For some weeks now, we have been talking about being on a journey with God. We have looked at the lives of Biblical folks like Abraham and modern day folks like Gladys Aylward. We have looked at our own lives.
We have explored what it means to walk into the unknown, to trust and follow God, and to develop persistence and endurance.
We have acknowledged both the great obstacles and blessings that can come on this journey, and we have looked at the great transformation that can happen to folks like Jacob and Zaccheus and to even us who find ourselves on the road of seeking after and following God.
Journey really is an apt metaphor for our lives with God (regardless of whether in our lives, we stay in one geographical place or move around a lot). It is no wonder as we pick up Scripture that we continually find people on journey.
And today’s reading from Haggai, which will be the focus of my sermon, is no exception. If you don’t know the story behind the Book of Haggai, you may not at first recognize this, but this is most certainly the case.
So we are going to have a brief history lesson tonight, probably about 2/3rds of our sermon, to give us some context, so I hope you like history!
So to go way back, let us remember that King Solomon, the son of David, built Israel’s Temple, the place of God’s dwelling and glory on earth. Solomon also consolidated and greatly expanded the Kingdom of Israel.
After his reign, however, things started to fall apart pretty quickly for the Kingdom. Israel actually split into two nations– the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom or Judah (the latter where Jerusalem lay), and from there, things grew worse.
In 722 BC, Assyria conquered and deported a good number of the population of the Northern Kingdom.
While the Southern Kingdom managed to stay intact for years to come, it was also eventually conquered. In 597 BC, Babylon deported Joiachin the king of Judah, as well as other members of the royal family, the leading military men, and the craftsmen of Jerusalem to Babylon. While Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, did not destroy the Temple at this time, he did take many of the precious, sacred items from the Temple to Babylon.
Ten years later, Nebuchadnezzar returned to Jerusalem, sacking the city, setting fire to the Temple, the palaces, and the city, and taking any precious remaining items from the Temple. He also deported some more of the residents of the city, and he followed this up with one last deportation 5 years later.
At this point in time, the folks who remained in Jerusalem in the Southern Kingdom were for the most part the poorest of the poor. The majority of the Jerusalem population was now in Babylon.
For a total of 60 years, the Jews remained in Babylon – we call this time in Israelite history the Exile. In 538 BC, however, something dramatically changed, and it is at this point in time, we pick up with our story with the prophet Haggai and the folks we heard about in our passage today such as Zerubabbel, who was appointed the governor of Israel and ancestor of David, and Joshua, the high priest.
Now, you might ask, what is it that changed? Well in 539 BC, Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and a year later he issued an edict which released the Jews to go back to their homeland. He also promised to help the Jews to rebuild their temple. So shortly thereafter, a large number of Jews, led by Zerubbabel, embarked on the arduous journey to return to their ancestral home, the land that had been promised to Abraham and Moses and Joshua centuries before, the land where the Jews had lived for generations.
This of course was an immensely joyous occasion for the Jews, but it was also a bit of a scary one too, for a return to their ancestral home after years in exile was certainly a great step out in faith.
You see, the Jews had been exiled 60 years previously, so the majority of Jews at this time were born in Babylon, had grown-up in Babylon, and only knew their life there. Many of the Jews had taken the prophet Jeremiah’s call seriously to seek the peace and prosperity of the city and had settled nicely in Babylon. Some of the Jews had even become quite successful as merchants and in other occupations in their new home so for a certain number of folks, returning to Jerusalem was not even a viable option in their mind, and therefore they remained.
Others, however, felt it important to return and to rebuild the Temple and city so that God presence and glory could once again dwell there, so they embarked on this great journey, but it was a journey that came at great cost. When they arrived in Jerusalem, it was a mess – many of its building destroyed by the fire 50 years previously or in great disrepair from lack of use. Also, much of its lands had been deforested, and its crop lands lay fallow. For the folks who had one lived in the great city, life was especially difficult for them –they were quite elderly now and the deteriorated city in which they resided tugged on their memories, awakening a desire to see it return to its beauty and splendor of the past.
So when the people returned to the land, they started to rebuild the Temple, but it didn’t take long for them to fall into discouragement. For a number of reasons, they were met with opposition by the people who had remained in the land for the 60 years previously. Also, for all involved in the project, it soon became clear that this new Temple was not going to come close to matching the expense, size, glory, and beauty of the previous Temple built by Solomon. They simply didn’t have the resources that Solomon had had.
The folks who had seen this previous glorious Temple were bitterly disappointed. The folks who hadn’t seen it were equally disappointed because they had perhaps heard their parents and grandparents speak of its glory or they had listened to the prophet’s Ezekiel’s glorious description of the Temple at the end of the ages and this new Temple certainly was not going to compare to that either.
The result was that the people soon abandoned their efforts to rebuild the Temple and instead occupied themselves with their own affairs. Fifteen years passed. Cyrus’s rule passed to Darius. And nothing happened.
But then the prophet Haggai came onto the scene, and God gave Him a word to His people. The first word, which we find in Chapter 1 (which we didn’t read tonight) was “stop being self-centered” – it was basically a rebuke of the people for focusing exclusively on their affairs while they allowed the house of God to stand in ruins. The people had set out with the right intentions, but soon turned inward when times got tough.
The prophet Haggai therefore urged the people to emerge from their apathy and to fulfill their call to rebuild the Temple. He even told them that some of their current frustrations with drought in the land, etc. was due to God’s rebuke of their apathy and self-preoccupation.
Apparently, Haggai’s message was effective because within a month, the people began their work on the Temple again.
And that’s when Haggai’s second message from God came and that is the passage we read tonight. This time, God’s word through Haggai was a word of encouragement.
It by no means made light of the Jew’s discouragement. He asks the people, ‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?
Haggai acknowledged the Jew’s disappointment in the appearance and state of the Temple, but then he went on to encourage them. Three times, he told them to persevere, to be strong.
“But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord.”
And Haggai’s encouragement was no mere “pick up yourself by the bootstraps” kind of message. It was an assurance that God would be present with His people while they persevered. He told them to be strong for God was with them. “For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 5‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’
Haggai reminded the Jewish people of God’s promise and God’s presence and God’s desire that they not be afraid because He was with them.
Haggai also went further with His encouragement. He told them, “‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”
It is not that the temple would ever outwardly be as splendiferous as Solomon’s temple – it would not, but that is not what really mattered. God after all was never one to care about outside appearances. With God, it was always the inside that counted– the inside of the hearts of the people as they were obedient to God and came to the temple with worshipful and grateful hearts. It was also his glorious presence inside the Temple that mattered rather than its appearance.
But here is the interesting thing about this temple, and I do think this is something we need to ponder. While there was record of a tangible presence of God coming to reside in the Tabernacle of the wandering Israelites and in the temple of Solomon, there was never, at least in the writing passed down to us, a record of that same tangible presence of God in this new Temple being rebuilt. So what does that mean? How does that gel with God’s promise to His people here that He would fill the house with glory?
Well, it is clear by the language that Haggai used in his encouragement to the Jews that this was a promise of God’s glory in the future, not at the current times.
“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. 7I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory.”
This is eschatological language (in other words end of the ages language) reminiscent of language we find in other prophetic books– in other words, it refers to a time in the future. God’s glory would ultimately come when Jesus, Immanuel, “God with us” came to the temple – that is roughly 500 years in the future from the time the Jews rebuilt the Temple. Thus like Abraham, the Jews who returned to their land after the exile were called to trust God, be obedient to Him, but the ultimate fruits of their labor, if you can even quite call it that, would not be experienced and fulfilled until centuries after their lifetimes when Jesus would come to this earth and come to the Temple. Jesus’ coming was the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise through Haggai.
And so our story ends there. This is the story of the journey of the Jewish people back to their land, the story of the rebuilding of the temple by Haggai, Zerubbabel, Joshua, and many others. It is a story about obedience, faith, patience, endurance, trust. It is a story of God’s presence in the midst of His people’s journey and the manifestation of His glory in the person of Jesus. It is a good story and a fitting one to our phase of life in Crossroads Church. We can hear echoes of our own story in the midst of these ancient peoples’s story. So before we end tonight, let us draw out some of the implications from this story for ours.
So what can we learn? I think there are 5 points or lessons we can take away from this. I’ll first read them off and then I’ll briefly elaborate each one of them.
1) It is okay to acknowledge our fears and discouragements to God.
2) When we are discouraged, we are not to turn inwards but continue to look outwards to others and upwards to God.
3) What is on the inside is more important than what is on the outside
4) God will manifest His glory as we are obedient to Him and follow Him.
5) God is present with us.
Now, let me briefly elaborate each one of these points.
First, if we are feeling discouraged about anything in life – that is whether it is about church planting or anything else – our jobs, relationships, finances, lost hopes and dreams - it is okay to acknowledge it. We do not need to stuff it down and pretend that all is okay. Scripture teaches us – and nowhere is it more evident than in the Psalms – that it is okay to take our full range of concerns, fears, and emotions to the Lord.
Second, when we do feel discouraged, we are not to turn inwards, which is what is often easiest for us to do. We are to keep the Lord’s plans for us and for His kingdom in mind (even if we don’t fully understand what those plans are). We are to continue to bless and serve others. We are to trust Him and step out and faith as we follow Him to wherever He leads. The path that God calls us to may not be always easy, but God is present with us in the midst of it.
Third, and this is especially an important reminder to us Anglican church planters. What is on the outside is not as important as what is on the inside. In these beginning stages of our life together at Crossroads Church, our worship time on Saturdays or our meeting times throughout the week may not be as put-together as other church services in the area. Also, even as we gather more people and become more put together so-to-speak, we may never quite be like the church communities that we have come from, for example, it is possible we may never own our own building.
Like the post-exilic Jews, this may be disappointing to us and we may wish to return to the previous glories of our church experiences. But these externals are not what are important to us – not now or in the future. What is important is what is going on in our hearts – our inner transformation, our growing in obedience and Christlikeness, our increasing heart for justice, our deepened love for God and for one another (esp. those folks who we rather not be with). To coin a phrase of Fr. Nate, God is concerned that we love the Lord of the Temple more than we love the Temple of the Lord. God is concerned with our hearts, not our outside appearances of piety, biblical knowledge, beautiful worship experiences, success, etc.
Fourth, while we are never guaranteed by God that we will see the full fruits of our labors in our lifetime, we are nevertheless promised that our obedience will result in the manifestation of God’s glory. This is what we are after here in Salem and here in New England. We are here to see the Christian faith once vibrantly lived out on these shores by the likes of Jonathan Edwards and Adonirum Judson to come alive again. We are rebuilding the Christian community here, baby step by baby step, and while we hope to see its fruits in our lifetime, we labor on regardless of immediate outcome.
Fifth and finally, and I think this is perhaps the most important point of all (and I have already actually mentioned it) is that as we labor on, journey on in this life that God has given us, God is present. He will never abandon us. It may feel that way at times – both through our external circumstances or our inward feelings – but He has not left. He will never leave. He is present. His Spirit dwells within us. We are not to fear.
Let us take God’s word to the Jews who returned to Jerusalem and make them our own, “For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 5‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’