Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, January 21, 2022
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God's Work, Our Hands

Haggai 1:12-2:9

True confession time: I have preached about 830 different sermons in my years as a pastor. As near as I can figure, I have only ever mentioned the book of Haggai one other time. And I think it was just one verse. But as I read this text, which is assigned by the lectionary for today, I thought, “This is a message that the American really church needs to hear.”

Haggai was one of the prophets of the “post-Exilic period” of biblical history, that is the time after the Babylonian Exile. Judah was defeated by Babylon in the year 605 BC. They were made into a vassal state. The King of Judah was chosen by the King of Babylon, and they had to pay heavy taxes in tribute every year. The best and brightest of the people were taken as captives back to Babylon. In time, they rebelled and were destroyed in 586 BC. Jerusalem and the Temple were leveled, and almost the entire population was taken to live in exile.

Several decades later, Persia rose up and defeated the Babylonian Empire. The Persian king, Cyrus, issued a decree that allowed captive peoples to return to their homes. In 538 BC, almost 50 years after they were taken away, the first exiles returned to Jerusalem. They started to rebuild the Temple, but the efforts quickly failed. And the work sat unfinished for almost two decades.

It seems a lot of the reason was a matter of priorities. Or maybe it was the tyranny of the urgent at the expense of the important. You know that feeling, right? You know what you should be doing but all the other things get in the way. If you look at Haggai’s first message at the beginning of chapter one, you get the feeling this is what was happening. Haggai said, “You’re living in your own fine houses while God’s house is sitting in ruins.”

He went on to say, “You eat but aren’t satisfied. You plant but don’t harvest. You have clothes but aren’t warm.” I think the message is that there is a certain emptiness in life when God is not given his proper place. Life will always leave us feeling a little empty until we are filled with the fullness of God.

The governor and the high priest, Zerubbabel and Jeshua, led the effort to get the nation back to work on the Temple. After all, there is no such thing as leadership except leadership by example.

They start the work on or about what we would call September 21st of 520 BC. That might be off by a day or two, considering what we know about ancient calendars. But if you consider that it was only about three weeks after Haggai issued the challenge, that’s pretty good. No doubt there were some naysayers who insisted, “It can’t be done” or “This isn’t the right time,” but they were not heeded.

When you consider that Solomon’s Temple was built over the course of seven years using forced labor and heavy taxes, and Zerubbabel’s Temple was built in four years using volunteer labor and donations, it was an impressive achievement. Even if Zerubbabel’s Temple was not as large or lavish as the first Temple.

Of course, there were some who didn’t see it that way. Haggai’s second prophecy was on October 17, less than a month after the work began. Surely they didn’t get a whole lot of work done in four weeks. And the date of October 17 was significant because that was the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. The city of Jerusalem would have been crowded with people from the surrounding countryside. And there were still a few people in Judah who remembered the old Temple from 66 years earlier. The book of Ezra tells us that when the foundation of the new Temple was laid, there were some who remembered it as it was who wept when they saw it. They remembered the glory of the old Temple, and it was nothing by comparison. The naysayers must have had a field day.

There are always going to be naysayers. I remember learning one time that people are on a spectrum when it comes to change and innovation. You’ve got a small group of folks who are the innovators, the ones who have new ideas and push change. Then you’ve got a little larger group of folks who are “early adopters,” the ones who are quick to get on board with change. Most people are in the middle. Once they see a little progress, they usually move along. There are some “late adopters.” They might oppose change for a long time, but they come around eventually. And then there are the naysayers. I think they’re supposed to be about 2 or 3% of people. They never get on board. And at the end of the day, you just have to ignore them. They’re not going to change their minds. You can’t reason with them. You just have to move on without them, if you’re certain that change is good and necessary. Otherwise good work will be undone by the power of negative thinking.

Haggai asks the crowd: “How does it look now by comparison? It must seem like nothing.” There’s a cultural issue here. In the ancient Near East mindset, a temple had

to be sufficiently splendorous for a deity to come and live in it. If it was too small or too plain, your god would laugh at it and go on his or her way. So maybe the thought is that “God won’t come here. This Temple doesn’t measure up. We can’t make a worthy Temple, so let’s not bother trying.”

Haggai’s answer is, “The Temple will be glorious because God will fill it, not the other way around. So take courage. Do your work, for God says, ‘I am with you. My Spirit is with you, so don’t be afraid. I will fill this place with glory. The silver is mine and the gold is mine.’” In other words, God has the means to accomplish his purposes. But it’s up to us to go to work.

The last word of God’s message is, “In this place, I will bring peace.” That is a promise that is fulfilled in Jesus. In Jerusalem, Jesus brought peace between us and God through his atoning death.

I think this message is one that the American church needs to hear today. There is no doubt about it; we have fallen on hard times. The statement I’ve heard lately is that church attendance in the United States is at its lowest level in 100 years. And frankly, there are a lot of people out there who are downright hostile to the Church. But many of us can remember the “good ol’ days,” the time when the pews were full, the time when you couldn’t find a place to sit at Christmas and Easter.

And it’s tempting to think, “Our best days are behind us. There is nothing good to look forward to. It’s better not even to try.” New ideas are likely to be met with a barrage of pessimism from the naysayers. Some people say there are more naysayers in the Church than anywhere else. Perhaps they’re right.

But I believe this message from God is as true now as it was then: God is not done with us yet. His Spirit remains with us. Our best days are ahead of us. In Jesus, our best days are always ahead of us because we have the hope of eternity. God has the means to build his Kingdom. He has riches beyond our ability to comprehend, and he has given gifts to his Church. He can build his Kingdom through us. But it’s up to us to put our hands to the work. Only if we are willing to believe these things and act on them is there a chance for better days ahead of the church in this life and not just in eternity.

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