The year is probably 520 BC. By most of our reckonings that was a very long time ago, lost in the mists of irrelevancy, perhaps forever. Nobody wants to hear about anything that happened on June 14, 1992, much less than in anything that happened in 520 BC. But for Haggai, 520 BC was a very important year even though he definitely would have called it something else entirely. The term 520 BC would have been completely unknown to him, and it would certainly have seemed very foreign to him. But “The second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the 21st day of the month”, made perfect sense to him as it does for every one of us here this morning, right?
Around the time of Haggai, a handful of God’s people have managed to return to Israel from Babylon, and they are trying to rebuild the forsaken city of Jerusalem, which lies, utterly devastated, and in ruins. But of utmost importance to this small band of robust returnees is the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem. Rebuilding the place of worship is their first and foremost priority.
But, quite frankly, the work of restoration is not going very well at all, and disappointment and discouragement are rife. People are losing hope. And the reasons for that lost hope are very familiar to all of us. There aren’t many people on the job. Funds are limited. Resources are scarce. But the worst bit of it is nagging doubt and no small amount of godless superstition. Think about this; ponder this, but do not answer out loud under any circumstances. How would any of us feel, to be involved in a rebuilding and restoration project, wherein we knew very well, within the deepest hollows of our hearts, that God was the one who smote the place in the first place? It was God who brought about all of this devastation and ruin. Is it even OK to undo what God has done, even if it what God did was undoing? Any nagging doubt and superstition involved here?
Quite ironically, when I returned from vacation, one of the emails in my neglected inbox was from someone who was very interested in our steeple. It was rather short, and so I’m going to read it to you in it’s entirety.
“Two weeks ago I drove through Thomaston and was intrigued with the slate roof design on your steeple. It strongly resembles the design on the old St. John’s steeple in Dover, NH (now a housing project). Is it possible it was created by the same artist, or that St. John’s was used as a model? They are both very distinctive from other church steeples. I’m sorry I wasn’t passing through on a Sunday so I could stop and worship with you.”
Wow! She doesn’t know, does she? She doesn’t know that God smote us, too! In the weeks and months that followed June 14, 1992, I endured lots and lots of good-natured ribbing about how God had smote us and smote us good. “What in the world did you preach about that morning to make God so angry?” But sadly, I also encountered lots and lots of people who genuinely and sincerely believed that we had done something completely awful as a congregation and were being punished for our sins. That’s the nagging doubt of unbelief and it smells of godless superstition.
But perhaps in the case of God’s people, that nagging doubt and godless superstition had some tiny, minuscule, but misguided bit of valid grounds to it. You see, in 586 BC, in spite of multiple warnings to the people of God to repent and to turn to God, the ultimate disaster transpired. The armies of Babylon marched into Israel, sacked Jerusalem, and utterly destroyed it. The remaining human survivors were marched off to Babylon, where they became slaves. God’s people had lost their homeland. And now, after about 60 years of exile, a fairly compassionate king has allowed the people of God to return to their homeland.
But what a mess they found when they returned! The land had lain in ruins for 60 years. Looters and squatters had had a field day. Hope in anything must have been a rare commodity. Hearts must have been as devastated as the land. When devastation strikes, a very normal reaction is to survey the ruins and to know in one’s heart that “normal” is a goal that will never be achieved. In spite of our feelings though, God always has other plans.
When God’s people surveyed the wreckage, they couldn’t help but think of the past, and the former glory of the city and it’s temple. Stories of the glorious past must have abounded. Those stories were all wonderful, but they really only served as yet another source of discouragement. They were thinking, “We’ll never restore this place, we’ll never get this place back the way it was, we might as well give up. There is way to much work for us to even been making progress.”
We have stories here at Thomaston Baptist Church. And all of them, well, most of them, are wonderful and glorious. Some of us can remember a time when there were a lot more people in church than are here this morning. Oh yes, this church had it’s glory days, just like the ancient temple in Israel did.
And some of us would like to return to those former days of glory, wouldn’t we? We’d like to reclaim the past, to go back to the way it was, to erase a few things that went wrong, and to reclaim the old normal. If that’s how we’re feeling, though, the prophet Haggai has some powerful words for us.
The first word is that God does his best work when there’s nothing to work with; nothing at all. Think of Creation. God created the universe out of nothing, and God creates new glory out of nothing. Verse three says it all. “Who is left among you that saw this house in it’s former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” Good! Nothing is where we start. In God’s world nothing is a very good thing to have. We don’t like it, but God prefers it. If we admit that we have nothing to start with, then God can step in and begin re-creating. If we can bring ourselves to start with nothing, then there is nothing to reclaim, nothing to go back to. The only direction is forward. Nothing is never bad. It is where God would rather begin.
The second word Haggai has for us is that God’s Spirit always abides with us. This should have been very good news to God’s people when they were trying to rebuild the Temple because it should have abolished any nagging doubt and superstition that they had about God’s intentions for them. Sometimes we wonder what God’s intentions are for us. Sometimes we fear that our sins are greater than God’s ability to forgive, or that we’ve messed things up in such a way that God cannot create anything new out of the wreckage that we’ve managed to pile up around us.
But God is higher and better than all of the foolish and stupid superstitions that we cling to. God is a god of constant covenant. God does not break covenant with us even when we break covenant with God. God remains faithful. The reminder of the Exodus in verse five is intended to banish our superstitious fears about God’s faithfulness to us. Every day, during the Exodus, God was visibly present with his people. Everyday the people were reminded of God’s everlasting covenant to be present with them. Even when they accused God of abandoning them, the covenantal presence of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night remained. And the manna did not dry up.
God does not take time off. God’s Spirit always abides with us, in spite of everything that we may think or believe. Throughout this passage God is called the “Lord of hosts, just as he was in our passage the last time we were together. The “Lord of hosts is that name for God that indicates that God is the Lord of all of the powers of heaven. God is the Lord of all things, seen and unseen. This is the God who was at work in ancient Israel, it is the God who is at work at Thomaston Baptist Church, and it is the God who is at work in our individual lives. With the God of hosts at work within us, nothing is impossible!
Let’s get practical for a bit, but only because Haggai gets practical. Limited funds and scarce resources should never become a source of discouragement. Have you ever heard it said, “Well, we’re a poor church, we don’t have much money, resources are scarce, we’re limited by what we can do, we wish we could do more.” It all sounds so holy doesn’t it? But of course, it is not. It is unholy talk. It is intentionally limiting the work of God, who prefers to begin work with nothing at all. We need to remember in every aspect of our lives that it is not we who have the resources, but it is God. Verse eight is right in our faces: “The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts.”
It is hard, but necessary for us to come to that place in our lives where we can look into our hearts and into our wallets, and genuinely believe that the stuff in both of those places belongs not to us, but only to God. That’s a tough thing to do, but Jesus advised that we start with our hearts first, and then the wallets will follow.
The final word that I see in this passage is three-fold. Number one is get busy and get to work. Get on board with God; work with God. That first bit is tucked away in verse 4. The second bit is stop whining and stop being afraid. That one runs throughout the entire passage. There is always far too much energy wasted among God’s people when we fuss and whine. These things have no place among God’s people.
Finally, the last bit is give up on trying to reclaim the past. There will always be people who pine for the past. I suspect that Adam and Eve did a fair amount of it, and we have all followed suit. Even when the past is glorious, it is also gone. Irretrievably gone. But if we can hear it, it is also blessedly gone.
What remains is the new thing that God will do; the new thing that God will create, the new thing that God will bring about in our lives. Verse nine says, “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. That is all that any of us needs to know.