How does it look to you now?
| Haggai 1:15 - 2:9
||Thu, November 16, 1995
Rev. Ed Searcy
|VANCOUVER SCHOOL of THEOLOGY COMMUNITY WORSHIP (Thursday)
Haggai. Let's see, Haggai, I knew who Haggai was once. I think that it was sometime late in the evening on the night before my Old Testament Basics exam! Face it, Haggai is not one of your better known prophets. Listen to Hans Walter Wolff's introductory words to his commentary on this little book: "Haggai is one of the most minor of the minor prophets, indeed one of the most despised". Great. It's just my luck. Next week's preacher gets Isaiah proclaiming that God is "creating a new heaven and a new earth". In two weeks it's Colossians' great Christological hymn: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation". I get: "Time to rebuild the Temple"! No wonder Haggai is among the most despised of prophets. He just doesn't fit in. Elizabeth Achtemeier says that Haggai "crops up in the midst of the goodly fellowship of the prophets like a misguided stranger from the wrong part of town." Look as you may you will not find the requisite prophetic cry for social justice here ... or the standard scathing denunciation of the Temple cult. Haggai is an ugly duckling. Unless, of course, you are in the business of new church development in which case Haggai comes in very handy at the dedication of the new building! Unfortunately for me, that won't wash this morning.
However, if there is a down side to Haggai there is also an up side. At last here is a biblical book whose dating is absolutely precise. Everyone agrees - Haggai spoke in the year 520 BCE. Quick calculation now ... 520 BCE ... yes, 18 years after the exiles returned rejoicing from the rivers of Babylon. Two decades have passed back home in Jerusalem when Haggai steps into the pulpit. Here's the even more astonishing thing - we know precisely when he opened his mouth. Each of the five sermons that make up this brief collection are dated to the month ... and day! So this morning we hear the sermon preached by Haggai on October 17, 520 BCE. You can't get much more accurate than that. And here's the most incredible thing of all - Haggai preaches five sermons over a three month period and not only makes it into the Bible ... he gets into Handel's Messiah, too! It just doesn't seem fair ... not when the rest of us slog away on a lifetime of Sundays only to have the results of all our Saturday night blood,sweat and tears lost to memory in what seems like the blink of an eye. Then again, maybe Haggai is on to something. Remember, when Haggai begins preaching the Temple is still nothing but a burnt-out shell, a heap of rubble, the haunt of jackals (Lamentations 5:18). By the time Haggai steps down out of the pulpit the five year reconstruction project is well underway on a Temple that will stand for five centuries. Maybe there is more to Haggai than first meets the eye!
Which brings us to Haggai's sermon this morning. It is the third in his five-part "Temple Building Series" and, of the five, it finds his congregation in the sorriest condition. Four weeks have passed since he last preached ... and did he preach! Last month's sermon was a real barn burner. By the end of the service the people were so fired up that they headed straight for the ruins of the old building and started the laborious task of getting the foundations ready for new walls. A month later the initial enthusiasm has already worn off. Haggai addresses the problem head on: "Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?" He knows full well who remembers the old Temple - they're the elders, the octogenarians who are bawling their eyes out in front of him. They take one look at the sorry attempts at reconstruction and can't stop crying. Everyone knows the answers to Haggai's rhetorical question: "How does it look to you now?" ' How does it look to us now? It looks like a pathetic imitation of the real thing, a pitiful mockery of the once majestic Temple!' "Is it not in your sight as nothing?", Haggai asks ... and the congregation answers in one voice: "Yes ... it looks as though we've accomplished exactly nothing". Do you recognize the echoes of these voices in our community? "Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now?". Two months into the reconstruction of a curriculum ... a curriculum born out of great hope and vision ... there are some with long memories who shed a tear when they remember the vast resources of another age. And it is not just the curriculum. Why, we are just into the gestation of a development project for land use on the site of the school and there are already those who look at the proposals for reconstruction and weep. But the School is not alone. Like every other denomination, it seems, the United Church restructures divisions, reprioritizes spending and relocates offices. When asked about the wonders of the new head office one staff member who passes through town rolls his eyes and speaks longingly of the good old days at 85 St. Clair Ave! "How does it look to you now?" Many look at the denominations through the lens of the past and weep. But that is nothing compared to the tears being shed in congregation after congregation that many of you will soon be serving. Ask the elders "How does it look to you now?" and they will tell you in no uncertain terms that the future looks pretty bleak ... pretty bleak indeed.
The temptation to despair is powerful. The daunting prospect of trying to reconstruct the great edifice is enough to frighten even the bravest of builders. For one thing, now that Christendom has had its great fall all the kings men and women and horses are not going to put the pieces back together again. It is not surprising that our little Church Schools of ten or twenty or thirty bring such sadness to the eyes of those who recall shepherding two or three or four hundred into overcrowded CE wings as if it was yesterday. For another thing, we fear the challenge of reconstruction because we have seen the dangers of naively unhindered construction. It wasn't that long ago that our great-grandparents arrived on these shores and began to build the New Jerusalem. Here they found a whole continent to construct. Here they dreamed of building a new society free from all the mistakes of Europe's past. Now we find ourselves reaping the whirlwind of unchecked social construction that brought with it the seeds of destruction ... or perhaps, better put, the seeds of deconstruction. Have you noticed? We live in an era of deconstruction. Gone are the days when we were caught up in the vision of reconstructing a society ... or when theologians thought it still possible to reconstruct great systematic theological temples to God. These are the days when deconstructing the old monolith seems to be the common task at hand. Modernity no longer makes perfect sense ... take it apart. Patriarchy is about to collapse ... tear it down, brick by brick. The social safety net is too expensive ... dismantle it piece by piece. We are left standing in the midst of the rubble of the old consensus. And our modest attempts at refashioning a Temple suitable for God in our time seem puny, to say the least.
We see why Haggai says "take courage"! And not just once ... or twice ... but three times in the same verse: "Take courage" politicians, "take courage" priests, "take courage" people, "do not fear". Take courage administration, take courage faculty, take courage students and staff, do not fear. The truth is, reconstruction does take courage ... more courage, perhaps, than deconstruction. Reconstruction is risky business that is fraught with peril. After all, the new building will never be the same as the old familiar surroundings. And, of course, there will always be those other prophets ready to deconstruct the new creation whenever it is the least bit out of square. Nonetheless, the God who creates order out of chaos and who makes sense out of non-sense says to those called to the creative task of re-construction: "take courage". An acquaintance of mine was recounting tales from his recent year in France. "There was something wonderful about the village nearby", he said. "Every day I would ride my bike down the hill into town with my children in the little cart behind. After dropping them at day-care I would turn and leave for work up that same hill. Each time, without fail, perfect strangers on the side of the road - seeing the hill I was about to attempt - would call out as if I was racing in the Tour de France: 'Courage, courage'. At first", he went on, "I thought it was just a delightful, charming custom. But soon, to my surprise, I discovered that their words of encouragement actually worked ... it was as if they were pulling me up the hill!". Perhaps those French villagers have been taking advice from Haggai. Perhaps the preaching of our lifetimes will best be summed up in that one word: "courage". Because, make no mistake about it, the church we know faces a pretty tough climb on the horizon if it is to be courageously re-formed.
Thank heavens, then, that Haggai has more than encouragement to offer. He has a vision, too ... and a prophetic vision at that. Haggai sees and hears things that others are too blind and deaf to perceive. He looks at the meagre beginnings of the reconstructed Temple and hears a voice in the midst of the work crew: "I am with you", it says, "Emmanuel" ... "my spirit abides among you". Where others see an all too human project that has little hope of ever coming to completion, Haggai sees God on the job. More than that, where others see a future that is only more of the same ruinous present, Haggai sees a future shaken to the foundations by the sawing and hammering of God. Just listen to Handel's Messiah and you will feel the sha,a,a,a,a,aking caused when God goes to work in earnest. Now there are those who read Haggai with a bemused look on their face. "Some prophet," they say, "it never happened, you know. Sure, the Temple was rebuilt ... but it never lived up to Haggai's grandiose dreams of splendour." We might share their bemused look if it wasn't for this font and table and wall of stones. Together, you see, they bring to mind a day when the earth did tremble, tremble, tremble ... a day when "the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land and the nations" (Haggai 2:6) shook as God rebuilt the Temple ... a Temple fashioned now of living stones (I Peter 2:4-10). That's it, isn't it. At the font we find that the ruins of our lives are remade into living stones in the household of God. And at the table we are incorporated into the mystery that began with Jesus' audacious pronouncement: "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19). Here we discover to our great surprise that we are not constructing the temple ... but that we are ourselves becoming a part of the Temple, the living breathing Temple that first took shape on that earth shaking Sunday and that is being constructed by the Maker even now ... a home fit for the broken and battered, a sanctuary for all who live in fear and in need, a Temple to the way of justice and of peace ... in other words, the Body of Christ - the house of God.