8. Let us pray. God our helper, by your Holy SpiriAre there better days to come?
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Let us pray. God our helper, by your Holy Spirit, open our minds, that as your Word is proclaimed, we may be led into your truth and taught your will, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
How is your memory? Does it play tricks on you? My memory is not great. A few weeks after we moved to Markham, our mail carrier stopped to ask if I remembered that he and I had been in grade three or four together. His name sounded vaguely familiar but that was all.
Speaking of that school reminds me of tricks that my memory plays on me. When I was in elementary school I lived at 58 Mack Avenue—it just sounds like the wrong side of the tracks, doesn’t it? My memory is that it took forever to walk to school. I checked on Google Maps: it’s a distance of 450 metres, about a five-minute walk at even a moderate pace.
Memory is a tricky thing. Memory plays tricks around the church too. Before we talk about that, let’s see if we can figure out some dates and circumstances for Haggai. Now all of you are likelier intellectually sharper than I am, but I always need to remind myself that when one talks about B.C. years, an earlier year is actually a greater number than a later year, which is the opposite to what we are most familiar with.
Cyrus, the king of Persia, conquers Babylon in 538 B.C. and soon after issues a decree that the captives could return to their homes. In 536 B.C. the first group of Jews to return arrives in Jerusalem. What they find is nothing but ruins, poverty and opposition from those living in the area to any idea of rebuilding the destroyed temple. If I am following the chronology correctly, what happens in the next 14 years is that a foundation gets built and then the work stops. When Haggai arrives in Jerusalem in 520 B.C. there is nothing to be seen but a neglected work site. There can be no doubt there was stiff opposition to the idea of rebuilding the temple, but one of the reasons God’s people were willing to succumb to that opposition is revealed in the book of Ezra. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away (Ezra 3:12, 13).
Memory is a tricky thing even around church. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C. Haggai is talking to God’s people in Jerusalem in 520 B.C. In a time when normal life expectancy was around 40 years, anyone still alive in 520 was a wee bit of a child 66 years before. “Oh it would take me half an hour to walk around the old temple!” If you checked Google Maps today it was probably more like 10 minutes.
Haggai does at least three interesting things in the message he gives to God’s people in Jerusalem. Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? In the first place the prophet is arguing for a dose of utter honesty. I think the implication of this is that not everyone who joined in the chorus of lament had actually seen the original temple. Of those who actually had seen the temple, the question had to be asked about the possible tricks their minds were playing on them. Sometimes the memory of an adult fails to bring an adult perspective to what was seen in childhood—walks to school uphill in both directions are the most famous examples of that quirk.
There is something else that I also hear in Haggai’s question. I think he is asking God’s people to steer clear of the romance of nostalgia. My experience is that around the church nothing looks better than what we view in the rear-view mirror—even me. When I felt it was time to leave the church in Windsor to come to Markham, there were a number of people who thought the timing was right, in other words I had long ago reached my “best before” date. One of those people felt no compulsion to keep this opinion to herself; she shared it widely. That, of course, was until my successor did something that offended one of her friends. At that point she started to sing a new chorus, all about the good old days with Bill Norman. Steer clear of the romance of nostalgia. Most of the time the picture is distorted.
The second thing Haggai does is to give the people a reminder from God, who says, I am with you. This is perhaps one of the more unfortunate images I have used in a sermon, but this strikes me as a sort of saliva test for Christians. We are the people who live by the faith that God is with us. Let me make a distinction here. In the 1700’s a certain philosophy became very popular in certain Christian circles; it is called Deism. A Deist believes in a god who is like a celestial clockmaker. At creation this Deist god wound up the universe’s clock and since then has done nothing but watch from a distance.
That is not what a Christian believes. We believe in the God who heard the cries of the Hebrews in Egypt and rescued them with a mighty hand. We believe in the God who entered into our world in the person of Jesus Christ and who by the death and resurrection of Jesus has made our salvation possible. We believe that God is with us still.
If we believe God is with us then what are we willing to do about it? As spring turns into summer I am reminded of one of the great questions that some people need to be asked. I suspect most of us have been told by someone that they have no need of a church in order to worship God, because he or she worships God in the sanctuary of nature. Here’s the question: when was the last time you worshipped? If they can’t tell you, then they really don’t think that God is with them and that God is worthy of worship.
This whole business of what God is worthy of is tricky. For example there are some commentators and scholars that criticize Haggai for being fixated on the rebuilding of the Temple and the Temple being the place where somehow the glory of the Lord is on display in a manner that is greater than anywhere else.
I want to pick up on the relevance of that idea for Christians. It strikes me that this is a very personal matter. My first day as the Clergy Care Associate for our Convention of churches was spent at the New Pastor Orientation retreat. One of the many things I noticed that day was the almost infinite variety of people who are becoming pastors in our family of churches. For example, at dinner that day I met one thirty something year old who grew up in a small community near Spokane, Washington, who said that the town of 2,000 people in which he serves is just about right, but he certainly wouldn’t want to live any place larger. On the other side of the table was a young man serving as associate pastor at one of our Brantford churches; he said he couldn’t see himself living in any place smaller than that city of 100,000. Two pastors, alike in being dedicated to serving their churches, are as different as night and day.
My conclusion is that it is therefore impossible for me to dictate the exact dimensions of what you should be willing to do if God is with you…except for this, worship needs to pull you toward God and call out of you the best of your spiritual commitments for the service of God’s kingdom. Here is the question that must be asked—what connects you emotionally and intellectually to God?
Chris and I will soon begin to ask that question of ourselves in a very serious way. As of September we need to find a home church. I suppose you could say that we have been spoiled here at Blythwood and need to exercise some spiritual maturity in making that choice, but I know friends, there have been many Sundays when the beauty of the offertory music and Adolfo’s sensitive interpretation of the music have spoken to me in such a way that I went home that day wanting to be a more faithful servant of God.
This building has also been a part of my spiritual life. In the past year the lock mechanism for the southeast door was broken; I was delighted when it was fixed for that allowed me to return to my usual practice of walking through the sanctuary to my office. That walk reminds me visually that everything we do here is done under the leadership of the one who was lifted on the cross so that all of creation will be drawn toward him.
The third thing Haggai does is to proclaim God’s promise that the latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former. How are we to understand this? Archaeologists tell us the loud whiners were right, the Temple that was built by the returned exiles did not compare favourably with Solomon’s temple. Five centuries later that infamous scoundrel Herod the Great remodelled the Jerusalem Temple but you will recall that building was all but destroyed in 70 A. D. What then is the word from God that Haggai is proclaiming and what does it mean today?
Two things point us in a particular direction. Look at verses seven and eight of our text. I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendour… The silver is mine, and the gold is mine. I am certain this is not what God had in mind but I can’t help think of hanging up a pair of pants and some change you had forgotten about falls to the floor; you shake the pants to see if there is any more. Or my mother, certain the money she needed was somewhere in her purse, turning it upside down to shake out the contents. Not likely what Haggai had in mind, but I think you get the point—nothing is going to be left behind, the world’s resources will revert to their rightful owner, the God who is the creator and sustainer of all.
There is another clue in the particular way verse nine is written. The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former. The focus is not on the temple building itself; the focus is on the splendour. The building may be smaller but the splendour of the revealing of God’s glory will be like nothing ever seen before. Friends, I believe that splendour is revealed in the kingdom of God. The wealth of the nations, the silver and gold has come back into the hands of God. What else would be the result of that except a sharing of abundance, an end of want, an end of hunger, the pursuit of justice and peace? Truly a greater splendour!
Is there a greater splendour to come here at Blythwood? Here is what the message of Haggai tells us. If you will continue to live with the faith that God is with you, if you will worship in such a way that your heart and mind and soul and strength are pulled toward God and then given to God in service, then you know that whatever it looks like you will be part of a greater splendour being revealed. That greater splendour is beyond anything that depends on human initiative or power.
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb (Revelation21:22, 23).