And yet Haggai has some important things to say to us on this Sunday, when we celebrate All Saints Day and also the coming end of the political campaign season.
For most of the prophets, we know about when they were active because the books typically begin by telling us what king was reigning during the prophet’s lifetime. But Haggai does even better than that. Haggai tells us what day he received each of his visions. The prophecy we just heard came to him in the fall of 520 BCE.
Roughly seventy years earlier, the Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the temple of God, dethroned the Davidic king, and taken the leading citizens into captivity. It was a horrible time. But the people did not lose hope. During the time of the exile, prophets like Ezekiel promised the people a glorious restoration. Someday, they said, God will take us home, and it will be great. That vision, that hope, sustained the people.
Eventually those promises can true, at least in part. The Israelites were allowed to return to the Promised Land. It was the day they had longed for, and they set about rebuilding their ruined institutions. Among other things, they began rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem.
But their return to the Promised Land was NOT great. The little refugee community did not have a lot of money to do the things that needed to be done. Complicating matters, they experienced crop failures which threatened them with starvation. The people became discouraged. Work on the temple languished.
Haggai summoned the people back to work on the temple. And, thanks in large part to Haggai, they did it. They completed the temple and rededicated it. It seemed a new day was dawning.
But the sad fact is, life was still not great. The new temple was not very impressive. Even as it was going up, people who remembered the original temple, the great temple built by Solomon so many centuries before, they wept to see how small the new temple was, to see how far the Israelites had fallen from their glory days (Ezra 3:12).
That is the context for this morning’s reading. The people are working to rebuild their shattered institutions. But they are discouraged at how the work is going and at how insignificant it seems.
Haggai addresses their discouragement head-on. “Who is left among you that saw this house [the temple] in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” What is the point, if this is the best we can do?
Now let’s think for a minute about the state of our own nation. Many people are worried about the direction we are heading. As of Tuesday, we will have a President-elect, and many people are not excited about our options. Even those who genuinely admire one or the other candidate have got to be worried about how she or he will work with a polarized Congress to govern our divided nation.
It is tempting to give up on the goal of national restoration altogether. It is not clear that our efforts, it is not clear that our vote, makes any difference. What we can do seems so inadequate. Even the best we can do can be in our sight as nothing.
Back to Haggai. And the point is, Haggai is talking to us just as much as he was talking to the people of ancient Israel.
Haggai speaks to the leadership of his day, to Zerubbabel the governor and to Joshua the high priest. Haggai speaks to the remnant of the people. Haggai says to them, and Haggai says to us, “Take courage.” “Work, for I [God] am with you.” “My [God’s] spirit abides among you; do not fear.”
And then, like Habakkuk last week, Haggai offers a vision of the future. Given the task of their day, he focuses on the temple. He says, “Once again, in little while, I [God] will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house [the temple] with splendor, says the Lord of hosts.” And “the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts.”
Haggai says, do not look back with regret. Look forward with hope. The future of this little temple will be more glorious than the great temple of Solomon, even if we cannot see how.
It was easy for them, it is easy for us, to look backwards, to look to the good old days, to lament where we are and to fear where we are heading. I get that. I would love to live in a world without computers, without e-mail or the internet. I would like to get rid of telephones and automobiles too. I should have been Amish! My vision of America is hopelessly out of date and has been for 150 years!
But ours is not a backward looking faith. We are not supposed to spend our time lamenting how great the old temple was and how inadequate the new one is and how much we wish the new one could be just like the old. Down that path lies hopelessness.
And that is why God sent prophets. That is why we come together to hear the good news. We need to get reoriented. We need to be reminded.
As people of faith, we are called to look forward in hope, to watch for what God is doing in our day, to do our best to discern where God is leading us, as individuals, and as a parish, and as a nation. We are called to hear God’s invitation, to embrace God’s mission, to share our hope in God’s future.
Today we celebrate All Saints Day. Today we remember those who have gone before us, those who have set an example for us. But even today, we do not simply look backwards.
At the beginning of our service, we prayed that God will give us grace “so to follow [the] blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we [too] may come to those ineffable joys that [God] has prepared for us.” In that prayer, we commit to living like the saints who have gone before, living, that is, in faith and hope, looking forward to the kingdom that God is bringing about, for each of us and for all of creation.
And so, on this All Saints Day, I give thanks for the witness of the prophet Haggai. I give thanks for the witness of all the saints. And I pray that we can follow their example, working, in courage and hope for God’s kingdom, always remembering that God is with us and that God’s Spirit abides among us.
In the name of Jesus Christ, king of kings and Lord of Lords. Amen.