Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 6, 2016

Haggai 1:15b-2:9 Commentary

How can people build a home for God that fully reflects his glory?  That’s the question with which Israel wrestles in the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday.  However, it’s also an issue with which modern Christians also struggle, though we know that God no longer lives in buildings, but in human hearts.   Can we build any kind of home for God that fully reflects his glory?

Solomon built a glorious temple, a house for God that was full of cedar and cypress, gold and carvings.  Yet even he had to admit to God, “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you.  How much less this temple I have built!”

There is a genuine faith that grieves our inability to do the things that God deserves.  You and I grieve that we can’t live a life of faith that adequately reflects God’s gracious love for us.  Christians mourn that we can’t perform service in God’s world that’s a fully appropriate response to what God has done and is doing.

Yet we remember that God doesn’t come to us because we live in ways that deserve God’s presence or because we erect things that are fully appropriate for God’s glory.  No, God comes to live among God’s people because God graciously chooses to live among us.

As the Haggai text opens, Judah has faithlessly broken her covenant with the Lord.  God, in God’s steadfast love, however, promises to graciously renew God’s covenant with her.  To struggling and discouraged Judah God comes and says, “I am with you.”

God had inspired Haggai’s countrymen to rebuild God’s ramshackle house, the temple.  Yet some of the elderly Israelites had seen Solomon’s glorious temple.  So they weep when they see the paltry beginnings of the reconstructed sanctuary.  Here Haggai acknowledges elderly Judeans’ grief.  In their eyes the new temple is, the prophet admits, “nothing,” literally “much more than nothing.”  It, in fact, can never be the same as before.

After all, the Ark with its mercy seat and cherubim is gone.  The tablets of stone and the pot of manna are gone.  The Babylonian holocaust has swept away those things, as well as Aaron’s rod, the Urim and Thummim and the eternal fire on the altar.

While Israel has replaced some of those treasures, they don’t have the same spiritual and emotional power.  The old treasures that pointedly reminded Israel of the mighty things God had done among her ancestors are gone forever.  Failing eyes, as a result, can only fill with tears at the memory of what used to be.

Israel’s grieving people, however, have forgotten just who fills the temple with glory.  It’s not Solomon or those hallowed treasures.  It’s the living God who is “with” Israel.  And as long as that God is with God’s people, we can confidently expect new things no eye has ever seen or ear has ever heard.

So Haggai insists that the Lord who has done mighty things in the past can establish new symbols of the Lord’s presence in the future.  The One who rules the past, present and future can reveal himself in ways not yet imagined or anticipated.

The future Haggai holds out before his discouraged countrymen is almost unimaginable.  God earlier shook the earth at Israel’s exodus from Egypt and at her reception of the law at Sinai.  Now God promises to “once more” shake the whole creation so that all the nations will bring their treasures to once again fill God’s temple with splendor.  Someday, Haggai promises, all nations will finally come with their offerings to the Lord of Hosts.

What’s more, the prophet promises, God will soon establish shalom, God’s abundant life, the “peace” for which God created us, God’s people.  This will include not only those in Jerusalem, but all who are faithfully flowing toward Jerusalem.

In verse 6 Haggai promises that all this will happen “in a little while.”  The prophets used the phrase “in a little while” to describe events that were eminent, distantly future or even in the past.  So Haggai may not be referring here so much to the shortness of the interval as to the greatness of the One who will usher in these new things.  God, says the prophet, is moving on to the future.

You and I also have seen so much of God’s work in the past.  God’s word has transformed millions of lives.  God’s power has also crumpled countless empires.  In the Scriptures we’ve also seen God shatter the chains of sin and death, first in the exodus from Egypt, then, most importantly in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Those who preach and teach this text may want to ask hearers if feel that any day now they may see new workings of God’s might.  Do they wonder what amazing things God may transform?  Do they anticipate the breaking in of the new heaven and earth?

Our mighty God, after all, graciously promises to graciously remain with us.  Biblical scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier calls this promise of God’s ongoing presence a “silver thread” that runs through the Bible’s whole story.

It was the promise that assured even the scoundrel Jacob that God would never abandon him.  God’s presence was the promise that accompanied a shepherd named Moses as he returned to Egypt to try to convince the mighty Pharaoh to free enslaved Israel.  God’s presence was also the assuring promise that prepared young Jeremiah to prophecy, even when all of Judah turned against him.

God’s ongoing presence with you and me also gives us the strength to follow Jesus Christ into a future known only to him.  Just before Christ ascended to heaven, he left all of his disciples with this promise: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  Here is one thing on which you and I can count, even when everything else seems so uncertain: God will never abandon us.  God will, by the Holy Spirit, stay with us always, right on into the glory of the new creation.

God remains with you and me, in good times and bad, in sickness and grief, at the moment of our birth and the instant of our death.  We can rely as we form friendships, marry and have children.  It’s one thing on which we can count as we serve God in our daily work and as we play.  God’s presence with us is the sure promise we have even when our hairs gray and fall out and our energy wanes.

And because we know what this God who stays with us has done and may yet do, you and I can be faithful in our work for the Lord.  “Be strong . . . be strong . . . be strong . . . and work,” he says in verse 4.  God, after all, is “with” us, “his Spirit remains among” us.

Of course, we don’t, like Haggai’s contemporaries, work to build or rebuild a temple.  As a result of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, God’s temple is no longer a building.  Now God’s temple is wherever God lives, particularly in God’s people and within God’s church.

Yet some parallels exist between Israel’s temple and the worldwide church.  So today you and I work to build up the temple that is God’s global church.  God himself, after all is with us.  God’s Spirit graciously remains among us.

So we can be strong and work in God’s church.  For the Lord is with us.  We can be strong, too, as we work in God’s kingdom, for the Lord is with us.  We can be strong and work honestly in business, carefully in our daily work and faithfully in all of our relationships.  For the Lord is with us.

Imagine, after all, the immense power that the Lord’s presence brings to all of our various work.  God, after all, is the One who somehow raised up the Rocky Mountains and flung the stars across a billion galaxies.

The Lord who is with us is the God who created a people for God and has overcome every evil attempt to obliterate that people.  This God is the God who raises up kingdoms and then knocks them down.  God is the God who moves empires and kingdoms and all of history toward the goal God has established for it.

This Lord who is with us, however, is on the move to establish God’s kingdom on earth, toward the time when no tears, pain or grief will scar God’s creation.  The Lord who is with us is on the move toward the time when the knowledge of him will cover the earth as waters cover the sea.  So we can be strong and work, following Jesus on the way to the new creation.  For the Lord is with us.

Illustration Idea (from the November 4, 2013 CEP OT sermon commentary, no longer on the website)

In a wonderful sermon preached a few years ago at the Festival of Homiletics, Fred Craddock told a story.   He said that when he was a little boy, his siblings and he would have to get dressed up in their best clothes — and so their most uncomfortable clothes — every Saturday night.   A couple of the neighbors would come over and they’d all sit around the living room to read the Bible and then to sing songs out of an old spiral-bound songbook: “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “Standing on the Promises.”   Craddock asked his mother once why they had to do this and she said, “Well, son, we don’t live close enough to a church actually to attend.  But some day we might live close enough to a real church and so for now we’re practicing.”

One of the neighbors who came every week was an African-American man named Will.  One time young Craddock asked him, “Will, you ever been in a real church?”  “Hundreds,” was Will’s reply.  “Well, what’s it like?”  “Well, I’ll tell you,” Will said.   “First off, don’t go by appearances.  Cuz’ sometimes you’ll see some little old white clapboard church up on cinderblocks out in the middle of nowhere and maybe the shutters are sagging a bit and all.  But don’t go by that.  Because sometimes God disguises his goodness—he hides his best stuff in little old no-account places like that.   But you just go inside one of those and you’ll see.”  “See what?” Fred asked eagerly.   “Well, when you look up at the ceiling, you’ll see it’s a deep, deep blue.   And the stars shine and the angels sing and . . . well, you’ll just have to see for yourself some day, young man!”

In time dear old Will died, and so young Fred and his family attended the funeral in one of those little no-account churches God had disguised.  But when Fred got inside, he was disappointed.   It was nothing like what Will had said.   The paint was peeling.  No stars shined.  No angels on display.

But then the service started.  The choir got to singing and to swaying.  The congregation joined in and all of a sudden, somewhere in the midst of the singing and the swaying and the praising, Fred looked up.   “And the ceiling was blue.  And the stars were shining.  And ministries of angels sang Will to his rest.”


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