Building up

A sermon for the Church of the Epiphany, on Year C Proper 27, including Haggai’s instruction to the people returning to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple.

It is tempting to read Haggai’s prophecies as an allegory for our times. We could imagine him coming into this space, our space, and asking, “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now?”

I have heard you, when you reminisce about a church full of families and bursting Sunday School classes. How would you answer Haggai?

He prophesies to the people of Jerusalem, “I will shake 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 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.”

Haggai proclaimed his prophecies in 520 BCE. They were not allegorical. They addressed a real, historical situation and a people struggling to find their faith after a faith-shattering event – even a faith-shattering generation. The nations of Israel and Judah had all fallen to a succession of assaults from powerful armies and empires. At the nadir of their experience, the Babylonians had routed Jerusalem, razed the Temple, and taken the ruling classes into exile en masse in order to defeat not only the fight but the faith and the fire of the Jewish people.

Then as now, Jerusalem lay among troubled lands.

But Babylon itself fell to the Persians, and their new overlord, Cyrus, returned the Judean captives to Jerusalem and even encouraged them to rebuild the city walls and the Temple. Of course, there was a strategic advantage to Cyrus in having a strong state restored between the Jordan and Egypt, especially one full of grateful subjects in a protectorate state. But the biblical writers also see the hand and Spirit of God afoot in the change of circumstances for the exiles. Since the hand and Spirit of God are always afoot, we may agree with their dual diagnosis of the situation.

Still, for another eighteen years after Cyrus’ decree, the people who returned to Jerusalem and the people who had never left disagreed and dithered and stalled over the rebuilding. It is not easy to find a way back when the world has moved on, and new neighbours have moved in, and the footprint, the foundation upon which one’s life was once built has shifted and cracked.

So it is that in 520, shortly after Cyrus was succeeded in the empire by King Darius, Haggai and Zechariah take the people to task, by turns blasting them for their lack of progress on restoring the Temple and its worship, and assuring them of God’s favour on the project, as prophets tend to do. Zechariah is more of a visionary, describing dreams of angels and oracles of success; while Haggai is more direct, addressing the governor and the high priest and telling them, quite simply, to get to work.

The new Temple was dedicated in 515 BCE. There is no record of Haggai attending the celebrations, nor does his book of prophecy extend beyond his initial promptings that were successful in goading the powers that remained into rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple. While we have no absolute knowledge either way, commentators suggest that if Haggai had lived to see the fulfillment of his prophetic commandments, he might have had something to say about it.

Instead, he seems most likely like Moses to have led his people to the brink of the Promised Land, which they entered without him, burying him within sight but not touch of the holy city.

The second Temple was extended by Herod the Great, around the time of the turn of the eras, and destroyed once again by an occupying empire, the Romans, in retaliation for Jewish independence and uprisings in 70 CE. It was here, in the decades between Herod’s construction and the Roman destruction, that Jesus encountered the Sadducees and others. It was here that he threw over the tables of the money changers. It was this Temple of which Jesus was accused of saying, “Destroy it, and I will rebuild it in three days.”

Although his disciples later understood him to be speaking, allegorically, of his Body. (Mark 14:58; John 2:19-22)

If Haggai’s Temple-building prophecies were to be an allegory, or a parable, for our times, there are a few messages I would suggest we listen for in his sermon.

First, we neglect the worship of God at our peril. If we become disconnected from the source of our inspiration, creation, redemption, preservation – if we let our prayer lives lie in ruins, we will find that there are consequences. If we allow outside forces to dissuade or discourage or prevent us from preaching the gospel, we will regret it. If we have suffered even a faith-shattering earthquake, there is a call upon us to rebuild our relationship with God, to find God near to us. There are no excuses not to come together to pray.

Next, while Haggai promises prosperity and splendour such as the first Temple never saw, he also mentions, at least in passing, that all of this glory, all of this majesty, richness, and renown belong really and solely to God.

“I will shake all the nations,” says the Lord, “so that the treasure of the 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.”

All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thind own have we given thee.

If we consider that we are building up the church for our own ends, for our own preservation, security, sustenance, we are missing something huge. Something transcendent. We are missing God’s point. Some of Haggai’s people did, too; they forgot that always, in the Bible, in God’s words, Jerusalem is built not for the sake of the people within its walls alone but to be a beacon to the nations, the source and sign of God’s comfort to all people, God’s promised mercy and steadfastness to all who have been created in God’s image.

There was a quote making the rounds this past week, attributed to William Temple on his feast day, to the effect that the church is the only institution founded for the benefit of those who are not its members. To quote Temple more closely, but to omit some of his narrowness,

Certainly the Church, consisting of men and women whom God of His sheer goodness has delivered from the power of darkness and translated into the kingdom of His dear Son, will find its first duty, as also its first impulse, in an abandonment of adoration. But if the God who is worshipped is … the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, this love and adoration of God will immediately express itself in the love and service of men, and especially in the passionate desire to share with others the supreme treasure of the knowledge of God. The Church, like its Master, will be chiefly concerned to seek and to save that which is lost, calling men everywhere to repent because the Kingdom of God is at hand. Worship is indeed the very breath of its life, but service of the world is the business of its life. It is the Body of Christ, that is to say, the instrument of His will, and His will is to save the world.

Thirdly, like Haggai we may not live to see the results of our service; at least, not to their completion. If is the will of God to save the world, that work will continue long after we have hung up our hymnals and put down our hands. And yet we see all around us that God is not still, that God is not to be denied, that God is saving the world through Christ, as quickly as any death can try to destroy it; because we have hope in the Resurrection, and we will not let that hope be extinguished. To quote William Temple once more,

The spiritual life of men is not limited to this planet, and the fulfilment of the Church’s task can never be here alone.

Finally, even if we build something only to see it crumble again, like the second Temple of Jerusalem, we have the word of Jesus that Resurrection is coming. Destroy it, he says, and I will raise it up in three days. He is speaking of his body; and you are, we are the Body of Christ.

Let us pray:

Almighty and everliving God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth, hear our prayers for this parish family. Strengthen the faithful, arouse the careless, and restore the penitent. Grant us all things necessary for our common life, and bring us all to be of one heart and mind within your holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Oxford Bible Commentary, John Barton and John Muddiman, eds (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Church and Nation: The Bishop Paddock Lectures for 1914-15, Delivered at the General Theological Seminary, New York, by William Temple (Macmillan and Co, 1915), Lecture II: Church and State, via Project Gutenberg

Prayer “For the Parish,” Book of Common Prayer, 817

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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