Things in the church are a little different these days. Some years ago at my alma mater it was decided that after nearly twenty-five or so years without having an on-campus chapel—a dedicated worship space—it was high time to build one. In the years since the college had moved from its original campus, most everything imaginable had been built: musicians had great recital halls, scientists had state-of-the-art labs, the sports teams had outstanding athletic facilities in which to play their games and swim their laps, and the library had amassed a world-class collection of volumes. But worship space? Well, it had all along been catch-as-catch-can, fitting it in to one of these other venues (a basketball court can make for a decent worship space as can be true of the same place where plays and musicals are staged and movies are shown).
So at long last the proposal came to attend to the things of God by building a space dedicated to the public worship of God. Not long after, words of protest emerged from various corners of the campus, the student body, the faculty. Surely there are better things to do with the Master’s money, many claimed. How about feeding the hungry? How about beefing up ministry programs? And anyway, if worship had managed to take place for a quarter-of-a-century without a chapel, why build one now? Why would God care where one holds services of praise?
It’s a line of thought and argumentation that probably gets repeated in one form or another on campuses and inside congregations all over the place. Whenever a church talks about a building program of any kind, there will always be those who claim it’s a waste of money—the old Edifice Complex—and that the church’s focus should surely be somewhere else other than on physical facilities and the like.
You get a rather different picture in the Old Testament.
From the earliest days of God’s people in Israel, great attention—yea verily, lavish attention—gets paid to the specific ins and outs of worship facilities and worship space. The Book of Exodus—so loaded with some of the most gripping narratives in the entire Bible—all but sputters to a narrative halt in its latter chapters as we receive chapter after chapter of instructions about how to build arks and lampstands and carvings and tassels and . . .
Eventually Israel hit the apex of it all with Solomon’s Temple. But it was sacked by the Babylonians. Decades later, when a remnant of the people returned, rebuilding God’s house seems to have been one of those things they’d get around to once things had stabilized and settled down some. If your children are starving and you don’t have a secure place to lay down your baby without fear of a jackal snatching the child in the dead of night, it is true that building a new temple would not rise to the top of anyone’s priority list. And so initially at least—given their lack of resources and where the real fires were burning in their lives—it was understandable that the temple remained a ruin (or at least remained in the category of “We’ll get around to that eventually”).
But the day finally came when God stirred up a man named Haggai to say that the time of crisis had passed sufficiently that their once-valid reasons for not re-building the temple had now begun to transform into not-so-valid excuses. Worse, those excuses looked like they were mirroring overall attitudes toward God and God’s place in their lives. Shoring up sagging houses was one thing. Installing hardwood floors inside those now-secure domiciles was another. And so through the ministry of Haggai, a leader named Zerubbabel motivated the people to get to work not just rebuilding a physical space but simultaneously acknowledging the vital spiritual place God needed to occupy in their lives.
But the fact was that resources remained scarce. Long gone were the days of Solomon when cedar from Lebanon could be imported along with the finest ivory, gold, silver, etc. And so the temple Zerubbabel managed to build was not much too look at—in fact, for those who could remember Solomon’s edifice, the new place looked pathetic. If you used to live in a 5-bedroom house with 3,000 square feet of floor space but now have to move into a 2-bedroom apartment with 800 square feet, then even if that apartment is really lovely and is considered an excellent apartment, it is still going to look slight to you in comparison to what you once had.
But for his part, God appreciates the effort and so bucks people up with a prophecy. Believe it or not, God as much as said, the ramshackle temple’s splendor is going to outshine the old place.
Why? Because as it turns out, God is really good at bringing out all his power and love and grace in the least likely places. (Remember: God started Israel by coming to a childless pair of senior citizens—God specializes in unlikely choices.) And anyway, all along the temple had never been about the silver and the gold and the cedar and the outward stuff. All along it had been the presence of God that made the temple unlike any other place on earth. When in a vision Ezekiel saw the glory of God depart from the temple (cf. Ezek. 11:23), that glorious edifice of Solomon changed in that instant from the most special place on earth radiant with glory to just a really fine-looking museum. Exteriors are not unimportant—recall all those chapters that gave instructions on how to build the temple in the first place—but neither are they the true heart of the matter.
But with the addition of God’s glory, the most commonplace of locales can be transformed. As a character in one of the C.S. Lewis Narnia tales says of that modest stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born: it was a small place from the outside and yet it contained the whole world. Or one thinks of a modest, average-looking carpenter’s son from a backwater town called Nazareth: he wasn’t much to look at, either, and yet of him Paul was later able to say that God was in that man, reconciling the whole universe to himself.
Haggai may or may not have a lot to say to us when today we ponder whether or not to build a church, add on to a church, etc. It is a reminder that having a place dedicated to worship is important—that much at least should be non-controversial—at least in part because paying attention to such a thing can mirror other attitudes that are important. But the Book of Haggai is also a reminder that when the Pentecostal presence of God’s Spirit is among God’s people, the glory of even modest churches outstrips that of Solomon’s temple and all its splendor.
Sometimes I have been in churches where the state of disrepair of the physical facility seems to mirror the lifeless, defeated spirit of the congregation. But like many of you reading this, I have also had the experience of going to a church that from most every aesthetic point of view was rather sad: the carpeting looked like it was bought on the cheap on account of no one else ever wanting that shade of bright orange in their house. The décor was decidedly more from the “Leave it to Beaver” era than the age of “Extreme Makeover” on HGTV. And yet . . . once the worship was started and you got to know the congregation, the place shined with glory. “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place” a popular song in recent years has said, and among the reasons listed for sensing that presence is “I see glory on each face.” Sometimes it happens that way.
“And in this place I will grant peace” is what God says at the close of this passage. It’s the surprise peace that comes from people who understand something of the mystery of a God who somehow managed to tuck all his power and glory inside one human being once upon a time and in this startling way, brought salvation.
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 Singspiration songbook: “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “Standing on the Promises.” He 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.”
Well, one of the neighbors who came over 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 family attended the funeral in one of those little no-account churches God had disguised. But when Fred got inside, he was so disappointed. It was nothing like what Will had said. The paint was peeling. No stars shined. No angels on display on the ceiling or anywhere else. “Oh, Will” young Fred thought, “you messed me up on this one.”
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 old Will to his rest.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 6, 2022
Haggai 1:15-2:9 Commentary