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Prophets

Oh, the Glory Days!

06-Nov-22

Haggai 2:1-9

The year is probably 520 BC. By most of our reckonings, that was a very long time ago, and for us, it is very likely lost in the hazy mists of irrelevancy, perhaps forever. Nobody wants to hear anything about what happened on June 14, 1992, much less than 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 500 BC would have been completely unknown to him, and it would have seemed very foreign to him. But, on the other hand, “…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 Haggai, a handful of God’s people have managed to return to Israel from exile in Babylon, and they are trying to rebuild the forsaken city of Jerusalem, which lies, unfortunately, utterly devastated, and in ruins. But of utmost importance to this small band of robust returnees is the restoration of the temple of 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 very 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 permissible to undo what God has done, especially if it was God who did the undoing in the first place? Is there any nagging doubt and lingering superstition here?

So, here’s a good word about us. We rebuilt our steeple, didn’t we? 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. People often asked me, what in the world did you preach about that morning to make God so angry? But sadly, in addition to the good-natured ribbings, I also encountered not a few people who genuinely and sincerely believed that God indeed had given us a good smiting. They believed that we had done something completely awful as a congregation and that we were being punished, by God, for our sins. That’s evidence that nagging doubt and unbelief are still with us. And it all smells of godless superstition.

But, perhaps in the case of God’s people, that nagging doubt, and and that godless superstition had some tiny, miniscule, but very 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 named Cyrus, 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 never will be achieved. Covid has certainly done this to all of us. 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 another source of discouragement. The people 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 too much work involved.

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 its 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 its 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 that 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 godless superstition that they had about God’s intentions for them. Sometimes, though, we wonder about God’s intentions for us. Sometimes we fear that our sins are greater than God’s ability to forgive, or that we’ve messed up things in a way that God cannot create anything new out of the wreckage that we have piled up around us. Thinking like this can sometimes cause us to run further and further away from God.

But God is higher and better than all of our 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 and promise 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, nor did the people ever go thirsty.

God rests, but he does not take time off. God’s Spirit always abides with us, in spite of everything that we think or believe to the contrary. Throughout this passage God is called the “Lord of hosts.” The “Lord of hosts” is the 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 powerfully 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 Lord 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 nothing less than unholy talk. It is talk that intentionally limits 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 own the resources, but rather it is God who owns them. Verse eight is right in our faces. “The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts.” And of course, as we all know, we have plenty of money. Lots of it. May God never allow us for a moment to have the opportunity of hoarding it. Keep in mind that we cannot hoard it because it is not ours to hoard.

It is hard, but necessary, for 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 to God only. That’s a tough thing to do, but Jesus advised that we start with our hearts first, and then our wallets will likely 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 bit is tucked away in verse four when God says, “…take courage…says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts…”

The second bit is quit whining and quit being afraid. This one runs, in a very obvious way, throughout the entire passage. There is always far too much energy wasted among God’s people when we fuss and whine and complain because there is ungodly fear in our hearts. This foolishness has no place among God’s people.

And finally, the last bit, is let go of the past. Stop trying to reclaim it. The best way to let go of the past is to stop talking about it. But sadly, there will always be people who pine for the past. I suspect that Adam and Eve did a fair amount of pining for the past, and we have all followed suit. Even when the past is glorious it is still gone; irretrievably gone. This passage makes this abundantly clear. And if we can hear it, this passage also makes it clear that the past is blessedly gone. And it is blessedly gone because it gives God the space to do the new thing.

And so, what remains, then, is the new thing that God will do; the new thing that God will create, the new thing that God will bring about when all of the old is finally cleared away. Verse nine says, “The later 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.” Hear the word of the Lord of hosts, for that is all that any of us needs to know.

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