Sermon delivered by Fr. Philip Sang on the second Sunday before Advent C, November 10, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.
Lectionary texts: Haggai 1.15b-2.9; Psalm 145.1-5, 18-22; 2 Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-17; Luke 20.27-38.
In 586 BC the armies of Babylon destroyed the Jerusalem temple , and took most of the Jews into exile. About 50 years later Cyrus, the Persian, took Babylon, and brought the Babylonian Empire to an end. Then he allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. All of this was owing to the sovereign hand of God fulfilling the prophecies of Jeremiah (Ezra 1:1).
Among the returning exiles were (probably) the prophets Haggai and Zechariah.
So Haggai and Zechariah were sent by God to assist in the rebuilding of the temple. This work was begun, but there was a delay in the start of the work of rebuilding the temple. This delay is what brings forth the message of Haggai.
The way Haggai motivates the Jews to build the temple of God has a powerful application to our own efforts to build the Church of God today.
The first Chapter 1 of Haggai reveals to the governor and priest and people that the reason they are all frustrated is that they have tried to make their own lives comfortable while neglecting the temple of God. Verses 4–6:
Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now therefore consider how you have fared (or: consider your ways). You have sown much and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and he who earns wages earns wages to put them in a bag with holes.
So they lived in perpetual frustration and discontentment. Nothing satisfied. We can’t pass over this lesson easily. It’s for us, too. If we devote ourselves to sowing and eating and drinking and clothing ourselves and earning wages, but neglect our ministry in the body of Christ (the temple of God, 1 Corinthians 3:16, 17), we will live in constant frustration. If we spend our time and energy seeking comfort and security from the world, and do not spend ourselves for the glory of God, every pleasure will leave its sour aftertaste of depression and guilt and frustration.
Both then and now the real problem is not the neglect of a building but indifference to the glory of God. The temple of the Old Testament existed for the glory of God. And the Church today exists for the glory of God (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14). Indifference to the growth and spiritual prosperity of the Church and its mission is always a sign of failure to love the glory of God. And the sour fruit of this failure is a life of chronic frustration.
Haggai reports that Zerubbabel and Joshua and the people obey and begin to work on the temple, this was after 18 years of neglect and of course frustration, the people begin to learn their lesson.
A little less than a month after the people had begun to build. It seems as though the work has slowed or come to a complete stop, because Haggai’s message is that they take courage and get on with the work (v. 4). What makes this message so practical and relevant is that we can see ourselves so easily in the workers. And God’s encouraging words become very easily words of strength for us, too.
Haggai says why the people have become weak and discouraged in their labors. He asks, “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?”
The workers are discouraged because the memory is still alive of how glorious the temple used to be. Less than 70 years it stood in this very spot, the apple of God’s eye, the magnificent achievement of Solomon, for centuries the center of holy worship. But instead of inspiring the people, this memory made the people look at the small insignificant temple they were building and feel hopeless. “How do you see it now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” What’s the use, they say. We can’t match the glory of Solomon’s temple. We’re wasting our time. Nothing beautiful or worthwhile will ever come of it. We got along without it in Babylon; we can do without it here. Better to have the beauty of a great memory than a paltry imitation. So their hands are slack in the work. Does that sound like anything in your experience? I think anybody who has ever undertaken a work for the cause of Christ has felt that kind of discouragement: the sense that you work and work and the product seems so petty. You pour yourself into a thing week after week and month after month and the fruit is so minimal. Then you look back in history or across town and see the grand achievement of others, and your temple seems so trivial. And you get discouraged and are tempted to quit and put away your aspirations and drop your dreams. Who wants to devote his life to a second-rate temple? Fear and discouragement grips us
Anglican church in North America is a prime target for discouragements like these. This church is the Solomon’s temple of the Anglican communion. There once was such a glory here that across the Anglican Communion is still thought of mainly in the past tense: once the biggest church; once she had an impact across the nation and the world. Most of you have known the discouragement of feeling that what we are doing here may be of so little significance that you may as well quit.
The message from Haggai is made for our hearts today. God confronts the discouragement of the people, first of all, with a heartening command:
“Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work.”
God clearly does not agree with their assessment of the situation. If they think their work on the temple is of so little significance that they can quit, they are very wrong, for God says, “Take courage, . . . work!”
He gives two arguments why they should take courage and work heartily. And both of these are crucial for us as well. The text continues “Work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit abides among you; fear not.”
God’s first argument why they should “take courage,” “work,” and “fear not” is that he is with them. How could we ever, then, belittle a work when God says he is with us in it? When God is working at your side, nothing is trivial. But the promise is not only that he will be at our side; he will also be in our hearts encouraging us.
“I am with you, says the Lord. And the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the Lord.” (1:13)
If we will ask him and trust him, God not only works with us, but he moves in to stir up our spirit and give us a heart for the work. He doesn’t want crusty diehards in his work; he wants free and joyful laborers. And so he promises to be with them and stir them up to love the work.
But not only that. When he refers to the promise or covenant made at the Exodus, he shows that his presence is the same powerful presence that divided the Red Sea. Exodus 19:4 says, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” So when he promises to be with the people in their work, he means: I will use all my divine power like I did at the Exodus to help you and strengthen you and protect you. Therefore, take courage, work, fear not.
But there is one other encouraging thing about this promise. For those Jews whose minds were all taken up with the glory of Solomon’s temple, this promise may have had a very special impact. Just before David’s death he encouraged his son, Solomon, with words very similar to Haggai 2:4 and 5: “David said to Solomon his son, ‘Be strong and of good courage and work. Fear not, be not dismayed; for the Lord God, even my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you, until all the work of the service of the house of the Lord is finished”‘ (1 Chronicles 28:20). The implication of this similarity is that the same God who worked with Solomon to build his great temple is also at work with you now. Therefore, take courage, work, fear not.
The second argument God uses to encourage those who think their work only produces paltry results is found in verses 6–9:
For thus says the Lord of hosts: once again in a little while I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake the nations so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.
In other words, take courage, work, and fear not, because you build more than you see. All you see is a paltry temple. But God promises to take your work, fill it with his glory, and make your labors with a million times more than you ever imagined.
The point is this: God had a purpose for a temple. The Jews of Haggai’s day could not see it all, and what they could see seemed so paltry. So God came to them with a word of promise: Take courage. You build more than you see. The heavens and the earth and sea and land and all treasures are mine. I will take the fruit of your little labor and make it glorious beyond measure, no matter how trivial and paltry it may seem to you now.
There is a principle here that applies to you and me: God takes small, imperfect things and builds them into a habitation for his glory. O, how we should take courage in our little spheres of influence! And is this not the message of Advent and Christmas? What more appropriate word could God have said to Mary as Jesus was growing up: Take courage, young mother, you build more than you see. And so it is with every one of us. Nothing you do is a trifle if you do it in the name of God. He will shake heaven and earth to fill your labor with splendor. Take courage, work, and fear not for the Lord is with you and you build more than you see.
In the name of God the Father, the son and the Holy Spirit. Amen