maybe the generations before were better. How can they possible measure up? That’s a story we often tell ourselves, but Haggai’s response it to have courage.  Actually what he says is to take courage. Claim it, grab ahold of it, don’t let it pass by or slip through your fingers. Take it. And he doesn’t just say it once, but three times “Now take courage O Zerubbabel” who is the governor, “Take courage, O Joshua”, who is the high priest, “take courage, all you people of the land.” This is not just the work to be done by one group. This rebuilding is not just the work and effort of the governor, or of the high priest, or of just the people, this is the work of everyone. Everyone has a role and a part, and all have to take and claim that courage.

But then, and I think this is the most important part, God says, it’s not just about taking courage, because “I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit abides among you; do not fear.” It’s not that the people have to take courage and then do everything by themselves. God is with them. God has not abandoned them, the glory of God is not in the past. God is with them right here and right now, just as God has always been with them. “Once again” God is going to be doing great things amongst the people, but it’s not just God’s work. It’s the work of the people as well. It’s them working together, and God says “the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former.” In other words, you thought it was great back then? Just wait until you see what’s in front of us. This is not about making the Temple great again, this is about making the Temple, the nation, the people, greater than they have ever been. It’s not about looking back, it’s about working in the present and looking forward.

The focus on this two fold-dimension, present and future, is found not just in Haggai, but throughout scripture. It is even found in God’s name. When Moses asks God who God is, whom he should tell the Israelites who is sending him, God says “I am” or “I will be who I will be.” That is God’s name is both present and future tense. If we only focus on the present then the work can become too mundane, and we can get caught up in the tyranny of the urgent, like building our own houses rather than working on God’s house. It can also lead us to be complacent that we have done that work, and so now we’re done, we can sit back and rest and relax. There is nothing that we are working towards, no greater purpose driving us. But when the future also becomes part of our thinking, part of our understanding of who God is and what God is doing, that the future glory will be even greater than the past glory, then we remember that what we do is a continuation of the divine work that has happened before us and that we set up to happen for generations yet to come for the fulfillment of the divine purpose. They aren’t just building the Temple for themselves, they are building it for the future of Judah, for the future of the people, for the future of God’s work. And once they got started, they completed the new Temple in less than five years, after sitting for 18 years.

But, in order to do that, they had to believe not only that God was with them, that God’s promises were true, but also that without God they could not get the work done. Their work had to be bigger than they were. As St. Augustine was reported to have said, “without us, God will not; without God, we cannot.” If our dreams and visions can be done without God, can be done without the power of prayer than they are not big enough dreams. God has to tell the people “I am with you” because they have forgotten and so have been dreaming too small and thinking they couldn’t do it. “I am with you” God says so that we know that we know we can accomplish things that seem impossible, and to know that we have to dream and do bigger. If we can believe it can happen, then it’s too small. The question was not whether God could bring greater glory, or whether the glory of God could fill the Temple, the question to the people was “Do you believe it can happen?”

That question remains with us today. “Do we believe it can happen?” Where is our focus? Is it on God’s concerns or our concerns? Is it on the present, the past or the future? When I was appointed here, I said I thought we had 3-5 years to straighten everything out or we would be right back where we were when I started. If you read my note in the newsletter several weeks ago, or looked at the financial report, then you know that we are having some difficulties again and are facing some serious concerns if things don’t improve. But what occurred to me this week as I was thinking about Haggai’s message is that I think we, or I, have been approaching this wrong. That it is not my problem to solve, it’s not leadership council, or finance’s problem to solve. It’s our problem to solve, so take courage, and fear not, for God is with us, which is also where I have been wrong. I have really had to ask myself this week if I believe God can solve the problem, because I’ve been focusing on trying to find the solution myself, and I’ve been focusing only on the present. But that is not a present problem. This is a problem about the future. That is what do we want the future to be? And more importantly, do we truly believe that the splendor of the future will be greater than the past? And if we do believe that, and we know that God can lead us there, then what are we going to do about? How are we going to challenge ourselves and our community to think bigger, to be bigger, to live bigger, to live into not just what we can be as a community of faith here, but to live into the Kingdom of God.

Our God is an awesome God and so the problem is never with God, it’s with us, because God wants us to be great and to do amazing things, but are we ready to take those tasks on? Are we ready to dream God’s dreams and see God’s visions and then work to make that happen, not because we can do it, but because God can do it with our help? The decisions we make today will have an impact on the future. The best time to plant is tree seed is twenty years ago, but the next best time is to plant it today. So, fear not, for God is with us, but take courage and believe that great things are possible with God and for God, but that it takes all of us to make it happen. Our best years are not behind us, they are in front of us for the “splendor of God’s house now shall be greater than the former.” I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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