A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho on November 10, 2013
Haggai’s prophesy dates from Aug and Dec 520 BCE, which can be dated by the dates and the names of the rulers mentioned in it.
He is one of the 3 post-exilic prophets of his era (that we know about). He’s a contemporary of Zechariah. Malachi followed a century later. You can read another account of Haggai and Zechariah in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, if you’re hankering for more…
But the Jews had been carted off to exile in Babylon initially in 586 BCE. Their temple destroyed by Nebrachadnezzer. Their lives upended. But then Persia had become the dominant power in the Near East in 539 as Babylon waned, and the Persian leader Cyrus allowed them to return home. Some stayed in Babylon, because they had been there long enough to build lives and find jobs.
But some went back to Judah. They came home and discovered they had some work to do. Homes needed to be rebuilt. Fields needed clearing. The temple was still in ruins.
It is exhausting to think about the reality that would have faced them after the exile. Many of them going “home” to a home where they’d never lived. They’d only heard about it from their parents and grandparents as they told stories of the good old days around the fire at night.
And so they come back to rebuild. But they are apparently, going about it in the wrong way. God tells them that rather than securing their own personal security and well being first, they should be about rebuilding God’s house first.
Here is what God tells them earlier in Haggai:
“You have sown much, and harvested little;
you eat, but you never have enough;
you drink, but you never have your fill;
you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm;
and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.
Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider how you have fared.”
It seems that all of their hard work has not been paying off. All of the things one should normally do—planting, eating, drinking, and working aren’t having the effect they should.
Consider how you have fared, says God.
It doesn’t say that they were trying to rob people or defraud widows and orphans. It doesn’t say that they were doing anything immoral or unethical. They were just trying to eat, drink, plant crops.
But their priorities were not in the right order. They were taking care of rebuilding their personal lives and not taking care of rebuilding their communal life.
And then our text for today picks up.
“Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?”
God’s house is still lying in ruins.
But I don’t think it was just the bricks and the lumber that God cared about. I think it was what the Temple stood for—common identity, a location from which to praise and worship God, a place where we can come together to support each other and to care for people we don’t even know.
And so when God asked them who was left among them who remembered the temple in its former glory, I don’t think he was calling them to just be reminiscing about the ‘glory days’ of the past. He was calling on them to use the past to envision a better future.
It is possible that a few of the Israelites remembered the Temple from before exile— remembered the hymns they used to sing, remembered the way the classrooms were overflowing with kids, remembered when everyone who was anyone got all dressed up and went to the Temple each week—but the Temple had been destroyed 66 years previously in 586 BCE. So anyone who had seen the first Temple would have been old when Haggai was prophesying, and they had been very small kids when the Temple was destroyed.
Haggai’s preaching inspired them to tackle the work that needed doing and they rebuilt the Temple in the next five years. If you go to Jerusalem today, you can touch the foundations of that Temple, which stood until the year 70 CE. These post-exilic Jews really built something to last, giving their community a place to celebrate and pray for the next 500 years.
Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?
How does it look to you now?
Think about this church building. In no way is this building lying in ruins, as the Temple was, but it has certainly changed over the years. I know the Genesis Room was once the original sanctuary, but try as I might, I just can’t picture it.
I know the room that is now the Jean Moore lounge, and soon to be the Jean Moore Youth Room, used to be the balcony of the original sanctuary. I can’t even remember the Jean Moore lounge before it was pink, let alone picture it as a sanctuary balcony.
And so I need to hear those stories. “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?” is not a rhetorical question. Because over 35 percent of the people in our congregation today were not here 5 years ago, we need to hear those stories.
One of the gifts of the New Beginnings program is the conversations you are having in the small groups. Because those of you who have been here and remember have the chance to share those stories with those of us who are newer.
For those of you who remember, who saw this house in its former glory, as it were, who was your Haggai? Who were the people who inspired you to come together to build this beautiful sanctuary? How did you do it?
Because I know enough of the story to know it wasn’t easy. I know that you didn’t have bags of money sitting around, just waiting to be spent on this building. But you did it. You had young children and new jobs and somehow you found the money and time to build this.
And for that, we are all thankful.
And for those of you who are new, the 35 percent of us who have arrived in the last 5 years, I hope you’ll have the chance to share with the veteran members why you are here. Why did you decide to join with us in our work and ministry here? What are your dreams for this place? What do you hope to build?
Haggai’s prophecy goes on to say that glory days will return to Israel again. Literally—God’s glory, the divine presence, is with them and the whole world will see it.
Things will never be exactly as they were, but Israel’s best days are not behind them, they are still before them.
That is true, as well, I believe, for Southminster.
“Work, for 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.”
I find it interesting that “do not fear” is a part of the instructions. They aren’t in the midst of battle. They aren’t in foreign lands in exile. They are home. They are where they want to be. And God tells them not to fear.
Maybe it is a reminder to us not to fear the future. Or not to fear the work to be done. Or not to fear whether or not we’ll have what it takes and what we need.
My spirit abides among you. Do not fear.
Maybe it is a fear that we are alone.
But God’s spirit abides among us. Do not fear.
In a few minutes, we’ll be dedicating our pledges for the coming year’s budget. And this text from Haggai is a reminder of how our budgeting is an act of faith and a response to God’s call. We are sitting in this beautiful sanctuary today because a generation ago this congregation brought their gifts together, brought their skills together, and built it. Our very presence in this community is a reminder that we have taken our gifts, brought them together, and served God in this neighborhood.
What are we going to build? It might not be a physical building. But what relationships in the community might need building? Or what aspect of our own discipleship needs building? What new programs is God calling us to build so we can share God’s love and mercy in this corner of Boise?
Whether you can give only a little this year or whether you can increase your pledge, everything we can contribute will come together to build something that none of us could build alone. And the season of Stewardship is about more than money too. It is about how you allocate your time for God, and how you offer the gifts and talents you have for God’s work in our world.
The video from earlier in worship is an illustration of how those kids used their gifts to change the world, to build a future with hope for all who hear their story.
My spirit abides among you, God says. Do not fear.
Friends, this is an exciting time at Southminster. I’m grateful to be here with you as we come together to live into what God is dreaming for us.
May it be so. Amen.