Saint Stephen, South Lambeth:
March 16th 1997
Haggai the Builder-up
You must excuse me if some of you already know all about the Prophet Haggai already, but I shall begin by telling you something about the background against which his book was written.
A visiting preacher has got to choose between boring people by telling them what they know already, and mystifying them by taking a whole lot of short-cuts which he supposes (wrongly) that they can follow.
Speaking personally, I would much rather experience the rosy glow of recognising something that I do know (and others may have heard before), rather than listen to someone and saying to myself afterwards "what on earth was that all about?".
So to begin at the beginning: the Prophets in the Old Testament were people chosen by God to speak to his people Israel on his behalf.
By and large they spoke to men of their own generation about matters which were happening to them in the here-and-now. From time to time, inspired by the Spirit they did look to the more distant future. We shall see some examples of that in Haggai himself. However, even their more distant insights were firmly anchored to the times in which they lived, and their purpose was to motivate their hearers to "repent, believe, obey, do this or do that, or stop doing the other, because it is God's will here and now: today, whilst it is called today, harden not your hearts" - adding perhaps, almost as an afterthought some words in which God said, "oh, and by the way, if you do these things I the Lord promises you a long period of prosperity."
That is the first point: the One with whom we have to deal is not (from our point of view) a God of the future, but a God of the immediate present, here and now. The supreme and final revelation of himself was in Jesus Christ, the here-and-now man, the one prophet who could truthfully say not only "God says this" but "I say this" to you - for the simple reason that he was, and still is, God incarnate who speaks to us today. "God who in former times spoke to us through the prophets has in these latter days spoken to us through his Son (so Hebrews 1: 1).
The second point is this: in the whole history of the world the Age of the Prophets was just a minute fraction. Yet into that minute sliver of time God earth taught his people more about himself and his purposes for the world than at any other time in history. The seven or eight hundred years stretching from Amos to Jesus word to man's understanding of God what the Renaissance was to man's understanding of Art and Science. You've only got to compare how, say, men painted pictures in the 12th century with how they painted them in the 17th, or compare medieval music with the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, to understand the quantum-leap which took place in the arts during that period. Were much the same sort of quantum-leap took place during the years of the Prophets.
The third point leads on from that. The Prophets developed and enlarged upon what was there already, and Jesus came, not to destroy, he said but to fulfil; in the same way that the fulfilment of Medieval music in Mozart, say, does not in the least take away from its own value, so the Prophets in no way annul or replace what had gone before. What they do is to develop or reveal it in terms and ways that employ perspectives and harmonies and colours and cadences which until that time had remained hidden.
The fourth and last introductory note concerns the fact that Haggai is classified as one of the Minor Prophets. This has led some people to suppose that the minor Prophets are in some way less important than the major ones, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezekiel.
This is a misunderstanding. The terms "major" and "minor" refer to their respective length and nothing else. To imagine that someone who says three words is less important than someone who says three thousand is quite incorrect, especially if those words are for instance, "Jesus is Lord" or "Christ is risen".
Haggai was one of those people who found himself in Jerusalem at the time when Nehemiah and Ezra had been sent by the Persian kings, Cyrus and Darius, after the fall of Babylon with the express commission to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.
40 or 50 years previously in 586BC disaster had struck the people of God in the form of military defeat at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar the, King of Babylon. This in turn had followed on from the moral, spiritual and political breakdown of the people of God, as the Prophets of that day, like Isaiah and Jeremiah had been sent by God to tell them that it would.
All of us, I'm sure, are aware of the significance of the Holocaust under Hitler in the 1940s. Well, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem even though it was accompanied by less carnage and loss of life, was just as traumatic an experience. It was "The One Thing That Couldn't Happen" and yet which did happen. One of the "great unthinkables".
It's easy to see why they supposed that. God is Almighty; we are God's people; the Temple is where God lives; therefore whatever happens in other ways, the Temple and God will always be there. "The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord" they muttered to Jeremiah when he warned them of the danger. Well it didn't save them and it wasn't "always there". One day the army of the Chaldaeans broke through walls and, bingo! - the temple was no more than a heap of rubble.
But God was merciful to them. The Chaldaean empire fell apart after a long war with the Persians in 539. On the 16th of October Gobyras captured Babylon without striking a blow and on the 3rd November he entered the city in triumph.
One of the first acts of the new young King was to allow, even encourage, such Jews as wanted to return to the Promised Land. In the last two verses of the second book of Chronicles we read "now in the first year of Cyrus, King of Persia, he made a proclamation throughout all the Kingdom: "all the kingdoms of the earth hath the Lord God of heaven given me; and he has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem. Who is there among you of all his people? The Lord his God be with him and let him go up."
Amongst those who went up were Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the King's Cup-bearer, and in all probability the prophet Haggai himself. We can confidently date the beginning of his book in 520 BC in the month of August.
Now at this point we've got to do a bit of detective work piecing together the three strands of these writers Ezra, Nehemiah and Haggai.
The returning Jews, you will remember, were commissioned by Cyrus to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Assuming that this happened somewhere around 539 B C and the books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe all the work that was done in the temple and on the city walls, it comes as something of a surprise to find that Haggai, writing 20 years later says "this people says the time is not yet come – the time that the Lord's House should be built!" Then came the word of the Lord to Haggai his prophet saying "is it time for you to dwell in panelled houses and this house lies waste? Go up to the mountain and bring wood and build the house; and I will take pleasure in it and I will be glorified", says the Lord.
The detective work consists in trying to reconcile the accounts given by Nehemiah and Ezra which suggest that the rebuilding of the temple proceeded quite smoothly apart from the harassment of the neighbouring kingdoms and tribes, and the moral degeneracy of the people of God. Which one is right?
The difficulty is more apparent than real. Just as different newspapers may report the same sequence of events from their own particular standpoint and paint three quite distinct scenarios, so Nehemiah, Ezekiel and Ezra were looking at it from three different starting points. If you want a parallel we might say that Nehemiah is writing for the Economist, Ezra for the Church Times, and Haggai for an organisation like Reform or Forward in Faith, whose concern is to speak prophetically in the name of the Lord whether anyone listens to them or not.
So Nehemiah, for instance, is concerned with the nitty-gritty of rebuilding the Kingdom - getting the job done, keeping the enemy at bay and the wolf from the door; Ezra the priest is chiefly interested in getting the temple worship started again and the establishment of a proper Levitical priesthood - what matter if the actual structure of the temple is only half finished? – it will be finished one day no doubt, meanwhile let's muddle on with what we've got.
Haggai on the other hand saw things rather differently. To begin with there was a good deal of political and economic upheaval. The Persian Emperor Cambyses had gone mad, and the Empire was racked with rival claimants trying to step into the dead man's shoes or else declarer UDI and set up their own mini-Kingdom on the side, rather like the Balkans, Serbia, Croatia and Albania today. on top of this had come a series of bad harvests. As Haggai writes (Haggai 1:6) "Now therefore says the Lord of Hosts: consider your ways. You have sown much and harvested little; you eat but never have enough; you drink but never have your fill; you clothe yourself but no one is warm; and he who earns wages, earns wages to put them into a bag with holes."
It's that elusive "feel-good factor" that's missing , isn't it? How strange that things should have changed so little over the past two and a half thousand years! And yet, is it so very strange? For if there is one lesson that Scripture has to teach over and over again, what prophet and poet and psalmist and proverbist have all said many times, it is this: when a nation abandons the God who is their Saviour and substitutes anything else, be it money, or sex, or pleasure, or power, then disaster is bound to follow as surely as night follows day; contrarywise "righteousness exalts a nation" and when a people repent and turn back to God then that nation and its land will prosper.
That at least is Haggai's advice to the people "thus says the Lord of Hosts 'consider how you have fared. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house that I may appear in my glory says the Lord of Hosts because my house lies in ruins while you please yourself each with his own home".
Don't misunderstand me. These three perspectives Haggai, Ezra and Nehemiah do not ultimately conflict with each other. They are complementary. Ezra and Nehemiah were both deeply God-fearing men who probably backed up Haggai to the hilt in what he said. The fact is that neither of them was called by God to be a prophet, spokesman for God in the way that Haggai was.
Besides it's true: that the economy and law and order and defence which were Nehemiah's concern really do matter. If they go wrong then nobody's going to be happy; and some sort of religious structure, an establishment is necessary as Ezra well knew. And yes, God can be worshipped in spirit and in truth even on a building-site where the work has stopped and where the roof is open to the skies.
The trouble is that politics and Church business can so easily take over and get in the way of everything else, to the point where it takes a layman like Haggai to "put two and two together" and not only perceive the connection between bad harvests, civil discontent and a half-built temple on which work has been suspended, but also the anomaly of people building their own luxury apartments and desirable residences whilst the House of the Lord lies largely still in ruins in the next street.
It might have gone on that way for a long time. There's no reason for supposing that people were initially any more prepared to listen to Haggai than they had been to Amos or Jeremiah 75 years previously. But then something extraordinary happened.
Into the scene came two remarkable men. One was Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel the governor of Judah and the other was a Joshua, the son of Jehozadak, the high priest.
These men were able by their leadership qualities, so to work on the hearts and minds of what is called the Faithful Remnant of the people that they actually came and started work on the House of the Lord. Haggai even gives us the precise dates that these things happened. In our calendar, Haggai had first remonstrated with the people about the ruinous state of the Temple on June 1st, 520 BC. On June 24th a little over three weeks later, thanks to the efforts of Joshua and Zerubbabel, the work of the Remnant had begun.
The theme of the Faithful Remnant runs right the way through scripture. It seems to be God's preferred way of working his purpose out. Have you noticed how in most churches it is always the same faithful few who take upon themselves the responsibility for actually getting things done? The majority of course are always happy to take the credit for anything that the Remnant achieves, but when it comes to the sheer hard work and graft, or the need to make a stand and take up an unpopular position on some moral issue, it's the Remnant who are the people who have the convictions.
Managing a Remnant is never an easy job, in fact it can be extremely tricky as movements like Reform and Forward in Faith bear witness. Being a minority necessary means the process is going to be slow. The Remnant, being made up of human beings like you and me, is likely to get discouraged at the lack of progress. The majority, even those who are in sympathy with us are inclined to lie back in their armchairs and say that what we've achieved is not a patch on how things used to be as they remember, and the likelihood, nay the certainty is that if we do have a measure of success, the self-same armchair majority will be quick to point out how they've always been on our side really, but just didn't have the time to give to such important work.
Haggai, Zerubbabel and Joshua, all had to contend with this sort of discouragement. To them and to the Remnant, Haggai was inspired by God to say, "who remembers this house in all its glory? How do you see it now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?"
There are indeed signs that the Remnant got discouraged on one or two occasions by this sort of talk and the works stopped by the 21st July, within a month of starting.
It was Haggai who managed to get things moving again. He was inspired by God to bring before people's eyes the concept of how great the temple when completed would be. He drew in their mind's a picture in which, as a result of God's intervention, all nations would be shaken so that as a result not only the Jewish people would flock to the temple but that all nations would bring their treasures to it and it would become, as Jeremiah had envisaged so many years before, "a house of prayer for all the peoples of the earth".
It's hard for us to imagine what a revolutionary idea this was in its time. It was one thing to believe in God's chosen people as being themselves. It was quite another to suppose that the Gentiles would have any part to play in the forthcoming Kingdom.
And yet Haggai was not alone in his vision for the future: Listen to the words of his contemporary Zechariah. (8:22-23). "and many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of Hosts in Jerusalem, and to intreat the favour of the Lord. In those days ten men from the nation's shall take hold of the robe of a Jew saying 'let us go with your for we have heard that God is with you'".
At the beginning, I pointed out that the Prophets usually spoke to men of their own day about things which were happening around them. Haggai is no exception, as we have seen. He first pointed to the jerry-built hut which did duty for the ruined house of the Lord; then he pointed to the panelled desirable-residences where the people lived and enjoyed the property boom; next he pointed to the absence of the feel-good factor; finally he pointed to the bad harvests. He pointed to all these things in the here-and-now and invited people to draw their own conclusions.
But this preoccupation with the here-and-now needs to be complemented by the fact that the Prophets did also speak about the future.
Not in the way that soothsayers and fortune-tellers do. Those are the hallmarks of heathen paganism. The purposes of God aren't to be discovered through crystal-balls, tarot cards or ouija boards or even tealeaves.
But the Prophet does need to be a man of vision, for "without vision the people perish". In other words he has from time to time with the aid of God and particularly his Holy Word, to apply what is said there not just to the present but to the future as well.
For scripture is filled with the promises of God, and by its very nature a promise is something which looks towards the future for its fulfilment even though we can expect what Saint Paul calls an "earnest" or a "first instalment" to be apparent here and now. But earnests are there to whet the appetites, not to provide satisfaction, which is why, as a rule, only the Faithful Remnant are aware of them.
So in Haggai's vision of the temple as the focal point of the whole earth's worship he was taking a very bold step. No doubt there were even those among the Remnant who didn't like that idea one little bit. For it is a well-known fact that Holy people, (I use the expression in its best sense of really devout, committed people) become terribly possessive to what they call "our Church" or "our Vicar", as you have probably noticed.
What they mean by this is that they want something which will always stay the same, come hell or high water.
Now, stability and permanence and security are important and good things. But like all good, important things, once they become ends in themselves, fixed ideas, they can go horribly wrong. We have seen how the visionary side of the Prophets word is a very important one. Well, to some extent vision must be about change or it's not vision. If the Prophet were to say "I foresee things going on for ever and ever like they are now" he would not be a prophet but a stick-in-the-mud.
And this brings us to what is really the most important thing about Haggai. For his vision of the Temple as a focal point for the gathering of men of many nations was indeed a bold step forward. But in one important respect he got it wrong; or rather let us say his vision did not extend quite far enough.
For the Temple was finished eventually and that Temple was succeeded by yet another even grander temple built by Herod The Great a few years before the birth of Jesus Christ. But neither Haggai's Temple nor Herod's one became anything like the House of Prayer for all nations that Haggai had envisaged.
Worse than that, we know that by the time of Jesus's first visit to Jerusalem the temple had become little better than a supermarket run by a bunch of racketeering priests for their own benefit; and sort of Sacred Safeways with a Worship Area attached for those who liked that kind of thing.
Well we all know what Jesus did. He made a whip of small cords and drove them all out. And when they challenged him to say by what authority he did so, St John tells us he replied "destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up" and John goes on to explain "but he was speaking of the Temple of his body".
For the Law and the Prophets like Haggai were raised up by God to point forward to the Incarnation. And Jesus Christ the Lamb of God is himself the Temple of the Holy City. And as both St Peter and Saint Paul remind us, we, the followers of Jesus, the new Faithful Remnant are being built up into that self-same Temple, 'living stones, by God appointed, each to his allotted place', Jesus Christ himself been the chief cornerstone in which the whole structure is joined together and grows into one holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2: 21-22) on the foundation of apostles and Prophets.
This is the mystery which remained hidden over the years from the eyes of wise men, even people like Haggai. But in these last days it has been revealed to us: that Jesus Christ when lifted up on the Cross is the Keystone of the arch which completes the reunion of God and man broken by the Fall, the New Adam in his body reconciles what the Old Adam in his body estranged.
"And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men to me" said Jesus. And from that date on this the work of building the Eternal Temple of God has gone on, using living stones hewn from every seam of mankind: black, white, yellow, brown, red, male, female, wise, simple, old, young, hard, soft, brittle and tough.
So Haggai really didn't get it so wrong after all. Upon the wisdom revealed him by the Holy Spirit he told his contemporaries "get the temple right and the rest will follow". We who live, so to speak, on the right side of the Incarnation must take up his challenge. But the temple we are building is one not made with hands; it is eternal in the heavens.
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