Take Courage, People of St. David's!
I don’t love Haggai quite as much as I love Habakkuk, our prophet from last week. But Haggai is even shorter—just two chapters—and almost as interesting. Indeed, Haggai may be even more important than Habakkuk.
Habakkuk prophesied immediately before the Babylonians conquered Judah, destroyed God’s temple in Jerusalem, and took the people of Judah into exile. It was a grim time, and the covenant people survived by holding on to their vision of a time when God would restore them to their homeland and to the glory that they enjoyed in their golden age under King David and King Solomon.
A lot happened between then and the second year of King Darius, when Haggai began his prophetic career. The mighty Babylonian Empire had fallen. Persia, the new dominant power in the region, allowed the Jews to return to the land of Israel and even funded the reconstruction of their temple in Jerusalem.
Some Jews thought this might be the beginning of the messianic age. Some thought their governor Zerubbabel might be the one to bring about God’s kingdom.
Given such high expectations, the people were doomed to disappointment. And disappointed they were. They began construction on the temple, but quickly bogged down. Their neighbors were hostile. Their harvests were poor. Their enthusiasm gave out.
Haggai begins his message by acknowledging just how disappointing the return from exile had been. In God’s name, he asks, “who is left among you that saw this house [the temple] in its former glory? How does it look to you now?” I imagine Haggai pointing to the foundations of the embarrassingly modest new temple. “Is it not in your sight as nothing,” he asks. It is a poignant question. This is not a time of great suffering exactly. But it is a time of dashed hopes.
I have not known brutal disappointment like Haggai’s people, and I don’t want to suggest an inappropriate equivalence. But all of us know what it is like to get discouraged. It may be a petty example, but those who follow professional football will understand that people from Georgia are struggling with discouragement these days.
Two years ago, my Atlanta Falcons were in the Super Bowl. I am still mad about the end of that game, but it was a great season, and they were a great team. Now they are one and seven while the team that gets all the attention in New England is eight and one. It’s a little discouraging for Atlanta fans!
I’d like a prophet to promise me that things will get better. I am not likely to get that. But that is exactly what the people of ancient Israel got. God sends Haggai to give them a pep talk.
Take courage, he says to the governor. Take courage, he says to the high priest. Take courage, he says to all the people of the land. Take courage and work because “I am with you,” because “my spirit abides among you.”
As they considered their discouraging circumstances, Haggai’s people lost sight of God. But Haggai reminds them that God is with them. Haggai reminds them that God is with them all the time, even when they feel so beaten down that they are blind to God’s presence.
This is really good news, and not just for the people of ancient Judah. They were blessed. But if anything, we are even more blessed because Jesus comes as Immanuel, as God with us. We’ll be celebrating that good news of great joy next month. And Jesus promises to be with us here, now, as we gather in his name, as we prepare to share in the sacrament of his body and blood.
Haggai is not just speaking to his contemporaries. His words are addressed to us, too. Take courage, people of Saint David’s. Do not fear. Remember, God is with you. God’s Spirit abides among you. Those are good words to hear.
Haggai keeps going. His people are looking at the little temple that is already disappointing and yet that seems beyond their power to complete. And Haggai offers them a vision of a time when God will “fill this house with splendor.” In God’s name, Haggai promises that “the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former,” greater even than the magnificent temple that Solomon built all those centuries before.
To some degree, that vision of a splendid temple came true. Within a few years of Haggai’s prophecies, the people completed construction and dedicated the temple with great joy (Ezra 6:14-22). At that service, the people surely felt God’s presence and glimpsed a partial fulfillment of God’s promise.
Four centuries later, King Herod dramatically expanded the temple built in Haggai’s day. Herod made it one of the wonders of the Roman world. Herod himself was a corrupt and wicked king. But in his temple, people could again see God’s promise being fulfilled.
But Herod’s new and improved temple didn’t last long. The Romans dismantled virtually the whole thing not long after Jesus’ time. All the Romans left is what we now call the wailing wall, which you can still visit. It might seem that God’s promise of a new and splendid temple had failed.
But for those with eyes to see, God’s promise had actually taken another massive step forward. Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple building. And Jesus taught his disciples that the true temple was his body, which like the building would be destroyed, but which would also rise again in a dramatic victory over death itself (John 2:19-22). In Christ’s resurrected body, God’s promise of a splendid temple came true.
But the promise of God’s temple means still more. The Apostle Paul tells us that we are God’s temple, that God’s Spirit dwells in us. In case we miss it the first time, Paul repeats, “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
Who knows how much of all this Haggai understood when he prophesied during the disappointing years of return from exile? But through Haggai, God promised to construct a glorious temple, one greater than anyone in the ancient world could possibly imagine. And God is still at work, constructing that temple out of us, out of all Christian people.
We come together in part to catch glimpses of the temple God is constructing. As we worship, in Christ’s presence, empowered by the Holy Spirit, joining with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we can catch a little glimpse of the heavenly temple that God is constructing out of all of us, out of all of creation.
Of course, much construction work remains to be done. My little bit of the temple is damaged by my sin. Thankfully, Christ is at work, polishing me up so that I won’t detract from the overall glory too much.
And our world remains a work in progress. Christ is at work there, too. Otherwise it wouldn’t get done. But Christ commissions us to help. We are all laborers on the temple of God that is all of creation.
That might seem too much responsibility for us. But we have Haggai’s words. Take courage, people of Saint David’s. I am with you. My spirit abides in you. And the work that you are doing, with my help, will be greater and more splendid than anything the world has ever seen.
And so I give thanks for the witness of Haggai. I give thanks for the presence of God in us and with us. And I pray that we may do our part in the temple God is building.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
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Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan