QUESTIONS GOD ASKS: IS IT A TIME FOR YOU YOURSELVES TO BE LIVING IN YOUR PANELED HOUSES, WHILE THIS HOUSE REMAINS A RUIN?
The first Sunday in November is always special to me. It is the Sunday in which we are reminded of those who have gone before us into glory. We remember people who have influenced our lives and our faith. We read the names of loved ones who have died in the past year. We share in our joy for having known them and in our grief for no longer having them with us. When I think of those who have gone before us, I marvel at how the interactions and relationships and events that occur over decades and centuries and even millennium took place in such a way that, they have brought us together today. This particular group of particular people, have gathered here at this particular time and in this particular place for a particular purpose. Thinking in those terms invests our every interaction and action with meaning. For what we do today will in turn impact those who gather decades, centuries, and who knows, maybe even millennium from now. It is good for us to seek to know and discover our purpose in being here. According to the Westminster Catechism our most important purpose is to glorify God and to enjoy life in his presence forever.
As we look at our scripture passage today and the “question God asks” that we are exploring today, we find affirmation of this as the people in Jerusalem at that time come to understand the importance of honoring God as they rebuild the temple and in so doing they find God’s presence is with them, giving them courage.
Our passage today comes from the book of Haggai. Next to Obadiah, it is the shortest book in the Bible with only two chapters; short and sweet. In the history of the nation of Israel it fits into the early years of Persian rule over the former kingdom of Judah as people are beginning to return. You might recall some of the things that happen as some of this was mentioned last week. Early in the sixth century BC Jerusalem and its temple are devastated and many of the people are exiled in Babylon. Judah is no more, instead a tiny province name “Yehud” has taken its place. Later, Persia overthrows Babylon and the exiles begin to return. Work begins on the temple, but it really hasn’t gotten very far by the time the book of Haggai is written around 520 BC.
Perhaps you are thinking, who can blame them? After all, Haggai is written at a time when the nation of Israel’s understanding of their world and its institutions is in crisis; they have descended from status as a kingdom under the royal line of David to a province with a “low on the totem” pole governor. Maybe it seems a little unfair that, in Haggai 1:1-11 the people are portrayed as self-indulgent, preferring their own comfort to concern for YHWH’s house. They are occupied making ends meet and that seems like a pretty good reason for delaying work on the temple. Only, it is not a good reason at all. The reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple is a profoundly important duty, according to Haggai. This temple, being rebuilt here in Jerusalem is important, it is the same temple that going forward features in the life of the Israel nation, in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and in the life of the early church. Any restoration of the nation of Israel is incomplete without the Jerusalem temple. And God has brought these particular people together in this particular place for this purpose.
But, there is a problem. The people are not interested in re-building the temple. They are interested in rebuilding themselves, their homes, their previous vocations. Oh, they have put a little work into the temple, but not enough for it to be used for worship. They are too distracted by the day to day, by the routine of daily life, by eating, and drinking, by spending their money, by the very things that so often distract all of us. Too busy to concern themselves with worship, or rebuilding the temple, or honoring God, no time for that, even though nothing they are doing is satisfying – you eat, but never have enough, you drink, but never have your fill, you earn wages to put them into a bag with holes (1: 6)
Now, I want you to listen carefully to this next part. It’s important. God asks the question: “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your panel houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (v4) “Go on,” God says, “get some wood, get to work, that I might be honored.” And the people obey. (v12) Right away, as soon as the people become obedient, God sends a message, “I am with you!” and he stirs things up as his spirit is upon them, inspiring and invigorating them. (v. 14) The people get going and God is honored by their action.
My father, many of you have heard me say, was a wonderful baker. And he had this beautiful specialty cake he made called a Lane Cake. It was multiple layers – seven – with this marvelous filling that went between each layer and on the top that had cherries, and nuts, and coconut and other delicious stuff. And then, a fancy seven minute frosting went on the sides. It was a magnificent cake! Always beautiful to look at and always delicious to eat. So. I decided I could make this cake. I had to bake the seven layers in stages because I didn’t have enough pans to do it all at once. And maybe, just maybe, I should have known to stop when the first layer mainly stuck to the bottom of the cake pan. Then the next one came out kind of flat, the next stuck to the pan. You get the idea. But I kept going. Next, I made the filling exactly according to the recipe, but for some reason it didn’t quite thicken the way it was supposed to and so when I put it between the very interesting looking layers, the cake began to slide and for some reason it just didn’t have the eye appeal my dad’s version had. And let’s not talk about the icing okay. Other than to say it oozed off the cake into a big puddle on the cake plate and then onto the kitchen counter. It was pretty much a fail. It was nicknamed the pizza cake, because it kind of resembled a pizza. But you know what? In my dad’s eyes it was a huge success, because I had honored him in wanting to make this, ahem, beautiful cake. The temple in Jerusalem, this second temple was kind of like my cake.
Remember the first temple, the one that King Solomon built? It was this fantastic, majestic, huge, glorious temple, beautiful and world-renowned. Reading on into chapter two of Haggai we read this (3-6) “Who is left among you that saw this house in its glory?” (not many, remember how long they were in exile) “How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” (It was kind of like my version of my dad’s cake – the pizza cake – it was the pizza temple.) But wait. Here is what God says about it – “take courage! Take courage all you people of the land, work, for I am with you, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.” (2:4-5) God is pleased with their meager efforts. He is not off-put because it isn’t as glorious as Solomon’s temple. He is honored and glorified by the action and intent of the people. He has brought this particular people together for this particular purpose and God is honored because they have moved from focus on themselves and rebuilding their own lives, to focus on God’s purpose.
God continues to bring individuals and communities together to honor him. We are one such community. Imperfect as we may be. Remember, perfection is not a requirement. Faithfulness, courage to try, a desire to honor God, a willingness to proclaim by word and by deed God’s will and purpose is all that is needed. And God will be with us.
So as we move into the next part of the service to honor those who have come before us – think for a few minutes about the long chain of events that had to happen, maybe even going all the way back to these people in ancient Jerusalem, who came together to rebuild the temple – the long chain that brought you and me together here today. And perhaps offer a prayer of thanks for those known and unknown who are a part of that long chain. Then consider, if God has pulled us together in this time and place for a particular purpose. How do we fulfill that purpose? How do we honor God with our lives, that we may glorify him, and enjoy life in his presence – now and always.