Want to listen on Soundcloud? Click here.
A Call to Build the House of the Lord
1In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest:
2 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come for the Lord’s house to be rebuilt.’”
3 Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: 4 “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”
5 Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 6 You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”
7 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 8 Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the Lord. 9 “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. 10 Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. 11 I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the olive oil and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands.”
12 Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord.
13 Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people: “I am with you,” declares the Lord. 14 So the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of King Darius.
For my money, the Book of the Prophet Haggai might just be the most under-appreciated book in the whole Bible. In fact, I’ve only heard one other guy preach a sermon on Haggai, and he joked about how obscure the book is. Haggai only has two chapters, both of which involve the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem after the return from the Babylonian exile. Today’s passage is a little longer than our usual readings, so I’ll be a little briefer in my comments.
Haggai tells about the time after the king of Persia had issued a decree that the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean countryside, who had been dragged off into exile by the Babylonians, could now go home. (The Persians had subsequently conquered the Babylonians.) Some portion of the exiled Jews made the trip back to rebuild Jerusalem, which had been in ruins for about sixty years.
When they got back to the ruined city, the exiles set about rebuilding. And it seems that their first priority for rebuilding was to rebuild the city wall. That makes sense, since there were enemies all around them trying to stop the rebuilding of the city. Apparently their second priority was to rebuild their homes. From this passage, it seems that when they rebuilt their homes, they didn’t just throw up simple shelters, but rather constructed “paneled houses.” The scholars say that means houses that were nicely built and fairly luxurious.
The problem was that the people never got around to rebuilding the temple. They were living in nice houses, but the temple was still lying in ruins. So God sent the prophet Haggai to complain.
Now, obviously, it wasn’t that God needed the temple to live in. This is a God who has created a universe that’s run on schedule for 13.8 billion years. He didn’t have to worry about being homeless. And in the minds of the ancient Hebrew people, the temple of Jerusalem didn’t really represent God’s ‘home,’ so to speak, as much as it represented God’s ‘throne room.’ The Hebrew people understood that God reigned over the universe from that structure. So by leaving the temple in ruins, the people were expressing a lack of respect for God’s role as Lord of their lives. That’s the point God sent Haggai to raise with them.
One of the things about this passage is that God wasn’t threatening to punish them with some great catastrophe, like a flood or an earthquake or another foreign invader. Instead, the people would experience a general withholding of God’s full blessing. The chosen people would not really flourish as they might have. They would get by, but not really do that well. The message was pretty clear: If you fail to honor God by acknowledging him as Lord and by keeping his reign at the center of national life, then you will not know the full blessing he has in mind for you.
Obviously, we live in a very different kind of society. In spite of what some people might mistakenly think, we Americans are not God’s new chosen people. We live in a pluralistic democracy that accepts people of different faiths and people of no faith. (Or at least, we usually accept people of different faiths.)
Our understanding is that it’s the followers of Jesus who are, in a sense, God’s new chosen people. So the challenge to us – whatever country we may live in – is to honor God by keeping him at the center of our lives. Not to be consumed with ‘building our own houses’ – with advancing our own interests and our own agendas. But rather to be focused on helping God build his kingdom, in which peace and justice will rule, in which the needs of the poor will be met, in which the hungry will be fed and the sick will be healed, in which those of us who claim to be his people will hold ourselves to the highest standards of personal integrity, will honor our marriage vows and not exploit others for our own pleasure or enrichment.
And it might seem obvious, but I would say that’s true of our life together as well as our individual lives. Sometimes decisions we make as churches can be driven by worldly concerns instead of genuine commitment to God’s kingdom. Bigger membership, growing budgets and nice meeting houses are of less interest to God, I’m pretty sure, than congregations who are genuinely making spiritual growth, bearing witness to outsiders and service to others the central principles of their life together.
That, I think, is probably the 21st century equivalent of rebuilding the temple of God in the center of our lives, and of our life together.
Let’s pray. Lord, move in our hearts to cause us to make your reign the center of our lives as individual believers, and of our life together as congregations of followers of your Son. Amen.
Have a great weekend, and worship God joyfully on Sunday!
(The other readings for today are Psalms 130 and 148; Revelation 2:18-29; and Matthew 23:27-39.)