Let me begin by saying that this is not the first sermon I wrote this week. I wrote one sermon on Haggai – and parts of it survived and you will hear – but then I walked away from that and heard deeper echoes of a sermon I needed to write and preach even more.
But we begin with Haggai. A prophet of two chapters, words spoken over the course of a few short months.
When the Babylonians captured the Israelites, the Temple was also destroyed – the Temple erected under the rule of King Solomon, which stood for more than 4 centuries.
The people had been in exile – some since about 597 BCE, and in about 536 the Hebrew people were released from captivity. Though not politically independent, they returned to Jerusalem, and were permitted to reestablish their homes and begin rebuilding the Temple. However, under Samaritan governance, the Temple project was put on hold. Although, some 16 years later, the Hebrews were permitted to resume building the Temple, something is still amiss.
Their work is slow and stalled. Haggai looks around and sees folks distracted, decidedly not prioritizing rebuilding and restoring God’s holy altar. He looks around and sees people in survival mode – far more focused on their survival needs to find time or energy to focus on the Temple.
He also sees some of the better-off members of the community with homes that are farther advanced and in better condition than the work on the Temple. Haggai observes a marked distinction between the riches spent on their homes and the relative state of ruin of the Temple.
Haggai also takes to task those who are dwelling decades in the past. The exile lasted some sixty years – it is certainly possible, even probable – that there were men and women among those now re-settled in Jerusalem who remembered the splendor and glory of Solomon’s Temple. Their memory of the past and nostalgia for the beauty and prominence of the First Temple had them so despondent it effectively paralyzed their efforts.
We understand all of these things don’t we?
Certainly we know the power of nostalgia on our lives. Heck, think about the book of Exodus – the power of nostalgia was so great that the Hebrew people longed to return to slavery. Think too about the power of nostalgia in our own church. We love to tell stories. And celebrating our history – our rich history in this town – is a wonderful and powerful thing. We need to remember our story to remember who we are – and to know who we are becoming. The danger, of course, is when this turns to paralyzing nostalgia, rendering us unable to pick up the pieces and move forward – rebuilding a future with God.
And certainly, we know about the paralyzing effect of living in survival mode. Particularly in the last few years, in our economic context, we know the fears and anxieties of both real and perceived scarcity – we wonder if there really is enough to go around. How can we possibly spare time or finances when we are already over-worked and over-budget?
And certainly, we know the judgmental posture of seeing how others are spending their time and money and wondering why we still don’t seem to have enough, why we still can’t seem to rebuild in ways that honor God. If only others – the really well-off – would give, we’d be okay, right?
Haggai’s words perhaps ring a little too close to home, even now, more than 2,500 years later. (Even now, knowing that that Temple was, in fact, rebuilt, and then destroyed again.) The sermon I could preach might continue to focus on our building. But let me stop here and be candid.
I’m struggling a little bit with this sermon series. We have titled it “What happens when the walls are gone?” And throughout the remediation, repair and reconstruction (that continues to generate dust under our feet) we have claimed that we can be church outside our walls.
And yet we are asking you to recommit yourselves and your money to the building project of the church. We are asking the question, “what happens when the walls are gone,” and yet the last thing we want is for the walls to be gone. We recognize the importance of a building, and yet reject the centrality of our building. It’s tough work not to get wrapped up in the judgment, nostalgia or survival mode.
Haggai faces the same thing. The people had figured out how to worship God without walls for decades in exile. They returned to their homeland and yet now face dire economic and agricultural conditions causing them to wonder if they are able at all to rebuild their Temple. They worry and fret over the past, grieving over the loss of Solomon’s Temple. They wrestle with despair, wondering why they should bother to rebuild if the Second Temple will never measure up to the masterpiece of the first. They worry about the future integrity of their faith if the Temple does not look like their visions of the past or future.
We get it.
But here’s the thing: The principal message of this book comes before our reading for the morning begins – “Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house that I may take pleasure in it and be honored, says the Lord.” (1.8)
The prophecy of Haggai is not a prosperity Gospel.
Haggai has to remind the people that the building is not about the building. It’s about God. It’s about honoring God, worshiping God, serving God.
Rebuilding the Temple – is a way of restoring the centrality of worship in the life of the community. It is a way to restore the people to their own covenantal relationship with God.
And then comes Haggai’s promise – when the Temple is at last restored. What happens when the people re-focus and re-double their efforts, prioritizing the honor and worship of God at the heart of who they are and what they do?
In chapter two, verses 6-9, we hear God’s promise through the prophet: “Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.”
Restoring the Temple will translate to a shaking – a reversal of the present and a reversal of fortunes. There will be a universal reordering of all things – a reordering that establishes God’s kingdom on earth. God also promises God’s shalom – a Hebrew word, which is inadequately translated pretty much all the time in English. We read today that God will give “prosperity,” perhaps misleading us to believe that God’s shalom is equivalent to economic success. Rather, God promises abundant life – God’s peace – the fullness of life in covenant and communion with God. Prosperity is but one limited understanding of that.
The transformation promised through the prophet is total, eternal, and perfect.
Transformation – it’s in the title of the sermon. What happens when the walls are gone? We transform. We rebuild and we transform.
And here is where the sermon I wrote ends. Well, that’s not true. It continues, but here is where I deviate.
Because while it would be helpful to spend more time focusing on the prophet and the temple building and rebuilding and what his context says to our context – and I believe it says a lot to our context, there’s something that has struck me deeper. As I walked away from my first sermon, I heard only the words: Name Your Pain. We need to name our pain. Continue reading