The setting for the beginning of the short book by the prophet Haggai is given rather succinctly in the final verses of the book of Chronicles. The story begins 66 years before Haggai: “The priests and the people of Israel were exceedingly unfaithful, following the abominations of the nations around them; and they polluted the house of the Lord that God had consecrated in Jerusalem.
“The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word persistently to them by messengers, because God had compassion on the people and on God’s dwelling place; but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising their words, and scoffing at the prophets, until the wrath of the Lord against the people became so great that there was no remedy.
“Therefore God brought up against them the King of the Chaldeans, who killed their youths with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or young woman, the aged or the feeble; God gave them all into his hand.
“All the vessels of the house of God, large and small, and the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king and of his officials, all these he brought away to Babylon. They burned the house of the God, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious vessels. He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons. And the land lay desolate.” End of quote
This was in about the year 586 BC, and it was a devastating blow not only to the people of that generation, who lost their homes, their land, and their freedom, but also to the religion of Judaism in general. Because the worship of God had for many centuries been linked inseparably with the Temple of Jerusalem. The only place God could be properly worshipped, they believed, was in the Temple in Jerusalem.
That’s the main reason so many kings of Israel were judged harshly in the books of Kings and Chronicles: because even if they tried to worship only God, if they did it in some place other than Jerusalem, at what the books call “the high places,” they were considered to be committing sin. The Jerusalem Temple was the only place God could be properly worshiped.
Now there was no Jerusalem Temple; the Babylonians had burned it to the ground. And the people were carried off, far from Jerusalem, so they couldn’t even rebuild. Their feelings about their religion at this point are best summed up in the words of the psalm Art read for us today: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” There was no way, according to their tradition, to worship God away from their homeland.
It is as if we were denied the use of our buildings, all Bibles, all hymnals, all ministers, all choirs, and permission to pray, and then someone said, “Let us worship God.” What would we do?
To their great credit, over the next decades, the Israelites did find a way to continue the worship of God. Even though they lived in a place full of temples to other gods, and had no place of their own, they stayed true to God.
What they turned to was Scripture, the Law. Instead of being a people of the Temple, they became a people of the Book, studying the Law and carrying out its instructions in their daily lives, thus continuing their religion’s existence.
It’s an impressive accomplishment. How hard is it to pass our faith on to the next generation now, when we do have our church buildings and weekly Sunday worship? The Israelites, without that, still kept their faith alive, and convinced their children and their children’s children, to stay loyal to it, in spite of the pressures of a pagan society.
This pagan society, Babylon, could not continue its domination of the Middle East forever. In the year 539 BC, the city of Babylon fell to the armies of Persia, and Persia now controlled all the territory Babylon once had, including the land of Israel.
And Persia had a different policy regarding foreign people than Babylon had had: Persia’s’ policy was to allow them to live in their own land, worshiping their own gods, as long as they did not try to rebel and claim their independence.
So in 538 BC, King Cyrus of Persia issued this edict which we have recorded in the opening verses of Ezra: “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: the Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel.” The people of Israel were allowed to go home and rebuild.
Now, not all of them did; remember, it had been nearly fifty years now since they had seen Israel. Many who remembered Israel had died; others had built nice lives for themselves in their new city.
Most of those who would go, in fact, had no memories of Israel, but had only heard their parents’ stories. Would you pick up and go to a place you had only heard about, in your parents’ stories? That many Jews stayed put is attested to in the book of Esther, the one Biblical account we have of the people who did not return.
But there were a good many who did go, and when they did they faced the daunting task of rebuilding: rebuilding their homes; restoring their farmland; rebuilding their only source of security, the city walls; rebuilding their church, the Temple.
It was not an easy life.
Now fast forward again to eighteen years later, in 520 BC: the prophet Haggai spoke to the people who were in Jerusalem, and his speech tells us something of their progress to this point: “I see you all have nice homes,” he said. “But you’re not what I would call prosperous: your harvests are small, you don’t have enough food, you don’t have adequate clothing, and what little money you have disappears quickly. Life is not good. And you wanna know why? Thus says the Lord: ‘because the Temple is still in ruins. You have done nothing about rebuilding God’s house, and restoring the worship of God. You’re each off doing your own thing, worrying about your individual security, and no one has thought for a second about re-establishing the community of God.’”
In 520 BC, the Israelites are back in Israel, but they are not a united people, and they certainly are not a people of God. What is missing is a set of common goals, an idea of something to work on together—and someone to worship together.
This idea of a common goal, this something-bigger-than-just-me, is sometimes called a “superordinate goal”—that is: what is it that’s bigger than any one individual that we all want together? What is an objective we can identify, a target to focus on, a desired accomplishment, that we can all work on together? “Superordinate goal.”
The returning exiles, instead, had regressed to a state described this ways six hundred years before, in the book of Judges: “each person did their what was right in their own eyes”—each did their own thing. There was no community, no common dedication to God or the church, no common goals.
What Haggai was doing was reminding the people of Israel of their superordinate goal. “Hey, folks! Remember why we’re here? Remember why we left comfortable homes in Persia to come to these ruins and work in the hot sun? It’s not because we each wanted to separate off and pursue our own comfort—we could do that in Persia. It’s because we wanted to build a community together, work together on something, be connected. And the best way for us to do that is to connect around God. It’s time for us to stop working only on our individual projects, and to rebuild our religious community, including this Temple.
“When we have our community of worship together again, then we’ll be making progress.” Haggai recalled the common goal for the people.
“And the Lord stirred up the spirit of the people,” the book continues,” and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God.”
Four years later, the book of Ezra tells us in chapter 6, “the people of Israel finished their building by the command of the God of Israel, and by decree of the king of Persia. The people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, and the rest of the returned exiled, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy.”
They had worked together, once they recovered their common goal, and they had prospered. They would go on, now that they had come together, to rebuild the city walls, and restore the traditional worship of God—now based on both Temple worship and the continued observance of the Law in everyday life.
They had become, once again, the faithful people of God, in Israel.
You may have suspected by now, that we don’t have to stretch very far to find a message to the contemporary church community as well, in the book of Haggai: when we realize what he’s telling the church community of his day, the same questions should probably start occurring to us: Is my priority consistently to come t my church community to worship God, or am I regularly somewhere else pursuing my own comfort instead?
Do we devote enough of our resources—time, energy, money—to building up the church, or are we too often off working on, in Haggai’s words, our own “paneled houses,” while God’s house is neglected? Are we willing to cooperate on projects in our church life, or will we be part of them only if we get our own way in all the details of how they’re done—“my way or the highway”? Are we working on superordinate goals, things that will be good for all of us together, or constantly distracted by our individual projects alone?
We live in a society where the pattern is to spend any available time on our own houses and projects and ideas of fun: Make your number one goal to buy your dream house, and fill it with exactly the stuff you want, so you can retreat into its doors as often as possible, to your idea of comfort. Get a satellite dish or 500 channels of digital cable, so you can watch on television exactly what you want to watch, whenever you want to watch it.
In fact, get five televisions, so no one in the family will ever have to watch anything that isn’t their favorite, or negotiate over what will be on, or heaven forbid, watch with the rest of the family.
Buy your own home exercise equipment, so you don’t have to go to a gym or a track or a pool surrounded by other people, or take turns on equipment, or meet strangers. “Have it your way,” says Burger King.
“It’s all about you,” is the slogan of Day-Timer personal organizer books, and calendars.
“Me Me Me Me Me Me,” said a recent health insurance commercial. Our “training,” in many ways these days, is in exactly the opposite direction of the common goals, of Haggai’s message.
Now we can think of exceptions to the individualistic trend around us: people who risk their lives to serve their country, or rescue people in danger, or work on mission efforts. Some of those people are being recalled this weekend, in accounts on this 15th anniversary of the September 11 twin towers attack. There are those who quietly, faithfully show up to give blood each time they’re eligible again. Volunteers who show up every week at the Compassionate Clothing Closet. These are examples of community goals, community-oriented thinking.
But how about within our churches, our congregations—our “temples,” to use the word Haggai would have used? Do we work together as much as we should to build up our congregations, our worship, our mission programs, as Haggai wanted? Or do we, in his words in verse 9, “all hurry off to our own houses” too often? We can certainly think of examples of church members pitching in for the sake of the whole church community, when they could be off pursuing an individual interest instead—Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders; choir members or puppeteers who faithfully show up every week to create something together; Session and committee members ready to take on the next task they think will build up the church.
And we can think beyond our own congregations: the larger “church;” congregations working together. A recent article on the Food Pantry here in Edgar County said most of its contributions come from churches; without churches working together there would be no Food Pantry. I suspect Faith in Action finances are the same, and Faith in Action volunteers. And without Presbyterian congregations working together on bigger projects, there would be no Presbyterian church Camp Carew for our kids, no camp director; when our congregation is looking for its next pastor or Covenant Pastor, no volunteers from committees on Ministry and Preparation for Ministry to help us; no couple hundred full-time missionaries sent out across the world, funded by our churches working together.
But are we working together hard and well enough on what God wishes us to accomplish together? Ultimately that’s the question we each have to pose to ourselves as individuals, of course: Am I doing enough to build up God’s house?
For that is the message the prophet Haggai brings, in his short book—to his church community and to ours: “Thus says the Lord: is this the time to work on your own houses alone, or on my house too? You are a community of the people of God, with common goals, common projects to work on, a God to worship together. Come; build up my house.”
Let us pray: “God, thank you for Haggai’s reminder to us, to think beyond our individual needs and wants, to think and act in terms of the community, working together for what you want us to do. Give us wisdom and energy and patience as we seek to follow you together, and a confidence in the joy we can find working together. Amen.”