“Our concern should be about the living.”

Posted: November 14, 2016 in Uncategorized

“Our concern should be about the living.”

Haggai 1: 15b – 2: 9           Luke 20:27-38

Pentecost 25C November 6 2016

Haggai is considered one of the most minor of the Minor Prophets. We remember here that the term “minor” merely refers to the length of the work, not to its importance. After all, Amos, Hosea, and Micah are termed “minor prophets, and no one would dare call their oracles less than powerfully significant. Yet, Habakkuk, and now Haggai, are little read or used in our preaching and teaching. These two books usually receive little attention yet there is quite a bit that can be gained by reflecting on them.

First, the name Haggai comes from the word “festival,” more specifically a pilgrimage feast. It is analogous to the Arabic hajj, the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca commanded for every able-bodied Muslim to make at least once in their lives. Hence, Haggai’s very name suggests that his primary interests will be in worship, liturgy, and proper sacrifice in the temple of Jerusalem. Indeed, he quickly announces that the reasons for the Israelite struggles for survival in the “new” Jerusalem, the holy city regained after the end of the Babylonian exile, are the refusal of the returnees, as well as those who remained in the land, to pay careful attention to the fallen temple, spending the bulk of their time building and furnishing their own houses. “You have looked for much, but look! It came to little. When you brought it home, I blew it away. Why, says YHWH of the Armies? Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses” (Hag 1:9). For Haggai, the key to Israelite success in the difficult circumstances of a destructed Jerusalem is full attention to the rebuilding of the temple that was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 587/586 B.C.E.

Fortunately for us later readers of this tiny book, we are given very precise dates with which we may comprehend the historical context of Haggai’s concern. According to Haggai 1:1, his prophetic activity begins in September of 520 B.C.E, the second year of the reign of King Darius I of Persia. Thus, Haggai speaks sixty-six years after the fall of Jerusalem. Much has happened in the interim. Most especially in 539 B.C.E. the Babylonian empire has been usurped by the Persians, led by the extraordinary King Cyrus. In effect, Cyrus entered Babylon, becoming its overlord without firing a shot, or at least very few shots. The last king of Babylon, Nabonidus, was apparently a far better librarian than he was a king, and Babylon tottered under his lax leadership and was ripe for the plucking.

Cyrus’ ruling practices were far different from those of the Babylonians. Instead of dragging defeated rulers and their courts off to the capital city, Cyrus rather allowed all former captives to return home and even paid for their journeys, apparently providing extra cash for any plans they might have upon their return. Little wonder that the exilic prophet, Second-Isaiah, refers to Cyrus as YHWH’s Messiah (Is 45:1)! Still, the exiles’ return was less than glorious. They found a wrecked city, a shattered economy, and many who had not gone with them to Babylon, but instead had remained in the land, eking out a subsistence living as best they could. These people had no time and little interest in rebuilding the temple, but were far too busy merely living. One can only imagine what many of them thought when Haggai began to accuse them of selfishness and greed with respect to the temple of YHWH. They no doubt retorted, “Easy enough for you to say! You have not attempted to live in a destroyed and chaotic land for the past three generations! Take your temple talk elsewhere!”

But Haggai had Persian internal turmoil on his side, or at least he thought he did. After the death of Cyrus in 529, Cambyses became king; his policies were not as generous and lenient as those of his predecessor. For the seven years of his reign, he tightened the screws of the empire, and tiny Israel no doubt feared the lash of his hand. At his death in 522, the Persian throne was in turmoil until Darius I consolidated power and ensured the survival of the empire in 520. Perhaps in these years of Persian confusion, the vassal states imagined that they might experience some bursts of freedom and independence. It was precisely then that Haggai urged his fellow Israelites to rebuild the Temple, thus paying appropriate homage to YHWH, and thus ensuring, according to Haggai, the return to the ancient glories of Israel. However, with the consolidation of Darius’ authority, any hope for genuine freedom from Persian mastery was dashed. The attempt to put Zerubbabel (“seed of Babylon”), a direct descendant of the great David, on the throne was thwarted by the now stable power of Darius, though we have no direct evidence of how that attempt was made impossible.

So what are we to make of this Haggai? Build the temple, he shouts, and all of your troubles will be over. You will have rich harvests, countless vats of grain and wine, and rest and ease from your fears, if you will only spend your time building the temple. The difficulty of this demand is made quite clear in Haggai 2. “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? (Not too many, to be sure, given that it was wrecked nearly seventy years before.) How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” (Hag 2:3) The memory of the glorious temple of Solomon (though its “glory” in reality was far less than the splendid buildings of the mighty Babylon) was shattered in the light of the ruin that confronted the exiles. Attempts to rebuild would be massively difficult, given the economic hardships of a land left in tatters for so long.

But Haggai will not give up. “Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says YHWH; take courage O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, high priest; take courage all you people of the land, says YHWH! Work, for I am with you, says YHWH, according to the promise I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear” (Hag 2:4-5). You see a temple in ruins, the very symbol of YHWH’s presence compromised in your sight. To rebuild the thing will be well-nigh impossible. But build, says Haggai, build!

Let’s just take a moment and think about this sort of message for us today. For rebuilt temple think restored St David’s brick building. Will rebuilding it be possible? What is it that will be rebuilt? Will it be buildings or will it be the church? Haggai did not think that building an old building would ensure safety and success, it has to be a holy building and it is here I want to challenge us to think what that means.. What a holy building was to ancient Jerusalem and to Judeans is the question and to us today. To understand what rebuilding a holy means is our question. This is a challenge to us here at St David’s because our future is not about new buildings, not even new school buildings. We know that a clean, sound new building will not honour God in itself. I don’t know about you but I have been in lots of church buildings and some of them I could not say of them that they were holy. We also know that in many instances the energy, financial resources and the time given to buildings has destroyed people’s commitment to their faith journey. Maybe the destruction has not been physically but it has been spiritual, it has taken the life out of people by its demands. Evidence says that the energies that go into building new churches often end up with those who have given most leaving soon after completion. Spirits drained by delivering physical resources need recovery themselves.

Yet, Haggai was not on about just the physical resources. The temple he talked about was not just the physical temple it was also the temple that was at the core of Judaism. It was the place of liturgy, ritual and worship that was more important. We hear a lot about this sort of Jerusalem later in the debate between Paul and Peter about the importance of Jerusalem being at the heart of the Spirit of Judaism. Jerusalem was not just a place it was also a world view, it was a way of being in the world and the place and the practices such as circumcision were the rituals that sustained its place in the mind of the people. Paul’s debate like those in Haggai’s world who had remained, was not only about the place, but rather about the ability of that Spirit to be rebuilt in other nations. Paul’s concern was to take the story of Jesus to the Nations, the world other than the Judaic world. A faith tied to a building in Jerusalem was less than helpful. A faith tied to a building at 70 Khyber Pass Rd Grafton might be less than helpful. Our debate might be that the Spirit that is St David’s can be rebuilt without the brick building but like Haggai says; it needs rebuilding.

Haggai says that ‘if I am only concerned with my own house, and give no attention to the house of YHWH, of what use am I to those starving children, those hungry children of this same God? Haggai preaches hope in the midst of hopeless ruin, a future in the midst of a land nearly devoid of one. Haggai preaches hope for a restored St David’s in the midst of a cleared site, in the idea of a congregation with no buildings. It is a rebuilding of the temple with whatever the building might assist the congregation to be a servant of the temple that is the Spirit of God and people together.

Just in case you might be wondering how the Christian Scriptures address this question Haggai raises, our lesson from Luke puts it this way. The Sadducees, one of the powerful parties in the Jewish religious hierarchy, in an attempt to trap Jesus by his making some heretic statement, asked him a question about marriage and resurrection.  They tell a story of one of seven brothers who married a woman and had no children, and then he died.  As was often the custom, to care for the widow another brother married her, and the same thing happened to him–no children and then death.  All seven brothers married the widow and all met with the same fate. ‘No children and death’.  The seven-time widow eventually herself died.  Next came the perplexing question from the Sadducees.  “In heaven whose wife of the seven is she?”  Jesus reflects for a moment before answering.  An answer Jesus doesn’t give is ‘how would I know because if it had been me I would have thought twice about marrying her after the second or third husband had passed away. But instead he reminds them that God is God of the living, not the dead.  His answer implies that the question they have asked is inconsequential.  He is basically saying, “Our concern should be about the living.”

The Gospel of Mark’s account of this same encounter gets to the heart of Jesus’ answer.  After Jesus has silenced the Sadducees with his thoughtful response, in Mark we read the following passage:

28One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he had answered them well, he asked, “What commandment is the first of all?” 29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32Then the scribe looked at him and said, “You are right.”

What’s the New Jerusalem here? What’s the restoration?  To love God and to love neighbour as yourself!  Jesus says to his inquisitors that that is the only important stuff in life!  The essence of Jesus’ message is that the overseers of The Law had spent too much time on the minutia of The Law–turning the two basic commandments into over 600 commandments.  Sounds a lot like the Presbyterian Church today and one might even say that in St David’s world all the hoops that seem to get in the road of our mission aspirations seem to be about compliance with some law or another, be it legal or media driven. The assumption that because we love the building we should restore it in its current state forever. All those who are reminded of their life’s milestones, marriages, baptisms, funerals want to keep it the way it was when their milestones were made. Jesus says: Who cares who will be married to whom in heaven; it is all about loving God and loving neighbour now!

My argument for today about restoration of the temple is that St David’s future is less about the buildings and more about the Spirit of St David’s, the energies, the caring, the loving and the mission that has made the congregation what it was is and can be. It is the life blood and the Spirit of the congregation that matters. Yes by all means keep some symbols of the past to help the remembering. But why a building that no longer provides the memory of those milestones. Very few marry, and have their funerals in churches these days. Fewer people are baptized in churches than used to be. As we all know, we live in a society that is more stressed out, on more anxiety reducing medication, and has more therapists and mental health counselors than any other time before.  Depression, rage, anger, physical violence–we all know that these are by-products of a society that makes everything into a life or death crisis ….a society that proclaims you must have it all or you are deficient.

The occupation of energies searching for the stuff that the world considers important makes us feel more insufficient and like an addiction drives us to seek more and more of this world’s unattainable dream.  To be happy you need this trinket or that title or this victory?  Oblate priest and writer Father Ronald Rolheiser, reflecting on the emptiness that many feel as they search for the supposed important stuff writes:  “Always there are deeper hungers that are being stifled. And always, as Karl Rahner so poignantly puts it, we are suffering the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable as we are learning that here in this life there is no finished symphony.”  We are driven by our insufficiency to seek things that are unnecessary.

Haggai says to those stuck in their status quo and driven by their fear of losing even a new building, wake up and get on with restoring the real temple. It is the people united in the New Jerusalem that matter. And Jesus says to those who want answers to questions that are unanswerable, get on with the living for each other. Amen.

  1. Sherri says:

    I wanted to thank you for this excellent read!!
    I undoubtedly enjoying every little bit of it I have you
    bookmarked to check out new material you post.

  2. Candy says:

    This is a topic close to my heart cheers. Thanks

  3. Great post. I ‘m facing a couple of these issues.

  4. This is a subject close to my heart cheers. Thanks

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