Looking Forward with Faith
November 10, 2019
Rev. Fritz Nelson
Text: Haggai 1:15b-2:9
This morning we turn to the prophet Haggai, a prophet we rarely read who lived in a time of Biblical history we rarely discuss – so perhaps a little background is in order.
In 586 BC the Babylonians, who had long sought to control Israel from afar, respond to a Jewish revolt by leveling the city and dragging many of its leaders back to Babylon to live in exile. Eighty-seven years later the Persian king Cyrus captures Babylon and grants permission for a group of Jews to resettle Jerusalem and rebuild the city. With a great burst of energy, they clear the ruined temple of debris, reset the foundation and rebuild the alter. Then they stop working.
Nobody knows why they stopped. Did they run out of money? Was there a lack of political support? Did they prioritize building homes and supporting their families over building the temple? Did they give into despair over never being able to rebuild it to its former glory? Eighteen years latter the prophet Haggai shows up. Eyeing the unfinished temple, Haggai begins rallying everyone to get the job done. Our scripture this morning is a portion of Haggai’s encouraging words.
As we read from the prophet and in the time of silence following I urge you to think on today’s focus question: What in your life used to be full of glory but now seems to be in ruin.
The Biblical book of Ezra-Nehemiah tells the story of the Jew’s attempts to rebuild Jerusalem and reestablish religious practice after they return. In a vivid scene all the people gather at the temple site to celebrate the rebuilding of the alter. The young folks who had never seen the former temple break into celebration, praising God and encouraging each other. The older members of the community who had experienced the former temple as children broke down into tears of despair.
What had been built at the height of Israel’s power, at their moment of greatest wealth, by the son of their greatest king could never be built by this scraggly group of returned exiles – the remnant as they called themselves – who had limited political power, limited funds, limited quantities of timber and stone, and limited skill as crafts people. Solomon, after all, had sent to Lebanon for lumber, had recruited his contractor from Tyre and used his ability to conscript labor to engage tens of thousands in the temple’s construction. How could this rag-tag group of settlers on what was now the frontier of an empire, even hope to rebuild what their ancestors had built.
We look back and wonder how can something become what it once was. How can we recapture the optimism we had as children, the carefree nature of teenage years? How can we have the bodies we had as thirty year olds, or the minds we had at 50 or the sense of romance we had during the first years of a relationship. Will we ever again have the money we had when we had that really good job? Will our community be safe enough to leave our doors unlocked? Will we once again know our neighbors? Will our church be full on Christmas Eve? On a Sunday morning? Can we rebuild what once was? Can we go back to how we remember it?
Do you see nothing? Haggai askes the older generation of Israelites, those who remember what was before. Do you see only ruin and destruction? Look again. You came back hoping you could go back. You came back from Babylon hoping to get your old life back, your glory years back. It doesn’t work that way. What was won’t be again. But look again. Look again. God’s promise still remains. God’s Spirit is present. Rather than recreating the past, God shapes a new future. He makes all things new. So lift up your drooping hands. Strengthen your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet. Take courage. Do not fear. Embrace the future God brings.
“Take courage,” Haggai tells the people. “Take courage,” three times in three sentences. Followed for good measure by a “do not fear.” Its easier to look backward than to go forward. Its easier to dream of what once was then to dream of new, dynamic, faith filled realities.
A few years ago a friend posted a picture on Facebook of something happening at the church I used to serve in New York. The picture was of a joyous occasion – a baptism or children’s play or a commissioning, something like that, but honestly I don’t remember. While I should have been celebrating how the congregation was prospering under its new pastor, my eyes, and then my mind, fixated on what was missing, what they’d changed. A banner was gone. The alleluia banner. I’d hung it over the communion table where, I believe, it helped change the attitude and atmosphere of the church. That banner was a sacred object to me. And now someone – probably the woman who had quickly made it as a one-time use item for a children’s sermon – had taken it down. My banner. Gone.
Its easier to dwell on what was lost, what we miss, than what we stand to gain. It’s easier to dwell on what was done than on what God is doing. Its easier to give into the despair, the fear, the uncertainty than to set about building anew. Finding a new job or embracing life on our own after losing a partner; living with new physical limitations or finally take control of our own health; climbing out of debt or getting to know new, possibly different, neighbors. Rebuilding our church or rebuilding the economic and social structures of our towns, of our county.
We forget God’s promise still holds true even if our world looks and feels different. We forget God’s Spirit remains active in our midst even if we’ve become blind to it. We forget God still has the ability, through us, through those we’ve yet to meet, through resources we do not see, to shape, to create, his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
“The silver is mine,” says the Lord. “The gold is mine.” I have set all that is needed aside for what I’m calling you to do. So like Abraham we put one foot in front of the other and step out in faith, even if we’re not sure where we’re going. Like the returning Israelites, we pick up bricks, shape wood, empty our pockets in celebration for the work God is doing, and will do, in our lives, in our community and in our church. Like Haggai we will disown fear and embrace our God whose promise, whose presence, remains steady despite the many ways our lives, our society, our community may change.