A sermon on Haggai 1:15b – 2:9 & 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 by Andrew Woff
Preaching the lectionary provides some strange moments. As soon as I began reading the passages for this Sunday, a pronounced feeling of deja-vu swept over me. Even though I probably preach here once a year, it became clear that on this Sunday three years ago, I preached on exactly the same set of passages. Temptation was strong to dust off the old sermon and see if anyone noticed, but I decided that I at least needed to hear something different tonight. Whether or not that was a good decision will be revealed in the next ten minutes!
Do you ever find yourself getting discouraged… feeling that long cherished dreams in which you’ve invested a lot of yourself are no closer to fulfilment than they were the first day you dreamed them? Feeling that perhaps the long struggle for something you believe in is proving fruitless? Feeling confused that maybe you have been misguided, you’ve backed the wrong horse, and the world is not as you thought?
Each morning as I shave, I pop on news radio so that I can stay a bit in touch with what’s happening in the world. This morning, among the sports scores and weather forecasts, I heard the following:
Continued speculation over President Arafat’s hold on life and fears for the tide of destructive unrest should he die;
A statement from the United Nations envoy to Sudan that despite the international community knowing about the impending disaster in Sudan 18 months ago, a lack of will has prevented any meaningful intervention to stem the flow toward anarchy;
Grave fears for stability in the Ivory Coast as gunfire and explosions envelope its capital.
Later in the morning, a quick flick onto the news headlines told me that now that the US election is concluded, helicopter gun ships were blitzing the Iraq city of Falujia in preparation from an all-out assault by American troupes. Throw in a fatal train derailment in South England, and I was just about ready to face the day!
Sometimes, I almost despair. From early adulthood, my faith has been strongly linked to the great Biblical visions of the Kingdom of God:
Visions of the day when everything that is wrong with the world will be put right;
Visions of the day when God will establish a new human society based on mercy and peace and justice and truth and reconciliation;
Visions of life in which there is no more war and no more famine and no more domestic violence and no more sexual abuse and people can pursue their lives in freedom and without fear.
But why must it take so long, Lord? Despite this evening’s psalm of victory, triumph and the reign of God, the world I live in does not look like a scene that is at all under your control. Perhaps worse, this does not look like a world that in any way knows that it is loved by you. Lord, you’ve proclaimed the decisive liberation of the world through Jesus, but here we are 2000 years later and we don’t seem to be making progress. Oh, I know that there are stories of individuals and families and churches and communities who have experienced miraculous transformation. I feasted for some years on the unexpected peaceful transition to shared power in South Africa, but you only need a few stories about ethnic cleansing and the rise of terrorism for that tide of hope to be seriously undermined.
As you may have detected, this has been a year of considerable doubt and struggle for me. It hasn’t helped that my wife Alice has spent the last 4 months in bed with a renewed, deep and prolonged bout of chronic fatigue syndrome. After battling this beast for more than 30 years, it seems that our prayers for her release have gone unanswered and Alice’s continued suffering appears pointless. Earlier this year, I found myself revisiting some experiences of deep fear in my own early life and for the first time found myself reaching the conclusion that at the time of my deepest vulnerability, God was not present in any recognisable or effective form.
The people of Haggai’s day knew well the experience of this sort of discouragement. They had been miraculously delivered from exile and had returned to their own homeland with dreams of a wonderful future, centred on God, and full of prosperity and peace. Except that the reality was very different. Life was in fact hard and dispiriting.
Especially when it came to their early attempts to rebuild the Temple. After four weeks of effort, they looked at what lay before them. Particularly the old people, who could remember Solomon’s great temple in all its wealth and beauty, wept. This Temple was pathetic, the passage actually calls it a nothing; more insignificant than nothing.
Previously the Temple had been filled with symbols of the mighty acts of God:
There had been the Ark of the Covenant with its mercy seat and the golden angels with outspread wings, reminding the people of their covenant with God;
There had been the stone tablets bearing the 10 commandments;
There had been the pot of manna reminding the people of God’s provision for them;
There had been Aaron’s rod which had been the agent of so many miracles of deliverance;
There had been the Urim and Thummim, symbols of God’s guidance and leading of the people;
There had been the eternal fire of God’s presence on the altar…
… now all this had been swept away in the Babylonian holocaust. What does it mean when the symbols of God’s supremacy are swept away by an invading army? And how can the Temple ever be great without them? It can’t ever be the same. The great dream lies in as much rubble as the Temple ruins. It all seems hopeless.
Inspired by God, the prophet Haggai meets this discouragement head on.
“Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?”
“‘But now, take courage, O governor Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD. ‘Take courage, O Joshua, the priest. Take courage all you people of the land,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work.’”
The prophet appears to give two reasons for a renewal of courage.
Firstly, all the great symbols, in fact the Temple itself, were only ever symbols of the presence of God. And God’s presence has not changed. In fact God’s presence with God’s people has not changed since God delivered them from Egypt. In the end, the faith of God’s people lies in the reality of God’s gracious presence with them in the here and now, in the ordinary stuff of life. Even in their seasons of massive arrogance and conceited self-sufficiency, God had not left them. Even in their seasons of defeat, devastation and despair, God had not abandoned them. The primary call is to relationship, to do life together and that can be as real in tough times as in times of ease. So, take courage and keep at it.
Secondly, the prophet says, God has not given up on the dream. There is a connection, says Haggai, between your faithfulness in this day of little things and the great day when God will bring about a universal reordering of all things and the Kingdom will be established on earth. These people knew the image: that their day of deliverance through the Exodus had been a day when God shook the cosmos, and God would again turn the world upside down. All people will finally come with their offerings to the Lord of Hosts, just as later, Paul would promise that every knee would bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. It will happen, says Haggai, in a little while, a tantalising prophetic phrase, which does not so much refer to an interval of time, but the truth that God is irrevocably moving toward the future. So whether they see it in reality or not, people of faith can know that they are always within a step of changes beyond their dreams. And, says Haggai, God will establish his peace, his shalom, abundance of life for you and for all the company of people who flow toward Jerusalem.
So, says Haggai, in view of the gracious presence of God with you now and in view of unmeasured possibilities in God for the future, take courage, keep at it, keep faithful.
Let me mention very briefly that there are some interesting parallels here with the passage we read from 2 Thessalonians. These early Christians were also deeply discouraged and confused about shattered dreams because some overly enthusiastic predictors of the end times had convinced them that the return of Christ had already happened, and apparently they’d missed it.
Paul reminds them that this had never been his teaching. And then he makes a series of wonderful affirmations.
You are brothers and sisters loved by the Lord;
From the beginning God chose you;
God called you to share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In other words, the same two things God promised in Haggai are affirmed: God offers you the assurance of being in relationship, and the assurance of the abundant transformation of the future. And then the same call: stand firm, hold on, and may Christ of eternal encouragement and good hope encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.
So where does that leave me… where does that leave us in our times of discouragement? It seems to me that faith is a choice. We can look at the pathetic pile of rubble at our feet, or hear the reports that the promise we had believed had passed us by, or look at the world in its devastation and hang our heads in hopelessness and walk away. Or, we can choose to hear the affirmation that God is still present with us in the mess, that God still calls us to the future, that our faithfulness in the chaos of the present is still somehow linked to a better future for all people.
I’m not advocating for a simplistic answer to our questions and doubts. Sometimes faith at its best is entering the mystery of holding together the tension between the truth of the world as we experience it and the truth of our hope in a world that is filled with the presence and wholeness of God. Sometimes, I think, faith feels like a simple stubborn defiance, a refusal to accept that the effort is pointless, a commitment that even if the world around us seems hell-bent on destruction, we won’t join in the game!
In the pain of discouragement, the God of Scripture keeps whispering to us: it’s not all over. I am still with you, and the future has possibilities you have not dreamed of. So take courage, keep at it, hold on, don’t give up. And in the midst of the general mess of things, faith finds a way of saying “Yes”.
May God give us courage to hear this good news, to hold our integrity and to find a way to go on saying “Yes” to God and to life.